At eight years old I landed in Santa Rosa, CA — enthralled by crosswalks with buttons, school buses and the concept of sleepovers — things that normally lived in the TV. I realized quickly that my nose and hairy arms didn’t really fit into this TV world, and I was equally the subject of enthrallment — or curiosity perhaps. I don’t remember the first time I was asked this question, but by the time I was in high school I had perfected the repertoire that followed “Where are you from?”
“What is that?”
“You know Turkey?”
“Yeah, I love Turkey!”
“Just one country to the right.”
This was usually followed by my synopsis of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the systematic murder, rape and ethnic cleansing of over 2 million Armenians by Turkey during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which remains unrecognized until today. April 24th marks the remembrance day of the Genocide. These days it’s also followed by futile attempts at explaining the history of Artsakh, the war of 2020, and the incessant fighting that has resulted in the ethnic cleansing of historical Armenian lands, executed by Azerbaijan with the support of Turkey.
Like you reading this right now, I’m usually out of breath by the end of my spiel.
After enough iterations of this conversation, it became a normal routine to begin my introduction by explaining my history and myself.
After enough instances of being met with unawareness and incomprehension, you start to understand that your reality is not shared by others. It exists in your mind, in a series of memories and fables of lands out of reach told in a language that no one speaks.
After enough summers of seeing your hometown streets empty and your people drained of their faith, you begin to understand that their weight has been shifted to your shoulders. It is up to you to keep singing, keep speaking հայերեն, and keep telling stories.
I came to learn of the stories of America. I know the histories, struggles, resistances, genocides, diasporas, symbols … I listen to the music. I touch and feel this shared reality that defines my life outside of the Armenian island that is our apartment and its 25-square-foot garden in Santa Rosa.
Going to Armenia is entering a different dimension. While I was visiting my hometown last summer, the conflict rekindled between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
I saw an entire nation hold its breath, I saw my uncle prepare to leave for war, and I saw children and mothers learn how to transport wounded soldiers. I spent a week painting a brand new mural with schoolchildren in an Armenian village called Աղավնո (meaning Dove) that two weeks later was emptied and handed off to Azerbaijani troops.
The villagers decided to destroy the crosses and erase the Armenian language from the mural because they didn’t want Azeris to do it.
On Instagram, I saw a Stanford summer — full of its own microcosms of experience defined by the bubble of Stanford and the cradle of Silicon Valley.
A few months later, in the dead of winter, 120,000 people were blockaded into the Artsakh enclave by the Azerbaijani military, slowly running out of food, medical supplies and fuel.
At Stanford, it never happened.
On February 17th, the Azerbaijani Student Association hosted an event about “truth-finding” and “peace-building” — to which the Armenian Student Association was not invited — and featured exclusively Azerbaijani speakers. They discussed Khojaly — a chapter in the history of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict where Azeris were massacred by Armenian troops in 1992. This falls in the aftermath of the Sumgait pogrom of 1988 where hundreds of Armenians were murdered and forced to flee from Azerbaijan. There was no conversation either about the 120,000 Armenians blockaded in Artsakh or the relentless attacks of Azeri troops on Armenian villages. In fact, there was no conversation at all — unless speaking to a mirror counts as such.
There is nothing that justifies Khojaly and the murder of innocent civilians. But it is not justifiable to twist, cut up and rearrange history into a convenient narrative presented as scientific truth. I sat in the back of a basement lecture hall of Main Quad as the Azeri panel spoke about what Armenians are like, what our history is and what our problem is. I heard a forensic historian tell the audience that my people have fabricated the age of our ancient cities, that we are still so hung up on the issue of the Armenian Genocide that we view everything as an extension of it, and that we need to shift our “mental map” of Armenia and face reality.
He is right. Armenians in Armenia and across the global diaspora are “hung up” on the issue. Our national consciousness processes ethnically targeted attacks from Turkic states as extensions of the genocide because we have yet to receive a proper acknowledgment or apology from Turkey. Because to accept the wrongdoings of the past is to admit to hatred for Armenians. The chapter will never be closed because with every denial we experience an attack on our reality. At Stanford, this denial is rampant and unnoticed.
