Exploring the Ancestral Homeland

By Alan H. Feiler

Raffi Wartanian plays the oud

Raffi Wartanian ’08 has an overarching goal in life: He is determined to present to the world an image of the Armenian-American more substantive than Kim Kardashian. Not that Wartanian, who recently returned from his ancestral homeland after 10 months there as a Fulbright fellow, has anything against the famous-just-for-being-famous reality TV starlet. He simply feels there are more positive examples to convey of the people of Armenia, a former Soviet republic, and its diaspora.

“I’m a representative of Armenia for a lot of people,” he says. “I want people to know this place exists and is a fascinating, beautiful place. It’s inspiring and eye-opening, a microcosm of the post-Soviet, consumer-driven, digital reality we live in.”

The title of Wartanian’s Fulbright project was “The Role of Formal Volunteerism in the Development of Armenia’s Civil Society.”

A lanky, goatee-sporting young man who was born and raised in Lutherville, Md., Wartanian attended the Hamasdegh Armenian School in Bethesda every Sunday for seven years during his childhood. As part of his Fulbright project, he explored issues that characterize Armenia’s social strengths and weaknesses. Living most of the time in the capital of Yerevan, he immersed himself in Armenia’s political, educational, cultural, media, and creative realms. “The grant gave me a lot of flexibility to follow my passions, and I really tried to take advantage of that,” says Wartanian, who majored in history at the Krieger School.

Post-presidental Election Protest in Armenia

A post-presidental election protest in Armenia last February.

He served as a monitor in Armenia’s presidential race and Yerevan’s mayoral elections. “We saw a lot of fishy stuff,” he admits. “[Election fraud] is a systemic, cultural thing there, and it’s a years-long process. But at least we were there, and there’ve been steps forward toward more transparency and involvement from advocacy groups.”

In addition, Wartanian traveled around performing mostly original music on guitar and the oud for schoolchildren in villages. He says those performances—including a particularly memorable gig in a remote, mountainous village of 60 residents called Tanzatap (“It’s like traveling to another century”)—were among the best of his life. “It was just about sharing the art with people who live in places that are neglected economically, politically, and culturally,” he says.

During his Armenian sojourn, Wartanian was particularly struck by the country’s safety and close-knit culture:  “You walk down the street and you always run into someone you know. It feels a lot like Baltimore, but safer and more pedestrian-friendly. The country has very little crime, and it feels like one big family.”

But Wartanian observed Armenia’s challenges as well. He says it is a society where women tend to be second-class citizens, poverty is widespread, the recovery from the devastating 1988 earthquake is still ongoing, tensions persist with neighboring Azerbaijan, a significant “brain drain” impairs the commercial and industrial landscapes, and a struggling economy largely relies on environment-decimating industries such as mining. Also, the semi-authoritarian, one-party government has inspired a sense of cynicism and hopelessness among much of the citizenry, he says.

Wartanian, however, hopes to contribute to Armenia’s growth in the future. Shortly after he returned to the United States, he began a master’s program in interdisciplinary studies at Columbia University. He plans to return to Armenia during winter break to interview survivors of the Syrian civil war who have relocated there, for a possible documentary.