Instagram Memes Find the Funny Side of Being Armenian

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By Serena Hajjar

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BOSTON — “See if the race will not live again when two of them meet in a beer parlor, twenty years after, and laugh, and speak in their tongue.”

When William Saroyan penned these famous words in 1936, he was writing for an analog world, one unaware of the massive technological revolution which would transpire over the course of the next century. Yet, the advent of the internet and the explosion of social media have done nothing if not reinforce his message and proven its endurance.

Nestled within the infinite universe of these ubiquitous online platforms is a budding Armenian community, one whose membership transcends borders, dialects and politics.

This new virtual community has constructed itself around a handful of Instagram accounts and subsists on a steady diet of memes, jokes and funny videos. Though this form of sustenance may appear trivial — even frivolous — to older generations, the international communion which these pages have engendered is a testament to their remarkable consequence.

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lavashlife

Boasting nearly 38,000 followers, lavashlife was originally conceived to supplement a homonymous blog documenting Aris’ experiences with Birthright Armenia. The name was inspired by a pre-departure conversation with his sister in which she remarked on the lavish life he would be living, indulging in the rich food and culture of the motherland. Naturally, this lavish life soon became a lavashlife.

Upon returning to the United States, Aris tried to resume blogging, though this proved difficult given the change in location. Plagued with a drought of inspiration, he diverged from his typical Armenian scenery and decided to post a meme on Instagram.

“I always really enjoyed memes, and I noticed that there were no active meme pages online that were relatable to the Diaspora as a whole,” he said. “So, I wanted to make something that everyone could relate to, because we’re all so spread out. You know, we have so many things we could be sad about, but there are so many more things we can laugh about and enjoy. We have such a rich culture in which we can all share.”

The meme was well-received, encouraging him to revive his page along this comedic vein. His subsequent activity in the spring of 2019 garnered widespread attention, especially considering the lack of competition — a word which he avoids out of appreciation and respect for the assortment of other Armenian accounts which have since surfaced. On average, he adds about 100 followers per day.

“It just goes to show that people want this stuff, they enjoy seeing it,” he said. “I think it’s a great medium for Armenians to share the great things about the culture, to spread awareness, to have conversations about harder topics. Humor is the best way to do that.”

Indeed, lavashlife has fostered meaningful connections with Armenians worldwide, many of whom are eager to correspond with Aris via direct message on the Instagram app. One of his most memorable exchanges was with an Armenian follower based in Italy who wished to communicate a romantic message to her boyfriend in Armenian.

“She reached out to me because she didn’t know any other Armenians to ask, and she wanted to tell her boyfriend ‘I love you’ in Armenian,” Aris recounted. “So, we started sending each other voice messages. So back and forth, back and forth, we were telling each other ‘I love you.’ It was so funny.”

These interactions are not purely limited to Armenians, however. “What I always find interesting is the Americans who follow me saying, ‘Oh I love Armenian culture!’” he remarked. “There are so many Americans with Armenian friends who have told them about the page, so each of those Armenians becomes like an ambassador. The American friends will send their Armenian friends a meme and ask for an explanation, then they’ll talk about it. It’s a beautiful process of sharing our culture. That’s really made me happy, hearing about some of those experiences. I also have a couple of people who have reached out saying that their partner is Armenian, and they follow the page to learn more about them. I think that’s really cute.”

Perhaps most poignant are the conversations he has had with Turkish followers in Turkey.

“The vast majority of them are very nice,” Aris said. “They strictly want to learn more about Armenian culture. I have a few that have reached out and said, ‘Your page has taught us stuff about the Armenian Genocide that we didn’t learn in school. We came here to follow your page because it related to our culture.’ In a way, to some people who maybe didn’t like us before, it’s shown them Armenians’ humanity and humor.”

Representing all Armenians in their various iterations, and thereby building an inclusive community is paramount to Aris, which is why he strives to maintain a low profile.

“I use ‘we’ a lot when I’m responding to people and commenting, because I feel like I can’t take credit for what this page has become, since probably 50 percent of the content that I post belongs to other people,” he explained. “It’s not fair for me to make it about myself.”

By remaining relatively incognito, especially with regards to his family background, Aris aims to avoid falling into the all-too-common trap of embodying the voice of only one specific subgroup of Armenians: everyone from barsgahyes to amerigahyes can find something relatable on lavashlife.

“I want to represent all Armenians, that’s the goal, and I don’t want to pigeonhole myself to only representing the type of Armenian that I am,” he said. “I think that the more people know about me, on a personal level, the less they will be able to relate to the content. The page is all about breaking down borders and finding things on which people can connect.”

He added, “When I was a kid, I’d wonder, ‘Why are there so many Armenian camps? Why do my family members go to that one and I go to this one?’” Aris recalled. “It makes me really happy to see Armenians coming together and finding things we can connect on rather than things that can divide us. Humor is a great way to accomplish that.”

moods.pokhe

If you’ve recently heard anyone emphatically exclaim “Yev bang” or “Pari yegadzek sireliner,” you can thank Haig Injejikian. Hailing from Syria and currently based in Australia, Injejikian is the founder of Western Armenian commentary videos on Instagram, which he posts under his moods.pokhe (translation: change my mood) account. These hysterical, sidesplitting videos are best described by example. This was the first one to go viral (even appearing in the WhatsApp group chats of my own social media-less father).

