Yerevan Journal – June 2007

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Today a folk musician returned from Beirut, a week earlier than scheduled. “Our concerts were cancelled,” he said. “Beirut is tense. People aren’t out in the streets unless they have to be. They expect the worst. True, most of the trouble is in Tripoli, elsewhere, but anything can happen, and they know it. Bourj Hamoud is peaceful, no problems there. But Lebanon, in general, seems to be waiting, for what, they don’t know.” I was presented with a bottle of anise-flavored arak, reminding me of what Lebanon Armenians brought to Fresno around 1980. . . . Armenia itself remains peaceful, but in a state of waiting, in this case, whether or not the newly published negative reports by international observers might affect the election results, whether a government coalition will be formed, and if so, will the Dashnaks be part of it, after all their (supposed?) protests against the other coalition members, and what might be expected from St. Petersburg, where the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents are to meet, considering all the talk about whether a decision has already been made about giving back the liberated territories surrounding Mountainous Karabagh. In the meantime, the “call of the blood” remains strong, as a cousin’s cousin, after visiting Yerevan, is currently back in Turkey, unable to resist going back to her roots, the birthplaces of her grandparents, going to Kharberd and Adana. Perhaps my telling her how the water tasted better in Moush, where my grandmother was born, influenced her. . . .

Literally thousands gathered this evening in the area around the Opera and Cascade, were Yerevan celebrated International Children’s Defense Day. Orran children had a booth where their wares were displayed, alongside several other similar organizations. A concert was to start later in the evening. At an outdoor coffee shop facing the Aram Khachatryan statue, I talked with one who might be called a political activist. “Right now, Dashnaktsutyun is having a meeting, and the decision is made...they will again be part of the ruling coalition. This, in spite of their opposition-like talk during the election campaign. Not a surprise to me. Some say they will propose a candidate for the presidency in 2008, but I don’t see anyone strong enough to run. As far as the opposition goes, right now no one can run against the prime minister and win. Stepan had his day, as did Geghamyan, and people don’t really trust Vazken Manukyan. If Raffi could run now, he might have a chance, but he won’t be eligible till next time around. If Raffi backs somebody, though, it could make a difference.” The talk switched to today’s various awards, or “kochumner,” handed out by the government. A psychologist who gave his opinions during a questionable talk show recently featured on National Television was given an award of some kind. Zaven Sargsyan of the Paradjanov Museum also received an award for his work in the art world. Odd he accepted it, as for months, it seems like years, he argued with city hall against the high rises (owned by the president’s wife’s relatives) which were to block the museum completely from any sunshine or worthy view. We talked about a show on Yerkir Media yesterday evening, in which the subject of the danger of religious sects was discussed. As career politicians somewhat backed up the rights of the sects, a priest from Echmiadzin condemned both the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, after which he talked about the close ties of many in government with these organizations, who use their money to buy favors in Armenia. Interesting, also, is the scandal circling the Matenadaran, where the digitalization of manuscripts by a Minnesota university, connected with Gerard Cafesjian, has many in the general public and especially in the art world nothing short of fuming mad. Today at the Writer’s Union, poet Avedik Issahakyan’s grandson, Avik, held nothing back saying that these manuscripts, many of which were brought during the massacres by women and children, carrying them on their backs on the deportation trails, weren’t meant to be given away, especially when there are ample experts here in Armenia who could have taken care of the digitalization and kept these treasures and the right of their usage in Armenia. “To give these to a suspicious Jewish-run organization is a crime,” he said. “What are they doing, without any competition or anything, in one day agreeing to give our national treasures to enemies.”

