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.

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