Friday, February 26, 2010

Changing of seasons

It's starting to turn towards spring here in Armenia. The snow is quickly retreating from the mountains--though there wasn't a whole lot to begin with in these parts--the days are lengthening, and it's fitfully getting warmer. There's nothing particular about spring that brings this to mind, but I begin to feel a bit chaotic around this time of a season. The changing of the seasons anywhere that I am and in any season always seems to me to be a small moment of greater chaos in life (more than the usual) because it brings with it different expectations, different activities, different feelings. Here in Armenia I feel that especially strongly, but not just because these are all wrapped up with the knowledge that I'll be going back to America soon. I felt this way this time last year, and in fact feel it strongly on the cusp of every season's change here. I can feel that change happening inside me, as my emotions roll around and try to adjust to the new reality of what my days will start to be like, what sort of new schedule I'll be on. I have to remember at the end of this season that silence in the evenings--outside of the trucks rolling past--is only a function of winter, as I begin to hear kids playing in the courtyard. And I allow myself the pleasure of contributing to this new noise by sitting on my porch with the banjo.

I often find that I can clarify how strongly the change in seasons is for me in Armenia every time I remember "it's almost time for new vegetables and new fruits!" It's hard to describe in some ways, but the irony for me is that in a place where the culture doesn't change that much that it's the change in what I can eat that brings dynamism to my life. At any point in time in America, though things are constantly changing around me and my life is always in flux, I can and do eat a similar diet all year round. But in Armenia, it's gastronomy that changes my life. Spring's coming, and my mind wanders to thoughts of spinach, and spring lettuce, and zucchini. I'm trying to adjust to this new reality that what I'm cooking is about to move farther from what comes from a can, or from the nourishing potato and cabbage and onion.

But it's chaos! Where do I start?! How do I prepare for its arrival?! This coming abundance is simply too much to think about!

Every change in season brings about these feelings of an increase in chaos, even in America, but I feel it so strongly here, because it's among the few things I find that changes quickly here. When all the culture around me goes on in the same way it's gone on since I arrived in the country, it's the seasons that bring dynamism; it's their change that throws me off kilter.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Thinking about war and conflict

It's something I do a lot in my work here, seeing as I work at a peace NGO. There's a disturbing amount of it in this region, most of which never comes up outside of the few circles in which it's a concern. Ask yourself this: had you ever heard of South Ossetia or Abkhazia before last August? When I ask myself that question, the answer is no, but it's a conflict that's been seething to different degrees since the end of the Cold War. As is the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; as is the Chechnya conflict (at least a lot more people know about this one); as is the Dagestan conflict; as are several other conflicts in the Caucasus. These conflicts have just been roiling under and sometimes above the surface for 20 years now, and so there's a lot for my NGO to do, and a lot to keep my mind occupied when I'm at work.

One of the primary ways that my NGO tries to conceive of conflict is through an individual lens, focusing on histories and memories. Conflict isn't something that we can really talk about in one way, because outside of statistics--number of bombs dropped, number of people killed, amount of territory taken or lost, dates of events--there's very little about the history of any war that's set in stone, because everyone experiences war in a different way; everyone develops unique and individual memories of a conflict that inform their own personal histories of a conflict. This can be, and often is, problematic for anyone working in the sphere of peace building, because how can you start to build peace in a conflict if you don't address the places that each individual is coming from? More than that, how can individuals understand the way towards peace if they don't understand the experiences of each other? It's this fundamental issue that we grapple with in our work, and so its the basis of much of what we've done so far; if we were historians (well, I'll call myself a historian) we'd probably call it a hermeneutic approach

I say all this above as a pretext for the rest of my post, just to set out where I'm coming from. I realized the other day that I had never really thought of this outside of the context of the society I find myself in. As absurd as it sounds, up until now I had thought of all the work we were doing, all the methods we were applying, as something that was applicable only to developing countries--surely, after all, my own country doesn't have the problems that Armenia has when it comes to war and conflict, right? And then, my director and I were talking the other day about how peace organizations often encounter so much resistance in their own societies for daring to work for peace; it suddenly struck me how negatively I view peace movements in my own country, and how often I dismiss them as absurd and ridiculous. I don't dismiss the idea of creating a more peaceful society as absurd, but so often I see the efforts of peace organizations and my first instinct is to look down on them as naive or counterproductive.

What I find myself constantly doing is thinking that somehow America can't benefit from the kinds of work that we do at my NGO, because we're so far "above" that--yes, we are a nation at war, but surely we're at a more advanced stage of war, one that demands different ideas about how to achieve peace, no?

Well, no.

If anything, I've come to think of this idea of histories and memories as among the most important methodologies for moving towards peace, especially because when I think of peace movements in the US the word "dialogue" is not in any way associated with them. I don't think of peace organizations in the US as trying to understand the histories and memories of broad swaths of people, nor as trying to bring society together to understand our individual histories together. And maybe it's because I've dismissed many of these organizations (Code Pink consistently comes to mind) for so long and so never see them doing these things, but I wonder how much we try to understand each other in America, and how much either peace organizations or organizations more accepting of war really try to understand each other. We're all operating on our own histories and our own memories, without going to too many lengths to understand those of others.

I feel that if there's anything I need to do better--and there's a great deal in my life that I need to do better--it's to start to broaden my understanding of my own memories and histories of war and conflict in America and to hear out those of others. Most of us are so insulated from it that that's hard to do, but the beauty of Peace Corps is that I'm constantly forced to reflect on my own country and I get to view it as somewhat of an outsider during these two years. So I'll keep thinking about war and conflict, but I'll stop believing that it's only something that touches the developing world, because my own country bears its scars in ways that too often remain invisible.