Yerevan Journal – June 2004

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The variety of programs one can watch in Armenia is amazing. Last night a Persian station was showing film of Ayatollah Khomeni praying and talking with soldiers, while a switch to an Armenian station, Armenakop, had members of the State Dance Ensemble traveling from monastery to monastery dancing traditional, yet choreographed, Armenian dances at places like Haghbat and Zvartnots. At Haghbat, they danced to the music of Sayat Nova, with the famous belltower of St. Nshan church in the background. When this program finished, news featured a concert, probably for the June 1 “Children’s Rights Day.” As I watched, one of the current stars sang, yet didn’t — recorded music being played over a loudspeaker as the singer mouthed the words, as is done by many today in Armenia. I was reminded of a recent conversation at the Komitas Conservatory, where I was told that one of the oldest of requirements there had recently been changed. Until now, anyone graduating from the Conservatory was required to be able to sing both a sharakan and a folk song, the student having to do this by reading musical notation. It happens that several of the modern singing “stars” of Armenia who were attending the Conservatory complained about this requirement to the extent that the rule, in place for decades, has been dropped.

The actors of the Malyan Theater (named after Henrik Malyan) have departed to Romania, for a performance of the fables of Hovhannes Toumanyan. Recently, the actors delighted audiences in three performances of a play by writer Aghasi Ayvazyan, Psychology of a Family. Until now, I had only seen the actors performing Toumanyan’s Fables, once at the Armenia Festival in Die, France. The humor of the actors is amazing, often, without even saying a word, their glances alone causing an uproar of laughter in the audience. Their recent performance was so good that two well known politicians sent the group money to help them pay for their trip to Romania. It is sad, on the other hand, that this money was needed, some members not having enough money to pay the airport tax (twenty dollars to leave Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport). Without government support of any kind, many of these talented actors have difficulty living on their meager incomes. Possibly, as the country’s economy improves, the government will start appreciating the need for such cultural treasures as the Malyan Theater.

Yesterday evening my wife was a guest on the “16” program on the Armenakop television station, the subject of the program and interview being the condition of traditional folk music in Armenia today. During the course of the show, my wife told about the recent Shoghaken tour in the U.S. and about the preservation of folk music in its traditional form, as it was passed to us over the centuries. Hasmik also sang two songs she learned from her teacher, Hayrig Mouradian: “Goghtan Mangtik” and “Takvoragovk” (Praise of the Groom), a song sung at Armenian weddings. After arriving home, Hasmik said that of the several people who called the station during the program, someone had identified himself as “Ara Geghetsik” (Ara the Beautiful). I asked her if she had asked “Ara” how Shamiram was doing. . . . The next morning, after watching a repeat of the program, we again journeyed to Arazap village, located west of Echmiadzin, to complete a project I had started a few days earlier. After meeting and photographing several villagers working in a new watermelon patch, we drove to Echmiadzin, where we had lunch and then lit candles at the seventh century church of St. Gayane, one of the churches of ancient Vagharshabat.

I learned a new Turkish word last night while watching news on National Television. It happened as the president was talking about the Opposition, using the word ikibir, which I remember hearing when people are playing nardi and calling for low numbers on the dice (one or two). The president’s usage of ikibir meant the influence of the Opposition was meaningless, something not worth considering. The following news item showed dudukist Djivan Gasparyan on Turkish television and, as he played the duduk alongside Turkish musicians, saying there are no bad nations, just bad people, explaining that Turks saved many Armenians during the Genocide. A news item that definitely will cause a heated reaction amongst some. On the lighter side, I was delighted to see an announcement posted at the entrance of an apartment building, stating that anyone from one of the sects operating in Armenia who enters the building and attempts to convert a resident of the building, that the residents are not responsible for what may befall these unwelcome visitors. I was reminded of the atmosphere in Armenia before the Soviet Union fell, when Armenians were quite active in their resistance to outside influence considered against Armenian tradition.

