Yerevan Journal – April 2005

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After a three-month vacation in North America, which included traveling to Montreal with the Shoghaken Ensemble, conducting an Armenian dance workshop in Seattle, and visiting family and relatives in Oregon and California, Hasmik and I have returned to Yerevan, to begin another year of living and working in the homeland. During our return, while on layover in Moscow, several Armenians from Yerevan, now living in Los Angeles, began telling how wonderful their lives had become since moving to the U.S. We asked them how their lives were better, were they now going to the opera or just what, and they said they didn’t have the time or interest in such things, that all they had time for was work. All seemed to have something to prove, to others and to themselves. Within a few hours of arriving in Yerevan, I was fortunate to attend a birthday party where guests, especially the young, sang traditional Armenian songs, songs mostly unheard or forgotten in the West. Also inspiring were two youth, actually about twenty years old, giving Old World toasts and singing traditional songs, a treat after the meeting with the “lost Armenians” we had met in the airport. One at the party, who was getting ready to serve in the Armenian army, told how he was waiting anxiously to serve his country, then gave a toast to those fedayee who gave their lives in the Karabagh war. Reaching home, National Television’s two stations, which are shipped by satellite all over the world, were showing modern singers with their nasal, whining voices, as I lamented that Armenians around the world weren’t treated instead to the Armenian songs and atmoshere I had just experienced in the family home in Charbakh.

Even though only a few short days have passed since our return to Yerevan, it has become clear what Armenians here are most concerned about, mainly Genocide recognition and, possibly more so, the resolution of the status of Karabagh. Recent declarations by high government officials about the subject of the liberated territories have caused the most concern, even unrest, as those who had previously referred to these territories as “liberated” are now using the term “occupied,” leading the population here to believe pressure has been exerted by the international community, probably the U.S.or Russia, to change their rhetoric with the ultimate purpose of solving the Karabagh problem in favor of the Turks. Veterans’ groups and others, not ready to surrender the territories, have already spoken in opposition to the government’s use of terminology, and threaten to overthrow any party or anyone who agrees to a peace treaty which is unagreeable to Armenian interests.

Although Armenian television isn’t well known for exceptionally high quality programming, yesterday’s viewing presented pleasant surprises which included black and white films of several of the greats of Armenian culture. I watched in astonishment for over half an hour as a younger Sos Sargsyan and Khoren Abrahamyan sat at a small round table, with no background music or backdrops of any kind, involved in an intense discussion about a mutual family matter. Then, for the first time, I saw “The Lord and the Servant,” a comical fable by Hovhannes Tumanyan, starring Mher Mkrtchyan, Sos Sarksyan, and Avet Avetyan, well known for his role in the movie about Sayat Nova’s life. Later, I was happy to hear, for the first time, the voice of poet Baruyr Sevak, reading one of his earlier poems. I remembered meeting recently with painter Lucik Akuletsi’s husband, a sculptor with roots in the city of Van, telling about his meetings with actors Mher Mkrtchyan, Hrachya Nersisyan, and Babken Nersisyan, best known for his role as Sayat Nova in the movie of the same name. According to the sculptor, who said he “ate and drank” hundreds of times with these actors, all were down-to-earth, extremely talented people, whom he says he misses tremendously.

Church in Maisian village My first work-related trip to the far regions of Armenia took our group of four to Gyumri and on to the Amasia region, northwest of Gyumri. On reaching Gyumri, we learned of a funeral in the nearby village of Maisian. After paying respect to the family, I walked the winding streets to an old church, where an old man offered to show me the inside of the church. The name of the church and when it was built weren’t clear, and after unsucessfully trying to read a stone slab with writing in Classical Armenian, I photographed the church and went back to the funeral, from where our small group continued our journey to Amasia. Driving north from Gyumri, the roads got worse to almost non-existent as we passed the villages of Vahramaberd and Jratsor, finally reaching the high-mountain village of Voghchi. There, we met with a farmer who was preparing a field for a spring planting of wheat, the winter snows just having melted. The region is one of the poorest in Armenia, yet farmers are planting wheat and other crops and are actually making progress in spite of the difficult conditions in this remote region. Descending from the village, we passed remnants of a tank where a grandfather asked to be photographed with his grandchildren. Further down the mountain, I noticed a reddish-colored monastery off in the distance, possibly Marmashen. At a store in Gyumri, we bought tonir lavash, goat cheese, salami, and frozen khash so we could have lunch before continuing our work in the village of Nor Gyank, near the town of Artik. There, we met with farmers and planned a trip there for Friday, to plant a small plot of a new variety of wheat. Before leaving, a farmer served us “dal,” a unique dish which is made of the milk of a cow which has just given birth. “Dal,” which looks like ice cream but has the texture of a light cheese, is said to be the perfect food for staying young.

