Yerevan Journal – September 2004
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After participating in an interview about the Shoghaken Ensemble and the state of culture in Armenia with the cultural editor of a Beirut newspaper, I left for Stepanavan with a contingent of USDA personnel to study the need of a Diagnostic Lab in Armenia and to work with local veterinarians. Arriving in Stepanavan, we left our baggage at the Lori Hotel and drove on to Tashir, the main town in a region of the same name. Tashir is located about fifteen minutes north of Stepanavan, and runs up to the border with Georgia. The first noticeable characteristic of the area was the small stones and bricks which are used to construct houses and the walls around peoples’ property. Talking with Tashir natives, most of whom have roots in Moush and Alashkert, in contrast to the majority of Loretsis, whose ancestry is in Lori, I learned that most there make a living tending various animals, mostly cattle. Standing outside the collection part of a Tashir cheese factory, I watched as people brought containers of milk by horse-drawn carts, or by foot, sometimes bringing just a pail or two of milk, after which testing for quality, etc., took place. Asking about the possibility of a massacre of Azeri Turks who had left for Azerbaijan during the Karabagh war, I was told that nothing of the sort had happened, that the Azeris who left are in close contact, by way of letters, with friends they had left behind in Tashir, mainly Yezdis. While in the Tashir region, we also went to the villages of Getavan and Seratofka, until recently a village populated mostly by Russians. Although many in Tashir are earning a fair living in the dairy industry, many of the young men are in Russia working, waiting for the economic situation in Tashir and nearby Stepanavan to improve. One Tashir native, whose grandparents had settled in the area after leaving Moush during the 1915 massacres, said that his ancestors must have first come to Tashir in the summertime, because if they had come during one of Tashir’s typically cold winters, they surely would have moved on. . . . During my second afternoon in Lori, I went to Amragitz village (means “next to the fortress”), the first village to the south of Stepanavan. Across a river canyon, a fortress and bathhouse remain, dating back to the time of Ashot Yergat and before. I talked with a wheat farmer who told about this year’s devastating hailstorm, which occurred after midnight on June 22. He said that he had never seen hail occur that late at night, and that the next morning revealed the mountains and wheat fields covered in white, nearly ninety percent lost to the untimely storm. As we drove over the hills where wheat and potatoes had been harvested or left overgrown by weeds due to the hailstorm, the farmer began talking about the earthquake, telling how he was working in his fields and the ground shaking twice, accompanied by a horrible screeching sound, reminding me of the theory that the earthquake had been caused by some kind of man-made weapon placed underground and capable of setting off earthquakes in a distant area. “People were racing everywhere, to see who was alive and who had been killed,” he said. Although the farmer had suffered no personal loss from the earthquake, he said his father, who was in Stepanavan during the quake, never did recover from the shock, and died three years later. After spending a second night at the Lori Hotel, a wonderful place despite the fact that anyone watching television in his room was forced to watch the same station as everyone else in the hotel, depending on what the workers in the lobby had decided to watch, I left the lush, green, cool region of Stepanavan, taking a bus from the central bus station and heading for Yerevan.
A well-attended book presentation at the Writer’s Union for poet and playwright Hrant Markarian of New York became a who’s who in the literary and theatrical circles of Armenia, with actor Sos Sargsyan, Avik Issahakyan (grandson of poet Avedik Issahakyan), Hrachya Matevosyan, and various writers and critics praising Markarian for his new book of poems, just days off the press. We had met Markarian and his wife at a gathering of Homenetmen youth in Mughni two years earlier, and seen them at our Shoghaken Ensemble concert this past May in New York, where Markarian lives when not in Armenia. A novelist told about Markarian’s trip to Der Zor several years ago, when, traveling with an Armenian priest, they became lost and were held temporarily by Arab police after accidentally crossing borders. After finding out they were Armenians, the Arab police took them to a spot where Armenians had been killed or left to die in 1915, Markarian finding bones and skulls there, somehow bringing some of the bones back to New York, after much difficulty in airports along the way. The presentation concluding, we congratulated Markarian and his wife, and then went to the Pantheon, for a late commemoration of William Saroyan’s birthday. Four of us went to his grave, placed flowers, and toasted the great writer for all he had done for Armenian and world literature and Armenia in general. A man named Sargsyan, seeing our small gathering by Saroyan’s tomb, greeted us and joined in the toast, later telling us he had been a commander in Karabagh during the war. Later in the evening, as in all Armenia and undoubtedly elsewhere, we watched events in Ossetia unfold, waiting to hear the fate of the five Armenian children in the school, along with the other unfortunate students, parents, and others.
