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Armenian Club Provides Cultural Discovery for Student

About a year ago, I was waiting for the Massachusetts Avenue bus one day with a friend. In the process of updating each other on our respective lives, I told him that I decided to join the Armenian Students' Club at MIT. At this my friend gave me a confused look and asked me, "Why does there need to be an Armenian students' club? What do you have to talk about?"

I guess that the answer to this question is not obvious to most people. Most of my friends in college know of Armenia as a small country, if they have heard of it at all, with a forgotten history. Many people do not even know that Armenia has its own language, or that it was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as its state religion.

And I myself cared little about joining an Armenian club when I first came to MIT, as my most distinct memory of Armenian Sunday school was of being derided for being the only person to attend a private school. I had heard all the horrors of escaping from the 1915 Massacre in Turkey, a genocide in which over one-and-a-half million Armenians were killed, from my grandparents. However, my youthful ignorance, coupled with a language barrier barred me from learning more from them.

Furthermore, in certain situations, I had trouble reconciling myself as an American with my more traditional Armenian upbringing. In my experience, I had found Armenians to be provincial and extremely closely knit. Many Armenian parents that I knew at home, themselves raised in a protective environment, mandated that their children stay close to home for college and had strict control over their children's lives. This has been a problem for me, as I went far from home for college and enjoy the choices that American life provides. Hence, confirming my Armenian identity was about the last thing I wanted to do in college.

But when I got here, people in my fraternity asked me about the origin of my name, and hence who Armenians were and so on. I realized how little I really knew about an undeniable part of myself. Though there are no other Armenians in my house, it was there that I was first inspired to explore my cultural heritage. So I decided that joining an Armenian students' club, a group full of people sharing my ethnic background, would be an important first step toward a discovery of what role my being Armenian plays in my life.

No investigation of my ethnicity is complete without a look at Armenia's history.

Armenia was once an empire which stretched from the Caspian Sea to Asia Minor and almost to the Mediterranean. In 301 A.D., Armenia adopted Christianity as the state religion. In the 11th century, Armenia was divided among the Seljuk Turks, Persians, and Byzantines, and then conquered by the Ottoman Turks. In 1828 Persia ceded what is today Nakhichevan, Nagorno-Karabagh, and Armenia to Russia, resulting in the creation of a Russian Armenia and a Turkish Armenia. Russian Armenia prospered. Turkish Armenia, on the other hand, saw its end.

In 1915, under the cover of World War I, the Turkish government implemented and enacted this century's first genocide, annihilating over 80 percent of the Turkish Armenian population and erasing a large portion of its 3000-year-old culture. In 1987, the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet quoted a Turkish parliamentarian as saying that there were 2 to 3 million Armenians living in Central and Eastern Turkey prior to 1915. Today, there are an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 Armenians in all of Turkey.

My own grandparents on my mother's side endured this massacre. My grandmother was 18 at the time, and after watching both her parents and her first husband be killed, she remained stranded and ill with typhoid, and with no food to give her baby daughter, who died quickly. Many Armenian women were sold off as slaves, and the men were led on marches through the Syrian desert until they dropped dead of starvation.

About 25 years later, in August, 1939, a young leader in Germany named Adolf Hitler justified his plan to destroy Poland and create a new order by asking his military commanders, "Who remembers now the extermination of the Armenians?" ["Hitler and the Armenian Genocide," Bardakjian]. Hitler's rhetorical question holds ominous significance.

But Armenians were not entirely exterminated. The few left fled to cities around the world, establishing cultural centers from Beirut, Lebanon to Boston, Mass.

Today, once again, Armenians in the Caucasus face the threat of extermination on their own homeland of 3,000 years. War on its borders with Azerbaijan and the economic and energy blockade by Turkey and Azerbaijan have left Armenia with two hours of electricity on a good day and a condition of living which is worse than that in Bosnia. Yet Armenians continue to build a democratic society out of their new-found independence, determined not to allow a second genocide to succeed.

While I read about how this country starves to death, I am amazed by the stubbornness and tenacity by which these people live. I think about those same, stubborn, insular qualities I see in Armenians in this country, and I realize that it is those qualities which have enabled this tiny nation to survive and for people such as my grandparents to make it through the genocide, come to the United States, and start over. I look at the fear which my grandparents instilled into my parents, and I am better able to understand the overprotectiveness with which they raised me.

And so I continue to learn. Being part of an Armenian students' club helps preserve Armenian culture for the future, as it might be in danger abroad. It's also nice just to get to know people with similar backgrounds. Some people in the group speak fluent Armenian, and it's nice to hear it, especially since I rarely do now that my grandparents have all passed away. It is this environment of learning that I find a valuable complement to my highly technical MIT education.

Armen A. Vidian '94