Yerevan Journal – February-March 2006

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Armenia continues to be a land of paradox, a place of upscale stores and palace-like homes, and people left out of whatever progress is being made, unable to find a place in the complex economic picture or culture. Walking along an icy sidewalk on Tumanyan, just a block from Mashtots Boulevard in the city center, I was approached by no less than three old people, both men and women, pleading for a few dram for bread. This, after a conversation the previous evening led to talk about the “dark years” of the early Nineties, when Armenia’s leaders sold electricity to neighboring countries while their own people froze in the darkness. I was told how my friend’s sister lay sick, in the cold and darkness, eventually dying. “Unless you lived through those years, you can’t understand what we went through, and what it did to our psyche. I learned one thing. A rich person, who has never suffered, can’t be a friend with a hungry man.” That evening, we visited two painters in their studio on Kochar Street, the conversation leading to varied subjects like the apparent appearance of Vano Siradeghian at a funeral in Yerevan, to a new book with Aparantsi jokes, to music, talking about singer Artashes Hunanyan and his son, Gevorg, who now lives in the US. After Hasmik sang a lullaby from Kessab, one of the painters said he thought about his grandmother during the song, that it was like something genetic had awakened in him, something he doesn’t feel when he hears today’s modern singers. He went on to talk about the cancellation of Artur Bakhtamyan’s “Aklorakanch” on National Television, due to poor ratings, or so the excuse given by the station. The real reason, it turns out, is that the show had too national a flavor, taking people on journeys through the Armenian homeland or presenting guests who represent the culture and music of Old Armenia. Such, though, is the current scene here, with no immediate change in sight. Not the case outside of Armenia, though, as Shoghaken was invited to Theatre De La Ville, a presitigious concert hall in Paris, France. There, on February 20, Shoghaken sang, played, and danced the music of Historic Armenia, to an audience of more than 1,000 Parisians, many of whom were Armenians born in France. After the concert, and several interviews, we were told the concert would be broadcast on the international music program “Mezzo” sometime in the near future.

A number of writers and cultural figures are set to go to a writers’ conference in Beirut, yet several are refusing, saying if Hovik Hoveyan is part of the entourage, which he is, they won’t be part of a group containing someone who hit a public worker with a pistol, and is currently still charged with assault. They add that Hoveyan will never have any money problems, having padded his wallet well before being released from his duties as Minister of Culture. Although there is no proof of the latter, rumors abound, likely with some basis, being the nature of how several individuals received positions of power under Hoveyan. On the culture front, a woman told me about her grandfather, a well known dudukist from Javakhk named Harutyun Davtyan, or “Usta Harut.” Davtyan came to Yerevan once and made several recordings on duduk, but unfortunately these recordings were lost or misplaced by National Radio. The woman showed me a letter, in actuality a long poem, written by the ashough Havassi, to Usta Harut. In it, Havassi praised Davtyan’s mastery of the duduk. I was then shown two old duduks from Javakhk with dedications carved in Russian and Armenian. On the lighter side, the Dashnak Minister of Health recently announced there was no bird flu in Armenia, after which he was jokingly admonished, being told “since when does the Dashnak party not consider Van and Moush to be part of Armenia,” as the bird flu has been found in these and other regions of Historic Armenia.

“Anywhere the Turks attacked, I was there. In Shamshadin. Goris. And Shushi. And if something starts again, I will be there. I won’t be doing it for the president, or for myself. I’ll be doing it for the homeland.” Such were the words of a freedom fighter, one whom I was under the impression had fought only in Karabagh, namely Shushi. “Anyone who thinks the Turks just wanted Karabagh is mistaken,” he said. “They wanted to enter Shamshadin and continue to Sevan and Yerevan. Who will win if fighting starts again? I don’t know. But I will be there.” He went on to say that although there were instances when those in the Diaspora sent money or weapons, in most cases Armenian fighters were offered only old clothes or food. “We weren’t hungry,” he said. “We needed uniforms, and weapons. Once Armenians from France sent us old, crumpled slippers and pants. I was there when Catholicos Vazken I banged his ‘gavazan’ on the floor when he saw the old clothes.” He continued with a somewhat controlled tirade about Armenians and their supposed love for the homeland, saying, “If the president of Turkey admitted the Genocide took place, and offered Armenians living in the US and Europe all the money they needed to resettle in Van, Moush, Kharbert, and Erzurum, and the money to rebuild the towns and villages of Old Armenia, how many Armenians from the Diaspora would come to live in their beloved homeland?” to which I answered, maybe a thousand or two, to which he said, “If that many came, I’d be surprised.”

