Yerevan Journal – June 2006

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This morning, while walking through our new neighborhood located just above Anastasavan, we saw two boys climbing a mulberry tree and enjoying the now-ripening berries, while a few yards away a woman gathered mulberries under another tree, the dark variety we used to grow behind our Fresno-area home. At the corner of our apartment building, a woman from Gyavar sold fish and crayfish, freshness not in question as most of the poor animals were still struggling for air. In the city center, behind the opera house, a concert was being held celebrating an international holiday protecting children’s rights, the unfortunate thing being most songs weren’t being sung in Armenian, but in English. Cameramen worked feverishly to film the affair. Seeing a friend standing near the outdoor stage, I asked him what he was doing there, being the person is known for being culturally quite traditional. He said a niece was taking part in the ceremonies, so he had come to see what kind of singing and dancing the group was doing, then saying he had had enough and was leaving. He also asked if I had heard about what had happened to Raffi Hovhannisian’s Heritage Party, as it had been closed down just a day after being allowed to reopen. “In the end,” he said, “we’ll see who wins out, the president or Raffi. It’s obvious they’re scared of Raffi, knowing that people like him. I hope Raffi has the will to stick this out.” From the city center, I went with a relative to a hospital in the Kanaker district of Yerevan, to check the progress of a recent cancer surgery. After finding out all was well, the doctor warned us to be careful when choosing a doctor in Armenia today. He said there were many fine doctors in Armenia, who had studied hard and not given bribes to obtain their degrees, but that today far less is expected from medical students, with bribery becoming the standard as opposed to the exception.

A rainy spring in Shamshadin has resulted in the usually green region turning red, yellow, and white with wildflowers thick in meadows and mountainsides in this, one of Armenia’s most unique natural treasures. Our first stop was in Aygepar, a small town located almost directly on the border with Azerbaijan, with Azeri trenches in plain view on the side of the mountain overlooking Aygepar. We drove from the town up a hill, looking for a field of wheat, but with the usual pathway buried in wild flowers, at times nearly as high as our Niva, we had trouble finding the plot. Parking the Niva, we made our way through the wild flowers to the plot, then on returning saw the door had been left open . . . not a good idea here, with the possibility of a kind of poisonous snake climbing into the jeep, opening up the chance of something dangerous happening. From there, we headed down the hill and out of Aygepar, then to the reservoir, where a road leads south and up the mountainsides to Verin Karmraghpyur, Norashen, Ardzvaberd, and, finally, to our destination, the village of Aygedzor. A road alongside the river Khundzorut lead us through a gorge, when suddenly the village appeared, a large village with roads and houses winding up hills in all directions. As the village ends, the terrain opens into fields of wheat and various vegetables, the road then eventually leading to Chinari. We had wanted to go to Chinari and, if the proper escort was available, to the monastery of Khoranashat, its location directly on the border making it dangerous for the lone traveler. Saving this for another time, we enjoyed the people and nature of Aygedzor, a village of some 3,000 friendly, brave, and hard-working people. Mountains surrounding the village are thickly forested, with bears, wolves, wild pigs, and various other game, as one of the villagers noted, “We’re lucky we don’t have lions or tigers, this is enough.” Located about three kilometers from the border, the village land runs for about twenty-five kilometers along the border. “This is our border, and we will protect it,” a villager said. “Let no one doubt that even a minute. Turks never entered our village, and know they won’t in the future.” As the day passed, we were guided to an open area next to the river, where families had gathered with their young children to celebrate the last day of kindergarten, known here as “mankapartez.” Music blared as the men prepared the khorovadz, the children swimming and playing in the river. The village mayor told us, as we sat under a large weeping willow, that he was one of two Sassountsis living in the village, and that the sole Mshetsi had been “antarapah,” keeper or protector of the forest, for several years until he had taken over the job before becoming mayor. He told us there were several hundred from the village working in Russia, and who send generous amounts of money to their relatives and even send money for a fund at the town hall for school renovation or whatever is needed. “Our villagers are good people,” he said, “and good Armenians. We care about our nation. The only thing I’d like to see is for Armenians to look more to the future, to plan for the future . . . like our country’s energy plan, looking ahead only for the next ten years or so. We have to think like our ancestors, who put the family, and nation, first.” A Dashnak from the village talked about General Andranik and his leaving Armenia, saying he’s surprised Andranik didn’t leave earlier. “He was surprised at the politics of Armenians after the massacres, and remembered how he had given advice not to send a huge stockpile of weapons to Armenians in Western Armenia to a certain location, saying the Turks would find out and take the weapons for themselves . . . which they did.” After our dinner of khorovadz, khundzori oghi, homemade bread, and vegetables, we bade farewell to Aygedzor and its villagers, living in a world far from “civilization” but with a patriotism and tenaciousnes not often seen in Yerevan.

