Bartering Freedom

When people agree to being governed, that is, they agree to limitations on their absolute freedom, there is an implied understanding that they will be getting something in return. Generally, they are bartering that freedom for security and stability (read: order) and the belief that they are gaining something that they would not have in an anarchic (read: insecure or unsafe) state.

When in the Republic of Armenia you have, on the one hand, massive arrests conducted by the police and, on the other hand, people being beaten and bloodied, as Babken DerGrigorian (interview and story in Armenian) and Mihran Margaryan (pictured below) were, the question arises about what the people are exchanging for agreeing to be governed by the officials and rules that are meant to provide them with security. Officials and rules which do not seem to be holding up their end of the bargain, at that.

When seven hooligans can roam the streets and violently prey on peaceful protesters, someone who has received the trust of the people in exchange for the promise of security has failed in their duty. And when the citizenry no longer believes that the executors of that promised security, the police,  are there to protect them but they are there to protect the disingenuous merchants in the freedom trade, things begin to fall apart.

Mihran Margaryan, post-beating. (Photo credit: Pan-Armenian Environmental Front)
Mihran Margaryan, post-beating. (Photo credit: Pan-Armenian Environmental Front)

What all budding governments know and what all outdated governments, in their hubris, forget, is that they are no match for the people. Once the governed lose all their faith in their governors and in the belief that they will be secured by them, the reason for their past reserve is obsolete, and chaos impends. 

It is generally not in the interest of rulers to ignore mass discontent but history proves that they do, often at their peril. Armenia’s rulers can choose to ignore the discontent, they can choose to abuse the agreement of which they are the beneficiaries, they can choose to be afraid of standing apart from their colleagues or they can choose to recognize that their power and their status and their wealth is due to the complicity of a discontent people with whom they have an implicit agreement. And the rulers of Armenia should know that when they make their decision, they are deciding not only what the future of Armenia will be but what theirs will be, as well.

By: William Bairamian

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Another Election Boycott

It seems like in Armenia “boycotting the elections” has become code for “we have no good candidates but want to look like we’re doing something.”

In Syunik, home of the infamous and royally evil Suren Khachatryan, the province’s ex-governor, the ARF has decided it will boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections being held to replace Khachatryan’s successor, Vahe Hakobyan. Hakobyan was a member of parliament when he was appointed to succeed Khachatryan (a.k.a. Liska) after a shootout at the latter’s compound that left one Artsakh war hero dead and his war hero brother wounded.

Apparently the reasoning behind the decision is that nothing will change although no explanation was given whether boycotting the election will, conversely, change anything.

For a succinct evaluation of political parties in Armenia and their absence from any substantive change in the country (i.e. 150 drams debacle, environmental movements, etc.), see Khatchig Mouradian’s “The Sultans of Swindling“.

Over-promising and under-delivering has become a staple of politics-as-usual in Armenia. Unfortunately, this also includes much of the opposition, which has thus far failed to muster the strength and ingenuity to tackle the profound economic and social challenges the Armenian citizen faces.

Better to do nothing between elections or better to do nothing during elections? Time will tell.

By: William Bairamian

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8 Things You Do If You’re From Yerevan

Yerevan is Armenia’s biggest city. Like most big cities, its citizens have peculiarities that distinguish them from those of other cities in the country. If you’re from Yerevan, especially if you’re over the age of 30, you probably do all these things. 

1) You hate Karabakhtsis. 

Because they supposedly control everything and even have a conspiracy to keep Yerevantsis unemployed. Although your only evidence for this is that native Artsakhtsis (Karabakhtsis) are in high-level government positions (i.e. president, defense minister, etc.). Which is like me claiming that the troubles I might have, being a Californian, are because Barack Obama is from Illinois/Hawaii/Indonesia and Chuck Hagel (U.S. Sec. of Defense) is from Nebraska. OK…I guess.

No Tatiks and Papiks
No Karabakhtsi tatiks and papiks…or pretty much anyone from Karabakh.

2) You hate anybody from the regions of Armenia. 

Because those villagers (գյուացիք) live better than you do. Though that might have something to do with them doing back-breaking work. Or maybe it’s not true that they live better. But whatever about that fact stuff.