Armenians here were grateful to hear that no Armenians were killed in the Ossetian massacre, yet were in shock to hear Russian president Putin’s remarks saying that if this sort of terrorism isn’t kept in check, situations like what happened in Karabagh and Moldavia could become commonplace. Speculation is rampant here, some angrily asking what tie the Ossetian problem has with Karabagh, others saying Putin was just listing other places where problems became serious when proper attention wasn’t given as each situation arose. Still, no one here is really sure what was meant by the remark, yet Armenians here are used to not trusting anyone blindly, as in the past. . . . Later in the day, a trip to the city center revealed a policeman standing in the middle of a busy Mashtots Boulevard trying to convince an old man not to cross the street in the middle of traffic, and an old woman sitting half-collapsed on the sidewalk, her hand extended, begging for money to buy bread. Convinced she wasn’t one of those who “beg” for a living, I gave her some dram, and was on my way down Amirian Street when I was surprised by a television camera and a girl with a microphone, who asked me what I thought about the new sidewalks and renovated, newly paved streets in Yerevan. Although I think this is wonderful, and hope that Yerevan’s recovery, however small it might be, reaches the rest of Armenia, I told her that I couldn’t enjoy the new roads, what with half of Armenia’s population living in poverty. . . . Somehow, speaking on television, I couldn’t see not mentioning those who are so far left out of the progress being made here.
I remember well meeting Artak Ghoulyan, an architect born in the Gulistan region of Karabagh, around three years ago. After showing me a picture of a large church, I wondered what beautiful, ancient church it was, not knowing if I had ever seen it or not. It happened that it was Ghoulyan’s plan for the new Grigor Lusavorich church in Yerevan, and that this plan had been favored until somehow the decision was made to go with the current church plan. Today, as television news showed the Catholicos blessing a new church in Ukraine, I was happy to hear that it was designed by Ghoulyan. . . . On another note, Armenians here were saddened to find out that two Armenians were indeed among those who lost their lives in the Ossetian school massacre. And, as people found out that Armenia planned to send fifty soldiers to Iraq, the general reaction was, “Wonderful, now the Moslems will add us to their list.”
For the past two days in Yerevan, traffic jams and rerouting have become the norm, due to a visit by the president of Iran. Notable, he paid a visit to the Genocide Museum and Dzidzernakabert. And, as museum director Lavrenti Barseghyan told me during our brief meeting later in the day, “I spoke in Armenian to him, and someone translated what I said into Persian. I could have asked if he knew Russian, but after all, this is Armenia.” About Yerevan and its crowded streets, it is said that there are now more cars being used than during Soviet days, even though the population of Yerevan was approximately 300,000 more than now. Back then, people used buses, tramway, and trolley buses, partly because of the strict system of the time, since when buying a car one was often asked by Soviet authorities where he got the money from, etc., leading some to forgo the purchase. Now, with laws on the lax side, such worries are a thing of the past. Today, I went for the first time to the USDA office on Teryan Street, just above Goriun, known here as “Srjanayin.” I left somewhat inspired after hearing about projects that were helping the dairy industry in remote villages, areas often ignored by those who give or lend money to official Yerevan. As the economy of Yerevan improves and slowly revives elsewhere, Armenians feel safer investing their money here, as with a Byurakan cousin, who said today he was buying a store in Yerevan, spending money he had made in Astrakhan in the homeland, partly due to the economic activity here, yet also because of Russia’s uncertain domestic climate.