Injejikian’s intentions for the page are modest and self-evident, as the name indicates. When I responded that I indeed turn to his page for a morale boost, he replied with a pleased, “Moodut guh pokhvi gor? That’s it! That’s why, I hit the nail on the head with the name!”

The majority of the interview with Injejikian proceeded in his native Armenian, wherein I was privy to his naturally lighthearted and humorous way of speaking, consistent with the witty dialogue in his commentary videos. In fact, he originally created his account in November of last year with the intention of simply posting amusing videos for his own friends.

“Ever since I was a teenager, I used to do commentary like this and everyone would encourage me,” he said. “So, I figured I would make a page, you know, just for my friends, since they always wanted me to make such videos. Everyone liked it, and somehow more people started following it! I wasn’t intending for this to become an international page, but somehow it happened, and I’m thankful for that because people are happy as a result of it.”

Injejikian revealed that he spends a minimal amount of time maintaining moods.pokhe, which he views purely as a hobby to lift people’s spirits and divert their attentions from their concerns.

“An episode of Pari Yegadzek Sireliner (Translation: Welcome My dears) – it’s literally 5 minutes of work,” he explained. “What I do is when I see a video on YouTube or social media that I think is funny and that I want to comment on, I save it and I think of things I want to say. Later, I play it, I speak, and I post it straightaway. I don’t think about it; I just post it, because if you go over it, you don’t want to post it anymore. You start thinking, ‘Oh, why did I say this? Why did I say that?’ So, what I do is just post the video, because I have a message.”

Indeed, devoted fans and acute observers may have noticed that animals make a frequent appearance in the videos featured on his page.

“Since I arrived in Australia, I became a vegetarian,” he said. “I love animals, so I want to impart a message to people to care for animals. The message of the Pari Yegadzek Sireliner videos is ‘Why are the people always bothering the animals? Why are they treating the animals like this?’ Using humor, I can deliver a message to these people, so that they stop treating animals badly. That’s the best part!”

The page has received widespread support, including that of his own twin brother, Hagop, who occasionally joins Haig for skits. With a now international following, Injejikian has succeeded in popularizing his two pet phrases.

“I have a friend in Lebanon who called me and said, ‘Haig, what’s going on? Everyone is saying, ‘Yev bang, yev bang!’” he laughed.

Through moods.pokhe, Injejikian has inadvertently sparked memes of his own, as his followers are inspired to mimic his content.

“Many people will send me a video and a recording of themselves saying ‘Pari yegadzek sireliner, as you can see here, there is a man…’” he said.

The humorist, who cites Vahe Berberian as his ultimate inspiration and teacher, has even begun enjoying a mild level of local celebrity.

“The last time I was in a shopping center, someone yelled, ‘Moods pokhe!’ from behind me, and I turned around to see who it was, but I didn’t know them,” he recounted. “It happened often, and I would feel bad because I didn’t know them.”

Despite the unexpected popularity of his account, Injejikian repeatedly emphasized the importance of remaining grounded and candid in his content.

“I discovered that the more genuine someone is, the more honest someone is, the more success he will find in life, because if you’re genuine, then you can correctly convey your root message to your audience,” he said. “Especially in comedy, you have to be honest.”

This perspective has allowed Injejikian to avoid turning moods.pokhe into a chore.

“If it was difficult, I wouldn’t work on it,” he said. “It’s something that comes from within; it’s something that comes naturally to someone. It happens automatically, unconsciously.”

Echoing comments made by Aris, Injejikian believes that moods.pokhe, along with other Armenian meme accounts, have enabled Armenians to connect through new online platforms.

“It’s through these pages that people are coming closer together: they mention each other in comments, they send the posts to each other, which is good because it’s Armenian content, it’s something which helps us keep our culture and traditions,” he said.

armo_tweets

London-native Sipan Petrosyan originally created his armo_tweets Instagram account as part of a challenge in November of last year.

“My friend started a meme page himself, and I’m really, really competitive, so I told him ‘I’m going to make a page, too, and let’s see who can get 2,000 followers first.’”

Thanks to a shout-out from lavashlife just three days into this contest, armo_tweets gained a whopping thousand followers overnight, with a steady increase over the ensuing weeks. The swift popularity Petrosyan’s page has enjoyed is only fitting considering his childhood affection for the online Armenian comedy scene.

“I literally grew up watching Armenian internet content, especially Antic, AndyK comedy, and Armo_Memes, who was really popular back in the day,” he said. “I just love the old-school Vine comedians as well. Growing up watching Moot.com along with My Big Fat Armenian Family — there was so much content, and I found them so hilarious. I always thought it would be cool if I could contribute something to that as well.”

