“My friend, what is your name?” my husband asks the stranger sitting next to him on the bar.
“Dikran,” the stranger responds, sipping his beer.
“And what do you do my friend?”
“I’m a criminal lawyer. I work as a bartender at another pub.” A pause. “Where are you from?” he asks us.
“Australia,” my husband says.
“Australia… That’s where I want to go.”
It is an awkward moment. Our visit is coming to an end and we have rarely been able to spend time alone, so we decide to have a few drinks after a family dinner. Instead, we find ourselves befriending complete strangers—as you do in Armenia—bonding and arguing with them, listening to their problems and hopes.
Dikran has never been to Australia. I’m not even sure he seriously wants to move there. He is simply looking for a way out, just like the two bartenders we meet, a young man from Beirut and a woman from Javakhk.
He tells us he pays half his wages for rent and is looking for opportunities in Dubai. She says she is a teacher by profession but is unable to find employment because she can’t afford to pay someone to hire her. Yes, pay someone to hire her. We learn it is common practice with some professions in Armenia, a residue of Soviet times. Not everyone can afford it but if you manage to pay a sum, you are guaranteed a job and a source of income. The only reason she is still in Armenia, she says, is because she has not had an opportunity to leave. The destination? It does not matter.
A little further into the conversation, I discover she is also a mother. I look at my watch. It is 3 a.m. There are five or six of us remaining. I get up and announce it is time for our bartender to get home to her baby. We disperse.
“How can you sleep in peace as president when you go to bed every night knowing another 20-30 families left the country that day?” a good friend asks us one morning over breakfast in his humble home on the outskirts of Yerevan. Sadly, people in Yerevan these days are talking about emigration in mass numbers.
It is meant to be a chat over morning coffee but we are greeted with a feast of a breakfast—delicious homemade pizza and pastries and the freshest fruits. The inviting, irresistible taste of Armenia in our mouths.
“No, I won’t leave. However bad it gets, I won’t,” he adds, stroking his two-year-old’s chestnut hair. We leave his house, our bellies full, and our hearts full, too.
We meet others like him—people, who are determined to stay regardless of the hardships they face. It is not just unemployment that is driving people away. A few days into our visit, we heard of the fatal shooting outside the Goris home of the notorious governor of Syunik, Suren Khachatryan, otherwise known as Litska. It has barely been a year since the beating to death of Army Doctor Vahe Avetian by the bodyguards of then-MP Ruben Hayrapetyan, Nemets Rubo. He is still the chairman of the Armenian Football Federation. And it’s only been a few months since the assassination of Artsakh war hero and Proshyan village Mayor Hrach Muradyan. There has been no serious investigation into or accountability for these crimes, at least not to the extent that pre-empts their re-occurrence. Oligarchic impunity seems to be reaching new levels in Armenia.
In the midst of all these stories and experiences, I feel heart-breakingly sad one moment, illogically euphoric the next. There is inexplicable warmth in my heart. It’s the warmth of the land, the unshakeable truth that it exists, it is here, I am standing on it, I need it, it needs me, it’s mine, it’s ours. It’s the unrelenting determination and commitment of people who are staying to fight the good fight, of diasporans who have left comfortable foreign shores to build new lives in Armenia. “It’s the best thing we did for our family,” one of them tells us. And it’s the warmth in the sincere embrace of complete strangers. They take me into their arms and lives, and thank me for listening to their problems. I feel humbled beyond words; I should be thanking them. The least I can do is promise to tell some of their stories in this column.
Back in the days when I used to visit Armenia, I would go looking for the positive. The flourishing Yerevan city center with its charming cafés and parks, the vibrant city life, the traditional Armenian artifacts at the Vernisage, the breathtaking beauty of the rugged mountains. These were the things I went looking for.
These days when I go to Armenia, I go looking for the truth. I’ve visited seven times since I first set foot in the country in 2001, and the old charms are not enough anymore. I am no longer interested in floating in and out like a tourist. I want the real—with all its positives and negatives. I want to thrive on everything that is good and expose myself to everything that is bad. I want the real, because before we understand the real, we will not be able to grasp all of the potential and opportunity the country has to offer. We will not be able to build the dream. This is also why I started writing this column six months ago.
It is time to leave. As we drive to the airport, I want to forget everything and immerse myself in the majestic view of Ararat standing tall and confident, a cleansing white so clearly visible that morning. However, I can’t escape the signs on what seems to be an endless row of shops and houses we pass by: “For Sale,” “For Rent.” It is a solemn reminder of that night in the pub and the many stories we heard during our 12-day visit.
I can still feel that warmth in my heart, stronger than before. At this stage I know nothing will change how connected I feel to this country.
It takes us 30 hours to get back to Australia and another 10 days to really get back and, needless to say, we are already planning our next trip.