The Worth of Our Words

Originally published in Contrasts

I had envisioned the moment hundreds of times. It would go something like this…

To begin, I would stare out at Mount Ararat for the first time ever. Next, I would become overwhelmed with a great sense of emotion. Tears would stream down my face and eventually, I would smile. The memory of my ancestors would be honored and through this act, they would be set free. I would realize that I did not spend all of the hours sifting through archives and writing late at night in vain. My future would become henceforth clear; finally, I would understand my purpose as a diasporan Armenian living in the twenty-first century, which I would then carry out through my work in Armenia that summer.

Upon landing in Armenia for the Armenian Youth Federation Internship in 2017, I quickly learned that the summer would not follow my preordained script. Instead of filling with tears, my eyes remained dry and my cheeks unstained at the sight of Mount Ararat. Although I was surely amazed at Ararat’s sheer beauty, the impression ended there. There were no grand revelations. I did not suddenly understand my role as a diasporan in the motherland as so many others had spoken about. Instead, I was left more perplexed than before.

Though many parts of Armenia were familiar, its citizens felt like estranged brothers and sisters who spoke a foreign tongue and the country did not feel like my own.

This sense of detachment continued at Echmiadzin, Garni, Geghard, Sevan, etc. and even on a daily basis as I walked the streets of Yerevan. Though many parts of Armenia were familiar, its citizens felt like estranged brothers and sisters who spoke a foreign tongue and the country did not feel like my own. I knew that this experience was not rare for diasporans, but I had not anticipated that it would mark my own summer. I soon learned, however, that I did not have to look much farther in order to recognize parts of myself within the current republic.

About halfway through the summer, at Tsitsernakaberd, I stumbled upon the missing piece that I had previously failed to find in Armenia. As I looked through a slideshow in the Armenian Genocide Museum, I came across a hauntingly familiar face. Chills ran through my body as I recognized the woman in the photo as Varter Bogigian, a genocide survivor from Kharpert who lost her parents, her husband, and all six children before starting a new life in Worcester, Massachusetts, America’s oldest Armenian community and also, my hometown. I knew Varter’s story because I had heard it firsthand from her son, Dr. Hagop Martin Deranian, the child she birthed in 1922 after arriving in Worcester. I interviewed Dr. Deranian for my undergraduate thesis research about a month before his death in 2016. Extremely grateful for the opportunity, I had no idea just how much my time with Dr. Deranian would mean to me months later and thousands of miles away from home.

In seeing Varter Bogigian’s photo at Tsitsernakaberd that day, I recognized the universal link that unites all Armenians:our shared history. In that moment, I was reminded of the value of our words — of the stories of our grandmothers, of our grandfathers, of our mothers, of our fathers, of our sisters and our brothers. I was reminded of Marash when my great-grandfather Movses Dede gave sermons at the church because the preacher was out of town, of Beirut when Nene stood on a wooden crate in her wedding photos to look remotely proportional to Dede’s height, of Worcester when Baba and his family found refuge in the Church of the Martyrs who helped my family find a home in the midst of the war raging overseas. Stories like these had come to define everything I knew about being Armenian. Beyond the suffering and the pain, there was kinship, survival, and resilience — the exact reason why I was able to stand at Tsitsernakaberd. On that day, I was finally able to see myself in Armenia.

“Family photograph taken in Mezireh, Armenia about 1914. Standing, at left, Varter (Bogigian) Nazarian; seated next to her, her first husband, Mugrditch Nazarian; and, next to him, her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bedros Bogigian. The five youngsters (a sixth was expected shortly) are the children of Varter and Mugrditch Nazarian. The only person in the photograph who survived the holocaust of 1915 was Varter.” — by Hagop Martin Deranian. Read more about her story here.

As I ascended the steps to leave the museum, I looked around at my fellow interns and realized that the memories of ancestors were, in fact, living on through us. I thought, perhaps one day, we would tell our children about our time in Armenia and as the story of Varter Bogigian did for me, they would be reminded of the gift they inherited, of the importance of their words, and of their worth in Armenia. Finally, as I looked to my right, I was greeted by Mount Ararat and for the first time that summer, I shed tears. And although my future did not suddenly become clear, I became overwhelmed with the strong feeling that I was a part of something very, very special.

Tsitsernakaberd Armenian Genocide Memorial Complex in Yerevan, Armenia. Photo by author.