Sunday, December 19, 2010

It’s Cold... But Not in Yerevan

It’s cold in Toronto and not just physically or literally. People are cold. I want to knock on my chest like Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love and say “Empty!” it’s empty in here, there’s no life here. I am reminded of a blog post I wrote two years ago when I came to Armenia in the summer of 2008, when I met my partner and a whole host of amazing women, and when I decided to try to make the move to live here. I wrote “There is so much life here.” And coming back to Toronto has reminded me why I decided to move thousands of miles across the ocean to another country, not just to be with my partner, but to experience life, with all its hardships and joy.

I am surprised by the level of consumerism in Toronto, how much it permeates people’s lives. I walk down Queen St. West and the word that comes to mind is “hipster.” But Queen St. West has always been hipster, so why should I be surprised? I assume it’s because I’ve been away so long, because I’ve been living another life, a different life, and I am surprised at how much consumer culture defines Toronto.

I ride the subway, overhearing conversations that seem so superficial to me. Maybe it’s because it’s the subway and people don’t want to get into intimate conversations, even with those they love and are close to. But even though couples hold hands and stand close and are comfortable enough on the subway to lock lips for periods of a time, I don’t hear the love. Conversations between friends about the latest gadget or comparing different products, where to get something for the best price really depressed me. Is this what Toronto is? Or is it what it seems to me, being here for a little over two days?

Again, I am reminded of Eat, Pray, Love (not that I thought it was a great film; it’s just the references it brings up): what is the word that describes Toronto? I toy with money, business, grey, cold, lacklustre (another word for grey?). None of the words paints a positive picture of a city that is supposedly the “most multicultural city in the world” and that is the engine that runs the country (i.e. financially).

The roads are so wide, the cars so big, the dizziness too much. I can’t help but feel as if I’m looking at this city through the eyes of someone else. Someone who never lived here, who came here from Europe (“Oh! Un vrai camion américain!” as one French-speaking European once said during his first visit to North America, when I picked him up from the airport and drove him on a highway that he described as being straight from Hollywood films), or from a smaller country such as Armenia.

But I have lived here and if I dig deeper, I will find that the city has never changed, it is what it has always been, it is I who has changed. Or maybe it’s a bit of both?

I was so excited to come back, to taste food that I have missed, the cultural diversity of this city which is one of its best assets. And yet I find the food tasted so much better in my memory than it does in real life and I see the change in my family’s diet, how my mom eats chicken now and avoids all carbs. The way the dishes are prepared with the addition of processed foods, something she swore off years ago and still mostly avoids. But it’s easier you see and adds flavor, she says, and I realize that my palette and hers have become very different. An analogy of our lives.

Artifical. Perhaps another word to describe this city. Superficial — somehow related. Stuck. Speaking to friends and former co-workers over these past two days, I’ve realized the number of people who confess to feeling stuck, the number of people who have decided to make Toronto their home not because they love the city, but because it has opportunities (financial, career-wise). Because they need to be here, not because they want to.

The majority of people I’ve spoken to have confessed to this, have complained about things getting worse in the city, in the country, so much so that it starts to sound familiar. This, however, being only a handful of friends and acquaintances and by no means a conclusive assessment. However, between observing people on public transport and speaking to friends and family, I have been left with a feeling of sadness, of feeling stuck and obsessed with buying all those things that I don’t need but want just to surround (protect?) myself with my “mountains o’ things” (don’t you just love Tracy Chapman?).

And I can see why people go mad. It is insane to live in Toronto. It is insane to live this life, to constantly be chugging ahead, not knowing why you’re going so fast, where you’re even going exactly and why you have to keep moving with the current. You think you’re doing the best thing for you and your family. You think you need this. But the more you move ahead, the faster you go, the more you realize you need more. That what you thought would be enough is not enough. And in the center of it all is this wide, gaping hole of emptiness.

And I am reminded again of my blog post two years ago. What had affected me so deeply in the three weeks I was in Yerevan, the bug that I caught that I have seen so many others catch too, those who decide to move to Armenia: There is life here. Yes, I complain, yes, there is so much that doesn’t work (չի ստացվում :), yes, there is discontent. But we have each other. All of us are in the same boat. None of us (among my friends and my family anyway) are better off than anyone else. We’re not running to the stores to spend all our money on useless things because we don’t have money and there aren’t really THAT many things to buy (well, of course, now there are, but in no way can you compare the small shops of Yerevan to the megastores and shopping malls of North America).

Yes, we want lots of things that we don’t have. But we are not empty inside. I have met some of the most amazing people in my life in Armenia (and I know I’ve said this before). I realized long ago that people are more important that products, that making meaningful connections with another human being(s) is more important than making a connection with your computer or your job, that living life to the fullest means never feeling “stuck,” but feeling passion, what it means to be alive.

I don’t want to delude myself, or you, dear reader: I’m sure there are people who feel stuck in Yerevan, just as there are people who feel alive in Toronto. This cannot be a generalization of two cities. But it is a generalization of experiences, at least my experiences, and maybe my outlook on life. I don’t know if I’ll live in Yerevan forever (in fact, I have dreams of travelling to other places, of living briefly in other cities, in other countries), but I don’t want to live in Toronto forever either. It’s a familiar city, where I grew up, where I lived most of my life — but it’s not my city. I don’t know where I’ll be five, ten years from now, but wherever that may be, I will make sure to remember to live life to the fullest, to at least try not to feel “stuck,” to see the beauty wherever I am.

“Whatever [or wherever, I'd add] you are, be a good one” is the name of my friend Arpik’s blog. A fitting line, I think, on which to end this post.

