Yerevan Journal – August 2005

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As Armenian National Television presented, during prime time, a talk show seemingly modeled after similar shows in the West where couples alternately accuse each other of everything under the sun, and hosts pretend to be interested and helpful, a Turkish television station, TRT, featured several singers from Tikranakert (Diarabekir) singing and dancing Turkish folk songs, joined by enthusiastic members from the audience who joined in the dancing. This in an era where Armenian stars have, for the most part, stopped singing, except for when recording in the studio, not embarrassed to appear on television holding a microphone as their CDs play in the background. Elsewhere in Armenian culture, rumor has it that Culture Minister Hovik Hoveyan’s days are numbered, and that soon a replacement will be named. Also, CD pirating has reached new heights, with illegal copies not only being sold in the lesser CD shops and in the Vernisage but on an Armenian website, featuring pages in English, Russian, and Armenian, with offers to mail or even personally deliver the CDs to one’s door. Now that the boldness of these pirates has reached such levels, the division of the Interior Ministry that deals with CD pirating, supposedly more serious than in the past, will be put to test. As talk about the “Voski Tsiran” closing concert refuses to rest, a well known director/producer told us that late in the evening, after television cameras had left the scene, one of the better known stars was singing a song written by Hayrik Mouradian, Aghasi Ayvazyan, and Robert Amirkhanyan, in a loud, almost militaristic manner, when, for some reason, someone had arranged for a young girl to appear on roller skates, skating around the singer as she performed, leading to the director calling out a somewhat insulting phrase meaning something like “time for the circus to stop.”

Our trip to the border region of Shamshadin, located in the northeast of Armenia, above Lake Sevan, began by passing Paravakar, directly on the border with Azerbaijan, and on to Aygepar, another border town in the area. Paravakar is known in legend as the place where an old woman, or “parav,” was pushed from a high, jutting rock by Turks as she warned villagers that Turks were approaching Paravakar. Recently, it has become known as the place where an old woman hit Baruyr Hayrikyan, after he told her, “Have some patience, are you a Turk?” which led to the woman hitting Hayrikyan, not to mention a lot of commotion and Hayrikyan, to this day, not welcome in the village. Our next stop was Aygepar, where we visited farmers and the town’s winery, which, even though having a somewhat deserted appearance, produces great tasting white wine and even cognac. After being gifted several liters of wine, we went to a wheat farmer’s house, where we investigated newly-harvested wheat seed and potatoes and sat under fruit trees and a grape arbor and enjoyed homemade bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, and the year’s first tuti arak. Our day’s journey then took us past wheat fields and vineyards and up a mountain to Movses village, another of the border villages of Shamshadin. As we drove along the side of a mountain, I asked about the villages directly below the road, which all turned out to be Azeri Turk villages. After one in our group asked about taking pictures, our guide from Aygepar told us it probably wouldn’t be a good idea, like he said, it would only take one crazy man with a rifle, and who knows the result. Before reaching Movses, we were shown the border with Azerbaijan, starting at the top of the mountain and going straight down to the valley below. Not far from this border is the village of Movses, which, needless to say, was repeatedly struck by cannon and tank fire during the Karabagh war. Yet, I learned, the people of Movses didn’t always wait to have to defend themselves, but at times surprised the Turks with advances of their own. We followed one of the village’s winding, narrow roads, to visit a farmer who had purchased wheat seed from our organization. Although not at home, his wife, quite thankful for the seed she had received, treated us to bread, pickled cucumbers and cabbage, tomatoes, and other tasty delights which the woman had prepared. “It’s my husband’s job to work the fields, to provide us with wheat and grapes and other products. And it’s my job to bake bread, to take care of the house. Come again, but let me know first, and we’ll have a real feast.” Another stop in Movses had us meeting the village’s former “sermnatsan,” or seedsman, the person who planted wheat seed by hand, before tractors and planters came into the picture. Now old, the man showed us how he sowed seed, then telling us to stay, that they don’t have enough visitors in Movses. After more bread and tomatoes and offers of tuti arak, we left Movses and its heroic people and drove back down the mountain to Aygepar, where we talked more with villagers before leaving for Yerevan. Passing Vazashen, in the region of Ichevan, we learned that Azeris had reached the area on the night of Dec. 29, 1992, surprising the sleeping town but, in the end, losing at least forty-eight soldiers, who, along with their fellow soldiers, had apparently been high on morphine. The purpose of this attack, and others in Movses and Aygepar, was to move over the mountains to Lake Sevan, and hopefully, for them, on to Yerevan. I asked the Aygepar Armenian about when Azeri tanks entered his village, and he said that two tanks entered Aygepar, each backed by soldiers. Without anti-tank weapons, they fought the accompanying soldiers and, after removing that threat, the tanks, without support, retreated.

