Friday, August 20, 2004

Leaving "Home" (August 2004)

As I write these final paragraphs I am struck with a feeling that I am about to leave home. I never had that feeling before. Maybe I didn’t know my ‘home’ well enough to experience separation anxiety. What has changed since the last time I was here to make me feel more at home? Definitely one thing is that I have given directions to some locals when they were lost (but of course being typical men they never admitted that they were lost, just that they were trying to get to a certain destination). One other reason is that my absence for a long time from Armenia made it possible for me to assess and reassess the ties that I might have with this quasi-third world, overly commercialized and car-overflowing country. Of course the fact that I have been able to look at the Diaspora from a different perspective and realize to what extent it has become self-absorbed and involved in petty politics also played an important factor in creating a stronger bond with Armenia.

Having said all these, I find myself more and more in the role of a character in the American science fiction series “The X-files”, where the character always repeats the motto ‘I want to believe.’ The analogy is about my skepticism that things have changed for the better. I do want to believe that the country has changed to the better over the past several years and in many ways it has. However being the pessimist self-hating Diaporan that I am, I keep choosing to observe only the worst in every development. Being a cynic thus is not always helpful and it makes it impossible for me to feel at home either in Armenia or the Diaspora. But after all, who am I? I’m just a person. What does a single person matter in the larger existence of a nation? Perhaps nothing. I just hope that over the past several weeks I have been able to share some of my experiences with some readers, who, according to them, shared similar experiences as well as with other readers who basically thought that I’m a nut case and deserved to be executed for betraying ‘national secrets.’

I already hear the cheers of those who were bored to tears when reading these series, but I also could imagine seeing the faces of those people who wrote to share their own experiences with me. For those whom I’ve entertained I say thank you for reading; for those who I’ve insulted, I apologize for them not being able to have an open mind to try to look at things from different perspectives.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Sleepless in Yerevan (August 2004)

No I don’t have insomnia, neither am I suffering from jetlag, it just happens that I am more operational during the early hours of the morning (between 3 and 6 am). Of course there are several reasons for this. The first is that the Internet in Yerevan is faster during those times since less people are online. The second reason is that nights in Yerevan are cooler and it’s more pleasurable to work during those times when there are less cars driving around honking their horns and making a mess out of my nerves.

I would be a liar - who hasn’t lied before anyway! - if I say that checking e-mail and working at night are the only reason why I enjoy the nights of Yerevan. There’s something amazing about Yerevan nightlife. The cafis are of course one unfortunate feature of that but also whoever has taken a stroll in the streets of Yerevan during late night feels that there is something charming about the city at night. It’s not that the night covers the inequalities of people, it’s that when one is walking in the streets of Yerevan looking at other passers by, one gets a feeling of belongingness. This feelings is not based on any identity or socio-economic status - although political hotshots are always there to disturb the peace with their police escorts which pull aside everyone in their path, car or pedestrian.

Has anyone wondered why Armenian ‘politicians’ - be it in Armenia or Diaspora (in the Diaspora they are called party members) - have to act so seriously? Now come on, nobody ever said that to be a viable and trustworthy politician (those two words are sort of contradictory in nature) one needs to be serious. Perhaps it’s a macho thing where to overstate one’s machoness, a serious look could do the trick. That’s one of the reason I could never get along with Armenian politicians since I always manage to be not serious and that of course is a major no - no for a politician. Of course one other issue making my job much easier is that no politician wants to be associated with me as well, since I’m not enough Armenian for them!

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Many Nations, Various Sub-Cultures (August 2004)

The rich cultural life of Yerevan always allows at least several options for entertainment. Here I want to mention two of my own favorite venues. The first is an Armenian stage actor/director who usually comes up with a new show every other year or so. Over the past several years, I have managed to attend three of his works. The shows usually deal with political, economic and social issues of the country in a heavily comedy-coated method. The sad thing is that most people attending the play do not seem to realize the messages that the actor manages to send by criticizing the existing social and political ‘order.’ I attended his last play, which dealt with the exiting political tension in the country, and after the play when I was talking with friends and acquaintances about their impressions of the show I was surprised that they all shared my view that the play was sad. This was both a surprising and expected reaction. Surprising: since the play was meant to be a comedy, expected: since it’s impossible to look at the actors’ interpretation of the injustices in society and not feel sad about it.

The second entertainment outlet that I was personally attracted to was a music band, which has incorporated traditional Armenian musical instruments with modern ones, and the end result became a hybrid Armenian music. Of course if one puts the concept of ‘hybrid’ with Armenian music the first objection would be that it is a distortion of the ‘purity’ of Armenian culture. The reason that I personally loved this type of music is that it was an example of evolution of art rather than its stagnation. To be able to take elements of other cultures and to incorporate it successfully into one’s own is the best method to develop and progress artistically and culturally.

Which brings me to another issue that I’ve been bombarded with over the past week. It just happens that the Armenian government has gone through the huge undertaking of organizing cultural events in Yerevan, during which representatives of various artistic groups from all over the Armenian dispersion presented various songs, dances and other artistic talents. So far so good, the problem - if one could call it that - from my perspective is the motto used for these festivities. It is titled ‘One nation, one culture.’ Let us evaluate this sentence for a moment.

