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John Hughes

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AGBU Magazine article

by John Hughes

As I am standing in a queue at a border crossing several years past, my time comes to hand over documents. The agent looks at the documents; looks at me.

"So you are a U.S. citizen, but a resident of Armenia," the agent says.

"Yes," say I.

Border agent: "Why?"

That's a good question that has been 10 years in answering, as I complete the most unexpected and unexplainable decade of my 56 years.

While collecting information for this magazine over the past several weeks, I have listened to and read about others—from my country and elsewhere—whose cosmic paths have brought them to Armenia. The predictable stories are told in words such as "homeland" and "birthright." The more believable ones include "opportunity" and "coincidence." All are told from sources whose names end in "yan" or "ian." Mine doesn't.

If, by my ethnic pedigree, I had the passion for "the homeland" that burns within the hearts of people you'll read about in these pages, then I'd be packing my bags for... Alabama. No. There ain't that much romance in the world, and even I have limits on wanderlust.

So here I am, 10 years after I thought I'd be here three months, when I was invited at the end of 2000 to help set up a journalism training program. I'm the one who got trained, it turns out, in the lesson of where life might take you, if you don't have your own map to follow...

I thought she said "Romania"

My relationship with Armenia goes back to 1996. My editor at a Southern California daily called me in one afternoon and said she had an assignment in - - - - nia. The last part is all that made sense to me.

Romania. Must be a feature about tiny girl gymnasts or a dead dictator, or Dracula, I figured.

She repeated, "Armenia." This time I heard. Next question: "Where's that?"

"Look it up," she said. Soviet Union, said the dictionary (pre-Google), and included something about Russia. Made the news with an earthquake a while ago, and was recently engaged in a war over some place called "Karabakh." Christian. Lots of churches. Very old. Poor.

I arrived two days after Armenia's second presidential election, to find tanks in the streets and soldiers none too pleased at the sight of a foreign journalist (though my assignment was to write about the Southern California-based Armenian Eye Care Project).

During those two weeks, the only place from which I could send email was the Arminco office, located in what had been the communications center for the Communist Party and which smelled as if the only legacy left by the previous occupants was their toilet.

I remember asking my interpreter if there was anywhere I could get bottled water.

"Sure, I'll bring you some," she gaily replied, then returned with a vodka bottle full of the very tap water I was trying to avoid.

Today, not far from that formerly stinky building, I run an Internet journal ( that has readers from more than 100 countries—all, presumably who know where Armenia is.

And I drink water from bottles with names such as "Noy" or "Dilijan" or "Arzni" or "Byuregh" and all promising to be "from the Armenian highlands."

I brought a telephone answering machine with me to Armenia. In those days, it apparently defied Armenian logic (oxymoron intended) as I learned from this experience:

My friend Hayk was supposed to be at my apartment. I had to step out, and had told him to call before coming. I returned, to find Hayk waiting for me.

He had called, as I'd suggested, and had gotten the answering machine.

"Why didn't you leave a message?" I asked.

"Because you weren't there," he replied.

Today we communicate via text message or by instant message or by Skype. Even in Armenia.

ABC—Armenian By Choice

Why do I live in Armenia? You wouldn't believe how often I ask myself that question.

The easy answer, since my marriage two years ago, is that this is home to my wife and my inherited two children.

But is it my home? Didn't start out to be, and I'm not sure I'll ever call it that.

What brought me here in 2000 is what (professionally) keeps me here now: Armenia, like, I suppose, all former Soviet countries, is a journalist's wonderland—a sociological Petri dish of change and confusion and collision of dreamy past meeting scary future.

It is led, still, by men who went to sleep one night as Communists and woke up the next morning as Republicans and are fantastically expected to know how to run a democracy. That, alone, can fill a decade with amusement, disgust, sympathy, contempt, pity, pride and so on for someone (me), whose mission in life is to be a voyeur and shun being a participant.

As a U.S. citizen of Southern States upbringing, Irish roots, vagabond career aims, and no stretch of genealogical arms that could embrace this heritage, I come to Armenia free of the psychic baggage that often breaks the will of diasporan Armenians and burdens the dreams of locals.

I didn't have a grandmother whose misty-eyed recollections of a former place would turn to lies, when the veil of nostalgia was drawn back on the searing vision of today's Armenian reality.

A few years ago in the center of Yerevan, I met some folks who recognized me from a talk I'd given to the Armenian community in Glendale or Boston or Montreal.

They had apparently not gotten the reception they'd expected on their visit to "the homeland"—had been treated rudely, as commonly happens here in gross affront to the lingering myth about "Armenian hospitality."

"How can you stand to live here?" they said to me.

To which I replied: "You're Armenian. How can you stand to NOT live here?"

It was a wrong thing to say. But what I didn't understand then, I've come to know now: It isn't easy to be a diasporan.

