“Are you even a good Armenian?” was one of the sharpest responses my previous article, “I Turned My Back on Armenia,” elicited. Other commentators took it upon themselves to be the gatekeepers of our nation and banish me forever from Armenia and Armenians. These reactions validated an undercurrent which I’ve always suspected flowed beneath the surface: that we Armenians must strip ourselves of any individual distinctions and submit ourselves to a set doctrine of who and what an Armenian is.
Since when was it decided that we must look, act, think, and talk like each other? Was there a cabinet decision by the government of the 1918 republic that formulated who can be considered a “good Armenian,” that those who do not fit the description should be branded as “bad Armenians” unworthy of taking part in our people’s cause and direction? Did we as a collective conclude that social and political diversity was not good, that novel ideas and unconventional approaches were too harmful? It seems for the vocal segment of our nation the traditional ideals became pillars to never be tempered with.
At the same time, there has been an expanding ocean of “silent Armenians” who have wanted to break out and make their different voices heard. At least, I heard from some of them in private messages following my article. And they were relieved that at last someone had spoken against the long-held, stubborn notions of our communities.
I was confused why members of this broad group had kept their opinions to themselves, had not challenged the traditional ideals that keep feeding the false/failed perceptions of who we are as Armenians and where we’re headed.
Certainly, it is no secret that our close-knit communities subconsciously peel away those who are viewed as being outside of the core—as not “good Armenians.” And, in time, these Armenians’ presence in the community dims (not to say that they themselves hold no fault in that break). But the pressure of what the community demands is, to many, unbearable and amateur, which leads to the distance between them and the community. As a result, s/he is made into something that is intrinsically void, empty, fiction, and insulting to any thinking person’s intelligence: a bad Armenian.
This clash is a natural outcome of the communities’ struggle against the unstoppable force of a prolonged existence in a diaspora. As time goes by, the smaller core becomes more resolute, more committed to its rigid identity, and cannot accommodate any reflection on what makes them and those who “strayed” a people of the same mountains.
But I have seen the beautiful encounters of these “remote Armenians,” and how their distance has helped our much-needed national contemplation. Surrounded in a warm environment made up of non-Armenians and different cultures, these Armenians can provide new perspective on how our nation is represented on the one hand, and how, on the other, our nation absorbs new ideas from others. Because for those whom still do not know, Armenians do not have all of the answers to all of the questions.
For the first time ever, I spent this New Year’s Eve away from my community. Cast away in the claustrophobic circus madness of rainy London, I feasted on lasagna and red wine with an unusual collection of posh English students who had either never heard of Armenians, had a very meek idea of we were, or had met one Armenian who had left a very bad impression. Through a bit of shourchbar (circle dance), folk music, and talk of the current geopolitical affairs of non-EU Eastern Europe, I managed to carve a new picture of Armenia in their minds: of green mountains, where people dance constantly and drink with quality. But I kept in mind that it was only because I stepped outside of our traditional community that I had the opportunity to spread our values, history, and current realities to others.
So, am I good Armenian? I’d choose to be a bad one any day, just so I can shed the absolutes engrained in our traditional communities, and grasp the world outside—where our nation of good and bad Armenians are called upon to be the toastmasters of any table or feast.