Tonight, National News had several of Yerevan’s pop stars in Karabagh, doing the judging for some sort of music competition. I remembered when I moved to Armenia in 2000, and I boldly stated I planned on changing the music culture here, back to the traditional folk music from Soviet times and before. Seeing the news show tonight, I realized that things have actually slipped since my arrival, with the pop stars (Yergi Tadron and their cohorts) completely controlling the media here . . . what people see and hear . . . much moreso than in 2000. Yet, signs of a change are possibly in the works. For one thing, a new CD has been produced, named Armat (roots), where older singers sing folk songs, and one or two old folk recordings are used. This was produced by those contolling the music scene, those who usually produce the new pop music, but it seems they saw the demand for such music rising, thus the production of the CD. And, the late-evening show “Retro” shown on National Television’s “Nor Alik” wouldn’t be shown if there were no viewers . . . the show features old concert or video recordings of Ruben Matevosyan, Edik Darpinyan (an excellent folk singer of the recent past), Ophelia Hampartsumyan, Mannik Grigoryan, and Raffi Hovhannisyan, whose early recordings of Sayat Nova’s “Kamancha” and other songs continue to amaze listeners. Shows like this are a good sign, after all, why should Armenians need to turn to Turkish television to see regional folk music, which is pretty much the case now. Also, the reaction from people after the airing last night of “Dipvadz,” the show where my search for and eventual marriage with Hasmik, resulting in phone calls until the wee hours, from people we knew, or barely remembered in some cases, people thanking us for this story and saying how nice it was to hear the traditional music on the show (recordings by Shoghaken and Hasmik’s live singing) . . . all this showing the interest and desire people have to see and hear real folk culture. Today, at a produce stand, a woman walked by me, as if trying to decide if she knew me or not, and then walked up to Hasmik and thanked her for singing so well on the show last night. Before reaching home, at least five neighborhood acquaintences commented about the show and the good music they heard. And, a surprise phone call from one of Armenia’s wealthy inviting Hasmik to sing at a ceremony for her soon-to-be-married daughter . . . the ceremony of the “dressing of the bride” at her home, with all female family members and friends present . . . after the program, shows a new trend in Armenia, towards the old, traditional culture, a culture many are trying to suppress, but, hopefully, to no avail.

Although everybody is waiting for the anouncements about the formation of the new government, and who is keeping and who is losing ministerial positions, it would seem the talk about the settlement of the Karabagh conflict would at least temporarily fade away. But such isn’t the case. Today politician Hovhannes Hovhannisyan said on an interview on “Kentron” that the secrecy of the negotiations is leading to speculation ranging anywhere from Armenians giving up nothing, to something quite close to the opposite. Hovhannisyan complained that Armenians had no policy of increasing the Armenian population of Karabagh, not to mention merely maintaing it. “They’re all in Russia working, or in Yerevan, where conditions favorable to them enable the setting up of businesses, etc. Ask them. None of them want to return to Karabagh. The population there is decreasing.” Needless to say, if a possible agreement allows Azeris to return to their homes in Mountainous Karabagh, their numbers will increase to the point where the foreseen election ten years in the future will lead to Karabagh returning to Azeri control. If this happens, Karabagh will go the way of Nakhichevan, and the war victory to naught. On another subject, the talk about a set plan to destroy Armenian culture and morals continues. A neighbor, who is digusted with the programming on all channels, especially National Television, approached a friend working for National Television, asking why the programming switches from soap operas, to pop star video clips, to endless violent, low-grade movies, to music shows featuring pop stars, to talk shows seemingly modeled after Western trash-talk talk shows . . . the television worker replying, “There is nothing I can do. This is a plan, by higher-ups here and from elsewhere. I would like to wake up one day and find out I was fired.”

“I lost several friends in Mardakert and in Martuni,”the man said. “Those were tough years, bad years. But we were fighting for our families, and our nation. This is our grandparents’ land. When I hear they plan on giving it all back, I go crazy. These people making the decisions, ready to sign our land away, are traitors. And after they sign the documents, and the people demand their resignation, they’ll give them without blinking an eye. They’ll go and live in their palaces in Europe, with their stolen money. They have no tie to their land. What do they care if they give away Karabagh? Do we think Melik Shahnazar was the only traitor from Karabagh (referring to Armenia’s president)?”
. . . I remembered my 1999 visit to Avedaranots village in Karabagh, where a local told me how embarrassed he was that Shahnazar was buried in his village. “There were no Moslems in Karabagh before Shahnazar gave Shushi to a khan, who people think was a Persianized Turk. Shahnazar caused trouble, rifts, between the Karabagh meliks. I curse his name.”

