Seda met me in the muddy road of a village near Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. She spoke and I blinked back at her, 23 and wide-eyed. Seda laughed and whipped out Google Translate and her high school level English, flipped her hair and promised me she personally would take care of me.
“Yes ksovorem kez hayastani masin,” she grinned. I’ll teach you about Armenia. “We even look alike. I’ll tell people you’re my American sister—che—cousin.”
Round flat faces framed by dirty blonde hair, big eyes, both small for our age—we did look alike, both standing out among the dark hair and eyes of the South Caucuses.
I had moved to Armenia as a US Peace Corps Volunteer and aspiring English teacher. I was curious, and always liked my teaching jobs, and was tired of feeling trapped in a midwestern suburb.
“I’ve got a sister your age,” I tried to tell Seda.
She nodded, humoring me. “We’ll have to teach you some Armenian. Vochinch,” she said.
“Vochinch,” I echoed. It’s nothing.
It wasn’t nothing. Not Vochinch. Four hours of direct language instruction every day from Peace Corps tutors, then Seda would plop down next to me and drill me on verbs.
We would walk through the garden and name flowers all flung to full spring life. We’d sit in the field, in the shadow of Mount Ararat and watch the sunset then rush back inside to cook dinner.
“Plate,” Seda would say in English.
“Apse,” I’d reply, testing strange kitchen words on my American tongue.
At night, we’d take turns sharing movies in Armenian or English, curled up with a cup of lemon tea. One night, after watching Frozen in English on our way to our respective bedrooms, Seda paused and said carefully, “It’s nice to have a sister.”
I grinned. “Ayo.” Yes.
Every day after training I’d walk home frustrated, lost in a language I choked on and strangled, past red Cyrillic graffiti and stray dogs. Spring crept forward and I watched the snow on the mountain climb back up to the top. Sitting in the garden with Seda was the highlight of everyday, listening to her beautiful voice pipe John Legend, All of Me echoed throughout the house. The highlight of hers was watching me get locked in the bathroom, or accidently swear very badly in Armenian, or singe my eyebrows trying to work the stove.
“See the mountain?” Seda asked me while we sat in the grass, bees buzzing in apricot blooms.
“It’s in Turkey now, but they took it. It belongs to Armenia. It has for forever. You know of the Genocide?”
I nodded carefully and held my breath because I am not brave about topics like death.
She told me in the mountain’s shadow of 1915, when the Ottoman Empire decided it wanted Armenian land and simply took it, killing all current occupants. She spoke slowly, her beautiful voice soft and sad, like it was something she’d seen with her own eyes and felt in her bones.
Armenia’s history in the last century is long and complicated. It wasn’t until I was back in America I made an effort to really grasp all of it’s intricacies, more imperative because of the forced physical distance.
The genocide of 1915 killed as many as 1.5 million Armenians. Today, roughly 3 million people live in Armenia. A huge diaspora community is spread throughout the States, Canada, Russia, and France to name a few. The end of the first World War left the Armenia hurting badly, and people were largely grateful to be tucked under the Soviet Union’s icy wing. Land disputes over Armenia’s dwindling hold on its Indigenous lands were temporarily quelled.
The USSR dissolved in the early 90s, leaving the Caucuses messy. Regions in Georgia to the north fought for autonomy, and the ownership of several regions in and around Armenia, notably Nagorno-Karabakh, were hotly contested.
Karabakh, or Artsakh in the Armenian, is ethnically Armenian and fought bitterly for the right to self-determination, which it effectively achieved. While internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, Artsakh is ethnically Armenian, Armenian speaking, connected to Armenia, ripe with Armenian history and monuments, and its own autonomous republic.
Functionally, Artsakh is Armenia. As Peace Corps Volunteers we were strictly forbidden from visiting, as the US along with most of the international community considered the region part of Azerbaijan, or no man’s land. To me it never felt like that. Artsakh was tantalizingly close, and my Armenian host family would bring back stunning pictures of waterfalls and monasteries from their weekend trips there.
Seda didn’t mention Artsakh as we sat in the grass. It was part of Armenia, in a time of relative calm in the border war with Azerbaijan. With the outline of Mount Ararat omnipresent throughout her every day, it seemed abundantly clear that the issue to speak of was the land lost to and people killed by Turkey.