Although trying to make anything out of the political situation here isn’t the easiest thing going, the recent victories of Armenian boxers and chess masters are a clear sign of dedicated men and women in the sports scene. In spite of some trickery by Georgian players, who tried to give points to the Chinese to prevent an Armenian victory in the world chess championships, Armenia prevailed, this country of some two million on top of a list followed by China, Russia, France, and other world powers, with Azerbaijan in last place. Hopefully Armenian players get the notice they deserve, and their brilliance is recognized as much as Andre’s participation in the Eurovision pop festival. This past week in Tbilisi, the Azeris as poor losers again came to light, as a western-funded musical ensemble that was supposed to promote friendship in the Caucasus felt the sting of another Azeri protest, Azeri musicians refusing to participate due to the inclusion of three Armenians in the ensemble. Also, an interesting cultural event this week in Yerevan had singer Artur Meschian on stage at the Komitas Chamber Hall, answering questions from the audience and reporters about his opinions and feelings about music and life in general. The hall was completely full, with standing room only, showing the importance and popularity of this singer, known for his honesty and openness in his musical art, and showing that a large number of people here are looking for someone to follow, an answer, to what can be called a corrupt situation in the musical scene here in Armenia. Meschian commented, for instance, that he hoped people would become so disgusted with the low state of “popular” music here that there would be a “cleansing” that would return Armenian music to its roots, especially the music of Komitas. As is often the case at similar events, government agents slyly photograhed individuals, keeping track of anyone who might, someday, pose what they consider a threat to their power.

After hearing I had a family video that included author William Saroyan meeting with various relatives of the early generation, a small group of teenage students asked to see the entire two hours, start to finish, to see Saroyan and the others in these natural settings. The students watched attentively as Saroyan, Uncle Aram, and others born in Bitlis, Moush, and, in the early days of the twentieth century in Fresno, met, talked, laughed, and traveled as they enjoyed their lives in the 1950s and after. Besides commenting about the colorful gestures and obvious old country mannerisms, the students stressed the pure Armenian facial lines, or characteristics, of those of Saroyan’s generation. “We rarely see people like this in Yerevan today,” they said. “And these people lived outside Armenia, in the U.S.” After feeble attempts at trying to explain what life was like back then in Fresno, and in the U.S., as opposed to life there now, the students seemed to understand, saying I was lucky to have known that generation. To be fair, after the Soviet collapse and the resulting bombardment of foreign culture, maintaining a pure Armenian look, as well as culture, is something needless to say difficult,whether in Armenia or elsewhere. Even in the village, once a place where folk music and culture were maintained, Armenians aren’t left to be themselves, with people like Tigran “Karapetich” and his ALM television forces bringing entire villages into the studio, with young boys and girls singing, actually imitating, the pop stars seen daily on Armenian television. The hold these pop stars and their promoters, like National Television, have on society was shown again as the reception for the Armenian chess champions, held at Freedom Square and lasting until three a.m., was again a stage for Armenia’s pop stars, mostly from the Yerki Tadron. Several of these stars were invited to take part in the recent Aram Merangulyan commemoration concert, most noticably ill-at-ease with having to sing live, with the exception of one or two of the upcoming stars who appeared they might actually be taking their art seriously. Politically, two pronouncements by the president were interesting, the appointment of Oleg Yessayan, of Karabagh, as ambassador to Belarus, as Yessayan had divorced his wife and married a twenty-year-old from Belarus in the recent past, and naming Eduard Topchian, director and conductor of the National Symphony, as “vastakavor artist,” a title given to those in the arts and music who have worked long and hard for culture in Armenia, usually with great accomplishments to their name. The reaction I heard was that Topchian still has to prove his talent and that it was definitely too soon for him to receive such an honor.

