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Armenia, I love you!

“Splendid job! We recognize how much you love your country.” Chit.

Those were the few heartwarming words left by a Swiss-Filipina tourist on the front of a hefty envelope for a recent guide’s job well done. Encouraging as regards future professional prospects, Chit’s words also served as a reminder of my deep attachment to Armenia – a sentiment often exercised unconsciously and, on the rarest of occasions, questioned.

This is not to say that my attachment to mother Armenia was the work of the Swiss for it would be to negate the continued efforts of a very different mother – mine in particular – to preserve in me a lasting sense of patriotism despite our family’s prolonged stay abroad. But the fact remains that it took a group of elderly Swiss and a ten-day trip across the country for me to reevaluate and reassert these feelings.

Our continued interactions during the many kilometers traveled were a truly refreshing experience. Despite the significant age gap, we spoke on par about a variety of social and cultural issues affecting Armenia. These ranged from minimum wage rates and unemployment to marriage and sex to society’s perception of homosexuality, all deserving of very different reactions. But the shared open-mindedness and a lightness of being exhibited by most served as a staunch reminder of the often all-too-felt absence of these qualities amongst Armenians. Indeed, to talk to these people – most of them well above seventy, it’s worth noting – about sex for example was nothing special; another topic amongst many. But to do so with an Armenian elder or even a peer would all too often be unthinkable because of the inherent taboo surrounding such topics. A fact that did not fail to surprise the Swiss, as evidenced by their bewildered faces.

To witness such lightness of being in these septuagenarians was to be reminded of and encouraged in mine own liberal approach to a number of issues often made unnecessarily complicated in Armenia. An approach all too often attributed to my time spent abroad. A laughable mistake for anyone who truly knows me given that much of my liberal way of thought has and continues to be the merit not so much of my European upbringing as that of my Yerevan born and raised family. But for many in Armenia to accept this would imply questioning their own upbringing and so it is best the blame be put on the West.

In discussing the shortcomings of Armenians at such length – something we as Armenians never fail to do, ironically – it might seem as though I’m contradicting myself and, more importantly, the message conveyed by the title of this exposé. And yet, I truly believe that, for all our faults, we Armenians remain a truly unique peoples – nationalist fervor not intended.

For as much as Armenian society, undoubtedly oriental at heart, has opted for a borderline extreme communitarianism, arguably justifying its virtually psychotic fixation on female virginity for example, our communitarian mentality has also allowed us to bypass many of the adverse effects of that extreme individualism practiced in the West. An individualism that has already left many feeling isolated and depressed and which underlies stories such as that heard as early as yesterday in which an elderly man living in Brussels is left to celebrate Christmas alone, because his son would much rather attend a friend’s party than spend the holidays with his father. It is up to the Armenian neighbor and his family then to invite the elderly man to their home and make sure that he doesn’t stay alone – one of many positive expressions of our communitarian mentality. And for that and much more I love you Armenia.

My love of Armenia was strengthened by the repeated accounts of its rich history, expressed for example in the antiquity of its monasteries and the diversity of its cuisine, which I conveyed with great pride to my guests. I also found pride and love in the hospitality and open-heartedness of the people that welcomed us in their hotels and restaurants and offered us food and shelter, a quality the Swiss never failed to applaud. And for that and much more I love you Armenia.

The time spent with the Swiss also forced me to reevaluate my perception of self during the years spent abroad. I realized that many of the qualities that characterized me and set me apart from my peers in Geneva and later Strasbourg, including being respectful of girls and never backing out of a fight, were inherently Armenian in nature. No wonder some of these qualities were misconstrued as macho.

So I guess I shouldn’t really be surprised that it took a ten-day trip across Armenia with a group of elderly Swiss for me to reassert that one feeling I’ve always known to be there, which is: Armenia, I love you!

We Made It Through

By Varduhi Kirakosyan

Guest Contributor

I know what it is like when the intense feeling of hurt and anger pushes you to run away from home. From a simple discussion to a heated argument was just a single step in my family. I remember that as a child, I wished that we had guests every day because in their presence they wouldn’t argue. And I could escape witnessing vicious cycles of arguments between my parents. My mum would shake with anger and with her loud voice she would try to prove my father’s guilt, who, as I remember, hardly admitted that he was wrong, even at times when he really was. But instead he would fight against her till the end, when both of them would run out of steam.

