I want to set up a stand at Vernissage, the weekend flea-market-cum-craft-fair in the middle of Yerevan, where all the tourists get their Armenian souvenirs, beautifully crafted and sold at rock bottom prices. I will sit at a table, and there will be someone with me in a white coat and a syringe and a tourniquet, sapping red fluid from my arm into tiny vials. I will dab white makeup on my face to appear pallid and there will be a sales rep passing out brochures explaining the prices and the authenticity and the dire necessity of the product. The sign, hand lettered like the notices of shows at the Opera House, will read “100% Armenian Blood”.
During this first month of my Fulbright fellowship here in the Armenian capital, I have made an unlikely discovery: Some people don’t understand that I’m Armenian. They meet me, hear my name, see that I don’t comprehend most—if not all—the language that they are speaking, watch me smile wanly, and ask me where I’m from. The answer is that I’m from New York, which is the answer New Yorkers give when they are traveling abroad in order to separate themselves from ugly Americans. I have never been a fan of New York; I do like the boroughs, but I find Manhattan offensive—with its fast walkers and cell phone talkers—and Manhattan is what people think of, generally, when you mention New York, so perhaps I should say Brooklyn, but then no one will know what I’m talking about. In any case, I think I started saying that I’m from New York so that I won’t sound so American, which will somehow make me more Armenian.
At some point, while I am standing there shamelessly wanting to be embraced by my fellow countrypeople, I am asked Duk hye ek? Are you Armenian?
And I reply confidently, Yes hye em. I am Armenian.
Both mother and father are Armenian?
Yes, I explain. My grandparents came from Anatolia. A.k.a. Eastern Turkey, a.k.a the former Armenian provinces of the Ottoman Empire, a.k.a. historical Western Armenia. I have to make this distinction because I am in the newly independent nation of Armenia, a.k.a. the former Soviet Republic, a.k.a., the former Armenian province of the Russian Empire, a.k.a. historical Eastern Armenia. Although in Yerevan there are diasporan Armenians of various generations, with roots as Western Armenians, the majority seem to have a local history from Eastern Armenia.
My parents were born in America, I add to further explain my foreignness.
And you’re Armenian? They ask just to make sure.
Yes, I’m Armenian.
Huh. Suspicious glance; fake, sorry smile; head nod: you’re not really Armenian.
I suppose it’s the combination of my appearance and aura and lack of language and their own experiences with diasporan Armenians that lead them to this deduction, and I shouldn’t put so much weight on it.
But I’ve spent so much of my life, from childhood to the present day, explaining that I’m Armenian to Americans, going into detail about its geographic location and complicated history, struggling to own who I am as an Armenian, that you would think that in the one place where people know where and what Armenia is, and how much it has struggled to own itself, that I would be understood. But instead I am frequently and decidedly told I’m not who I think I am.
“You have to get our mountain back,” Dr. Armenian (not his real name) told me as I was lying in a hospital bed in New York, a few months before my trip. He was speaking of Mount Ararat, a national symbol of Armenia, which is actually located twenty miles over the border from Armenia itself, over in Anatolia, a.k.a. Eastern Turkey, a.k.a. historical Western Armenia. The location of the peak is also symbolic, just outside Armenians’ reach, a reminder of all they lost during WWI and the genocide that displaced them from the Western side of their identity, like a twin whose identical sibling has perished.
The hospital stay was the end result of the U.S. government requiring that I prove I was physically fit to travel abroad for a year. As I sat waiting for over an hour for a Polish doctor in my Polish neighborhood, I had an epiphany that an Armenian doctor would probably be more emotionally and ethnically invested in helping me my get medical clearance to go to Hayastan, the homeland. After doing a search for Armenians from the endless online list provided by my HMO, I chose Dr. Armenian for his name and his office’s close proximity. He seemed to be the only Armenian doctor in the medical office, in a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Although he was terse when we first met and he shook my hand, once I told him in the tiny examining room that I was going to Armenia on a Fulbright, he began opening up. He was from the Middle East but had lived in New York for twenty years. He knew Arabic and told me about the Armenian community in his home country. He wanted me to know he was successful; he had a son who attended an Ivy League college. As I had hoped, he immediately jumped on board to get my medical papers in order.