We are city folk and don't like village folk.
Ew!

3) You hate(d) akhpars.

Because they were different and drank coffee and ate lahmajoon and basturma, except you love that shit. Or maybe it was something else, like they got one-way tickets to Siberia because they were suspected of being spies on the regular. Actually, I’m not really clear on what the beef was with the akhpars.

We'll take the coffee, lahmajoon, and basturma but no akhpars!
We’ll take the coffee, lahmajoon, and basturma but no akhpars!

4) You hate Yerevan.

After all, if the country is not a country (ԵԵՉ), the capital and biggest city of that country must suck, too! I mean, the suckiness has to come from somewhere. Or maybe it’s because all the inhabitants are աֆերիստ (shysters). Though what was that about taking one to know one?

Can you blame us?
Can you blame us?

5) You claim you and your whole family are originally from Yerevan, since hundreds of years ago.

Which means there is a good chance you’re either a Persian or Turkic Tatar. Congratulations – you are now much cooler. 

Fine looking ancestors they were.
Fine looking ancestors they were.

6) You say you’re from Yerevan but you’re really just embarrassed to say you’re not from Yerevan because everyone in Yerevan hates people who aren’t from Yerevan…although no one is from Yerevan. 

Yerevantsi to the core! Kind of to the core...like, right around it. (Photo credi: Ann Larie Valentine)
Yerevantsi to the core! Kind of to the core…like, right around it. (Photo credit: Ann Larie Valentine)

7) You dream of moving to Glendale, where you will start hating all non-Yerevantsi Armenians in Los Angeles.

Except you don’t live in Yerevan anymore and nobody cares that you’re from there.

Heaven.
Heaven.

8) You inspire me to be a better Armenian by trying hard to not be you.

Thanks!

Ya, buddy. Jack said it right.
You are now in the same class as Helen Hunt!

By: William Bairamian

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Artsakh : Sparta (II)

(Second of a several part series)

If you watched “300” and wished you could have visited Sparta, good news: there is Artsakh.

The parallel between the Battle of Thermopylae and the Artsakh War is actually striking: the Artsakhtsis and Spartans were both severely outnumbered, fantastically outgunned, and, on paper, fighting them should have been a cakewalk for their enemies. The only difference in their stories (besides a few thousand years, the weaponry, and most everything else) was that Artsakh won and Sparta didn’t.

"I'm the soldier of a victorious army."
“I am the soldier of a victorious army.”

This is a martial culture. The calm of Stepanakert would have you think you’re not in a war zone if it weren’t for the soldiers everywhere. There are barracks all over the place that house thousands of soldiers and they are all carefully guarded.

The young men wear their neatly prepared uniforms proudly. They don’t have any reservations about what they will need to do if there is a war but you will not hear a single person go into a bravado-inspired tirade about crushing the enemy or threaten to kill civilians.

Both the men and women of the older generations have seen war and you can see it in their eyes and hands. Though they are serious, they are never disrespectful and their shells of titanium belie a kindness so rare, I was subconsciously reticent to interact with them because I might violate its purity.

Soldier playing dodgeball, no holds barred, with kids at Gandzasar.
Soldier playing dodgeball, no holds barred, with kids at Gandzasar.

The women are the fierce parallels of the men. One we met runs a youth center. She tells the kids who come through there that as an Artsakhtsi, you cannot afford to say that something is impossible, you have to make it possible. Oh, and she brings her baby to work where she attends to the child and works concurrently. And oh, we went on a hike that involved crossing narrow bridges with some of the local kids and she brought her baby, probably so he can grow up to be a badass like everyone else. And oh, she’s having her fourth child.

Soldier visiting the Shushi art museum.
Soldier visiting the Shushi Art Museum.

If there is another war, which is incredibly unlikely, the people here alone would crush the Azeris. I think that’s why there hasn’t been a war yet – there are still Azeris who remember what it was like fighting against the Artsakhtsis and are, plainly, scared.

There are many reasons to come to Artsakh but if there was only one, being among the men, women, and children who are the essence of what we want to be as Armenians and thinking that you share something with them would be it.

