I’ve debated whether or not to write this post for much of the past week. I almost decided to skip it, to tell a light-hearted and safe story instead and sleep soundly knowing I’d alienated and offended no one. But hey, what is writing if not risky? So I continue as planned with a disclaimer. Please keep in mind that I am offering observations and experiences from as objective a point of view as possible. I try not to choose a “side” in any conflict, and I absolutely abhor any perpetuation of hatred and prejudice. I will do my best here to give enough background information so that the average reader might get a clearer picture of context, but I do so understanding that I am not a scholar in this, and that international conflicts are far more complex than can be summed up in a paragraph. Please read this with an open mind and an open heart. And please, please do not make any assumptions as to what side of the conflict I identify with. I don’t identify with any side. Remember that though Azerbaijan is a second home for me and I will always and forever carry it in my heart, I am still an outsider, trying to process my own thoughts and feelings on the political issues at hand. By no means am I belittling any of the tragic stories of death and lives gravely affected by this conflict, only trying to sort through and express my own feelings. That said: The Forbidden Land.
Armenia. There it is, a word I avoided saying out loud for two years at the risk of offending others by its mere mention or starting a discussion I’m not really a part of. Modern disputes between Azerbaijan and Armenia date back as early as the early 20th century with confusion and fighting over the drawing of borders, but today, the major conflict is centered around a small region called Nagorno-Karabakh. Though NK is governed by the de facto independent state, the Nagorno-Karabagh Republic, the territory is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. However, no Azerbaijanis currently live there, with those who formerly inhabited the area now living as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in other regions of Azerbaijan. This, coupled with some very violent episodes in which many lost their lives, is the main source of conflict and hostility between the two countries today. Because this topic is so deeply personal, it is a touchy subject at best and a forbidden topic at worst. You can learn more about these complex conflicts and the NK region here, here, here and here.
As you can imagine, I encountered many differing points of view in my time in Azerbaijan about this conflict whenever it would come up – which seemed to be very, very often. Some were filled with rage, hatred and a sense of duty to claim vengeance while others would look at me with sad eyes and lament that such a large conflict stood between two neighbors. Either way, everyone was ready for the conflict to be over, whether that meant reclaiming the land and remaining hostile toward one another or coming to some kind of agreement and becoming amicable and friendly. I can’t say which point of view is ‘right,’ as I’m not really involved in the conflict and my friends and loved ones haven’t been directly impacted by it. Being a traveler and considering myself a citizen of the world, I really wanted to go to Armenia. I truly believe that the bigger conflicts of governments do not change the average person – that in all actuality, our similarities vastly outweigh our differences, that my enemy wants the exact same things I do – to laugh, to eat, to fall in love, to share blissful moments, to create, to smell sweet flowers, to be near family, to sing, to dance, to run free. Maybe it is because of this that I felt some kind of obligation to go to Armenia and see even just the smallest taste of it for myself. Maybe it is because of this that Mercedes and I decided to start our journey with a few days in Armenia.
It was December, which meant the weather could be cold and unpredictable. This, coupled with a strong desire to get to Asia as soon as possible, ruled our decision to spend only a few days in Yerevan without venturing into other regions. Mostly, we just wanted to be able to say we had been to Armenia and could confirm that everyone was an appropriate hue, was without devil horns and was not sacrificing hordes of babies in the streets. Our time there was short but entertaining. We surfed someone’s couch (officially) for the first time. We walked the streets of the city in the brisk weather. We enjoyed looking at art and cultural artifacts. We sipped on Brandy and saw the inner workings of how it’s made. We gazed upon Mount Ararat from the site where St. Gregory The Illuminated was imprisoned in a pit for 13 years. (And we went into that pit and marveled at anyone living there for 13 days, let alone years.) We sipped white wine while listening to excellent live jazz. Most exciting, we met our first traveling friend, Stefano, an adorably hilarious and goofy guy who inexplicably sent shivers down our spines when his sweet tenor voice changed to a rough baritone as he answered the question of nationality with, “BRASILIA.” No, nothing we saw in Yerevan was particularly amazing or exciting. (With the exception of Ararat. That was pretty cool.) Honestly, it looked a lot like our surroundings for the past couple of years and didn’t feel new enough to really impress us. But we did manage to learn a few things and we had a great time running around town with Stefano and teaching him stupid and mildly inappropriate slang, like “pork sword” and “whitey tighties” as we shared travel stories.
Here’s the kicker. What struck me the most about Armenia (or at least Yerevan) was how similar it was to Azerbaijan. In fact, the apartment we stayed in was fully equipped with the same couch covers and sparkly wallpaper I’ve seen in numerous Azeri homes. The foods were undeniably similar. And though the music had some differences, to the undiscerning ear it would be difficult to tell them apart. I found myself wondering if this is what it would look like should Wyoming and Nebraska engage in a brutal conflict with one another. A friend recently said to me that he believes most prejudice and hatred comes from our closest neighbors. I guess this is just another example in a long list that maybe he’s on to something.
For me, the highlight of our time in Armenia came on our last night there when we had the opportunity to go to a couchsurfing meeting and talk to a diverse and interesting group of expats, travelers and Armenian couchsurfers. The Armenians in attendance were very interested and curious to hear about our time in Azerbaijan and about the Azeri people, much as my Azeri friends would undoubtedly be curious to know about my very, very short time in Armenia. Somewhere in the midst of the conversation, I had the privilege to hear one young man’s story of how his family was affected by the conflict. They had been ethnic Armenians living in Baku when all hell broke loose and had to leave behind all they knew to go back to Armenia and start from scratch. It was a sobering story, one similar to those I had heard for two years, but with a different cast of characters. As I sat there talking over pints with new friends from around the globe, I wondered what the world would look like if people were forced to blindly communicate with one another – with no knowledge of heritage or ethnicity – and only told about common interests. Would the world look different? Would we all be more loving and open? I wondered why we commit such crimes toward one another. I wondered why on earth we haven’t yet evolved as a species when it no longer serves us to judge based on outward appearance and ethnic divisions. I wondered how we could be so focused on conflicts and hatred with the knowledge that we are but a miniscule and lowly speck in the grand scheme of existence. I wondered how it is so difficult for us to see each other by the ball of light that shimmers and trembles inside of each of us with all the intensity and terror of the universe. And then my head and heart started to hurt, so I stopped wondering and ordered another pint.
I don’t have an end to this story. I don’t have a resolution to offer. I’m tempted to ask why we can’t all just get along already, but I know it would be met with hundreds of answers of complications and ways I “just don’t understand.” I guess they’re right. I guess I don’t. I realize that I am the young idealist who entertains wishful thinking that things can and will get better, who holds out that maybe there’s still hope for us to not completely screw everything up, whose line of thinking is deemed unrealistic and childish. Honestly, I don’t care. Though my few days in Armenia were punctuated with laughter and warm moments between new friends, what it really left me with was a heaviness in my heart at the inadequacies of humanity. And that childish idealist in me is struggling daily to make sure that heaviness doesn’t take over the hope I still carry — a hope that we may all find love, peace and friendship, a hope that wishes freedom for the Azerbaijanis and Armenians I hold dear in my heart.