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AN ETHNIC CONCEIT
Growing up with a strong Armenian heritage, one of the things I was convinced of was that no one could possible know our people better than we knew ourselves. Armenians have a word for foreigner - "odar" - a term used almost exclusively for non-Armenians in the same way Greeks use "xeno". As with our Hellenic near neighbours, when used in a certain context, it has a slightly negative connotation - as if something foreign can never be quite as good.
As such, being a relatively small people (8 million spread around the world) we are sometimes absurdly quick to claim fame by association, and take an inordinate amount of pride in the accomplishments of those with even the smallest trace of Armenian blood in them. For example, we confidently claim the likes of chess champion Gary Kasparov, tennis ace Andre Agassi, and actress and entertainer Cher as our own.
However, every now and again an "odar" comes along and helps us see ourselves in a new light, providing us with a perspective only an outsider can offer. Those who know of Armenians and their proud history are in a small minority - admirers of our culture number even less - so those who actually put pen to paper and write about us - or dare I say it even mention us - are treated as honorary Armenians and bestowed with nothing short of hero status.
These writers may be few, but they are distinguished, with notable names such as Robert Fisk (a columnist for the Independent), Christopher J. Walker, and travel writer William Dalrymple. However, perhaps no one is more celebrated for his insight and appreciation of our culture than British writer Philip Marsden, the author of "The Crossing Place: A Journey Among The Armenians".
WHO ON EARTH ARE THE ARMENIANS?
Armenians are a proud and ancient people, who by historical accident, occupied one of the most criss-crossed and travelled pieces of earth on the planet, constantly acting as a buffer between competing empires. The geographic area that forms its historic boundaries has often been called the crossroads of civilisation. It's a minor miracle that such a small and insignificant people did not assimilate into other cultures, instead showing an indomitable spirit - accepting and then maintaining the Christian faith whilst surrounded by Muslim neighbours, developing their own language and alphabet, and showing a superb talent for commerce and trade.
Like determined little ants, whenever their homes were destroyed, they simply built them up again somewhere else. As such, throughout the last three or four hundred years in particular, many more Armenians have lived away from the historic fatherland than have lived in it, creating a worldwide Diaspora that is largely concentrated around the Mediterranean. Perhaps no one has captured the essence of this happy knack for survival better than Armenian-American author William Saroyan:
"I should like to see any power of this world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have all crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without food and water. Burn their homes and their churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia."
ABOUT THE BOOK
"The Crossing Place: A Journey Among The Armenians" was first published by Flamingo (an imprint of Harper-Collins) in 1994, winning Marsden the Somerset Maugham Award, an annual accolade bestowed by the Society of Authors to the best writer under the age of thirty-five with a work published in that year. The paperback version is usually available from Amazon for £6.99 (reduced from its £8.99 RRP) but at the time of writing (March 2010) was temporarily out of stock.
The book runs to around 250 pages and contains a number of black and white plates, maps and illustrations which complement the writing and help bring the text to life. Each of the 23 chapters is prefaced by a quote - some of which are relatively obscure - but in each case, fitting and relevant to the subsequent narrative.
Taking the Saroyan quote as his inspiration, Marsden sets off on a journey to Armenia by taking "the long way round" to ensure that he takes in as many elements of the Armenian Diaspora as possible before arriving at the Fatherland. Starting in Venice, he takes a circuitous route around the Mediterranean, first taking a boat to Cyprus, before landing in Beirut and working his way through Syria, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and then around the Black Sea to Armenia.
At every step of his journey, he eschews modern comforts and hotels, preferring to walk, take the train and hitchhike, more often than not staying with local families, many of whom willingly offer him hospitality without prompting, despite their meagre means. It's this emphasis on walking in the shoes of everyday folk and seeing the world through their eyes (as best as he can) that really gives the book its character.
For many of these people, clinging on to the last vestiges of their ancient culture in decaying foreign communities, the record of his journey would serve as the only lasting testament to their existence. They seem eager to open up to him and share their stories, curious, rather than suspicious as to why this "Ingilish" would take an interest.
These historical Armenian communities, some of which are to found in the most unlikely corners of Europe and the Middle East, are invariably centred around their churches - beautiful and architecturally distinct structures that combine an almost obstinate durability with exceptional craftsmanship and fine detail - a fitting analogy for the Armenian character. Given the central role of these holy places in Armenian life, the priests of the Armenian Orthodox church ("Vartabed" if celibate; "Der Hayr" if married) are often the repositories of local community history, making them Marsden's first and most important port of call.
Marsden paints confident, vivid and colourful pictures of the people and the places he visits using language much in the same way an artist would use a brush. I consider myself relatively well read, but found myself occasionally scrambling for a dictionary as he utilised parts of the English lexicon that I had previously been totally oblivious to. This outstanding piece of work provides real depth and insight, managing to get under the skin of the Armenian character in a way I never thought possible from an "odar". The fact that he manages this so effortlessly is testament to his ability as a writer.
However, putting aside my clear cultural prejudices and trying to assess this work with a more objective eye, it's a superb piece of travel writing regardless of the people it follows. Marsden displays a mature eye and a keen talent for observation, expertly weaving in politics and cultural history and mixing it with humour and humility to create a rich tapestry.
It's hard to be objective about the merits of this book, but even through my rose-tinted Armenian spectacles, I feel confident in recommending this book as an exceptional travelogue. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Armenia, I would urge you to read this before you go. The back cover of the book is generously garlanded with some excellent superlatives from Marsden's contemporaries, but the best of them, said simply, comes from William Dalrymple.
© Hishyeness 2010