Yerevan Journal – December 2005

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Hanrahavak, Yerevan, 2005 A staff member in one of the ministries told me he was embarrassed that he had thought the referendum vote would be conducted honestly. He went on to tell about a village in Ararat where only five or six people had gone to cast ballots, yet it was reported that some 1,000 had voted, with ninety-three percent voting “yes.” Perhaps this sort of news being spread explains the decision from City Hall to not allow today’s scheduled hanrahavak, planned by the Opposition, to take place. Yet, as of five o’clock, the rally was taking place.
. . . On the cultural front, a well known folk musician told us he had been selected as a jury member for the upcoming annual national music competition, but later refused to continue due to the way the competition was being run. When presented with a list of three or four names, for a given category, he was told to choose one from the list as best in that category. When he said he had never heard of any of the singers, he was told to go ahead and pick somebody, that it didn’t really matter. After this happened two or three times, the musician finally said he had had enough and withdrew his name from the jury, as did one of Armenia’s better known conductors. It happened that last year, two Shoghaken CDs were chosen to represent the folk tradition in Armenia, but were withdrawn from the competition since there were no other CDs which could be considered as traditional folk. A sad state of affairs, possibly sadder the fact that those in charge didn’t give the award to Shoghaken, as is normally done in competitions if there is no other competitor in any given area, thus keeping real folk music a hidden commodity in Armenia.

Estimates of the number of those attending Friday’s hanrahavak ranged up to 10,000, the same or perhaps slightly less than the previous two rallies. Theories vary as to why more don’t gather, as during previous times of protest or, in the case of the Karabagh movement, national unity. Some who joined earlier protests, as in the early and mid-Nineties, say their voices weren’t heard then, and won’t be now. Others place little faith in the Opposition, saying that none of them were worth anything when they were in power. Speaking of Vazken and Aram Sargsyan’s mother’s protest against the recent vote count, people remind that during an important election in the Nineties, Vazken Sargsyan stated “Even if so-and-so had gained 100 percent of the vote, he would have lost,” in other words, they say, why didn’t the Sargsyans’ mother protest then, when her son was doing the same thing as is happening now? Last night, a man told us everyone in his office, some six people, had all voted “yes,” thinking the constitutional changes offered were worthy. Then again, he went on to say he knew that the vote count was fraudulent, that the report of 1,500,000 votes cast was ridiculous. On television, when Galust Sahakyan was confronted with an Opposition member stating that even Artur Baghdasaryan, speaker of the National Assembly and a member of the ruling coalition, admitted there was ballot box stuffing, he more or less turned blue, from anger and/or embarrassment, saying that if such proof exists, he should be notified.

Varagavank, Shamshadin Region, 2005 Sunrise and snow on the Sevan penninsula led to a great photo opportunity of the monastery, but an icy road didn’t allow me to reach for my camera in the back of the Niva. We continued on through the tunnel and to Dilijan, where the sun shone and roads cleared, a condition which continued all the way to Shamshadin, located in the northeast of Armenia in the province of Tavoush. Passing the village of Aygehovit, still in the region of Ichevan, a glance to the right revealed a church buried in a thick forest, on the top of the mountain. Curious, we asked several village men standing alongside the road what the name of the church was. “St. Sargis,” one of them replied, to which another said the word “Sultan” and another word I didn’t understand, the word Sultan likely used the same way as Armenians call St. Karapet of Moush “Sultan St. Karabet.” As the two men argued about the name of the church, we continued on, entering Shamshadin and the villages of Paravakar and Aygepar. Near Aygepar, on a field between Movses and Verin Karmraghbyur, we completed a late planting of winter wheat, possible since snow had yet to fall in Shamshadin, as in most of Armenia. The tractor driver was from the village of Chinchin, located high on a mountain overlooking our wheat field. “We have a church in our village,” the driver said. “I think it’s name is Kaputak Vank.” When I asked why the vank was named Kabutak (blue), he said, jokingly, “Maybe because the sky is bluer up there.” As a cold wind blew, we planted our wheat seed, finally finishing just before darkness set in. From Aygepar, we drove to the regional center of Berd, where we stayed the night at a wheat farmer’s house. In the morning, as water was still frozen in puddles along and in the street, we walked to the famous Tslik Amram castle, which turned out to be a huge mountain of rock located on the edge of the town. Ramparts and a small wall appear near the top of the wall of rock. As we wandered the area, a man who lived in a house at the base of the rock told us the history of the castle. He said that during Soviet times archaeologists did their best to find the entrance to the fortress. Unsuccessful, the entrance to the castle, located somewhere in the middle of the rock, remains a mystery. From Bert, we had wanted to drive to Chinari and Khoranashat Monastery, but distance and an incident of sorts, where Azeris had come through the forest and appeared at the monastery, led us to decide to head back to Yerevan. But, with curiosity about the monuments of Shamshadin getting the best of us, we turned into the village of Varagavan and continued up into the forest, finally reaching Varagavank, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Varagavank consists of a main church, the dome still intact, two smaller churches, both mainly in ruins, and the remains of a gavit. As one of our small group sang “Der Voghormia” in the main church, we walked amongst the ruins and trees, taking pictures of the church and several khachkars spread throughout the area. From the monastery, we drove down the hill, to the main road and on to Yerevan.