A trip to Ovir, where various passport issues and invitations are processed, is always an adventure, yet the scene this past week doesn’t portend well for Armenia. While picking up the visa papers for my nephew’s upcoming visit, we witnessed large numbers of villagers from all over Armenia going through the various stages and processes of obtaining passports for their children, several being held by their mothers, as they were still too young to be walking. The only reason for obtaining passports for such young children is that to cross borders, namely into Russia, a passport is needed, as birth certificates aren’t accepted in such instances. In many of these cases, entire families were traveling to Russia, while in some cases families were joining husbands already living in Russia. Frustration seemed to be the rule, with complaints heard about the demands for endless documents, coming back again and again, offices opening late, and extra money to “speed things along.” With what these people were going through, returning to Armenia, if such was the plan, becomes far less likely. Also this week in Yerevan culture lovers were shocked when they arrived at the National Gallery for a concert featuring opera star Arax Davitian, who was to be accompanied by pianist Sergey Babayan from the U.S., finding out Davitian was ill and unable to sing. In normal circumstances, ticket prices (in this case, fairly expensive) are refunded, and the concert rescheduled. Yet the National Gallery, which along with the Culture Ministry and “Philharmonia” arrange this and other classical concerts, decided to hold the concert anyway, featuring Aram Gharabekyan and his National Chamber Orchestra. At intermission, much of the standing-room-only crowd left, disappointed at the manner the Gallery and Ministry chose to accept the ticket money they had paid to hear Davitian sing, and present the chamber orchestra, commonly heard in Armenia, and at quite inexpensive prices. As someone commented, “How can we know in the future what they will present to us . . . what did they do with all the money they got . . . as if we don’t know.” Disappointment turned to anger when it was revealed the Gallery knew several days in advance that Davitian wouldn't be able to sing, thus giving them plenty of time to do the proper thing by postponing or rescheduling the concert.

As would be expected, Armenians visiting the homeland continue to amaze, some with their generosity and others in their lack of it. At the Vernisage, I watched as an obviously monied couple asked one of the sellers of CDs, all illegal copies, for traditional folk music, then buying everything they were shown, in spite of the cheap appearance of the CDs and poor quality sound. Even though the same CDs, in their original form, are for sale in stores in the city center and in Echmiadzin, the wealthy couple chose to buy cheap copies, all to save a few dollars. Yet, visitors from London, originally from Iran, generously gave money to Raffi and Armine Hovhannisian’s “Orran,” where street children are given a home, education, and, basically, a new life. The London Armenians asked for nothing in return, such as their names on plaques announcing their donation, quite the contrast to the Armenians at the Vernisage. Yesterday’s trip to a village in Shirak brought into the open not only the generosity and hard-working nature of the villagers, but of Yerevan and Gyumri Armenians who are doing their best to improve the situation in the countryside. Arriving in the village of Karnoot, on the edge of mountains leading to Jajur and the province of Lori, we were taken to fields of wheat and potatoes, being shown the fruits of the year’s labor. In the midst of these expansive fields, we saw a long table already set with vegetables and greens, with an impromptu barbecue pit made of large rocks already being put to use, both khorovadz and khashlama in the making. After finishing our work in the fields, we sat with villagers and enjoyed the feast, the village mayor occasionally treating us to songs of Shirak, often with the words of Shiraz, Isahakyan, and Charents. He invited us all to the village this Sunday, saying the ancient church known as “Mianav” would be the scene of only its second Badarak in seventy years. He told that the church, built in the fourth century, was being renovated in the 1940s but the breakout of World War II put an end to the restoration. I watched as government officials talked with villagers, coordinating efforts on future plans which would help the village and rural economy of the region. These officials, definitely well-versed in their profession, are a pleasant contrast to Armenia’s ministers, chosen almost strictly due to party affiliation, as opposed to anything approching qualifications. After our meeting and lunch, we journeyed into the regional center of Akhourian, where we saw a seed production center, whose owner then treated us all to dinner at a Gyumri-area restaurant, another scene of endless toasts to each of us present, many not present, and the success of our work and cooperation, and, in the end, the Armenian nation. . . . With the Armenian Technology Group Bike-a-Thon beginning quite soon, in which I will take part, Yerevan Journal will have a short break until we return, when I will tell about our journey, and more about life in Armenia.

