Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Armenian Genocide Memorial Day

Today is Armenian Genocide Memorial Day. On Sunday, April 24, 1915, nearly 100 years ago today, the leaders of the Ottoman Empire (the modern day Turks) arrested approximately 250 Armenian intellectuals and leaders. This was the first step in a larger campaign of genocide, where through the use of mass burnings, biological and chemical warfare, rape, forced deportations and ensuing marches, between 600,000 and 1,500,000 Armenians were killed in a focused campaign to rid the Ottoman Empire of all Armenians.

The word "genocide" was coined in 1943 by Yale and Rutgers law professor Raphael Lemkin (who lost nearly 50 relatives in the holocaust). Upon coining the term, he said, "it happened so many times… First to the Armenians, then after the Armenians, Hitler took action." Hitler himself stated on August 22, 1939, as part of his argument for instituting the Final Solution, "Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

There are tragedies atop of tragedies here. The first tragedy is the mass murder of upwards of 1.5 million people. This was cold blooded and premeditated: people were forced to leave their homes simply because of their ancestry and then forced to march, sometimes in circles, until they dropped or were murdered by their captors. They were deprived of their lives, their communities, their religion, and everything that made them human simply because they were Armenian. Armenians inhabited the area now known as Turkey since time immemorial, and now, due to this genocide and decisions made by the United States at the end of World War I, they are now deprived of not only their human history, but their cultural and geographical history as well. Mount Ararat, the holy mountain from the bible and the symbol of Armenia, sits within the borders of Turkey today. An Armenian friend of mine once told me that her family still has a key to their ancestral home in Van, which is now in Turkey. Years ago, her father returned there--and the house is gone. They keep the key as a memory of all the people and places they lost as a result of the attempt by the Ottomans to destroy them and their culture.

The second tragedy is the fact that the United States has never formally recognized the Armenian genocide. Each time we step up to the plate to recognize this historically irrefutable event, Turkey begins making noise and we back down. Although our government has used the word "genocide" to describe these events informally, when Congress attempts to formally recognize this event as genocide there are always dire warnings of losing an ally we need for our various wars in the Middle East. During the 2008 campaign, our president stated that, "[the] Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable. An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy. As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution, and as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide." However, since being elected, he has avoided the use of the term "genocide" whenever speaking of this issue. It is preposterous to think that our country and our leaders are so fearful of Turkey's displeasure that they can turn a blind eye to calling the event that the term genocide was coined for as genocide.

The final tragedy is that Hitler was partially right: very few people remember the Armenian genocide. Before I became a Peace Corps Volunteer I had heard of it, but it didn't really register on my radar. In America we are deeply aware of the tragedy of the holocaust, and also grudgingly accept the crimes perpetrated by the United States government against the Native Americans. We've heard of Pol Pot, are aware of what happened in Bosnia, and have heard of many other crimes committed against humanity. But the Armenian genocide only barely registers in our consciousness.

Why is this? For one, it was long ago. This happened around World War I, a period of time that most of us really don't understand. It also happened very quietly, before mass media, and despite being the basis for the term genocide, was eclipsed by the horrible film and still images coming out of post-WWII Germany. There are no photos, no Night and Fog, no writings that put the occurrences in stark relief like Elie Wiesel did for the holocaust. There was no media coverage, as during the modern genocides. There is only the memory of the Armenians, looking out over Mount Ararat, remembering what was, what used to be, before their cultural heritage was ripped from them through rape and murder, when grandparents, great uncles, and great aunts were slaughtered in an attempt to snuff out this ancient group of people from the Earth.

I spent six months in Armenia. During that time I got to know many Armenians and had some conversations about the genocide. Never once did I hear any talk of reparations. Never once did I hear anyone wanting revenge against the Turks for the crimes of their forefathers. In fact the only question I ever heard was "why." Why doesn't America recognize this historical event? Why won't America call this as it is, call it genocide? I never could answer that question because we, as Peace Corps Volunteers, are not to get involved in talking about politics. But now I can say to all my Armenian friends and the rest of you: I don't know why. It makes no sense to me either. And I believe the fact that America hasn't recognized this genocide is a crime in itself, an ongoing affront to the dignity and history of the people of Armenia.

