Armenia and Georgia, Reading into Georgia and Armenia into Reading

Armenia and Georgia, Reading into Georgia and Armenia into Reading

I never tire of comparing Armenia with other countries, and what a better object for comparison than neighbouring Georgia? The two peoples and states share much in common, not the least of which is the immediate Soviet heritage.I have been to Georgia on a few occasions, but this last trip was extra special. First of all, it was for the particular occasion of participating in summer classes in the style of St. John’s College, put together for the third year by OLEG – the Organisation for a Liberal Education in Georgia. It went very well.Apart from the classes, I got to stay with a family and do touristy things beyond Tbilisi, which was where I had spent all my time in the country before. Georgia has a gorgeous countryside, ancient churches and monasteries, delicious food and warm hospitality… all that good stuff. But I also got acquainted much more than I had before with the language, culture and religion, and – of course – politics and society.

A few observations. In general, a feeling of jealousy has always overshadowed any time I have spent in Georgia. It seems like the country is bigger, better-off and more active than Armenia. I would add that, since the Rose Revolution and the August 2008 war, Georgia seems to have more international coverage as well. That is to say, I feel like it’s more in the news, and the West portrays Georgia more in a positive light, or in the light of the underdog struggling against an overbearing power, that sort of thing, as opposed to whenever Armenia is in the news, which is hardly ever. I imagine Georgians themselves wish that this were not the case because of a war or dirty politics, but, nevertheless, I feel a tinge of jealousy in this regard.

But the people of Georgia, I found, seem to be less than satisfied with their circumstances, especially in terms of their politics. Saakashvili is not the inspirational darling he once was, and there is a general pessimism and sentiment of ineptitude vis-à-vis the government. On the contrary, I was told, the Armenians are secure and well-organised. They try to stick together, regardless of where they are, as opposed to Georgians, who tend to assimilate.

I found those remarks very interesting. I imagine the fact that we “have won” in Artsakh, and that Georgia has perhaps irretrievably lost Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has something to do with it, and also the existence of our many communities in our Diaspora. But you see how I put “have won” in quotes, and also, I know our communities all too well. There is a great deal of lack of organisation and transparency, not to mention ineptitude, both in the Republic of Armenia and in our Diaspora. There’s no denying, however, that, compared with the Georgians, our identity has been better-preserved abroad through time. Maybe I am being nitpicky instead of graciously accepting a compliment. There is indeed a lot to be proud of in our Diaspora, after all and, yes, in the Homeland as well. It’s just that I feel the perception of the Georgians to be overly-idealised.

The fact is that Georgia has a better position as a transit route, with access to the sea, and certainly with access to more goods. And it’s not like the Rose Revolution amounted to nothing. The police of the country has undergone a vast improvement. There is no more stopping drivers randomly, no more bribing of any sort. The police is stationed in new, glass-stricken, transparent buildings, and they even have an “anthem”, a theme song to go with it. There are actually a few versions. And guess who plagiarised a version for its own police? The Armenian one is pretty much a direct shot-for-shot copy. They are both hilarious, actually, but our’s is more burdened by a real mistrust, not for no reason, and a cynical public.

A friend of mine also just added a Facebook note about how the Tbilisi municipality is investing a great deal on public spaces and especially playgrounds for children.

All very impressive, but there were a couple of things about Tbilisi that were off-putting, one of which was the prevalence of active beggars, many of them beggar children. I am used to them from having lived in India, and I’m not saying there aren’t any in Yerevan, but this kind of active beggars, who pursue people, who pursue tourists, are not yet a phenomenon in Armenia in the same way.

Another startling little thing for me was the immense popularity of oriental-style toilets. This might seem funny and, again, there are plenty of those in Armenia as well, but I got the impression that even new structures had them installed, and it seemed strange to me.

Especially because I felt Georgia had more of an Eastern European air about it. Maybe it was the better roads, or just, in general, a more active and older city, and whiter-looking folks, as opposed to a pretty active Yerevan, but also pretty Soviet-looking in many ways, a city without an old quarter to speak of, filled with people who bear more Mediterannean features.

