Yerevan Journal – November 2005

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With guests from Internews coming the next day, we took a late evening walk in Anastasavan to buy eggplants and red peppers to make salad and lettuce and greens for tabuleh. As is usual this time of year, several small stores usually unused were loaded with huge cabbages, beets, carrots, potatoes, cauliflower, and green tomatoes, with several kinds of fruit typical of late autumn, including “garalyok,” likely related to the persimmon, apples, pears, and several varieties of grapes, one of the sweetest and best probably the muscat. After making our purchase, for what seemed to me embarrassingly cheap prices, we went home and started work on the salads and putting up carrots, cabbage, and cauliflower for pickling. The next morning, before our guests arrived, I went with an official from the Interior Ministry to several CD shops and the airport shops, looking for illegal copies of Shoghaken CDs, to hopefully put an end to this disgusting practice. It was interesting watching nervous clerks saying they didn’t know such and such a CD was an illegal copy. Whether due to pressure from outside, or whatever the reason, the progress made in this endeavor shows hope for law and order of some type reaching Armenia and the region. Back home, the Internews people had arrived, and had started listening to our collection of tradtional CDs, to find suitable music for a film they’re producing. After choosing CDs by Udi Hrant, Shoghaken, and a CD recorded in Armenian villages in the 1960s, we looked through our album of pictures from our recent trip to Moush, Van, Kars, and Ani. Our guests, especially one whose grandfather was from Moush, were fascinated to learn about the present-day Armenians of Moush. After nearly coming to tears, the person pleaded with us to take her to Moush our next trip there. After completing some editing work and Shoghaken-related activities, another day in Yerevan had passed.

Most of Yerevan is talking about what happened this past weekend at the Writers’ Union resort in Dilijan. A committee invited many in the intellectual and arts community to Dilijan, mainly to convince them to vote yes for the new constitution. During one gathering, composer Robert Amirkhanyan began telling people about all the music and lyrics he had written, how important it was, and then began talking about how he had written “Yeraz Im Yerkir, Hayreni.” As he spoke, poet and parliament member Davit Hovhannes told Amirkhanyan to stop talking nonsense, that he hadn’t written the song . . . to which Amirkhanyan took a bottle and threw it at Hovhannes, who picked up the bottle and threw it back at Amirkhanyan, resulting in both commotion and some good entertainment. It happens that the song is a folk song, and in the 1980s Hayrik Mouradian, Amirkhanyan, writer Aghasi Ayvasyan, and one or two others got together and worked on the song, adding new lyrics where they thought appropriate. Later, in the Nineties, Amirkhanyan claimed it as his own, even winning a state prize for composing. Although most don’t challenge Amirkhanyan when he claims he wrote the song, Hovhannes, known for being outspoken, apparently had his fill.

Today while walking near the Press House near the city center, a glance upwards revealed signs being hoisted and attached high on buildings, urging citizens to vote yes on the new constitution. On the television news, several Yerevantsis said they believed a “yes” vote wouldn’t mean a thing, that the money promised to make up for huge personal losses when the ruble was converted to the dram would never be given, as the new constitution provides. The vote in neighboring Azerbaijan, scheduled for Sunday, appears to be more of the same, with candidates not agreeable to the powers being pressured to withdraw. Yet, the Azeris haven’t let up on their anti-Armenian activities. The recent announcement of a special mention for a “World Summit” award for the best cultural CD/DVD-rom of the year for “The Armenian Genocide — 1915-1923” has provoked protests from Azerbaijan. The World Summit award is associated with the United Nations, which leads to a precedent the Azeri Turks don’t like. The comical thing is that one of the jury members was an Azeri, who likely was confused by it all, then, reaching home, was instructed to correct his error, thus the protests.

