Yerevan Journal – October 2004

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Hayrig Mouradian Children’s Ensemble Today two of the young members of the Hayrig Mouradian Children’s Ensemble came to our apartment and practiced new songs, folk melodies from Vasbourakan. I learned that a boy new to the group is from Javakhk, in southern Georgia, and is studying voice at the Tchaikovsky School in Yerevan. After rehearsal, my wife and I attended a performance of the Henrik Malyan Theater Group, the popular “Physiology of a Family,” at the Hagop Baronian Theater near Republic Square in the center of Yerevan. The theater was full to capacity, everyone gathered to celebrate the late Malyan’s birthday and see the quite humorous production. There, I saw many members of AGBU, now in town from all over the world for a major convention. If applause and laughter meant anything, the presentation was loved by everyone. Of the accomplished actors of the Malyan Theater, the actor playing the main part, of the apparently older member of the family, made a particularly strong impression on the audience with his comical looks and manner of walking across the stage, bent over and seemingly confused, with his ruffled hair and clothes adding to the comedy affect. It seems this actor has the talent, both comic and serious, to take him to the top of the acting world, in Armenia and elsewhere. After the performance, we went to the Movie House near the Vernisage to continue the birthday celebration, where current and former members of the theater troupe and other friends and dignitaries toasted the master scenarist and sang his favorite songs, including “Kujn Ara/Gna Gna,” by Komitas. The song had been used as a theme during the performance, played by several duduks, and at the end with the voice of the great opera singer Armenak Shahmuradyan, born in Moush and a friend of Komitas.

Preparations for commemorating the ninetieth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide are underway, with special programs on television already airing and concerts in the works for next year. On the series called “The Armenians” on National Television, Armenian historians talked about the Hamidian massacres of 1893-1896, more bloody and gruesome in many ways than the Genocide of 1915. Stories were told about the smuggling of weapons to the Sassoun region, by way of Persian Armenia, and the difficulties in arming the Armenians of Tigranakert, the resulting massacres there quite widespread. Besides the 300,000 Armenians massacred during those years, some 100,000 left for Europe, and at least equal numbers to America and Russia. This morning while talking with the director of the Genocide Museum and Institute at Dzidzernakapert, I told about my grandfather’s father, who, along with several other men in the family, lost his life in 1896 in Sebastia. In a new publication listing all those who lost their lives from 1915 to 1923, province by province, we looked up our family name, finding a man, most likely a relative, who died in 1915 in Sebastia. The director then reminded me of the mass grave the Turks had uncovered and claimed they were Turks massacred by Armenians, when later by examining the skulls it was discovered they were Armenoid. Not denying the importance of Genocide recognition, of more immediate concern may be the exodus of Armenians from Armenia. More stories are needed like the one I just heard, of an Armenian male who went to the U.S. to work and, after being frightened by the presence of a tumor which fortunately turned out to be benign, decided it was more important to be in his homeland, and came home to Armenia, rejoining his wife and children.

I always look forward to visiting Maro Alavertyan and her husband in their apartment near our home in Anastasavan. Maro is the daughter of Henrik Alavertyan, a popular actor and singer in the Seventies and Eighties in Armenia. She told us that her father had led an unusually busy and hectic life, with a typical day having two or three rehearsals and a concert or two, while always starting his day by waking up at five in the morning and painting, as Alavertyan was also an accomplished painter. The hectic schedule apparently took its toll, his daughter told, as he died at age fifty-four. Before dying, he had been chosen by Sergey Paradjanov to star in a new movie, which was never to be, as Paradjanov himself died a year later. Not only was Alavertyan an accomplished opera singer, singing in Davit Bek, Anoush, and Arshak II, he also performed with the State Song and Dance Ensemble in concerts all over the world, his bass voice so powerful he never used a microphone. Maro spoke fondly of the movie The Lone Walnut Tree, in which her father starred along with Frunze Dovlatyan and Armen Jigarkhanyan. During filming, she met her future husband, as both had small parts in the movie. Her husband, from the southern Armenian town of Kajaran, talked about the greatness of the actors in the movie, then about his home town, located in the mountains of Zangezur, not far from Meghri and the border with Iran. Noting the cold winters of Kajaran, he said that only apples and pears grow well there, that winters there “were no place for the weak.” He also told about his time in Karabagh during the war, in the region around Gandzasar and Vank village. In Gandzasar, he said, Russian and Azeri soldiers had made all those working at the monastery kneel down, threatening them as they demanded to know where the monastery treasures were . . . yet, the Russians never did allow the Azeris to lay a hand on these workers or any of the church books or literature. He said that even though the Azeris, early in the war, bombed the area around the monastery unceasingly, that not once, miraculously, was the church itself hit by the bombing.

