Gender and Identity in Diaspora Armenian Art

The concept of being Armenian is definitely a complex subject to write about. A very brief research over the internet can confirm that the tragedy of the Armenian genocide is deeply interconnected within multiple layers of the Armenian identity ever since it happened in 1915.

The Armenian genocide which was orchestrated by the Ottoman empire not only perished over a million and a half of the Armenian population of Western Armenia, but it caused the inevitable displacement of thousands of Armenians all across the globe, shaping the Armenian Diaspora. Today being Armenian suggests something very different for someone living in Armenia in contrast for a first, a second or even a third generation immigrant in any given corner of the Armenian Diaspora. Although the genocide caused unrecoverable harms to “this small tribe of unimportant people” as Saroyan, an immigrant writer himself, would put, still it resulted in many Armenian artists to create remarkable works based upon their new identities. In the modern world, with a map of excessive immigration patterns all across it, the concept of dual identities and transnationalism has become a major subject for immigrant writers and filmmakers of various ethnicities, yet being the survivors of the first genocide of the previous century, Armenian artists have presented a unique voice in their portrayal of their challenges with the concept of dual nationalism.

In this piece, I will attempt to look through two stories from two Armenian artists living in Diaspora who tackle the issues of identity not only by examining the crisis caused by duality, but through their relationships with the women in their lives.

While In his semi autobiographical novel “The Book of Adam”, Hakob Karapents, the Iranian born Armenian writer, goes through the inner layers of an Armenian journalist’s life in East coast by examining his affairs with his Armenian ex-wife and his Jewish American lover, The Canadian director Atom Egoyan focuses on the relationship between a Canadian-Armenian couple who go on a trip to Armenia to photograph Armenian churches, where the wife falls for their Armenian tour guide, spreading them apart across two continents . It seems that within the context of never ending identity struggle that an immigrant faces while reexamining his roots, both Egoyan and Karapents are seeing their significant other as an important element to restore their identity, but while because of their destined displacement in Diaspora, the concept of homeland, in its physical notion, is absent from the equation of the identity these women are filling or making the gap either through bestowing their love or by denying it. A part of what causes the role of the women to be of significance is in the way that an Armenian man (or any man) objectifies women in their lives. Since the dawn of history men have gone into battles to uphold the ownership of their lands and women. For thousands of years both land and women were objects that “belonged” to men and those who were stronger had more land and more women (Or a better land and a better woman). The concept of ownership of land as a territory and women as mates goes even further back in time when our primate ancestors would kill to own these two “properties” and such a tradition with a million years of history could not simply be wiped out of our genetic makeup within less than a few decades of gender equality movements. As we still can see the rich relatively get to own bigger houses and comparably more beautiful women and the poor usually don’t. Karapents’s protagonist “Adam”, (ironically enough in this paragraph representing the universal human as well as our primates), can’t simply get over the fact of losing his wife Melineh, but very early in the novel Karapents makes it clear that the loss is specifically bitter because Melineh belongs to a disable, American Patrick Morehead about whom Adam feels nothing but hatred and hostility throughout the novel; “Every time when remembering Melineh, Nooryan (Adam) would imagine his ex-wife naked in bed as Morehead’s sinewy and crippled hand was touching her fertile breasts. A tangy smell of sweat, a furnace of endless passion, Melineh’s loud moaning, her lustful lips, a world to take in.” For Adam, clearly the image of the mother of his children more than anything else is explicit and bodily in the bed with another foreign male figure. The photographer in “The Calendar” although on surface has a less intense approach to his wife’s infidelity choosing to ignore instead of stalking on them, but within himself is surprised that she doesn’t understand or obey him like a dog, setting aside its instincts to comply with her owner. Also within the course of the story he avoids any direct relationship with the driver ignoring his presence as if they are not in the same level and later he is surprised like an alpha male gorilla that his mate escapes with a weaker but more enthusiastic primate. Nevertheless, intellectuality gives this dynamic a poetic turn as later the photographer observe the scene where his wife leaves him with his rival; “What I really feel like doing is standing here and watching while the two of you leave me and disappear into a landscape that I am about to photograph.” Both men are struggling to confine themselves and their emotions within the boundaries of the civilized man, but as events unfold we realize that their nature and instinct is stronger than the Americanized mindset or looks that they hardly try to adjust themselves to.