The concept of nation I could live with. After all, in my research and studies - there I go again boasting about my academic credentials - I have dealt with the concept of Armenian nationhood. Without a doubt there is a unity on the national level, but at the same time the ‘oneness’ is not absolute. One good example of this is the thorny issue of the Armenian Genocide and relations with Turkey. For overwhelming Armenians living in the Diaspora, their identity is largely defined by the Genocide, in other words they are Armenians because the Genocide happened and they seek recognition for it. On the other hand for Armenians living in Armenia their ‘Armenianess’ is not a factor of the great tragedy of the Armenian nation. On the contrary Armenians in Armenia never even need to define their national identity since they already live in Armenia and the land defines one’s identity whether or not one chooses to. The second major difference between the Diaporan nation and Armenia nation is their concept or view of Armenia’s relations with Turkey and specifically about the opening of the border with the country’s western neighbor. Since I’m neither an economist nor a politician I’ll just pass along what I’ve heard about this issue in Armenia and in the Diaspora. In Armenia people are usually (but not necessarily overwhelmingly) for opening the border with Turkey. This opinion has more of an economic basis since in the minds of most people, such an event would make it possible for transportation costs to decrease tremendously. Of course on the other hand is the concern that the Armenian market could be flooded with cheap Turkish product and the country’s economy would be destroyed - as if having several oligarchs monopolizing the economy is not devastating. On the other hand the Diaporan mentality is that relations with Turkey should be preconditioned with the latter’s recognition of the Genocide. Now I’m not the judge on which opinion is the correct one, but one thing is for sure, and that is the fact that to determine how a country should be ran is up to its citizens. I’m almost sure that if Diasporans do come and live in Armenia - and with that I mean really live in Armenia and not in gated communities or in cocoons - they might change their opinion about this issue.

Going back to the motto ‘one nation, one culture’ and analyzing the second part of it, I could say the following. If by culture it is meant artistic culture, i.e. dancing singing, and reciting poems, then to a large extent Armenians living in the various dispersions and in Armenia do share a common culture. However culture is also mentality, education and her/his-tory (I hope one of my acquaintances would allow me to borrow this innovation). I doubt that in the last three issues Armenians have a commonality. Well to be honest the history is common up until 90 years ago after which most of the communities diverted and branched out with their own histories. No Armenian in Syria thinks the same way as one in Lebanon (let alone Iran or Egypt). Actually Armenians living in the US are themselves so much factionalized in terms of mentality and ghettoization that they have created sub-cultures which thrive in the melting-pot of the US. So to talk about one culture for Armenians is almost like talking about colonizing Mars - not being a believer in conspiracy theories, I still believe that we (we=humankind) haven’t reached there yet.

Organizing a pan-Armenian artistic festival is an excellent opportunity to bring people to Armenia and help the economy, but at the same time it is also helpful for these people to get to know each other’s cultures and learn to break the taboos that exist about each other.

Friday, August 13, 2004

The Pen Mightier than the Sword? (August 2004)

For a die-hard militant nationalist the above statement would sound like an intellectual jargon-frankly up until a couple of weeks ago it had the same connotation for me as well. The reason it changed for me was because after writing about the condition of the people I saw during the “poverty tour”, I received some responses and some of the writers even asked for ways to help the inhabitants of the ‘dumps’. Of course I also received e-mails from people who had nothing but ‘complimentary’ words addressed to me but I guess one has to take the good and the bad in such situations.

A Couple of days after the first time we took the poverty tour, I paid another visit back to the place where we went to, this time accompanied with several other people who were in the process of helping the poverty stricken in Armenia (I intentionally don’t call these people charitable workers since it’s not charity that they do, rather they help the needy to help themselves). As a result of all the visits we took, and following an article published in a Western based news service, some of the officials were also alarmed and they promised to send some doctors to check on the situation of those inhabitants who were claiming to have Tuberculosis in the building (later it turned out that they WERE diagnosed with TB. That’s the way the media operates in Armenia; local journalists are mostly after gossips and hence not taken seriously by the authorities, but with western-based media outlets it’s a different story. To keep a well-tarnished image in front of the world, the government usually is more responsive to inquiries and stories brought to them by these journalists and ‘promise’ to handle the issues.

The bottom line is that raising awareness about issues that Armenia faces today, is far more important than beautifying the streets of Yerevan. More importantly this awareness has to reach the people who don’t live in the country and their only view of the country is the capital city with its ongoing face-lifts. Of course for unrepentant Diasporan optimists, any attribution to the uneven social and economic development in the country is nothing but the babbling of a self-hating Armenian.

Just a week after taking the poverty tour of Yerevan I accompanied several people to go to a community housing, which is funded by a European charity organization and it helps families with more than five children to move into houses with better living conditions. Of course like most (and I mean most and not all) charity organizations the work that has been done has been done half-hearted and without oversight-at least that’s what I gathered from my observations. This made me think about the lyrics of a song used by a British pop-singer where he says “charity is a coat you wear twice a year” mostly to feel good about oneself and if it happens that other people benefit from it as well even the better. The ironic thing about the location of this new assistance housing is that it is situated right across the ‘highway’ from another housing development that is actually either for Diasporans with a lot of money and come to ‘live’ in Armenia or just people who are interested in living in a gated community - I’m not sure gated from what? Perhaps to be ‘protected’ from the dangerous unemployed people.

