Yerevan Journal – May 2003

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Since I arrived at the “Hrabarak” (Central Square) a little early for my appointment yesterday, I started walking down Tigran Mets looking for Tamara ice cream, the great taste of which is unrivaled in the West. It was the first time it had been sunny all day. Yerevantsis were almost in a festive mood after a long and hard winter and spring. The street was active. Vendors were selling ice cream, sunglasses, various pastries, and CDs of questionable legality and originality (classical CDs for $3). There was a man barely able to roll his wheelchair, with a can attached to the chair. Unable to speak, he hoped people would leave something in the can. Old women and men sold sunflower seeds, peanuts, and almonds, while men in suits talked on cell phones. Later, upon returning home, I was sad to learn that more of the tramway tracks were to be taken out of use in Yerevan. Some blame it on the high price of electricity, thus making the tramway too expensive for the city. Others say the yertooghayin van owners want complete control of transportation, and so are putting the tramways out of business. Whatever the reason, it’s sad, because this inexpensive mode of transportation is used and enjoyed by many.

May 1 is Workers’ Day around the world, also known as May Day. Celebrations in Yerevan aren’t what they were in Soviet times, when huge parades were the order. Today while riding down Baghramian Boulevard in public transport, I saw crowds numbering in the hundreds of Armenian Communists, from old men and women to members of the Young Communists of Armenia marching with red flags. The older marchers undoubtedly were remembering the “good days” of Armenia. Along Issahakian Street, I came across the unveiling of a new statue, that of the great Armenian seascape painter Hohvannes Aivazovsky. After some short speeches, reporters interviewed several people, including art expert Henrik Igitian. The statue is a good work, far more appealing than the new statue of composer and pianist Arno Babajanian. In fact, walking down Toumanian Street later, I saw that the statue of Babajanian was still missing. It had to be taken down to redo the fingers, which were so long they were a subject of public ridicule and humor.

The seasons have officially changed. One glance out of our seventh-story apartment this evening revealed two soccer games, a basketball game (shooting at a marking on a wall, no net), a nardi game, and an old man angrily pulling a newly planted tree from its freshly dug hole as a crowd of children shouted at him for some unknown reason. The daily impromptu soccer games last until dark, the noise of the children (and older players) rising to the delight of those watching from their apartment windows. . . . On television, with Parliamentary elections nearing, Ramgavars, Tashnaks, and others tell how honest they are and how they will all work for the good of Armenia. The local news told of major flooding in Sis village, in the Ararat plain by Massis, three weeks of flooding ruining large plantings of wheat and barley. I had traveled there a few weeks ago, meeting with the villagers, most of whom are refugees from the Baku pogroms of 1988. A hospitable and hardworking people, they are undeserving of this new hardship in their lives.

I urge every Armenian not living in Armenia to try to find any movie starring Mher Mkrtchian, a world-class actor whose face alone is a work of art. Tonight I watched Song of Old Days, a 1982 film directed by his brother, Albert Mkrtchian. The movie takes place during the last days of WWII, in a town in Soviet Armenia. Mher Mkrtchian plays a postman who has a letter to deliver to a mother, announcing the death of her son. Tortured by having to deliver the letter, Mkrtchian starts drinking. One scene shows him tasting several kinds of vodka and wine in an outdoor bazaar. The sellers, realizing he has no intention of paying for the drinks, shout at him and throw him out of the bazaar. As he collapses from the drinking and his dreaded task of informing the mother, Mkrtchian’s large, sad eyes have expression seldom seen in the art of film. After the mother arranges a madagh (sacrifice) for her son, Mher finally loses control and eats the paper with the sad news.

Yesterday we met Der Shahe, the head priest of the seventeenth century St. Sarkis church of Yerevan, and went together to bless our friends’ new home in the Komitas district near Paregamutyun Metro. In a traditional ceremony, Der Shahe blessed bread and salt, and sang sharakans appropriate to the occasion. After the blessing, we talked about the issue of non-Apostolic religions in Armenia, and about Der Shahe’s work in the Matenadaran. The conversation then changed from political jokes to stories about Armenians freezing and starving during the horrible winters of 1993-94 and 1994-95. Our friends talked of being so hungry that walking up the stairs to their apartment required stopping several times, not to catch their breath, but due to dizziness from near starvation. It was our first visit to their new flat just off Yervant Kochar Street. Our friendship began in 1998 in Oregon, where they were attending a local university in Salem. In typical Armenian fashion, they made arrangements that made it possible to meet my future wife during a 1999 trip to Yerevan, after which we became their godparents at their baptism last summer at St. Mughni near Ashtarak.

