Two Days in Yerevan

Andranik Michaelian with Bob Dole Note: In 1996, I traveled to Armenia and Karabagh with a wonderful group of Armenians from the eastern United States. It was a fascinating time, seeing friends and relatives, and traveling to far corners of the Armenian homeland. This article is about the time I spent in Yerevan, near the end of the trip.

In Yerevan, scarcely a moment passed without some sort of surprise. Restless, I walked the streets of the capital city, looking into shops and watching the people go about their daily lives. I was also on a mission: I wanted to find the music of singer Mannik Grigorian, and others performing songs from Western Armenia.

For quite some time, I was frustrated in my search. Finally, in a bookstore, while I was paying for a book about the revolutionary leader Dro, I mentioned my disappointment to the clerk. “I know Mannik,” he said. “She is my neighbor.”

Seizing the opportunity, I asked if it would be possible to meet her, and arrangements were immediately made for later that afternoon.

I had only recently discovered the music of Mannik Grigorian. When I first heard one of her recordings, I was in shock. Her voice is full, enchanting. Her renditions of songs of Western Armenia, especially of Moush, the birthplace of my grandmother, are breathtaking.

When we first met, Mannik asked, “Am I acquainted with you?”

I replied, “No, but I am acquainted with your voice.”

Across from Hotel Armenia, we talked and drank Armenian coffee. Before parting company, Mannik cordially invited me to a rehearsal of the Merangulian Folk Ensemble, where she is a soloist. She said the rehearsal was scheduled for the following morning. I accepted and thanked her, already looking forward to the next morning.

I walked back to Hotel Armenia. While standing in the lobby, Varoojan and Sylvia Iskenderian, friends from Australia, dashed by. As they raced out the front door, they shouted, “Follow us!”

Having no idea why, I found myself running across the street, dodging traffic, only to come upon the entourage of none other than Bob Dole, presidential candidate and long-time friend of the Armenians.

After introducing myself, Senator Dole said, “Andranik — now that’s what I call an Armenian name!”

We walked with Senator Dole into Pizza de Roma, where I asked Alice Kelikian, daughter of the late physician Hampar Kelikian (the man Senator Dole credits with saving his life), if I could have a picture taken with the senator. It wasn’t easy holding a straight face, being photographed with the man who would have been president.

The next morning, at exactly eleven o’clock, Mannik Grigorian arrived at Hotel Armenia. Off we went, to hear a rehearsal of the famous Merangulian Folk Ensemble. On the way, Mannik said I would be meeting the well-known singer Rouben Matevosian, who is general director of the ensemble.

I sat at a long table with several musicians and another director of the ensemble. Mr. Matevosian was most cordial, speaking freely about his singing career and other well-known Armenian artists. I asked if he would sing “Pari Arakil,” a song he has made one of my favorites. Unfortunately, nursing a cold, he had to decline.

We listened to the fascinating sounds of the ensemble, as the duduk, kemancha, and saz played their ancient melodies.

Later, Mannik invited me to her home for dinner, saying that her husband was Constantine Simonian, who plays the part of “Mosi” in the Anoush Opera. I happily accepted.

Hovhanissian Family Members Only a few short hours remained in the day. I hurriedly boarded a taxi and left for Echmiadzin. I wanted to revisit the majestic church of St. Hripsime, and to see if I could locate Vachagan Hovanissian, whom I had first met during a visit to Armenia back in 1982, and hadn’t seen since 1986. Vachagan, a proud Mshetsi, is a poet and teacher at Holy Echmiadzin. His huge mustache and unbridled enthusiasm remind me so much of those in my grandmother’s family that finding Vachagan was a must.

But, alas, Vachagan was nowhere to be found. Disappointed, I passed through the gate of Holy Echmiadzin to look for a taxi. I glanced to the left — and there was Vachagan! We hugged and shook hands and immediately drove off to his house.

Shortly, his table abounded with the delicacies of Armenia. With his family, including new granddaughters, we talked, ate, and drank new wine from a relative’s nearby vineyard. Vachagan sang songs of Moush in an old, rustic style that had me on the verge of tears. He lamented that it was my last day in Armenia, saying that we could have gone to an area in northern Armenia where only Mshetsis and Sassuntsis live. Then, knowing I was soon to be at Mannik’s house, he arranged for a car, gave me a firm hug, and said, “Until you return, brother.”

Back in Yerevan, I waited anxiously for Mannik Grigorian, looking forward to visiting her home and meeting “Mosi.” She arrived, and off we went to her house near Opera Square. A delightful evening was in store, meeting her lovely daughter Narine, and husband, Constantine Simonian. When he walked in, I jokingly asked, “Why have you killed Saro?” He answered, “Because Toumanian wrote it that way.” He served oghi from Goris, which he said was the best in Armenia. He held up an unopened bottle and proudly proclaimed, “I am saving this for my daughter’s wedding.”

I asked Mannik if she would sing for me, and knowing of my Mshetsi roots, she opened a book and sang several songs in the Moush dialect. Hearing her voice, I felt transported back to the region, back in time, to the birthplace of my grandmother….

So much had happened, in so little time, and all by chance….

Nevertheless, a touch of sadness, too, made itself felt during my time in Yerevan. It followed me all the way back to Oregon, where I have recently learned of the death of Babken Chookaszian, the cousin of my Sebastia-born grandfather.

I first met Babken in 1982, in Yerevan. I remember his generous hospitalilty, and his exuberance when talking about his work as deputy director of the famous Matenadaran. During my recent stay, I visited Babken twice in the hospital. With him were his wife, Vera, and sons, Levon and Garegin. Together, we remembered our earlier meetings in Yerevan, and discussed the important work Levon and Garegin are now doing for the culture of Armenia, there and around the world.

Babken Chookaszian was a highly respected Armenologist and a good man. Now, especially, I feel so glad to have seen him and his family, while I was in Yerevan.

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