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Armenian Culture for Dummies: using culture to create a space for understanding and dialogue.

As the Sunday evening winter breeze came in, and the impending reality set in that tomorrow is Monday, a crowd of university students gathered in the Willoughby Cultural Centre.

The night was designed in a simple three station structure. Station one was cooking. Station two was discussion and station three was calligraphy.

Station One: Cooking (led by Shahe Nazarian- Treasurer).

In the first station, participants learn about the tradition of the atam/agra hatik. A tradition that is celebrated and practices all around the world by diaspora Armenians and Armenia, the title of the practice literally translates to tooth (atam/agra) and hatik refers to the plate of food cooked celebrating the eruption of the child’s first tooth.

As a part of this practice, a vast array of objects symbolisation a variety of professions (teacher, scholar, builder, doctor, lawyer, banker etc.) are place in front of the child. Whichever object the baby chooses is thought to be a symbol of where the child’s professional aptitude lies. Before the child makes the selection, its head is covered using a veil or a scarf, onto which some hatik is sprinkled to signify a wish for fruitfulness. With the development of the ability to eat, the child has acquired an adult skill, therefore it is regarded as a propitious time to foreshadow the future of the child.

Station Two: Discussion (led by Tamara Kotoyan- Co-Chair).

The discussion circle was designed with the intention of encouraging the exchange of unfiltered ideas and opinions.

The first question circled around the question of assimilation. The question asked whether “if the threat of assimilation was real within the diaspora, or just highly inflated”. Responses to this question varied on all ends.

A popular response centred around the issue of the Armenian language (or lack thereof). Members voiced concerned over the lack of proper Armenian being learnt and spoken by the diaspora, and how that poses a real threat of a loss of culture, and eventually assimilation.

Moreover, students spoke about the lack of opportunities to involve themselves in community affairs. Members voiced a real concern on this issue. If you are looking to join the Armenian community in Sydney from mid-teens and above, the chances are you are going to feel a great sense of difficulty, as Armenian social circles and community organisations have formed over years and years.

In addition to that, if you do not speak the language, there is the real sense of pressure and judgement that you can feel, which in turn can lead to a rejection of the community by the person who is looking to join. The result of this paradox: the lack of language, but judgement of those who can’t speak the language who are looking to join the community, is one that we need to over-come.

Participants raised the issue of the lack of exposure to the culture. When you are born in Australia, the opportunities to mix and infuse yourself into authentic Armenian culture experiences is scarce. How does one perceive the threat of assimilation, when they don’t understand what they are at risk of losing? And apart from that, the question of whether culture can be learnt was raised? If an individual who is not born ethnically as an Armenian chooses to adopt the culture, the language and the practices, are they for all intents and purposes Armenian? Participants remarked that yes, it is far more special if a person chooses the culture, rather than simply being born into it.

Another issue of concern was the separation from the homeland. Similar to the concern over the lack of exposure to Armenian culture, separation from the homeland is a huge difficulty.

The second question asked: “Should the diaspora focus its attention on genocide recognition? Or should they play a larger role in addressing an aiding social development of Armenia”. Genocide recognition has been the dominating issue for the diaspora for quite some time now. However, the rise of the internet and the era of heightened connectivity around the globe has shone a light on the high level of corruption, sexism, poverty and organised crime in Armenia. Participants where asked if re-balancing of priorities was needed.

A focal point of this part of the discussion was the disconnect between the diaspora and the homeland. How do we address these issues if there is a lack of empathy that is heightened by a gaping disconnect? Most participants agreed that the urgency of some issues (such as the thirty percent poverty rate and the rise of gender selective abortions) required greater attention from us. Concerns were raised about the capabilities of the diaspora. What are they able to do, so far away from the homeland? Working towards opening channels between the diaspora and the homeland was central. Raising awareness and being proactive is important. The consensus seemed to be that a re-prioritisation of aims is necessary, however mourning the losses of the genocide and working towards Recognition should still be an aim of the community.

Station three: Calligraphy (Led by Tamar Nazarian- PR Coordinator)

Here, members were able to actively engage in Armenian Calligraphy. Armenians have a long and exceptionally rich literary tradition. Ancient scripts dating back to millennia before the start of the Common Era are found in abundance on the Armenian plateau. Ever since the creation of the modern Armenian alphabet devised in 405 AD by Saint Mesrop Mashtots, Armenians have been actively engaged in

the practice of writing.

Armenian manuscripts are highly regarded for their artistic value. As works of art, these manuscripts have inspired a period of scientific and philosophical learning for a number of academic communities, and are themselves living cultural remnants of exceptional aesthetic value. There are various forms of scripts in Armenian calligraphy. The students demonstrated enthusiasm as they

were able to attempt painting different words.

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