What better way to start the day than a National Television flashback of actor-bass singer Henrik Alaverdyan standing on the edge of the Garni canyon and backed by the Tatoul Altounyan Song and Dance Ensemble and singing “Zartir Lao,” with enough energy to carry a brigade all the way to “take it all back,” as an uncle used to say. Although National Television isn’t known for promoting Armenian culture, at least these clips are reminders for people what an Armenian should look like and, especially, sing like. After watching the clip and making arrangements for the day’s activities, I walked to our new neighborhood, just up the street, where remodeling is going on at our new apartment. Just outside the front door, a man selling cabbages from the back of a Niva was busy weighing several cabbages for women preparing to make “tutoo,” or pickled cabbage, for the winter. In front of a garage, three men were cutting wood for the winter, two using axes while the other stacked the wood in a garage. Several men sat at a table under a grape arbor, eating lavash and playing cards. In our apartment, I helped pick up and bag some of the debris, then went to see new pictures of Shoghaken taken by Zaven Khachikyan, one of Yerevan’s better known photographers. From his studio, I went to meet an official from the agriculture ministry to talk about an anti-hail program soon to be put into use, but our conversation was mostly about life in Armenia and the new constitution. The official stated his intention to vote yes for the new constitution, saying he hoped it might take at least some power away from the executive branch, and that dual citizenship, provided for in the constitution, would be good for Armenia. He lamented the fact that so many Armenians had left the country over the past ten years, saying that if they had all stayed, and worked to make Armenia a successful country, and made demands on the government, that Armenia wouldn’t be in the shape it is today. Other peoples, he stated, don’t pick up and run like the Armenians, as soon as things aren’t to their liking, also stating that with more and more Armenians from the Diaspora moving here, with their expectations and demands for a better Armenia, that there is hope for the country. In the evening, we went to one of the final presentations of Vardan Petrosyan’s “Verelk,” about the Genocide and the life of Komitas. It was the fourth time we went to the show, as three of Hasmik’s nieces and nephews participate, singing traditional songs such as “Yerginkn Ampel e,” “Ay, Lorik,” and “Es Gisher.” Again, I watched as people in the packed house were taken on a journey of the Genocide, with actors, songs, and sad, heart-wrenching pictures of the Genocide put on a large screen, from light humorous moments to scenes of the deportations and massacres, and Petrosyan’s classic closing speech, where he reminds Armenians about what Turks are and what they, and the Europeans who betrayed Armenians, really think about Armenians. Again, I noticed the absence of anybody from the government or ministries, likely a presentation as “national” as this not to their tastes.

Young staff at one of the ministries told me today they intended to vote no on the new constitution, both angered by the Europeans trying to force Armenians to live according to their rules. They insisted that the current constitution is adequate, with minor reforms at the most needed, adding that the government picks and chooses what laws they want to enforce or not anyway. One commented that she didn’t think Armenians living abroad should have the right to vote for president, if they don’t live in Armenia at least part of the year. It is assumed that dual citizenship, about which the girl spoke, would eventually become law with the passage of the new constitution. Another added that he was suspicious about why the higher-ups in government are trying so hard to have the new consitution pass, going to the extent of sending stars from the “Yerki Tadron” all over Armenia to give free concerts and convincing Armenians to vote yes, and doing man-on-the-street interviews with these same stars about how important a yes vote is. A short debate ensued about who was paying for all these concerts and events, whether the money came from the government’s reserve fund or from oligarchs. Outside, in the central square, a noisy parade of cars had begun circling the central square with banners raised urging a no vote, with large Armenian flags hoisted high in the air.