Not until we returned from the week-long Armenian Technology Group Bike-a-Thon did I realize we had been through each of the provinces of Armenia, even reaching Mountainous Karabagh. Armenians originating in the U.S., Lebanon, and Armenia rode up and down mountainsides, along rivers, and through canyons and open fields to discover rural Armenia for themselves and to raise money for projects to strengthen these areas. Beginning in Yerevan, we headed north past Ashtarak and towards Gyumri, stopping near the Horom Bridge before reaching the city. There, children in national costume greeted us with the traditional bread and salt, the elders preparing a table with apricots, bread, and mineral water. There, we danced the Kochari, the famous dance of unity, and visited with our friends from the nearby villages of Meghrashen and Nor Kyank. Moving on to Akhourian, we met with the village mayor and others at the site of an ATG project, then drove far into the wheat and potato fields of Karnoot village, where ATG has experimental plots of wheat and is involved in seed multiplication. Not untypical of Armenian hospitality, the village farmers had set a long table and were already barbecuing lamb and pork, with a pot of khashlama in the making. The village mayor invited us all to participate in Badarak at the fourth century Mianav church located in the village cemetery, saying it was only the second Badarak held there in the past seventy years. The church was partly renovated in the 1940s, he told, but WW II put an end to the restoration. That evening, in Gyumri, the mayor treated us to dinner at a large, new restaurant, after which we danced the Ververi and Kochari between tables and onto the stage, other guests joining our enthusiastic entourage.

Noraduz, June 2006 Quite interesting and worthy was our stop in Jajur, birthplace of the great Armenian painter Minas Avetisyan, run over by a car near his home in Yerevan in the 1970s, believed to have been arranged to put an end to the nationalistic artist’s career and life. The newly-built museum is rich with Avetisyan’s paintings, including a mural that reminded me of the one I saw in the Gyumri Theater last winter. One room was entirely devoted to photographs of the painter at various ages and with famous Armenian singers and artists, including Paruyr Sevak and Martiros Saryan. From Jajur, our entourage drove to Shirakamut, epicenter of the 1988 earthquake. Stopping next to the town’s train station, we visited with several men and women still living in make-shift huts of different kinds, in conditions people shouldn’t have to face, especially this many years after the quake. Yet, they brought us coffee and tahn and various dried plants and leaves for tea, etc. When someone in our group tried to pay the women, they initially refused, but our friend won the brief battle. Another woman declared that her parents were from Bulanukh, in the Plains of Moush, and how their life there was good, that they were one of the wealthiest families in Bulanukh. When I told her I had been in Bulanukh this past September, she asked for pictures, soil, or anything else I could give her from her ancestral homeland. . . . Our journey continued into Vanadzor, where we met with children at a special school, who escorted us by bicycle to the edge of the city, where we continued on to Dilijan and Sevan. A visit that fascinated all of us was at Noraduz, the khachkar cemetery located on the southern shores of Sevan. Two old women were sitting amongst the khachkars, working with wool and thread, using the old Armenian instrument known as “ilik.” One was appropriately surrounded by sheep as she worked. A village boy sang patriotic songs, and the village historian told the history of the cemetery to those who were interested. A village woman invited us into her home for coffee, which we accepted before leaving for Martuni and the Selim Mountain Pass, part of the Old Silk Road.

With the road from Martuni to Vaik mostly downhill, the bikers literally coasted for close to two hours, with only a brief stop at the Caravansari, to eat fruit and see where travelers and caravans had stayed several hundred years earlier. That night, we made our way to Jermuk, a resort town located on the edge of a river gorge and surrounded by tree-covered mountains. The biggest surprise came while showering, as a power outage left the entire five-story “Jermuk Ashkhar” in complete darkness. The next morning, instead of apologizing, or admitting the large building should have a power source separate from the city’s, the owner merely stated “What can we do?” Also, it was amusing that with the Jermuk mineral water factory located directly across the street, the hotel charged its guests 300 dram a bottle, normally 70 dram in Yerevan. In any event, after stopping at the Israel Ori statue at the entrance of town, we moved on past Goris, Khundzoresk, and Tegh, and rode the new highway all the way past Berdzor and on to Shushi. Before stopping at the Ghazanchetsots church, we drove to the plateau above the massive cliff where some thirty-five fedayee had scaled the mountain during the night and liberated the fortress town of Shushi. A native said soldiers also had advanced up the road from Stepanakert, during the night, either by making their way past Azeri soldiers or, some think, that some Azeri officers had closed their eyes to what was happening, being paid off, or something similar. Either way, picturing Armenian soldiers climbing the mountain of rock at night was amazing in itself. Afterwards, we went to Ghazanchetsots, when, across the street, we saw Bishop Barkev Martirosyan entering his compound, so we went to greet the bishop, a meeting which turned into two hours of a combination of humor and war stories. Bishop Barkev told about the capture of Kelbajar and Fizuli, about the pressure Armenians were receiving from Levon Ter Petrosyan and the Russians, and other details better left unsaid. A visitor did say that the Armenians lost Shahumyan, the northernmost part of Mountainous Karabagh, due to an onslaught of some sixty tanks . . . operated by Russians and Ukrainians.

