Yerevan Journal – July 2005

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A Yerevan-born Armenian stated a rarely heard opinion about the late Karen Demirjyan, leader of Soviet Armenia during the 1980s, considered some of Armenia’s best years under Communist rule. He said that Demirjyan, even though now almost being deified by many who remember those good years, should be held accountable for the criminal act of emptying Armenia’s rural areas, mainly in order to have Yerevan’s population reach one million, resulting in money from Moscow to build the Metro and other expensive projects. This, he said, changed Armenia from an agriculture-based economy to industrial, thus poisoning the air, water, and ecology in general. None of the factories, he said, were now in use, even those where the metal and machinery weren’t sold to the Iranians and others. He went on to tell about the old-style pilgrimages Armenians went on until the 1960s-70s, before the village population had decreased and before automobiles changed the ways of the past. One popular place of pilgrimage was the church and fortress of Ambert, where villagers from Byurakan, Tsorap, Tegher, and other nearby villages walked all the way to the fortress, through valleys and gorges, about a three-hour trip by foot. Upon reaching, the villagers would stay for two or three days, staying overnight on the flat area near the church, spending their time singing and dancing to zurnas and dhols, while butchering animals for khorovadz and khashlama, enjoying the natural beauty of the area. Then, in the mid-1960s, as tourism increased and the road to Ambert was built, the pilgrimages there slowly came to and end, as people started coming by car, staying for a short time, and leaving. Another popular pilgrimage was to Echmiadzin, as villagers from nearby villages would walk to the monastery grounds or come on horseback or horse-drawn wagons, staying overnight at the monastery, another pilgrimage which ended, this time as modernization and renovation began at the Mother See.

As Hasmik and I talked with ethnomusicologist Aroosiak Sahakyan, the conversation turned towards the Kurds of Moush, Van, and Tigranakert, whether or not they are Kurds or, in fact, Armenians. Sahakyan said she recently read that the entire Kurdish population of the region, and even some of the Turks living there, were all Armenians, either forced to change their religion or naturally Kurdified by the forces and process of time. Sahakyan also told about a small region near Trebizond where a lost language, possibly related to Chaldean, is spoken, and how linguists believe the language has Armenian roots. Also related to the subject of language, she told of an Arab sheikh who visited Armenia earlier this year, about how the sheikh read and spoke perfect Grabar, leading us to tell about the Armenian priest in Haghardzin, whose lack of knowledge and effort during the Vardavar ceremonies had us all in shock. As it happened, about 100 pilgirms from Yerevan and elsewhere arrived at Haghardzin, most holding khachburs, weaved from wheat husks and colored threads, where the priest directed us into the large St. Astvatsadzin church. Once inside, he asked if we knew the Hayr Mer, a question that surprised us all. After reciting the Hayr Mer, the priest excused himself, not having conducted any service special to the holiday or even explaining the meaning and importance of Vardavar, as the priest there did during last year’s pilgrimage to Haghardzin. After several of the youth sang the version of Hayr Mer written by Komitas, two dudukists with our group began playing “Havoun, Havoun,” upon which the priest rushed into the church, shouting “Who gave you the right to play the duduk in this church?” After answering that “Havoun, Havoun” was hardly worldy music, and that the priest last year in Haghardzin had allowed the same melody to be played in the smaller, St. Gevorg church, and that, for example, when Charles Aznavour asked dudukist Gevorg Dabaghyan to play in Geghard that there were no protests from the priests there, not to mention that recordings of sacred music are now being conducted in Geghard and St. Gayane in Echmiadzin, the priest merely said “That’s my decision” and left, driving away from Haghardzin in his Niva. Nonetheless, the ceremony continued, as everyone danced to the music of zurnas and dhol, around the khachkar and tree just behind St. Astvatsatsin. From Haghardzin, we drove to Dilijan, where we had madagh prepared by the staff of Yerkir Nairi, who had organized the pilgrimage, and continued our celebration, finally leaving for Yerevan as clouds began gathering over the Dilijan forests. Soon, as the day had begun, rain began falling, leading to a wild hailstorm near Lake Sevan, with round hailstones so large we had to pull off to the side of the road, as did all other vehicles traveling back to Yerevan.

