Friday, November 4, 2011

New Blog

In my last post (which was quite a while ago), I said that I would focus more on exploring ways to close the gap between the Diaspora and Armenia. Repatriation is probable one of the most ambitious ways to achieve this goal, and my new blog, explores this topic more directly - hope you enjoy!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Expected Value

Last week, like every anxious parent that wants to see their child succeed, I scoured the internet for global and local results for the Kangaroo global math contest, which my 4th grade son participated in earlier this year. This is a multiple-choice math test that is given to several grade levels (1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 78-, 9-10) in over 40 countries on the same day. While I was quite proud of Haig’s performance (8th in Armenia in his grade level), I was even more pleased to find out about the top three performers in his level in Armenia. All three (scoring, respectively 92, 88 and 86 points out of a total of 96) were girls from outside of Yerevan – first place went to a fourth-grader from a small village on the other side of Lake Sevan, and 2nd and 3rd places to fourth graders from Martouni and Noyemberyan.

It is almost too easy to find fault in Armenia – just follow the daily stream of news or latest outrage posted on Facebook, or the latest [sad] statistics regarding accelerating emigration. What we often fail to see, however, are the islands of hope among this general despair, from the 4th grader from Garmirakyugh village who had the highest score in the country, to the new mayor using social media to engage our fellow Yerevantsis to become more actively involved in the well-being of the capital, to the soon-to-be-opened Tumo Center for Creative Technologies

Why is this important? Because the current Republic of Armenia offers the best chance to rebuild what the Turks attempted to destroy 100 years ago. We have a sovereign state with a respectable army and the security guarantee of one of the global superpowers. We are part of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, NATO’s Partnership for Peace and countless other international bodies.

Does the current Republic span historical or even Wilsonian Armenia? No, of course not. Are there thousands of square kilometers once inhabited by our ancestors that no longer belong to us? Yes, absolutely – in fact, given that all four of my grandparents were born in Cilicia (Aintab, Adana, Marash, Kilis), I often dream about what it would be like to live where I come from. Does the current government espouse the ideals of all Armenians? No, but neither should we expect it to.

What if we look at the path forward in terms of expected value? On the one hand, we have the possible future return of our traditional lands, something prized and sought after by several generations of survivors of the Genocide. On the other hand, we have the potential strengthening and re-birth of the Republic, with advancements in economic and scientific development, repatriation and immigration (albeit all on a fraction of our historical land). The former is a high-value, low probability outcome, while the latter is a [lower] value, higher-expected outcome scenario. While the exact “calculation” of the relative EVs of these two scenarios is beyond the scope of this post, the fundamental question remains: which will yield the most beneficial result to Armenians?

I want to close this post where I started, with the children of Armenia. My son’s fourth grade class’s year-end musical was based on the works of Baruyr Sevag. This particular piece stayed with me – those of you that understand Armenian will pick on the key messages. What you see here are not starving children, neglected orphans, or spoiled offspring of oligarchs. These are regular 9- and 10-year olds still young enough to dream of a health and joyful future here in Armenia. What can we do to make this possible not only for them, but for the millions of Armenian children living outside of their traditional homeland? Future posts (to follow soon) will address this

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Resignation and Hope, Armenian Style

Another week of contrasts, this time during an incredibly beautiful Indian summer week in Yerevan. I just finished reading Garin Hovannisian's Family of Shadows, as well as his op-ed pieces in the NYTimes and Christian Science Monitor. Yesterday, I participated in a truly unique event (for Yerevan) called TEDx Yerevan ( Garin's take, overall, is that of hope vanquished and resignation, and TEDx was just the opposite. In fact, toward the end of the day yesterday, when Alexis Ohanian (a speaker from the official TED series whose participation enabled the creation of TEDx Yerevan) and I were asked to write one word on a piece of paper they asked us to hold for our "official" conference photos, we each independently wrote "Hope".

Why? I have often been accused of being an optimist, of looking for the positive in the most negative situations. More directly, my friends both in Armenia and back in the States accuse me of ignoring all that is really wrong with this country, of somehow being oblivious to the poverty, corruption, geopolitical challenges and general lack of a national purpose and strategy.

The truth is that I am fully aware of the challenges of this country. My response: "so what?" The alternative, to give up and declare the victory of the post-soviet elites, to accept as granted a vassal state with no national purpose is, in my simple view, not an option.

