Monday, February 11, 2013
Sitting in a Restaurant...
I had a chance to speak with the renowned oud player Ara Dinkjian. He is flat out the best oud player of our generation. He tours the world playing with some of the best musicians. He has composed some of the most memorable and heartfelt melodies of anyone that has emerged from the American Armenian music scene.
We were at St. John's Church in Detroit where Ara and his father, Onnik, the equally renowned Armenian singer, were performing. We were speaking about how well his father Onnik looked, the energy he had, and how great his voice still sounds. He is a very young 83 years old. Onnik is still performing and Ara accompanies him mostly on keyboard and sometimes on oud. Ara related a few stories in which they were mistaken as brothers and even one where someone was confused which was the father and which was the son!
Ara began one of these stories with "My Father and I were sitting in a restaurant in Dikranagerd..." While the stories were engaging and entertaining. It was this phrase, this opening "My Father and I were sitting in a restaurant in Dikranagerd" that will stay with me.
Dikranagerd is the Armenian name for the Turkish city of Diyarbakir. This mostly Kurdish city was once an Armenian city. It was founded by the Armenian King Dikran the Great (circa 140 - 55 BC). Dikran was king of Armenia from 95 - 55 BC. King Dikran built a short lived empire that was the largest in the history of Armenia. He established his capital in this city on the Tigris. Ever since, Armenians have called the city Dikranagerd: the city of Dikran.
Onnik's parents, Ara's grandparents, are from Dikranagerd. While neither Onnik nor Ara were born or ever lived there, we still refer to them as they do themselves as Dikranagertsis: people of Dikranagerd. This is how important that place of origin of our parents or grandparents was and still is. Two three generations later, we still refer each other with cities, towns, and villages that most of us have probably never visited.
This is why Ara's little phrase had such an impact on me. He and his Father were doing something so very natural and yet so very rare. They were having a meal in a restaurant in their ancestral hometown.
This is a dream. I would love to have a cup of coffee with my Dad in Kharpert (or Harput now known as Elazig). My cousin David, of whom I often refer in these pages, wants to get his Dad who is my Father's brother, himself, my Dad, myself, and my son Aram and take a photo of the Gavoor men. We are having difficulties to even arrange that let alone having such a photo taken in a restaurant in our Keserik village of Kharpert is now. I know it is just a matter of planning and money. We should really do it. But, we all know how life works when it comes to arranging and financing such a venture. Life gets in the way... of life.
The first lunch on our first day in Yerevan back in June of 2001 felt like what I am talking about, what Ara was talking about. I was sitting with my wife and children at a restaurant ordering and eating. All the while, people were coming and going about their normal business. They were simply living. They were just living life where they belonged. What impressed me were the little things, almost stupid things, that made me realize the impact of being removed from place. At that first lunch, a bottle of soda was opened at the table. Flip-flop and the cap landed right in front of me top down. Written on the inside of the cap, in Armenian using the ancient alphabet that Mesrob Masdots had invented, were two simple words: Grgin Portsir or Try Again. I have seen the same in English and even Spanish countless numbers of times. I had never seen it in Armenian or even thought about such a mundane commonplace bit of product marketing. Yet, it hit me. I am Armenian. I feel Armenian... but without living in the homeland, I am really an American Armenian. It was both a cool and yet very sobering moment.
My Mother in-Law, Mary, was relating a story of her trip to Armenia. She had stopped at the side of the road to buy rojig a delicious confection of dried grape juice and walnuts. People would sell rojig simply to supplement their meager incomes. Flies were buzzing around the strings of rojig. Mom made a comment in Armenian "that we have to kill these flies." The man selling the rojig replied "Sister, even the flies are Armenian." The all laughed, but the man made a very good point.
Yes, we are all humans and citizens of the world. I get that and embrace that. We are also an age old nation and culture that is equally worth embracing and preserving. The number of languages in the world keeps decreasing with ubiquity of mass media and the internet (how do you say internet in every language on earth?), the overlaps of language and cultures is most definitely increasing. Will it ever become one, two or some single digit number? I doubt it but really I do not know. As far as my Armenian heritage is concerned, I do not want to see it fade away and die from assimilation. Too many have struggled and scarified too much over too many centuries for it ever to die from this quiet killer.
Right now, the Republic of Armenia is the most Armenian place in the world. We value and cherish it for all that is good about it while encouraging change in all that is not so good. While we value that place, many of us still yearn for what was taken from us. What might be had we been born there? What would our culture be if we lived and thrived there? This is all conjecture but laden with something missing.
This is why the notion of Ara and Onnik sitting in a restaurant in Dikranagerd is so very cool to me.