Before I wrote this blog post I got on the phone to each of my representatives in Congress. I explained to their receptionists that I used to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, lived in Armenia, and that I wanted to urge them to recognize the genocide. They kindly agreed to pass my message along to my representatives. One of the receptionists told me that she studied abroad in Turkey for a year. I asked her about Armenian genocide recognition from the perspective of the Turks, and she said that all the young people she knew in Turkey wanted their government to admit the genocide happened. So, maybe, someday, as younger people come to power and the old is washed away, we will see the world recognize this historical event.

Finally, I want to ask each of you to call your representatives today, tell them this is Genocide Memorial Day, educate them about this genocide, and urge them to recognize this historical event. PCVs, you get a pass on this because of that no-politics thing, but RPCVs, I totally see this as a Third Goal issue. The rest of you, well, I hope after reading this you will be moved to contact your representatives as well . This is an important issue, and it is time for our country to formally call this crime against humanity by the only word that can describe it: genocide.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Making Keys

The shop bordered a large, dusty parking lot, full of ruts and rocks, broken concrete and potholes. It was little more than a hole in the wall, a rusting grey-green metal door with a sign above and a dirty window to let light through. My director, Rudik, and I pulled up in his car, looking to have a key made for me so I could get in our NGO's office on days my coworkers were busy with the WorldVision monitoring and audit that is going on right now.

Inside the shop, five old men stared intently at a nardi board. Two faced off over the black and white pieces, throwing the small dice and slamming their pieces across the board with a practiced intensity. Rudik took the key out of his pocket, said something to the men, and one bald man, wearing a greenish sports coat over a faded deep purple shirt glanced up for a moment from his black soldiers marching across the field of battle. He gave no more than a slight nod before taking up the dice again and throwing them.

The game continued with nary a care for us waiting there, watching them. The dice would tumble across the scratched, well-worn board, and hardly before the pieces were moved, the dice would be picked up again. The only sounds in the small, stuffy shop were the click of the dice as they tumbled, the slam of the pieces as they were forcefully placed in their apportioned spot. Only occasionally would this be interrupted by one of the men intently watching mumbling, "mek, yerkus, yerek, chos"--one, two, three, four--after doubles were thrown.

The game was lost long before we got there, this was obvious to even a beginner's eye such as mine. White was penned in at the end of the board, while black, played by the old man who gave us the nod, deftly moved his pieces off the board. Despite this we waited 5, 10, 15 minutes as white fought this losing battle to the bitter end.

Only when the game was over, only when the loser had taken a hand-rolled cigarette out of his pocket and put it between his lips, lighting the match with a snap on the edge of the board, did the winner rise and fix his glance on Rudik. Words were exchanged, and this short, old man took the key from Rudik's hand and looked it over.

Slowly he walked behind the counter and deeper in to the small, cluttered shop we had entered. How he knew where to look is anybody's guess. Old machinery, drawers, cabinets, wires, old telephones--the room was so packed the seven of us could hardly fit with the detritus of years, much of it dating from the time of the Soviet Union. But the man found what he was looking for, a small key that nearly matched ours.

In the center of the room, a new challenger had sat himself across from the smoking man at the nardi board. The dice began to click again, the pieces slammed, the numbers counted in grizzled voices.

The old man with the key fished out a pair of glasses from his pocket. These glasses magnified his eyes, and yet seemed to age him years. The keys he lined up, and then, with a flick of his finger he turned on an old Soviet desk lamp, secured the keys in a clamp, and took a file off the table next to him.

And so this man began his art. Eyes magnified a hundred times by the thick, plastic rimmed glasses pitted with a thousand scratches, he drew the file up to the key. With swift movements of his hand, he began to file the virgin key, angling the file this way and that, tilting it, maneuvering it, whittling the key down to its apportioned shape.

As this was going on, nardi raged around him. Another game started, and the old men watched the slamming as intently as the last one. Occasionally the man filing away our key would look up from his work to watch the match.

On and on this went, with the man occasionally lifting the keys up to his eyes and aligning them before he set them back in the clamp and returned to work.

