Book Review: The Dreamt Land

Book Review: The Dreamt Land

The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California
By Mark Arax
2019
576 pp., Knopf
$21.23 hardcover

For two summers in a row, I had the privilege of acting as an interpreter for a team of auditors of an international development organization which was involved in a reservoir and irrigation project in Armenia. My two big memories from that experience were the adage, “Water is life” and how rural individuals and groups in Armenia had it in them to get organized and advocate for themselves in the face of a rather rigid government and a major global donor. It was moving and impressive.

The Dreamt Land by Mark Arax has numerous such tales to share in the continuing saga of “Water is life” across a territory about 15 times the size of Armenia with a history of pipelines, wells, irrigations, dams and claims and counter-claims on land and land use that date back two centuries. The book is in part a history of California told through its management of water and other natural resources and a compilation of investigative reporting pieces, alongside profiles of notable figures past and present. There’s also plenty of social commentary, as well as autobiographical elements. It is a lengthy piece of writing – sometimes disjointed, often very much detailed – but always revolving around the same key question: Who gets to decide what to do with the land and the water in California, how and why?

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Book Review: Mr Five Per Cent

Book Review: Mr Five Per Cent

Mr Five Per Cent: The Many Lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, the World’s Richest Man
Jonathan Conlin
Profile Books, 2019
416 pp.
$24.31 hardcover

As the title suggests, there is more than one Calouste Gulbenkian portrayed in this comprehensive biography by Jonathan Conlin. Two in particular stand out: Calouste the indefatigable man of business and Calouste the Armenian, who belongs to everywhere and to nowhere. For both and more, Conlin has put together a revelatory piece of writing, having gained access to the archives at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, Portugal, among a broad variety of other sources. Combined with his adept skills as a historian and storyteller, Conlin’s work makes for engaging reading. (Some disclosure: I had the privilege and pleasure of assisting with archival research for this book.)

As far as the first Calouste goes, this book offers a detailed account of the life and efforts of a remarkable and influential man whose actions informed key aspects of the world’s economy in the 20th century. The development of the oil industry and the financial practices and networks associated with it owe a great deal to Gulbenkian, as does the shaping of commerce between the Western world’s powers and other regions at a time when European colonial empires were being challenged by a rising United States and an upstart Soviet Union.

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2017 Armenian Parliamentary Elections: Observations on Observations

2017 Armenian Parliamentary Elections: Observations on Observations

I had the honor and pleasure of serving as an interpreter for visiting European observers during the 2017 Parliamentary Elections held in Armenia on April 2. It was a long, exhausting day. But I shouldn’t complain, because those election monitors who stayed for the final count definitely got far less sleep than me that night. All in all, it was a fascinating experience—one from which I learnt a great deal.

Long before I had much of an idea about political philosophies or voting processes, I served as an all-day observer at a single polling station in Yerevan during the Parliamentary Elections in 2007. That was not a very positive experience, in part due to logistical reasons—staying in one single room from seven am one morning to six am the following morning with little access to food or water was no fun. Also, I had not been trained very well and didn’t know what violations to look out for. I would have been unable to handle any confrontations. Luckily the voting at my polling station passed by almost without incident that time.

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The Global Nature of Armenian Culture

69_postcaptureThe Global Nature of Armenian Culture

I was at a KFC in Yerevan the other day when an Iranian tourist approached the young woman at the counter and said, “Excuse me, please, can I have one changal?” The lady smiled and said, “Yes, changal,” and gave him the fork he requested.

How wonderful was that exchange? The setting: a multi-national fast food chain. The actors: two members of neighboring nations. The language: yet a third, as it were universal, entity, sprinkled with one word from let’s say a formerly universal language of communication.

I thought it was very telling—an example of the global nature of Armenian culture.

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Speaking the Language of the International Community

Speaking the Language of the International Community

When Armenians speak of “our lands” and demand their return, the sentiment is often lost on the international community, for two main reasons: (1) We live in a world of states and statehood; and (2) the Armenians were never the only ones who lived on those lands.

Whether we like it or not, our planet is divided up into territories that have the technical term of “states.” These are not the states of the United States, but independent, sovereign states. The United States of America is a state, the Republic of Armenia is a state, and so on. The United Nations brings together the states of the world, which currently number at 193. Of course, there are disputed territories, but as far as the international community is broadly concerned, there are at present only 193 states in the world.

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More than One April 24, 2015, in Istanbul

More than One April 24, 2015, in Istanbul

It was the evening of April 24, 2015, and I was sitting on the street in Istanbul, right near where Istiklal Avenue starts off from Taksim Square. The area had been closed off especially for us—a part of town usually bustling (bursting, really) with people. Those around me were holding placards, mostly of the Armenians who had been placed under arrest that day 100 years earlier. I got a placard with one Hagop Terzian on it. “I must look him up,” I thought, somewhat ashamed of the fact that I had not heard of him before, one of the many whose memory was being honored that evening.