By: William Bairamian

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100 Դրամ

Մենք Չենք Վճարելու 150 դրամ

Looking at history, it’s easy to think that significant, groundbreaking events in the past were sudden, unexpected, and without premise. That’s hardly the case, of course.

Both world wars were a result of hundreds of minor events until one of those minor events broke the proverbial camel’s back; discovering America was the culmination of thousands of years of navigational science, shipbuilding, astronomy, and balls (see #2); Armenia‘s leadership in the independence movements of the USSR had a foundation in the fearless and unwelcome nationalism of Charents, Sevak, Parajanov, and other great Armenian intellectuals, and their sons and daughters who demonstrated on the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in Yerevan.

At an undetermined point in the future, when the old guard of Armenia are replaced with individuals whose belief system revolves solely around the betterment of their nation, we will remember and thank the movement that successfully forced the mayor of Yerevan, Taron Margaryan, to reverse his decision to raise bus fares by 50%.

Fare rises in public transportation are met with anger almost everywhere. I’ve seen protests in both New York and Los Angeles when the municipal authorities charged with managing public transportation raised the fares. One big difference was that the authorities in NYC and Los Angeles, as far as I know, didn’t have a stake in the subway and bus system, like this clown. Another difference is that they’re usually unsuccessful. See, in a place like Los Angeles or New York, when authorities make the claim that the cost of operating a modern public transportation system requires them to raise the fares, they can make a case for it. In Armenia, when the head of municipality transportation owns a bus route himself, the “we’re improving the transportation system” sounds more like “we’re improving my transportation system…by helping me buy a faster, darker tint Mercedes-Benz for the new digits I secured.”

It’s worth noting that in conjunction with the demands of the protestors that the fare be kept at the 100AMD level, there was also a parallel movement that effectively threatened the business interests of the parties raising the fares (i.e. government officials and their cronies). The online service Freecar.am (facebook) blew up overnight and people began offering rides to complete strangers for free. Inspired by the freecar.am phenomenon, others would pull over in front of bus stops announcing their destination and open seats for any takers. If this became widespread and was sustained – as I think would be a good idea if the movement wants to really make sure government leaders think twice before making stupid decisions – the businesses which are these bus lines would be severely hurt, thus making politicians and administrators-cum-businessmen unhappy.

It’s not too far-fetched to believe that the mayor was making a business decision more than he was concerned about popular opinion when he changed his mind on the fares. But the innovation of the organizers of the movement in using this tactic, whether purposeful or inadvertent, was a huge change from showing up to squares and listening to a few predesignated folks pontificate for a few hours without any concrete plan of action. Babken Der Grigorian‘s piece about the characteristics of the movement underscores the novelty of these demonstrations and how they differed from past movements.

Side note: Babken was also the subject of an insult lodged against him by an old-school cop trying too hard to either be fashionable or to look like the Terminator. Valery Osipyan, the cop in question, told him “go back and demonstrate in your country,” alluding to Babken being a repatriate from abroad (for more on the old generations, see below). This seems to be a common retort among these leftovers from the Soviet Union.

"I'm going to pay 100AMD!!! We're the ones at fault for having let them make us dumb. Drivers, strike for another 2 days. We're going to pay 100AMD!!!"
“I’m going to pay 100AMD!!! We’re the ones at fault for having let them make us dumb. Drivers, strike for another 2 days. We’re going to pay 100AMD!!!”

Finally, those not-so-minor minor events that set the stage for world wars, expedition and discovery, and independence all had initiators, contributors, participants. In this movement, these people were the youth. The groups who traversed Yerevan on foot, shouting slogans and handing out fliers were nearly all young people. The movement was mobile, loud, and almost omnipresent.

I overheard several young people say, before the reversal of the fare rise, that they will not be discouraged and they will not be compelled or forced to move out of Armenia, that this was their country and they would stay and fight to make it better. Music to my ears.

Astgh Igityan, a facebook friend, drew the distinctions between the old and new generations in Armenia succinctly (my translation) – before the mayor’s reversal.

In our country, the middle-aged and elderly cross the street without using crosswalks or under red lights more often than the youth. It’s the middle-aged and elderly who more often than the youth cut in line at the grocery store. It’s the middle-aged and elderly who more often than the youth try to subvert protests – although they complain more and are more pessimistic than the youth.

