Yerevan Journal – September 2005

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It is said that Armenia is a land of surprises, where chance meetings and happenings are part of any trip through the homeland. In Khor Virab, where our group of cyclists, journalists, photographers, and policemen were visiting the site of the church and dungeon where legend says St. Gregory spent thirteen years, who appeared but Howard Dean, presidential hopeful during the recent election in the U.S. After a short meeting where we discussed the twists and turns of the election, we continued our journey south to Yeghegnatsor and the monastery of Noravank. There, Hasmik sang a song dedicated to Vardan Mamigonyan, while those there for the first time marveled how Armenians lived in such a rocky, remote region. For the night, we stayed at an inn alongside the Arpa River, used mainly by Iranian truck drivers. Unfortunately, the inn was less than clean, as was the hotel in Yeghegnatsor where we stayed on the return part of our journey, making an overnight stay in the town not something to be recommended. A policemen also commented that the Iranian truck drivers were in fact Azeri Turks living in northern Iran, and that due to the money being made by many in the Armenian government, no policemen found it wise to stop one of these drivers, for fear of losing his job or worse. Heading south, we went to Sissian, where we visited the ancient rock observatory of Karahunj and the Sissian museum, which housed the oldest khachkar in Armenia, and old stone casket, stone rams, old carpets and cradles, and a section of photos of Armenian fedayees from early in the twentieth century. In Sissian we also discovered the sixth century Syuni Monastery, which reminded of St. Hripsime in Echmiadzin. Just outside the church grounds, a pantheon dedicated to fallen heroes in the Karabagh war is taken care of by the father of one of the heroes, who was the architect of the pantheon before being martyred at the age of twenty. Another discovery, near the town of Ghapan, was Vahanavank, lost in the forest just south of the town. Now in ruins, the monastery was likely a large complex, as witnessed by an elevated chapel, main church, and several khachkars, unfortunately lying amongst rubble near the main church. Reconstruction, now halted, showed hope of bringing the monastery back to its original state.

As we traveled through the southern Armenian cities of Yeghegnatsor, Goris, and Ghapan, it was clear that any economic progress being felt in Armenia hadn’t reached the provinces of Vaik or Syunik, with run-down buildings and an aging population the norm. Reaching Stepanakert, however, we witnessed a city that is clean, modern, and shows no signs of the recent war. Even Karabaghtsis said that even though their economy was far from strong, it was much better than that in southern Armenia. Perhaps this should be expected, with a Karabaghtsi serving as president of Armenia. From Stepanakert, we went to Shushi, where we saw the rocky mountainside where Armenian soldiers climbed by night to liberate Shushi. The city still has the signs of war, as, for some political or other reason, reconstruction has been slow. Later, as we approached Gandzasar, we saw the famous Gachaghagaberd (Fortress of the Magpies), a huge mountain of rock jutting above one of the tall mountains of the ancient province of Khachen. Fortunately, the road all the way to Vank village, just below the monastery, was repaved and in fine shape, with road work in progress all the way to Gandzasar. There, Der Hovhannes told us the history of the monastery and stories of the war. Once, he said, some 400 Azeri soldiers were closing in on Gandzasar, but 30 to 40 Armenian soldiers successfully drove them away. Another time, bombs destroyed part of the original church buildings, after which they moved the khachkars in the buildings to the inside edge of the monastery walls. Der Hovhannes also told of the time when a bomb fell near him but failed to explode, sparing his life. He told of other miracles that happen at Gandzasar, such as the blind and deaf being cured, and of the appearance of figures resembling angels on the wall near the main altar. He also pointed out a large rock formation, on the top of a distant mountain, which resembled a sleeping man, thus the name “Knadz Karabaghtsi,” or, sleeping Karabaghtsi. After eating mulberries and black berries (mosh) and taking several pictures, we moved on to Khramort village, where assistance by Diaspora Armenians has made it possible for the population to stay and work in the village, in the newly-established grape nursery and vineyards, and wheat fields. From there, we left Karabagh and, by way of Yeghegnatsor, drove the Selim Pass, part of the Old Silk Road. After resting at the Caravansari, we went on to Martuni and Lake Sevan, before returning to Yerevan.

