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.

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