Petrosyan’s account procures content from Twitter — which is similarly home to a budding “Armo Twitter” community — and spotlights it on his armo_tweets page.

“I wanted to create an Instagram page specifically for people to know that if they post something and it gets attention on Twitter, they will also have a voice on a bigger platform, on Instagram. It’s a more visible way to put that content out there,” he explained. “I really would encourage more young people to get on Twitter and just try putting content out, because it’s such an impartial platform. The Armenian community on Twitter is nowhere near as big as it is on Instagram.”

The name is in large part an homage to the comedians Petrosyan admired in his youth.

“For me, I associated the word ‘Armo’ with the younger Armenian diaspora and the people who grew up watching Armenian internet content,” he said.

armo_tweets has quickly garnered support from not only Petrosyan’s Armenian friends and family, but also his non-Armenian friends. This broad audience inspired Petrosyan to start adding English translations to his posts, which frequently feature content in transliterated Armenian.

“I initially started that because one of my friends messaged me saying, ‘Sipan, I don’t understand anything you’re saying in these tweets. I don’t get it,’” he recalled. “I realized that for a lot of Armenians who don’t understand the memes or don’t really speak as well, it could help them slowly start learning some Armenian words, too.”

Throughout the eight months that Petrosyan’s account has been active, it has caught the attention of certain popular Armenian figures, from 2016 Armenian Olympic gymnast Houry Gebeshian to Super Sako, who started following armo_tweets after Petrosyan tagged the singer in a meme. However, this attention is not something Petrosyan takes lightly.

“Knowing that I have direct access to some of these more famous and influential Armenians, I feel some sort of responsibility to make sure I post content which they can also use and put out in their communities and create awareness and discussion,” he said. “While I’ve got the opportunity, while I’ve got the platform, I might as well maximize it and use it to the best of my ability.”

Petrosyan has acted on this sense of obligation by leveraging his page to raise awareness about issues affecting contemporary Armenian society both domestically and internationally. Earlier this month, both armo_tweets and lavashlife promoted fundraisers for Armenian businesses damaged during riots in the United States.

On the domestic Armenian front, Petrosyan hopes to spark conversation among Diasporan Armenians about how to resolve ongoing questions facing Armenia.

“I think a lot of people associate Armenia with the Armenia of 20 or 30 years ago, and a lot of people think Armenia is still like that now,” he noted. “I want current issues, current topics which are trending in Armenia, to trend within the diaspora as well.”

Noting the lack of engagement with Armenian news organizations on social media, Petrosyan strives to compensate for this deficit by weaving the news into his humorous content.

“I think people are more likely to follow a comedy page,” he remarked. “I’m surprised that the meme pages hit these big numbers within several months. It dawned on me that many people don’t really care to follow the news; they just want something that’s funny, quick, and short. But we can capitalize on that to promote Armenian issues in this format as well. So, in the future, if people want to find ways to help Armenia, they can draw upon issues they’ve seen within these meme pages and see what they can do.”

Petrosyan also spoke enthusiastically and hopefully about the prospects of taking this budding virtual community offline.

“I don’t want to just have a meme page, and that’s it,” he said. “I think we can use this foundation to do so much. A lot of our content is about going back to Armenia, returning to Armenia, missing Armenia. I think it encourages the younger generation to visit Armenia. If I go back to Armenia next year, I’m going to try my best to organize events there for the diaspora and use the profits to give back to the community.”

The spirit of giving back is ingrained in Petrosyan’s outlook regarding the monetization of his account.

“It was important for me to consider that if I am putting out sponsored content, it’s something that I believe in, something that also abides by the good of the general community, and it’s not one person advertising something which is completely random and unrelated to the community,” he said. “I’m currently in the process of making a deal with a company. Once it’s complete, we’re going to donate 50 percent to charity and do five different giveaways, giving the money back to people who’ve contributed to the page. I think that’s also a good incentive for people to level up the content, which will get more engagement in the community as well.”

While armo_tweets has encouraged its followers to become more engaged with Armenian culture, Petrosyan himself has learned just as much from his followers and fellow meme accounts.

“In London, we don’t have a lot of manti, so I had never tried it before — I was so ignorant!” he laughed.

In line with the camaraderie and Armenian solidarity championed by their respective Instagram accounts, all three of my interviewees expressed, unprompted, resounding respect and admiration for each other.

“I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with the admins of a lot of the other Armo meme pages,” explained Aris. “We try not to tread on each other’s space, and I think everyone’s doing really well with that. I love the growing Armenian memes community and being able to connect with all of them on that level as we try to achieve this goal of enriching Armenian culture, together. It’s cool to see. Everyone’s really supportive of each other.”

Petrosyan agreed, adding, “We are aligned, we all have a similar mindset and intention for the Armenian community.”

For Injejikian, his counterparts have provided inspiration for his own content, just as he inspires theirs. He closed with a call for each individual to similarly contribute their talents to the Armenian community.

“If every single one of us finds some avenue through which to contribute to the Armenian culture, I’m sure it will bring our people to a great place.”

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