Ten years have passed since California native Raffi Hovhannisyan started his Armenian Center for National and International Studies, an important think-tank located in Yerevan. A celebration slated to take place five years ago was cancelled due to the 1999 slayings in parliament, just a few days before Raffi’s planned gathering. Shortly after his opening remarks, Hovhannisyan asked for a moment of silence in remembrance of those who had lost their lives in what he called a national tragedy, then introduced various guests, sponsors, and visitors attending the dinner, which took place in the Tigran Mets banquet room in the Armenia Marriott Hotel. Musical entertainment for the evening included Shoghaken dudukist Gevorg Dabaghyan and my wife, singer Hasmik Harutyunyan, who performed separately and then together for a song from the Music of Armenia folk album, “Im Murad,” a song from Van. After dinner and a keynote speech by the foreign minister of Finland, guests relaxed to the music of jazz artists from the Armenian Navy Band. While visiting friends, a musicologist told us about an article/opinion written by well-known composer Robert Amirkhanyan, who stated in no uncertain terms his disapproval of the singing style of many of Armenia’s so-called stars, especially the Yergi Betakan Tadron (State Theater of Song) and Do-Re-Mi, groups he said sang in a style not related at all to the Armenian style of singing, often in a whining, pitiful voice. Time will tell what reaction if any comes from members of these groups. The next day, I was surprised and delighted to again hear the music of Shoghaken, on a special program on National Television featuring an old Sassountsi woman telling about her life, Turks, and the difficulties of her family in their village. As villagers were shown dancing the Kochari, “Dances of Sassoun,” also from the Music of Armenia album, was played, while later Hasmik’s lullaby from Pootanya, known as “Orim, Orim,” was played as the program was coming to a close.

On a bus from Ohanavan a village woman told us about how several of the “new rich” have built lavish homes in a certain section of the village, and that at night things happen “that you don’t want your children to see.” For this reason, she said, villagers who have homes in that neighborhood are selling their homes, to escape the antics of those “invading our old village.” This isn’t the case in the northern town of Spitak, where I went on a work-related mission, to meet a farmer who grows wheat and barley and who runs a small dairy farm. Far from the bustle of Yerevan, Spitak, as a city, is still recovering from the affects of the 1988 earthquake, with the bulk of the population out of work and many of the youth having left the country to find employment and a future they don't see in Spitak. Until two years ago, much of the population was working in construction, as Lincy money made it possible to rebuild the city. Now, with the work mostly completed, Spitak is in sort of an uncertain slumber. Before visiting wheat fields outside the city, we stopped at the new St. Harutyun church, built on the spot of an old church destroyed by the Soviets. From there, we went above the new section of Spitak, where we watched as a tractor driver sowed winter wheat as a light rain moistened the soil. The farmer told me that few people now live in the new part of the city, most moving to the original part of Spitak, where they had lived before the earthquake. From there we drove to a mountainous area across a ravine, where we met a shepherd tending sheep and cows. After saying hello, the shepherd pointed towards a road above Hartagyugh, a village towards the bottom of the ravine. “If you follow the road,” he said, “you reach Chichkhanavank, a place we go on pilgrimage every year. You can only get there on foot.” With Spitak out of our view, we talked about the mountains, rivers, and a nearby waterfall, in this suddenly remote region of the Armenian homeland.

