An Armenian in Lisbon

Varak Babian

If one was to type “Armenians in Lisbon” into the all-knowing Google, the following top 3 results would appear:

  1. 1983 Turkish embassy attack in Lisbon
  2. Armenian Culture and History in Portugal- The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
  3. Taste of Armenian in Lisbon – Review of Ararate restaurant (Yes, spelled with an “e”). 

Not only were these three points the search engine optimized version of yet another page in the diasporan reality playbook, but they also made up an entire Thursday’s worth of sightseeing and to-doing when a new family tradition of travelling somewhere “new” to welcome the new year found us in beautiful Lisboa.

By the time it got to the aforementioned Thursday, we had been in Lisbon for a few days and had rewarded ourselves with a passing grade in the attempt to assimilate ourselves with what the city had to offer. Undirected strolls on historic black and white cobblestone resulted in pristine mobile seats to the free, lively theatre of everyday city life. Chestnuts were roasted by heavy-set tobacco enthusiasts. Plates of sardines drizzled in oil twirled and then lowered onto checkered tablecloths. Buildings donning tiles of the brightest hues led us down steep alleyways.

We didn’t discriminate in terms of our sights to see, allowing a more practical method to take its turn guiding our senses. Some, more disciplined, early morning rises allowed us to pay a visit to historic chapels and boulevards. We saw monuments echoing the time of late antiquity. Rarely, reservations were made to sit table side- but when they were, the haunting music of Fado serenaded the room; gifting trinkets of sodium upon the cheeks of captured listeners.

On the last eve of the decade, the streets of Lisbon played host as we invited ourselves to the gathering attended by thousands of locals and tourists alike. While attempting to hum along to lyrics scattered across Portuguese live music, we stood shoulder to shoulder; at times, even unwillingly leaning on fellow patrons of the Terreiro do Paço square. 2020 was moments away, and the countdown obliging the advent of the untouched decade soon began. The universal language of fireworks ornamented the skies, sketching the pristine canvas of the new year and colourfully etching it with bright pinks, reds, and yellows. Hugs were given and received. Memories were being made in the present, while thinking about the past and the future. Looking through portraits from yesteryear and looking forward to future promises of both joy and affliction.

‘Undirected strolls on historic black and white cobblestone resulted in pristine mobile seats to the free, lively theatre of everyday city life. Chestnuts were roasted by heavy-set tobacco enthusiasts. Plates of sardines drizzled in oil twirled and then lowered onto checkered tablecloths. Buildings donning tiles of the brightest hues led us down steep alleyways.’ (Photo: Varak Babian).

Long story long, after a few days and having successfully ushered in the new year, we seemed to have the lay of the land and had knocked out a few sights to see, when we decided to take the plunge into the Portuguese version of the Armenian narrative. It would only be appropriate to start this bright, crisp Thursday morning off with none other than Mr. Five Percent, Calouste Gulbenkian.

Calouste Gulbenkian played a significant role in the post-war cultural life of Lisbon. It was in Lisbon where the businessman and art collector spent his last years. It was here that he established in his will a foundation that would carry his name and benefit the international community.

Captivating nickname aside, Calouste Gulbenkian has rightfully reserved a seat at the table of prominent Armenians. His influential role in oil establishments left him with a five percent stake in Iraq’s Petroleum Company. Really committing to this personal brand, he also insisted that five percent of the Iraq Petroleum Company’s workers in the field be Armenian. I mean, cmon. How can you not get behind this guy?

On that first Thursday of the year, what I was focused on was not the business savvy or benevolent action that cemented his legacy- rather, my attention was fully captivated by an impressive pocket of green in the heart of this European capital that bears his name.  This on its own, was enough to make an impact.


Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian

The Gulbenkian Park, also known as Gulbenkian Garden, is part of the cultural centre housing the headquarters of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Gulbenkian Museum. A museum that showcases one of the largest private collections of art in the world; the private collection of one solitary man. I’m sure you can guess who that man is…

‘The Gulbenkian Park, also known as Gulbenkian Garden, is part of the cultural centre housing the headquarters of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Gulbenkian Museum. A museum that showcases one of the largest private collections of art in the world.’ (Photo: Varak Babian).

The landscape of the garden and the grouped buildings interact fluidly; with lawns manicured to fit the natural landscape that includes the lakes within it. Footpaths within the park cut through rows of impressive foliage bordering peaceful streams. Readers read on benches and daydreamers dreamed on its lush lawns. Children chased each other and a couple seemed to be comforting each other, seemingly in the face of some disastrous news. All of this within the confines of the beating heart of the city.

