Yerevan Journal – April 2006

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A minor rift arose between Armen Amiryan, director of National Radio, and Alexan Harutyunyan, who heads National Television, due to the subject of a show on National Radio. It happened that on one of folklorist Arusiak Sahakyan’s weekly programs, callers flooded the airwaves with negative comments about Andre’s new song for Eurovision. The following week, a well known musician-producer was Sahakyan’s guest, and he expressed a similar negative opinion about the song. Amidst all this, Sahakyan simply stated that she hadn’t heard the song, so had no personal opinion. Alexan Harutyunyan, who has taken it upon himself to defend Andre and the song, called Sahakyan and said he wanted the show taken off the air, for her having said negatives things about the song. She told him she hadn’t even expressed an opinion, but offered her resignation anyway. Hearing about this, Amiryan protested, saying the show was staying. He played a tape of the shows for Harutyunyan, who, realizing it was the people, not Sahakyan, who spoke against Andre’s song, withdrew his threat.

. . . Which brings up a related, sad subject, which became even clearer as I roamed from television station to television station this morning. On one of Russia’s national stations, cameramen had gone to a town in the east of the country, where the town’s population had gathered, most in national costume, singing, dancing, and playing folk instruments to traditional music of the region. On Armenian National Television, a circus. A station I believe reaches the international Armenian audience had a sort of “competition” where Armenian teens judged new songs by pop stars. On Tigran Karapetyan’s personal station, village boys and girls, completely unprepared, one by one, sang pop songs. Another Armenian station had a repeat of a show where folk musicians teamed with two or three on synthesizers while a woman whined out an ashoughagan song. On one of Turkey’s national stations, professional folk musicians . . . playing kamancha, ud, and saz . . . performed excellent mughams, as folk singers took turns singing (live, no CDs playing in background), with occasional folk dancing, and an appreciative audience of about 100. It is said a nation that holds its folk music high is a strong nation, and maintains its national character and identity. With the current trend in Armenia, the youth will soon be unaware that folk music even exists, or think that by pressing a button on a synthesizer, and adding a zurna or duduk in the background, the result can somehow be called folk music.

“Shamshadin means ‘land of sun’ in Persian,” our friend said, as he talked about his place of birth. “Tovuz, our village, means ‘peacock.’ The large, rocky mountaintop overlooking Tovuz might be part of the fortress of nearby Bert, where Tslik Amram lived a thousand years ago. We are part of the old province of Utik, which included upper Karabagh. Here, in Shamshadin, only Armenians have lived over the centuries. Even in Soviet times, no Turks lived here. There were no Kurds, Yezdiz, Turks, or anybody but Armenians. We will keep it that way.” As he talked, his mother, somewhere past eighty-five years of age and hard of hearing, sat next to the television, listening to “Hay Lur” on National Television. We all started listening as the latest from the European courtroom was told about the Azeri officer who killed an Armenian officer as he slept at a NATO officer-training school. “He has the head shape of a Turk,” the old woman said about the accused. In this area, almost directly on the border with Azerbaijan, the story had special meaning. I had been told by a farmer in Aygepar, a small town near Tovuz, that a shepherd had been wounded, just three days earlier, on the road from Aygepar to Movses, a road I had been on last August. The road overlooks several Azeri villages. Yet, the gunfire had come not from the villages but from Azeri soliders high on the mountain. Typical for Turks, they had fired at a simple village shepherd and his flock, killing twenty-five sheep with automatic weapon fire. I was told the road was now closed. When I asked about going to Khoranashat monastery, located in a forested area on the border, near the village of Chinari, the farmer told me it was no longer safe to go there. I had wanted to visit the well known monastery, where Mkhitar Gosh has studied 800 years earlier, but current conditions obviously prohibited that visit. Villagers and soldiers in Shamshadin are on a kind of permanent lookout, as they lack the protection afforded to villages in Zangezur, brought about by the capture of the Lachin and Zangelan areas. Armenian authorities realize the importance of Shamshadin, in a military sense, yet the economy of the area still suffers, in spite of its rich agriculture. We had planted experimental plots of garbonzos, lentils, sunflower seeds, and peas, all of which have a future there, but, besides using and selling these items, Shamshadin also needs factories for the marketing and possible export of these and other agricultural products, to realize true economic growth and security for this important region.