Today a visitor from the U.S. proudly stated that he had bought an apartment in one of the new apartment buildings currently under construction in downtown Yerevan. As he talked, I remembered those forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for the new apartments. Currently, an acquaintance who didn’t accept the government’s first offer for their home and took city hall to court, had their home demolished, leaving them in the streets, forced in the end to accept the $15,000 offered by the government, far below the actual worth of the home. With that amount of money, the family will be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment, at most, in one of the outlying districts, as city hall makes a huge profit as they sell spaces in the new buildings. For this and other, similar reasons, the separation of classes is deepening in Armenia, possibly the cause of a sharp increase in begging. Although there are those who beg “professionally,” today’s visit to the Vernisage revealed beggars whose pitiful physical appearance was shocking. One old man, on crutches, passed us several times, holding wooden spatulas and with a cutting board tied over his shoulders. Occasionally, he had to stop and rest before continuing. Not once did he ask for money, as many do. Even though I didn’t need a wooden spatula, I bought one.

As our guests from Beirut hadn’t seen the Vardan Petrosyan theater presentation about the life of Komitas, we joined the full house for our second viewing of “Verelk.” Before entering the Stanislausky Theater, one of the travelers told us about a new village in Kelbajar, founded and funded by a Diaspora Armenian, in which some 100 Armenians live. The population is almost exclusively from the Azeri-occupied region of Shahumyan, located in the northernmost part of Mountainous Karabagh. Returning to Vardenis by the main road from Vardenis to Mardakert, he commented that work hadn’t yet begun on the road, even though money designated for the project had already been collected. Our guests also included others with roots in Beirut, opera star Isabel Bayrakdarian, her husband, pianist Serouj Kradjian, and Armenian Technology Group director Varoujan Der Simonian. Along with the crowd of several hundred, we enjoyed Petrosyan’s presentation of Komitas’ life and certain elements of Armenian character, such as the fact that the very wealthy have never embraced Armenia’s cultural and intellectual elite, including Komitas. Petrosyan pointed out, in one of his monologues, that Komitas, after returning from seeing the horrors of the massacres, was sent, by Armenians, to a Turkish mental institution, and finally to the institution in Paris. Also mentioned was the pitiful sum the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople sent to the massacred and starving Armenians of the provinces, with a question remaining if the money ever reached its destination. One of Petrosyan’s monologues, in which he described Turks singing and playing nardi as still-living Armenian children were being barbecued, was too much for several in the audience who openly weeped as Petrosyan talked. After the show, our group met with Petrosyan, who said he would like to take his presentation to Armenians of the Diaspora, but had doubts that they would fund such a project, stating he didn’t want to do something like the notorious Anoush Opera presentation in Los Angeles some ten years ago when there apparently wasn’t enough money for return tickets to Yerevan and all sorts of shenanigans are said to have taken place to raise the money. Before leaving the theater, we congratulated Malyan Theater actors who had taken part, then leaving to have tea and cake and talk about the Armenian cultural scene with Bayrakdarian and Kradjian, who were leaving today after recording a new CD in a Yerevan studio. It was quite a pleasure meeting with the two stars, down-to-earth in spite of their many successes in the Metropolitan and elsewhere.