This evening I watched with amazement as a Persian-born Armenian woman, literally draped in gold, appeared on a television show telling how wonderful it was to be living in the homeland, and how she couldn’t understand how anyone could leave the land of their birth and live as a foreigner in the U.S. or elsewhere. From the looks of the woman’s attire, I doubt she ever had a financial worry in her life, I suppose making it hard for her to understand that someone might be forced to leave his homeland for financial reasons. Yet, it is wonderful that Armenians from all over are coming here to live, many apparently with financial means, as the new, expensive apartment buildings being constructed in the center of Yerevan attest to. Recently, while attending a funeral at a home just off Abovian in the center of town, I briefly wandered off and saw a huge cleared area where old homes had been torn down in preparation for the new apartments. One stretch of apartments is near completion, reaching the Old Yerevan restaurant on Toumanyan Street. The only thing that remained where the old homes once stood was an occasional apricot or mulberry tree, soon to be just a memory in this rush to construct new, upscale apartment buildings. Word in Yerevan is that many of these new apartments are being bought by Iranians, many of them Azeris, whose plan is to eventually change the population in Yerevan. I doubt that it is this easy in Iran for individuals of other nationalities to move to their country or become citizens there.

Khor Virab After attending a meeting in the town of Ararat, I went with two farmers to visit their wheat fields near the villages of Vosketap and Khor Virab. We drove in the direction of Massis until we reached a small hut where one of the farmers spends most of the summer during the wheat growing season. A mechanical engineer by trade, the man explained why he stays in the hut, even though he has a big house in Yerevan. “I sleep on the roof, so I can look at the stars and at Massis on moonlit nights. Then in the morning, I can see Massis, when the view is clear.” From the hut, in the middle of hundreds of hectares of wheat and tomato fields, he pointed towards the border, telling me that in the past few decades the Turks had built towns and villages all along the border, on the Turkish side of the Araks River, on the lower slopes of the mountain. He said he can hear the chanting of the Turkish mullahs, and music on nights when weddings are held. He then stated the importance of making the Armenian side of the border strong, by populating the area and growing wheat and other crops. As we talked, a car appeared amongst the wheat fields, a friend of the farmer arriving for a short visit. After eating madzoon and bread, the new visitor told of his roots in Sassun, and offered a trip to Sassun to visit the grave of one of the greatest fedayees, Serop Pasha, also known as Serop Aghpyur. He then told of his adventures leading a group of fighters in Karabagh and along Armenia’s northern border with Azerbaijan. After a few photographs, the Sassuntsi took us to Khor Virab village, where we took pictures of a wheat field just beneath the monastery, with Massis in clear view. Later, at the farmer’s home in the village, he told me that his roots were in Moush, and that he could never leave Khor Virab, the main reason being his father’s grave was in the village cemetery. He explained that his father had left his father’s grave in Moush, and that he couldn’t leave his own father’s grave there in Khor Virab and go somewhere else.

Today’s wedding of a family friend’s daughter was traditional except for the fact that it didn’t last three days, or, as I have heard, up to seven days, as weddings did in the past. We arrived at the bride’s mother’s home before the bride came for the traditional “dressing of the bride.” Although there are songs specific to this ceremony, they asked my wife to sing “Aravodun Temin,” a song sung by the bride, to her mother, on the morning she is to be married. Then, I was told about another part of the wedding ceremony, one I hadn’t heard before. After the groom, best man, and others are ready to leave the bride’s home to go to the church, someone stands at the door and, holding a knife against the wall, blocks the door until the “kavor” offers enough money to show the high esteem the groom has for the bride. As I was chosen for this role, at the appropriate moment I held the knife against the wall, delighting everyone there, as this old tradition has been somewhat forgotten these days. After the kavor offered enough money, I took the knife down from the wall, allowing the groom’s party to leave for the church. I was happy to hear the wedding was to be held in Geghard Monastery, located just past the ancient temple of Garni. As we drove there, we passed the village of Voghchabert, where the road has become almost impassable due to the slipping, or sinking, of the earth there. This is a major problem in the area just before Garni, especially in Voghchabert, where nearly every home has visible cracks in the structure, some homes almost completely collapsed. I learned that the “voghch” in the village’s name comes from the “voghchuin” of the Badarak, the village being where Davit Bek greeted another important figure from Armenian history in years past. We drove on to Geghard, where the wedding ceremony was attended by not only those from the wedding party but around fifty tourists who happened to be visiting the famous monastery, which is carved into a mountain of rock. Later that evening, a reception was held at a nice restaurant in the Nork-Marash area of Yerevan, with a great view of the city of Yerevan.

