BY MARIA TITIZIAN
Springtime in Yerevan is my favorite season. As the city crawls its way out of winter, spring reveals itself with such grace and splendor in our city. The trees bloom and flower, then turn a rich green before the dry heat of summer pales their hue, the air is fresh and clear, Mount Ararat comes out of hiding and there’s a lightness that can be felt both physically and spiritually.
Taking advantage of the weather, I decided to walk to work a few days ago. I estimated it would take me about 40 minutes to walk from my apartment in Monument (by Mother Armenia) to Republic Square. Taking into consideration my advancing age and the fact that I hadn’t exercised in years, I thought it was about time I started to take care of myself. So I got up early, took a shower, had a boiled egg and a coffee and very happily started walking down my street, extremely proud of myself.
A few minutes into my walk a taxi pulled over with a group of men and stopped in front of me. Startled, I looked over and saw that the driver was staring at me. At this point, I was kind of speechless wondering what the heck was going on. All of a sudden, the passenger in the front seat bent over and yelled out, “Hi, Mom!” It was my son, Daron with his cousin and friend sitting in the back. A few weeks ago, my son decided to experience living on his own and moved in with his cousin, Varant who is here for a year working. I was still speechless at this interruption of my walk when Daron said, “Mom, wait for us, we’re just going to drop off Zareh (the friend) at his grandfather’s house and we’ll swing around and take you to work.” I told him thanks for the offer, but I would continue walking. They proceed, I proceed. I began pondering the benefits and drawbacks of living in a small city. As I was about to turn onto the main street to start my trek toward Cascade, which has stairs leading to the city center, the same taxi, with the same group minus one pulled over again. This time both Daron and Varant got out of the car, gave me a kiss and dragged me into the taxi. Daron said, “Mom, really? Walk to work from Northern Avenue; that will be your exercise for today.”
Needless to say, I reluctantly got into the taxi because it was now blocking traffic and drove down to Northern Avenue, and ended up paying for the cab fare. I walked but only for about 10 minutes, so much for my early morning exercise.
Several days passed since that mis-adventure, so this morning, with even greater resolve and determination, I did manage to walk to work, although it took me just over 50 minutes to reach my office.
The walk afforded me the opportunity to see things I would normally have missed while driving, like the beautiful trees that line Azatutyun Street with Mount Ararat in the distance, or the sculptures at the top of the Cascade, or the palatial home that is purportedly Hovik Abrahamyan’s (Speaker of the National Assembly, member of the Republican Party) which is the almost exact replica of the parliament building itself.
After walking down the stairs of the Cascade complex and reaching the Cafesjian gardens, I saw men and women busily working planting new flowers and cutting the grass, the smell of which reminded me of our neighborhood in Toronto when on Saturday mornings people would be out in their yards cutting the grass and tending to their gardens. It was a feeling of familiarity that was both nostalgic and pleasant.
As I continued walking through Opera Square I thought how blessed I was to be here in the land of my ancestors, which in turn reminded me of the conference in LA, “Independence and Beyond: In Search of a New Armenian Diaspora, Post 1991” I had watched being livestreamed two days earlier. The event was organized by the Central Committee of the ARF Western Region and the USC Armenian Studies Institute. I had managed to watch most of the presentations, albeit with some skipping ahead, but the questions being asked not only about a new vision or framework for the Diaspora in the future but also questions of homeland, identity and belonging had made me wonder.
As I continued walking, I pondered those questions of the mythical homeland or the “step-homeland” a term, which Dr. Sosi Kasparian from the University of Lancaster had referred to in her speech, “Return to Homeland, Challenging Concepts and Realities.” I listened to one presenter after the next posing critical questions rooted in our history and of the essence of Diaspora, language, literature and identity. As a Diasporan Armenian who had repatriated, burning all her bridges in the process, I too began thinking about the reasons why we moved if this was simply our “step-homeland.” While this particular homeland, the Republic of Armenia was not the actual homeland of my ancestors from Cilicia, I hadn’t questioned that reality. For me the equation was very simple – our people had not had a homeland for centuries, with the exception of the short-lived First Republic (1918-1920), present-day Armenia was not the land or the soil my ancestors had tilled but it was for all intents and purposes our homeland. The narratives of Western Armenia or the metanarratives that Dr. Stepan Astourian had referred to in his presentation at the same conference that made up the Diaspora, the one created post-Genocide, had been kept alive for several generations and had contributed to some sort of cohesiveness in a growingly diversified Diaspora.
I am not a scholar or an academic. My education, training and life experiences have not given me the tools or the time to delve deeply into these very difficult areas of defining identity, of Diasporas, of history. Something that Dr. Khachig Tololyan of Wesleyan University who was moderating the panel, “[Re] Defining Diaspora and Nationalism,” said regarding the definition of Diaspora got me thinking. He asked who defines the social forms, the people who live in the social form or the intellectuals and scholars who study them? While many Armenian scholars in the West study Diaspora, identity, return to the homeland, we the Diasporans who repatriated didn’t ask many of the questions that were being raised at the conference. And most of us are here engaging in a way that might not have any significant impact or any impact at all, but we certainly know how to differentiate the ruling regime from the state or the homeland itself.
As Dr. Astourian duly noted most Armenians in the Diaspora (and the homeland) are disillusioned with the state. In his remarks he said that Diasporans don’t trust the “state” because of a lack of legitimacy and any attempt by the state to interfere in Diaspora affairs is perceived as unacceptable. Successive regimes have indeed failed to deliver their promises of a brighter future, I consistently write about those missteps and lost opportunities, however the regime for me does not define the homeland.
There is no doubt that this conference was an extremely important and timely one. It was important because it got those who participated and the rest of us who watched it from Armenia to begin thinking about those national issues which will impact the future of both the homeland and the Diaspora. If we all agreed with everything that was being said then the event would not have achieved its objective of stimulating a new national discourse and therefore, I can comfortably say, I didn’t agree with some of the positions and was even slightly taken aback with others, i.e. “The future, I am glad to report belongs to the Diaspora.” Well, that’s very good for everyone in the Diaspora, but without the homeland, how long can the metanarratives of Kharpert and Mush and Urfa be sustained?
In the coming weeks and months, I hope there will be more discussion and debate about some of the presentations and perhaps even some humble perspectives – a view from Armenia if you like – to the broad spectrum of opinions expressed there (I was not the only person following the livestream from Yerevan). I also hope the organizers of this initiative would consider sponsoring a similar conference in Armenia in collaboration not with state bodies that are obviously so mistrusted but perhaps with a university or an independent foundation/ think tank from Yerevan. Such an endeavor would serve several purposes but the immediate two that come to mind are that we begin to initiate this dialogue here, with participants from both Armenia and the Diaspora, and by doing so would not only be building bridges of mutual understanding but would also be enabling and encouraging civil society organizations in the country that are in great need of support. For me, both the Diaspora and the homeland are inextricably linked to one another, we need each other and although the current ruling regime might not seem conducive to meaningful engagement with the Diaspora (their objective is to use the Diaspora and if possible dominate it), the perimeters of which were set during the Levon Ter Petrosian era and as there is no serious reflection of the concept of statehood in the Diaspora, as Dr. Stepan Astourian noted in his presentation at the conference, these kinds of discussions are crucial to our future survival and empowerment.
Maybe I should stop walking early in the mornings…