Exotic emotions

Exotic emotions

Every trip to the Homeland must necessarily be an emotional one for an Armenian of the Diaspora. But this time for me has been exceptionally remarkable, and I’ve only been here a couple of weeks.

The journey itself brought out highly conflicted feelings in me. It began weeks before I even boarded a plane. All that was on my mind was Armenia, Armenia, Armenia. My suitcases were on my floor maybe a month before the end of the academic year. I really wanted to leave St. John’s, Santa Fe, the States, and make it back to the Homeland for what I knew would be an exciting summer.
There was an article around that time in the Armenian Reporter by a recent repatriate. I found it to be utterly condescending of local Armenians, and said so as a comment to the article. The editor asked me to write a response piece, which I did. The thrust of my take on things in Armenia was, well, it ain’t perfect, God help us, but that doesn’t mean that as people of the Diaspora we need in any way look down on our compatriots in the Homeland.

Now, I have seen in myself in the past, and have come to discover on a number of occasions since, that I tend to be rather forgetful. Selectively so. When I watched Slumdog Millionaire, all the negative aspects of life in India – the poverty, the injustice, the outright human suffering – came back to me, things which I often ignore. Our time in India was wonderful, after all, and I still maintain that. It’s just that I am reminded of how things might not have been as perfect as all that, and certainly not for everyone in India.

It’s the same with Armenia now. I had made a list once upon a time of all the aspects of life in the Homeland which were abhorrent and unacceptable. Little things as well as big ones. The memory of such experiences fade conveniently when away, but then, having to face them once again can be harsh. And so it happened with me, and it began at the Los Angeles airport.

My sister-in-law referred to it as “reverse culture shock”. There they were, not just my own people, but Hayastantsis – Armenians of Armenia. Here I was, the broad-minded, tolerant Diasporan-Armenian of that article in the Armenian Reporter, and I felt repulsed. No other word for it. We are truly a loud, disorganised bunch. There’s a word for it – tashkhalalı. I’m not sure if that word really exists in Turkish, but I came up with it in thinking about my reaction to this phenomenon while waiting in transit in London.

My response to the tashkhalalı was pretending not to be Armenian at all. Me, the self-proclaimed “born-again” Armenian, the one who someone once referred to as a “nationalist”, or perhaps just a hair short of extremist exclusivism, me, pretending not to be one of his own people! I don’t look the part, so it was easy. When someone’s luggage in front of me in the line fell, I helped him pick it up. He smiled and said “thank you” with a thick accent, and I just nodded in response. On the plane, I sat next to three Armenians, and had to get up since I had the aisle seat and they needed to stretch their legs. I used my hands and broken English, pretending that I couldn’t understand every syllable of what they were saying. I felt really, really ashamed. (And I also felt worried that they would catch me in the airport in Yerevan talking to my parents or the passport control person or something. Apart from being shameful, that would have been downright embarrassing!)

I made it to the Homeland and had to face the horrible driving, the smells, the awful service, and the often pessimistic and superstitious attitude of the people. Superstitions are particularly haunting me this time around. I fear that junior year at St. John’s has made me into a rationalist; the first two were better that way, dealing with more ancient, more mystical works. I hear that senior year brings back the uncertainty and the ambiguity. I certainly hope so. But for now, the superstitions and irrationalities are irritating me. I was at a family get-together, and an adolescent accidentally knocked over a vessel containing salt and pepper. She made a cross on both. Her aunt nearby was amused that she made a cross on the pepper. Not that she made any cross, mind you, just the one on the pepper. Why did she do it at all?

And why don’t people fasten their seatbelts around here? It’s become the law recently. “It’s uncomfortable.” Hospital beds are more uncomfortable, for Heaven’s sake! I was in a taxi the other day, and the driver had a “pretend seatbelt”, i.e., the seatbelt was there, but he had only drawn it across his torso like a sash. Why, I asked? An allergy, came the reply; the material of the belt irritated his skin. “See?”, he said, stretching his arms, “I am wearing long sleeves. It’s summer, it’s hot, and I have to wear long sleeves, yerkar tevov em.”

Bolors el yerkar tevov enk,” I said, stretching out my own bare arms in turn. He found it hilarious, and shook my hand. (This is some Armenian wordplay. “Yerkar tev” literally means “long arm”, but also refers to shirts with long sleeves.) But why pretend to be wearing the seatbelt at all, just to fool the law, if you’ve gone so far as to draw it across your body? It’s unreasonable.

I’ve been talking to people about all this, and most of them keep saying that my reactions are natural. I met a Diasporan-Armenian, though, a young lady here on an internship, who said she thought of going back to the States all the time; this was the first instance I had ever come across such a sentiment from a Diasporan who hadn’t spent all that much time in the country. A friend of mine went so far as to accuse me – jokingly, of course – of treating Hayastantsis like “niggers” (Pardon the expression a thousand times; I have gotten perhaps a little too used to the word since reading Huckleberry Finn). I daresay I’m not as bad as all that…

The reason I’m mentioning all this is that I guess we all seem to have a love-hate relationship with the Homeland. Even the locals do. A friend of mine referred to the unfortunately-common saying employed around here: “Es yerkire yerkir chi“, “This country is not a country”. Well, then, what is it? It can’t be a cloud or just a tree or anything. It’s the land, it’s a country. No, he said, “Yerkire yerkir e, joghovourte joghovourt chi“, “The country is a country, it’s the people who are not a people”.

