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Cheq Zzvel?

Taxicabs are tabloids on wheels. Their drivers will tell you all sorts of stories, some true, some not. Yerevan’s taxi drivers aren’t as talkative as the ones in New York or pretty much anywhere else I’ve encountered them. They don’t seem to care much where you come from, only where you’re going. And if you’re not a local, you may be inclined, by fear or interest, to attentively watch the road as your vessel comes painfully close to running over several people during the length of your trip instead of striking up a conversation. But, like any taxi, if they talk, the information you glean, if true, can be a window to the society of which they are the transporters.

Taxi in Yerevan's Republic Square. Credit: Vigen Hakhverdyan
Taxi in Yerevan’s Republic Square. Credit: Vigen Hakhverdyan

Alas, we happened upon a jolly-looking-though-not-so-jolly young fella who, as soon as we sat in the car, started musing angrily about the people walking up and down Northern Avenue on a warm evening rather than spending their time in a park surrounded by trees and wildlife. I recently spent two weeks exploring wilderness throughout California; there wasn’t much question which side of that question I ended up on. We made a connection so now we had to talk – otherwise it’d be too awkward – so we did.

He must have noticed from my accent that I’m not from Yerevan, which isn’t hard to do. He asked me how long it had been since we’d come to Yerevan and I responded by saying, “one week.” He didn’t even flinch, immediately following up with, «դեր չեք զզվե՞լ» (“aren’t you disgusted, yet?”). It was a suggested eventuality in the form of a question. I wasn’t sure how to respond except by honestly saying that I wasn’t yet disgusted but sarcastically gave him the opportunity to tell us what was disgusting so we could become disgusted, too. He sounded off his laundry list of problems that I’d heard a thousand times. Nothing is ever new – except he was younger than the others, maybe in his 30s. I was hopeful that he was an exception, that he was the fake tabloid story. I didn’t have high hopes but I kept an open mind.

A few days later, I was speaking with a younger man, probably in his late 20s. We were doing some work together so he asked me what I was doing in Armenia and I told him that this trip was for a project but that it’d please me to move here in the future. He quipped back with the most common of the anti-Armenia retorts: «Երկիրը երկիր չի» (literally, “the country is not a country”, i.e. the country is a worthless shithole that doesn’t deserve to be lived in by anybody who has half a brain) accompanied by him emphatically telling me not to move.

If a tabloid story could be considered a thesis, it would need to be validated by a few different sources before taking it seriously. I had one corroboration that Armenia was better off dead. Another taxi ride later, I might have been convinced.

Seated for a long car ride in another taxi, just barely beyond urban Yerevan, the complaints started flowing with unhindered fury. Everything from how much Kirk Kerkorian never wants to have anything more to do with Armenia to the condition of the roads to how villagers weren’t picking all their apricots thus letting them go to waste.

It’s a national pastime, really, complaining. I’m not at all surprised so many people want to leave. If I had to listen to that my whole life, I can’t imagine I would think that living anywhere, possibly even a dog shelter, was better than Armenia.

Thesis confirmed. Mass disdain, dismissal, disgust.

But I won’t accept it. The results are not final.

I had given that first taxi driver a tip when paying him, which he thought was a mistake and commendably pointed out. I told him it wasn’t a mistake. What I didn’t tell him was that I was sure that he would eventually find a way out and that I was especially pleased that I had contributed to him leaving by giving him that extra 100 drams so he could abandon this place he disdained so much.

He, or any of the people I have met, could have talked about better things. There are great things going on, too: Ayb High School, Luys Foundation, AYF Youth Corps, Civilnet, Green Bean, urbanlabEVN, Tumo Center for Creative Technologies, Dilijan International School of Armenia, Gyumri Information Technologies Center, ONEArmenia. And a plethora of others. If not talk about these things, perhaps the scenery, or the food, or that hundreds of children can run around soaking random people with water throughout the country, unattended by their parents, with nary a worry about their safety. We can talk about these things but we choose to focus on self-pity instead.

Young people who are supposed to compose the vivacious, sprightly, hopeful core of any country are repeating the same tired aphorisms of their parents. After many years of reflecting on this malaise, there is not one thing that I can point to that I consider valid: not that there are no jobs, not that the government is corrupt, not that the prices have gone up, not that the trash is not being collected. These problems aren’t exclusive to Armenia, it’s just that Armenians think that they are. What’s more, there is no interest by most in solving the problems. Somehow, invariably, the onus is always upon somebody else to figure things out and make them better. If that doesn’t happen, time to head for the hills (of Glendale).

Fact is, in Glendale, and whatever other place refugees (because that’s what people who leave a place they no longer feel at home are called) from Armenia settle outside of Armenia, this mentality hardly changes. The complaints remain. The nuclear physicist lamenting that he’s driving a taxi in Yerevan will be doing the same lamenting in Santa Monica except to someone who has a harder time understanding him.