P.S. I’ve been wanting to change the name of this blog for quite some time now. Yesterday, the phrase “Here is Life” came to me. What do you think, is it too vague for the title of this blog? I like the line, but think perhaps the blog should include “Armenia” or “Armenian” somewhere in the title since it is who I am and where I live. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Is Living in Armenia Financially Sustainable?

Lately, I’ve had doubts. Doubts about living here, surviving here, settling here. For let’s be honest, I’m still not quite settled. I remember the big question I had before I made the move to live here: is it sustainable? By sustainable, I don’t mean is it environmentally or ecologically sound to live in Armenia; I mean, can one live and work in Armenia without any outside support (financial or otherwise). Are the resources inside the country sufficient to make a decent living?

To elaborate further: I know that those who have savings and investments built up from a life abroad, those who work for international agencies in Armenia where the money comes from outside the country and those who’ve established businesses in Armenia, but their sole (if not the majority of their) earnings come from clients outside the country — all these groups of people can live in Armenia quite comfortably, but it doesn’t solve the equation: the money is still coming from outside.

The more I’ve looked into this issue, the more depressed I’ve become. Because, if only by surveying the many, many others I know who live and work here, I’ve come to the conclusion that no, living in Armenia is not sustainable.

And that’s what’s gotten me depressed over the past few days.

Conversations with friends and acquaintances have also made me realize that I’m not alone. Perhaps it’s the changing of the seasons, the first signs of winter in the air that’s getting us down. But I think it has to do with more than that.

For instance, a good friend of mine Artur recently published a post on his personal blog that resounded with me: he, a young man in his thirties, married with 2 kids, is finding it more and more difficult to justify staying in Armenia. He works hard (he knows he does — and I know he does too!), he has a fairly good job working in media and he’s quite active online and in the journalistic community. He has offered and attended many trainings and continues to improve his skills/trade/craft by being involved in new projects and continuing his education (in a broad sense).

He is a professional in his field.

And yet he sees no hope in this country. Or, more specifically, he sees no future for his children. To be honest, Artur blogs a lot about local politics and events and, working in news media myself, I too follow the numerous opposition rallies, the struggles for freedom of the press, Armenia’s relationships with its neighbors, the Azerbaijani film festival in Yerevan that seems as if it might never happen, the latest racist remark that either Sargsyan or Ter-Petrossian and his supporters made. I too see no true alternative voice in politics, which really only adds to the bleak picture.

Because as much as I am frustrated at how much importance Armenian citizens put on good government, I understand the need to have good, honest, educated people running the country.

In an earlier post, I had been critical of this and said it was a “leftover Soviet mentality,” and I still think that’s partly true. I argued that revolution never came from top-down: one only needs to examine countless other countries’ histories to know that revolution comes from the people. But I also understand what change — much needed change — could come from having good government in Armenia. And until one sees even a glimmer of hope in this issue, the situation in the country paints quite a depressing picture indeed.

But back to my original point: sustainability. I still don’t see it and even if an ideal government were to be established in Armenia tomorrow, I think that it would take a long time for the country to stand up on its feet and for its citizens to be truly independent.

If only because I like to end on a positive note (!), if there’s any “glimmer of hope” that I see in this country it’s the people. I have met such talented, amazing people while living here that if it were not for them, a lot of the change (even if it’s a drop in the ocean) wouldn’t be happening and the hope that some of us keep would be non-existent. People like Artur, and the countless others whose presence does give me the hope that maybe, just maybe, change will come sooner rather than later.

P.S. I would just like to add shout-outs to fellow blogger Lori, who I met for the first time yesterday, and Kirstin, working in Armenia on contract, who I also met yesterday. Learning that there are people who I don’t know who follow my blog, and knowing what I throw into cyberspace is actually received by someone somewhere, really made my day. Thanks, guys ;)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Ode to Yerevan Nights

I had forgotten. I had forgotten how this city changes at night. How the expression “as different as night and day” takes on new meaning in the Armenian capital. And I have missed it. Oh, how I have missed you, dear Yerevan night.

Walking the streets of this city at night, you see the queers, the foreigners, the misfits. If you never went out at night, you would think that Yerevan is “proper” Armenian girls, young boys laughing in groups, schoolchildren, and older women buying produce, while older men talk politics. During the day, you see the mountains in the distance, parents taking their children to ride 200-dram toys in the square, men in groups in dark-colored clothing talking politics in the park.

In the early evening, you see young pregnant couples strolling the streets, people — young and old — sitting at outdoor cafes (until it gets too cold and the cafes move indoors), young men with fast, flashy cars and gaggles of girls dressed up to go out for the evening.

But it is a night — even better, late at night —, when the “proper” Armenian girls have gone home (after all, they’re not allowed to stay out past midnight), when the young men with their flashy cars have possibly retired for the evening, and when families are fast asleep, that Yerevan wakes up and shows you the possibilities of what this city can be.

I hear more languages at night than I do during the day. I see people I didn’t know live here, doing things I didn’t know people in Yerevan do. I see all manners of people being accepted because the night is different: it allows for certain freedoms (most likely aided by certain amounts of alcohol) that would simply be frowned upon during the day.

Of course, it’s not all rose-coloured glasses: the stereotypes and the conservative opinions are still there, but I suppose they’re not felt as much, or perhaps they simply lose their potency at night.

And I guess I can understand why the foreigners and the diasporan Armenians here on volunteer stints go out at night, crawling the bars, drinking more than they did back home and becoming all manner of silly. It’s their small dose of freedom in a society they haven’t fit into yet (and perhaps never will in the short time they’re here) and it’s a bit of the familiar, surrounded by their diasporan and foreign friends, speaking English and making their foreign-ness known more loudly than they would allow themselves during the day.

