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The Armenian Youth... or The Truth? (continued)

By John Semerdjian - Copyright © 2003. All rights reserved.

E- The Importance of Our Customs and Traditions.

Interestingly enough, all respondents seem to agree that our customs and traditions are very important to us. Even those few who were not so keen on maintaining the Armenian language, which is very much part of our cultural heritage.

A nation's customs, traditions and language distinguish it from others, giving it a sense of pride and uniqueness amongst the multicultural societies we live in. Maintaining one's true customs and traditions will add richness to one's family and community life. It will encourage harmony and comradeship between the members of the community. This is what a respondent said about this, "I think that maintaining a sense of cultural pride is very important and because so much of family and community centres around traditions, it is important to keep those going."

But how easy is it to maintain these customs and traditions in the diaspora, and how much dose the young generation really know about them to be able to do this successfully? Here are couple of comments made by our respondents:

  • "Very important [Armenian customs & traditions], but seems more difficult to maintain as the mainstream society finds many of our customs strange, superstitious, etc. For example, traditional Armenian weddings involve the groom and his family to come with musicians to receive the bride. People don't do this any more. Armenian brides are wearing white dresses and the grooms tuxedos instead of our traditional dresses. I guess we've changed many of our traditional ways due to the non-acceptance of our traditions by the mainstream society. It's too bad that many Armenians feel they need to change their traditional ways to fit in to the dominant norms of the society they live in. The Vietnamese, Cambodian, East Asian Indians, etc. have managed to maintain their wedding and other traditional customs without assimilating - why can't we? Are we embarrassed of being Armenian?"

  • "Our customs and traditions has been very important and still is important, however most of us Armenians do not understand those customs and traditions."
Since the Armenian Genocide almost a century ago (by the Ottoman Turks and later by the Young Turk regime) Armenians lost not just 1.5 million human lives and billions of dollars of land and physical assets. We also lost many of our priceless customs and traditions. Every Armenian village, town or city in Turkish Armenia had its own unique customs and traditions. Their inhabitants were proud of their food, costumes, arts etc. and would willingly practice them during religious and social occasions. People could tell where individuals came from just by looking at their colourful costumes or even by tasting their delicious Armenian dishes.

Those who survived the horrors of the Armenian Genocide managed to find refuge in all corners of the world. Today's Armenian communities in the diaspora are the descendants of those proud people who despite their tragic and traumatic past managed to pass on what they remembered of their customs and traditions to their children. Trusting them with this priceless heirloom with the hope that one day they themselves will pass the torch on to future generations and preserve our true Armenian identity.

From personal experience I realise that Armenians who are not familiar with their history, culture, customs and traditions do not have the same proud feeling as those who do. They are more prone to be attracted and absorbed by native cultures in search of that sense of belonging and pride, which is a natural human feeling.

Many, myself included, believe that our Armenian educational, religious and social institutions are not doing enough to educate the members of the community about the true values of our customs and traditions. How many of us can confidently say that he or she knows the true meaning of our religious and social traditions? How many of us really know what our customs and traditions are? Why should we keep on practising them without feeling embarrassed of who we are?

There are many questions that need to be answered. However, none of these can be resolved if our religious and social leaders stop practising these traditions. For example, one of the oldest traditions of the Armenian Church is to do house blessing around Easter time. Part of the religious meaning of this tradition is to bless the people in their homes and thereby strengthen and bring the Holy Spirit into their lives and at the same time ward off evil spirits and diseases. But there is a social significance to it as well. This is an opportunity for the Church to touch base with the members of the community and discuss any concerns or issues they may have and try to offer them comfort and support. In return the priest or the deacon receives traditional Armenian hospitality and a small monetary offering for his duties.

Unfortunately, in recent years this simple but important tradition has been disappearing. Here in Sydney, the Armenian Church no longer practises this event. A deacon will only perform a house blessing if specifically asked to by a community member. The reason for this apparently is because in the past some people have refused to have their house blessed whilst others offered no or very small amounts of money. It's worth mentioning that many others have been more than generous in this respect.

This is a typical example where our traditions are sacrificed and lost for the material greed of our leaders and representatives. In the above example, it is the responsibility of the Church and its representatives to educate people about their duties towards the Church (financial offerings, traditions and customs). Yes, you may argue that the Church has its own expenses and it can not afford not to be properly compensated for its services. That doesn't however mean they should stop practising our age-old traditions and deny the majority of the community (who generously support the Church) the true values of our culture and heritage.

