Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Thoughts on The "Other"

As appeared on The Caucasian Knot and [update:] EurasiaNet (also featured on Global Voices Online).

It’s difficult to be an Armenian. Not so much because of all the bloody history (in every sense), or the conflicts, or the never-ending migrations… The major issue for me lies in separating the fact from fiction, the real from the imaginary, the myths, the legends, and all the propaganda from the reality I live as an Armenian; especially, as an Armenian abroad.

"Caucasian barbeque" for the "Real Caucasians"

Growing up in Yerevan during the early years of “transition”, we quite literally lived through the Karabakh war. I guess I’m fortunate not to have been affected in any more direct way, but living the consequences was, I believe, more than enough to instill hostility. Hostility towards an “other” whom I never really met, but always heard so much about.

The fact that I was born into a family of Diasporan repatriates made this perspective even more twisted, since there was another “other” too, who tortured and mutilated my nation about a century ago, and who, somehow, came to blend into the current picture as well.

Then, there was the inherent and, perhaps, inevitable “otherness” that I felt myself, never being quite able to feel normal within a society which, I was told, is supposed to be mine, but which, for some reason, did not fully understand my ways, my food, or even some of my language (the confused faces of some classmates who heard me use Western Armenian words are still vivid in my mind).

Twisted, and yet very overpowering, as I wanted to be a “proper Armenian.” I had come to learn that to achieve that I would have to live up to certain expectations: dedicate my life to “The Cause” and to the struggle for an idea that was romantic and potentially explosive at the same time. I was supposed to hate, and I was supposed to fight.

I’m glad I didn’t. And I have only the “other” to thank for it.

As a freshman at college – in a country far, far away - I happened to attend an Azeri cultural evening. At a certain point, I should admit, I got confused since it was very difficult to stay aware of the fact that it was not an Armenian event: the only good reminder of that was the Azeri flag hanging on the wall.

Music? All too familiar. Traditional dress? Wait a minute, I thought that’s Armenian! Folk dance? Those are Armenian moves! Food? Since when is dolma Azeri?

"The proper barbeque"

Another conversation with an Azeri classmate revealed that he had a member of his family killed in the Karabakh war, and that just like myself, he was supposed to despise “the other”. But I, in all my adolescent naïveté, thought we were the only victims? It hadn’t even crossed my mind that I could have been an “other” too, belonging to a group that could have inflicted destruction, pain, and suffering upon someone else…

Yes, thank you, dear schoolmates, for helping me: helping me realize that I did not know you; for helping me go beyond the restrictive map and look further; for helping me shake off the straight-jacket put on me by my proper “Armenianness”; for helping me live a life not full of hate.

I believe I owe thanks to that baklavaci in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, too, who told me of his “amazing Armenian friends” back at his home village; just as I am grateful to the Turkish reporter who was all too eager to discuss the Genocide with me, sharing some ideas, and inviting me to her town.

I am not saying it’s all roses and love out there. Quite the contrary: seems like the pressure and the war rhetoric just keep increasing by the day.

Yet, we should not forget that the “average person” would not choose to go to war if he had a basic livelihood and certain achievable aspirations in life. But it’s difficult for states to ensure this basic livelihood and these aspirations – especially if we are talking about young, unstable, and insecure states.

Instead, it is much easier to apply the “nation” label (i.e. straightjacket) and manipulate the minds: the lack of a better alternative and the diverted focus of attention might, after all, fuel sufficient “courage and dedication” for a conflict…

Why not realize that over centuries – before we were even aware of our “nationhood” as such (since the latter is, quite surprisingly, a very modern concept) – we have evolved as a region, sharing land and culture? Why not admit that we are not that different, after all, and that we truly can get over the endless and pointless political debate and continue the process that was so abruptly interrupted with the creation of the mostly artificial borders?

Lena's ideal veggie plate

Why not focus all that energy and effort toward sharing, rather than dividing and alienating? Why not realize that we are human beings – first and foremost – before we are assigned a “national” label?