A cool breeze and the call of the zurna welcomed hundreds, young and old, to the Shoghaken Folk Ensemble’s Concert at the Cascade, sponsored by the Cafesjian Foundation. The concert featured the vocals of Hasmik Harutyunyan and Aleksan Harutyunyan and the duduk and zurna of Gevorg Dabaghyan, rounded out by kanonist Karine Hovhannisyan, shvi/blulist Levon Tevanyan, kamanchist Vardan Baghdasaryan, Grigor Takushyan at dham duduk, and Kamo Khachatryan on dhol. At the conclusion of the concert, a surprise theatrical presentation of a traditional Armenian wedding turned the night into a festive celebration, unseen in recent times in Yerevan. After the rousing “Zurni Turngi,” a horse-drawn carriage appeared from the side of the outdoor stage, with Aleksan Harutyunyan, as the godfather, escorting the bride and groom to the stage, all the while Shoghaken musicians playing a melody appropriate to the bride leaving her family home. With the bride on her knees, her head leaning on her mother’s lap, Hasmik sang “Aravotun Temin,” a song sung on the morning of the wedding, alternately with Annik Shahnazaryan, who was playing the bride’s mother. This was followed by songs praising the groom, known as “Takvoragovk,” sung by Hasmik and Aleksan. Dressed in traditional costume, ethnomusicologist Aroosiak Sahakyan, who had written the scenario, played the part of the groom’s mother, and also gave brief explanations of the proceedings. After dancing the Gyovend, to “Es Gisher,” two gopalov dhols began their wail to the music of the Ververi and Mayroke, led by the singing and dancing of Hasmik and Aleksan, as people descended to the area in front of the stage and joined the dancing, several lines forming, leading many to comment “This is a real ‘srjpar,’” referring to the recent dance of unity around Mt. Aragadz. By the time “Yarkhooshta” started, the security guards let everything break loose, as dancing spilled out beyond the stage area, some even dancing on apartment balconies overlooking the scene below, and others on the steps leading up the Cascade. Those with access to “Armenia” television will have several opportunities to view the concert, which will be shown for the first time in about ten days.

Today a Yerevantsi told of a stay in a new, upscale hotel located somewhere in the Armenian countryside, in a place where she said the nature is beautiful beyond description. It happens that the nearby villagers work for the hotel, supplying madzoon, fruit, and various other items used in the hotel. The Yerevantsi protested the prices in the hotel, for instance ten dollars for a plate of fruit, and twenty dollars for a liter of madzoon. Disgusted, she went into the village and tried to buy madzoon, but the villager was so scared that the hotel people would find out, he almost ran back to his house, villagers apparently prohibited from selling anything to hotel guests. Then, as our friend’s patience from all this was wearing thin, she developed a high temperature, but the hotel had no thermometer or even anyone who could give a shot to someone who was sick. Finally, upon some recovery, they made their way back to Yerevan. . . . Today, we made our first step in fighting the world of illegal CD producers in Yerevan, by visiting prosecutors working for the Interior Ministry. Although the largest producer of pirated CDs was recently shut down, most doubt the future success of the prosecutors, who some say just wanted to shut one producer down so others could capture the market. Hopefully, though, as today’s prosecutor said, CD pirating in Armenia will soon be a thing of the past.

