Yerevan Journal – May 2004

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After a six-week absence from Armenia, traveling with my wife Hasmik Harutyunyan and the Shoghaken Ensemble during our eighteen-concert tour of the U.S., we arrived in Yerevan at 3:30 a.m. to the greetings of family and eager airport workers and taxi drivers. Riding back to Anastasavan, even the bumpy streets seemed to welcome us home. Pulling up to our apartment building, the aroma from the neighboring bakery, busy with their preparation of the famous Hrazdan and Madnakash breads, was wonderful. I couldn’t resist buying a loaf of Hrazdan, to which one of the bakers commented that he hadn’t seen us in some time, so I told him briefly about our concert trip. I asked him how things were in Hayastan, to which he started a somewhat angry dialogue about the anti-Kocharian demonstrations and the treatment of those who were imprisoned. The next day, I was told more stories about the behavior of the police and others, stories probably better left untold. Such is life in Armenia, a great place but facing serious problems, now seemingly from within.

Yesterday we found out that a friend’s mother had cancer, and is being treated at a local hospital. Even though the woman is taking things in stride, the family hasn’t told her the seriousness of her illness, being two of her sons are working outside Armenia. Such is another of the negative sides of a poor economy, and the resulting separation of families. After visiting the woman, as her daughter drove me to Yerevan’s city center, she told me about one of the anti-Kocharian demonstrations of last week, saying that around 100,000 had gathered, far more than what official news reported. She told me she would have participated in the demonstrations, but was frightened by the stories of beatings and who knows what else. This morning’s news reported another demonstration, with opposition leaders again demanding the president’s resignation. Even though we followed the news almost daily during our recent U.S. journey, a new urgency is felt as one walks the streets of Yerevan.

I had been to the monastery of Khor Virab several times, yet had never stopped in the nearby village of Khor Virab. It is a typical village, with farmers and their families tending their fields, old men sitting around on old pieces of farm equiment or playing nardi, and chickens sunning themselves in freshly dug dirt. Today, work brought me to the village, located in clear view of Mt. Ararat and the well known monastery, where Grigor Lusavorich spent thirteen years in the still-existing dungeon within the monastery grounds. I met a farmer named Virab in the village, certainly the first time I had met someone by that name. He told of his roots, his family emigrating from Moush in 1914, just before the 1915 massacres. A grower of tomatoes and other crops, he said his greatest joy is growing wheat in his field at the base of the monastery. Leaving Khor Virab village, we drove to the town of Ararat and on to Sisavan, a village close to the town of Vedi. Passing many vineyards, I was reminded of the great San Joaquin Valley in California. Our last stop of the day was Yegeghnavan, not far from Ararat town. As we drove in the village, we saw several young boys just out of school being chased by an old woman who didn’t appreciate them picking whatever kind of fruit from her trees. After meeting a wheat farmer and drinking tahn and Armenian coffee with his family, we investigated his wheat fields and drove back to Yerevan.

Last night I was awakened by a wild wind storm and a brief, heavy rain. A fairly common occurrence in Yerevan, I wondered if the Urarteans experienced the same weather patterns some 3,000 years ago. It happened that last night on the news it was revealed that letters from an early Armenian alphabet were discovered, furthering the theory of physicist Baris Herouni that Mesrop Mashtots didn’t invent the alphabet, that it in fact had been destroyed by early Church fathers as they destroyed Armenian pagan culture and later “invented” by Mesrop. Another subject which is talked about more and more these days was that it now seems likely that Komitas didn’t in fact lose his mind after his experiences in the early days of the massacres, but that he was kept in the Paris asylum by Armenians who felt threatened by his genius.

