From Yerevan, with the time difference and my relatively unplugged lifestyle, I did not learn about last Friday’s tragedy in Connecticut until early Saturday morning. I was on my way out the door, to give a paper at a workshop/celebration of twenty years of the Fulbright program in Armenia , when I heard. I arrived in shock and ashamed of the fact that we, the people of the United States, have not found ways to make sure that these kinds of killings stop. As I spoke to Armenian Fulbright alumni, I was keenly aware of how American society looks from the outside. We look violent. Unsafe. From one of the participants, I learned of a Russian language television program that aired after the tragedy, about the number of Russian children adopted by U.S. parents who have died. Others see that we do not protect our young.

Over one million people live in Yerevan and yet I feel as safe here as I do in the Vermont woods. Most apartment stairwells are completely unlit and yet no one lurks. I can walk alone through dark parks and alleys at night, to get where I need to go, in safety. How can we return to this level of safety, for our young, especially in schools, those sacred places where we give our young the best knowledge and practices our culture has to offer? I believe in the power of learning. I am here as an anthropologist because of American public schools. My grandfather was a shoemaker and I hold a doctorate.

In the spirit of believing in the comfort and power learning, on Monday night, I walked from my office at the American University of Armenia, through Yerevan’s first snowfall to hear Nona Shahnazaryan speak about policing in Armenia at the weekly seminar at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography.  From other seminars, I knew Nona to be warm and compassionate. I also I knew that the presentation would likely be in Russian. Never mind.  Snow always brings the child out on me. I needed a walk in the snow to the Institute to sooth my mourning child.

My Russian vocabulary is limited almost entirely to words that have diffused out from the Soviet Union during my lifetime such as “perestroika,” “cosmonaut,” and “skol.”  I listened and rested among kindred spirits, my anthropological tribe, in a welcoming space picking out the English and Armenian words as Nona spoke.  What does it say about American culture that these are the English words that I picked out in about 10 minute period of listening?

now bigger still
This collection of words fits the current state of American culture. Uncanny? A coincidence? To my mind these words, spoken in English despite all having Russian language equivalents, reflect competing deep cultural traditions that Americans must face at this crossroads. Together, this collection of conflicting words gave me a sense of understanding. They soothed me and let me head back into the snow, ready to see the beauty of the flakes as they fell.

Yesterday, December 21, 2012, as the world as we knew it ended, we have been given a chance for a fresh start, fresh and clean like newly fallen snow. Let’s take it. Let’s look at ourselves and own what is wrong, so that collectively, we can move forward.

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Embracing My Inner Mongrel

Kars, the frontier city that lies on the closed border between Armenia and Turkey, the setting of Orhan Pamuk’s book Snow, is forbidden territory for Fulbright Scholars to Armenia. Our security briefing made it clear that the only open border was with Georgia to the north.  While there are tours that could take me from Yerevan, up to Georgia and then to across the Turkish/Georgian border and through Kars, to see the ruins of Ani, the ancient capital of Armenia, I won’t be going there this  year. Good thing I had been once before.

In the summer of 1984, with American passports and occult last names—thanks to the conventions of marriage—I had gone to Kars with Peter, to gain access to Ani. The red stone ruins rising above golden fields and the gun towers live on inside me. (Photography was prohibited at that time.)  As a young American couple who spoke some Turkish, with a carton of Marlboros for the access bribe, we kept my Armenian ancestry a secret. Secrecy was an especially good thing that summer. Every time we saw a newspaper, it had an anti-Armenian cover story. Threats to the Turkish Olympic team by an Armenian radical group demanding recognition for the genocide caused the team to withdraw from the Los Angeles Olympics.

During that trip, my identity,  like that of the ancient Armenian structures scattered across the landscape, stayed hidden. Official signs for tourists with stark labels like “church” or “fort” concealed the historical presence of Armenians on this land. Armenian lettering carved into the stone of the church in places such as Akhtamar Island in the middle of Lake Van, or defaced but lettered frescoes on others, and the characteristic architecture spoke the truth.

I shared the truth of my pedigree, in a tea shop in Kars, three weeks into this trip. A young man in the shop started saying things, in Turkish, that made it clear to me that he was Armenian. He nodded with excitement when I explained that my mother was Armenian and my father American, borrowed my Turkish English dictionary, and paged through it till he found the world “mongrel” and showed it to me with a huge welcoming smile.

My mongrel status had always challenged me. With fair skin, auburn hair and freckles, I don’t look as Armenian as my brother and sister. In college, during meetings of the Armenian club at Columbia University, I was an outsider for two reasons: my mongrel status and my politics. I advocated for the importance of recognizing other genocides, such as Cambodia’s Killing Fields, so fresh and raw in the early 1980s. As an outsider, I wasn’t the right material for an Armenian marriage. So like my mother before me I married an odar, a foreigner, a non Armenian, a wonderful man, and there we were in a tea shop in Kars.