Reaching Gandzasar, we were greeting by Der Hovhannes, who told us the history of the monastery and about how Azeris bombed the church and its buildings during the war. He pointed out two angel-like figures on walls on each side of the altar, explaining that many miracles have taken place at Gandzasar, then told about how the gavit was built by the queen in honor of her husband, Jalal Ishkhan, who died after the church of St. Hovhannes Mkrtich was built. The queen requested the grave be at the entrance of the church, so whoever entered would be forced to walk over the grave, thus cleansing his sins. After our visit, we drove on to Khramort, a village completely destroyed by Azeris during their year-and-a-half occupation during the recent war. Fortunately, due to ATG and Diaspora help, a grape nursery offers employment for the villagers and grape cuttings for most of Karabagh. We ate khorovadz prepared by the villagers, and apricots, even though some lamented we were too early to eat figs or pomegranates, still a month or two off. With our goal that day of reaching Sissian, we left Khramort, stopping briefly at our hotel to pick up belongings. A hotel worker, who had just finished army duty, said he was thinking about joining all of his friends who have left Karabagh and are living and working in Russia. “I am ashamed to even think this way,” he said. “But this is reality. Besides the beautiful streets and buildings of Stepanakert, we have nothing. The only job that pays decently is at the telecom company. Do you know how much money from the Diaspora has come here? Where do you think that money is? In whose hands?” Leaving Stepanakert, we drove on to Sissian, where we spent the night before meeting with area wheat farmers and World Vision officials, then went to Karahunj, the ancient rock observatory close to the main road near Sissian. Our day continued with stops at Noravank, the Areni Winery, and Khor Virab. At Noravank, I asked the guard/historian where the famous Momik khachkars were, and he said they were in Echmiadzin. He said Momik had also built the church at Areni, and, I believe, at Gndevank, near Jermuk. Later the next day, after spending the night in Ashtarak, our journey finished, after visiting Sardarapat, with its interesting historical museum, and Echmiadzin.

Entering a friend’s home, I saw two men laughing as they watched a television show where men and women wanting to be singers were each given a turn to display their talents, after which two major pop stars loyally praised the singers and their great “potential.” Although one of the women, with a proper vocal teacher, has a chance of turning into a singer, the others were strictly laughable, whining their way through modern pop songs. One of the men, saying he had had enough of the show (I think named “Armenian Superstar”), picked up the remote control and came across one of Turkey’s national television stations, which happened to be featuring a folk concert, in a large, capacity-filled hall. As a small group of musicians played improvisations on blul, violin, kamancha, and clarinet, the person holding the remote commented on “how good these Turkish musicians are,” to which I agreed, but added that Armenians have musicians just as good, if not better, but we’re rarely treated to concerts like the current one, whether on television or in Yerevan halls. There is a new folk instrument ensemble in Yerevan, one of them commented, lamenting that the group doesn’t play folk music. “Our youth doesn’t like folk music,” one of the men commented, to which the other answered, “What do you expect, they aren’t given the opportunity to hear it, and with television people and pop stars continually telling them they don’t like folk music, what do you expect?” The Turkish concert then turned lively, with young and old from the audience dancing to a Turkish folk melody, zurnas and dhols blaring away. “Turks probably laugh at us when they see Armenian television,” one of the men said. Not that any of us wouldn’t rather have been watching Armenian folk musicians, but, as my friend said, “They hide these things from us. Did you see the ‘Krunk’ concert at Opera Square? They timed it to where hundreds of ‘One Nation, One Culture’ participants would be at the concert. They had come from all over the world, and most of them were members of traditional song and dance groups. Yet, ‘Krunk’ had their typical concert of pop stars, known and unknown.” . . . Later, as I walked down the stairs of their ninth-floor apartment, I came across two young girls with strangely twisted faces preaching to an unsuspecting older woman. As one of the girls turned towards me, probably to offer a prayer or a verse, she just as quickly turned away, likely detecting my disgust for what she was doing. Yet, not all is lost, as on the way home, I passed the Malatia Shuka and saw hundreds of people loading up with the season’s delights, currently apricots, cherries, and small green apples unique to the area, not to mention local tomatoes and cucumbers, a daily staple here until cold weather hits in late autumn. . . . With the Shoghaken Ensemble returning tomorrow from the “St. Petersburg Palaces” Internationl Music Festival, and their participation in the Rudolstadt Festival in Germany and subsequent recording of a new CD in July, Yerevan Journal will take a brief respite, continuing later this summer.
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