A trip to Echmiadzin took us to the home of a long-time farmer, one who was farming long before the Soviet break-up. The man told of his employing some 100 workers and being one of the first farmers to buy land upon privatization. Then, as the ruble was converted into the Armenian dram, a time when many Armenians lost their life’s savings, this farmer had seven million rubles (some two-three million dollars) reduced to about fifty dollars. The farmer gave little hope for the Armenian economy, at least under the current leadership. We left the farmer’s home, not far from the Echmiadzin cathedral, and drove to the nearby village of Aratashen and met with a wheat farmer who had had a quite successful year. From Aratashen we drove west in the direction of the Turkish border, toward the town of Maraga and the neighboring village of Aralez. There, we met with a woman farmer who farms wheat and watermelons. Walking through a small plot of red wheat, the woman said she felt very close to nature when she worked with wheat . . . and then went on to point toward the Turkish border, saying, we are ready for them. She then pointed in the direction of Surmalu, the birthplace of her grandparents, saying, “I have to stay here, no matter what. This is my home.”

Yesterday evening on Armenian television a program featured interviews with several Armenians who had moved to Armenia from various countries in the Diaspora. Although most were from Iran or the Middle East, a surprising number were from North America. A man from Canada told that he had moved to Armenia more for the sake of his children than for himself, saying he could see his children growing up as Canadians and not Armenians. During our recent trip to the U.S. I heard this thought echoed several times, often from Armenians who had left Beirut and moved to the U.S. One of the main reasons I live here and enjoy life here is the cultural life, changed as it is with globalization but with many maintaining their roots as much as possible. Yesterday on National Television a short piece showed the great dudukist Vache Hovsepian in concert playing “Hovern Enkan” with a feeling almost unseen today, and a similar clip recently showing the well known singer of ashoughakan music, Araksia Gyulzadyan, who maintained the natural feel of the music, possibly in her case due to her village roots. Another pleasant surprise on National Television was the airing of a recent concert by Canadian-Armenian soprano Isabel Bayrakdurian, whose voice and stage presence were nothing short of amazing. Her version of a solo from Anoush Opera was excellent, yet not with the flavor of an Armenian-born singer . . . her version possibily, though, being what is needed to bring Anoush to its rightful place on the world stage. The Yerevan concert was attended by the president and Catholicos, which is wonderful, yet it has been noticed that when great Armenian singers or others from Armenia perform, whether in Armenia or elsewhere, the same respect is rarely paid by high government officials.

Even though I’m a great believer in keeping tradition, we broke tradition twice in recent days. On my birthday, we decided to put all the food and drink on a table and let people help themselves, sitting around the room wherever they liked. The change was noted, yet forgotten when my wife served an amazing dish of khashlama, lamb cooked only with salt and a little beer in water, instead of the usual tomates, peppers, and potatoes. Then, yesterday morning, we had the last serving of khash for the season, even though the month of May had arrived, khash traditionally being served in months with the letter “r” in it, in other words, the cool or cold months of the year. After finishing our khash, several of us journeyed to Byurakan to visit relatives. Even though we caught the cousins by surprise, they immediately started gathering up fresh cheese, eggs, milk, and apples to take to Yerevan. For dinner we ate chicken and mandag, a plant which grows wild in fields and forests and is cooked down and served with madzoon and garlic. Most wrapped theirs in tonir lavash. As the sun set, we drove toward Yerevan with a great view of Massis, the clear day revealing the slopes all the way to the snow-covered peak.

The past two days were active for Yerevan, from “Verchin Zang” to the grand-opening of Raffi and Armine Hovhannisyan’s Orran, where for five years the Hovhannisyans have been working to help street children and their families live a better life, by way of education for the children (and a place to live if needed) and jobs for the parents. I was told that there were times when they would approach a young boy or girl begging in the streets and offer them and their parents the services of Orran, that the parents were afraid that by taking the children off the streets that they would lose their only source of income. As these fears have been lifted, the successes of Orran have resulted in donations from wealthy Armenians and others and a new, four-story building near the center of Yerevan. The grand-opening was attending by several ministers and public figures, including singers, actors, and others. As the event ended, and the sun set, the sounds of Verchin Zang (Last Bell) celebrations were heard all over Yerevan, following graduation ceremonies in Yerevan and the rest of Armenia. Sadly, at the Orran gathering, someone told us of a student graduating from high school who didn’t have the money to pay to go through graduation ceremonies, and due to the shame and embarrassment jumped off a bridge and ended it all. We talked with a school principal there who agreed that the custom of collecting money from students to pay for various graduation costs, especially in a society where at least half the population is living in poverty, should be ended.

