In the leafy, expensive part of London, that is Kensington, Armenians from all over the UK gathered to join in the 2nd Armenian Street Festival in the grounds of St Sarkis Church on July 29th. The event was introduced in 2011 by Bishop Vahan Hovhanessian, the Primate of the Armenian Church in the UK, as an entertaining way to recognise many aspects of Armenian culture, and was an opportunity for people from all parts of the community to join together and celebrate with music, dance, literature, food and drink.
The Armenian community was first established in Manchester ( in the North West of England) as a result of migration to support the textile trade. At the time there were no churches to worship in, but the Armenian men had quickly adopted English priorities and formed a football team as one of their earliest collective acts. The church was built in 1870 and was the first to be built in Europe. It was constructed using largely English designs – this was thought to have been done to try and blend in with the local architecture. The other focal points for the Armenians in the UK are in Cardiff ( capital of Wales) and London which is the predominant proportion of the estimated 18000 population. Interestingly, the London Borough of Ealing, which has a number of elected Armenians serving the whole community, is the only part of England that formally recognises the Armenian Genocide.
The Festival was opened by Christoper Buckmaster, the Mayor of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and was also attended by a number of dignitaries including Baroness Caroline Cox, and President Serzh Sargsyan.
Unfortunately the 1st Festival fell foul of particularly poor English weather and although the forecast for Sunday was for heavy showers there were sufficiently long periods of sunshine to make an attractive spectacle of the music and dance.
The event attracted people of all ages and the style was very inclusive of that range of people; it made it a family-oriented, and warm atmosphere. The backgammon tournament pitted young boys against old men; the swift and the agile, versus the wily and the experienced.
A group of 4 girls from the local Armenian school stood up to recite a poem by Sevak, in full, and in Armenian. Amusingly, after the first verse the lady running the Festival, mistakenly assumed that they had finished their part; one of the girls quickly pointed out that they had not finished and wanted to recite the whole poem. The poem was “We are few, but we are called Armenians”. It was clear how important the full recitation was for them.
Perhaps in future festivals there will be an Artsakhian presence within the proceedings which is unique to that region, a flying flag, crafted models of “Tatik-Papik” or other major symbols of this country. For my part, I proudly wore my orange “20th Anniversary of the Liberation of Shushi” T shirt, the only one in existence in the United Kingdom, I believe; that was my little piece of Artsakh in England. One day I hope it will be more.
Occasionally I caught my breath from taking photographs and stood back from the proceedings and looked at all of the happy, smiling faces in the crowd, from the young children who probably knew nothing more than the comforts of England, to those whose parents, or grandparents were directly affected by the Genocide, and had fled to these shores, via other lands, for safety. Like the wonderment of an organic healing process, and as Saroyan recognised “For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia”. Here in London I was privileged to be witnessing a “New Armenia”. I remain totally curious about the enigma of being Armenian, and whilst will spend a lifetime understanding it, I think I now know it when I see and experience it.
I had a conversation with a lady on one of the stalls, and she noticed my T-shirt with the Shushi logo on it. When I pointed out that I had been to Artsakh and Armenia many times and that I was not Armenian, and was returning again shortly, her response and expression was truly memorable. This was not simply one of gratitude that someone was visiting her country, it was a profound excitement that exposed that deep inner joy that she associated with her Armenian legacy, and the release that came from the unexpected recognition of that ancestry, by an outsider, was enlightening. I sense that that emotion exists in all Armenians in some form, and that the group gathering liberates that joyousness.
My lasting memory of the day was of the four girls performing their poem by Sevak. At the time I could only see the emotion, the tempo, and the expressions – I understood none of the words, but it was beautifully performed by the next generation of the “few”.
“We are few, but we are called Armenians
We do not put ourselves above anyone
Simply our fortune has just been so different
Simply we have just shed too much blood”
Categories: Being Armenian