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.


Anoush Rima said...

If Joseph Nye wrote many of my IR textbooks, and he and I are on the same wavelength, then I must be pretty perceptive :-)

Iman Kamali Sarvestani said...

Dear Anoush
Happy to hear from you after a couple of months.(Actually I have been reading your blog since the symposium.)
I have never been a nationalist myself, and have never been able to understand the concepts of nationalism. At the same time, I have never counted nationalists as enemies. Going through your blog (and also the short period we used to work on the resolution), I noticed that one could count you "a real Armenian nationalist" trying to have Armenian diaspora back to homeland, admiring beauties of Armenia (in which I am almost %100 coherent with you in), and may be most outstandingly trying to revive the "Armenian dream" or "Armenian nightmare" of GENOCIDE. Well, being a nationalist can equally be both good or bad. As a foreigner living in Armenia for last two years, I have faced these issues recurrently, but unfortunately none have been satisfactorily rational to me.
What I noticed during president Chiraque's visit, and the following parliamentary regulations passed is the climax of keeping people in the "fogs of stupidity". I count French action, one to get more winning cards against Turkey, but not givving a single winning card to Armenia. And astonishingly, Armenians were glad for receiving nothing. Turkey lost something, but Armenia did not receive anything. And believe me that is how things get done usually in Armenia. Usually Armenians are abused by their fellow countrymen, or foreigners under the name of nationality, "pure racial blood", etc. We will talk more about the issue if you like.

Anoush Rima said...

We do not know eachother very well and we can certainly discuss this again at another time. But to respond to your ill-informed comment, I would not call myself a nationalist. In fact i despise national supremasists. i'm actually a globalist and feel eager to explore and be a part of the other cultures of the world as much the one i was ethnically born in to. i want to live in other countries. i do not consider my work to be one of "calling back" the diaspora and believe that any armenian has the choice of living wherever they want: they are in no way obliged to live in Armenia. and trust me, by being a diasporan that does live here, i am more clear than most on the problems that this country and the people here have. I can understand the frustration you feel by being an Iranian living in Yerevan. Because in fact, I think the overzealous nationalistic trait that exists in some Armenians is one of our flaws.

To be totally honest, i personally think the genocide has been beaten over the heads of the diaspora, and i'm still not convinced that the obsession we have with it is beneficial or relevant to the world we live in today. In fact, i'd like to see armenians get past that issue and work towards more productive things for the futue. likewise, i personally am not in support of making people's opinions illegal through the proposed French bill. This blog however, is not about that. it a collection of sporadic personal reflections on what i see and feel going on around me. I refered to the French bill as an event that was relevant to and coincided with the Season of France and its subsequent effect in encouraging a positive diplomatic perception from Armenians. I'm not sure what you mean by calling Chirac's visit a maintenance of keeping people in the fog of stupidity, so I can't address that right now.

And to clarify further, I would suggest that in general "Armenians" were happy about the passage of the bill, not because it stifles freedom of thought or speech, but because it acknowledges a fact of history that has been neglected. the pure fact that the genocide of 1915 is being discussed is considered a victory by armenians. The same sentiment is what I tried to convey by posting about the film Screamers. No one wants to drudge up this "nightmare." it is not enjoyable or healthy for the psyche of this nation to constantly be reminded of those violent and devastating memories. yet i cannot blame those "nationalistists," as you would call them, who are so relentless that they will never let it go. it is a scar, and it has not been healed. it is the equivalent of a woman being raped, and having no one believe her. trust me, that woman will have psychological issues for the remainder of her life if no recognition or reparation is given to her.

i have spent a considerable time around armenia and armenian things because it is what i know. and yes, i am proud of a historic connection to this culture. for this i will not apologize. furthermore, this blog is generally read by other armenians know know me and know where i work. perhaps its false of me to keep my skepticisms inside and instead highlight the things that i think unite armenians- but for that i will not apologize either. instead i'll apologize in advance to the truly nationalistic readers i have, who will surely respond with anger at what i have here written.
i really can't win either way.

i'm not sure why i'm explaining myself to you, as i don't think i should have to, nor feel that i should have to expose myself this much on a blog which is not the adequate venue for bearing oneself, but there it is.

Iman Kamali Sarvestani said...

