BY PAUL CHADERJIAN
Once there were and there were not …
You’re belted into seat 38C on Air New Zealand flight 2 from LAX to London Heathrow, and this 10-hour flight is only the second leg of a four-legged journey from Central California to the ancient monastery of Tatev in Southern Armenia.
Hundreds of others are on the same Atlantic-crossing path as you, but three people you will meet on this journey will explain that your people’s experience is one part of a looping cycle.
Some have traveled on your path hundreds of years ago. Others are on the same path as you now. While others will travel it hundreds of years later morphing and reincarnating to and from mindsets like nationalism, pragmatism, idealism, and globalism.
Falling out of his seat in 38B is Jack, the first traveler you will meet. This New Zealand native of European descent is a physically massive probate court sheriff on his way to follow the 97th annual Tour de France.
This 60-plus-year-old soul has already been sitting in the same seat for 12 hours on his way from Wellington to Los Angeles, and now he has another 10 hours to go to London. He’s going to see the sites, drink a lot of gin, and pass his holidays watching the biggest cycling race of the year.
Jack is sitting in a chair into which he can’t fit. His arms are over the arm rests on both his sides and his legs are uncomfortably contorted. He is traveling with his friend Howard, and they try to keep themselves busy with card games, in-flight movies, and reading.
On his mind are good things, happy things: his vacation plans, getting more liquor from the stewardess, his four children from two different wives, and their successes.
The only gripe Jack has are the Maori – the indigenous Polynesian natives. In the 19th century, the Maori lost 95% of their lands to Europeans. Now, Jack says, the Maori are taking over “the system” and demanding real estate and compensation for their losses.
Jack is both upset and worried about how much more his government will give to appease the Maori. He wonders how much of his good life and livelihood, how much of his children’s future are at stake now that the growing Maori population is voting for its rights and using the legal system to reclaim its lost lands.
In a matter of 200 years the Maori have gone from being beaten down and enslaved by imperialists to being paid nearly $700 million and given nine large forests by the Europeans’ progeny.
Flash forward 24 hours, and you’re strapped into seat 16D on a BMI flight to Yerevan. In 16E is an Armenia-native, a successful scientist returning home from a business meeting with his bosses in the US.
Arman’s world and his spirit seem crushed and defeated compared to Jack’s thirst for life, for gin, and for a good time watching the Tour de France.
What is the meaning of life, Arman ponders. You wonder if he suffers from that thinking too much disease many Armenians share.
Arman doesn’t mention sports. He doesn’t mention reading for pleasure or movies he has watched. He doesn’t mention the successes of his children. But he talks about his upbringing in the Soviet Era, when God and spirituality were absent and generations were left to wonder what to believe in.
Arman speaks about the waves of other people who have ruled our Homeland. He is like the Maori, beaten down, enslaved, his people massacred, imprisoned, but now suddenly living in what Arman dubs “a supposedly independent homeland.” He has nowhere to go to reclaim his land or his lost wealth. There is no compensation for his people’s losses.
Independence, for this Armenian scientist, means nothing.
Arman speaks of how the ruling elite have changed their names but not their ways. He speaks of the corruption in his country and the masses being enslaved to a small class of those who rule the banks and create wars to fuel their economies.
Arman’s bleak view of the world doesn’t end at the borders of Armenia. He goes on to recount conspiracy theories of how President Obama had promised change but was told what to do by the Illuminati – those holding the power in our new world order.
The father of two believes the ruling elite dictated that Mr. Obama continue the two wars to ensure Americans remained fooled, well-fed, unaware and enslaved. The Illuminati, he says, had ordered the bank bailouts and created financial crisis to continue their rein on the masses.
This scientist talks with regret at not having taken the chance to emigrate to the US ten years ago. He says the only place that one can live well is the US. He then complains about the inability of an average Armenian businessman to establish a profitable business without someone coming around and “putting their paws” on the business.
Though Arman’s musings help you pass the five hour flight faster, he finishes by saying he doesn’t get a chance to think about these philosophical issues or find meaning in his mechanized existence because he spends endless hours at work.
After work are responsibilities around the house, the pressures of finding tutors for his children, who will not have a fair shot in college because of the changes in the education system. He blames the Americans for changing Armenian educational standards, pining for the days students were able to score perfect grades, when parents could come to an understanding with their children’s teachers so that the children would be welcomed at any university.
Compared to your fellow victimized (self-victimizing?) Armenian, the New Zealander – who has never heard of Armenia or Armenians – seems to inhabit a different, happy-go-lucky, at-ease and at-peace world. He’s had a good life but is concerned his progeny may lose their real estate and the lot he’s enjoyed in his 60 years.
The Maori, the Armenian, and the New Zealander. On different paths, yet on the tail ends or beginnings of the same cycle.
One’s forefathers enslaved a people and took their land. Another’s forefathers were kings who ruled from sea-to-sea then were imprisoned under foreign rulers for centuries. Real estate, freedom, securing the well-being and comfort of their children – both men’s common aspirations.
Others’ aspirations for a better world are on the TV screens of the posh business lounge Levon Travel has given you access to during your layover. The lounge with ample complimentary food and drinks, showers, chaises longues, is a haven from the crowded waiting areas and insight into how the other half travel the world.
While some of the affluent travelers in the lounge watch the final game of the World Cup, you watch images of thousands of activists on the streets of Toronto.
