“My connection to genocide?” I stammered for the first time in our conversation.
“Yes, your connection. You are not Armenian, you are not Palestinian, Iraqi…You are Canadian. So why are you here? What is your connection to genocide? Are you a scholar?”
We are standing at the back of an auditorium where scholars, students and activists from around the world have gathered for a conference entitled: After Genocide: From trauma to Rebirth - A Gendered Perspective.
I want to tell this man that I have seen children changed by the violence they had no choice but to bear witness to. I want to tell him that I have seen state policies of violence and discrimination seep into a city’s buildings and make a home within their foundations, claiming the buildings, and by extension the entire city, as their own. I want to remind this man that I am human and my tie to genocide, to violence, is simple: humanity binds me to the pain of others. Instead, I hesitantly tell this man, “No, I am not a scholar. I am a teacher.” Clearly unsatisfied with my response, he gives me a confused look and a slight nod, shifting his focus back to the presenter at the front of the room.
Sitting in my windowsill with my journal aglow from the orange street light below, reflecting on this conversation, I look around my apartment. I have been here in Yerevan for one month. I have been asked countless times why I have decided to move my life here, to Armenia. Colleagues ask how I heard about their country, eager to hear my response. Strangers ask if I have come to meet an Armenian man to marry, because, they say, you can not find a man more loyal than an Armenian man. The familiar look of tepid confusion washes over their faces when I explain that I have come to their country - their home - to learn.
Catching a glimpse of the oversized and unwashed coffee mug I left on the kitchen counter while rushing out this morning to the conference, my mind brings me back to this man, the one who questioned my motives so intently. I suppose that when you have been fighting for over one hundred years to have your pain recognized and named by a world that has all but forgotten - or actively denied - your pain ever existed, a foreigner seeking to hear your stories and learn your pain is a strange, and possibly unsettling, encounter.
His questioning brings light to the ever-growing crack in my moral foundation. This crack is my subconscious’ manifestation of the privilege I have been afforded by my Canadian passport. It grows, expanding it’s darkness - my guilt - each time I trespass on land I have stolen a permit to visit simply by being born Canadian. It grows each time I learn how my government has silenced, restricted or denied the voices of others. I try my hardest to force wild flowers to grow from this crack, their petals unfurling as I water them with good intentions.
Though these flowers push themselves through my rib-cage, attempting to project their colours and honesty to each person I meet, they are born from the darkness that is my privilege - privilege that divides and categorizes us as humans whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. I try to situate myself in conversations about these places and experiences that don’t belong to me very carefully. Consistently washing my hands of any ownership of emotion or experience, I remind myself that I am here, both literally and figuratively, simply to learn. Still I wonder, what the implications of this desire to learn by witnessing - to learn by being, rather than reading and institutionalized education are? Can I truly be a well-intentioned visitor with a widening crack in her chest, leaving only the proverbially advised footprints when I depart?
mind, I watch stray cats court each other on the street below. Faint music from the building across the street seeps unassumingly into the outside world. I close my eyes and imagine a young couple dancing slowly in each others arms, windows open to allow the cleansing winds from Mount Ararat to sneak into their home, washing over them as they embrace. I too allow the breeze to enter my home, rustling the program of the conference that sits on my kitchen table, reminding me of the poignancy of its whisper.
Intoxicated by this city, I wonder again about this ever-expanding crack I do not yet have a name for and the wild flowers that sprout from it’s darkness. I pluck them frequently, offering them silently to the many people who have asked me to tell them stories of their homelands, lands they have never physically visited. I offer them to the poet who teaches me the word hiraeth, homesickness for a home-land she has never been. I offer them to the young sister of a friend, who struggles to understand why the bombings in her city are not in the news in my city. I offer them to the many people who have shared their family histories of violence and displacement to me, a woman who’s family history is painted only with peace and privilege.
Tonight, as Yerevan serenades me from my windowsill, I silently offer them, with red cheeks, to the man who questioned me today, “What is your connection to genocide?”