Passage to Yerevan

by Ed Forteau /
Ed Forteau's picture
Jul 28, 2011 / 1 comments

Not an American tourist destination or vacation spot and  isolated from  much of the world, through closed borders to the east and west, language and culture, Armenia is a country the size of the State of Maryland. Surrounded by Iran, Turkey, the Republic of Georgia and Azerbaijan, two million people live in the country, and of those one million live in the city of Yerevan.





Yerevan was once the site of the northernmost Urartian fortress, Erebuni. The city was established in 782 BC, 29 years earlier than Rome, and it is now Armenia’s capital. Nestled in a semi-circle of hills descending to the Hrazdan River, Yerevan is made up of broad avenues, modest dwellings, offices, shops, honking horns and masses of people. Over run and over run again, once a large country covering most of the local region, in its 21st Century formation it has yet to emerge as a real presence in the global village. William Saroyan, the 20th Century writer, was a first generation Armenia American whose work contributed to the literary cannon of American literature. Yerevites have constructed a statue of him in the city, where half of his ashes are buried.  American pop culture reflects the lives of three young Armenian Americans in the reality show, Keeping up with the Kardashians. Aside from the appearance of their ethnicity, the three sisters who are featured on that show are light years away from the traditional Armenian women who fill the streets of Yerevan.  Modernity has been slow to come to Armenia with its old Soviet power grids, waterlines and phone lines forming the base of Yerevan’s infrastructure.  A week with consistent electricity is considered a delight and daily hot water is a luxury.

As a seasoned traveler whose research and desires have taken me to Japan, France and India, I wanted to work and live in a part of the world I had never been before and about which I knew very little.  A Fulbright teaching award to Armenia seemed like that opportunity. I was most curious about how young women were being educated in a part of the world still anchored in the 20th Century and how or if the educational process was advancing the mission of the country.


After flying into a small airport just outside of Yerevan, entering the city in the dark disguised the dusty streets, cratered sidewalks and made it unclear that monuments and buildings there can decay without complete impunity. Yerevan is best understood in the morning when the light glistens off of the many buildings built of pink tufa stone. The tufa stone was the idea of Alexander Tumanyan, an Armenian architect, who created a general plan for Yerevan in 1924. New apartment buildings have jutted up in the city, mostly chalky pink blocks that are neither graceful nor harsh. The Armenian alphabet is Syriac and street signs are written in Armenia and Russian, obtuse for a person who neither reads nor speaks either.


Over 4,000 years old Armenia remains, for the most part, a country of villages.  Violence has plagued Armenia, a country with a long history of war and conflict, and has colored the spirit of its people who are melancholy, yet gracious, and committed to surviving. The first line of an Armenian poem written by Hohvannes Toumanian, “The way was heavy and the night was dark and yet we survived,” reflects the strength of the Armenian temperament.  In 1915 Ottoman authorities began arresting, uprooting and killing Armenians. Those who lived were forced to the desert of what is now Syria. This is known as the Armenian Genocide. The Republic of Turkey, the successor of the Ottoman Empire, denies that genocide is an accurate description of what happened during that time which has resulted in closed borders between Turkey and Armenia.





Yerevan in August was a teeming haze of pollution that sat atop the city as the temperature rose and Mount Ararat towered in the distance. The sky was a faded blue. There I was, people all around: on sidewalks, in the parks, on corners playing chess, and playing with children everywhere. I was struck by the fact that at five foot four inches I was tall and bigger than most men who past me on the street. Armenians enjoy conversation, hospitality and sitting in summer sidewalk cafes until the early morning hours. I did not fully understand the semi arid continental climate that allowed for hot summers and snowy winters, but the residents had learned to stay outside and enjoy the heat before the cold winter fell.


Time slowed down in Yerevan. No one around me was scurrying or trying to attend to pressing business. Yerevan does not have a commuting culture and days are slow to start.  As time passed, I scurried less and found I remembered more – a loaf of bread, the newspaper, and the faces of people passing by. When a friend came to visit from the United States she got up early to get coffee at the café downstairs and was disappointed to find it impossible.


I lived in an apartment on the Cascade, a park in the central part of the city.  It was a luxury apartment by Yerevan standards with parquet floors, a green velvet couch and a bedroom painted bright blue.  The window in the bedroom faced the street and I left it open all night in the summer listening to the street sounds and the performer in the café below as he sang, “Koom on beebee lit me fear.” I had a Russian washing machine that I never did tame.  A friend, Armen, translated the directions for me. His interpretation of the spin cycle was, “Prepare for preliminary crushing,” an apt metaphor for this remarkable, yet encroached upon country.


