Leaving Armenia

Sima Cunningham
(Chicago, IL, United States)

As I walked through London Heathrow Airport to catch my connecting flight from Yerevan to Chicago, I couldn’t help but think of how drastically different this experience of leaving Armenia was to entering Armenia. I thought back to four months before when I took a taxi on my own to the Prague airport, had a traumatizing and lonely airport experience and finally boarded a plane at 11p.m. I sat down amidst the largest group of Armenians I’d ever been exposed to in my life. I began asking people around me if they were Armenian, a silly question I know—considering the flight I was on, but it was an instinct I’d had my whole life as I sought out connections to the people with whom I shared my identity. On that flight, had I not been subdued down into my seat by those brutally-honest, no-BS Armenian glares, I probably would have sought out Armenians who shared my understanding of Armenian history: genocide, diaspora, tragedy, Anatolia, etc. When I arrived in Armenia I desperately clung to a conversation with a diasporan from L.A. and hung onto every last word of English I could get until I found myself languageless and alone at the Yerevan terminal.

The flight home couldn’t have been more different. I arrived at Zvarnots with a host of Armenian mothers who’d adopted me during my time in Armenia. First, my host-sister/mother, Liana—my rock. Living with her couldn’t have been more perfect… an inspiring woman, wise, hard-working, who loved her country and yet dealt daily with the pain that it inflicted upon its young, ambitious citizens. Ruzanna, whom I had worked for at Manana Center, but who also took up the job of caring for my like my own mother, who is her dear friend and truly treated me as her daughter. Her hugs, her food and her commitment to the children of Armenia made me want to stay forever. Margarita, my dear friend Elen’s mother who cared for me as her daughter was off studying in London. A woman with whom I could share few words due to our languages, and yet spoke everything through her smile and energy. And my friends Armine, who had so generously taken my mother and I on a wonderful adventure in Lori and shared her home, family and art with us. I left Armenia gazing back at this sea of love that I longed to stay with. I knew then that I’d have to return.

I felt Armenia being pulled briskly away from me like a comforter in the chilly morning as I left my first flight and walked towards the generic mix of people traveling from London to Chicago. I heard English all around me and I couldn’t hear people calling each other “jan” and it was in walking through the airport that my departure hit me and I broke down. As I was walking towards my connecting gate I noticed a man wearing a deep 5- o’clock-shadow and pointy shoes and I said to myself: “I don’t care how you do it, you are sitting next to that man on the flight home.” I caught up with him and began to speak Armenian with him. He was so thrilled to have someone going to Chicago to speak Armenian with. When we boarded the plane we switched around seats so we could just talk with each other. I refused to speak anything but Armenian with him and even busted out my dictionary (in vain) to communicate everything that I loved about Armenia. He was a former army officer who had left Armenia and was working for an Armenian rug company in Chicago. He seemed lonely in Chicago, but I was so thrilled to know he was going to be there.

Less than a week after I returned from Armenia I had my (Armenian side) family Christmas. That day I prepared a whole presentation of photos of Armenia to show my family. I thought about how I wanted to present Armenia and I figured they’d all be so curious that I’d just be able to roll with anything they wanted to know. I’d got all of my cousins presents from Vernissage and I was determined for them to all understand exactly where they came from. But as the night went on, I realized that only a year before, I hadn’t really ever thought about Armenia “the country” that exists today. Though my family was glad to hear that I had had such a great experience, I didn’t get the impression that any of them were so desperate to share it with me and plan their big trips to Armenia. All of my little cousins picked up on the word “ha” and said it throughout the rest of the night, but that was the only word. The running joke became that all their presents from Armenia were made from the “tears of Armenian orphans” as I tried to explain that every single gift I got them was hand-made and so special. They loved their gifts. I hear the boy cousins still wear their leather “I ❤ Armenia” bracelets and are very proud of them. I don’t mean to make them sound uncaring… they loved their gifts and they were so proud that I’d learned Armenian, but I just forgot how much the Armenia that I’d come to love so much is not a priority for so many Armenian descendents today. Wonderfully, my brother developed an obsession with Armenia while I was there and can’t wait to join me for my next trip.

Now that I’ve explained to you where I was coming from and where I came back to before and after my experience with Birthright Armenia, I can tell you about my time in Hayastan.

I had a bit of a crash-landing in Armenia. My first day was a little stressful. I had just ended a long relationship back home. I couldn’t say “Hello” in Armenian. I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I was homesick (for the first time in my life). I thought I’d landed in the Soviet Block and I was stuck here for four months. I’m an adventurer, but I just didn’t feel quite up to it in my first couple of hours.