America wasn’t perfect. People did shit. When there were no jobs, they created them. When the government was corrupt (I only wrote that in the past tense for effect), they organized and demanded accountability. When the prices went up, they toughed it out (side note: inflation is a well-known concept in this thing called economics and every time that the prices go up in Armenia, it’s not a governmental conspiracy, it might just happen, you know, just like that. That’s why I can’t buy a Double-Double for 50 cents as portrayed in those goddamn posters they have at every In-N-Out surely put there to mock you). When the trash wasn’t picked up, they threw it in the Hudson River and thus created the largest landfill in human history and called it New Jersey – and they even started living on it!

I’m only using America’s example because that’s the one with which I’m most familiar. But there are others. When English people realized how much England sucked, they didn’t relocate to Spain (although they decided to lay claim to a rock named Gibraltar just to piss them off), they conquered most of the world so they could create the most important city on earth and vacation in exotic places like India, Kenya, and the Americas without having to get a visa. When the Japanese realized they were living on a rocky strip of land that was useless in every way a normal country would need to operate, they started inventing things like samurai, Toyota, and sushi and are now able to buy whatever they want. Even Canadians, who long ago had to helplessly reconcile being an American territory, somehow resist the urge to join the mainland and keep working on being the most socialist state of the Union.

There is surely someone reading this and thinking that it’s so easy for me, a Diasporan, to so freely criticize the decisions of these suffering people from my comfortable Diasporan life (lol). First, I’m commentating on this as an interested party. That is, I live in Glendale and that is where at least 50% of emigrants from Armenia end up so I definitely have a chicken in this fight. Second, I’m commenting as an observer and a student of politics, history, and societies. Armenians need to realize that their problems are not unique and they are not the worst in the world and that if they’re going to leave Armenia en masse, they should be honest about the real reason they are doing so: they do not love the country. Until they’re in Glendale, of course, which is when the bitching starts about America and reminiscing starts about the wonderfulness of Garabi Leech, Opera, and Cascade. Which is kind of like belittling and cursing your spouse until you get a divorce then, when you’re with your new partner, extolling your ex’s virtues.

Let’s put it all out on the table: when one loves something (a nation, perhaps) or someone, they commit to them, come hell or high water, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, till death does them part. If hell, sickness, and poverty dissuade you from your love, then it wasn’t love to begin with and it’s not love once you leave and profess it.

I hate to air dirty laundry but this is one of those things. Our nation has been overcome by naysayers and it needs to stop. The eternally depressed and depressing don’t get a pass because they think their life (and I guess no one else’s) blows a fat one.

The people who live here in Armenia who are working so hard to make this place better should not have to be subjected to the incessant morass of the depressed masses. Their work is already difficult. The young people who are optimistic about their country shouldn’t have their beliefs tested by the half-witted uninterested at such a young age. These people have to deal with unemployment, corruption, rising prices, sporadic trash cleanup. The last thing they need is someone telling them all the things that are going wrong in the country. After all, they must know – they are the ones trying to make it better.

Instead of asking if we are yet disgusted of this country, let’s ask another question: Բողոքելո՛ւց դեռ չեք զզվե՞լ:

By: William Bairamian

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  1. Patrick Patrick Jul 8, 2013

    When you wrote: ” The people who live here in Armenia who are working so hard to make this place better should not have to be subjected to the incessant morass of the depressed masses.” Spot on!

  2. king paul king paul Jul 8, 2013

    Will, really enjoying these posts! Keep them coming man. Need to journey to armenia soon. You’re making me miss it!

  3. Narek Dshkhunyan Narek Dshkhunyan Jul 9, 2013

    William jan. Though I generally agree with you, you fall in the same trap as all Diaspora Armenians. Why do you think that those people just complain and subsequently leave their country without even trying to change it? Trust me, every single of those refugees has spent their lives struggling against unbearable conditions that most Americans see only in movies, yet they survived and raised kids. At some point though, people just give up. Yes, they love their nation, they are proud of their Armenianness, but they just can’t fight anymore: people are tired of surviving, they eventually want to LIVE!

    Unfortunately, even those “great things” you mentioned are not going to change anything – this country needs serious industry and jobs, not fancy schools and foundations. As to your historical examples, we had protests in 2008 and 2013 in which up to 20% of the country’s population raised up ready to destroy all evil on its way, but you know what happened. These are people who witnessed a devastating war just two decades ago, and they are not willing to start a new – a civil – one. And prices don’t go up due to inflation, but because some people want bigger villas, and every newborn in Armenian knows that.

    Understand, Armenians are no different that any other nation in the world. There is nothing unique about our complaining skills or lack of enthusiasm. Everyone who complains has right to do so, since he/she struggled prior to that. You are completely correct – complaining won’t lead us anywhere, but our Diasporan brothers and sisters need to abandon their philosophical attitude towards this country’s problems and understand that we are in a deep shit, and we desperately need help to get out of it.

