BY ALEX SARDAR
I swim. I swim every day or at least try to keep to a daily schedule, and when people ask me if I get bored doing a few dozen laps in the pool, I get into the gadgetry that, shall we say, enhances my solitude in the pool. It works–it keeps me going back! Even with the iPod and underwater headphones, though, the whole process is very repetitive and at times tedious, except for this one moment, every few strokes under water when I’m levitating just below the surface, looking up through fogged up goggles and feeling elation as I near that breaking point between water and air—that thin line that to some extent separates life and death for the gill-less—and when the florescent light of the high ceilings breaks through the clear water reflecting the light blue hue of the pool tiling, a short instance, over and over again, when I can think clearly and come up with really good ideas—a distinct brand of euphoria, if you will.
That brief nexus of lucidity and hope has in many ways been an important lease on reality, because just as the body is pumping adrenaline as a result of the exercise it receives, the sense of purpose of making it to a source of oxygen extends beyond the swimming pool.
Back in the pool, a few weeks ago, I had a particularly determined session, and I knew that my energy was a mix of anger, frustration at time lost and history lamented—and it all came from the responses that I had read earlier in the day to a column penned by Maria Titizian in this publication, on ethnic Armenians from all over the world who have been able to make Armenia home for a while or for a long time. Ms. Titizian’s basic premise was that there was a new paradigm emerging to engage with Armenia, should one care to do so, but that in order for it to mean anything, it required greater momentum; her words were a call for ‘all hands on deck’, so to speak. Maria and I are friends, and aside from the public discussion taking place, there was actually a slightly more private conversation going on among a few friends here in Yerevan, recapping the myriad comments left on her column. So, that day in the pool I realized that almost a decade on, and for some much more than that, the discussion of why, whether, how, when to come to Armenia and be a part of the building of a country—the new manifestation of a 3000-year history–was still dominated by the very bland perspectives of yesteryear, when people actually had to rely on an either/or proposition or touted a love it or leave it formula. This pan-national conversation, a friend brilliantly pointed out, had not yet graduated to a ‘love it and support it, hate it and work with it’ corollary. And my own comment to that column, a knee-jerk reaction in defending my own choices and berating someone else’s opinion, was perhaps most frustrating to me.
So, as I came up for air that day I decided to write this column to tell you about why I really have decided that the last eight years of my life living and working in Armenia have been most meaningful—something I know makes me fortunate to have had the opportunity to undertake.
When my alarm goes off every morning—most mornings at 5:30 a.m.—the only reason I am able to withstand the zero-dark-hours sluggishness, is because there is an ‘it’ propelling me like a jet engine out of bed. On most days the ‘it’ is not my crisp and clear view of Mount Ararat or the freshly washed streets of Yerevan every morning, because the view becomes hazy most mid-days, and the fresh feel of wet pathways gives away to dust and stench, so those things are momentary; ‘it’ also is not the elusive sense of being on land that is mine, or a place that I was destined to come back to, because truth be told I was never from here to begin with and I don’t like owning real estate.
Most often the ‘it’ or rather ‘them’ are people, specific people. They are the individuals with whom I have spent most of my time in the last few years. They’re my coworkers and colleagues. But more than that, they are people who are unique to me, individuals to be sure, but they’re also representative of many more like themselves in today’s Armenia; perhaps not enough of them, but certainly many. And when I walk into my place of work each morning, every step up the three floors, every meeting, every report, and every tough conversation and performance appraisal, makes me take pause, and realize that I’m still surprisingly inspired and challenged by that inspiration to go another day, week, and year for whatever common mission we believe to have.
I work with some of the strongest women I’ve ever met in my life. Take the mother of three pre-teen kids, whose life revolves around how to create the right balance between her professional life, which took a 180, when she went from classical music, to a masters’ degree in political science, and her family life, which requires her to collaborate and negotiate with kids, society, and an equally committed and busy husband. Then there is our mother-daughter team, who just added another little girl to their family. The mom is our colleague. The daughter is our collective reminder of why we do what we do. The reason she comes to work is at times childcare is practically not possible, or logistically difficult. In the past year with added school holidays and flu days, our workdays were that much more interesting, because our little girl of 5 years was cheering us on, and we made sure to take the time to give our colleague a break from taking care of her daughter at work, so she could multitask on five things, instead of six.