And though this might read like I’m painting a negative picture of foreigners and diasporan Armenians in Yerevan (of which I am one), it’s not. I had missed being out in Yerevan at night because I had been too busy working, conforming, living my daytime life, and seeing friends in the early evening in intimate settings, before retiring to bed with my partner (who, by the way, works more than I do!).

This might sound odd, but Yerevan at night reminded me I’m queer. And that I love my queer brothers and sisters. In the past couple of nights, I met many more new misfits and came to the following revelation:

The ratio of queers to straights in Yerevan is probably higher than in Toronto, and maybe even London and New York.

You might find this hard to believe, but trust me: just come to Yerevan. And go out at night. Yerevan is a small city compared to many other capital cities around the world, but it has an infinite amount of possibilities.

For all the stresses of the day, the anger over the nationalism and xenophobia that exists when someone tries to organize an Azerbaijani film festival in Yerevan, the fact that in the Nagorno Karabakh “frozen conflict” there are still dead bodies and prisoners of war, that the price of natural gas to heat homes and food has gone up and now the price of local cheese, and the lack of any proper or legitimate government, it is the night that saved me.

Yerevan at night reminded me why I love this city and its people, and brought to mind this quote:

“With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.”

Monday, October 25, 2010

Hatred and Xenophobia is Alive and Well

Poster for the event

A Facebook event page on a film festival in Yerevan has sparked hateful and nationalist comments since it was created a few days ago. Why? Simply because the festival will showcase films by Azerbaijani filmmakers.

Though the event page on Facebook seemed to have been created by Armenian writer and LGBT activist Lusine Vayachyan, the actual event is organized by the Yerevan-based Caucasus Center for Peace-Making Initiatives NGO, with the support of the US Embassy in Armenia. As of this writing, the event FB page shows that it was created by Georgi Vanyan, the president of CCPI.

In fact, Vanyan has since added a note to the event, which also appears on Vayachyan’s wall as well as his own wall, asking individuals who have concerns or complaints regarding the festival to direct them to him: “Each individual concerned about the festival, please leave writer Lusine Vayachyan alone. Lusine simply spread the news about the festival.”

“The festival is organized by Caucasus Center for Peace-Making Initiatives NGO, of which I am the president, and naturally, the person responsible for the festival. Please,,” he adds, leaving the email address where to send queries and comments.

Though of course that hasn’t stopped FB users from only adding hateful, discriminatory, nationalist and xenophobic comments on the page — though now not directed at Lusine, but focusing on the nature of the event itself.

As of this writing, one FB user by the name of Sasun Sasunian has added a photograph showing the Armenian flag being burned, as well as a couple of illustrations with the words “I love Azerbaijan” and “F*** you Armenia.” In one image, a child wearing the Azerbaijani flag is shown peeing on the Armenian flag, apparently equating the organizing of a festival to expressing anti-Armenian sentiments.

Of course, he’s not the only one. There’s HoVo Aghajanyan (and really, how do we know these are their real names?) who has posted the link of another FB event on this event page: this time for a protest to take place on the same time and place as the festival of Azerbaijani films. The counter-event seems to have been created by Hrachya Barkhudaryan and already has 178 people attending.

The comments are almost exclusively in Armenian, and of course there are some people thankfully who have other views. These comments mainly seem to try to reach out to people through "Christian values" and humanity, asking users to stop spreading hate. Some comments state that organizing a festival screening of Azerbaijani films or comments which support such an event shouldn't be equated with being "anti-Armenian" or being a "traitor."

Responses to such comments have included accusations of being Azerbaijani, being traitors to the Armenian people and so on, with each additional comment receiving support by another commenter, inciting more hatred and almost camaraderie by fellow racists.

I don’t know what else to say at this point except “disgusting.” Absolutely, wholly, almost-to-the-point-of-ridiculous-if-these-views-weren’t-so-very-deeply-and-unfortunately-sincerely-held-by-these-young-Armenian-nationalist-men-and-women disgusting.

For those who are interested in reading and perhaps responding to the comments (in Armenian), the Facebook event page can be found here:

Saturday, October 9, 2010

On Beauty Contests and Violence Against Women

Armenia’s Ministry of Diaspora organizes a beauty contest for local and Diasporan Armenian women, while another woman suffers abuse at the hands of her husband and mother-in-law.

"As you are already informed, on October 1, 2010 in Masis town a shocking murder was committed. A 20 year old Zaruhi Petrosyan was killed by her husband and mother in law as a result of torture and physical violence,” reads an open letter by local NGO Society Without Violence.

The case, covered by local news agency, is getting little attention in other media. The latest news is that Zaruhi’s husband, Yanis Sarkisovi, has been detained and charged with “causing severe bodily harm.” This is as much as has been reported so far. A video on YouTube (in Armenian with English subtitled) in which two women close to Zaruhi talk candidly on camera about the incidents before her death can be viewed here.

"Petrosyan’s case, while unique by the fact that her family has spoken publicly about her ordeal, is common.  Over a quarter of women in Armenia are said to have been hit by a family member, yet authorities failed to prevent, investigate and punish violence against women, according to a 2009 Amnesty International Report,” writes Liana Aghajanian in an article on domestic violence in Armenia Ianyan.

Meanwhile, the country’s diaspora ministry organizes a beauty contest in which contestants are expected to have 'mastered' the Armenian language, to be familiar with Armenian cuisine (including how to cook Armenian food), and to top it off, to "preserve the image of an Armenian woman."

When asked what exactly defines “the image of an Armenian woman,” the minister responded by saying, "To tell you the truth, I don't accept filthy, ill-mannered girls." According to her, a woman must be "modest." (, Oct. 8, 2010)

Furthermore, she goes on to say that though she understands there are other many other examples of women around the world, the “traditional Armenian woman” is different: she is a good mother, a good daughter, a good wife (apparently in that order).