I wish I had less of a connection and less knowledge about Armenia, and more information on Georgia. I feel my comparisons are being skewed in all directions.

Two objective observations with which to end. Our taxis seemed to be much better-regulated. One is hard-pressed to find an independent taxi in Yerevan nowadays without a metre. We are trying to start to wear seat-belts now too. Not so in Tiflis.

Also, our group made an excellent excursion to the Georgian manuscripts centre. Our guide was none other than the director, and we had a wonderful time looking at old Georgian books, and also books from other places, including Armenian ones. The man even showed us a “medieval Facebook” – an Arabic manuscript, each page with one particular bit of writing, surrounded by numerous comments on the margins!

The reason I bring up the manuscript centre is that our Matenadaran seemed to be a far more prominent structure. I’m not sure in terms of academics, or how many pieces the establishments hold, but I got the impression that not everybody off the street would know where the Georgian manuscript centre can be found, but everybody in Yerevan knows where the Matenadaran is. Perhaps it’s just because of its location, but even that, I am sure, attests to something.

All in all, I must confess that I am very fond of Georgia and the Georgian people. We often have reasons for tense relations with one another in politics, or in terms of the Armenian community in Georgia, but I am glad we have no reason for a significant, active conflict with our neighbour to the north.

P.S. I recalled this observation only after posting the note. Georgians make the sign of the cross a lot, every time they see or pass by a church. (By the way, since they are Orthodox, they cross it the other way around from most other kinds of Christians, i.e., right shoulder first.) There are plenty of churches in Tiflis, so this is a common occurrence. It happened that we were in a taxi, and the driver had the radio on a horrible, horrible American hip-hop gangster song, while crossing himself! I bet he didn’t even know what the words meant. Or maybe he did, and that was the real reason he was making the sign of the cross.

I remembered one more thing I noticed in Tbilisi which I’d like to share. We stopped by a bookstore one day. The first impression was that it was trying to be such an American joint, in that it had a little coffeeshop within. What struck me more, though, was the availability of so many titles in Georgian. It seemed to me that there were more books in Georgian and more translations into Georgian, than in Armenian. What caught my eye in particular were all the Harry Potters, plus one or two of the Twilight series.Now, in truth, the Georgians can have the Twilight series (although I am gleeful that little Georgian kids can read all about Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in their native tongue), but this makes me wonder: is there more of a market for Georgian-language material as compared to Armenian?I’ve always thought that we don’t have as many books in Armenian because, for one thing, this is a small and poor country, but, more significantly, even if we take the Armenian market to include the Diaspora, most if not all Armenians already know English or Russian or French or Spanish or Arabic. Why would they want to read anything in translation? Especially anything technical, but even literature.

Or does the lack of material in Armenian speak to a lack of usage of the language itself? There has recently been an immense hue and cry in Armenia over changes made to the law on language which will allow for schools with a foreign language medium of instruction. I personally find that people have a complex with their identity and culture, that studying subjects in English or Russian will not immediately mean the beginning of the end of the Armenian nation, as some would have it. At the same time, a key indicator of the liveliness of our language in our history has been the translations of important works, such as in the fifth century with Mesrop Mashtots and his students, and in the early middle ages with the Mekhitarian Congregation. I’m not sure if the correlation is as direct as that, but I imagine the paucity of Armenian-language books must indicate something.

It probably is a result of a number of factors. Meanwhile, how many serious bookstores do we have in the entire country anyway? I can think of four in Yerevan, plus the random streetfolks, especially at Vernissage or near the Yeritasardakan metro. So, let’s say six locations for purchasing books. There must be a few more I don’t know about, but anyway, my point is that that is not a lot.

Particularly significant to my mind is that Yerevan was recently declared the UNESCO World Book Capital for 2012. I am happy and proud, but I feel that it is something of a joke. IshAllah, instead of being viewed as an event which is not in concert with the reality in Armenia, it will end up promoting books and reading in the country.