The day began with Hasmik and Karine, Shoghaken’s kanonist, heading out to sing and play traditional songs to the future bride as she leaves her family home on her wedding day. It happened the future bride was a daughter of tycoon Gagik Tsarukyan, which took Hasmik and Karine to Tsarukyan’s well known home and church on a hill near Abovian, in Arinj. Apparently, the Tsarukyans were quite hospitable, as they gave their daughter to a current minister’s son, that is, if the minister kept his position. As soon as Hasmik returned home, we went to a reception arranged by Raffi Hovhannisian, who had invited Heritage party parliamentarians, workers, volunteers, and friends, to thank them for their help in taking Heritage to Parliament. Saying a few words of thanks, Hovhannisian noted that “Everybody knows, both the people and those running the government, that Heritage had more votes than what was announced. They know this, and this is important.” In the relaxed atmosphere, Hovhannisian enthusiastically told those gathered that he truly appreciated their help and support, knowing the battle they were fighting wasn’t an easy one. As he finished, an old Sassuntsi shouted out “We want to hear Hasmik Harutyunyan sing”. . . likely because he had seen the recent “Dipvadz” program featuring Hasmik and myself. After greeting the crowd, Hasmik led everybody in singing “Yeraz Im Yerkir, Hayreni.” A surprising number sang along with Hasmik, the song having become somewhat of a national anthem in Armenia. As we were expected at the family home in Charbakh, we again congratulated Raffi, and were on our way to take part in the traditional mulberry gathering, which takes on a ceremonial nature in Armenia. Arriving, Hasmik’s older brother was already in the tree, preparing to start hitting and shaking the branches. We all took our positions below holding the large canvas, moving according to the particular branch being hit. The first pan or two went to the neighbors, then mostly to the barrels where the mulberries would begin their process of becoming the famous “tuti arak.” Young and old were holding the canvas, including a child just past a year of age. Neighborhood men helped, or sat on a wooden bench and watched, giving advice on which branches had the most or least mulberries. Finally, after the tree had been freed of its ripe berries, we went inside, sat around a table, and ate large plates of mulberries.

National Television is preparing a series of programs about great Armenians, such as Hayrik Mouradian and William Saroyan. The shows will be shown here at 2:30 a.m., with no plans of being shown in the daytime, thus not interfering with National Television and Radio’s stated plans to “keep the people happy” and not present anything serious or national. The series of programs will likely be shipped by satellite to Europe and the rest of the Diaspora, again the lucky ones, while here they keep people simple with their talk and game shows, soap operas, and low-grade action movies. It happens that the Dashnak’s Yerkir Media turned down showing these programs, in spite of their talk about doing anything and everything for our national culture. The days of Simon Vratsian are gone.

It happened today that someone who had spoken with a higher-up at National Televison about producing two or three serious programs about a subject important to Armenia, and which has already been agreed on, said that he was told to “simplify” the material so that our people could understand it, to which he was answered that there are plenty of people who not only understand the material, but need it. The television person said that he had viewed the material, and that there were parts that even he couldn’t understand, and with his logic the general population, who definitely knows less than him, couldn’t understand. My friend said he was left speechless. On the political front, word is spreading that Dashnaktsutyun is talking with Raffi Hovhannisian, about supporting him in the next presidential elections, realizing they don’t have a candidate that could compete successfuly against the current prime minister. An interesting idea, if it should happen. Time will tell.