So, hereafter, nobody should be so brazen as to say that we have a bad youth.

Later on, she had an encounter with one of these said elderly – again, before the mayor’s reversal.

(Old lady:) It’s pointless, kids, leave this country, get out of here.

Sometimes it’s good to not listen to your elders. And if they keep giving you bad advice, it’s never good.

These kids didn’t listen to their elders and they won.

The new generation of Armenian youth is not just fighting against the old guard which is ensconced in its seats of power but it’s also fighting against popular mentality. Երկիրը երկիր չի (ԵԵՉ for short, as I recently learned – thanks Vartan!), after all, was invented by the old generations and is continuously spouted off by them. Well, brace yourselves because apparently I’m not the only one tired of hearing this; recently, Երկիրը երկիր է was launched on facebook as a first step toward remedying this mental sickness.

The success of this movement isn’t just in getting the mayor to reverse his decision and standing up, in solidarity, for social justice. Rather, the greatest success is the triumph of the belief of those involved that they can win and, what’s more, that they will win – that it’s just a matter of time and tenacity. The fire in the belly of the people of Armenia is burning anew and it’s spreading.

The time has come to say thank you to the old generations for the ground they prepared for today’s youth and it’s time to say goodbye. Goodbye to the hopelessness, to the depression, to the fatalism, to the cynicism, and to the pessimism.

To quote Armenian rapper extraordinaire, Misho: սա հաղթանակի սերունդն ա. Ask about us.

By: William Bairamian

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Artsakh : Armenia v2.0 (I)

(First in a several part series about Artsakh)

There are a lot of complaints about the Republic of Armenia. It’s corrupt, there is no respect for the law, oligopolies control the economy, the environment is mindlessly ravaged, the people are unemployed, depressed, and looking for a one-way ticket out. There is a lot of the same in Artsakh, but it’s better.

"The Artsakh Republic is the Armenian people's pride." Yes it is.
“The Artsakh Republic is the Armenian people’s pride.” Yes it is.

Years ago one of my brothers came here then told me, “when you see it, you realize why we fought for it.” And when I saw it for the first time, driving through Berdzor, surrounded by a forest so thick it looks like a blanket of trees covering the mountains, I knew what he meant. All the geopolitical and historical arguments I’d made for Armenians’ right to govern themselves on this land went out the window; one needs to but see the majesty of these mountains to grasp why Armenians will not let this land go.

I was speaking with the driver of a dilapidated GAZelle we rented to travel to Shushi. He said he was from Stepanakert, he looked about 50. I asked him if he was originally from here because I know there were a lot of people who were displaced during the war; he affirmed that he was. He told me that he and his whole family were here when Stepanakert’s civilian population was being shelled with GRAD missiles by Azerbaijani forces from Shushi. He may have fought in the war; I didn’t ask. But I did ask whether he planned on staying or going. He responded like most people here do: “Where am I going to go? This is my home. If I go, who will stay?” This is the attitude of a guy driving a van that can climb a hill at no more than 20 MPH and who lived through the criminal bombardment of the city in which he and his family were living – and this is the attitude in Yerevan.

In Stepanakert, the streets are clean and the people mellow. A police officer stopped us because we weren’t using the crosswalk because, really, who uses crosswalks anywhere outside of California? Artsakhtsis do. He asked us to use the crosswalk and was on his way. Whereas the drivers in Yerevan seem almost like they are trying to run pedestrians over, the drivers here stop for people crossing the street. And the people crossing the street acknowledge the gesture. What is this humanity?!

The taxi drivers don’t try to gyp you as soon as they realize you’re not from there. Actually, several of them tried to refuse the 100AMD tip I tried to give them and only took it after I insisted. Another time, we asked our taxi driver to stop on the way up to Shushi so we could see the tank used in its liberation. From where the tank is situated, I could see the driver milling around in the bushes and I wondered what he was doing. When we descended, it turned out he was picking blackberries for us. Hands stained, he handed them over. Ya, really.

The men don’t all have what seems to be a male fashion accessory in Armenia: the half-dome stomach. They look stronger, like what you read about in Armenian fables – except with unfortunate Caesar-style haircuts.