Here in Yerevan, nearly thirty years later, whenever people are pleased with some aspect of who I am, they refer to “genetic memory,” as though I have a series of latent codons, that can be expressed only in this environment. Genetic memory lets me learn dance steps. Genetic memory accounts for my spiritual bent. Genetic memory helps me with the language even though we spoke English only at home when I was young. This is a culture where blood counts, where ancestry counts.*

My Armenian mother, a biology teacher, sometimes patted me on the head saying I had hybrid vigor. But here in the Old Country, I see that the true strength of my mongrel nature is not biological. As a half-breed, I was as affected by the U.S. Civil Rights movement as I was by the fragments of genocide survival stories that I inherited. Together they make me look for the common humanity at the same time as I look for an accurate recognition of history. They make the acts of governments and the acts of individuals distinct. They make me see truth as the road to peace.

A few weeks ago, I met an anthropologist from Turkey, Zeynep Sariaslan, at an interdisciplinary conference here in Yerevan called, SoUS Strategies of (Un)Silencing. She was here to present her ethnographic work on constructing national and ethnic identity in the Kars borderland as part of a broad conversation on how to move beyond the dominant narratives that perpetuate and sustain “oppositional paradigms, (i.e. us/them, inside/outside…)”. Sariaslan used Pamuk’s book Snow as the point of entry into conversations with the residents of Kars. The conference keynote was delivered by renowned writer and accidental anthropologist Amitav Ghosh who spoke about two forgotten Bengali texts in which Indian WWI Prisoners of War bore witness to the genocide.  Ghosh showed how these prisoners moved beyond oppositions and crossed borders, both geographical and ideological, to find the common humanity.

I told Zeynep about my encounter in the tea shop, about hearing of this young man’s time in prison, how the tiny Armenian community managed to find other Armenians to marry, of meeting his family at their home with a massive carpet loom along one wall on which his sisters worked. With this photograph of me with the young man, and his family in 1984, Zeynep offered to help me try to track them down. Crossing ideological borders, finding a common language to speak honestly about the past, ultimately allows for the physical borders to be crossed. This is a good role for a mongrel like me.

* Perhaps the Armenian emphasis on ancestry accounts for my own fascination with genetics, a fascination which led me to make “Activity Dependent Gene” shown here at Studio Place Arts.

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Safe Landing

On August 28th, I arrived in Yerevan, Armenia for the first time since the summer of 1977: Then via Beirut, now via London; then to a Soviet Republic, now to a vibrant, complex independent state; then after living in Yemen for the year; now from my home in the mountains of Vermont.

After a year of teaching school in Yemen, where fresh fruits were limited to imported oranges, mealy red delicious apples, local limes in abundance, and the occasional watermelon, I still remember the luscious strawberries of Beirut. But it wasn’t till Armenia that I tasted the intense golden sweetness of my first fresh apricot.

The flight from Beirut to Yerevan, on Aeroflot of course, was filled with diasporic Armenians, most of them fleeing some sort of political upheaval in the lands in which they hand landed. Lebanon, Ethiopia, Iran. Throughout the flight, the engines roared as though they were a little closer to the inside of the cabin than usual. Water dripped from the sloped ceiling. Massive Russian stewardesses shouted in their mother tongue at passengers, who wandered freely around the cabin, lit cigarettes in hand, despite seatbelt signs that were also lit.  As the peak of Mt. Ararat ascended toward us, all passengers rose from their seats to dance in the aisles and celebrate their homecoming.

The British Midland Airways flight, from London to Yerevan to Teheran, was so empty and quiet, that each passenger could spread out across three seats. Seatbelts were fastened even when lying down. Tea was served. The sparkling new Zvartnots Airport passenger terminal, built thanks to Argentinean investors, gave me the first inkling of how profoundly Yerevan had changed. But meeting Catherine Yesayan, my good host these past few weeks, at the “Black Cat” in downtown Yerevan, was like stepping into a dream.

The Black Cat— “Gatto”—is a  sculpture by Columbian artist Fernando Botero (b.1933), installed in the sculpture garden of the stunning Cafesjian Center for the Arts, a complex that begins at street level with two blocks of sculptures surrounded by arabesque plantings and fountains, and then continuing as a massive stone staircase with sculptures, gardens, and fountains rising hundreds of feet up the adjacent hill. Construction of the “Cascade” (Kas-cad) began in the 1970’s under Soviet rule but the project was never completed as the U.S.S.R dissolved. In 2001, Gerald Cafesjian began transforming the grounds and the space behind the massive staircase into the exceptional museum that it is today.

I have come back to the ancient land of Armenia, as a Fulbright Scholar, to make art and write stories about the experience of growing old in Armenia. What luck to landed in a museum “dedicated to bringing the best of contemporary art to Armenia and presenting the best of Armenian culture to the world.”  When I climb the steps of the Cascade each morning, to see Mt. Ararat, beachhead of Noah’s ark, rising in the sky beyond Yerevan, I float between the old and the new.

Another woman, had  arrived at the Cascade just before me: Botero’s “Woman Smoking a Cigarette.” Built like a stewardesses from that 1977 flight, she lies nude on her onyx black stomach, looking out over her cigarette at the Armenians who surround her, all of them with ready opinions.

Catherine and I joined them before going back to her apartment where she had a bowl filled with the last golden apricots of the season waiting for me.

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