I began to relax as I joined Liana on walks around Kentron in the evenings, went out to the countryside with Birthright Armenia, met some English speakers, saw some great concerts at smoky little clubs in Saryan. On one of my first nights, Liana’s friend asked me “Do you feel more Armenian here?” and it didn’t take long for me to respond “No.” I actually felt that being in Armenia pointed out how glaringly American I was. The way I talked, thought, looked, smiled, and particularly, I was self-conscious of how little I knew about Armenia. This will no doubt horrify some of you but I barely knew what Karabakh was before I came to Armenia.

Things picked up though. When I started my language classes it was a sigh of relief. The ability to communicate with people is my top priority wherever I go and I relished in learning “my language”. I’d studied many languages throughout my life but I can’t tell you how blissful I was when I learned to write the Armenian alphabet. When I’m sitting in class back at NYU now I will write Armenian letters and words and sometimes the entire alphabet in the margins of my notes. I really think its one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen and been able to do.

Everything changed again when I went on the Karabakh trip with Birthright Armenia. On our way there we stopped at Tatev and my breath was taken away. I sat in the small rooms looking out over the ravine and wished for the group to accidentally leave me there forever. When we went out on the ridge to the small lookout I felt like I’d found the most beautiful place in the world.

Karabakh shook me. In a profound and, I think, very positive way. Growing up in the country where war in engaged at a distance and from an intensely anti-war community, Karabakh made me reevaluate my understanding of war. It didn’t make me like war, but it made me think twice about the things that people will fight for… will die for. As I stood in the trenches, where my future-friend Asqanaz stood for the past two years of his military service, and looked through the cracks at the Azeri soldiers on the other side, I felt strange and foreign feelings of patriotism, defense, and pride. Later I would have very interesting conversations with my teenage students about war, peace, service and more. I can’t express how deeply conflicted and confused the whole situation made me, but what I can say it that it certainly gave me a new perspective.

Birthright Armenia encourages us to find our own place in Armenia. A few weeks after I arrived I was pulled up onstage at a small bar on Pushkin called Calumet to play what would turn into a 3-hour long jam full of musicians, jams, instruments, and voices. That night I met and played with a young man who would become my best friend in Armenia, Sasha. This was the start of my 3 month long love-affair with the music scene of Yerevan. I couldn’t stop playing, writing, performing. It seemed like every night I met another unbelievably talented musician and heard new and exciting music. This part of my experience in Armenia, though incredibly sleep-depriving, made me sink deep into Armenia.

The more time I spent with local musicians, the more attached I became to Armenia. While Birthright had provided a wonderful source of friends and collaborators for me, I found myself connecting deeply with people who’d grown up and lived in Armenia their whole lives. It was hard too though. It never left my mind nor the minds of my friends, students and coworkers, that I could and would be leaving Armenia eventually. At the end of my trip I was actually in complete denial of leaving because I’d felt so much that Armenia had become a home for me. And for me, home is a place that you can leave often, but always return to. This idea comforts me as I sink back into my life in America.

I loved to walk around Yerevan. It was common for me to walk between Pushkin Saryan khatchmeruk, Haraparak, Matenadaran, Vernissage, and Lover’s Park numerous times a day. Sometimes while I’m walking around the streets of New York I close my eyes and imagine my walk to work in Yerevan. It actually still baffles me that my time there, for now, is in the past. It’s hard for anyone to understand this feeling that hasn’t just left a place that profoundly changed their life.

Whether is was Karabagh, Lori, Sevan, Dilijan, or even Calumet… every place I went I thought “Please just leave me here forever.” Though I know America is my home, it is the country that raised me and that has held all my hopes and dreams for so long, I am happy to say that Armenia has made its way into my heart and will never leave. Though I am back here in America now, back on a speedy-schedule, trying to finish college, trying to plan (futilely) my life, Armenia is never far from my mind. Really, it is my friends in Armenia… who are never far from my mind and as I communicate with them through the blessings of modern technology, it is hard for me to find the words to describe how much I miss them, but I hope they know how much I love them, and how much I await my next opportunity to come to Armenia and sink in deeper.

One thought on “Leaving Armenia

  1. Wow! Very touching and moving! I saw you perform at that Pushkin club and saw the soul that was present in you. Armenia and Armenians somehow do that to one’s soul. I have been coming and going for over a decade and I feel that same deep connection to this place. I encourage everyone to give this gift (armenia) to themselves regardless of their background. Write more Sima! You’ve got the gift!

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