    Armenia is not an orphanage. Armenian is a struggling country which needs investments. It needs passionate people who will be willing to move their businesses to Armenia regardless of all obstacles and produce jobs. And I mean serious businesses – i.e. industry, not stupid start-ups. And you will see how quickly society’s mood will change, and how tied people will become to this sacred land.

    Cheers bro. Hope to see you in Yerevan!

    • jon alexanian jon alexanian Jul 14, 2013

      One of the best things Armenia can offer is a high quality education so that foreign investment at the very least can say “there is a highly educated population here, perhaps we can cut cost and outsource some of our tech or industry there” which will help bring new money into the country and help people get out of poverty.

      I personally think there’s a tremendous opportunity for the nation of Armenia to become a financial center for the Caucasus region as well as a place where the tech industry can grow. But Armenia needs to get its things in order for this to happen.

      Its very easy to convince an investor to put their money in a place that will make them wealthier, that’s not going to be a problem. Armenia is not an unknown place. There are reasons why money isn’t pouring in yet. We are basically in bad relations with 3 of the 4 neighboring nations and the 4th is Iran. There are political roadblocks that no foreign business investment can solve. Think about this from an investors standpoint…would you feel safe putting your money in a country that is in a cease fire with one neighbor while the neighbor on the other side is a geographic superpower that has shut its boarder off….and on top of that the only neighbor that’s an ally is hated by nearly all western nations?

      Even corruption isn’t actually that big of an roadblock for investors that can find financial gain. Its more so the political risks. Look at India, its extremely corrupt yet sees tremendous economic growth year after year. Same with Vietnam. The bigger fear is that Armenia will get crushed by Turkey or there might be another war with Azerbaijan. While the Diaspora absolutely has influence in what goes on in Armenia, ultimately its going to have to be the Armenian government and its people within the nation that make the hard choices of what will be done going forward. Heavy lies the crown indeed which is why perhaps people find it easier to leave/never move back rather than continue to fight for the right things. Armenia needs to address the tough political issues and it will thrive.

    • The one who run out of ANY choices and had to leave along with her extended family AFTER the mut u curt The one who run out of ANY choices and had to leave along with her extended family AFTER the mut u curt Aug 20, 2013

      Thanks, Narek. The author thinks he’s got it all figured out, just as so many fresh-in-Armenia diasporans. He needs to listen to what the majority of the people say and that majority is hard working, honest and committed to their families and country. Armenians aren’t keen on politesse as much as straightforward honesty. They speak things exactly as they have in their mind. And everyone fails seeing the value in that rare quality. I’d advise him to listen and learn and not jump into generalised conclusions. And those “great” things he declares are reserved to a very limited number of people in the country, people aren’t getting any benefits. And where one dares to compare today’s Armenia with today’s Glendale, one ought to understand that today’s Armenian – when it comes to welfare services, medical services, education, employment and quality of life – draws comparison not to a far away land but to its own very recent past as a Soviet Republic. And as hard as it is for a typical US citizen to try to realise, Glendale would sell its collective soul to try and reach at least to that standard.

  4. Arlet Arlet Jul 9, 2013

    My Dad has a rule: complaints must be accompanied with a viable alternative/solution. It was a good rule when we were trying to pick a move for family night and it’s a good rule now. As cliche as it is, I believe if you’re not a part of the solution you’re part of the problem.
    Raffi Hovannisian said “statehood is a responsibility.” Whether you agree with his politics or not, that is a very true statement. It’s as though all of the labor pains that were endured to birth an independent Republic of Armenia have been forgotten. It’s a pity. And while, as diaspora Armenians, we’re not there living in the day-to-day struggles to establish a better Armenia, I do believe that many of us work tirelessly toward that goal even from across the globe. It is tough, but we should not give up on that goal because I know that there are many Armenians living in and out of Armenia who love their country.

  5. Jirair Garabedian Jirair Garabedian Jul 10, 2013

    This really needs to be translated into eastern armenian.

  6. Phoenix Angelfire Phoenix Angelfire Jun 7, 2014

    so very easy to criticize the misery of those who have lived in abominable conditions.. The situation of Armenia is extremely different than that of the life of a Spiruk Hay and part time tourist. While I agree that a balance between constructive criticism and constructive action would be a worthy effort. The government of Armenia is locked in a time warp from which it cannot break free. Comparing Armenia with other states such as the US (with its vast resources and access to two oceans) is ludicrous. What could somebody from California know about poverty and suffering such as that experienced in Armenia. By the way, I am originally from New York and while I love Armenia I am not blind to her woes nor do I over simplify the burden her people face as you have done here.

  7. Phoenix Angelfire Phoenix Angelfire Jun 7, 2014

    P.S. no hard feelings mate, I just think you are overly harsh on those who have toiled and laboured their entire existence to improve their conditions without seeing real change and improvement. Respectfully I agree to disagree with your position.

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