Like our caucasian neighbors, we, Armenians often tend to talk very loudly, especially when we are concerned about something. An ordinary conversation between my parents about anything might could turn into a heated debate and later on into an argument. Those who suffered the most were me and my sister because we did not understand much and we feared of many bad scenarios. We would get into different rooms not to look into each others’ eyes because both of us were feeling ashamed of them and couldn’t mumble a word to justify their “battles” and to comfort each other.  It was painful to hear them arguing. So I used to bury my head under several pillows, hoping that I won’t hear their angry words and what they argued for. The reasons though were never clear to me. But once it started, it was growing bigger and bigger like a snowball. They did not think or realize that hurting each other they hurt us the most.

I hoped to see them getting well together in peace and consensus. They thought I did not understand or pay attention, but I did. I was a kid, but I still remember those nights that I have spent crying and realizing that I am powerless to stop them. I couldn’t interfere with them. All I could do was to stay in my room, where I froze with fear that something really bad could happen. Often, in the mornings after witnessing a big argument the day before, all of us would feel ashamed to look into each others’ eyes. They avoided looking at me. Sometimes, I wanted to look at them with an expression that would mean; “How could you let me pass through all of these?” But then I would look away, not to let my eyes give away my thoughts. Often, I would get up earlier to take refuge at my school.

I wondered why couldn’t they free themselves and free me as well through a simple act of divorce that as I thought back then could work well for everyone. As a child, I thought that very soon we would move to live with my grandma (mother’s mum) and with my childish curiosity I thought that it might be cool, since I will live with my cousins. But to my joy, as I think of it today, it never happened. Divorce wasn’t and still isn’t easily accepted in Armenian society. Most Armenians consider it to be a social disgrace. I couldn’t understand why. But for my family, divorce has never been in the list of possible solutions. And I am happy that my family didn’t consider it to be one back then.  

I admit that many women in Armenia endure the difficulties and misunderstandings in their marriage just because they don’t want to feel the shame that divorce brings on them. But sometimes, such negative perspective on divorce makes people work on themselves and avoid family separation.  This is how it worked in my family’s case. Others might call us “narrow-minded” because many Armenians feel like divorce is something that should and has to be avoided in most cases since it is considered to be a social disgrace. But this “narrow-mindedness” kept my family united; my two sisters, my mum and dad and my grandma with grandpa.

We don’t choose our family. I am happy with my mum, who sometimes gets angry at me even though I might not be guilty of anything. These are days when I just let her say whatever she want and I hear her without complaining because I know that she might have had a hard day. I am happy with my grandpa, who is not having dinner with everyone, waiting to have one with me because he knows I don’t like to eat alone. I am happy with my father who pleads me to sing a song and to play the guitar for him. And I am happy with my grandma, who prepares dishes and asks my opinion on the taste with an expression on her face that I can never say that it wasn’t good, even if I didn’t like the taste. I believe my role is the simplest; to be a good daughter for them.

The Centuries-Long Conflict

Mari Sahakyan

Guest Contributor

When I was growing up, I took it for granted that there could never be normal relationships between the bride and the mother-in-law. I have seen how my mum and my grandmother would fight with each other during my entire life, and the issues were always the same: some trivial conflicts that happened almost twenty years ago, before I was even born. But the oldness of those conflicts never made them irrelevant for my mum and my grandmother. I was always amazed by the amount of efforts and time both of them would put to try to remember every single detail about those few “vicious” years when they lived together. And every time when one of them would remember an offensive word or a poisonous glance, their eyes would shine with excitement, and they would rush to call my dad and remind him about it. My poor dad never understood how they could remember all the negative acts, but failed to memorize the wonderful moments they’ve lived with each other. It seemed to be simply thrown away from their memory.

Of course, there were times when my mum and grandma would get bored from fighting over the same matter again and again. But both of them were too committed to their decades-long conflict to give up so easily. That is why they would take time to create new reasons to fight with each other, so that they were sure that they never run out of topics to argue over. Out of the blue, my mum would decide to call my grandmother and tell her everything that was on her mind at that moment. Although it seemed absurd for us, for my mum that was a graceful act, because she considered it a sign of honesty, as she did not hide anything in herself. As she would always tell us, she was a “straightforward person” that thought her duty, to tell people “who they really are.” So, she would call my grandmother and commit her duty. Of course, during those calls my grandmother would never receive compliments. Quite the opposite: new offenses, new insults. My dad would come home with that helpless look in his eyes stare at my mum and ask her “Why Lusine? Just tell me why?”At those moments we would even laugh together, but all of us knew that that was the last laugh before the huge dispute between my parents would start.

