Yerevan Journal – December 2004

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The morning started with a bit of good fortune, as the electricity went out just after I had finished showering, as a minute or two earlier would have left me covered with soap and in a freezing room. Yet, the luck of those living in our building still isn’t good, as the garbage people haven’t been by in some time, leaving the garbage chute, which starts at the ninth floor, backed up to the sixth or seventh floor. A pity people feel that protesting won’t help, since even those in city hall are telling people not to accept similar poor service. An interesting opinion was expessed on the way to the city center today, as an acquaintance said people here are becoming easy pawns of the government, losing the old-style will to protest, brought on partly by the increase in remittances sent by relatives now better established in foreign lands
. . . the person stating that it would be better if all remittances were cut off, which would force people to fend better for themselves, and help bring back the will to protest and demand what is right. Reaching town, we went to the Komitas Conservatory to collect some information about Komitas’ writing and recording of children’s folk songs, ample books on the subject existing in the library of the folk music department. While my wife went through several volumes of works by Komitas, I listened to students as they went through quarterly examinations in sacred music, each student announcing their selection and then singing several verses, to the approval or disapproval of the professor. It was a pleasure to hear the students, male and female, sing the songs of Khorenatsi, Sahak Partev, and Mesrop Mashtots. Inside the library, we talked with several musicologists about recent selections by the Culture Ministry of groups that were sponsored by the Ministry, and then lamented the lack of students studying Armenian national instruments, and the “loss” of the santour, which the Armenians are playing so little now that the Iranians are now calling it their own instrument. At the Jrbashyan Music School, someone then said, a folk instrument department was just opened, which was good news for all present. From there, Hasmik and I went to a music school in the Komitas district, where students of all ages gathered to hear Hasmik talk about folk music and sing samples of children’s songs, patriotic songs, and work songs, the latter going over especially well. The students happily learned to sing songs women sang in Old Armenia when weaving or making flour, and, as time forced the end of the presentation, a song celebrating the coming of the new year and the glories of Mt. Ararat, with wishes for the mountain to again be in Armenian hands.

Today we took a yertooghayin van to “Hingyerort Massiv,” one of several neighborhoods in northern Yerevan named Massiv. Two days ago, a friend of my wife died, a victim of cancer. The woman lived in Udjan, a village populated mostly by Sassuntis, located north of Yerevan on the road to Gyumri. Her husband was known as “Bjhishk Harout,” or Doctor Harout. He had fought in Karabagh, and had so much shrapnel in his body that it eventually affected his heart, leading to an early death. Hasmik met Harout and his wife during trips to Karabagh during the war, traveling with the Akounk Ensemble for concerts in the war zones. Arriving at the woman’s home, in an apartment building in Massiv, we tried to enter the room for visitation, but were unable due to the large number of mourners in the room. Outside, as snow began falling, hundreds of men, from Udjan, Karabagh, and elsewhere, stood and talked, both about the deceased and their memories of the war, in which many present had participated. I talked with a photographer who had fought in Kelbajar and Mardakert, losing most of his friends during those battles. Then, as several men brought the open casket down the stairs of the building, women in the immediate family gathered around a flat area where the casket was temporarily to be laid. It was a heart-rending scene, with women and men alike, many known to have fought heroically during the war, crying uncontrollably. Before taking the casket to the car, several men lifted the casket high in the air and turned around three times, giving a traditional farewell to the deceased. Not going to the cemetery, we stayed and talked with several of the Udjantsis, most, even the young, with the faces, accents, and dialect of Sassoun.

Schools and the Ministries were all working and open today, yet the mood in Yerevan was somber, as sixteen years ago, to the day, an earthquake destroyed much of northern Armenia, ruining its economy and, worst of all, killing at least 25,000 people. This morning, as we passed the Armenian-American University on Baghramyan, we saw several wreaths and flowers laid against the statue of Marshall Baghramyan, in memory of the earthquake victims. I also noticed that on our ride from Anastasavan to the city center, we didn’t hear even one horn honking, unusual as people here drive with their horn, letting people know they’re passing them or to move out of their way if you’re driving too slow. Later, during a brief meeting at the Conservatory, we found out that Shoghaken’s two newest CDs, Traditional Dances and Hasmik’s Armenian Lullabies, were taken out of a competition in Yerevan where different singers and CDs, in different musical genres, were to be judged and the winners presented with awards at a concert this month in Yerevan. We found out that one of the judges had said the Shoghaken CDs were removed from the competition since there was nothing to compare them with, that no folk music besides the Shoghaken CDs was produced this year in Armenia . . . a sad fact. With this in mind, Shoghaken continues its rehearsals for concerts in Dubai, scheduled for the middle of December. As we depart in two days, Yerevan Journal will take a brief break until our return from Dubai on December 18.

