Yerevan Journal – August-September 2006

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Sylva Gaboudikyan was the best known and most talented poetess of both Soviet and independent Armenia. Many are of the opinion she is the most talented female Armenian writer of the entire twentieth century. Her recent death saddened Armenians everywhere. Now, both Hayastantsis and diaspora Armenians are shocked that President Kocharian didn’t see fit to attend the funeral, his spokesman saying the president might face some sort of danger if he attended, so a wreath was all that represented the presidential office. The actual reason, which the spokesman failed to reiterate, was that Gaboudikyan refused to accept the Khorenatsi medal offered by Kocharian, saying, “From a president who has left his people in such a condition, I can’t accept this medal.”

Ruins of St. Karapet monastery, Moush, August 2006 [click to enlarge] While at St. Karapet monastery in Moush, I remembered a film I saw where, as soon as Armenian pilgrims walked away from candles they had lit and left burning in the one remaining section of wall, Kurdish youth from the village put the candles out, grabbed them, and ran off, disappearing into various corners of the village. With around twenty children hovering just behind us, we blocked off the place where we had lit candles, then built a small fire and burned incense, as the village mayor and others looked on. As we walked away, the children rushed and grabbed the burning candles, even though they had nearly burned out. Walking towards the van, we photographed the walls of some of the homes there, where parts of khachkars and other stone carvings were used as building material. A woman offered us fresh tonir lavash, while another said a woman inside her house was giving birth, inviting us to stay, possibly since she had heard someone in our group was a doctor. We left St. Karapet, which up to the massacres had been a famous place of learning and pilgrimage. In the city of Moush, we lit candles and burned incense in the ruins of St. Marineh, located in a district between Jigrashen, where my grandmother was from, and Verin Tagh. Our own pilgrimage to Old Armenia also included Lake Van, the fortress of Van, Aghtamar Island, where the island was unfortunately closed off due to renovation, and the City of Ani. There, with a nephew, from near the Cathedral of Ani, I walked down to the Akhourian, where I saw the monastery of the Holy Virgins, situated on a jagged rock with remains of protective walls and buildings stretching up the hill. While my nephew walked all the way down to the river, I slid down through the buildings to the church, just above the river. Later, back on the large flat area where the city was located, we visited the various churches of Ani, spending time especially in St. Prkitch and Tigran Honents (St. Grigor). In these churches, we also lit candles and burned incense.

We later found out that a group mainly consisting of Vanetsis traveled nearly the same route we had, just a day or two earlier, seeing Ani, St. Karapet in Moush, and even the one remaining church of Khdzgonk, located near Ani, a monastery which the Turks dynamited in the 1950s. Apparently due to the size of their group, around sixteen, Turkish soldiers appeared both in Ani and at St. Karapet, not allowing the lighting of candles or the burning of incense. At Ani, in St. Grigor of Tigran Honents, an older woman pleaded with the soldiers to light a candle, saying it would be the last time she would be able to make the trip, but was refused. . . . As we crossed the border from Turkey into Georgia, a Georgian border guard asked us if we expected to regain lands lost to the Turks. He then said his country was currently facing the same threat, with Abkhazia threatening to withdraw from the Georgian state. This we thought was a poor comparison to the Armenian issue, but such was his opinion. On our return, we entered Tbilisi, visiting Sayat Nova’s gravesite at St. Gevorg church. An Armenian woman there lamented what has become of Tbilisi’s Armenian community, telling us that 100 years earlier, the city was almost entirely 100 percent Armenian, with only a few Georgians living there, the rest living in the countryside. We also spoke with the priest of St. Gevorg, asking what he and the Armenians of Tbilisi are doing to fight the destruction of Armenian cemeteries in Tbilisi and elsewhere, and the conversion of Armenian churches to Georgian. He said those who destroy, change, or convert Armenian holy sites will answer to God, to which we answered, shouldn’t something be done now? . . . to which he answered, “We are protesting, sending letters. . . .” After our discussion, which bordered on an argument, we went to the Armenian Pantheon, where famous writers and cultural figures, such as Raffi, Sundukyan, Tumanyan, Jivani, and others are buried. The cemetery is overgrown with weeds, making us wonder why Tbilisi Armenians don’t take care of this important place, or if Georgians have possibly already made plans to confiscate the land. . . . In any event, we picked up papers and trash before walking towards our van. Just below the pantheon, we saw a new, huge church, built on land where an Armenian cemetery had been confiscated and destroyed.