To end my ‘poverty guide’ it’s worth mentioning that regardless of what happens with the people living below the poverty line, the situation is not unique at all. Although Armenia is not a third world country - actually Yerevan is the one which is not, whereas regions outside of the capital are borderline third world regions - it is no better than the rest of the countries of the world where wealth disparities are also common. Perhaps the emotional aspect of being a Diasporan Armenian is what aggravates the situation. For instance for those Diasporan Armenian who do come to visit Armenia and see beggars, or hear about thieves or murderers their first reaction is that ‘no, this can’t happen since Armenians are good people.’ Of course this is a normal reaction coming form people who mostly live in closed communities - dare I say ghettos? - and who have idealized the concept of Armenia or Armenians. Armenians are emotional people and do tend to romanticize everything and bend the truth beyond recognition to fit everything into their own worldview - once again not a typical Armenian characteristics, rather the reaction of many nations which are small and find themselves to be at the margins of current world debates.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Poverty "Tour" (August 2004)

In one of my chance meetings I met up with an old acquaintance of mine who in turn introduced me to a local journalist. After several meeting and having discussions over glasses of beer about Armenia and the region my acquaintance offered to take us on a ‘poverty tour’ of Yerevan. The concept was a novelty and both the journalist and I signed up for the ‘tour’. On the set day we met up at the republic square in front of the newly renovated and reopened hotel, and then headed towards the outskirts of Yerevan. I’m not sure if the starting point was accidental or preplanned but in retrospect it was well chosen since at the end of the tour we kept contrasting the tourist-friendly and commercial center of Yerevan with the communal houses several miles away from it.

We arrived at a community housing and one of the first thing I could see was a huge palace-like structure almost opposite from the dumps and the run-down building. The ‘tour guide’ took us to one of the buildings where having visited on earlier occasions, he knew some of the occupants. The building was not old but one could see that it has been neglected beyond repair. The elevator—or at least where there used to be an elevator—was cannibalized and all the wires and metals were sold for scrap. Going up to the 6th floor of the building we walked through a long corridor with rooms on both sides. I was informed that during soviet times, the building was used as living quarters for those who worked at the industries close by.

When we finally entered one of the apartments, we were greeted by four children—ages ranging from six to fourteen—their mother and her father. The sanitary—if it could be termed as such—conditions in the apartment were far from being adequate. There was non-operating fridge in the first room used to store various stuff form bottles of water to packages looking like food (the reason I noticed these is not because I was snooping around in other peoples’ fridges but because the fridge was half-open). The floor of the two-room apartment was not clean with crumbs of bread, tiny bits of paper and cigarette box plastic wrappers all over the floor. The children were all very outspoken and I felt that they were a bit too mature for their age (I guess misery makes people grow up faster—after all isn’t it normal that a child surrounded in misery wants to grow out of it ASAP!) the oldest of the children was a boy who, according to her mother, was supposed to discontinue school and start working as of this fall. The children’s father has been a construction worker for a while now but is caught in the poverty trap where people around him exploit him. Thus according to the wife, there has been instance when her husband would be offered a work in a construction site and then after the work is done he would be refused his pay. This has happened repeatedly and the reason for the repetition is not because the man is naïve and keeps falling into the same trap but it is because he is desperate and desperate people usually cling on to any hope they could get their hands on.

The only thing that provided some children atmosphere in the whole apartment was a large teddy bear surrounded with three other smaller dolls. But even those dolls looked sad. In retrospect I think I do realize the reason for the sadness of those toys. Thus about a year ago the family had another member, a little girl of 19 months who while playing in the stairways had fallen down from the 6th floor and died. She fell to her doom through a broken section of the iron rails, which were meant to avoid such tragedies. We were shown of pictures of her funeral lying in her small coffin with a small doll (her favorite) lying next to her. Now I realize why the dolls in that apartment were sad!

In our conversation with the family I asked the mother about the villa which was situated almost across from their building complex. I was told that it belonged to the Member of Parliament elected from the district. My first thought was that the MP was so concerned about his constituency that he wanted to live very close to them but alas, my trust in democracy in Armenia was not well founded. The woman told me that they had repeatedly asked the MP for financial assistance but they were repeatedly ignored. At one point the MP’s wife even slammed the door in their face. Perhaps it was after such encounters that the MP’s house now has a wall fence and an iron gate to ‘protect’ it from trespassers.

After about an hour of listening to the stories of the mother and her children we went down to the underground floor to visit another family. If I had thought that the first family was living in a bad condition I had jumped into conclusions. As we reached the corridor leading to the apartments in the basement, I saw a common bathroom and a toilet next to each other (late I found out that there was another pair of each at the other end of the corridor) and the stench that came from the public toilets was unbearable and I can’t imagine how these people manage to have ‘sanitary’ conditions like that. But the toilet smell was only an inconvenience compared to what I found later. We entered an apartment where a woman was living along with her children and grandchildren. Two of her grandchildren (ages close to 5 and 7) were playing in the corridor and I could see that the older one had health issues. perhaps my conclusion was based on subjective observations but later his grandmother said that during the fall and winter the child has asthma problems inc the apartment that they live in very humid and sometimes even gets flooded by ‘water’ from the sewage pipes that carry the dirty water from all over the building. As a proof the lady of the house lifted the carpet and the plastic sheet covering the floor and we could see that the floor was wet. And this was in middle of the summer.

We were then led by the ladies—now there were two of them when her immediate neighbor joined us—and one of them knocked on the door of one of the apartments. As I was standing there to wait for someone to open the door the ladies said that the occupant of that apartment is an old lady who, they claimed, has tuberculosis. Not being able to open the door immediately we had to wait for a while and the ladies and my two companions were engaged in a conversation about why aid or assistance doesn’t reach them. Being the impatient person I am I walked back to the first apartments where the two children were running after ach other and playing. The younger one was healthier than his older brother and was always managing to take over the lead. I played with them for while until I realized that the woman with tuberculosis had opened the door and was talking with my companions. Curious about the conversation I got closer and as I did so, an image of an old boney lady started being sketched in the threshold of the door. The only analogy that I can give to describe the woman is that she was very similar to the pictures of starved mothers during the 1915 Genocide (yes I do realize that some readers might argue that there can’t be comparisons to what happened in 1915 but I had to write what came to my mind at the moment).