I feel like the naïveté is creeping back, again. But then, I see like-minded people from the region, not just abroad, but also online, and that gives me hope: hope that, perhaps, one day I can share “dolma” and “tan” (or, “ayran”) with Georgian, Azeri, and Turkish friends in Yerevan, without being frowned upon by my own “compatriots.”

(Photos by: me, in North-Eastern Armenia, off the Azeri border)

P.S. - Make sure to read the very insightful post by Scary Azeri, too. Very glad to see such dialogue in action! (Special thanks to Onnik Krikorian! :) )


  1. And soon to be featured on EurasiaNet... :)

  2. looking forward to the link :)

  3. It's at:


    And, of course, don't forget the actual project these posts were for:



  4. this is indeed a great post (except for the veggie plate!).

    I recently presented a paper of similar ideas about the Cyprus dispute - My claim was assigning national labels to everything, including historical narratives, in fact is the essence of the problem.

    there are a few issues that make the artificial borders very-very real. I presented my paper in Cyprus (in 'our' Cyprus). I was accused of being a post-modernist (I am not a post-modernist, then again, it was an academic conference- what if I were?). There are people, organizations, and even countries who are deeply committed to reproducing the old narratives and these artificial borders.

    secondly, I sometimes feel that as we are way too similar too each other in the region (Turks, Armenians, Greeks, Georgians, Azeri...), we cannot define our national identities on our own. We need the other, and unfortunately, we need to abhor the other and protect ourselves from the other to have a national identity. There was a Turkish-Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, who told the Armenian community in Turkey to free their national identity from their hatred against Turks. As a result, he was prosecuted in Turkey for insulting Turkish nationality (and was murdered by an ultra-nationalist).

    Hopefully, globalization will help us. We will start listening to each other. And we will come up with a shared historical narrative of what has happened in the past. If we fail to communicate, we cannot come to terms with the past, and will continue living with the artificial borders.

  5. I guess I've just found a new interesting blog to read.
    All the best from Peru!

  6. The best thing I had in Yerevan was Lahmajoon and Tan. I had it in a very small family-owned place ("Zabegalovka" as we call it sometimes)that had icons all around and a little fan blowing from a corner.

    I'm looking forward to visit Yerevan again.

    The Young Georgian

  7. @Mirian: the best food you get, in our part of the world, comes in those tiny places - i'm sure you know! be is "zabegalovka", a "mehayne", or just a corner "kebabji" :D

    @Gabriela: only glad to have more readers! thank you :)

    @Efe: thanks for the great comment. but of course - i could not agree with you more! and this, unfortunately, is not restricted to our part of the world (evidence? well, i guess it's just enough to read the news!)... nationalism is a great calamity, and although it's VERY difficult to get rid of it, i truly do still hope that perhaps, in the future, circumstances will allow for more openness and understanding. after all, images, stereotypes, and myths are just that - images, stereotypes, and myths - but unfortunately, they are "self-fulfilling" when perpetuated by certain interests.
    and yes, i totally agree on that although we need to learn from the past, we also have to look to the future, and not get dragged back by whatever we were MADE TO BELIEVE.

    am i getting too "cyber-utopian"? i don't think so. i believe it's a good start, and i certainly do look forward to meeting more like-minded individuals IN PERSON :)

  8. It's a tough problem, isn't it? Evolved human nature is to believe what we're told as children by authority figures, without question, because not to do so was too great a risk. That depth of indoctrination is almost impossible to shake. So the answer to the 'why' questions comes in part from here, where small-scale tribal psychology meets global-scale interactions. Whatever the solution is, it has to hurdle the survival toolkit that got us here in the first place.

    So it's great to see writing like this being published to at least begin to erode these obstacles!

  9. thank you, Tom. i could not but agree with you. whether it's indoctrination or mere socialization, it's still very much an attempt of manipulation and control of the individual within a larger society. and although i understand the reasons and motivations behind nationalism and all, i canNOT accept them as legitimate... especially not in the current world, and under the given circumstances.

    that said, i also realize that whatever "openness" we achieve, it has to be reciprocated, and the willingness to overcome such challenges has to be shared/mutual. otherwise, perceived insecurity is only bound to get stronger.

