Monday, May 21, 2007

The Armenian Sodom and Gomorrah
[May 21, 2007]

“I'm here temporarily,” said a fairly well known director when he saw me. Almost every Armenia from Armenia in Los Angeles lives in a state of confusion. Many of them I met said that they were waiting for changes to happen in the homeland before they could go back. Saying that, they seemed to know they weren't going back, and they knew I knew, too. But they kept trying to persuade me that they would go home one day. When I asked them, “Who's going to make the changes happen, if not you?” they didn't answer.

While I was in Los Angeles, there were news reports about the extradition from Great Britain of an Armenian journalist named Gina Khachatryan. When they asked me about her I said there was no journalist in Armenia with that name who had come under pressure and sought asylum from the British. I sensed that some of them were sorry that there was no such journalist, and that the reports had been false, and the reason they were sorry was that almost every Armenian from Armenia in Los Angeles is there under a false identity.

Each of them has made up a story to earn the right to live in this country. One was sought by the police, another came under pressure during an election, another was prosecuted for his beliefs, and so on.

As I silently listened to all the different stories that the Armenians told, I sensed that they were trying to expiate their own guilt. They felt guilty, and I didn't know why. I never had any desire to blame any of them until they launched into patriotic monologues and began to curse their former country. The country I live in, that they left voluntarily. On my third day in Los Angeles I decided not to meet with these Armenians anymore. I was tired of hearing them complain about all the bills they have to pay, and I didn't feel like answering any more questions about Armenia, about various officials and politicians.

Some people had changed their last names and had asked for asylum posing as refugees from Persia, Iraq, or Azerbaijan.

Here in the towns of California I saw once again the Armenian with a refugee's walking stick in his hand, wandering throughout the centuries.

They stand on the street corners of Hollywood and Glendale, dressed in black T-shirts and pants, smoking cigarette or eating sunflower seeds. Here every self-respecting Armenian has to drive a BMW or Mercedes. It's quite possible that he lives in a tiny apartment with ten other people, but he'll never buy a cheap car.

When they drive they honk furiously and turn abruptly– you might think you're in downtown Yerevan.

Levon Habeshyan, an entrepreneur living in Los Angeles, has decided to return to Armenia. “I can't take it here. I visit Armenia three times a year. As soon as I get here, I start thinking about going back to Armenia,” Levon said. He has already started a business in Yerevan, bought an apartment, and decided to move. “My children want to come, too. But my wife doesn't agree. Maybe you can persuade her,“ Levon joked.

When he asked what I thought of the Armenian community of Los Angeles, I was unable to describe it. I could easily describe the Armenian communities of Boston or Washington, but couldn't see the Los Angeles Armenian community in terms of any unifying form or notion. Generations of Genocide survivors, Persian Armenians who emigrated after the revolution, Armenians from Beirut, Iraqi Armenians, Armenians from Armenia. The last group has brought disarray to the community, which had to a certain degree established an identity. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians from Armenia. Young men evading military service, actors, journalists, doctors, scientists. Some of them have become taxi drivers—you can have long conversations with them and hear all kinds of stories about Armenians.

Los Angeles is the Armenian Sodom and Gomorrah. Tata wrote a song about the city that Armenians can sing at parties. There are Armenian TV channels with familiar faces with their crude humor and advertisements. And there is a philosophy that this crowd has developed aimed at justifying their presence here.

After I visited two prisons in Los Angeles and one reintegration facility it became clear to me that Armenians here have far bigger problems than in Armenia.

When you walk down the corridors of California's biggest jail you can hear Armenian being spoken all around. Armenians have opened a new road, from Armenia straight to American prisons.

Chaplain Bedros Hajian helped expedite our prison visits. According to his calculations, there are 17,000 Armenians in Californian jails, but for some reason that number didn't sound convincing to me.

Twenty-year-old Gevorg is from Echmiadzin. His father had a business in Armenia, but according to his son, he came under pressure and left Armenia ten years ago. Gevorg is in jail for stealing credit cards. He says that they live well, and the money flows.

“Couldn't you get a good job here? Why did you get mixed up in credit cards?” I asked him.

“Brother, here that is a good job,” Gevorg said.

(to be continued)
Edik Baghdasaryan
Los Angeles – Yerevan

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