“You’re more Armenian than I am,” my grandmother often tells me, with a touch of irony and surprise. On one such day in early May, we were delicately filling grape leaves with ground beef and medium-grain white rice, the traditional Armenian dish, commonly known as dolma.
No one would know that my grandmother is Armenian. She is short, dynamic, and in her 70s. She wears orange-red lipstick, red nail polish, and has blond bobbed hair. Her friends and neighbors know her as Geneviève Tijan—a last name that doesn’t have the usual Armenian suffix –ian. To everyone, she is an elegant French lady, and it is probably how she has always wanted to be seen.
But if people look closely, they can see her olive skin and the brown roots of her dyed blond hair. She makes grammatical mistakes when she speaks because French isn’t her first language. Her maiden name is Garabedian, which includes the suffix that carries centuries of history, including the 1915 genocide.
“Your grandma has never accepted her identity,” my mother says when I asked her why my grandmother didn’t teach her Armenian. “It was shameful for her to be Armenian. She wanted to be French, and she wanted me to be French, too.”
Genik, as most Armenians would call my grandmother, was born in Marseille, a city in Southern France, after her parents fled Istanbul in the early 1920’s. She grew up in a poor immigrant district where everyone struggled to integrate into the French society.
“French people did not have a high regard for Armenians,” remembers my grandmother, making a face and nodding in disapproval.
She learned French at school but spoke Armenian at home. Her best friend was the neighbor’s daughter, and both secretly flirted with boys and visited the dance hall. When my grandmother turned 20, she dyed her hair blond and left her parents’ home to live above the grocery store that her family owned.
At 24, she met and married my grandfather, Jacques Tijan. Also known as Hagop, the Armenian variant of Jacques, my grandfather was from the central Anatolian city of Kayseri. He also was discriminated against and struggled to find a job; the French considered him a foreigner. Before he met my grandmother, he had changed his last name, Chiftchian, to make it sound more French. It was years before my grandmother confessed this to me. It haunted me. How come my grandfather didn’t have this beautiful Armenian suffix? The answer was clear: France welcomed him, but at the expense of his identity—one that was among the oldest and richest in history.
I have become more Armenian than anyone else in my immediate family. My mother was raised with the same shame associated with being Armenian, and she didn’t have the opportunity to question her identity until much later in life. I started questioning mine after my grandfather passed away; I was just 8. He was definitely the most Armenian of us. A single mother in a poor household raised him and his two siblings. The family left Turkey and lived in Beirut for a while before crossing the Mediterranean Sea for the cosmopolitan city of Marseille.
Inquisitiveness made me ask my grandmother questions to which a young boy or even a teenager would never receive answers. I learned about the reaction of my grandparents’ families to their professional success in France, my mother’s education in an exclusive private Catholic school, and other life moments where my grandparents simply buried their identity. I couldn’t understand the shame, but she answered my whys. Immigrants were welcomed as long as they assimilated and became French.
I was discovering aspects of my family that I was never aware of. It was like discovering an unknown part of me. From then on, I needed to know everything. I wanted to be Armenian, but I didn’t know what it was like to be an Armenian. I began the pursuit of my identity through reading, and exposed myself to literature on the Armenian Genocide. I was horrified to learn that my ancestors had been exterminated; I thought that had only happened to the Jewish people. One and a half millions souls were massacred in 1915 under the Ottoman Empire, including my grandfather’s aunts.
I remember watching a rare movie dedicated to the topic by a French-Armenian director. “Mayrig” (“mother,” in Armenian), tells the struggles of an Armenian family that immigrates to France from Turkey after the genocide. It was the story of my family. Indirectly, it was my story. My Armenian ancestry was finally making sense to me.
I told people that I was of Armenian heritage, and spoke about my pride, but no one really understood what I meant. I felt alone, and I wanted to find a community that embraced my identity. When I moved to Paris to study at the Paris Institute of Political Science, I settled down in the Armenian district of Issy-les-Moulineaux. I assumed people would accept me as being one of them and invite me to eat dolma with their friends and family. And finally, during my second year in college, it happened.
In an introductory Jewish studies course, everyone was talking about their background. “I’m Kevin Dubouis. I’m French. I study political science.” I was probably the typical Frenchman to the rest of the class. French father, French last name. No one could tell what I was hiding. “I’m Armenag Tokmajian. I live in Syria, but my heart belongs to Armenia where I was born…” He said it with so much pride and confidence that I was emotionally moved. After class I stupidly asked him, “Are you Armenian? Because I am.” He looked at me and smiled; we understood each other.
Throughout Armenag’s six-month exchange in France, we engaged in many conversations and helped one another learn about a different culture. We discovered how much we shared in common. He was an Armenian from Armenia who lived in Syria; I was an Armenian from the diaspora who lived in France. He invited me to visit him in Syria, where there is a large Armenian community. I willingly took up the offer, and in the middle of January 2011, I booked a direct flight from Paris to Aleppo for 15 days of Middle Eastern immersion.
There is one specific scene I remember from my journey. We were on a road trip from Damascus to the ancient city of Palmyra. We were rolling at what seemed to be too fast for a bus that blended in perfectly with the ancientness of the scenery. The driver waltzed his way around large pits and occasionally hit his breaks to avoid colliding into the Bedouins who were moving their flock of sheep.
I was squeezed between locals and luggage while feeling overwhelmed by the smell of rancid food, musty feet, and heavy air. On the way, my friend told me stories about the region. Two years earlier, Israeli forces had bombed some locations in the desert because they suspected the presence of an underground nuclear base.
I looked through the window and was instantly submerged into the desert’s vastness. I kept pinching myself to make sure it wasn’t a dream. The voice of the great Fairuz, a legendary Arabic singer, spoke to the passengers with an acute nostalgia, evident in the way they were singing along. Nostalgic about what, I wondered. No one explains it, but I’ve learned that Arabs often slip into this longing for the past.
Embracing my heritage is important to me, but preserving it is even more important for the next generation. I want this generation to ask me about the warm, soft sound of the duduk, a wind instrument made of apricot trees. I want them to ask me about Mount Ararat, which is the symbol of Armenian national identity. I want them to tell me, “I am more Armenian than you.”
In a way, crossing the Syrian desert would mark my immersion into a new world, a new culture—after which I was sure I would no longer be the same. Just like Ulysses, I was taking on a new path, one that would bring me closer to my Ithaca.