The image used in the graphic above is a segment from Mayis Vardanian’s photography book “The Beginning.”
Every so often, someone announces a hunger strike in Armenia for one reason or another – illegitimate sentencing, illegitimate appropriation of property, illegitimate elections, most often for the same reason, the illegitimate regime. And the measure of last resort is usually the same; self-deprivation of things that come naturally – movement, eating, life…because they’ve already been deprived of other equally essential things: rights choices, freedoms…
I just watched another sit-in start. “Maybe it will be a hunger strike, maybe it will be indefinite,” the men announced to one of the two reporters that were there. Two words come to mind “A Hunger Artist,” a short story by Franz Kafka I had read as a teenager.
“In the last decades, interest in hunger artists has declined considerably… Those were different times. Back then the hunger artist captured the attention of the entire city. From day to day while the fasting lasted, participation increased. Everyone wanted to see the hunger artist at least daily.”
I’m not sure when exactly I replaced the hunger artist with a political activist in my head, maybe even before I had read the story, but I just read it again and remain resolute that they represent the same desolate character against the backdrop of an increasingly indifferent public.
Against this backdrop of increasing public indifference, a question keeps repeating itself inside my head: Will you stand with me? That question triggered such intense sadness that I found myself fighting back a staggering sense of being…alone. Alone and solitary, like the character in Kafka’s story. Equally alone in the grand narrative of country, homeland, the right of return and all the other stories and myths and legends that I had allowed to enter my consciousness since inception. We create myths and legends and then…and then we dismantle, destroy and crush them to smithereens without creating new ones. I fear I will stand alone. And that not only saddens me, it destroys me.
1989: My mother had just picked me up from my piano lesson. We stopped by Opera Square to get the updates, to see what is happening. I remember standing squeezed between adults, watching the men separated from the crowd by a thin, almost imaginary rope and wondering if they were being publicly punished this way for something they had done wrong while eating a waffle that was supposed to keep me fed until we got home. A woman with a beehive hairdo reprimands my mother, “Lady, take your child elsewhere, the boys have not eaten in days, you are tempting them.” My mom snatched the waffle out of my hands and we left the Square like traitors, like people unworthy of patriotism, unworthy of the people’s Movement.
So I’ve seen the hunger artist in his glory, many in Armenia must still recall the public admiration for his self-deprivation. There was a time when hundreds stood guard so that he could execute his will even if it meant death, or taking a waffle out of a child’s mouth.
But the public is no longer impressed or even amused with these men:
“Perhaps it was not fasting at all which made him so very emaciated that many people, to their own regret, had to stay away from his performance, because they couldn’t bear to look at him.”
Is that what happened? We couldn’t bear to look at them? Because if we did look at them, really looked, we would have seen that deprivation and desperation had emaciated them. And when we had dared to look, we would not have seen a reflection of ourselves, but a distorted image, a piece of the puzzle that no longer neatly fit into that godforsaken grand narrative because we had abandoned it. I couldn’t bear to look at their faces because I was ashamed that they were left to stand alone. I had let them stand alone. And not only them, for there were and are so many others…
We no longer bear to look at him because if we did, we would see that deprivation has emaciated us all, not only him. We might start counting our losses instead of our privileges because we would realize that our privileges are the privileges of an ostrich with its head in the sand, still unaware that it is being devoured. If we dared to look, we would see the crippling of our society limb by limb.
Or perhaps we don’t look because he is now the victim, not the hero. He is the middle-aged man whose achievements in life have added up to nothing and we only like the “winners,” those with wealth and an entourage, those stronger than us. Remember the students who protested the law that took away their right to a continuous education? They were young and able but we treated them like Don Quixotes fighting windmills, all the while knowing ourselves that the giants are real.
Once upon a time, we were desperate for heroes, we revered them. And then the heroes became unglued, voiceless, desperate and through their actions annihilated themselves for what? For us? For country? The spotlight?
“In fact, given the characteristic nature of his art, which was not diminished by his advancing age, one could never claim that a worn out artist, who no longer stood at the pinnacle of his ability, wanted to escape to a quiet position in the circus. On the contrary, the hunger artist declared that he could fast just as well as in earlier times—something that was entirely credible.”
Belief that things can change, people can change, institutions can change…I believed in these things because they were part of that overarching narrative, the deeply-rooted belief in us, that we were different, we were special. But actions speak louder than the words you type behind the privacy and protection of your keyboard. And while we fervently type and write, not grand narratives, but grand statuses on our social media platforms, the hunger artists among us slowly wither and die.
And I fear I too will stand alone because you will not stand with me. And the “me” doesn’t matter. Today it’s me, tomorrow it’s them, the next day it is you.
“People got used to the strange notion that in these times they would want to pay attention to a hunger artist, and with this habitual awareness the judgment on him was pronounced. He might fast as well as he could—and he did—but nothing could save him any more. People went straight past him. Try to explain the art of fasting to anyone! If someone doesn’t feel it, then he cannot be made to understand it. “