Yerevan Journal – April 2007

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Television news here is replete with video footage of Ani, Kars, and Aghtamar taken by the entourage that participated in the opening ceremony on Aghtamar island this past week. Viewers here are being treated to the wonders of the City of Ani, taken church by church through the City of 1001 Churches. Ideas are already being circulated about working with Turks to renovate the churches of Ani, a definite turnaround if it happens, as now the sign on the entrance of Ani fails to even mention the word “Armenia.” In Kars, at the ninth century church of Arakelots (converted from a museum to a mosque in 2000), we saw the Moslem equivalent of a cross on the dome of the church, making ridiculous the Turkish claim that one of the reasons they didn’t put a cross on St. Khatch on Aghtamar was that lightning might strike the cross and cause the church to burn down. The debate about whether the renovation of St. Khatch by the Turks is a step in the right direction or a mocking attempt to put Genocide recognition, etc., on the back burner, still rages in Armenia. Interesting that the reaction here is possibly stronger than in the Diaspora, as talk show hosts to history professors are saying that those in the Armenian entourage should have been vocal in their protests during or after the ceremony on the island, and that renovation should expand to other monasteries that are in various stages of ruin, or those destroyed by Turks or Kurds, such as Khtsgonk, by Ani, and St. Karapet and Arakelots of Moush. A history professor said we should be talking of nothing less than the union of Western and Eastern Armenian lands. Yet, Samvel Karapetyan, an expert of Armenian church architecture who has traveled most if not all of the Armenian homeland, says Armenians may not have the right to demand much from the Turks, saying this as he walked through and around Astvadzunkal church near Aparan. Not only is the church in a collapsed condition, but trash is seen everywhere. Nonetheless, along with the subject of opening the border with Turkey, debate is in itself a good thing, a sign that Armenians haven’t forgotten their history or monuments. One type of remark that would be better left unsaid was made by a television talk show host, who commented to her guest “But in the end, won’t a Turk stay a Turk, can we ever expect the Turk to change?” It seems to me if Turks haven’t made such a promise, to change, that for better or worse, a Turk is a Turk, that this host had no business making such a statement, that the important thing is for Armenians to stay Armenians, which if one looks at their current culture, led by people like (rabiz star) Armenchik and television shows trying to copy shows from Russia and America (usually without success), staying Armenian should be our focus, not worrying about what a Turk might or might not be.

“The Turks might have gone too far by plastering Ataturk’s picture on St. Khatch during the opening ceremony,” a Yerevantsi said. “That’s fine, though, it might be a step in the right direction, Turks renovating St. Khatch. But I can’t forget our trip to Ani. Leaving Ani, we drove towards Gaghzvan, and took the road to Mren. The road was bad. We had three vans. One of the drivers said he’d take us all the way to Mren. The old people and historians went in the van. I ran all the way. I couldn’t wait to get there. When we got there, Turkish soldiers made us leave, after ruining the film in our cameras. But I was able to see the inside of the huge, old basilica. There is one thing I’ll never forget, though, and it’s what the Turks have done to the foundation of Mren. They’ve chiseled away at the foundation, leaving only a thin strip of stone holding the church up. From a distance, it looks solid. From close up, you can see what they’ve done. This way, the church will collapse on its own, without any noise or explosion, as when the Turks blew up the nearby monastery of Khtsgonk in the Sixties. What can we do?”

Almost as sad as the loss of life in the massacre of several in the Gyumri mayor’s entourage is that no one seems to be very shocked by the news. “Election time is getting closer, this is normal,” people say. “It’s just clan warfare, made worse by Andranik Margaryan’s death,” they add, also predicting that no one will be arrested in the shootings. A friend who fought in several major battles in Karabagh has his own take: “True, it’s clan warfare, but we shouldn’t take for granted it’s spontaneous, that it has to be that way. I think it might serve the interests of Russia or the US, and that this kind of tragedy might be arranged by the Powers, to keep Armenia weak, from developing. Who wants to invest money in a country where they’re shooting each other like in the Wild West? Yet, this is minor compared to what Armenia might be facing in the future. I think it’s just a matter of time until they bomb our neighbor to the south. Not if, but when. Then, we’ll be sorry we didn’t take Baku when we had the chance, when Monte was ready, but the Powers said no. They want Azerbaijan to unite with the old Azerbaijan, in northern Iran. If that happens, our only sure road to the outside world will close. That is the best-case scenario. When they decide to attack us, it will be a life or death struggle. Either we take Baku, or they’re at our necks, in Yerevan. But don’t count us out. It might be like Leningrad, when Hitler made the mistake of not allowing a way out for women and children. With women and children at their side, the men fought on, and eventually defeated Hitler’s army. With us, it will be a last stand. We will win, I don’t care how many million Azeris there are.”

