The Fear of Large and Small Nations
By Nancy Agabian
I was sitting between two men on the Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Yerevan, at 1 in the morning, September 10, 2005. The man to my left was large and mid 40's, with brown hair and brown moustache, and his friend across the aisle was an old guy, bald, skin tinged by smoke, coughed a lot. They seemed like workers, dirt deep in the crevices of their hands, their thick skin. I had heard that since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the majority of men in Armenia, between the ages of 18 and 45, work in Russia and send the proceeds back to their families. I kinda felt like I was in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, on a bus with immigrant construction workers, coming home from work at the end of a long day.
I had been mortified as I got on the plane that someone would try to speak Armenian to me; it was a renewed fear from childhood, from going to church functions with my family – someone, usually my grandmother's age, would always try to speak Armenian to me, and when I couldn't, someone would often be offended and give me a lecture. I had gradually learned to brush off similar reactions over the years whenever I attended Armenian cultural events; after more than fifteen years of living in urban areas, I was also used to people speaking Spanish on the street to me and being completely thrown off when I didn't reply in their language, since my appearance – black hair, dark skin – seemed to guarantee I was Latin. But now it seemed clear that if you looked Armenian and were on a flight to Armenia, a place where no one else went, really, besides Armenians, that you should speak Armenian. When the two men had approached with question-mark faces, looking for seat numbers and then at me, I had avoided talking by holding up my ticket stub; I took solace in the fact that the seats were labeled A,B,C,D,E,F.
Everyone on the flight was Armenian and the Russian flight attendants were blond, brusque, and gave off an air of aloofness. They spoke in Russian and read the in-flight instructions in English with utterly no inflection. The plane smelled like old upholstery and crumbs in the carpet, and the junky seats rattled as the plane took off. Someone, my brother maybe, had told me the flights could be a bit wacky – that villagers brought chickens on board, that people passed homemade vodka around, absolutely no order. It wasn't like this at all, but the dynamic on board hinted at such a scene; the Armenians were the primitives aboard the substandard plane, and the Russians couldn't be bothered to be civil to them.
It took me about half an hour to figure out that I should ask the two men if they wanted to sit next to each other. The old guy got up to go the bathroom, and I composed the sentence in my head: “Do you want to sit with your friend?” It seemed comprehensible enough to someone for whom English was a third language; I had tried to say similarly simple sentences when I had been an ESL teacher. I said it out loud to the brown-haired man and then pointed with my thumb at the seat his friend had vacated.
“I will sit there.”
“Yes,” he said and nodded his head. “Thank you.”
The old man came back and was befuddled when he saw me in his seat, so I pointed him in the right direction. Then I felt proud that I had made such a pleasant exchange with my countrymen. The two men talked, animatedly at times, while previously they had been silent. I wondered if they were related, and how sick the old man was.
It took me another half hour before I realized I could have said the same simple sentence, “Do you want to sit with your friend?” in Armenian. For the duration of the flight, I composed it in my head, remembering from the beginner classes I had taken a few years before the vocabulary and the sentence structure, that the verb always goes at the end of the sentence. (“To sit with your friend, do you want?”) I was never sure if the verb was the least important part to communicate, or if action needed some sort of special emphasis, to ensure that it wouldn't be forgotten.
My knees knocked and my breath stopped as I waited in line at customs at Zvartnots airport, silently practicing how to say, “I don't speak Armenian” in Armenian. I said it to the guy who stamped my passport in a makeshift, glassed-in lean-to, and then to the guy who helped me with my luggage. The trouble with saying such a sentence is that people still try to speak to you in the language you cannot speak, understandably, since you've said the sentence in their language. The luggage guy said a word I recognized, ashkhadank, from a song I had learned as a child in Friday afternoon Armenian school.
“Work?” I said. “Yes, I work,” he said, as he was pushing my cart of luggage. I handed him an American dollar, but he wouldn't take it. I didn't understand why – my father had told me a dollar was like a day's wages, that salaries were about $300 a year. Perhaps it was the foreign currency, but I had read that American dollars were preferable. I didn't have any Armenian money yet; the currency exchange was located on the other side of the customs line, which had been very frantic and unorganized and it was just too much to deal with at 3:30 in the morning, when your knees are knocking, your breath has stopped, and you are in the country of your people for the first time in your life. The luggage guy eventually accepted the dollar bill. I hoped he was offended because it was too much rather than not enough, as he steered me toward the exit.
A cab driver approached asking if I needed a ride and when I said no, that someone was coming to pick me up, he proceeded to ask me if I were sure, did I know who was coming, perhaps they had forgotten, basically preying on all my fears, as if he were my mother. I worried for an instant that I had come to the land where everyone possessed the personality of Sylvia Agabian, that her overprotectiveness and paranoia were in fact totally cultural.
Vartan, the artist I was going to be staying with, was supposed to pick me up, but I didn't have a number to call if I were somehow left stranded. Anna, who had invited me to Armenia to perform at the feminist conference, did not speak a lot of English. All she had written about Vartan in one of her minimal emails was that he was an artist, a very nice man, and that he lived with his mother. I half expected a chubby, middle-aged bald dude who couldn't separate enough from his overprotective, paranoid mairig to come pick me up at the airport in the middle of the night. Unless, of course, he was a lonely guy looking for a wife.
