Yerevan Journal – March 2004

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We celebrated the end of February with our first khash of the season, with another already planned for later this month. Khash is traditionally served from the fall to spring seasons, or, any month with an “r” in it, meaning April is the last month for enjoying this unusual treat. This time, my wife made it from what is called “zink,” the part of the cow’s leg near the knee, as opposed to traditional khash which includes the animal’s stomach. As she prepared the khash, she explained how the fat is removed as the soup cooks, and how the bones have to separate from each other. She said that in her youth, in Charbakh, that her parents served khash almost every weekend, sometimes to crowds so large that neighbors thought someone had died. Since lavash needed to be dried to break into the khash the next morning, we tied a string from a doorknob to a window latch and hung about fifteen sheets of lavash to dry. After hours of preparation and a few hours of sleep, our guests arrived, all looking forward to the ceremonial serving of the popular dish. After putting crushed garlic and salt into the soup and breaking in dried lavash, the fun started, with the experienced eating the now-thick soup with soft lavash and lifting glasses of tti arak to the toast of “Bari luys.”

This evening a woman born in Banants village and her daughter came to our house for dinner. The woman spoke with great longing for her birthplace, now in the hands of the Azeri Turks. Banants is located in what is known as “Dashtayin Gharabagh,” or, the plains of Karabagh. This area is above Mountainous Karabagh, south of the city of Kirovabad, which is known in Armenian as Gandzak and in Turkish as Gyanja. Armenians lived in Banants until 1989 when they were driven out by the Azeris. The woman said a Turkish acquaintance from Moscow went to Banants and made a video of the woman’s home, the town, and the old church near the center of the village, which numbered some 5,000 inhabitants before 1989. She spoke of her grandfather, who hauled a huge amount of soil to a flat, rocky area above their house and planted several kinds of fruit trees and vines. “Now the Turks are enjoying our garden,” the woman lamented. She then told of a memorial the Armenians built after World War II for the 630 soldiers from Banants who died fighting for the Soviet Union, saying that Turks destroyed the memorial the night before its presentation. Village Armenians, enraged by the destruction of the new memorial, attacked the neighboring Turks; the battle was stopped by the Soviets before reaching a tragic conclusion.

While riding home from a Shoghaken Ensemble rehearsal, we came across an inspiring program on the radio, conversations and songs by Armenian singers from Soviet days, including Ophelia Hambartsumyan and Rouben Matevosyan. Ophelia Hambartsumyan sang an ashoughakan song in spectacular fashion, accompanied on duduk by Vache Hovsepyan, said by some to have been the greatest dudukist ever. The recording was made in the mid-Seventies, just before Hovsepyan died in 1978. I was told that in Soviet days singers and other artists were treated with great respect. For example, if a well-known artist took a taxi, the driver invariably refused to accept money, compared to now where the driver will charge as much as he can, thinking the person has money, so why not get what he can . . . and, members of the Soviet Armenian hierarchy, in spite of being indebted to Moscow, always put artists of the caliber of Vache Hovsepyan and others on a pedestal, often even being close friends with the artists. This is in unfortunate contrast to today’s environment where little attention is paid to such artists, with government officials often seen in meetings or gatherings dancing to Turkish-style music and even promoting such music and culture.

The recent water problems in the Charbakh district of Yerevan became disastrous last night, as water reached and filled the first floor of several homes close to the Hrazdan River, still known there by the old name, Zangou. With a huge snowfall and warming weather, the Zangou was already running high, river water mixing with running water, the pipes for which run alongside and a little above the river. Already without drinking water, or any water for that matter, those living close to the river were surprised by a sudden rise in the river, covering their gardens and reaching their homes. The word in Charbakh is that, in the middle of the night, water was released from Yerevan Lake, causing the Zangou to rise to flood level. Charbakh residents are putting the blame on the American Embassy, whose new embassy building, still under construction, is located close to the normal level of the lake . . . and that with the rising water, they arranged to release water from the lake, causing havoc in Charbakh. It’s a pity if this rumor is true, but even worse is the mistrust people here have of anyone in authority, Armenian or otherwise.