Yes, eastern Armenia is not western Armenia, and yes, our tiny republic is ranked in the lower half or quartile in most national rankings of benchmarks that matter. Yes, more than 2/3 or even 3/4 of our people don't live in this country, and according to one of yesterday's presentations, 48% of those that are still here would leave if they could. Not much to be optimistic about, right?

Again, I say, "so what?" What is the alternative? A slow spiral into oblivion, with the Diaspora and Armenia embraced in an arm's length dance to see who can stay up longer while each is dragging the other down?

Not on my watch, and I would bet, not on the watch of hundreds of thousands of Armenians, both here and around the world, who are too proud of the path that has brought us to where we are today, of the sacrifices, great and small, that make up our collective history.

That pride was abundantly evident in the conference hall yesterday, as each speaker bared a bit of her or himself, each weaving in their unique Armenian motif, creating "ideas worth spreading". And spread they did, through Facebook, Twitter and hallway conversations.

So here's to those who think and act, that speak and blog and post and react. Here's to those eight proud and incredibly talented young boys from Charentsavan, whose drums did more to bring alive the legacy of where we come from, and hope for where we're going, than any fancy (or in my case, not so fancy) powerpoint presentation. And here's to Kristine Sargsyan, the young woman from Yerevan, who believed that we Armenians also have ideas worth spreading, and that the place to start spreading from is Yerevan.

I vote for hope.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Land, Country and Nation

August has been a reflective and revealing month for me. I have just finished reading two books about the Genocide that might be considered "book ends" about this terrible period in our history. The first, "Armenian Golgotha" by Rev. Father Grigoris Balakian, was written between 1920 and 1922 by a survivor of the first group of Armenians that were arrested and sent to their deaths on April 24, 1915. This truly harrowing eye-witness account of the Genocide, written by a survivor shortly after the events took place, awakened feelings long buried since I participated in Genocide commemoration events in college and shortly thereafter. The second, "Children of Armenia: A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-Long Struggle for Justice" by Michael Bobelian, was just published in 2009 and carries the story of Armenians struggle for recognition and the Turks' steadfast denial through the first episode of "football diplomacy". Both are excellent books and in my opinion "must-reads" for all Armenians interested in better understanding the cycle of events that brings us to today's reality concerning Armenia, the Diaspora and Genocide recognition.

The thread that links these two books together is the shifting balance between the drive toward creation and development of an independent homeland for Armenians on the one hand, and recognition of the Genocide on the other. In his account, Rev. Balakian repeats several times that the driving force behind his four years of struggle and eventual escape from the hands of his executioners was the desire to survive and rebuild the destroyed Armenian nation and homeland. Mr. Bobelian recounts how the first wave of efforts by Armenians, starting with the Paris Conference immediately following the end of the First World War, focused on the establishment and protection of an independent homeland for Armenians as compensation and delivery of justice for the terrible crime against our nation by the Turks. Then, as the hopes of a viable independent homeland faded between realpolitik on the part of the Allies, the rise of Attaturk and the imperial ambitions of the Soviet Union, both struggles gave way to rebuilding lives wherever Armenians landed (except for the individual acts of vengeance and justice against the perpetrators).

Fifty years later, given the Soviet Union’s iron grip on its republics, and the West's full embrace of Turkey as a critical ally in the Cold War, Armenian efforts naturally flowed toward recognition rather than an independent homeland, and this approach dominated efforts right up to -- and many would argue through-- the break-up of the Soviet Union and the re-establishment of an independent Armenia. In the past 15 years, and in particular, the past two years, these two threads have once again become intertwined, not always in a positive manner. One of the central issues remains the respective roles of the government and Republic of Armenia and the Diaspora in establishing priorities and driving actions on recognition and development of the homeland. Naturally, successive governments in Armenia have opted to maximize the safety and development of the small and struggling republic while respecting the memory of the Genocide. Similarly, Diasporan groups (unfortunately, there is no single organization that can represent the interests of all Armenians in the Diaspora) have continued the nearly one hundred year-old struggle for recognition. The signing of the Protocols last fall brought this dichotomy to its boiling point, but the subsequent backtracking by both Armenia and Turkey have somewhat calmed down the situation.