A busy day started with a rush to the station where Yertooghayin Number 18 starts its journey, just up the street from where we live. Being early in the morning and with Yerevan’s schools and universities in full swing, a bit of strategy is needed in finding a van with a place to sit, or, for that matter, even enter. What I discovered at the bus stop was that no vans were waiting to leave, and about thirty people standing around waiting for a van to return from its run. When a van approached, one man rushed to get into the single passenger seat next to the driver, while the van was still moving. Then, when it stopped, all thirty or so tried to get into the van, everyone obviously late for work or school. Luckily, I was the last to enter. Some twenty-two people were crammed together (in a van meant for about fourteen passengers) and we finally left for the city center. From there, I took a van to a region north of Yerevan, comprised of several villages constructed in early Soviet days, around 1922. Passing Nor Hadjin and Nor Artimet, I reached my destination, Nor Geghi. In the village, I met with the grandson of the founder, “Tevos Babik,” who is the village mayor and farms plums, apricots, and wheat. After sitting in a quite busy mayor’s office, watching but only partly understanding the goings-on, we drove out to his orchards and wheat fields. From there he showed me the location of a church they hope to start constructing soon. After stopping to see a home he was thinking of buying, and listening to some local-style bargaining, I took another crowded van back to Yerevan, and from there went to Echmiadzin to the vank’s gift shop. With a few minutes to spare, I photographed a khachkar carved in 1279, from a place called Oorts. That evening, back in Yerevan, my wife and I went to a concert featuring Hasmik Papyan, a Yerevan-born opera singer who has become a major figure on the world stage. After hearing her voice, and the ease with which she sang arias from Verdi and others, my first reaction was, the Armenians have given birth to another genius. The opera hall was filled with an admiring audience that included the president, several ministers and parliamentarians, and notable persons from the local music world. Papyan was accompanied by the Opera Orchestra, which had been conducted for years by maestro Ohan Turyan, until his removal for unexplained reasons a year or more ago, after which he went on to work in Moscow and elsewhere. During his recent birthday celebration in Yerevan, and after newspapers had printed rave reviews about his work before and after his dismissal from the orchestra, Turyan said, possibly to those who removed him, or to those who allowed it, “Be men, don’t be donkeys.”
Yesterday most Armenians were involved in activities related to Soorp Khatch, known here as “Soorp Khetch” and in the Armenian Church as Khach Verats. According to church tradition, Khach Verats is a day of celebration, with the following day, a Monday, known as Merelots, the day when people go to the cemetery to pay respect to those who died during the past year. Yet, with modern work obligations, many make their cemetery visits on Sunday, while others hold to the old tradition and go on Monday. In Byurakan, we went to our relatives’ home, where relatives, friends, and neighbors gathered to remember my wife’s uncle, who passed on about two months ago. The house, soon to be left vacant as the surviving wife plans a move to Yerevan, was crowded with people giving toasts to their old friend and telling stories of past happenings in the village. All this was in the dialect peculiar to Byurakan, most residents having roots in Khoy, near Persian Armenia, where the dialect originates. As time passed, a cousin told us about a house for sale in the oldest part of the village, and, after enjoying madzoon, honey, and tea at another cousin’s house, we went to look at the house. Although the house left a little to be desired, we enjoyed the peaceful area, almost overgrown with old walnut and fruit trees, including a pear tree my wife remembered from her childhood. As the time approached for the bus back to Yerevan, we said goodbye and walked down the road leading to the bus stop and back to the city. At night, television news told the story of a child miraculously saved after falling from the ninth floor of an apartment building in Ichevan. It happened that as the year-old child fell out the window, people started shouting, and, hearing this, the child’s older sister and brother who were playing down below rushed to catch the falling child, breaking the fall and somehow holding onto the child as they rolled over several times.