The only comparison I can draw is the experience of having returned to Alabama after years of living somewhere else. Family, as expected, embraced. Others met me with suspicion, if not contempt, over my audacity to leave the place to which they will always, willfully or not, be rooted and therefore obligingly love. We have a saying there: "Don't get above your raising." I wonder if that applies to Armenia-Diaspora relations?

And, yes, I get treated better here (at least superficially) than the "ians" and "yans" who come to visit.

I was coming from my office on a city bus recently. I looked, I thought, no less or more hungry or needy than any of the busload of Armenians into whose presence I'd shouldered my way in the same manner as they, when an old woman across the aisle reached into a bag from which she offered me lavash.

There were probably 30 people, of which I was the only foreigner. She singled me out for charity—for, you might say, "hospitality." This woman, like any of the others on the bus, would probably shove, shout, curse and walk over her Armenian neighbors to buy that bread. But, spotting a non-Armenian (at least a Westerner), she turned into Mother Theresa.

The need to accommodate strangers, while willfully often mistreating your own, is an Armenian feature tough to figure out, and one I've discussed with friends here. Their explanations have been no more enlightening than reciting the Golden Rule—a rule that, apparently, has an unwritten Armenian component stating that the "doing unto" only applies to outsiders.

Odar observations and mysteries of life

1. You're never too far from an Armenian.

Admit that you have done this: You have watched a film—perhaps one that you didn't even care for. You sit through the credits looking for an Armenian name.

I do this. I have found everything from B-role actors to makeup artists, to grip boys and drivers. What I've yet to spot is an Armenian stuntman—an omission from which I deduce that, while willing to do most dirty work for pay, Armenians aren't about to risk pain only for someone else to get credit. (Except in the case of Hillary Clinton and protocols.)

Here's how bad the "spot the Armenian" disease is with me: I was in a small bus-station bar last summer in Spain. I looked at the liquor shelf, curious to see if it might hold Armenian brandy. And: When I travel (but only alone), I take out hotel-room phone books and scan the pages for Armenian-ending names.

I do things such as root for Washington State in college football, because their coach is named Sarkisian. (And, to my shame, I find myself rooting against the Phoenix Suns in the NBA, because one of their players is Turkish.) I pay closer attention to ESPN when Tim Kurkjian gives a report, and closer attention to "Larry King Live," when his guest is Mark Giragos(ian).

Not long ago, while watching an episode of the popular TV drama "24," as Jack Bauer was crouched in hiding behind a panel van, I noticed that the back window of the vehicle had a sticker on it with the Armenian tricolor and saying (in Armenian) "proud to be Armenian." I stopped the DVD, took a screen shot, and mailed the image to my (also non-Armenian) best friend, Pointer, a New York songwriter, who has indulged my affliction, along the way having me tell him such things as: Peter Gabriel's real name is Gabrielian (though I don't even know if that's true) and that an Armenian cigar magnate is credited with having inspired "Strangers in the Night."

Pointer called me all excited when a new TV series "The Shield" concluded its seasons with cops on a chase for bad guys whose syndicate was called "the Armenian Money Train." I guess it is a contagious habit.

This is a behavior I hope to curb, but until I do, I at least take comfort that I have not (yet) bought the Kim Kardashian porno tape.

2. You must remember this...

As an Armenian male, are you born knowing the proper technique for kissing another male, without being misunderstood?

This is something I have had to learn (even though I lived in Southern California several years, where the other kind of men kissing is widely accepted and effectively practiced).

One of the first man-kisses I received in Armenia was from a drunk, who said he loved Americans. Within seconds after it, I was bit by his dog. I believe that both displays were genuine sentiment.

A male-on-male snog is as common in Armenia as a handshake (with which it is usually accompanied), and is a ritual I now practice reservedly, but with ease.

It wasn't always so. I will not titillate the reader with details of my first attempt, but will offer this advice: Always lean to the right in executing the mano-y-mano buss. If you—the inexperienced—lean to the left, while your experienced target is aiming to the right, you end up meeting in a place where intentions may be misunderstood and confusion ensue.

3. What is the fascination with sunflower seeds?

Forget the pomegranate and the apricot. The sunflower seed is the national edible symbol of Armenia.

But when I have ascended to dominance as Tsar of the South Caucasus, my first dictation will be to outlaw the eating of sunflower seeds in public places.

Sure, there will be outcry from distressed sunflowerholics. But, trust me, this invocation of behavioral modification will surpass all billion-dollar efforts of foreign goodwill, eclipse memory of any "Pan-Armenian" plans to plan, and will make USAID look like USAIDidn't when impact on the world image of Armenia is ultimately evaluated.

Has a person EVER looked anything but silly (to say nothing of monkey-like) when moving fingers to palm to mouth to palm to mouth, ad infinitum and spitting the leftovers onto the sidewalk and just as often onto his/her clothing?

