Armenia has always amazed me, but the past few years have been remarkable, to say the least. They’ve been remarkable because there has been such a spectacular display of civic engagement on what I call The Big Three: domestic violence, transparent elections, and homophobia.
The Big Three movements have benefited enormously from cultural remittances. That is, the experience, commitment, and verve that the Diaspora has transmitted to the homeland. That’s not to say, of course, that these are the first such movements in Armenia. But it is to say that the momentum behind them is thanks in great part to Armenian Diasporans and Repatriates.
First, there was the tragic murder of a young woman named Zaruhi, mercilessly beaten to death by her husband. These are the kinds of stories that make a person pale, that make them reach for a chair. My mind swirled with memories of Armenian men I know—ones I consider to be good, kind people – making jokes about how a man needs to beat his wife to keep her in line. We’ve all heard it. Tsetsem qezi (I’ll beat you), lifting a hand halfway up, as if preparing to strike.
Where people may have remained in silence before, they did not this time. They did not accept this as simply a personal matter. No, wiser people stood up because they could imagine what Zaruhi had experienced even before then. They could imagine how when they first married he tried to control her with his words and tone. They could imagine how he first grabbed her arm and commanded her to behave. They could imagine his sense of entitlement and righteous anger as he beat the last breath from her lungs.
Yes, people could imagine it all, and they stood up to make sure justice was served. And now, as they work to pass the first law on domestic violence, they are standing up to make sure that justice will be served for all.
Then, the parliamentary election season arrived. I remember an election some 15 years ago when a candidate was rumored to be giving out international aid pasta in exchange for votes. One woman actually told me in earnest, “He’s giving away food. He wants to help us, so I hope he’s elected.” I didn’t know what to say. Even I wasn’t that naïve.
I’ve since been an election judge a number of times in Minnesota. Judges receive excellent training and in my experience are authentically interested in conducting their duties in the most professional, non-partisan way possible. We don’t even discuss the candidates in whispers while serving.
This year, as candidates in Armenia campaigned, the citizenry launched a campaign of their own. Those who were the age of my students in Toumanian 15 years ago were attending campaign events, studying election laws, learning how to report violations they saw at the polling place. Suddenly, the very people who were just eight years old when I lived in Armenia were holding their government accountable.
So, as someone who lived in Armenia in the late ‘90s, I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to see the country come alive this year. Granted, the impetus had more to do with the issues during the 2008 election than a spontaneous gravitation toward grassroots engagement, but let’s take what we can get.
Not everyone is happy with the results, no. But people ought to be happy with how a nation can move from near-complete apathy to true and peaceful engagement. This, comrades—if I may take back the word from its Soviet legacy—is something to be proud of.
And so is the case with the recent arson attacks on the DIY bar in Yerevan. Those who understand their Armenian heritage, see this for the persecution and vilification that it is. We can attribute some of it to simple ignorance and the result of a sheltered life, but not all of it. The whole thing causes me to squint my eyes and shake my head with confusion, which will give me wrinkles, so I’m extra annoyed.
Fortunately, there is no need for me to talk about human rights in this limited space, because so many people have said it already. So many people have resisted the hatred and intolerance that poisons society. They are the antidote to what could be, but must not be.
The Big Three may seem like news cycles to some. But to me, the responses to them represent something great. They represent the ganach janapar (green path) to what Armenia ought to and will be.