It’s been raining for days. And on this Sunday, the forecast is for rain all week here in Ijevan. As I look through the rivulet-filled window at my empty wet chair on the balcony, the song Gloomy Sunday comes to mind. Loving Billie Holiday, I play the song by Sam Lewis on my laptop only to discover that it was originally written by the Hungarian Rezso Seress in 1932. It became known as The Hungarian Suicide Song given that a surprising number of suicides were attributed to miserable wretches offing themselves after, or while, listening to the lyrics. The song speaks of a man deciding to kill himself over the death of his loved one. I offer for you here the video of the original song. Though I’ve been unshakably depressed myself for days, watching this video became a parody of my dark thoughts, the images so stark as to be almost comical. In fact, I found myself laughing at not only this absurd slideshow of tragic misery, but at my own loss of perspective on what is truly depressing, there having been many much worse periods in my long life for which suicide could have been an appropriate solution.
But, Ijevan is a depressed town, though people here chose to put aside the poverty, high unemployment, government corruption and incredible tension from the nearby conflict zone shared with Azerbaijan. Instead, they seem to choose to focus on what they perceive as the wonderful offerings of the day. I’m continually amazed by the frequent laughter, the cheery conversations, the constant weddings and birthday parties. Fireworks displays almost every week note these celebrations, though lately, after our recent Four-Day War, I’ve gone to the window to see the bright, starry show to be sure it wasn’t artillery fire.
Armenians are an unhealthy lot, an assortment of conditions and diseases causing as many early funerals as weddings of sixteen-year-olds. Domestic violence has high statistics, though it isn’t talked about at all. The education is appalling given 70 years of Soviet rule when schooling became nothing more than rote learning of facts and figures. Imagination and creative thinking were removed as were motivation and any propensity for creative solutions or entrepreneurial endeavor. The Soviets provided everything. The mentality became a mantra of just stay in line, keep your head down, follow the rules and your basic needs will be met.
Underneath the laughter is an iceberg of sorrow. As I’ve mentioned before, stemming from the constant territorial takeovers in its very old history, the Armenian Genocide and Soviet rule, Armenia has largely become a dysfunctional wasteland, almost barren of effort to self-improve, content in the peaceful day-to-day living of the underdeveloped with little thought as to why they have no infrastructure, have sporadic availability of water and electricity, walk in their spit-shined shoes down muddy roads, have to get most everything from the capital city or elsewhere except farm produce sold in a complicated arrangement of almost tribal exchange. There is no hope, they tell me. There will be no change. They look to the beautiful mountains surrounding them and point to their glory while happily dumping boxes and bags of garbage into their river, joking that spring rains will wash it to Azerbaijan. All the bad gets washed away by their denial of the possibility of being able to foster any positive change for themselves.
So, contrary to the norm, my wonderful Armenian counterpart and friend had a vision: Create a celebration of all that’s wonderful about Ijevan — stimulate community pride and eradicate the low self-esteem and despair that hides under the laughter. Near the center of town is a park full of huge statues made during a sculpture symposium in the Soviet era. Sculpture Park lies along the Aghstev River and provides a lovely place to sit on wood benches in the shade of mostly pine trees. Surrounding it is a walkway. On this walkway my friend wants to create a series of large paintings representing the aforementioned highlights of Ijevan. And community partners will join us — sister NGOs to provide entertainment, a puppet show, face painting and sidewalk chalk art for the children.
We’ll take our celebrants along an ArtWalk (“Arvesti Jemughi” in Armenian) to view the paintings and learn about the sculptures in the park. And our walk will end at a painting of a typical Armenian rug which runs up the stairs of our building and into our office where we’ll serve coffee and sugary things and talk about my friend’s vision for an extensive public relations campaign to bring more joy and pride to the heart of the Ijevan community and create a permanent place in the park for public discourse, lectures, performances, film screenings and seasonal rituals to bring the community together — a place where civic participation would germinate from discussions about Armenian life and possibilities for change and improvement. I myself have a thought about holding a women’s conversation club where women wanting to practice their English could come and we’ll talk about their lives, hopes, dreams and, perhaps, ideas for social change.
Because my friend and I work in youth development we created a team of older youth to build on this idea, plan and manage the event. Even after one event failure due to low participation of youth last fall, I persisted through the spring with regular meetings with the youth where we created goals and a timeline for event development, nominated leaders to manage different aspects of the event and engaged in group decision-making about event needs. Through two of the more dedicated young men, a logo was created and posters and tee-shirt designs. But now that the event date of May 12 is near, I’m again finding most of the youth in the group disinterested in actually working towards the goal, unmotivated to follow through on our plans. Images of the Hungarian Suicide Song come to mind with some of our youth in leading roles. The event has now fallen to my friend and I to actualize, having promised the celebration to our partners, colleagues and friends, and to the Ijevan mayor of all people. And what was I thinking? That these sons and daughters of such Ijevanian depression, though bathed in denial and laughter, would be able to follow through?
We’ve rallied, my friend and I. We’re doing the work ourselves with the help of a few amazingly dedicated supporters. We will hold a somewhat smaller event and have lowered our expectations for attendance. But we will ourselves celebrate Ijevan and its offerings and bring my friend’s vision to those who will listen. How did Ms. Mead put it? “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
So I’m reframing the event in my mind since I really can’t stay lodged in this depression. Now I see it as perhaps a pilot attempt in youth development gone awry, and I anticipate a successful art festival that just may provide some motivation for continued work on the vision for community development. And, if I perhaps try to teach these young people something about creative thinking and problem solving, they might just get a bit more interested in making change happen at least for themselves. Get WiFi donated to the park? Have movie screenings? A little karaoke perhaps? (a favorite) Music performances? Live mural painting on canvases stretched between trees? Letting your suppressed imagination run amok? Fun in the park on a warm night since otherwise there is absolutely nothing to do in this forsaken town but sit at home with your parents and probably grandparents watching Russian soap operas on television? Eh?
We can do this thing. I’ve become a thoughtful, committed citizen of this town. I’m feeling more enthused. And — the rain just stopped and the sun came out. I’ll take that as a beginning … perhaps of community and youth development, Part II.