Armenians are an intensely proud people. For a small nation, spread around the world, they have had considerable success in all spheres of human activity. One half of the MIG partnership that produced some of Russia’s most famous fighter aircraft – Artem Mikoyan – was born in Lori province. Tennis great, Andre Agassi is half Armenian, as is Cherilyn "Cher" Sarkissian. You may also have heard of Charles Aznavour, the band System of A Down, actress Andrea Martin, actor Eric Bogosian and director Atom Egoyan. The roll call of greats also includes Formula One driver Alain Prost, cymbal makers Zildjian and Sabian, chess master Garry Kasparov, composer Aram Khatchadourian and the guy who invented the MRI machine, Raymond Damadian.
In short, Armenians have a fair bit to be proud of and take every opportunity to distinguish themselves from other peoples. For most Armenians, there are two kinds of people – Armenians and "odar", or foreigner. However, for Armenia-born Armenians, there seems to be a third distinction – Diasporan or "ardasahman" (literally meaning "beyond the borders") Armenians. Armenia is a relatively new country. Much of Armenian culture was kept alive and thriving outside its borders – in fact the Diaspora is larger than the population of the home country. So, when independence was achieved in 1991, Diasporan Armenians, who were much better off that their native cousins, felt they had a vested interest in their homeland – after all, in their minds, they had done a great deal to advance Armenian culture and preserve tradition free of the constraints of the Soviet regime.
However, while they found their brethren in Yerevan eager to take their money, they were much less receptive to their ideas. A clash of cultures developed. After initial resistance to what Yerevan saw as troublesome Diasporan meddling, a sort of détente was reached. A Ministry of Diaspora has been established to improve relations and facilitate investment from Armenians abroad. That said, attitudes on "the ground" remain largely unchanged. In the capital, especially, you still get the impression that "ardasahman" Armenians are tolerated rather than welcomed. A perfect example was my visit to a small grocery shop. The door was opening and there was a bit of a hub-bub from inside. Desperate for some water, I went in, and as soon as I stepped inside, all conversation stopped. Despite greeting the three people inside with a hearty "Good Afternoon" in my best Armenian, they remained stony faced and sullen until I departed, breaking, once again, into a lively conversation.
The reasons for this behaviour are complex. Diasporan Armenians tend to be dreamers. We look at Mt Ararat and see it as a symbol of Armenia, representative of what we have lost, tantalisingly close yet unreachable across the Turkish border. Natives look at it and, by and large, see a huge lump of rock. This is merely a symptom of the disconnect between the two communities. Looking from afar, it is easy to judge, to criticise and to be patronising about what should and could be achieved. However, most Diasporans tend to visit once a year, for a few weeks and are out of touch with the needs and demands of the man on the street.
Simply put, the chief concern for the average Armenian is where his next meal is coming from. He has a very short-term view. He sees the wealthy Diasporan come in, wave their money about, buy flats and invest in businesses (pushing up their value from unaffordable to wholly unachievable), take the best of what Armenia has to offer and then disappear off to their well appointed houses in Paris, Los Angeles and other points West. Such cultural tourists are often taken advantage of – usually by subtle price gouging in amounts no tourist would quibble about except as a point of principle.
That brings me to the title of this short discourse. I was walking along Mashdots Street, one of the main avenues in Yerevan, dressed in a T-shirt and cargo shorts. I was taking some snaps of a streetside kiosk, when a young woman and her older companion passed me, rudely remarking, in Armenian, about my choice of clothing (men normally do not wear shorts in Armenia – nothing marks you out as a tourist faster - the camera didn’t help either I suppose). Most natives, when seeing a tourist, can’t imagine for a minute that their lingo will be understood, much less spoken, so the look of shock, when I replied in perfect Armenian was priceless. I said:
"My dear lady, the reason for my abbreviated attire is that I love this country so much, that I sold the bottom half of my trousers so I could send relief money here…"
The older woman turned and stormed off in a huff, but it was all her younger companion could do to stifle a fit of the giggles. At least one half of the Cold War seemed to have thawed.
© Hishyeness 2010