Not being able to stand there and join in the conversation I left and walked back to the end of the corridor away form the whole group. I wasn’t sure what to think or feel. The overall experience was shocking for me. Earlier in one of the conversations with the ‘matriarch’ when she knew that I was a Diasporan she asked me why couldn’t the Diaspora help. To my response that they already do by sending money to the government she got furious and starting shouting that the government didn’t care about there situation and that they haven’t seen any renovation or change in their condition. Instead she asked to tell the ‘Diaspora’ to help them directly. Not wanting to lie to her I told that I would try and that I wasn’t sure if I would find anyone to hear me.

Before leaving he basement we entered yet another apartment which was recently flooded when one of the pipes carrying the sewage water of the building had burst open and filled the place with ‘water’. The lady had two children who were taken on a one-week summer tour in the north of Armenia by an international NGO to get some rest while she was getting ready to go to hospital for chemotherapy (I wasn’t sure what it was for but I gathered that it might be cancer or a tumor).

Leaving the apartment complex we headed back to town and on the way I was thinking whether or not Diasporan tourists who do come to the country are aware of the disparity existing between the center of Yerevan and the slums just couple of miles away. DO people really care or does neglect provide most of them with emotional or psychological comfort that things in Armenia are better. I wondered if people would chose to see that there is another side of Armenia. A side that unlike the nice cafés and recently renovated center of the city was a place where families have to live on a monthly allowance of 15,000 AMD (30 USD), where children play in a potentially harmful atmosphere and a place where some children don’t even make the second year of their lives. I was disgusted with myself and my claims that I want to help Armenia. I was even more disgusted by the claims of some of the organizations and individuals in the Diaspora and Armenia alike who feel that by sending money to Armenia or by making the Republic Square a nice place to stroll at night, then a veil of optimism could give those people an emotional comfort that Armenia is in a better condition. All these without thinking that there are about 150 families (and maybe more elsewhere)needing to be saved from the claws of poverty and neglect just at the outskirt of Yerevan.

Sunday, August 8, 2004

Out and About in Yerevan (August 2004)

In Yerevan, one does not need to make an appointment to meet people. A night stroll in the city center and you could meet up at least several acquaintances and friends. I experienced this first hand when one evening while walking around an area where there was an open-air concert I met four people whom I was not planning to meet (not that I didn’t want to meet them) within the span of 15 minutes. Of course this is a seasonal phenomenon where during the summer months the city is full of people from all over the world. Of course one of my main problems is that having lived in many countries my circle of acquaintances is bound to be larger.

Trying to take refuge from the ‘barrage of meetings’ is not an easy task. One needs to avoid all the public spaces, cafés, restaurants and to be on the safe side avoid the city center altogether. But of course not being able to live within the confines of an apartment 24 hours a day I had to accept the risks of venturing outside at night.

Going out in Yerevan has been an expensive pastime. Compared to two years ago prices have gone up in almost every domain (either that or my spending power has gone really low). Whereas in the past I would spend an average of 3,000 AMD/person (approximately six USD) for a dinner at an average restaurant (average not for a local but for spoiled Diasporan like me) now the same outing would cost no less than 5,000 AMD (10 USD). This made me wonder if the purchasing power or ability of the people has gone up as well. In my subsequent ‘investigations’ I found out that in average most people’s income have remained constant and that had an adverse consequence on the purchasing power of the ‘Average Armen/ouhi’

Perhaps as a manifestation of the development that the country in general, and Yerevan in specific, was witnessing is that the number of homeless people has been more visible (not having statistics I cannot claim that the number has increased, it’s just that they are more visible now). Here I need to make a distinction between organized beggars and homeless people. For anyone visiting Armenia, a familiar sight in the capital’s main square. Several years back a study was conducted by several students at the State University to examine this phenomenon. Some of the oral reports I’ve heard was that most—if not all—of the beggars in the city center are organized and the city mapped out into turfs of operation. One of the striking observations at the time was that every morning the beggars would take up position in their pre-assigned corners of the city. A car (usually a Mercedes-Benz) would then make regular and frequent rounds in between these spots to make sure that everything was in order and that unauthorized begging would not take place. Some people have even witnessed gang-style fights between the beggar-pimps to assert their authority in a certain zone. By contrast one could tell that a person is a genuine homeless because of the passiveness of their actions. First of all they don’t beg for money, they usually try to scavenge for food and other useful material that they can get their hands on in the various garbage dumps in the city. One morning, while visiting a friend in one of the main neighborhoods of the city I even witnessed a community of homeless people who set up base near a huge ‘cache’ of garbage. Being early morning one of them was awakening from his night sleep on a run-down sofa (most probably dumped there as well) and sitting in the sofa he was surrounded by garbage. Smoking an already half smoked cigarette he was gazing over the garbage perhaps trying to identify the new garbage from the ones he had already ‘processed.’

I met up with a local friend who is from a typical soviet Armenian intellectual family (one definition of such families is that they didn’t speak Armenian during soviet times rather were Russophone and had more things in common with intellectuals from other Soviet republics than with their own nation). In our conversations, my friend presented her view of things about the economic condition of the country. Combining her academic background as a sociologist as well as her practical experience for working an international NGO she provided her insight about the situation in the country. The conversations usually ‘analyzed’ the new breed of Armenia’s ‘businessmen’ and their monopoly over basic commodities (sugar, gas, etc). These people—with picturesque nicknames—collectively own or control most of the country’s economy. Although some of them have accumulated their wealth through legitimate businesses most of the remaining benefited from their personal ties with those people who at the start of the country’s independence were ‘privatizing’ various government owned factories. Moreover the strength of these oligarchs is based on their close association with government officials (some of them really high ranking) who also provide the ‘perfect’ atmosphere to eliminate (not physically although that option is not completely excluded) any competition. Of course on the bright side—if one could call it as such—these oligarchs do take care of a large group of people who are mostly their extended families, the families of those directly working with them as well as the communities where they grew up. My hope was that ‘businessmen’ in Armenia would not always remain impermeable to the concept of fair-game and eventually not run out of business those who do try to import fuel or sugar through other channels (of course through legitimate means).

