The steeple of a church with a cross, framed by tree branches.
A view of St. Vartan Armenian Apostolic Church in Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Members of St. Vartan Armenian Apostolic Church start wrapping sarma in May for their annual October food festival

Sarma—brined grape leaves stuffed with rice and spices—is more commonly called dolma in the U.S. I’ve always had an affinity for this mezze. In the 1960s, my grandmother, Ardemis, was profiled in The Trenton Times for her recipe. 

Like some of St. Vartan’s founders, Ardemis fled her birthplace of Istanbul. She spent most of her life in New Jersey and died years before I was born. I’ve relied on that old newspaper clipping from The Trenton Times to get a sense of who she was, and how she thought about her identity.

Left: A 1965 newspaper clipping of an article about the author’s grandmother. Right: The author’s grandmother, Ardemis (center), with her mother and daughter in Istanbul. Credit: Courtesy of John Klopotowsky

Dolma” means “stuffed” in Turkish, which would normally be a fitting way to describe St. Vartan during their special weekend. Festivities take place in the church’s mid-century gymnasium, which transforms into a grocery store, mess hall, dance floor, auction house, and concert venue all at once. 

This year’s festival was different, though. It relied heavily upon last-minute planning due to events taking place thousands of miles away, and its story exhibits how Oakland’s Armenian community sees their historical identity vis-a-vis their life in the Bay Area: Instead of viewing their identity as one that needs preserving, local Armenians see their identity as Amerikatsis—the Armenian word for those in the American diaspora—as ever-changing.

Members of St. Vartan didn’t feel right about having a celebratory festival this year. In the final weeks of September 2023, conflict in Azerbaijan displaced over 100,000 Armenians from their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan’s borders that has long sought independence. Protestors in the Armenian diaspora liken this exodus to the Armenian Genocide of 1915, and violence at one such protest at the University of Southern California even made international news.

So, the Friday night dance party for all in attendance was canceled. Instead, groups performed short, traditional Armenian dances. Entrance fees for the event went to the church’s humanitarian fund, and there were tables around the grounds with information about the crisis.

During the event, even more impromptu action was needed. Friday evening, the church’s transformer blew, leaving everyone eating, standing, and talking in darkness. 

When the lights went out, there was a moment of confusion. But, as if it were planned, members of St. Vartan were on their feet, walking around with flashlights and passing out water to everyone in the food line.

People sit around a table in the dark. A woman lights a match to light candles on a birthday cake.
Parishioners of St. Vartan in Oakland are left in the dark after a circuit shorted during their annual cultural festival. It didn’t stop one family from going ahead with their birthday celebration. Credit: John Klopotowski

Beth Rustigian, whose grandparents were founding members of St. Vartan in 1924, said that this year’s last-minute fundraising represents the attitude of the community in Oakland—and stands in contrast to an insularity within many Armenian communities in the U.S. that prevents them from engaging with their broader metropolitan communities.

For evidence, Rustigian cited the diaspora’s use of the Armenian word odar, meaning “other” in English, to refer to non-Armenians. “It’s derogatory,” she told me. 

Rustigian admitted that during her grandparent’s time, the Bay Area community was reluctant to welcome newcomers. But now, St. Vartan welcomes new faces to their church, regardless of their heritage, linguistic abilities, or sexual orientation—a rarity for most Orthodox parishes. 

Rustigian said that this openness to change helps in moments like this weekend, when church members need to think on their feet.

Steve Donikian, a deacon at the church, sees similarities between Armenians and Oakland, which both carry reputations as underdogs. “When I was a kid,” he told me, “the most important place outside of the church was the Coliseum.

“We’re always getting put down,” Donikian added. But he thought the festival would show people that “we’re still here.” I wondered, when Donikian said “we,” whether he was talking about Armenians or Oaklanders. He was referring to both.

“It was so cute to see the check-ins throughout the evening,” said Olive Mugalian on Saturday, recalling the blackouts. Olive’s brother, Gabe, joked that attendees who grew up in Soviet Armenia were probably used to blackouts.

The siblings grew up in Los Angeles, but have found the Bay Area community more welcoming. 

“As long as Armenians are persecuted in their homeland, the diaspora should stay faithful,” Gabe said. Olive quickly jumped in. “But we’re too proud and nationalistic.” They were both happy to see a large number of non-Armenians over the weekend.

Olive and Gabe Mugalian at the St. Vartan festival in Oakland. Credit: Courtesy of Olive Mugalian

One volunteer at the festival, Serli Höllüksever, is a student at UC Berkeley who grew up in Istanbul. Höllüksever lived in Southern California for two years before coming to Berkeley. “I felt like other Armenian students treated me a little differently when they found out I was from Turkey,” she said to me in Turkish. 

I wasn’t surprised to hear this. Some look down upon those, like Serli’s or my family, who stayed in Istanbul after the genocide. They’re cast as sympathizers to the violence, and therefore less Armenian. 

A few minutes later, I met Itır Yakar outside at a dining table. She is Turkish and has no Armenian heritage, though she has friends at St. Vartan.

After the 2006 assassination of Istanbulite-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, Yakar organized a discussion group for Turks and Armenians in the Bay Area. The purpose of the group was to brainstorm processes of reconciliation, and it met for over a decade. Today, a book club with a similar purpose exists.

This past summer, I visited Dink’s old paper, Agos, in Istanbul. It sits in a heavily fortified building, requiring visitors to pass multiple security checkpoints. In Oakland, Turks and Armenians don’t need metal detectors to organize to discuss the trauma of the past century that continues to weigh so heavily on us.

Steve Donikian, a deacon at the church, sees similarities between Armenians and Oakland, which both carry reputations as underdogs.

Krikor Zakaryan, the pastor of St. Vartan, offered remarks toward the end of the festival. He talked about politics and community with a passion one would have expected to hear at an altar. 

Zakaryan spoke slowly and rhythmically. He articulated every word so clearly that their individual syllables echoed throughout the gym. The audience was rapt. 

He thanked Oakland for providing a home for St. Vartan for a century. He wanted to give something to Oakland in return; as festival-goers shared their time and donations with St. Vartan, they presented Armenian culture to Oakland. 

Zakaryan ended his remarks with a passage by William Saroyan, a celebrated Armenian-American writer. As he read the words from a small notecard, the priest’s diction became even more precise.

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race…Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing, and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia.”

Zakaryan emphasized, “new.”

I looked across the table at my mother, who was misty-eyed. I was transported to July, when she and I were in downtown Istanbul after visiting Agos. We stood outside of the house that Ardemis fled as a young girl.

“What a world they left behind,” mom said as we stood there. I wanted to comfort her, but I didn’t know what to say. 

What is there to say in the face of such a violent tragedy?

But, sitting in Oakland this past weekend—almost 7,000 miles away from my grandma’s house, in a gym with folks of any origin—I had an answer.

See if they will not create a new Armenia. And see if they will not share it with others.