Some things are just too difficult to write about. Human suffering, great tragedy, tumultuous emotion; these are perhaps best left for poets to explore through allegory and metaphor. Armenia and its story features notable examples of all these things; it seems to be a nation of tragedy and poetry.
Some things are too difficult to write about but they must be addressed.
Upon learning of the unspeakable atrocities of the Armenian Genocide, the centenary of which will be marked tomorrow, I wondered what I knew of Armenia at all. I couldn’t summons a picture in my mind’s eye of national garb or a location on a map. I couldn’t name a foodstuff or a famous export.
I looked at online maps and reflected upon the notion of this group of Christians, the earliest nation to adopt the religion, living at the “cultural crossroads” between Europe and Asia. Maps in my old books at home also revealed that Armenians have long lived near shifting borders, and have therefore been governed by different nations at different times; notably the Ottomans (who orchestrated the genocide), and more recently the Soviet Union.
But even my old anthologies of National Geographic Magazine did not help me to visualise an identity for Armenia; none of my 1920s or 1930s copies feature an article or colour photo spread. Armenian people were mentioned only in passing as an “amusing” story in a 1926 article by Melville Chater about the region. The writer described tens of thousands of Armenian refugees from “an hour of political insecurity” who had set up camp in Syrian marshland and were living on “boiled mice”. Hilarity ensued upon Melville realising that this group was not experiencing famine, just homelessness and strong accents: the Armenian refugees were in fact eating boiled maize (corn).
The internet assured me that descendants of Armenians now assume prominent positions in global, public life. One is a minister in Australia’s parliament with an anglicised name; another is guitar virtuoso, Slava Grigorian; while others are known simply as The Kardashians. (Admirably, the most famous of these visited Armenia with her Blue-Steel-faced family and a hefty entourage last week).
But what of the original Armenian culture? Its art has a rich tradition, the national costume is sumptuously decorated, and the area features incredible archeology including ancient structures and the world’s oldest cathedrals and monasteries.
Discovering these things reminded me that I was familiar with the work of an Armenian artist. A thoroughly striking way to experience a hit of Armenian culture is to view the extraordinary 1969 film, The Colour of Pomegranates, by film maker, Sergei Parajanov. I watched it again yesterday– I’d forgotten I had the DVD– and was newly mind-blown by a fresh reading of its stunning symbols (pomegranates being a key example; they are the national emblem of Armenia).
The Colour of Pomegranates is a painting in motion, a poem on film.
It ostensibly shows the life of Armenian poet Sayat Nova, and seems also to give some autobiographical insight into the film maker himself (who suffered greatly for his art under the Soviet regime). It features Christian imagery, repetition of bold motifs such as books and blood, moody traditional music. I was particularly struck by the words in one of the final frames:
This film artefact encapsulates some things I have been thinking and feeling, but have not been able to write, since I learned about the Armenian Genocide. Witness the visual beauty that prevails despite the violence of this film, take note of the unique artistry and the brave tenacity of the film maker.
I can’t eloquently use words to say what Sergei Parajanov and his powerful, poetic images show: the Armenian spirit endures, 100 years later.