Sunday, January 21, 2007

Dr. Spurkian Goes to Aparan

After receiving several e-mails commenting on my previous entry “DR. SPURKIAN’S NEW YEAR’S WISH LIST FOR ARMENIANS” I figured out that it’s now safer to venture into more “serious” issues. So do write with your opinion to the email address at the end of the piece.

Last week while walking around in the center of Yerevan—of course that is just a figure of speech since the level of cold, snow and ice make it impossible to walk around; rather I would hop from one store to another in search of warmth and protection from the bitter cold—I came across an announcement of a conference titled “The Social and Economic Consequences of the Turkish-Armenian Border Opening.” The topic was controversial—yet again all topics are controversial among Armenians—and the venue was warm, exactly the right combination that I like and enjoy, so I decided to go to the conference and learn a thing or two about the topic.

Before talking more about the conference I have to “reveal” my biases towards academics and especially those in social sciences and humanities. I believe that academics are the most arrogant people to walk around the face of the world—of course after politicians in which case the lethal combination of a politician with academic background is really scary. However the level of arrogance among these people varies depending on the field of their study. Thus I think historians are the most arrogant since they believe that it is up to them to interpret history and analyze it. They are closely followed by economists who strongly argue that they are the only true scientist in social sciences since they deal with numbers. In a not so distant third place are the political scientists who think that they know how to solve problems.

The conference was well attended and full of emotions. While the presenters talked mostly about the economic and social aspects of the border opening, political interjections and injections were nevertheless present. What was particularly interesting was the seriousness on many people’s faces as if they were at the crossroads of history and were carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. Yet others present there projected an image as if they were there to start up a fight. One could tell that individuals belonging to the second group were present mostly to object to the fact that Turkey and Armenia were used in the same sentence.

The Armenian word for a conference is actually scientific conference (kidajoghov) which is anachronistic since whenever you have Armenians at conference the realms of science and fiction seem to overlap. This is not to say that Armenian scholars cannot present well researched papers it’s just that at conferences like this you always have several people who constantly argue and object to any expressed idea which goes contrary to the “conventional wisdom.”

One of the things I like about going to conferences (especially ones that include Armenians from Armenia and the diasporas) is the chance that I get to have sociological and anthropological studies. Thus if one observes carefully, one could see the way people are seated reflects their origins and backgrounds, hence diasporans flock with diasporans and Armenians from Armenia seem to congregate together (I wonder if the saying “birds of feather flock together” came when someone observed a similar situation). However when one looks closer, within that stratification a further division seems to emerge, a division based on ideas about the “good of the nation” or to use the more nasty word “nationalists”. The interesting thing is that nationalist from Armenia and those from the diasporas don’t seem to work together which makes me wonder if the factors bringing them together (nationalism) is not as strong as the ones separating them (being from Armenia or not).

In any case, going back to the conference, the presenters there were mostly economists (with a sprinkle of political scientist here and there to add flavor) and they studied the issue of border opening exhaustingly. Useless to say peoples’ biases was apparent regardless how “scientific” the research was. It’s amazing to what extent people claim that they are absolutely right, absolutely true and absolutely just when another person claims the same by presenting opposite ideas. I think it would be better to call these “objectivities” rather than objectivity since there seem to be so many of them. in this conference those with backgrounds opposing the border opening produces paper and studies arguing that the border opening was actually going to hurt Armenia’s economy while those supporting the border opening presented papers arguing that such an endeavor would only strengthen Armenia’s economy on the long run.

I have to admit that most of the charts and graphs presented by either of the groups was beyond my grasp and suffering from an acute case of AAADD (Armenian Adult Attention Deficit Disorder) wasn’t much of a help either. What stopped me from falling sleep on the shoulder of the person sitting next to me was that at the end of each panel there was a lively discussion where individuals attending the conference wanted to have their 5 minute (sometimes that would be 10 minute) fame. Under the guise of asking a question they would start a whole lecture on why Turkey and Armenia should or should not be friends. You have to give it to Armenian men when it comes to show off and speech, its all about words—eloquently put together with funny sayings—and no substance. Sometimes they would go on talking for hours without actually saying anything.

Not having anything to gain or lose from the Turkish-Armenian border opening I started drifting into daydreaming about times when the weather outside was warmer and I had a chance to walk around Yerevan without the need to hide from the absurd cold and snow raging outside.

I don’t know how or why but one of the first things I remembered while sitting at the back of the conference room was an encounter that I had about 4 months earlier in the city of Aparan. Before anyone gets any funny ideas let me warn you that the experience that I had was not funny at all despite what you have heard about jokes from Aparan and on Aparantsis.