Yet we must resolve this dichotomy as a nation - if we don't, we will continue to diffuse our ability to achieve either or both objectives, and will finally help the Turks successfully close the Armenian Question. Why? Because after 100 years of dispersion and assimilation into other societies, there is no concentrated, viable political, cultural and national center to the Diaspora (as there was in Beirut prior to civil war, Tehran prior to the revolution, and Aleppo, Baghdad and other strong Armenian communities that have slowly shrunk over the past 25 years). Despite the heroic efforts of a broad spectrum of political, cultural, religious, educational and professional organizations throughout the Diaspora to keep language, history and tradition alive, time and the inevitable and invincible force of assimilation will continue to diffuse and weaken the Diaspora's ability to drive the fate of our nation. As a result, no matter how large the chasm of language, experience, and cultural values may appear between the "traditional" Diaspora (those that were driven out of historic western Armenia to countries around the world) and the current Republic of Armenia, the chasm must be crossed and closed. The reality is that both sides (Diaspora and Armenia) are in grave danger of demise and eventual extinction, albeit because of very different factors. On the other hand, there are so many ways to leverage the respective strengths of each side (full sovereignty and national status of the Republic, economic and heterogeneous power and experience of the Diaspora) that our future as a nation is firmly in our own collective hands.

Time will tell whether the right path is to strive for recognition and reparations, including the return of traditional Armenian lands to Armenia. Frankly, I just don't see the latter coming to fruition, but that’s a complex topic to be addressed separately. On the other hand, I am absolutely convinced that the reality of Armenia as a republic, where one doesn't need to struggle to raise children that, speak, read and write Armenian, where there are subway stations named "Zoravar Antranik" and "Sassountsi Davit", where one can wake up every morning and have a chance of seeing Ararat, where one can choose to live in Zeitun, Marash or Malatia, and eat the most delicious apricots in the world, can serve as the foundation for the true rebuilding of the nation that was destroyed 100 years ago. Combine this foundation with the economic power, integration into and understanding of the leading economies in the world, as well as the heroic and deeply-seeded will to survive as a people among Diasporan Armenians, and you have the potent formula to rebuild our homeland.

Future posts on this blog will be dedicated to crossing and closing the chasm between Armenia and the Diaspora. Coincidently, I'm writing this last sentence as my flight from St. Petersburg is descending toward Zvartnots Airport with Ararat on our right in its full majestic view. It's good to be back home - when will all Armenians feel the same way?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Past and Future

It's the week running up to April 24th, and Armenians all around the world are caught up in remembrance, indignation, calls for justice, and predicting the tone of the US President's speech regarding the Genocide. For years while living in the US, I did my share of letter-writing, protesting, listening to and giving speeches, publishing photographs of the genocide and reading eyewitness accounts of this terrible event. It was like an annual collective look into the past.

Since 1992, I've been in Armenia four times on April 24th - and every time, it struck me how differently the Genocide is remembered here versus the Diaspora (at least in the US). First, the scale of commemoration is awe-inspiring. Every year, without fail, thousands and thousands of Armenians make the long trek to Dzidzernagabert to lay flowers, honor the dead and quietly move past the eternal flame. In this society that is mostly jaded, cynical and NEVER quiet, there is a collective respect for this day that truly touches the heart. There are no loud protests, no yells for congressional recognition, no attempts to draw media coverage - just a steady flow of thousands of people, families, young and old, leaving in their wake a ring of flowers taller than a human being around the eternal flame. The monument itself, bowing in front of those that died, and the rising of the nation (against the background of Ararat) speaks to the concept of remembering the past, but looking to the future.

It's the week running up to April 24th, and my daughter's first grade class (in a public school here in Yerevan) celebrated their completion of the study of the Armenian alphabet today. During an hour-long musical event, these 6-year olds sang and recited the praises of Mesrob Mashtots, who invented the Armenian alphabet in 405-406. They sang about the central role of the alphabet in preserving our language, our history, our culture and our identity. They celebrated Mesrob Mashtots in Armenian, English and Russian (in that order). They sang, recited, and danced their completion of the learning of our alphabet.

I was mesmerized during this hour - I had cleared my schedule for this, and could not have made a better choice for a busy Thursday afternoon two days before April 24. In the middle of crumbling protocols, congressional lobbying, calls for justice, pictures of the dead and posters dripping in blood, this latest generation of Armenians was enjoying this rite of passage unique to our people. And the best part is that no congressional panel has to vote the right way for these kids to learn and live this language, to be confident enough in their future as Armenians that they can learn about the past but not be imprisoned by it, so that, unlike me, they can write this same passage 20-30 years from now in Armenian. Today was a celebration of our future based on our appreciation of our past.

And two days from now, like the thousands of others that have preceded us, and the thousands that will follow us, my daughter, my son, my wife and I will quietly walk the long walk, place our flowers, remember the past, look at Ararat, and think not just about those who died, but also about what future we will create for ourselves as Armenians.