Tuesday, December 22, 2009

If you are feeling ill, STAY HOME

… and I’m not just referring to the A/H1N1 flu virus (otherwise known as swine flu). How many people (and it doesn’t matter where you live or what you do) feel obliged to come to work even when they have a fever, their head is spinning and they’re getting the shakes? What is it about our work culture that makes employees feel like they’re bailing out (or the place will come crashing down without them) if they decide to take a day off?

I am one of those people that feel that your health is one of the most important things you own. If you’re not feeling up to par, you won’t be able to get around to accomplishing even half the things on your long list of things to do. If you are feeling ill, you are a risk to your co-workers and even more so, in danger of becoming even more ill if you don’t take care of yourself. Not to mention, at the end of the day, you won’t be able to be a productive employee — if this is what you’re really thinking is the reason you must go to work.

If by not going to work, your employer will not pay you (that is, he will not grant you a paid sick day), then either try to bring about change in your workplace or leave your job. If you live in a country where every one tells you that it doesn’t matter if you change your job, the same situation exists everywhere, then find another way. Your health and your well-being are IMPORTANT.

So go home, drink some tea, and get some rest. You’ll need it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

View of Mt. Ararat from top of Cascade in central Yerevan

This photo was taken during the opening day of the Cafesjian Center for the Arts in central Yerevan on November 8, 2009.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Queer Parenting in Lebanon

I really enjoyed this article published in Bekhsoos, a Queer Arab magazine... although it's a few days too late, I thought I'd re-post it on my blog. These two lines spoke to me in particular:

"No matter where we decide to live, we will be compromising one part of [our] identity in an effort to strengthen another. What this all comes down to, for me, is the importance of building community wherever we end up."

Thanks, Lily!

Here's the article and here's the original source:

Although I demonstrated at the Israeli embassy in New York in July 2006 and obsessively sought out Lebanese falafel while living abroad in Dakar, my tangential connections to Lebanon would probably never have culminated in a trip here if I hadn’t fallen in love with my partner. As an Arab-American woman, the Middle East has been an important place for her to periodically visit as she explores the Lebanese and Palestinian parts of her identity both personally and in the context of America’s current political climate. Suzy’s work and activism center on the places where her Arab and American identities intersect, focusing on trying to educate Americans about the Middle East and to change our government’s involvement in the region. As we imagine a future together, I thought it was important for me to come to Beirut in an effort to understand more about this part of her life and this part of the world. An additional motivation is our desire to have children — which Suzy has been talking about since our first month of dating. (Talk about pressure!) Although I refused to discuss it for the first year of our relationship, knowing that this was always in the back of her mind started me thinking about where, how, and why I wanted to have children. Since arriving in Beirut, I’ve been eager to talk babies with the queer women I met here, knowing that this country and the queer community within it will be an important one to my future family.

Being a lesbian mom — starting with figuring out how to have a child — is not easy anywhere. In Lebanon, the difficulties are closely related to those associated with single motherhood. Lebanese citizenship is only transferred through one’s father, so if an unmarried woman has a child, this child has no legal status in Lebanon. On top of this, female-headed families have to deal with the often severe social stigma attached to having a child out of wedlock. One woman I spoke to told me that it would be impossible for her to have a child independently because she doesn’t have the support of her family and wouldn’t be able to both work and care for the child on her own. I heard of another woman whose partner married a gay man and had a child with him which they then all raised together. While I was encouraged to hear that some women are finding ways to have children despite these challenges, the price for this family was that they all had to remain closeted in their dealings with the outside world.

Wondering if adoption was a more socially-sanctioned alternative for “single” women, I discovered that adoption is controlled by religious institutions. Because Islam largely forbids adoption, instead directing that children in need of care be sponsored or fostered by another family, the institution of adoption — in the sense that the biological parents’ rights to the child are severed and replaced with the adoptive parents’ rights — is only available through Christian churches, most of which have religious requirements (that the adoptive parents be of the same sect as the baby’s birth family), age requirements (that the adoptive parents are over the age of 40 or 45), marriage requirements (with the exception of the Catholic sects), and sometimes a requirement that the adopting couple provide proof of their infertility. Even if a prospective queer adoptive mother met most of these requirements, she would obviously have to hide her sexual orientation (and the existence of her partner, if she was coupled), raising questions about how to explain the circumstances of adoption to the child later in life. In our discussions about adoption, Suzy and I briefly talked about the possibility of adopting a child from a Lebanese orphanage, but chucked the idea when we realized how much subterfuge would be necessary.

In my search for information about adoption in Lebanon, I came across a blog written by Daniel Drennan, who was adopted from Lebanon as a baby and grew up in the U.S., returning to Beirut as an adult. Drennan believes that adoption creates more problems than it solves, writing, “Adoption is based on the leveraging of inequality by a dominant class in order to procure children for those who have none from those who ideally would keep their children except for circumstances that are a direct result of this class difference to begin with.” In reading his and other blogs by anti-adoption activists, I realized that the conditions which force women to give up their babies for adoption are the same ones that currently make it almost impossible for single or queer women in Lebanon to adopt or have babies of their own. Stigma against unwed mothers, the resulting loss of family support, the financial difficulties of supporting a family without a male wage-earner, and poverty keep the control of babies in male hands and male-headed households.

Drennan also critiques adoption for creating serious problems of identity and depression in children who are removed from their birth families and, in the case of international adoption, entirely from their home countries and cultures. Islam’s teachings about fostering children rather than adopting them makes a lot of sense in this context. Drennan writes, “Since moving back to Lebanon three years ago, I have realized that the Qur’anic invocation concerning adoption has everything to do with children maintaining their lineage, their name, and their place in the community. Most remarkable then is the fact that these very concepts — of lineage, name, appearance, and original community — are the issues that most plague adult adoptees.”

In the U.S., there is a movement for “open adoption” that stems from concerns about these identity issues as well as the class dynamics of adoption. In open adoptions, the birth and adoptive families agree to have on-going contact and honestly explain to the child the circumstances of her adoption. The frequency and nature of this contact is mutually agreed upon, ranging from exchanging letters once a year to a visit or two a week. Rather than taking the child from her birth family and treating her like a blank slate, without her own history or identity independent from the adoptive family, this approach allows both families to contribute to raising the child, and permits the child to figure out who he is and how he relates to both families as he grows up. Open adoption is also a reminder to the adoptive family of the inequalities that led to the child being placed for adoption in the first place–and motivates continued activism towards a world where adoption isn’t necessary because all babies are wanted and able to be raised by their families of origin.