Today’s journey took us to the village of Garnoot, east of Gyumri and on the road to Jajur. The village rests at the base of a mountain range, and is known to have some of the richest soil in the province of Shirak. There, we met with a wheat farmer who also produces cheese and other dairy products. In a restaurant in nearby Akhourian, the farmer started talking, as many here do, about the difference of Soviet days and today, the farmer lamenting the loss of dignity and security of those times. He stated that if Armenians had a government that cared about the people, no one would remember how good times may have been in the Soviet era. We returned to the Amasia region, where we had been two days earlier, to meet a farmer who had just lost much of his newly sprouted wheat to frost. Yet, he said, he would never leave his home in this mountainous region, saying he had left a “soft life” in nearby Ghougasyan, where he had worked as a veterinarian until moving to Voghchi, which had been an Azeri Turkish village until the earthquake and Karabagh movement. As we finished our work, we noticed a table already set, and were pleasantly surprised to see “djhvjhik,” a dish prepared from the lungs of sheep. From Voghchi, we moved on to Nor Gyank village, where farmers were preparing to plant a new variety of wheat on a small field at the base of a mountain. We drove on a rocky path overlooking the field and other fields of Nor Gyank, as workers completed planting another field in the distance. With rain on the way, the planting went on, finishing close to eleven, more than two hours after dark. With cold winds starting, we kept warm by burning straw and dried brush we gathered from the side of a small river. Before leaving for Yerevan, we stopped at the farmer’s house and had a drink where we wished for the success of the new crop and everyone’s success in their life and work.

A farmer stood on his plot of land on the border with Turkey and proclaimed, “Let them recognize the Genocide. Then the border will open, we will have our lands back, and I will go and live in our ‘yerkir.’” The farmer was about forty years old, and was talking about the land of his grandparents, in Bulanukh, a region of Moush, and Kars. Life is difficult where this man lives, yet there is no thought about his leaving his homeland. But he went on to talk about the current financial crisis in Armenia, not the lack of work or good paying jobs but the decline in worth of the dram, now down to about 420 drams per dollar. The government and Central Bank tell people this is due to the weak dollar. Whether the farmer on the border with Turkey or the city dweller in Yerevan, nobody seems to believe this, the common thought being the government is creating a situation where they can pay their debts, then enriching themselves after stabilizing the dram and dollar exchange rate. High prices coupled with the exchange rate mean that those receiving remittances in dollars or are being paid their salary in dollars suffer, making an already difficult life even more so.

Even though life and work are continuing pretty much as usual, people’s thoughts and movements are tied to Genocide activities, with most television stations showing documentaries and movies about 1915, with an amazing amount of actual photos and film from the era. One particularly sickening photo was of children whose knees had been torn off and whose skin had been flayed with large metal hooks. After watching Tsori Miro, where Sos Sargsyan plays an Armenian who witnessed various atrocities during the massacres, another station showed Khndzori Aygi, again starring Sargsyan. In the story, Sargsyan loses his wife during the deportations and marries again, which his two grown daughters are against. After one of the daughters pushes the new, pregnant wife, who loses the baby and then her own life, it became clear the daughters didn’t want their father to marry again so they wouldn’t lose their inheritance, part of which was the apple orchard, which Sargsyan proceeded to chop down with an axe. More movies about the Genocide, including Nahabet, again with Sargsyan, and Ararat, will be shown during the next few days. . . . A surprise phone call from Lucik Aguletsi’s harse Gayane had us attending a book presentation at the Issahakyan Library on Amirian Street, where Gayane works. Poet Vardan Vanadur, from Javakhk, had traveled with a friend/poet to Yerevan, where he was greeted today by poets, novelists, and many from the intellectual community, several of whom made comments or told stories about the poet, or read poems from his new book. Hasmik sang “Bari Luso Astgh Yerevats,” which she learned from her teacher Hayrik Mouradian, and “Tnen Ilar,” a work song which she announced was from Shatakh, Mouradian’s birthplace. A writer and painter with roots in Moks, near Shatakh, claimed the song came from Moks, which drew some laughter, due to the nearness of the two places. A highlight was when several in the audience sang along with Hasmik, afterwards telling Hasmik how much they missed hearing the folklore of Old Armenia. At the end, Vanadur himself became inspired and sang, much to the delight of everyone present.