Aside from having a blind sense of paternal loyalty to the name this conglomerate of culture bears, I couldn’t stop myself from feeling proud. I couldn’t stop feeling proud even if I wanted to take a break from my swelling chest. Here was a man that accomplished so much. His last name is so integral in the Rolodex of important Diasporan figures and yet… he’s not remembered for his shaking fists demanding revenge, or by reflecting upon potential and probable feats of greatness thwarted by a life cut short. He lived, he succeeded, he amassed praise and recognition. He’s remembered and valued by Armenians and non-Armenians alike. There is an impressive pocket of land in his adopted city that is used as a stage to value and love nature, art, culture, life.  A place the city’s inhabitants can visit as they hop off the hustle of sidewalks and spend time with their valued friend, serenity.

I allowed myself a moment to daydream the ultimate aspirational fantasy: visions of a cultural hub blanketed by an urban park in my own adopted city. A beautiful botanical garden with footpaths marked with exotic, robust foliage. A row of colour coordinated brick and mortar, housing a vast collection of Canadian-Armenian folklore. Paintings, photographs, literature, archival footage, a performance space. An homage to an adopted country that encouraged and embraced the maturation of its immigrants, an opportunity to acknowledge my past, celebrate my present, and welcome the future melding of both. Canadian geese and Sandhill cranes roaming alongside shared walkways. Serene streams dotted with iron placards, displaying samples of poetry.

“Sad little lake, let us be friends.

I too am desolate; 

I too would fain, beneath the sky, 

In silence meditate.”

Past the first stream, perhaps a pond.

“When we swam once

I touched you in water

and our bodies remained free”

Bedros Tourian and Micheal Ondaatje saluting Torontonians overlapping seasons, as they sit back on benches and call on their favourite paperback… Daydream over.

Feet still barely touching the ground, we exited through the gift shop and left with all manners of branded souvenirs: tote bags, sharpeners, and pens all stamped with the “Gulbenkian” last name.  Floating even higher with so much “ian”-ed merchandise, we made a last stop at the guest book, determined to preserve and capsulate these feelings of pride, adding another “ian” to the museum’s living history.

We flipped through and were happy to see Hayk from Ukraine.  He was stunned by the sheer volume of the collection and said so upon visiting late last year. Silva from Sweden was thrilled about the existence of such an important institution and signed off her greetings with a flourish.  We did the requisite “hunt for Armenians” and pointed out “ian”s , “yan”s, and everything in between. Finally, there was an individual from Azerbaijan whose lack of penmanship wasn’t why their remarks resulted in a double-take. I will share them here with you:

“Thanks for the exhibit!

I come from Azerbaijan. I saw on the map Karabakh is the part of Armenia and I felt upset.

It is wrong map.

Karabakh is the part of Azerbaijan.

Armenia occupied my motherland Karabakh in 1991-1994.

Please change this map. Thanks.

-Karabakh is part of Azerbaijan”

Of course, that got the good ol’ heart pumping, but it was more of a “shall I cry or shall I  laugh?” moment. Did this person assume that a museum named Calouste Gulbenkian, located next to the headquarters of the Calouste Gulbenkian foundation, surrounded by the landscape of the Gulbenkian Garden would showcase content aligning with a denialist, indoctrinated, heavily skewed Azeri narrative?

I don’t think it’d be wise of me to confess, here in published black and white, to altering this person’s words and by doing so- breaking the unwritten rule of not editing a guestbook. Whether I tried to illuminate their fiction by shedding light on historical facts, whether I crossed off their “Kharabakh”s and replaced them with “Artskah”s… Whether I bolded and underlined the words Eastern Turkey is Western Armenia for good measure…it’s all irrelevant.

I had been smiling through gardens, through walkways, through museum corridors. I was proud, I was happy. Some light to moderate propaganda was not going to alter my mood. If anything, it brought my feet back to the ground and made me realize… I was feeling peckish.

As our top three search optimized results had already told us, there was indeed an Armenian restaurant named Ararate in Lisbon and via the all-knowing Google and all its apps and bells and whistles, we soon discovered it was only a handful of steps away from the Gulbenkian Gardens and Museum.  To be honest, I’m still not sure whether the location is a matter of coincidence or a savvy restauranteur banking on the foot traffic of well-intentioned Armenians, swollen with pride after visiting such a beautiful and impactful space. Pride can be a bit like MSG: a healthy dose of it simply leaves you wanting more.


