Poet Priest?: Swiss-sponsored festival challenges Armenian traditions

Can an Armenian woman be anointed priest?

If she is a bisexual feminist poet performing in a Yerevan night club, yes.

At The Club, American-Armenian Nancy Agabian acted out her poetry Wednesday night in themes that challenge Armenian traditions and push limits of toleration in a conservative society.

The performance art was part of the “One Step” program of feminist events sponsored by the Swiss Utopiana Organization (www.utopiana.am).

Standing on a blue yoga mat, a basin, washcloth and teacup (with broken handle) in front of it on the floor, Agabian sings an excerpt from church liturgy while doing a swimming exercise. Parallel to it is a recital: “A good friend has asked me to be the godmother to her baby. It was a surprise; I never thought in my life I would ever be a godmother. Suddenly, I’m supposed to safeguard a child’s moral and spiritual upbringing. I don’t exactly know how I’m going to do this. You see, I don’t go to church.”

Agabian anoints herself priest in her “Water and Wine” performance “baptizing” herself as godmother with a new morality. It is a faith where the Armenian identity and sexual orientation – inadmissible for the Armenian community – the fate of the family and a woman’s liberation from Eve’s sin are combined.

About 30 people filled the trendy art café for the performance, which was interpreted by “Bnagir” Internet literary journal editor and poet Violet Grigoryan.

Agabian prepares slippers from American newspapers, then a priest hood, and the text tells the story of her family’s women – of her grandmother, who was rescued and cared for by Arabs during the massacres; and of family disputes, where her mother was always under her father’s dictatorship.

It is a story in which the Church is a symbol of a woman’s slavery in the Armenian community, because of its conservative ways.

“I never wanted to go to church when I was a child, to be tortured by boredom with the indecipherable Classical Armenian, incessant, depressing music and suffocation by incense, the most horrifying part was standing in front of the bearded Der Hayr who towered and glowered above me in his glittering brocade outfit as he pressed a wine-drenched piece of the wafer onto my tongue. I stopped going to church once I became an adult. Every time I returned with my family, I seethed at the spectacle, the way women did not participate in the service except to sing in the choir and the way that women had to wear lace doilies on their heads since they are inherently sinful like Eve.”

The poet, who lives in New York, tells about a day, in 2002, when she brings her lesbian girl-friend of Armenian decent to an Armenian church where “all I wanted to do was kiss her, to swish my lips and tongue around hers.” The urge to kiss in the church, she says, was a desire to have an impossible wedding ceremony, an aspiration to bypass the church law and establish a new law.

(New law or old, it is a rare thing that a woman speaks publicly in Armenia about her "alternative" sexuality.)

Agabian, 37, has published one collection of poems entitled “Princess Freak”. The text of “Water and Wine” is from her yet unpublished book “Me As Her again”.

Last year “Bnagir” (www.banagir.am) published in its ninth issue translations of Agabian’s poetry, due to which she was invited to participate in Utopiana’s festival.

"I knew Nancy through her poems and I did not imagine her to be like this. It was a surprise for me to see her so small and seemingly defenseless,” said Grigoryan. “A desire to protect her rises inside you. But after her performance I suddenly felt that this tender creature herself was defending us, Hayastantsis.”

There was a time when Agabian distanced herself from the Armenian community, which did not accept her sexual orientation. However, after she was 30, she against started to communicate with Armenians in New York learning about an organization of Armenian homosexuals. She believed that the Armenian community needed modernizing: “To be a woman and an Armenian is the same to me, because I got my Armenian identity from Armenian women. Now I know that I myself have a lot to give to the Armenian community and receive a lot from it.”

In New York Agabian organized “Gartal” club, where writers with different views connected to each other through being Armenians, gather.

The organizer of the festival, Stephan Kristensen, says that one of their goals is to over come fears prevailing in society, such as for example women’s fear to remain unmarried, the fear of being feminist, the fear of creating homosexual communities and many other fears that are typical of both women and men.