  10. An interesting and definitely thought-provoking post...
    While agreeing with most of what has been said and sharing most of the views expressed both in the post and in the comments, I must admit I feel a bit ambivalent about some ideas, which are explicitly stated or make a philosophical foundation for those ideas.
    To begin with, I have hard time accepting the idea that socialization is about manipulation and control. I have to admit, though, that at times it has that part as well. But then we use "indoctrination" as a term that adequately describes that part. Socialization can be liberating and provide an antidote to nationalism, racism, xenophobia, you name it...
    Secondly, I am not a nationalist and had to face some quite unpleasant consequences when I publicly spoke and acted against nationalism.
    I always stuck to cosmopolitanism.
    My ethnic and "nationalist" identity was actually thrust on me by "the Other".
    This brings me to another point that I would like to make.
    Many years ago, while looking into how Lenin manipulated Marxism (or, as Soviet propaganda put it, "creatively further developed Marxism"), I came across his idea about the difference between the nationalism of "small" nations (no derogatory meaning implied; he used it in the same way as Woodrow Wilson did) and of "big" nations. In the latter case he called it "chauvinism".
    In his view, small nations are sometimes forced to resort to nationalism to protect themselves, especially when external threats are real (or at least are perceived as such).
    Well, actually, what I am trying to say so inarticulately is that many important aspects of nationalism are not addressed, even though there are excellent books on the subject (Anthony Smith, Ernst Gellner, Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbaum, E. Balibar, Amartya Sen, Michael Hechter, Craig Calhoun and many others).

  11. Have to say that it's a pity comments are not being made on the original post. Kind of breaks up the discussion.

    So, if anyone would like to keep it going, please consider doing so at:


  12. sorry to be diverting attention, Onnik. didn't mean to :)

    @Vlad: I did not, in any way, even hope to cover major points pertaining to nationalism in this post. I agree with you in that there are different reasons for nationalism/chauvinism/patriotism (although they all seem the same, at their very core), and the way we deal with their negative "effects" will have to be adjusted accordingly.
    This post was more of an emotional outburst, though I certainly do hope to read up and develop a better "academic" understanding of the case. That's definitely a major paper idea I've been flirting with for a while, now.

    As for "the other" - I hoped to make it clear, that very often we are "othered" [if i could use it as a verb, of course] by those around us, be it people from an "out group" or those whom we'd want to consider as our "in group". And socialization comes to play a major part, since it's through this process that the general understanding of symbols, labels, and stereotypes is constructed and passed down within the group. I believe this very process should be the target, if we're ever to overcome the negativity... and yet, I do admit that I'm being a little too optimistic here.

