BY JULIA PAPIYAN
“You eat your watermelon with feta cheese, just like we did back in Baku. This was a tradition in the summer for us. It’s like you were teleported from there sometimes,” my mom, Regina, says to me at an elaborate family dinner. Her words are marked with a lingering sadness in the eyes, yet she manages to expose a slight smile. The feelings she has about Baku, the capital of oil-rich Azerbaijan — and also her homeland — are deeply complex. Perhaps the only people that will ever truly grasp this complexity are those that also suffered through the Baku massacres: the Armenians that were born, raised, and lived in Azerbaijan, only to be violently purged out of their homes with little warning in the late 1980s following Soviet collapse.
To say that life was ideal for Armenians of Baku prior to the dissolution of the Soviet government would be an utter fabrication. While they lived like others, the trials and tribulations which they faced due to their ethnic roots were unbearable at times. Discrimination was the most common form of reminding Armenians that they were the minority, my mom recalls. She was born in 1959, the daughter of Grant, a respected civil engineer, and Erna, a well-known multigenerational Jewish physician. Yet with all of the esteem that the Papiyan last name held, upon secondary school graduation and exceptionally high marks, she found that her “Armenianess” served as a barrier. While her face did not look traditionally Armenian due to mixed ethnicity, her last name spoke another story.
Still, she attended and finished the famed Baku Conservatory of Music and started a promising career working alongside some of the most famous composers, concertmasters, and vocalists. There she met my father, formed lifelong friendships, and overcame the obstacles put forth before her. She remembers these moments fondly and often.
But in the wake of Gorbachev’s perestroika, and specifically in 1988, the world of Armenians in Baku was turned upside down. “I came to work and my boss, an Azeri, had a terrified look on her face. She told me to sit quietly and not answer to my name under any circumstances. Within five minutes, a group of thugs came in with a list of Armenian last names, and mine was included. I sat quietly and spoke normally, but I was shaking inside. You could smell death in the air. They called my name but I never answered. My boss said that Regina Papiyan was no longer in the city. The thugs instructed her to inform them if an Armenian showed to work,” she recalls. Even now, a quarter century after the fact, her face shows the fear she undoubtedly felt that day.
Virtually overnight, the refined cosmopolitan of Baku turned to a dark and eery seaside. The winding boulevards and bright gardens became hubs for anti-Armenian extremists and gangsters spitting propaganda. Homes that were occupied by Armenian families — once full of laughing children and happy memories like birthdays and New Year’s Eve parties and wedding receptions — were now ransacked and evacuated. Familiar streets that once sold ice cream on hot days were painted with blood and sinister acts. Baku was no longer the place my family knew and loved. Instead, it manifested into an unrecognizable hell. My grandmother, a once high-demand doctor, now lived and slept in the basement of a loyal Azeri patient who brought food to her on a daily basis. My mother stayed with her fiercely protective Azeri friends. My father was arrested and jailed. There was nowhere to go. Death was imminent.
“But you must remember, that were it not for our Azeri friends, none of us would be here alive today. Yes, there were evil, uneducated, blind masses, but there were also so many Azeris that put their lives on the line just to save another person. They did not see me as a nationality; they saw me as a human and chose to do the right thing despite the consequences. And the consequences were very real and very frightening. If it wasn’t for that kind of courage, I would not be here,” she says with a smile forming on her face, “And, of course, neither would you.”
Indeed, my family would not be alive and growing were it not for the righteous. With the help of her Azeri best friends from the Baku Conservatory, my mom was brought and snuck onto a train heading to Moscow, Russia. Her head was wrapped in a dark scarf, she says. “I clutched onto two knives that were given to me for protection. They were in my pocket and I held onto both of them for nearly forty hours — until I got off the train in Russia. I clenched so tightly that both of my palms had an imprint for a week. My identification was hidden so deeply that I could barely find it upon arrival.”
My father was let go from jail after another loyal Azeri pulled strings to free him. Later, my parents were reunited and married officially in Moscow, but the trauma they both suffered took its toll heavily. My father, a former soldier and pilot who stood at 6’3″, lost weight rapidly and became a shadow of his former self. He had scars from his time in jail but never elaborated on what happened inside those walls; it was too much to handle for him.
They didn’t know it at the time, but my parents became refugees and were never able to return to the city of Baku. Many immigrated to Russia, Armenia, Israel, and the United States, and while some are more successful than others today, all continue to bear the scars and struggles of a refugee. For my family, Brooklyn, New York, and Detroit, Michigan, became a new kind of home. “America, I don’t think, will ever be like Baku,” my mom says candidly while eating her piece of watermelon and feta, with tears welling up in her eyes. “It tore us apart. My family is spread across three continents and thousands of miles. I haven’t seen so many relatives, many who have passed on already. We live here, yet we speak Russian, have different traditions, and eat a mixed cuisine. We are unique. The nostalgia will always be present. But I can say something for sure: perhaps this is not my homeland, but the United States will always be my safe house. If someone asks my name, I can freely and proudly be Regina Papiyan. Today, tomorrow, and always.”
The narrative she and others with a similar experience are, much like the watermelon and feta, both sweet and sour. The lives that were uprooted and scattered across the globe, the wounds that will never truly heal, and the visuals and terror that leave survivors shaking will never be fully erased; they are sharp and acidic. They hit the soul so deeply that it’s difficult to imagine 25 years have passed. Yet life brings the sweet with the tangy: new opportunities, new life, and renewed sense of hope, ethnic pride, and perseverance.