As a lesbian, my instinct to dismiss biological imperatives is strong. After all, the queer idea of family is that love isn’t based on biology — if we don’t pick the person we fall in love with based on our ability to reproduce with them, why do we need to be genetically related to our children? Our chosen families so often care for us better than our flesh-and-blood families. All the same, if I or my partner were to get pregnant we would want the baby’s father to participate in our family’s life. As a woman raised in a heteronormative family, knowing without question the people I come from, I don’t think I can make the choice for my child not to have access to this information. Obviously there are many children who don’t feel that they need to know their fathers–just as many adult adoptees don’t have the need to find their birth families — but it’s impossible to know what my child will feel, so I want to leave this option available to her. It’s possible to recognize the importance of knowing the people you are biologically connected to without believing that it’s all-important. By raising a baby in a queer family and queer community, I’m already demonstrating that biology isn’t everything.

All of this is well and good hypothetically, but the reality is that homophobia often forces us to have children in less than these ideal circumstances. There are so many challenges to having a child that having open and personal relationships with everyone connected to that child can be nearly impossible. Most of the women I’ve spoken to in Beirut said that if they wanted to have children they would have to live abroad, in a country where queer and female-headed families receive greater recognition and protection. What are the implications of this choice in terms of sacrificing other parts of one’s identity? One of my and my partner’s top priorities is to raise our children in a place where they will have a strong connection to their cultural and racial identities. If my partner or I decided to give birth, we would choose an Arab or Arab-American man as the sperm donor, and we would want to bring our children to Lebanon and Palestine to learn about these parts of their history and community —perhaps live in Beirut for a year or two. However, I worry about needing to keep the family closeted here and sending our children the message that there is something shameful about us. I know that, growing up in the racist U.S., they will not be able to avoid negative messaging about Arabs and the Arab world. No matter where we decide to live, we will be compromising one part of their identity in an effort to strengthen another.

What this all comes down to, for me, is the importance of building community wherever we end up. Homophobia isolates many of us from the support of our families; those of us lucky enough to have their support are often forced to move away for school or jobs. Because of this rejection and isolation, the communities we create become all-important. Meem is a wonderful example of a community that allows women to make connections with one another, share life stories, and develop an integrated analysis of the ways neo-colonialism, patriarchy, and capitalism undermine women’s and gay rights–and inspire us to fight for a world where we can all build the strong queer families we dream of.

Monday, December 14, 2009

At least I can say there’s never a dull moment

Today was really the icing on the cake (and the day is still not over). The last few days have been a whirlwind of emotions ignited by a number of events. It turns out being gay and Armenian and a Diasporan living in Armenia and working in local news media is not so easy after all (in case you were wondering…).

It has been challenging, to say the least. I have been challenged by individuals and situations that I probably would not have come across or had to have dealt with had I still been living in Canada. I have attempted to be a bridge, connecting people, with little success. And I have come to realize that yes, though it is important for one to recognize their own privilege, it’s also important to know the right time and place to invoke that privilege, and other times, to just shut up.

It’s important to know that you do not get to coordinate and control and organize everything in your life. Perhaps this is nothing new to most people, but being in control is the way I’ve been wired (otherwise, known as a khasiat in that other language that I speak though I’m pretty sure the word itself is not Armenian). Over the years I have come face to face with this issue and it’s been difficult each time. But I have been lucky to have met such wonderful people throughout my life who have been patient with me as I’ve come to terms with the term ‘letting go.’

Of course, each time I begin again (always with good intentions of course… but you know what they say: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”) and each time I am reminded that being in control is not always a good thing. That being said, most of the time (and for most of my life), it’s worked out fine, even to my advantage. But I have to learn to recognize when to invoke it and when to just ‘let it go.’

And as a good friend of mine reminded me not long ago, (a) be thankful and (b) don't be so analytical (otherwise known as ‘think with your heart’). I would also add that it’s important to be honest, first with yourself, then with others. And I find that it is when I am speaking with my heart that I am honest. But so many other things get in the way, in this world, in this life, that makes it difficult to just say what you mean.

And speaking about saying what you mean and being honest, at work today, the icing on the cake: what I feel to be violations in freedom of the press in Armenia. When you are told to continue working the way you do, but every once in a while, we’ll have to slip in a story or a piece to satisfy some oligarch or hotshot with power in the country, just so we can keep working, would you not call that a violation of freedom of the press? When just about every other news source in the country is bought out, purchased, owned or run by an oligarch, a man with money and power, who gets to dictate what gets published, would you not call that a violation of freedom of the press? Well, today, I saw that in action, up close and personal.

It is difficult being here, I have to admit. Though I would love some peace and quiet for a change, I can’t imagine being anywhere else right now. Maybe down the road, sure, and there are things I want to do that will take me beyond the borders of this tiny country, but for now I’m here. And that means coming face to face with my (and the country’s) challenges.

And again, as that same good friend of mine, wrote to me, “Never underestimate the wisdom of life. What you are offered is not really currency.” But it’s more valuable. And right now, I’m cherishing every minute of this life, with my blood, sweat and tears…

Monday, December 7, 2009

Today, I remember...

... the victims and survivors of the 1988 Spitak Earthquake.

along with other anniversaries, such as those which mark current man-made atrocies, including the Athens riots in the wake of the one-year anniversary of the death of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Today Armenia is like an itchy wool coat I’m trying to fit into

Armenia is like an itchy wool coat I’m trying to fit into
It fits, but it’s a bit tight
It’s for me, but it’s a bit itchy
It covers me from head to toe, but it has holes
Gaps in the seams
I’m trying to fit into it
Really I am
But I wish it wasn’t so itchy and full of holes
I wish it was a better fit…

Friday, November 27, 2009

Armenia’s Future Lies in its Female Athletes

For all the hustle and bustle that “Football Diplomacy” has struck up since last year (see here and here), I think the true champions in diplomacy and international relations are Armenia’s female athletes competing in basketball and weightlifting.