Among these women are my colleagues who work each day to create not only the best work product, but to change mindsets. Single, by choice or circumstance, they fight the big fight and persevere against odds that at times seem insurmountable—social stigma and peer pressure. As valiant as their silent battles are, sometimes we do let our guards down, usually when we’ve had happy hour margaritas together, and it is clear that the weight of tradition and custom certainly makes its dent on lives, and in spite of that pressure, they chip away to make lives that they own and are proud of, and not lives that have been predetermined for them.
My male colleagues are setting style and tone at the frontiers of progressive social experiments in Armenia. They are highly competitive professionals who work more than full days and instead of going home to a warm dinner, they pick up and drop off their kids from art lessons and tennis matches, and they hunker down and help their kids with homework. One of them supports his wife through a grueling masters’ degree program, while the other has decreed that he’s in charge of all childcare while his wife is away on business trips abroad. Some of these pioneering individuals, male or female, as is commonplace in Armenia earn a living and support entire extended families, and they still find the time to think about things that will improve their small communities and neighborhoods.
While we all work at our desks and conduct meetings, there are colleagues who take care of us, cleaning the office, taking us around town or on the many trips that we need to go on outside of the city—each one has a story, a father who’s putting kids through the army and one with college aged youngsters, a grandmother who sometimes brings her granddaughters to work to meet her colleagues, a Karabakh war veteran, a jazz musician, or a political activist of the 1980s.
Each one is a person, but each one is also the face for the many faceless and voiceless, in word and deed; the face of this country that remains viable and vibrant. Each one is also the archetype of a life that defines today’s Armenia and the Armenian cause—because to borrow a phrase from a friend, they wake up in the morning, brush their teeth, have breakfast and go to work and add another page to the narrative of the Armenians. Between early morning rush hour, lunch breaks and meetings, and swim meets and family visits, they probably don’t get to marvel at the grandiosity of their contribution to history—because at the end of the day, history is made by those who live with commitment and integrity without much hyperbole and noise. Sometimes I wish I could echo my grandmother’s voice out of my head, and let them know that for her their lives is affirmation and recognition of not just survival but of transcendence of genocide and destruction, and I wish I could channel one of their kids who will know for certain that this country was built by their parents who learned from their ancestors; they’ll know that their parents settled for nothing less than the hopes of generations before them, for this very moment, and they aspired to leave a legacy of justice.
I have another group of colleagues. If I call them colleagues it’s because considering myself their peer automatically shaves a few years off my age. They’re these amazing volunteers, Armenian college students, American and European interns of Armenian heritage, who spend a few weeks with us doing all kinds of great things. Some of them spend months with us, then they go on and get jobs, and if we’re lucky we get to hire them. Now they are as precocious as any late-teen college student, and as determined as any mid-twenties graduate students may be, with one difference. When they come to me and say that they’d like to turn the required eight weeks into eight months and eighteen months, and then go on to become part of this amazing team, contributing with their creativity, and affirming to all of us that no graduate degree could give them the gratification of producing new media spots and stories of lives changed, I know that I have no choice but be inspired.
That day in the pool, as I was coming above water, and my iPod went from will.I.am’s It’s a New Day to Van Halen’s Right Now at the breaking point, I caught a glimpse of the life guard sitting pool side, in his swimming trunks unable to jump in the water, because he had been assigned to look after us swimmers, all I could think about was how sad it might be for him not being able to be in this vastness of blue that could inspire him, me to go one more lap or cause such burnout to barely stay afloat—but rarely allow for ambivalence.
When I got out of the pool I thanked her for her work, and suggested that next time I’d ask her to help me with a few flawed strokes and that way his bosses might allow him to jump in the pool.