A Letter to Grandma Catchouny – U. Garo Sarajian

Dear Grandma Catchouny,

How are you? Sorry that we haven’t talked in a while. Boy, do I have a lot to share with you. I’m honored to be the first of your descendents to go back to your home city, Van. It was just one of the many places that I saw on my trip through Historic Armenia, which was organized by the ARF Bureau Youth Office.

Our first meal outside of Armenia set the tone for the rest of the trip. After savoring the hatz-baneer and doughy kufteh (one of the few non-khorovadz meals we had) in Akhaltsikhe, Javakhk, one of our ARF leaders, U. Haykaz, approached a group of schoolgirls who are all about 10 years old. “Hayeren guh khoseek?” he asked. “Ayo,” they replied. One by one they said their names; most have Armenian names, and all go to an Armenian school. A few days later it would be my peers and me striking up conversations with locals.

I didn’t know what to expect on this trip. I had heard the stories about the desecrated churches and monasteries, but no amount of tales or pictures could have prepared me for what I saw. Just a stone’s throw across the Armenia-Turkey border lies Ani, “the City of 1,001 Churches.” The city is in ruins, and the handful of churches that do remain have graffiti on them, are falling apart, and have had all of their crosses removed. It pained me to read the informational signs that didn’t mention anything about the churches ever being Armenian.

Garo Sarajian W Armenia 2

Unfortunately, this was a recurring theme throughout the trip. We saw churches in Kars, Van, Arbak, Dersim, and Kharpert that are in poor condition. Khatchkars have been removed and used as regular bricks in villagers’ homes. Schools have been repurposed, and traces of Armenians have been erased. Regardless of which city or village we were in, the story was the same. The Armenians that live in some of these areas are suffering the same fate as their ancestors’ buildings. It is difficult for them to open Armenian schools or teach their children about their true history for fear of being thrown into prison. It’s sad that after all these years our people are still being oppressed. We were told that the thousands of ethnic Armenians in Erzerum, Hamshen, and Van don’t always claim that they’re Armenian because Armenians aren’t equals in Turkey. I’ve read about how bad things were while you were growing up, but you’d think that in this day and age nobody would have to hide their identity out of fear.

Although many sites were depressing, there were a lot of things on this trip that I really enjoyed and that were uplifting. I loved how our group instantly bonded even though we all came from such different places. I never thought I’d become such good friends with people from Lebanon, Iran, Javakhk, and Armenia. Out of the 14 of us on the trip, I was the only one from the Western Hemisphere; yet, as soon as our van left Yerevan, where we were from ceased to matter. We all have so much in common because we are all Armenian. Our food, music, mannerisms, childhoods, and language are all the same, and this connected our group in a way I couldn’t have imagined beforehand. Few things have made me as proud of our heritage.

I was impressed by how many Armenians we “found” during our trip. One, named Armen, is the owner of a restaurant that we were eating at in Van. Before our boat ride to Akhtamar, he joined our lunch and said that we’re always more than welcome to come back. After going back to Yerevan and speaking with other people who have made the trip to Historic Armenia, I learned that everyone who goes to Akhtamar stops at Armen’s restaurant on the water and eats the fish there, and the fish you eat is found only in Lake Van.

Garo Sarajian W Armenia 4

We also ran into an Armenian singer at a restaurant that sits at the foot of the enormous pert in Kharpert. He sang a few songs for us and explained how his family was from the region. Similar run-ins happened in Dersim and Khoba. One of my favorite regions on the trip was Hamshen, where thousands of Armenians live and speak Armenian. Strangers would hear us speaking Armenian in the streets and would start speaking it with us! One family invited us into their house for dessert and within an hour their entire (Armenian) neighborhood had come over. We traded tales with each other, taught each other dances and songs, and gave gifts from the Vernisage to all of the children. Almost 100 years after the start of the genocide, there we were: Armenians singing, dancing, and laughing, probably just like you did when you were a child.

Western Armenia has a beautiful landscape, with gushing rivers and waterfalls and lush mountains. Whenever we’d snake up or down a mountain, I’d be mesmerized by our views of mountain ranges or valleys. I had never seen a sunset over water until I watched the sun dive into Lake Van from atop the pert. After visiting the refurbished Soorp Khatch Church on Akhtamar, we went swimming in Van’s clear waters from the island. Did you ever go swimming in the lake?

Overall, the trip can only be described as life-changing. I’d never learned so much about our history and culture as I did during those seven days. I’m glad that we were able to dance, sing, pray, laugh, and even celebrate our own version of Vartavar on the lands you used to call home. I’ll never forget how hospitable the families we met were, or how close our group became, or how I felt when I saw our centuries-old churches and buildings not being preserved. This pilgrimage was an incredible experience, and next time I make the trip, I’ll bring more of our family members. I’m sorry that you had to leave Van, but I’m glad that I had the opportunity to go back. Say hi to the family for me.

Love,

Garo

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