Even though May 28, celebrated here as Armenian Independence Day, is a holiday, work took me to the village of Akhurian, located just to the east of Gyumri. On the way, we picked up a farmer from Oshakan, driving past the neighboring village of Voskevaz and then back to the main road to Gyumri. While passing Voskevaz, the Oshakan native told us that even though the villages have almost no separation, they are very different in that people from Voskevaz have roots in Khoy, in Persian Armenia, and people from Oshakan have their roots there in Oshakan. When asked about him having roots in Karabagh, he noted that that was around 200 years ago. . . . Then, passing Talin, I was surprised at how green the usually dry, rocky area was, made that way by almost steady spring rains. Reaching Akhurian, we went to the city hall and had a meeting with farmers from Akhurian and the region of Amasia, located north of Gyumri and stretching to the Georgian and Turkish borders. As the meeting ended, we agreed to stop at one of the farmer’s homes for a cup of Armenian coffee, but, one thing leading to the next in Armenia, the farmer’s wife and daughter started cutting tomatoes, cucumbers, and bread, then brought out homemade cheese, honey, and tti and dzirani arak, finishing with a pan of eggs and sausage. As we left, I was already looking forward to meeting the family again, hopefully after next week’s meeting in Akhurian. . . . We drove back to Yerevan in a fairly hard rain, taking the road just before Ashtarak so we could drop off our friend from Oshakan. Driving through Oshakan, I saw a church quite similar to the Karmavor church in Ashtarak, with the same type of roof and obviously from the same era, around the seventh century. I was told the church was named Mankanots. Reaching Yerevan, while being dropped off at our apartment building in Anastasavan, I saw my wife walking down the stairs, late for a meeting with girlfriends, a painter and an actress. We walked to the corner to take a yertooghayin van when a van pulled over and a friend from Talin got out and invited us to ride with them. It happened the van was full of his relatives from Talin, in a festive mood after a party of some kind in Talin. We talked over old times until we got to the painter’s home, then said goodbye to our Sassuntsi friends from Talin. Our meeting with the painter was in her apartment in a building of artist studios in the Komitas region. As we talked, and the rain fell heavily outside, we were treated to a visit by a fellow painter, born in Tblisi and moving to Yerevan years ago. After the rain stopped, we saw a double rainbow in the direction of Massis, one of the rainbows clear and bright from start to finish. Under this influence, my wife sang Sayat Nova songs for the Armenian from Tblisi, who then toasted her, Sayat Nova, and actor Mher Mkrtchyan, who was then being shown in a Henrik Mailyan movie on television. Later, when several government officials appeared on television toasting each other and whomever else on the occasion of Armenian Independence Day, the Tblisi Armenian shouted, “They’re Turks, not Armenians! They can’t even take care of a country with just two million people.” Finally, being somewhat late at night, we called a cab and were on our way back to Anastasavan.

For the second time in two days, my wife and Shoghaken dudukist Gevorg Dabaghyan participated in interviews, part of the aftermath of our successful U.S. tour. This morning we drove the the national television station in the Nork-Marash district, located on a hill overlooking central Yerevan, with a great view of Massis in the distance. I watched as Hasmik and Gevorg talked about the tour and the new CDs, also telling about future plans for Shoghaken in Armenia and elsewhere. Later, reaching home, a phone call changed our upbeat mood, my wife’s sister telling about a girlfriend’s father passing away. It happens that we had seen the man’s grandsons in Sacramento during our brief stay there in April. The man’s daughter told my wife that her father had died of a broken heart, more precisely, from missing his grandsons, always talking about them and waiting for them to visit their family in Yerevan. A pity, what the country’s poor economy has done to families, breaking up families by sending them to the far corners of the world.
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