The atmosphere was that of a quiet crowd. There was some music, some speeches. I thought it odd that my feet were crossed on the ground next to the tracks over which the tramway ferries tourists and locals from one end of this long, touristy shopping street to the other. The tramway incessantly rings its bell as a warning because, again, Istiklal Avenue is always teeming with people. (I had earlier noticed a favorite game of one of the unfortunate newcomers to this part of the world—young refugee children from Syria, hopping on and off the protruding parts of the tramway wagon. No ringing bell ever dissuades them.) I made a mental note of exactly where I was on the street, trying to figure out a line joining the track to the shops and buildings around me. Someday I would show off the specific spot where I was on the 24th of April, 2015.

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Turkey’s Post-Post-Modern Coup and U.S. Foreign Policy

Turkey’s Post-Post-Modern Coup and U.S. Foreign Policy

Turkey is no stranger to changes in regime. The administration in Ankara has seen fundamental, abrupt shifts a number of times since the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923. Following the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1938, the military perceived itself as the guardian of the secular, republican order established by one of its own. With that in mind, the army stepped in on three separate occasions—in 1960, in 1971, and in 1980—to remove certain elements from power. Turkey returned to democracy each time.

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Reflections on ‘Depat’ Armenians

Reflections on ‘Depat’ Armenians

I am a member of the Facebook group that the Repat Armenia Foundation maintains. I am, in fact, a fan of that organization, which provides assistance to Armenians who wish to move to the Homeland, whether in terms of technical or legal information, employment, or some guidance on housing. It’s the sort of function that one would have wished the state to perform, that one might have expected the Ministry of the Diaspora to take on, via Armenian embassies or otherwise. To be fair, we are talking about a big deal, highly resource-heavy in realization, and also ideologically and philosophically heavy in its own right.

The issue of moving to Armenia has been in focus in recent years, even celebrated, both because of the alarming numbers of emigrants from Armenia, and also because of the influx of Armenian refugees from Syria. The latter group has indeed been given some support both by the state and otherwise, but a significant part has moved on to a third country, or has returned to Syria.

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Taxist Blues: Public Transport in Yerevan

Taxist Blues: Public Transport in Yerevan

I hate the taxis in Yerevan. Oh, all right, that’s not quite accurate. I dislike taking taxis in Yerevan, despite all the advantages they have to offer. Really, the best way to explore and get to know any city is on foot. And walking around Yerevan can really be wonderful, especially as it is indeed such a walkable city. You can easily get from Point A to Point B in your own shoes, something that is very hard to experience in, say, Los Angeles, for example. Of all the places I’ve lived and visited in the world—not that my sample is too immense, but, with modesty, I imagine it is sufficient to pass the following judgment—Yerevan’s taxis are among the most inexpensive and accessible in the world. It is difficult not to catch one, barring extreme circumstances. And almost anywhere to almost anywhere in the city center almost always costs 600 drams, what is known as the “minimal” (pronounced “mee-nee-mahl”). That’s something like one and a half American dollars. Where, I ask you, is it possible to have a personal car take you from door to door for that amount? Not in too many places in the Western world, I’d wager.

But I still dislike using taxis around here. I feel uncomfortable with the knowledge that there are a whole bunch of strangers in town who know exactly where I live. Oh, yes, it has happened that I’ve had the same driver more than once, and he has known, without my telling him, exactly where I’m headed. That’s just my paranoid self, because probably none of these “taxists,” as they are called, are planning on burglarizing the place while I’m away. And, in this city, sooner or later (let’s be honest: sooner), everyone knows where everyone else lives. That was the case long before Facebook.

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A View from Erbil

A View from Erbil

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in the north of Iraq. The generosity of the KRG, in cooperation with the institution where I study, allowed for around 15 graduate-level students of international affairs to meet with regional officials and to explore some of the sights of that part of Iraqi Kurdistan.

As someone born and raised in India, Erbil seemed rather familiar to me. The layout of the city, the architecture, and the general flatness and climate were reminiscent of my native Delhi. But the people, their outlook, their culture, and certainly their food, spoke far more to my Armenian heritage, to say nothing of their dances. I was expecting as much. I just wish their shourchbar was faster-paced, but maybe they were toning it down for us foreigners. What I was not expecting was how very similar the countryside in Kurdistan would be to that of Armenia: the same rolling hills and valleys, more or less rocky, craggy, without all that much greenery. We saw a fair number of waterfalls as well. Plus, there was a brand-new téléphérique (I made sure to note how long it was, just to confirm that the record set up in Tatev remains unbeaten).

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