A few local residents confessed to me that Armenians aren’t good at sports where they have to play as a team — it’s all that ego and overall male chauvinism. Hence, the twice-defeat by our male football players (soccer in North America) against Turkey in last year’s notable home game and this year’s, if one could say, even more notable away game (played in the Turkish city of Bursa — Armenia lost both times with the same score, 0-2). Both games were World Cup qualifiers.

But take sporting events like chess and weightlifting. Now these are some events Armenian athletes can actually excel in. But basketball? That’s a team sport, isn’t it? Maybe the reason basketball stands out from the rest of the team sports as being a sport Armenia seems to be doing well in is because, in Yerevan’s women’s basketball team HATIS at least, the majority of players are not Armenian by descent. I hate to say it, but the top players in the team (Maurita Reid, Ganna Zarytska, Bojana Vulic) have been recruited from elsewhere (and thank god for that!).

The latest victory is HATIS’ “major upset” against Turkey’s BESIKTAS. They played in Istanbul the day before yesterday (on November 25, the UN-designated International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women: interesting coincidence) and won the game by a landslide (87-64). This is the team’s second victory in the 2009 EuroCup Women tournament: on November 19, they beat Russia’s CHEVAKATA (103-99). Russia and Turkey: two very strong teams. Good for you, HATIS!

For more info on the team and a schedule of their upcoming games, visit the team’s page on the FIBA Europe website here.

The other recent winning victory for female athletes was Nazik Avdalyan winning a gold medal in weightlifting. Avdalyan competed in the 69kg group in the 2009 World Weightlifting Championships taking place in Goyang, South Korea.

Apparently, in weightlifting there are two types of lifts (both with really odd-sounding names!) and to win the ultimate gold medal, you must win in both categories. First, Avdalyan won a “small” gold medal by winning the Snatch (yes, that’s the name of the first type of lift) with 119 kg. The next lift, called the Clean and Jerk, found Avdalyan competing once again with Russia’s Oxana Slivenko. Slivenko finished at 146 kg; in order for Avdalyan to win the championship, she had to lift as much as her opponent. The 23-year-old weightlifter did better than that: she beat Slivenko by 1 kg, finishing at 147 kg.

This means that Nazik Avdalyan gained the World Champion title by lifting a total of 266 kg. Can you believe it? That’s amazing! For further details, you can visit the 2009 Goyang World Weightlifting Championships’ official website here.

I love that we have such amazing female role models, not only representing Armenia (which Armenia’s high-ranking officials are only too happy to declare only after they bring back a gold medal), but also showing Armenian audiences (both male and female) the power that women have — and for men, who so dominate the sports arena, both in talking about it and participating in it, this is something they can only praise and give it it’s due respect.

My friend Chris (who’s male, by the way) was right: The future is female.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gender Activism meets Environmental Activism meets Queer Activism: all in one day and all in Yerevan

The “16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence” annual campaign kicked off today with a press conference followed by a march organized by the Women’s Resource Center in central Yerevan.

Highlights of today’s march include

*Women (and a few men) carrying huge posters that read “Don’t be Silent” while informing participants that this is a silent march (I find out from one of the organizers that part of the reason, anyway, for the silence is that it was a condition on getting a city permit. The mayor wanted confirmation from the Women’s Resource Center that they wouldn’t disrupt the peace. Can you believe it?)

*Famous Armenian environmental activist Mariam Sukhudyan (of SOS Teghut, though also known for voicing her concern that staff mistreated and abused children at a special needs school in Armenia; see here for more info and here and here) peeling off sticker paper with violence against women stats on it that WRC volunteers and march participants had stuck on trees (being instructed to sticker everywhere and anywhere). To her credit, Mariam had a calm, peaceful smile on her face while removing the stickers. I understand her reasoning, of course, the sticker paper harms the trees. And it seems volunteers were either unaware of that or too engaged in the purpose of their act to notice.

*Meeting one of the followers of my blog: yay, Trui! And welcome to Yerevan (I don’t think I offered a proper greeting upon meeting you, so here it is, in my blog, where you could say, we first met :)

*Meeting a fellow queer Armenian woman who’s been trying to get in contact with those of us behind the Queering Yerevan blog for some time. I love happenstance encounters!

*Meeting another fellow queer Armenian who’s had quite the presence in the blogosphere as of late, but seeing as we didn’t have too much of a chance to talk (and not knowing how much he would like to be outed here in this blog), I won’t go into too much detail other than to be glad that I had a chance to meet him in person today.

All in all, I feel quite energized from these encounters and from this, albeit solemn, affair. I commend the organizers of the march for a well-organized event.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Why don't I know this woman?

There are amazing people around the world doing amazing things, and today, this thought fills me with joy. I came across this Facebook post and felt the need to re-post the information on this blog.

Zaruhi Shushanyan is an LGBT activist in Armenia and, I'm sad to say, I don't know her. But I do know another Armenian LGBT activist, Lilit Poghosyan, who is the Programmes and Policy Officer at ILGA-Europe. Originally from Armenia, she's now based in Brussels. I was lucky and happy to have met her during her recent visit back home in Yerevan.

More about Zaruhi Shushanyan: http://gayarmenia.blogspot.com/2009/11/faces-of-lgbt-activists-from-armenia.html

A little bit about Lilit Poghosyan (also re-posted here from Art Mika's blog): http://gayarmenia.blogspot.com/2009/03/armenian-human-rights-activist-lilit.html

Two amazing woman I'm very proud of, and today, they have inspired me. Thank you.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Visits from an Armenian political prisoner and editor of Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos

In the last week, we've had two memorable events take place at the news agency where I work: (1) a visit from former just-released Armenian political prisoner Tigran Arakelian and (2) a visit from Agos editor Aris.

Tigran Arakelian is much much shorter than he appears in the photos we posted on our site (and that probably appeared in other local media). He is young and thin, and was charged with assaulting not one, but three police officers. Any person in their right mind could tell this short, small — no, petit — young man would be unable to resist three, assumingly large, police officers. And no offense to short or small people; I'm not saying short people can't overtake tall people. I'm talking about this particular case and the charges against him... and let's not forget, police officers have guns, or at least batons, while very rarely do activists have such weapons.