“I don’t understand why Armenians take the role of the defeated,” the Karabaghtsi freedom fighter said. “The Georgians are beaten by the Abkhazians, but are telling the Armenians, both in Javakhk and Armenia, what to do. They’re in the process of forcing Armenians from Javakhk, and we’re doing nothing. They confiscate our churches and cemeteries, and all we do is complain. The Azeris were defeated in Karabagh. And they’re the ones making demands. They destroy our khachkars in Nakhichevan, and we show films to Europeans, hoping for their mercy. We should have gone into Nakhichevan with our soldiers to defend our culture. The world listens to people who defend their land, their honor.” He continued, saying our neighbors, the Turks, Georgians, and Azeris think about their nation first, then, later, about themselves, while Armenians who make money think only about owning a Mercedes or BMW, and getting a number on their license plate that will give him some sort of status with the policemen and his girlfriends. “The Turks did well, massacring us in 1915,” he said. “We were weak. Our rich thought they were invincible, eternal. Today’s rich are the same, whether in Armenia or elsewhere. As a nation, we need to wake up.”

An Aparantsi walked into a television and stereo shop and said, “I’d like this television,” to which the salesman said, “We don’t wait on Aparantsis.” Angered, the Aparantsi went and bought the best, imported clothes he could find, put on dark glasses, went back to the store, and said, “I’ll take this television,” to which the salesman said, “We don’t wait on Aparantsis.” In shock, the Aparantsi borrowed a Mercedes from a friend, dressed in the latest, most expensive clothes he could find, went back to the store, and said, “I’ll take this television,” to which he was again told, “We don’t serve Aparantsis.” Beside himself, the Aparantsi asked the salesman, “I drove the best car, wore the best clothes, put on sunglasses, how did you know I was Aparantsi?” to which the salesman said, “You asked for a television, but were pointing at an aquarium.” Such continues humor in Armenia, centered at times it seems on who can come up with the best Aparantsi joke. Here in Anastasavan, settled almost exclusively by Aparantsis, activity has increased at an amazing rate, since my move here almost six years ago. Then, many of the small shops were empty, and much of the time, the appearance of a car on Bashinjaghyan Street was a rarity. Now, shops are open or being built, garages have been turned into places to buy cement, bricks, and other building material, and small traffic jams occur during rush hour. While the somewhat improved business climate in Yerevan seems to be spreading to this and similar outskirts of the city, and the percentage of poor is said to be decreasing, many unfortunately remain dependent on various handouts and charity. Today I went to district departments of the Social Security Administration to participate in the distribution of raisins brought from Fresno. People from the lower economic eschelons came in droves, from widows and children of fallen soldiers, to orphans and old people and others dependent on this and similar handouts now being conducted by the World Food Program, now busy giving flour, lentils, and cooking oil to the poor. “All we want is work,” one woman said. “Do you people think we enjoy living like this?”

While visiting my wife’s brother’s family in Charbakh, I was pleasantly surprised when her eight-year-old nephew began playing a kamancha, singing a song that didn’t really suit the kamancha, but nonetheless singing. He said he didn’t see any point in learning the duduk, since while one is playing the duduk, it is impossible to sing. He then expressed his disappointment in his teacher at school, whom he said knew nothing about Armenian history. “She asked me to give the name of an Armenian river, and I said ‘Mourad.’ She said there was no such river. I told her it was a river of Moush, and that my father had sung a song for Gevorg Chavoush there just last year.” Then he said he sang “En Dizan” for the class, to which the teacher asked him if he was making the song up. “I had to tell my teacher the song was written by Komitas,” the boy said. “I thought she was the teacher, not me.” I personally had thought the influence of today’s Armenian television programs, which propagandize, almost exclusively, pop stars with questionable talent, was damaging to Armenia’s youth, yet the damage seems to have stretched beyond the younger generation. Also, Yerevan Armenians recently found out that one of the major pop stars has joined a religious sect, likely for business reasons, as this particular star isn’t known for performing unless television cameras are present. After hearing this sort of news, it was nice listening to two young students discussing two of Raffi’s books, Samvel and Davit Bek, and how they were embarrassed about Armenia losing Kars and Ardahan early in the twentieth century, and how one of them, as he learns the tar, hopes to form an ensemble and play the music of Sayat Nova, Havassi, Gusan Ashot, and others.