Once he was finished, he handed my director the two keys and my director handed him some dram. Despite us standing there for thirty minutes, no point did the nardi game stop. As we walked out in to the dusty parking lot, the only sounds we could here were the clicking of dice, the slam of pieces, and the occasional counting off from the smoke-filled key shop.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In Which our Author sings Chinar Es and becomes a Peace Corps Volunteer

Some have asked to hear me singing Chinar Es. Thanks to technology, that is possible! Follow the link below, which is to the recording of the live video stream of the A-19 Swearing In Ceremony, and fast-forward to about minute 43:00 on the video. You can also watch the entire thing if you're interested in seeing the entirety of the wonderful ceremony we had that day. Enjoy!

A-19 Swearing In Ceremony.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Wherein our Illustrious Author Ruminates on Why he has Not Posted, Reflects on Swearing-In, and Looks Forward to the Future

Dear reader, my reader,

I feel that this blog post should start with an apology. I had hoped that my blog could have been something to track my various exploits during my Peace Corps Service, but, unfortunately, I have let it fall by the wayside during my past two and a half months here.

I have spent the past few days attempting to summarize my past two and a half months, known as Pre-Service Training, or PST. I tried describing things. I tried doing a Letterman-style Top Ten List. I tried and tried to figure out a way to summarize that which has occurred since I first set foot on Armenian soil, and I have failed at every turn.

And so, sometimes, it's just best, in the interest of moving on, to cut bait. My attempts to summarize the past two months are getting in the way of me reflecting on my current situation, and so I'm just letting it go. And, maybe, that is the best possible commentary about PST--it's long, and hard, there's not much time to think, let alone blog,, and it's impossible to summarize. Let's just say it was the most trying two months of my life, involved learning a lot of things and meeting a lot of new people, and will always stay with me as an incredibly formative, trying, and, ultimately successful, time.

Before I do cut bait there is one thing that I want to memorialize here: at the swearing in ceremony, I had the distinct honor to be asked to perform "Chinar Es" by Komitas as a solo in the Komitas Chamber Music Hall in Yerevan, accompanied by Michael Braz on piano and Stephanie Conrad on cello. According to The Virtual Museum of Komitas:

One of the best concert halls of Yerevan, the Chamber Music Hall also bears the name of Komitas. This small but very original building was constructed in 1978 (architect: Stepan Kurkchian). It is located in the city center, deep in the park. Nowadays, Komitas Chamber Music Hall hosts concerts of chamber, vocal-instrumental, choral and organ music. Though the hall is not so large in size, it can seat about three hundred. Many distinguished figures of Armenian and international music have performed on the stage of Komitas Chamber Music Hall. International musical festivals are regularly held here as well.

I was asked to prepare this solo by the PST staff about three weeks before our swearing-in ceremony. The piece, a version of which can be heard here, is a beautiful, sad ode from a boy to his lover. He speaks of her beauty ("Chinar es" means "You are a poplar tree"), and then asks her never to leave, which, if I understand the song correctly, she has. Much of the song is just singing the "nai nai nai," which is like "la la la" but is full of lament.

Anyway, this song is beloved by Armenians. I had three weeks to prepare it, which would have been impossible without the amazing musical talent of Michael Braz. He spent countless hours helping me rehearse, arranging the piece for cello, voice, and piano, and working to make the piece as beautiful as possible. On top of that, Mike was arranging two works for choir and rehearsing said choir for the swearing in ceremony. On top of that on top of that, he was also doing what the rest of us were doing: preparing to finish PST, take the language exam, and move out to a new site where he will be working for the next two years.

My hat is off to Mike. He is one of the finest musicians I have ever had the pleasure to work with, and I hope we will get to collaborate in the future. The fact that after such an accomplished musical career, he went on to serve his country in the Peace Corps makes me respect him even more. And, just for fun, watch him play the Mickey Mouse Club song in various musical styles here.

The reason why I'm gushing so much about Mike is because working with him gave me one of the most amazing musical experiences of my life. Standing there, on the stage of the Komitas Chamber Music Hall, singing a beloved Komitas song before a sea of Americans and Armenians, during the Peace Corps 50th Anniversary Celebration…I almost don't know how to describe it. It was beautiful and moving and I will never forget it. I will never forget the loud applause once I was done, the "bravo"s I heard, and when I got off the stage, the cameraman grabbed me and said "that was amazing." I'll never forget all the people who said they were moved by my performance. It makes me wish I had gone forward with music.