Ararate Restaurant

A stained glass door, etched with the image of Mount Ararat welcomed patrons inside. It was clear that the restaurant’s name wasn’t the only homage to a country far away. Multiple rows of letters making up the complete Armenian alphabet were stylized and reproduced on the restaurant walls. A healthy collection of Jermuk and Karas bottles were perched by the bar and ready for dispatch. A handful of engraved metal coffee pots swayed by their handles, floating in the suspense of being summoned. Classic depictions of Armenian villagers huddled together breaking bread. Sketches of vibrant Armenian highlands. Safe to say, this was not a projection of subtle or minimalist tastes.

I asked the young woman taking our order a glaringly obvious question.

“The owner is Armenian?”

A slight pause. I repeated the question with a slower cadence.

“The restaurant, Armenian restaurant?

She said yes. I asked to speak to the person responsible for creating such a detailed

Armenian ambiance for their guests to enjoy.

She answered my request with a confident head shake and a strong no.

“No?” I questioned,

“No.” She was firm.

“What, no? The owner is my cousin!”

“No, you can’t see him. The owner is in Russia.”

I smiled absurdly to make up for the somewhat forceful tone I had just used and she smiled back and laid out the menus on the table. Back to business.

The place was beautiful, right down to the monogrammed cloth napkins and charming dinner plates. I was in Lisbon ordering Lavash at a restaurant named Ararate. I was happy, processing how endearing it all was. Yet in an attempt to stay candid, my visit lacked the feeling of “being home”. There wasn’t an item on the menu that I remember my mom making when I was young. Nothing that triggered a memory of familiarity, no combination of flavours that correlated with sealed Tupperwares, resting in my freezer waiting to be devoured. It was the cuisine of the Caucasus. An area of the earth that I proudly claim to associate with, without ever being steeped in its daily existence. The cuisine seemed foreign, but would that same feeling echo when identifying Yerevan as my capital, my home? Will aspirations and well-intentioned plans of uprooting my life in Toronto for the Armenian Highland always remain just aspirations? Where does this road to home actually lead? Of course, that didn’t stop us from snapping all matter of photographs while hesitantly confiding to one another that this meal had been our least favourite dining experience in the Iberian capital. I was still happy, but… Feet were now firmly planted on the ground.

We exited the same glass panel doors that were etched with the same mountains. We walked, we talked, and eventually stopped for some caffeine. Visiting the Gulbenkian Museum and eating at Ararate was something we had discussed for the day and set off to conquer on that Thursday afternoon and we had ticked all the boxes, snapping all the pictures and revelling in all the moments.  Now we only had one thing left from our search engine optimized “to-do” list and it was something we had mentioned but did not necessarily all agree on: to be present at the location where a series of events would make even the most stoic squirm.


Turkish Embassy and the Lisbon Five

As your standard risk-averse individual who relishes in a solid contingency plan, I don’t fully embrace the “you can’t look back; you have to look forward” sentiment. Plus, I’m Armenian. Forced migration and ignored genocides don’t offer much in the way of closure or faith in the universe. In fact, I enjoy taking a “look back” and steadying myself in the grand scheme of a shared narrative.

While time spent visiting Berlin, I made sure to visit the corner of Hardenbergstraße and Fasanenstraße. The spot where a monster had once sprawled along the sidewalk, put down like diseased vermin, and the spot a folk hero was born.

While in Bolis, I visited Daniel Varoujan’s memorial at the Şişli Armenian Cemetery. Nobody was resting beneath the tombstone. His flesh had long since slowly been peeled back with a knife and discarded. Not having the chance of being prayed over.

I visit those places and try to see myself in others’ shoes and while in Lisbon, I wanted to see where feelings of visceral hate and the unquenchable thirst for revenge conditioned a handful of young men to act out misguided feats of violence.

Look at me, from my comfortable ergonomic chair, expressing veiled judgment. Speaking of their “conditioning” and labelling their actions as “misguided.” I, much like those teenagers, often feel hate. I often feel an insatiable appetite for justice.