When I went back a week later to pick up the results of my blood and urine tests, the doctor told me that he had discovered some bacteria in my urine. He gave me medicine for a urinary tract infection, though I had experienced no symptoms. I dubiously took the antibiotics for several days before waking up one morning with a horrible headache and a fever and my neck ached and the next thing I knew I was in the hospital getting a spinal tap, like a business transaction. The hospital doctors didn’t know what was wrong, and via the process of elimination deduced that I was having an allergic reaction to the antibiotic. Looking back now, I know it wasn’t his fault, but at the time I blamed the doctor because almost immediately Dr. Armenian had appeared to be a quack.
During the initial physical, he had asked me what kind of Armenian name was Nancy. When I told him my baptized name was Nevart, he had a problem with that too. “That’s for an old lady. You need something like Nanoush or Naneh.” He informed me that he was also a plastic surgeon, and that I should sit up straight because what I had on my chest was worth tens of thousand dollars. When he found out I was a writer, he offered me a job with him, writing his life story.
On that day we first met, when he was drawing my dark red blood, Dr. Armenian said, “This is precious stuff.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It’s Armenian blood.” I have to admit that I smiled at the combination of his blatant nationalism, an ethnic camaraderie that transcended the doctor-patient relationship, and a kind of affirmation of my heritage. But then Dr. Armenian ruined the mood by telling me that the people he treated, immigrants from Latin and South America, didn’t possess such special blood, and that they were uneducated, like monkeys.
I ended up in the hospital for five days for tests and to recover from the spinal tap. Dr. Armenian came to visit me every day. Though I was angry with him for prescribing the antibiotic, I never said so, treating him politely like an older relative. Because I am a writer, I enjoyed seeing his distinct form—thin, slightly hunched body, horn-rimmed glasses, prominent nose—as he entered my room, like a character in a novel. I eagerly noticed that he wore the same khaki pants every day with the same stain near the right pocket, at the same time that I watched myself lying in a hospital bed; I wondered if my attraction to observe strange characters had gone too far, into the pathological.
Dr. Armenian kept up a tough love bit, acting like I was a strong warrior who needed to get back into the fight. “What are you doing, lying in this bed?” he would ask me as he took my pulse, his fingers on the inside of my wrist. We never discussed the validity of my medical clearance, which he had already given me. And when the insurance company gave me a hard time about some of the charges, he objected on my behalf. Still, once I got out of the hospital, I removed him as my General Practitioner. I closed the pop-up window that asked me the reason.
A year later, I will run into him on an organized hike three hours outside of Yerevan. We will be walking by the side of a small alpine pond when I will recognize him and say his name. He is here for a medical conference, he will tell me. “You look wonderful!” he will say in awe, faced with my sudden presence from the past.
As we stride through a mountaintop meadow filled with flowers, he will say, “When I first met you, you were so fragile that your system couldn’t even handle a little antibiotic.” I won’t tell him that when I did an internet search of the antibiotic, I found many instances of allergic reactions similar to mine. “The homeland has made you strong and healthy,” he will claim. I will nod my head and smile.
At first he had told me that I was going to rescue our fragile homeland, but in actuality, the doctor was also thinking the opposite, that I had a weak constitution, or “organism” as people like to say here. For sure, there is some kind of symbiotic relationship between ancient Armenia and its returning lost children.
I will watch him as he navigates a difficult spot, a log over a brook and then a big jump down a steep incline. “Not bad for sixty years old!” he will tell me, continuing to hike. He is here by himself, with neither a companion nor the other doctors from the conference.
And then I will remember the first time we met, when he asked me to write his life story, how he showed me his scars on the surface of his skin from when he had been shot in the head—the spots where the bullet went in and out, under his eye and the scruff of his neck—as he was walking one day in Manhattan.
We have been seeing each other only a few weeks, but it’s a running joke with Arman
now. “Hey, you really are Armenian girl.” The first time he said it was when I told him I needed to feel more connected emotionally before having sex. “You know what they say about Armenian girls; you have to know them forty years before they let you hold their hand.”
I glared at him.
“You don’t think is funny?”
He said it on another occasion, very sweetly, when he was telling me how much he liked my eyes, my nose, my mouth, my teeth. “You have Armenian nose. And like Armenian girl, you have black eyes, and a little mustache.”
Once, we were making out on my couch and my mother called in the midst of it so I left the room for about ten minutes to speak to her and when I came back and told him who it was, he gave me a big smile and said it again, “Oh, you really are Armenian girl,” chuckle chuckle, then a hug.