  13. I love the fact that you at least opened your heart to the fact that we are all people. I am from Baku. We were not raised to believe we had an enemy, until we were attacked. But my father lived in fear in Nakhchivan, because already then, when he was a child, every trip to Baku was associated with train being shot at( crossing Zangezur), and humiliation by Armenian children. Already my grandfather told with sadness, how an Armenian father would took his child to the top of the mountain an tell a story of "their" land being stolen by us( his Armenian friend told him)- 100 years ago!While we were preaching peace and love to our enclave populations( 7 living in Azerbaijan: Jews, Russians, Talish,Armenians, Lezgins and Malokkan and some I'm forgetting)), Armenians were apparently preaching hate to their neighbors.We never waged war, we never wanted it. We welcomed every nation to stay at our rich land, because there was enough to share. And even when the war started, we were offering our Armenian friends to stay with us. They chose to go to Yerevan, from where they were with shame evicted, based on the fact they were too much Azeri. For Armenians in Armenia their own people were second class after being exposed to Azeriness.Every Armenian from Karabakh I met( I stayed and worked in European asylum centers)said the same: we loved our Azeri neighbors,never had problem with sharing bread;it was all but a game from Yerevan. And once war started, they were not welcome in Armenia for being pro-Azeri. And they were forced to go further, to Europe and US- claiming we were forcing them to leave just to get a refugee status- because it would have been to weird to say they were refugees fro Armenia. Russians who left Azerbaijan under false pretenses used the same excuse.That should tell you something.And its hurtful. I was raised in the US. I studies social-cultural anthropology. My subject were Native Americans, and Siberian populations. One thing you learn in the subject( among many others)- the names of places, and meals speak of their origin.You can't have dolma originated in Armenia( or Greece), because it comes from Turkich for "stuffing". Same for regions.Or clothes,and music- fully related to the history and culture and environment. I'm not pro-difference. I get in trouble for that with my own people( being all loving, etc.) But I can't deny facts when being assaulted, or hear again of how we did something wrong, when world history( not the one written locally) says different. I wish really, we could live in the world of sharing good things. And borders didn't exist. We should preserve our culture, because its beautiful and amazing, not because its better. I mean, Italians are known for pasta, but everyone knows it originated in China.It was never an issue for Azeris the traditions were used( because we also used the ones from Silk Route visitors)until someone started to claim its being theirs.It was never an issue for us to share a land, until we were asked to leave it ourselves, quite violently. We are all cells of the same organism, little knots of the same carpet. I with more lived with that in their heart.

  14. Well, thanks for the elaborate comment. Glad my post made you think. Your comment certainly made ME think...

    I appreciate you sharing your feelings (and thoughts) on this, but I cannot help but point out a couple of things that really do bother me about it all. Firstly, you say you "were not raised to believe you had an enemy", and later you mention that you were raised in the US. THERE goes your very own response to it. Just ask your compatriots who grew up in Azerbaijan itself -- they all will have the same story as me, just from the opposite perspective.

    Now, regarding the refugees... Unfortunately, you are right, many Armenians from Azerbaijan ended up going beyond Armenia (or Russia) and settling in Europe and the US. But it was not ONLY because “they were not welcome” in Armenia. They saw an opportunity to find a better life, and they took it. So did the Russians and MANY OTHERS who left the (former) Soviet Union those years. Would you, yourself, be kind enough to say why were you raised in the US? Why did your family move here?

    And then, there were also tens (if not hundreds) of refugees who DID stay in Armenia and are currently doing quite well. Yes, things could probably be even better – had it not been for specific historical, economic and political circumstances – but they got “repatriated”, they have full citizenship, and most of them have homes and jobs. I feel like that is often forgotten in those conversations…

    As for culture… please, don’t get me started. I agree with you on that many of the names for dishes, traditions, clothing are common. BUT, they were common TO THE REGION. They were not “borrowed” by any of the other countries from the “original pure” culture. Even if they did, it would probably be Ottoman, and certainly NOT “Azeri” (although writing this makes me want to laugh, since there was nothing “pure” about the Ottoman culture either, no matter how great it was). Don’t get me wrong here, however. What I’m trying to say is that there was a general culture shared by all in the region. Armenia was a part of the Silk Route, too, for example. So were Uzbekistan and Georgia. Why many of these details took Turkish (or, if you want to make it Turkic, let it be Turkic) names, was due to the Ottoman Empire (especially if we’re talking about Armenia, Greece, Bulgaria, etc.).

    In short, my bottom line is, your nationalist argument is faulty here, and, according to me, plain wrong. You claim to have studied anthropology, then you should know that the idea of the “nation” is a purely constructed one, just as is that of a “national culture”. You are blaming Armenians for false “mythology” of the nation, while you have whole-heartedly embraced it yourself. I say, give it up. Let’s look at it from a broader perspective. Look at the whole region as ONE living organism, just as it was at some point in the past. We just have to forget these hateful myths and fairy tales. No one has done anyone else “a favor” in the region in the past, neither will they be doing so in the future. But, to live in peace, we’ll need to get over brainwashing and propaganda, and look forward, together.

    I know, I’m asking for too much. But I’m still hopeful.