Shoghaken Ensemble performing at the Sharja Expo Center On reaching Zvartnots airport to leave for Dubai, word spread that the great actor Khoren Aprahamyan had died, saddening Shoghaken musicians and everybody else hearing the news. Easily one of the best actors of the past thirty years, Aprahamyan will especially be remembered for his roles in Henrik Malyan’s We Are Our Hills and The Brothers Saroyan. In the Dubai airport, after the initial shock of hearing the temperatures were around eighty-five degrees, we shed our heavy coats and got on a bus to go to the Holiday International Hotel in Sharja. We were told that Sharja is one of several separate emirates, including Dubai and the capital city of Abu Dabi. At the hotel, we were greeted by members of the Armenian consulate, including ambassador Arshak Poladyan and his wife Hasmik. The next day, in this world of mosques, bazaars, and “namaz,” the call to prayer heard several times during the day, Shoghaken members began rehearsing their program of songs and dances of Old Armenia, all while enjoying the atmosphere and cuisine of this land in the desert of Arabia. On Sunday evening, the day after our arrival and the last day of official mourning for the death of the Sheikh of Abu Dabi, Shoghaken members, along with the entire contingency of artists and ministry officials who had traveled from Armenia, met with the Sheikh of Sharja at a special ceremony at the concert and exhibition hall of the Ministry of Culture. The next day, at the Sharja Expo Center, following opening remarks by Culture Ministry officials and the Armenian ambassador, Shoghaken presented a concert of folk songs, including songs from the epic and ashoughakan genres, concluding the concert with Lelum Lele and Yarkhooshta, songs and dances from Moush and Sassoun, much to the delight of several Sassountsis in the audience, who sang along with the group as they performed the music of their ancestors, and, in one case, a man actually born in Sassoun. After the concert, he told us he had grown up in a Kurdish-speaking Armenian village of Sassoun, where they lived until the 1940s, before moving to Syria and eventually to Armenia. The next evening’s concerts were more classical in nature, with the legendary Komitas Quartet playing the music of Komitas and classical European composers, and dudukist Gevorg Dabaghyan, who, backed by dham duduk and dhol, played Narekatsi and Komitas songs and melodies. A performance by the Yerevan State Pantomine Theater concluded the program on Wednesday evening, all interspersed by exhibitions of paintings by Hambartsum Baghdasaryan, from the Sassountsi village of Udjan in Armenia, and other painters and a sculptor from Yerevan. This was the second time Armenian artists and musicians had been invited to the UAE, following a visit by President Kocharian to Abu Dabi in 2002. This year, by special request of the Sharja Culture Ministry, only traditional musicians and artists were invited, unlike the “Armenian Culture Days” of 2003 when several of the modern stars performed in neighboring Dubai. During our last full day in Sharja, we went to the St. Grigor Lusavorich Church and Ohanesian School, where we met with teachers and students before a ceremony in the auditorium, led by Culture Minister Hovik Hoveyan from Yerevan. Then, after students sang a song to the Paruyr Sevak poem “We Are Few . . . ,” Hasmik taught the Ververi and Mayroke dances, to the sounds of two zurnas and dhol, as children of all ages, and several of the teachers danced and sang to the irresistible folk music of Armenia. At night, we left our temporary home in Sharja and traveled to Armenia, where we were greeted by freezing temperatures, relatives, and life in Armenia.

