Opera Singer Nora Sourouzian’s Pilgrimage to Armenia: "I felt like a part of a strong family”
Nora Sourouzian is an opera singer who lives in Copenhagen. She is half Armenian, half French. She has traveled around the world to sing in international high-class operas, making acquaintances with world-renowned singers and conductors along the way.
One day, however, loading her backpack with sneakers and a suitable walking cane, she struck out to traverse unpaved roads, towards unknown directions. She wanted to understand who she was and why she was so connected to her Armenian roots. Nora named her adventurous and difficult journey through Armenia’s villages, mountains and fields a pilgrimage, which, instead of leading to a centuries-old church or temple, took her to the people.
"The best way of recognizing a people is direct communication," Nora said, and went on a journey to find herself.
"My grandma always had greens on the table," says Nora, "She had a small garden where she grew different sorts. She knew by heart how important each of them was for health. I thought it was her peculiar trait, and she was the only one. Now I know that all Armenian grandmothers and women are like that. They are attentive to nature’s bounty, and know how to communicate with nature. They care for their loved ones and want to protect them all the time. These are small, but very important details, through which a people’s national character and humanity are manifested.”
Instead of Yerevan’s tourist hotels and restaurants, she chose rural places, sometimes spending nights in unfamiliar houses, talking to villagers, and learning how to make cheese and yogurt. She walked from Garni to the remote villages of Yeghegnadzor, reached Goris and Tatev, and then visited Gyumri, overcoming the cold and all kinds of inconveniences.
Nora's mother is French, a native of Marseille. Her father is Armenian, born in Syria. He grew up in Lebanon, and then moved to Canada.
"I was born in Canada," she says. "My father has lived in Armenia for the past eleven years."
Nora’s been to Armenia several times before, but these visits left unfinished experiences and unanswered thoughts, as they were mainly tourist stops.
During her treks in Armenia, she jotted down her impressions and posted photos in her blog at https://noratravelsite.com/. She wrote about her difficulties and adventures, overnights without heating, wonderful nature, generous people, the unforgettable flavor of lavash (Armenian bread), abundant snow in the middle of spring, and the country’s amazing sun and mountains. Her foreign friends, following her blog posts, left comments under all the pictures, "Nora, where are you, what a fairy tale, where is this country?"
"I wasn’t afraid, only a few dogs scared me. And my sneakers gave me a scare, since they had to overcome the terrible roads of Armenia," Nora jokes. The people she met were her greatest revelation. "They are interested in a stranger, they greet and ask, "How do you do? "
Nora now realizes that the best way to get to know a country and its people is to communicate with ordinary folk, to understand their social situation and mindset.
Despite the everyday difficulties and rocky roads, she was always taken care of, surrounded by people willing to help.
"People live in difficult conditions, but they are kind, they open their doors to an unknown Armenian and immediately surround them with warmth," she says and adds, “You will never see anything like that in Europe."
One person she met was worried about her cane, and replaced it with a stronger one. An elderly man, transporting fruits on a donkey, made her take at least some of his apples. "It was like a big family. It was enough to say that I am Armenian, and the readiness to help immediately grew."
In addition to revealing the wonders of humanity and nature, Nora found answers to many of her questions during this trip, but new ones surfaced.
"Armenians are caring, hospitable, warm, hardworking. We are not only a smart, but also a strong nation, "says Nora. “We create everything with difficulty, because conditions are difficult. The adage, we are a people who make bread from stones, is on point. Naturally, there are also surprising phenomena, and I can’t understand how we’ve let them take hold in our lives.”
Nora believes Yerevan leaves a deceptive impression that life is rich and luxurious here.
"But it's enough to step out of the capital, and there’s striking poverty," says Nora.
She met people living in the most difficult and unbelievable of conditions and felt sorry for them.