Even more important than that, right before I had the pleasure of singing that song, I took the Peace Corps Oath with 39 of the most wonderful, dedicated Americans I have ever met. I wish I had the time to gush about them as much as I gushed about Mr. Braz there, but let me tell you that each of them deserves several paragraphs each. They are all unique, wonderful people, who range from business execuitives with over 50 years of experence, a woman who worked with the UN to help set up the President of East Timor's office when East Timor became a country, to lawyers (not just me!) and bankers, and people right out of college who knew, in their hearts, that the most important thing they could do with their education and experence was to spend two years serving others. With these 39 amazing Americans, I took the Peace Corps Oath, as prescribed by 22 USC §2504(j) and 5 USC §3331, before the chargĂ© d'affaires from the United States to Armenia:

I, Joseph Andriano, do solemnly affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps.

Anyway, that's all you're getting out of me about PST. And swearing-in. And such related things.

So where does that leave us now? I first have to say that I'm not allowed to say publicly where I am for security reasons. What I can say is that I am in an undisclosed location in Gegharkunik Marz in Armenia. My town is larger than most but smaller than some, and I am assigned to work with an NGO which mostly focuses on children, but also works on rural development issues as well. They work very closely with World Vision Armenia, which is nice because it gives them a lot of opportunities to work on more complex issues.

One of the best things about my site so far are my coworkers. My counterpart is a highly active, intelligent, motivated woman who is doing everything to integrate me in to the NGO and in to our community. She is one of the hardest working people I have ever met, and I feel honored to be assigned to work with her over the next two years.

While that would be wonderful in its own right, the rest of the people at my NGO are outstanding as well. They all are friendly, fun-loving people who have a palpable motivation to make this community better. It has been a pleasure to work with them for a week, and I look forward to collaborating with them for the next two years.

I am also very lucky to have three amazing sitemates who have been living here for a year already. We've already gotten together multiple times, and I enjoy their company tremendously. They've been very supportive during this difficult transition, and are also just a lot of fun to hang out with.

I guess that all is to say that, after nearly three months in the Peace Corps, I feel as if this is the best experience of my life and I am looking forward to more. The sheer pleasure of living in this country, meeting amazing Americans and Armenians, and working towards making Armenia a better place has been excellent. I hope to continue to post in this blog about my exploits, but, until then, dear reader, be well.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Address to Send Me Anything (Except Bees)

If you want to send me anything (anything! (except bees!)) during Pre-Service Training, my official address will be: 13 Torozyan Street, High School, Nor Hajn 2412, Armenia.

While you are welcome to send me anything (except bees!) during PST, the general recommendation is to wait until I have my official posting and to send it to me then, since my address will be more stable at that time. However, if altruism moves you before then, and you, dear reader, feel the need to send me anything (except bees!) before September, you are welcome to send it to that address.

Y'know. Unless it's bees.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Travelin' Man

I've been asked by a few people--either because they're curious about my adventure or because they want to know when they'll finally get rid of me--what my travel plans are over the next month. Through the power of the internet, right here and right now, those questions are answered!

I should start by saying that I feel lucky to even know what my travel plans are. In the most poorly timed technological failure of my life, my mail server (the wonderful (up until now) fastmail.fm) delayed all my e-mails from the Peace Corps (which, as you can imagine, are important, time sensitive things) for 2-21 days. This went on for a month before I caught it.

The reason for this, which I learned after I contacted Fastmail's tech support, was because "there were too many attempts from [that] IP [read: peacecorps.gov] to deliver to unknown addresses on our servers. Should be some issue on the sending server and our servers thought that was suspicious and blocked their IP." This seems insane to me. Do you, Fastmail, really believe that a .gov is engaging in spamming? And the Peace Corps? Really? I know this is probably an automated protective thing, but you'd think that a .gov should get a little leeway.

At any rate, kudos to Fastmail for fixing this problem quick, but I've moved my Peace Corps e-mail to gmail. I just can't take that kind of risk with my e-mail right now.

