Monday, May 8, 2017

Remembering Barbara Bejoian, diasporas, and amethysts...

Every once in awhile, I get reminded of people I used to know.  Sometimes I look them up to see what they're up to.  I didn't really know Armenian-American playwright Barbara Bejoian, although I did have the chance to meet her back in 1995.  At the time, I was a Peace Corps trainee in Armenia.  Ms. Bejoian was in Armenia on a Fulbright Scholarship.  She had come with her family and was teaching at the American University of Armenia (AUA) and, I believe, Yerevan State University.  She graciously came to see us TEFL trainees (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) one day.

I remember her as a woman in her youthful forties, with long dark hair, a bright and warm smile, and a very engaging personality.  She talked about her work in Armenia and introduced me to the word "diaspora".  That's not a joke.  There I was, 23 years old and a graduate of what was then known as Longwood College.  I had been an English major.  I had not come into contact with the concept of a diaspora before I moved to Armenia.

For those who don't know, a diaspora is a group of people from a certain place who live in another place.  Life in Armenia has been historically difficult.  Many Armenians have voluntarily left their homeland and resettled in places that are more comfortable or hospitable.  Others were forcibly driven out of their country.  In the United States, there are large Armenian communities in the Boston and Fresno areas.  France is also host to many ethnic Armenians, as is Iran.

Many Armenians lived in Turkey; some still live there, despite the Armenian that occurred in the early 20th century.  At one time, there were millions of Armenians in Turkey; now, their numbers are in the thousands and they are concentrated in the Istanbul area rather than the historically Armenian eastern part of the country.

Now I know that many people from different places are living in disaporas.  Diaspora is a word that is often used to describe Jewish communities around the world. But, as I found out when I was a Volunteer, Armenians have some things in common with Jews who perished in the Holocaust.  As a matter of fact, Adolf Hitler looked to what happened to the Armenian people as justification for his plan to exterminate Jewish people.

I remember Barbara Bejoian, gloriously American in her Armenianness, talking to our group about her work as a playwright and what it meant for her to be living in the diaspora.  She led us through a writing exercise and had us describe Armenia in a creative way.  She was so encouraging and intelligent and I remember being inspired by her achievements.  I remember my colleagues coming up with very unique ways to describe their impressions of Armenia.

One idea that sticks in my mind came from a fellow trainee who described Armenian homes like amethyst crystals.  The buildings many Armenians were living in back in 1995 looked bland, decrepit, and very Soviet.  Walk into one of those homes and you were likely to find it beautifully decorated.  It was like breaking open an the bland looking amethyst and finding gorgeous purple crystals on the inside.  In fact, the year after I met Barbara Bejoian, I had an experience that reminded me of that "amethyst" concept.

An Armenian couple I was friends with invited me to go with them to Lake Sevan for an afternoon.  We went, but missed the last bus.  So we started walking and my Armenian friend thumbed a ride.  A man picked us up and took us back to Yerevan.  Before we parted ways, he invited us into his home for coffee.  Although the building was very shabby looking, the inside of this man's apartment was decorated with paintings his son had done.  It turned out he was going to display some of them in Paris at an art gallery.  I remember being absolutely blown away by the experience.  Here I was with an Armenian couple.  We had hitchhiked, something I would NEVER do in the United States.  And we'd ended up meeting this man whose son was an amazing artist.  You'd never know it to see the outside of where he was living.  When I think of that experience, I am reminded of how Barbara Bejoian and inspired a colleague to compare Armenian homes to amethysts.

Like many Armenians, Barbara Bejoian had a gift for creativity and a love for the arts.  It's no small feat to be a successful playwright.  Barbara Bejoian's works had been performed in venues in several countries.  I could tell she was a very special person who had touched many, even though when I encountered her, she was still fairly young.  Below is a passage from her obituary...

Ms. Bejoian, winner of 10 National Endowment for the Arts awards, was a professor of playwriting, English, and creative writing. Her students ranged from children whose second language was English to undergraduates and graduate students at Brown University, New York University, Rhode Island School of Design, and Rhode Island College. One of her plays will appear in a future anthology of Armenian writers, to be published by Columbia University Press.

I did not know that Barbara Bejoian would die less than ten years after she led her session during my Peace Corps training.  In 2002, she was stricken with metastatic rectal cancer.  In April 2004 at age 49, she died, leaving behind her husband and two sons.

I don't know what made me think of her yesterday.  I guess it's just my wandering mind, which can alternatively be a blessing or a curse.  I was very moved by memories shared about her in her obituary and suddenly felt very fortunate to have had the chance to meet her in person.  I doubt I would have ever heard of her had I not been sitting in Peace Corps training that day.

The older I get, the more I think that sometimes you end up in places for a reason.  I never aspired to be a Peace Corps Volunteer when I was growing up.  I really only wanted what other people had.  I knew I didn't want to stay in Gloucester, Virginia, but I probably would have alright with settling in a town somewhat like it.  I was driven to join the Peace Corps out of a need to leave my hometown and strike out on my own.  I never thought I'd be accepted into the Peace Corps, but I was.  It changed my life, if only because it vastly broadened my perspective of the world and opened my eyes to people like Barbara Bejoian.

Of course, I write this realizing that my experience is not everyone's experience.  Some people have encountered disaster in the Peace Corps.  I will admit that I didn't always enjoy the work or the people I worked with.  Twenty years later, I can see that once I made that leap, I couldn't go back home.  Barbara Bejoian was part of that life expanding experience, as were many other people.  Actually, now that I think about it, I met a number of very interesting and inspirational people during those two years.  Several professors from the United States came to Armenia to lend their talents.  It was a real gift to be able to engage with them.  I didn't realize it then, but I do now.  I didn't think I made a difference back then, but I do now.  What a gift it is to have had the chance to meet Barbara Bejoian and so many like her.  Thinking about her today reminds me that one should always be open to accepting the gifts others offer.


2 comments:

  1. I didn't live in Fresno, but I spent enough time in that part of the San Joaquin Valley to know some ethnic Armenians. My cousins have friends whose grandparents immigrated from Armenia. I didn't know that about the homes in Armenia. Maybe it wasn't prudent to make one's house to showy on the outside, though I really could only guess as to the reason.

    The Fresno area does not have a significant Jewish population. My aunt told me it's because, for whatever reason, Jewish and Armenian populations didn't tend to settle in the same areas back in the day. It also could be because the Fresno area is agricultural in its economy, and the Armenians seem more inclined toward agriculture than do the Jewish people, for the most part.

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    1. I suspect that a lot of it has to do with shitty Soviet architecture and the fact that for 70+ years, Armenia was a Soviet republic. You see those ugly buildings all over Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Armenian architecture is actually really cool. Also, bear in mind that in the 90s, Armenia was going through a horrific depression.

      I think it would be interesting to visit Fresno... or even Boston. I heard about it a lot and met people from there who came to Armenia. Their Armenian is different than Eastern Armenian, though. I can't believe how much that little country changed my life. It's amazing.

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