We had just returned from visiting a new gravesite at the cemetery in Getap, a village near the Charbakh region and now included in Yerevan. A friend’s forty-eight-year-old sister had died of cancer, and with a week passing since the woman’s death, family and friends were commemorating what is known simply as “yot.” Back in the courtyard of the apartment building, a family elder asked me to sit next to him on a wooden bench, then declared I must be a relative of William Saroyan. Testing me, he asked what year Saroyan was born. 1908, I answered. Then he was born in Bitlis, not Fresno, he said. I told him such wasn’t the case, that the Saroyan clan had left Bitlis before the massacres, and Saroyan, along with a brother and sister, were born in Fresno. The old man then told of Saroyan’s last trip to Armenia, and a meeting with an academician who apparently talked too much and wasn’t very interesting. As the man talked, Saroyan said “I can’t hear you.” Then the man began talking in the direction of Saroyan’s other ear. “I can’t hear you,” Saroyan again said. The academician then asked Saroyan which ear was his bad ear, and Saroyan answered, “The ear you’re talking into.” After telling the man I had just been near Bitlis, in Moush, and talking about the nature in Bitlis, including the Bitlis River, he told about a recent report from the village of Akori, a Kurdish village on the slopes of Massis, currently on the Turkish side of the mountain. Villagers reported rumblings from inside the mountain, and smoke coming from the thought-to-be extinct volcanic peak. The villagers continued by saying the last time lava flowed from Massis, it buried their village, and that if it happened again, it would surely be a curse from the Armenians. After this friendly visit with the family elder, we went into the deceased woman’s apartment and sat alongside two long tables, with men at one table and mostly women at the other. The elder then assumed the role of saying appropriate remembrances, with other family members also paying respect to their sister and friend. After the woman’s husband tried to say a few words, and understandably failed, the elder told him that even though life goes on, and that he would have to try his best to continue his life and work, that his life would never be the same, and that his pain would always be there, and could even get worse.

Two nights ago, an almost violent wind crashed through Yerevan, marking an end of a devastatingly hot August, with temperatures ranging from 100 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit the entire month. Yet, tempers continued to rage, firstly concerning the choosing of a new national hymn. At a meeting of various artists, composers, and intellectuals, poet and government figure Davit Hovhannes belittled those trying to write new lyrics, including poet Razmik Davoyan, while linguist Henrik Hovhannisyan declared there no need to try and compose anything new, saying the Armenian musical culture is rich enough to choose something already in existence, such as “Hayastan Drakhtavayr,” a song credited to Komitas and sung by the great opera singer Armenak Shahmuradyan. Although the talk about the new hymn is at times heated, it is nothing compared to the evening news in Yerevan, tonight featuring the murder of the head of a tax division in Yerevan, his son, and driver, all dying as their car blew up as the driver turned the key. For now, it isn’t clear if political implications exist, or if someone was merely angry at the way tax people here do their job, often taking large amounts “in advance.” Then, it was revealed that the editor of Iravunk, an Opposition newspaper, was severely beaten as he left his apartment, likely either for something printed in his paper, or possibly as a warning as what not to print.