Saturday, August 7, 2004

DAY 3 OR 4. or Alternatively Week 1

First of all I have to give an explanation about the timeline. It’s not that I’m getting lazier (although some people have argued – with some good cases I may add - that I am inherently lazy and would try to get away with as little job as possible). If one has been to Yerevan before, one would know that unless you have a regular work schedule throughout the week or have appointments set for every day of the week then it is impossible to keep track of the days.

My first week in Yerevan was full of meetings with former students and colleagues (some of whom were now current friends). The meetings almost always took place at cafés (more specifically at the same café I had met my relative the first night I was in Yerevan) and I was becoming a regular customer there. At one point when I was supposed to meet another of my students and got to the café earlier, one of the waiters asked if he should wait for my company to arrive before bringing the menu! (I love the perceptiveness of the younger generation in Armenia).

Throughout the meetings I slowly started categorizing people into four main groups. The first group was the one including all the optimists. These people are the ones who think that life has been overall good and that things are only set to become better. The majority of people belonging to this group are Diasporans who have either moved here on business and of course living more or less comfortably or those who are ideologically infatuated and could only make the best out of everything. My first encounters have been mostly with people in this category. There’s something interesting about optimism. With the right dosage it could be contagious. Too much of it will just make one bored to tears.

The second group of people are the pessimists. Luckily I didn’t meet too many of those, but still there are quite a few of them who, even though have a relatively good socio-economic condition, they seem to have an negative outlook about things happening around them.

The third category, where most of my acquaintances fall, are the `realists’. Of course one could always argue that if things are bad then the realists could easily fall into the trap of being labeled pessimists. To this group belong two of my favorite people (some would say birds of a feather flock together) one is a former student of mine, who lives outside of Yerevan and the other is a colleague of mine who works at the university. In my meetings with both of them I had a sense that political situation hasn’t been any better for the past several years but both readily admitted that the economy is doing better (not as good as to be labeled a tiger but neither is it a cat). It seems that the relatively good economic performance coupled with the relative not-so-good political performance has created a sense of carelessness about political processes and most of the new generation seems to not care about taking part in government structures.

The last category of people would be the extreme case of those who are mostly apathetic about everything. People in this category seem to have given up any hope on anything and if they have an opportunity they would readily leave the country for `better’ opportunities abroad.

With a steady routine of meetings at night and aimlessly staring at my computer screen during the day (hoping that I’ll be lucky enough to be visited by the Muses) I have developed a sense of belongingness again. After all this is the same city where I worked, lived and socialized for two years. As far as socializing is concerned one could have several options. Musical concerts (although not as frequently because of the summer season), plays, late evening strolls around the city and of course the omnipresent cafés.

It’s amazing to what extent people in Armenia are attached to the café culture. One could even come up with a stereotype of those who are regular café goers. My first experience with this culture goes back to seven years ago when there was a café almost on every street corner. At the time, those who hung out around cafés were men between their late 20s to their late 40s, and back then whenever I would pass by a café where a group of men would be sitting and sipping coffee with their cigarettes, I would always think about them as `men at work’. Nowadays the situation has changed a bit but the basic underlying concept that most men don’t work whereas most women do, is still apparent to anyone who ventures outside early in the morning, where most of the street cleaners are women in their late 50s (or at least they appear to be in their late 50s) and almost the whole economy seems to be `feminized’. In this respect I always wondered that, if women in Armenia decide to go on a strike, how would the country avert a virtual economic stand still. So long live women in Armenia!

To further exemplify the disparity between men and women, I would like to bring a recent example. Having planned to get a new desk for the apartment I live in, I made arrangements with a neighborhood furniture maker. The item was promised to be delivered and set up in 3 days (which didn’t happen) and when five days later three men did show up to install the desk, I was shocked when one of them asked me if I had an electric drill for them to work with. Needless to say it took them about 8 days to not install the desk, at the end of which I had to ask them to stop the `work’ and leave. With an ironic twist, it was right at the time that wood people were `installing’ the desk that I made arrangement with a dry cleaning service to come pick up some items that needed washing and ironing. At the agreed time a woman got to the apartment, took out the clothing I had put in a plastic bag and put all of them in the company’s bag. She took out a receipt with three copies, stapled one of them to the bag gave me the other one and kept the third one for her records. The whole procedure took only 10 minutes and it was conducted with utmost professionalism. Of course to be honest I have to admit that one should not generalize that all men are unprofessional. But percentage-wise there are far more women who are able to get through their duties with minimum hassle. The abovementioned incident reminded me why two years ago when I left Armenia I was proudly labeling myself (yet another manifestation of egoism on my side to give magnificent labels to myself) a feminist.

Remaining within the sphere of gender comparison, one of the other things I noticed while walking around Yerevan, is the amount of fashion-awareness among the new generation of women. Whereas two years ago one would always see most women (and even some men) wearing platform shoes, now it seems that women have leapt forward exponentially in the fashion department, yet again outmaneuvering the men, whose sense of fashion has been minimally developed to change from wearing dark colored pants and shirts to... less dark ones.