Today my wife came home with a couple kilos of what we call in Fresno Armenian cucumbers, or “guta,” with the purpose of pickling them for my brother who will be visiting Armenia soon. Although many in Armenia are choosing a more modern, or Western, lifestyle, we try to maintain as many traditions as possible, in the field of music, food, or whatever the case. Recently while talking with Baruyr Hayrikyan, not known for his love of Russia or the former Soviet Union, he stated that life is much better now than in the Soviet period, an opinion not widely held here. When I told him that in the Soviet period there were traditional ensembles like Agoonk, Maratuk, and the Tatoul Altounyan Ensemble, not to mention people like dudukist Vache Hovsepyan, he wouldn’t budge, saying the current music scene is only temporary. As to tradition and patriotism, I had a conversation today with a man and woman both in their twenties, and asked them that if war broke out, what would they do, and the girl, who had just said she agreed with John Lennon that borders and religion have no place in the world, said that of course she would help, to fight if necessary, since Armenians took back all that land by blood, that it wasn’t handed to us on a silver platter. The young man then stated, somewhat sheepishly, that he would stay in Yerevan if things became difficult. Another woman, a musicologist, joined the conversation, saying she planned on moving to Moush, the land of her ancestors, when her life’s work was done (her daughters getting married, etc.), no matter if Moush was in Armenian or Kurdish hands. A Vanetsi, some forty years old, said she wouldn’t go to Van without a guard of some kind, not knowing just what she'd do there, both when she saw a Turk and when she sees a high bridge, knowing she prefers to die in Van.

As the store clerk filled a bag with lentils, I asked what else it was I saw amongst the lentils, and he said it was wheat. As I asked how it was possible to find wheat mixed with lentils, a man obviously in from the fields said no, that wasn’t wheat, it was barley. When I said I didn’t want lentils with barley mixed in, the farmer said why not, that barley is a great thing, that I should feel fortunate that there was barley mixed with the lentils. He went on to say that when planting a tree, barley is scattered around the tree, and that when the barley sprouts, it helps the new tree roots take hold. I turned to the store clerk and asked if he knew about the worth of barley, and he said no, he was just a simple clerk. Back home, as I happily told my wife about the worth of having barley mixed with the lentils, she said that was the oldest trick in the book, to mix barley, which is less expensive than lentils, in each gunny sack of lentils, since if this is done with someone’s entire crop, the income can increase dramatically if enough barley is mixed in. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the lentil soup we had for dinner, even though the barley had been sorted out. After dinner we heard that the UN was denying Azeri refugees from the “war in Armenia” whatever food allowance they had been receiving, leaving us satisfied that if they admit the war had taken place in Armenia, reasoning would have it that Karabagh is part of Armenia, being Karabagh is where the war took place . . . yet, knowing CNN’s political leanings, usually leaving Armenia off maps on which Georgia and Azerbaijan have been included, we knew the “war in Armenia” statement could have other meanings. Also, it was announced that since Armenia’s economic situation had improved so much, certain funds wouldn’t be allocated to the country. Although the economic situation here is showing some movement, it is known that the lives of many here are made easier due to the money being sent by relatives, many now firmly establishing themselves in Europe, Russia, or the U.S., thus increasing the amount of money transferred to their relatives in the homeland.

Talk on the streets and on television is about the Jehovah Witnesses becoming legally registered as a Christian religion in Armenia. On Tigran Karapetyan’s ALM television station, Khoren Balyan, well-known singer and expert in Armenian sharakans and krapar (classical Armenian), spoke vehemently against the sect, saying they would disrupt the Armenian soul and psyche with such a dangerous interpretation of Christianity, and that this mentality would endanger Armenia’s very existence. A caller stated that Witnesses he knows belittle the Armenian Church and Christianity in general. Possibly the most dangerous part of their beliefs, according to some, is their refusal to serve in the army, not exactly ideal for a small country like Armenia. Today, at a Witness gathering place near our home, two large buses arrived at 8:00 a.m., bringing hundreds of people to a tent-gathering, with music blaring on loud speakers for several hours. A resident of our building said she called the police to ask them to quiet the Witnesses down, but the police said they were afraid of what the Witnesses may do, with their new registered status. An interesting approach to it all, probably reminiscent of Soviet days, is when Witnesses went to Aparan to spread their gospel, and were threatened and possibly beaten by the Aparantsis, who said, we didn’t let the Turks enter Aparan, who are you?. . . Now, a three day work-related journey will take me to the remote border regions of Tavoush and Lori, far from the varied, ever-changing life in our Armenian capital city.

