‘I am returning to where my story began, I am returning home’

The Syrian singer Lena Chamamyan is one of the most popular names in music in the Middle East today. Chamamyan brought her first album out in 2006, and she mostly sings in Arabic and Armenian, blending traditional folk music with jazz. Beside pain and death, her voice and lyrics convey life and hope.

Chamamyan’s family is from Maraş on her father’s side, and from Mardin and Diyarbakır on her mother’s side. She settled in Paris when war broke out in Syria. “I used to be part of the Armenian Diaspora, now I am part of the Syrian Diaspora,” she comments. Her each sentence contains a sense of displacement, and yearning for her homeland. The most significant change in her life since her interview published in Agos two years ago, is that she is now considering settling in Istanbul… Chamamyan is planning to give concerts in Istanbul and Diyarbakır this year, and so is returning to where her story began, to her homeland. 

To be in Turkey in 2015 and to give a concert, what does that mean to you?

The centennial of the Genocide will be commemorated across the world with various events. As an Armenian singer from Syria, I want to take part in such projects with my own message and voice. Doing this in Turkey has an additional meaning. I have a concert in Istanbul in April. I also want to organize a concert in Diyarbakır. I don’t only want to say ‘We are here’; I also want to say, ‘We are living, changing, and we are staying here’. In addition to all that darkness and pain, we have to talk about the hope for the future, about life. I think that is the way in which we can continue.

I know you are working on a new album. How would you describe the soul of this new album?

The music I make is a precise reflection of my experiences. I am from Syria, and I am an Armenian. These identities combine in the songs I write and compose. It wasn’t easy to make music in Armenian during the time I lived in the Arab world. Now I am making an album that is almost entirely made up of songs in Armenian. Music in Armenian touches my soul in a different way, because it is the first type of music I listened to… This album is also a gift to myself.

Did the special meaning of this year influence your choice of more Armenian songs?

I feel a distinct, added responsibility this year. Armenian music is often about painful experiences, it is melancholic. However, we know very well that in addition to pain, there is life and breath, and dance in this music, too. That is what I want to show the world. On the new album, we worked with the renowned musician André Manoukian from France. We began with two songs in Armenians. A while later we realized that apart from two songs in Arabic, we had selected only Armenian songs. What I want to convey with these songs is how Armenians managed to continue and live, not only as victims, but also as survivors… The song titled “Sareri Hovin Mernem” is included on the album with a new arrangement. I also sang one song in Syriac. My mother is Syriac, and this year is also the centennial of the Syriac Genocide. I made two songs in Arabic, and I dedicated them to Syria. It has been a century, but the Diaspora stories are the same, there is blood, there is death. I do not only feel pain, but shame, too, for all these events.

You give concerts in many countries, what were the differences you witnessed from one country to the next regarding the Armenian Diaspora?

I was a jury member at ‘Tsovits Tsov’, the first international Armenian language song contest organized in Moscow in 2014. It was one of my favourite experiences. I had the chance to witness how music continues in different cities of the Diaspora. For instance, Argentinean Armenians sang an Armenian song that contained Latin harmonies. The music of Armenians from Spain had flamenco elements. I love to combine and to mix as well. I met young musicians there. The new generation does not only preserve culture; but it also reflects all its experiences in art to produce culture. And I also understood that, although we may be dispersed across all corners of the world, we are actually very close to each other. 

In our interview two years ago, you spoke about your hope to some day return to Syria, to your home. How do you see the future of Syria today?

I feel a great emptiness, a vacuum. I don’t want to say there is no hope to establish a new life. People are tired of war. I know of people who have returned. They seek ways of living there again. They are trying to build their lives anew. Singers are performing all across Syria, which has become a battlefield, in streets, in squares. People continue to go to work. In the past, you smoked indoors, now I hear of cafes where you are not allowed to smoke indoors. Even that is a sing that life is being constructed anew. Yet I am not very hopeful for Armenians, for Aleppo. I have lost many relatives in the war. I don’t know how the next generation will build a life there.

What if we asked you about home? 