The incident that I had was when I accompanied a friend to the municipality headquarters in Aparan and while he was taking care of some official business related to documentations—which in Armenia is quite a long process regardless of how small or unimportant the document is—and I just sat on the stairs in front of the municipality. Not long after a tall man with dark complexions approached and extended his hand with a greeting. I had several reactions to his gesture. First thing that “hit” me was the smell, the persons smelled of alcohol and was also on serious need of a bath. His height and long arms made me visualize that if he wanted he could easily hold me from my head and oscillate me like a clock pendulum. However the initial “shock” of the smell and the image of me swinging in the air with my head in this giant’s hands soon gave way when he just sat there next to me and asked for a cigarette.

Not being a smoker I told him that I didn’t have any on me thinking that after that he might just get up and leave to find another source for his smoke. Yet strangely enough he removed a pack from his shirt pocket and started smoking. I was sitting a step higher than the “giant” yes still wasn’t at the same head level as he was but I had the advantage to observe him without making any eye contact since it would have required him to turn his head around—and below—to talk with me. It was obvious that this person was drunk at 11:00 in the morning; however there was something about him that made me curious to talk with him.

The first thing that he asked was if I could find him a job. Now that’s a quite common theme that I have come across in Armenia outside of Yerevan. While there are many beggars asking for money and aid in the capital city—including the government—the villagers seem to be more proud and usually ask for work to be eventually reimbursed though it. The “giant” might have been drunk, incoherent in his speech but was still too proud to beg. My answer to his inquires for work was a typical neo-colonial and judgmental. I asked him if he has thought about not drinking before looking for a job. After blurting that out I realized what a stupid thing I’ve done; stupid not because of being judgmental but becuase of the fact that I could be used as a pendulum in an instant. However the giant’s reaction was that he wasn’t drunk which only made me more judgmental becuase it was obvious he was lying.

At this point something very strange happened which humbled and humiliated me. All the time while I was sitting on the stairs with the giant people were passing by and looking at us in disbelief about the pairing of the “town fool” (as I thought they were viewing him) and a diasporan. While my questioning of the giant was going on a young boy (perhaps 18 years old or so) got out of the municipality building, saw the giant and approached him with a greeting calling him “hopar” (uncle). To my surprise and shock he even hugged and kissed the giant and had a 2 minute conversation with him after which he again kissed the “hopar” and parted. My interest in the character of giant “hopar” multiplied manifold and I asked him if he had family.

The response was not what I expected. What I could gather from his inconsistent speech was that he had two sons but when I asked about their whereabouts he said “they’re gone”. No knowing where they had gone I kept probing and after a long short-sentenced conversation it turned out that “hopar” was, at some point during Soviet times, been to prison because he had killed someone who had insulted his family; there were markings on his hand knuckles which later I found out was how prisoners were branded under the Soviet penal system. After getting out of prison and when just as he was trying to put his life together the war in Nagorno-Karabakh broke off and he, along with his two sons went to the front.

As the “hopar” was telling this story he kept repeating “what should I do (inch anem)” repeatedly. I didn’t know the context of why he was asking that but it soon became clear. During the war two of his sons were killed and when he got back form the front he was so shocked that couldn’t work or do anything else but drink (the part of drinking is my guess). One thing led to another and this proud and perhaps even handsome man was transformed into a drunk who smell and who was now repeating “inch anem, inch anem”. I was speechless—which for people who know me is a something next to inconceivable—and couldn’t do anything but sit there and try to be a good listener without any judgments. Luckily for me, my friend had just finished his paperwork—after 4 hours of gruesome process—and was ready to head back to Yerevan. Before me bidding farewell, the “hopar” stood up shook my hand again and walked off smoking his local cigarettes.

At that moment I started contemplating about several things. First to what extent we as Armenians (and mostly Diaspora Armenians) are an arrogant and uniformed bunch. Here I was an outsider, judging a man who by all accounts had a tragic life, without even thinking for a moment that he could have been a victim of circumstances. If the reader was paying attention even the way I referred to the man changed from a passive “giant” to “hopar”. I guess we are who we are after all and no matter what situation we’re in we always think that we know better than anyone around us.

This thought brought me back to the conference and how people were amazed and content with what they were doing. As if just being invited and being in that huge hall at one of the best hotels in Armenia was an approval of their role and position in Armenia’s and Armenian life. Unfortunately while people talk about politics and define who Armenia’s enemies or friends are and wage real or imagined “wars” with everyone who disagrees with them, Armenians in and outside of Armenia are still waiting for someone to answer the question that they—just like the “hopar” in Aparan—have been repeating like a mantra: “inch anenk”.

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