It has been seventeen years since the earthquake struck and destroyed much of northern Armenia. Video footage of the disaster was shown on several television stations, with people standing or sitting near crumbled buildings, corpses, and coffins, the sorrow and shock on their faces almost unbearable. My wife’s brother shook as he told about his efforts in Gyumri in December 1988. “Right after the quake, I went to Gyumri. I stayed a week. All day and night, we made our way through the rubble, pulling cement and stone to the side, looking for survivors. Nine-story buildings had collapsed down to nothing. As we worked through the rubble, occasionally we’d come across an arm, a hand, or a head. Then, very carefully, we’d clear and remove the body. We didn’t find anybody that was still alive. It was terrible. The smell. People crying, wondering if the body we found was their loved one. There was a school. The roof collapsed on a room of children. When they removed the ceiling, still in one piece, they found all the children, crushed, flattened. Luckily, I wasn’t there. I was already sick. After a week, I couldn’t take any more. I went to a friend’s house in Stepanavan, stayed two days, then went home. For six months, I couldn’t even pick up salt with my fingers. My nerves were shot, ruined.”

While waiting for a presentation commemorating the 1988 earthquake to begin, I was fortunate to be taken on a tour of the lobby area in the Gyumri theater building, by the theater’s artistic director. There, dozens of framed photographs hang from the walls, pictures of actors and directors born in Gyumri, and actors who simply worked at the theater. Probably the most famous were Mher Mkrtchyan, born in Gyumri and with roots in Kars and Van, and Khoren Abrahamyan. A large mural of a village scene on a side wall turned out to be by the great painter Minas Avetisyan, born in the nearby Mshetsi-populated village of Jajur. Thanking my host, I took my seat along with a crowd of around 700, ready for an evening of recital to begin. Stunned silence reigned as Lucik Aguletsi’s harse, Gayane, recited poems for over an hour, backed up by Levon Tevanyan playing the blul and Hasmik singing songs such as Gorani, Yeraz Im Yerkir Hayreni, a lullaby, and the slow, shockingly beautiful beginning to Zartir Lao. After the daytime performance, we were shown buildings unaffected by the earthquake . . . buildings constructed around 1920 and before. Later that evening, we returned to Yerevan, into the dense fog that continues to disrupt air travel into and out of Zvartnots. As the year closes, opinions and feelings about the state of affairs in Armenia continue to vary to an amazing degree, from those with complete faith in the authorities to those comparing them to Turks and worse. Only time will tell who is right, if anybody is. Translating the text of what could become an important documentary, I was reminded that our neighbors, both Turks and their brothers, the Azeris, have worked diligently for decades to erase anything Armenian from both Western Armenia and Artsakh. As Turks and Kurds acted in Moush, at the St. Karapet Monastery, Azeris continued in Artsakh, using khachkars and carved stones from the churches to build homes and even stables, leaving nothing behind, while anything remaining, in Artsakh, was named “Albanian.” It happened that in 1970, the Minister of Culture in Azerbaijan sent an order to the museum in Stepanakert, insisting they present a list of anything Armenian being kept there, and then send it to Baku. Luckily Armenians didn’t comply. Another order was sent by the head of the secret police, none other than Heidar Aliev, to Azeris in Armenian areas, telling them to not allow Armenians, Russians, or Europeans into Armenian areas, for photographing, filming, or any similar purpose. This is apparently before they started using the term “Albanian” for monuments built by Armenians. All this aside, with a trip in the works, Yerevan Journal will take a break, and will be resumed in February, with news of Yerevan, the provinces, Western Armenia, the Shoghaken Ensemble, and culture in Armenia.
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