And then we wonder why gender stereotypes prevail in our country and why women continue to be abused at the hands of men. When notions of “man” and “woman” get defined and confirmed by government officials, why are we surprised when violence — physical, emotional, financial — prevails in society?

When are we going to say enough is enough?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Namaste, or More Culturally Appropriate and Locally Relevant, Peace

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a few weeks since I got out of my routine of going to yoga classes (mainly because of my work schedule), so I decided to get back into my routine by starting with the beginner’s class today. I’ve been to this class many times and can probabaly consider myself no longer a beginner, but I thought just to be on the safe side, I should ease my body back into doing yoga poses with an easy class.

And so, while I’m sitting there on the mat with my legs crossed, I realize I am looking up at my yoga teacher and listening attently, hanging on to her every word, much like I imagine Levon Ter-Petrosyan’s supporters do when they listen to him talk at an Armenian National Congress rally. And this of course reminded me of my recent post and I thought, “My yoga teacher is my god” (sacrilegious, I know, not to mention perhaps offensive to supporters of Ter-Petrosyan, or really any other “political force”).

Because I would rather have my yoga teacher running the country (if she so decided to do so) than a man who’s already had his run of politics. (And please don’t think for a minute that I support Sargsyan — or Kocharian, for that matter.)

Think of it: her words are guided by no other motive other than to have you feel your body, to listen to your body and do only what’s good for it. She speaks of releasing tension and living in a state of calm and gratitude.

She is herself the embodiment of calm.

Words such as conflict, territorial integrity and elections never leave her mouth (well, at least not in yoga class). She greets the students with a smile and ends with a bow, in an unassuming seated position, palms together and with that word of all words, “Namaste.”

Now when was the last time you heard an opposition leader or government official say that?

Friday, September 24, 2010

The "Dream Team" that Stole Armenia's Self-Rule

I hope The Armenian Observer (Ditord) won't mind, but I'm reposting a blog post of his which quite nicely follows my earlier post. You have to see the original post, if only because of the amazing photo series he chose to go with the post. Wonderful.

Here it is, in full, below:

"Armenia’s past and incumbent presidents – Levon Ter-Petrossian, Robert Kocharian and Serzh Sargsian, couldn’t force themselves to come together and celebrate the country’s Independence Day on September 21th.

"September 22 marks another anniversary. 14 years ago today Armenia turned back from the path of self-rule and democratization as a result of flawed Presidential elections in 1996. Levon Ter-Petrossian relied on use of force against opposition protesters to hold his grip on power.

"The three of them had much better relations back then.

"Robert Kocharian was the tame President of Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, who would use every occasion to congratulate and speak highly of Ter-Petrossian.

"Serzh Sargsian was the Minister of Interior and National Security, one of the key officials who helped Ter-Petrossian fabricate his victory over main opposition candidate Vazgen Manukyan and keep it too, relying on police and security service forces. Similar tactics were used by Sargsian and Kocharian to claim victory in 2008 presidential elections and break-up the rally of Ter-Petrossian supporters during the March 1 violence in the streets of capital Yerevan.

"Ter-Petrossian and Robert Kocharian can’t stand each other and have reacted fiercely to each other's critical public statements since 1998, when Kocharian ousted incumbent Ter-Petrossian and became president.

"In recent months there are also speculations about worsening relations between long time allies – Serzh Sargsian and Robert Kocharian.

"One thing they have in common, however, is their determination to take the power away from the people of Armenia as much as possible. That’s where they have been and will remain a ‘dream team’ and that’s what the biggest tragedy of this country is.

PS: Check out this Washington Post editorial which appeared in the wake of the fraudulent presidential election that was held in Armenia 14 years ago today and proved fatal for the country’s post-Soviet history.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Is Revolution in Armenia from the Top Down?

On Sept. 17, the Armenian National Congress (the acronym in Armenian is HAK) held a rally in front of the Matenadaran (Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts). The “Congress,” as it’s sometimes abbreviated to in Armenian, is an opposition group and not an actual political party. The leader of the group, Levon Ter-Petrosyan (alternative spelling: Ter-Petrosian or Ter-Petrossian) was the first president of the independent Republic of Armenia (after the collapse of the Soviet Union) and then he was re-elected again in 1996, resigning in 1998.

Many of my friends and people I respect believe that if Ter-Petrosyan were president (again), things would change. But I’m a bit more skeptical: I mean, he had his chance. This isn’t some unknown individual we’re talking about. It’s a man who was elected president, not once, but twice. Why do you think a third term would change anything?

Photo: courtesy of Armenian National Congress website

The other thing that brings out the skeptic in me is how Ter-Petrosyan has achieved almost god-like status. He is revered like a saviour, a man who will bring the country out of the many messes that it’s in. He is seen to be a man of the people, but yet, I wonder: was that the case when he was president? I doubt it.

I want to say, listen, we all want change. Many, many people are unhappy with how the current government is running things. Yes, there are people still imprisoned for their views, yes, there’s corruption, yes, there’s poverty... but why are you so sure that if Levon Ter-Petrosyan is president, things will change, or at least get better?

I want to say, listen, I want a revolution too. But in the course of world history, when did revolution ever happen from the top down, from the government? Revolution comes from the people. It is grassroots-based. There are many examples in history to prove this and in other countries that have been worse off than Armenia.

I was talking with a good friend yesterday and she confirmed what I had suspected: it’s a Soviet mentality. The belief, the expectation that the state will take care of you. That things will only change (and get better) if you have good government. Someone in power who will make it all happen for you. But why would you think that a single (and in this case, I can use the accurate term here) Caucasian man make it all better?