My first trip this year to the provinces took me to Vanadzor and Stepanavan, where we witnessed the distribution of raisins at schools where handicapped and disadvantaged children both study and live. On the way, we passed Aparan and Alagyaz, where a brief snow and windstorm nearly blew us off the road. Near Mt. Ara, an official from a ministry who was traveling with us announced he was born in a village at the base of the mountain. “My grandparents came from the Plains of Moush in 1915. They settled here. My grandfather fought in the battle of Bash Aparan. The Turks wanted to capture Yerevan, coming from Aparan and Sardarapat.” Passing a curve in the road, he said “The Turks got to this point. After that, they retreated.” Then, pointing at a craggy, large rock on the mountain, he told about going on pilgrimages to Tsaghgevank, located just out of view on the mountain. “We walked from the village, joining people from other villages. We went on Vardavar, and other holidays. I miss those days. Living in Yerevan isn’t the same.” From there, we drove on, past Spitak and on to Vanadzor, where an agronomist friend guided us to two special schools, where we met with teachers and students, and talked with the school directors about their work and conditions at the schools. One of the directors said he was fortunate enough to have sponsors in the U.S. and Europe who paid for the complete renovation of the school, which he said helped the morale of the children who live there. Many, he said, rarely if ever see their parents, who are too poor to pay for transportation to come and visit their children or take them home for the weekend or summer. While we were there, a truck loaded with raisins arrived, and we witnessed several of the older boys rushing to unload the truck, forming an assembly line as they passed the thirty-five-pound boxes of raisins to the next in line. As they worked, it became evident who had vision problems, hearing problems, mental handicaps, etc. “Many in Armenia don’t like to admit we have a large population of such children, but we do,” the director said. “We teach them what we can, and hope they are able to fit into society after finishing school. What is sad is that some of the boys are drafted into the army. I can’t think of anything crueler than this.” Leaving our new friends, we drove to Stepanavan and then back to Vanadzor, before heading to Yerevan. Remembering the snowy stretch near Aparan, we decided to travel by way of Dilijan and Lake Sevan, thinking the roads would be clear and free of snow. Emerging from the Dilijan tunnel, we were greeted by a snowstorm that lasted well past Sevan. At one point, our car stalled, forcing us to try cleaning spark plugs as the storm raged, only to have a taxi pull over, the driver laughing as he played with the carburetor a minute or two and got us on our way. At one point, we stopped and asked a group of policemen at a checkpoint if it was wise to continue, and were answered with a “drive slow and you’ll have no problem.” There, we picked up a mechanic who, although a bit inebriated, gave our driver advice each time the car slid or sped up on its own, and told us which gear was best as we went up or downhill. Reaching Hrazdan, the snow suddenly let up, allowing a safe return to Yerevan.

Today a worker from a village near Echmiadzin came to help in the renovation of our newly-purchased apartment. The young male had a face typical of many from the Echmiadzin region, similar to faces on the illuminated manuscripts of Old Armenia. With influence from the West permeating the country, especially Yerevan, it was good to see such a face. Another such face was that of the old Sassountsi I met at a recent chance meeting in one of the ministries. Although showing the effects of time, the look on his face made it obvious the stories his nephew told were true. “My uncle was one of the Sassountsis who fought Turks in the Talin region in the early 1920s, killing them or driving them to other regions of Armenia. Too bad we can’t do today what they did back then,” to which the old man replied, “Why can’t you?” When I told the old Sassountsi I had just been in Moush and the Plains of Moush, he began telling about Zoravar Smbat and his relationship with Gevorg Chavoush. “It was Rouben Der Minasian who ordered the killing of Gevorg Chavoush, at the Sulukh Bridge. True, Kurds killed Chavoush, but Der Minasian ordered the killing. This is what Smbat said. It is written in his memoirs. There was no reason for him to lie. He even went to Chavoush’s funeral. The Turks respected Chavoush, and gave him a big funeral. Zoravar Smbat was there, at the funeral. He dressed in a Turkish army uniform, so the Turks wouldn’t know who he was.” His nephew went on to tell about his own trip to Sassoun, where a Sassountsi friend found his father’s house. “The Kurds there all know who owned the houses there in the past,” he said. “After the Kurd said the name of the Armenian who had owned the house, my friend said, ‘That was my father. I am here to collect rent, from 1915 to now. Later, I will come and live here.’”

