Yerevan Journal – April 2003

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Today I looked out our window toward Ararat, not expecting a clear view due to a cloudy, mostly overcast day. The mountain was almost shining in the sun, with dark blue clouds just over its peak, so dark they had the appearance of another mountain. On television was a film called Gigor, after a story by Hovhannes Toumanian. Gigor was from a poor family, and had been sent to stay with relatives in another town. As the story ended, Gigor had become ill and was dying. Two of the greatest Armenian actors of the past half century were in the film, Armen Jigarkhanian and Sos Sarkisian. In the final scene, Sos Sarkisian was at his dying son’s bedside, pleading with him to get well so they could return to the village. Sarkisian, with his pleading and tearful Armenian eyes, was masterful. . . . That afternoon, several folk musicians we work with stopped by for a visit, and by chance a musicologist and his wife who is a singer of sharakans, making for quite an interesting conversation. The day was topped off by a movie modeled after a short story by Shervanzade, a Soviet-era Armenian writer. Again we were treated to the tremendous acting of Sos Sarkisian, and also the great Mher Mkrtchian. It’s a shame more people don’t have the opportunity to see such great talent.

Selling flowers near Sassountsi Tavit It has been twenty-one years since I have been to the “Kayaran” at the end of Tigran Mets Boulevard, the site of the famous statue of Sassountsi Tavit. I remember admiring the majestic work in 1982, but since moving to Armenia three years ago, I have only seen it while passing by on a bus or in a transport van. In a land of many statues, I am convinced this one, by Yervant Kochar, is in a class by itself. Today being the International Day of Beauty, flowers were being sold everywhere, including along the sidewalk in front of Sassountsi Tavit. I couldn’t resist taking a picture of a father holding his small son, purchasing flowers. . . . Later, in front of the Matenadaran, these days a place of weekly anti-government demonstrations, I saw thousands of women gathered to celebrate the holiday, and, of course, to express their anti-government sentiments.

It can be said that one needs a strong stomach to drive the streets of Yerevan. Already in a sad state, this winter’s extreme cold further damaged the streets, making them barely driveable in some places. Drivers and passengers alike bounce along as their vehicles maneuver around or over the holes in the streets, drivers weaving in all directions trying to avoid the potholes and cracks. My old habit of walking along the edge of the road next to the sidewalk is a thing of the past, due to vehicles winding and swerving over the entire surface of the roads. . . . Besides the usual bouncing along, my trip today in a yertooghayin taxi was even more entertaining. While riding past the new church in the center of town, close to where men looking for work were gathered waiting for a job, a man with some sort of “problem” was challenging several other men to a fight, causing quite a scene. Just after that, a sad-looking old man stopped the van driver and asked if he was going toward Halabian Street, to which the driver replied, “Of course, hurry up and get in the van,” after which the old man barely managed to struggle into the van before the driver mercilessly sped off.

While eating a lunch of spaghetti and lavash sandwiches with green onions and sour cream, the movie Mkhitar Sparapet started on National Television. It’s the story of Tavit Beg and Mkhitar Sparapet and their attempts to create an Armenian state in the area of Zangezur and Gharabagh. It’s a fine movie with some of the best actors of the era, including Armen Jigarkhanian, Khoren Aprahamian, and Sos Sarkisian, with Jigarkhanian as Sparapet. The movie was filmed some twenty-five years ago. With many of the best actors getting older, it’s a shame the arts, in this case the theater, aren’t supported by the government as it was in Soviet days. This forces many younger talented actors to leave Armenia or to depend on foreign festivals, etc., to make a living, instead of making movies or theater presentations here in Armenia. Only time will tell if this situation changes for the better. And, although it might not be fair to compare the movie Ararat with one made twenty-five years ago in Armenia, it might have added more Armenian color or flavor had actors such as Sarkisian and Jigarkhanian been cast in Ararat.

On work-related duties, I went for the first time to the village of Karbi in the region of Ashtarak. Near Mughni along the Kasakh River gorge, Karbi nestles up against the village of Ohannavan. An active village with almost no emigration problem, Karbi is home to a church from the thirteenth century. Ara Mountain is visible in the distance, and the domes of Hovhannavank rise above the village homes. It’s sad that more Armenian villages — many with a mere half of their population remaining — don’t have Karbi’s fortunate location, its good soil and water. And as hospitable as all Armenians are, nothing compares to the treatment one receives when visiting a village. And nowhere are folklore and traditions kept so well, be it song or the ceremony of village women gathering to bake tonir lavash. The looks and expression of the Armenian villager are rooted in the Old World. As great a city as Yerevan is, every Armenian who visits this country should also see the villages and remote areas for a flavor one can’t experience in the city.