I believe in the power of the people, not power attributed to a single individual (whether that be a man or a woman, Caucasian or not), but to a group, a collective. I didn’t grow up in a Soviet country. Sure, I had it easy: Canada has a well-developed (what some call) socialist system. To a certain extent, it can take care of its citizens. However, there were (and still are) things that need to change, need to get better. I have participated in those rallies, I have seen how the facade of the state easily breaks down, I have struggled for change. I don’t want to compare what “struggles” I’ve had or participated in Canada with the struggles here in Armenia, but the point I want to make is wanting change, wanting revolution is nothing new, and not exclusive to Armenia. The difference is in many other places and reviewing the histories of many other countries, change didn’t come from change in government (which Ter-Petrosyan and his followers are calling for).

Change comes with revolution and revolution comes from the people.

I’ve just started reading Thomas de Waal’s Black Garden. It’s interesting to read what transpired 10, 14, 16 years ago and trace the history to understand how we got here. (And this through the eyes of an “outsider,” someone who’s neither Armenian, Azerbaijani or Turkish.) Highly recommended reading for our times and for better understanding the South Caucasus. It’s also interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that the same players are involved: I’m reading the names of the same politicians who are still around today, in some form or another. Does nothing ever change?

What do you think? If you follow Armenian politics, do you support Ter-Petrosyan, Serzh Sargsyan, some other politician or no one? What do you think needs to happen for the situation in Armenia to improve?

Friday, September 10, 2010

In Yerevan, it’s dangerous to get used to the quiet

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

My apartment is my sanctuary. Every day, I come home from work, tired from cycling and stressed from the sort of the day that only come if you work at a news agency. I realize how much I crave that moment: that moment of stepping into my place, quiet and serene, where I can remove — both the physical and metaphorical — layers of the work day I carry with me, jump into the shower and de-compress.

Perhaps it’s not so much the nature of the work that I find stressful (which, of course, it can be), but the environment in which I work.

I work in a rented unit that’s part of a large apartment complex in a busy part of Yerevan. By large, I don’t so much mean that the building is tall, but that there are many buildings connected to each other overlooking a central space that can be considered primarily to be a parking lot. The room I work in has lots of windows which is great for natural light, but not so great when it comes to looking into your neighbors’ windows and hearing every single argument and noise coming not only from the neighboring units, but also from outside.

Every day, at least 2 or 3 children call for their mothers from the concrete square that though is mainly a parking lot, it’s also a children’s playing area, a spot for an impromptu game of backgammon between older unemployed men, and the spot from which watermelons are sold out of the trunk of a car as a man yells “Fine watermelons! 100 dram! Delicious watermelons!”

Come to think of it, I haven’t heard that man in a while, but over the span of a few days not too long ago, I heard the price of watermelon go down from 120 to 100 to 80 dram per kilo (don’t assume the price is the cost per watermelon — oh, no, it’s the cost per kilo) and my heart went out to the vendor and his business, competing with the low prices offered by supermarket chains.

Apart from children calling out to their mothers (why, by the way, is the intonation always the same so even when it’s a different kid “Mama!” sounds the same?) and women calling out to their husbands or brothers or, surprise, surprise, their children, I have the fortunate opportunity to hear the sound of a vacuum that comes on and off daily while I struggle to get that news piece online, or, say, find the best translation into English for a particular Armenian word.

At first, I thought that our neighbors followed the adage “cleanliness is next to godliness” and had a penchant for vacuuming EVERY DAY, but it turns out that’s not the case: rather, there’s a guy operating a car cleaning service out of a garage right below our window. And as if it’s not enough that I have to hear the sound of a vacuum every day (trust me, you can only imagine how lovely silence sounds after the vacuum is turned off), our dear friend likes to turn on the music from whatever car he’s cleaning at the time and entertain the neighbors with the latest Armenian rabiz hit song.

Despite the party soundtrack, I don’t have the urge to dance.

So you can imagine how, in comparison, my apartment feels like a sanctuary. And yet, in Yerevan, where one is inundated with sounds and smells at every turn, I think, it’s dangerous to get used to quiet.

And now, I sit here in my apartment with the window open, overlooking yet another residential courtyard (a hayat as it’s known), usually quiet, but today there are contractors working on adding another room to an apartment across the way and the sound of the circular saw is a reminder that no matter where you may be in Yerevan, you cannot separate yourself from its sights and sounds...

Monday, September 6, 2010

Hearing more than one, and different, stories

Hearing novelist Chimamanda Adichie's TED talk about “The danger of a single story,” I was reminded of media reports on Armenia and Azerbaijan. Too often, we hear (and read) the same nationalist rhetoric that is conveyed to us by biased media coverage from both sides.

And it’s not just hearing one story, but hearing the same story that is dangerous. A friend of mine in Canada recently reminded me of local activist work, which seems to involve organizing the same events and highlighting the same causes, of course through the same Eurocentric, Western lens and I have to agree with her: it’s tiring to see people with good intentions doing what was already done before and not actually making any strides forward.

So how do we move forward?

Well, for one thing, we understand that no single story can define a nation, a culture, a sect or any other myriad of all those aspects of our identity. It is important to read, hear, watch many stories, and when we think we have a complete picture of that nation/culture/people, we watch, hear and read again, and again, and again. Because I don’t believe that’s possible to ever have a complete picture of a nation/culture/people.

That’s why I’m excited about the Eurasia Partnership Foundation’s unbiased e-media coverage in Armenia and Azerbaijan project. According to the EPF Armenia website, the project aims to contribute to accurate and unbiased reporting of the bilateral relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, especially in the online media and blogosphere.

As someone who works in online news media, I’m glad that more attention is being paid to this not-so-new field, and specifically in the area of unbiased media reporting between these two South Caucasus states.

