Review: Armenia - A Rugged Land, an Enduring People

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Review: Armenia – A Rugged Land, an Enduring People

Author: Lucine Kasbarian

Parsippany, N.J.: Dillon Press, 1998; 159 pages; ISBN 0-392-39458-5

Reviewed by Nicole E. Vartanian

Armenian Forum Quarterly, Princeton, NJ

Two new books take us closer to filling the void of mainstream educational materials addressing the history of Armenia and Armenians. With the publication of Keith Elliot Greenberg’s “An Armenian Family” and Lucine Kasbarian’s “Armenia - A Rugged Land, an Enduring People,” school libraries and classrooms gain access to developmentally appropriate materials that invoke a range of Armenian issues. Both books cover topics and use language geared for young adolescent readers: “An Armenian Family’s” central figure is a twelve-year-old girl, and “Armenia’s” approach is akin to that of other resource books written for intermediate and middle school students.

While “An Armenian Family” is a narrative, Kasbarian’s “Armenia” can be characterized as a resource book for young learners seeking a broad base of information on Armenia and Armenians. Armenia joins Chile, Japan, Lebanon, and several other countries as part of the Silver Burdett “Discovering Our Heritage” textbook series, designed to supplement existing social-studies and multicultural curricula and to raise awareness of nations that are not typically studied by students in the United States.

“Armenia” is divided into eleven chapters covering the geography, culture, history and daily life of Armenians in Armenia and the diaspora. Each section offers an overview (often chronological) of the theme being discussed, with a peppering of cultural anecdotes and transliterated references to add texture to the facts presented. In addition, readers are provided with maps, a glossary of terms, and a short appendix of Armenian words and phrases (in Armenian and in transliteration). Photos and captions throughout the text offer engaging illustrations of the themes being presented, although they are sometimes engulfed by the text-intensive chapters. One appendix offers contact information for Armenian embassies and consulates within the United States and Canada, presumably for students to obtain further information on Armenia; however, the purpose of this appendix is not clarified for the reader.

Overall, the power of this book lies in its attention to the age level of its readers. For example, throughout the text, Kasbarian offers synonyms for words that may be too advanced for students at the younger end of the continuum of those utilizing the work. Especially notable is the book’s ability to weave explanations of each major theme between Armenia and the diaspora. By doing so, it allows young readers to develop a multidimensional understanding of Armenia. For instance, after an introduction to Komitas Vardapet in the chapter “National Character and Culture,” we learn that Armenian music comes in many forms, and are led into a discussion about musicians as diverse as contemporary vocalist Rouben Hakhverdian and popular Canadian Armenian entertainer Raffi. This is important not only for the uninitiated to acquire a full perspective on Armenia; it allows the cultural markers present in the daily lives of many Armenian students in the United States and Canada to be validated in their studies, making their heritage and culture seem less remote and inaccessible.

Perhaps one of the most effectual sections of the book can be found in the discussion of the Armenian Genocide, found in the chapter, “A History of Survival.” The chapter includes analyses of how geography and religion have affected Armenia’s fate over the centuries as an often-embattled land, yet avoids portraying Armenians as eternal victims. With regard to the Genocide, the five pages outlining “The Darkest Page in Armenian History” effectively convey the enormity of the event while maintaining its historical and cultural context – surely for the first time in a mainstream educational text. Importantly, the chapter does not end with its discussion of the Genocide, but continues through the era of Communism, the Earthquake, and Nagorno-Karabakh. This discussion of “survival” does not mark the conclusion of the book, either; chapters including those on holidays, transportation, and school life follow, thereby affording the subject of Armenia a post-Genocide life for the reader. This actually represents one functional literary means for sustaining and communicating a full history of Armenia in a meaningful, faithful way.

Along these lines, the book avoids one-dimensionality: it neither attempts to be an all-encompassing history of Armenia, nor a journalistic report on its current state of affairs. By including a brief section on Vartivar within the chapter “Legends, Folk Tales, and Sayings,” for example, the book brings together an ancient tradition with its current application, accented by a photograph of young Armenian boys with buckets of water in hand, ready to douse their unsuspecting neighbors. Kasbarian moves seamlessly between the past and the present (p. 90):

The work Vartivar has two meanings: “the flaming of the rose,” and “to sprinkle with water.” As recently as 100 years ago, to celebrate Vartivar, children in some villages would gather up branches, hide behind trees, and make a ruckus until their neighbors got fed up and came outside and tossed buckets of water on the children. Today the ritual has taken on a different form. During late July, neighborhood hooligans creep up behind people of all ages out in public – especially nicely dressed ones –and drench them with water.

While this may not represent the most significant passage of the book, it illustrates the fluidity with which the customs of an ancient land are given life today – evoking the spectrum of topics available for study throughout Armenian culture, and quite ambitiously undertaken in this text.

The influences of Kasbarian’s training as both a journalist and a Land & Culture Organization volunteer are woven into her prose, which is simultaneously expressive and chronicling. By smoothing the academic edge of her text, Kasbarian makes “Armenia” able to assume a place as a dynamic addition to the home libraries of Armenian children, as well as their schools.

At the same time, the operational value of this work may be lessened by its status as a resource text. In the most ideal scenario, one copy of “Armenia” will find its place onto the shelves of every public and private school library throughout North America; in this capacity, it would serve as a resource book awaiting use in a young student’s research project. The utility of this work will rely on teachers encouraging and leading students to explore cultures and countries that are not traditionally researched in mainstream school projects. It is not immediately obvious how broadly the book will be able to serve its intended purpose. Symbolically and substantively “Armenia” is a book that Armenians can be proud to know is part of the network of resources in the United States and Canadian schools. Practically, though, it will probably not reach masses of students in these institutions in the same way, for example, as sections of this material would if placed in survey textbooks dealing with world history, global cultures, or human rights. This does not present a problem, per se, but does warrant a distinction – based on the degree of usage that can realistically be expected – and a call (as always) for better representation of Armenia and Armenians in mainstream textbooks.

Ultimately, the citations contained within Armenia’s Selected Bibliography are testimony to the dearth of developmentally appropriate materials available for young learners on the topic of Armenia and Armenians. For intermediate or high school students interested in further study in this area, the options for age-appropriate materials are slim, to be generous. They must either search through tomes written in elusively elevated language or be content with simplistic encyclopedia information on the subject. The publication of “An Armenian Family” and “Armenia” represents a landmark – and, one hopes, a turning point – in the availability of materials written for school-age students on the subject of Armenia and the Armenian people.

Nicole E. Vartanian is a doctoral student in the sociology of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York.