Yerevan Armenians are furious about the destruction of their city, historical buildings continuing to be leveled, making way for expensive high-rise apartment buildings for rich Diasporan Armenians and others longing to live in the center of the city. A few days ago, while riding around town with a business associate, he suddenly pulled off Komitas Boulevard into an area with a store and a palace-like house and garden. “A protected city park was here before,” he said. “Someone with money paid off someone else, and the park, with all its old trees, is no more.” Later, driving down another, quieter street, we came across two different high-rises under construction, one of the buildings throwing a classic, two-story house completely in the shade. A mystery is where all these new residents might find a place to park their cars, as no parking spaces are foreseen in this area. Today, walking along the edge of the Vernisage, I was shocked to see what was left of the historical “Kinoi Tun,” or Movie House, which looked as if it had been struck by a severe earthquake. In its place, another tall apartment building is planned. A pity those planning on living in these new apartments don’t ask what historical building might have been destroyed to make way for their new homes, or what family might have been uprooted to clear way for their extravagant new apartment in their “homeland.”

A university student declared to me that most of his friends were dissatisfied with the new song pop singer Andre recorded for the Eurovision festival. The student says the melody and singing style are Turkish. The beginning melody, before Andre starts singing, is definitely Arabic, although apologists for Andre are saying the melody is “Eastern.” The head of national radio and television, trying his best to put people at ease, stated that even Sayat Nova used eastern melodies in his works, but the controversy continues. Although no one was expecting Andre to perform anything close to folk or classical Armenian music, popular opinion is that Andre went too far this time. In any event, even if the song earns some kind of award, Armenia and its music suffer again. With Armenia’s doors to the world and its influences open, and profit instead of art the current goal by most in Armenia, culture is suffering a terrible blow, as was the case this morning when a Conservatory professor and her student, a kanon player, gave a wonderful set of speeches about the importance of maintaining Armenian music in its true form, yet saying it was fine to use synthesizers and other modern techniques so the young generation would accept the music . . . a common excuse given by those short of talent and work ethic. Saying she would play a folk tune with a modern arrangement, a CD was turned on, orchestra and all, with the girl pretending to play the kanon, while her professor friend gazed in awe at the girl’s supposed playing technique. With this girl’s claim of maintaining pure Armenian folk music, and pop singers currently claiming they are “folk” or “ashoughagan” singers, rabiz singer Tata’s claim that he is just a rabiz singer, and nothing more, makes him more honest than those claiming to be something they’re not. And, funny, or sad, a recent show on Turkish national television had young men and women dancing to a melody that was obviously Armenian, and without using synthesizers, etc., merely zurna, saz, and dhol. None of the Turkish youth had the supposed problem Armenian youth are having accepting pure folk music. Also, although some Armenians will say that Turks are thieves for their use of Armenian music, it seems that in some cases, including the current example, Turks are doing more to preserve Armenian folk music than Armenians.