Hearing that 1,500,000 Armenians died in 1915 is difficult, but seeing pictures of tortured, decapitated bodies is devastating. Finally, I finished editing a multi-media project for the 90th anniversary of the Genocide, and seeing this and similar photos doesn’t bode well for peace of mind. Today, for several hours, National Television’s second station showed a symposium of genocide and holocaust scholars, with discussions and speeches concerning the Armenian and other genocides. A Norwegian told how ashamed he was that his government still hadn’t recognized the Armenian Genocide. Probably the most insightful comment was when history professor Ashot Melkonyan stated that since the Turks don’t admit they committed genocide, it brings one to the logical conclusion that they would like to continue their work and finish off the Armenians. He went on to say that if one needs proof of this, to remember the pogroms of Sumgait, Kirovabad, and Baku, and that anyone wishing Karabagh to be in Azerbaijan’s control again is opening the door to another genocide. This evening, following a concert by the Hover choir at the National Gallery, we were looking at a huge poster with pictures of Genocide survivors, with their date of birth and name under the picture, when we met a painter we had met five years ago at the Armenian Festival in Die, France. She said she was thinking of leaving Armenia, saying a new genocide was taking place, explaining that she was a victim of those who were ordered to leave their homes so they could be destroyed to make room for new, upscale apartment buildings in the city center. It happens her apartment and art studio were confiscated and torn down, with the compensation being so low they are forced to rent an apartment, leaving her without a place to work and paint.

A trip to Zangezur started with a left turn off the road at Areni, where we drove up a rocky path for about twenty minutes to a test plot of wheat and barley, at an elevation of about 2,000 meters. There we met with farmers from Areni and the small village of Aghavnadzor, before returning to the main road and the trip south. After a similar stop in Sissian, we continued to our main destination, the village of Khundzoresk. We picked up a farmer at his house and went to see wheat fields on village land, which stretches all the way to the old border with Azerbaijan. Driving a winding dirt road, the farmer pointed to a cannon in the middle of a field where he said his brother fired towards a hill where Azeris bombarded Goris and Khundzoresk with cannons similar to the one we saw. He told about a battle where there was so much smoke and Azeri cannon fire that everyone thought his brother had been killed, but he somehow survived and made his way back to the village. During the war, several villagers were killed by cannon fire, killed as they walked the streets or worked in their gardens. In spite of all this, they continued planting their wheat fields, a reminder of the danger being a combine left in the middle of a field where the farmer was killed when the combine was hit by cannon fire. As we walked through expansive wheat fields, our guide showed us the old border and the road to Zangelan. In every direction, and as far as we could see, wheat was planted on flat and rolling areas, everywhere except where the hills were too steep or rocky. Hawks were perched on trees, and cows and sheep grazed on hilltops. Once, the farmer walked down a ravine and appeared to be looking for something on the ground or in the grass, and it turned out to be wild asparagus. Finding an area left behind by others who had picked asparagus to sell in the village, we gathered several handfuls and took it back to our Niva jeep, with plans to cook and add it to the evening menu. On the way back to his house, he surprised us by continuing down a steep, narrow road to the famous caves of Khundzoresk, where people lived until 1957, when everyone left and built the current village on the flat area above. We were shown his former house, Mkhitar Sparabed’s castle, and other places of interest as we walked through the area now overgrown with wild plum trees and blackberry bushes. The caves, located on the sides of rocky cliffs, were said to be warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and also served as a natural fortress, impenetrable to several centuries of invaders. There were two churches, with St. Hripsime, a fairly large basilica, probably the larger of the two. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of large snails were climbing on the shady side of the church. A stream runs through the bottom of the gorge, and a small hut was built by a small plot of land someone is currently cultivating. The farmer told us that if we wanted to stay there one night, all we had to do was clean one of the caves, that there was no problem with safety or otherwise. With darkness descending, we wound our way up the path to the current village, where we had a dinner of asparagus, various wild greens picked in the fields, potatoes, lavash, cheese, and fish. After spending the night, we went to nearby Tegh village, then leaving this mountain paradise and heading back to Yerevan.