I was delighted listening to a twenty-year-old cousin from Byurakan tell about her love for her birthplace. After spending the past ten years in Russia with her family, they are all back in the village, partly so their daughter can attend a university in Yerevan, which she is doing with another cousin, also back from Russia. The girl happily told about how she becomes uneasy if away from the village for more than a day or two, how nice it is to be with her friends there, and how the fruit tastes better and the air is cleaner, etc. . . . opinions often given by those much older than the young student recently returned from Russia. . . . Business the next morning took me bouncing along in a Russian Niva to the villages of Hrazdan, which are located along the road to Lake Sevan, one turning left at Charentsavan and heading west on the road to Bdjni. After a brief stop in Alapars, we drove to the neighboring village of Arzakan, where farmers were waiting for a truckload of several tons of wheat seed from Artik. It was a great scene, as farmers drove up their jeeps, vans, and small buses to load large sacks of the seed, difficult to find in such villages, many farmers finding it hard to travel to access the seed due to the poor economy of this and similar villages across Armenia. While watching the unloading of the truck, I listened to stories about the good life people lived in Soviet times, and how “independence” had left Armenia depending on the whims and politics of each of its neighbors, including the great powers in Europe and the U.S. Hopefully this and similar projects will help these villagers, who, in spite of all, continue to work the land in this mountainous region north of Yerevan.
Although my wife and I went to the “Geghard” ensemble’s concert because a friend sings in the group, it became clear from the first song that “Geghard” is a treasure. Held at the Komitas Chamber Hall on Issahakyan Street, the singers presented the music of Shnorhali, Mesrop Mashtots, Sahak Partev, and others, as a group and with solo voices. Besides the well-known thirteenth century chants of Shnorhali and the ancient works of Sahak and Mesrop, sharakans and chants by Shirakatsi and Khorenatsi were also sung. At the evening’s conclusion, those attending the concert, many of whom were conservatory professors and students, stayed outside the concert hall for close to an hour, as if they couldn’t get enough of the atmosphere, music, and seeing like-minded lovers of this old Armenian music. Many expressed the opinion that it was wonderful such young singers, all in their early twenties, had mastered this music from the Classical Era, yet were disappointed on hearing that at a recent music competition two well-qualified judges were removed from the jury, only to be replaced by judges who would choose the “correct” winner. Another story about a high official in the culture world accepting a bribe in exchange for an appointment is probably better left untold. At home, it was interesting that on National Television one of the current “stars” was singing for a small crowd on a new locally produced show, but of course not singing at all, just mouthing to the sounds of her CD playing in the background. This is common for many of the new stars, who sing only in the recording studio, the resulting CD played at concerts and public appearances to the star’s pretending. As this show was being broadcast to Armenians worldwide, other stations showed Baris Herouni, the world-renowned physicist, talking about his inventions and about ancient Armenian history, and an old video of a director working at the Sundukian Theater, the actors being Avet Avetisyan and the great Mher Mkrtchyan.
A villager told me about Ashot Yergat, a Bagratuni king who fought off the Arabs on Sevan island in the Armenian Middle Ages, and with forty men successfully defended the island and its monastery. It happens that the king was killed when struck by a poison arrow, after which his brother Abbas became king. The villager said that Ashot Yergat was never in Bdjni, and that it was unclear why the fortress there is sometimes called Ashot Yergat’s fortress, and also that a prince from the Pahlavuni dynasty built the fortress, possibly the same Pahlavuni, if not a brother, who built the eleventh century church at Amberd. . . . Current news told of the release of Samuel Babayan, hero of the Karabagh war, from prison, Arkady Ghoukasyan granting a pardon . . . some saying that all the talk of war emanating from Azerbaijan resulted in the pardon, no one here forgetting the important role Babayan played in the Armenian victory in the recent war.