Baruyr Hayrikyan continues to be quite the controversial individual, as witnessed during the filming of Artur Bakhtamyan’s “Fifth Wheel” show, seen weekly on National Television. The subject of the program was whether or not heroes were needed in today’s Armenia, and if the proper atmosphere is present for the creation of new heroes. Opposing views were presented by Hayrikyan and Levon Ananyan, president of the Writers’ Union in Armenia. About half way through the filming, the subject changed to whether or not Hayrikyan, who was imprisoned for some seventeen years in the Gulag for anti-Soviet activities, i.e., the independence of Armenia, was a hero. When someone from the audience, which consisted of some twenty-five invited guests, said that for him, Hayrikyan was no hero, another individual from the audience, a member of Hayrikyan’s political party, insulted that person with names better left unprinted. After this exchange, others in the audience began arguing with each other, anti-Hayrikyan people accusing the politician of anywhere from changing his backing of Kocharian according to political whims, to abandoning a band of soldiers, all of whom were killed during the Karabagh war in the region of Lachin. After Bakhtamyan finally got the show back on track, the program somehow was completed, with occasional outbursts continuing until the end of the filming. Outside, the discussions continued, with Hayrikyan and his supporters claiming that he was in fact a hero, being he had reached his goal, an independent Armenia. Later, we learned that with some undoubtedly expert editing, the show, to be broadcast in about a week, was a success.

Word in banks and the exchange community is that soon the closing of exchange shops in Yerevan will continue, with the ultimate goal of the shops reopening under the umbrella of one person with “connections in high places.” Thus, those that have invested sums of money in various exchanges will be denied that opportunity, and those who invest these sums in the future would only be those approved by the new elite in charge of the exchanges. This effectively removes another form of business from the average person, putting such profits in the hands of certain elite classes. On the human side, yesterday evening the Arno Babajanyan Concert Hall (Pokr Talij) was the scene of a celebration of the ninetieth birthday of writer Suren Ayvazyan. Writers, actors, and musicians remembered the life of the novelist and short story writer, born in Zangezur, in Old Khundzoresk. Stories were told of the man’s humor and about his love for Zangezur, spending much time with his family, and son Avedik, enjoying the nature of his homeland. As the writer had loved the music of Old Armenia, and also the ashoughs, mainly Sayat Nova, Hasmik and Aleksan sang “Nazani” and “Kani Voor Jan Im,” accompanied by Vardan Baghdasaryan on kamancha and Karine Hovhannisyan on kanon, delighting those gathered to honor the author’s memory. After a duduk solo by Gevorg Dabaghyan and a blul solo by Norayr Kartashyan, everyone gathered in the lobby, where they enjoyed fruit and Armenian wine, with the musical mood continuing as several times the musicians, along with friends and family, began singing the songs of ashoughs Ashot, Djivani, and Sayat Nova.

As time passes, it becomes more and more clear why a sizeable part of the population longs for the days of Soviet rule in Armenia. For example, now as wheat fields ripen across Armenia’s agricultural regions, those controlling the prices flour mills pay for wheat have lowered the price to a level making harvesting this year’s crop hardly worth the time and effort. Knowing farmers can’t keep the wheat indefinitely, and that they have debts which need to be paid, they know farmers will be forced to sell their wheat at the low price. Needless to say, the price of bread stays the same, not to mention bakeries often sell bread weighing less than required by law, none of which would have happened in Soviet times. A similar breakdown has occurred in the world of culture, today reminded by a special program about opera great Gohar Gasparyan. A great singer, known for hitting notes only dreamed about by others in opera, Gasparyan still gives vocal lessons at the State Conservatory. It happens that during Soviet times, money occasionally passed hands when deciding who might or might not attend the Conservatory, yet the level of what was expected was always quite high, those graduating able to sing opera, folk, and sacred music, with similar requirements for instrumentalists. Now, even when money is involved in decisions about being accepted in the Conservatory, requirements have been lowered or in some cases tossed to the side, as a professor told recently, listing names of several pop stars who have received or are soon to receive diplomas in spite of being “too busy” to attend classes, something unheard of during the Soviet era.