There are new buildings that have been and are being built in Stepanakert and part of the apartments in each are allocated to war veterans and their families. Speaking of buildings, they have managed to rebuild the fortress at Tigranakert while unfathomably not putting a cafe next door – or inside.

And there is jingalov hats, for which there is even a song (if you don’t understand anything, don’t worry, it’s in the awesome Karabakh Armenian dialect). If this doesn’t signify an improvement on Armenia, I don’t know what does.

It’s not all perfect. There is still a war going on. I found this out when I tried taking a picture of a poster memorializing the sacrifice and strength that wrought victory that was on what turned out to be a military dormitory; three young soldiers promptly popped out of their station to tell me to tell me pictures weren’t allowed. More seriously, soldiers die regularly on the front line.

Shushi, the crown jewel of Artsakh and the Caucasus, is still mostly in ruins. Some buildings have been rebuilt but many of them are derelict and awaiting what government officials say is a final plan for what to do with the city and how to do it.

Persian mosque in Shushi.
Persian mosque in Shushi.

Some of the people I spoke with have told me that there is corruption here, too, although I’ve come to learn that corruption means different things to different people. For some, a police officer taking bribes is corruption. For others, a government official using their influence to secure financial benefits for him or herself is corruption. Nevertheless, there isn’t a general feeling that the government is embezzling all the funds in the country like there is in Armenia.

And despite the heartwarming story above, there is also emigration. The Republic of Artsakh is woefully underdeveloped and the people suffer because of it. The little that the government is able to do has been compounded with the investments of some wealthy Armenians, mostly from the Diaspora, but it hasn’t been enough to catalyze an active and vibrant economy. Agriculture is the traditional mainstay but a mixture of land mines, irrigation issues, and lack of any developed formal agriculture economy, villagers have a difficult time making ends meet.

On the issue of emigration, though, what was most impressive was that any young person I met that was college-age or a college graduate expressed little desire to go abroad and stay abroad. There is certainly an interest in seeing new places but the feeling is always that they should return to Artsakh – and they do, as many of the Artsakhtsis I met who had spent time in the United States or elsewhere had.

Frankly, the Republic of Artsakh realizes that it cannot be the Republic of Armenia. It cannot discourage investment by creating the impression that an oligarch might step in for a piece of the pie if he sees fit; it cannot completely ignore the social needs of the elderly and veterans; it cannot act like it doesn’t have youth and uninterestedly kill their desire to stay and help their homeland.  What has happened is that the Republic of Artsakh’s supposed curse – lack of international recognition of its statehood – has been a blessing because it has required it to be better – exemplary, even. When Artsakh starts setting the trend for its bigger, internationally-recognized brother to the west, don’t be surprised.

By: William Bairamian

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What’s Your Number?

For those of you who don’t know, numbers are a big thing in Armenia. So important that people go to great lengths to secure numbers that secure their importance – likely because they’re insecure. The most evident of examples is what you see on the roads, often in Yerevan, but really everywhere. License plates are the most visible proof that you are a VIP (“veep”, in local parlance) – and certified to break all rules with impunity. Thus you have combinations like “11 oo 111” or “23 LL 233”. The more uniform your license plate number or the more clear the pattern, the more cool you are. You know, like in high school when your importance is determined by the clothes you wear and not the ideas you bring to the table or the deeds you perform.

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Another iteration of the number fetish is with phone numbers. It makes life, easy, really. If I meet someone with a license plate number that proves that they are cool and they give me their cool-making phone number, something like 23 23 23, then I don’t even have to worry about their personality, character, or intelligence because all the work in determining whether this person is worth interacting with is done for me. And, in fact, I trust that in the near future, it will be an awfully easy way to pick out the dimwits who actually concern themselves with this rather than, I don’t know, reading a book.

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Note the dangerously dark tint. Perfect for running people over unnoticed.

When businessmen, politicians, university rectors, and the people who take cues from them (i.e. the masses) stop depending on their license plate and phone numbers for the the respect they think they deserve and start commanding that respect through their actions steeped in love of country and nation, we will know a new and right path.