In order to attract today's young generation and ensure the survival of our cultural heritage, religious and social leaders need to educate their members about the riches of our customs and traditions. They themselves should continue and encourage these activities and become role models for the youth to look up to and feel proud of.

F- Armenian Social and Political Organisations in the Diaspora.

I think a brief historical background about this subject is appropriate before we examine this category.

Some time in mid to late 19th century, political and social unrest was taking place in the Ottoman Empire (current day Turkey), paralleled by cultural and political revival among many of its subject nations. This unrest lead to the decay of the Ottoman Empire and ultimately to its destruction.

Armenians (living in the Ottoman Empire) were one of those nations who had passed through a long period of cultural revival. In late 18th and during the 19th centuries, many young Armenians travelled to Europe for higher education. They returned home imbued with the ideas of Enlightenment and the French Revolution to engage in teaching, journalism, and literary criticism.

Gradually, after centuries of oppression and domination by foreign powers, Armenians started to rediscover their own identity. The increasing government administrative corruption and the repression of Christian subject nations paralleled by self-discovery and the demand for security of life gave rise to the Armenian Question (Hay Tad). Some Armenians gave up hope that reforms could ever be achieved peacefully. They organised underground political parties and encouraged the population to learn to defend itself.

After the Armenian Genocide and the annexation of the first Republic of Armenia in 1920 by the Russians (which lasted 71 years), the three main political parties, commonly known as Hunchag, Tashnag and Ramgavar, found refuge in the diaspora.

The events that led to the Armenian Genocide and ultimately the loss of the first Republic of Armenia has created a bitter dispute amongst these political parties and their followers, who accused each other for the unfortunate outcome. This gave way to unnecessary in-fighting and in some extreme cases to bloody murders.

Today, the wounds have somewhat healed, but the scars are still visible. The old school of thought is still present and being taught to young minds. Fortunately, many are realising this and wish to express their opinion in the hope that others will join them in the fight to put an end to such ignorance and power abuse.

The following are comments made by some of the respondents. It is worth mentioning that the majority of the respondents to this survey express similar opinions regarding this subject.

  • "Political organisations are pathetic, useless organisations who do nothing but breed in-fighting and rivalry amongst Armenians."

  • "Social Armenian organizations are great. They encourage and maintain our ways in countries where Armenians live in the diaspora. As for political organizations, as long as all the separate groups work together to further the Armenian Cause, including culture, language, history, etc. it is needed. However, if many of the political organizations are fighting amongst each other how can we advance our Cause?  Aren't they hurting us instead of helping us?"

  • "My child is not good enough to belong to this organization [ARF], BUT my money is good enough to ask for. I don't think you should ask what makes these kids tick without first asking the leaders of the various organizations what makes them tick."

  • "As for political groups in the diaspora, I believe they are irrelevant. Armenian politics is only relevant in Armenia. The diaspora should focus on lobbying their own country's governments."

  • "The political parties are only concerned with glorifying themselves rather than the community."
In principle, these political parties were created to help the Armenian public, to free them from the shackles of centuries of foreign domination and oppression, and in some cases they were successful. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line they lost the plot and turned against each other creating a division amongst the population, not to mention within the Armenian Church.

As pockets of Armenian communities were being established in the diaspora (after the Genocide), the need for survival and the preservation of our identity was of utmost importance. Thus, Armenian political organisations, instead of joining forces, took it upon themselves to establish schools, sports and social centres, etc. for their followers. In time some of these social centres developed into larger cultural associations with many sub groups and chapters all over the world, as we know of today. Even though these volunteer based cultural associations managed to preserve our Armenian identity (part of it anyway) they were and are still plagued with the same ideologies of their respective political parties, which is the main source of division amongst the Armenian communities in the diaspora.

There are two main political groups or divisions in the Armenian diaspora today. One is the dominant "Tashnag" party and its followers and the other is everyone else who dose not support their [Tashnag] ideology, including non-politically inclined groups or individuals.

The following is another quotation from one of our respondents in regards to this subject,

  • "I feel that, in general, Armenian institutions are run by politically motivated individuals that are placed in important positions due to their affiliation to the organization and not necessarily due to their competence. Our institutions should be run like business units and strive to become the best in their respective categories in comparison with other non-Armenian institutions. This may be by hiring experts or out-sourcing certain elements of the day to day.

