Armenian Taxi Cab Convos

Many of my conversations with Armenians cover the same topics: what I’m doing here, if I have a mother and father, if America is good or here (literal translation), etc. Things that are generally not interesting, so I’ve never bothered to really blog about them. But I’ve finally had a conversation I think is worth mentioning because 1. it covers an interesting topic and 2. some ridiculous things were said.

A taxi in Yerevan

I was on the way to my village from Sisian. We had just dropped off another volunteer, Tylor, whose village is on the same road as mine and is about halfway between Lor and Sisian. The driver, who we’ve taken before, started on the same line of questioning that I usually get. Are you married? No. Why not? I’m very young. Eventually, this somehow led to the topic of sex. He told me that when he gets married he will have his wife and also some other woman with whom he will have sex. I must have said something like “interesting…” because we then got into a discussion about whether this was allowed or not. I told him that I didn’t think it was allowed and that I also don’t believe in sex before marriage. He asked why, and I said because I am a Christian. He said that Armenians are Christians, Russians are Christians (he lived there for a year), and they all do it like this. I explained that that might be the case, but that Jesus said it was not allowed. Then he dropped a bomb, something I never thought I would hear from a man who called himself a Christian – “Christos skhal er asum” or “Christ was wrong.”

That was surprising to hear. Of course everyone has different definitions of what it means to be a Christian, but it seems like believing that Jesus spoke the truth should be on everyone’s list, whether you are a Christian or not. So I reaffirmed that I believed having sex with more than one person and sex before marriage was not acceptable among Christians and we eventually got off the subject.

The next topic began when he made the claim that the Armenian people are the smartest nationality in the world. Statements such as these are pretty common here. I usually don’t argue or bring up the numerous reasons why this type of claim makes absolutely no sense (e.g. the difficulty in even defining a nationality, defining intelligence, actually performing any type of test among every “nationality” on Earth and having it be somewhat objective, etc.). This time I decided to push back a little bit. I told him that that kind of thing is actually really hard to know, and asked him how he knew. “Hastatvel e.” It has been confirmed. I didn’t tell him “No, it actually hasn’t been confirmed” or ask “How has it been confirmed?” because he clearly couldn’t give any other reason for why he believed this statement. I repeated that it would be difficult to know a fact like that and left it at that.

It is very common in nationalistic societies for absurd statements like these to be considered true by much of the population. Indoctrination becomes pervasive in history books and through the government and educational institutions. But it’s not hard to find statement’s like this in my own country, the United States. How many times have I heard that America is the best, freest nation in the world? Too many. And the people who say this probably know very little about the actual facts related to freedom and …goodness… in America. For example, some people like to think that America is so great because anyone who works hard will be successful. Simply not true. An OECD study found that the US ranks “well below Denmark, Australia, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany and Spain in terms of how freely citizens move up or down the social ladder. Only in Italy and Great Britain is the intensity of the relationship between individual and parental earnings even greater.” How about freedom of the press, one every American would surely defend? It turns out the US ranks around 20th in a few different rankings, one of which is from the French-based Reporters Without Borders. It’s also ranked low among developed countries when it comes to foreign aid (as a percentage of GNP).

There are some statistics that place the US near the top. One of them is murder with firearms where the US statistics are off the charts compared to other developed countries. Another is well known: the amount of money we spend on our military, almost as much as the rest of the world combined.

So absurd statements can certainly be heard from some Armenians, but (somewhat) educated Americans can be just as guilty of spouting nonsense.

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6 thoughts on “Armenian Taxi Cab Convos

  1. Hello Joel,

    Your profile on couch surfing was the descovry of the day for me today. I was surfing one of my friends page on facebook when I stumbled upon couch surfing website. Since I knew nothing about it, decided to have a look at it. Then I saw your profile! While I have to admit that I have enormous respect and admiration for what you do, it seemed almost surreal to emagine that an American guy is leaving in such a remote small place in Armenia! I am born and raised in Yerevan, but left Armenia after the fall of soviet union in 1994. Your idealism and faith in goodness really moved me. So just wanted to thank you. Make sure you let me know if you ever come Amsterdam. I am not couch surfing, but will be more than happy to offer you the comfort of my home. If needed, you can contact me at ahakobiannl@yahoo.com

    I red your blog about the Armenian nationalism with a smile on my face. Not that I find nationalism funny. But it was intersting to read the opinion of a foreigner on this. It is so true that many Armenians think that they are simply the best or the smartest in the whole world. What they also like is naming all famous Armenians leaving abroad. I am sure you’ve heard this many times. I am really sorry that the Armenia once I knew is not there anymore. The greatest tragedy is not the Karabakh conflict or the impoverished economy. The biggest tragedy of the past 20 years is the exodus of the educated part of the Armenian population. Over 1 million Armenians have left the country and firstly the intelligentsia (as we used to say in SU).