Last night, on the way home from a birthday party with enough singing, dancing, khorovadz, and tuti arak to last for some time, we passed the Genocide memorial where I noticed what looked like hundreds of torches burning in the vicinity of the memorial. I was told Dashnak youth had lit the torches in memory of the victims of the 1915 Genocide, staying until somewhere around two a.m. Today, April 24, 1,500,000 Armenians and others were said to have paid their respects at the eternal flame. The crowds became so dense it became difficult to place flowers near the flame, with the stack of flowers becoming so high it collapsed near the flame before being cleared by workers. Kurds, Assyrians, and others carried banners in which they recognized the Genocide, while Armenians from around the world carried similar bannners demanding recogonition and in some cases return of historical Armenian lands. All television stations dedicated their time to the Genocide, including archival films from 1915, showing acutal scenes from the deportations, from Turkish soldiers carrying off girls, to crucifixions, stabbing priests to death, burning churches full of people, and pushing people from boats into rivers. Although the films had no sound, the agony on the people’s faces was almost unbearable. . . . In the Sassountsi-populated region of Talin, Armenians again lit a huge fire on a high mountaintop which is visible from Turkey, as they have done every year on April 24, even when the Soviets tried to prohibit the fire. The fire serves as a reminder to the Turks that Armenians haven’t forgotten what the Turks did in 1915.

A steady rain fell over Yerevan today, a much-needed respite from a dry spring that had caused panic among Armenia’s wheat growers, with new growth in drier areas stunted from the spring drought. Word reached tonight that the rain had caused flooding in several regions of Georgia, yet it was unclear if Javakhk was one of the areas hit by flooding. In Yerevan, Genocide-related subjects remained the central theme of people’s conversations and radio and television news. Even though no one was surprised at George Bush’s new name for the Genocide, calling it the “Great Calamity,” notice was given to his referral to the relationship over the centuries between peoples of the Caucasus and of Anatolia, in effect relegating Armenians to merely a “people of the Caucasus” and naming Turks as the inhabitants of Anatolia. Odd a nation of tens of millions would fear a country of some two million. . . . Today a call from Garegin Chookaszyan took me to his Internet Technologies to view the pre-release of the multimedia project titled simply Armenian Genocide 1915-1923, which I had recently edited, and which features the lullaby “Taroni Oror” from Hasmik’s Armenian Lullabies CD. As we looked through the many pages of the project, I came across a document Talaat had sent to a governor warning him not to feed a gathering of Armenian orphans, that there must be a misunderstanding and that the saving of these youngsters would be detrimental to government policy. Later, my trip home to Anastasavan was detoured at Parekamutyun Metro by way of Davitashen, due to the closing of the Kievyan Bridge near the Hamalir. The bridge, which connects the neighborhood by the Metro with Ajapnyak, will be closed for three to four months for major repair. This needed renovation and repair will cause untold traffic problems, but with planning by the city and its population, things should run smoothly and, when the bridge is completed, it will be another sign of the progress now being seen in upgrading the infrastructure in Yerevan.

Even though our visitor had expressed an interest in using traditional folk music in an upcoming film he is producing, his attire, completely in old Armenian style, was a surprise. Born in a village near Akoulis, Nakhichevan, near the home of Lucik Akouletsi, he came to Armenia in 1988, along with the last Armenians to live in Nakhichevan. He said that his grandfather had been the “village leader” who had fought the Turks until the arrival of the Soviets in 1920. His village was populated exclusively by Armenians until the Soviets forcibly settled Turks there in the early Twenties. He spoke of Nakhichevan being located in the old Armenian province of Goght, known in Armenian as “Goghtan Gavar.” He told of caves near his home where Armenian letters had been carved into the walls, said by archaeologists to be some 7,000 years old. The letters, he said, were quite similar to those invented by Mesrop Mashtots, leading to the question of whether Mesrop invented the alphabet or merely rediscovered what the early church fathers destroyed. Our visitor then told of how he and others were ready, in 1990, to retake Nakhichevan, when the Russians apparently had given the go-ahead, but Levon Ter-Petrosyan prohibited the move. A few short years later the men were ready for another attempt when Vasken Sargsyan put a stop to entering Nakhichevan. The Armenians had to settle for the capture of Yeraskh, an Azeri enclave inside Armenia, the Azeris taking a similar Armenian enclave across the border from the province of Tavoush. After listening to our archive of folk music and making plans for future collaboration, we talked about Davit Bek, Mkhitar Sparabet, and the history of Khundzoresk, where Sparabet is buried. I was surprised to hear that the independent state ruled by Davit Bek lasted eight years and included part of Nakhichevan, most of Syunik, and most of Mountainous Karabagh. He told that the state lasted only a short time after Davit Bek’s death, caused possibly by a traitorous Sparabet, who was later beheaded by the Turks. Before leaving, he told us about his Armenian costume, which he wears on a daily basis, and how he often hears negative comments from Armenians probably embarrassed about their roots or for some similar reason, and also how whenever he is interviewed for television at various functions, that the interviews are never shown, likely due to the apparent government policy of working to keep people far from their roots, be it music, dress, or likewise . . . and that if he happens to end up standing next to a minister at one of these events, they make a special point not to look his way, not to mention ask about his national attire.
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