For more background on what happened in the case of this Armenian National Congress youth member, read Onnik Krikorian's August 15, 2009 article on Frontline Club at http://frontlineclub.com/blogs/onnikkrikorian/2009/08/armenian-youth-rally-for-detained-activist.html.

The second visit (which happened to be today) was by Agos editor Aris. Agos is a weekly newspaper published in Istanbul, Turkey, one of the only Turkish-language publications in the country that includes an Armenian-language supplement. Agos is perhaps better known for having Hrant Dink as its chief editor from its inception in 1996 till Dink's assassination outside the newspaper's offices in January 2007. The paper now has an English edition available online at http://www.agos.com.tr/eng/.

Needless to say, it was an honour and privilege to meet both Tigran Arakelian and Aris.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The danger of working in a news agency

About an hour and a half ago, 2-3 men in black suits came to the news agency where I work and told us to leave everything as it is and go home. Someone asked if we should shut off the computers and they said no, not to even shut off any open programs or files. When asked about our personal email, they said, yes, we could log out of our personal email accounts. We gathered our things and stepped out into the hall, after which the owner of the company (who had accompanied the men in suits) locked the door to our office behind us.

One of my colleagues asked a very respectful and what one would consider to be a harmless question to one of the Men in Suits (seeing as the Men in Suits neither presented themselves nor said what was going on); he was responded with a curt and harsh "This isn't a theatre performance. Why are you asking questions?" ("էս թատրոն չի, ինչի ես հարց ու փործ անու՞մ")

One by one, Men in Suits along with the owner of the company went to the other offices and told everyone to leave, locking the doors behind them. I work for an online news agency that is part of a larger media enterprise that publishes a monthly business magazine, a financial print newspaper, a sports news site and a couple of other media outlets. We thought initially the issue was with the specific news site where I work since we publish political news whereas the other departments publish sports, business, and so on... basically, you could say that our department publishes more controversial news.

However, since they kicked us all out, we became confused and suspicious. It's important to note that on this date exactly 10 years ago was the notorious parliament shooting in Armenia. A handful of individuals were able to sneak into the National Assembly (Armenia's parliament) with firearms and proceeded to shoot eight government officials including then-prime minister and parliamentary speaker.

Something tells me that because of this eventful day, national security is on high alert today... However, regarding what happened at work today, it's all speculation until I know for sure. Perhaps we published something that alerted the national guards? Perhaps they're going around to all news agencies and shutting them down today so we don't report anything related to this particular day? I really don't know, but hell if I'm not dying to find out...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

When you can’t live on hope alone or մենք հո հոյսով չենք սննվում

Today is October 24. Today I received Armenian dram in cash from my employer. I met him on the street and he handed me what is considered to be my September “paycheque.”

I had begun working at the local news agency the last week of August. On September 9, everyone at work received their August pay and I received cash for the one week in August that I worked... it was unexpected and surprising, considering that most places around here don’t pay you till you’re “registered” ("գրանցվաց") and always assume for at least a week, if not a month or more, you will work without pay (consider it training or a practice run) till you have officially been hired, and gone through the rest of the process of being contracted as an employee. My official start date was September 1.

I like where I work. I like the people, I like the job, and from what I’ve been told, the pay is good. What I don’t like is having to live on hope alone: for the past two weeks, we were told we would “most likely” get paid tomorrow. But tomorrow never seemed to come. The week prior to last week, I was told we would most likely get paid next week (no specific date was mentioned). Next week came, and still no sign of a pay cheque. Near the end of last week, we were told Monday. Monday became Tuesday, Tuesday became Wednesday, and today, yes, finally the day we’ve all been waiting for, well, today is Saturday. It’s been pretty much two weeks that we’ve been holding our breath, living on air, and waiting for that precious pay. And finally, it has arrived.

Let’s not even mention that typically we’re supposed to get paid the 9th or 10th of each month. All of us at work agree, at this point anyway, we don’t care what date of the month we get our pay cheque: we just want to know when it’s coming and gee, it would be great if it could consistently be the same day each month. That way we can plan our budget, cover our expenses, and know what our monthly balance sheet will look like (not that any of us have an actual balance sheet; I’m talking about the general “money-comes-in-money-goes-out” transactions that are part of organizing one’s personal finances).

When I asked my employer if I’m to get my pay in a secret rendez-vous on the street every month, he laughed and said, of course not, we get paid at our place of employment. This was an exception. But somehow I’m not convinced.

My employer, who I refer to here, is the person who hired me, but not the owner of the company. He is not involved in the finances, and of course, he too has to get paid. He is merely the messenger from The Man Above. The Man Above (he’s a nice guy, I’m told) has said that he can’t guarantee a date each month that we are to get paid, well, at least till the end of this year. But beginning next year, it should all be worked out... Again, I’m not convinced.
My colleagues say they said the same thing last year (by “they,” I mean both my employer and The Man Above). They have been working here longer than I have and apparently, this is a recurring issue. What I love about my colleagues is that they’re not afraid to raise this issue. Except for my employer and one other co-worker, we are all women. And I love that none of us are afraid to speak up; it’s not just the Diasporan Armenian who’s raising a ruckus; I’m not the hero “from outside” who sweeps in to save the day. The women at work have been bringing up this issue of irregular paycheques on an ongoing basis (just goes to show you, how long the issue’s been going on...).

I think the thing that gets to me the most is being told “tomorrow.” For two weeks, we have been getting by on the hope of that ever-elusive tomorrow: we have been avoiding buying dish soap for washing our communal dishes, we haven’t replenished our supply of coffee and tea, and the filtered water in the office has run dry while we have been living on hope. And that is what’s been clawing at me for the last little while: it’s being made to wait, not being given an exact date, it’s going about your day while hanging by a thread, the thread of hope.

A friend of mine today summed it up in one sentence: it’s not just my workplace, living on hope has inflicted the entire country.

And this creates an economy of debt.

