Out Of Armenia

Episodes

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01Manchester2014122920160703 (BBC7)
20160704 (BBC7)

Starting a journey through the Armenian diaspora of Europe: Manchester's fragile community

Writer and historian Charles Emmerson traces the history of the Armenian diaspora through Europe's Armenian communities today.

From Manchester, home to Britain's oldest Armenian community, Charles travels to Paris, the largest and most dynamic Armenian diaspora community in Europe, still living in the shadow of the memory of the massacres and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

In Venice, he meets the monks charged with the safe-keeping of Armenian traditions of literature and song on the island of San Lazzaro. In Istanbul, we hear the more recent stories of the city's Armenian community - subtle architects building a new relationship between Turks and Armenians from the foundations up.

Finally, at the foot of Mount Ararat, in Yerevan, underground jazz music and Syrian refugees tell a new story - of a new focus for Armenian identity and fresh challenges to its survival.

Armenians have long lived in diaspora, struggling to keep their common identity alive in communities dispersed around the world. They became leading figures in Ottoman Istanbul. In the 19th century, some moved to the dirt and damp of the booming textile city of Manchester, establishing themselves in the city's middle-class suburbs and building the first Armenian church in north-west Europe.

Over tea and cake in warm family homes, Charles hears the stories of a tiny but close-knit community, now concerned about how to keep alive its identity, language and religion for a new generation of Mancunian Armenians. The church holds services just once a month, when a priest comes up from London. Some ask whether there will be an Armenian community in Manchester at all in 50 years' time.

Produced by Cicely Fell

An Above The Title production for BBC Radio 4.

02Paris2014123020160710 (BBC7)
20160711 (BBC7)

French-Armenian artists describe how Paris became a vibrant new homeland after 1915.

"The last of the battlefields is the battlefield of the imagination - and that space is infinite".

Charles Emmerson continues his journey through the Armenian diaspora of Europe in Paris - Europe's largest, most culturally-vibrant and politically-radical Armenian diaspora community.

With the singing of the Armenian monk-musician Gomidas playing in the background, French-Armenian actor Simon Abkarian tells Charles the story of how his family was wiped out in Anatolia in 1915, and how Armenians have turned the pain of memory into the foundations of a new homeland in France.

As Charles is plied with pomegranate wine in the local Armenian shops of Alfortville, a Paris suburb which filled with Armenian refugees in the 1920s, we hear how French-Armenians have become more French than the French themselves - counting members of parliament, actors, musicians and the singer Charles Aznavour among their number. One of the most famous fighters of the French resistance, Missak Manouchian, was also Armenian.

On a river barge in the Seine, as a mostly Armenian band tunes up for an evening concert, we hear mixed Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish and Persian music - symbol of a younger generation of Paris Armenians opening up, and an embrace of culture as a tool of both memory and peace.

Produced by Cicely Fell

An Above The Title production for BBC Radio 4.

03Venice2014123120160717 (BBC7)
20160718 (BBC7)

Charles Emmerson unearths the secrets of a Venetian island-monastery, echoing with music.

Guided by an earnest novice monk from the bells of Santa Croce to the Armenian monastery-island of San Lazzaro, Charles Emmerson continues to Venice on his journey through the Armenian diaspora of Europe.

Armenian traders have been in Venice for centuries. Tall tales of Armenians fighting with Venetians at Troy still circulate. But when the island of San Lazzaro, a former leper colony, was turned into an Armenian monastery in the early 18th century, it became a new magnet for Armenians in the city.

Over the years, San Lazzaro developed into a sacred citadel of Armenian culture. The monks collected together manuscripts and books of the Armenian world even as they turned to dust elsewhere. We hear the Armenian religious singing which the monks kept alive, and share the wonder of the Venetian Armenians who first heard it when they were young.

San Lazzaro's reputation spread - it's claimed Byron visited the island to learn the Armenian language by swimming all the way from the Venice shore. Charles learns of the very spot on the island where Byron came to meditate after trying to master the twists and turns of the semi-mystical Armenian alphabet.

Speaking with the monks today, Charles discovers the links which tie the monastery to the outside world, even as it becomes harder and harder to make up a football team for the island's meagre football pitch.

The gardener reveals the monastery's culinary secrets - rose-petal jam, and copious supplies of dairy products from the Lido. And as the mist draws in, and vespers end, the abbot takes out the monastery speedboat to return his visitors to the city. The island falls back into the protective silence of the night.

Produced by Cicely Fell

An Above The Title production for BBC Radio 4.

04Istanbul2015010120160724 (BBC7)
20160725 (BBC7)

Charles explores how a Turkish-Armenian journalist's assassination is changing Istanbul.

"I see them, I see them myself, I see them all the time."

Charles Emmerson continues to Istanbul on his journey through the Armenian diaspora communities of Europe. He learns how the murder of Turkish-Armenian newspaper editor Hrant Dink in 2007 - reported and condemned worldwide - has changed relations between the city's Turks and Armenians. Long suppressed or hidden, Istanbul's Armenian life is seeping back to the surface. Subjects long taboo are now discussed openly.

Armenians have lived in Istanbul for centuries - jewellers, porters, businessmen and architects. They have had a patriarch in the city since just a few years after the Turkish conquest.

Yet when Hrant Dink was shot dead by a radical Turkish nationalist outside his office one Friday afternoon, many outside Turkey were surprised to learn that Armenians still lived in Istanbul at all.

The moment became a watershed. Turks appeared on the streets of Istanbul bearing banners reading 'We are all Armenians'.

Istanbul Armenians tell Charles of their pride in their culture and their city, and of their determination to continue Hrant Dink's legacy, building a new relationship with their Turkish friends and compatriots. Rober Koptas, Agos' current editor, takes Charles to the paper's cramped first floor offices. The paper's purpose now, he says, is to be "a playground, not a castle".

In a bustling Armenian restaurant - the city's only Armenian restaurant - Charles runs into Turkish-Armenian photographer Ara Güler, Istanbul's Cartier-Bresson, and hears the story of his most famous photograph. Speaking to a publisher we discover how literature is drawing Turks and Armenians closer together.

Produced by Cicely Fell

An Above The Title production for BBC Radio 4.

05Yerevan20150102

As Charles Emmerson's journey through the Armenian diaspora draws to a close, he travels to Yerevan, the capital of modern Armenia, in the shadow of Mount Ararat.

Over rich piano chords, through a haze of cigarette smoke, Charles speaks to Levon Malkhasyan, Armenia's most famous jazz musician. He hears the Yerevan stories which define it as a city - its Soviet construction in the 1920s, the earthquake of 1988 and, since the 1990s, the city's opening up to the diaspora world.

Poor, isolated, cut off from neighbouring Turkey, keeping an uneasy ceasefire with Azerbaijan, dependent on Russia, Yerevan is no natural cosmopolitan centre. Yet with Mount Ararat floating above its sky-line of Soviet-built tower blocks, it has become a city for diasporans to call their own. From Toronto, Melbourne, Paris or Boston, some visit for summer jaunts, others to reassert who they are.

"You realise that Armenian identity is much more expansive", says Scout Tufankjian, an American-Armenian photographer newly-returned from a four year voyage documenting the Armenian diaspora around the world. The bonds that tie Armenians together - visible and invisible, tangible and intangible - are real.

Scout remembers a few lines of William Saroyan, the American-Armenian writer: "the glance, the gesture, the smile, and through these things the swift rebirth of the race, timeless and again strong..." More than history, more than religion, more than suffering, more than political claims - an innate sense of what it means to be Armenian, in and out of Armenia.

Produced by Cicely Fell

An Above The Title production for BBC Radio 4.