As time passes, I find it easier to understand why many, if not most, Yerevantsis long for the days of the Soviet Union, with “Getse Soviet Miutyun” heard here quite often. It is said that even the highest Communist officials had a fear of what might happen if they broke certain laws, and that acts like the recent confiscation of Raffi Hovhannisyan’s Heritage party offices would never have been attempted. Also, in Soviet days, one would never have heard what I was told today by a young student, who said there had been a knifing recently at his school, and that it wasn’t the first time. He said that today around fifteen students severely beat a boy, who later required hospital care, something that never happened in Soviet times. The student went on to say the principal of the school, who apparently had connections in the local “KGB,” called one of the agents to watch over the schools a few days. The local agency, or possibly police working for the executive branch of government, recently imprisoned an attorney, who took the case of those thrown out of their houses to make way for new apartment buildings in the city center, to the European courts. They apparently told the attorney he had no right appealing to the Europeans . . . in other words, don’t interfere with our work. Finally, embarrassed or reprimanded by the Europeans, they released the attorney. For those with access to National Television, tonight’s broadcast of parliamentarians and government officials making statements about issues of concern was highlighted possibly by Artashes Geghamyan’s claim that video film exists of the wealthiest Armenians passing their time, and vacations, in various Diaspora countries, film that shows narcotic use, lewd behavior with women, etc., and that the reason Kocharian signs every bill these same people propose is that Kocharian is one of them, and that if Kocharian doesn’t resign, these films will be released. Time will tell the substance of Geghamyan’s claim.

During the Karabagh war, Azeris attacked and tried to enter Armenia all along the region of Goris, including the villages of Tegh and Khundzoresk. In a field near Tegh, while planting a test plot of several varieties of garbanzos, lentils, sunflower seeds, and peas, I studied the landscape of this border village, noting its short distance from the old border with Azerbaijan. In the distance, I saw a village nestled in a hilly area, and was told it was in the Lachin region, and that it was currently populated by Armenians. One local said there were villages in a gorge separating Tegh from Khundzoresk, and continuing into the Lachin region. In the distance, I saw what looked like a large village, or town, and was surprised to hear it was Lachin, not realizing Lachin was so close to the old border. A strong wind, normal for this time of the year, blew as we completed our work. Back in Tegh, we went to our friends’ house and were greeted with a dinner of fish, potatoes, bread, meat, tuti arak, and greens, all grown in and around Tegh. “The fish are from our river,” the old man stated. I asked what river he was talking about, and he said “the Vorotan.” Of course, the Vorotan river runs past Sissian and then angles away from Tegh, but being it’s in the area, it’s considered “their river.” As we ate, toasts were given, in a dialect nearly impossible to understand, for our friendship and new acquaintance, and for the Armenians in the Diaspora, especially the California Armenians, being they found out I was from the Fresno area and a relative of Saroyan. After dinner, we left for Khundzoresk, where we ate and drank more before finally calling it a night sometime after midnight. The next morning, returning to Tegh for some tree cuttings, I stood on an embankment where I had a good view of Tegh, seeing an old church, caves, which were lived in until the 1950s, and, closer, women walking from house to house or stable to house with containers of milk, eggs, and cheese, as dogs barked and horse-drawn carts rumbled through the village. A local approached, and said the church I had seen was old, very old, although he didn’t know what century it was built, adding the road to the church was bad, that I shouldn’t attempt walking there. When I asked how life was in the village, he said “a lot like Yerevan, I suppose. About a third of the people are living badly, with the rest doing better, some a little better, and some quite well.” Shortly, we bade farewell, and left for Yerevan, stopping along the way in Sissian, where we met with World Vision officials, and then, later, nearly out of gasoline, stopping in Gorhayk, a village on the road from Sissian to Vayk. There, we made our way through muddy streets to a garage where a local was selling gasoline, then back to the main road and on to Yerevan. That night, I was greeted by what seemed foreign, after my trip to the distant, remote region of Tegh and Khundzoresk
. . . talk during news broadcasts about just how “Turkish” or “Mongol/Tatar” Andre’s new song is (as stated by politician Kalust Sahakyan) and if Armentel is making arrangements for Andre to receive an award for his song, to hopefully ease the negative feelings in Armenia towards Armentel.

