Syria’s Armenians: A Nation Within a Nation

The psycho-geography of Aleppo as seen in Avo Kaprealian's film, Houses Without Doors

BY ​Timothy P. A. Cooper in Opinion | 30 MAR 16

For many in the Syrian-Armenian community, what’s past is prologue. The refugee crisis facing those walking the Western Balkans route or braving the Aegean Sea has, for the Armenian diaspora, a correlate stored deep in collective experience. Shown at this year’s Berlinale – the 66th Berlin Film Festival – Houses Without Doors (2016), from artist and filmmaker Avo Kaprealian (who was born in Aleppo in 1986 to an Armenian family), pays tribute to the lives and the psycho-geographic presence of the Armenian quarter of Aleppo, once a place of salvation, now a point of departure. Shot from the balcony of his family’s apartment, Kaprealian lays bare the historical similarities between the fate of Aleppo’s remaining Armenian residents and their ancestors who sought sanctuary there a century ago

Houses Without Doors arrives at the crest of a wave of institutional interest in Armenian contemporary art. At the 2015 Venice Biennale, the National Pavilion for the Republic of Armenia received the Golden Lion for its meticulous survey, ‘Armenity. Derived from the French word Arménité, the pavilion explored the inherited trauma and construction of identity of contemporary artists and descendants of Armenian Genocide survivors, regardless of their country of birth. Held on the island of San Lazzaro, where Lord Byron once decamped to immerse himself in the Armenian language, ‘Armenity’ was housed in the embodied axis of the Armenian diaspora in the pre-Genocide era of mercantile trade. From this departure point, curator Adelina Cüberyan von Fürstenberg established a ‘transnational assembly’ wherein the works of artists born in the diaspora were placed in dialogue with one another over the identification, invention and reinvention of ‘armenity’. 

Avo Kaprealian, Houses Without Doors, 2016, film still. Courtesy © Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts/Avo Kaprealian

At the beginning of the 20th century, the reformist Young Turks movement strove for the ethno-religious homogenization of the Ottoman Empire. Wide-reaching ethnic cleansing followed; the Ottoman Armenian population were sent on forced marches, without food or provisions, towards the last outpost of the Empire, the Syrian Desert. At the end of the line, the city of Deir ez-Zor, mass atrocities were committed by the Ottoman authorities against the expelled populace in a series of huge open-air concentration camps. Many who escaped the massacres found shelter with the Syrian Arab population and extant Christian communities. By 1922 more than 12% of the population of Aleppo was made up of Armenian refugees. Before the Syrian Civil War began in 2011 there were an estimated 100,000 Armenians living in Syria, with 60,000 of them residing in Aleppo, and with smaller communities flourishing in Kessab, Kobane and Damascus. In 2014, a memorial shrine in the Armenian Martyrs’ Memorial Church in Deir ez-Zor was destroyed, reportedly by the Islamist al-Nusra Front. The bones of genocide victims that had lay under protective glass within the shrine were scattered in the street and the memorial shattered and desecrated. 

Avo Kaprealian, Houses Without Doors, 2016, film still. Courtesy © Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts/Avo Kaprealian

In the Midan district in the north of Aleppo was once situated a camp for displaced Armenians who had fled the death marches and massacres. Ever since, the area has housed a large population of ethnic Armenians. Due to its location in relation to the fighting, the Midan district has long been a front line dividing forces loyal to the Syrian Army from Rebel Forces and Kurds. Kaprealian’s Houses Without Doors is a claustrophobic and, perhaps consequently, meditative documentary on the streets of the Midan district and their residents’ readiness or reluctance to flee, particularly in light of their refugee heritage. Punctuated by funeral processions, distant bomb clouds and machine-gun fire, and shot with a small, hand-held camera, the film captures how the war has become enmeshed in the everyday routines of Midan locals as they occupy a liminal space between an imperilled present and a future that seems all too reminiscent of an embedded trauma. Comparable in many ways to Liwaa Yazji’s debut film Haunted (2014), Houses Without Doors preserves tension between the imminence of fleeing and the agony of continuing the status quo. Across Syria, the deeply asymmetrical nature of a war waged both in hideous proximity to and beyond the limits of visibility has decorporealized citizens under siege. Reassigned from subjects to cannon fodder or human shields, the bodies of many Syrians have been rendered legally and diplomatically indiscernible. 

Hrair Sarkissian, Homesick, 2014, two channel video and five inkjet prints, each 1.50 x 1.9 m. Courtesy © the artist

With its roughly pixelated and unstable aesthetic, Houses Without Doors derives clarity from moments of communion. In this manner it can be compared to the ‘spontaneous painting’ style of Syrian-Armenian artist Kevork Mourad. Mourad’s collaboration with Syrian clarinettist Kinan Azmeh has resulted in a number of audio-visual performance collaborations, as well as Azmeh and Mourad’s residency with Yo-Yo Ma’s musical collective, the Silk Road Ensemble. Yet while Kaprealian registers the emotional scars that accumulate in domestic spaces, as well as the violence inflicted on a home to amputate it of its doors, Syrian-Armenian artist Hrair Sarkissian's two-screen video installation Homesick (2014) provides a surrogate for the artist’s departed Damascus home. Homesick depicts the destruction of a precise replica of the artist’s parent’s house, with the intricate selection of remembered objects – from a water-tank to the colour of neighbours’ curtains – testifying to the tangibility, and fragility, of memory. 

With Syria as a cohesive nation facing the possibility of federalization or partition, ancestral lands and human networks important to those in the Armenian diaspora face the possibility of further fragmentation. Many, however, have decided to accept promises of assistance from the government of Armenia, with more than 15,000 having left Syria for the capital Yerevan since 2011. Despite the exodus, there is little doubt that Syria, once a place of shelter, will lose its revered position in the Armenian imagination. 

Timothy P. A. Cooper is a researcher and essayist on contemporary art and film from the Middle East and South Asia. He lives in London, UK.