In these days of globalization and western influence, the importance of the village and village life is attaining a renewed interest in Armenia. Large audiences are watching the shows arranged by Tigran Karabetyan of the ALM television station, where people from various villages travel to the Yerevan ALM studio and present song, dance, recitations, and the history of their village. Often dressed in traditional costume, villagers of all ages perform songs and dances of their village or of their ancestors’ homes in Western Armenia, especially of Moush and Sassoun. Even though some, especially the youth of the villages, find it necessary to have synthesized, recorded music played as they sing, usually musicians play duduk, zurna, or clarinet, along with the pounding of the dhol to accompany the singer. Last night, from a village near the town of Armavir, a teenage boy did a great acapella version of a patriotic song about Garegin Nzhdeh, and another older teen, a Yezdi with quite a fine voice sang a Yezdi song, backed up by zurna and dhol. Considering the music emanating from Yerevan today, most of it without the old, rustic flavor of traditional Armenian music, the rural existence takes on even more importance. A related news item on National Television today reminded of the sad situation of the villagers of Shahumyan, the northernmost province of Mountainous Karabagh, where some 20,000 Armenians were uprooted from their homes before and during the war. An organization of Shahumyan Armenians has been formed in Yerevan, where many of the former residents of Shahumyan live. The president of the organization was demanding that the question of Shahumyan, including many who are missing and unaccounted for since the time of the war, be made part of any final agreement of the Karabagh issue.

My day began early yesterday as I had to be in Echmiadzin for a meeting with a farmer whose fields are immediately east of the Mother See and the town of Echmiadzin. Arriving by yertooghayin taxi at the side of the monastery, I saw the farmer sitting in his car waiting for my arrival. We drove outside town until we reached vast fields of wheat, barley, and watermelons. Walking through his barley field, the farmer told of his roots in Khnoos, on the banks of Lake Van, saying that if the Armenians somehow took it back, without a doubt he’d live there. He lamented the decision of Stalin not to allow Soviet troops to retake most of Western Armenia during WWII. While walking, we ate bal, a kind of cherry, which was growing next to his field. The man was sad that the Armenian economy had become what it is, telling how he happily helped over 200 needy families during the Karabagh war, thinking all would be well after the Armenian victory. After meeting a few of his neighboring farmers and workers, we drove back to Echmiadzin, where I took another yertooghayin van back to Yerevan. Arriving in Yerevan, I went to the United Nations building and elsewhere before returning home around eight o’clock. Television news revealed a skirmish in Tavoush on the border with Azerbaijan, Azeri Turks attempting to capture a pump station which supplies five Armenian villages with irrigating and drinking water. An Armenian soldier died in the ensuing battle. Another news item which is sure to awaken the ecology movement was word that the Russians are taking over the Nairit factory, producer of various rubber and chemical products. When completely operational, the spewing into the air of chemical pollutants is known to be dangerous to Yerevan’s population, especially in the “Arachin Mas” and “Erebuni” neighborhoods. Yet, hundreds of jobs will be offered to residents of Yerevan, where unemployment is at a rate so high no one likes to talk about it.