Now here’s hoping the proposals they’ve received take into account reporting on more than one story... ;)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Being Queer and in Love in Yerevan...

... so reads the title of a guest post by yours truly on is a queer Arab magazine published weekly by the amazing folks at Meem, "a community of lesbian, bisexual, queer & questioning women and transgender persons in Lebanon."

According to the website, Bekhsoos' "objective is to fill the gap of lesbian- and transgender-produced writing in the Arab world through articles, reports, investigations, personal stories, opinion pieces, and creative writing." The website publishes articles in Arabic and in English, and I even noticed a poem published recently in French.

Though I'd be hard-pressed to say that Armenia is part of the Arab world, I was asked to contribute a piece on what it means to be a queer woman living in Yerevan, Armenia, by a friend of mine, a fellow queer Armenian living in Beirut who happens to be working at Meem. I was — and still am — flattered to be asked and I hope they weren't too disappointed by the piece I submitted. Writing it gave me a chance to write from a personal perspective — something I find hard to do in public.

What about you? Do you find it difficult to be candid and personal in your writing when it appears in public? Or are you more comfortable writing your personal thoughts than presenting others' stories or reporting the goings-on around you?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Moving the conversation forward: Armenian-Azeri dialogue

I just came across a new blog that I wanted to share with you. It's called "Global Chaos" and the name was enough to draw me in. Blogger Yelena (or Lena) Osipova's latest post is on "the other" — growing up in Armenia and being taught to hate "the other" (in this case, Azeris), a group of people whom Lena had never met but whom she had heard so much about.

This post was republished by EurasiaNet, which is how I found myself on Lena's blog. EurasiaNet published the post along with another article on the same topic: Scary Azeri's article "Sometime in my lifetime" originally published by Oneworld: The Caucasian Knot as part of their Overcoming Negative Stereotypes in the South Caucasus project (yay, Onnik!).

Apparently, another new article on the Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue will appear on Oneworld soon: this one by one of my favourite journalists, Liana Aghajanian of the online magazine Ianyan. Look out for this and other stories on moving the conversation between Armenians and Azeris forward. Great work, everyone!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

On taking risks

Load the ship and set out. No one knows for certain whether the vessel will sink or reach the harbor. Cautious people say, "I'll do nothing until I can be sure." Merchants know better. If you do nothing, you lose. Don't be one of those merchants who won't risk the ocean.

- Rumi

(Thank you to a good friend of mine who reminded me of Rumi with this post of hers.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

A queer woman’s take on living in the Caucasus (or at least Yerevan)

I live with my partner. In Yerevan. That might sound exceptional to some, but that’s just the way it is. We sometimes hold hands in public (especially if we’re rushing across the street in oncoming traffic). If we get any odd stares, it’s usually directed at my partner who gets odd stares anyway, even when she’s alone, from the way she looks. When we’re together, people ask her where she’s from, assuming I’m the one who’s from here and she must be from somewhere else.

Public displays of affection are limited, naturally, but then again you don’t see many heterosexual couples making out either. (I find that, in general, sex and sexuality — gay or straight — are taboo.)

When my partner goes to the doctor and he or she asks her if she’s having sex, she says no. Because we all know what is meant by that question: are you having heterosexual (a.k.a. penetrative) sex? Though I have yet to come across a doctor who clarifies the sex question. And it’s too bad really because how can you diagnose or treat someone if you’re not getting the full picture?

Actually, before asking the sex question, doctors often want to know your marital status: are you married? (And don’t think for a moment that this question might mean are you married to your same-sex partner.) As if from your response the doctor can assume that you’re having sex (ha!). But just to be sure, Doctor asks whether you’re sexually active after he or she has satisfactorily received a response to the marital status question. *sigh*

When we travelled in the region together, hotel and B&B staff assumed we were friends and so gave us a room with two separate single beds. But being an artist and a writer, we’re often inclined to be creative ;)

You should know that there’s no Pride Parade in Yerevan. [And no one I know has attempted to do what these activists did in Moscow this year. Though there was a symbolic gay wedding in Armenia a few years ago.] There are no rainbow flags on storefront windows proclaiming “Queer Dollars Welcome Here,” or banners advertising the next local queer event. There are no gay couples kissing in the street though I swear I’ve seen straight men more affectionate with each other in public than anywhere else I’ve lived. And unfortunately the odd gay man that might be depicted in a TV series is usually portrayed in a negative way.

There’s no law that specifically prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, though thankfully there are a few NGOs that work with the LGBT community (in terms of support, advocacy, education, resources), as well as educating the mainstream public on what it means to be LGBT, explaining/educating on terminology and history, outlining human rights.

And of course, we are here. And there are many of us. Unfortunately, the ignorant views (often guided by religious beliefs and/or “family values”) makes it harder for us to come out and even threatens our safety.

Take for example British-based Armenian band VO.X who, in their latest video, label homosexuality a “perversion.” But, hey, they’re just expressing their personal opinion, right? Wrong. Even worse, VO.X has not only changed the settings on their video on YouTube so that comments are no longer allowed, but also added a description which says that this video is about Armenia ONLY (caps their’s) and the views and opinions expressed therein are “purely and subjectively Orthodox Christian and as such, within Armenia’s context, do not violate human rights.”

Are you kidding me?

I could go on and on about this topic, but others have already written extensively on it and so for more information, read blogger ArtMika’s post here, along with his follow-up post here, as well as Global Voices coverage here.

Armenia might have endorsed the UN statement against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in December 2008, but it doesn’t mean it has any laws that actually protect LGBT people from discrimination. [See this Wikipedia article on LGBT rights in Armenia that also includes a brief history... in case you’re ever confronted with the argument that it was Europe who “brought” the notion of same-sex relationships to Armenia — ha!]