Everyone’s either owed or owes something to someone. We talk about constantly being in debt in North America, but this is person-to-person debt, one-on-one debt, not owing to a bank or a faceless credit card company. And for a small city like Yerevan, where every other person you meet on the street is either a relative or knows someone who knows you, navigating these interpersonal relations takes more skill and tact than I’m either used to or care to exhibit at the moment.

Who knows? Maybe next month will be different. Maybe we’ll get paid on time. Maybe the irregular pay will become regular. Maybe, we’ll be told we’ll get paid on such-and-such a date and actually get paid on that date.

Maybe, just maybe... I can hope, can’t I?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Life before Armenia

Today, I read a Facebook post that brightened up my day. It’s not everyday you read something online that changes you, or at least makes you feel stronger, more confident, content, at peace, if only for the time being.

"I can't even remember how my life was before Armenia. Yesterday I realized that moving here has been the best decision in my life so far." (the Facebook post that brightened up my day)

There is so much in this world (both the wider world “out there” and the more micro-world that is my life) to bring you down; so much that disheartens you, that weakens you, that brings out all of your insecurities and fears.

I do not want to be afraid of fear.

"Lara, you know what I call our life in SF now that I look back at those years we spent in one of the most beautiful cities in the world? A nice, engaging, thrilling paperback you read at airports before your flight, then leave it to go on with real life, with no shortage of real thrills..." (one of the many responses to Lara’s post)

Some days I wonder about my decision to move here; I wonder how permanent or temporary it is; I wonder what I’ve left behind; and I wonder if things would be better “over there.” I miss my friends and my family. But as a good friend of mine reminded me recently, we are always missing something and I know that if I was there right now, things wouldn’t be perfect, and I would find something else (or someone else) to miss.

I wonder about my privilege. I feel as someone who is a citizen of a “developed” country and who, of her own free will, has chosen to live in a “not as developed” country (note the use of quotation marks), I always have a way out. I have a Plan B, an opt-out plan, if you will. Yet those who are citizens of this country, who live here, who are based here, don’t have that choice. Their “opt-out plan” is not so easy. Hell, even planning a trip to another country is rife with securing and paying for visas, for permission to leave the country (in the way of a stamp in your passport: something Canadian citizens in Canada or anywhere else in the world never have to deal with), and for health insurance, which, I’m told, is mandatory to secure a visa AND get permission to leave the country.

Armenian citizens have to run around to a number of different offices before they are able to leave the country, have to secure more funds, and always have a risk of being denied exit from here and/or entry to there. And all I have to worry about is securing funds for the plane ticket!

I wonder about these things and many more... I think about language, about ease in speaking and being understood. I worry about knowing where to go, not so much actual streets and addresses as finding out how to get there, which marshutka to take (minibuses: the major form of public transport in Yerevan), whether I will get off at the right stop or pass it and have to get off and walk back (hey, it happens).

I wonder about being confident. A state of being that I found to be very natural in Toronto, though it’s a bit harder to come by in less familiar territory. And I speak the language. I can read and write in Armenian. I have friends and family here: one can hardly say I’m alone (actually, it’s impossible to be alone in this city... no, really :)

I know, though, that when I go back to Toronto (which I will soon, for a brief visit), I will realize even more so that I made the right decision. That I am exactly where I need to be. Where I want to be. That, to me, this is home and not just a temporary place to rest my weary feet.

Thank you to Lara for the Facebook post and thank you to Lucineh, whom I have never met in person, for her fabulous and fitting analogy.

Getting a Social Insurance Card when you're not a citizen

Today, I received my social insurance card. I can’t believe how fast and easy of a process it was, particularly considering the fact that I’m not a citizen of this country.

Though this was my second attempt at locating the right office, the whole process lasted minutes, and now I am the proud bearer of a Republic of Armenia Social insurance Card.

The first time, I found the address on the Ministry of Health and Social Services website, but I found the physical building (more like a room actually) by asking at least 3 people on the street. It turns out it was through a residential building complex, all the way to the back, walk between a very narrow (and I mean VERY narrow) gap between two buildings, turn right and go into the building marked “School of Medical Sciences” or “Institute of Medicine” or something to that effect (that is to say, it was a school and not what one would consider to be a ministerial department, say, go to door number 3 (literally marked as such), walk into a tiny room with 3 women and have them begin laughing.

The reason? Me, wearing a red helmet and walking in with a bike (not to mention the bright blue pannier I was sporting that day).

Apparently they’d come across all sorts of “oddities” (my word, not theirs), but someone coming into their office with a bike was a first... and apparently, reason for laughter. Well I’m glad I made their day, but turns out I had to go to a different office to actually get the card. Funny, it didn’t say that on the website...

So that was yesterday. And today, I went to the real office (much easier to find, it turns out!), walked in, showed them both my Canadian passport and Armenian special residency visa (which looks like a passport), was asked if I had a Social Insurance card (said yes, but then they said no, not in Canada — they don’t care about that —, but here in Armenia with my Canadian passport and I said no), was given back my Canadian passport and had the “SocApp” card as it’s called processed within mere minutes.

They needed no other information from me (an address? a phone number?), and they didn’t tell me to come back in 4-6 weeks (processing time, I would assume). They printed the card on the spot (no photo needed), cut it, laminated it, then handed it over to me, at which point I said “fsio? verch?” meaning “that’s it? I’m done?” The woman helping me didn’t even bat an eye. I left before they could change their mind :)

I have to say this is one of my best experiences I’ve had in my life dealing with official government offices. Amazing.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Armenian Women's National Football Team

Well, it's soccer in North America, but everyone else (read: the rest of the world) calls it football, so there you have it :)

I had the chance to watch Armenian Women's Football Team play Finland a couple of weeks ago, and though we lost, I was glad to have been there. First of all, I'd never been to Hrazdan Stadium where the match was held, and second of all, I'd never seen a football game live in a stadium, much less one with women's teams, before.

I'm not really one for watching sports, but if there was any one sport I'd watch regularly, it would be football (ok, soccer).

Watching the game was a nice break from the routine of my days: wake up, eat breakfast, prepare lunch, bike to work, work like mad for 8-9 hours straight, bike home, prepare dinner (or go shopping to get items for dinner), eat, relax, go to sleep. Repeat. Sound familiar?