Easter Sunday in Yerevan started with Badarak in Holy Echmiadzin, which we viewed on National Television, intermittently receiving Easter greetings by way of email, telephone, and even by messages sent to our cell phones, from Viva Cell, Echmiadzin, and friends and relatives in Yerevan and Moscow. Our day continued at Hasmik’s deceased uncle’s family home, where family and friends gathered for Misha’s “first Zatik,” the name given on Easter when someone has died the previous year. Arriving in mid-afternoon, we joined those sitting at the long table, already returned from their trip to the cemetery. We ate the traditional fish and pilaf with raisins dinner, along with several kinds of greens, and hard-boiled eggs. A cousin said he had gathered part of the greens from the side of the gorge leading down to the Hrazdan (Zangou) River near the house. “In a week or so,” he said, “I plan on gathering greens for ‘jhangyalov hatz.’ The greens grow in a spot on the slope only goats can reach, as it is quite steep. Every year I slide my way down the slope, hanging onto tree roots, so I can get to the greens, which grow under rocks and amongst the tree roots. You can come if you want, but it’s dangerous. I’ll bring the greens to your house, and my wife will make jhangyalov hatz. She’s from Zangezur, near Kajaran. They make it different than Karabaghtsis. I’ll bring tuti arak from Kajaran.” He poured Jermuk for me, and for himself. “Have you heard what the Americans said?” he continued. “That if someone drinks 3-4 liters of Jermuk a day, at some time in the future there might be some sort of health problem. I hear an Armenian from America gave Jermuk a large sum of money to improve their export business, then they shoved him to the side. He must have connections in high places, because soon after that we heard that Jermuk water was banned in the US. This case isn’t closed; we’ll see what happens.” Outside, where men mingled in the courtyard, the talk, as usual, turned to politics. “April 6 passed,” someone said, “and Iran wasn’t bombed, as the Russians said might happen. I don’t think the US will dare. When they attacked Yugoslavia, Russia was weak. When they attacked Iraq, Russia was just gaining strength. Now, Russia is strong, so the US is wary. I don’t especially love the Iranians, but picture what our condition as a country would have been in the early Nineties if Iran had closed its borders with Armenia. It would have been disastrous. They could have closed the borders, but they didn’t. We can’t forget this. Can we depend on Georgia?” Another person, a musician, told about the current video clip recorded for the Euro Vision competition. “As Haiko sings, you see a duduk player, but his face isn’t shown. The duduk player is one of the best two or three in Armenia. Hratch Keshishyan, who did the clip, wanted to show another duduk player, but still use the duduk music recorded especially for the clip. Hearing about this, the duduk player complained, and the two argued. Hratch finally gave in, agreeing not to show the other dudukist. But, not giving in completely, he cut out the face of the dudukist who played the melody. Yet, we all know who it is.”