Later that week I visited the genocide memorial. Some people snapped pictures, but I didn’t need to. I will never forget that place.
The Earth there must be denser, the ground with its own thick gravity. I slid out of the stark gray spires before everyone else. Rain dripped down stones with loops of Armenian script I didn’t or couldn’t read, and the mountain looked darker than it ever looked from the garden. In my head, Seda’s sweet voice and accent sang American songs in my ear.
Inside the museum is a memorial or reminder, walls plastered with artifacts of the dead—a journal, a shoe, pictures of the starving and murdered.
Imagine the most lasting image of you is gaunt and gray when you were so many other things.
Why do we go to a genocide museum? Why did I come to Armenia? Why is English the language I teach?
There are no good reasons here, just the rain and unmarked graves and a fire that burns forever. And I turned and walked away to look back at the city of the living.
Throughout the next month, flowers turned to fruit and I learned to speak. Seda’s English blossomed. One night at her brother’s birthday party music pulsed.
The table heaped with dolma, and lavash, and “onion” flavored soda, and Seda’s uncles clapped for her.
She beat at the pavement, slap of her shoes echoing, arms that arc and swirl. The orange glow of the porch light cast her silhouette long. Seda’s hands and fingers moved like a shadow puppet show, spelling out a traditional dance that’s survived in these mountains for thousands of years, all of that time brought to present by the step and burn of a 16-year-old girl.
Seda grinned at me and I grinned back. I grinned like I knew she would grab me by the wrist and drag me out, songs bleeding together. Lights from the city glimmered on the horizon and I twirled and danced with her, always off a beat but laughing and spinning.
In the weeks after, I moved to my permanent position at a school, only an hour away. And I visited, like I said I would.
In September, Seda was blown away by how much more I could speak.
“Guess we can’t talk shit in front of her,” she grumbled to her friend, then smirked. “That’s okay, we’ll speak Russian.”
Seda’s got a gift for languages—and dancing, and singing, and persuasion, and math. There’s not much she can’t do.
I left in a hurry when I last visited in February and I’m sorry for it. We had grown apart, and could both feel it. I didn’t realize that would be the last time, because in March I left the whole country on 24 hours’ notice and in all the chaos of a pandemic and the fallout from it I didn’t call her and now it’s too late.
My language, the Armenian that Seda coached every day in the garden has wilted and withered. I’ve moved on to teach a new subject at a different school.
I’ve watched, shocked as Azerbaijan shelled the border after all of that relative calm and ceasefire. I watched as it escalated to war, knowing Seda’s family, her boyfriend, her cousin would have to fight and maybe die. I reached out to other people, but to her I couldn’t, can’t because I do not know what to say and the words have left me and I am simply too late.
I watched from America as Turkey, the instigator and executor of the genocide of 1915, and Azerbaijan, who claims a right to Indigenous Armenian land, picked at the border like vultures. I thought of how she protested in the streets two years ago for democracy, only to not be aided by one single democratic nation when her country needed it.
America was happy to send her underqualified English teachers with no knowledge of her language and call it aid, but no tangible, meaningful support and I have not called her because I am so, deeply ashamed.
Seda asked me once, on the bus into the city, if I would forget her when I returned to America.
“Vonts?” I asked. “How? How could I? I couldn’t.”
Hi there! Will you do me a personal favor? Linked below is a quick, pre-written email you can send to your Congress members to urge them to provide emergency assistance to Armenia and Artsakh: click here
This will take two minutes, less time than you spent reading this. Thanks so much!
Learn more about the conflict with Azerbaijan:
Stand up for Armenians in Artsakh Before It’s Too Late, Kohar Avakian, @kavakian9
An L.A. Armenian’s Perspective on why you should care about what’s happening in Artsakh, Natalie Kamajian, @nataloush
The Worth of Our Words, Kohar Avakian, @kavakian9
Poems for Peace, by Satine, @satohris
Or check out my Instagram highlight titled “read me” for a summary of the history of Artsakh, and why it matters today.
*names changed for protection of minors, views (obviously and unfortunately) don’t reflect that of the US Government or US Peace Corps, because if they did maybe we’d see some meaningful actions or even an acknowledgement.