Hundreds of members and supporters of Raffi Hovhannisyan’s Heritage party gathered today at the Writers’ Union in Yerevan to voice concerns and announce future plans for the party. Hovhannisyan opened the meeting with a challenge to the current authorities, saying no degree or amount of intimidation would drive him or his family from his Armenian homeland. Speakers including academician Rafael Ghazaryan, actors Vladamir Abajyan and Yervand Manaryan, and area leaders of Heritage repeated claims of voter fraud in November’s constitutional referendum and other recent elections, while adding further charges of corruption and the intimidation of party members. It happens that several Heritage party workers have been arrested and forced to sign papers saying they were forced to attend Opposition rallies last winter. An odd thing to have people sign, as authorities are known to order school principals and others to bring their entire schools or work forces to government-sponsored events, while it was obvious that none of today’s overflow crowd was forced to attend. Interesting was the large number of university-age students present, making up possibly half the crowd, the rest made up largely of intellectuals and several from the cultural community, including singers Khoren Balyan and Arax Davitian. During a question and answer period, a freedom fighter who had participated in the Karabagh war and been wounded thanked Hovhannisyan for helping him financially, along with others in similar financial difficulties, not failing to mention the pittance they receive from the government. One speaker angrily noted that nobody has said what person or agency shut down the Heritage party offices, while another said almost as many Armenians have fled the homeland during Kocharian’s rule as were killed during the Genocide. Another speaker said he was shocked to hear the Armenian defense minister say that part of the liberated territories weren’t Armenian lands, saying Turks and Azeris freely claim anyone’s land, be it Armenian, Kurdish, Assyrian, or anyone else’s, as their own, not to mention the recent statement coming from Baku that no Armenian had ever lived in Nakhichevan. A sad note, that a female singer associated with Dashnaksutyun had planned to sing the national hymn, “Mer Hayrenik,” at the start of the meeting, but was told by a party official, “Why do you want to sing for Raffi?” thus prohibiting someone from singing the Armenian national hymn (for someone not a member of Dashnaksutyun or the ruling coalition). . . .

Easter arrived a week early in the Charbakh district of Yerevan, as the Harutyunyan children and their friends performed a traditional Easter for Internews Armenia, who had been asked to film the holiday for audiences in Moscow and the U.S. Singing “Mets Avetis,” the children approached a house, where the women greeted the children, offered them rice, and wished them a happy Easter holiday. As the filming continued, neighbors filled the courtyards and streets, enjoying the traditional Easter celebration. Easter eggs were painted, as the children sang traditional songs, after which they danced the Gyovend to “Mur Tan Idev,” to the music of the shvi. Afterwards, inside the family home, we ate “mandagh,” one of the greens that grows wild in Armenia, and rice with raisins and dried apricots. In the evening, we decided to watch the concert which took place on International Women’s Day a month earlier, attending by the president and other dignitaries. It turned out to be the kind of event that happens only in Armenia, where a concert with the highest government officials in attendance would be a concert of pop stars, presenting some from the Seventies who were supposedly passing the torch to the new generation. Were it not for Rouben Matevosyan, who maintains a good voice in spite of some aging, not a single performer was what could be called a real singer, as it became merely a parade of today’s pop stars, one or two who were simple choir singers in Soviet times. Not a surprise, towards the end of the concert a few songs were sung in English, including James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” Hopefully for Brown’s sake, he won’t hear what happened to his song. I was reminded of a nearly violent argument I was recently witness to in a political party’s office where a musician challenged the others in the room, saying their condemnation of Andre’s song for Eurovision for being “Turkish” or “Arabic” was ridiculous. He asked why no one complained about the music heard daily in Armenia, most of which sounds like it’s coming from a street in Bourj Hamoud or Syria, continuing by saying no one there could tell the difference between Turkish, Uzbek, Arabic, or any other music from the Near East. Besides, he said, the government, which includes Kocharian and his clique, who have been working to do away with the national face of the country, were finally successful, as was proved by Andre’s song, merely a reflection of today’s music in Armenia.

