Monday, October 23, 2017

Here and There

9.Here and There (22 October 2017)
            “Oh, so you’re from Armenia?”
            When they hear I'm Armenian, what seems to them like an easy question to answer isn’t at all. It’s asked by people who do not have a circle of Armenian friends who will eagerly fill them in on the finer points of what an Armenian is, where Armenians are from, why the Armenian Genocide is such a crucial issue to Armenians and should be to as non-Armenians, where the language is on the Indo-European language tree, what Armenians typically eat (all of which they, of course, invented), why there are fifty times (Armenian hyperbole) more Armenians outside Armenia than inside, why there has been a steady decrease of Armenians from the Armenian Republic since independence in 1991, and on and on. Really, I can’t imagine how people can get through their lives without having an Armenian tutoring them on all these issues, and so many more!
You could probably seat 5 people across in this classic
at Republic Square (4 Oct. 2017 – Yerevan)
            This summer I visited Armenia on two occasions. A mere hour and some change flight from capital to capital, Beirut to Yerevan.
            My first trip, in August, was a six-day visit, during which I led a retreat for Armenian Evangelical pastors. I was delighted to discover that the retreat was going to be held in Artsakh, in the town of Shushi, a place I have not visited in 18 years. The second trip Maria and I did together, ten days at the end of September until early October, and I was the speaker at the annual assembly of the Evangelical Church of Armenia. And this was only Maria’s second visit to Armenia, the first one having been 16 years ago. Both trips were great experiences, challenging, enjoyable, friend-filled, refreshing.
Open-air performance of Armenian folk dance
and song, “Koutan”, at the foot of the Cascade,
on the day we arrived! (28 Sept. 2017 – Yerevan)
            But the question remains: am I “from Armenia”? When I’m in Armenia, am I from “here” or “there”? “There”, of course, is the gaping hole left in the lives, culture and heritage of Western Armenia, the region that the Ottoman Empire/Turkish nationalists attempted to scrub clean of its pollutants, the Armenian people. They did a pretty good job, too, because they ruined an ancient civilization and left them to die a drawn-out, confusing death scattered across the Middle East (to be finished off later by attrition and emigration), throughout Europe (to maintain an exotic, “oriental” flavor while being re-oriented), and across the Americas (to be tossed alive into the “melting pot” while forever arguing with each other over “American-Armenian” vs. “Armenian-American”). For Western Armenians such as myself, there is an inevitable longing for something irrecoverable, bewilderment over what “Armenia” means, and the clash of familiarity with foreignness when hearing Armenian spoken in the “homeland”.
Supplying the missing “N” to the mini-market’s
name, “Bakalia” – according to Eastern Armenian
pronunciation (5 Oct. 2017 – Yerevan)
            Here’s an example: before leaving Beirut, we borrowed two SIM cards in order to use our telephones in Armenia. While feeding some money to a payment kiosk on a Yerevan street, I must have said “ayo” (yes) to something related to one of the numbers, because after congratulating me via SMS for paying that amount, it then claimed that I had only half of the amount left on that SIM card. Hmm. Time to investigate. First, I asked an acquaintance what might have happened. Was there an unpaid debt on the card that I had just paid off? He didn’t know. So I asked another acquaintance if she could call the company and ask about it. (I wanted someone who could actually understand Eastern Armenian over the phone, something I find very difficult.) She spoke to the agent, then explained something to me that I thought I understood: yes, the missing amount went to pay for something or other. But I needed to know what that something or other was, so I found an actual store run by that phone company, took a ticket, and waited my turn to speak to a live human being behind a counter. When my turn came, I asked her to explain why only half of the amount I paid was shown, and although she spoke in Armenian, it was littered with various foreign (Russian and European) words, much like the litter of Turkish, French, English, Arabic and even Kurdish words blow about our Western Armenian speech. So I asked her if she could explain it again, which she did, with a bit less patience. Then I apologized, and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t really understand what you’re explaining. Thanks for your trouble.” And I left.
            Later on, as I mulled this over instead of going back to sleep, I figured out what had happened to the missing amount. I suppose the jumble of explanations and the various words from various languages finally sorted themselves out, and I concluded (correctly) that I had purchased a calling plan – the amount hadn’t just vanished. But it was emotionally exhausting to be in a place that didn’t exactly feel like I belonged.
            Perhaps this gave me a glimpse of the travails encountered by the latest group of “returnees” to Armenia, the Syrian-Armenians. Many sought refuge from the war in Syria, beginning in 2012, and in the intervening years some have gone on to places like Canada, others have returned to Syria, following the subsiding of military activity, and the rest have settled in Armenia. They have brought a distinct, yet Armenian, culture to the place, and one can sense it – if one happens to also be a “Western Armenian”.
Lara and us at the “Haleb” social aid organization, operating
out of a Northern Blvd. basement (6 Oct. 2017 – Yerevan)
            Maria and I met up with a young woman, Lara, from our former church in the U.S., who is now working through Birthright Armenia at an agency helping Syrian Armenians with various social needs. The restaurant we had chosen was not accepting people without reservations, so we went to one a couple of doors down. The waiter who greeted us seemed to speak a more intelligible version of Armenian, though not the Western dialect. Perhaps he was just accommodating us as Diasporan Armenians, something quite a few Yerevan natives are able to do.
            When he came to our table to take our order, he asked where we were from. “I know she (Lara) is from the U.S., but what about the two of you?” I said, “From Lebanon.” “Where in Lebanon?” “From Beirut.” “Where in Beirut?” “From Ashrafieh” (the eastern half of the city). “Where in Ashrafieh?” “From Geitawi” (a section of Ashrafieh). “Where in Geitawi?” The conversation was getting stranger by the second. “Uhhh… we live in the former CMC (Christian Medical Center) building.” “I was born in that building!” And so three Western Armenians connected on a sidewalk in Yerevan, feeling at home with each other because of the “there” that joined us together.
LebCat 8: “Excuse me, is there a law that says I have
to be inside the box?” (30 Mar. 2017 – Beirut)
            Often, when encountering people disgruntled at life in the Middle East (and in Armenia), we hear them complain about the “here” of their lives today: “This place will never straighten out.” “You can’t get anywhere if you don’t have powerful friends.” “Why bother? This isn’t our homeland anyway.” This multitude of comments are all a way of disengaging with one’s environment, and are usually followed by an announcement of departure to pursue a life “there”, far away from this region. We are amazed at how people can feel more connected to that distant, western environment than to what they consider the corrupt, future-less land of their birth, unable to see any redeeming qualities. I have no ability to read people’s minds, much less see what only God can see – their hearts. But I wonder if people can connect in a different way to the “here” of this part of the world, to experience joy and contentment in the midst of struggles, and find meaning in investing in people, albeit while dealing with undeniable hardships.
            This is something that matches our experiences “here” and “there” – when talking with those who are devotedly working to help others, they note, as we do, that the greatest need is to prepare people – leaders, especially – who will love their homeland(s) and serve with their strength, skills and wisdom for the betterment of all.
            So, Armenia, we’ll be back! We’ve made our home here, close by. We consider both places our own, and trust that they might also consider us their own. [LNB]