During a trip to the villages of Khor Virab, Ararat, and Vosketap, I met with a wheat farmer I had written about a year earlier, in an article titled “A Hut in the Homeland.” As it happened, we met near his hut, where we climbed steps to the roof, where the farmer sleeps at night, not to mention keeps an eye on his fields and Mt. Ararat, both with and without binoculars. I asked him how far the border was from the hut, and he laughed, saying, “from this top step, less than one kilometer.” He said that since 1996, when he first started working in the area, what was then a simple village or two (on the slopes of the mountain), without electricity, has become two towns, with both electricity and mosques. The farmer lamented that the Turks had such a progressive, even though politically motivated, plan, whereas Armenians seem at times to have the opposite purpose, with the village economy in Vosketap and nearby villages still in bad condition. Handing me the binoculars, he pointed at the Arax River, the military towers, and villages just across the river, which he said were populated by Kurds and Turks alike. He said that on most mornings he watches shepherds tending their flocks on the slopes of Massis, and that on the area of an ancient Armenian village, named something like “Akara,” what started with a shepherd or two tending their flocks, within the course of a year has become a village, complete with electricity. In Vosketap, on a spread of some fifty hectares, the farmer and his brother farm wheat, tomatoes, and cucumbers, fighting low prices and other difficulties on land they say they’ll never leave. . . . Before leaving for Yerevan, we stopped in the village of Vanashen, where the wheat harvest had just begun. As we arrived, about five men were just finishing walking through the wheat field, pulling out stray varieties, while the combine was making its entrance into the field. After a car from the village pulled up and came to a stop, the combine did likewise and the farmers and workers all sat under a tree, where several large bags revealed bread, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, beer, and tahn. There, we sat under the shade of a giant nut tree, taking a break from the heat and enjoying summer’s bounty.

Much of the population here is furious about the proposed agreement with Azerbaijan about the future status of Karabagh. The plan apparently calls for Armenians to completely withdraw from the liberated territories, except for Lachin, and for troops from nations other than Russia and Turkey to serve as peacekeepers. Azeri refugees would be allowed to return to Karabagh proper, including Shushi. In ten years, the population would vote for independence, joining Armenia, or joining Azerbaijan. By then, Armenians fear, Azeris would outnumber Armenians, leading to the permanent loss of Karabagh. Although some here say they think the plan is fine, that finally they would be free of the Karabagh question, which has caused Armenians in Armenia nothing but trouble and sacrifice, most are calling the leaders here traitors, saying that after Armenians sacrificed that much blood, that giving up Karabagh that easily would be nothing short of treason. Anger also exists over the fact, or belief, that so many from Karabagh have left their homeland to live in Armenia, mainly Yerevan, and have been given high positions in business and government, not to mention those given a free ride in the world of (pop) music and culture. Strange, people say, that Karabaghtsis themselves are talking about giving up Karabagh.

On a short news clip on Armenian television, an exchange owner complained that even though he had closed his exchange shop when ordered to do so by the Central Bank, the papers and documents he was given to finalize the closing demanded so many meaningless details that the closing remained incomplete . . . to where the Bank would be able to collect taxes, as if the exchange were open and working. After saying that he refused to pay some unannounced amount to make the closing “run more smoothly,” he said that several exchange owners were considering suing the Bank, saying they were being closed for violations so minor they hardly warranted a simple fine. In the world of culture, entertainment continued to be almost more consistent off the stage than on. After being afraid to go on vacation for fear those in high position would appoint Garen Gevorgyan as artistic director of the State Dance Ensemble, someone else was finally appointed, not completely agreeable to ensemble members but more so than Gevorgyan. Also, a new song competition was announced by singer Flora Mardirosian, Yerevan-born but now living in Los Angeles. Hearing the competition was to be named after Komitas, and knowing the level would not be one worthy of his name, several professors from the folklore and sacred music departments of the Komitas Conservatory, including Arzas Voskanyan, filed an official complaint to remove Komitas’ name from the competition. After making a mockery of Sayat Nova’s name during another competition of recent years, Voskanyan said, it's time to stop when it comes to Komitas.

