By Lillian Avedian
The word "odar" carries a multitude of meanings for the Armenians who use it. "Odar" directly translates to "other" in English. In Armenian, it can refer to a literal or metaphorical other.
Armenians in the diaspora use "odar" to denote any non-Armenians they encounter globally. "Odar" is inherently negative, as it connotes difference, unfamiliarity, discomfort. The Armenian and the "odar" can never coexist since Armenians display fundamental traits unique to the Armenian people. An insurmountable (ethnic) barrier eternally divides the Armenian from the "odar." The beauty of the ideal of the motherland is that Armenia is a home for all Armenians, where Armenians can find comfort in being surrounded by people like them. "Odar" theoretically carries no meaning in Armenia as all Armenians are bound together by a common national spirit.
However, as a diasporan currently residing in Armenia, I can confirm that the exclusionary ideology behind the word "odar" permeates the culture of Yerevan like a virus that cannot be eradicated. In this case, "odar" does not refer to an ethnic division, but to the division crafted between Armenians who live in Armenia and Armenians from the diaspora. Every day, I experience encounters that remind me of my position as an outsider within the country that I was told from birth would embrace me as a long-lost child who was violently torn away from its mother. Each of these incidents chips away at the vision constructed for me in diasporan Armenian schools and churches and organizations of Armenia as the land of unity and comradeship, where my identity as an Armenian would serve as a marker of my membership.
During my visit to Armenia last July, I was walking down the street in Yerevan when somebody loudly remarked in my direction, "Your hair is ridiculous. You look like a man. Shame on you." (At the time, my hair was styled in a pixie cut that I was rather fond of and that suited the unbearable heat of Armenia in the summertime). Later, discussing the experience with a friend of mine who lives in Yerevan, she stated, "Your hair is such a giveaway that you aren't from here. No women in Armenia cut their hair short, and if they do, people assume they're a lesbian."
Similar attitudes regarding short hair exist in the United States, of course. Yet, in this instance, my hair served as an external symbol of my role as an outsider. No women in Armenia cut their hair short, and if they do, they deviate from the strict heteronormative culture that dictates appearance and style. I did not conform to this standard, and was publicly and vocally shamed for it, grouping me together with those communities that are (unjustly) ostracized in mainstream Armenian society. Either I am a foreigner, or I am a lesbian. Either way, I exist outside of the norms that determine one's status as an Armenian.
I can name many examples similar to this one--people on the streets loudly commenting on my clothes, my hair, believing I would not understand their Armenian or simply not caring. Calling me an American, a slut, a lesbian, all in the same sentence, equalizing these indicators of difference and exclusion. As long as I do not dress modestly or grow out my hair or wear makeup, people will assume that I am not from Armenia based on my appearance. Unless I change the way I look, I will never be considered a member of the Armenian nation. I am forever "odar."
However, certain characteristics also protect me from exposing my diasporan identity. I speak and understand Armenian fluently, and my hooked nose, bushy eyebrows, and olive skin blend in. Yet not all diasporan Armenians share this luck.
My current roommate in Yerevan is perpetually aware of the division that exists between her and the Armenians around her. She is an Armenian-American, with ancestors who escaped to America during the Armenian Genocide of 1915. She also has one Armenian parent. Her blond hair and light skin earn her gawking stares on the streets and constant comments upon her unusual beauty. People's faces transform into those of shock, then amusement when she begins to speak Armenian with them. She is Armenian by blood, yet her physical appearance automatically confines her to the position of an "odar."
An experience we shared one evening epitomizes my argument. My roommate and I were sitting at an outdoor bar having drinks and enjoying the cool weather of Yerevan's evenings. Two women drinking by themselves in Yerevan is unheard of, let alone late in the evenings. Add to that my roommate's appearance and our English conversation, and we firmly placed ourselves in the realm of "odar," solidly outside of the normative understandings of what it is to be an Armenian. As we chatted, my roommate's expression suddenly turned stormy and tense.
"Those men are taking pictures of me," she said.
I turned around, and sure enough, a group of men sitting at the table behind us were openly taking photos of her, chuckling as they passed around a smartphone. She stared back at them in disbelief, telling them in Armenian to stop taking photos of her. They simply laughed in response.
We no longer felt comfortable sitting in the bar, so we quickly paid for our drinks and left, avoiding the gazes and comments of those men. Walking home that night, three different people on the street remarked upon our appearance.
Diasporans have crafted an ideology of the Armenian homeland that can never exist while diasporans who visit Armenia are immediately labelled "odar" by their appearance, speech, and behavior. Armenia holds immense potential to be a haven for Armenians who wish to openly and freely engage with their heritage and language in the company of other Armenians. Yet this potential is soured when Armenians who display traits common to cultures outside of Armenia are labelled "odar" and publicly discredited for the ways in which they are different.
Embracing the exchange of ideas, values, and customs that the flow of diasporans into Armenia promises promotes the development of a healthy, vibrant Armenian culture while affirming the place of diasporans in the global Armenian community. It is time to abandon the shame attached to any sign of diversity in Armenia, starting by welcoming diasporans as long-lost sisters and brothers.
Until then, I will continue to precariously balance my conflicting identities as both an Armenian and an "odar" within the homeland.
Top photo: Author in Dilijan, June 2017.
(Lillian Avedian is a junior at the University of California, Berkeley double majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies and Armenian Language and Literature. She is currently interning at Hetq with the Armenian Assembly of America summer internship program. This is her third visit to Armenia.)