Today, I wasn’t feeling well, and asked if he knew a place where I could get some yogurt and wheat soup— tan abour—but they call it by a Russian name, spaz, here. He said he didn’t know, since he doesn’t often eat at restaurants. “If we can’t find it, we can make it,” he said.
The truth is, I do know how to make it. “I think I could,” I said, imagining how to boil the wheatberries and the madzoon.
“Oh, now, you really are Armenian girl.”
“Do you have a problem with that?” I asked defensively.
“Not with you,” he said. The understanding was that he was initially drawn to me because I’m not very Armenian, so when I exhibit the traits, it’s surprising. Similarly, some of my more sexually outspoken poems, that I wrote when I was in my early-twenties, have made an impression after they were published here precisely because they came from a girl who was Armenian, though she was living in California at the time. Not long ago my friend Ara, who grew up in Beirut and moved to Pasadena as a teenager, said of those early poems, “You just couldn’t believe an Armenian girl wrote them.” And Viken, who grew up here, said, “You expressed what every girl in the village goes through but does not express.”
“Even Hrair said this,” Arman went on.
“What, that I’m a real Armenian girl?”
“He said you don’t seem like you are from New York.”
When I was going to college in suburban Massachusetts, no one suspected I grew up in a middle class/working class town nearby. Because of my appearance and aesthetic sensibility, acquaintances assumed I was a New Yorker. Twenty years later, after living in New York for seven years, I struggled to accept such a mythologized and huge place, the opposite of the unknown and tiny Armenia. Now, I feel like New York is a part of me, but maybe because I am shy a lot of the time with Armenians, it is hard for them to imagine me pushing through crowds on the subway.
I suppose it’s an asset, not looking or seeming to be what you are, because then you can be free, you can be anything. You can just sit back and watch the reflections of what people think you are, dual images in a plate glass window.
Arman says that he’s from another planet. One night, after we got into our first fight, he came by my place and played some Radiohead and lay on my floor. The song was “Subterranean Homesick Alien” and I cried and cried, imagining him growing up here, a free spirit, someone who smiles all the time while the majority frowns, and then later, I realized, I was crying for myself, for the teenager I was in small town suburban Massachusetts, the girl from the planet Armenia, listening to my Walkman, music the only way out.
In the Armenian communities in Iran, Maral told me, if an Armenian gets a promotion and is successful in the wider Iranian world, the Armenians say, disparagingly, that he or she is half Iranian. I was sitting in her art gallery in Yerevan, sipping tea, ostensibly to help her with her English and she with my Armenian. Maral considers herself part Spiurkahye (diasporan Armenian) and part Armenian, since she came here as a college student from Iran. She was comparing this mentality on Armenian identity that she experienced in Iran to one that she has also found here, the one that I had been a victim of.
“They’re not modern,” she said of the name-calling Armenians. “They don’t realize, that in the west, you can’t survive unless you become a part of the place.”
I nodded my head; I told her that the Armenian community in America can be insular, but that compared to elsewhere, there’s probably more freedom to be “un-Armenian”. “Maybe in the Armenian communities of the middle east, they’ve had to be even more protective?” I wondered aloud to her, and this time she nodded her head.
“They want to protect the culture, to make sure they don’t—” and she gestured with her hands, as if taking something from the other —”lose it,” I finished her sentence.
Maral sent me on my way with some honey and some homeopathic medicine for a sore throat, and I walked down Amiryan wondering why Armenians are still so afraid of losing our identity when we’ve been going to other parts of the world and becoming something else from the very beginning. People, diasporans especially, are obsessed with protecting the language, protecting the culture, protecting the blood.
And I suppose I feel this way, too; part of the reason I’m here is to restore what was lost in me. It’s been upsetting to see that the West is already here: billboards, bottled Frapuccinos, the threat of McDonald’s, and historical homes ruthlessly torn down for the sake of condominiums that only foreigners can afford. They’re the negative homogenizing effects of globalization that are happening in all little countries everywhere, all over the post-Soviet places.
So this is why I want to draw my blood from my body and sell it at a stand at Vernissage: a precious keepsake, a memento from the homeland, sold for not nearly what it’s worth. Like a twin mourning her dead sibling: I embody her, but I also have to let her go.