Armenia at 21: A different type of reflection

As thoughts on Armenia 21 years after independence pour in from all parts of the world, for me the anniversary triggered a different type of reflection: a look at my very own journey with this 21 year old country.

My very first memory of any physical existence of Armenia is from years ago. I couldn’t have been more than 6 or 7. I’m talking late 80’s. I vaguely remember a drive to donate clothes either for the survivors of the earthquake or for Artsakh Armenians. I’m not too sure. And I remember giving away generously.

My memory fails me on the details. But this donation campaign is engraved in my mind as the first time I engaged in a tangible way with an otherwise abstract presence. I have come a long way on my Armenian journey since those days. If there is one thing true for both the child and adult, however, it is the feeling that I have an obligation towards this country.

I grew up attending an Armenian school in Lebanon, spending my spare time as an active badani. I knew my fedayee history inside out. At one point, I even wanted to become a film director when I grew up so I could produce a Hollywood blockbuster of Malkhas’ Zartonk. It would be viewed by millions of people and tell the world of the heroic deeds of Armenians fighting against oppression at the turn of the century.

However, when I was asked to contribute to a badani publication about the second Independence of the Republic of Armenia (sometime when I was 12-13), I was completely lost for words because I really did not know much. In the pre-Google era this meant I had to look at the magazines and papers available at home to try and find out some information about the topic. And finally, in one editorial, I came across a line that said the second Republic was born following a referendum (hanrakeve) by Armenians in favour of independence. It didn’t matter that at the time I didn’t know what a referendum meant; I could build the rest of the article by stressing the importance of freedom and independence for the Armenian nation.

Later as editor of the Hay Tad page at Aztag Daily I gained a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding the Armenian Genocide, worldwide recognition efforts, Armenian-Turkish relations and Nagorno Karabakh. I regularly wrote news and articles about these issues. From how US presidential candidates spoke about the Armenian Genocide to the propaganda of the infamous (Azerbaijani) ‘Karabakh Liberation Organisation’; you name it, I wrote about it.

My first visit to Armenia was in 2001 as part of a pan-Armenian youth jamboree. It was all about quenching that thirst familiar to all of us. I embraced the physical existence but avoided – unconsciously – the harsh realities it came with.

When during a discussion session on Armenia-Diaspora relations, a participant from Armenia declared that Diaspora Armenians are not really Armenian unless they chose to move to Armenia and help the country, it was a confronting moment. I was upset and offended. What did she know about my circumstances and my feelings for this country!

On this trip, there was magic too. The disgustingly big fly that managed to make its way into the room of the hanragetsaran I was staying in on my first ever night in Armenia wasn’t a source of disturbance. It too was Armenian!

It was when I was studying at the University of Oxford and researching my thesis on Armenia’s democratisation as part of its European integration that I was confronted with Armenia’s realities head on. I had chosen a topic where I didn’t have much positive to say about Armenia and a lot of negative. The thesis I was going to write was going to end up on the shelves of one of the most ancient and admired libraries of the world to stay there forever. Was it ok to criticise Armenia in this way? I struggled.

In retrospect, I am grateful for that eye-opening experience. As I read and wrote pages and pages on human rights, fundamental freedoms, elections and democracy in Armenia, the regulatory reforms standing in sharp contrast to the stubbornly persisting unacceptable practices, I came to understand and embrace a new Armenia. And this new Armenia was no longer only about the Genocide or Karabakh. Nor was it only about the clash of opinions or poverty. And it wasn’t about the magic. It was very much about the harsh realities of today.

As we celebrate Armenia’s independence, I think it is important that we also evaluate our own journeys with Armenia both at a personal and collective level. After all, it is people who make changes and if we’re unwilling or unable to see the problems, we are incapable of changing them.

My Armenian journey has come a long way but I know it still has a much longer way to go. Armenia is many things for me today. Its problems distress me, anger me, sadden me, sometimes even disillusion me. I know there is too much to be done. And I understand I need to do my bit as well.

But you know what? When, once in a while, I think of the view from the Cascade to which I was waking up every morning for two weeks earlier this summer; when I remember the vibrant buzz in the streets of Yerevan late every night; and when I think of Armenia’s golden apricots, I can still hear music. There is nothing wrong with magic once in a while.