To gradually lose my hope of returning home, in a sense, helped me. I have understood that some times, there is no way to return home. So then you need to take your home wherever it is you are heading. To create your home anew, perhaps… To continue to carry your culture and your values with you, and to tell the world about them sustains you. Besides, this is not a new thing for me. My family is from Maraş on my father’s side, and from Mardin and Diyarbakır on my mother’s side. I used to be part of the Armenian Diaspora, now I am part of the Syrian Diaspora. Isn’t it everyone’s birthright to live in your own country? But I have to constantly struggle to stay in my country. Now I want to come here and sing songs in Armenian.

Could you say you feel at home in Turkey?

I always feel a sense of belonging when I come here. My roots are here. Now I look around and see certain faces, certain expressions. I feel the common suffering and experiences. Four years ago, when I set foot in Istanbul, it was a sunny day. For me, the sun here was the same as the sun in Syria. I saw how the sun added colour to everything. To the buildings, streets, people… But the sun in Europe is not mine; it gives no colour.

Would you consider living in Istanbul one day?

I have been thinking about that for two years now. I have been in Europe since the war in Syria began. But I feel I could be happier here. I will most probably give a concert in Diyarbakır this year. I will arrange for my father to come to that concert as well. My family still lives in Damascus. They have never been here. I want to show my father that his daughter understands and loves her roots and has returned to sing there. I am sure it will be a life’s gift for him. As a person who has constantly been exiled from her home, and always wants to return, this is perhaps why I have come all this way. I want to return where my story began, I want to return home.

‘I feel less alien now’ 

What has changed for you in the last two years?

It took me a while to understand how I feel. When you grow up in the Diaspora, you listen to stories full of pain and savagery. They render you blind, and prevent you from seeing what is happening in the outside world. I believe the time has come to get rid of that. You have to face the fear and the pain, and to acquire your own experience. I did not want to come here initially, too. I came, I saw, and I shed my fears. At the concert I held in Istanbul two years ago, I sang an Armenian song in memory of Hrant Dink. On his land, on my land, I sang out to him in my mother tongue. That was what I wanted, that’s what I realized…

I feel less alien now. And now, especially around Taksim, I hear a lot of Syrian accents. My people are everywhere. But the Syrian children I saw in the streets concerned me a lot. They cannot go to school, they have to work, and a good future seems difficult for them at the moment. They are victims of the war. This time around seeing that was the thing that affected me most.

Have you had the chance to meet Armenians from Turkey?

At that contest, I met Armenians from Istanbul. I can say I felt closer to them. Perhaps because we grew up in the same lands. The most important thing I realized about them was that they carried no hate. Staying and living here had distanced them from hate. They may have succeeded in remaining in their own country, but throughout history, they were subjected to a lot of pain, their voices were silenced. I, too, want to come here and live with them. That is how I can give meaning to my life; that is how I can continue. Those who grew up in the Diaspora, who have never been here, have boundaries. It is not easy to go beyond those boundaries.

How do you feel when you meet people from Syria here, or in Europe?

To meet people from Syria outside Syria is a bit like returning home for a short time… It gives me the strength to carry on. I meet up with Syrian communities in the cities I give concerts in. The two hours we spend together means, for them and for me, to return to Syria, and to remember.

‘You cannot make art by only focusing on death’

As the Syrian Diaspora has grown, Syrian music, culture and art has become better known. How do you define your position in this field?

I always made traditional music. The only new thing for me is to write and compose new songs with a distinct Diasporan sense… Since the war, people want Syrian artists to tell them about things in Syria that they don’t know. But it is difficult to convey that pain and loss. You cannot make art by only focusing on death. You have to talk about the life there, about struggle and hope. That is the path I take. I write about beautiful memories and the values we had in Syria; that is how I want to show what we have lost. 

How has the war and being away from home affected your music?

I used to think that traditional folk music could not convey new pains and fears. Since the war, in Europe, I have faced up to my fears and myself. I had no support; I could see nothing but pain and darkness. Then I wrote a song. I sang about how we could dream in the dark. I used to write lyrics in the past as well, but this was the first time I composed and arranged. There aren’t many women singers in the East who compose. It was a painful process, but it made me, and my music, much stronger…


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Maral Dink