I believe that the reason why there are disparities between women and men is mostly because the women are more adaptable and more determined to make things better. A woman with an engineering degree would become a cleaning lady if there are no other options for her, but a man could seldom convince his ego to do such a `low-level’ job. I also believe that our forefathers have known about this and that is why they have coined many of Armenia’s national symbols as feminine entities such as mayr Hayasdan, mayr Arax etc. And with a final twist, the statue that stands guard over Yerevan is also one of a woman with a sword (definitely a highly empowered woman).

To finish up this section, I am slowly realizing that I have moved from a timeline approach to an issue approach (I wonder if it is yet another manifestation of my laziness). It seems that talking about issues around a cup of coffee (men at work?) rather than about a chronology better fits the Armenian character, and if I don’t succumb to total laziness or be asked not to write anymore (same result without the 'lazy’ label), I intend to proceed thematically rather than chronologically. Now off to a café to yet another meeting!

Thursday, August 5, 2004

DAY 2. Yerevan (August 2004)

After taking a long nap (or a short sleep) I woke up to the sound of protesters and shouts coming from ... my stomach. It was not an unreasonable demand since the last `real’ food I had was on the airplane. The human body being more democratic than any other form of government in any country of the world, my mind (government) bowed to pressure from the protesting and growling stomach (middle class) and I gradually started getting ready to go out to find something to eat.

Earlier that day I had contacted one of my relatives who lives in Yerevan and we were set to meet at the evening in one of the new cafés at the Opera Square. Having lived here for over 9 years she had gone native and the meeting time was set as `somewhere between 7:30 and 8 in front of the café’. I had to satisfy the demands of my stomach before going to the café so I headed to one of my favorite restaurants. The restaurant (I insist on not mentioning names as to not provide free publicity to any business) was one of my favorites mostly because the food they served was `authentic’ Armenian. Of course one could always argue that there is no such thing as authentic or pure Armenian cuisine. This obsession to create `pure’ things has been a problem throughout history and it is one of the most important components for national identity. Thus, when in Armenia one asks for Armenian coffee, in the Middle East it’s anything from Arabic to Persian to Turkish coffee, in Greece it’s Greek coffee. To their credit the Arabs of the Levant are more open minded about the naming of the coffee and they interchangeably use Arabic and Turkish coffee.

The reason I liked the restaurant was not so much for the food itself, but rather for the music that they played. Again for the sake of not being nationalist the music was not pure Armenian music but it was Sayat Nova whom I admire. This reminds me of a peculiar thing about nationalization of culture, history and people in the Caucasus. In the 18th and 19th century, Sayat Nova was equally claimed to have been an Armenian, a Turk, a Georgian and a Persian by the people living in the region. Three years ago at a meeting where there were Armenian, Azerbaijani and Georgian representatives of two generations, I was surprised to find out that the Azerbaijanis and Georgians have given up their claims on Sayat Nova and that today Sayat Nova is an uncontested Armenian cultural symbol. Of course one could always hope that historical or political arguments based on national `pride’ are all useless once the wheels of history have flattened everything. As the example of Sayat Nova shows, a century after the debates on the `aness’ (Armenianess, Azerbaijanianess and Georgiananess) of Sayat Nova the three nations of the South Caucasus have given up on him and perhaps the only reason that Sayat Nova became `exclusively’ Armenian is because of the familiarity of the new generation of Armenians about `that guy with the kemancha who wondered around in the Caucasus’. One could not stop thinking about the possibility that in another century or two the `aness’ of land might lose its meaning and it won’t make any difference if the land that a person lives on is Armenian, Azerbaijani or Georgian.

As I was heading towards the restaurant with my middle class in full fledged revolution, my government was racing through the ramifications of an ‘aness’-less society, perhaps in an effort to forget about my middle-class. I was happy to see that the place was still open and that they were serving food, and of course there was live music as usual (of course Sayat Nova) and it was nice to travel back in time for a change to eat some good (not necessarily Armenian) food and listen to some music (perhaps quasi-Armenian).

It was a little before 8 pm when I realized that I had an appointment to keep and left hurriedly to meet my relative at the Opera Square. The café where we were supposed to meet was a recent addition to the score of cafés mushroomed around Yerevan. However unlike most of the other cafés, this one was very innovative and very unique in terms of its ideas and service. To start with there were pictures of communist-era Armenia (according to some: `the good old days’) during May-day parades or the construction of various parts of Yerevan. There were even enlarged pictures of old Yerevan on the tables at which food or drink was served. The amazing thing about this idea was that Armenia was finally catching up (or was it?) with the trend set in Eastern Europe where they were making money out of their communist past. For instance in Hungary there is a monument park where the Hungarian government has gathered all the communist-era statues of communist ideologues or Soviet symbols and concentrated them in a park where they charged tourists a fee to enter and photograph some of the symbols of the `failed experiment’. One other thing about the cafés in Yerevan is that they’re mostly owned by `political parties’ or people who are related to government officials (the son or cousin of a government minister). How else could one disregard zoning restrictions (if there are any) and contribute to the scenic pollution of central

The conversation with my relative went on for about three hours during which she filled me in about changes (good and bad) that has taken place in the country over the past two years. Of course she being a Diasporan and an over-optimist, she presented things in a very... well, optimistic way! It was during that time when she was presenting things in a positive way that I started having doubts about my opinion about the country. You see I came to Yerevan expecting to see the worst, especially after a group of people were attacked by police forces for partying in the middle of the night in Yerevan during the opposition movement. Of course not having been in the country made it even more difficult for me to assess the situation and since I’m inclined to look for the worst possible scenario in things, I had my prejudice about the way the government handled things.