After sitting almost indefinitely in the midst of a traffic jam near Opera Square, the reason finally became clear, as today was the funeral of the tax chief whose car was blown up by still unknown assailants . . . in spite of the president’s pledge to find the culprits within five minutes. Word on the street has it that the murder was due to a rift between Gharabaghtsis, the deceased tax chief with roots from the region. Concerning the beating of the editor of Iravunk, accusations were thrown in the direction of the defense minister, due to the fact Iravunk had printed a story about Kocharian’s recent meeting with Putin, where Putin said the minister wouldn’t be the right person to follow Kocharian in the presidency. The minister responded by saying the Iravunk editor wasn’t worth the effort, yet those whose task is to keep people in line might, possibly, have acted on their own, without orders from higher-ups. From Massis, an Italian mountaineer is reported to have lost his life climbing the legendary mountain, with a fellow climber still missing. The Italians are said to have called Turkish authorities asking for help, but were refused, the Turks saying they were climbing Massis without permission. Supposedly, from a Kurdish village near the base of Massis, travelers are offered, for a price, to climb the mountain, without knowledge of regional authorities . . . the price ranging all the way to a high of $1,500 . . . for Armenians.

As often happens during gatherings at the home place in Charbakh, young and old started singing folk and ashoughagan songs, yesterday leading to dancing the Kochari, Ververi, and even Zurni Trngi. One toast inspired the speaker to start singing Kani Voor Jan Im, to which the ladies present sang Nazani. Then, as the toast continued, a discussion started as to whether Sayat Nova was a composer or an ashough (kusan), one saying he was a composer and another saying that at that time, the composers were kusans, so Sayat Nova could be called either. I was reminded of a film I had seen the day before where, at the courtyard of the St. Gevorg church in Tbilisi, where Sayat Nova is buried, a huge crowd gathered, listening to singers such as Ruben Matevosian and Raffi Hovhannisyan singing music by the great ashough . . . gatherings which were common during Soviet times . . . as the film ended, listeners were treated to Hovhannisyan’s classic rendition of “Kamancha.” . . . We then listened to the Hayrig Mouradian Children’s Ensemble CD, most of which is music either written or recorded by Komitas. A neighbor who was visiting said it was a shame this kind of music isn’t propagandized by the government/television stations, continuing by saying he was disgusted by what they show on television, children singing songs apparently in preparation for their future with the Yergi Tadron, which has little to do with anything Armenian. I remembered standing in line a day or two ago purchasing tickets to a concert next week, where violinist Sergey Khachatryan is to perform. Khachatryan is said to be so good, he’s already being compared with Paganini. While in line, young girls were also there buying tickets for an Andre concert. Another in line told the girls, “Why don’t you go to a real concert, with Sergey Khachatryan, not the Andre concert, at least Sergey will actually play the violin, that Andre, as usual, will simply lip the songs,” to which the unknowing girls said “Andre wouldn’t do such a thing.” After a brief conversation, the girls were convinced, yet bought Andre tickets, saying they wanted to be where their friends were. . . . On the current political front, at a press conference this past week, held by Raffi Hovhannisian, no television cameras or reporters were present, only a few newspaper journalists daring to report the event, word spreading that an order from “higher up” warned journalists, especially television reporters/stations, not to report the event.

After telling a Mshetsi filmmaker about our recent trip to Moush, he said he had been there twice, and proceeded to ask what we had seen in Moush and the surrounding area. I asked him about the location of the river Meghraged, and was told it runs through the town itself. After enthusiastically telling me about Armenian businessmen he had met in Moush, he said he hoped to retire there in the not-to-distant future. We talked about the possible danger of such an idea, whether or not Armenians would be in danger if anything serious happened in the region. He thought not, but listened carefully as I told him about the group of elderly Kurds who jumped to their feet in indignation as one in our group took a picture of the mosque they were sitting by. Maybe you’re right, he said, adding, “We shouldn’t make the same mistakes our ancestors did, who never thought their neighbors and friends would turn on them like they did.” We talked about the Armenians in and around Moush, and throughout Turkey, who might have Turkish names or profess to Islam, and others in Istanbul (not all, of course) who simply say “We are Turks.” . . . In Yerevan today, President Kocharian announced several new recipients of People’s Artist and Meritorious Artist, on the occasion of fifteen years of Armenian independence. The list was in complete contrast to the kind of artists who received such titles during Soviet times, when art and artists were held in high esteem . . . and showed the importance given to pop music in today’s Armenia. The list included Tata, Nune Yesayan, Shushan Petrosyan, and Haiko, and went on to name others who completely and without question support the pop stars of the Yergi Tadron and close associates. Such is the current state of culture in independent Armenia.