A whirlwind journey to northern Armenia started with five men crowding into a Niva and driving past Lake Sevan, Dilijan, and Ichevan towards the region of Shamshadin, in the province of Tavoush close to the border with Azerbaijan. Leaving Ichevan and its villages and heading in the direction of Aygepar village, the forested mountains became higher, with several villages dotting the mountainsides on a cool, overcast day. Winding through this somewhat forgotten countryside, I spotted a monastery buried in the distant mountains. On reaching Aygepar, I learned the name of the monastery was Varagavank, and that it was built in the ninth or tenth century. A second monastery in the region is Khoranashat, partly destroyed during the invasions of Tamerlane. In Aygepar, we met with villagers who were planting new varieties of wheat and barley, brought by truck on a several-hour journey from far-off Artik, in the province of Shirak. Due to the remoteness of Shamshadin, and the occasional dangers of driving roads located along the border, no one dares or takes the effort to bring seed and other commodoties to the area, thus the importance of the seed arriving from Artik. Until the truck arrived, farmers doubted it would really come, and that someone had really taken the interest to help them. Villages like Ayepar, Paravakar, Movses, and many others in the region played a major role in keeping Azeri forces at bay during the Karabagh conflict. The Armenian government, starting to realize the importance of keeping these border regions strong, requested the delivery of the wheat seed. . . . After being treated to coffee, grapes, and pears, we left for Stepanavan and Tashir, in the northernmost part of Lori, just twenty kilometers from the border with Georgia. There, we met with an agronomist who had planted twenty-five varieties of wheat in a small experimental plot in the middle of his newly-planted field of winter wheat. Back in Tashir, we went to the farmer’s home, where the family was celebrating the return of one of six brothers, now living and working in Moscow. It was a happy gathering, yet toasts and conversation led us to find out that several of the brothers’ children have been forced to leave their homes and work in Russia, due to the lack of employment in the region. All of those now in Russia were keeping their homes in Tashir, with the hope of the situation improving in the future. The elder brother proudly stated that everything we were eating and drinking was grown or produced in their gardens and fields, including the meat, bread, potatoes, strawberry juice, and arak made from apples. Before we left, our host thanked us for traveling to this remote region, and told us each to take two spoons of honey, so that our return to Yerevan would be safe and our next trip to Tashir would be soon.

Today a birthday celebration took us to Bdjni, 1,000 years ago the royal home of the Bahlavounis, who built the fortress above the village and the St. Astvadzadzin church of 1031. Now, the church is under reconstruction, which is scheduled to be completed later this fall. A worker told me that next month, on November 13, it would be a year since the Bdjni-born Der Hayr died. As we entered the church, it seemed an evening service was in progress, yet it turned out to be a worker’s voice descending from the roof through one of the windows high in the dome. Outside, before returning to the birthday party, we picked wild plums from a tree inside the monastery walls. Later, I learned that the fortress overlooking Bdjni was destroyed by Tamerlane, sometime in the fourteenth century. As we ate Ishkhan fish and other delights at the party, a man sitting next to me from Yegheknadzor in southern Armenia told me about his village, not far from the border with Nakhichevan. He lamented that the Russians hadn’t let Armenia capture Nakhichevan during the Karabagh war, both since it is part of Historic Armenia and because of the rail line leading to Iran. Inviting me to visit the region, he told about several monasteries in Yegheknadzor, including Gndevank and Vorotnavank, as well as others I hadn’t heard of, one being near his village, also home to Gladzor University, famous as late as the fifteenth century. According to local tradition, the Armenians of Yegheknadzor paid Tamerlane the same amount of money he would have gathered had he attacked the region, and that this payment in gold is the reason Tamerlane passed over Yegheknadzor, the result being the large number of churches remaining there, many intact with church buildings, gravestones, and other monuments, as in Gndevank and, further south, Datev. As the party ended, we left this ancient seat of Armenian power and returned to Yerevan.

