Arek Keshishian is a young architect who just graduated from the University of Yerevan. His older brother Vahakn works at a bookshop in Beirut and is a regular columnist for the Istanbul based Turkish-Armenian daily Agos. Both were born and raised in Aleppo.With the help of Araz Kojayan, an anthropology MA student living in Beirut’s Armenian neighbourhood of Bourj Hammoud, they joined efforts to launch a Facebook page and blog dedicated to their beloved Armenian language — specifically the Western Armenian dialect spoken in Istanbul, the Near East and among parts of the diaspora.
In just seven months, they have been able to gather a vibrant community of followers. Mashallah News asked them a couple of questions about their project, Aghvor Parer.
How do you find and select the quotes or expressions you publish?
The basic contents are the “aghvor parer” (the nice words). These are images curated to the size of Facebook page posts and contain an Armenian word. The post includes transliteration of the word in Latin alphabet and its meaning in Armenian and English. The other posts are compositions of images, short verses, phrases and statements that aim at using both the words and other ideas that we think will be appealing to our audience.
We try to create series of images. Some of them are just replicas, others are continuations of a series, like a kind of story building. For example, we created a series of imagined covers for the Tintin comics, in hypothetical adventures connected to the Armenians. “Tintin’s Adventures from Aleppo to Yerevan and from there to Sweden” was one of the most popular ones.
We try to diversify our content when it comes to text. Diaspora literature and modern Istanbul Armenian literature are our basic inspirations, but we also try to keep abreast of contemporary everyday Armenian pop culture. Apart from being fun, it generates huge numbers of followers. People like to see their everyday talk posted on their Facebook newsfeed. The one and most important example is when we designed one of those “Keep Calm and…” posters with the very Armenian phrase, “Put the coffee on, I’m coming along”. The response was huge, more than ten times of our regular response rate, with thousands of likes, shares and comments.
Do you have some favourite ones?
Fortunately, the more we are challenged to create new posts, the more we have fun sniffing out ideas, so our favorite ones become the posts in the making. The posts that make the process of creation fun become memorable posts for us. One of the latest posts that we really enjoyed making and later had fun following the response of the followers was the Armenian translation of “whatever.” Just that. We got the design idea from a fashion magazine, very pink and glamorous. It became one of our favorites because it touches the heart of our aim: to show that Armenian is a dynamic language.
On a broader level, what is the situation of the Western Armenian language?
It is not a secret that the Western Armenian language is an endangered language. UNESCO has declared Western Armenian as “definitely endangered” in the Middle East. Since it is a language of diaspora and does not have any state sponsorship, the terms of survival are relatively little. The geopolitical and economic situation has made it harder for Armenians to live in the Middle East, as a region that allows Armenians to exist in communities and be able to create a space where the language is used in everyday life. In the Western diaspora and Istanbul, studies show that Western Armenian is not a vernacular language and the Armenian communities are more prone to use the host society’s language as their spoken language. Hence, Western Armenian is not often the first language of Western Armenians. Interestingly, we had a huge demand from our audience in Turkey to add a Turkish definition to the words, because they said they wanted to learn Armenian but did not know English.
Do you have plans to expand the project?
We have a blog that we are experimenting with. We tried to post our content on the blog and share it on the page instead of posting them directly on the page. But the Facebook rules are tough. The exposure of a link that directs the fans out of Facebook is ten-fold less than the direct posts. This was a hindrance. We realised a sharp drop in the engagement rates when posting on the blog. In the long run, a blog is more stable and more rewarding than a Facebook page, because you can monetise a blog, but we need to think more about this.
Finally, we want to say that we are the inheritors of huge culture, a full-fledged civilisation, complete with language, an alphabet, history, literature and of course pop culture. What we do in Aghvor Parer is count these blessings by digging and discovering. What is a treasure useful for if it is not shared?