‘Armenia? Do you really want to go to Armenia?!’ – asked my mother a couple of weeks ago when this April Armenian people went on the streets to fight for a better future and to get rid of the governing party responsible for the omnipresent corruption and economic stagnation.
‘Yes, of course, I’m going to Armenia. It can’t be that bad.’ – was my answer. ‘I’m sure, the media exaggerate about the demonstrations and it’s not dangerous. Besides, I’m not going to participate in the demonstrations.’ – I added without any hesitation.
Despite my bold answer, I must admit that the Ukrainian revolution of 2013 crossed my mind, especially the great desperation of the Ukrainians and the long-lasting struggle with the government and Russia’s involvement… Yet, I quickly banned the negative thoughts and said: ‘I can’t cancel my trip anyway. It has been prepared for several months and I want to see my friends again.’
My friends were the association of Polish women called POLIN e.V., which I actively belonged to while living in Berlin, and my best friend Aga. I convinced her to join me for the trip. Since my move to Switzerland in 2012, we haven’t seen each other that often and I was very happy about the idea to spend some time together.
The plan to go to Armenia was born within the association more than a year ago, when it turned out we have an ‘inside man’ in Yerevan. Some ladies from POLIN met Jarek, working on an EU-funded project – Strong CSOs for Stronger Armenia, a couple of years ago. Thanks to his contacts, the association organized a two-week journey with a Polish guide living there already for several years and speaking fluent Armenian. In fact, it was a perfect opportunity to discover the country deeper than average tourists.
I have to confess I didn’t know much about Armenia before going there. The first thought that came to my mind was the Armenian genocide of 1915 and the following diaspora. So, nothing concrete about the current situation in the country.
When I told one of my Ukrainian friends about my plans, he asked: ‘Why do you want to go there? There is nothing to see but old churches, poverty and corruption. It’s even worse than the Ukrainian countryside.’ I must say, it was not very encouraging.
Why did I want to visit Armenia then?
Apart from the obvious reason, which was my association, I wanted to make a completely new experience as a person working in the field of intercultural communication. I was curious how much I can discover following the anthropological approach learnt during my studies of Intercultural Communication to use pure observation in order to solve ‘the enigma’ of a foreign culture without knowing the language.
Another reason was the wish to change my perspective for a while and to get out of my comfort zone that has become significantly limited since the move to Switzerland, a perfect country where everything is so obvious, well organized, and secure.
Finally, I just wanted to get know Armenia, its current lifestyle, and to meet new people.
Was it worth going to Armenia? Have I reached my goals? How desperate and dangerous were the demonstrating Armenians?
Looking back, I can’t really pretend to be able to fully follow the anthropological approach as we had a guide who told us a lot about the life in Armenia. There was also Piruz, a young lady who did her PhD thesis at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and who brought us closer to the Armenian culture. Thanks to her knowledge, we discovered the long and fruitful tradition of the Polish-Armenian relationships that started as early as in the 14thcentury and have been lasting until now. It reminded me that we had learnt at school about an ethnic minority in Poland called ‘Ormianie’, which stands for ‘people of Armenian origin’. It may also explain my big surprise at the airport in Warsaw when I saw the fully booked plane to Yerevan. I was wondering what reason all these people might have for visiting Armenia. Now, I’ve understood.
Walking on the streets of Yerevan with my friends, we met some locals. To our surprise, many of them spoke Polish and immediately mentioned their connections with and sympathy to Poland, as they used to trade a lot in my home country.
Facing the recent rise of nationalism in Poland, I asked some of them with a big hesitation about the attitude of Polish people towards Armenians. I expected the worst, as typical Armenians have dark hair and often olive skin and might be confused with Arabs. Surprisingly, I never got a negative answer. I heard about Polish hospitality and that they liked living there.
While visiting the Manuscript Museum, we learned about the establishment and evolution of the Armenian alphabet, which for an average European is very difficult to read. Due to the fact it phonetically covers a large range of sounds occurring in many other languages, it makes for the Armenians to learn foreign languages easier. It explains why the Armenians we met speak such good Polish.
Armenia is one of the oldest Christian countries. It harbours a countless number of churches and abbeys already existing when the Eastern Europe had been still covered by deep forests, a long time before Poland became a state. As the Armenian Church separated from the Roman Catholic, it has its own pope called Apostolicus. Similar to the orthodox religion, women cover their heads with a scarf while entering the church. It seems that many Armenians are very religious as they incorporate prayers in their daily life by stepping into the Lord’s house on the way home or going to work and to light thin wax candles there. The burning candles create a special atmosphere in the dark churches made of tuff stone and inseparably belong to the picture of the Armenian church.
Was my journey dangerous?
During our stay we witnessed people demonstrating because they simply wanted to put an end to the current political governance and the suppression of the political opposition. From experience, Armenians didn’t believe in the democratic outcome of the next elections. Talking to them, we heard: ‘Living in Armenia is like being in a swamp. Because it is a highly corrupted country, every day you get deeper and deeper inside. It sucks out all your energy and it makes you depressive.’ So, at no point of our stay we felt in danger. On the opposite, thinking about our own past, we tried hard to show our sympathy to the protesters.
One week after we got back home we heard the great news that the head of the government was replaced by the candidate of the opposition. So, the revolution turned out to be a ‘velvet’ one and had a smooth and peaceful finale. There is still a lot Armenia has to do to fight corruption, to create sustainable economic development, and to reinforce civil society.
I wish the Armenian people all the best and hope to return there in a couple of years to see positive changes. I’m sure my friend Aga will join me again…
Author: Katarzyna Grzesik-Harz
Photo: Agnieszka Drab