A meeting with a wheat farmer took me to Nor Gyank, a village of Artik, located in Shirak province, just south of Gyumri. Nor Gyank is an old village, once a summer residence of kings, and before that a fortress, some of which remains, of the Urarteans, on a hill overlooking the village. An ancient cemetery is near the fortress, and is being studied by an American/British group. After being dropped off in the village, I went to the farmer’s home, where we sat under a large walnut tree and talked about his life and work. It happens that his ancestors came from Alashkert, near Moush, in 1828, after the Russo-Turkish war of the times. While talking, a huge flock of crows gathered in the trees around the house, causing the farmer to enter his house and get a shotgun, firing it into the tree to chase away the birds, one bird falling victim to the shotgun blast, while at least three flocks of crows quickly left the area. As we continued talking, family members dug potatoes in the yard. Later, we drove to see the farmer’s fields, where fresh seed was being planted. In the distance, the domes of Haridj Monastery were visible, and farther the snowy peaks of Mt. Aragadz. Driving back by way of a small reservoir, we stopped and walked down to a clump of trees, where we came upon a butchered sheep and several men involved in barbecuing and making khashlama and salad — a special lunch prepared in my honor, known in Armenia as “badiv dal.” As we ate, toasts were made for Armenian independence day and Armenia’s sons and daughters who gave their life in Karabagh, and to those who live in foreign lands, wishing for the day when life in Armenia is so good that all Armenians come here to live. In the evening, while National Television showed politicians and celebrities enjoying themselves at the Hamalir, and later a concert where Yerevan’s “stars” had their CDs playing as they mouthed the words, another station had historians telling the story of the first republic, which lasted from 1918-1920, and how the Soviets killed several of the leaders of that republic in the purges of 1937-1938. Also, I was happy to come across a film taken in the Sassountsi village of Oujan, an old woman singing the Sassoun version of the folk song “Gorani” and then talking about today’s independence celebrations, saying that independence is first of all the ability to work and feed your family. She then sadly stated that most of the young men in the village were working out of the country which, she said, is good for other countries, but a disaster for Armenia.
After receiving a surprise phone call from friends we had met at the Washington, D.C., Shoghaken concert, my wife and I went to Armenia Marriott Hotel in the city center where they were staying. They had just returned from a trip to Karabagh, where they had visited Gandzasar Monastery and Shushi, and, on the return trip, Tatev Monastery, near Goris in the mountains of Zangezur. Sitting in the open-air coffee shop and restaurant in front of the hotel, we reminisced about our meeting this spring in the U.S. capital. Particularly impressed with my wife’s singing of Armenian lullabies during the concert there, they gave her a book of songs by Komitas, printed in Echmiadzin in 1905. As they looked through the book, two children’s songs were discovered, one of them being a song that Hasmik teaches the children of the Hayrig Mouradian Children’s Song and Dance Ensemble. As Hasmik had to leave to attend a funeral, I accompanied our guests to the Aram Khachaturyan Museum and then to the Composer’s Union building, where we met Alexander Harutyunyan, a well-known composer from the days of Aram Khachaturyan, Edward Mirzoyan, and Arno Babajanyan, all of whom were in various photographs with Harutyunyan on the walls of his living room. Later, back at the hotel, we parted ways, promising to keep in touch and hopefully meet next year in Armenia. On arriving home, my wife told me about the funeral she had attended in a village near Echmiadzin, the story of the man’s demise being most unusual. One night, when driving in the dark, unlit streets of his village, he ran into a tractor parked on the side of the street, nearly dying but recovering slowly after several operations and much care. Then, on the day of a special madagh, or sacrifice, family members and others showing their gratitude for his recovery, the man left alone in his car and crashed into the same tractor, at the same time of the night, this time dying on the spot.