On the way to the Heritage Party’s campaign kickoff at the Armenia Marriott, the taxi driver asked why we were bothering, that even though Raffi Hovhannisian is a good man, there was nothing he could do to stop or slow down the clans running, and ruining, Armenia. “In Soviet times, from the worker on the streets to the professor and the scientist, everybody lived well. No one worried about their future, and nobody was hungry. Now, ten percent live well, and the rest are forgotten.” Such is the mood of many here, yet people don’t give up, witnessed by the crowd in the Tigran Mets hall at the Marriott. Nearing three p.m., crowds of people that were standing outside and in the lobby began moving upstairs to the hall, where several hundred had already gathered. Inside, young and old, artists and doctors mingled with Heritage members who were on Heritage’s list to become parliamentarians. Suddenly, led by Hovhannisian, this entire group marched from the lobby into the main hall, to the sound of loud music and applause. Television cameras and journalists were everywhere, which wouldn’t have been the scene a few short weeks ago, when Hovhannisian was blacklisted from appearing on television news and talk shows. After briefly greeting the crowd, Hasmik and Aleksan sang the national hymn, “Mer Hayrenik,” followed by short speeches by Anahit Bakhshyan and others on Heritage’s list of candidates. . . . It remains now to be seen whether the May 12 results will allow Heritage to have a spot in the National Assembly. Many in Armenia swear by Hovhannisian, saying he isn’t like the others in government, yet others say he doesn’t understand the mentality of Armenia and its people, being he didn’t grow up here. The latter opinion, although understandable, may or may not have basis in reality, as clean government might be more important now than having a complete understanding of the local mentality. One thing that has undoubtedly hurt Hovhannisian is that many would like to join his party, but, at least up to now, this would mean, to start with, loss of one’s employment. Tomorrow (Thursday) oppositionist and fervent speaker Aram Sargsyan, brother of murdered Vazken Sargsyan, kicks off his party’s run for seats in Parliament. Sargsyan has definitely become more seasoned as a political figure and speaker than during his brief days as Prime Minister, becoming a force in the Armenian political scene.

While in Echmiadzin yesterday, I asked a resident if he had heard about the most recent shootings in Zvartnots village and in Echmiadzin. “Why are you concerned,” he said, smiling. “This is normal election activity. Haven’t you been in Armenia long enough to know this?” Then, today, while riding in a yertooghayin van past the Opera bus stop and onto Baghramyan, I read on a news ticker that President Kocharian condemned the bombings of two “Prosperous Armenia” offices, in the north of Yerevan. In less publicized news, a professor at the Komitas Conservatory told a “higher up” at the Conservatory that there were two individuals who were accepted to study there, and that they wanted to study a certain instrument. The higher-up asked how much the professor would pay to be given the right to teach the new students, to which the professor, needing students, said he/she didn’t know. The higher-up’s answer: “Well, let’s see how much the professor from another department offers me, then we’ll know if you get the students or not.”

Two scandals in the culture sphere are making the rounds here, one being about the naming of a new director of the State Dance Ensemble. As the former director had been unable to continue his duties due to health reasons, his son was recently appointed director. Hearing this, artistic director Gagik Karapetyan submitted his resignation, saying the new director had nothing to do with the ensemble and its art. It happens that the appointment was made just for this purpose, the resignation of Karapetyan, so a new artistic director could be named, who turned out to be a former dancer from the ensemble, whose husband’s close association with Armenia’s foreign minister made all this possible. The other scandal involves the removal of painter Samvel Petrosyan as head of the Painter’s College in Yerevan. The new head is the son of Petrosyan’s sister, Dashnak parliamentarian Alvart Petrosyan. As Samvel Petrosyan stated, it was quite a low blow for his sister to nominate her untalented son to replace him, especially being he had planned on resigning in September, after the current class of students had graduated. Word has it that Alvart Petrosyan made arrangements with her fellow-Dashnak minister of education to have her brother removed from his position. . . . such is party politics in Armenia. On the lighter side, if it can be stated, my wife came home yesterday telling about her trip that day in a yertooghayin van. When three men, around thirty years old, left the van, the driver asked them who was going to pay for their ride, and one answered someone had already paid for them. After the driver challenged them, saying no one had paid for their rides, they rushed to the driver’s door and kicked it, telling the driver to come outside and they’d decide things on the street. The driver then promptly pulled a large knife from inside his jacket and began to open the door. My wife and another passenger tried to hold the driver back, to save what could have turned into quite a dangerous scene. As they held him back, one of the men who had challenged the driver spit on him through the window, making the driver even angrier, but Hasmik and the other passenger convinced him to drive away, preventing a possible tragedy.