When Adam’s American sweetheart asks him on how he feels about his Armenian ex-wife, his preserved answer is way more charming than what his alter ego observes; “Now how can we explain that beneath this calm Americanized appearance, still lives an Easterner with his parallel arrows of love and hate?” This also reminds us of the photographer drinking wine and enjoying a conversation with other women while having a bitter dispute within his inner self. Even though Adam Noorian claims that “Who is who” publication has dedicated twenty three lines to him and he is considered sort of a bigwig within the circle of intellectuals in his community, but he later bitterly utters that beneath the image of a civilized western citizen still lays a man with viewpoints rooted deep into the Anatolian mentality who simply divides the incidents of life into sheer right or wrong, black or white, love or hate and obviously his judgment of women lies within the same spectrum; a wife or a whore.  When it comes to women, his inner self doesn’t level with the western approach of the gender equalities or mutual understanding, but instead he chooses to hate Melineh, he chooses to call his rival Morehead a cripple and he hardly allows any logic or consideration into his judgment of the lost relationship. It occurs to me that the more he hates his ex-wife Melineh and his foreign new guy the firmer his bounding with his Armenian identity becomes. Melineh complains about Adam’s nationalism; “Your Armenian-ness is strangling me Adam” as their relationship turns into a wrong turn and Karapents flashbacks to their earlier years of innocence where they still could take time to talk about their dualities:

Adam – You know what Melineh, I haven’t made peace with America yet and I’m afraid I will never do so. I feel like being in a world of artificial values and I can’t find my true self in it. Isn’t it interesting that only things in this country that attract me are foreign?

Melineh – How about me? Do I look foreign to you?

Adam – Yes and no. I like your heartiness, your being real, but your liberalism is suppressing me. I’m not used to similar freedoms. You have to tolerate me until I get rid of the boundaries. The boundaries that live within me, shaping my inner conflicts.

Melineh – Do I have a role in those inner conflicts?

Adam – You do. The fact that you are Armenian and at the same time you are not. I can see more of an American in you than I see an Armenian.

Karapents masterfully postpones answering to Melineh’s question of whether her state is positive or negative throughout the novel in a way that each and every one of us can have our own interpretation, but it’s clear that the hatred of the team M.M (Melineh & Morehead) eats his soul and pushes him towards the only value left for him; his Armenian identity, a value that he nurtures more and more as he drifts further away from Melineh and her American way of living.

The changes in the dynamics of relationships between the men and the women leads them to start contemplating and discovering new worldviews. Unlike what Adam whispers to himself, financial motivations are not the only reason for him to become more intimate with Zelda. The fact that this Jewish American woman appreciates his Armenian nature way more than his trusted ex- wife, is clearly instrumental to urge him to make a final decision of leaving for Armenia with her. Thirty years of living in America wasn’t obviously enough to change his origins and Adam having lost the battle to gain Melineh, for one last time is shifting towards the only option that is left for him; his true identity, and it’s only with that shift that he believes that he can continue to write again. He pursues moving to Armenia with Zelda in the hopes to start a new book and he feels adamant about starting a new book and that’s simply because there is another woman and a land that he feels a sense of belonging to.

Unlike Adam, the photographer of the story in “The Calendar” portrayed by Egoyan himself is in a different point in this equation. While Adam has lost his wife to an American scholar and war veteran in US, the Toronto based Westernized photographer losses his wife to an ordinary cab driver in Armenia who aside from his knowledge of the motherland, physical charm and respect for his wife has nothing else to offer, but in deeper layers it looks as if next to the growing relationship between the driver and the wife, the chemistry between the wife and her photographer husband is also fading away throughout time. However although the way that the westernized husband is dealing with the agony of losing his wife to a fellow Armenian is much different from Adam in  Karapents’s story, still he is effected by the same nature which blocks his judgment. Since he does not see women entirely as an object that he has lost the ownership of, he questions their relationship, the past and the moments that each could have become a moment to turn it all around. However at the end he condemns her to unfaithfulness without any consciousness of his own wrong doings. He keeps asking questions to find the reasons for their alienation and unlike Adam who has a hard time adjusting himself with Melineh’s indifference towards roots and Armenian origins; the photographer see’s the Armenian-ness as a dividing element between himself and his wife. Disregarding the huge element of origins and national values, he doesn’t understand that how could a person suddenly become so intimate with his wife and how could their growing relationship could suddenly result into an estrangement between himself ad his wife. Later in his Toronto apartment he writes to his wife;