Dear Anoush
Thank you for the reply.
I do agree with you almost in all issues you have noted in your reply, and appreciate the clarifications. There are several notes of mine as well:
1_ I am not frustrated by the atmosphere here in Yerevan. However, I feel some sort of global pitty observing how people around the world are thought to "hate" eachother. Even if I were a nationalist Iranian hardliner, I would not feel having any problem with Armenians, as they have almost never had serious conflicts. Many Armenians have lived peacefully in Iran for more than 400 years, and yet many Iranians call Armenians (and even Georgians and Abxazians) their fellow countrymen.
What "frustrates" me is not Armenia, nor Armenians. It is the same repeated story of deceiving human race, where a small percentage of people (usually politicians and high level businessmen) try to keep others in total or partial ignorance. It is not Armenia specific, nor is east specific. It is a global issue. However, the shades and tints of this global "game" certainly varies geographically. The same issue "frustrated" me in my home town in Tehran, and still does. What is Armenia specific in this sense, is that usually there are opposition parties in all countries (even in fascistic Islamic regime of Tehran) who do not repeat the same stupid official motos of the government, and Armenia lacks it. As I have noticed, almost no Armenian party, or even NGOs speak up against the official reading of the genocide. I mean you can find Parmuk and thousands of other Turk intellectuals who are opposing Turkey's official reading of the incident, but I have not seen even a single voice of that type in Armenia. Where are Parmuks of Armenia? I believe Armenian young generation must rethink about the scar. Believe me, if all nations in the world start to claim for their "scar"s healed, the world will look much uglier than it looks today. Once Timour visited Kerman (a city in central Iran) he ordered a minarate to be built using skulls of people. He took out eyes of all other people alive in the city (hence the name Kerman which means city of blinds). Do u believe that Iranians should claim for such a scar (and thousands of more) healed by Mongolian government? Will the world look better if Iranians go to Arabs and ask them to heal their "deep scar" of invading their country and having almost all their historical heritage destroyed? Scars can be healed by the society themselves. and a good start will be to think of future more than past. Singhapore was called "Asian sexshop" but Singhs tried to heal the scar by developing, not by shouting. They made their way through development, so why not Armenia?

Dylan said...

the point about scars is they never heal. they are a constant reminder of a past wound that one must live with.

Anoush Rima said...

thanks iman, i hear what you're saying.

Anonymous said...

You seem to imply that Armenia needs an Orhan Pamuk to counter the 'official' line about the Genocide . What you do not understand is that if there is one issue on which Armenians all over the world agree it is that genocide occurred and that there must be recognition of that fact. This issue long predates the current Republic of Armenia and is not imposed by the government of Armenia.

Unfortunately other than Pamuk and a few others there are not yet 'thousands' of Turkish intellectuals opposing the official Turkish line but inshallah!

As far as Iran goes there were as many as 300,000 Armenians in Iran but regrettably the community is dwindling now down to about 100,000.


Iman Kamali Sarvestani said...

Dear Anoush
Thank you for providing the atmosphere to discuss the issue.
Dear Dylan
I know that scars never heal. But what then? What else could one do? you are right. Scars are good to think about future.
and dear Anonymous
As a foreigner now living for two years in Armenia, and having hundreds of Armenian friends, and feeling myself liking Armenia at least as a two year old Armenian kid, I feel that Armenia and Armenians in general need to rethink about the genocide issue. This issue is being more a threat to Armenia than an opportunity. Have you ever visited Azeris' websites on their claims against Armenians? They are claiming for a massacre of 150,000 Azeis in Sarab and Khoy (surprisingly in Iran) by Armenian Dashnaks (by the way I am not an Azeri, neither from northern Iran. I actually come from Shiraz which is thousands of miles away from Arax). Once talking with them I always tell them the same thing: "So what? are you going to kill 150,000 Armenians in revenge? Are you going to get 150,000 square meters of Armenian land? So what?"
The rethinking is to clarify "So what?" Do Armenians claim for Antalya now? Do they claim for taking king this or that out of the graves to the court? I guess that the "recognition" is not all Armenians are asking for. And I feel that claiming land and revenge from those who were not even born then and by those who were not even born then does not suit the world in 21st century, and neither suits a country that has and is willing to join a larger union (Soviet Union and European Union).
By the way thousands of Turks like Armenians. A simple reflex of which might have been observed when they voted for Andre in Eurovision contest. I mean where is the counter action? I think Armenians can change such a threat to an opportunity. And that is the great essence of wisdom to change threats into opportunities. Let's see if Armenia can have such a great man or woman to change things more smart. I guess Anoush is a good candidate. lol! let's wish her and all others success

Dylan said...

i'll vote for Anoush. for sure. might need to marry an areminian though so I can get the right to vote. Are there any direct flights. I'm over on the first one i can get

Anonymous said...


The Republic of Armenia does not have any territorial claims against Turkey nor has it requested any material compensation. Armenia has been clear that there are no preconditions to having diplomatic relations with Turkey.

There are many other Armenian groups who do call for the return of territory, compensation, etc.

My view is that the return of territory will not happen so why bother insisting on it. However individuals, families, religious institutions can be compensated for their losses during the Genocide.

Why shouldnt Turks like Armenians. Germans now like Jews. Canadian now like Russians, etc. Even Azeris can be likeable!

But Iman tell those Turkish friends who like Armenians to pressure their government to open its border with Armenia. This would be an important step at little cost to Turkey.