If the conflict was only between my mum and my grandmother, it would be easier to bear, but the truth is that it slowly began to spread on all of us. As even the small reminder of my grandparents would make my mum feel stressful, at one point we were forced to make a choice: we had to either totally forget our grandparents and not even visit them, or deal with the fact that every time we went there a huge conflict between my parents was awaiting us back home.  This was a really tough decision for me back then, as I was only twelve years old. At that age, I loved my grandparents’ home so much that sometimes the only reason for me to go to classes and do homework was the fact that at the weekend I could go to Massiv, where my grandparents lived, and have a rest. That two days I was always surrounded with love and caring and for me that small apartment on the tenth floor was like a little piece of paradise. Every week my grandfather would have a new toy ready for me, and my grandmother would overload me with the tasty food so that I would feel nothing, but pleasure. Still, that pleasure was always mixed with a sense of guilt. I knew that back home, my mum was feeling that I “betrayed” her, because I knew that my grandparents were the only reason of my parents’ fights, and I knew how much they made her suffer, but I still came to them and acted like nothing happened. In the end I had to make a decision, and although it was really hurtful for me I decided never to see my grandparents again: just for the sake of peace inside of my own family. And the worst part of it was to realize that I faced all of those painful decisions, only because twenty years ago my grandmother forgot to iron the shirts, or my mum did not prepare dolma for the guests.

Sadly, most of the Armenian families face a similar situation. It has almost become a cultural tradition to treat the brides in a bad way and to hate the mothers-in-law. In English, the word “mother-in-law” does not have that much negative connotations and an embedded hatred as it has in the Armenian word “skesur.” Only the sound of “skesur” brings into mind a fat old woman whose only mission is to embarrass the bride as much as possible. The “hars” (Armenian word for bride), on the other hand, is thought to be “not good enough” for the husband’s family. No matter if she does the housework, goes to work, keeps the kids, or even manages to do all of these tasks simultaneously, the “skesur” would always find a reason to blame her for not working hard enough. Having this in mind, most of the Armenian brides have a feeling that they are almost in a “war” with their mothers-in-law. Although the times pass, these old conventions do not fade away and the century-long conflict between brides and mothers-in-law still continues. I hope that there will come a day when hearing the word “skesur” would actually bring a smile on the bride’s face, and the mother-in-law would genuinely love her bride and make her feel at home and not at a battlefield.

“Be a Man”

Is what I’ve been told all my life by my father.

“A man has to be serious, proud, stubborn,” is what he has been telling me for 22 years. And we aren’t on speaking terms right now, which happens quite often, but this last argument was probably one of the biggest reasons for him to give me the cold shoulder.

You see, my father comes from a simpler time, where societal roles were allotted based on your height, weight, strength, speed, and most importantly, genitalia. Now, my father is far from being a crazy conservative, but like most people who must bear the momentum of time and progress, he still has trouble fully living in the present. He believes that there are roles in life and you must abide by these laws. In his words “It’s the norm”. I’ve asked him many times about who made this “norm” and what defines something as normal or not, but I’ve only received dismissals and claims of meaningless arguments on my side.

Throughout my childhood, I was relatively free; I was never grounded, I was never forced to do homework, but all of this came under one condition: “be a man, Alik.” I had to be serious, I couldn’t make people laugh, I had to keep a straight face, a straight back, a straight posture, I had to be straight. And this is something many Armenian young men are forced to deal with.

I’m not saying women don’t have expectations to live up to. Of course they do, however, with the recent rise in the fighting for greater equality for women, men have become somewhat overshadowed.

“They’re going to laugh at your face, Alik. Is that what you want? To be the laughing stock of your class?”  was almost the exact quote from my father’s shouting after he saw me come home from school with a Sun drawn on my face with a yellow marker. I was in the 6th grade and I’m sure if my friend had known what kind of a big deal this was for my father, she probably would have not done it. Men in Armenia are forced to put up an act of solidarity and strength. The only way we know how to handle our problems is to bury them under other problems and hope that there are so many of them that they’ll be hard to see.

“What are my friends going to think when they see you like this? A clown?” This was from the recent argument. A man has to be firm. And yet, not once did he stop to ask me how my day went. Not once did he ask me why I never smile at home. Never once did he ask me why all my clothes smell like alcohol and cigarettes. As long as Alik has a straight face, the demeanor of a prison inmate, and the physical stature of a boulder, he is a man. And nothing else really matters.

“If you stay serious, people will take you seriously.” But what if that’s not what I want to be? What if that’s not what the men in Armenia want to be? Too many of us are forced to act a certain way because the people before us believed that’s how it should always be.

And now, for the past several months, I haven’t spoken to my father, because he was disappointed in the way I am, the way I act, the way I dress, and what I do. I would imagine many men around Armenia feel the same. There are many expectations placed on men, as well as the pressure not to disappoint. At the end of the day, the gender role of making money falls onto the man, and even if it’s not something you may agree with, it is still the bitter truth, that men are looked down upon when they do not support the family.