Thanks to fortunate timing, we were able to listen to a rehearsal, at the Komitas Chamber hall, of an Italian saxophonist whose sold-out concert with the Armenian Chamber Orchestra was to take place the next day. The orchestra’s regular conductor, Aram Gharabekyan, watched as guest conductor Constantine Orbelian led the orchestra. During a break, we met with Orbelian, a symphony conductor, who told us he was from San Francisco but has lived in Moscow for over a decade. As rehearsal continued, we met with Arax Davitian and bass singer Barsegh Tumanyan, easily two of the best Armenian singers worldwide. It is said that Tumanyan, once a star in European opera, is again in perfect form. Another opera singer, who had attended the Arno Babajanyan Music Institute with Hasmik, was also there, to rehearse with Davitian. Later, we learned that the Armenian opera theater, which consists of some 200 individuals including singers, ballet dancers, and various workers, has declined in general quality to an alarming degree in the post-Soviet era. Apparently Gegham Grigoryan, once a great opera tenor in his own right, and who directs the opera, commenting about female singers he accepted into the opera, said “If they’re pretty, they can learn to sing opera, why not?” which led Davitian to call Grigoryan to task for the statement. He answered that Davitian knew nothing about opera, so had no right to talk. It happens that Davitian doesn’t perform on the opera stage due to extremely poor vision, which Grigoryan knew, but nevertheless belittled Davitian. Others followed Davitian by saying the whole opera has become nothing but another “Opera Club,” a night club located in the national opera complex. It was also said that nowhere in the world but Armenia is a strip club, which is all the Opera Club is, located in a national opera building. Perhaps those in the Diaspora who help fund the opera and national symphony should consider these realities and make demands accordingly, as the local leaders in government seem uninterested in such realities.

Today I visited a small school for handicapped young children in the district of Yerevan known as “Utyerort Massiv” with a co-worker and a man who helps establish similar schools in the various districts of Yerevan. A group of qualified teachers work as volunteers in the school, which is funded by foreign charitable organizations. The director, an engineer by trade, said the Armenian government gives nothing to the school, and wealthy Armenians living here aren’t used to giving money to charitable causes. Additional funding is sorely needed, made clear by a steadily leaking bathroom roof, the lack of a telephone, and a nurse’s room where curtains are hung on the wall to cover the decaying walls and paint. Yet, these dedicated people go on. They offered us Easter pilaf, greens, wine, Easter eggs, and cake, not to mention small items carved and painted by the children. “One hundred dollars a month would work miracles here,” the director said. . . . Leaving the school, we drove through the Komitas district and then past the area known as “Monument” and the new, glamorous hotel built in Haghtanak Park. Our friend, an architect, told us the hotel was built with stolen money, and is generally empty, except possibly for visiting soccer teams, etc., sent there by government representatives. We continued into the city center and down Khanjian Street, passing what was the Kinoi Tun (Movie House), on which spot a building over twenty stories high is to be built. The first few floors are supposed to be for the movie people, with the remaining meant for residential use. When I asked where all these people were going to park their cars, the architect merely stated, “No one talks or cares about this.” Then, my co-worker said, mockingly, “What if I filled out an application saying I wanted to buy the Komitas statue in front of the Conservatory, would the city sell it to me?” to which the architect said, why not, they would just declare it of no use, and sell it, with the condition you have someone construct a new statue in its place, which would probably be like the new one of Arno Babajanyan. “Only in Armenia,” the co-worker said. Similar in the “Only in Armenia” vein is the Ohan Turyan concert scheduled for tonight in Yerevan, which this time, hopefully, will take place. The last time a night dedicated to Turyan was planned, it is said the symphony pretended it wasn’t ready, so the concert was cancelled. Only in Armenia, they say, would someone of Turyan’s immense talent have been so unceremoniously removed from his position as symphony conductor, which happened in the recent past, and then an evening dedicated to him be cancelled in such a manner.

“I was born in Nakhichevan, near the current border with Armenia at Sissian, in a village close to the capital of ancient Goghtn. I have been in every village and town in Nakhichevan, both Armenian and Azeri. My last trip there was in 1989, just after the Sumgait massacre. It was already getting dangerous for Armenians to travel into Nakhichevan, even though the Soviet Union hadn’t yet collapsed.” The ninety-three-year-old man, whose eyesight is starting to fail, is still in near-perfect health, with a strong voice and posture. “I saw the khachkar cemetery in Hin Jugha (Old Julfa) back in 1943, long before the Azeris began destroying the cemetery. Thousands of khachkars. Now, nothing is left. It was an old cemetery, built in the original Julfa, which was founded in the time of Shah Abbas. In Soviet times, no one could go there, to the cemetery, even Azeris, as it was in a protected border zone. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, Azeris started destroying the khachkars. They also destroyed the churches of Agulis, once a famous town, rich from trading in silk. There were four large churches in Agulis. The last time I was there, just one was left standing. The Azeris hadn’t destroyed it, since they were using it for storage, and because of a spring inside the church itself. What water, I’ve never had any like it. Now, I don’t know if the church is standing, or if the Azeris destroyed it too. They don’t want anything Armenian to remain in all of Nakhichevan. They didn’t even exist before 1918. In Lenin’s records, he used these words about the Caucasus: Georgians, Armenians, and Caucasian Tatars. Azeris tried to tell the world they came from the ancient people known as Partevs. When no one took them seriously, they started saying they originated from the Caucasian Albanians, which they still say. They also say no Armenians ever lived in Nakhichevan. If that’s so, what am I?” In the next room, a great-granddaughter played a piece by Aram Khachaturyan. “His parents are from Nakhichevan,” the old man said. He continued, telling about General Andranik. “Andranik was in Goris, on his way to Karabagh to help the Armenians, who were being massacred in Shushi. Just after Goris, the British blocked the road, and said they would take care of everything. They did just that,” the old man said bitterly. “Then Andranik went back to Echmiadzin. One day, some of his men were going to Yerevan, not for anything special, just for meetings, or maybe to visit people. General Dro’s people stopped them. Maybe they were afraid Andranik was going to try and take over the government. After all, next to Andranik, who was Dro? Then, the writer Hovhannes Tumanyan told Andranik his work was done, that there was no place for him in Armenia. Andranik left, and went to Fresno, where he died. There was nobody like Andranik.”