When I asked two Yerevantsis about the opinion some have that Karen Demirjian shouldn’t be idolized as he is by many, that during his years of power the Azeri population in Armenia grew at an alarming rate, as Demirjian worked to move villagers into Yerevan to justify the construction of the subway system, I was given what amounted to a good scolding. I was told that even though there may have been more Azeris than necessary, Armenia’s population was over 3,500,000, people had work, science and culture were held in high esteem in the country, girls didn’t act as many of them do today, and Armenia answered only to Moscow, not to Europe, America, Russia, Iran, and even Turkey, as they do today. Influence and various demands from Europe and the West continue, with the recent announcement of the closure of some special schools where children from poor or unstable families live or stay most of the year. As in the West, the children will be placed in regular classrooms, although the needed and promised special staffing will likely not come about. Unfortunately, the poorest strata in Armenia will again be the ones who suffer, and all this to meet demands of richer western countries who bring their money, always with stipulations, many of which don’t work in this part of the world. Also, this might not be the right time to start such a program, the mixing of poor or handicapped children in public schools, with the recent rash of knifings and beatings, and even the death of one student, a result of being beaten and kicked during a melee at one of Yerevan’s schools. A young high school student told me his school has enforced a lockdown of sorts, students having to stay all day in their second-floor classes, not allowed to go outside or even to the first floor during the course of the school day, all to prevent the worst from happening. Another interesting request from a western organization was the need to film wife-beating husbands and their wives, to fulfill the requirement of some sort of project or program. Although they were able to find cases of wife-beating, none of those involved were willing to be filmed, saying it was no business of Europeans or anyone else what went on in their homes, so the organization hired actresses to play the part of women being beaten by their husbands, thus meeting the demands of their project directors and justifying their work here. A pity those claiming to be here to advance Armenia’s educational, health, and political system stay mostly quiet in the face of rampant corruption, questionable elections, and a judicial system completely untrusted by citizens.

While doing some editing at the “Yerkir” office, someone asked if I knew who was in the picture on the wall just above where I was sitting. When I said it was Hrayr Tjhokhk (Armenak Ghazarian), the person who asked was surprised I knew. Several of us then started talking about Gevorg Chavoush and others of that era, so I asked what they knew about General Smbat’s statement that Ruben Der Minasian had ordered the killing of Chavoush. Everyone knew about Smbat’s charge, but no one believed it, saying it was impossible that someone of Der Minasian’s character would do such a thing. One of those in the group was a Mshetsi, whose grandparents were from Bulanukh. He said he had taken several in his family, including grandchildren, to Bulanukh this past summer, and had stayed there nearly two months, adding the Kurds there treated them all very well. The next day, I was fortunate to meet with Arax Davitian, probably the best living Armenian opera singer today. While talking, what became obvious was her complete immersion in her art, not like some with whatever degree of talent who spend so much time trying to promote their career, that in the end their art suffers. In Davitian’s case, this definitely hasn’t happened. A recent health setback prevented her appearance in concerts over the past few months in the U.S. and Europe, but now Davitian is back in form, and plans several concerts, including a concert in Armenia in June. She mentioned the concert in Moscow dedicated to the Armenian year in Russia, in which Armenian ambassador to Russia Armen Smbatyan chose not to have Davitian sing, since she had put her signature on the list of questions Raffi Hovhannisyan sent to Robert Kocharian. A pity, especially since the concert was so bad that it’s still a subject of conversation in Yerevan. Then, last night, I was reminded of another great singer, Hovhannes Badalian, whose “Horovel” and “Dun En Glkhen” were part of the soundtrack of the classic Sayat Nova movie, starring Babken Nersisyan. Badalyan’s “Dun En Glkhen” was, possibly after the version by Glakho Zakaryan, the best ever recorded of that song.

Aparantsi parliamentarian Manuk Gasparyan, talking about the offer by Azerbaijan to have Azeris who lived in Karabagh before the war return to their homes, after which a referendum on which country would govern Karabagh would be held fifteen years later, said the plan would result, without a doubt, in Karabagh returning to Azeri rule. He explained that the Azeris knew well that most young Karabagh Armenians were now living in Armenia, making plenty of money under the positive conditions created for Karabaghtsis by President Kocharian. The current Armenian population of Karabagh, Gasparyan explained, is older. If Azeris moved there now, they would have large families, and in fifteen years, the older Armenians will have died off, with the population by then overwhelmingly Azeri, thus, a vote which would return Karabagh to Azeri rule. A joke of sorts being told in Yerevan is the following: President Kocharian finds a golden fish, which grants him several wishes. First, he wishes for Karabagh to be free from Azerbaijan. The fish grants the wish. Then, he wishes for Karabagh Armenians to live in Armenia. Again, the wish is granted. The third wish has Kocharian wishing for all Hayastantsis to live in Karabagh. The wish is granted. After which, Kocharian gives Karabagh back to Azerbaijan.
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