Jiray: Being Armenian in Boston

As I drove from Belmont to Watertown, the Boston skyline loomed in front of me, reminiscent of the hazy view of Ararat one has from nearly any vantage in Yerevan. I began to see signs in Armenian over storefronts. For a moment I was transported in time to last winter, taking a terrifying ride through the city in a Heifer International company car, on my way to some ancient church built 1500 years ago (was it St. Hiripsime’s? Noravank?). It was with fondness then, after my visit to both the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) and Project SAVE, that I entered Arax Market on Mt. Auburn Street in Watertown. The familiar hum of Armenian bickering surrounded me once again. I gazed at the wooden crates of fruit, the piles of lavash and pita. Several workers were standing around, chatting with customers. If this wasn’t where the diaspora was, then where could it be?

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Earlier in the day I had met with the director of NAASR, a tall bespectacled man in his late forties. He excitedly invited me on a tour of the place. He whisked me from the bookstore, to the meeting room, his office, and then upstairs to the library. Later, down in his office, I asked the director whether he had any immigrant or refugee Armenians as regular visitors? Not really, he answered. At certain lectures and other events they seem to come out of the woodworks, but otherwise he doesn’t here much from that community. I mentioned that through the interviews I’d conducted over the past month, that there were far more politics within the diaspora than I had assumed. He agreed on that point. He was wondering when these recent immigrants (Armenians living in the US since the 1980s and 90s) would become “just Armenians.” It seemed to him that the prefixes “Baku” or “Karabakh” seemed to act as a wall between these recent Armenian immigrants and the rest of their fellow diasporans. With this thought I set off to Watertown to visit another Armenian organization in the area.

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The headquarters of Project SAVE, an organization dedicated to collecting and archiving photographs from throughout Armenian history is on the third floor of the Armenian Library and Museum. I met the Project’s director I introduced myself, talked a sentence or two about my own project, and before I could ask a single question she launched into her own story. She told me about how far she had come since 1965, when she graduated university. Back then, she told me, there were no resources on the Armenians. There was no way to access that cultural richness she wanted so badly to experience. So her she was, doing it herself: collecting thousands of photographs and the stories that accompany them. The utter intensity with which she commanded herself and her work impressed me. Her cozy office offered a tiny microcosm within itself; I felt as if I had stepped into some manufacturer of Armenian collective memory.

As I left Arax Market I had a strong sense of a deeply divided diaspora. I witnessed three separate spaces in which the Armenian diaspora was lived, in which being Armenian was experienced in vastly different ways. How were these spaces connected? How were they similar? How did they intersect? Socially? Physically? And so with yet another set of challenging questions, I set off to finish my independent study, and begin to understand the complexities of life in the Armenian Diaspora.

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