Saturday, June 30, 2012

Dress for Success

As I have written many times before, I can’t help but stand out in Armenia.  My height, fair skin, blue eyes, shaved head, and facial hair - they all mark me as a foreigner.  And then there are my clothes.

Many years ago, I was visiting Morocco and someone was trying to get me to buy clothes from his shop. His angle was that I stand out as a tourist and if I dressed like a Moroccan, I would blend in.  I laughed at him and declined the offer.  The same goes here – I could dress more like an Armenian but I would never be mistaken for one.  And while I am often mistaken for a Russian, I don’t really want to dress like them. 

Appearance has a lot of significance here and I have noticed that people take great pains to make sure they look good, even if they don’t have a lot of money.  Dirty shoes, holes in your clothing, frayed hems, wrinkles, and stains are all frowned upon. If someone’s shoes get dirty, you usually see him or her wipe the dust and dirt off immediately.  Wives and mothers tend to do laundry all of the time and it is remarkable to me how whites are kept so clean in a country that is very dusty and where people sometimes wear the same clothes for multiple days. Having said that, you do see people – including many in villages and the poorer people in towns and cities – who clearly don’t have the luxury to dress well so their poverty is even more evident.

While there are exceptions (as with everything) there are certain style elements that characterize the populace here.  I will start with men’s clothes since the cultural issues I have written about before make the women’s clothing styles interesting on a different level.

Colors - One thing you notice as you walk around Armenia is that people are very fond of black, gray and white clothing.  Even in the harsh summer sun, you often see guys in black – head to toe.  You also see people in all white and sometimes all red but black is the predominant color.

Logos - Lots of clothes here have logos on them.  Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Armani and Adidas are very popular.  Somehow I don’t think they are genuine, though, since a logo shirt may only cost about $5 and I am not aware of any two or more of the above making t-shirts together as you see here.

Tracksuits - Another common thing – which I think this was inherited from the Russians – is the tracksuit.  Whether they are copies of the official Armenia team suits or just a plain black Adidas one (or, as some of the knockoffs have – “Adibas”) they are everywhere.  Some guys at my gym will walk in wearing a tracksuit but then change into a different one to work out in. 

Shirts – there are three varieties that I see here – the form fitting tee shirt, the form fitting sweater and the more classic button front.  A lot of the tee shirts and sweaters have busy designs on them.

Pants – Jeans are pretty popular but they may have creases ironed into them.  Dress slacks (dark gray or black) are very popular and pretty much all that men in their thirties and up are seen in.  Tracksuit pants are also common without the matching jacket.  Even though it gets very hot in the summer, seeing men in shorts is rare.  Young boys may wear them, but by the time they are teenagers, not so much.  Near the house is fine, but I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen a guy (not a tourist) walking in public in shorts.

Shoes - Shoes here tend to be black and pointy and/or made to look like velvet or other materials.  While you sometimes see guys wearing sneakers, you more often see what I would call dress shoes, even with a tracksuit.  Even during winter, when the streets are lethally icy, the dress shoes remain but the leather soles allow one to do a sort of cross-country skiing maneuver that I never mastered. 

Suits – I usually only see suits for occasions like weddings and they tend to be shiny.  And while not technically a suit, seeing someone in an “outfit” is not uncommon.  But some guys like to mix it up – it is not unusual to see someone in a nice shirt, track pants and dress shoes, or a tee shirt, dress slacks and dress shoes.

Even with these generalities, I have notices trends of a sort while I have been here.  The first summer in Gyumri, it was all black, everywhere.  Last summer, I started seeing red shirts all over the place.  And this year – skinny jeans and red shoes. 

So how do I manage with this?  In New York, I had an inclination for dark clothes and brought a lot with me so I fit in pretty well with the color palate.  I needed to buy a sweater this past winter and had a tough time finding one in a solid color with no logos.  I finally found one but the largest size available was on the tight side.  I have been in need of new shoes and, while there are tall people in Gyumri and my size is available, the points would make my feet look even bigger than they are.  I’ll wait.

The way that young women dress here is at odds with how conservative society is toward women.  To say that many dress provocatively would be an understatement.  I guess the reason for this is that marriage is the primary goal of many young women and by dressing provocatively the chances of attracting a husband are increased.  Older women tend to dress more modestly. 

Colors, logos, etc – Women wear more variety as far as colors go, but black is pretty common.  Animal prints are a common feature in many women’s outfits, and sometimes you can see different animals on one garment. The logo thing crosses genders and women are fond of glitter, beads, bedazzling and anything that sparkles.