Life in Yerevan presents interesting challenges, such as a recent thirty-hour stretch without telephone service during which most of Ajapnyak, with its thousands of residents, had no contact with the outside world, whether by email or telephone. When service was finally returned, the numbers of the party line we share with our neighbor were turned around, with callers dialing our home reaching the neighbor, and vice-versa. Another challenge, this on the political or civil side, has us, along with several people who own small plots of land in an uncultivated part of Yerevan, being told that the land has been bought by a Russian firm, the compensation for the land owners figured at one dollar per square meter, even though the land was sold for over fifty dollars. When complaints were filed, people were told they were lucky to even receive this much. Not surprising, National News told about the land “swap,” saying that everyone was satisfied with the compensation they had received. The conclusion of this story remains a puzzle, though it was later admitted that the land was sold not to a Russian company, but to others. On the political front, the closing of a trade route leading from Russia through Georgia and into Armenia has sparked much anger in Armenia, with official Russia stating that the reason for closing the border was to cut off Chechen terrorist movement, while talk in Armenia has it that the closing came the day after Armenia decided to send a small contingent of troops to Iraq, thus Russia’s way of punishing Armenia for this decision.

The storms of the last few days have washed the skies and fields of the Ararat plain, opening Massis to new scenes nothing short of spectacular, new snow having dusted the slopes beneath the already snow-covered peaks. Having seen Massis from both sides, including from Western Armenia, I am convinced the mountain is more beautiful from this side, as is Mt. Aragadz from the east, from the villages of Artik. Today I traveled to Arevshat, a village of Artik, where two days ago, from the neighboring village of Meghrashen, I saw the first snow of the year. Now with snow covering its gently descending slopes, the scene of Mt. Aragadz, with its jagged peak and the other, more rounded peak, mesmerized the entire region. As I walked through a newly sprouted wheat field with a village farmer, I heard stories about the area, including the poems that Avetik Issahakyan, who was born in nearby Gyumri, wrote about Mt. Aragadz and the village of Mantash. I was saddened and disgusted when he told me the main reason the situation in the Artik villages was so bad was that the super-wealthy of Armenia had started planting hundreds of hectares of potatoes and wheat, then selling their product at a low price, leaving the village farmers with superior goods but nowhere to sell them, or forced to sell at the same low price. As we walked, the farmer pointed out a chapel on top of a snow-covered hill, both the hill and the chapel called St. Hovhannes. He said that every year on Vardavar people from the surrounding villages walk to the chapel to celebrate the holiday with music, dancing, and plenty of khorovadz and khashlama. Back at his home, I met his family and, in spite of being told we were just going to have a cup of coffee, was served carrots, salad, cheese, madzoon, lavash, and potatoes, all originating from his garden or fields. Then, as the day was passing, I went to Artik and took a van to Yerevan, with both Mt. Aragadz and Massis appearing in the distance, and, as we passed Ashtarak, the silouettes of Karmravor, Dziranavor, and St. Marineh monasteries barely visible in the darkening skies.

