BY KHACHIG JOUKHAJIAN
The year is 2118. The streets of Glendale have imprints of Armenians everywhere. There are churches strewn all across town, with their unique pointed domes. There are museums, monuments, murals, Artsakh Street, and a TUMO center. Out-of-towners who notice ask about the distinct cultural presence all over the city. They receive the same response every time:
-“Oh that’s Armenian culture. They actually used to be a majority here, but they’re all but gone now.”
– “What happened to them?”
– “Well, they came here about 100-150 years ago, prospered, and then moved back to their homeland.”
This scenario repeats in Watertown, Toronto, Buenos Aires, even Beirut. Armenians have left their mark in their host cities, but hardly any representatives remain. They contributed much to these cities, but they’re gone now.
This is not another tragic tale in the story of the Armenian people in a history too often marked by cycles of catastrophe and survival. No. This is a tale of triumph. Armenians are scarce in these places, because they have nearly all gone and rebuilt their republic – դուխով ու տուֆով. They have made a life for themselves, established a future for their children and grandchildren. And, they are happy. They are happy in the classical sense; they seem to have attained eudaimonia, flourishing, well-being, true happiness.
When one walks down the streets of Yerevan, it’s hard to ignore the sounds of all the accents, dialects and standards of Armenian being spoken, not to mention all the different languages diasporans brought with them. The unsuspecting tourist might have the impression that this is a multi-ethnic city, full of foreign nationals. And sure, there are plenty who come to do business with the “Emerald Mountain Republic,” as the country came to be known after its economic upsurge. However, for the most part, the diversity attained in Armenia is a result of the dissolution of those communities dispersed across the globe – what was formerly known as the Diaspora. That dissolution was a century-long process, in a series of migration movements. Some called it tebi yergir, a term that carries political connotations involving nation-building. Others called it repatriation to the homeland. Others still, tracing their roots to Western Armenia, took issue with that term. There were even some who were deeply connected to their country of birth, and they called themselves expats who moved to Armenia. However, it seemed not to matter what they called it. Pedantic debates over definitions and distinctions gave way to action. One thing became clear, the diasporans were moving to their republics (back then Armenia and Artsakh were two separate states). And, as they came from their host countries, they brought their inherited cultures and languages with them, something the government deemed an asset, rather than a threat. One can hear French here, Spanish there, Portuguese, Italian, and so on. But for all this diversity, there is also a profound sense of unity amongst the people. Most Armenians can comfortably speak both Eastern as well as Western Armenian, and linguists are fascinated by how new colloquial forms of the language have emerged as well.
Those who share a background sometimes tend to seek one another out, but the broad social landscape is one most seek to traverse. Communities based on host-country of origin exist, which helps to keep foreign languages alive in the country, but generally everyone interacts with everyone, since Armenian is the lingua franca. They enjoy sharing their experiences and inherited cultures with one another, turning the people of this country into global citizens simply by virtue of their local interactions. Somewhere along the way, Armenians seem to have embraced the mosaic makeup of their nation/trans-nation. They did not shed themselves of their families’ ancestries, but embraced their differences along with their commonalities.
This appearance is not unique to Yerevan, either. Places like Vanadzor, Dilijan, and Gyumri have become bustling centers, each with its distinct appeal. Stepanakert and Shushi, though small in size, are arguably the most beautiful Armenian cities. Initially, most came to settle in Yerevan, but visionaries who saw the immense potential of these places fashioned cities envied by the East and West alike. However, the village communities are perhaps more enviable still. Whereas true farming communities were disappearing all over the world a century earlier, Armenia led the way in the re-emergence of traditional farming by drawing from their own past practices, as well as by studying practices still extant in rural communities such as those in China and Japan. Of course, there are a number of large industrial farms, much needed to feed the 30 million population of Armenia, but the food produced by the small farms are what the people usually seek out. The architecture of the villages, once dilapidated and using cheap aluminum roofing, now features designs from around the world, reflecting styles of European and Armenian houses and villas from the high middle ages all the way through contemporary sustainable housing designs, varying from region to region, always drawing tourists from abroad. See, Armenian architects brought design ideas with them from around the world as well.
