Monday, February 21, 2011

The Things We Do For Love

This past week marked the two holidays Armenians celebrate that have some similarity to Valentine’s Day.

The first, Trndez (Candlemas), was originally connected with fire/sun worship, the coming of spring and fertility and now it is observed by the Armenian Apostolic Church as a feast of purification. It is celebrated on the night of February 13th (40 days after Armenian Christmas). The tradition for this holiday is to jump over a bonfire to either bring luck to newly married couples or give luck in love for the year. It’s believed that evil will be swept away and happiness will come to people’s homes. The ceremony is followed by traditional songs and dances around the fire. People also light candles from the fire to take them to their homes and keep them until the next Trndez holiday.

A lot of people gathered in the town square where a pile of wood and straw had been constructed. A number of priests had a ceremony around the pile and then the bishop lit it.

A group of children began the traditional dances and when the fire died down somewhat the jumping began. Some did a small jump over a corner of the fire while more adventurous souls went over the center.

Now is the time on Trndez when we dance...

Yes, that's me

A flame from the fire was brought into the church and people lit candles either from there or from the bonfire and carried them home. As it got darker over the course of the evening, you could see the candlelight leaving the square and being carried in all directions.

The second holiday celebrated is the day of Saint Sargis, the patron saint of young love. The date of the holiday is different each year, being 63 days before Easter. A tradition for this holiday is to fast all day and then to eat a piece of salty bread before going to bed. If you dream about someone giving you water, that is the person you will marry.

Other traditions of courtship, love and marriage here are also strikingly different than in the US today. Gender roles in Armenia tend to be very conservative, with very defined roles for men and women – what jobs are appropriate, what behaviors in public are appropriate (women rarely drive), and especially what each does with respect to family matters.

For example, we are told during training that it is never appropriate for an unmarried man and woman to be alone behind closed doors (when I meet with my tutor there are always other people in the room). Many times I will pass a woman I know on the street and she will not acknowledge me. I have heard stories about other Peace Corps volunteers dating Armenian women and being asked about intentions by the second date. While I have sometimes seen young couples holding hands while walking, I have never seen couples kissing in public. Men are expected to take the lead in relationships and the purity of the woman is expected to be preserved until the wedding night (the morning after the wedding night, tradition holds that the groom’s family brings the bride’s family a basket of red apples if certain evidence is noted in the bridal chamber – figure that one out for yourself). But unmarried women tend to dress in a way that could politely be described as “provocative”. But a recent news article described a poll that had been conducted to measure Armenian men’s attitudes toward how women dress and the headline mentioned that men like women who dress conservatively. But the body of the article mentioned that miniskirts and tight fitting clothing are very well favored. I’m not sure what to make of that.

So with these cultural norms, the stories I hear of courtship can be alarming to someone who is from the US. Since women are supposed to be demure, saying “no” to someone can be perceived as part of the ritual, interpreted as “no means yes”.

· One volunteer related a story in the village where he lived during training. A woman he knew was continually pursued by a man and she declined his advances. One day, a carful of men arrived at her house to “kidnap” her. She stayed in her house and asked that the message be relayed that she was not at home. When the volunteer did so, they suggested kidnapping him to get her attention. He avoided that and they eventually left.

· During language training, I attended a session about the toasting tradition that I wrote about previously. The woman leading the session explained that some toasts may begin with an anecdote and relayed a cheerful one that might be used at an engagement or wedding celebration. That anecdote related to a man who repeatedly went to a woman’s house professing his love. She repeatedly said no, until one day she didn’t. “This speaks to the power of true love” was the moral of the tale. Or the power of stalking, I thought.

This may also explain an incident I heard recently of two volunteers who were followed by a group of guys around a town, trying to get the women to get into their car. The pursuers did not give up until the women got into a taxi to take them home. There is no way to know if it was an attempted sexual assault or if the guys thought it was a normal way to get a woman’s attention. Needless to say, for female volunteers, the former must always be assumed making it an added level of stress that I am fortunate not to have to deal with.

But marriage is seen as so necessary for one’s well-being that eventually it seems everyone does get married even if they don’t necessarily want to. Another fellow volunteer relayed the story of her language tutor who married a few months ago:

How did she meet him? Her mother and his mother work together.

How long had she known him? She first saw him two years ago.

How long had they been dating? A few weeks.

How does her mother feel about it? VERY happy.

What kind of work does he do? He’s a programmer. He comes from a very good family.

Where will you live? With his family. His mother is a very good mother-in-law.

What will your mother [a widow] do all alone? When we move to Yerevan, she will live with us.

Will you continue to work? Until the end of the school year (often Armenian men do not want their wives to work.)

How old is he? 33 (the bride was 30, well past what is seen as a normal marrying age.)

She had been looking to marry an American and, after her best friend got engaged, this woman’s mother arranged this marriage.

At one of my English clubs recently, one of the participants (a 22 year old male) asked me why I am not married. Since this is a question we get all the time and the country is so religious, someone had tipped me off with a pretty much fool-proof answer a while back: “Miayn Astvats giti” (only God knows). He told me that he will definitely get married someday because he did not want to be alone when he died. We spoke about how most people I know do not get married until they are ready (if at all) and he acknowledged that he would not marry until he was ready either. But if the main reason a 22 year old wants to marry is not wanting to die alone, I am not so sure that would be the case.

But some things do seem to be changing, even if people don’t want to recognize it. While living in Solak, we could see the teenagers interacting a lot more closely than we had been told about in our cultural training. I heard stories about a girl who went out with her boyfriend at night and climbed in the window in the middle of the night to escape her parents’ notice. And in Gyumri, the park near where I live has dark areas that seem to be quite a “Lover’s Lane”. And I have heard that the phenomenon of unmarried couples living together has reached Yerevan.

So, as I wrote last time, the trends may be indicating more societal changes coming to Armenia. The question is whether people will be ready for them.