• Elina Arbo


Given the recent events in Artsakh, I have been inspired to reach back into my roots. What better way to do that other than reading?

I finally had the chance to sit down and go through the list of Armenian literature I have been wanting to dive into. Armenian Popular Songs by Ghevont Alishan was one I was quite excited to start. Originally written in Armenian, the English translation of the book serves its poetic purpose just as well. Alishan was a priest, historian, and poet, but is mainly known and praised for his writing, rightfully so.

His poems are written in a more classical style. I’m usually deterred from writing that takes this stylistic form, but this book kept me drawn in throughout the entire journey, page by page. Alishan’s voice is consistent but unique. There is an intense amount of fervor that charges his words. Alishan paints with his words in nearly every stanza, building off beautifully from the words preceding: “I have built a wine-press, I have buried the wine-vat, I have not yet tasted the wine, They say: Come forth from this vineyard”. As I reminisce with each line, I feel like I’m transported far away, to an alternate universe, one that I belong to. Vibrant imagery of fresh flowers, ripe pomegranates, summer colors are splattered on the page. They create a feeling of warmth and acceptance. It is a large and welcoming embrace.

Even amid the glorious depictions, his poetry simultaneously reflects the growing anti-Armenian sentiments within the Ottoman Empire. Published in the 1860s, Alishan’s work is being produced at a time where the persecution of Armenians is becoming more prevalent as massacres amount, leading up to the 1915 Genocide. He describes revolt and liberation against the Sultan. He articulates the importance of protecting Armenia and announces his own commitments.

There is plenty of contextual information to frame such a dark moment for Armenians— one that reflects the present moment as well— but there is also light in the celebration of culture and connectedness. History is inseparable from the Armenian experience. As an ethnic group with various nationalities and identities, sprawled across the world as a diaspora, Armenianness is defined in so many different ways. Alishan does a phenomenal job at framing the historical context of his writing, in the most subtle way.

Alishan captures Armenian resilience as a whole, but there are also instances of individual reflection and vulnerability. Using his artistic prowess, sharp imagery, and oxymorons, he details the most heart-wrenching moment of his life: the loss of his son. It is an intense read and forced me to grapple with my own conception of loss. The poet connects his loss with spirituality and religiosity to create a newfound sense of hope.

Armenian Popular Songs is an amalgamation of culture and resilience. Alishan’s classical style and word-painting allow readers to develop a deeper understanding of the Armenian narrative. His celebration of Armenianness in the backdrop of the Ottoman Empire attests to an inherent strength, one that follows its diaspora all around the world.

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