A challenge in this part of the world is to find food and other products which aren’t fake, anywhere from CDs to vodka, from cell phones to beer. Many don’t respect ownership or honesty in business, such as finding out that “Armenia” television took footage from the Shoghaken concert at the Cascade, where people were dancing in the hundreds to the Mayroke and Yarkhooshta, and edited it into the video of the following Cascade concert, as if the large crowd was present at that concert. When we asked why they did such a thing, they stated that nobody was at the concert, so they used footage from our concert to make it look good. Dishonesty reigns in the culture world, with pop stars writing light tunes and calling them folk melodies, not understanding or wanting to understand that folk music means just that, written by the people, that if the author is known, the song can’t be called folk. Or, naming a song competition after Komitas, even though the music which will be accepted surely will have nothing in common with Komitas. Honesty in politics, rare anywhere, is probably unexpected here as well. As the Venice Commission, one of the many factions of the European Union, is making demands of the Armenians here, some, namely opposition members Ardashes Geghamyan and Arshak Sadoyan, are speaking up to those who wish to impose their will on Armenia. According to Geghamyan, who said that while the commission people are merely ridiculing Armenians with their demands, the Armenian government isn’t being held accountable for anything, for one thing, nothing was done when the president’s bodyguard killed a man for no apparent or serious reason. Geghamyan’s honesty was so brutal that those scheduled to speak after him were almost too embarrassed to carry on with business as usual. Also, word reached Yerevan that a soldier serving in Karabagh was being beaten by fellow soldiers, with the full knowledge of the commander, the kind of news that isn’t helpful in gaining further recruits or support for the situation in Karabagh.

A winery owner told me the government people had wised up and were leaving business people alone, not as in the past. This apparent good news was contradicted by a taxi driver who said a friend who was running a successful factory that employed fifty people, at good salaries, was approached by individuals from one of the ministries asking for such a large cut of the profits that the factory owner was forced to close down his Yerevan operations and move everything, including his fifty employees, to Russia, where all is going well. A pity. A rumor is running through the world of some 750 taxi services that one of the super-wealthy of the country is opening his own taxi service, leading to the fear that the others will all be shut down. Whether or not this happens, the fact that such a mentality, that the wealthy running the country can do whatever they wish, exists, is sad. As an employee of a major auditing company in Yerevan stated, the only thing that can save the country and improve the business climate in Armenia is a new government.

I was both amused and saddened to hear the mayor of Gyulagarag, a large village of Stepanavan, was under warrant for arranging the cutting of old trees in the forest near his village. I had met the mayor two years earlier, along with several of his “collective,” those who work on the mayor’s land or in his sawmill or various enterprises. I remember him telling me of his connections in high places, and how much he was doing for Gyulagarag. It happened that recently a reporter saw trees being cut and confronted the mayor, asking what he was doing, to which he replied he was cutting trees. When asked about the possibility of getting into serious trouble for such illegalities, he said he had nothing to worry about, again noting his important friends. Little did he know that the interview was being recorded, proof enough for his arrest warrant to be issued. As of now, the mayor hasn’t been found, his whereabouts a mystery. Another case of interest which has involved the American embassy is where benefactors from the U.S. bought real estate in Yerevan but put it in a trusted Yerevan friend’s name, as not being Armenian citizens made the purchase for them impossible. After the trusted friend sold the property, reportedly to a major judge or prosecutor, the American embassy stepped in, but has been until now unsuccessful in its attempts to help the benefactors. This sort of story, rare or not, doesn’t bode well for a country sorely in need of foreign investment, by Armenians or otherwise.

A Mshetsi relative arrived in Yerevan, finally making a trip to the homeland, which his parents had left some ninety-five years earlier. After making some initial comments about Yerevan, he returned to the life of his parents, telling how his father had left Moush in 1912 with my grandmother’s uncle, his family, and my grandmother’s grandmother, whose husband had founded the Hunchakian party in Moush before being drowned by the Turks in the Bitlis River. In Fresno, his father married a woman who lost her husband and family during the 1915 massacres in Moush and then made her way to the U.S., sponsored by my grandmother’s uncle. Thus, our connection was rooted in old Moush, before that world was turned upside down. Today, I was somewhat embarrassed in central Yerevan when my relative said the girls here dressed more provacatively than girls in the U.S., and when he went into shock seeing pop stars in video clips on National Television, saying, simply, if this is what independence brought, maybe it wasn’t such a good idea, to which I replied, maybe you’re right. . . . All this aside, since we are going to set out on a trip to charted — and possibly uncharted — parts of the Armenian homeland in just a few hours, “Yerevan Journal” will take a brief break until the month’s end, after which I will continue with news about our journey.
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