Today’s feature of singers and actors from the past on National Television had dudukist Vache Hovsepyan riding on a horse-drawn cart, with his “Majkal Es,” a folk song to the words of a poem by Avedik Issahakyan, playing in the background. Then, the video clip continued with Hovsepyan, arguably the best dudukist of the past fifty years, on stage. This evening, in Yerevan, well known singers gathered at a small restaurant/coffee shop simply called “The Club” to perform for a project for “Armenia Today,” in which journalist John Hughes is working to help individuals and families completely without the means of survival. Hughes told of a young man who was forced to collect empty bottles and sell them to support his family, and how his organization helped the individual enroll in college and is also helping the family with part of their living expenses. As the singers performed, a slide show facing the stage showed photos taken all over Armenia of people living in horrible conditions, at times making it difficult for the musicians to continue their performances. The interesting array of performers included Vahan Ardzruni, who sang solo and with Lusine Azaryan, Armen Movsisyan, and Hasmik Harutyunyan, who sang lullabies from her Armenian Lullabies CD and “Janoy” from Armenia Anthology. Anyone interested in assisting the above-mentioned project can contact me or go to http://www.armenianow.com.

After three days of being without water, the sound of water reaching our seventh-floor apartment had us running to fill several containers needed during the day when water is normally shut off. Cold temperatures had caused the water in the pipes to freeze, creating scenes of building residents carrying buckets to the local bakery or elsewhere to fill water for use in their apartments. As I told Hasmik, the simplest things in life, like water and electricity, taken for granted in the West, can become a reason to celebrate when one has been left without. . . . A late afternoon trip to physicist Baris Herouni’s office on Komitas Street found us discussing his new book for nearly two hours, especially the part where he writes about the destruction of Armenian books, temples, and culture in general upon the acceptance of Christianity early in the fourth century. Herouni’s book, called Armenians and Old Armenia, covers the above-mentioned conversion to Christianity, the Armenian alphabet, and Karahunj, the rock observatory located near Sissian in the Zangezur region of Armenia. An especially interesting drawing on the back of the book shows a circle with a person standing on four points opposite each other, signifying the knowledge Armenians had, some 5,000 years ago, that the earth is round. I asked Mr. Herouni about the round pile of stones in Karahunj, which he said was an ancient sun temple, much like the temple in Garni. He explained that Armenians were sun worshipers before Christianity was accepted, and how the early Church Fathers destroyed these temples and all Armenian books, thus leaving the nation without its alphabet, thus the use of Greek or Aramiac in church services before Mesrob Mashtots went to Greece and recorded the Armenian alphabet by reading Armenian books there. Herouni went on to explain the reason the early church people found it so easy to destroy old Armenian culture, saying that Grigor Lusavorich, King Trdat, and others were all Parthian, that Armenians of the time wouldn’t have obliterated their ancient culture. I asked about the Armenian gods Vahakn, Astghik, Anahit, and Nar, the godess of water, and he said they were comparable to the saints of today, that they had actually lived at one time and had been made into gods by the old sun worshipping religion. Herouni also claims that Christianity is a natural result of sun worshipping, which he said he explains in detail in his book. Before we left, Hasmik gave Herouni a copy of her Armenian Lullabies CD, saying some of the songs on the CD were as old as Karahunj. Seeing the picture of Hasmik’s Mshetsi grandmother on the CD cover, Herouni told about a Mshetsi he knew, who told about gathering manana in the spring, after it had “fallen from the heavens.” Manana, as he explained it, is apparently pollen or nectar which has landed on flowers and elsewhere, after which Armenians gathered it and put it in clay pitchers and used it in winter, spreading it as they would honey. The manana is said to have fallen only on a certain small area of the Moush plains, and mainly on a certain kind of plant with very large leaves. After mutual invitations to visit each others’ homes, we left his office, and reaching home, I began reading about Old Armenia, written by a world-reknowned physicist who has dared challenge, and quite possibly proved, that the history we have been told is probably false, much to the chagrin of Armenian historians whom Herouni calls “ptadz,” which, translated, means something like “rotten” or “decayed.”

