The phenomenon of the Honorary Armenian can be best described as someone involved and active in the Armenian community but bears no genealogical connection to the Armenian people. These are the outliers who have somehow become insiders, demonstrating an often-inexplicable affinity for the richness and authenticity of an ancient nation with its unique language, religion, history, artistry, and traditions.
These tried-and-true members of the community range from Armenian Studies scholars and human rights activists to close friends with no ethnic connection to Armenians. Others have stumbled across Armenian culture through music and the arts, by way of the Armenian church or early Christian architecture. Or, as in the case of Perry Stevens, through a fateful encounter that became a lifechanging event.
Today, Stevens is an online influencer who goes by @garackwoodworking, an internationally beloved Instagram creator known for his remarkably intricate Armenian-inspired wooden art pieces spanning from khachkars and chess boards to alphabets and large-scale maps. His online platform has since expanded to Armenian-language phrases and tutorials, garnering over 30,000 followers from the Armenia Diaspora and beyond. This leaves many Armenians and non-Armenians alike wondering how his passion for their culture came to be.
According to Stevens, who grew up in Armenian-saturated Burbank, CA, his first in-depth introduction to the Armenian World was one of his close friends Tigran—a deaf Armenian from Yerevan, Armenia. The pair met in sign language courses at Burbank High School, which had a large deaf Armenian student population. “There were nights when I would hang out with twenty-ish deaf Armenian people and just have an absolute blast,” he shared. A sponge for languages, Stevens became an Armenian By Choice, deeply involved in the Armenian community and other ethnic enclaves like the local Greek clique.
“I loved growing up hearing Farsi, Arabic, Armenian, Greek, Spanish, and all languages in Burbank,” he added. “I was always really impressed by the familial centeredness of different cultures. And I’ve always loved languages.” The self-proclaimed “odar” still has his high school notes and scribbles from his Armenian friends and crushes teaching him the language. “I knew a lot more Armenian than most Armenians in Burbank,” he admitted. “I definitely still have an accent when I speak, but after growing up around it, I can at least pronounce most of the sounds properly.”
The main catalyst for his Armenian connection, however, was the Artsakh war, which coincided with his move from California to Utah for school—a new territory devoid of Armenians, or diversity at large. Upon hearing about the initial stirrings of war, Stevens, who masterfully switched from Eastern Armenian to English throughout the interview, felt he owed it to the community that helped raise him to take action. “So I made an Armenian map with Armenia and Artsakh in Hayeren and started a raffle.”
Stevens, a self-taught woodworker, grew up watching his grandfather toil away as a carpenter. He picked up the trade naturally and started his business as a hobby and later to help pay for his education at Brigham Young University, using tools sourced from Craigslist. Like so many fresh graduates during the pandemic, his job offer was no longer valid and the lockdown allowed for ample time to pursue woodworking. “Once you get the taste of something, you feel more confident moving forward in it,” he explained. He’s had his work broadcast on Good Things Utah and continues this work full-time today, getting commissions through Instagram. He has successfully combined his passion for Armenian culture with carpentry, carefully crafting everything from Armenian alphabet coasters and Armenian name puzzles to Armenian-inspired cutting boards and birch cutouts of Tatik-Babik.
The raffle easily raised $2,500, on top of bringing in a tidal wave of eager Armenian followers, amazed that a non-Armenian raised funds for Armenia. This momentum resulted in offers for Armenian courses, and Stevens met Arevik, a tutor from Yerevan. “She started teaching me how to read, how to write, and how to converse. So I started making language and phrase videos, which made people laugh,” he said. Determined to become fluent, Stevens studied the language front and back, meeting with tutors twice a week on top of managing his woodworking business, painting passion, and comical videos documenting his language learning process. “I know how people were hurting during the Artsakh war, and I just wanted to make people laugh.”
Through his humorous videos, his Armenian speaking and writing improved —and his following skyrocketed. “I wanted to show how awesome the language and culture is because I know there are a lot of Armenians in areas where there aren’t a whole lot of other ethnic Armenians. So they don’t necessarily have a lot of pride or ability to learn. It makes me sad because Armenian culture is so fascinating, ” he explained.
His videos have quickly gone viral, with some gaining over 350,000 views. Many Instagram users have chimed in to voice how appreciative they are of his videos. One profile wrote, “I’m Armenian and I don’t even know these phrases. You’re so funny and you amaze me with your knowledge of Armenian.” Another agreed, adding: “You are making our day so much easier…I love watching your videos, thank you for learning Armenian.” All this attention, however, has come with a fair share of negative pushback, even from Armenians. “There’s nothing that comes from gatekeeping,” he shared in a video. Gatekeeping refers to the act of someone or a group taking it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have the access or rights to a community or identity. “It does nothing but discourage people from learning about the culture.”
I will consider myself an honorary Armenian, but to people who lost entire families in the Genocide, I don’t think it’s fair to claim that identity.
The woodworker, though an eager and outspoken advocate for the Armenian cause, is very much aware of his place in the Armenian World. “I do thoroughly enjoy being embraced, but I don’t ever feel like I can say I’m Armenian,” he shared. “I have the respect not to do so. I will consider myself an honorary Armenian, but to people who lost entire families in the Genocide, I don’t think it’s fair to claim that identity.” Stevens himself describes himself as “spitak,” meaning white.
As someone entrenched in the Armenian community, Stevens is also sensitive to the nuances of inclusivity from within. His wish for the Armenian community is to encourage non-Armenians to join and share the culture. “I understand why Armenians want to band together and keep separate, but when you want support from the people you’ve kept separate, it now becomes unapproachable, ” he noted. “It is a hard balance to strike because there’s been a lot of isolation, and it’s valid. But on the other hand, you need more inclusion to have non-Armenians and other people supporting loudly.”
His Christian identity has also motivated him to stay vocal about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Artsakh. The destruction of Armenian churches, in particular, has encouraged him to keep going. “The cathedral in Shushi that has been converted into a mosque is so angering because, as a Christian, I would love to travel there and learn about the heritage.” He continued, “I would think that if more people were aware of the connection between ancient Christianity and Armenia, then we would have a lot more support.”
Stevens had plans to visit Armenia, but Covid put his trip on pause. He hopes to go in the spring after his wife graduates to continue his Armenian-language videos and vlog his escapades for his avid followers. “I want to document the whole trip and encourage other people to travel to Armenia.” It’s safe to say Stevens is making an impact in the Armenian World and beyond, earning his rightful title as an honorary Armenian.