The conversation (washed down with Kotayk) was too much to handle for me and even though it was only about 4 hours ago that I last took a nap I felt that I needed to go back home and surrender to Morpheus. As I was walking back home I thought that overall I had a nice first day in Yerevan. I had already dismissed the feelings that I had in the morning (mostly sad ones) and was wondering if it wasn’t the jet lag manifested in the form of depression. The overall assessment of my first day back in Armenia was positive.

Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Yerevan Airport and City (August 2004)

The Austrian airline flight landed at the Yerevan Airport earlier than the expected time. This flight has been one of the shortest and most comfortable I have taken to arrive to Armenia. Considering that I have been in Vienna for over a week and was already adjusted to the time zone made the travel even easier. However the fact that the flight leaves Vienna at 10:00 pm and arrives to Yerevan at 4:30 am makes it impossible for anyone to arrive rested unless they do sleep on the flight, which is extremely difficult (unless of course one already had another long flight to get to Vienna and had spent almost 12 hours walking around in the city or the airport).

After disembarking we headed for the passport control area. I was very keen to see what changes, if any, the airport had gone through. Once we got closer to the escalators leading down to the passport control booths I realized that only one of the escalators was operating and it was already crowded by people too tired to walk the few steps down. I took the non-operating escalator and as I was walking down I could see that at the bottom of the operating escalator a small congestion of people was being formed. This was a problem since one of the passport control booths was immediately next to the escalator and people were queuing for the passport checks without realizing that it is somehow difficult to queue on a moving escalator and hold one’s position when the stairs are constantly moving. Luckily the airport security was able to redirect passengers to other passport control booths, averting a disaster.

The passport control was swift and we went to the luggage claim area. Having had some Armenian currency on me I had calculated how much I could have afforded for a luggage cart and for a taxi to take me to the city. In the past the porters at the airport would take away all the carts outside of the arrival area and keep only their own carts making it impossible for arriving passengers to not hire them in return of ‘just’ $5, which most travelers paid. As I arrived to the luggage belt I could see that the porters were ‘unionized’ in the sense that they were all wearing the same uniforms and had nametags. Reaching out for a cart, I was told that I should get a cart from next to the luggage belt, so I walked over to a small stand next to the belt where a cart supervisor was helping people to obtain carts. When I approached I could see that the price was AMD (Armenian Dram) 2,500 (almost $5) for a cart. I gathered this price from the printed tickets that the supervisor was holding. Without even thinking and listening (I am a Diasporan after all) I just started arguing that it was a high price to ask for a cart and left the counter thinking that tourist poaching was now organized and institutionalized.

About 5 minutes later a sign caught my eye. It had the prices of renting carts on it and to my surprise and embarrassment I realized that the price I saw (2,500 AMD) was for a cart with a porter. For anyone who wanted to take just a cart the price was only 400 AMD (not even $1). I turned over to a fellow traveler and asked her if she could get a cart for me, since I was too embarrassed to go back to face the supervisor. Standing there I started thinking to what extent my arrogance had made me not willing to listen and accept that things can actually change for the better in Armenia. As I was contemplating this, I felt that I had to make up for my act of snobbery and returned to the counter and apologized to the supervisor for not listening what he had to say. His reaction was just a nod and he returned back to the conversation with one of the porters. I wasn’t sure if my apology was even understood but at least I felt better for rectifying an arrogant act committed on my side.

Once I ‘cleared my conscience’ I started looking around the airport. Nothing much has changed. the windows which surrounded the luggage area and which were more like screens for travelers’ families and taxi drivers to use sign language to talk with the new arrivals was no longer available since it was painted over. The airport was clean as usual (courtesy to the ladies who are almost invisible and who start sweeping and cleaning not only the airport but the streets of Yerevan from the wee hours of the morning with the risk of encountering drunken men) and there were no signs of renovations at the airport. Once I got through the customs and out of the door several taxi drivers approached and as I was preparing myself to start bargaining with them about a price I was given a business card of one of the taxi services and a young man with sufficient English knowledge started talking about the taxi service that he represented. When I asked him in Armenian on the cost of getting me from the airport to city he mentioned that those taxis are metered and the cost would not exceed 3,500 AMD. The amount was amazingly cheap for a ride from the airport to the city which otherwise used to cost anywhere between 5,000 AMD (by taxi services from Yerevan) and $40 (if one takes a taxi without first agreeing on the price).

The time now was close to 5:30 am as I loaded my luggage in the trunk of a blue version of the New York Yellow cabs. The imitation was successful and save for the color difference and the fact that the driver spoke the language of the country he lived in, one could not distinguish between the New York and Yerevan cabs. The ride was uneventful and I got to the apartment around 6:30 am. It took about 20 minutes to unpack and being the restless person I am, I could not stay at home or even sleep. Instead, I decided to take a walk in the streets of Yerevan.

The sun was slowly rising and the streets were empty except for an occasional car or a passer by. I wanted to see the city before the traffic (both human and vehicle) started and to make an opinion about how much the city has changed.

One thing I remembered from my previous living experience in Yerevan is that life does not begin until 9 am and it would only take off after 10:00 am. So to hope to have an early morning coffee at a café or to conduct any business before 11:00 am would be a bit unrealistic. But since I had no plans to have coffee or to conduct any business I started strolling through the streets of central Yerevan.

It was now around 8 am and I’d been walking for about half an hour. The reason I realized it was 8 o’clock was that the huge electronic billboard at the Republic Square suddenly came to life with a jingle and started a wave of advertising. As I was looking at the billboard I was also looking around to see if there were any familiar faces and one of the things I realized was that those people who were awake and out at that time and who happened to be in the vicinity of the billboard, passed by without even looking at the huge screen. I guess every monument, - be it Lenin, the cross, or a representative of capitalism, - is bound to be just another landscape that locals would pass by after a while, without even showing the slightest interest in looking up or listening to the message that the icon was supposed to represent.

