“Ari, Gayoush, Ari” Arsen screamed into his walkie-talkie “Come, Gayane Come”
“Kgam” she bellowed back, and came. It turns out the 4-year-old is much more receptive to her big brother’s commands when they are issued through one of the yellow, plastic radio transmitters I brought home from Dubai.
The two were sitting about 4 feet apart and so the volume of their call and response wasn’t strictly necessary. Neither, for that matter, were the walkie-talkies, which had no batteries. The play was the important thing, and gave enormous pleasure to the kids, although the rest of us may have permanent hearing damage.
The ” no batteries–no difference” incident was just one of the moments in the last week when I have stopped to think about the contrast between Armenia, and Dubai, a three hour flight to the south of here– and economic worlds away.
A week ago, I basked in the sun, sipping cocktails and marveling at water rendered artificially and attractively blue by tile imported from God Knows Where. The sparkle on the water was enhanced by reflections from giant sheets of glass manipulated to impossible angles–3D CVs for leading architects. Sitting in the back of a dilapidated taxi on the way to Elsa’s house from the Yerevan airport, I looked out on a snow-filled purple-grey sky and breeze-block walls interspersed with sheets of rusted, corrugated iron. Here flowers imported from the Netherlands are carnations, bought only to decorate graves. A happy hour is when the baby doesn’t cry, or when someone stops to buy your apples, or when the car keeps going, and the fire stays lit.
At Elsa’s there was eggplant roasted on the stovetop, because they know I like it. Home-grown walnuts and home-dried raisins left over from the New Year’s celebration, and a marvelous jelly with an intricate flower inside–this is Alla’s latest hobby.*
When I left the next day, I was given 3 bags of grapes, one of apples, some dried rose-hips, frozen green beans (from the garden, not from a packet), and jars of eggplant caviar, tomato puree and apricot jam. Oh, and about 5 liters of red wine in old Coke bottles. Elsa also added some lavash. “There won’t be anything in the house when you get home” she said “Best to take it”. Funny, they didn’t worry about this when I checked out of my hotel in Dubai–and I’d been paying them to take care of me.
In Dubai, small children go racing at the Dubai Kartdrome. Many of them have their own karts, and helmets and leathers. When they get a bit older they can race a Lamborghini for a day. Many of Dubai’s drivers have their own Aston Martin, Ferrari or Lamborghini–we routinely saw them in parking lots and by the side of the road. It is hard to believe that even a four-year-old in UAE would be entertained too long by a toy walkie-talkie that wasn’t working.
Speaking of not working, a recent poll of Armenian adults –the Caucasus Barometer–conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Center (see the survey here–really worth a look) shows that 36% cite unemployment as the biggest problem facing the country, with 17% identifying poverty as the biggest challenge. In Dubai, they are importing skilled workers, probably at an even greater rate than they are leaving here. In the UAE, they have appointed a Minister for Happiness, knowing that mental ease and satisfaction makes for a more productive society. In the 2017 World Happiness Report, UAE ranks 21st, whereas Armenia is 121st, out of 155. (You can see all the rankings here--the UK and US both make it into the top 20). It’s a little tricky to work out what the UN-produced World Happiness Report is actually measuring, because the data comes from many sources, and, as always, any batch of data can always be contradicted by another. In the Caucasus Barometer 2017 report for example, 21% of Armenians say they are “very happy” on a scale of 1-10, with many higher scores in categories 5-10 than on the downer side of the see-saw. I don’t know if the same would be true in Dubai.
I am glad to have had the privilege of visiting Dubai, and I certainly enjoyed myself there. I would not want to live there, because after the shine wears off, the place feels brassy and transient and artificial. I am glad to benefit from the warmth and generosity of people here, but despite the everyday resilience of those I know, this is not a lovely place to live–the hardship is bitingly real.
We got batteries for the walkie-talkies of course. The fissle and interference was unbearable and no-one could master when to press and release the button. We took the batteries out before long, but the to and fro continued. Sometimes, simple is best.
* I have looked online to see how Alla makes the jelly flowers. I still can’t make head or tail of it. Everything you need to know, you can find here.