Multi-Ethnic Matches Spurned

By Nune Hakhverdian in Yerevan

Institute for War and Peace Reporting, UK
Aug. 21, 2006

Marrying a foreigner in Armenia, especially an African, can cause
raised eyebrows.

Michael, Anna and their two sons.

Murtada, Naira and their son. Photos by Piruza Khalapyan.

Armenia is a practically mono-ethnic state, with very few instances
of mixed marriages, which makes those who do make inter-racial matches
stand out all the more.

"I bring up my children in the spirit of Christianity and I tell them
that all people are equal, regardless of the colour of their skin
and their faith," said Anna, who lives in Yerevan with her Nigerian
husband Michael and their two small sons Joseph and James.

The two dark-skinned boys do suffer racial abuse in their kindergarten
or on public transport. "I just get furious when they call my children
‘negroes’," she said.

"I don’t feel comfortable in Yerevan," added Michael, who despite
owning his own business, an Internet cafe, wants to take his family
away from Armenia to a more multi-racial society.

Despite living in Armenia for nine years, Michael has not integrated
well and speaks only a few phrases of Armenian.

Michael and Anna’s was the first marriage officially registered
between an African and an Armenian, more than ten years ago and it
is still a very rare case in Armenia.

Ethnographer Hranush Kharatian, who heads the Armenian government’s
department on national minorities and religious issues, notes that
Armenians comprise 97.8 per cent of the population and that they have
little experience of interacting with other nationalities.

She also said that an ancient tradition of self-preservation and
of fostering national identity in the face of adversity had served
Armenia well but carried with it suspicion towards foreigners who
wanted to marry ethnic Armenians, both in Armenia itself and in the
worldwide diaspora.

Yet this attitude, she said, is prevalent in a society, which suffers
from huge migration problems.

"I think foreigners in Armenia will definitely encounter problems,"
Kharatian went on. "Our state does not have an active immigration
policy, there is no discussion of attracting new workers or stimulating
population growth. We don’t have gaps in our workforce, on the contrary
we don’t have enough jobs.

"A person who has an unusual appearance or whose skin is a different
colour tries to lead the life of an ordinary citizen, but the extra
attention he gets from society makes his life public property."

According to official statistics, in the 18 months between January
2005 and the end of June 2006, there were 864 marriages between
Armenians and foreigners out of a total of 20,000 unions overall.

"I think any of our women who marry blacks are our enemies," said
a middle-aged man with higher education questioned by IWPR on the
street in Yerevan. "Armenian blood should not be mix with the blood
of blacks. If you marry a foreigner then he should at least be white."

His view was typical of many ordinary Armenians asked to comment on
the issue.

Murtada came to Armenia from Sudan nine years ago as a tourist and
married an Armenian named Naira. They live in Yerevan and Murtada,
who trained as an economist, works as a driver.

"I’m not concerned by the extra attention that gets paid to us, but
I worry about Murtada," his wife told IWPR. "He is a very sensitive
person and he can be insulted by a sideways glance."

"I can’t hide the colour of my husband’s skin," she went on, expressing
hope that their son Bashir, who speaks Armenian like a native will
not suffer from the same problems as his father.

Mira, who is Korean, moved from Moscow to Armenia with her Armenian
husband Ashot. She said that the two of them, both artists, had
encountered few problems and had had more trouble in Georgia, where
they also lived for several years.

Ashot acknowledged that it was easier for his wife, an Asian, to fit
into Armenia than for an African to do so. But he said he was worried
by the country’s intolerance towards foreigners. "The more developed
a country is the better it treats its foreigners. Poorly developed
countries put obstacles in the way of foreigners," he said.

"We need time to live together so that Armenians get used to the idea
that black-skinned people can adapt to our way of life, speak Armenian
and live like Armenians," said Vladimir Mikaelian, a psychologist.

He argued that Armenian ignorance about foreigners stemmed from lack
of historical experience rather than sheer prejudice. "We know the
customs of Arabs, Turks and Persians," he said. "And we get our ideas
about black people from the media and ascribe to them traits which
we learn about second-hand."

Mikaelian also mentioned a good example of racial prejudice being
overcome: the popular black television performer Hrant Hovsepian,
known as Blond, who has an adoptive Armenia mother.

"If Armenia wants to develop then it ought to understand that, one way
or another, foreigners will keep on coming here," said Elza Guchinova,
who is herself an ethnic Kalmyk and is doing comparative research
on the mono-ethnic societies of Armenia and Japan. "[Urban centres]
all over the world are ethnically diverse and it’s impossible to stop
this process."

Nune Hakhverdian is a reporter for 168 Hours newspaper.

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