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Voices of Artsakh member Mikael Grigoryan (middle) started writing songs during the  war. Both his father and brother were on the battlefield.
Voices of Artsakh member Mikael Grigoryan (middle) started writing songs during the war. Both his father and brother were on the battlefield. Photo Credit / Voices of Artsakh

Artsakh is Us

A displaced community strives to preserve its unique identity


Throughout history, the people of Artsakh have maintained their identity through their unique culture, dialect, and traditions. Despite facing foreign domination from Persians and Turks and decades of Soviet rule as part of Azerbaijan, Artsakh Armenians have largely preserved their ethnic identity through their distinctive dialect. This is clear when being forcibly displaced in large numbers for the first time in their long history. In these moments, their most essential layers of identity surface, compelling them to hold onto their dialect alongside their cuisine and once-victorious songs.

 

Artsakh Dialect

Mariam and Tatevik, who have been friends for 11 years, are journalists. Mariam hails from Martuni, while Tatevik’s origins trace back to the village of Shosh, situated on the outskirts of Shushi. Upon arriving in Yerevan after the forced displacement, they decided to launch a podcast in the Artsakh dialect, naming it Podcut (in the Artsakh dialect, “kat” refers to a fairy tale or conversation). They begin each new episode with the phrase “yek kat anink,” meaning “let’s talk.”

Mariam says she has always feared that her young daughter, Sate, might forget her native dialect due to the significant exodus. Although Sate is merely one year old, Mariam observes with concern how her sister’s son increasingly incorporates literary Armenian words into his speech, setting an example for Sate to follow.

Tatev observed a similar attitude in her six-year-old son, Danny. Every time he returns from kindergarten, he articulates a new word in literary Armenian. “I am afraid that our rich, euphonious dialect will gradually fade away,” says Tatev.

With this concern in mind, they launched a podcast with the support of the Center for Media Initiatives. In this podcast, they exclusively use the Artsakh dialect, sharing their pain, emotions, and concerns. Additionally, they frequently delve into the etymology of various words, providing explanations of their meanings and usage.

I am afraid that our rich, euphonious dialect will gradually fade away.

Ashot Avanesyan, who was born in Mariam’s native Mushkapat village, says that all Artsakh Armenians need the project and should consistently listen to it so as not to lose themselves. “We are unable to voice our emotions and feelings, and Mariam and Tatev do it for us.”

It’s a platform that helps guests to talk about their diverse experiences while promoting their dialect. For example, Tatev Azizyan shared during the Podcut that she didn’t believe that Artsakh would be Armenian again. “At the moment when my six-year-old daughter told me in the basement, ‘Mom, I don’t want to die,’ I understood that if we were to survive this time, I would never return to Artsakh again.” Yet, she immediately continues that, despite the nine-month blockade, her memories are bright. “I remember the newly built church and the boys riding bicycles in its yard. I remember my way to work, Tumanyan Street, where I used to walk. My only regret is that I didn’t walk the streets of my native city long enough to remember every corner of it with every detail. Wherever we are, wherever we go, we must remember that we are from Artsakh. And I would like my daughter to grow up as an Artsakh Armenian.”

Candidate of psychological sciences (YSU) Lusine Gharakhanyan from Artsakh highlights that the deep and ancient layers of Artsakh identity fail to provide its people with peace, plunging them into a complex psychological state. “For individuals who have lost everything, maintaining their identity becomes crucial. The priority to preserve Artsakh culture, especially its dialect, must be emphasized. This form of struggle holds great significance, yet the preservation of the dialect relies heavily on proximity to the geography, landscape, and physical homeland,” the specialist notes with regret.

There is also significant reciprocity from the Armenian community. A testament to this is the local Armenians’ reaction to the podcast. Seda Papoyan from Armenia once posted on Facebook, “I saw a dream as if I was a native of Artsakh. As if I was in Artsakh during the last week of September. What’s more, they [the Azerbaijanis] granted us a day to return and retrieve important belongings after displacement and migration. We were a group of people with very little time while the enemy stood over our heads and our houses–on our “ton,” as an Artsakh resident would say for a house. The reason for these dreams is clear, but perhaps the podcast in the Artsakh dialect greatly contributes to it. I eagerly await each episode impatiently.”

