by Milena Abrahamyan
“Aregnazan” is an Armenian fairy tale written at the end of the 19th century by Ghazaros Aghayan. It tells the story of a father who has three children, two of whom are girls. The sex of the third child, Aregnazan, is not explicitly stated, but the father declares in the beginning of the story that Aregnazan will be a girl in order to protect her from evil spirits. Although Aregnazan has been declared a girl, she is not interested in the particularly typical things that are assigned to her gender. So she learns, with the encouragement of her father, to hunt, use weaponry, ride horses and do other things that would traditionally be done by boys. Eventually she proves her worthiness of being able to fight for the king and is declared a boy by her father in order to fulfill this duty.
Once Aregnazan is in the kingdom, he proves his abilities and strength by defeating a bear and saving the king. During this time, the king’s daughter, Princess Nunufar, falls madly in love with Aregnazan, but Aregnazan refuses her, partially due to her embarrassment regarding her perceived “actual” gender. Nunufar, being the princess that she is, becomes extremely ill after being refused and the king sends Aregnazan on a journey to find the “eternal water,” which is promised to be the cure for Nunufar’s “illness.”
On the way Aregnazan meets a dove-girl who transforms Aregnazan into a “real” man and also finds and brings the “eternal water” for him. As Aregnazan continues on his journey, he stumbles upon Stone City where all of the inhabitants have been turned to stone by an evil witch, except for the king who is only half-stone. Aregnazan helps bring the king back to life by giving him some of the eternal water and they defeat the evil witch, restoring the kingdom. Once his feat is finished Aregnazan returns to the kingdom, gives Nunufar a drink of the eternal water, thus saving her life. Since he became a real man during his travels, he is able to marry Nunufar and they live happily ever after.
Magical World is an adaptation of Aregnazan’s story by two Armenian artists, Arpi Adamyan and Melissa Boyajian, who are using a queer, feminist and futuristic perspective in an attempt to empower conventional female characters in the original story and to offer an alternative understanding of gender roles within traditional Armenian stories and lived lives. The adaptation is currently raising funds so that it becomes fully realized.
Q. Can you tell me a little bit about how this project came about?
Arpi: I had been talking to Melissa since last year about collaborating together and we were discussing many different ideas. But it was quite suddenly that I remembered the story of Aregnazan. It’s a story that my mother used to read to me when I was very little and that I had forgotten altogether. So I remembered the name, Aregnazan, but nothing else from the story except that it was an interesting one. I read it again and realized how much this story had affected me as a child and to an extent as part of my growing up. When you hear this story as a child your interpretation is completely different from how you may interpret it as an adult. In our conservative society we would not necessarily relate this story with the gender issues that are apparent in the story, because it is assumed that one’s gender and role within society are already set.
Melissa: I don’t have the same relationship to this story that Arpi did with her mother reading it to her when she was young. I would imagine that if it was read to me as a child I would also find the gender transformation in the story to be really interesting. Of course when you’re really critical of this story you see how it’s a typical, patriarchal story where Aregnazan does not become a true hero until becoming male, but it is still very unusual that there is this kind of hiding of gender in the beginning of the story.
Q. So obviously there are many instances in the story where you see a kind of patriarchal ideology. I know that you plan to adapt the story from a more feminist and queer perspective. I’m curious about how you plan to change things around to make it fit this radically different perspective. Especially, what are some of the elements in the story that can possibly move the imagination beyond the traditional understanding of gender and the Armenian family?
Melissa: Well, we keep Aregnazan’s gender rather ambiguous in our adaptation, but Aregnazan never becomes a boy.
Arpi: She’s both. And because in the Armenian language you don’t have this gender dynamic with pronouns, it makes this ambiguity easier. Of course, it’s different when you translate from one language to another (Armenian to English) and even when we speak in English during our process it can be confusing. But when you read the story you don’t have this confusion in Armenian. It works.
So the first thing about gender is that our actor will be a girl. We thought to have her (Aregnazan’s) character stay a girl, but then we thought that we’d rather have her be both. Throughout the whole story many people try to confuse her about his gender, but she resists and passes sometimes as a girl, at other times as a boy.