Though I'm not complaining. I do really enjoy my job and I love that it has also given me the opportunity to stay here long-term and to be with the person I love. Of course I miss my family and friends, and there are tons of things I miss about Toronto that I never thought I'd miss (fresh spinach, Dufferin Grove Farmers' Market, Kensington Market, toast in the mornings, gourmet coffee beverages... okay, the last one not that much, but every once in a while, I could do for a not-very-expensive latte :)

But I am glad to be here. The changing of the seasons has brought with it contemplation and an openness to new beginnings. I love the fall. And I am enjoying it here: the colours changing on the leaves, the sunshine on your face, but with a cool breeze in the air.

Trying to settle in to life here, but being in new surroundings always takes a little while to get used to. Luckily, this time I'm not alone ;)

And for those of you who might be wondering, yes, I'm still in love...

Thursday, September 17, 2009

It’s about peace

Inner and outer peace. It’s what we strive for… at least in my opinion. To be at peace: at peace with ourselves, at peace in the world. A war-free, conflict-free zone; a place where we can just be. Where we can be all of ourselves, wholly, completely, comfortably. Where we are loved. Completely, for who we are.

I am happy to say that I am at peace. That doesn’t mean I have nothing to strive for, nothing else I want to do, no goal to reach… it just means that I am content. That, at my core, there is peace. There is comfort. There is love. The rest will happen in due course…

Monday, September 14, 2009

Ruminations on a September morning

A man in a grey suit
petting a black dog
soon he is joined by another man
and his purple mini-van
he has come to take
his daughter to school.
She gets in the car
with her backpack on
the man in the grey suit
lights a cigarette
the other man and his daughter
and the purple mini-van
drive away
grey suit remains
to just stand there and smoke
and pet the dog
but only occasionally
“A devotee,” he says.

Friday, September 4, 2009


For me, words are precious. They convey a message. They have the power to move you. They set the tone, the mood of a piece. Every word is important. Every decision which determines the inclusion or exclusion of a particular word, phrase, or sentence in a piece is heavily weighted.

But these days, in my day job translating news stories for a local paper, I have had to learn to let go — to loosen, just a little bit, what around here anyway is known as a “khasyat” (my translation: a character trait).

Nobody cares if the word you chose in the piece was exactly the right word (and in my case, accurately translated) — not those who read the news and not those who pump out the stories on a hourly basis. The day’s headlines change so quickly that the story that was breaking news a minute ago — and which I laboured over, noting detail after detail — has moved to an obscure area of the website which nobody has the time to read. Perhaps I’m wrong: perhaps those, at least, who read the news care if the president was “indignant” or simply “angry”, if Armenia and Turkey “establish” relations or they “normalise” them, if a political prisoner was “restrained” or “imprisoned”.

I think even the smallest choices made in presenting the news are important. Especially in today’s political climate and especially when the tendency to speculate is so prevalent in society.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

My first night alone

It is the first night since I came to Yerevan that I will be sleeping alone. It is so odd. Before I came, I had been sleeping alone for over six months. But how quickly I became used to a warm body next to mine (well, not just any warm body, but her’s).

It is so odd how one gets used to sleeping alone and then used to sleeping with someone and then suddenly, you have to sleep alone again and something which was in fact preferred and so seemingly natural before seems so much more difficult now.

It’s times like these that I feel the power of my water sign. When I feel the weight of emptiness upon me, but I do not let it envelop me.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Four Armenian women on bikes in Georgia

On August 3, I, along with three other female cyclists and one male driver, set off from Yerevan. Final destination: Batumi, Georgia. We had allocated one month for this bike tour which transcends borders, languages, and you could say gender, but we managed to do the trip in a little over two weeks. We cycled every day (some more than others) and took breaks when we needed to. The most we cycled in a single day was about 100 km (that was only one day, mind you). And might I add, in Georgia. In Armenia, it was impossible to bike that much in a single day since most of the trek was uphill.

I found the roads in Georgia to be in better condition than in Armenia and more importantly, there were less steep inclines (“padiom” in Russian... I picked up a few words of Russian while travelling in Georgia :) I was the only non-Armenia-born traveller in our group (and non-Russian-speaker) so most of the time I found myself dependent on others when communicating with folks in Georgia. Though some people speak English, I found Russian to be the more widely spoken language between Armenians and Georgians.

Day 1 – we arrived in Lake Sevan. The hardest trek of the entire trip!

Day 2 – we arrived in Dilijan. The easiest part of the entire trip! All downhill (so much fun!) and we only rode for about an hour or so from Sevan till we arrived in Dilijan. A friend of our group met us there and secured a place for us in a lovely B&B. Only the second day and already we get to take a shower and sleep in luxury :)

Day 3 – camped in a peach orchard just past Noyemberyan. I lied: this was the hardest part of the entire trip! So difficult was the mountain to get to Noyemberyan that we hitched a ride most of the way. A lovely man who lives in Noyemberyan picked us up in his dump truck. We threw the bikes in the back and we sat in front. If it wasn’t for the ride, we wouldn’t have been able to make it to Noyemberyan this day.

Day 4 – Tbilisi! So many frustrating moments till we got here. But we made it! I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never been to Tbilisi and I guess I must’ve missed being in a city because I fell in love from the first moment (or maybe it was because I was so tired from cycling and so happy to reach our destination that day :)

Day 5, 6, and 7. In a rented apartment in Tbilisi. We put our bikes aside for three days and just walked and explored the city.

Day 8 – met Anita from the funding agency that sponsored our trip. She treated us to breakfast at the Marriott hotel in Tbilisi before we set off for Gori. Are we sure we’re on a bike tour? I have to admit, we were a bit spoiled... That night we camped by a hotel/restaurant just outside Gori.

Day 9 – camped at a campsite near Surami. Ate fresh bread/”puri” (made in a sort of tonir) from the women running the campsite, as well as another type of sweet bread. Delicious!