. . . Sitting down to an Easter dinner of pilaf with raisins and dried apricots, fish, chicken, salad, and potatoes, the old Nakhichevantsi declared himself the “seghanapet,” the one who would lead the toasts. After welcoming everyone and wishing them a happy Easter, he began singing “Kani Voor Jan Im,” and other Sayat Nova songs, in which Hasmik happily joined. A visitor from Los Angeles, a woman born in Yerevan but living in the U.S. for the past ten years, and who had somehow taken on a sort of Mariah Carey/American pop facial expression, listened to the singing, basically in awe, later saying she hadn’t heard real Armenian music since moving to the U.S. Yet, here in Armenia, with western influence permeating life and culture, the uniquely Armenian style and appearance are, in my opinion, starting to be negatively affected. No help in maintaining anything national is National Television, which, on the evening of Good Friday, broadcasted one of the Rambo movies, not exactly the fare expected by a national television station during such an important religious time. Not to mention a steady diet of cheap murder or martial arts movies. Many Armenians here are shocked at the lack of national feeling by those running the mass media outlets and even the ministries, including the defense ministry. One freedom fighter, instead of lamenting the destruction of the Armenian khachkar cemetery in Old Julfa, said Armenians aren’t worthy of their ancient monuments, that they should have entered Nakhichevan and stopped the destruction. These comments came after the freedom fighter had just finished praising the organizational ability of the defense minister, then going on to call the minister a coward who was afraid of what the world might say or do if Armenians entered Nakhichevan. “We aren’t worthy of Andranik and Nzhdeh,” he said. “We have to stop worrying about what the supposed world powers might say and take care of business like we know how. Can you imagine what would have happened to Armenian Zangezur if Nzhdeh had worried about what the world powers might say before destroying the Russian and Turkish divisions who attacked back then? And now, we have Andre going to Eurovision. Have you heard who’s going with him? A female singer who has stolen the melody to the ‘Andranik Pasha’ song and used it for a cheap kef song. Why hasn’t anybody complained about that?”

Our day in Zangezur began in the region of Areni, climbing by Niva to an experimental plot of wheat and barley at an elevation of some 2,000 meters. As we drove up the dirt road, we passed small vineyards and orchards, now mostly in bloom. One farmer was in the process of working his entire plot of land, a vineyard which looked like wine grapes, by shovel. Apparently there was no tractor available, or a tractor couldn’t be taken to his vineyard, located on the edge of a small gorge. The farmer had nearly reached the end of the vineyard, as a fresh crop of weeds sprouted on the side of the land he had likely started several days earlier. On a high plateau was the village of Aghavnadzor. After checking the experimental plot, we drove down the hill and headed south, stopping to eat sandwiches and drink icy cold water at the always windy archway leading into Syunik. Shortly, we arrived in Sissian, where we met with a World Vision official before driving to Brnagot, where we studied several different varieties of wheat, including “Aghtamar,” a new variety cultivated in Martuni, by Lake Sevan. In the distance were snow-covered mountains, separating Armenia from Azeri-controlled Nakhichevan. From there, the same group of farmers and NGO members went to Tegh village, where we visited a fruit tree nursery, with Lachin in plain view to the east. Completing our work, we traveled back to Sissian, where a farmer had arranged dinner at a restaurant near Brnagot. There, for close to four hours, we ate and drank and gave toasts to each other’s success, until finally leaving around nine p.m. for Yerevan. Reaching home at two a.m., I presented Hasmik with two kilograms of “sari soonk,” mushrooms we had bought while driving the main road from Goris to Sissian . . . nature’s gift following the previous day’s rain.