Young women - For young women, clothes tend to be very tight, skirts can be very short, and heels very high.  A lot of skin is shown or additional layers tend to act like push-up bras.  There is a lot of glitter or bedazzling evident.   Hair tends to be big and either teased or “done”.  French manicures with elaborate designs are very popular.  As far as the shoes go, the heels are evident even in winter.  When I have asked about how they manage to walk through ice in stilettos, I was told that it is easy since the heels act like ice picks and prevent slippage.

Older women – Older women are more inclined to dresses, even through the winter.  The dresses are normally less form fitting and some wear pants instead.  The hair is not as done up but virtually all dye it – seeing a head of gray hair is not common.   

And every once in a while, you see something that defies description. 

For female PCVs, these fashions present a challenge.  Due to stereotypes about foreigners (being more “free” than Armenian women) dressing like a young Armenian woman is not seen as wise.  I have heard about discussions with co-workers about why heels are not worn, pants vs. dresses, absence of makeup, etc. 

There is a backlash to some of the trends here.  Several people I have spoken to refer to “qyartu” in the same way that Americans refer to “guidos”.  The “qyart” label refers to an entire attitude of flashy dress and “gangsta” attitudes that seem to have been inspired by the Al Pacino movie “Scarface”.  Take a look at the “Anti-Qyart Movement” page on Facebook if you want a better idea of how it shows itself.   

So I wonder how this will affect me when I go back to the US. I must admit that a lot of the clothes here remind me of Brooklyn in the disco era (or Staten Island today) so maybe I am just getting back to my roots.  I can get ready for a night out by putting on this number that I acquired here.

I'm qyartu and I know it.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

You're In the Army Now

From the parade marking the 20th anniversary of the Armenian army

Lately I have noticed that several guys I always see around Gyumri are missing and I realize that they must have been called up for their army service.  All men in Armenia are required to serve two years in the army although - as with everything else - there are ways around it, but I will get to that. From an early age, they are prepared for it, and phys ed classes in schools include military exercises for boys. 

Fellow PCVs in a village military training classroom
Until last year, the draft age was 18 although deferral was available if you were pursuing a university degree.  Last year, the deferral was eliminated  - although those already benefiting kept their deferral - and the draft age was raised to 19. The increase in the draft age was because elimination of the university deferral and a change in the education system requiring 12 years of pre-university schooling instead of 10 had wiped out much of the starting classes in universities.  There are two entry periods - May and November - but both slide into the following month.  I had thought that everyone reported on the same day, but someone told me recently that it would be impossible: "We only have one bus to take them!"

So last month and this month, guys from all over the country have been heading out to various points in Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh to do their service.  In the pecking order of where your army placement is, the rankings go from not going in at all (the best) to Nagorno Karabagh (the worst).

Karabagh is the area that Armenia and Azerbaijan have been fighting over for ages. Twice the countries have gone to war over the area - during the short period between the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and again from 1991 until a cease-fire in 1994.  While peace talks have been held since then to resolve the matter, Karabagh has declared itself an independent republic which is not recognized by Azerbaijan (and, interestingly, not formally by Armenia).  Despite the cease-fire, sporadic gunfire still occurs and soldiers have died there.

Other undesirable postings are along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  Recently (during Hilary Clinton's visit to the region) there was some fighting in the northeastern part of Armenia with several deaths on both sides. The more desirable posts are in Yerevan, Gyumri, Vanadzor and other places well away from any gunfire.  

As I wrote in an earlier post, there are ways of getting a better placement in the army - specifically by bribing someone in charge.  Essentially, the more you can pay, the farther you will be from the Azerbaijan border.  While this system has existed for years, a recent change is interesting.  Perhaps as a measure to beef up the national treasury instead of having all the money disappear into the shadow economy, I have heard that the army now allows you to officially buy your way out.  For $7,000, you can avoid military service entirely.  Given the recent uptick in tensions, it is not surprising that families are trying very hard to keep their sons out of the army.  One family I befriended asked me to give them $7,000 as their son is approaching draft age.  His brother is currently serving in Goris (good placement but not as good as Yerevan) and I assume they spent a hefty amount for that but have no savings left.  While the father mentioned he was only joking, he did "joke" about it four or five times.  Another family I met is busy liquidating assets to raise funds for their son-in-law who is soon due to enlist.

If you don't want to pay a bribe, you can also buy a medical diagnosis.  I don't know the going rate for those, but I know of some young men who were deemed medically unfit for service but seem a bit edgy when they tell me that.  And while I don't know exactly how it works, I know of a family whose grandson moved to Russia for a job right before he was due to enlist.  He is safe for now, but he may not be able to return to Armenia.