Today I had a conversation with a delightful girl, although it was the kind of conversation I hate to have. In spite of Armenia being a great place to live, with unequaled humor, hospitality, culture, and the like, I was reminded of an unsettling reality. The girl spoke of the mathematical institute her father founded in Soviet times, saying how the research had advanced to such a level that their journal was translated and published in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere, and that now its doors were more or less closed due to “lack of funding.” She talked of the institute’s professors leaving for other countries or having to try to earn a living in completely unrelated activities. The same story is heard about scientists from everywhere, from the Byurakan observatories to the Physics Institute and other scientific centers. Even though there is a definite “brain drain” from Armenia, a change in policy could almost immediately save the country from a disaster in science and culture in general.

A trip north took me to Gyumri for the first time. One cannot visit Gyumri without remembering the disastrous earthquake of 1988, or noticing the progress the city and its inhabitants are making. Building and renovation are going on everywhere, yet the condition of the city streets are terrible, worse than in Yerevan. I heard much of the population is in Russia working; I only hope the financial situation improves enough to bring the city back to its former cultural and economic prosperity. From Gyumri I went to several nearby villages, including Benyamin, Akhourian, and Azadakan. In Azadakan, a woman who lost her husband during the Karabagh war is farming with her two sons, slowly building a life in this new independent Armenia. Crossing the border of Shirak and Aragatsotn provinces, through Talin and past several small villages, we went to Nor Artik, a village of about 700 near the Turkish border. In a place some may describe as desolate, the people farm and do what they can to stay on this hilly, rocky, yet rich land, which their ancestors from Moush, Kars, and Erzurum have farmed for the past 150 years.

Easter in Armenia May 9 is a double holiday in Armenia. In the entire Soviet area, it is celebrated as Berlin Victory Day, when Soviet troops captured Berlin during WWII. Military parades in Moscow are still quite large. Armenian television had interviews with men who had fought in WWII, including those who had participated in the Berlin campaign. Original footage showed participating Armenian soldiers dancing the Kochari in Berlin, to the sound of zurnas and dhols, the version of Kochari they danced being the Msho Kher. On May 9, a more recent victory is also remembered in Armenia: the liberation of Shushi in Karabagh, when Armenian soldiers miraculously scaled the mountain of rock leading to the naturally fortified city and captured the stronghold, which helped lead to victory in the Karabagh war.

Today we invited friends and family members over for khash, a dish most likely enjoyed only by Armenians. Traditional khash is made with cow hooves, the shin bone, and stomach, although many, including us, use only the hooves, known here as “zink.” They are cooked in water for hours, the first water being poured out after an hour or so of cooking, with more water filled into the pan and eventually becoming the soup that is so highly prized here in Armenia. The meat is cooked long enough that it detaches from the bone - although many don’t eat the meat. When the soup is served, huge amounts of crushed garlic and salt are added. Then dried lavash is broken up into the soup, becoming soft and easy to pick up and eat with soft lavash. Real khash eaters don’t use a spoon, just the soft lavash. Every toast is the same, everyone saying “Pari looys” and clinking glasses. The pari looys comes from the fact that khash is traditionally eaten early in the morning, around daybreak. Another tradition, doubted by some, is that khash should be eaten only in months with an “r,” which happens to be September through April, when the weather is cooler and ideal for eating khash. It is even said that Julius Caesar enjoyed khash, and that after having tasted it he told his soldiers to serve him khash, while they could go ahead and eat their khorovadz.

In Yerevan, a woman has an orphanage that is far from typical. She has gathered children and youths from all over the world, and has gone so far as to teach them traditional Armenian song and dance, and culture in general. Today on a television presentation of local children’s groups, a black teenager from the woman’s orphanage sang “Moush, Moush, kaghtsr Moush . . .” a song about the land of Moush and Sassoun, in a quite authentic style. What was sad was that the following presentation was a group of two boys and two girls from Yerevan, around ten years of age, dressed “inappropriately” and dancing to a very mediocre song from America. Quite the paradox. While watching the show, the sound of duduks from outside our apartment took us to our seventh-floor window, where we saw around 100 mourners standing by an open casket, the deceased being a man of about 60. In true Armenian custom, the man was being “seen off” by everyone in the area, including us, as people are expected to gather by the casket or stand by their windows in respect for the departed person.