Meeting Dove Girl is a critical moment in the story when Aregnazan experiences a physical transition and becomes male. In our adaptation we will show this as not necessarily a physical transition, but rather a transition or expansion of thought. Dove Girl is a character who helps Aregnazan understand that he doesn’t have to make a choice about which gender she is and that she doesn’t have to divide himself according to the gender binary. So Aregnazan becomes the embodiment of someone who refuses to divide the self into parts.
Melissa: We also change Nunufar’s character. We don’t have her as a sick princess. She is almost like the second protagonist of the story. Even though Aregnazan is the hero in some regards, we’re trying to shift this dynamic so that the story is not about individualism in that sense. Nunufar and Aregnazan save the citizens of Sleeping City together. They do it with the citizens of the city by empowering them to break free.
Arpi: Can I just add something? You know how in the original story there is this kingdom and Nunufar is the princess, a privileged one at that. We also change this in our adaptation by playing with class representations. Nunufar is no longer a princess. She’s half-cyborg.
Melissa: In our plot the Sleeping City is our adaptation of Stone City. In the original story all of the people of Stone City have been turned to stone. In ours, they are all repeating the same tasks over and over with their eyes closed. It’s symbolic of Armenia, especially with regards to the economic situation. If you know anything about Armenia you know that there was the economic collapse in the 90’s, many people are unemployed or if they have jobs they are working for a minimum salary that can barely cover living costs. This is also connected to the vast privatization of all resources here. There are very few people who are rich here and they have become wealthy through illegal means. This kind of corruption goes all the way to Serzh Sarksyan who has been fraudulently elected already twice.
Arpi: Maybe your first impression upon hearing “Sleeping City” is that everyone is sleeping there and that something is happening which they do not see. But in reality that is not the case. It’s more about the general situation of that city and how there is a sense of a kind of “sleeping” condition in the city . . . that it can’t wake up.
But I want to go back to Nunufar for a moment. First of all it was interesting for us to leave her name as it is in the original story. I’m sure you know that in the process of adaptation we can change names of characters and their appearance. But for us it was interesting to keep her very feminine, almost fragile name and yet have her appearance change. Nunufar is a princess and so she is part of a kingdom where she is protected and even spoiled in many ways. It was important for us to take her out of that context. We end up not knowing much about her family. So she becomes more independent and mobile. We shift the patriarchal understanding of a man (Aregnazan) being someone who leaves the home and can travel and the woman (Nunufar) being someone who stays at home and waits for the man.
Melissa: These actions are things that are taken from patriarchal aspects of Armenian culture whether in storytelling or even things in the domestic sphere.
Arpi: For example, Aregnazan resists her father with a lasso. It references the story of Artashes and Satenik. According to Moses of Chorene, Artashes dominates Satenik with a lasso and is able to “have” her in that way. In the case of our adaptation, it’s Aregnazan who does this action to her aggressor, who she doesn’t know is her father and who she also doesn’t wish to “have” in this way. She is simply fighting to resist being stopped on her way. This is not only an illustration of what happens in a patriarchal society, but it’s about gender codes. We are trying to play with those codes that we have internalized in order to change them and push them to the extreme. If criticism is sometimes very intense it can offend certain groups living in your society, but when the criticism of something is taken to the extreme, the absurd, it becomes something more tangible. The absurd is a very interesting method for working with a problem.
Melissa: For me, as a Diasporan Armenian I can attest to the fact that many Armenians from the Diaspora live in the past. It’s a culturally different experience to compare my family to the people here. But to be able to envision something that is not in the past was important for me. And also there being a potential for a future in that things could change. That was important for me in setting this story in the future.
I think that Armenia as a Republic and also a people all over the world is a pretty crucial question. What will it be to be Armenian in 50 years? Will there be anyone living here anymore? And I know that’s very dismal, but hopefully that won’t be the case. In any case, to be able to imagine something in the future that could have the potential for change was important for me.
Arpi: The original story takes place in the 19th century during the time of the Tsar. In our adaptation we do not represent a time in which there are the same social-class problems. I think that Melissa and my experiences are a little bit different. For me, as someone living in a very conservative society, adopting a futuristic view for this story provides an opportunity with which it becomes possible to change something at a much faster pace than how things are changing in Armenia today. In this type of parochial society things tend to change very slowly. Things stay within the boundaries of that same conservatism, order, tradition, etc. We often see how people who are trying to change something are still staying within the bounds of that conservatism. Take for example today’s "revolutionary" movements in Armenia . . .
