Country Focus: Armenia
Passage to Ararat
By Michael J. Arlen
Introduction by Clark Blaise
Originally published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975
My edition published by Ruminator Books, 2002.
About the author: Before winning the National Book Award in 1976 for Passage to Ararat, Arlen was nominated for the same prize in 1970 for the memoir Exiles. A television critic for The New Yorker, he also published several books on the television industry.
Armenia claimed Christianity as its official religion way back in 301, earning it the distinction of being the world’s first Christian nation. Armenia’s Muslim neighbors never took a shine to their religious preference and have taken their displeasure out on the Armenians for centuries. The worst of these persecutions occurred in 1915, when the Ottoman Turks killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians. Although the Turks dispute it, many historians describe this mass bloodshed as one of the first genocides of the modern world.
The author’s father escaped this grim fate by emigrating to England. He then changed his name and effectively renounced his Armenian heritage. This walling off of his past caused his son Michael to disassociate from Armenians and even to view Armenians with disdain for so often playing the victim. It wasn’t until after his father had died and he was in his early forties that Michael felt compelled to explore his Armenian-ness. A chance invitation to speak to an Armenian group about writing ultimately led Michael and his wife to travel to Armenia (then the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic). There, he faced his complicated feelings toward his father and the challenge of overcoming ingrained cultural stereotypes.
Passage to Ararat is both a historical look at Armenia and an emotional journey of self-discovery. Slow and reflective, its value for me came from learning, first of all, how badly a person can be wounded both by history and stereotypes and second of all, how that wounded person might eventually turn their cultural self-loathing into cultural pride.
Wily Armenians! Rug merchants! Traders! What in hell did those things matter, I thought, trying to be more rational about it. But something had been let loose inside me—a shame, an anger. And I knew suddenly how it mattered. It mattered because it was supposed to matter. It mattered because I had said that it couldn’t, mustn’t matter. It mattered because my father had said that none of it existed.
We were walking with Sarkis through a museum, a museum of Armenian art objects: ancient pots and urns, crude wooden chariots and spears. I could hardly see any of the exhibits, let alone think about them or listen to Sarkis’s incessant commentary, for I was still consumed by rage. I remember staring dumbly at an enormous orange-colored wine jar, peering at it studiously, and thinking, My secret is that I have always hated being an Armenian. I haven’t ignored it or been shy about it—I have hated it. Because I was given the values of Europeans and they despised the Armenians. And I have hated my father not, as I have thought for all these years, for being too strong a figure or too authoritarian but because he, so to speak, stepped back and gave me to the Europeans.