As Armenia celebrates fifteen years of independence, the airwaves are flooded with video clips and talk shows featuring pop stars, especially those who have become famous the last fifteen years, and moreso those planning concerts. It was therefore quite the relief, and great pleasure, to attend a concert of classical music at the Aram Khachatryan Hall last night, where violinist Sergey Khachatryan played various classical pieces, backed by Eduard Topchian and the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra. As a young boy, Khachatryan left Armenia with his parents during the dark years of the early Nineties, living in the US before settling in Germany. Since six years of age, he has studied the violin, with his talent now recognized worldwide, to the point he has been called “the next Paganini.” Soon after yesterday’s concert began, it became apparent just how talented the twenty-one-year-old is, as he masterfully, as if the violin was part of him, played various classical pieces, including a solo version of Bach, after which the silent, standing-room audience burst into resounding applause. It seemed he and the music were one. He was so good that when intermission came, and people realized Khachatryan’s part of the program was done, and that Topchian and his orchestra would play alone, many, if not most, left the hall.

Near the bus stop by our home in Ajapnyak, we saw men and women scurrying to buy flowers and candy to take to the homes of friends and relatives who lost a family member during the past year, as happens every year on St. Khach, known here as “St. Khech.” Some men carried a bottle of vodka, accepted as what a male should take to the family he is visiting, although a few held bouquets of flowers. Later in the afternoon, I made my way to such a commemoration, for a friend who had recently lost a close family member. After the man who had lost his wife said his daughter had told him that none of their friends or relatives could take the place of her mother, and had gone on to say that without the presence of these friends and relatives, she would find it difficult to go on, he said he felt that his wife existed somewhere, that they would some day meet, and that if for a minute he thought she didn’t exist at all, in some form, he would go crazy . . . then saying, “You might think I’m ‘khpnvadz’ (touched), but maybe one has to be to get through this kind of situation.” Late that night, we went to a friend’s house to see him off to his temporary home in New York, the fellow wondering how he was going to fit all the packages people had asked him to deliver into his suitcases. After thanking us for just asking him to mail a simple envelope, we bade farewell, somewhere around one a.m. A few hours of sleep later, we awoke to the opening speeches at the Hayastan/Spyurk conference, glowing speeches about the progress being made in Armenia. Hopefully, yet probably not very likely, those visiting Armenia will put forward serious proposals for the unity of the Armenians of Armenia and Karabagh, to lessen the tension between the two peoples, and ask for answers about the negative aspects of life here, be they beatings of journalists, cutting down of forests, the desecration of the city of Yerevan, and the criminal destruction of the dollar, which, for the people of Armenia, is perhaps the most pressing of all these issues.

An opening speech at the Hayastan/Diaspora Conference seemed to startle some, as a woman lamented the lack of feeling many, if not most, Diaspora youth have towards the homeland. If I ask them how important it is to be a good Armenian to visit the homeland at least once, she said, most will say it doesn’t matter at all. She attributed it to the fact that the new generation didn’t have the opportunity to grow up with the older generation, those who had escaped the Genocide, or had left Old Armenia before or after those events and settled in new countries. Ara Aprahamyan, in another speech, said that it was a pity that more than seventy percent of programs that were supposed to be implemented, resulting from the recent conferences, hadn’t even gotten off the ground . . . and then announced he planned on becoming part of the Armenian government, even though living in Russia. A friend involved in the exhibition section said there were less people and interest than in the past, saying in his opinion Diaspora Armenians are tired of the high level of corruption here, and are thinking twice about getting involved in helping Armenia. This aside, hopefully positive results can come from the conference, such as giving border villages a needed boost, important for the security of the country. On the lighter side, one of the pop stars who was named People’s Artist, as he accepted the honor, said he appreciated getting the award, not seeming to understand it was more than a simple award passed out after participating in pop festivals or concerts.