The death of a relative’s husband took us to the village of Byurakan yesterday afternoon, on the day of the hokihankist. Arriving, we greeted male relatives and friends standing near the entrance of the house, the women all upstairs sitting around the open casket. Natural for a village, the dialect and faces were Old World, with little apparent tie to life in Yerevan. I talked with the man’s two sons, both living and working in Russia, who seemed to be ready to make the move back to the village, commenting that Russia was fine for Russians, but they knew where there home was. After paying our respects to the various relatives, we noticed the huge garden had been understandably left untouched, so we offered to gather strawberries from several patches near the house. Finishing our labor, we ate a light lunch and returned to Yerevan. Later, at a meeting in the UN building in the city center, I was telling someone about our trip to the village, and my move to Yerevan four years earlier, and a man then proudly announced he had moved from Tehran about ten years ago, stating he hasn’t been this happy in his entire life. We then talked about the postive, and negative, aspects of the possible opening of the border with Turkey — most local Armenians feeling that even though it could help improve the business climate in Armenia, it could also open the door to the transport of narcotics or the possibility of Turks doing business and then staying in Armenia, with unknown results. Yet, as we said, Armenian government officials, who should be setting an example, have invited Armenian singers who sing not only rabiz (word with Russian roots, referring to newly written music of less-than-desirable quality), but with strong Turkish style or influence. . . . or, as someone else said, who is the government here working for?

Before leaving for Byurakan for “inknahogh,” the ceremony which takes place at the cemetery the day after burial, we stopped at a nearby shop in Anastasavan and bought pastry to take to the village. The shop is actually located in a converted garage, next to a tall apartment building on Bashinjaghyan Street. The business was started by a woman about two years ago in a single-car garage, and after some time moved to an adjoining garage where renovation created enough space for the expanding business. There, several women prepare various kinds of pastry, far superior to what one finds in the finer shops in Yerevan. The woman who owns and runs the shop commented that if Armenians who expect to become rich overnight and, when disappointed, complain about the conditions in Armenia and then leave the country, would forget the “get rich quick” mentality and settle down to some hard work, they would find themselves successful and working in their homeland, not struggling and often ending up doing the same work in a foreign land. Later, reaching Byurakan, I joined a crowd of men sitting outside the house, where the talk turned to Astrakhan, a city in Russia located just above Chechnya. The city, I was told, has a population of about one million, of which 20,000 are Armenians. The man who lives there complained about the Russians, even though the population is mostly Moslem. He said the Russians are quite chauvanistic, even though many of them are able to work on their jobs only until about mid-day, at which time vodka overtakes everything, leading to beatings and murder at the slightest instigation. As we talked, the women prepared the food for before and after the inknahogh ceremony, some cutting and taking vegetables to several long tables set up in the garden area, and others seeing to the huge pans of meat and potatoes cooking for when everyone returned from the cemetery. After the ceremony, we sat at the tables and gave toasts remembering the deceased man, such as the basic “voghormi iran” and “hoghu tetev lini,” asking for mercy for his soul and, more or less, that he rest in peace.

It was revealed in a recent scientific study that the Armenians of Karabagh are closer to the original Armenoid structure than Armenians from elsewhere, due partly to their relative isolation and independence over the centuries. Yet, the study seems a bit late, as it is impossible to go to Moush, Van, or Sassoun and study the Armenians there. As someone visiting our home this week said about the map I have on the wall, it would be nice if Armenia kept control over Karabagh and the surrounding liberated territories — timely since our foreign minister is preparing for meetings with the Azeri foreign minister. Forgotten by many these days is the fact that the Karabagh Movement began almost as a result of the large protests and galvanization (Ecology Movement) that brought about the temporary closing of Medzamor. It remains to be seen if the population will exert the same energy concerning the reopening of the Nairit factory in Yerevan, as the lack of employment in Armenia may cause people to overlook the potential damage to the health of Yerevan’s population, especially those who live in the vicinity of Nairit. It appears those inclined to protest ecological problems will have plenty to protest against, as those involved in the running of Nairit have already said that when the factory was operational in Soviet days that it easily met international health standards required of such factories, in spite of the infamous chemical-laden air in the area of Nairit in those days. A similar problem exists in Alaverdi, as the mining factory there, even though not completely operational, still causes headaches and cold-like symptoms, and more serious health problems, for Alaverdi’s population. Yet, a woman from Alaverdi said today that if the factory closed down, the Debet River would be filled with the starved people of Alaverdi.