Odd that when representatives for Raffi Hovhannisian’s Heritage party went to Byurakan this Sunday to tell villagers of Hovhannisian’s visit the following day, the villagers told those representatives that to get their votes, Heritage would have to give them flour, or at least 20,000 drams each, then in Yerevan today it became known there were people knocking on doors in northern Yerevan districts saying they represented Heritage, and would give 50,000 drams for their votes. These people, of course, weren’t in any way connected with Heritage, their purpose no doubt to discredit Hovhannisian, to try and make him look like the others who offer flour, potatoes, fertilizer, or money to people for their votes. Even though Heritage campaign ads are now allowed on television, when Heritage supporters try to attach their posters around town, they are prevented from doing so by district heads and others working on orders from above. Amazing, the fear the authorites have of Hovhannisian and Heritage. On another front, the father of a girl aspiring to be a singer told us the girl had been studying at a private school, but now wanted to study at the Komitas Conservatory. “First, they wanted $3,000 up front to accept the girl into the Conservatory,” he said. “Then, they said she had to study vocal with a certain professor, some thirty lessons at $25 per hour. Then, she had to take courses where the student has to write down the notes a professor sings. More money there. All in all, they wanted some $5,000 to be accepted and start to study there. From where?”

As I read the text for a film about Western Armenia, the film’s author came into the recording room and said to make sure and put a lot of emotion into the part about St. Karapet, the famous monastery in the Plains of Moush. This wouldn’t be hard, I thought, having been there twice and seen the destroyed monastery with my own eyes. Reading the text, about the khachkars stuck in walls and doors and the villagers’ indifferent (and worse) attitude towards it all, I began trembling, almost forgetting the text I was reading. Afterwards, I asked the woman about her trip to St. Karapet and Moush, where they visited the St. Marineh church and the entire old Armenian quarter of Moush. “I am a princess of Moush,” she said. “I am a descendent of Queen Parantsem.” She went on to say that before the 1915 massacres, her ancestors lived in a village I believe named Hatsakats in the Plains of Moush. She said they were known by the Turks as the “Sev Hayer” because they didn’t allow Turks anywhere near their village or region, and had killed many Turks. “I don’t know that I’m proud of this fact, about killing so many Turks, but if more Armenians were like this, maybe the Genocide wouldn’t have taken place,” she said. After the film reading was done, we drove to the office, where we continued our conversation about Moush, comparing the old days with the current culture in Armenia. “My relatives in Moush were very strict about not having Turks in their area,” she said. “Maybe we should be more like them, concerning those who are ruining our culture, especially sect members. Even those who believe in what they’re doing cause damage here. They don’t know they’re the tools of outside forces trying to break us down, to take the face of Armenia and turn it into something else, something foreign. I just heard about a group of village youths severely beating a woman of their village who was a sect member. Maybe they went too far, I’m not sure, but I admit I wouldn’t have felt very bad if they had beaten male sect members.” On the political front, I finally realized how the three or so strongest political parties are circumventing the laws concerning equal airtime for all parties. Although everyone is given their minutes, paid or free, to campaign on television, television news spends most of their regular broadcasts following the daily campaign trips of the strongest parties as they meet people in Yerevan and in the regions, as if it is merely part of the news . . . yet, the several smaller parties aren’t given the time of day, thus the current method of “equal airtime.”

One positive element of the elections are the occasional cultural and patriotic programs now appearing on the networks, which even though they might have an underlying purpose, like having their party candidates elected, the viewer is presented with worthy programing. Yesterday, for example, the Dashnak’s “Yerkir Media” station broadcast a history of one of the greatest fedayee, Armenak Ghazarian (Hrayr Tjhokhk). Told by actor/public speaker Sargis Najaryan, and with old and new footage from Western Armenia, we were led through Ghazarian’s life and activities, including his birth in Sassoun and education in the St. Karapet monastery of Moush. Ghazarian had apparently moved his family from the Sassoun mountains to Moush, where he gained his education and subsequently became involved in the revolutionary movement. We learned how Ghazarian had small groups of men who “punished” Turks and Kurds who had treated Armenians poorly (violently). The program also told of his friendship and collaboration with Aram Aramian, about whom the famous song “Kach Aram” is written. The two were in prison together, Ghazarian being freed and Aramian eventually being hanged, thus the lyrics of the song “. . . Yes Aram em, kach Aram, ints tanum en kakharan . . .” As to the current political scene, a request for Hasmik and Aleksan to sing “Mer Hayrenik” at a Heritage party meeting led us to the government building in the center of the city this past Saturday. A large crowd listened to updates about Heritage’s recent campaigning activities. There, we learned that Hovhannisian didn’t only have the confrontation with the Areni mayor, as reported in media news, but had faced similar obstacles in Goris. Nonetheless, it appears Heritage is beginning to gain ground in the polls, and that Hovhannisian and at least two or three others on the Heritage list will be in parliament. Talk also continues about government officials gambling away over one million dollars while in Nice, France, on official business, Galust Sahakyan, of the Republican Party, of which most of the gamblers are members, saying something to the effect of “Let them have their fun, what’s wrong with that?” Also, Genocide activities and commemorations are now in full swing here, as in the Diaspora. Thus, an invitation from the Orran Benevolent Union to attend a showing at Orran of Screamers, featuring music and interviews of System of a Down. An interesting documentary-style film, which due to the persistence of the filmmaker, who seemed quite serious in her mission, is reaching, besides Armenian audiences, the American congress and, I think on April 25, the British parliament.