When I told a girl from Shamshadin I wanted to buy a house in Moush, she said I was just dreaming. I told her that if I weren’t a dreamer, I wouldn’t be here now. We went on to talk about why there are so many (tens of thousands) Hayastantsis in prisons in the U.S. and Europe, mostly for stealing and non white-collar crime. She expressed the opinion that while under Soviet domination, Armenians learned every black market trick in the book, and with the bad economic conditions that followed independence, some Armenians were forced to put these less-than-savory methods into practice. She went on to say that these characteristics had probably become a genetic part of today’s Armenians, which hopefully isn’t true. I was reminded of Vardan Petrosyan’s comment during his recent theater presentation about the positive things Kant said about Armenians, to which Petrosyan jokingly said, “Kant didn’t know today’s Armenians. . . .” In the meantime, the Turks have joined their Azeri brothers in protesting the special mention the DVD/CDrom about the Armenian Genocide received by the World Summit, an organization associated with the United Nations. In response, several countries have voiced negative opinions about the Turks’ protests, leading to some likely interesting confrontations at the awards presentation scheduled for this week in Tunisia. Knowing all this, it makes it clearer the opinion commonly heard here, that possibly the most important positive benefit resulting from the Karabagh war wasn’t regaining Karabagh, but the clearing of Armenia of Azeri Turks, who were planning to overtake Armenia by sheer numbers, as they were successfully doing in regions like Amasia, Sissian, Goris, and the Ararat Valley . . . though, as the Armenians of Shamshadin and Aparan proudly state, Azeris never lived in those regions.

Today I was given a brief history of the castle in Berd, a town in Shamshadin. In the ninth century, at the same time Ashot Yergat ruled in Sevan and later at Amberd, the castle’s ruler was Tslik Amram. In Armenian, “tslik” means little bull, as Tslik Amram was noted for his physical strength and feats. His wife was named Aspram. It is said that Aspram loved another man, namely Ashot Yergat, who had been obligated, for politcal reasons, to marry a certain Sahak Sevada’s daughter, Sahakanoush. When Tslik Amram found out about his wife’s affair with King Ashot, he imprisoned her in the castle, where she later committed suicide. Tslik Amram wasn’t done, blinding Sahakanoush’s brother and another family member. Yet, when the Armenian nation faced crisis at the hands of the Arabs, Ashot Yergat, Tslik Amram, Sahak Sevada, and Gevorg Marzpetuni, who was Ashot Yergat’s “sparapet,” joined forces and gained victory over the Arabs. After talking about the history and current condition of Shamshadin, the talk turned to the new constitution, and what it might mean for Armenia. One person understood that the constitution gives the president the right to change borders, and was worried that this might mean giving part of Zangezur to Turkey or giving up Karabagh or the liberated territories completely. Another thought it might mean that Armenia planned on annexing Karabagh, and the territories, to Armenia. In the meantime, the government, in all its strength and energy, is trying to convince Armenians to vote yes, recently funding the Yergi Tadron pop stars to record a video clip, showing Garni, Zvartnots, the Armenian army, and anything possible to stir patriotism for a yes vote.

Today family members and friends of a work collegue gathered for his mother’s “inknahogh” and “yotyerort,” both held the same day, the practice when inknahogh falls on a Saturday. After visiting the new gravesite at the Shahumyan cemetery in Yerevan, we returned to the house, where we ate khashlama and toasted the deceased woman’s life and family. Outside, the conversation turned to the woman’s ancestral land and roots, which were in Van. One man said he had recently found out his ancestors were from the same village as the woman’s. Sometimes it seems that “karot,” as the Armenians say for longing, should have enough force to be able to take Armenians back to their former homes, now mostly under Turkish rule. An acamedician and member of the “Hye-Aryan” party went on to say that the only way to take back historical Armenian lands and to return to the days of Nzhdeh and even Tigran Mets is to adopt the old ways, meaning pre-Christian culture and gods and goddesses such as Vahagn and Anahit, when Armenians were strong, proud, from sea-to-sea, and had a religion which wasn’t imported. He said that his grandfather had fought with Nzhdeh, and that he had helped the Dashnak party reestablish itself in Armenia, but had fallen out of straights, saying that Vahan Hovhannisyan and Hrant Markarian, who he claims is under investigation for crimes committed in Iran, had nothing to do with Nzhdeh, Dro, Andranik, and others. He went on to say that a yes vote on the new constitution is nothing short of treason, saying there was no reason a president should be exempt from prosecution for any crime he may have committed. I asked him what he thought about the recent interview of a noted communist, about the new constitution, on national television, and he said it was plain National Television was afraid to interview someone from his party or from the Opposition, instead talking with someone who posed the government no threat whatsoever.