Armenia’s national television station is a bit of a contradiction. At times it has brilliant cultural programs of the past or present, and at other times shows that echo its less-than-complimentary title, “Abazgayin” (anti-national), so-named by some who are against the station showing music or other culture completely removed from its Armenian roots and of questionable quality. In recent days, fortunately, there have been two presentations of great quality. One was a four-part serial after a novel by Zorayr Khalapyan, one of the best Armenian novelists of the past generation. The novel, Where Were You, Man of God?, is highly acclaimed, and, like other Khalapyan novels, was presented as a feature film or serial. It takes place during WWII, and tells how the war affects the people living in a village, portrayed among others by well-known actors Sos Sarkisyan and Karen Janibekyan. The other film was about the Alikhanyan brothers, physicists who founded the Physics Institute at Aragats Lake, high above Ambert Fortress and the Byurakan observatories. It was both a fine art movie and biographical. The featured actor was Armen Jigarkhanyan. The final scene, in which Jigarkhanyan walks from Ambert fortress down the path to the church to the blaring sound of zurnas and dhols, gave the film an Armenian flavor lacking in many newer Armenian productions.

Stepanavan, in the northern Armenian province of Lori, is located in a natural paradise, in a valley surrounded by the Bazum mountain range. I spent a day and a half there, visiting and interviewing farmers and villagers around Stepanavan, villages including Gyulakarag, Gargar (pronounced Gyargyar), and Amragits. Amragits is translated as “being next to a fortress,” in this case the fortress of Ashot Yergat. There are also several old churches in the area. One, by the name of St. Gevork, located near the fortress, has become a place of pilgrimage. The wheat farmers of the area are having a disastrous year, with unceasing rain followed by hail ruining this year’s crop. The farmers aren’t without hope, but this setback is hard for many who are barely recovering from the effects of the 1988 earthquake, when basically every house was leveled in Gyulakarag and neighboring Hopartsi. As darkness descended, I arrived in Hopartsi, at the home of my wife’s in-laws. In their typical boundless hospitality, they invited me to have dinner and spend the night, and to stay for a month, if I could. Everything we had for both dinner and breakfast - cheese, bread, pickles, madzoon, potatoes - had been grown in the village or in their garden. Rested and refreshed, I took a bus to Vanadzor, and then back to Yerevan.

Today the “round table” room in the Writer’s Union building hosted the Friends of Saroyan club, made up of various Saroyan admirers, including several writers and actors. Writer’s Union secretary Davit Mouradyan began the meeting with a few remarks about Saroyan’s influence on world literature. Then he made an interesting observation, saying Saroyan’s face, voice, and general style encompassed the feel of Old Armenia, going beyond literature. Noted journalist Hrach Matevosyan, brother of the great writer Hrant Matevosyan, was at the gathering, as was actor Yervant Maranyan. Two short essays by Saroyan were read, in Armenian and English. A plan to name a street in Yerevan after Saroyan was discussed. The gathering was enjoyed by everyone. But I think last year’s meeting in August was one the great writer would have enjoyed more, when everyone gathered in the patio of an old house in downtown Yerevan and read various passages from Saroyan’s works, told about meeting the author during his visits to Yerevan, and an occasional song graced the relaxed atmosphere.

Today while eating homemade pizza, a television show dedicated to the 1700th anniversary of Christianity in Armenia came on the national television station. The series was simply titled “The Armenians.” Each week various experts present a part of Armenian culture, be it folk music, architecture, ashoughagan music, or, as in the case of today’s show, theater. A historian talked about Armenian theater from ancient times to the present, and about theater in various areas of Historic Armenia. Khoren Abrahamyan, one of the best actors of this generation, spoke as they showed scenes from his new production, Khor Virab, and from an old presentation set in the days of Tigran Mets and the Roman Empire. His characters were so powerful that one could easily forget he was acting. A few hours later, on the “Hairenik” television station, a biography of actor Mher Mkrtchyan was shown. The program had clips from everyday life and some of his better-known movies, including A Piece of Heaven, from a short story by Vahan Totovents.

