“A man does not know himself until he is tested. (…) the son from a good family. Raised in opulence, back in Europe, spending his life in spiritual contemplation. Alienated from people and from the homeland for a very long time, in fact, from every mass community; a rich, abstract man. Externals, that he stumbles upon, would only appear a few times. (…) Then comes, very remarkable, the only interruption in this inward-looking, intellectual life. The era of the military school and war. The Patriotic, which suddenly displaces the contemplative, is not easy to understand. (…) The secretive unrest, the attempt to escape from his too smoothed life path, can be a partial explanation.(…) He is not, as he has always thought, one whose life is turned exclusively to the world of the inner. He proves to meet the requirements of initiative, presence of spirit, leadership and courage”
- The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, Franz Werfel
I entered the taxicab and shuffled my way into the seat of the car. The driver gave me a nod while looking in his rear-view mirror. He didn’t want to lose any time and immediately started talking to me from the moment he had locked eyes with me, trying to reap something out of the 10-minute ride. He went on talking and talking and talking, almost pushing me to react now and then during the ‘very meaningful’ conversation. I tried to speak as less as possible, knowing that diasporian Armenians somehow make the hearts of taxicab drivers skip a beat. Even though I was trying to keep my mouth shut, he instantly had felt that I was not from ‘here’. From the point of realization, he looked at me and said the following in a belittling tone of speaking: “The other day I was taking these young boys to the location they were heading to. These kids were from the diaspora, it didn’t even take me a second to discover that. Do you know how?” He paused for a second, as if he was waiting for me to respond, which clearly wasn’t the case. “Well, you all have these pink, soft, youthful, cute faces, no matter how old you get. They are very vulnerable. It really shows that you we’re raised without any worries.”
It was silent for a moment, and I knew he wanted to add something to that, I felt that the climax was there, the tension had built itself up, so he continued, while raising his voice in a very theatrical way: “Butoùr boys!” He threw his hand in the air and then made it fall in his lap, “Our boys are very dark-skinned, their faces look very rough, raw and dry. They have inherited the burdens of their ancestors. Oh, our boys, they have seen so much!” I almost had the feeling he was reciting a piece from a Greek tragedy, and I felt how eagerly I wanted to make my eyes roll, but I didn’t. I resented him for making Armenia look like a place where you don’t want to live, where there is only pain and suffering.
Now looking back, I agree with the driver, maybe not with the sentimental message he wanted to bring across but rather with what he said, put in another context. I remember walking in Odzun, the village where my grandmother lives, with my Armenian friend of Belgium. We we were talking about how beautiful Armenians are, especially Armenians originating from or living in villages. And we weren’t talking about the golden ratio beauty, we were talking about the roughness, the rawness and the darkness (later on, I made a link with what the driver had told me). My opinion was that most of the faces of the Western world were all smoothed out, I couldn’t see character anymore in those faces, something that speaks out, something that lives vividly, something that shines brightly. However, I still see these things in Armenian eyes, and it always has captivated me. And as Socrates said, this is because we take care of our souls, on one hand by keeping our identity, by practicing our tradition, by enjoying our culture and on the other hand by knowing what pain is, by just being able to feel, by not being numb. Sorrow is the other side of the coin; it’s inherently needed in order for us to be a soulful being. And I really want to put emphasis on the fact that the contrast that I’m trying to create here between the West and Armenia has nothing to do with the dichotomy between the classical definitions of good and bad. I’m not saying that we all are good people, that we only do good. In fact, and many of us will agree, within the Armenian people you have two extremes of the spectrum. Either you have a golden heart, or you are the devil itself. There is no in between, what comes to our kind.
In the West, many people have sold their soul and in return they get a high-quality life with no substance. This creates a cold environment, where neutrality and rigor are the yardsticks of the society. Yes, it’s true, it’s a comfortable life in the West, if we put it that way. But does this necessarily make you happy, being comfortable? A comfortable life is a dull life. There are no challenges to face. You want something, you get the thing, you are excited maybe for one second or one minute and then you are bored again. And reciting singer-songwriter Jacques Brel, I prefer to have an intense life to a dull one. Because what’s the point of living if you do not feel anything, if you don’t get excited about the little things, about the little gestures, about the connection you make with the soulful person who is standing next to you.
You only recognize beauty when you have seen the unsightly
Why am I telling all of this, or why do I think this is relevant for a future Birthright Armenia participant to read? I am telling this because I have heard a million times from different kinds of people the question: “Why did you come to Armenia, you have it way better in Belgium? You really shouldn’t stay here.” And I really want to encourage you and ask you to stay motivated, despite those kinds of questions. It’s not easy here in Armenia, in fact there is a lot to be done, I can tell that for sure. As Sevan said during our orientation day, Armenia is a real country with real people, just like any other country. But that shouldn’t hold you back from utilizing your strength and energy, for investing it in something greater. It gives your life flavor, it makes a warrior out of you, it gives you excitement. What is the human body, human soul worth for, if it doesn’t get utilized for something that is greater than you.
Finding balance between emotion and rationality is the key to getting to a welfare state. I agree with the percentages given by Sevan, namely 15% emotion and 85% rationality. However, to keep the essence of our nature and to keep our inner growth, the existence of a third dimension is crucially important. Rationality is referring to our head, emotion is referring to our heart and to our mundane and finite temptations, and this third dimension is referring to our essence, to our nature, to our character, to our bravery and courage, to our soul. This third dimension would be called ‘inborst’ in Flemish, which, if you would translate it literally, would be translated to ‘all what’s beneath your chest or all what’s in your chest’. In Ancient Greek terminology it would be referred to as ‘thymos’.
Armenia is for me the place that offers me the most effective opportunity to discover that third dimension in me, which gives me a chance to go back to my essence, to go back to my roots, to my fundaments. Armenia is for me the place where I can make sense of all that I am. I am real here; I am raw in my realness. And the connection I make with the people here, is the necessary condition for me to feel and to be alive. It’s not much about comprehending everything, it’s much more about actively undergoing life and feeling it in all its extensiveness.
I believe that Armenia can be this place for you too, if you are willing to see the beauty behind the madness. If you are willing to be the greatest version of yourself. If you are willing to give your everything to create pathways to success. If you are willing to create your own truth and happiness.
There is this ongoing cycle of destruction and reconstruction. A cycle we must accept because of its inevitability and because of its purpose. So I’m proposing to accept the challenge to keep rebuilding in order for us to keep our ‘inborst’ intact.