A trip to Echmiadzin is always inspiring, especially if one visits the seventh century churches of St. Gayane and St. Hripsime. There is no doubt in my mind that St. Hripsime should be a “Wonder of the World.” The majestic dome alone is worth more than the entire Eiffel Tower, included for some reason in the Wonder of the World category. . . . On reaching the gates of the Echmiadzin cathedral, however, I still find it hard to believe that the gates are no more, having recently been torn down, opening the monastery to cars and a view of a new monument facing the cathedral. To destroy an original part of such a historic complex changes both the history and flavor of the monastery. Through the ages, monasteries were used not only for religious purposes, but as fortresses for self-defense. If people think new churches or monuments are needed, that’s one thing. But why tamper with history?

Easter in Armenia is celebrated traditionally, with churches full for Badarak. It is also a day when everyone with a family member who has died during the previous year visits the cemetery to pay respect on this day of Resurrection. When possible, family members go to the cemetery the day after Easter, the correct day according to tradition. Today was my mother-in-law’s “first Zadik,” meaning the first Easter since her death. Family members, close relatives, and in-laws gathered at the family home in the Charbakh district of Yerevan. Before going to the cemetery, Armenian coffee, Jermuk, fruit, sweets, and gata were served. Then everyone went to the cemetery and to my mother-in-law’s gravesite. A small fire was started in a metal container and placed on the grave, then we all filed by, picked up incense, and sprinked it on the flame. After this, a few words were said for the deceased. A small table had been set with bread, cheese, greens, and wine, symbolizing a serving for the deceased. The unfinished portion was left behind for the poor, who come to cemeteries when there are funerals or similar holidays as today. There were hundreds of people in the cemetery, with similar ceremonies taking place. It was so crowded that the road leading to the cemetery was impassable for cars and nearly so for people on foot. Back at the family home, dinner was rice pilaf with raisins, greens, bread, salads, and fish. Many toasts were given, in memory of my mother-in-law and all others who had passed on, and of course for the future happiness of all.

Yesterday’s journey took me to the Hrazdan area, in Kotayk Province. The city of Hrazdan, an important industrial center in the Soviet era, now relies basically on agriculture for its economy. The surrounding area is known especially for the Tsakhadzor and Hankavan resorts. My visits were in the villages of Alapars and Karenis. Alapars is the larger of the two and home to three churches, of which St. Vardan is the oldest. St. Vardan is the resting place of a rock brought from the Battle of Avarayr, which according to legend was bled upon by the dying Vardan Mamikonian. The village mayor and a farmer/economist had donated much time in restoring the churches of Alapars. In Karenis, two churches from the sixth century, though mostly in ruins, have a curved arch over the altar, similar to Okhte Trnevank in Gharabagh, another monastery of that era. St. Matevos, in Karenis, has become a place of yearly pilgrimage. In late September, the villagers of Karenis decend to the church, located next to the Hrazdan River. The village and its other church are just visible from a spot next to the river. If one continues north along the river gorge, he ends up in Bjni, a village with a tenth century monastery and a fortress overlooking the village and river. My day ended with a late lunch by the water. The village mayors and others enjoyed ishkhan fish, greens, cheese, lavash, and vodka made from grapes. Their final words were several songs by Sayat Nova.

April 23 — Fridtjof Nansen is an important figure in the recording and future recognition of the Armenian Genocide. From his grave in Norway, soil was brought to Yerevan, to Tsidzernakabert, to be buried near other noted persons who spoke or struggled for Genocide recognition. A ceremony, led by Genocide Museum director Lavrenti Barseghyan, was held inside the Museum. Several spoke, including the Armenian ambassador to Norway and Scandanavia, who traveled to Yerevan for the ceremony. Musicians from the Shoghaken Ensemble, including dudukists Gevorg Dabaghyan and Grigor Takushyan, blulist Levon Tevanyan, and vocalist Hasmik Harutyunyan, participated during the Tsitsernakabertindoor portion of the commemoration. Before the ceremonies began, I walked through the exhibition hall of the Museum. Above statistics of the numbers of Armenians living in the Armenian provinces before the Genocide were pictures of Armenians from each province. In the main hall are photographs, some familiar and others not, of Armenians shot and slaughtered, of bodies by the hundreds strewn along ravines and fields and mountainsides, pictures of decapitated men with smiling, proud Turkish soldiers standing above their victims, and also various documents and eye-witness accounts. As important as Genocide recognition is, these victims, our forefathers and relatives, must never be forgotten.