As education improved, architecture was incorporated into the curriculum, and as civic engagement per capita increased, the new generations had local public discourse about what they wanted their communities to look and feel like. They realized the significance of the physical landscape on everyday life, and made informed decisions regarding these issues. They realized that the underdeveloped state of much of the country was an opportunity, a playground for design experiments. In the towns of Javakhk, for example, they implemented a revival of 19th century Tbilisi, with intricately carved woodwork on balconies.
Education was a key in Armenia’s current flourishing state. One of the first big moves was of course the centers of creative technology. Spaces like those of TUMO and COAF empowered youth by fostering creativity and tech skills. Another major player in the country’s development was Teach for Armenia, who found individuals with leadership qualities and sent them to underdeveloped communities for two years at a time. These young teachers were mostly from Armenia, but diasporans came too in due time, and they gave hope to students in disadvantaged situations, equipped them to become leaders, and taught them to take ownership of their communities and country. Higher education also took a turn, when wealthy Armenians from around the world began to fund renowned scholars in just about every field — from Humanities to STEM — to teach in Armenian universities as visiting professors. By bringing in the best and brightest, Armenia’s universities produced hosts of brilliant graduates, who turned the private and public sectors of Armenia into the shining star of the Caucasus. Eventually, a new intelligentsia emerged, one that surpassed the Zartonk era thinkers, raising the academic standard to that of Oxford and Cambridge.
Finally, the Diaspora made a transition, from simply providing financial and material resources, to one of knowledge and skill sharing. The focus shifted to increasing the value of the country’s human capital, by training the citizens in everything from healthcare and IT, to construction and automotive maintenance. Efforts came from Diaspora organizations big and small, from individual initiatives as well as international NGO projects, and the results were astounding. Armenia became an exemplar for the world. The model was repeated in Ireland and Greece, and is currently being attempted in many other countries. In a broad sense of the word, it was education that brought Armenia to where it is today.
The first generations of repats missed a few things. The roads weren’t great, so they missed driving fast in their nice cars. Once the beautifully paved multi-lane highways were complete though, trips to Artsakh could be made in just three hours time. Those who want more can go drive on the Autobahn, and with Armenia’s version of RyanAir, quick, $20 flight to Berlin, and about the same to most cities in the geographic neighborhood. Armenians do a lot more traveling now, adding to their appearance as citizens of the world.
Hospitality was one of the first industries in young Armenia, and when the Diaspora started coming in waves, they brought dishes from their host countries with them. The Syrian Armenians were the first. They broadened the culinary landscape with dishes like Armenian beef tartare (chikufte) and delicious dumpling yogurt soup (manti). The South American repats who opened restaurants had to import many ingredients. However, there had been pioneers who’d been growing quinoa and chia seed there since the early 21st century, and others followed this example, farming what crops they could for the growing demand in international cuisine.
As for cured meats, a few guys went to train with Italian masters, and began producing prosciutto di parma, capicola, and gourmet sausages. Today, the country boasts some of the best artisanal meats in the world.
One can find just about every kind of restaurant in Armenia, including Asian cuisine. Even though there weren’t many Armenians in that part of the world, the economic boom made it quite easy to recruit chefs from the region, who were embraced not just by repats, but also by the khash loving locals (after all, pho and ramen aren’t too far off). In a word, Armenia has become a top destination for gastro-tourism.
How did this process get under way? Well, it started with some benevolent philanthropists, some revolutionaries, and a handful of corrupt officials taking it too far. By the time the peaceful, yet spirited revolution was over, there was a widespread sense of hope in the future of Armenia, which translated into organized, as well as individual efforts towards serious nation-building. At first, for the most part, what you had was optimism–optimism in what the government would do for Armenia. This mode would have surely failed. It would have resulted in the government failing to deliver on their promises, and in the return of those seeking their own private interests. It would have resulted in the return of corruption and theft and continued exploitation of the poor and working classes. Instead, this government was looking for cooperation, and fortunately, the transnational Armenian population did not settle for optimism and sit on the sidelines.
They heard the words of Cornel West, that “there is a need for audacious hope. And it’s not optimism….optimism is a notion that there’s sufficient evidence that would allow us to infer that if we keep doing what we’re doing, things will get better. I don’t believe that. I’m a prisoner of hope, that’s something else. Cutting against the grain, against the evidence.”