    How do you spend your days in Lor. What do you do? Is there anything I could do to support you or your organisation? Write me if you have time.

    I wish you lots strength in getting through the winter. I red in news that a couple of days ago you had heavy snawstorms and most of the roads were blocked. But hey, the good news is that in Armenia the spring comes early in march. So hang in there just coupleore weeks.

    Best regards,
    Armand

  2. Dear Joel,

    Today I was surfing the facebook profile of one my friends and learned that he was registered with couch surfers. I knew nothing about couch surfers and decided to have look at the site. I am born and raised in Yerevan, but left the country for Holland in 1994 after the fall of the Soviet Union. So, I was curious about the couch surfers in Armenia. That is when i stumbled upon your profile. It became the biggest discovery of the day for me!! While I have to say that I have enormous respect and admiration for the work that you do, it all seemed almost surreal that an American guy would be living in a remote small village in Armenia. Then I have googled your name and found your worldpress page. Reading your blogs made my day. I came down with a flue and was in bed the whole day reading your blogs! They are very touching.

    I red about your conversation with the taxi driver with a smile on my face. Not that I find nationalism funny. But reading the opinion of a foreigner on the Armenian nationalism was quite amusing. As I said, I was born in Armenia, but left my Armenian past long behind me. Reading your blogs brought back many memories about Armenia and the Armenians. You re so right! Many Armenians often seriously think that they are the best and the smartest in the world. Also they like naming all the armenian celebrities living abroad. I am sure you had to listen to that very often 🙂 Well, I hope that these are mostly the uneducated and ignorant ones. It’s a shame that Armenia once I used to know is not there anymore. You know, the biggest tragedy of today’s Armenia is not the war with the neighboring country and not the impoverished state of economy. The biggest tragedy of that country is the exodus of its educated population during the past 20 years. Over 1 million of them left the country since the fall of the Soviet Union! Can you imagine what it means for a country, which has a population of 3.2 million today?! But with people like you helping the Armenians, I am sure that it will overcome its current problems.

    I just wanted to write to thank you for all the wonderful work that you are doing. Reading your blog made me feel that the world is actually a much better place than what I think of it today, because there people like you, who do what they think is right and probably so modest that do not realize how remarkable and great is their work.

    Well, I am not a couch surfer. But please know that you have the comfort of my home any time you decide to come to Amsterdam. If needed, you can contact me at ahakobiannl@yahoo.com

    Best regards,
    Armand

    P.S. I have tried once to post my comment, but did not see it appearing. So, if you get this twice, you know why.

  3. Regarding military spending, the picture is a little different when you compare it versus GDP (similar to comparing foreign aid to GNP, as you did) or capita.

    For example, when you compare military spending as a % of GDP, the US comes in 8th, behind such notables as: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq, and Georgia.

    If you look at spending per a capita, the US is 2nd…behind Israel.

    Statistics are a great thing, but it can be easy and tempting to present only the view you want (e.g. when you say, “the amount of money we spend on our military, almost as much as the rest of the world combined.”).

    Still, great post and conversation!

    Sources:
    http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/MS.MIL.XPND.GD.ZS?cid=GPD_42

    http://www.nowpublic.com/world/top-15-military-spending-capita-2008-who-has-gone-overboard

    • Andrew! Good to hear from you. And, though I wouldn’t expect anything less, thanks for the thoughtful and informed comment.

      The US might be 8th in rankings when using % of GDP, but take a look at those nations you listed – three of them are basically funded by the US and one (Saudi Arabia) has recently been the recipient of one of the biggest arms deals in history ($60 billion).

      And again, per capita, the US is behind the country whose military is funded by… the US. Three billion a year ain’t a small chunk o’ change for the one nuclear-armed power in the region.

      So it’s clear that the US isn’t exactly fighting the threat of militarism, but rather its biggest proponent.

      Thanks again for the comment! Hope all’s well.

      http://www.worldpolicy.org/projects/arms/reports/wawjune2005.html
      http://articles.cnn.com/2010-10-20/us/us.saudi.arms.deal_1_military-edge-defense-security-cooperation-agency-sale?_s=PM:US

      • I’ll admit that I’m not terribly up-to-date on where money is going. So when you say “basically funded” do you mean the US is giving money to foreign governments for the purpose of buying weapons? Or do you mean something else?

        With regard to the Saudi arms deal, the US is not giving them $60B worth of stuff…companies within the US are selling $60B worth of stuff. The US is not funding them.

  4. Wow..what a wonderful response from Armand! It made me cry..and feel even more proud of you.
    This is what makes what you are doing worthwhile.
    And now you have a place to stay in Amsterdam to boot!!!

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