The truth is, it’s not easy being queer anywhere. And yes, I agree that it’s especially not easy being queer in Armenia. But please don’t for a moment think that there aren’t any LGBT folks here, or that we can’t live our lives here like everyone else.

Life is full of contradictions. You don’t have to go far or look too hard to see the diversity that exists in the lives of those around you... even on these ancient lands.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Things I Love

Photo from my personal collection.

Eating. Cooking. Traveling. Writing. Blogging. Now if only I could combine these ingredients into a recipe for paid employment ;) Yesterday, I watched Julie & Julia and became inspired. Today, a brief post to remind myself (and you, dear reader) that anything is possible. Now back to the hustle…

Monday, June 7, 2010

The many faces of nationalism and xenophobia

I know there exists nationalist rigour in Armenia but I find it difficult hearing it on a personal level, on a one-on-one level and from people who I consider to be understanding, in general, and open-minded at best.

I very recently began volunteering with this great environmental NGO. I won’t go into the details here as this post is not about pointing fingers, but a wonderful, educated, and otherwise understanding man who’s been working at said NGO for over 12 years recently said some things that I, in my naïveté, was surprised to hear.

When talking about possible upcoming vacation time, I asked whether he’d be spending some time at Lake Sevan in Armenia or Batumi in Georgia (a popular tourist destination for Armenian citizens). He said he would rather die (or something to that effect) than give any of his money to Georgia and the Georgian people. He then went on to paint an essentialist picture of Georgians and how they only pursue their own interests, and that, at the expense of others. I was surprised because until then we’d been having a wonderful conversation about local and Diasporan Armenians and more interestingly on those Diasporan Armenians who repatriate to Armenia (case in point: me). I could understand his perspective and in general, I thought we understood each other. But on the topic of Georgia and the Georgians, he was quite firm and quite racist/xenophobic. And from there, our opinions diverged.

Then, yesterday I got a chance to meet a well-known Armenian sculptor. Another interesting conversation ensued, but more so on the topic of art and artists and we seemed to be in general agreement. And then, suddenly, he says how we (i.e. Armenians) forced the Turks who were living here (here? as in, in Armenia?) out and how towns and villages in Eastern Armenia had Turkish names (?). Now I don’t know about the facts of his statements, but the fervour in which they were spoken, the way he seemed so proud that we kicked out the Turks, really irked me. And yet, I didn’t find any way of saying anything otherwise since it would be his word against mine (read: older Armenian man born and raised in Armenia vs. young Diasporan Armenian who hasn’t lived in Armenia for a full year yet).

Incident number 3: a Facebook post by a friend of a friend who encourages Armenians outside of Armenia to return to Armenia, raise their kids here and not to intermarry with non-Armenians and produce children who, as he says, might be European or American. Um, hello? Do you live in this country? (He does.)

Look around you, my friend: quite a lot, and I repeat, A LOT, of local Armenians are not 100% Armenian by blood. Many are mixed, often Russian-Armenian. These type of statements only contribute to the false idea of “full-blood Armenians” which apparently are those who live in Armenia. Those outside of Armenia, be warned: you could have mixed-race or mixed-ethnicity children. Oddly enough, no one talks about that reality inside Armenia. Or about how this country has never been populated only by Armenians, and even today, there’s a sizeable Yezidi and Kurdish population (not to mention, the Iranian community, which has been growing in recent years).

And finally, another moment where I thought even in the best of intentions, even among those educated, open-minded groups of people that I fortunately have a chance to interact with regularly, there are age-old racist and xenophobic sentiments that may be hidden, but at any given moment can rise to the surface.

Case in point: Well-known journalist Onnik Krikorian who writes for Global Voices presented on “Social Media and Conflict Transformation on Armenia-Azerbaijan relations” at Bar Camp Yerevan yesterday. A nice refreshing change from the usual rhetoric when it comes to this touchy subject. However, during question and answer period, a couple of individuals stated that Azerbaijan should be the first to take a step (toward conflict resolution) and that it’s worse “over there” and what about all those lies the Azerbaijani media publish about Armenia? And with the snap of your fingers, we were once again confronted with age-old beliefs about the enemy and the “us vs. them” mentality.

Instead of pointing fingers, I say, instead of saying “they” should go first, why don’t  you look at your own actions? You can only speak for yourself and only control your own actions, so this should be our point of departure. Otherwise, the conversation goes nowhere. These type of statements are road blocks: they don’t move the conversation forward, they only lead to dead ends.

Onnik spoke about his Azerbaijani friends, about cooperating with Azerbaijani journalists and activists and how Armenians have more in common with our neighbour than we might think. He also made special mention of Social Innovation Camp Caucasus, which I was lucky to have been a part of earlier this year.

Another Bar Camp participant, who also said she has Azerbaijani friends (Onnik, you seemed surprised ;) asked, how effective do you think this grassroots level of connecting one-on-one really is? Shouldn’t it be the governments’ (both Armenian and Azerbaijani) responsibility to initiate conflict resolution? To which Onnik brilliantly replied, “If you’re going to wait for governments to initiate change, you’re going to be waiting a long [and I add, long] time.”

I think it’s all about the grassroots level. It starts here. It starts now. With us. We don’t wait for governments, nor should I say NGOs. We start with each of us. Though I believe we should address the nationalism that’s touted by the media and by the state, I don’t think that’s where change happens or where we should start from. We start with you and I.