Politicians in Armenia are no different than anywhere else in the world, making promises that will be forgotten after Election Day. The interest in the upcoming parliamentary elections is less than enthusiastic, possibly due to the reported irregularities in the recent elections for president. Political ads have taken the place of many regular programs on television. One shows films taken during the Karabagh war, and talks about the positive attributes of a politician who would probably flee at the first sight of an angry Turk. A poster has recently appeared in Yerevan that shows a man with an overly serious expression, and uses the words of Hovhannes Tumanyan: “Things won’t stay this way forever.” Next to a map of today’s Armenia, it also says, “We will never forgive,” implying that if this serious person is elected he will see to it that Armenia takes back all its former lands. A bit of reality, though, was visible outside our Anastasavan apartment today. Someone with a loudspeaker on the back of a truck announced a political meeting in the neighborhood tonight. When the truck stopped, a group of children about seven years old picked up their soccer ball and ran close to listen. The truck sped off in embarrassment.

This morning we went to a store just down the street from our apartment building on Bashinjaghyan Street. While making our purchases of cooking oil, eggs, apples, Kilikia beer, and Jermuk mineral water, we noticed that the girl who usually helps the owners wasn’t working. The owner said the girl had joined one of the better-known religious sects now operating in Armenia, and that the whole family had become members. Then we learned that when a member signs up someone new, they are rewarded with $30, and are often given monetary assistance and gifts to help with living expenses. Members are sometimes also given money for airplane tickets to go to America. Needless to say, the girl we asked about no longer works at the store, no longer needing her income from that job. Whether one joins the organization because he believes in it or because he needs the money, it is an unfortunate result of a weak economy, something that could be just in passing if the situation in Armenia improves.

My trip to downtown Yerevan today was typical, with yertooghayin vans dodging pedestrians and each other and vice-versa. Also, upon reaching the US embassy on Baghramyan, I saw that the line of those applying for tourist visas was back to its usual length, now that the war in Iraq is over and people are feeling braver about traveling. Though some applying for tourist visas actually intend to visit someone and return to Armenia, it is a known fact that many go to America and stay there, even though citizenship and other problems await them. As I had an appointment in the embassy, I left the yertooghayin van and, nearing the entrance to the embassy, walked past the line of those applying for visas. A woman with a big smile was showing a friend her approval papers, telling how she had convinced the interviewer that she would return to Armenia before her visa deadline. She held the paper up like it was a lottery ticket, feeling safe now that her interview was over. It made me think of a woman I talked with yesterday, who said she had tried living with her sister in Russia but couldn’t stand being outside Armenia. I know conditions in Armenia have forced many to leave the country to search for employment, etc., but the sight of this woman who was “escaping” her homeland was hard to swallow.

We decided to break with tradition on my fourth birthday celebration in Armenia by going to a restaurant instead of having the typical gathering of relatives and friends, along with the usual eating, drinking, toasting, and singing. Until early afternoon, we were debating on which restaurant we would go to for dinner, when somehow on hearing the restaurant name “Bravo” it dawned on me that I didn’t move to Armenia to have a birthday dinner at a place called “Bravo,” no matter how good the food. So we arranged for khorovadz at a neighborhood restaurant, made a cake, and called my wife’s sister and husband and another couple over to celebrate. The conversation went from politics to toasting me on the occasion of my birthday, my life and adventures in Armenia, my wife, and my family back in Oregon. As the singers in the group were getting ready for their usual repertoire of folk and ashoughagan songs, we got word from a neighbor that our upstairs neighbor who had been terminally ill with cancer had just died. The songs, naturally, would wait until next time.