Yerevan’s Voski Tsiran (Golden Apricot) International Film Festival has come to an end, after several days of movies by Armenian and non-Armenian filmmakers were shown in the Nairi and Moscow theaters. The festival began with a gala concert at the Khachatryan Concert Hall, where singers Artur Ispirian and Noune Yessayan hosted the evening’s activities. A friend who had attended the concert complained that the proceedings were conducted almost entirely in English, stating, “I thought our state language was Armenian.” Perhaps others had protested, as both English and Armenian were spoken at the closing concert. The lack of organization at the send-off was unfortunately apparent, as the hosts were seen being handed their program just before the festivities began, leading to periodic confusion throughout the evening, such as who was supposed to present which award to whom. At least once, someone was invited to accept their award, but no one had checked to see if the person was in the audience, leaving the presenter in a somewhat embarrassed state. Today, one of the organizers told us he had tried to have serious folk or classical singers invited, important due to the many international artists and filmmakers present, but that the National Television people who were running the event insisted on presenting pop stars, who sang or not as their CDs blared over the sound system. One of the stars even refused to sing when he found out his performance wouldn’t be shown on television, as broadcast time for the show had run out. Even more shocking was the lack of, at both concerts, anyone from the Culture Ministry, especially the minister, Hovik Hoveyan. As newspapers stated, even though Hoveyan may not be on the best of terms with some at National Television (many wonder just how powerful National Television is), it was a major embarrassment for the Minister of Culture to be ignored at a cultural event of such importance.

What used to shock people in Yerevan is now becoming the expected. Passing the Vernisage today, I saw that the narrow roadway passing the north side of the Vernisage and even the first row, where painters and carpet sellers had displayed their wares, had been completely destroyed to allow a road to be built, stretching from Khanjian all the way, possibly, to Nalbandyan. This, they say, is to assure easy passage for residents of the new apartment buildings which are taking over downtown Yerevan, in this case those near the Vernisage. On the subject of transport, the City Hall has declared that due to yertooghayin vans being overloaded with passengers, the price may soon be doubled to 200 dram, with the new buses remaining at 100 dram, thus increasing the income to City Hall and those in government who own the yertooghayin routes, in the end putting even more pressure on those using the transport system. More news that likely won’t help the tension between Hayastantsis and Karabaghtsis is the news that the State University will be accepting those with roots in Karabagh even in cases when test scores are lower than what is demanded of Hayastantsis.

After hearing a farmer from Khor Virab say the word “jaynamun” for about the fourth time, I asked him if he was Mshetsi, knowing the Mshetsi version of “jandam” is jaynamun. Actually, there are several ways of pronouncing the word, depending on regional dialects, but everywhere the word has the same meaning, something like “It’s all the same to me,” “Oh, well,” or far worse. Or, as some Mshetsis say, on finding out someone has roots from somewhere other than Moush, they say “jaynamun,” as if saying, “Oh well, I suppose he’s still worth something.” . . . After telling the farmer I might be making a trip to Moush, he wrote down the name of his grandfather’s village, located on the Plains of Moush. When I told him it was the same village my wife’s grandmother was from, and that we might be going there, he was overjoyed, and said if I went, to make sure I brought him some soil from the village, and to ask the Kurds there if they remember his family name. Then, jokingly or not, he asked me to find out if he could buy land there, as he said, Khor Virab is too hot, that the only reason he stays there is that it’s as close to Moush as he can get. He explained that his ancestors left Moush in 1914, that the Kurds had told his grandparents and others in the family to leave Turkey, that the Turks had already decided to kill all the Armenians in Moush and all over Turkey. From Khor Virab, we drove to another village in the Ararat Valley, close to the regional center of Massis, the village mayor told us some disturbing news, that many Armenians from Javakhk had already started moving from their homeland to villages in the region of Ararat. Not only that, he said, Armenians from many border villages, especially in Zangezur, had also moved to Ararat, due mainly to poor economic conditions in such areas, people there feeling abandoned by the current government leaders.