One of the rumors floating around Yerevan, possibly started by Opposition people, is that the American State Department demanded that Armenia withdraw from the liberated territories around Karabagh, a demand agreed to by the president . . . resulting in the resignation of the minister of foreign affairs, who couldn’t go along with this decision. According to the rumor, the resignation wasn’t accepted. Yet, Yerevan residents have other, more real worries, as a news piece showed interviews with several people who live in apartment buildings on Tumanyan Street in the center of town, the people complaining about the new “night clubs” which have opened in the basements of the apartment buildings. These clubs, it happens, are outside any jurisdiction of the city, since in the past no one opened such clubs. The building residents say that the clubs operate well into the night, past the usual 2 a.m. when regular bars close down, making it impossible to sleep, the new clubs allowing dancing, singing, live music, and who knows what else until the break of day. Residents have taken the case to court, hoping for some kind of a miracle, possibly zoning laws or likewise to keep such businesses out of residential neighborhoods, especially in the basements of their apartment buildings.

My travels today took me to the village of Akhourian, in the province of Shirak, just east of Gyumri. The fields along the way remain green, as the unusually wet weather continues, rain and occasionally hail falling in the evenings after warm, balmy days. In the rocky terrain past Artik, shepherds tended sheep, the animals sometimes hard to differentiate from the rocks scattered throughout the landscape. I arrived at the main bus station in Gyumri and was greeted by the smiling wheat farmer I was to interview. At his home, we talked about the business of growing and harvesting grain, and about his ancestry and the recent history of the area. His grandfather’s family was from Alashkert, not far from Moush. They had escaped the 1915 massacres and ended up in Gyumri, where the farmer and his family lived until the earthquake of 1988. He told stories of the cruelty of the Turks who entered Eastern Armenia just before the Bolsheviks established the Soviet Union. One story, which he told as if he had seen it with his own eyes, was of Turks burying hundreds of Armenians alive in a valley north of Gyumri. His own life nearly came to an end in the earthquake, the man barely getting out of his flat as the tall apartment building collapsed around him. We stopped for a light lunch of bread, cheese, potatoes, and “zokh,” which is a pickled version of the plant called sibekh. As my planned trip to the northern region of Amasia was postponed, I grabbed a seat in a yertooghayin van and returned to Yerevan.

