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