Guest Blogger: Joe Nerssessian
Like almost all diaspora Armenians, my family’s story is loaded with trauma – but I am determined mine will focus on understanding an identity.
My grandfather, Nerses Nerssessian, was only four when he escaped the Ottoman troops. He had watched them kill his family. One of twelve children, just he and his older sister, Anahid, survived. Two more Armenian orphans.
They ended up in an orphanage in Greece and later Syria where many children would die of malaria each day. But Nerses had a trick. He would bathe in a warm spring, convinced it would keep him healthy.
As a teenager he trained as a tailor and would travel to Lebanon and Palestine, eventually becoming a master tailor in Haifa. The 1940s saw him escape death a second time as the Jewish insurgencies increased. The shop he worked in was targeted with a bomb – moments earlier Nerses had left the building to deliver a suit.
Israel emerged and he re-trained as a baker. Then in 1951 aged 40, he met my grandmother. Seven children followed in the next eleven years, Heratsh, Berge, Anahid, Syrop, Kevork, Armen and Seta. (He wanted twelve to replace his brothers and sisters that had been killed).
I lived in ignorance of his story until I was around 17. Nerses had died years before and hundreds of miles away from where I was born in a small British seaside town in 1992. My English mother had met Berge on her travels to Israel but the small bungalow in Kent I shared with her and my three older sisters was geographically, and culturally, far from there, and even farther from Armenia. There was no Armenian youth club, no language classes, no scouts. We simply delighted in having an interesting surname.
Slowly, and subconsciously, that detachment started to shift as I neared adulthood. I’d visited Haifa once as a small child but the memories had faded. My father’s side of the family lived – and still do – in the Haifa community of Wadinissnass. It became the first taste of this other culture embedded inside of me.
Delighted in meeting, and eating, with this new side of my family I set upon returning as my roots began to reveal themself. A year later, in 2010, I spent six months in Israel before starting university.
This, of course, only prompted a deeper interest into my Armenian heritage, asking questions of my father, Googling ‘Armenians in the UK’, buying an Armenian flag for my bedroom. By this point, studying journalism, I used every possible opportunity to write about my heritage.
This research eventually led me to Hayashen, or the Centre for Armenian Information and Advice. The west London building is a perfect initiation for someone interested in the British-Armenian community.
Cookery classes, lectures on Armenian rock illustration, identity, art, geo-political debates and so much more has followed, courtesy of CAIA. But instead of answers, I feel confronted with more questions.
So I am going to Armenia. Not for the first time, that came in 2016, but perhaps for a significant time.
Featured image: Joe Nerssissian’s grandparents