Well, I've spent about two and a half weeks here, now, and feel that I'm ready to go. I was almost resigned to the fact that the Armenia project would turn out to be somewhat of a failure. Far be it from me to have a defeatest attitude, but after almost two weeks' work, we had well under half of our target sample met. Well, we had an emergency damage-control meeting on Wednesday with the local staff. After getting dressed down pretty well by the local staff for my unreasonably high expectations, we changed our strategy, a little bit. Nigina and I hit the local bazars, and walked around personally to where the clients work. We dropped off our questionnaires, and came back later to collect them. We were able to survey significantly more clients using this method, and then the questionnaires that we handed out on previous days started flowing in. As I sit writing this blog, I have a stack of 302 completed questionnaires sitting on the table in front of me. Things usually work out pretty well, if you honestly give them your best shot. In spite of the mistakes that we initially made, we gave this project our best work, and we were able to be successful. I've now got a full weekend of data entry and analysis to be ready for a presentation, first thing in the morning on Monday. We'll then hop on a bus for Tbilisi at 11am. We'll spend the night in Georgia, and fly out early the next morning to Baku.
I wish that I had some fun stories to tell about Armenia. The truth is, I've spent my time in offices morning to night since I've been here. The office staff hasn't quite endeared itself to me the way the Tajik staff did, but I realize this is partially because things are so busy here that few people really have time for small talk or to get to know the American. I have spent a bit of time talking to a FINCA employee in the individual loan department named Suren. I've been to lunch with him a few times, and travelled to a few outlying regions with him. He's a somewhat reserved and thoughtful guy who I can relate to pretty well (I'm flattering myself to suggest that I might have a degree of reservation or thoughtfulness...).
I was mainly thinking about a conversation that I had with him, the other day, as we sat munching some mystery meat 'hamburgers' in Yerevan's proud adaption of McDonald's called 'Queenburger.' Suren has been a little curious about Mormons and what-not, as I've explained my experience with the Russian language and my associated missionary work. Like all Armenians, Suren is very proud of the ancient history of his culture. For the last 2000 years, this history has been closely associated with the Armenian Apostolic Church. This church has provided a uniting and distinguishing influence on the Armenian nation that most definitely served in preserving the culture from disintegration over the centuries. Like many Armenians, Suren is worried about the invasion of dynamic foreign churches, such as mine, that might have a destructive influence on Armenia.
This got me to thinking about what it is that makes cultures unified, and what provides culture. I have no doubt that the Armenian church has been a focal point for Armenian culture for centuries. I could be influenced by good old-fashioned American libertarianism with this thought, but I have a feeling that Armenians should be proud of their ancient christian faith because they consistently chose to keep it in spite of the pressure of Islam around them. For one reason or another, Armenians believed that it was important for them to remain christian.
Now there is all kinds of proposed legislation in Armenia, as well as other countries in this part of the world to stem the tide of non-traditional proselyting religions. There are two main things about this sort of legislation that bug me:
1) Is a religion that has to rely on state enforcement really in a position to have a positive influence on its members' morality? If a religion believes that they have the mandate of God, should they not believe that this mandate will stand for itself in the market of ideas created by other faiths?
2) Where, exactly, is the principle behind restricting religious worship? Will a government argue that they can suggest that it's dangerous for society for people to believe a certain way? Perhaps they'll suggest that it's dangerous for people to talk about religion. I honestly don't see how someone can provide the moral justification for doing this; sure they can strong-arm citizens into behaving a certain way, or they can restrict the entry of foreign religious proselyters. These are merely bully-tactics, and I don't see the principle that governments apply to back them up.
Anyway, I talked about this with Suren. He agreed that even though there might be no philosophical motivation behind certain laws, need demands that some sacrifices be made to protect Armenian culture from potential marauders. I suppose that's ultimately a suggestion that ends justify means, and I don't think that's ever the case. Some people make the same suggestion with American domestic and foreign policies. I don't agree with them, either, but it's hard to argue that things will just work themselves out alright if you impose a policy with the correct underlying principle, and not worry your little heads about all the various 'what ifs.' It seems to me that such thinking usually creates more problems than anticipated, because policies whose only principle is self-preservation are ironically, often groundless and self-destructive.
Anyway, I have a tendency to get up on a soapbox, but I'm always willing to listen to intelligent arguments suggesting that I'm wrong. I think I'm going to miss Armenia, and I feel a little disappointed that I haven't seen as much of it as I thought I would. I can tell my Armenian friends, now, that I've seen their country, and it is as beautiful as advertised.