Armenian stories of exodus
Armenians were driven from their homes in 1915 and spread all over the world. Memories of the genocide are kept alive by the women through cooking and handicrafts.
Text: Inger Lisbeth Ødesneltvedt
Social anthropologist Nefissa Naguib has been studying minorities in the Middle East for many years. In a research project entitled Global Moments in the Levant, she has studied elements of the history and culture of Armenians in several towns in the region.
A shared history
In her fieldwork, Naguib collected stories that she gradually discovered had left their mark in tangible and everyday things like cooking and handicraft traditions. These everyday activities can tell us a lot about the traumatic experiences the Armenians have gone through. ‘I spoke with representatives of the same Armenian extended family in Aleppo in Syria, Jerusalem, Cairo and Vancouver and soon discovered that they were all part of a larger web of memories. Even though their narratives were quite different, they shared the same story in many ways. Through their reminiscences they could also reveal their thoughts about the future.’
Help each other
Following the genocide in 1915, women and children were driven from Anatolia in central Turkey to the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, which was then on the verge of disintegration: ‘The women were victims, of course, but they didn’t just give up, they wanted to go on living. In the ensuing period, they stuck together, set up schools and clinics and created their own safety net,’ says Ms Naguib. And that is how it still is today. No matter where Armenians go, they build churches and schools and form political clubs. ‘Food has a prominent place in this solidarity. Although the stories about food are positive, they also contain an element of pain – and that applies to younger Armenians, too. The hunger experienced by previous generations has become part of their identity. We know that food and taste carry memories, so I wish to emphasise the significance of cooking and the stories that accompany it, because these are stories that are preserved and recounted by women as they cook.’
Take food seriously
‘The stories from the kitchen are about major global moments expressed as personal experiences. The memories are preserved in different layers and figures, as intricate as the Armenian dishes with which they are blended,’ says Ms Naguib. The recipes and meals of the Armenian women she talked to reveal different lives. Food therefore becomes a means of viewing the recorded and well-documented history from a new perspective. She thinks that people today may be surprised at how the stories told over the cooking pots are marked by such deeply felt gravity. But this is these women’s way of preserving their ties with painful events in their past. The Armenians’ special history also has a role to play in their choice of occupation. They set great store by good education and jobs and are much sought-after as tradesmen. ‘Many Armenians are photographers or goldsmiths, while others choose to become dentists, pharmacists, tailors or shoemakers. Persecution and enforced migration are part of their history, so they choose occupations that they can take with them,’ says Ms Naguib.
FIELDWORK: Nefissa Naguib feels most at home when working in the field, here near Petra in Jordan. Nefissa is a research leader in Unifob Global at the University of Bergen. Foto: Paul Christians
Last updated 10.12.2009