“That is why I love America,” he said to me this morning, eyes watering. “A land where immigrants are welcomed and can free themselves of the shackles of the past – of the old country which we love so much, with a love that is laced with sadness.”
That is what Armenians feel about America. There is something special about Armenia – about Armenians. You feel this in the Diaspora, people who have found a way to fully embrace the chaotic turbulence of America without losing their serene passion for the “old country” – being both from there and from here, fully a part of both – which is in fact the spirit of America. A spirit which is exemplified in brilliant prose by Armenia’s amazing American writers. Leon Surmelian “I Ask You Ladies And Gentlemen“, the penultimate chapter of which was a sonnet to immigration, to the yearning for the old country that finds itself in a gratitude to the land of the free so beautiful that I had to put down the book and rush to find my wife, sitting her down – for she is also an immigrant to America (she from South America) – and read it to her aloud. Or “Song of America” by George Mardikian, a restauranteur and philanthropist from California who was also from Western Armenia and found upon the slanted streets of San Francisco what he could never find in Istanbul: washing away from himself the misery of Ottoman violence and Soviet oxygenless totalitarianism with all its myopic brutishness to experience the joy of opportunity in making amazing food for a grateful American public.
“I don’t understand this new generation of Americans,” my new friend went on. “They somehow don’t see it, don’t see that even though they don’t feel like they are privileged, they nevertheless are – juxtaposed against anybody from anywhere else.”
“Civilizations rarely survive so great a prosperity as we have known,” I responded. “It makes people think only about stuff, and makes them greedy. And the greedy know only bitterness and theft. They cannot see beauty anywhere in anything, which only makes them angrier and more dangerous.”
This morning I was sitting quietly on a leafy street in Yerevan reading “The First Man” by Albert Camus (review forthcoming, for it is Camus’ best work!) when my new friend approached me, representing as he did for me everything I love about Yerevan, about Armenia – and why it saved my life. “Camus!!” he said. “Great writer!” to which I of course responded. We then got into a wide-ranging conversation about why America was so divided, the sadness of seeing people who have so much, tearing each other down in so terrible ways and our joint hope that we would somehow find our way (we, because my new Armenian friend was American too). “America saved us,” my friend said. “It is a land of so many people, from so many different places!”
Its ironic that I had to fly so far from home, to a tiny land-locked war-locked country trapped in the mountain fastness of the south Caucasus to be saved. What was it that saved me?… you might be asking. Armenia is a conservative place – not in the political sense but in the civilizational one. A place where days are measured by hard work sunup to sunrise, weekends are weighed by the amount of meat on the BBQ and the number of family members at the wedding, and love is measured to the height of the great Mount Ararat that sits in silent supervision upon Yerevan, a reminder both of the timelessness of Armenians’ sojourn on this piece of land and of a bitterness like the black Armenian coffee – for Ararat sits in Turkey (what was once Western Armenia). I was saved by beauty. The painters that sit in Saryan square across from the Opera House (and where I bought not a few paintings); the alpine valleys where the delicate flowers grow beside crystalline mountain springs runoff from the melting mountain snows; the dark forests where the Divs still live and hunt their prey in solitude and mystery. The monasteries still in use by the monks who see the world not in years or decades but still talk about the Council of Nicea, of Gregory the Illuminator and the times when the apostles wandered through these places. I often wonder what Thaddeus and Bartholomew must have thought, replacing the vast open expanses of desert for the alpine mountains and the delicate rivers and the smells of sheep. Did they also look up at Ararat and wonder if the Ark was to be found there? I think they too loved Armenia, which is why legend places their graves here.
I was saved, more than anything, by the literature. Armenians from the Armenian boom days (in the 20s and 30s, behind Churchills Iron Curtain): Gevorg Emin, Yegishe Charents, Aksel Bakunts, Gurgen Mahari. So many others who nourished each other and often met their doom at the hands of Stalin or Beria’s brutes. Those who fled Western Armenia, from the genocide, making their way to America: Leon Surmelian and William Saroyan. Poets and composers like Komitas – the greatest of all composers – who lost his mind in sadness at the wickedness and died in Paris. His olden lament “Krunk” played mournfully, heart-wrenchingly in a recently bombed out church reminding us that the story of the Armenians goes on, that the ‘weeping nation’ continues to weep. “We live in a bad neighborhood,” my new friend says. And he is right, this place is so vulnerable, so weak and yet so resilient and full of the past and surprisingly the future.
Armenia saved my life, because America under the new maoist ‘dictatorship of culture’ has become an oxygenless place, especially for those who don’t really believe in ‘progress’, for those who think of an ancient faith born in Ur as still having the answers, and those who know that a great God sees the suffering of His people and rewards them for the trials they face on earth. Armenia saved my life because it reminded me that prosperity is tyranny in its own way, because it sets us apart from our God and asks us to put our faith in men, and they wicked and self-dealing; because it creates a natural client-body that is grasping and wicked and mean; and Armenia reminded me of the paradox that material wealth and spiritual poverty often go together, and that those without great affluence are more often more in love with the beautiful things and the quiet lovely places, the hope of peace in times of war, the gentle caressing of a pomegranate and the silent mountain vigil, beside a fire and warmed by brandy as the soft grunting of the sheep clustered together for warmth pervades a peaceful mountain night. No gadgets, no iPads, no tunes (Apple or otherwise) – just a man alone with his thoughts.
Armenia saved my life because it reminded me that there are still good places of beauty, good people who love their families and their freedom as a natural reaction to lives of difficulty which they are nevertheless not bitter about, though they are often sad; that despite the rise and fall of countries, empires and dynasties, there are things that remain good and true.
Back to Camus, there is very little of Camus’s existentialism here – to say nothing of the Nietzsche nihilism of America these days; except that one piece of yearning which does pervade Camus’ prose, the desire to live a good life, the discovery of wonder, and the hopefulness for a better tomorrow.