Day 10 – Rode in the rain (only day of the entire trip it rained!) till we arrived in Kutaisi. The ride was mostly downhill (woo hoo!) but it was wet and dirty and we were happy to accept Tsomak’s suggestion to stay in another B&B. After we showered and got into some clean clothes, we left (by foot!) for the centre of town to find out what folks in Kutaisi do on a Wednesday night. Turns out, not much :) It was a beautiful town and we were even able to find Kutaisi’s Northern Avenue (like Yerevan’s “Huysisayin Pokhota”).... seems we’re never really far from home :)

Also notable: A fellow cyclist joining us for the 10-20 km remaining till we reached Kutaisi. He was Georgian and a professional cyclist living in Kutaisi and was simply training.

Day 11 – we were so happy to arrive at the Black Sea finally that we overlooked a minor detail: Poti is more of a sea port and not really a beach resort. After appearing lost and confused to the local police, we were directed to camp at Kolkheti National Park. From the translation I received, it seems the police didn’t know what to do with four female cyclists looking to pitch their tents in their town, so we were escorted to the national park because it’s safer (the gates close at night). They were concerned about our safety! The next day, when we rode toward Kobuleti, we discovered many lovely areas to camp along the shore! tsk, tsk...

Day 12 and 13 – camping in Kobuleti. Unfortunately for us, our two days in Kobuleti were Friday and Saturday nights and the place we camped was surrounded by night clubs and bars, all of which blasted their own brand of music till the late hours of the night... Other than that minor inconvenience, Kobuleti was lovely and just what we wanted: lazy days at the beach...

Day 14 and 15 – camping just outside Batumi.
We met other (not professional) cyclists in Batumi who helped us find a place to pitch our tents along the coast of the Black Sea then meet with us later to show us their town. We saw the newly constructed boardwalk in Batumi, rode the largest ferris wheel I’ve seen so far, and ate the tastiest pizza I’ve had so far (and yes, it had mayonnaise). We also were invited to hang out with a group of local Georgians who meet regularly and gather mussels and crabs (which they shared with us... a lot of work I must say for not very much food :) from “their spot” in this tucked away area of the Black Sea coast.

Also, on the first day, when looking for a spot to camp, our newfound friends directed us to the Botanic Gardens where were denied access to the Botanic Gardens with our bikes (due to some official who was “protecting the environment” by saying that the bikes were not eco-friendly items to bring inside the gated gardens!). Our friends came with us and argued with the official in Georgian. Afterwards, they translated into Russian for our group and then someone translated into Armenian for me :) At the end of this two weeks I have to say I was feeling the lack of English and actually missing communicating in a language of which I am 100% familiar and comfortable in. All this to say though that the trip was memorable in many ways and I’m glad I went (though I wouldn’t do it again – ha!).

Day 16 – we sent our bikes by train back to Yerevan and we set off by car for the return trip... what happened on the way back is a whole other story...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Thought of the day

Tupperware made in Turkey
Sold in Armenia
Transporting goods to Georgia

... and they say there's no cooperation in the region.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Bleach (not a basic ingredient)

Every day (including yesterday, which was a Sunday), an old woman walks around the grounds of the building I live in calling out "Javeli spirt!" She is selling bleach. I live on the 10th floor (the top floor) and there are a number of other such "tall" buildings in the area. Can you imagine having such a loud, shrill voice that carries to the top floors of buildings and with which you holler "bleach!" on a daily basis?

In the last few days, a new song has been reaching my ears through the open window. It is a man's voice yelling "malina! malina!" (just like that: saying the same word twice in a row). He is selling raspberries. Her voice has a different tune: it is held longer. Whereas his are staccato notes, the words short and punctuated. Between his younger male voice and her older female voice, there is a kind of harmony. It is the soundtrack of my day when I am at home. This melody, along with the pauses inbetween, forms the rhythm of the space where I live.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Every morning, I have my organic fair-trade coffee imported from Canada and she has her thick Armenian coffee made the easy way: one spoon of coffee, one spoon of sugar and boiling water poured on top. No assembly required. Well, more specifically, no jazzve required and no need to turn on the gas stove. Simple, fast, and it does the trick. That cup of coffee, plus a cigarette, wakes her up in the morning. These small gestures indicate to me the beginning of each new day.

I’m starting to feel like these blog posts are taking the shape of chapters from Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul: instead of pomegranates and figs, I write of water and coffee. Perhaps I’ve simply returned to the basic ingredients?

Saturday, July 25, 2009


There are two settings for the tap in the kitchen sink: not hot and cold as you might assume, but rather one setting for when you have water coming directly from the pipes and the other setting for water coming from the container above the sink (when you do not have water coming from the pipes).

We live on the 10th floor. And because the pumps at the base of the building are not powerful enough, we only get water twice a day: once early in the morning and the second time, in the evening (after 6 pm). You never know the exact time; you can only estimate. But what music to my ears when I wake up and hear water trickling into the container above the sink.

The bathroom sink and bathtub have two taps each: confusingly labelled hot and cold when in fact it’s the same system as in the kitchen. One tap for water directly from the pipes; the other, for water stored in a large plastic container above the bathtub for when you do not have water.

Now imagine planning your day (doing laundry, cooking, taking a shower) around when you do and do not have water. You could decide you want to take a shower in the middle of the day only to realize that you do not have enough water stored in the container and you will not get more water till after 6 pm. And since the water you get is never hot water, you also have to plan ahead by heating up the water in the container. All it takes is a flick of a switch, but then you have to wait at least an hour to an hour and a half for the water to heat up. And of course this depends on how much water you have in the container to begin with (more water = more time to heat) as well as how hot you want the water to be (so you have to keep checking it as it heats up). Once it heats up, you can’t adjust the settings to make it more or less hot: it is what it is. And therefore, you can’t let it get too hot or you’ll either have to endure the overly hot water or wait another half hour to an hour for it to cool down.

If you think about it, it’s quite a process and the number of decisions and actions you have to take throughout can really take up most of your day. Of course to Asya it’s second nature: she doesn’t really think about it. She goes through these rituals half-asleep in the mornings :) For me, I’ve gotten used to this system, but still find myself grappling with the odd decision or so. For example, when you do get water coming from the pipes, you can allow it to trickle into the container (so you can store it for later). If you open the pipes too much (because of course you have to open and close them), you will pay more (since more water is coming in). So you have to open them just at the right point where water trickles in, but not too fast or too much. With the kitchen sink there is the added fear of overflowing from the top container. So we keep a closer eye on that one :)

Also, the arrangement with this particular household is using water between 11 pm and 8 am is much much cheaper than using it during the day. So if I can get up before 8 am and take a shower (I prefer morning showers), we’ll be better off. But I never seem to be organized enough and end up taking a shower (and heating up the water, thus paying for gas too) during the more expensive day time.

