Katerina Poladjian by Henning Fritsch

Armenians in Berlin

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BERLIN — “Berlin ist eine Reise wert” – that’s a saying every German knows and few would disagree with; yes, it is always worth it to take a trip to Berlin. I realized this once again last week when I went for a few days, just to visit friends I hadn’t seen for a long time. Among them, Bea Ehlers-Kerbekian, an Armenian actress and teacher who invited me to join her at the Academy of Arts, in the beautiful Pariser Platz, to attend a book reading on August 29.

It was the premiere of the novel, Hier sind Löwen (There are Lions Here) by Katerina Poladjan, who was born in Moscow and has lived in Germany since 1979. She has already published two novels and has earned an impressive array of scholarships and grants, as well as literary awards. Her new book, published by S. Fischer, is on the long list for the 2019 German Book Prize. This event was to kick off a series of 15 presentations going into the autumn and including some at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October.

The hall filled up rapidly, a good number of attendants were Armenians. The well-known literary critic Meike Fessman moderated the event, which unfolded in the form of a lively dialogue with the author. Poladjan read sections of her novel with dramatic force and humor, bringing her characters alive as if they were on stage. Saxophonist Angelika Niescier provided a powerful musical counterpart, accompanying the literary dialogue from beginning to end with contemporary Armenian music.

We learned that the novel deals with one Helen Mazavian, a young woman who leaves Germany for Yerevan, where she will work as a book restorer at the Matenadaran. She is eager to learn about new restoration techniques there and, through her work on an old Bible, she ends up discovering far more.

The Bible was what two children, Hrant and Anahid, had taken with them in 1915 when they fled the Genocide. There are handwritten phrases on the pages, including a cryptic note mentioning Hrant, something to the effect that he will not wake up. Poladjan read passages describing the flight of the children, as well as Helen’s arrival in Yerevan, her work on the restoration, and episodes in a love relationship.

The author explained that Armenian bibles are often very small, some of them have a clasp, and have a very personal character. Families would inscribe their names, and place personal items, letters, tickets, photographs, inside. For Heike Fessman, this seemed to be an encounter of the sacred and the profane. Poladjan spoke of “memory writing,” and how the Bible was considered almost a member of the family.

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Through her work on the Bible, the character Helen delves into its history. She comes to learn about Armenia, its past and present, and in the process, she rediscovers her own personal identity. One passage in the novel reads: “Dikranian. Abovyan. Petrosian. Mazavian. My last name was suddenly in phonetical company. Until then I had carried it like an unsuitable piece of clothing, like a dented hat that I didn’t take off even for dinner.” Why should she marvel at this fact? Poladjan explained that in the Soviet Union, names, personal names were not considered important, since “they were all socialist brothers and sisters,” but in Yerevan, it was different, the character Helen realizes what her identity is through her Armenian name.

The novel tells the story of the Genocide and emigration, the story of the Armenian people, within it, that of a woman and her family.

Following the presentation, visitors took their fresh copies of the novel and lined up to have them signed by the author, before moving upstairs to the vast rooftop terrace where they could enjoy the magnificent view of the Brandenburg Gate, and sip a glass of wine.

We were surely not the only ones to reflect on the images from our own childhood that Poladjan’s reading had called up to consciousness: how your mother would insist you took that small, tattered little bible with you on your trip, or how she arranged for it to accompany your father on his final journey. Or, how you marveled as a youngster at those magical characters of the alphabet, with their mysterious curves and crosses, painted in autumnal shades of green or maroon, and delicately lined in gold.

From the Word to the Image

Two days later, Bea and I visited another Armenian artist and mutual friend, Archi Galenz, at his new gallery. The vernissage had already taken place, but the artifacts and installations were still on display. The exhibition entitled, “Dialogue on Revolution and Power,” deals with the Armenian pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. (See next week’s Mirror-Spectator).

Not far from Wolf&Galentz gallery, we visited the Galerie Kuchling, which is hosting a solo show by Kevork Mourad, titled “Fears & Dreams.” The artist, who lives in New York, was born in Qamishli, Syria in 1970, his Armenian family having relocated there. He graduated from the Yerevan Institute of Fine Arts and has worked as a teaching artist in residence at Brandeis, Harvard and Holy Cross.

Some of Mourad’s themes are historical, others may be mythological or related to fables. In a video on display at the gallery, the artist explains the influence of his experience in Syria, a land that his ancestors had reached after having fled a hundred years ago. One of the exhibits on display, a work in acrylic on canvas entitled “Uprooted,” depicts the drama of expulsion, deportation and flight. Now, as Syria suffers the ravages of war and destruction, again its people must seek refuge abroad.

The works on exhibit present several artistic media with which he has worked, from drawing to painting, multi-layered sculptural paintings and animation films. In his video, Mourad demonstrates how he experiments with new techniques, which include integrating music into his art. He transposes painting and drawing into live performances, by composing to live music.

Four years ago, he won the Robert Bosch Foundation film prize for International Cooperation with a short animation entitled “Four Acts for Syria.” He has performed at the Nara Museum in Japan, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg and the Ismaili Centre in London, among others.

Both graphic artist Mourad and author Poladjan come from faraway lands, Syria and Russia, both deal artistically with the drama of earlier generations, who had been forced to leave their homeland and seek a new life abroad. For both, it is a question of identity, one which finds its solution in literary or artistic form.

(Sources: Background material for this article has been taken from websites of the artists, http://katerinapoladjan.de/ and https://www.kevorkmourad.com/, German press, and gallery literature. German quotations have been freely translated into English by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach.)

“Gespräche” as “Discourse” and he would prefer “Dialogues”–

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