By the time we reached our destination, where we would gather mulberries, my shoes had both dark and light colored berries stuck to the soles, as avoiding berries in Yerevan this time of the year is almost impossible. After completing this nearly ritualistic process of gathering the berries, we went inside and put a huge pan resembling the grape-picking pans of Fresno on a coffee table, scooped up small plates of mulberries, and started to eat. As we ate, a quite patriotic individual came into the living room, apologized for being too late to help in the mulberry gathering, grabbed a plate, and started eating. Later, we walked outside, said hello to a few neighbors, walked past several children playing amongst the berries on the dirt road, and entered the garden area. As usual, this individual began talking about his military experiences during the Karabagh war. This time, he told about taking a European journalist to the front line, where he would meet commanders and photograph and report on what he saw. What he saw, the fellow said, sent him into shock. Entering an Armenian village in Shahumyan, they came across around 20 villagers whose heads had been cut off during an Azeri army attack. Most of the villagers of the region had already left, but these villagers had stayed behind, only to meet this terrible end to their lives. Then, as the journalist continued his journeys, accompanying Armenian soldiers, they came across an Azeri village where Armenians had taken their revenge, and repeated the dreadful acts the Azeris had perpetrated on Armenian villagers. Our friend said the journalist was so sick and disgusted by what he had seen, that he refused to report on either event.

A casual meeting at the Press House in Yerevan turned into one which revealed unusual approaches to the Armenian situation, if it can be called that. “Armenia doesn’t have a border with Turkey,” he began. Seeing my surprised look, he explained. “We border Kurdistan, not Turkey,” he said. “Who lives on our border, from Ararat to Ani? Under the right circumstances, Turkey will collapse. We have to be ready. You want to live in Moush? Just be patient. I know they’re talking about giving up the liberated territories, but they won’t. No one in history has taken land in a war and then offered it back. We’ll keep that land, and then go west. It’s just a case of timing. I just hope we do something about the Kurdified Armenians of Turkey, who don’t speak Armenian, but know they’re Armenian. Many want to go back to their Armenian roots, become Armenian again.” Our friend began talking about the Basques of France and Spain, and their Armenian roots. “There, they teach, in their schools, that Basques are originally from Armenia. There is talk about that here, but nothing official. They have had the same gods, including Anahit. There are 800-1,000 words in the Basque language that are Armenian. And speaking of languages, I doubt the belief that St. Mesrop invented our alphabet. It’s impossible a nation our age didn’t have an alphabet until the 400s. I think all he and his students did was refine things a little, or bring back the letters that already existed from Greece. No matter. The point is, we’re the oldest people in the region. As for Azerbaijan and Georgia, they don’t have much of a future. There’s no reason for them to exist. Georgia will break up into several small states representing the different peoples who live there. We should help speed up the collapse of Georgia. Azerbaijan won’t be so easy, but it can be done. They know their country is new, set up by the Soviets. You think they’ve never looked at old maps? Where is Azerbaijan?”

Continuing, our friend added that not only are Azerbaijan and Georgia on the way out, that a new state of Assyria should be created. “Everybody talks about Kurdistan, which I understand. But why not the Assyrians? There are more Assyrians than people think. And they stick together. If they were given a state, they would come together and build on it. Too bad Armenians aren’t like that.” He went on about a tax problem he had, how a tax official had presented him with several hundred dollars worth of new taxes he supposedly owed. “I know why they’re doing this,” he said. “They need to raise pensions, to satisfy the Europeans. And they know the oligarchs aren’t going to pay taxes. So they attack us, the small businessmen. That’s all right. Tomorrow, I’ll go to his office. I’ll crucify him.” He started laughing, telling about what he called “criminals” that run things here, yet saying there were so many positive things about living here, that maybe it was worth it. “One of my best friends lives in Los Angeles, now for fifteen years. Every year he comes here, at least once. He’s made good money there, and has three houses. But he works all day and night. He says he spends $1,000 a month on a psychotherapist. ‘That money goes down the drain,’ my friend says. ‘I come here, get together with my Hayastantsi friends, have a few drinks, and all my troubles are gone. And all for $100.’” Leaving our friendly meeting, I took a yertooghayin down Mashtots to Tumanyan, where I got out and went to Heritage headquarters, where I asked about Raffi Hovhannisian’s newly-announced attempt to gain another seat in Parliament, running himself in Talin, which would open up another spot in Parliament for his party, should he win. A partisan told me that if asked, he would become a Parliament member, if a spot opened up, no matter what happened to his professional life, as he saw this as the way to help his country. When I asked about Hovhannisian running for president, even though he isn’t supposed to be able to in the coming election, I was told there were no plans for the Heritage leader to run for president. Yet, nobody in Armenia would be surprised if Hovhannisian suddenly was given the green light to run.