Indeed, I have always harboured these terribly mixed feelings in my heart with regards to the people of Armenia. An emotional casserole. Or perhaps it’s just emotional batter so far… Their attitude, their behaviour is so, so discouraging on so many levels, on so many occasions.

And yet…

And this is where the mixed feelings get even more mixed.

Back in India, the beggars on the streets meant nothing to me. I would ignore them, I would even be rude to them. Never gave them a single paisa. Here, every time I see someone begging, my heart winces a little bit. I remember when I first moved here eight years ago, I happened to be on the ninth floor, I believe, of a building, and answered the door. It was a beggar woman. I turned her away and tears began welling up. This woman had come up all the way in that building, probably going door-to-door, to ask for money… How awful!

Every time I think how terrible Hayastantsis can be, how terrible Armenians can be, I look around, I see people, I see my people. What fault do they have, really? What is essentially, inherently wrong with that woman, walking hand-in-hand with her grandchild? With that man on his way home from work? With that young lady in the store? Nothing, absolutely nothing…

It really can be very hard around here.

And then there’s something else, something more than this mere trifling of trifle of feelings. Upon the suggestion of a friend, I took a trip to a very strange place, right in the heart of Yerevan. It is called an “exotarium”, or maybe it was an “exoticarium”. The fact that I cannot even remember the exact name attests to the influence it had on me.

There is a miniature complex of circular, curved buildings at the corner of Movses Khorenatsi and Mashtots. These streets are named after representatives of the fifth century, the Golden Age of Armenian literature, culture and science. They were, by tradition, teacher and student. It used to be the corner of Marx and Lenin, who, of course, lived in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and were also teacher and student in some sense. I like to think that there is some meaning in this analogy and change, but I am not sure exactly what. It seems to be a rejection of a certain negative legacy and, so, a step forward, but it also seems to be a glance a little too far back, almost out of focus, both in terms of time, and also as a reversal of perspective, as the teacher-student streets have been respectively re-named as the student-teacher streets.

I only thought of this comparison upon exiting where I visited, and it attests to how the place left in me the most surreal, random impression. “Random” is a lovely Americanism I’ve picked up, and it is very apt in this case, as the “exot(ic)arium” was essentially an art gallery turned into a zoo. Imagine yourself in four concrete circular galleries, surrounded by the strangest animals. Exotic ones.

I took the stairs up to the entrance, and there was a woman feeding a little black monkey with a long, long tail. She had a punctured plastic bottle filled with milk or cream, and the little thing was screeching. Screeching! She left it on the cold, hard floor to tell the guy to take 1000 drams for my ticket. The monkey just lay there. The door was wide open, it could have made a run for it. I almost did.

The first gallery starts with a llama. It continues with cases of snakes – cobras, vipers, an anaconda. And crocodiles, including a caiman one. I am not making this up, as God is my witness. The next gallery had more reptiles. Lizards, tortoises, iguanas, more snakes with their moulted skins for company. Colourful snakes as well, probably poisonous. This gallery had an audio player with forest sounds, but they didn’t need it at all, because the gallery after that had all sorts of birds, many of them not in cages. Parrots, macaws… just hanging out, on posts and railings, making loud, cackling noises. There were squirrels, foxes, mongooses, chinchillas and guinea pigs, and other animals I don’t know how to begin to designate.

The final gallery had a mix of all the above alongside a giant tortoise and a huge snake. And guess what? There was a guy there with a camera! You could get your picture taken with any of the animals (I’m pretty sure it was any of them, because he had example photos of little kids hugging the llama, chilling with a snake…). All I kept thinking and saying to myself was, “Oh my God, oh my God…”. I swear, I was in such a daze. On my way out, my journalistic side tried to burst forth, and I asked the guy who sold the ticket when the place opened. Last year, he said. I wanted to ask so many questions, from the logistical (“How did you even bring them over?”) to the philosophical (“Why?”, just “Why?”). But I was still under such a shock, all I could mutter was, “Well… um… that’s… interesting”. “Thank you,” he said, and smiled.

This sort of surreal randomness also forms part of the landscape in the Homeland. Whereas the people showcase characteristics that are unbecoming and unbearable, the sorts of adventures I have in Armenia would be well-nigh impossible to replicate most anywhere else.

I was walking home the other night. It was midnight or so, and just down the street from our house – a nice, quiet street – there was a bunch of guys hanging out. They were of theqyartu variety, which means the vulgar rabble, some ppzal-ing (squatting, a common practice), in the midst of chrtel-ing syemochka (cracking, chewing and spitting sunflower seeds, another characteristic of this kind of crowd). I restrained myself as best I could from smiling, to say nothing of laughing out loud. What were these chaps doing here and that too, at this time of night? And as I was walking by, one or two of the boys made some comment or other about me. This is something I have long since gotten used to. I look unusual around here; a foreigner, with strange hair, wearing sandals… an easy target for ridicule.

It occurred to me then, though, that here I was, ready to laugh at them, and here they were, more than willing to laugh at me. On some level – again, something surreal – I felt a connection, a connection with the qyartu, something I would never have imagined possible.

So what to make of all this? I love Armenia, and I love my people. I also hate many things about Armenia and the Armenian people. This is the only definite conclusion I can draw. It seems to me I have yet much to think about and to feel. For the moment, all I can say is the first couple of bars of Tristan und Isolde will mean something more to me henceforth, until I can find any resolution with regards to my relationship with the Homeland.