The danced journey of Maral Yessayan – The Armenian mirror-spectator
It was quite a challenge to find a scholastic writing on the Jordanian dabkah as a dance form. At the time, I was able to find ethnomusicological material on the musical traditions of Jordanian dances, but the existing material on the dance itself was small, superficial and sparse. I realized that to fully grasp Jordanian dances, my research had to be both ethnographic and “auto-ethnographic” in its method. So I traveled to the villages to see the dances in their rural form but also tapped into my own knowledge of dance in its stage form. I interviewed key personalities, government officials, Islamic clergy, culture keepers, elders, choreographers and dance practitioners. Jordan’s Minister of Culture, Jeryes Samawi (God rest his soul in peace), endorsed my research, provided me with new contacts, and facilitated the process of collecting data from the national archives. Without all these people, my thesis and my thesis would not have been possible. I am always indebted to them.
Dabke is believed to have its origins in ancient Phoenician dances. Lebanese Armenians also have a version of dabke which is sometimes played in Armenia.
Dabkah (Dabkeh, Dabke, etc.) is traditionally associated with the practices of folk or peasant communities residing in the region historically known as Greater Syria, which today includes Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq , the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel. It is not surprising that Lebanese Armenians adopted the form and brought it to Armenia. The adoption of the dances and their circulation in the world is not new or unique to this case. Historically, the dances have been adopted from one practicing community to another. In the process of transmitting a dance, its meanings also change. Thus, for Lebanese Armenians, the dabka takes on a whole new meaning. Through the movement, Lebanese Armenians are nostalgically celebrating their past and their connection to Lebanon, the land they left behind, and to having a sense of community on new soil in Armenia. At the same time, they delineate their difference from other Armenian settler communities as well as local Armenians. Dabkah immediately becomes a way for Lebanese Armenians in Armenia to mark their belonging and their separation.
In your dance performance “Here and There”, you examine intercultural dialogue through the art of improvisation. How is this dialogue possible?
“Here and There” is an attempt at East-West fusion approaches to dance making. Some researchers would call this “hybridity”, others would call it “the art of fusion”. Despite the nomenclature, the idea is to mix things up to create something new. My goal in creating this work was therefore to bring together different forms of movement that have different histories and geographically different origins and meanings and trace them through my body. Sometimes I moved distinctly between different dance genres, but mostly my interest was in blurring the lines between the forms. The intention was to show how our bodies are multilingual, multicultural and multifunctional, in an increasingly demanding and interconnected globalized world where we can be both “here” and “there”.
You have created your special choreographic tribute to the memory of the victims and survivors of the Armenian Genocide.
My performance “Hearing the Dead” is a tribute and commemoration to the countless victims and survivors of the genocide. I created this piece while residing in Los Angeles in 2007 to raise awareness about the Armenian Genocide. It is a multimedia performance that combines movement, speech and the screen. The piece explores the link between body memory and oral history and highlights the suffering of the body that “remembers”. One of the things I wanted to accomplish through this piece is the often unspoken and under-researched effects that the Armenian Genocide inflicted on its survivors. Grief, PTSD, anxiety and depression are all expressed and embodied forms of survival experienced and interpreted through this piece.
Among the Armenian communities of the Middle East, that of Jordan seems less known. How was community life in Jordan and how is it now?
Growing up in the 1980s, most Armenians in Jordan were concentrated in the old part of the city of Amman. The Armenian community was vibrant and lively. The activities and social life of the Armenian community revolved around the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Yuzbashian Gulbenkian Armenian Orthodox School and the two Armenian Party Clubs (Tashnag and Ramgavar) – all of which were adjacent to each other. another on a hillside street in Ashrafiyyeh. In the 1990s, Silva Hairabedian championed Armenian theater and arts. She directed, produced and wrote a beautiful play in which I acted. In the 2010s, the cumulative effect of students studying abroad and the excessive number of families leaving Jordan thinned the Armenian community in Jordan. The small number of students and low funding with the added stress of the pandemic led to the unfortunate closure of the one and only Armenian school in 2020.
How did your family end up in Jordan?
My grandfather Iskandar was 3 years old in 1915 with a twin brother. His family lived in Dortyol, a town in present-day southern Turkey. When the plan to deport Ottoman Armenians was launched, they were forcibly aborted from their homes, deported to the desert, and driven further south on a march to face almost certain death. The men were separated from the women and children on these death marches – with the men in the lead and the women and children in the back. Weeks of walking have passed without water or food, just walking south through the Syrian desert.
My great-grandmother, Serpouhi, had an eight-month-old baby, three-year-old twins in her arms, a daughter and a six- and eight-year-old son between her skirts. She was hungry, thirsty and could no longer bear the weight of her three youngest children. She had to make a choice. In agony and tears, and arguably the most difficult decision of her life, she placed one of the twins under a shady rock and left him behind. It wasn’t my grandfather. Their story unfolds unexpectedly. My great-grandfather Tatios was an intelligent man who had just lost all his fortune, except one. He carried a carved wooden cane for support. The cane was not just any cane. It was filled with gold coins. When my great-grandfather Tatios learned what Serpouhi had done, he gave up all his coins to an Ottoman soldier in exchange for his horse and rode four hours north to find the child. Call it a miracle, Misag was intact and still alive. The twin brothers were united and the family survived to Jordan where the Bedouins provided them with safety, shelter and protection.
A touching story indeed! Maral, you now live in Arizona. Are there Middle Eastern or Armenian activities?
Unlike cities like Glendale, which holds the largest concentration of Armenians who make up a demographic majority of the city, the Armenian community in Arizona is relatively small and dispersed. There is St. Apkar Armenian Apostolic Church where we performed my daughter’s consecration service. The church is the main institution that serves ethnic Armenian families to preserve the language, culture and traditions. I see a lot of potential for growth and solidarity for the Armenian community in post-pandemic Arizona.
Here in Arizona, my priority has been my family. I raised my daughter who goes to ballet school and has a lot of me in her. I exercise and practice yoga and continue to cultivate my body to a higher physical level.
After a long sabbatical and now that my daughter is older, I’m considering getting more involved in the Phoenix art scene, or maybe even traveling as a guest speaker, or branching out into acting. I haven’t started a new project yet but the sky is the limit as they say, so wish me luck!
Good luck Maral! And welcome back to Armenia!