Anyway! Travel plans, as promised. I leave Vermont during the week of May 23rd, probably near the end of the week, for New York. My time in New York will mostly be spent seeing my family and saying goodbyes, with "bon voyage" parties planned on the 28th and 29th.

On the 31st my mom is kindly driving me to Philadelphia, PA, where I'll be checking in to a hotel and probably meeting some of my compatriots for the first time. Registration in to the Peace Corps occurs at 12 noon the following day, June 1, and is followed by about four hours of introductory meetings. The next morning, on June 2, we board a bus and head back to New York, where that evening we get on a flight headed to Vienna. We arrive the next morning, where we get hotel rooms and then have 14 hours to explore (I know, twist my arm, a 14 hour layover in Vienna, right?) before getting on a plane for Yerevan, the capital of Armenia.

According to the officially unofficial schedule they sent us of last year's training, we will immediately go sightseeing, which seems completely and utterly bizarre to me but I think it has something to do with not letting us go to sleep when all we'll want to do at that point is crash. We then check in to a hotel and begin five days of meetings and conferences. After that's all done, we meet our host families and head to our villages. Armenia, you see, is a CBT, or Community Based Training, country for the Peace Corps. This means that we will be distributed in to villages surrounding a larger city, doing 6 days of training in our villages with 4-8 other PCVs who also live there, and then we will occasionally go in to the main city for larger conferences with everyone.

Training will last three months, at which point I will be assigned a site where I will work for the next two years.

But that's getting ahead of myself. 25 days to Staging!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

And Now, A Word From Our Sponsor...

Ok, not really, but I want to step back from my ruminations about the Peace Corps for a moment and talk about another group that I've volunteered with and believe very strongly in.

Tonight was my last meeting as a Trustee of Windsor County Partners, and I would like to mark this occasion by asking you all to give a little something to this wonderful organization.

In December of 2009, I was approached by a member of the Windsor County Democratic Committee, which I was involved with at the time, to see if I would be interested in serving on the board of a local nonprofit. The gentleman who approached me was on the board of this group, and said they were interested in inviting me because I was much younger than their typical board members, and because I am an attorney. He thought that, for those reasons, I would be able to lend a valuable perspective to the board.

I met with him and WCP's Executive Director over breakfast a few weeks later, and was really excited about what I learned. See, WCP is a 35 year old non-profit with its headquarters located in Windsor, Vermont. WCP's mission is to provide volunteer mentors to the children of Windsor County. We focus on high quality matches, which means that our Executive Director makes sure, through detailed applications and interviews, to match a Senior Partner--a volunteer from the community--with a Junior Partner--a kid from a local school--who has similar interests and is in geographic proximity with the SP. This last part is important, because WCP expects the partners to meet two hours a week. WCP also does a lot to support the partnerships by keeping in contact with both partners to make sure everything is running smoothly.

During my tenure as a Trustee and then as Treasurer, WCP significantly expanded its mission by adopting a school-based mentoring organization in Springfield, Vermont that was in danger of going out of business. This group, called "Let's Do Lunch" matches a child in the Springfield schools with a community member for a one-hour lunch meeting once a week. This adoption was big for both WCP and mentoring in Vermont, and the program has been wildly successful there.

I did a lot while volunteering with WCP. Our board is a working board, and we spend hours each month doing everything we can to make sure this group remains healthy so it can continue to serve the children of Windsor County for another 35 years, and beyond. Over my year and a half working with the group, I came to deeply respect each and every board member and staff person for the level of dedication and love they have for this organization and its goals. Their work was unparalleled, and I was proud to work with them.

WCP is fortunate in that it recently received a matching grant from the Permanent Fund of Vermont. Through that fund, donations to WCP are being matched dollar-for-dollar until the end of June.

As my last act as a Trustee of this organization that I have come to love and believe in over my short time working with it, I want to ask you, dear reader, to give a few dollars--whatever you can spare--to help insure that the kids of Windsor County will continue to have this awesome resource for years to come. Again, this is a perfect time to give because of our matching grant.

Donations can be made out to Windsor County Partners and sent to PO Box 101, Windsor, VT 05089.

Thank you for any help you can give, and I will now return you to my regularly scheduled ramblings about the Peace Corps, already in progress.