“Hope and optimism are different. Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better, whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, ‘It doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all. Gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.'” Armenians realized that they needed to act, in a marathon-runner, long-term-commitment fashion, with well thought out, goal-oriented action. Diaspora organizations all directed their efforts towards Armenia. Teams of architects and engineers were sent over to build quality housing and infrastructure. Centers were opened that trained citizens in civic engagement, libraries were built and filled with literature in all subjects (texts which were largely unavailable before), and thousands of translations to and from Armenian were completed in just a few years.
One of the primary resources in this regard was a crowdfunding website, designed specifically for Armenian needs. Donors could find campaigns that fit their concerns, and those who told the best story and consistently reported on their progress got the most funding, while half-baked ideas and scams were quickly flagged and bagged. This democratized the field, eliminating the dependency on large organizations. Anyone with planning, marketing, and implementation skills could carry out their project, speeding up the nation-building process. A patronage feature allowed donors to find artists, writers, and scholars, so that they could consistently fund what they considered the most talented and valuable work. It turned out that the Diaspora was looking for ways to contribute, and this format allowed them to connect with the projects they wanted to see realized most and the locals they could collaborate with best.
This tebi yergir movement didn’t focus on Armenia directly. Rather, with an emphasis on Armenia as a viable home for future generations, the long-time Diaspora project of հայակերտում/հայամշակում (cultivation of Armenian [identity]) gained a more focused purpose and direction. And so, Armenian language and history teachers were paid large salaries, enough to raise a family on, and in result many came to compete for the position. Suddenly, highly effective teachers came on the scene, and soon enough students were not just reading higher level texts, like those of Aghpalian, Varantian, Nichanian, and Beledian, but were also doing critical analysis, having well-articulated discourse on aesthetics, political theory, ethics, theology, and the like. Scholarships in Armenian Studies became widely available, and grants were made available for research in subjects from public health and psychology to political science and philosophy, all with an emphasis on Armenia.
At first, the goal wasn’t to dissolve the Diaspora, but eventually that’s what happened, because the more they succeeded in their efforts and the healthier the Diaspora became, the more diasporans became connected to Armenia, thus sowing the Diaspora’s eventual demise. As long as it maintained a stagnant existence, it fed its own existence, through a quasi-nationalistic cognitive dissonance that never fully committed to the Republic. Once the orientation shifted toward the homeland, the Diaspora became active, cooperative, and flourishing. In business terms, they worked themselves out of a job. Over the course of decades, diasporans nearly all became repats, even many of those who were Armenian on just one grandparent’s side.
These are just some examples – glimpses into the world of a flourishing people. I could also talk about how their structures have all been rebuilt, how their literature is now read around the world (in translation as well as original), how their music is heard everywhere – operas, festivals, award winning film scores, and so on. But, the point of this exercise is to show possibilities, with the hope that they’re realized. As I was writing this article, someone showed me a recently defended PhD dissertation from Yerevan State University, about utopia as a modeling schema for the future. I write this article with that in mind, as an exercise in projecting a partial picture of the Armenia I would like to see. Some of the projections were trivial or silly, others serious and essential. I think each of us should develop a detailed vision of their ideal future for Armenia, and work towards achieving it. I like to think of relationships as people dreaming together. If enough Armenians start dreaming together, we might just create a new Armenia.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article was published in the Winter 2018 edition of Haytoug/Ardziv a collaboration between the official publications of the Armenian Youth Federation of Western United States and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Youth Organization of Canada, dedicated to the Centennial of the establishment of the First Republic of Armenia.
Khachig Joukhajian holds a B.A. in Philosophy with a Minor in Armenian Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Philosophy from Fordham University. From 2016-2018 he participated in the Teach for Armenia fellowship, as an Armenian and World History teacher in Medovka Village Secondary School in Lori Province, Armenia. Alongside his work as a teacher, he studied at Mikayel Nalbandian Pedagogical University in Gyumri, where he defended his Master’s thesis on High School History Education Methodology, with a focus on Neo-Thomistic and Multiperspectival Education Theories. Khachig is interested in questions regarding repatriation, ranging from the technical and normative to the aesthetic and psychological.