Lebanese-Armenian artist stages one-man cultural revolution
“I won’t join the revolution unless I can dance,” he says, echoing the words of Emma Goldman. His long, white braids, ear piercings and goatee make him one of the most recognizable men in the Armenian world. Most people know Vahe Berberian from his popular stand-up routines, but comedy is just one medium among many for this creative polymath: he tells his stories on canvas, in film, on stage and on paper.
The walls of his living room are covered in art. When speaking with him it’s impossible to avoid feeling like he knows something you don’t, but not because he’s coy. On the contrary, he shares his thoughts rather freely, quoting Vonnegut and recounting stories of Russian poetry readings in New York City in the 1980s. You eventually realize that he is telling you the plan he has in his head for what he’s doing, almost philosophical, and when you listen closely enough, it starts to come together.
His smiles are sincere and he peppers his conversations with “hokis,” an Armenian term of endearment, but his bountiful charm belies a morose family history.
He wouldn’t die
Berberian’s father Raffi was one year old when he was sent on a death march through Deir ez-Zor in the Syrian desert with his mother, Vahe’s grandmother. The two first settled in Aleppo before moving to Beirut, where Vahe was born and raised. His mother’s entire family was massacred during the Genocide.
Many families avoided recounting their horrific experiences to the new generation, but not in Berberian’s home. “In my case, it was the total opposite. They said: ‘This is exactly what happened, if you don’t remember it, you will be betraying us. For the longest time, I had a huge sense of guilt without having done anything to feel guilty.” One particularly disturbing story told by his grandmother was about how she tried to drown his father three times during the death march, but the Euphrates was so full of bodies, he wouldn’t die.
A refuge in comedy
Vahe is nonchalant and forthcoming about the consequences that collective grief has had on his psychological well-being: “In general, I’m not a happy person. I’m prone to depression and severe anxiety and this is why I look for humor. If I was a happy person, why would I look for humor?” he asks. He may not just be talking about himself, either, considering how popular he’s become among Armenians. Judging by the jokes he tells, he may not be the only one looking for refuge in comedy.
Leaving Beirut at the age of 17, Vahe traveled to Europe and lived there for a time, but then returned to Lebanon and lived through the first years of the Lebanese Civil War before escaping to Los Angeles.
Art became a respite from the outsized historical and emotional burden shared with his compatriots. But it wasn’t clear at first. “When I was growing up, I used to draw and I remember painting and drawing skulls – Deir ez-Zor skulls,” he recalls. It wasn’t until later, in the late 1980s, that he realized that “everything we were doing was macabre, almost [like a] necrophiliac.” It was a revelation.
He concluded that accepting the Genocide’s role in his life didn’t require him to be bound by it, nor did it preclude him from exploring the depths of Armenian culture that so fascinate him. “It dawned on me that things need to change, and the only way to do it is if you want to be perceived differently, you have to perceive yourself differently. Being Armenian has nothing to do with survivorship, f**k that. Being Armenian is sexy, being Armenian is beautiful, being Armenian is fun, being Armenian is hip, being Armenian is funny,” he insists.
Thus he set out on his mission to inject life into the culture he so loves, lest it meet the end of all things which fail to reproduce.
Berberian didn’t have any illusions about how difficult it was going to be, saying, “We have 1.5 million people sitting on our shoulders and we’re trying to move forward and it’s so difficult.” But this tattooed 61-year-old regaling a crowd by mocking their – and his – own idiosyncrasies in Armenian was not concerned with limiting himself to a boxy paradigm. Five books, 13 plays, five comedy shows and hundreds of pieces of artwork later, his large following must appreciate that he wasn’t.
He unflinchingly embraces the role his culture has played in his work, saying it adds a whole new dimension to who he is: “My being Armenian has always been an asset, has always worked in my favor, without exception.” His culture is so much a part of him its role in his work seems a natural consequence of who he is, rather than a way for him to satisfy his audience or erase any residual guilt. And he uses it with great ease, showing that it can be inspirational without being overwhelming, that it can color perspective without being blinding.
Indeed, his irreverence to cultural norms by way of his appearance, jokes or art suggests an exceptional comfort with his Armenian identity, allowing him to achieve a sublime, enviable balance.
The future of the Armenian nation looks bright to Berberian: “Our music has become more upbeat, we have been experimenting. I’m talking about groups in the Diaspora and Armenia that are banking on our heritage and adding something to it, enriching it and making it more contemporary.” He doesn’t care if they’re pretending. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,” he says, invoking Vonnegut.
“There is lots of excellence in music, same with movies. We have come to the conclusion that in order to make an Armenian film, you don’t have to definitely make a film about the Genocide. Maybe we’re almost there, where we feel like we’ve exorcised the demons of the Genocide. We’re in a good place now.”
But to Vahe, there is no stopping. Berberian continues his one-man cultural revolution to uncover the beauty and art resting amid the vast Armenian landscape – and he’s dancing all through it.
This piece originally appeared on the Aurora Prize website here.