An Armenian Tale, Chapter One: The People

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It’s a tad facetious to think that someone as unqualified as myself could summarize an entire culture/people in a few paragraphs on an amateur blog. I’m not pretending to do that... I only took two anthropology courses in college. All of the information to follow is a matter of observation and opinion: don’t hold it against me.
If I were to sum up the people of Armenia in three adjectives, they would be: proud, resilient, and generous. Pride often has negative connotations in religious America- we have the handicap of the English language, which only has one word for pride, be it good or bad. If I were writing in French, the word I would use would be “fierté”. That is righetous pride- pride in family, civic pride, pride for your accomplishments, etc. For example, I have “fierté” that I took some pretty decent pictures when I was 15, so I am not embarrassed to include them here. The Armenians have raging pride in their country and their church: when you step into someone’s home, they immediately search for your Armenian heritage. You don’t have any? No problem, they’ll make you an honorary Armenian. They’ll say “oh, but you have a prominent nose, you must be Armenian.” (I almost got offended at that one) “You speak with such a good accent, you must be Armenian.” “You are such a good person, you must be Armenian.” And so you become Armenian. Some anecdotal evidence: when my brother was a missionary in Armenia from 2002-2004, he was in the home of a family with young children. (Side note: my brother is even blonder than I am.) One of the little girls in the family offered to cut her hair to make my brother a wig, so he could look more like them. Because to them, he is Armenian. A fluid sense of ethnicity helps the matter for us blondies that want to integrate: Armenia was formerly occupied by the Soviet Union, which sent lots of Armenians to Russia, and invited some Russians in. Furthermore the borders of modern-day Armenia are a fraction of what they once were, so ethnic Armenians live throughout the Caucasus region. Not to mention, there are more Armenians living outside of Armenia than there are within its borders.
This pride is a symptom of another characteristic: resilience. The Armenians have been kicked around for centuries. Have you ever heard an old Jewish lady talk about the woes of the Jews? That tirade was nothing compared to what an old Armenian could go on. And rightfully so: Armenia’s Mt. Ararat (now within the borders of Turkey) is traditionally where Noah’s Ark landed at the end of the flood. Armenians are very proud of this history, but can’t just go over and hike this holy mount. Turkey-Armenian relations, for those of you who have been living under a rock, are volatile. Armenia was the very first country in the world to accept Christianity as its official state religion. Christianity has flourished, but between the Pagan invasions and Soviet scorn of religion, the Armenian people had to practice in secret. No matter, Armenian Orthodoxy has survived all of that. There is no wonder that Armenia is the land of many churches... that’s what you see. Everywhere. Carved into mountains sometimes. Literally carved into stone. It’s amazing, and a testament to the ability of Armenian people to flourish under oppression. Take that, Stalin!
I saw a lot of day-to-day resilience too, just in my simple interactions with regular people. Armenia, though once a beacon of scholasticism, has an incredible unemployment rate. When I was there, it was at 74%. We complain during the worst recession since the Great Depression that our unemployment rate is high, but it’s less than 10%. I wonder what the recession is doing to Armenia. People don’t let it discourage them that they can’t get jobs: they go to school, get their PhDs, and do what they can for their country. Teachers in Armenia have a monthly salary of $10, and they rarely get paid. But kids don’t sit at home and do nothing, they still get an education, and they still fight to improve their country. I knew a teacher who went to school and taught every day, but hadn’t been paid in months. Of course poverty is obvious on the streets, with people living in squalor and hoards of children running loose. A rich person in Armenia has running water 24 hours a day. My brother knows much more about the economy of Armenia, as he did research there as part of his Undergraduate Honors thesis. You can get in touch with him for more on that.
Even in the face of unemployment and poverty, I have never been among a more generous group of people. I was regularly forced to eat fresh vegetables and succulent pastries until I was past the point of nausea, even though I had no way of knowing if the family would be eating for the rest of the week. And the food is gooooood. Once, I was writing in my journal at midnight after a long day, assuming everyone was in bed already: “Zara’s mom just ran in very cutely and handed me a plate with 4 apple slices and 4 apricots... it was so cute and kind... how could I say no? I ate all of the apples, which are perishable, and 2 apricots to be polite... AH! She just brought me cake too!!” We were constantly showing up in villages where hundreds of people would be there to greet us, thrilled to see strange faces. We visited a small mountain village, and someone let slip that it was my birthday. I had dozens of roses from strangers by the end of the day, and no idea what to do with them all. They were beautiful.
So, here are some pictures of Armenian people, accompanied by journal entries describing them:
“We again went into the oven to watch the preparation of the lavash, where Joanne got to make one and was absolutely pleased as peaches. I also got to make a cake or two of the kind that we had at Aghod... ohh they’re so good.” (Traditional Armenian ovens are kind of like Indian tandoors.)

“Another melancholy stop was the deaf school. Miss Karine translated for the principal as he told us all about their school, and how the children come from as far away as Georgia because it’s the only deaf school around. He took us to their sewing classes and their art classes and showed us the students’ work. It was really quite miraculous to see deaf children learning such life lessons from a school that just replaced lip-reading with signing two years ago.”

“A whole bunch of adorable village girls swarmed around us (including three little girls who I referred to as my fan club, for they followed me around waving and blowing kisses for hours) ...”

“Old ladies, I think, were created to bargain. Short, stopped, wrinkled, mangled, toothless, and absolutely brutal. They are absolutely relentless and so hard to haggle with! One would think, what can they do, gum me to death? But oh geez... it’s indescribable. Thus I never get my mother’s tablecloth at Vernisazh market, but I did get two bracelets for myself (from male vendors: pushovers really.)”

“Eventually we got to take showers in the public showers, one U.S. dollar per hour split to 4 people, and it was beautiful to lose all of the grime. Afterwards Will and I played street soccer with the neighborhood boys, who were absolutely nasty! They were so good.”

Finally, a quote that I came across when cleaning my desk, and for some reason didn't throw away (now I know why...): "I should like to see any power in this world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose history is ended, whose wars have been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, whose literature is unread, whose music is unheard and whose prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia, see if you can do it. Send them from their homes into the desert, let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their homes and churches. Then, see if they will not laugh again, see if they will not sing and pray again. For, when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a new Armenia." -- William Saroyan

4 comments:

Chrissie said...

Totally awesome and accurate description of Armenians. They should hire you to be their publicist.

une américaine said...

Oooooh absolutely beautiful! Can I be even -more- excited? I think I can! :D :D

-Laura

Christopher Palmer said...

Gosh I love that quote at the end. So, how do the Palmers say- Punchen!

Joe the Plumber said...

Well written Lauren! Thank you, and you know we don't have to go too far to relate everyone to Armenians, after all we are all Armenians through Noah. - Sevak