Signs of fall are becoming more evident, as a look down into the building courtyard proved today, with onions spread on a canvas to dry and men chopping wood to heat their homes during the upcoming winter. A man carrying some fifty brooms called out “avel, avel...,” his voice having a special echo which allowed him to occasionally rest his voice as he walked through the neighborhood. Three men were playing nardi, the sound of the dice striking the board easily reaching our seventh-floor apartment. On National Television, residents of remote villages in Lori told the reasons they were unable to build new houses after the earthquake, many still living in makeshift or semi-ruined houses. It happened that the money that arrived in Armenia after the earthquake which was to be given to individuals who had lost their homes in the earthquake, so they could build new homes, was put in special bank accounts, the villagers unfortunately not allowed to take the money out of the banks. Then, when the money system was changed from rubles to dram, the money was entirely lost in the conversion, leaving those depending on the money to build new houses without any of the money intended for that purpose. As a friend working in a poverty-reduction program recently stated, if Armenia loses these remote, border villages, the country will be lost. It is said by some that statistics showing a reduction of poverty here are false, or invented, that showing progress is necessary for the continuation of certain programs, whether the reduction of poverty or otherwise. Here and there people who work for these programs, and others, are actually working to help remote areas at least somewhat forgotten by official Armenia, in a race against time to save Armenia.
Riding in a yertooghayin van north on Nalbandyan Street, we came to a stop at a red light upon reaching Tumanyan, a spot where a unique beggar with red hair walks amongst the two or three lanes of cars stopped at the light, walking up to each open car window with her hand stretched out, smiling in an odd way reserved for those who may be slightly touched. Although not many give money to this particular beggar, today I saw two different men hand her coins before the traffic light changed to green. That evening, National Television had a show where several people were asked their opinion about the recent appointment of Karen Gevorgyan to head a well-known institute where classical dance and ballet are taught. Those interviewed were adamant, it could be said angry, about the appointment, most saying that Gevorgyan’s specialty is folk dance, and even that his expertise in that field is questionable. Parents with students in the school protested the appointment, saying that everything was going well at the school, and that Gevorgyan’s appointment was just a political favor for his recently joining a certain political party. A visit to the Finance Ministry revealed several with similar opinions, including the entrance of long-time dance expert Vanoush Khanamiryan into the picture, him protesting the appointment, since a café he is having built is in the same building Gevorgyan will take over, Khanamiryan apparently fearing his café spot will be confiscated. It remains to be seen if the appointment will be rescinded or become permanent, due to the huge publicity, much of it negative, given to the subject.
This afternoon we rented a van and drove nine members of the Hayrig Mouradian Children’s Folk Song and Dance Ensemble to Ashtarak for a picture-taking session, going first to the seventh century church of Karmravor. In between taking the photos, I talked with the old man guarding the church, who proudly told about the recent gathering of church dignitaries and visitors to celebrate the conclusion of Karmravor’s reconstruction. Then, the old man asked me where I was from, I think just so he could state “I am Mshetsi. My grandfather and his family left Moush in 1914, and made it all the way to Batumi on horseback.” From there, we went down to the Kasakh River and took pictures, including some by the ancient stone wheel used to grind seed into flour. Nearby, two groups of people prepared khorovadz, one of them inviting us to stay and join them. Needing to continue to Oshakan, we thanked them and were on our way, leaving on the road to Oshakan until we reached a tower where the letters of the Armenian alphabet are written. We took pictures there, then left for Yerevan. Turning on the television, I was inspired seeing the popular singer and actor Henrik Alavertyan in an old video clip, singing “Zartir Lao,” backed by the State Song and Dance Ensemble, all in costume and standing near the Garni canyon. It is said that it was very unusual for the Soviets to allow such a video to be filmed, in an era where the Genocide wasn’t officially talked about, and folk groups weren’t allowed to sing patriotic songs. Talk continued on television, as it has by people on the streets, about what might be going on behind the scenes concerning a Karabagh settlement, talk having it that Aghdam and the region around Kubatli will be given back to the Azeris, with Armenia keeping Kelbajar and Lachin, and Karabagh technically staying in Azerbaijan. Popular opinion has the president of Armenia resigning, instead of signing such an agreement, leaving the next president to face the issue. Then again, word has it that the most valuable land in Armenia isn’t in Yerevan but in Armavir, along the border with Turkey, due to the possibility of the border with Turkey opening there, not in Gyumri.
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