By: William Bairamian

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Street Art, Yerevan

Yerevan is not a pretty city. It’s dirty – the air, the streets. Most of its old architecture, as I’ve come to learn, has been obliterated in favor of poorly built new buildings in pursuit of some silly, and elusive, European ideal for a city and a country and a people which are not European. The city’s parks are unkempt and many include gaudy cafes that tempt your humor, making you wonder whether someone really thought it was a good idea to put bright lights and Coca-Cola umbrellas in a quaint and otherwise peaceful place.

A lot of Yerevan’s look and feel has to do with the carelessness of the authorities and their disregard for aesthetics. Thus you have KFC signage in a pleasant park (see below) or overflowing trash cans or ruined sidewalks.

KFC

But the authorities’ inattention to beautifying Yerevan is most blatantly obvious while taking a stroll down Northern Avenue toward the Opera. On the main thoroughfare, nonsensical graffiti is visible on the entrances to the underground parking lots. Mind you, this is an area that opened in 2007 as the premier, central shopping and pedestrian area in all of Armenia. Although it’s impressive that someone was able to manage tagging in this area without being caught (from what I can tell, the street is well-lit throughout the night), the unsightly textual spray-paintings are out of place on the otherwise prim and proper avenue.

image

Perhaps more surprising is what I found at the capital city’s pride and joy, the Opera. The vaunted structure is where anybody who’s made it big in Armenia performs and anybody who’s made it big, thinks they’ve made it big, wants to seem like they’ve made it big, or just enjoys good performances goes. It’s so popular that all the idiots in the country got together and built cafes in the park across from the Opera and in such a way that the Opera is not visible from most of them, thus eliminating green space for a cafe you could’ve put anywhere but you put next to a structure you mostly can’t see only so you can say you put your cafe next to it.

On the ramps leading to the equivalent of Armenia’s Lincoln Center or Disney Concert Hall you see similarly nonsensical graffiti. Maybe there is a good reason (I doubt it) that it’s not cleaned up the rest of the year but it’s tourist season! You can’t expect to have your two central structures littered with gibberish. I know it’s far-fetched to expect Yerevan authorities to care but this is one of the things that can affect their bottom line and if we know anything it’s that that is definitely motivation for them.

If you were wondering, this is “street art” which I don’t appreciate (although I love some other graffiti).

image

Part of Yerevan’s blight are the soul-lacerating Soviet-era concrete projects. From the outside, they make New York’s projects look like a Ritz Carlton. The entrances to these crumbling depression machines are seldom, if ever, at the front of the building but rather in a courtyard accessed through a similarly drab passageway.

Some creative minds – or perhaps just one – saw an opportunity in these passageways and started painting and colorizing the gray. It’s almost hard to believe before it’s done but the difference some paint and pleasant imagery can make is astounding.

More importantly, somebody saw something ugly and instead of letting it send them into a spiral of hopelessness, they innovated and beautified. Credit to those who had the idea and made this happen.

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There is also a smarter variation of textual street art and it usually takes the form of a stenciled message meant to elicit some feeling – pride, hope, inspiration, rage. I’ll take these crude markers of mental activity over the KFC awning and hooliganism from above any day.

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“Freedom, Equality, Solidarity. Liberation”
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“Voluntary Rights Are Strength” and “It’s begun…”

Finally, what could be cooler than walking down a street and seeing a painting of one of your favorite authors unexpectedly plastered on an otherwise forgettable wall? A lot of things but this is nevertheless pretty cool.

To celebrate the 500th anniversary of Armenian printing, Yerevan was deemed World Book Capital in 2012. Most of these seem sanctioned and done by a certain BB Media and thankfully they were done with some verve and pizzazz.

More refreshing is that these giants of literature, now staring at thousands of passerby, have been deemed worthy of public exaltation in a place where, if the overheard conversations of young men are any indication, the speech and behavior of the criminal-elite is preferred over the mellifluous poetry of literate forebears.

Next step: books-for-mafia-soap-operas program.