"When entering the poorest of homes, within a few minutes a nice table is being prepared for you, for a stranger. They have a hard life, but they sing. Our faith, our pain and our difficulties are expressed in the songs. Listen to Armenian hymns, to our village songs. They capture all of this.”
Nora made endless comparisons with the European countries, finding advantages she’d never encountered in developed countries and shortcomings that she would like to rule out.
She constantly recalls the awful state of roads and lack of signboards. Garbage, however, is the biggest shortcoming for her in Armenia.
When you walk the first kilometer, the second one, the third, you get tired, you want to sit down somewhere to rest. There’s a lot of garbage everywhere. She says everyone's home is clean, but there is a lot of trash outside. Plastic bottles and bags are strewn everywhere in the Ararat Valley.
Searching for answers, Nora mentions poverty as one of the possible reasons. She says it’s the same in Tunis, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt.
After a few seconds of silence, she says, “But I’m not certain this is the reason. I believe education and upbringing are to blame.” This is a major problem for Armenia, she argues, and the government must immediately develop a detailed action plan.
It’s still a mystery for her how people endlessly complain about the government, but continue to vote for it.
"The people I met were all dissatisfied with the leaders of the country, local administrators and their approach, but some wanted to believe that something would change," says Nora. "I am surprised, I can’t understand it. If this or that official is working badly, why not choose a better one? Maybe we're naive, gullible. Armenians have to take care of their own country."
The abandoned houses and destroyed factories, the traces of the earthquake in Gyumri, made the worst impression.
"Our government succeeds in doing what the Turkish government failed to do. Turkey wanted to empty Armenia at any cost. Now what do we have in our homeland? All are fleeing, and that’s terrible.”
Nora says Armenians, like the French, like to make toasts. The difference is that a Frenchman will merely say “to your health”, while an Armenian toast is lengthy, encapsulating a series of wishes, memories, and crises.
In all the villages she visited, people had sons who were serving in the army. Some had died in battle. The most repeated toast was to trouble-free military service. They wished peace to the country, and Nora saw alarm in the eyes of the mothers.
"Wars in the world have always taken place for the sake of money and profit," she says. "As a result of a war, one side benefits and gets richer. And who pays for it? It’s the mothers, villagers, and ordinary people, who barely earn a living. And the farther south I walked, the stronger I felt the presence of the war in people's lives."
"Diaspora Armenians sometimes have superficial ideas about people in Armenia," Nora says. "They can criticize, just seeing the negative: here in Armenia, people cheat, they grab a lot of money, they flee the country, etc. But it is very wrong to judge like this. I saw the exact opposite outside Yerevan. One has to come and live here, to understand from the inside, before making judgement calls."
"I felt like a part of a strong family. I felt that they were my brothers, my father, my uncle and grandfather," she says." Armenians are not lazy, they are tied to their land and they only need opportunities to create. "
Nora mentions the Armenian sense of humor as a national characteristic. "They joke even in the most difficult of times, and this speaks to their strength."
Nora Sourouzian in the role of Carmen
After visiting Gyumri, Nora Sourouzian had to return to Copenhagen. Famous stage and opera roles awaited. She says her impressions will last a long time and help her delve into her future characters more deeply, more personally.
And then, after the noise of the applause and wandering in countless airports, Nora will prepare a new map for future treks leading to new discoveries.
"It was a very difficult journey, I confess, but I do not regret a moment," she says. "I was always amazed, surrounded only by love and new discoveries. The only thing I regret is not reaching Artsakh. But that's not a big problem. I’ll do so soon, on my next visit. The biggest gift for me was the ability to get to know myself and to understand that Armenians are powerful. It is no coincidence that, despite all our hardships and the enemy’s attempts to destroy us, we still exist. But we must also understand that our country is our wealth, our home, which shouldn’t be polluted, damaged and lost. We must understand that no one, besides ourselves, will make it flourish."
Photos by Nora Sourouzian
The top photo is taken from the singer's website, http://www.norasourouzian.com