While growing up on the farm in Dinuba, a small town near Fresno, it never occurred to anybody that a father would have to leave his family to go and work somewhere far away to make ends meet. Last night we went to say goodbye to my wife’s nephew, who had a job offer to work for Armenians in Siberia, playing zurna and duduk with an Armenian band there. Although he isn’t staying there for a long period of time, it was a sad evening, with his confused three-year-old son sitting in his mother’s lap, the mother not in much better shape than the young one. Although there are certain of the wealthy in Armenia who occasionally help fund projects for traditional musicians and ensembles, earning a living is still difficult, leading to scenes such as yesterday’s. After saying goodbye, we left to meet with a friend of my wife who has been living in Dubai for several years, to give her some lavash and homemade gata to take to some new friends in the Emirates. Her father, who had come into Yerevan from a village near Lake Sevan, told us about his days as an astrophysicist, working with Victor Hambartsumyan and Grigor Gyulzadyan, saying Gyulzadyan was so intelligent that when, as a student, he wrote his thesis, it was so advanced they immediately granted him the title of doctor. He went on to tell us of a test he had just run to see how clean the drinking water is in Yerevan these days, testing water from the tap and two of the leading bottled waters sold in Armenia. It happens that water from the tap is far dirtier than acceptable, and that one of the brands of bottled water he tested was almost as dirty. The other of the bottled waters, fortunately the one we use at our home, was within acceptable standards. As the face of Yerevan is beautified, the infrastructre remains far below what it should be, as the physicist said, “Armenia is in need of renovation.” At night, a show on Russian television told about how Lenin had sold out to the Turks, and how they came to the agreement of giving Karabagh and Nakhichevan to Turkey, in the name of Azerbaijan, and how, without the efforts of Garegin Nzhdeh, Zangezur would have fallen to the same fate. Later, an interview with Putin had him talking about Russia’s close friendship with Armenia, a friendship which, although wavering over the years, continues to be considered important to Armenians here. And, Armenians here now have fear for their brothers and sisters in Syria, Lebanon, and Baghdad, what with the decision today to send a contingent of soldiers to Iraq, a decision controversial to say the least to Yerevan Armenians.

To celebrate Hasmik’s first birthday in Yerevan since 2000, we decided to invite family and friends to the home place in Charbakh and start the day with khash, the traditional Armenian breakfast eaten in the cold months of the year. We went a day early to prepare the khash and, for later in the day, dolma. Although khash has become traditional, almost ceremonial, I learned that the reason khash is eaten in the morning is that in old times it was considered a poor man’s dish, thus it was eaten in the morning to avoid being seen by others. Khash has an ancient history, as Julius Caesar is said to have preferred the dish over khorovadz, and often enjoyed it with his soldiers during military campaigns. Conversation during the day crossed political subjects, especially the sending of military personnel to Iraq, and the influence the West is having on Armenia’s political and social scene, such as granting the Jehovah’s Witness group religious status and the new decision to initiate social security cards in Armenia. The latter, people believe, is to please the people from the World Bank, who are helping fund Armenia’s turn toward the West. In Yerevan now, people are anxiously awaiting a steadier monetary scene, hoping the dram regains its previous status of some 580 per dollar, since prices here haven’t lowered even though they are receiving less drams per dollar at the new change rates. Another year-end surprise to those running exchanges, where people change their dollars, rubles, etc., to dram and vice-versa, is the Central Bank’s closing down over twenty exchange shops, claiming various illegalities. Talk on the street is that the year-end decision to close the exchanges is to collect money to close year-end debts, as those owning the exchanges have to apply, with a certain amount of money, to reopen their businesses.

Last night at a birthday party a woman told me about her birthplace, the large village of Banants, located about twenty-five kilometers south of Kirovabad, which was formerly known as Gyanja or Gandzak. She said that a cousin, who would be fifty years old were he alive, wrote a book, consisting of three volumes, about the massacres in Sumgait. Apparently, the book was so accurate, with many graphic photographs, that the author became more or less an enemy of the Azerbaijani state, especially after the books were translated into Russian and French. While fighting in Vaghuhas village, in Mardakert, he was killed, shot in the back of the head, possibly by jealous Armenians who may have been agents of Azerbaijan. The woman went on to tell about an Armenian who had taken video shots of Banants from a helicopter, in late 1991, and how until then, the Armenian cemetery, where her parents were buried, was still intact, even though Armenians had been expelled from the village in 1989. . . . In Yerevan, the streets are crowded with shoppers busily purchasing gifts and, especially, all kinds of nuts, dried fruit, rojik, bastegh, sujukh, and raisins, in preparation for receiving guests during the holiday season. In Armenia, it is custom not only to have a table ready to receive guests, but to visit as many of one’s friends and relatives as possible, all the way from New Year’s Eve to Armenian Christmas, on January 6. After enjoying the festivities here, a journey to the U.S. is in store, where I will visit family, friends, and relatives, before returning in early April to continue my work and life in Armenia, and to continue Yerevan Journal. . . .
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