A casket lid rests against the wall at the entrance to our apartment building. Our neighbor died yesterday of a brain tumor, hastened by a recent stroke. He was around fifty-two. We took flowers to the family, just upstairs from our flat, as the man’s mother, wife, two daughters, and son sat in the room by their deceased father. In an open casket, the man’s face was covered, most likely due to the nature of his illness and death. After expressing condolences, we sat on the side of the room, opposite family members. The sound of men’s voices came from the kitchen. White sheets covered the windows, mirrors, and piano, in tradition meaning one shouldn’t be thinking about daily or worldly things, which can happen if mirrors, etc., aren’t covered. My wife invited the daughters to our house for coffee and something to eat. She explained later that in the home of someone who has died, it isn’t appropriate to cook food until the day of the funeral, or, for that matter, to wash clothes or use soap, as this disturbs the wounds of Christ. Later, a neighbor stopped by to collect money for the family, each neighbor giving what they could to help the deceased’s family. It happens that the man, who appeared as someone sad and withdrawn, was constantly angered by injustice, be it of how poorly or unfortunately Armenians are treated in their own country, or how the elevator wasn’t working when he returned for the last time from the hospital, somehow making it up to his eighth-floor apartment.

“Verchin Zang,” or “Last Bell,” is graduation day in Armenia, when sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds finish school, and, if they choose, are ready to attend whichever institute or university they qualify for. My wife’s niece graduated today from Derenik Demirchyan School in the Charbakh neighborhood of Yerevan. The principal is Anahit Bakhshyan, wife of Yuri Bakhshyan, one of seven killed in the 1999 Parliament slayings. The school auditorium was packed with enthusiastic parents, relatives, friends, and younger students of the school. A well planned program prepared almost entirely by the graduating students included recitations, comedy, and songs written by the students and dedicated to Mrs. Bakhshyan and others. At the end, with all graduates still on the stage, a fast Armenian dance melody was played, with the students dancing on and then off the stage, applause and dancing then filling the entire auditorium. After the ceremony, the students’ mothers stayed to prepare lunch for everyone, with plans for the graduating students to stay in the school until the early hours of the morning. Indoor and outdoor oncerts are planned all over Yerevan tonight. The entire city is in a festive mood.

I recently told a friend living in Southern California that we didn’t have running water twenty-four hours a day in our apartment. This sent him into shock over the unusual “lifestyle” we had. I explained that we had about two hours of water in the morning and two in the evening, which limits showers and laundry time to those hours, and that we collect water for use in the kitchen and bathroom for the remainder of the day. I don’t think much about this, as life poses more serious problems than limitations on when one can shower. One morning several weeks ago, the power went out around 6:30. A call to the local station revealed that some “lines” somewhere had been doused in a rainstorm, and that workers would dry them out upon reaching work. The cold winter having passed, it caused no major difficulties, unlike the panic caused when the power went out in the minus-twenty-degree Celsius days of December and January this past winter. It in fact gave me the chance to read a book I had borrowed about Sanahin Monastery, a beautiful complex located in Sanahin village near Alaverdi, near the Georgian border. Reading about Sanahin’s history, as a place with a famous music school, not to mention its ties to the Kingdom of Ani, made me want to make another trip to Sanahin, Haghbat, and the monasteries of the area.

Election day is over in Armenia. I made my first trip to a polling station, and, although not eligible to vote, wished that I could have. Until night time, crowds were gathered at the polling places. Many of those who had already voted stayed to find out what they could, or just to socialize. Although most doubt the sincerity of the candidates, interest was surprisingly high. After my wife had voted, we went to see the movie Aram, made by French Armenians. It was playing at Kino Moskva, in the center of Yerevan. The main actor was familiar to everyone, having played Arshile Gorky in Ararat. The movie centered around Armenians and Turks killing or trying to kill each other in modern-day France, with a Turk named Talaat finally dying in the end. Although the movie had potential, it seemed to try to do too much, instead of concentrating on a central theme or real event. From new and borrowed music, to an Armenian wedding with some types of dancing I had never seen, to killing a Turk named Talaat in Paris in the 1990s, the movie unfortunately strayed from reality and anything really serious.

On the way home today, while passing the American Armenian University on Baghramyan Boulevard, I saw for the first time the new statue of Marshall Baghramyan riding triumphantly on a horse. I had always associated Baghramyan with more recent times, as a Soviet general, and was surprised to see the statue of him on a horse. I found out that Baghramyan fought during the time of Sardarabat, explaining the existence of the horse. Arriving home later, my wife told me of her trip to a neighborhood glass shop, where she went to inquire about cutting a large mirror, to where it would be small enough to hang from the wall. The shop owner was playing nardi, and barely looked her way. She asked how much he would charge to cut the mirror. A thousand drams, he replied, but you have to bring the mirror here. How can I, my wife answered, the mirror is twice my size. The man continued to play nardi, not looking up. My wife then asked, can you come to our house and cut the mirror? For a price, he said, a thousand drams. My wife replied, for five hundred, I agree. But if you break the mirror? she asked. I’ll try not to, he said. So my wife gave up and left. Then, just before dark, at around 9:00 p.m., a thunderstorm hit - a definite help to wheat farmers, some without irrigation and their crops burning in the heat. The rain didn’t help the nardi players in our building’s courtyard, about ten men scattering when the cloudburst started.