As a filmmaker and I talked about a video we had just produced, he more or less lost his temper when National Television began showing a pop star with questionable talent singing along with teenagers, on a typical Sunday morning program in Yerevan. “How long do we have to live in this ‘eshutyun,’” he said, following with “why are they trying to make us like Americans or Europeans?” He went on to say that Armenians in the Diaspora were fortunate that the programs National Television sends by satellite are mostly different than what we see here, with more emphasis on nationalistic subjects and old, classic movies like Pepo and We Are Our Hills. “In the Diaspora, Armenians wouldn’t put up with what we see,” he said, referring to National Television being merely a tool, as many say, to promote selected pop stars. Disgusted, he changed the station to one simply known as “R,” whose new programing has made them possibly even more nationalistic than the Dashnak’s “Yerkir Media.” A lucky station switch, as, to the voice of Armenak Shahmuradyan singing “Krunk,” we watched a Genocide scholar talk about new developments in Genocide recognition, with actual clips of the Genocide being shown as he spoke. “Not a happy subject,” the filmmaker said, “but after what we saw on our national station . . .” On the streets, people are debating whether to vote “no” on the constitutional changes, or simply boycott the vote, as Opposition leaders suggest, which would result in not enough votes being cast, invalidating the election results. At least two obviously expensive, “patriotic” videos produced by the country’s stars, the funding sources still not clear, continue to be broadcast over the airwaves, urging a “yes” vote. From the looks on the stars’ faces, I don’t see any of them taking up a weapon should the need arrive, but that’s another story. A taxi driver took it another step, saying that nothing short of revolution is needed. “I was severely wounded when tanks rolled into Yerevan, in the battle for independence in the early Nineties,” he said. He went on to say that the 500 or so members of Yerkrapah could single-handledly take over the government, which he said was necessary to save the country. “All our money is going to Karabagh,” he added. “In Armenia, we are forgotten. Have you seen our village roads? Have you seen the new roads in Karabagh?”

Raffi Hovhannesian Today it became even more obvious that the government would do anything do assure a “yes” on the upcoming vote on constitution reform. A member of one of the coalition parties was approached by a district election official and told that ballots have already been marked and “signed” and are ready in ballot boxes, ready to be switched at the right moment at polling places. “We can switch the ballot boxes in five minutes,” the official proudly stated. When my acquaintance said that was wrong and that he wouldn’t put up with something that blatantly illegal, he was politely told not to show his face at the polling place unless he would go along with whatever he saw. This person had planned to vote “yes” on constitution reform, but now, as others have told me who had planned to vote “yes,” plans to either vote “no” or to boycott. The desperation of the ruling elite was made even more evident today, as soon after Raffi Hovhannesian announced a “hanrahavak” (meeting) at the Opera Square, an order from above announced a concert would be given, by local pop stars, urging a “yes” vote, just three hours after Raffi’s meeting was to start . . . at the same location. Knowing the faith and trust people here have for Raffi, and that it was likely speakers at the meeting would urge a vote against the consitution, the concert announcement didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Arriving at the Opera Square just before Raffi’s meeting was scheduled to begin, a worker from City Hall told us his bosses decided to have another concert, in the same place, starting at three. When we told him it was clear to everyone City Hall was doing nothing more than interfering with Hovhannesian’s scheduled meeting, he smiled and said, “I do what I’m told.” Promptly at three, the concert started, just as Raffi and his entourage appeared on the scene. Raffi and his group of followers, which was now swelling in numbers, approached the fence and police which stopped them from going to the stage, so the decision was made to hold the meeting at the steps of the Aram Khachatryan Concert Hall. By now, hundreds had gathered in front of the hall, all the way to the sidewalk and streets. After Hasmik sang “Mer Hayrenik,” the meeting started. Starting with Hovhannesian, speaker after speaker talked openly about how the ruling elite had sold or stolen Armenia’s wealth, about the election, which none of the speakers expected to be even close to honest, and urging Armenians to take back their government and country. Speakers included Opposition leaders Stepan Demirjyan and Aram Sargsyan, academician Rafael Ghazaryan, actor Yervand Maranyan, and Valodya Abajyan, an actor also known for his oratory skills and recitations. The meeting was scheduled to last all night and possibly into the next day or two. Also, today, the American embassy issued a warning to American citizens living in Yerevan to stay at home Sunday, election day, and Monday, as similar meetings, with unpredictable outcomes, are being called for by the Opposition.

