The first look at a foreign politeia is clouded by abstractions and generalizations, some of which continue in their imaginative force until eventually they are accepted as true. In this respect, there is no difference between the account of a native and a foreigner. The stories we tell ourselves limit our horizon and become our homeland.
At first blush, uncanny similarities present themselves between Xenophon’s account of Armenia in his Anabasis (400 BC), and the word on the street from Ashot, our taxi driver. Tales of tribes, kingdoms, rivalries, monopolies, and warring empires remain true in Armenia today. The president would like a congressman fired, a handful of families control all imports for various industries, Armenia aligns itself as Satrap to the Eurasian (ie Russian) economic zone, while the gigantic US embassy building (3rd biggest after Baghdad and Kabul) becomes an icon of a waning empire.
The book of Daniel 6:1 (just before he gets thrown into the lion’s den, ca 590 BC)
It pleased Darius to set over the kingdom one hundred twenty satraps, stationed throughout the whole kingdom, and over them three presidents, including Daniel; to these the satraps gave account, so that the king might suffer no loss. Soon Daniel distinguished himself above all the other presidents and satraps because an excellent spirit was in him, and the king planned to appoint him over the whole kingdom. So the presidents and the satraps tried to find grounds for complaint against Daniel in connection with the kingdom. But they could find no grounds for complaint or any corruption, because he was faithful, and no negligence or corruption could be found in him.
Xenophon recounts the adventures of 10,000 Greek mercenaries aligned with Cyrus of Persia, who are “going up” the hillside from Babylon, fighting the until they reach the shores of the Black Sea. Their famous cry “the sea, the sea”, which authors as various as Jules Verne and Iris Murdoch echo in their novels, is a triumph which is not available to Armenians today. Their country, once thought to be the West’s best hope of friendship to thwart Communism, was up-staged by Georgia’s growing economy, and is now a land-locked province with borders closed between the Azeris and Turkey. US diplomats now travel regularly to Georgia, where all Armenian imports from the west enter through the Black Sea. The peppers for our salad were imported from Iran.
In Xenophon’s Anabasis, the Greeks encountered numerous tribes, described alternately as fierce and hospitable, rich in livestock, making wine in cisterns, and eating various renditions of meat and bread and dried fruit. Our pantry, not to mention the character of the people, is strangely similar today. The distinctively Armenian cuisine we’ve encountered consists of various forms of bread, meat, and sheep cheese. The wine has a strange cistern-like taste, fermented slightly longer than usual sometimes (the white wine at the Lebanese place we went to last night had a distinct “toilet bowl” aroma- though it complemented the food well. Xenophon also noted the strange brew the Armenians made out of barley – something we now call beer (Ararat and Gyumri lagers are not bad).
Ashot, our taxi driver, is named after the famous medieval kings of Armenia. Tigran, owner of our new favourite pizza place, and sometime resident of Fresno, California, is named after Armenia’s most powerful king. His empire stretched from the Caspian to the Mediterranean, and was defeated only by Pompey in 66BC. Sargis, the school “fixer,” is named after the warrior saint appointed by Constantine to rule Armenia.
My Armenian students live in a world of clans and rivalries, which makes teaching about Greece and Rome a poignant exercise. It’s clear that they’ve learned from youth to distrust the “other.” As we read To Kill a Mockingbird, the discussion of stereotypes and empathy falls flat. Atticus Finch declares that “you never really understand a person until you walk around in their skin.” None of my student’s examples of empathy came from understanding the “other” in terms of class and clan. A derision of the lower class “qyartus,” or gangster wannabees, becomes the joke of every class.
