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... ;)