I was shocked to read on one of the “investigative reporting” websites that Raffi Hovhannesian’s rally drew a crowd of only about 200 individuals. Although not an expert at guessing crowd numbers, there was definitely a minimum of 1,000, with some guessing 1,500. Reporters were abundant, many from newspapers but few from television. Which brings up another point, that with government control over television programming a known fact, many who would come to rallies like Hovhannesian’s simply don’t know of their existence. Another surprise was the lack of anything substantive on the internet sites about the twenty-year-old party member who was nearly beaten to death by government police for some sort of alleged law-breaking, with everyone aware the real reason being his active campaigning against the new constitutional reforms. On the lighter side, both Paruyr Hayrikyan and even Shavarsh Kocharyan are campaiging for a “yes” vote, each with the ultimate goal of being named “ombudsman,” a postition now held by Larissa Alaverdyan. People are now jokingly calling Kocharyan “Larissa” or “Ivan Susanna,” someone known for changing his/her face depending on political whims or winds.

This morning a call from someone at Raffi Hovhannesian’s hanrahavak revealed that Raffi and a hundred or so others had spent the night at Freedom Square, the open area by the statue of Hovhannes Tumanyan at Yerevan’s Opera Square. At about two o’clock, we were told, Raffi and others were going to speak again. We arrived shortly after two, as the meeting was about to begin. After Raffi greeted everyone present, which included several noted writers, scientists, actors, and political figures, Hasmik, Aleksan, and their niece, Anoush, sang “Yeraz Im Yerkir Hayreni.” Some 200 Armenians, loyal to Hovhannesian or just hoping for a government which actually worked for the people, then listened to speeches by Hovhannesian, Aram Sargsyan, and several scientists and university students pleading for change in Armenia. The change Sargsyan urged was nothing short of revolution, as happened recently in Ukraine. Government police circled the area, waiting for someone to campaign in favor or against Sunday’s vote, as any campaigning would have given them the right to end the meeting. Even though no campaigning took place, two generals walked up the steps and told Hovhannesian that they were breaking the law, to which Hovhannesian answered that no campaiging was taking place, to which the generals left the stage area and disappeared from the scene. During the day, party leaders, with their small entourages, came and went, those loyal to Hovhannesian’s ideals or merely demanding change. Stepan Demirjyan, Aram Sargsyan, Arshak Sadoyan, Vazken Manukyan, Aram Karapetyan, Viktor Dalakyan, and others spoke to those gathered or merely stood at Raffi’s side. Towards midnight, we watched films of the protests which took place on Kocharian’s inauguration day, which included scenes of beatings of women and old people, and the forced closing of A1+ television studios. The meeting-turned-vigil was to last all night and into the next day and likely into Monday, where, in case of news of anything illegal concerning the voting process, anything can happen.

