I walked around Gyumri, Armenia with a 6’6” African American man today. For the first time since my arrival no one stared at me and whispered to each other as I passed.
The US Embassy was kind enough to pay for a traveling American music trio to come up to Gyumri last night. They sung opera, medleys of Ray Charles, and other upbeat tunes recognizable to any red-blooded American. Being that Gyumri sits in the northwest crook of Armenia, near a closed border in the west with Turkey and a closed border crossing with Georgia in the north, it goes without saying that there aren’t a lot of shows that get up this way, nor large African Americans with dread lochs. It was strange but kind of nice to feel a bit more a part of the society here as the eyes bored into my guest, to whom I was giving a tour of the city, instead of me (as you might imagine there also aren’t a lot of blond haired pointy-nosed white kids around here either.)
During the whole of this tour I was acutely aware of the fact that the term used for darker skinned people in Armenia is one which we in the United States find utterly unacceptable and repulsive. The use of the “N” word in English is tied to a history stained with repression and atrocity, but here it does not possess that same connotation. Just as we refer to people as Caucasians or Asians, the “N”-word is dropped around these parts obviously without concern for English language sensitivities. I was not relishing having to explain the nuances of history and location’s effect on the meaning of words to my guest, but was nonetheless preparing my dissertation as we left mumbling crowds of locals in our wake throughout our walk. Fortunately I think the power of such a dissimilar person (or perhaps that he kept saying hello to strangers, which is not done here) evoked such surprise from the Gyumretsi that we were always well past earshot by the time categorization and the vocalizing of this took place. I was left to gladly explain the eventful history of this place and its environs, as the group of curious children following us grew.
It was nice to finally begin to feel the first pangs of localism as I explained my new home to “an outsider.”