An invitation for Hasmik to be interviewed by Yerkir Media for a folk festival/concert took us to the Polytechnic Institute, just north of the city center. Arriving, we heard a couple of older village women singing, and watched the Karin Ensemble do a few dances from Western Armenia. The festival was started several years ago by Hayrik Mouradian. While there, a musicologist asked us why Shoghaken had refused to participate in the festival. We answered that Shoghaken hadn’t even been asked, and asked him who had told him we had refused, to which he said he shouldn’t say. Odd that this is the same musicologist who told us in no uncertain terms that Shoghaken shouldn’t have recorded folk dances using arrangements Komitas had done for piano, this in spite of the fact that Komitas had obviously first heard the dance music played on Armenian folk instruments. So be it. Later, we went for a second visit to the home of Verjine Svazlian, one of the best known and respected intellectuals in Armenia. Quite a contrast, in Armenia’s current culture, aptly described by a visitor as something approaching “Sodom and Gomorrah,” to see someone with Svazlian’s knowledge and dedication. The professor is well known for her extensive research in the field of the Armenian Genocide, including having interviewed survivors in Armenia, Europe, the US, and Turkey, often with great obstacles thrown in front of her. In Soviet Armenia, she said, the obstacles were there but nothing like in Turkey. Once, she said, she went to the St. Prkitch hospital/rest home in Istanbul, and a Turk with a sword stood at the gate, obviously not about to let her interview Genocide survivors. So she feigned illness, agreed to be put to sleep for a hernia surgery, thus making it into the hospital. There, she told us, she interviewed forty survivors. Her own parents had made it to Egypt during the Genocide, after which they moved to Armenia. At times, she told, she has sold jewelery, etc., to have her work published...In the realm of local politics, I was told by someone close to the Dashnak party that, during negotiations with the authorities, the Dashnak ministers that were allowed to stay had nearly pleaded to retain their posts (here, they say the taste of power is sweet), while Aghvan Vardanyan, minister of social services and probably the best of the Dashnak ministers, was kept on by the prime minister himself, not under the wing of the Dashnaks. In spite of widespread pessimism regarding what can be done by the common man, interest in the presidential race is rising, leading to all sorts of rumors, one of which has Kocharyan granting Raffi Hovhannisyan the right to run for president in 2008, to go up against his supposed rival, Serge Sargsyan.

As our Diaspora Armenian friend was leaving for a day at Sanahin and Haghbat monasteries, I asked for an eye-witness report about the condition of Sanahin, due to a recent article on “Groong” about the sad state of the monastery. Apparently, the monastery’s state of decay had become disastrous, to the point of trees and bushes growing from the roofs of the churches. Upon returning, our friend unfortunately confirmed this to be true. The famous monastery, once a famous music school and center of learning, has an extreme need for renovation, or at least a general clean-up. And this, compared to some more expensive projects, would cost fairly little. Back in Yerevan, after a dinner of pumpkin soup, salad, and pilaf, we decided to see what sort of interesting program we could find on television. Trying the Dashnak’s Yerkir Media, we came across a show where pop stars feigned singing, while a happy DJ looked on. Our guest commented that if real Dashnaks, like Garo Sassouni, Gevorg Chavoush, and the like saw this sort of thing . . . well, words aren’t needed here. Passing the station known simply as “Yerevan,” which had some sort of rabiz/talk show on, we came across one of Turkey’s national stations, TRT 4. We sat amazed for over an hour, as successive solo acts featured sixty-plus-year-old men playing the saz and singing, with occasional backup by younger dhol and dap players. After unanimously condemning Armenia’s national stations, and their disregard for national music, we started watching our various video cassettes, anywhere from Hasmik’s Hayrik Mouradian children’s folk group to ten- to fifteen-year-old pre-Shoghaken recordings with Gevorg Dabaghyan, Kamo Khachatryan, Grigor Takushyan, and Hasmik and Aleksan performing at the Komitas Chamber Hall. We watched the same patriotic songs, dance songs, and lullabies Shoghaken performs today, including Hasmik’s version of “Krunk” from the Pontus region, where she combined three different versions originally collected by one of Komitas’ students. This past week, our visiting friend experienced the best of Armenia, its hospitality, monuments, music, etc., and some of the ridiculous, including a conversation with a Sassountsi who, it could be said, is a disgrace to real Sassountsis . . . stating that not only Melik Shahnazar wasn’t that bad a character, but that Azeris should be allowed back to live in all parts of Karabagh, not only the liberated territories, that they are our “true friends.” But, I suppose all types are needed. Our friend also saw and felt the unfortunate ill feelings between Hayastantsis and Karabaghtsis, hearing about how at recent political rallies people began shouting “Armenia for the Armenians (Hayastantsis).” In any event, an Armenian who saw the real Armenia, accepted it, and appreciated it, for all it’s worth, has returned home, likely already planning his return.