In truth, I was hoping he might be someone that I could fall in love with. I had been single for five years. Falling in love in Yerevan seemed to make sense in the larger scheme of things, a good chapter in the story of my life, so much so that my parents' hints that maybe I would meet someone in Armenia actually did not offend me as much as they should have considering it was the only interest they had taken in my trip. I had been refusing their offers, for the last several years, to pay for a “Young Professionals” tour with one of the diasporan organizations. They tooled around the Armenian nation, the size of Maryland, visiting orphanages and ancient churches. Both my brother and sister had gone, which was ironic, since they are both gay, and these trips are obviously masterminded for the young professionals to find a mate in heterosexual matrimony, the impoverished yet historic homeland providing the perfect romantic backdrop.
The cabbie whipped out his cell phone and was asking why I didn't have a contact number, when I noticed a young man dressed in black, mid-thirties, walk past. Just then another man appeared in front of me, very tall, very thin, early thirties, with long hair swept back, wearing glasses.
“Are you Nancy?” he asked.
“Yes!” I said, leaving the now swarming cab drivers behind.
“How did I know it was you?” he asked, and he took my bag.
“Are you Vartan?” I asked. But he was off with another cabbie, lugging my bag to a car.
The man in black I had seen just a moment before approached. “Nancy,” he said and then made a point of holding up a sign with my name on it, shrugging knowingly since it was unnecessary now. “I am Vartan.” I don't recall if we kissed or hugged; I was mostly concerned about the tall, thin man lugging my suitcase. “It's very heavy!” I called.
When I got into the cab, he was sitting in the front giving directions to the driver. He turned around and said, “My name is Viken, I am helping Anna with the conference.” They asked me how my flight was, how long I had been waiting.
“I am so sorry you had to come get me at the airport so late at night,” I told them.
“Oh no, this is not late for us. We are up all night,” Viken said.
He spoke more English than Vartan, who sat next to me in the back, effusive. “We are so happy to meet you, that you are here,” Vartan said. He told me a friend of his, Tania, a poet who lived in Beirut, had read some of my old poems in a translated Armenian anthology and had liked them very much, especially one that stated that men were closed off to their feelings because they had tiny holes in their penises. I had tried to forget about that one.
“What kind of art do you do?” I asked Vartan. I noticed then he had a large gash above his eyebrow, and a dark circle under his eye, as if he had been in a fight. His hair was short and curly, his features vaguely Mongolian, narrow eyes, high forehead, short, flat nose. He was rather foxy, I thought, but probably trouble.
“I am a performance artist,” he said. “Video, and uh, moving. Movement?”
“I am a singer,” Viken said.
I knew I was at home. I knew who these guys were. They were members of the tribe, misfits, creative types. I had somehow fallen in with the right people, I thought.
“Is this your first time to Armenia?” Vartan asked.
“Yes,” I said, “I can hardly believe I'm actually here. This is like a dream.”
I hadn't slept in a day and a half – the flight from New York to Moscow was about nine hours, and then I had a ten hour layover in the Moscow airport, Sheremetyevo II. I had spent my time wandering the duty free shops, laying on a linoleum floor in a long hallway with other international travelers, and keeping track of when to take my antibiotics. I had come down with a really bad flu the week before, and couldn't shake it by the time of my flight; I had been miserable, with all the nerves, pressurized snot and lack of sleep, but now I was in Armenia, finally. It was so quiet and dark and warm, I could see vague outlines of buildings, homes, trees, dogs. I was delirious, beaming. “I'm just so happy to be here; I've been waiting for this for so long, I practically want to cry.”
“You should cry then,” Viken said. He turned around and looked at me and I could see in his face some kind of wariness. I realized then that I sounded like all the other Armenian-Americans, all those bleary, teary-eyed young professionals, returning to the homeland. It was a very naive, self-centered position, to think that Armenia, after all its struggles, was the culmination of your own personal dreams.
The car pulled into a large, dilapidated apartment complex and as I got out of the car, Viken said, his voice dry and deadpan, slightly nasal, “Dream the most beautiful dreams of your home, and in the morning, you can write poems about them.” He was smiling, and though I had just met him, I kissed him on both cheeks.
Nancy Agabian is the author of Princess Freak (Beyond Baroque Books, 2000), a collection of poems and performance art texts that document the coming-of-age of a bisexual, second-generation, Armenian-American girl. Her writing has also appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including Ararat, Birthmark: A Bilingual Anthology of Armenian-American Poetry, and Hers 2: Brilliant New Fiction from Lesbian Writers. Her recent memoir, Me As Her Again, tells the story of her paternal grandmother who survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915, in what was then the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey, and explores the generational reverberations of this event, particularly on sexuality and the shape of women's lives. She recently performed an excerpt from Me as her again at "One Step Forwards, Two Step Back", a feminist conference in Armenia, and the text of the performance will appear in an upcoming issue of Women's Studies Quarterly. Since December of 2002, Agabian has been coordinating Gartal, a progressive literary reading series for Armenian writers in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches nonfiction writing at Queens College.