BY TAMAR KEVONIAN
Could our ancestors, living in on the Anatolian Plains and other parts of Historic Armenia a hundred years ago, imagine the multicultural life of an Armenian today? Or what of those from our parents’ generation, who were born and raised in various parts of the Middle East, the Soviet Union or Iran? As cosmopolitan as life may have seemed back then, it doesn’t compare to the present day life lived by an average citizen in a city as banal as Glendale.
Everyday we come into contact with many cultures on a daily basis: the Filipinos customer service agent, African-American cashier at the grocery stores, the Armenians insurance agent, the Latinos doctor, the Chinese lawyer, the Thai restaurateur, just to name a few. Little Armenian exists next door to Thai Town, and in fact it’s difficult to distinguish where one ends and the other begins, that’s how intermingled are the stores and restaurants that are clustered in the tightly packed city blocks in Hollywood.
Given the scattered and nomadic nature of Armenian existence, now and throughout history, we can find Armenians, or traces of Armenians in almost every country of the world. The reality of everyday living in non-Armenian lands makes it necessary to adopt local customs, habits and people in our lives. Intermarriage becomes a common occurrence and today there are Japanese-Armenians, Armenian- Indians, Armenian-Africans, Chinese-Armenians, and so on.
Eliminating all but the ‘pure’ Armenian, the global population of Armenians will decline dramatically. In a discussion about what constitutes a pure Armenian, Armen ceded the point that Armenians have intermingled and adopted other cultures during the course of our history but was incredulous that anyone would consider dating someone of another culture.
“But there are plenty of Armenians who are Asian or African-American,” countered Taline. Armen rolled his eyes in response. These were of no concern to him. “They are odar,” he said in a way that did not allow a discussion.
The word odar gets brandished about quite liberally. At a recent dinner party there were a number of non-Armenians present and one of them finally asked what it meant. A “foreigner” one dinner guest explained without the realizing the word’s racist and xenophobic implications. Although a perfectly legitimate word, it’s meaning – “foreigner”- implies a distinction.
Odar is used quite often by Armenians to describe someone not of our tightly knit ethnic group. We don’t think twice about using the word to label a person but my unease with the word would not alleviate during this dinner party or the exchange with Armen.
How do we really using it and in what context? “He (or she) is dating (or married to) an odar,” we hear said with disapproval. “Oh, they don’t understand, they’re an odar,” is often expressed to explain the people in our communities who we think don’t believe in our values. Although it is a legitimate word meaning “foreign/er” it is also a word used with a slight twinge of disdain and that makes it inherently racist and xenophobic.
There is a difference between the two words. Xenophobia is the fear or contempt of that which is foreign or unknown, while racism is the belief that members of some races are superior or inferior to members of other races. For example, an Armenian may be disliked because he is from a Middle Eastern country, making it xenophobia, while being disliked for being Armenian is racism. Our use of odar falls in both of these categories.
Throughout history cultures have had a need to create words to describe people not of themselves, usually motivated by fear or ignorance. Armenians were confused for Iranians during the Iran hostage situation in the early 1980’s and Iranians were grouped with Arabs following the harrowing days of 9/11. Ethnic minorities living in the larger culture of their host countries either use these words or have them used towards them to create a distinction between their groups: an “us vs. them” mentality. They become the basis for a large scale form of separation because it reduces the perception of the “other” as less than equal and therefore not worthy of the same consideration.
We are surrounded by these words which reduce an entire race of people to a single derogatory expression: beaner, camel jockey, chink, cholo, coolie, cracker, dink, Charlie, gook, goy, goyim, greaseball, gypsy, half-breed, honky, kike, kraut, mick, polack, nigger, redskin, russkie, sand nigger, spade, spaghetti nigger, towel head, white nigger, wog, and wop. They describe people of Italian, Irish, Arab, Mexican, Chinese, German, Polish, Black, Native American, Asian and Russian origins. Although these are words from the general American language and may not seem to apply to us, let’s not forget that our ancestors were called gavour by the Turks and we liberally brandish the word “mtveli” to describe Shiite Arabs or “lobbie” to describe those from Mexico and other Latin countries further south.
Racism is widely condemned throughout the world. It is of such concern that the United Nations adopted a treaty in 1965 to combat the phenomena. It is called the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination which 173 nation have signed as of November 2006. Unfortunately it is difficult to regulate and weed out racism especially when perfectly legitimate words like odar are used in a negative manner.
In the life of a modern Armenian, the values and expectations held dear by our grandparents or even our parents, must adapt to survive. It’s time to closely examine our world view and the subtle ways in which we discriminate towards others – especially since they have now become a part of us. It is hypocritical to demand respect, equality and recognition when we cannot extend the same courtesy to other races. The reality of the far flung Armenian Diaspora is that we live in cultures different than the one we have tried to preserve throughout our journeys and often our friends, neighbors, coworkers and spouses are from the culture of our host countries. When we say odar in a derogatory way, we insult and alienate not just those closest to us but also ourselves because which one of us can really claim to be a ‘pure’ Armenian? Does such a thing even exist?