Continuing the Moush saga, an old Mshetsi told me about his mother’s flight from Moush in 1915, along with hundreds of others who traveled to Eastern Armenia with General Andranik. It happened that his mother had seen her husband and children killed by the Turks before escaping under the protection of Andranik. On the way to Armenia, the woman told Andranik she wanted to take revenge for her family’s murders, by way of killing a Turk. I’m not sure what words were shared between the two, but during the cover of night the woman made her way to an encampment where Turkish soldiers were sleeping, all their rifles propped up together. With one of the rifles, she shot and killed one of the Turks and stabbed another with the bayonet, later saying the Turk she shot died, but she never knew what happened to the one she stabbed. Another younger Armenian, showing interest in all this, said he also had Mshetsi roots. When I asked if he knew where his ancestors were from, he said that he not only knew the name of the village, on the Plains of Moush, but that his father has a map where measurements from the village show the place where his grandfather was killed by the Turks and then buried, and that he would be able to find both places if he went there. Such are memories and life in Armenia, as is the reality I heard today when visiting a money exchange shop on Tigran Mets, a few steps from the post office in the city center. After the transaction, I started to leave, not bothering to pick up the receipt showing the amount of the exchange. The exchange worker panicked, telling me to take the receipt, then telling me how a neighboring exchange shop was shut down a couple of days earlier. Apparently, a girl went in, made her transaction, but didn’t take the receipt offered to her. As she left, the exchange worker told her to take the receipt, then calling out, even shouting, as she walked away, to come back and take her receipt. When she returned, she was with an inspector from the Central Bank, who gave orders for the exchange to close, saying they were working illegally, not giving people receipts for the transactions they were making. . . . A final word about the Voski Tsiran International Film Festival, newspapers in Yerevan have written literally scathing articles about the closing awards presentation and concert. Azg wrote that not only was the presentation of awards completely disorganized, but that Hratch Keshishyan, the organizer, had no business using the concert portion to promote Armenia’s pop stars. A Russian filmmaker, thoroughly disgusted with the singers’ performances, told the organizers, “Are you ashamed of your culture, why are you trying to imitate others?” Judging from the looks on Atom Egoyan’s, Arsineh Khanjian’s, and Simon Apkarian’s faces, many Armenians probably felt the same.

A hot, clear morning in Yerevan had us leaving for the mountains of Zangezur, to meet with farmers and check several plots of wheat from Aghnavatsor, near Areni, all the way to Khundzoresk. Although far cooler than Yerevan, rain hadn’t fallen recently, leaving the roads and avenues quite dusty. During the day, driving through rolling wheat fields and climbing mountains such as Ishkhanasar, near Sissian, I was fascinated with the Zangezur dialect, which has strong similarities to the Karabagh dialect, with less usage of Russian words. When talking with us, they spoke basic Yerevan Armenian, but amongst themselves, it became barely understandable, often entire sentences passing without a word understood. Also, as the day passed, I noticed that the last syllable of the last word of each sentence ended with either a musical down or upturn. This became quite the challenge in Goris, as we searched for someone’s house, having to ask several times where we were going, the locals smiling as they saw us struggling to understand their directions in Zangezur Armenian. One time dialect didn’t interfere was when I asked a Khundzoresk Armenian, whose field runs all the way to the old border with Azerbaijan, and the district of Kubatli, what he thought about the possible giveaway of the liberated territories, including Kubatli. His answer was a simple “What do you think?” Our work completed, a request for a certain type of wheat seed, year-old but with curative powers, took us to the village of Arjhish, near the Vorotan gorge. There, we met with a wheat farmer who called another wheat farmer who had what we needed. As we waited, the villager told us about his village and its location, saying we were near the well known Vorotnavank, which, he said, was still under renovation. When I asked him how far we were from Tatev Monastery, he pointed at a high mountain, and said Tatev was on the other side of that mountain, and that the village of Arjhish was originally at the base of the mountain, until an earthquake destroyed the village several decades earlier. He said that there was a path where one could walk from the location of the old village all the way to Tatev, and that it was an easy walk for a villager, yet could cause problems for a Yerevan Armenian, due to the steep climb and possibly due to the presence of bears in the region. Before leaving, he handed me a small plastic bottle of what I thought was water, but turned out to be tuti arak, the beginning of what promises to be an ample supply, this year’s crop of toot not falling victim to severe frost, as happened last year.