Standing on a balcony overlooking the Cascade in central Yerevan, a visitor lamented the changes taking place in the city. “I remember when Yerevan was a green city, with trees and parks everywhere. It is plain what has happened. See that highrise to the left? They’re everywhere. I went to a park I used to visit and found asphalt and the beginning of another tall apartment building. Now, with all the trees cut down, it seems there is no air left in Yerevan.” Such was the insight offered by our guest, an opinion shared here by many, both tourists and locals, on the occasion of fifteen years of Armenian independence. The next morning, September 21, as we watched the military parade on television, an impressive show of military hardware, we heard the sound of several groups of helicopters overhead, all flying towards the city center, where the parade was taking place. Several groups of three or four MIG jets followed. A minute later, we saw the same aircraft on television as they flew over Republic Square. National Television then broadcast two video clips which some might rate as patriotic, after which they switched to a South American soap opera as the parade came to a close. We watched parts of concerts of ensembles created after independence, normal I suppose considering the day, as was normal the recent naming of pop and rabiz stars as Meritorious Artists. These singers (with the added attraction of “Andre”) present one of the two concerts this evening to be held at Freedom Square, by the Opera, and at Republic Square. As our guest noted last night, what happened to the days when Meritorious Artist and People’s Artist titles were given to people like Khoren Aprahamyan, Vatche Hovsepyan, and Mher Mkrtchyan? Pop stars, he went on, have their place, but as the face of Armenia? Why were they given their titles on the eve of these celebrations? he continued. Artists of the class of opera singers Barsegh Tumanyan and Arax Davitian were given People’s Artist titles a year or so ago, long before the current celebrations . . . with the pop stars being currently named, becoming the center of attention as Armenians around the world looked on . . . making it apparent the cultural leanings of the current ruling clique.

Standing on our balcony, pointing in the direction of Van, a neighbor told us about his ancestors. “For a brief time in the 1970s, the Soviets allowed flights from Yerevan to Syria. My father’s uncle took the flight, with the purpose of crossing the border into Turkey and going to Van, to find the family home he had been forced to leave in 1915. He found a driver somewhere in Syria and left for Van. He found the house, and knocked on the door. A man came to the door. He greeted the man, saying a few things in Turkish with an Armenian word or two mixed in. The man pulled him inside and said, ‘Don’t speak Armenian here, it’s not safe.’ Then the man said, ‘Don’t you recognize me? I’m your brother.’ My father’s uncle went into shock. He thought his brother, along with the rest of his family, had been killed by the Turks. Once, another uncle was in Istanbul and met with a well known, wealthy Kurd, who had a home in Van. When the Kurd found out my uncle had roots in Van, he invited him to visit his home in the city. When they reached Van, and were in the Kurd’s home, he said that he had become wealthy due to Armenians, as when they were building the foundation of the house they discovered a huge amount of gold, buried by Armenians leaving Van, as these Armenians, like most, had plans on returning to their homes. Therefore, the Kurd said, whenever he meets Armenians, he treats them well, knowing his riches come from their past wealth.” . . . Our neighbor went on to say he would love to live in Van one day, and that he thought that if Armenians ever retook their homeland, many would rush to live there, as they feel a true, real tie to the area. “It wouldn’t be like what’s happening in Karabagh today,” he said. “Not even Karabagh Armenians who are here or in Russia are moving back there, now that the area is safe and at least somewhat prosperous. If they don’t have a tie to their homeland, why should others consider Karabagh as part of the homeland, as they do Western Armenia? I remember the story of, I think in 1976, when an Azeri teacher hammered a nail into an Armenian boy in his class, killling the boy, and the Soviets did nothing. Now, after we take Karabagh, with the blood of Hayastantsis and Karabaghtsis, Karabaghtsis don’t seem to appreciate it, with many poor Hayastantsis going to live there, since they have no other choice, with Karabaghtsis living here and there, everywhere but their place of birth.” We then congratulated each other on the occasion of Armenian independence, condemned the first leaders of independent Armenia for breaking the faith of the people, and hoped for a change, with a more nationalistic government to be elected, one who cares for the common man, and the culture of Armenia.