After six weeks of navigating the city, I started teaching at Yerevan State Linguistic University.  The university is named for Valery Brusov, a Russian poet and writer, who translated many major works of literature into Armenian.   I was assigned to teach in a master’s degree program UNESCO had founded a year prior in educational management and planning, the only program of its kind in the country. The goal of the program is to prepare students to lead elementary, middle or high schools throughout the country.  I do comparable work at Mills College, where I direct the administrative credential and master’s degree in educational leadership programs, so I felt well qualified to teach students in Armenia aspiring to lead schools.


The university sits on the corner of Tumanyan Street in downtown Yerevan. Surrounded by small shops and markets it is a large, three story, pink building that is in desperate need of repair. The atmosphere inside is more like an American high school than a university.  The school enrolls mostly women, because it is socially acceptable for them to study foreign languages. After graduating many become tour guides for the few French, German or Russian tourists or they may work in souvenir shops where their proficiency in languages can be used.  Adding to the aura of it being more like a high school than a university, there were constant giggles, clicking high heels and the use of lipstick was ubiquitous.


I taught a course titled, “U.S. Perspectives on School Leadership” to twelve young Armenian women, all less than thirty years old. My students were mystified by the “West” and established their fashion style from the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair, often wearing extremely high heels, short skirts and very tight pants, convinced that is how “American women” dress. Most of my students had never met an American before and only two of them had traveled outside of Armenia. They would often ask me, “What are your students like in the United States?”  They wanted to know how they compared. My students could speak, read and write English, which was not common in the general population, and many of them had to advocate for themselves within their families to go to graduate school. Two of my students were married and one had a child. The level of oppression of women is more wide sweeping in Armenia so managing marriage, motherhood and graduate school in that culture is even more complex than in America, requiring students to leave suddenly to resolve family problems when a parent, or, in particular, a mother-in-law would call. The subjugation was difficult to quell and I tried to model more liberated behavior to convince my students they could live their lives untamed.


Students were fearful that when they graduated there would be little or no opportunity for them to lead schools that desperately need their talent, intellect and imagination.  As a young democracy, signs of the former Soviet regime were ever present.  I passed out a book we would read and Armine asked, “Should I memorize the whole book or just part of it?”  Taken aback I engaged the class in a discussion about how we could talk about the ideas in a text rather than memorize.  I put some ideas from the book on the board and we practiced having discussions. As time passed, teaching in Armenia deepened my teaching practice by forcing me to deconstruct familiar curriculum and rethink pedagogy.


I asked my students to reflect on their own experiences and to write about how their experiences inform the kind of leader they wished to become. This was powerful for Tatevik who said, “I never thought of myself as a leader before, but now I understand I have led my family and friends through lots of difficulty. I have not been encouraged to think of myself this way until now.”  Viktoria shared that she believed her mother to be the leader of her family qualifying her statement by saying, “I know this is wrong. In Armenia the father should be the leader, but in my family my mother is the leader.”  When she had finished speaking she asked the other students not to share her comments outside of the class. There were many opportunities to talk with my students about what a woman can do with her life, and they were interested in these new kinds of conversations that they had never practiced before.
Never introduced to the idea that they could learn from each other, it took time to teach them to listen together.  In the beginning when one student would speak the others would talk amongst themselves. This behavior was confusing and almost comical.  I had to take time to teach how to attend to what was being said and then we could share in dialog. Despite the challenges, my students were singularly extraordinary.


My time in Yerevan constituted a successful cultural exchange because it reinforced in me that to live in another culture takes the capacity of respect. Respecting what you do not know about history, culture, language, terrain, bread and consequently, it requires the capacity for self respect and dignity.  As my students and I worked to understand and learn from one another, we grew simultaneously, which magnified the experience. My students were eager for discourse not just with Americans; they are curious about the rest of the world and want to know more about what life is like in many places. I take away from this experience knowledge that through cultural reciprocity international teaching exchanges can provide a great benefit. One teacher can make a difference when transplanted to the other side of the world if she is open to learning just as much as she will teach.



Diane Ketelle is an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Mills College.



Comments (1)

Leave a comment