The Hye-Phen

made with love ⟩⟩ for a better digital / queer / armenian / future ֍

A Diaspora Collage

by | Oct 5, 2023 | Essay

The Hye-Phen

I first saw The Color of Pomegranates at my university cinema with a friend. It is a famous Armenian film, from 1969, about the Medieval poet Sayat Nova. It was a movie about a poet with no dialogue, more like a ninety minute performance art piece. I left the theater confused, and as I drove home in a rainstorm, I worried about something else entirely.

A year later, I saw it again in the house museum of its director, Sergei Parajanov, in Armenia. I learned that the Soviet Union imprisoned him for homosexuality and his rejection of Socialist Realism, and that he was an Armenian diasporan, born outside the country, like me. Both of us are descended from genocide survivors, with homelands in modern Turkey, so neither of us was actually returning. I still did not understand the film, but I felt that there was something of me to be discovered if I could.

Back in Chicago, I wonder: How do you understand a film with no story? I think back to the film in the museum, surrounded by Parajanov’s paintings, sculptures, and costume sketches. The sketches are not sketches at all, but collages of fabric and found materials. It occurs to me that the film is itself a collage, not a story but a collection of moving symbols juxtaposed to create a fragmentary understanding. I decide to create my own collage with scenes from the film and my Armenian symbols.

We were searching for ourselves in each other. The Cyrillic words are white on a red background. I can only read the English subtitles. Scene change. A male figure, the young Sayat Nova, appears in profile, wearing a blue striped robe and a white hat shaped like the base of a cone. His hands move slowly, deliberately, as he tunes the strings of his kamancha. Clear, single notes fill the scene, as if his other hand is bowing the strings.

The Color of Pomegranates Male Sayat Nova

Male Sayat Nova from The Color of Pomegranates (1969)

I dig up a journal from my own first “returning” to Armenia on a family vacation.

July 25, 2015

It became clear when we were sitting at the gate in the Vienna airport, waiting for our flight to Armenia. We passed a soccer team in red Armenia jerseys and suddenly everyone looked like they could be related to us.


I was sixteen, and as I heard priests sing in ancient churches, slept in Soviet apartments, and walked along the Silk Road, it felt like stepping into a history book. Growing up in the Midwest, I never knew that there was anyone else who looked like me, and I wondered if there was a place for me in Armenia. As I watched the lights of the capital disappear on the plane ride home, I longed for nothing more than to go back.

The male Sayat Nova is replaced by his female counterpart, facing the opposite direction. We were searching for ourselves in each other. She wears the same blue robe, with a crown-shaped white headdress that marks her as female. Instead of tuning a kamancha, her hands spin thread into a cloth that never appears. The movement of her hands seems to answer the music, like a dance bringing the figures together.

As I watch the film again, something bothers me about the similarities between the figures, and I find that they are played by the same actress. Traditional clothing, or taraz, is one of the main symbols of Armenia. It is usually used to enforce gender roles, but here it changes Sayat Nova from a man into a woman and back again.

The Color of Pomegranates (1969) Female Sayat Nova
Female Sayat Nova from The Color of Pomegranates (1969)

I feel the material of my own taraz pieces. The soft velvet of a red dress with gold patterns. The textured metal of a silver collar necklace. I try to imagine wearing my sibling’s male taraz, wondering what I would look like in the rough woven colors of the carpet hat and vest. I do not find the courage to try them on.

The female Sayat Nova remains. An open book and a kamancha lay on the carpet behind her, and she is still spinning threads into nothing. We were searching for ourselves in each other. The kamancha gives way to a cacophony of distant voices.

I listen to a pop version of Sayat Nova’s poem, Ashkharums Im Dun Is, or You Are My World. I am transported by the recitation of the poem at the beginning, and when the beats kick in, I am electrified with the feeling of infatuation.I look at the album cover and the singer’s blonde hair and deep-set eyes remind me of my co-worker at a summer internship in Armenia. I remember being transfixed by her black-lined eyes and her confidence. I remember thinking for the first time that maybe I wouldn’t marry an Armenian man and live the cultural dream I was trying to fit into. I remember wondering if I had made a mistake in ever thinking I was really Armenian.

I mourn the silencing of Parajanov’s queerness to make him into someone’s idea of an Armenian icon. I wonder what he would have said about his androgynous images and think that maybe if his memory was freed, I would be too.

Male Sayat Nova with Lavash

Male Sayat Nova holding lavash and soil

The scene changes, and Sayat Nova is male again. In one hand he holds a piece of lavash flatbread, and in the other a gold bowl of black soil. He pours the soil on the bread, aligning his hands as it runs down the sides. He stares at the bread while he pours, willing these symbols of earth together. A voice grows in the background, singing lines of poetry over and over. The subtitles translate: The river has overflown its banks.

The river leads me to the Arax River, my namesake. It runs through Armenia, Turkey, and Iran, and was known to be a wild, powerful force of nature.

I first saw the Arax river the same summer I realized I was queer. We were visiting our family’s actual homeland in Eastern Turkey (or Western Armenia). It was a bittersweet experience of closure and irreparable loss. The Arax river was the symbol that had kept me grounded–unfettered by the restrictions of the Armenian church or society, it suggested that there could be something Armenian in me no matter what. It was a profound blow when I discovered that the Turkish state uses our sacred river as a trash dump.

The male Sayat Nova remains. He stares at the camera, holding in one hand a white rose and in the other a candle. His left hand brings the rose closer and closer to the flame, introducing the possibility of destruction. The river has overflown its banks. The rose comes to rest in the middle of his face as the notes of an oud’s strings start softly, growing to fill the background.

I hear the oud once again at Chicago’s only Armenian restaurant, called Sayat Nova. In the heart of downtown, it represents Armenia to many who may not know the poet.

Chicago Armenians like to argue about whether Sayat Nova’s food is really “authentic,” but I was drawn to it after learning about the owner’s decades-long friendship with the owners of the Second Story gay bar above the restaurant. The image of the dark-bearded Armenian owner drinking beer with the owners of the gay bar after work is an unlikely one, but it gives me hope, and makes the dimly lit, lavishly decorated restaurant I loved as a child seem so much more like home.

I set out on my collage quest to find out what The Color of Pomegranates meant. All I can tell you now is that it is a film descended from the tradition of poetry, not the tradition of stories, so it is not meant to be an easily comprehensible whole. And in a way, that ambiguity is freeing. In the words of another Armenian who I talked to recently about being queer, “I think I know what I am, but it’s not that simple.” It never is.
The Hye-Phen