By Patrick Azadian
We acquire the foundations of our identity early in life from our immediate family. Yet, until we are exposed to the outside world, we may not be aware of our entire identity. It is only when we have a point of reference that we become acutely aware of who we are, or at least, part of who we are. The process of identity development has been a complicated process for many of us born and raised in the Armenian diaspora.
Reflecting on how my Armenian identity was formed, some events stick out in my mind. I was a child when I learned about the Armenian flag. Armenia was still Soviet back then. My family had traveled from my hometown, Tehran, to my maternal grandparents’ home in Arak (old Sultanabad) in the southwest of the capital. The city, which was no more than a small provincial town with cold winters and mild summers, was about 280 kilometers from the capital. It was our holiday refuge during the summer and the holidays.
I was probably there that I first learned about the Armenian flag. It was my aunt Armineh who taught me the colors using a verse perfectly tailored for a child.
“Karmir, kapuyt, narnji, mer droshak hayreni,
Yes keh kochem boom, boom, ketse im Mayr Hayastan!”*
In the next few days, she teasingly tested me on the colors of the flag.
“Karmir, kapuyt, kanach?” she’d would ask mischievously.
“Noooo!” I would respond.
“Karmir, kapuyt, deghin?”
“Nooo!” I would protest vehemently.
“Karmir, kapuyt…” and she’d pause.
“Narnji!” I would complete her sentence.
I am not sure if back then I even knew where ‘Hayastan’ was, but I felt it was a good place, somewhere very dear to my family, a place they loved and cherished. I was not even sure if it was somewhere different than where we were. For some time during my early childhood, I thought Armenia was where there were a lot of Armenians. I imagined, it was a place where there were large family gatherings during the holidays, where everyone spoke Armenian and followed holiday tradition, a place very much like my maternal grandparents’ home.
Living in the capital for most of the year, I always wanted to return there.
Back in Tehran, when my mom was busy with housework, I would use the opportunity to take off the cushions from the two of the armchairs in our living room, put their wooden skeletons together and make myself a makeshift car and travel to an imaginary destination. I often imagined I was traveling back to my grandparents’ house where tradition and the warm embrace of my grandparents, aunts, and uncles awaited me.
On one occasion, I asked my dad, Njdeh, where we should go?
“Vroom! Vroom! Pap, where should we go today?”
“Hayastan!” He responded.
“Is that where my grandparents live?” I asked.
“No, son,” he smiled. “Armenia is not where your grandparents live. It is where your grandparents (paternal) came from, and it is where we want to be someday.”
He was technically right, but I was confused. I don’t remember asking more questions, but I knew Armenia was somewhere dear to my father as well.
So, I ‘drove’ to Armenia from that day on in my make-believe car.
Being an Armenian kid in the diaspora involved other episodes of confusion.
My older uncle from my mother’s side, also named Njdeh, loved geography. He gifted me with a large colorful map of the world adorned with all the corresponding flags on the bottom section of the print. As I still did not have a room of my own, my mom put up the map in our one-bedroom apartment’s corridor wall. I was too little to see the entire map, but my head could reach the section of the world flags on the bottom. Once the map was up, I rushed to it in search of the flag in red, blue, and orange.
“Where is the Armenian flag?!” I asked my mom.
I don’t remember the exact answer; it must have been long. But I do remember my disappointment.
Early in my childhood, like many of my generation's kids, I was sheltered from the outside world. That changed when I started attending school. While I was still around Armenian kids at our private school, I began to contact more non-Armenians. They were teachers, store owners, panhandlers, street merchants, and others.
My world started to open up, and I realized we were different from the majority. And we were not in Armenia. I started wondering how ‘we’ fitted in this world.
I still hadn’t seen an actual Armenian tricolor waving in the air at this point. Iran had strict restrictions on the use of ‘rebel’ symbols in public spaces. I believe it was at a Genocide commemoration ceremony that I saw the Armenian tricolor waiving in the crisp spring air for the first time. My young aunt, Shakeh, was one of the speakers on that occasion. All Armenian schools were invited to participate in the ceremony at the newly built Ararat Armenian Sports Complex in the north of the capital. I remember two things from that day. First, it was hard to hear my aunt’s fiery speech over the loudspeakers and second, the sight of the thousands of Armenian tricolors waiving in the hands of schoolchildren. A sizeable Armenian flag was also waving on top of a flagpole next to the official Iranian state flag inside the complex (our ‘community’ could get away with almost anything inside closed doors).
Back then, the cold war was still raging, and Armenians had also jumped on this transient bandwagon. The cold war manifested itself in petty arguments within our community. Instead of talking about the significance of the commemoration, grown-up discussions circled around why the tricolor was used. There were the classic pre-independence arguments for and against the use of the tricolor.
At that age, petty politics did not interest me. I knew how I felt. As a young boy, the sight of Armenian tricolors waving told me that we were not just a religious community or an ethnic group, but a nation – no less worthy than any other.
Until today, I still get the same feeling I experienced during that bright and sunny April day whenever I see the Armenian tricolor waving in the air, and I am bothered when its colors are distorted due to indifference, laziness, and ignorance. And while Armenia is now free and independent, the sight of the flag also reminds me of the hard work ahead, the work that the founders of the First Republic foresaw and symbolically imbedded into the colors of the flag – the red, for the revolutionary struggle that the Armenian people waged for survival, the blue, for the flight of the republic to reach independence and freedom, and the orange, for the hard work required to achieve and maintain independence as well as the wheat fields signifying the dream of prosperity for all. But these colors are not just static symbols; they are dynamic, as revolutionary and innovative thought, as well as hard work, are still necessary to overcome Armenia’s present-day problems, achieve a socioeconomically just society, and a higher degree of independence and freedom for our state and people.
Perhaps on a subconscious level, I’ve settled in Armenia in search of the feelings I had when I was at my grandparents’ home. I hadn’t mistaken as a child. Their home was Armenia, but so is where I am today. The wooden car of my childhood has finally reached its destination.
*“Red, blue orange, the flag of our homeland,
Boom! Boom! Long live mother Armenia!”
Photo caption: The Armenia of my childhood.
Read the story in Armenian.