Reaching the town of Echmiadzin, near the church of St. Hripsime, I noticed about fifteen large, old buses parked along the sides of the road. Inside the souvenir shop, a clerk told me that it was Tigran Karapetyan’s birthday, and that he had arranged for as many buses as needed to take people to Echmiadzin, where a “madagh,” or sacrifice, would take place, feeding as many people as showed up. Later, reaching the main cathedral in Echmiadzin, I saw literally hundreds of pilgrims, from Yerevan and various villages, in the grounds of the cathedral, in the church, souvenir shop, and elsewhere. Finishing my work in Holy Echmiadzin, I left for Yerevan, where I saw the pilgrims walking back towards the buses, with Karapetyan in the lead. In Armenia, it is widely believed that Karapetyan, who owns and is seen speaking every day on the ALM television station, plans on running for president of Armenia. Many believe this is why, nearly daily, Karapetyan invites people from villages all over Armenia, who sing or recite on the ALM stage, leading to a near-worship of Karapetyan in some circles. Recently, a well known pop singer, after making degrading statements on radio about what she called the low quality of those who sing on Karapetyan’s shows, she was nearly crucified by angry callers to the radio show and later to Karapetyan’s various shows on ALM. Time will tell where Karapetyan reaches, the presidency or merely someone enjoying temporary fame on his own television station. Later in the evening, Hasmik and several Shoghaken members were invited to “Rubicon” on “Nor Alik,” one of the stations owned by National Television. During the forty-five-minute show, Hasmik sang and talked about the Shoghaken concert set for August 5 at the Cascade, and Karine Hovhannisyan showed her expertise on the kanon, playing “Shalakho,” an Armenian dance which has become her trademark at Shoghaken concerts. For those in the diaspora with access to the “Armenia” television station, the concert at the Cascade will be broadcast sometime in the near future, to be announced on the station and here in “Journal.”

A trip in a yertooghayin van had me wondering about the patience of the driver, as riders and potential riders asked questions that simple logic would have easily answered. First, at a bus stop, a rider asked if the van went to the town of Abovian, far away from the driver’s route. He smiled. Then, a woman standing on the side of the road flagged the van down, and asked what van went in such and such a direction which again had no relation to his route. After shouting at the woman to ask someone standing along the road instead of flagging down a van, she said, angrily, "I don’t understand," and he shouted back, “I know." Then, reaching the corner near the Matenadaran, someone stopped the driver and asked, “Are you going straight down this street?” to which the driver answered, “To where?” to which the woman replied, “To the corner.” The driver then shouted back, “There are nothing but corners up ahead, which corner?” after which the woman said, “Why are you so angry?” with the answer being, “Because you have no brains.” After this and other interesting exchanges, I reached my destination and then went on to the region of Ararat, where I would take part in the wheat harvests of Norakert and Ararat villages, under the shadow of Mt. Ararat and close to the border with Turkey. After an unfortunate breakdown of equipment, we went to Ararat village, where we talked with several farmers, played nardi, and, Armenian hospitality being what it is, had a delightful dinner of lamb, chicken, potatoes, bread, and salad. Being the birthplace of Vazken Sargsyan, the subject turned to politics, and eventually to the Karabagh war, in which several men from the village took part, under the leadership of Sargsyan. After someone asked about the opportunity Armenians had, during the course of the war, to liberate Nakhichevan, and who had given the order for Armenian volunteers to abandon the plan, a native of the village said it was Vazken Manoukyan, not Vazken Sargsyan, who had prohibited taking Nakhichevan. As usual, another opinion arose, that the Russians had told the Armenians to enter Nakhichevan, but Armenians responded that they were busy in Karabagh, and wouldn’t enter Nakhichevan without the help of Russian troops, which the Russians refused to offer. Then, being those hosting us had roots in Moush, the grandfather of the clan, after hearing I might be making a trip to Moush, told me not to bring back soil, as many do, saying “we have enough soil here,” that I should retake Moush, and really make my trip worthwhile. He also said he could point out the burial place of Gevorg Chavoush, saying that Chavoush was easily one of the greatest of the Armenian fedayee leaders, and even had been a teacher of General Andranik.
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