“You’re not a man, Alik.” And so when the argument finished, he stopped speaking to me again. We walk around the house, not looking at each other, disregarding each other’s presence, and not saying a single word to each other. This happens often. If I was younger, I would have been heartbroken by this, but at this point, I honestly don’t really mind the cold shoulder any longer. Both my father and I have probably come to the agreement that I am not the kind of son that he wanted, I did not live up to the expectations of a “normal” man.

“Be a man, Alik.” It’s a real shame he never did teach me exactly how to be one.

Why I Cannot Be a Patriot

By Vicky Melkonyan

Guest Contributor

How does one define the feeling of belonging to a place? I guess I will never know because I have never felt it myself. I was born in Armenia. Both my parents are Armenian. Our family can be described as a typical Armenian family that has traditional values and where everyone has their specific role – cook and take care of kids vs. work and make money. Why, then, you might ask, I never felt any affection toward my country, any pride for being an Armenian or why I simply never felt like I belong. The answer lies in multiple aspects of my own perception of the country.

Most of my negativity, however, derives from the things I know Armenians lived through when they came here from Baku. There were a lot of Armenians living in Baku during the Soviet Union era. Then came 1988 and everything turned upside down for all of them. I will not go into detail describing the horrors they witnessed in Baku and Sumgait. They fled saving their lives – some to Europe, some to Russia or the US and a large number of them came to Armenia.

My own mother lived in Baku with her large family. They were forced to leave the house they had built with their own hands. They lost all the money that had in the bank. After all that, however, neither the government of Armenia nor the people living here tried to help them, comfort them or compensate their losses in any way. On the contrary, things became much worse.

They came to live here in a village dormitory that used to be a musical school. They slept on bare floors – nine people sleeping in one tiny room, starving, having only a piece of bread per person. It was not just my mother’s family, there were approximately 30-35 families cramped into the school building. They had to fight among each other to buy a bucket of drinking water that a guy would bring in his truck. They had to fight over the oven to determine whose turn it is to bake bread because there was electricity for only so many hours. Honestly, I cannot imagine myself not going completely crazy after losing my home and everything I was used to and having to literally fight to survive.

If things seem very grim and hopeless to you by now, I suggest you pull up a chair. The rest is even worse. The attitude and treatment the refugees encountered from Armenians that lived here was unbearable. They have been segregated, called “Turks” and harassed multiple times for having lived among Muslims. That is ironic because at the same time there were hundreds of Azeri living in Armenia, especially in Ararat province. Women that came from Baku were branded and treated as prostitutes. My mother herself has been harassed by inappropriate comments from Armenian men. Above all, Armenians from Baku were regarded as a burden for Armenians living here. They were told many times that it would have been better if they stayed in Baku and were killed than came here to “eat our bread”.

At the same time the world answered with all kinds of help – food, clothing, etc. People who lived in Armenia saw an opportunity to benefit from. The refugees were supposed to get a box with different kinds of food per person. However, the Armenians in charge of distribution decided that they can give out a box per family instead and keep the rest to themselves. Certain kinds of food such as soy beans and rice, which were again intended for the refugees, Armenians gave to their pigs while the families from Baku starved. I was very young then, but I still remember my great-grandma telling me how every time she would give her piece of bread to her grandkids because she knew they were hungry.

Some of the people who came from Baku went mad, some committed suicide because why live if you have lost everything that was dear to your heart and on top of that you are rejected by your “home country”. Of course, some have moved on, they have found ways to build a new life and become successful. But can they ever forget the things they saw, the things they experienced? Can they ever forgive?

For some reason, to this day unclear to me, Armenians living in Armenia have been heavily prejudiced toward Armenians who fled from Azerbaijan. Were they not human? I will never understand why these people were treated so poorly in the one country to which they “belong”. The truth is that even today things have not changed much. I have heard people calling others “Turk” only because one of their parents has lived in Baku. I guess that makes me a “Turk” because my mother and her whole family lived there for a long time.

How then do you expect me to be a patriot? How do you expect me to love Armenians and be proud of “belonging” to this country? Knowing the truth about the past of so many Armenians has definitely made my life a lot more complicated. I find it impossible to forgive such intolerance and unfairness. I hear people brag about how Armenia is so wonderful and Armenians are so smart and etc. The fact remains that Armenians were not able to accept Armenians from a different country, let alone support them and encourage them. For the people who overnight lost everything they had ever known life has moved on but they never found their place in this society.