    You can't just profess Armenianism without having a certain structure and environment that will encourage people of all walks of the community to participate. Unfortunately, the more educated Armenians are shying away from Armenian organizations  (schools, cultural associations, etc.) due to their lack of openness and vision.

    It is time that the young affluent Armenians take charge and replace the old school of thought present (though less today) in our organizations."
Today, the majority of the young educated generation are sick and tired of seeing our leaders still trying to settle old, childish disputes amongst themselves. It's time for our leaders to show true leadership and put the nation's interest before their own personal and political aspirations. Building new cultural centres or renovating old ones will not bring the youth back. Promoting and enforcing one's own political ideologies in the name of Armenianism will only create more divisions and eventually lead to the loss of our true Armenian identity.

The answer is in our unity and mutual cooperation! Today we are blessed with a second chance. An independent second Republic of Armenia, which needs us more than ever. Unless we can resolve our differences and support each other first, our children and future generations may not be as keen as we are to maintain and save this last remaining piece of homeland – Armenia.

G- Traditional (Old Fashioned) vs. Modern (Open-Minded) Mentalities.

The words "traditional" and "old fashioned" conjure negative thoughts in young peoples' minds. The same can be said about words like "modern" and "open-minded" when you mention them to the majority of senior members of the community. 

Armenian traditional customs and ways are the building blocks of our identity. That's what defines us as a group and gives us that special uniqueness that no other nation has. It's a source of pride and honour for one and all. That is why when young members of the community start to rebel against these traditional ways in favour of more modern (Western) ways in their attempt to fit in and be part of the popular native culture, the results can be unsettling.

The following are some comments made by our respondents:

  • "This is a hard question to respond to with a short answer, but our original traditional ways are necessary to maintain us as a people. To try to be as short as possible, I think many of our ways today have been tainted by "Western" ideas. There are many things that are good about our modern world, such as diversity, tolerance, partial equality of genders and races in terms of access to education, employment, etc. However, these modern ways have also hurt us. Our family unit is no longer an extended unit, but rather a nuclear unit. We are placing our elderly in nursing homes and not taking care of our needy people.

    The younger and older generations are not talking to one another to understand what's in their minds. Our younger generations feel they have to assimilate into the dominant society to be accepted by their peers. This is not unique to Armenians alone, but to any ethnic group who does not live in their original homelands."


  • "Living in foreign countries is a big challenge for the "Armenian" survival."

  •  "A balance of old and new traditions is essential if we are to take part in modern society."
The truth is that we do not have to lose our traditional ways and ideas to fit in with the native population. All we need to do is try to adapt them to fit with modern times without compromising the true essence of our traditional ways. We need to cultivate the good points of both traditional and modern ideologies and mould them into one.

As mentioned above, there are many good things in the modern world that we can benefit from. After all we do live in this modern world and our survival as a nation depends on how well we can adapt and coexist in such environments without shedding our true traditional ways. This can only be achieved when "young" and "old" (modern and traditional) sit together and listen to each other's point of view with respect and understanding. Without a clear, honest and open line of dialogue, and the willingness to implement such changes, it's only a matter of time until all is lost and our customs and traditions are buried by the sands of time.

H- Today's Armenian Youth (What Makes Them Tick?).

There is good news and there is bad news… The good news is that Armenian youth are no different to any other nation's youth. They want to experiment and enjoy life. They want to feel free, be accepted by their peers, express their thoughts and ideas and look good to attract the opposite sex. In other words, be themselves.

The bad news is that as young Armenians living in the diaspora they are caught in constant "tug of war" between our traditional values and popular native cultural (Western) values. Unfortunately, the latter seems to have a stronger effect in shaping their identity as individuals.

Before we go any further, let's have a look at what some of the respondents say about this subject.

  • "What makes today's Armenian youth different from the Armenian youth of the 90's, 80's, 70's, 60's, 50's etc. nothing. The people are the same. I think the problem is the overall decline of morals and values in our society... this includes everyone, not just Armenians. Social decline is infectious, and therefore the youth of today are being influenced by it."

  • "In one word, SEX and its components. For example, relationships, fashion (looking sexy, sex-appeal, etc.) and what the majority say."

  • "Today's youth want entertainment in whatever is offered to them, we have to keep this in mind when we want them to participate."
One of the reasons why our youth are adopting Western cultural values (other than to compete and fit in with the native society) is because they do not know or have very little understanding about our true Armenian culture, arts, history, literature etc. The main building blocks of our national pride and cultural identity.