Arpi Bekaryan, an expert at the Media Initiatives Center, believes that one of the small efforts people can make now is to try to understand the dialect so that individuals feel as much at home as possible. “They should feel comfortable speaking in their dialect among themselves and with us. By understanding it, we can help preserve the Artsakh dialect, even if we ourselves are not speakers. Believe me, if you listen a bit, you will all understand and also want to speak in that delightful dialect,” notes Bekaryan, who wholeheartedly supported Mariam and Tatev when the idea was born.

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Mariam Sargsyan and Tatevik Khachatryan, the founders of Podcut. Photo Credit / Hakob Hovhannisyan

Mariam Sargsyan and Tatevik Khachatryan, the founders of Podcut. Photo Credit / Hakob Hovhannisyan
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Mariam Sargsyan and Tatevik Khachatryan, the founders of Podcut. Photo Credit / Hakob Hovhannisyan

 

Zhengyal Bread

Following the war and mass exodus, women from Artsakh, adjusting to new circumstances, took up baking and selling bread with zhengyal (greens) to alleviate their families’ economic hardships. Now, it is one of the primary means of livelihood for many women and their families.

Ruzanna Abrahamyan is one of them. She started her business back in Stepana-kert by renting a small shop in front of the 8th school, where she used to teach the Armenian language. She named it “Artsakh’s Brand Zhengyal Bread.” Later, she improved her skills in business management and gained self-confidence in her entrepreneurial endeavors.

As Abrahamyan explains, zhengyal bread is one of the fasting dishes of the Artsakh people. It is typically baked and enjoyed with friends and relatives as part of a special ritual, considering the process is quite laborious. It requires three dozen vegetables, careful washing, chopping into small pieces, kneading the dough, and only then baking. “In the olden days, the women of the clan would gather and assist each other while singing and having conversations around wine.”

Ruzanna has about six dozen names of vegetables written in her notebook. However, not all of them are readily available at all times due to seasonal variations, causing the list to shrink. Now, she substitutes many greens native to Artsakh with greens grown in Armenia. According to her, she can find only 15 types of greens here.

Wherever we are, wherever we go, we must remember that we are from Artsakh. And I would like my daughter to grow up as an Artsakh Armenian.

When asked why zhengyal bread is so popular among Artsakh people, Ruzannia replies, “The dish is made of simple ingredients. Everything is from nature. When there was nothing else to eat, the resourceful women from Artsakh would gather greens from their garden, mix a little flour, knead the dough, bake the bread, and feed their children.”

She goes on to say, “The greens used are anti-inflammatory and nutritious.  I believe its important to know the right proportions in which to mix the vegetables, the quantity of oil and onion to add, and the duration to keep it on the fire so that it retains its beneficial properties.

For an Armenian language and literature teacher, this is not merely mechanical work but an entire world with fascinating explanations. Ruzanna explained the etymology of the names of the vegetables used in zhengyal bread. “For example, this one is called ‘chrchruk’ because it crinkles when picked up or washed. ‘Trtndjuk’ got its name due to its sour taste. ‘Utumtitem’ means to eat and then sit. It has a numbing effect and makes you feel languid after eating, which prompts you to sit down. Finally, the queen of zhengyal bread is ‘kndzmndzuk.’ It is called that way as it stings a bit when eating.”

In Armenia, people love buying zhengyal bread made by Artsakh women. Ruzanna notes that besides liking the bread, people in Armenia often buy it out of compassion, too, in support of them. 

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Ruzanna Abrahamyan selling fresh zhengyal bread at the Christmas market in Yerevan.

Ruzanna Abrahamyan selling fresh zhengyal bread at the Christmas market in Yerevan.
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Ruzanna Abrahamyan selling fresh zhengyal bread at the Christmas market in Yerevan. Photo Credit / Ruben Otyan

 

Voices of Artsakh

The Voices of Artsakh project is also symbolic of Artsakh, alongside its dialect, zhengyal bread, and the We Are our Mountains monument. The band unites talented singers from Artsakh, making the indigenous voice of the people audible to the international community.

