Choosing to be Armenian in Adelaide


Originally published in Armenia
25 February, 2012
By Houry Mayissian

If you happen to be in Adelaide on Australia Day this year, make sure you don’t miss Noah’s Ark resting on a snow-capped Mount Ararat “parading” through the city’s streets.

“What place does Noah’s Ark have in Australia Day Parade?” you are probably asking yourself and rightfully so.

William Saroyan once famously declared it only takes two Armenians to create a new Armenia. And in Adelaide a handful of Armenians seem to be doing just that as I had the pleasure to discover during a recent trip.

The Armenian community of Adelaide is estimated at 200 only. Yet, its achievements have been quite remarkable for its size. Next to New South Wales, South Australia is the only other Australian state to have recognised the Armenian Genocide. A plaque at the city’s Immigration Museum pays tribute to the Armenian Genocide victims of the Ottoman Empire.

The President of the Armenian Cultural Association of South Australia, Elena Harrison, has been literally on the hunt for Armenians since her arrival from Armenia in 2009.

“I signed up for salsa classes recently because I heard there is an Armenian girl who goes there. I’ve been three times already but she hasn’t shown up yet,” she says laughingly.

I meet more community members during an Armenian Christmas celebration hosted by Harrison and her husband on a warm, summery January 6. It is an evening of many things non-traditional for an Armenian Christmas, yet typical of an evolved, 21st century Armenian-ness that is able to embrace all things new and different.

There is the Armenian pilaf and barbeque with soft drinks and beer. There is also Armenian brandy and music, Australian sausages and lamington. But most interesting of all, there are Armenians from Uruguay, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and elsewhere with their own unique stories and backgrounds but with one thing in common – their choice to be Armenian.

There is Sergio Javier from Uruguay, who has recently started learning Armenian with the help of friends in the community and a small pocket dictionary. “Genatset” (“to your health”) he cheers as we sip Armenian konyak and toast to the New Year. He has just learnt a new word.

Then there is Joanna Ignoyan with her four children, who speak the most impeccable Armenian I have encountered in kids their age in the Diaspora.

“When did you last visit Armenia?” I ask 10-year old Erik Avetisian as he tries to sell me raffle tickets. “In 2007,” his elder sister, Arevik, jumps in noticing the confusion on her brother’s face.

“What do you like most about Armenia?” I ask next. “The snow,” he boasts confidently this time wearing his Armenia T-shirt with the republic’s Coat of Arms.

And of course there is Alec Balayance, one of the founders and former presidents of the Armenian Cultural Association of South Australia, passionately arguing the case for further Diasporan involvement in ensuring Armenia’s sustainability and growth.

Formed in the 1960s, the Armenian Cultural Association of South Australia has been the main organiser of Armenian life in South Australia. Most recently, the association became one of six other community organisations to receive an invitation from Multicultural South Australia to participate in the annual Christmas Pageant. Community members marched some 3.5 kilometres in the city’s streets dressed in traditional Armenian costumes.

In March, the Association is organising an exhibition on Armenian culture and history at the Immigration Museum in Adelaide. For a period of three months, visitors to the museum will learn about Armenia and the Armenian people through images, videos, costumes and artifacts. The exhibition will also feature a section on the Armenian Genocide, hopes Harrison.

Meanwhile, the community is busy making the final preparations for Thursday’s parade. The Ark, made of cane frame covered in tissue paper, painted and mounted on a steel frame on a bicycle wheel, is bound to turn some heads at one of the largest Australia Day celebrations nation-wide. There will be miniature animals like giraffes and elephants coming out of the Ark. And of course, the cherry on top, there will be Armenian flags along with community members dressed in traditional Armenian costumes, making a very Armenian statement in this city far removed from Armenian life.

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