I daily see women wearing $100 worth of makeup, fingernails styled in a Salvador Dali homage, and hair that has been preened for hours, poke these tiny black things into their mouths and then have them stick to their ultra-glossed lips like houseflies on a trap.

My beloved Armenians: This is NOT the way to impress the world with your sophistication.

4. Cultures can be crossed.

When I moved here, I was at first living in the office where the media program was being set up.

One morning the office girls came in as I was ironing a shirt. They ran to get a camera; they'd never seen a man ironing.

Also when I first came here, it was unusual to see a woman driver. Now, women drive about as much and nearly as badly as the men (but I think I may still be the only man who irons).

I have learned to call soccer "football," and even allow chess results to be recorded on our Internet journal as "sport."

Slowly, I am introducing baseball. In summer, the seven-year-old in my house often ends her day asking "Do we have Yankees tonight?" If the answer is "yes," she knows she and her brother (11) will get to sleep on the living room couch in anticipation of the 4:30 a.m. local-time broadcast (ESPN America). They couldn't care less about baseball, but get a thrill out of sleeping in the living room, and wearing their Yankee caps to bed. Their limited English skills aside, I am not pleased, however, that they still refer to a baseball game as a "match."

My staff introduced me to the concept of "subotnik" (a day when, during Soviet times, whole communities turned out for a work-site or school cleanup). At ArmeniaNow we have them twice a year and, in turn, I have introduced one of my favored Tex-Mex-American dishes, chili, to my staff. We, then, have "chili subotniks," in which they do the cleaning and I do the cooking. The meal sometimes includes "lavachos"—nachos made from lavash.

I like to think that there is no cultural gap that can't be closed by food.

There are some things I miss: fresh shrimp; shop clerks who smile; appointments being met on time; traffic that flows, if not always according to rules, at least according to reason; elections that are fair even when unfavorable; animal shelters; lighted stairways; public green space.

I miss peanut butter, but not as much as I used to, because sometimes it shows up here now, and when it does I buy in bulk. Want to send me something I hoard like gold bricks? Starbucks. I miss bagels, and don't understand why a culture in which bread is such a key commodity cannot make them.


When I am away from Armenia (which is rarely), I miss: "rak" (crawfish); Erebuni beer; the sound of nardi games in courtyards; produce sold from trunks of cars; livestock blocking roadways; old men wearing war medals; being called "Johnjan"; in early winter the sweet stink of khash, and in late summer the sour stink of roasted eggplant (the first time my neighbors prepared it, I thought the building was on fire).

Away from Armenia I miss seeing faces onto which struggle has shaped character from troubles that are known but unspoken. And I miss seeing mouth-wide joy, over something as simple as ice cream. I miss, even (but only after a long absence), the sight of sunflower seeds stuck to lip-stick lips.

I could go on.


I crave the day when Armenia will judge itself by how good things ought to be, rather than by how much worse they once were.

Early in my experience here, I thought the Diaspora was being unfair to expect immediate change. Now I think Armenians are being unfair to themselves by not speeding the process in terms of democracy development, social welfare, civil rights and civic responsibility, courts that rule by law and law that is written for everyone instead of for and by oligarchs who buy parliament seats.

And, oddly, I find myself relating to most of the population here. I cherish this experience (and the sum of emotion is enormous), and believe things will one day be as they should. Still, for the sake of my family, I would move them to the States if we could afford it.

While I want my children to see an Armenia that I dream of, I worry that it will still be a dream when they come of age. Yes, as people in this magazine have said, Armenia is a great place to raise children. That's true mostly, however, if your idea of a "great place" concerns safety, or finding protection against "bad" influence, or a place without worry of their losing "Armenian-ness."

It is, though, a challenging environment in which to teach children to learn that leaders can be trusted; to learn gender equality; to learn that being Armenian does not categorically mean being right; to learn that deceit and bribery should not be the quickest way to get ahead.

It is a wonderful place to learn the need for family.

The Answer

It is at another border that the earlier-mentioned agent's question may be answered: Why do I live in Armenia?

On what is the first vacation as a family, Christine, Albert, Lia and I have taken a train to the Georgia sea coast. The distance is only about 400 miles, but the lumbering train ride takes more than 16 hours.

It is past midnight when we cross the Georgia border. The children are drifting toward sleep and Christine is softly singing "Que Sera Sera."

She tells me that it is a song her mother sang to her when she was teaching her English.

Perched on my narrow berth bunk, I am deep into the Gestalt of this experience of slow trains in a distant land, of an Armenian angel who has tacked her name with a hyphen onto mine, of two children I didn't create but whose lives are up to me to shape...

"Que sera sera," my Armenian wife sings to her Armenian children.

What will be will be...

It's an answer I'll take for now and hope for clarity after another decade of doing this.