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Papa Ernest Hemingway
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I don’t know. Help me out.
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Edgar Allen Poe
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Hovhannes Tumanyan

As is seen in these pictures, the battle between the positive and negative takes many forms. An individual with a can of spray paint can use it to write utter nonsense and soil an attractive thing or they can use it to convey an empowering message; a person can look at a dull, dark passageway and sulk or they can use it as their canvas.

It’s only a matter of how you look at the world and what you see: hopelessness or opportunity?

By: William Bairamian

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Cheq Zzvel?

Taxicabs are tabloids on wheels. Their drivers will tell you all sorts of stories, some true, some not. Yerevan’s taxi drivers aren’t as talkative as the ones in New York or pretty much anywhere else I’ve encountered them. They don’t seem to care much where you come from, only where you’re going. And if you’re not a local, you may be inclined, by fear or interest, to attentively watch the road as your vessel comes painfully close to running over several people during the length of your trip instead of striking up a conversation. But, like any taxi, if they talk, the information you glean, if true, can be a window to the society of which they are the transporters.

Taxi in Yerevan's Republic Square. Credit: Vigen Hakhverdyan
Taxi in Yerevan’s Republic Square. Credit: Vigen Hakhverdyan

Alas, we happened upon a jolly-looking-though-not-so-jolly young fella who, as soon as we sat in the car, started musing angrily about the people walking up and down Northern Avenue on a warm evening rather than spending their time in a park surrounded by trees and wildlife. I recently spent two weeks exploring wilderness throughout California; there wasn’t much question which side of that question I ended up on. We made a connection so now we had to talk – otherwise it’d be too awkward – so we did.

He must have noticed from my accent that I’m not from Yerevan, which isn’t hard to do. He asked me how long it had been since we’d come to Yerevan and I responded by saying, “one week.” He didn’t even flinch, immediately following up with, «դեր չեք զզվե՞լ» (“aren’t you disgusted, yet?”). It was a suggested eventuality in the form of a question. I wasn’t sure how to respond except by honestly saying that I wasn’t yet disgusted but sarcastically gave him the opportunity to tell us what was disgusting so we could become disgusted, too. He sounded off his laundry list of problems that I’d heard a thousand times. Nothing is ever new – except he was younger than the others, maybe in his 30s. I was hopeful that he was an exception, that he was the fake tabloid story. I didn’t have high hopes but I kept an open mind.

A few days later, I was speaking with a younger man, probably in his late 20s. We were doing some work together so he asked me what I was doing in Armenia and I told him that this trip was for a project but that it’d please me to move here in the future. He quipped back with the most common of the anti-Armenia retorts: «Երկիրը երկիր չի» (literally, “the country is not a country”, i.e. the country is a worthless shithole that doesn’t deserve to be lived in by anybody who has half a brain) accompanied by him emphatically telling me not to move.

If a tabloid story could be considered a thesis, it would need to be validated by a few different sources before taking it seriously. I had one corroboration that Armenia was better off dead. Another taxi ride later, I might have been convinced.

Seated for a long car ride in another taxi, just barely beyond urban Yerevan, the complaints started flowing with unhindered fury. Everything from how much Kirk Kerkorian never wants to have anything more to do with Armenia to the condition of the roads to how villagers weren’t picking all their apricots thus letting them go to waste.

It’s a national pastime, really, complaining. I’m not at all surprised so many people want to leave. If I had to listen to that my whole life, I can’t imagine I would think that living anywhere, possibly even a dog shelter, was better than Armenia.

Thesis confirmed. Mass disdain, dismissal, disgust.

But I won’t accept it. The results are not final.

I had given that first taxi driver a tip when paying him, which he thought was a mistake and commendably pointed out. I told him it wasn’t a mistake. What I didn’t tell him was that I was sure that he would eventually find a way out and that I was especially pleased that I had contributed to him leaving by giving him that extra 100 drams so he could abandon this place he disdained so much.

He, or any of the people I have met, could have talked about better things. There are great things going on, too: Ayb High School, Luys Foundation, AYF Youth Corps, Civilnet, Green Bean, urbanlabEVN, Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, Dilijan International School of Armenia, Gyumri Information Technologies Center, ONEArmenia. And a plethora of others. If not talk about these things, perhaps the scenery, or the food, or that hundreds of children can run around soaking random people with water throughout the country, unattended by their parents, with nary a worry about their safety. We can talk about these things but we choose to focus on self-pity instead.

