Friday, August 3, 2012

The Armenian Literary Tradition at the Library of Congress

2012 marks the 500th anniversary of Armenian printing, as it was in 1512 that Hakob Meghapart (Jacob the Sinner) opened the first Armenian press in Venice, Italy. To mark the occasion, UNESCO designated Yerevan, Armenia's capital city, as its 2012 World Book Capital and the Correr Museum in Venice featured a major Armenian exhibition earlier this year. Now, the Library of Congress - the largest in the world - is showcasing some of its own treasures here, in Washington, DC: "To Know Wisdom and Instruction."

The Armenian Exhibit poster at the main entrance of the Library of Congress.

Dr. Levon Avdoyan, Library’s Armenian and Georgian area specialist in the Near East Section and Curator of the exhibit, says the exhibit took a lot of time and effort. With support from the Dolores Zohrab Leibmann Fund and some generous donations from several Armenian Diasporan families, Dr. Avdoyan managed to put together a display of more than 70 objects from among the 45,000 Armenia-related items held by the Library. Of course, he says, the choice was a difficult one, but his intention was to tell the story of the Armenian literary tradition, while highlighting the Library's invaluable collection.

I got special permission to take pictures inside and what follows are just some of the items on display. 

Before I get there, though, I believe it is important to point out the exhibit's immense contribution to Armenian cultural and public diplomacy, in general. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the Library and I bet that many of them would not be able to identify Armenia on the world map, even if they have heard of the country before. This exhibit - right next door to Jefferson's legendary library collection, by the way - not only provides a crash course on the more recent part of the Armenian literary history, but it also contextualizes it within the Ottoman, Persian, Russian, European and American histories, without all the drama and tragic tone that usually accompanies such Armenian endeavors. And perhaps more important: independently from the Armenian government itself (whether financially, or otherwise).

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Syria: The Conversation That's Largely Missing

The events in Syria have been in the top headlines, on and off, for more that a year now. There is an angle to the story, however, that seems to be largely ignored, whether in the news or in the day-to-day discussions that I hear or participate in: the rhetoric of it all.

In the "West", the dominant narrative goes like something along these lines: "The blood-thirsty dictator is holding on to power, against the wishes of his own people, who have rebelled against him inspired by the wave of 'democracy and freedom' that has swept the region. Supported by his direct and indirect supporters - Russia, China, Iran and Hizballah - the regime is obviously prepared to take all necessary action, whether military or not, to crush this popular uprising and ensure its own survival." The leaders in the West have made it crystal clear that they want Assad out, and although nobody seems to have a clue as to what would come in its stead, they do want regime change. There are also certain interested parties within the U.S. that are, apparently, pushing for even stronger action.

In the "East" (and by this, I'm referring largely to the Syrian, Russian, Iranian and other sympathetic perspectives), the painted picture is the exact opposite: "Extremist forces (and the term 'terrorist' is often used quite liberally), supported and funded by fundamentalist Saudis, expansionist Turks, and increasingly arrogant Qataris, are on a quest to overthrow the government, and all stability with it. If the Sunnis take over the country, chaos and ethnic cleansing will ensue, and will surely spread across the region. Meanwhile, the West - namely America - sees this as an opportunity to stretch its muscle and get involved in yet another country in the region. All the 'unverified' video clips on YouTube and undercover journalist reports are - if not outright fabricated - then grossly exaggerated and biased. Russia and China will stand against any such 'breach of international law' and will not allow any other Western nation and/or coalition to meddle in the internal matters of a recognized state."

These perspectives are, of course, oversimplified. However, at their core, the dominant narratives hardly go further than that. Needless to say, there are people and analysts on both sides that see slightly more than the mere black or white, but their views don't seem to permeate into the greater public discourse as much.

So, what's wrong with this picture?