As I write, “Armenia” television is playing the Friday night Shoghaken Ensemble concert at the Cascade. It happens that a sort of cultural revolution has begun since the concert, as people are approaching the Cafesjian staff in Yerevan, requesting, almost demanding, a repeat performance by Shoghaken, some even saying they might start a petition and send it to Gerard Cafesjian himself. Also, it was noted that many of those attending the “Baze” closing concert at nearby Opera Square, hearing about what was going on at the Cascade, left their concert and came to Cascade to join in the fun. The elderly also attended the Shoghaken concert in large numbers, several commenting that their longing for true Armenian folk music was finally satisfied. And, today, an English teacher told me that when she entered her class at a medical institute on Monday, the students were talking about the concert and how much fun they had dancing at the concert’s conclusion. Yet, unfortunately, ministers Hovik Hoveyan and Sergo Yeritsyan, of the culture and education ministries, announced that a gala concert commemorating the 1600th anniversary of the Armenian alphabet would feature Yerevan’s pop stars, seen so often in Armenia that one might wonder if anyone else exists. A welcome addition to the culture scene is the current theatrical presentation by Yerevan native Vardan Petrosyan, named “Verelk,” a story about the life of Komitas and the Armenian Genocide, with Petrosyan’s tasteful humor wound through a series of heartbreaking scenes and music. During the dramatic conclusion, Petrosyan was dead serious as he talked about Armenians and Turks, telling truly ghastly stories of the Genocide, including one of how Turks sat, laughed, and clapped as young children were forced to watch their mothers dance, be beaten, and then burned to death. Talking about the conference for the Treaty of Lausanne, Petrosyan told how the European representatives, one by one, passed the Armenians and merely nodded or said, “What can we do?” while the Turks said to the Armenians, “You believed the bloody Europeans, now look at you.”

A woman with roots in Moks, a village near Shatakh in the province of Vaspurakan, told of her trip there last year and her meeting with the Kurdish mayor. During the Genocide, she said, the mayor of Moks assured the Armenians safe passage to Iraq, sparing them from what befell the Armenians of Anatolia. It happened that the woman’s grandfather had an old photo of his father and the 1915 mayor of Moks, who was the current mayor’s grandfather. Seeing the photo, the mayor treated the entire busload of Armenians to khorovadz, and invited other Armenians to his village. Another Armenian told of the death of her grandfather in another, less friendly Kurdish village of Vaspurakan. She said her grandfather, a priest, taught the Armenian language to the children of the village, as since Kurdish was the spoken language of the area, many Armenians didn’t speak in their mother tongue. When the massacres reached her village, the priest was the first killed, the Kurds there not wanting any chance of educated Armenians remaining alive. The woman then related the history of the other side of her family, who had origins in Iran. Apparently, in the time of Shah Abbas, one of her ancestors was so wealthy that he gifted the shah with so much jewelery that the shah was angered that someone might have more money than him, so he had the man’s eyes put out, causing his eventual death. The rest of the family, for their own safety, fled to Armenia, to the region of Kotayk, all this as thousands of Armenians were being forcibly emigrated to Iran by the same shah.

Today I traveled with a vanful of Yerevan Armenians, most with roots in Bdjni, to Bujhakan, a village of Aparan noted for its resort, clean air, and forests. Each year on this day, when grapes and the year’s harvest are blessed, this same group of people travels to Bujhakan, where they spend the day at the resort, preparing madagh and khorovadz and enjoying each other’s company and the nature of the area. While there, we visited with the owner of the resort, who showed us the inside of the building where people stay on their vacations, known in Armenia as “hangsdanalu.” We were told about a woman who arrived with high blood pressure and swollen feet, and that within three days, without the use of any medicine, the symptoms completely disappeared. As the day passed, we wandered through the forest, ate some excellent watermelon, peaches, and plums, drank tahn prepared from village madzoon, and talked about life in Armenia. A man talked about his son’s recent move to the U.S., after obtaining a green card in a contest of some sort. He said that his son had a good job in Armenia, working for the government department that took care of pensions for retired people, and that his son’s wife also worked for the department, their salaries making their life in Armenia quite comfortable. When I asked why he moved to the U.S., considering all this, he said that the higher-ups in the department demanded that he fine people, or whatever it took, to put some extra money in his (the higher-up’s) pockets. The man complained that many with high position, all the way up to ministers, are bleeding the country dry, figuring that if there is a change in government, they could lose their job, and their opportunity to make huge amounts of money. Yet, others in our gathering told the man his son shouldn’t have left the country, that Armenians should have more backbone and fight these injustices instead of taking the easy way out. Another man said he had heard of a group of Karabagh Armenians who nearly beat a defenseless Yerevantsi to death, in the center of the city, but that the police, upon finding out the Karabaghtsis had high connections, left the scene without helping the severely injured victim.