The disaster that struck Armenia in the 1999 Parliament slayings, which solidified the current leadership’s hold on power, continued today with a vote count with a shocking outcome, even in a country where falsification has become standard. According to officials, some 1,500,000 people (considered the real population of Armenia today) voted, and ninety percent voted yes, this inspite of polling places being eerily quiet, not to mention most Hayastantsis violently against the new constitutional changes. A woman serving as an observer in one of the polling sites said only six percent of registered voters cast their ballot. She went on to say that a woman came and pulled several handfuls of marked ballots out of her pockets and began stuffing them in the ballot box, and that when she told the woman to stop stuffing the ballot box, the woman nearly attacked her. Yet, on television, observers from Europe said all was well, that the few minor infractions weren’t serious enough to affect the outcome. . . . At three o’clock today, in front of the Madenataran, some 10,000-15,000 Yervantsis gathered to protest the vote results. Yerevantsis, because roads leading to Yerevan were basically closed, preventing Armenians from villages and provinces the right to express their anger and their solidarity with the Opposition, whose call for a vote boycott was obviously accepted. Today’s speakers included Raffi Hovhannesian and Opposition leaders such as Stepan Demirjyan, Aram Sargsyan, Aram Karapetyan, and Vazgen Manukyan, most calling for nothing short of revolution. The intellectual community was represented by Ohan Turyan, who pleaded with Armenians to take back their country, saying that the young generation has no future here if the current leadership stays in power, and academician Rafael Ghazaryan, who blasted the Kocharian government and Dashnak party as well. “I see more of a danger now than during the Karabagh war,” he said. “A few criminals have stolen our government, and our nation. And, I personally fought to have Vahan Hovhannisyan and Hrant Markaryan released from prison, during Levon’s rule. Now, I ask, what do you have to gain, joining those who are destroying Armenia. This isn’t the same Dashnak party we all know. And you, Galust Sahakyan, we know you’re completely lacking in morals. But Tigran Torosyan . . . I thought you were young, intelligent, educated, and now you, too, have joined these criminals. . . .”

Television news featured commentators and politicians talking about the peaceful election process, while showing little or nothing of the rally at the Madenataran. “R,” owned by Hrand Vardanyan’s son, showed film of the large gathering at the Madenataran, while National Television narrowed their cameras down to about five men in the front row, standing and clapping, giving the impression that a few pitiful people had gathered for a hopeless cause.

Arriving at the steps of the Madenataran for today’s rally, I came across a group of angry women accosting a journalist working for National Television. “Tell your cameramen to film us, several old women, and show it on your news, like you did last night. Don’t show the crowds that are here. Don’t let people know what is really happening,” they said. The female journalist answered that National Television was the most honest, open, and national of all the stations, which brought more verbal abuse directed at the journalist and the station she represented. A few minutes later, a small entourage arrived, which included several women from the village of Ararat, birthplace of Vazken and Aram Sargsyan. One was the Sargsyan brothers’ mother. She told those standing near her about how policemen in Ararat arrested a group of men loyal to the Sargsyans and confiscated their automobiles, thus preventing them from coming to Yerevan to participate in the hanrahavak. Buses with people coming to Yerevan to take part in the rally also were turned back. Noting the turnout at yesterday’s rally, the authorities didn’t grant permission for today’s, telling the public not to come, that their safety couldn’t be guaranteed. Still, some 10,000 came and listened to Opposition leaders and comic actor Yervand Maranyan, who set his comedy skills aside, attacking the current ruling clique and anyone who supports them. At one point, Raffi Hovhannesian came down from the area near the top of the steps where speakers and journalists were gathered and stood in solidarity with Yerevantsis as they listened to calls for revolution and heard about vote falsification shocking even for Armenia. Another rally is scheduled for Friday.

Several of today’s newspapers had pictures of the November 29 rally, one a huge picture of actor Yervand Maranyan, and several others of the large crowd gathered on the steps below the Madenataran. On National Televison, Vahan Hovhannisyan told his satisfaction of the referendum vote count, adding that he was saddened by calls for revolution. Possibly this is because, as he stated, dual citizenship is scheduled to come into effect in two years, which happens to be the end of Kocharian’s term, with dual citizenship likely allowing Dashnaks living in the Diaspora the right to vote in Armenian elections. In Yerevan’s airport this evening, ministry police searched Raffi Hovhannisian, who was leaving to participate in a seminar in Ukraine. Finding nothing, Hovhannisian was allowed to board his flight. All newspapers have been informed of the search, with articles doubtlessly now being put into print.
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