At times, I even understand when James Baldwin claimed that “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Yet I didn’t live in the same context of life, the same political climate, the same raw, unapologetic protest against complacency. My existence wasn’t marinated in the civil war of Beirut and my demands for justice are not attached to a “by all means” tag line. Whether the balance of my moral compass aligns with what happened in 1983 at the Turkish Embassy in Lisbon is neither here nor there. It deserved to be remembered, and in this case, deserved to be visited.

So we decided to not wait for “maybe before we leave”, and get it done on that day. On that Thursday afternoon. The address was procured, the chariot beckoned via fingertips hitting and prompting the screen. Uber, two minutes away.

Our driver was pleasant, and hardly spoke any English, which I guess didn’t really matter. Not one person in the four-door sedan seemed to be in a talking mood. Lost in thought. Perhaps anxious, perhaps scared. Perhaps in a reflective state, realizing that if they felt uncertain or scared or nervous…imagine how those five young men must have felt. A quick look on the cellphone screen displayed that we still had a ways to go. We were now in the car for 16 minutes, with another 18- 20 ahead. Were we going to the right place? What were we expecting to do there? It seems that the further we got from Lisbon’s city centre, the less inflated and prideful we felt…

In hindsight, we should have probably implemented more of a calculated approach instead of just jumping in a car and hoping for the best. If I had spent more time concerning myself with details, I would have realized that our required destination was off the beaten path. I had envisioned strolling on the sidewalk and casually walking up to the embassy. It was clear that wasn’t going to happen. It was away from cafes and restaurants, or shops. Away from places most people, locals included, would be aimlessly walking. We seemed to be in the suburbs, driving by rows of government offices and impressive structures with foreign flags. We were able to make our driver understand that we requested her to stay at the site she was about to drop us off and wait.  She agreed, and before we knew it, her back two tires were kissing the pavement as she abruptly parked the car directly in front of the Turkish flag- momentarily hopping the curb as she did so. My internal body heat thermometer showed impressive strides forward. I asked the driver if she could position the car some steps forward, away from the intimidating, high rising front gates of the embassy. She obliged, and I eventually hopped out of the car, perhaps too purposefully.  All the while displaying my unkempt, dark black, lengthy beard. We walked upon a large glossy wall depicting flowers and the sun. A beautiful mosaic showcasing the signature Portuguese tile.  A lengthy message presented using cursive writing stamped the vast row of colours. It felt surreal reading words that shamed Armenians. Calling us terrorists.  A call for peace within mankind, and loving memories of fallen individuals at the hands of cold-blooded Armenian killers. Peace? Humanity? Fallen individuals? Cold-blooded killers?

A uniformed officer stood under a glass partition, and the random arrival of a car scraping the curb, then abruptly parking, then producing individuals with a keen interest in the specific embassy he was guarding seemed to ruffle his feathers. He started engaging in strong strides, marching towards us. Marching step by step, getting closer as his menacing assault rifle dipped up and down through the air. My sister was the first to retreat, and she made a bee line to the waiting car with my mom followed shortly after. They motioned for me to follow them back to our ride into Lisbon, but I decided against it. I wanted to feel scared, to feel the slightest morsel of the kind of worry a group of vulnerable, proud, patriots must have felt. I walked forward, lighting a cigarette to fool the officer (and then myself) that I was calm.

I wanted to relate, to feel at one with Calouste Gulbenkian, but his story was foreign to me. He came from a family of means and privilege. He had attended prestigious institutions in France, in England. His family was not from the same place my family was from.

I wanted to embrace the ambiance of Ararate restaurant, but the images depicted on their walls, or the spices used in their food were not my experience of “Armenian-ness”. We didn’t gather as a family and feast on dishes prepared and served in clay pots.

I wanted to sympathize with those five young men who had been raised with the same soundtrack I had, demanding justice and imagining moments of vigilante justice. But did I compare myself to those same “Armenian terrorists” shamed on colourful, tiled walls?

The search for some sense of national existentialism doesn’t even seem to retreat during holidays spent taking a break from everyday realities and it seems like I am always on the look for that common detail, that moment of realization or complete sense of identity. I have only learned that I haven’t been able to find it in the actions of others, no matter how heroic, how philanthropic, how controversial they may be.

It all seems to parallel with the reality that you can’t really feel somebody else’s pain or discomfort. I might complain about a perforated eardrum and, in turn, you would feel bad and perhaps show signs of compassion.  But if you haven’t felt the pain or discomfort on your own skin, you would be hard-pressed to relate.

Perhaps I need to roll up the sleeves and operate. Close up that hole myself.