Activists chant and clash with police on the occasion of the G20 Summit, protesting how world governments, they say, victimize the Maori, the Armenians, the Jacks and Armans.
They want world governments to take care of the masses. They want world government to stop disregarding nature and Mother Earth, and to stop exploiting the exploitable.
Activists also want people, like you, to stop supporting governments and corporations who are committing ecocides and genocides. They say ecocide and genocide are not the economic benefits the world wants or needs in the 21st century.
Oblivious to the images from Toronto are thousands who pile through the BMI lounge. Random individuals engage in important conversations on their cell phones, exchange e-mails, and text people far away.
American military men with their young foreign wives gulp big frosted mugs of foreign beers. Families from places like Oman and Beirut speak loudly over their burgers and fries.
A group of American Jews call attention to themselves because they are arguing. They have embraced their identity, given up the comforts of the West, and they are returning from a visit to the US to enjoy their new home in the ancient lands where their history began thousands of years ago.
Business people with laptops and iPads, retired couples, a girls soccer team donning red t-shirts pilfer through the food, pack bananas and bags of chips into their bags for later.
You strike up a conversation with a young man playing with his iPad. His name is Hayes, and he’s a UK-native. He can’t be more than 25 but is a vice president with one of the most prominent financial services corporations. He’s traveling from Tokyo – where he is posted – to Milan to ski for two weeks.
He speaks of selling derivatives, graduating from Cambridge, working in New York, Hong Kong, and now Tokyo. He speaks of the efficiencies of Hong Kong rails, electronic finger-print-reading immigration checkpoints at Far Eastern airports, his attempt to study Japanese to be able to order food, and how he spends most of his weekends traveling away from Tokyo.
You ask him why he’s always going away from wherever he is, always running away from Tokyo on weekends, and deciding to stay at the airport for 11 hours instead of visiting his folks, family and friends in London. He says schedules didn’t match up, and he doesn’t want to take a 45-minute train into London. When he’s in Tokyo, he says, he can’t relate to other Brit ex-pats there. They’re only in Tokyo for the Japanese girls, he says.
A stranger walks up to him and asks how he is doing. He doesn’t remember her until she says she was his older sister’s best friend in college. She jogs his memory, but Hayes’ mind has moved on. He has met new people. He has erased the past.
Hayes is not a citizen of one place or of one time. He’s a citizen of the new world – a place where corporations and for-profit organizations are the new nations, where real estate is beyond borders and only another commodity. Hayes is a citizen of the here and now.
He and his peers have mastered their personal and national histories and the game of numbers. Their only rules are to make more money, appease shareholders, and have more money to buy more toys and travel.
Hayes speaks about posh airport business lounges, comparing the BMI lounge to the spas at the Virgin Atlantic lounge at Heathrow. He talks about the rigidity of the Japanese, who insist on taking a lunch break before going home at the end of an 11-hour overtime shift and their inability to change their disciplined ways.
He talks about his toys, the iPad, the iPod, the wireless cards, the ski trips, and the Skype calls he makes to get updates about his sister’s newborn baby.
He doesn’t worry about whether children will be enslaved or be forced to deal with education systems that are unfair. He doesn’t worry about corruption or paws that may find their way over small-time businesses. He knows big business, travel, affluence, and he speaks the language of a globalized world.
For him there are no geographic borders, no notions of nations or nationality. From his perspective, Arman’s and Jack’s worries about land, nations, border wars, cultures and rigid attachments to how things have been done are futile.
Hayes’ world is a place where in order to survive the present, one has to let go of the past, its ways and its values. He takes the best, the tried and true from all the places he has worked, lived, and experienced to build a new future. His fluidity is his success; his agility is the way of the future.
He is borderless, boundless, and he wants to know where you are going and why.
You tell him about Tatev, a thousand-year-old monastery southeast of Yerevan that has beckoned you. This is one of those iconic and spiritual places, you tell him, that anchors your identity, your personal history, and your sense of who you are in this vast and populous planet.
You tell him you will travel to this ancient and holy place to tell your people living in the Armenian Diaspora about plans to renovate and revitalize this place. You tell him about a public and private partnership that will build the world’s longest aerial tramway to make travel to the monastery more accessible for tourists.
Hayes doesn’t react. Perhaps he can’t relate. Perhaps he will relate someday. Perhaps his ancestors related to your attachment to culture and history but your own grandchildren won’t. Perhaps history and monasteries are irrelevant to some on one portion of this continuous cycle of civilization.
All of us are on one portion of this big cycle that has no end, no beginning and doesn’t keep track of time.
When he has to board his plane, he wishes you a safe trip, and you exchange e-mails via your Blackberries so that you can keep in touch.
While the Maori stand up for their rights, Jack cheers the cyclist with the yellow jersey, anti-globalists strike up against world powers in Toronto, and Arman grapples with god and his want to emigrate from post-Soviet Armenia. Hayes skis effortlessly down magical mountain slopes near Milan, and you continue your journey to Tatev.
You are certain that in this reincarnation of your people, your collective rebirth will mean a renaissance of the cultural legacies lost when others took command of your nation and history, when the sons and daughters of Armenia went far away to earn a living, and when they didn’t stay true to their roots and Christian values.
Tatev will be your anchor, your people’s anchor, and a landmark to ground all Armenians wherever they may be in along the cycle that leads to the fighting, forced loss, and regaining of identity.
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.