Our neighbor continued his thoughts with an opinion now becoming widespread in Armenia. “I think there is a nation, or, more likely, an organization, which seeks our destruction,” he said. “They saw that whatever they tried wasn’t successful, due to one obstacle: the strength of the Armenian family. Now, they are sending religious sects to Armenia, which is having a devastating effect on our family structure. With a weak economy here, these sects are flourishing, often offering money for those who find new converts, etc. Families are breaking up, with part of a family in a sect, the others not. (Pop star) Andre, hearing the talk that he was a member of one of the sects, publicly denied it, although those who choose this life don’t consider themselves ‘aghantavor’ (one who follows a path other than that of the Armenian Apostolic Church, especially those who go from door to door preaching their beliefs).” He continued, talking about today’s pop stars. “Do you see the male pop stars, how none of them have good, strong voices? All they do is whine when they sing.” As a concert featuring the new “meritorious artists” played, and a female singer surrounded herself with such male “singers,” our neighbor commented, “The people I was talking about who, I believe, are trying to destroy Armenia, are doing it this way, too, not just by introducing sects into the country. Our leaders in government are funding these so-called singers, making them the only ones our youth sees.” . . . To add to this thought, it seems those in charge of culture here understand their “stars,” male and otherwise, are less than serious, as, for an event where French president Chirac’s wife and other notables are to be present, they requested Shoghaken play for their event, knowing the impression left on the guests should they send their parade of stars.

While walking down Abovyan, near the Tumanyan intersection, we met an old friend from California, in Yerevan to participate in the Hayastan/Spuirk Conference. “Do you know,” he said, “someone who had invested millions in business in Armenia went to a business forum and was asked to pay the $100 entry fee. Can you believe this?” A Hayastantsi I was with told him the $100 fee was normal, that if everybody had to pay the fee, why shouldn’t the rich investor, and, if this person who had invested so much didn’t have to pay the fee, then how about someone who had invested just one million, or maybe $50,000, where would they draw the line as to who pays and who doesn’t? The Hayastantsi then added that if this rich investor went to a similar forum in the US and was asked to pay $100 to enter, he wouldn’t think a thing of it, that “the rich who invest here expect special privileges, tax and otherwise, if they want to help Armenia, let them be a little more modest about it, why do they always expect a medal from the president or Catholicos, etc.....” Such is the continuing rift between Diaspora Armenians and Hayastantsis, some saying the rift is to be expected, some saying it will keep Armenia from growing economically, as it should with all the Armenian wealth in the world. Or, there are those like the rich Australian-Armenian (born in Iran) I talked with a night or two ago, sitting on a balcony watching a concert at the Cascade. After saying Armenia’s condition is just fine, and that they could take back all historical lands if the US got out of the way, he said there was nowhere in the world like Armenia, that the problems that exist are expected and will disappear with time . . . perhaps easy to say for someone with money, who spends half the year in his expensive apartment in the city center, yet hopefully there is some truth in his words, that the corruption and other problems in Armenia are natural, after the Soviet fall, and that with time all will smooth out, and Armenia will take its place in Europe, the East, or wherever the future might lead it.
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