You can also be excused from military service if you say that you are gay because homosexuality is classified as a mental illness.  I am not sure how many (even truthfully) go that route, since the mental illness diagnosis can disqualify you from certain jobs or from even getting a driver's license - as well as potentially getting disowned by your family.

One last way that I have heard about to (legally) avoid army service is to get married and have kids.  I heard that if you have two kids before you are 20, you are excused. Given that you would have to get married by 17, that would be a challenging way to go. 

The issues with army service aren't limited to the possibility of sniper fire along the border.  There are periodic news reports of deaths that are classified as suicides, but for which further investigation calls that classification into question. Also, Human Rights Watch included this in their latest report about Armenia:

Local human rights groups report ill-treatment, hazing, and an alarming number of non-combat deaths in the army. The Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly’s Vanadzor Office reported at least 17 non-combat deaths through October 2011. For example, Torgom Sarukhanyan, 21, died in February, allegedly of a self-inflicted gunshot. Ministry of Defense investigators arrested three servicemen on charges of incitement to suicide. Sarukhanyan’s family claims that he was murdered and that his body bore signs of beatings.  In December 2010 a court sentenced Maj. Sasun Galstyan to three years imprisonment for abuse of authority. A video of Galstyan beating and humiliating two conscripts appeared on YouTube in September 2010.

In addition to that, the conflict with Azerbaijan continues and both sides are increasing defense spending.  With other matters tossed in (Israel vs. Iran, the fact that Iran and Azerbaijan aren't friendly) it is not outside the realm of possibility that things could escalate and there is a lot of press about the potential for that.  

It is interesting to talk to people who have been in the army about their thoughts on the mandatory service as it is structured now.  One I spoke to feels that the draft age is too low.  As most go in pretty much right after high school, there is no opportunity to develop the maturity needed to handle the experience.  He had served after a university deferral (entering the army at 21) and felt that age is more appropriate.

While I don't know any statistics about how many there are or what their roles are, I was surprised recently to see that there are women in the Armenian army.  There has been discussion in parliament lately about whether women should also have mandatory military service although I can't see that happening any time soon given the societal views about women's roles.

G I Janeyan
Given the real risks involved in army service here, there is a tradition of having a party for someone as he goes into the army ("banaki kef") and, more importantly, when he comes home.  Although I have not been to one, they are reputed to be much more raucous than the traditional parties I have been to (wedding and one-year-old birthday).

Another custom is for a guy to get a hand tattoo to show he was in the service (although not all do so).  The older men I have seen have more elaborate ones, while the younger generation's tend to be more modest.

My Gyumri host father

A more recent tattoo
I suppose that army service is intended to instill pride in the homeland - something that seems necessary given the troubled history here and the fact that this is still a young country despite its ancient history.  Unfortunately, other traditions here - class differentiation, corruption - are helping to fuel another, more recent tradition - emigration - to avoid service.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Give Me That Old Time Religion

Armenia is known as the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion, in AD 301.  It is one of the points of pride for the Armenian people - I can't tell you how many times this has been pointed out to me here.

Religion is one of the things that has helped maintain a national Armenian identity. Legend has it that Armenians are descendents of Hayk, Noah's great-great-grandson, which is why they call their country Hayastan.  [The name Armenia is derived from Aram, a descendent of Hayk so there is still the ark connection.] In 301, King Trdat III was cured of madness by St. Gregory the Illuminator, leading to his declaration of the official religion.  Much of the 1700 years since then have been spent under the control of other groups such as pagan Rome, Persia, Turkey and the Russians (and atheist Soviets). Regardless of that, the Armenian Apostolic religion has survived.   

During the Soviet period, many churches were destroyed or taken over to use as storehouses or concert halls.  For part of the time (1930-32 and again 1938-45) there was no "Catholicos" as the official head of the Armenian church is known but there has been one continuously otherwise

Catholicos Karekin II

One explanation I have heard for the mid-40s reinstatement is that Stalin needed the church organizations in its republics to help organize resistance to the Nazi invasion so concessions were made. There is an interesting article about the co-existence of Armenian religion with Soviet orthodoxy and the comments appended at the end of the article are also enlightening.

While Christianity is still the state religion, Armenia is not a theocracy in that the church does not have an official role in government.  This is likely the result of the Soviet repression of religion (the whole "opiate of the masses" thing) and how the post-Soviet movement has been toward democracy (imperfect as that movement may be).  As it reemerges from that period, many of those who are religious are more casual about it than their counterparts in other places such as the US. The church would like to change that attitude but relaxation is a hard habit to break.

