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Language makes an Armenian

Arto Belekdanian speaks too many languages to count, one of them ancient, another considered on the verge of extinction. Here we talk about what makes an Armenian and Arto's vision for Egyptian antiquities.

arto belekdanian

I was born and raised in Egypt, but I’m originally Armenian. Not from the country Armenia, but from the Armenian territory that is now part of Turkey and that used to belong to the Ottoman Empire.

My family came to Egypt because of the Armenian Genocide. The Ottoman Empire was in its death throe at the time, and they found a scapegoat, which included the Armenians. Numbers vary, but the estimate is 1.5 million Armenians were killed.

First, second, third language

Armenian is my chronological first language, but I’m barely literate in Armenian. I learnt to read and write Armenian in private lessons, not at school.

I went to a French school where I learnt Arabic as well. My university education was in English and English is my go-to academic language, though I was exposed to it much earlier.

I can articulate myself better in English than I can in any other language even though it is, chronologically, my fourth language.

Armenian genocide

Archaeologists excavate Armenian dead from mass graves, from the documentary “Intent to Destroy” (Source: Armenian Genocide Museum Institute)

Things we don't talk about

I do have different relationships in different languages, but that’s probably because of the context in which we know each other. Different conversations are acceptable in different circumstances.

In the Armenian community, with your guy friends, you don’t talk about your feelings, unless it’s someone you’re really close to. Romance trouble, for example, you don’t talk about that.

Whenever I felt comfortable to talk about things like that with guy friends, they were usually Westerners or Westernised Egyptians.

It’s got more to do with attitudes than with languages.


There is a strong community feeling among Armenians in Egypt. Outside of the family, we have cultural centres, sports clubs; we have multiple choirs; we have our church.

I missed seeing little kids run around the tables, my dad play cards, the elders play backgammon at the table across while the basketball team practices.

I missed the familiar faces, being at ease like that. Hanging out with my friends, the guys, cursing like sailors, making fun of each other, telling stories, speaking my language.

I mean, speaking Armenian to another Armenian, nothing compares to that.

I can’t put this into words. Armenian is like a smell that takes you back to certain times and places. It’s fun. It’s familiar. It’s friendly. It evokes locations, connections, memories. It’s special. It can’t be replaced.

Speaking Armenian is what defines being Armenian. A half-Armenian who speaks Armenian somehow appears more Armenian than an Armenian who doesn’t speak the language.

western armenian script

A dying language

The problem is, most Armenians are the third or fourth generation born away from wherever we’re from. In Egypt, we still speak Armenian, but it’s mostly gone in a lot of communities outside of the Middle East.

UNESCO considers Western Armenian, the dialect that the Diaspora speaks, a dying language. Barely anyone of my generation can read Armenian literature, let alone compose it.

More and more people are getting married to non-Armenians, which makes it difficult to preserve the language. It’s a real problem.

Preserving a culture

How are we going to survive as a culture, as an identity? Is there a point to surviving or should we fully assimilate to whatever the place where we are?

Some people say, let’s fully assimilate to wherever we are and save what we can, which is the country of Armenia that we have today rather than the memory of the Armenia that we lost a century ago.

I spoke about this with a good friend, who’s half-Armenian, half-Austrian and who was born and raised in London.

What makes an Armenian?

We made a list: language, religion, ancestry and identifying as Armenian; it’s a combination of these things. Then someone pointed out something I’d never considered.

To be Armenian, the majority of Armenians need to consider you Armenian.

It’s completely true and very important to figure out given, if nothing else, how many people marry outside of the community.

Once, there was this big Armenian conference in France and only Armenians could attend. A black guy showed up at the door and said he wanted to come in.

The organisers say, you have to be Armenian to come in; you’re not Armenian. The guy goes, Yes, I am; my dad is Armenian; I have an Armenian last name; I’m speaking Armenian right now; I’m Armenian.

They didn’t see him as Armenian. They turned him away.

Image Source: Oxford Ashmolean Museum

Our hats, hon gats

As for my future, there is an Armenian expression, our hats, hon gats, which roughly means, one goes where one can make a living. That’s kind of my stance now, though not quite.

I want to stay in Egypt, at least for now. It’s my home. I want to do my part.

Egypt has a brain-drain problem; anyone who could help the country moves away. I don’t want to be a part of that, but, at the same time, I know that my opportunities here, as an Egyptologist, are limited. It’s incredibly ironic, but that’s the reality.

Objects of meaning

I want people to know how to care for antiquities. Sure, they’re objects, they have no feelings, but people once had feelings for these objects back when ancient Egyptian culture was alive.

These statues were remembrances of the deceased or gods or goddesses; they stood for something or someone important, the way modern statues or headstones stand for something important.

People here say I should be under no illusion that I’ll achieve anything, though, they also admit that small changes are possible and they add up. I know they appreciate the fact that, as an Egyptian, I want to do my part.

Arto Belekdanian is an Egyptologist with an extensive knowledge of coronation ceremony in Ancient Egypt and a great passion for teaching. Since this conversation, he's appeared in international documentaries about antiquities and written notes on several ancient sites, which you'll be able to read when you visit Egyptian treasures.

#languages #multilingualism