Before losing Artsakh, the project symbolized the spirit of a free and independent people, serving as the emblem of an unrecognized nation. They proudly represented Artsakh during their tours to the United States and other countries worldwide, presenting songs with confidence, and joy, showcasing the triumphant nature of their people and country. They participated in various international competitions, achieving wins one after another.

Thanks to Vladimir Arzumanyan, a member of Voices of Artsakh, the Children’s Eurovision was hosted in Armenia for the first time in history. The project also represented Armenia in the Junior Eurovision three times, was recognized as the best music project in Armenia three times, and won the New Wave 2017 international song contest.

“It is very difficult to sing again after all this. When you’re an accountant or a doctor, returning to your job is easier after a great tragedy. But when you have to sing again, especially when you realize that all the songs have lost their value—everything you believed in, everything you’ve dedicated your life to—today, they don’t have the same resonance as before,” says Lira Kocharyan, the author and producer of the Voices of Artsakh project. “I wondered if it was worth starting over. Then I realized there is a great longing for Artsakh, for everything related to Artsakh. Continuing will unite all who love Artsakh, helping them find solace. It will also serve as a unique form of therapy for recovery so that this generation doesn’t feel weakened. That’s why I particularly focus on working with children.”

Kocharyan notes that new songs, standards, slogans, and projects are much needed now. But, of course, Artsakh Horovel and a number of other songs will remain in their repertoire, with a new presentation and sound. “Horovel is the song of Artsakh; it is not just a song, it is an ideology, encompassing the history and culture of an entire nation.”

Interestingly, Mikael Grigoryan, who represented Armenia in Junior Eurovision, started writing songs during the war. The boy’s father and brother were on the battlefield, and the songs were born from his feelings.

Another girl from Hadrut started writing songs after its loss. She is also recruited by the Voices of Artsakh. She writes letters as if from Hadrut and starts each letter with ‘Hello, Hadrut’ and ends with ‘Yours, Vika.’ “The Hadrut girl expresses her pain and hope in the epistolary genre,” Kocharyan emphasizes.

It is also significant for Kocharyan to focus on new ideas, incorporating Artsakh dialect and folklore. “I don’t want to sing only about war; I want songs about love and nature. I also aim to incorporate the wisdom of our people into our repertoire,” she explains, “and revive the song Nakhshun Baji, which depicts Karabakh women collectively, infused with humor.”

According to the project’s author, while not everyone may have affection for the people of Artsakh, the dialect garners admiration universally. This distinct feature serves as their signature and, therefore, will remain a crucial component of their repertoire.

Horovel is the song of Artsakh; it is not just a song, it is an ideology, encompassing the history and culture of an entire nation.

“The Voices of Artsakh should resonate with hope, reflecting the pride and struggles of its people, serving as a symbol of its identity and strength,” says Kocharyan, who is eager to work but lacks the basic conditions to do so. In Artsakh, there was a recording studio and space for rehearsals. The parents of talented children knew where to turn to ensure their child’s professional future. Now, all of that is gone, yet one thing remains unchanged: Artsakh does not lack talent; the power of the land still speaks.

“We have significant potential to showcase Artsakh on global stages and digital platforms. It’s crucial at this time to ensure that singers don’t abandon their profession just to make ends meet. For someone who has lost everything, such a transition is natural,” she adds.

Given the recent events, the video archive curated by Voices of Artsakh holds significant value. Most of the song videos were filmed amidst the stunning landscapes of Artsakh, as well as in historically and culturally significant sites in Stepanakert and Shushi. These videos serve as cherished mementos of the homeland that has been lost.

Today, the identity of the Artsakh Armenians is threatened, as they have left their homeland, scattering around with their unique national characteristics. The settlements that have lost their national identity can be restored tomorrow by singing Sharakan chants instead of mugham. This restoration can only occur if the Artsakh people safeguard their authentic heritage and resist complete assimilation into foreign cultures.

Originally published in the June 2024 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. end character

About the AGBU Magazine

AGBU Magazine is one of the most widely circulated English language Armenian magazines in the world, available in print and digital format. Each issue delivers insights and perspective on subjects and themes relating to the Armenian world, accompanied by original photography, exclusive high-profile interviews, fun facts and more.