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Monday, July 13, 2015

Armenians in America know the power of a flag to unite a people, or shatter a community

How can so much emotion be stirred by the Confederate battle flag some 150 years after the Civil War’s final fusilade?

I have my thoughts as an American, and as a Yankee. But while reading the current spate of news stories, I also found myself thinking as an Armenian about the unique and extraordinary power of emblems that some hold dear and others fear.

I grew up with reverence for the red, blue and orange symbol of a nation that ceased to exist 32 years before I was born.

I remember taking my turn raising the Armenian flag at Camp Haiastan (Camp Armenia) as we sang the Armenian national anthem. I didn’t understand a word until I read a translation. One verse remains linked to the image of that brilliant-colored flag fluttering from its white, wooden pole.

Behold, brother mine, the holy flag
Which I fashioned with my hands.
Sleepless I went for dreary nights.
I washed it with my tears.

I pictured a weary Armenian freedom fighter carrying a crudely fashioned banner into the fight. To my young mind, honoring one was the same as honoring the other. 

I assumed all Armenians felt the same way – but like many of my youthful assumptions, most of what I thought I knew about the Armenian flag turned out to be wrong.

Armenians did carry flags into battle, but none I’d recognize. In its 1955-56 winter issue, the Armenian Review magazine published an article about Armenia’s flag history. It noted that different banners, some quite ornate, were adopted by various monarchs and armies since ancient times. A few images survive on coins and etchings. Colors are mostly guesswork now, although royal purple was certainly featured.

After centuries without an independent country, Armenians were left with no flag until 1885 when the Armenian Students Association of Paris commissioned one to display at the funeral of Victor Hugo.

The students turned to Father Ghevond Alishan, who experimented with several color arrangements. His tinkering led to the first tricolor insignias worn by Armenian soldiers through the First World War.

They were yellow, red and green.

When the first Republic of Armenia took shape after the war, the government wanted a flag with historical significance. So it reached back more than 600 years to the Rubenian Dynasty, which favored red, blue and yellow. Almost immediately, the yellow was changed to orange “because it easily merged with the rest of the colors and presented a more pleasing composition.”

Not only did the flag have a shorter history than I imagined, it had a short life as the national emblem. The Tricolor flew over the Republic for barely two years before being hauled down in 1920 and trampled along with the nation and its leaders. Armenia’s new Communist rulers feared the yerakooyn enough to shoot anyone didn’t follow orders to destroy it.

That made the flag even more precious to Armenians beyond the reach of Red terrorists. They flew it proudly wherever they gathered – in community halls, at church picnics, in holiday parades – as a message of defiance and hope.

At least, this was true of the Armenians I knew.

I discovered later that in the weird parallel universe of “other” Armenians in America, the Tricolor had become almost as toxic as it was in Soviet Armenia. In fact, it was oddly responsible for the division of Armenian-Americans into two distinct communities.

While most Armenians in the diaspora were immune to Communist pressure, the Armenian Church remained vulnerable because it was tethered to the homeland. Even the primate of North America had to be wary.

So when Archbishop Levon Tourian was called to bless the Armenian Day festivities at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, he insisted that the flag of the republic be removed from the viewing stand and replaced by the Soviet hammer and sickle.

The crowd erupted in catcalls and fistfights that spread to Armenian communities across America. At year’s end, someone shoved a butcher knife into the archbishop as he walked down a church aisle in New York. His death only made the tumult worse.

By the time I came along a couple of decades later, things had settled into a standoff. Unable to reconcile their political differences, Armenians simply divided each community into two churches – one administered in Armenia, the other outside. 

One of the few notable differences was the presence of the Armenian flag at one church and its absence at the other. So for many years, Armenians in America had no unifying banner. It took a change in the balance of world power to correct that.

Among the many images that emerged from the disintegrating Soviet Union circa 1990, I recall a photo in a news magazine of a street demonstration in Yerevan. It was a color photo, so there was no mistaking the red-blue-orange flag being held aloft by marchers.

The Tricolor had survived 70 years of gulags and death squads. I knew instantly that Armenia would be free again, and we'd all be flying one flag in its honor.


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