Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Cultural Diplomacy

It is the Saison Française en Arménie; for the last two months it’s been everything French in Yerevan. The French Embassy in Armenia has been hosting French concerts at venues large and small, art exhibits at everything from the high-brow National Gallery to the edgy NPAK Center for Contemporary Experimental Art. French-themed lectures, French films, French fashion shows. And the crème de’ la crème: a hugely impressive alfresco show (replete with lighting and stage construction at caliber likely never before seen in this country), free to the public, in the middle of Republic Square featuring the legendary Charles Aznavour.

Who doesn’t love Charles Aznavour? That’s exactly what the French were banking on. Everyone loves Charles. And who was in attendance for that open-air performance together with the thousands of Yerevantsis, enjoying the artistry of the beloved 82 year-old entertainer and symbol of Armenian-French unity? None other than President Jaques Chirac himself. It was brilliant. Coupled with the serendipitously well timed of the Parliament's passage of a pro-Armenian bill last month: now everyone loves the French.

I was left stunned at how much more effective of a way to create allies by winning the hearts and minds of a population this was than the American model. US presence has been here literally since day one of independence. The US government provides more aid per capita to Armenia than to almost any other nation aside from Israel. But by being so pervasive, they’ve effectively shot themselves in the foot. Now, every USAID funded project and every US backed initiative, even when well-intentioned, is greeted with skepticism. Peace Corps volunteers are considered spies by the general public. The gigantic new US Embassy complex, with its barbed wire fences, is an eye-sore. And what is going on inside is worse: Turkish laborers were brought in, and paid double that of local Armenian builders, to work on the construction. If not recognizing (or chosing to ignore) the gravity of insult related to this centuries-old wound isn’t the most culturally insensitive move that could ever have been made, just this summer, Ambassador Evans was "recalled" from his diplomatic post and will likely be forced to 'retire' from the State Department for suspiciously undisclosed reasons. It is general knowledge that the reason is because he spoke publicly with compassion about recognition of the Armenian Genocide. People complain about the US government, mock its leadership, and make fun of its citizen’s obnoxious mannerisms. To much of the populous here, America is ignorant and insensitive. It’s crass and it’s arrogant.

But yet, in the end, it’s a love/hate relationship (or rather: “hate to love”). It’s like some kind of guilty-pleasure complex. A great number of people are employed by the NGOs that are funded by USAID and learn a great deal in their jobs; US films, music, videos and products are still desired and consumed; and people still on some level believe in “the American dream.” Hundreds of people go to great lengths to leave this country and get visas to live in the US…but never without a grumble. One last jab, even when lady liberty is waving you in.

Perhaps it’s just easier to love Europe.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


photos by Onnik Krikorian

November 17th, 2006.
Ministry of Foreign Affiars, YEREVAN.

My fingers are numb and my nose is bright red from the cold, and I recall that last time I was standing here it was so hot outside that fellow protesters were complaining about the heat and trying to reassemble our picket line to fall within the shade of the trees.

We’re still speaking out about the same thing- 7 months later.

However, this is no tirade or complaint. I’m happy to see that there are young people here in Yerevan that WILL organize and protest again, and again. I answered to so many passers-by who said “this is useless,” “they aren’t going to stand up to Russia,” “they’re not going to listen to you,” “the government doesn’t care,” that we aren't necessarily here for immediate results, but voicing your concern is the fist step.

Encouraging widespread civic participation and convincing citizens of the efficacy of that participation is a large task, and I’m not expecting it to happen any time soon. But with every one, two, or dozen, of those passersby who were convinced by the pleas of our picketers to stop and sign the petition, we are making progress.

Pictured above are two of the organizers: Isabella, an articulate local activist with the Helsinki Committee, and Tamar, a good friend from Providence who has been doing research on youth and civil society the Fulbright for the last year and a half.

RFE/RL: Published on November 17, 2006


About three dozen young men gathered near the Armenian Foreign Ministry building on Friday to denounce the recent killings of ethnic Armenians in Russia and call for Yerevan’s official response to what they believe to be crimes committed on ethnic grounds. They said their previous protest actions near the Russian Embassy in Yerevan were followed by more murders of ethnic Armenians in Russia with clearly ethnic motives that they said had been covered up by Russian law officials as hooligan actions. This time around the young activists addressed their appeal to Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian.

“The Year of Armenia in Russia is being accompanied with brutal murders of young Armenians,” a letter addressed to Oskanian reads. “We are full of grief and anger with the criminal inaction under the pretext of the so-called complementary policy.” The letter was originally signed by nine activists. About 200 passers-by also joined in the demand by putting their signatures to the appeal.

One of the activists, Izabela Sarkisian, cited statistics according to which some 3,000 Armenians have been murdered in Russia in the past ten years. “All those murdered are qualified as hooliganism and not as murders on racist grounds. We call for Armenia’s clear stance on this matter,” she told RFE/RL. “We believe that under the constitution the Republic of Armenia has the obligation to take care of its every citizen and do everything for our compatriots to feel more secure in foreign countries.”