Yesterday afternoon we decided to make our first trip to Byurakan, to visit cousins, breathe the pure mountain air, and to bring back apples stored in a cousin’s cellar. Five of us packed ourselves into a Russian Lada, bought bread, greens, and a chicken, and were on our way. In the village, an icy wind kept us mostly indoors, the women preparing dinner and the men talking about various relatives and politics. When I became curious about a dish full of what looked like cheese in a milky liquid, I was told it was the mother cow’s first milk after giving birth to a new calf, and that it had been cooked until reaching its present form. It tasted great. After the chicken was cooked and we realized there was no rice to make pilaf, my wife, her nephew, and I walked through the village looking for a store selling rice. Just as we were giving up, we asked a youth where the nearest store was. He told us to follow him and ran down a narrow road to his house where he had his father open a side door, revealing a small store. I was told later the store had no sign and was locked to avoid being taxed, business not being what it was in the past. Back at the cousin’s house, we ate chicken, pilaf, greens, cheese, and bean soup. Since it was already getting dark, we left for the house where the apples were being stored. We drove the muddy village streets until the car started to bog down, then three of us got out of the car and walked the rest of the way. After climbing a wall to shorten the trip, we reached the house, went into the cellar, and filled several large sacks with some of the best smelling and tasting apples I’ve ever had. Later, standing in the windy Byurakan night, we said good-bye and drove off towards Yerevan.

A trip to the Russian embassy is always an adventure. This morning was no different. After waiting outside in a wind that seemed to have come in from Siberia, I went inside and asked about getting a one-day transit visa so I could leave the airport on an upcoming trip by way of Moscow. The worker told me to fill out two different applications and get a passport photo. I asked him when I could come back in case I didn’t get the photo today. He looked puzzled and said there was no reason to not get everything filled out and ready today. I asked him how much a transit visa cost, and he said, “It depends. Maybe $100, but it could be less.” Forgetting that this isn’t the West and that unless somewhat pressured a direct answer wouldn’t be forthcoming, and figuring the visa would be fairly inexpensive, I went to the nearest photo shop and got my picture taken, and then went to the nearby Internews Armenia office and filled out the applications. When I went back with the application filled out, the worker said everything was in order, that all I had to do was pay. When the cashier held up a calculator showing about 59,000 drams, which converts to $105, I asked how a one-day visa could cost so much. It happens the visa is $5 and the application, $100. After complaining about the $100 application fee, the worker said that it was the same price one pays at the American embassy, to which I answered that at least when they go to America, they’re going for two or three months, so the $100 is worth it. The worker shrugged his shoulders, and I walked away without my visa.

The past two days of the “flashback” series of short films of famous singers, actors, and composers, shown on National Television regularly these days, showed several well-known traditional and opera singers — a treat in a time when many artisans look to the West or elsewhere for their inspiration. Tenor Chara Dalyan, better known as a singer in the ashoughakan genre and of sharakans, was shown with a symphony orchestra as he masterfully sang the role of Saro in Anoush Opera. Also featured was Avak Petrosyan, best known as Saro in the 1960s, who, although up in years, performed an ashoughakan song in a relaxed, yet emotional style, his sweet tenor voice a bit faded due to his advanced age. In a recording from 1971, Araksia Gyulzadyan sang a song from the ashoughakan genre. Born in a village, her voice, although refined, retained a rustic, natural feel. Then, this morning, a short piece from the Melodies of Shirak film was shown, with Albert Sarkisyan singing the song of the kavor, or godfather, to the bride and groom and others at the outdoor wedding scene in the province of Shirak. Besides being enjoyable, these films take on another importance when one realizes that only thirty to forty years ago, when these singers were filmed, the lack of foreign influences, along with pride in maintaining Armenian culture, resulted in a style and flavor difficult to find today.

Just a couple of days after spring weather seemed to be setting in, the weather turned cold, this afternoon surprising everyone with about three hours of snow. We were lucky to get into a yertooghayin van just as the wet snow started falling, after finishing some shopping at the Bangladesh Market. As we sat in the only two remaining free seats, the driver, in a somewhat disgusted manner, told us and whoever was interested that the government decided to take half of the yertooghayin vans off the road, for reasons yet to be explained. He said that the result would be over-crowded vans, no place to sit, with people sure to be stranded all over the city with no way to get home, to work, or wherever they were going. The driver continued that the members of Parliament were good at one thing, making life hard for people, taking away a good transportation system in place for years. With this bit of cheery news, we continued on our way to the Komitas Chamber Hall for a concert, featuring soprano Anna Mailiyan and her ensemble, Varpetner, or Masters. Mailiyan, Armenia’s best singer of sharakans, sang mostly folk songs, arranged by her kyamani player Grigor Arakelyan or by the great Tatoul Altounyan. Besides the kyamani, the group had a duduk, shvi, dap, and tar. It was an interesting concert, the high point probably being Mailiyan’s version of “Havoun, Havoun,” which she sang in a professional, aristocratic manner in the genre of her expertise.

