Paradigms shift with geography.
“CNN is terrible because they’re too Jewish,” declared one of my students. In 2008, Christiane Amanpour gave 60 seconds to Armenia in her 2 hour long documentary on genocide, “Scream Bloody Murder.” This April will be the 100th anniversary of the Armenia killings.
You’re not likely to hear casual anti-Semitism in the west. Then again you probably don’t have to live in a world where Israel supplies weapons to your greatest threat – Islamic Azerbaijan. Who would back Armenia if war broke out? Ukraine? Imagine if you lived in a world where your greatest ally, Mother Russia, cynically cheers for both sides. What if instead of NORAD you have the US encouraging Russia to confront Canada in the Arctic?
Armenia is a country of rigid perspectives, chiseled into their psyche as permanently as their stone masonry around them. But their geo-political fate is confronted by a deeper question: What does a 21st century Armenia look like? What would it look like to be free of corruption, oligarchic control, economic stagnation, and political isolation?
The conservative Armenia and the diaspora Armenia meet at the crossroads of these questions.
“This is a spiritual problem, a spiritual question,” says Serge – a writer and composer who lived in Tel Aviv for 18 years. Serge (who insists his name is Romanian, not Russian) is speaking to me in front of the supermarket on the ground floor of my apartment. I’ve seen him hanging around, smoking and somewhat disheveled – a gentle man with a crazed smile and a pony tail. “What did you feel when you first arrived in Armenia?” he asks. He’s curious about my perception of spiritual aura, and we discuss this in relation to Israel and Jerusalem. He recommends a forest of foreign tree varietals near Tatev when I ask where to experience the best “presence”. He writes “philosophical stories,” some of which were published in Hebrew, and smirks when I mention the iconic jazz club Malkhas, on Pushkin St.
Gor is our apartment caretaker. He has sharper features than normal for an Armenian – he’s also chain smoking, standing around with Serge, willing to talk life for 30 minutes. After discussing the friendliness of Armenians and their gentleness compared to Israelis, Gor explains that is from Iraq. He grew up in Baghdad, speaking Armenian.
“My father was a merchant, and every year we would travel to Europe,” he explains in baritone. One day they moved to Portugal, and stayed for 10 years. “We moved back after the war, but it was different. The people were different – everything was changed by them.” He leaves “them” undefined, and later I realize he thinks I’m American. “Yes, an Israeli, Iraqi, and American all together.” Once there were 60,000 Armenian Christians in Baghdad, now there are maybe 3,000.
I asked both Serge and Gor why they moved to Armenia. “Well, I didn’t know Russian,” says Gor. Serge discusses the “very difficult times all countries are going through now,” and mentions that it’s interesting living in a time of change and possibility. He doesn’t really answer my question.
That’s one thing I’ve noticed – sometimes questions are just not answered. It could be that they haven’t understood, or more probable, that I’m asking too many questions. But moving to Armenia often contains no explanation – as if to say, “we are trying to survive.”
Another city that is sending thousands of Armenians back to Yerevan is Aleppo, once part of the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia which gave support to the Crusaders.
“Our aunt and uncle refuse to leave Aleppo – they think everything is still normal,” explains Lilit, a Syrian Armenian refugee who has been living in Yerevan for 2 years. “We still call them regularly… but there is nothing happening, no business. People are stealing in order to survive, breaking into the houses of those who have fled.” (See photos of Armenian districts here). There has been an increase in the number of Armenians kidnapped by rebel fighters. Christians have been targeted by rebels long before ISIS was on their doorstep. Lilit’s children, who speak only Arabic and Armenian, are playing with Jane and Alasdair, and having a riot past their bedtimes.
We invited three of the Syrian-Armenians over for dinner, and Arash, the father, ate his own roasted eggplant mix with no oil. “For lent,” he says, even though he doesn’t go to church. Lent has permeated the culture surrounded by Islam, in a way that Lent has not be secularized in Canada whatsoever.
“Yes, we would go back,” he says, answering another one of my questions. After this the conversation falls silent, and it is time to change the topic.
In some ways, diaspora Armenians have been more successful in their conservation of tradition – they’ve been more resilient and therefore their traditions mean more to them personally, while conservative Armenians leave their 100 plus monasteries to decay in the fields.
Options for future development in Armenia are few, while globalization increasingly flattens an ancient culture every year. Aside from Kremlin propaganda (how widespread is it? another question that left unanswered) the youth are fed a constant mixture of traditional stubbornness and post-modern cynicism. Stubbornness served Armenia well through centuries of near extinction. But as with any individual of potential, stubbornness is not as useful as determination. Determined diaspora Armenians regularly quit the country in frustration.
Meanwhile our nanny, who fled Azerbaijan in 1988, is teaching our 2 year old Alasdair some Russian. He’s colouring sea creatures, and learning the name for shark and octopus. “Everyone spoke Russian in Baku, because it was a mixture of so many different cultures.”
I’m struck by the richness of Armenian heritage across the globe. Living in Yerevan is touching in a way that other cosmopolitan cities are not. Each of the diaspora friends I spoke to learned Armenian at home. In Aleppo, Argentina, Baghdad, Baku and Tel Aviv, they were all baptized after 40 days in the Armenian Apostolic Church, and anointed with the holy oil prepared only once a year in only one Cathedral near Yerevan – Holy Etchmiadzin, the “Mother Church.”
“I don’t like nationalism,” says Serge.
I wonder aloud whether being religious means being patriotic in Armenia, and compare this with the Orthodox church in Russia. Serge starts to discuss the legacy of Russian writers and composers.
“I don’t like the Russians,” says Gor, “not their manners, not their music, not their culture.”
Next year we will be living in Tbilisi, Georgia. I have a feeling that I will deeply miss this sense of unity in diversity, this alliance to a tradition that begins with holy oil. At the same time I will be leaving behind an intransigent future – a place where 80% of Armenians receive financial support from the diaspora.