Stop the xenophobic comments against Georgians, Azerbaijanis, and Turks. Stop the generalizations and the essentialism. It doesn’t move the conversation forward. These are age-old beliefs and though, yes, history must be addressed, I agree with Onnik: we don’t start mending relations with our fellow Azerbaijanis by talking about Nagorno-Karabakh. Let’s talk about something else. And once we’ve found our common ground (because, trust me, we have a common ground), only then can we move on to tackling the tough issues.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Love and Fear

Returning to Yerevan after a week in Amsterdam, I realize that it’s been nearly a month since my last post (I’m not too happy about that). Lately, I’ve felt somewhat removed from what was going on around me: I haven’t been catching up on local and international news (except to find out that ash clouds continue to impede people’s travel plans ;) and I haven’t been reading fellow bloggers’ posts and Twitter updates. I guess I’ve been focusing more on what’s going on inside than what has been happening outside in the world.

I’ve been revisiting memories by revisiting places I lived and people who I knew before I moved to Yerevan, and I’ve been listening to my heart, trying to tell her it’s okay to be afraid, but just don’t let the fears overtake you.

Seeing my ex who’s now a good friend reminded me of how I learned to love. How I opened up my heart in ways that I had never known it was possible to be before and how that has had a profound impact on my life since then. It’s also shown me where I was and where I am now.

I think it’s important to examine our past, but not to let it consume us in the present.

It’s important to know where you come from, how you arrived here.

My past provides guidance because it shows me the mistakes I made (and the ones I didn’t) and the choices I can make now to move in the direction I want to go. It provides the focus that I sometimes feel that I’m lacking, especially these days when I’m unemployed and trying not to let fears of this unfamiliar state consume me.

I’m trying to focus on what I love. “Where there is love, there is no question,” so reads a post on Tara Agacayak’s blog. I love Tara’s writing and this blog in particular, which inspires us to do what we love.

Where do you find your love? What about your fears? Is it possible to provide space for both in your life (without letting the fear overtake you)?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Introducing: Artists in Residence in Yerevan and Diplomacy at Work

On April 24, instead of making the annual trek to Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial in Yerevan as Armenians (especially Diasporan Armenians living in or visiting Yerevan on this day) are expected to do, I went to the opening of an art exhibit at my friend’s apartment. The artist, Linda K. Anderson, an older American woman who’d come to Yerevan by way of Sweden and then the Netherlands, was here for two months as an artist-in-residence through the Art and Cultural Studies Laboratory (ACSL).

However, due to unforeseen circumstances that involved a falling out with the ACSL Artistic Director, she ended up completing her work and arranging other accommodation outside of the residency program. I really admired her courage and initiative in taking what turned out to be a bad situation and making it work for her. She ended up completing the work she came here to do, but on her own terms.

Her work, called “Armenian Cave Paintings,” was exhibited in what she called “Gallery Shushan” (named after the woman, my friend, whose apartment she was staying and working in). The huge canvases (as well as a few small ones) were spread out throughout the apartment. Linda had made a blackberry crumble and prepared other hors d’oeuvres for the occasion and her son, David, had composed music for the event which was played throughout the evening. We had a chance to meet Linda’s family via Skype. All in all, it was a cozy atmosphere.

One friend, an art critic and contemporary art professor in Yerevan, recalled how the exhibit-in-an-apartment reminded him of Soviet times when institutions didn’t exist for art that wasn’t the socialist realism that was the main stay of the period and “nonconformist” artists would organize exhibits in their apartments. And though I have never lived in a Soviet country, I had a chance to experience what that might’ve been like, if only just for a moment.

The unforeseen events which resulted in this exhibit in a residential apartment and the feeling of being part of amazing moments that happen on the fringes are the same wheels in motion which resulted in meeting Asheer Akram, another artist from the US who — wait — is also here as an ACSL artist-in-residence.

Asheer was given my number from a mutual friend of ours who had called me to say that an artist from the US (Asheer) who was in Yerevan had his Macbook power adapter stolen from his luggage and could I please lend him my power cable so he could at least recharge his laptop till a new one arrived from the US? Of course I agreed.

But wait — stolen from his luggage? Yes. Apparently, Asheer, coming from another artist-in-residency program in Pakistan to Yerevan (by way of Dubai) had his plastic-wrapped luggage opened and checked by Armenian customs and the result: a missing Macbook power adapter and a carton of Pakistani cigarettes. Can you believe it? It’s quite possible that Armenian customs officers kept those items for “security” purposes with plans to sell the power adapter and most likely smoke the cigarettes themselves. I mean, really. Ouf!

Luckily, Asheer wasn’t missing anything else but buying a charger from the “Apple” store in Yerevan was out of the question: $200?! Yes, apparently what costs maybe $70-80 USD in the States costs $200 in Yerevan. I told Asheer: economies of scale (and perhaps the ability to get away with charging atrocious prices that no average Yerevan citizen could afford.)

Making Connections

My personal goal of “Making Connections” last year seems to have carried over into this year. With that in mind, I decided to introduce Asheer to Linda. I believe that artists should meet other artists. And you should always hear all sides of the story ;)

Informal, impromptu gatherings in Yerevan are part of what I love about being here. Not just among artists, but among diverse groups of individuals. And this, I find, happens on a regular basis.

Meetings between Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev on settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict or any other number of local conflicts are nothing compared to the many informal trilateral and multilateral meetings that take place among locals, repats, expats and visitors.

The conversations and topics that are covered are truly diplomacy at work. We complain about local and regional issues [whether that be the art scene(s) or politics or a host of other issues], but respectfully. We understand that we’re all in this together. We understand the importance of community. Of living in this small, globalized world. Of respecting differences and history. And sometimes amazing things happen. Collaborations, connections, cooperation. 

And though this blog post is about visiting artists, it very well could be about repats or expats or locals discussing issues they may not agree on or expressing their frustration at the state of affairs.

Yerevan’s just like that. To me, it’s still full of surprises, “coincidences,” random meetings, and making connections.