Learning and Unlearning
The first time I met an Armenian was when my family just moved to Moscow and I was around six years old. I went out to play with other kids and ended up befriending Arsen. I do remember vividly having a crush on him. He told me he'd teach me roller-skating. I, then a tomboy, put the most beautiful dress I had in my possession (it was a blue mini dress with a brown checkered apron) to my first roller-skating lesson. Obviously, the dress was ruined, but the aim was to impress him! I don't remember the rest of the story, but his family moved out of our neighborhood pretty soon, so our romance never meant to happen. Also, my first best friend in elementary school was Liana and I still remember awkwardness among our parents as they greeted us after school. Years later, I befriended another Arsen in our school, whom I, then oblivious to political realities back home, would invite for a visit to Azerbaijan during the summer break.
Obviously, as I never went to school in Azerbaijan until 10th grade, it was easier for me to escape nationalist discourses that brought with themselves hegemonic interpretations of the war and very particular views of Armenians. There is also something to be considered in this story. Why would an Azeri child, all of a sudden thrown into an unfamiliar environment, befriend two Armenians among everyone else? Could that be possible, because they looked and were a lot like myself? Maybe, just maybe, we share more in common with each other than we would like to admit? We found comfort in each other’s company against very unwelcoming, xenophobic environment of Moscow in 1990s, where ethnic Russians wouldn’t play with us, “the blacks”, just because we didn’t look like them. Obviously, as a six-year-old kid, I couldn’t grasp all the complexities of the political environment I found myself in, but I believe Arsen and Liana’s presence in my life and our shared immigrant experience, albeit very brief, did assist me in transitioning to this new reality. It is no secret that all of our hatreds and repulsions come as a product of socialization within particular milieus, which tell us whom to hate. In the absence of such milieus, hating or not hating a particular group or a person becomes a matter of accident, as an interaction between children can show us. What it also shows us is that just as we learn to hate someone, we can also unlearn that behavior.
Despite my childhood experiences, I have to admit that I still had to go through these stages of learning and unlearning at a later stage in my life. My undergrad years at a public university in Baku, studying international relations, were the first time when I found myself in the context, where I was expected to hate and internalize a particular interpretation of the war/conflict. Discussions about the history of the war/conflict never aimed at critically and academically reconsidering what has taken place to analyze its historical significance, but instead aimed at emotionally reenacting what had happened. Inculcating and sustaining a certain emotional charge through invoking (very) graphic depictions of “their savagery” during the war was the main purpose of these discussions, that always made me feel utterly uncomfortable. I wouldn’t say that this endeavor was fully successful, as I only managed to partially incorporate the hegemonic view of the conflict as “my own opinion”, without acquiring any strong emotional sentiments. “My opinion” never became strongly ingrained in my mind though and studying theories of nationalism in my master’s program abroad quickly brought me back to reality by giving me an ability to critically analyze it.