Marrying a foreigner in Armenia, especially an African, can cause raised eyebrows.
By Nune Hakhverdian in Yerevan
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 café, 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 television performer Hrant Hovsepian, known as Blond, who has an Armenia mother and African father.
“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.