Yesterday historian and author Richard Hovhannisian of California celebrated his seventieth birthday in Yerevan. A meeting and seminar were held in the Academy of Sciences on Baghramyan Boulevard, with displays of Hovhannisian’s books about the first Armenian republic of 1918-1920. Last week, French-Armenian singer Charles Aznavour celebrated his birthday in Yerevan. Television cameras followed his every step as he journeyed to Garni, Geghard, and other sites, and he was entertained everywhere by traditional Armenian song and dance. Others, not always recognized, are coming to Armenia, to establish businesses and work for the people and economy of Armenia. In the city center, I met with Armenians from Australia who are working in the agricultural sector, in collaboration with local Armenians from the province of Armavir. Later in the day, on the eve of May 28, celebrated by Armenians everywhere as the victory of Sardarabat in 1918, rare footage was presented on a local TV station of Monte Melkonian, a California native who commanded Armenian forces in the province of Martuni during the war in Karabagh. Battle scenes, exhortations by Melkonian, his own birthday celebration in Martuni, and scenes from his ceremonial funeral were all shown. As the day in Yerevan ended, Armenian music blared from a nearby courtyard, probably from a graduation party. Fittingly, zurnas, clarinets, and dhols played the melodies of several Dashnaktsakan songs, “Dashnak Dro” and others.

In the past, I remember hearing how sad it was that no movie had been made about the Armenian Genocide, and how a movie about Musa Dagh was to be made by MGM but wasn’t, due to political pressure. Now I know that movies have been made about the Genocide, including Nahabet and Dzori Mirro, starring Armenian actor Sos Sarksyan. On the occasion of May 28, a national holiday in Armenia commemorating the Battle of Sardarabat of 1918, Dzori Mirro was shown on the “art 13” station from Yerevan. I had only seen the second part of the movie, and had missed the part that showed the peaceful life of the Armenians of Taron (Moush and Sassun) before the Genocide. Perhaps the world isn’t ready for a movie of such national character, with completely authentic song, dance, costume, and other customs, and this is why Nahabet and Dzori Mirro aren’t taken into account when discussing movies about the Genocide. But without a doubt, they are movies that should be seen by all Armenians, partly because the movie doesn’t ignore or try to sanitize the negative aspects of Turkish character - important since the Turks might still have their eye on Armenia.

Azadan village is in the province of Shirak, just south of Gyumri. Known for its production of wheat, Azadan has several large two-story homes located on two main streets, and is surrounded by rolling fields of wheat, barley, potatoes, cabbage, and other crops. The home we visited was a simple two-room house, made of stone and covered by aluminum. A widow and her two sons live there, the woman’s husband having lost his life in the 1994 battle for Mardakert in Karabagh. Alone, this woman is farming several hectares of wheat, barley, and potatoes. At the same time, she is building a larger home with the help of her sons. Although the visit was work-related, it was a pleasure meeting this heroic woman, who, when faced with the loss of her husband and the responsibility of feeding two young boys, learned the local soil and crops and is carving her place in the Armenian homeland.

A musician friend stopped over for a visit last night, and brought a video cassette of a concert recorded on Baku television. What I may or may not think of Turkish music isn’t important. I was impressed with the way the singers and musicians proudly played and sang their traditional folk music. A boy about twelve years old sang a Turkish mugham, a kind of improvisation, with the expertise of an older trained singer, while others played kamanchas, tars, and other instruments. In Armenia, it isn’t often one is fortunate enough to see traditional music performed, most of what is shown being old recordings. Many here say, oh, for the young people to listen to folk music, it needs to be synthesized, modernized, or who knows what - the result being people who don’t know their culture, themselves, or their nation. If one plays jazz, classical, rock, or whatever, so be it, but if playing Armenian music, let him play Armenian music.
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