Of course, they are only thirteen. However, during our “dress up as a Roman day,” it was clear that Spartacus was much less interesting than Julius Ceasar or Octavian. Our discussion of Roman slavery was slightly more lively, as we considered both the unnerving brutality toward them, and the possibility of their upward mobility. These students will never be wage slaves to their capitalist masters. Not having experienced the Armenian public schools, I wonder whether these student are more exposed to a liberal arts education under the wing of the US empire – which allows very few students to receive scholarships in elite colleges. Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, describes the general loss of freedom among the later Romans:
The sublime Longinus, who in somewhat a later period, and in the court of the Syrian queen, preserved the spirit of ancient Athens, observes and laments this degeneracy of his contemporaries, which debased their sentiments, enervated their courage, and depressed their talents. “In the same manner,” says he, “as some children always remain pygmies, whose infant limbs have been to closely confined; thus our tender minds, fettered by the prejudices and habits of a just servitude, are unable to expand themselves, or to attain that well-proportioned greatness which we admire in the ancients; who living under a popular government, wrote with the same freedom as they acted. ” (The Empire of the Antonines)
At the same time, Yerevan is a cultural hub – the homeland of a diaspora greater than the population of the country itself – 10 million in total, 3 million in Armenia, and 1 million in Los Angeles alone. At the focal point of downtown lies the Opera house, reminiscent of the “beating heart” of the public square in the Tuscan hill-town of Siena, Italy.
Armenia shares with Russia the wounded pride of a once great civilization. Everyone knows the ancient heroes, including Soviet era leaders, such as General Bagramyan, who took responsibility for the carnage and ultimate retreat of the Germans in the epic battle of Kursk, and the subsequent Baltic operations. And what would MiG fighter jets be without the Mikoyan brothers?
The clan mentality extends to emigrants generations down the line – those include people like tennis player Andre Agassi, Canadian film director Atom Egoyan, and American singer Cher. Even Zach Bogosian, the first Armenian in the NHL, is a citizen of the honorary clan. Because of their conservative Christianity, they are not so sanguine about the infamous Kardashians. Knowing that Cher is Armenian, however, does explain something about current women’s fashion in Armenia.
I haven’t had the courage take very many “People of Yerevan” portraits, though I did walk around with a camera on my neck, and that was cause for many suspicious glares. My wonderful co-workers at school and the friendly local grocers are lovely people, and our children continue to be fawned over in all settings – in taxis, on the street, in restaurants (every waiter has insisted on holding Alasdair and walking around with him). All public spaces are fair game for smoking, the most shocking instance of which was a fast food joint inside a clothing department store.
Last week we were invited to a birthday party in the gated “American style” village of Vahakni – where most of the diplomat families live. Rachel was able to meet some mothers and I spoke to various expats who recommended camping spots, vehicles, and travel in Georgia. One of the men is a marathon runner who ran a race in Georgia – the first 5 km of the marathon were straight up a mountain, along rocky paths. Skiing is a popular activity in Yerevan and Geogia, and I’ll chaperone a school day trip at the end of the month. For spring break we may visit lake Sevan by train. Fish barbeques are popular there, though many fear the radiation from the local nuclear reactor.
Because we live so close to Iran and we’re Canadian, I’m very tempted to visit. One of my Iranian co-workers from Shiraz went out of his way to explain the entire country’s tourist sites to me, and insisted that he travel with us if we visit. I haven’t had much support for this idea. I’m continually struck by the novel combination of Slavic and Persian influences – their features change from sharp to round, tall to short. In some ways I feel no culture shock, having lived in Colombia, where the Spanish had similar Arab and Bedouin looks and the smell of tall grass was usually mixed with choice garbage. For Rachel on the other hand, everything is new and there are no associations to make. Today we visited the Ver Nissage – an open market for artisans, carpet merchants and booksellers. I was immediately transported to the ferias of Colombia, with the woodcarvings, dolls, bull horns, and fake ornamental machetes. The only difference could have been the Armenian alphabet and the Russian dolls. Even their flags are a mirror image in colours.
During the course of the week, we had to call the Canadian consulate to ask about the strange police request for copies of our passports. Because they were closed, we had to call the British embassy. Instead, I just walked down the hall to talk to the ambassador. In turn, his advice was to call the parents of one of my students, who also worked at the embassy. And so I work in a very small world, in a very small country, with enormous cultural and historical riches.