Thursday, November 26, 2009

Books and the Chicago Armenian Festival

The Lost Kingdom of Urartu Grills Some Meat for Our Tasting Pleasure

"Tasting grilled meat brought me back to my student days in Jerusalem. So too did the Armenians."

Every year in this great city of Chicago we find various ethnic or cultural festivals celebrating the heritage whence they came. Italian festivals, Japanese festivals, Chinese New Year, and the like. So too do we have the now annual "Taste of Armenia," held each year in the near north suburb of Evanston, IL. Put on by the St. James Armenian Church, the festival blocks off a short stretch of street in front of the church, hoists up a few tarps and tents, unpacks some kids' games, unfolds display tables for books, t-shirts, and trinkets, and rolls out the charcoal pits to grill some fine combos of Armenian-style meats: usually kabobs, steak, and chicken. Perhaps not as large scale or encompassing as the Greek or Italian festivals, the Armenian festival does have a certain element of distance and underrated culture rooted in its history, which makes it more mysterious to most Americans.

By the numbers, and these are estimates, Italian Americans make up ~17.5 million of the US population; Greek Americans, according the US State Department, ~3 million; while Armenian Americans make up 1.5 million. Now that actually sounds substantial, if you don't compare it to the Italian American population. 1.5 million people would mean that there should be 30,000 Armenians living in each US state. Though, I can't imagine there is such a large population in either Alaska or Nebraska, for example, but this would have to take further research and investigation. So the question to you readers now is: "do you know an Armenian?" And if so, "how many?" (No, I won't ask you "have you kissed an Armenian today?" like those silly hats at St. Patrick's day parades ask: "have you kissed an Irishman today?") You might not know it, but you may be able to tell by a person's last name. Armenian surnames usually end in "-ian" or "-yan," usually preceded by a consonant. Like the Armenian composer Aram Khatchaturian.

Well, I'd come to this festival--this "Taste of Armenia,"--with the hope that I'd find some books, especially something either about Armenia or in Armenian. As you see, my first sighting came as I was on the sidewalk at the fair, and I saw a man reading a sizable book, which he then placed on the curb next to him. I thought this would be a fine clandestine shot--something as bad (though not as tasteless) as those nightly news shots about obesity, which follow the rotundity of oblivious pedestrians' posteriors. I never understood that sort of voyeurism. I suppose it sells the news! But here we have a fine book, sitting quietly next to its master, or rather "partner." For better or worse, I didn't see anyone else reading at the festival. It was supposed to be "festive," which implies a sense of interaction and fun being had among people. And the act of reading does not involve either of these things...usually!

Of course, there were many banners and signs promoting other cultural activities. In this sign, we can even see the Armenian language, displayed in its distinct alphabet, which is shared with no other language. The language was developed by the Armenian scholar Mesrop Mashtots in the fourth century, at the request of King Vramshapuh. Now 1,600 years later, the Armenians still enjoy the flavor of this ornate and stylized alphabet. The specific history of Armenia is long and complex, and reaches into the heart of antiquity nearly 3,000 years ago. The first known king of Armenia, Aram (858-844BCE) arose during that century around the same time as the Assyrian kings Tukulti-Ninurta II and Ashur-nasir-pal II. He was followed by a long list of kings until the demise of Urartu itself in the 6th century BCE, with Rusa IV being its last likely leader.

The Kingdom of Armenia itself rose from the ashes of Urartu in ca. 590BCE. Royal Houses were established, such as the Houses of Ervand, Artashes, and Arshak, until the later rise of Christianity in the 4th century. Armenia holds the claim of being the longest continuous Christian country in the world, which by most accounts is accurate, though some scholars might question "what constitutes a country?" It is by mere chance, though, that I'm writing about the Armenian festival today, at the very same time that I came into the possession of a fine book of ancient Armenian history, entitled "The Kingdom of Armania" by M. Chahin and published by Dorset. To its credit, this is where I've culled the historical information I've offered you today. But my interest, education, and knowledge of Armenian culture does not begin here, but more than a decade ago, in a far away land sometimes known as the omphalos mundi (lit. the "world's bellybutton!)

Back in 1997, just as I was about to depart for the holy city of Jerusalem to study ancient language and culture at Hebrew University, I was speaking to a friend, who was of Armenian heritage. She told me that her father had been born in Jerusalem, in the Armenian quarter (Jerusalem's old city has four distinct quaters: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Armenian) and might be able to give me some information about the place and some people to meet. I of course jumped on the opportunity and called her father. We spoke and he told me that he had a friend that he'd gone to kindergarten and grade school with, and he told me his name and that I should contact said friend. Once I arrived in Jerusalem, it took me a few weeks to settle in and get acclimated to the starkly different landscape, culture, school system, and everything else. I still had the name of the Armenian friend written down somewhere, and had been meaning to contact the man, whose name was Torkom Manoogian.

I'd recently met a fine young man of similar interests in Church History, who had studied Russian history and lived in Russia for sometime. This young man, Soren Johnson, would later become a great friend of mine, and who now is one of the leading executives of Prison Fellowship International. Soren and I were in Hebrew class together, along with another religious studies aficionado and author, Tom Levinson, who by chance now lives just blocks from me in Hyde Park and has a son who was in pre-school with my eldest. I'd told them about the Armenian contact, and Soren agreed to call and make an appointment. You see, we soon discovered that Mr. Manoogian was the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem!--the highest priestly office of the Armenian Church in this part of the Middle East. Soren called, and was asked a few questions, and we were granted a visit with the Patriarch. One last question, though, was asked: "What would you like to talk about?" I think Soren said "about the good Patriarch!"