In the bathroom, you have the choice of filling the container above the tub or filling the toilet: you can’t do both simultaneously. So, do you need to take a shower first? or do you perhaps need to make a big stink in the toilet (and therefore you should probably fill the toilet first so you can properly flush after you go)? Have you ever had to make such mundane and constant daily decisions in your life?

And since there’s two of us living here, I have to remember to check with Asya: do you want to take a shower this morning (or this evening) or do you need to use the bathroom after I go (in which case, I won’t flush; I will wait till you go and then we can do one big flush :) If there’s not enough water in the container above the bathtub, who gets to take a shower (if only one of us can)? Is it laundry day today? In which case, we’ll have to gather lots and lots and lots of water (so maybe no more water left for a shower). Have you ever thought about water to such an extent? It’s really quite something...

19,000 dram later...

We took our bikes to a well-known bike mechanic (he works with professional cyclists) and 19,000 AMD later (about $52 USD), I have a well-oiled and well-tuned bike as well as a new cog for my front gears (I now have three gears instead of two; an additional smaller gear for going uphill in this mountainous terrain). The front cog cost 10,000 drams; the general repair cost 9,000. Might not sound like much, but when money's tight, it was an added expense I didn't expect to incur at this point. In any case, we have been assured that these costs will be covered by the funding that has come through for the bike tour. Right now, the main organizer of the bike tour is in Istanbul; she will return in a couple of days and then we will sort out the details of our upcoming trip. Yes, money, but also details of the route and gathering the things we will need. Right now, it's one day at a time...

Looking for paint (and paper and brushes and and and)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Just because someone didn’t pay...

The elevator has been shut off since yesterday because someone in the apartment building I’m staying at didn’t pay the bill. The occupants of the building have to pay the elevator bill to use the elevator: everyone has to pay their own portion. Because someone didn’t pay, the elevator has been shut down and no one can use it. And we live on the 10th floor...

Yesterday, we went to Cocoon, a bar known to be frequented by mostly gay men. Of course us queer women go too (where else are we supposed to go?). And now I know why it’s called Cocoon: not only is it underground, but it’s tiny. About 4 or 5 tables lined up against the wall, across from the bar area. The dance floor incidentally becomes the space inbetween. It wasn’t too busy yesterday (it was a Thursday night after all); apart from us and our friends, there were only a handful of other folks there. Soon they left and we had the place mostly to ourselves. Lots of dancing and good times :)

The day before yesterday was laundry day. I’m fascinated by the act of doing laundry. Here, it really is a day-long task. I have posted a few photos below and perhaps I will elaborate a little further on the process later. For now, there are thoughts simmering to produce an installation/photo exhibit incorporating this theme. Our WOW collective is planning on doing another exhibit in September and I’ve been thinking about my piece. At first, I wasn’t going to participate (too many other things to do and think about; no time for art), but I can’t help the ideas coming to me that take the form of either a photo series or an installation piece or something incorporating both. We’ll see...

Since I have arrived, I can honestly say that my time has been primarily occupied by two things: spending as much time with Asya (cooking, eating, sleeping, walking, watching films, talking, etc.) and meeting new people. At every gathering there is at least one new face. Lately, I have been spending more time with Europeans (and the odd American) who are artists and art curators here for various art events related to their career. There is the Summer School for Curators which takes place every year in Yerevan, though this year the school is more of a series of summer seminars occuring alongside an art symposium (http://www.naac.am/html/htmeng/issac/ssc09.html). There is so much going on that I’m having trouble keeping up. Plus, the nagging thought that I should be actively looking for work makes it difficult to completely relax and enjoy the company and good times (often accompanied by beer). I have to remind myself that these new faces are visitors; they don’t live here. Which in and of itself is not a problem, but it doesn’t help when I am attempting to stay here long-term and thus, I have to count my pennies and work out details involved in finding a job and securing income, a regular internet connection and other tasks more administrative in nature which apply when you are settling down in a place instead of just passing by.

I’m getting into the pace of life here, but at the same time trying not to lose the drive to get things done. I’m trying to get into more of a working schedule; if I can get out of bed earlier in the morning, I can get more things done before the heat of the day sets in. Evenings are cool and an ideal time to work, except of course everyone wants to go to this or that cafe and share a drink or two with friends. So my goal now is to wake up earlier and get online. Slowly, things will come together. One day at a time...

Laundry Day (not today)

I have to admit: I'm too busy enjoying my days that I just don't have the chance to post regularly... so this is just the way it'll have to be for now (besides, my access to internet for long, uninterrupted periods of time is limited).

Random photos, different days

The view from our bedroom window. My friend Lusine and I (caught her inbetween trips to the city from Lake Sevan — it seems so many people are at the lake right now :)

Friends (some from out of town: queer women from NYC absolutely overjoyed in meeting other queer women in Yerevan... they are here filming for 2 months) and the last image: a large fountain left over from the Soviet period.... just a few random photos from different days :)

My friend's family's hostel in Yerevan

My first time at this lovely house which is a hostel just outside of the centre of Yerevan. They have a lovely kitchen and rooms with bunk beds (3-4 rooms, can accommodate about 22 guests or so) and an absolutely amazing veranda overlooking the Hrazdan river. Gorgeous view, clear, crisp air and lovely company :)))

Lake Sevan — finally!

The journey to Lake Sevan

So it seems one cannot just get in a car with friends and visitors on a day trip to the beach without a few stops along the way :))) This is one stop at a friend of a friend's house where of course we had to have a cup of coffee before we could continue along our journey... This building apparently used to be a national building of some sort during the Soviet era. It is now an upscale (read: gentrified) housing complex with a number of tiny (and over-priced apartments) close to the lake. There are more empty suites than occupied ones. Sad and beautiful and terrifying all at the same time...