BY MARIA TITIZIAN
In 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, Dolores Ibarruri Gomez, a Spanish communist delivered her famous speech entitled, No Pasarán, which means “They shall not pass.” It was first used 20 years earlier, in 1916 by French General Robert Nivelle as a battle call (“Ils ne passeront pas”) to his troops at the infamous Battle of Verdun during the First World War. The Battle of Verdun was fought between the Germans and the French near Verdun-sur-Meuse in France. It was one of the longest and costliest battles in human history. No Pasarán has come to be used as a rallying cry to defend a position against an enemy.
About a year ago I wrote about a rally I attended in Liberty Square following the presidential elections in Armenia. We were full of elation, transcendent hope, joy and anticipation that something was going to change. Nothing did. It seemed everything got more complicated, harder, and more difficult to swallow.
This past weekend, I attended yet another rally in Liberty Square. This time it was to join thousands of other Armenians to protest the implementation of a controversial mandatory pension system that went into effect on January 1 despite much public resistance. The four opposition factions in parliament applied to the Constitutional Court asking it to determine the constitutionality of the new legislation that was passed by the ruling coalition in the National Assembly. The Court will hand down its verdict on January 25.
The protest was one of the largest rallies in Yerevan in the past year. It brought together not only the opposition parties but different civic initiatives including Dem.Am, one of the most vocal and well-organized campaigns to blossom in Armenia in a long-time. As I was weaving my way through the massive crowds to get to my usual spot in the square, I saw a young man holding up a sign that read No Pasarán… and as always, it got me thinking.
Being eternally optimistic requires as much energy as being pessimistic. The dual worlds of positive anticipation and cynicism are forever battling one another and have taken up permanent residence in my head without much hope of leaving anytime soon. I have contradicted my real self, slipped up and verbalized my anger and deep frustration; I have developed an uncharacteristic almost-hatred of certain kinds of people – I didn’t know I had the capacity to almost-hate, it turns out I sometimes do. Even all the religious instruction my mother desperately tried to instill in us by sending us to Sunday school, enrolling us in Catholic schools, making us go to church on Sundays didn’t quite stick as much as she would have wanted. I have difficulty turning the other cheek these days.
And then there are the negative people around me who like to rain on my parade, who have an counter-argument for every argument I postulate that things can change and will change, who say it’s a sign of my naiveté when I believe in the power of the people.
This has been an excruciatingly difficult week. I lost yet another friend, Aram Gharabekian too soon, a friend who still had so much of his talent to reveal to the nation and to the world; we were living, breathing and preparing stories about Hrant Dink’s life, a life we tried desperately to pay tribute to and one that was brutally cut down seven years ago on an ordinary day in January in the heart of Istanbul; a young Armenian conscript, 20 year-old Armen Hovhannisyan was killed on the Line of Contact in Nagorno Karabakh valiantly fighting off an attempted Azerbaijani infiltration on the Line of Contact with Azerbaijan in the early morning hours of January 20 even after being mortally wounded; images of tens of thousands of Ukrainians protesting in Kiev, burning buses and violently clashing with riot police were being livestreamed and televised over and over; passages from American civil rights leader and defender Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech at the March of Washington just over 50 years ago were being remembered and honored and shared; and to top it all off, I met with young repats who are trying to manage feelings of joy and guilt and yearning and confusion, only further compounding my own confused feelings about living here. And in the depths of all that pain and sorrow and questioning, there was the pension protest with the young man who held a solitary sign that read No Pasarán. My brain can’t begin to process all this traffic
People started sharing the No Pasarán photo, and I began to wonder if all those sharing that image knew its origins, knew its meaning… did it have a particular significance here in Armenia? Was it about physical confrontation or armed struggle or defending ones position against an enemy? Who is the real enemy? Conditions have gotten so desperate that people are calling for radical measures, for revenge and retribution. These are murky waters that we’re floating in. We need to press the reset button, we need to understand that radical measures may be effective in the short-term but we need logical, cohesive and impactful solutions. The spirit of No Pasarán must transcend and transform into a collective pan-Armenian slogan, a battle cry that defends its position against all those actors and actions, domestic and foreign that threaten the Republic of Armenia and Armenians.
Yes, we will not let them pass, they shall not pass, No Pasarán!