Rain turned to snow as we made our way up the hill to the Genocide Memorial this April 24. Although the weather held crowds down somewhat, tens of thousands still paid their respect to the victims of 1915. Our journey started at the start of the Kievyan Bridge, where we walked with members of Raffi Hovhannisian’s Heritage party, with several youths holding banners and Hovhannisian leading the group. As we walked up the hill, we saw other groups of people representing this or that political party, including Prosperous Armenia. A relative remembered the 1970s, when as a student they walked all the way from Yerevan State to the Memorial. “We sang patriotic songs the entire way,” she said. “Nobody, communist or not, said anything that day. It was great, singing ‘Zartir Lao’ marching down Baghramyan and Kievyan.” Back home, we ate the Karabagh delicacy “jhangyalov hatz,” made from several kinds of greens we had gathered two days earlier in the garden at the family home in Charbakh. We drank tahn, which goes quite well with jhangyalov hatz, and drank in memory of the victims of 1915. Besides the usual, heartbreaking fare shown every year, including Tsori Mirro, Nahapet, and Hin Oreri Yerg, all with Sos Sargsyan and/or Mher Mkrtchyan, “Yerevan” station had original footage taken in villages and on the deportation roads of 1915. Severed heads, women being dragged off, priests being stabbed, women nailed to crosses, people being pushed off large boats into the sea, women sqeezing wet clothes trying to extract a few drops of water to drink. . . .

“There were 10,000 Armenians still in Nakhichevan,” the Nakhichevantsi said. “We asked Yerevan for help. Even though the Soviet Union hadn’t yet collapsed, Levon’s party was running things. We asked for food and weapons. They refused. We couldn’t stand up for long against 150,000 or more Turks. We could have killed 10,000 of them, but in the end we would have lost. So we left and came to Armenia. It wasn’t a surprise Levon said no, as we know whom he works for. Later, during the Karabagh war, he didn’t want Armenians to take Kelbajar, but we did anyway. We wanted to take Shahumian, all the way to Gandzak and the Kur River, but we weren’t allowed. Now, it’s going to be hard. Then, it would have been easy. And, when we got back Tigranashen, the enclave inside Armenia’s border (in Ararat province, approaching Vayots Tsor) that Azerbaijan ran in Soviet times, Levon didn’t want that either, even though we had lost a similar enclave outside Armenia’s northeast border with Azerbaijan. But the Russians wanted Armenia to have Tigranashen, so it happened.” After our conversation, I went into the Yergi Tadron building, to meet with a friend who has an office there. “I don’t know how much longer I can stand working in the same building as these people (Yergi Tadron stars and staff),” he said. “Now, they’re renovating their part of the building. To pay for this, they’re having concerts. No one was coming to the concerts, maybe 5 or 10 people. Many are sick of seeing these ‘stars’ all day on television, so they don’t come to the concerts. So the producers were forced to have several of these stars perform at the same concert, so they could at least have a fair sized audience. Now these stars are lining up like sheep, with their red t-shirts, behind Serge and Hanrapetakan (Republican party). I guess they know where their funding comes from.” Relating to politics, Aram Karapetyan of “New Times” claims he has facts about how Kocharian, Serge Sargsyan, and Mikhael Baghdasarov (all Karabaghtsis) arranged to illegally take over Armenian Airlines and create Armavia. Karapetyan said he’d reveal these facts soon, which remains to be seen. Also, it was revealed that a certain school in Yerevan paid more social security taxes than the Nushikyan brothers (wealthy businessmen) and Mika Cement (owned by Baghdasarov). Odd that the new prime minister stated recently that there wasn’t enough money in the budget to raise pensions and wages.
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