Yesterday, after meeting with a kanon player in the Arkavan district of Yerevan, we continued on to a friend’s house where we met a pilot who had flown a helicopter during the Karabagh war, including participating in the liberation of territories outside Karabagh’s old borders. He told stories about the war, about who had fought and who had only pretended to fight, instead getting rich on the spoils of war. Apparently, after fighters captured a town or certain area, others came behind and took what they could, while the true fedayee continued to fight. On the contrary, he and others finally put a stop to some of this activity, saying that he occasionally sees these people in Yerevan, now driving expensive cars and claiming to be heroes of the war. The pilot then told about himself and others being laid off work when Armavia was bought by Russians, quite the questionable act when considering the heroic deeds these pilots performed during the war, flying through enemy fire and bad weather to take supplies and soldiers to the front. The saddest thing, he said, was taking soldiers to the front and later bringing them back either severely wounded or dead. He also lamented the death of Vazken Sargsyan, killed along with six others in the Parliament murders of 1999. Sargsyan was somewhat hot-tempered, he said, but turned into a good leader, and when he finally said he was putting corruption to an end, that enough was enough, he was killed.

I just received an email from my older brother, sent from Heathrow Airport in London, saying his flight had been delayed and that it would be a good idea to call the airport before going to pick him up. A normal request for almost anywhere else, but not here, where making a simple phone call, especially at night when the phone lines are overloaded, can be a long, drawn-out experience. After finally getting a dial tone, I dialed the airport number, which was busy. After several tries, and receiving only busy signals, I gave up, remembering a similar result the last time a visitor was arriving in Yerevan. Deciding email was the only way to contact my brother, I tried sending a letter, but was unable to get the dial tone necessary to connect to the Internet. In any event, whether on time or late, Armenia will welcome yet another visitor from afar, a first time visitor to our homeland. His arrival coincides with an event which devasted Armenia, the October 27 massacre in Parliament. I remember being in Credit Yerevan bank on that day, and watching as saddened bank employees told of the news, and the massive crowds that gathered at the Opera House to pay respect to the slain Armenians. Probably the greatest harm done to the nation was that much of the population lost hope in the future of Armenia, with strong figures like Karen Demirjyan, Vazken Sargsyan, and Yuri Bakhshyan, nationalistic figures who were struggling for Armenia and Armenians, including beginning a serious fight against corruption. It happened that a few years later, Credit Yerevan folded, a case of corruption that stretched to the highest levels. Now, no one even considers simple bribery, involving political appointments or favors in business, as anything serious, with corruption in the highest circles reaching a level probably unseen in recent times. All this aside, and knowing personally many who continue to work for Armenia and its future, my brother’s visit promises to be a fine one, as he steps into the world of Armenia’s scientists as a colleague from abroad.

Following my brother’s twenty-six-hour journey from Canada, we decided to relax, spending the day walking the streets of Anastasavan and making plans for the week. Yet, as the day passed, we decided to travel to Echmiadzin, center of Armenian Christianity and some of the most classic examples of early Armenian church architecture. Our first stop was the Cathedral of Echmiadzin, where we walked the gardens and lit candles inside the cathedral, noting especially the altar on the spot where Christ is said to have descended, thus the name “Echmiadzin.” We then walked past the ancient cemetery, one of the oldest in Armenia, toward St. Gayane, where we listened to deacons chanting psalms during the evening service. At St. Hripsime, my brother, looking up at the giant dome, simply stated “I’ve never seen anything like this.” The next day, we went to the physics department of Yerevan State University, where we learned that physicists in the optics department had won a grant for NATO’s Science for Peace program, in a competition which included several Western countries who have almost unlimited funding when applying for such projects. Although I understood close to nothing of their conversation, I was fascinated as this physicst from Canada, my brother, discussed raman spectroscopy and lasers with university physicsts, laying the ground for possible collaboration between the two countries in lasers and optics. After the inspiring visit, we decided to travel on to Geghard and Garni, about forty minutes northeast of the university. Our first stop was the rock monastery of Geghard, where we watched a wedding before walking through the various churches and chapels, one in which a member of the wedding party washed his forehead with water said to have curative powers. Listening to my wife’s voice echo as she sang part of “Havoun, Havoun,” my brother said he had expected Geghard to be something like a small rock monastery he had seen in Austria, but seeing Geghard, he said it was far larger and more spectacular. He was quite impressed with the story of architects carving their way down from the top of the huge mountain of rock. Later, back at home, he said by coming to Armenia (for the first time) he felt he was coming home.
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