As today was the seventh day since the death of our Byurakan uncle, we traveled to the village with several family members for the “Seventh Day” commemoration. We arrived as everyone was entering the house and finding seats at three long tables set with pastries, fruit, and Jermuk mineral water. After about twenty minutes, we got into several cars and went to the Byurakan cemetery, where a few of the men lit a small fire to burn incense as the women gathered around the grave of the deceased, crying as they chanted or wailed as they bade farewell to their “aghber,” or brother. After spreading a little incense on the fire, I walked back to one of the cars to go back to the house. As we walked, a Byurakantsi pointed to the thirteenth century Tegher monastery, located on top of a mountain overlooking Byurakan and the neighboring village of Tsorap. I was told about the river canyon which leads to Amberd fortress, and a footprint in a rock where Ashot Yergat, the king who reigned in Amberd in the tenth century, is said to have stepped. We planned a journey where we would walk from Byurakan or from the river canyon up the mountain to the fortress, where we would see the king’s footprint. Back at the house, several children with pitchers poured water over the hands of those returning from the cemetery, in a ceremonial hand-washing. Inside the house, tables were set with meat and potatoes which had been boiled separately, along with various vegetables, beans, and lavash. The toasts of remembrance began by touching the back of the hand holding the glass, then, after properly honoring the deceased, people began clicking their shot glasses in the traditional manner. After lunch, some got up to walk or sit in the garden or help clean the tables. Sitting with a small group of Byurakantsis of all ages, we talked for about two hours in the hot, smoke-filled room about family matters and the economic condition of Armenia, with most of the younger generation of the village currently living and working in Russia. An elderly man with a huge nose and a face which can only be produced in the villages of Armenia told me about his granddaughter, now in Russia, telling him that she would rather have a dry piece of lavash in Armenia than live in luxury in Russia. Word then reached that two cars were ready to leave for Tegher monastery, so we got up and started walking towards the car, wrapping up our conversation, which had switched to the famous Armenian fedayee of the early twentieth century. We got in cars and drove towards Tegher, pronouced “Tugher” by the locals, driving down the mountain into the river canyon that leads to Amberd, then up the hill and winding our way to Tegher. It had been two years since I had been to the dark-stoned monastery, a place of pilgrimage for four nearby villages, especially on the grape blessing holiday in August. Inside the church gavit, we visited the grave of Queen Khatoun, known as Mama Khatoun, whose name is also associated with Dadivank, a monastery in Karabagh. Outside, we ate sandwiches wrapped in lavash and drank tahn, and listened to a group of men who had brought zurnas, clarinets, and a dhol, and were singing patriotic songs and dancing. As they took a break, another group started singing Sayat Nova songs, which inspired my wife and her sister to sing “Maratouk Astvadzadzin,” a patriotic song about a mountain of Sassoun. After the impromptu concerts, we left Tegher, driving through the village of Tsorap to drop off a cousin at her home there. On the way, we stopped at the burial site of the Bagratuni royal family and drank water which is said to have curative powers. Then, at the woman’s home in Tsorap, we were served madzoon and coffee before heading back to Yerevan.

Yesterday we traveled to the village of Yeghvard, just twenty minutes to the west of Yerevan. Driving from the Davitashen suburb, we passed Dzovuni, a village which more or less is connected to Yerevan, and then continued through rolling hills and wheat fields to Yeghvard. I learned that in the fields where wheat is grown there had been extensive apple orchards and vineyards, but that when privatization was taking place the land was divided up into smaller plots, making grape and apple farming nearly impossible. Then, before reaching Ara Ler (Mount Ara), we came upon Yeghvard, in reality a small town with five-story apartment buildings as one enters the town, with the older village section following. We drove the village streets and came upon the thirteenth century St. Astvadzadzin church, a small, unique structure with a belltower jutting into the air, the interior a basilic-style church with a highly ornamented altar. After visiting the church, we went to our host’s home, enjoying the fruits of their large garden, especially the “vaghahas dziran,” a variety of small apricot which ripens before regular apricots. We were told of a monastery high on Ara Ler by the name of Dzaghgevank (Monastery of Flowers) where villagers go nearly every Saturday and Sunday on pilgrimage. After making plans to visit the monastery, we left for Yerevan. That evening on the news, President Kocharian’s speech at Strasbourg was again being shown on National Television. By far the most talked-about item in Armenia today is the recent visit of Armenia’s president to the European Union summit in Strasburg. Almost every day since the summit, National Television is showing the president’s speech and the following question-and-answer period, most here in Armenia approving the way the president handled himself and the Armenian Question during a spate of questions offered by Turks, Azeris, and various Europeans at least somewhat loyal to the Turkish point of view. Watching the president, it became apparent why many in Armenia voted for him, even though he has a less than favorable approval rating here, as Opposition leaders are known for their lack of ability in the public arena . . . as many are now saying, at least the president didn’t embarrass Armenia at such an important summit, that who knows what the Opposition leaders might have said or not said had they been in power.
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