On the 100-year mark of the genocide, April 24th, 2015, Stanford’s Turkish Student Association released a statement titled “The Armenian genocide: The Turkish side of the story.” This statement frames their plea as such:
“The Armenian thesis claims that the events constitute a genocide, that the Ottoman government had an official (albeit hidden) intent to exterminate the Armenian nation. It makes extensive references to the Holocaust to create the impression that the Armenian Genocide had similar methods and goals and is just as indisputable as the Holocaust. This position is historically not correct.”
One of the speakers on the panel, Hakan Yavuz, flown in from the University of Utah, is a recorded denier of the Armenian Genocide. His research is funded by the Turkish Coalition of America, an organization that lobbies for and generates content about genocide denial in the US. At Stanford, Yavuz attempted to represent Truth on the issue of Armenians.
A few days after this event, an Azeri news platform ran a headline: “Stanford University, home to 17 Nobel laureates, hosted a conference dedicated to Khojaly Genocide”.
Although the overtness of this attempt to use Stanford’s reputation to validate the narrative propelled about the conflict is nearly humorous — it is disturbing to see an institution like Stanford presented as a legitimizer of genocide denial.
Regardless of the intentions or awareness of the University regarding this issue, it is imperative that it understand the impact of supporting such forms of freedom of expression. The University’s inadequacy to respond to such events was further illuminated when the Armenian Student Association filed a protected identity harm report. The assistant dean of student support simply informed students that past instances of anti-Armenian sentiment have already been recorded at Stanford and that they would be happy to provide us with “a processing circle.” The students continued their efforts by requesting meetings with both the office of the President and the Vice President of student affairs and received no response. So once more, our reality felt illegitimate.
Another headline following the panel read: “Armenians attempt to disrupt the conference held in US on the 31st anniversary of the Khojaly genocide”.
This attempted disruption consisted of me asking the organizers of the event why Armenians weren’t invited to an event marketed as being about the “pathway to Azerbaijani-Armenian peace-building.” I was told that it was simply a matter of logistics and the organizers simply didn’t have enough time to invite a wider range of panelists. This last-minute event included speakers flown in from North Carolina University and the University of Utah.
Genocide is more than the destruction of land or the murder of people. It is a destruction of identity, an erasure of history and an attack on a people’s collective and personal reality. Thus the violence continues, not just with emptying villages but with every denial of history, with every moment that our culture feels invisible and with every world history class that skips over this history. It continues in the voids of silence. This mass-organized gaslighting is destructive.
The invisible nature of Armenian culture in most of the US (save Glendale) is in many ways a natural one — it is unrealistic to expect that everyone knows about the complex and nuanced history of a tiny country lost somewhere … in the Middle East? The effects of invisibility, however, run deep.
In a Wilbur elevator, my friend began to sing an Armenian folk song. Their voice echoed —
“Սիրուն աղջիկ սիրուն յար, եկուր եկուր հոքիս առ …”
— sending chills through me. It was almost absurd to hear this music outside of my head, and even more absurd to hear a piece of my culture being experienced by someone who wasn’t Armenian.
I don’t know how to be Rima without carrying the weight.
Some days all I can do is choose ignorance: to avoid Armenian news sources, avoid conversations with my parents and skip over photos of past Armenian winters. I don’t enjoy passing every day battling to affirm my own reality, convincing myself that my history is real — that I exist. I don’t want to be shocked that my music is worth listening to. I wish I could talk about the genocide as a piece of the past. I wish I could begin to tend to the wounds of the past, begin to heal and let it go.
But I cannot because the blood keeps flowing and shows no signs of stopping.
At a recent row house party I fell into a conversation with a Turkish girl.
“Americans always ask me about the genocide,” she laughed.
“It’s so silly, I have to explain to them that’s in the past.” She brushed it off, smiling, with her red solo cup twirling in her hand.
“You know there are still things happening in Artsakh right?”
“Armenians are still being forced to leave their ethnic lands”
“What? I don’t—”
And with that, the music swelled and we were swept back into the party.
This article is a personal piece and is not associated with the Armenian Student Association.