April 24 commemorations began with a candlelight vigil at Dzidzernakaberd lasting the entire evening of the 23rd, in spite of a steady, light rain. The vigil was organized by Dashnak youth and several student organizations, and had hundreds of participants. The morning of April 24th started with televised interviews of Genocide survivors and scholars, panel discussions, and films depicting the Genocide, such as Nahapet, Tsori Mirro, and Ararat. Individual survivors’ stories were broadcast, with an old Sassountsi telling about a family member discovering dead Armenian women who had had burning stakes shoved into unmentionable body cavities. Also, a striking recitation of Charents’ “Yes Im Anush Hayastani” by Khoren Aprahamyan was presented on National Television’s second station. Just before eleven a.m., we went to the Kievyan Bridge, near Dzidzernakabert, where we joined Raffi Hovhannisian and members of the Heritage party to climb together up to the Genocide monument. Far more than previous years, groups of students, sportsmen, fedayee, political parties, and others walked together, carrying banners stating their affiliation. Literally hundreds of thousands, probably over one million, Armenians made their way up the hill to pay respect to the two million who lost their lives during the years of the Genocide. Perhaps the crowds were larger in Soviet times, being the population in Armenia was around double of present, but nonetheless, the numbers were huge, the path up the mountain so crowded that two hours were necessary to make the trip. Back home, in the evening, National Television presented Tsori Mirro, Henrik Malyan’s classic movie about the Genocide, starring Sos Sargsyan, and set in Sassoun. The movie was replete with traditions, traditional music, the dialect of Sassoun and Moush, and reminders of what the Turk is. All in all, this year, as other years, April 24 is almost more than one can bear.

A pair of suicides has the educational system in Yerevan reeling, resulting in a lockdown in one case, and protests in the other. In a Yerevan middle-school, a student told authorities he had to leave school, possibly to go to a doctor, then hanged himself close to campus. The next day, a student told me, he asked merely to go down to the school courtyard for a drink of water, but was denied the request, and was made to stay in the building. It is said the student had been ridiculed by fellow students, a common cause for youthful suicides. In the other case, a student from India, studying at the medical institute, jumped out of a window of the dormitory in which he was living, ending his life. The new rector of the institute, a Kocharian appointee not known for great intellect, reacted by saying Indians weren’t that intelligent anyway, causing an uproar in the fairly large Indian student community, with protests and demonstrations, about the rector’s remarks, being held in front of the presidential palace and elsewhere.

A birthday party evolved into a regional Dashnak party meeting, when several members arrived to congratulate the birthday honoree. Standing and giving a toast, the oldest Dashnak present, somewhere past eighty years of age, declared that no party had done as much as the Dashnaks had for the Armenian nation, following by saying that in his heart, every Armenian is a Dashnak, even if not a party member. It happens that the old man had spent over ten years in a Soviet prison in the 1960s for publicly struggling for Armenia’s independence. A younger party member then said that he had heard a current Dashnak leader state, on television, that the party removes any member who is found doing anything illegal, unlike other political parties. He then said it seemed strange to make that statement, being he knew of a Dashnak who had been told by a party official who was heading a regional election committee to either keep quiet about the ballot-box stuffing, etc., that he would see on election day (which would ensure passage of the constitutional referendum, supported by the Dashnaks and Kocharian), or stay away completely from the election site. “We had people like Simon Vratsian and others who were famous for their honesty,” he said. “Can we say the same thing about our leaders today?” Another declared that if Raffi Hovhannisian came to power, he wouldn’t put a single illegal penny in his pocket. When another present said that Hovhannisian must have some other reason for wanting to become president, if not to become rich, the others backed Hovhannisian, one even saying the Dashnaks didn’t have anyone in leadership with Hovhannisian’s honesty. Later, as a slow, Armenian melody on a television in an adjoining room began playing, one of those at the table commented on the beauty of the duduk and how well the dancers danced, with real Armenian modesty, the person watching the program then saying he was watching a folk music festival, and that the group that was dancing was a Turkish folk group, shocking everyone, not to mention when the next group, also from Turkey, did an excellent job of dancing the Armenian dance known as “Berd.” When one Dashnak said, “They’ve stolen our music,” another said, “Do we see music this good on Armenian television? Our rich support pop stars, while the Turks give money to folk groups and symphonies. What have we become? Did you know,” he added, “that for the 100th anniversary for the famous Aram Merangulyan ensemble, singer Rouben Madevosyan (the ensemble leader/artistic director) agreed to have pop stars from the ‘Yerki Tadron’ sing our folk songs? Is everybody sold out?”
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