Q. So, just to dive a little deeper into the question of what this means for Armenia and maybe not only for Armenia, but for Armenians in the world as well. How do you make those links?
Melissa: There are some things that I think are prominent in most Armenian families regardless of where they are. For example, my family is extremely patriarchal. In either case, there are some traditions that can be applicable on a wider scale, even if some things are specifically located here in Armenia.
Arpi: There is a way in which one becomes socialized and learns as a child how to interpret certain stories. Society starts to carve you out according to its rules and codes so you can play your respective role. This is the whole problem. What would it be like if Aregnazan’s gender is not dependent on his father, the Dove Girl, or the love of a capricious princess? We see how Aregnazan is someone who plays out other people’s desires, something that is very characteristic of the Armenian culture in which a child is taught from a young age to have desires according to the codes that society has already set out for him or her.
We are never taught that we can make choices for ourselves. That we can change and transform. This is something that absolutely does not exist in our culture. For me adapting Aregnazan’s story means to create an entirety of characters who have the possibility to choose and transform through a series of relations and conflicts. This is also the thing that made the original story so interesting for me: the fact that there is a possibility for transformation, because as we see, Aregnazan, in any case, does change. Of course this change is also within the bounds of what the world in which she lives in will accept for a hero, but he still changes and transforms in every way possible.
It’s like the crossroads that characters in fairy tales often stand in front of. This is something that we don’t see women heroes in Armenian fairy tales usually have the opportunity to do, but Aregnazan is that character who has the opportunity to stand at a crossroads and choose a path. And this is what I think is most important about this story and its adaptation: change and transformation, the thing that I think we need the most.
Q. So in other words it is something that affects everyone and something that we can all relate to. It’s not just for people who thinks about and work on issues of sex and gender.
Arpi: Well, it definitely raises questions of gender, but also the generational question, traditions and living outside of those traditions, adopting different life-styles. But the main thing we see is the question of change and transformation, which is something that can go beyond gender.
Melissa: There are also many connections to what is happening in the country right now, economically and politically speaking. We don’t specifically speak about these things in the film, but many of the current problems of Armenia make themselves known throughout our adaptation.
Arpi: For example, we have an oligarchic character, someone who thrives on hypocrisy and fraud . . .
Melissa: It’s a symbol of the problem and not necessarily anyone in particular.
Something worth mentioning is that all of our characters will be played by women, with the exception of one character who will be Nunufar’s best friend. So the oligarch will be played by a woman, and the father as well. This is also a connection to the Armenian theater of the 1930s when the actor Siranush would play male roles. In a way she popularized this trend within Armenian theater.
Q. So you have an Indiegogo campaign online and you have another 4 days left to raise 6,000 dollars to fund this amazing project. Can you briefly tell us why you think this project is an important one to support?
Melissa: Well, because there need to be more representations of powerful characters from Armenia that are not so extremely patriarchal. And there needs to be a revision of some of the traditions, too. People should support us because it’s going to be an awesome project. It is an awesome project.
Arpi: For me there is also this element of how this fairy tale, the original one, is rather unique in the sense that it tells of an old time kingdom in which there is a notion of gender passing, the concealment or misrepresentation of one’s perceived gender. So I think this story is not only interesting because it is in the context of Armenian culture, but also that I don’t know if there are such stories in other cultures.
In reality I am very happy with all of the positive responses we have gotten from people who are supporting this project. It makes me happy to see that we are doing something that many other people truly believe is needed for them to understand the culture in which they are living in. So this is not just a story, it’s not just an adaptation . . . it’s very much connected to our lives. We are living all of this. We are living those traditions and we are also changing them.
So with this project we are representing not only ourselves, but also many other women. We are also representing men who don’t think in the traditional and conservative way.
I think that each person should support us according to their own world-view so that it can be possible for us to realize this project. It is always refreshing to see that people want change. And supporting this project means just that.
Help Magical World come to life >> support the project at Indiegogo.com!
[Reprinted from Ianyan Magazine]