‘In the Beginning Was Armenia’: Review of Arabic Language Documentary

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By Maydaa Nadar

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

CAIRO – Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, countless events are suspended worldwide. However, before the partial lockdown in Egypt, a very important celebration took place. In the presence of the Armenian community in Cairo and the Egyptians interested in Armenia, the documentary “In the Beginning Was Armenia” was screened on March 7, 2020.

Nagy at Opera Square in Yerevan

The story started when the Egyptian photographer Essam Nagy held the first piece, a photomacrograph, which he bought from Levon, an Armenian who had a photography shop and lived in Egypt. Levon deeply loved his homeland and used to talk about it proudly. Before the latter passed away, he gave the former a valuable present. A khachkar [cross-stone] was the gift and was the key that opened to us the gate to discover Armenia and enjoy its endless treasure.

Visiting the small village of Lernamedz

Armenians and the Church

The documentary is divided into three parts: “The Khatchkar Maker,” “Sons of Fire and Roses” and “Return and Rebirth.” After Essam lands in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, he spends time at the Vernissage market and visits several places, such as Tatev Monastery. We then understand the significance of this beautifully carved cross-stone in the Armenian heritage.

Nagy examines khachkars at Noraduz, Armenia

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Also, we comprehend the strong bond between Armenians and their church and how religion was a key factor that helped them overcome the unfortunate incidents the country went through, bearing in mind that the First Republic of Armenia only enjoyed independence for two years (1918-1920). In this regard, it is worth mentioning that up until now, Armenian clergymen remain positively present in the life of Armenians, whether those living in Armenia or in the diaspora. We see them warmly interacting with their community and attending the multiple events held in Egypt, for instance.

Nagy and the statue of Mother Armenia

Coexistence with Minorities

Despite the Armenian Genocide and the attempts to obscure the Christian identity of Armenia, in the course of three interviews in the documentary, we see that the minorities in Armenia harmonize with the Christian majority. For example, Chief Rabbi of Armenia Gershon Burstein declared: “A very important matter that distinguished Armenia from other countries during the era of the Soviet Union is that, here, there wasn’t any anti-Semitism. Here in Armenia we freely mention that we are Jews and we can live.”

Also, Said Avdalyan mentions on behalf of the Association of Young Yezidis of Armenia: “We live here peacefully, without any threat. We were never subjected to pressure or discrimination. Our history, literature, and culture even grew here.” In the Blue Mosque, Shiite Imam Mohamed Aly Shadegan added:” We enjoy a good relationship with the Christian Armenians.”

Historic Facts

While Essam narrates the history of Armenia from the very beginning, going over the changes that occurred in Greater Armenia, the genocide, the Battle of Sardarabad, the establishment of Armenia’s First Republic, and the period when the country, which was the first one to adopt Christianity as the state religion (301 A.D.), was under the communist regime, crucial historical and geographic facts about Armenia are revealed to us.

Nagy at the Armenian Genocide memorial

Topics: film

Significant Locations

Throughout the 130-minute film, based on their historical/chronological sequence, Essam takes us to various locations across Armenia, such as the Republic Square, Tsitsernakaberd, the Mother Armenia Statue, Tospia Restaurant, Moscow Cinema, Noraduz (the largest monumental site of khachkars), the Armenian Genocide Museum, Lake Sevan, Sardarabad Memorial Complex, the Word of Life Church, Naregatsi Orchestra, Tavern Yerevan, and the small village Lernamedz nicknamed Red Cuba/Small Cuba. In other words, the places are the protagonists which chronicle precious stories of Armenia.

The Documentary’s Protagonists

The champions are also the Armenians interviewed in the documentary. They succeed in revealing interesting details about their beloved nation. We get absorbed in Essam’s conversations with Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II, the former Minister of the Diaspora Hranush Hakobyan, the former Chairperson of the State Tourism Committee Zara Zeitountsian, Archbishop Raphael Minassian (Archbishop of Armenian Catholics of Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Eastern Europe, and basketball coach Vicken Eskedjian and Pastor Hany Boghossian (two Armenians living abroad and who were on a visit to their motherland), among others.

Importance of Music

But are the places visited and the persons interviewed the only heroes of the documentary? Well, music is also one of the film’s main components that make us joyfully delve into the Armenian heritage.  Parallel to the film’s sequence, our ears delight in hearing an expressive variety of Armenian music and Christian chants. In addition, we understand the importance of music, among other forms of arts, to Armenians.

Learning how to do an Armenian folk dance

The Narrator’s Presence

A flashy point about the factual film is Essam’s active participation. In essence, he interacts with the public at the religious sites, on various occasions including reviving the anniversary of the genocide, Republic Day (coincides with founding the First Republic), Independence Day, etc. We see his face and hear his voice also in some of the interviews. So, Essam’s continuous appearance not only gives us the opportunity to perceive the whole colorful picture but to catch the sight of the artist while painting it as well.

Armenians march with Nagy to protest the Armenian Genocide, demanding “Restitution… Restitution… Restitution” (the translation of the word that appears in the photo in Arabic)

Cultural Aspects

Throughout Essam’s travel, the beauty of Armenia is shown in the adherence of its people to the nation’s culture and language. The musical instrument duduk, the lavash bread, and the traditional clothes, are some of the cultural items included to enrich the film.

The Finale

At the end of the documentary, Essam arrives from Armenia. “I left Armenia, but it did not leave me. I then understood what Leon meant when he talked about his connection with his homeland and about the khachkar, this cross-stone engraved in the heart of all Armenians,” he pronounces. A letter of two phrases, “In the Beginning Was Armenia” and “Thanks to Levon,” with the signature Essam Nagy, framed alongside a photograph of the khachkar was a perfect closure for our exciting and pleasant journey across the Land of Apricots.

The final letter

The documentary’s three parts are available in Arabic:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FCQaYRav7E&t=27s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YBZbBxMous&t=5s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5W6dPYLmvg&t=2s

All images used with this article are screenshots from the film.

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