Icy winds failed to prevent a sell-out performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at the Dramatic Theater in Yerevan. Our small party of six sat upstairs in the newly renovated building, well worth the money donated by Kirk Kerkorian’s Lincy Foundation. To our disappointment, the presentation was an adaption of Shakespeare’s original version. If the new version required someone being killed, then someone was killed . . . with Shakespeare consulted only when needed. The nature of the play led to the use of mostly younger actors, as opposed to the seasoned professionals the Dramatic Theater is so well known for. I waited in vain for the great actor Vladimir Mssryan, who was famous all over the former Soviet Union, and who still lives in Yerevan. The play went back and forth from drama to light comedy and loud music, with the philosophy and depth of Shakespeare almost entirely missing. Trying to forget the less-than-high quality of the presentation, I watched the older actors as they diligently and professionally played their parts. A high point was the acting of Hovhannes Babakhanyan, a young, long-haired actor who played the part of the priest in high fashion.

A program about the priest Komitas featured musicologists from Armenia talking about the great musicologist and singing parts of songs Komitas saved from extinction. The details of the sad and fateful night during which Komitas was taken from his living quarters in Istanbul in 1915 were told, with the priest being told he was leaving only temporarily. He soon realized what was taking place, being taken far from Istanbul, witnessing the slaughter of his people and even gruesome sights such as Turkish soldiers cutting unborn babies from their mothers’ wombs. Once, while being escorted by a Turkish soldier, Komitas began singing sharakans, with the soldier ordering him to stop. Komitas spit in the soldier’s face. . . . The controversy of whether Komitas actually became mentally ill or not was discussed, with a quite clear, precise document shown that he had written during his stay in the mental hospital, one which couldn’t have been written by a mentally ill or deranged person. One school of thought tells that the priests in Armenia at the time didn’t want someone of Komitas’ high intellect in their midst, and arranged that he stay in the hospital in Paris. At the end of the program, a student at the Komitas conservatory sang a song of Agn, near Kharpert, that Komitas had collected during his travels through Anatolia.

A new publication by physicist Baris Herouni promises to shed light on subjects that many Armenian historians seem reluctant to touch on. During a television interview, Herouni told about his new book, which he asserts will prove the Armenian language to be 10,000 years old. In the book, to be published in English, the author writes about the reasons the Church claims Mesrob invented the alphabet, and continues by saying that Mesrob traveled to Greece only to find books written in Armenian in pagan times — similar books in Armenia having been destroyed by the early Church fathers, leaving almost no traces of Armenian pagan culture. Herouni told the television audience that for political or other reasons most Armenian historians don’t write that Armenian history dates back some 10,000 years. He said that a nation would have to have an advanced society and culture to be able to produce a miracle such as the Karahoonj observatory, similar to Stonehenge, yet dating back some 8,000 years. According to the author, the arrangement of the rock observatory shows an understanding of the universe and the Armenian alphabet, even in those ancient times. Herouni pointed out the similarities of the words Stonehenge and Karahoonj — kar in Armenian meaning stone, and hoonj meaning to sound, or ring . . . and therefore the possibility that the “stone” and “henge” in Stonehenge come from the Armenian word Karahoonj.

Yesterday an artist told me about an Armenian in Spain who had been born in Armenia and moved to Europe at an early age with his parents. The Armenian had become fabulously wealthy. He asked the artist how he could help the Armenian homeland. After being told several ways he could put his money to good use in the homeland, he said, of course I expect the money to be returned, and with interest . . . to which the artist replied, you know, you can’t take your money with you after you die. The rich Armenian replied, I know, and I’m still trying to figure out a way to take it with me. It’s good that there are many Armenians, rich or not, who don’t think like this rich Armenian. . . . Later in the day, on the way to a music rehearsal, I again noticed the large number of cars on the streets of Yerevan, traffic jams occurring often, some say like the Soviet days before some one million Armenians left their homeland. I’m not sure of the reason for the increase in automobiles, yet it is possible there has been a further influx from the villages to Yerevan, unfortunate if true. Later, reaching rehearsal, I relaxed as my wife, singer Hasmik Harutyunyan, and the Shoghaken Ensemble rehearsed for their upcoming U.S. tour. As I will be traveling with the group, I will be forced to temporarily forego writing the Yerevan Journal, but will continue in May with news of the tour and life in Armenia.
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