During most of their lives they have been told (in some cases ordered) to speak Armenian, attend Armenian Church, be part of an Armenian cultural institution etc. At no time have they been properly educated and informed why they should do so? What makes our Armenian culture, traditional values, language, religion etc. so important and so unique? Why should we keep on practicing them and not feel ashamed of who we are?

With every passing generation, part of these cultural values are being lost along with our true Armenian identity. As mentioned above, our youth are falling victim to declining morals and values in our society. They are abandoning our Armenian traditional family values and adopting the ever-increasing individualism that is becoming the norm in Western societies.

To them, being an Armenian is becoming a matter of choice and not an integral part of their lives or identity. They profess Armenianism when it suites them and shy away from it when they are within foreign circles.

They communicate in the native language and try to cover up their lack of Armenian education and knowledge by ridiculing others who do and distancing them from their circles. When they attend Armenian Church (once or twice a year mostly to socialise) they complain that they do not understand the liturgy delivered in classical Armenian and accuse the Church of being old fashioned. They join Armenian activity groups (choir, sport, music etc.) only to meet prospective partners for marriage and not for the interest or the actual purpose of the activity itself. These are only some of the many deficiencies that are present amongst today's Armenian youth. 

On the other hand, Armenian institutions seem to do very little to address the needs of our youth. They seem to be more concerned about their own image and survival. No proper research is being done to find solutions for the problems at ground level. There is too much red tape for the youth to "hack" through to get our leaders to listen and do something about their needs.

Unless our leaders realise the immediate importance of these problems and take a hands-on approach to solve them, many believe that eventually our youth and future generations will become another statistical casualty in the war against assimilation and result in the loss of our true Armenian identity. 

I- Youth Parties vs. Cultural Events.

Who doesn't like to go to a party? A chance to kick back, take a break from the stresses of work and home, enjoy yourself with family and friends and just simply have fun.

Well, Armenians seem to like it very much. It is a chance for us to meet old friends or make new ones. A chance to celebrate with good food, music and dance. Be part of a happy atmosphere and enjoy the company of our peers. 

Let's have a look at what some of the respondents said about this subject:

  • "Youth parties provide Armenian youths the opportunity to safely socialize with other Armenians. Unless you attend an Armenian school or a public school where the majority of the students are Armenian, you don't have an arena to meet other Armenian youths.

    As for cultural events - we should have more cultural events than parties. Why aren't we teaching our youth how to weave our traditional rugs, sew and embroider traditional dresses and patterns, create metal, wood, and stone - work?  How about traditional dances and songs? Many of these crafts are lost because we are not being taught these skills. These are the types of things that define who we are as a people."


  • "Armenian gatherings are the best. Parties usually involve alcohol and lots of body exposure. Results are ridiculous."

  • "Armenian plays are nice. So are their musical bands, etc."
In fact Armenians in the diaspora seem to concentrate more on parties than on cultural events. We can easily say that the ratio between 'parties' and 'cultural events' is 10:1 in favour of the 'parties'.

As mentioned above, Armenian youth parties are great for our young generation to intermingle and socialise amongst themselves, but do they really encourage Armenianism? Are we contributing towards the loss of our culture and traditional folklore by neglecting the cultural needs of our youth?

Some may argue that the community is to blame. The majority like going to parties because they are enjoyable, interactive, social etc. and they are willing to attend such events, but when it comes to cultural events most shy away complaining that they are boring and monotonous. In most cases poorly organised and delivered.

The reason for this is because most cultural events (organised by our Armenian institutions) are run by amateur volunteers who desperately try to organise such events on a shoestring budget, and in a very short period of time. The words "good planning" and "professionalism" do not exist in their vocabulary.
 

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. For many years now, none of our Armenian institutions seem to realise that in order to attract the community's attention, especially the young generation, they need to get their act together and be more organised, diversify their programs, invest more time and resources to deliver educational and professional presentations. Having few young children on the podium (singing out of tune) accompanied by a pianist might be fine for a school event, but when it comes to a proper cultural event where the general public and dignitaries are invited… that is just not good enough.

Youth parties (all Armenian parties) are good fun and we should have them, but they do not educate our people or others about the true cultural riches of our nation. They do not instil pride and Armenianism in our children and youth. However, well organised cultural events can do that. Many, including myself believe that our Armenian institutions should concentrate more on such events in order to keep our heritage alive.
 

The Armenian Youth… or The Truth? -- Continue Page 3 >
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Updated 30 October, 2003 ..
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