Just above the village of Ltsen, a mountain village southwest of Sissian, a memorial at a spring commemorates fedayee Aghvan Minasian, who lost his life in the war in Karabagh. As I knew the young hero’s cousin, the wife of poet Tadevos Tonoyan, I was happy to come across the memorial. From near the memorial, one is treated to a view of the village below, wheat fields and fruit trees, and the surrounding mountains of Zangezur. Most of the village land is on the opposite side of a tall mountain, making coming and going to the fields both difficult and expensive. Yet, the location of the village was chosen due to the mild climate and ample water supply. In the village, I noticed endless fruit trees, including plums, apricots, and mulberry, both black and white. “We make our arak strong,” a villager said. “We don’t use sugar to add to the quantity of the arak, since we don’t bother with selling it to anybody.” As many small, remote villages in Armenia, the population has suffered, with many young families leaving for Yerevan or Russia. We met with wheat farmers who were to become part of a program sponsored by the Armenian Technology Group and World Vision, with hopes of helping the financial situation of the village and eventually having money to renovate the school, which is in disastrous condition. One villager said he was the only one left in the village who knew how to work with silk worms and silk, a major industry in Armenia up until the end of Soviet times, when the factory in Yerevan, as most others, was shut down. He lamented that when he passed on, no one would be left who knew his work. After being treated to lunch by the village mayor, we left for Yerevan, passing Vorotnavank, the village of Noravan, and on to the main road to Yerevan. We stopped at a small restaurant in Vaik, where a family of Baku Armenians are struggling to keep their business afloat. At every turn, they say, officials from various ministries come and demand money, recently one saying, “You must be earning a lot of money here, you owe $2,000 in taxes.” When they were told to check their tax papers, that they weren’t making nearly enough to warrant the new taxes, the officials merely demanded the money. Another time, after spending about $150 to make signs to put by the road, reading something like “Hyekakan Khohanots,” government people told them to take the signs down until they went to Yerevan to pay some sort of tax on the signs.

I was shocked at how well two university-aged Armenians, born in Armenia but living in Los Angeles since early youth, spoke nearly perfect Armenian. In many cases, younger-generation Armenians living in southern California, heavily influenced by Mexican and Black cultures, have taken on speech and even facial patterns of these “foreign” cultures, with the Armenian language becoming a mix of several influences, leaving behind something only reminiscent of the Eastern Armenian spoken by their ancestors. The youth I met were visiting Armenia for the first time since they left Armenia with their families in the late Soviet era. They commented on the unfortunate lack of manners of those working in taxi services, restaurants, etc., saying many here spoke in a language known as “goghakan,” a sort of street slang commonly heard in Yerevan, sometimes even glorified on television and in popular culture. They even questioned the advisability of marrying Yerevan girls, saying the several girls they had met during their stay here had taken on the “goghakan” speech and culture. Yet, they said, they hoped to complete their education in the U.S. and move to Armenia, saying the future for any Armenian outside their homeland is questionable, in terms of maintaining the language and culture of their ancestors. They also lamented the lack of good music reaching the Armenians of Los Angeles, with “rabiz” being the predominant music of Los Angeles Armenians, and Armenian National Television, which reaches most U.S. Armenians, propagandizing the music of Yerevan’s stars, which they described as singing in a “whining, ridiculous” style. . . . In Yerevan, news featured a new law where those selling wheat and vegetable seed in Armenia would be required to back up the quality of the seed in writing, as much poor quality seed has flooded the market in recent times. According to farmers, this is the first sign of some sort of help from the government, whose policies, they say, have become anti-farmer the past two years. For instance, they say, until this year the importation of wheat wasn’t allowed, keeping the price of wheat at a normal level. Now, with Russian wheat flooding the market, the price has dropped, many wheat farmers now wondering if they can continue in business, should the current trend continue. A similar thing happened, they say, with apricots and other crops this year. Normally, Georgians and others come to Armenia, purchase apricots, and take them back to sell in Georgia or Russia. This year, the government here closed off the borders to these fruit buyers, resulting in prices so low that the year became a near total loss. Then, at the end of the apricot season, the border was opened, too late to do the usual business with foreign buyers. . . . Tomorrow marks the beginning of a bike-a-thon sponsored by the Armenian Technology Group, planned to take several bikers into the mountains of Zangezur, Karabagh, across the Selim pass, and back to Yerevan, after stops in Echmiadzin and Sararapat. Since I will be accompanying this journey, “Yerevan Journal” will take a short break until the end of this month.
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