Another phenomenon I noticed was the billboards carrying posters with the various versions of the same message: ‘Towards a bright Future’. Although these posters artistically impressed me, (please mind that I am not an artist and it takes simple art to impress me) their political and social message made me realize something. If a society or a country, underdeveloped (or developing if one was an optimist or nationalist) as Armenia, places more importance on talking about a better future, one could start thinking that the present situation must be bad, since everyone’s attention is focused (or is being directed) towards the future. But as I was in a pessimistic mood and view, I chased away those ideas as nothing more than the manifestations of someone who only wants to see the worse in things.

Central Yerevan has been given a face-lift. It was amazing to what extent the city (or at least its central part) has changed. Instead of making me feel better this appearance made me feel sadder. For a while I kept thinking that whereas two years ago I was part of the change, now I have become nothing more than a passer by who sees the change but doesn’t appreciate the process through which it was achieved. At the same time I kept asking myself if the change was only superficial and if the condition of the people has really changed.

It was now 9 am and the streets were stirring. One thing I had prepared myself for was the Yerevan traffic. Towards the end of my stay in Yerevan I could see that traffic was becoming more frequent and that more cars were on the streets of Yerevan. Of course Yerevan has never been a pedestrian-friendly city. Even when the cars were less in number, crossing a street was an act of courage and the taxi or minibus drivers would make sure that pedestrians would never have a sense of security. Now, with the number of vehicles multiplied by several factors, walking in Yerevan was becoming less enjoyable. Of course the fact that the sun was now up and the temperature was gradually rising made the walking experience even less desirable.

I wanted to visit several places and see some people before returning home. I managed to see a friend of mine who had moved to Armenia 4 years ago and was in the process of setting up his own business. While greeting him, and in the subsequent conversation, I realized that I was not projecting the image of someone who was happy to meet a friend, mostly because of the fact that it was more than 30 hours since I last slept or took a nap. The increasing heat was not making it any easier and I barely made it back to home, took a shower and climbed into bed.

It was now around 2 pm and as I lay in bed I tried to recap my experience. In two year’s time Yerevan has changed in appearance. It was now more tourist friendly (except for the traffic issue) and seemed to offer more entertainment fare in the form of the street side cafés. The overall first impression should have been positive but something felt not right. Maybe I had tried to gather too much information while being too tired and that was the reason I wasn’t excited. Or maybe it was just that I needed some adjusting period. Regardless of the reason for my pessimism, the combination of the long walks I had in Yerevan, the sleeplessness and the prospect of a busy week meeting up with old friends and acquaintances had their toll and it was not after 5 minutes I was in bed that I was sound asleep.

Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Dr. Spurkian Returns to Armenia (originally posted in August 2004)


I arrived at the Vienna airport in preparation for my flight to Yerevan. It has been over two years since the last time I was in Armenia. Two years ago I spent some time in the country teaching and since then I never had the opportunity to return. The time spent in Yerevan was an eye opening experience to observe the country up close and personal. When I left the country in 2002, the second Armenia-Diaspora conference was underway and I could not help myself thinking about the (in)significance of that conference. At the time it seemed to me that the conference was nothing more than a publicity stunt, not only for Armenia but also for most of the Diasporan representatives who, I felt, had an air of importance around them because they were participating in a conference organized by the government and the conference provided them with some ‘legitimacy’ as representatives of the Diaspora.

Back in 2002, I left the country with some sense of leaving home although the time spent there was just over a year and a half. The existence of a large number of tourists (especially Diasporans) made it easier for me to leave Yerevan since I could not stand the hordes of people walking around Yerevan with a superiority complex about ‘their’ country and towards their ‘local’ countrymen.

During the two years I spent away from Armenia it has been possible for me to look back and evaluate not only my experience, but also the experience of being a Diasporan as well as the whole existential issue of the Diaspora itself. Suffice it to say that having lived and worked in Armenia made me realize the pettiness of Diasporan mentality and its inability, for the most part, to grasp the notion of an independent country beyond the confines of a symbol or an idealized locality.

Now waiting for the boarding call at the Vienna airport, I felt that I was not looking forward to returning to Armenia. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to return to Yerevan and had already made plans to meet up with several of my university students with whom I kept contact by e-mail, but my ‘enthusiasm ‘ was nothing more than the joy of meeting up with old friends and had nothing to do with me returning to the homeland.

Even before we boarded I could feel that we were already in Armenia, or at least getting ready to get there. A single look around the boarding area could easily show that the flight leaving from that gate was bound for Armenia. Having traveled back and forth to Armenia from various airports it was a familiar but a forgotten scene for me. One could easily distinguish the various types of travelers when boarding a Yerevan-bound plane. Thus, there is the excited Diasporan family who makes use of the summer vacation to visit Armenia. The level of excitement depends on how often have they taken that trip as well as the distance that they have traveled to get to the final leg of the journey to Armenia. Another type of a traveler is the Armenian from Armenia, however in this case there should be a distinction between those who are returning after a long absence of several years and those who belong to the higher echelons of the Armenian society and could afford to travel to Vienna, Paris, London or any other destination for shopping sprees or for extravagant vacations. And of course there is also the non-Armenian travelers who could also be categorized into two groups. Those who are on business and are familiar with their destination and those who are just tourists who have ventured to go to this ‘small, Christian country in the former Soviet Union.’

All of these people are gathered for the single purpose of taking a flying tube to take them to their homeland, business, friends or to any other destination of their choice.