Head of the Ministry’s Russia Division Marina Balayan accepted the letter from the protestors and promised them to forward it to Minister Oskanian.

Also check out a short release printed the very next day:
Russian MFA Will Attain Detailed Investigation of Armenian Teenager Murder

Sunday, November 12, 2006

"Never Again"

"The Holocaust, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur….

And every time a U.S. president, a British Prime Minister, a U.N. Secretary General says, "Never again."

Yet it happens-again, and again, and again….Why?

Because, our leaders say, We didn't know.Yet they did know-recent studies have shown that the British knew conclusively what was going on at Auschwitz…yet buried that knowledge in their files because it would have forced them to change their war plans.

Everyone knew what was going on in Cambodia, post-the Vietnam War, as the Academy Award-winning movie "The Killing Fields" demonstrates … yet the powers that be declined to admit it, for fear they would have to do something.

In Carla Garapedian's powerful new film, "Screamers," Pulitzer prize-winner Samantha Power says President after President, Democrat and Republican, have known about genocides as they were happening … but have chosen not to act.

In Iraq, Reagan did not want the horrors of Saddam Hussein's massacre against the Kurds to come out, because then he would have to do something to stop him. In Bosnia, world television coverage of the genocide convinced the international community to step in…but only after 200,000 had been murdered.

In Rwanda, Bill Clinton did not want the true horrors to come out …because then he would have to do something.

And now, in Darfur, George Bush has finally declared the desolation of the Southern Sudan a "genocide"-yet refused to do what it takes to stop it.

Why? Because, once again, as in 1915, when the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau, first reported the wholesale extermination of the Armenian population by the Ottoman Turks in Anatolia, it was denied so the United States would not be forced to act. That reaction gave Hitler his impetus for the Holocaust: "Who remembers the Armenians?" he declared in 1939, before ordering the murder of 6 million European Jews.

In "Screamers," Garapedian traces the history of modern-day genocide-and genocide denial- from the fertile "Holy Mountains" of Anatolia to the current atrocities in Darfur . This documentary is as shattering as it is powerful, which includes interviews and live performance footage with System Of A Down, the multi-platinum, Grammy-Award winning rock band, all of whose members are Armenian-American. The film is laced with seven of the band's songs from "Holy Mountains" to "P.L.U.C.K." to the #1 hit "B.Y.O.B." that illuminate the band's views on political and social issues."

The film opens Dec. 8th in L.A., but hopefully it will open nation/world-wide before long.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The modern middle eastern woman's plight

a common problem. thanks Eva.

"Over the last two decades, the Persian Gulf has become the economic pole, and its pull has only grown stronger since the monthlong war this summer between Israel and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon. With the political situation here still so uncertain, investment and work opportunities are growing even scarcer, and the gender imbalance worsens.

For young women here, dressing fashionably is a competitive game; stare-down contests between young women in restaurants and malls are common, particularly, say the girls, when one of the women is accompanied by an attractive Lebanese man.

...“The social pressures on young women are just huge,” Ms. Yazbek continued. “The focus is more and more on being beautiful, on pleasing other people. The competition is intense, conformity is a big thing, and everyone, rich and poor, gets plastic surgery. You can go to parts of Beirut where almost every young woman has the same little nose.”

...“The guys that remain in Lebanon are the stupid ones!” exclaimed Nayiri Kalayjian, 19, who was hitting the bars on Monot Street, in central Beirut, with three girlfriends.

“We’re too good for them,” she said. “The ones who remain in Lebanon are the ones with closed mentalities, the ones who just want a virgin girl. You start to feel that the men who stay in Lebanon are the ones with no ambition in their work, and so you wonder, why are they still here?”

Thursday, November 02, 2006

my fellow americans...

happy early election day.

once again i find myself overseas during a decision-making turning point in america. in italy, during the decision to go into iraq in the spring of 2002, i watched impassioned anti-war displays. in armenia, during the election in 2004, i watched the international community bemused by the outcome. and once again today, i am moved to remind you that the rest of the world is watching.

here's the latest of what is being widely circulated and creating perceptions abroad. i'm disappointed to say that it is in a very similar vein to all those things i saw and heard before...

Furthermore, since the "moral divide" has been discussed ad nauseam once again as a potential "wedge issue" during this mid-term election, it is highly appropriate that i publicly promote the documentary SEEING RED. I met the director Leah Belsky in DC and listen to her explain the goal of this film:

Two Jews, a Hindu,and a born-again Christian, disillusioned after the 2004 electionand troubled by the idea that their nation is bitterly divided over morality, set out to investigate the power of evangelical Christianity in American political life.

Coming off 6-months in Armenia trying to explain the "Red-Blue" divide to all the non-Americans I conversed with, I found the topic fascinating and volunteered to help work on this film last year- through the fall and winter of 2005- as an assistant producer.

I think the title is brilliant and shows the power of documentary: you can take something in quickly, in sound bites and make a rash interpretation ("seeing red!"), or you can really explore a topic and try to understand its complexities ("SEEING red").

If interested, contact the director and find out about setting up a screening. www.seeingredthemovie.com