Young people who are supposed to compose the vivacious, sprightly, hopeful core of any country are repeating the same tired aphorisms of their parents. After many years of reflecting on this malaise, there is not one thing that I can point to that I consider valid: not that there are no jobs, not that the government is corrupt, not that the prices have gone up, not that the trash is not being collected. These problems aren’t exclusive to Armenia, it’s just that Armenians think that they are. What’s more, there is no interest by most in solving the problems. Somehow, invariably, the onus is always upon somebody else to figure things out and make them better. If that doesn’t happen, time to head for the hills (of Glendale).

Fact is, in Glendale, and whatever other place refugees (because that’s what people who leave a place they no longer feel at home are called) from Armenia settle outside of Armenia, this mentality hardly changes. The complaints remain. The nuclear physicist lamenting that he’s driving a taxi in Yerevan will be doing the same lamenting in Santa Monica except to someone who has a harder time understanding him.

America wasn’t perfect. People did shit. When there were no jobs, they created them. When the government was corrupt (I only wrote that in the past tense for effect), they organized and demanded accountability. When the prices went up, they toughed it out (side note: inflation is a well-known concept in this thing called economics and every time that the prices go up in Armenia, it’s not a governmental conspiracy, it might just happen, you know, just like that. That’s why I can’t buy a Double-Double for 50 cents as portrayed in those goddamn posters they have at every In-N-Out surely put there to mock you). When the trash wasn’t picked up, they threw it in the Hudson River and thus created the largest landfill in human history and called it New Jersey – and they even started living on it!

I’m only using America’s example because that’s the one with which I’m most familiar. But there are others. When English people realized how much England sucked, they didn’t relocate to Spain (although they decided to lay claim to a rock named Gibraltar just to piss them off), they conquered most of the world so they could create the most important city on earth and vacation in exotic places like India, Kenya, and the Americas without having to get a visa. When the Japanese realized they were living on a rocky strip of land that was useless in every way a normal country would need to operate, they started inventing things like samurai, Toyota, and sushi and are now able to buy whatever they want. Even Canadians, who long ago had to helplessly reconcile being an American territory, somehow resist the urge to join the mainland and keep working on being the most socialist state of the Union.

There is surely someone reading this and thinking that it’s so easy for me, a Diasporan, to so freely criticize the decisions of these suffering people from my comfortable Diasporan life (lol). First, I’m commentating on this as an interested party. That is, I live in Glendale and that is where at least 50% of emigrants from Armenia end up so I definitely have a chicken in this fight. Second, I’m commenting as an observer and a student of politics, history, and societies. Armenians need to realize that their problems are not unique and they are not the worst in the world and that if they’re going to leave Armenia en masse, they should be honest about the real reason they are doing so: they do not love the country. Until they’re in Glendale, of course, which is when the bitching starts about America and reminiscing starts about the wonderfulness of Garabi Leech, Opera, and Cascade. Which is kind of like belittling and cursing your spouse until you get a divorce then, when you’re with your new partner, extolling your ex’s virtues.

Let’s put it all out on the table: when one loves something (a nation, perhaps) or someone, they commit to them, come hell or high water, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, till death does them part. If hell, sickness, and poverty dissuade you from your love, then it wasn’t love to begin with and it’s not love once you leave and profess it.

I hate to air dirty laundry but this is one of those things. Our nation has been overcome by naysayers and it needs to stop. The eternally depressed and depressing don’t get a pass because they think their life (and I guess no one else’s) blows a fat one.

The people who live here in Armenia who are working so hard to make this place better should not have to be subjected to the incessant morass of the depressed masses. Their work is already difficult. The young people who are optimistic about their country shouldn’t have their beliefs tested by the half-witted uninterested at such a young age. These people have to deal with unemployment, corruption, rising prices, sporadic trash cleanup. The last thing they need is someone telling them all the things that are going wrong in the country. After all, they must know – they are the ones trying to make it better.

Instead of asking if we are yet disgusted of this country, let’s ask another question: Բողոքելո՛ւց դեր չեք զզվե՞լ:

By: William Bairamian

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