I will pause before I go on, to share with you the insides of the church of St. James in Evanston. It was a small church, but there were many books scattered around, a fine altar, Armenian prayers and other texts displayed, and candles burning in a box full of sand. Though there is a sense of mystery which shrouds orthodox and eastern Christian traditions and liturgy, especially the fuming of chapels with incense or other liturgical smokes, the St. James in this photo is shockingly different--in fact, brighter and cheerier!--than the St. James in Jerusalem, which is antique, dark, lugubrious, and invoking of the highest of high mysteries in the eastern churches. Our appointed day arrived and the three of us headed to the Armenian quarter, where we were greeted by an Armenian priest, who ushered us in. We followed the man down some dark corridors, then up some regal steps, which were guarded on either side by larger-than-life crude-style paintings of luminary Armenian holy men.

We entered into a large room, the size of two or three racket ball courts, with very a high ceiling.
The walls were ornate and the decorations made the whole place feel like the inside of a Hapsburg palace. A large desk sat in the front before a fireplace (if I remember correctly) and the room was a royal blue. We were introduced to and greeted by the Patriarch who had us sit on some couches in front of his desk. "Sit, sit!" he offered.
We sat and Soren and I noticed that on top of a stack of books on the Patriarch's desk was a copy of Stephen R. Covey's #1 bestselling The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And then he began with the old question: "So what would you like to talk about?" Of course, we then again offered what we'd come to talk about: "Tell us about yourself!" we clamored! And he did, holding himself pensively in his chair, he began with the most beautiful and unforgettable line: "I was born in a tent outside of Bagdad in 1919."

The rest of the conversation was a haze, interrupted by the offering of demitasse sized glasses of Sprite by the Patriarch's assistant, to which we gratefully accepted. Sprite with the Armenian Patriarch! Ah, what a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. That was the beginning of my affair with Armenian culture in Jerusalem. I would end up spending another three years there, living, exploring, and experiencing the craziness of that city. After this visit with the Patriarch, Soren began some friendships with other local Armenians, some of whom spoke Russian as he did. There was a regal and reserved priest (or perhaps deacon) who led the St. James Choir of seminarians, whose name was Varoozhan. He was a kind and reflective man, who had a passion for his liturgical music and perhaps also for the tradition of Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935), the man whom the Armenians consider the founder of Armenian classical music.

Komitas, as he is affectionately known, is said to have witnessed the Armenian genocide in 1915, after which he went mad. Whatever the story is, he is highly regarded among most Armenians. Varoozhan, the choir director, I have lost track of; so too of the other Armenians I met during my long stay in Jerusalem. I was particularly fond of a wise-cracker young priest named Haig (the Armenian hero of antiquity, I believe related to how Armenians call their country in the Armenian language "Hai(gh)-rastan"). Haig took classes at Hebrew University with me, told jokes, and made replicas of Armenian icons for tourists in the old city. He would tell us stories of his family, which was dispersed all over the Middle East and beyond. His immediately family was in Lebanon, which of course, with him being in Israel, was a difficult task of accomplishing any immediate connection, especially travel.

Haig and I were in an Armenian class together, along with another Armenian priest, whose name I now forget. The other priest was tall, with a long black beard, and somewhat severe looking, almost like Abraham Lincoln, but very balanced and calm. He always wore a black gown and little black liturgical cap. We were in a class on Armenian Hagiography, Church History, and Theology, taught by the ever brilliant Prof. Roberta Ervine, who now teaches at St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, just north of New York City. She was a wonderful teacher, and her depth of knowledge about the Armenian Church is profound and legendary in Armenian circles. You may find a photo and information about Dr. Ervine at the following link of the St. Nersess Seminary: . I do recall a lot of talk about the great Gregory the Illuminator, one of the major saints of the Armenian church. And my final paper for the class was a comparative study of Armenian mysticism with Eastern Religious traditions of mysticism, specifically Buddhism.

Returning finally to this country a few years later, I continued my Armenian studies in a small class at the University of Chicago, where I began study of Eastern Armenian, the language of the country of Armenian, distinct from the other major language/dialect of Western Armenian, which is the language spoken by the Armenian diaspora. A good small class, I learned a lot, but the language was (and is!) difficult and requires a great deal of time, preparation, and devotion, which I did not have at the time. Though my Armenian skills have waned considerably, I do remember a choice word or phrase, like my all time favorite word, "Schnorakhalootyoon!" which is the way a person says "Thank you!" in Armenian! What a great word. Even when I first learned it, I spent hours repeating it, because it was beautifully exotic and tongue-teasing! Go ahead, you try it: "Schnorakhalootyoon!" Try it three times fast!

That was all a long time ago, but all good memories of my "Armenian past!" And I am still now and then tempted to jump back into my Armenian studies and Armenian culture, whether it is refreshing my old grammar books printed in Yerevan, sharing a story or some phrases with Armenian students I meet, or going to the local Armenian festival and enjoying some kabobs on a stick. I do have a dream that one day I will travel to Armenia, not simply as a tourist, but to study classical Armenian in the monasteries and Mother See of Holy Etchimadzin, not far from the Armenian capital of Yerevan. But that will have to wait. In the mean time, if you ever get an invitation from an old Armenian to meet another old friend of his, don't just go for the Sprite. You too may have your own personal Patriarch. Of course, the Sprite was good too.

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