Going to a church service here is truly an experience in that there is a lot of tradition evident.  For the most part there are no places to sit and when the time comes to kneel, people kneel on the floor, usually after laying down a thin cloth to keep their knees clean.

There is a lot of ritual that I can't follow (some is in ancient Armenian, while I have studied the more modern variant).  There is a raised altar where there is normally a heavy curtain (you can see it at the right of the picture below) which is closed for the duration of Lent.

Holy Week service in Gyumri

While there are no icons like you see in Russian and Georgian Orthodox churches, there are paintings all around the churches and people light candles in front of them and pray.

Some people adhere to the tradition of exiting a church backward (so as to not turn your back to God). As I wrote in my post about weddings, the church ceremony may be short but rituals abound.

But at the same time, there is a casual attitude that can be surprising.  If someone receives a phone call during a service, they normally pick it up and start talking.  Regular services tend to be on the long side and some people stay only as long as they want so you see a lot of people coming and going throughout a service, coming in to light a few candles, say a prayer and leave.

It can be confusing for an outsider as to how to act.  Once I was in the main church in Gyumri while the bishop was speaking.  I was standing with my hands in my pockets and an older man tapped me and told me to remove my hands from my pockets and stand with more respect.  In some towns women are expected to wear head coverings inside a church and they provide "loaner" scarves for those without. At one service, when people lined up for the eucharist, women and men lined up separately.  These practices are not consistent around the country so a visitor could be embarrassed by not knowing the expectations. 

Despite the unofficial role in government and the casual attitude toward practice, religion is pervasive in one form or another. Most people I see wear a crucifix.  Every taxi, bus and marshutni I have been in has had pictures of Jesus and/or saints taped near the windshield.  It is not uncommon to see people cross themselves (three times in Armenian fashion) when a church comes into their sight or if they hear church bells ringing. Some people passing churches stop to kiss the building itself.  While a lot of churches were destroyed in the past, I keep coming across small chapels along roadsides or tucked away in neighborhoods - and which are clearly being visited by people on a regular basis as evidenced by the items left inside.

Around the corner from my apartment - and I just discovered it two weeks ago
Interior of the chapel
There is a church near where I live that collapsed during the earthquake.  Despite the fact that it is open to the elements, people visit regularly as evidenced by the relatively fresh candle wax I see each time I go in.

What remains of St Gregory the Illuminator Church in Gyumri
Also, on the big religious holidays, the churches are mobbed. On several, people bring candles to carry home a consecrated flame and on Christmas people bring home bottles of holy water.

The central church, known as the Mother See of Holy Ejmiatsin, is near Yerevan. The museum inside has what is believed to be a piece of Noah's Ark and what is known as the Spear of Destiny - the spear that pierced Jesus' side when he was on the cross. 


Procession of clergy at Ejmiatsin
In the 20 years since the end of the Soviet era, the church has been trying to become more of an influence.  At the same time, other religions also are trying to establish themselves here and the attitudes toward them are not welcoming.  Many other religions are referred to as "sects".  In the media, discussion of a recent increase in the number of suicides in Armenia is sometimes accompanied by speculation that involvement in a "sect" may be a factor.  When some fellow volunteers went to look at an apartment available for rent, they were asked to kiss a crucifix to prove that they were Christian. A fellow volunteer who is Jewish told a story about when she discussed her religion with a co-worker.  At one point she was asked "But you love Jesus, right?"

There are quite a few Mormons on mission in Armenia.  When I tell people that I am a volunteer and that I work with the church, many ask if I am one.  I clarify that my work site is with the Armenian church, and point out that Mormons don't have facial hair (and if it is a more social occasion involving vodka shots, that they don't drink).  Also, good as our language training in Peace Corps is, the Mormons all seem to be fluent but I don't want to point out my relatively poor language skills.

From what I can see, people are moving toward the church more formally.  As an example, people are not baptized shortly after birth but instead when they choose to become officially Christian.  As a result, most of the baptisms I have seen (not unusual when touring churches and monasteries) have been adults.  Last year, though, a woman I know had her five year old daughter baptized.  Seminaries are being opened to increase the population of priests and deacons.  I see churches being built around the country and read about efforts to revive some of the monasteries that have fallen into disrepair.  

Working with the church while this transition is going on gives a fascinating (to me) perspective of this country as it undergoes other transitions - to a market economy, to democracy, navigating associations with Russia, the West and Iran simultaneously and countless other issues.  In times when there are so many issues for the populace to contend with - poverty, corruption, the threat of renewed war with Azerbaijan - it is not too surprising that people will turn to religion more. And, I guess it says something that, despite mass emigration, occupation, genocide and war, that this religion has lasted 1700 years.