“How can you be so passive? How can you ask me to respond to these questions when you know all the answers? How can you pretend that my responses are surprise to you? Why can’t you refer to our history of each other? Why can’t you tell him what you know I would think? You make me feel like a stranger. You make me believe that my answers are disappointing you, that I am disappointing you. You leave me stranded, alone to defend myself. Alone to convince you of so many things you must already know or have you forgotten? Has this place made you forget our history? Has this place that you dreamed of made you forget all of our dreams? We are both from here, yet being here has made me from somewhere else.”

With these lines we clearly understand that the photographer is appalled for the loss of love and trust but he fails to fathom that his inability to connect with his roots is the dividing factor in their relationship. As those roots and values are dragging his wife more and more towards the homeland and the origins, he is slipping away from them and naturally sees those values as intimidating elements that threatens their union. He goes to Armenia to capture a piece of his ancient land but he ends up losing his wife and returns wounded and empty-handed to where he feels a stronger sense of belonging, but even though the photographer escapes from all the elements which are a reminiscent of motherland to him, through multiple scenes we see the calendar hanging from the walls. While one might hide any signs that might remind them of their past, bitter relationships, the photographer has his work in display and that brings in the notion that he in his inner self might be aware of his shortcomings to address his wife’s identity concerns. Both, the placement of the calendars within scenes in his Toronto apartment and his last question from his foster kid in the letter about whereabouts of his wife can also reflect Karapents’s Adam’s feelings in the letter through which he expresses his reconciliation and good wishes for Melineh;

“They say that the difference between love and hate is a hairbreadth. And that an impetuous love is oftentimes turned into an impetuous hate. However for you I have no hatred, I can’t have any because whatever may the future enfold for you, you will remain wife, mother, the main column of our family and mother of my children. Accept my letter as an honest announcement of friendship. By writing to you at the same time I close down a significant chapter of my life and start a new one…”

But unlike Adam, the photographer doesn’t have enough reasons to be optimistic. Adam comes in terms with the bitterness of losing Melineh because he rediscovers himself again with Zelda, he is hopeful knowing that she carries his baby and that he is now responsible to provide for that child and to create for his fellow Armenians. His resentment turns into a new bright hope for tomorrow while all that is left to hold on to for the photographer is a photo of his foster child for whom he writes. And while Zelda, the foreign woman in Karapents’s story, turns out to be a savior, the exotic foreign women of “The Calendar” are simply out of reach and inarticulate for the photographer. He is stranded in his apartment with women he can’t connect with, because perhaps he lacks the roots or originality that Zelda finds in Adam as a genuine man. The photographer is unable to communicate because he is devoid from all the elements that give dimensions to his intellectual appearance. Having been able to connect with his roots he now finds it difficult to deepen his insights on conversations about most basic components of a human’s life such as love and identity because he realizes that those are interconnected particles that shape his identity both as an artist and a human.

To expand further on the idea of women and their significant role in the works of Armenian artists in Diaspora one can also refer to many other famous figures such as Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky, Armenian-French director Henri Verneuil, Armenian-Iranian musician Loris Djgnavorian or even experts of Armenia based poet Paruyr Sevak’s life in Moscow. The theme of women, identity and their impact on one’s work could be a common topic in the study of every artist’s life, but what makes it a unique case for this subject matter is the male-dominant structure of majority of Armenian families and the contradictions that occur once the values of a modern foreign society is gradually (Or sometimes suddenly)      implemented within the structure of a traditional family. In the observed works of this essay, the characters are undecided between the ethnic values of their origin and of the modern world and that’s what makes them vulnerable in their confrontations that take place within the structure of their family or inhabitant zone.

In my opinion neither the excessive modernism nor the patriarchal values alone can help  men maintain steady relationships with their women or to reflect their thoughts in an entirely crisis-free platform. I think in the process of a creative work, the modern world of tentative values and relationships is a surface where one should use a mixture of reasoning and humane emotions to respond to each of the changes that they come across and even though it may sound “melodramatic and idealistic” but that process simply starts from sharing the responsibilities that men and women (regardless of being artists or even geniuses) have to share within the boundaries of their households.

How about starting from washing the filthy dishes in the sink now that you’re done reading this?