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.


  1. Another Bar Camp participant, who also said she has Azerbaijani friends (Onnik, you seemed surprised ;) [...]

    Can we agree on "pleasantly surprised?" :)

    Anyway, it's an interesting point, and one I made during the presentation.

    That is, once people set the example for open communication, cooperation and friendship...

    Guess what?

    You discover others as well. I think this has been the lesson of the past year along with the establishments of new links.

    Meanwhile, yes, as I said yesterday as well, the prevailing attitude in both societies (three if we include Karabakh) is one of intolerance.

    And not just a lack of tolerance for the 'other side' or other nations.

    This also applies in many other areas too, from gender to sexual orientation, from religious belief to the right to individuality.

    Anyway, great post.

  2. I've been studying this for several years now, and the prognosis is not good. Yes, it is definitely necessary to construct these non-nationalist alternative discourses, among others through direct dialogue.... But as long as governments abuse the nationalist narratives that exist within their societies to bolster their pathetic legitimacies, as long as there is no leadership within the elites, there won't be much of a change. Until, that is, 'events' discredit the existing nationalisms, as they did in Europe from 1914-1945 - and everyone knows what a painful process that was. Once that happens, the fact that there are alternatives will indeed prove useful.

  3. @Onnik: yes we can agree on "pleasantly surprised" ;) And I agree with your comments and find that ironically, often it's those "other areas" (gender, sexual orientation and so on) that both societies can agree on (albeit, often not in a favourable light)...

    @Kevork: hello and welcome to my blog! On your comment that as long as nationalist narratives are touted by governments there won't be much of a change, I'll have to disagree. Since when have governments bolstered real change? Revolution always happens from the ground up. Besides, we can't afford to wait till "governments" come around ;)Thanks again for your comment: I love hearing from people I didn't even know were reading my posts! :)

  4. Thank you for this~ I am writing my Master's thesis on this very subject matter and I hope you don't mind that I'll pull from this post. Very helpful. I hope you've had a chance to read Marc Howard and Charles King. Both great reads and insightful to the conversation regarding role of government and NGO's in conflict resolution of Nagorno Karabakh. I keep coming back to Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. As civil society actors --globally-- we have a chance to transcend our nationalist stereotypes and unite together to explore our role in the resolution of Nagorno Karabakh. The moment we embrace this power, the rhetoric of waiting around for government to change becomes inconsequential. Much much more to say on this, but you hit the nail on the head -self empowerment.
    Thanks again.

  5. @Micael: thanks for your comment! Not sure if you remember me, but we met briefly at SI Camp Caucasus... I replied to your questions on Web 2.0 on Twitter ;) Thank you for joining in the conversation. It's only when we talk openly (and transcend nationalist stereotypes) that we can move forward...

  6. Excellent post! I'm really excited to have discovered your blog! I am in absolute agreement with you. I am a foreigner (my husband is Armenian, and thankfully has a very open-minded family), and it's hard fro me to deal with all of the negativity, and use of absolutes when discussing other people of the world (OUR world...people forget that we share it together!)

  7. Thanks, outsiderinsider, for your comment! I am a friend of Tim Straight's so that's how I found out about YOUR blog ;) Happy writing!