April 24 — No day in Armenia, be it a holiday or commemoration, compares with the solemn commemoration of April 24. This mood is reflected on Armenian television with movies and presentations about the Genocide, showing movies like Nahabet and Dzori Mirro, the latter appearing on National Television this afternoon. It was written by a Sassountsi writer named Tashtents, and stars Sos Sarkisian as an Armenian from the Moush region who tries to bring his family to Eastern Armenia during the 1915 massacres. Scenes of the pillage of St. Karapet of Moush and of Armenian girls jumping off a cliff to escape their Turkish tormenters are shocking. Flashbacks to Armenian life before the massacres bring a depth and sadness to the film, expertly directed by the great Frunze Dovlatyan. This day, as on every April 24, Armenians solemnly remember their murdered parents and grandparents. By the tens and hundreds of thousands, they wind their way up the hill to the Martyrs Monument, Tsitsernakabert. Young and old, each with their personal story and thoughts, take flowers or wreaths to lay at the monument near the eternal flame. Visitors from other nations also pay homage to the massacred Armenians. From early morning to darkness, the steady stream of mourners reminds of the past, of 1915, when Armenians were forced to leave their ancestral homeland of several thousand years. But now an almost greater, though silent, pain exists, called by some “the second great genocide,” as Armenians by the hundreds of thousands have left Armenia during the past decade, due to reasons unrelated to violence or war.

Yesterday evening I went into the bathroom and was greeted by water dripping from the ceiling, coming through an opening by a light socket. In the tall apartment buildings of Yerevan, this can happen if your upstairs neighbor has left his water running too long or has pipes in need of repair. I knocked on the upstair neighbor’s door, and was greeted by an older woman dressed in black. She asked if I could speak quietly. She explained that her son, age 52, was dying of a brain tumor, and hadn’t eaten the past three days. I quietly walked to the bathroom to check the source of the leakage problem, and found the bathroom floor still damp. The floor, and possibly the pipes, were in serious need of repair. I knew that the family had no money to do these repairs, barely having enough to eat. I had often seen the man walking up or down the stairs of the building, never once seeing him smile or greet anyone. Now, he is dying. The problem of the leaking water became very insignificant.

Begging isn’t unique to Armenia. I doubt there’s a country in the world that doesn’t have people begging. Today, walking through a complex of apartment buildings in downtown Yerevan, the sight of someone scraping through a large garbage bin was appalling. He wasn’t looking for glass or bottles to sell, but food. Of the various hardships one may encounter in daily life in Armenia, the sight of these unfortunates is probably the most difficult. In Yerevan, there are all kinds of beggars, but it sometimes is difficult to tell the difference between those truly in need and the “professionals.” These are the “beggars” who pay someone for the right to a spot or area, paying a certain amount and then keeping the rest for profits. They usually operate in the downtown area, where tourists and affluent people are abundant. They hold out their hand, tip their head to the side, and give promises of health and happiness to those who give them a few drams. Seeing the same people in their “area,” one may start to laugh or smile, and the “beggars” smile in return, knowing you know their secret.

After a dinner of pilaf with raisins, beet-and-cabbage salad, chicken, and mandag — one of the “khods,” or greens, that grow wild in the fields and forests of Armenia — I decided to go to the exchange where my brother-in-law works. I got into a yertooghayin van and rode towards Paregamootyan Metro. Three lanes of traffic were stopped at a red light. We came to a halt, and someone got out of the van and started walking in front of and behind the parked cars to the center of the road. Then he started to run, since the three lanes of oncoming traffic were also stopped. But he was only looking in the direction of oncoming traffic, the logical direction to look. But someone coming from our direction decided to pass the other cars and almost hit the pedestrian, who luckily jumped out of the way. . . . Although I’ve pretty much mastered the art of crossing the busy streets of Yerevan, I don’t use these new skills very often due to the unpredictability of Yerevan drivers. Another thing I do only rarely anymore is use the elevators in tall apartment buildings. Recently, for the second time in about three months, one of the elevators came crashing from about nine floors, badly injuring the passengers. While the beautification of downtown with new roads and sidewalks makes Yerevan look nicer to tourists, the less fortunate should also be remembered. Some simple elevator upkeep, for example, would work wonders.
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