BY PAUL CHADERJIAN
Once there was and there was not …
Fall 2013 will forever be imprinted in my mind with a melancholic pop song about our enigmatic obsession with the Homeland. In my mind’s eye these days, Arabo Ispiryan’s cinematic music video plays in repeat.
As the young protagonist picks up an older relative at Zvardnots airport, as they drive past our monuments and landmarks, Arabo professes his yearning for the Homeland. He serenades her about wanting her to beckon him, let him return home.
Why a love song about our abstract desire to be one with the Homeland would haunt me while I stand and live in her bosom has been puzzling me since I heard “Tun Im Hyreni” for the first time a few days ago.
Arabo sings of embracing a place that we collectively long for, a place that’s been bullied, pillaged, burned. He sings of sons enslaved by foreigners, of a nation whose springs have turned to fall. He sings of wanting to wash our ancient cross stones with his tears.
Year after year, something about this mystical place haunts us, lures us. What is the hold it has upon our hearts and minds? When we’re not here, we want to be here. When we are here, we want to run away but find comfort in a song about our longing and about returning home.
This place is just another place after all. Its capital, cities and towns, its hills and forests, its countryside are like other places in our vast world. But decades, centuries pass, and this place summons us back as it has millions of others from all corners of the world.
On the center-most stone tile of Republic Square’s central oval I stood alone last night watching the tricolor fly uninhibited in the wind over the government building. The applause for performers singing the praises of the capital city on its 2795th birthday brought me back to the moment, and I was suddenly surrounded by thousands.
The cool wind blew, and I watched the singers, dancers, the legendary Ararat 73 soccer team, Vegas showgirls and cheerleaders. The theatrics of the show were dazzling and the stage so bright that I was certain it could be seen from Earth’s orbit.
Thousands watched the extravaganza. Kids with balloons. Young people with the tricolor draped over their bodies. Every other face painted with the color of our flag. Girls solo dancing. Boys with arms up over their heads. Some shoulder-to-shoulder, moving in a circle dance. There were infants propped up on their father’s shoulders. Tourists and citizens were taking pictures with their phones. Cranes with TV cameras were beaming the show to homes across the republic and throughout the Diaspora.
People weren’t just standing and watching the stage though; they were crisscrossing the crowds, walking this direction and that, looking at each other, brushing past grandfathers, young mothers, teenagers and visitors.
It was disorder. Restlessness. Much like our nature as Armenians, never being able to sit in one place, never being at peace, never being satisfied. As one and as a whole, we were unruly, fidgety, aimless and chaotic.
Nearby, in front of the stage, the dignitaries, the nation’s leadership and VIP’s were sitting in neat rows of blue chairs behind velvet ropes. Draped in their white shawls and with white scarves around over their black suits, they sat regally, watching, playing to the cameras that surveyed their faces.
Behind them, the crowd was an enigma. Yes, there was dancing. There were smiles. This was a street party. But there was so much free-floating anxiety, indescribable movement, incomprehensible chaos.
Where were these nameless faces going in this tightly-knit crowd, who were they searching for, what were they looking for, what did they need?
It was a party but it wasn’t. We were among thousands, but alone. We were smiling and laughing but worried. In the back of my mind was the amount being spent by donors to realize the big bash.
There were arguments I’d read on social media about how this was all a distraction for the masses living in poverty. But surely others needed this moment in time as much as I needed it.
These dualities and extremes of being an Armenian seem to be both the curse of this place and the blessings of our identity.
We wanted our Homeland. We wanted independence. We wanted nationhood. But collectively we’re depopulating this place that we passionately call our own. We starve each other in the name of capitalism and a free market economy and through monopolies. We continue to disenfranchise and marginalize segments of the citizenry and even alienated our Diaspora.
On the ground we’re a bundle of contradictions; we can’t even look at the mirror. Do we look and mimic Russia or Europe? Do we sign the Customs Union or European Association agreement? Do we embrace democracy or kleptocracy? Are we still in the USSR or independent?
I heard our patriotic songs last night and thought of the embarrassing exchange at the Council of Europe session in Strasbourg last week, when an obnoxious Armenian parliamentarian mocked our own President about his alleged gambling losses and shamed our entire nation in front of Europe and the world. Would you cheer her or jeer? Did she have that right? Did we give her that right?
Who are we? What are we?
Are we a medieval tribe or modern, egalitarian citizens of the world? Do we worship the mafiosos on our primetime soap operas or do we have scientists, writers and artists that we can hold up as role models for future generations?
Why can’t we decide? Why can’t we sit still? Why are we so torn? What are we torn about?
Alone I stood among thousands and wondered about their individual struggles. How many wanted to leave this place that others traveled miles to be a part of? Was the celebration masking internal sorrows? How many young men shared the storyline of the young Syrian I met two weeks ago? He was trying to figure out how to raise five grand to pay so-and-so under-the-table to secure a visa to Europe.
How many of the brunette women walking around in their blonde locks had husbands in Russia, earning a paycheck to keep the family back home eating? How many of these men would soon stop sending money so they could pay for their new Russian wives and their children?
Landmines clutter the borders, but we have massive projects like IT parks, hotels and the construction of a new 70-mile highway to connect the liberated lands of Artsakh through a second major highway.
Political prisoners sit behind bars while murderers go free. Citizens are guilty until they’re proven innocent. Activists get beaten by thugs. Yet, they’re all allotted the freedom to congregate and shout obscenities at a sitting President without fear.
The sudden burst of fireworks above shifted my attention to the sky. The dazzling light show made me smile again, and I realized no matter how harsh our realities were, we were all still fidgety kids at heart. We needed to take a moment, a respite, to celebrate that we have come through so much in our history as a people.
We survived the all-out attempt to exterminate us. We survived the Seljuks, the Mongols and whoever else has ruled, is ruling and will rule. We deserved these fireworks.
This may be just another place, but it is our place. It’s where we feel connected, even if we don’t know why. It’s where we feel at home.
Perhaps the spell of Erebuni-Yerevan is connected to the magnetic vortex of this place or that mountain on the horizon. Or perhaps this is all in our imagination.
Either way, Armenia is still connecting us to one another and to her mystical lands no matter how far we are and how loud we sing our nostalgic songs about returning home to our Hayrenik.
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.
Paul Chaderjian is a broadcast journalist at CivilNet in Yerevan. He has worked at ABC News in New York, at the ABC station in Hawaii and at the NBC, CBS and FOX affiliates in Fresno. He has also hosted the annual Armenia Fund Telethon. He may be reached by email: [email protected]