Although perhaps not a typical day, an example of the Armenian reality might be the following: After returning from the airport at around five a.m., and sleeping a few short hours, a phone call at nine-thirty revealed an anxious worker from the Ministry of Culture. “There’s a concert at the Opera building tonight at seven, where the Greek president and first lady will be present, and we want Shoghaken to perform.” Again, when presenting foreign guests with traditional music, not the usual pop music, is necessary, Shoghaken’s name is suddenly remembered. Concerning the request for the evening concert, Hasmik responded that two Shoghaken members were out of the country, but she would check with the others. As Hasmik began calling Shoghaken members to see who was available, another call came from the ministry, and who was it but the minister herself, saying the concert in reality is at Sevan, and that Shoghaken has to be ready to leave by one-thirty. This led to literally thirty to forty phone calls, making arrangements with the ministry and Shoghaken members, who ended up going with just five members, as dudukist Gevorg Dabaghyan had a previous engagement, and Aleksan and Grigor Takushyan were in France. As it happened, with certain improvisations, Shoghaken was able to perform most of their repertoire, leading President Kocharyan himself to repeatedly ask those around him “Who is this group? What’s their name?” In the end, Hasmik presented the president with a copy of Armenia Anthology, and talked with others in the presidential group and visiting dignitaries from Greece. Later, arriving back in Yerevan, we went to the new Armenian Technology Group office, in the Davitashen district, where we met with Bike-a-Thon riders from the present and past, and listened to short speeches from agriculture ministry officials and ATG’s new director, who asked Hasmik to sing something for everyone . . . leading, appropriately, to several traditional work songs, songs Hasmik recorded recently for an entire CD of Armenian work songs.

At the sixtieth birthday commemoration for slain Parliamentarian Yuri Bakhshyan, we met friends and dignitaries from Yerevan and the Diaspora, after enjoying a musical program arranged by Bakhshyan’s widow, Anahit Bakhshyan, now a member of Parliament herself, representing Heritage. Several other Heritage members, former presidential candidate Stepan Demirjyan, whose party was left out of Parliament, and Vazgen and Aram Sargsyan’s mother, known as “Tikin Greta,” or “Greta Mayrik,” were also present at the event. We also met with several Hamazkayin members from the US and Canada, and a female fedayee from Zangezur. Painter Karen Smbatyan’s brother told Hasmik that National Television’s special program about Hayrik Mouradian, in which Smbatyan, Hasmik, and folkorist and professor Alina Pahlivanyan spoke about their friendships with Hayrik and the importance of his work, was going to be aired at 3:30 a.m., the following morning. This led to us setting the alarm so we could watch the show, watching and listening to Hayrik and hearing about how he had personally changed the music scene of Armenia in the 1960s when, in spite of Soviet influence, traditional Armenian folk music from Vaspurakan, Taron, and elsewhere began being played, sung, and performed all over Armenia. After sleeping a few hours, another phone call from the Culture Ministry had them again thanking Hasmik and Shoghaken for their performance for the Armenian and Greek presidents and first ladies, saying they were proud Armenia had an ensemble performing real Armenian folk music (much of which ensemble members learned from Hayrik Mouradian). Apparently, the Armenian president’s administrative staff was still talking about Shoghaken, and thanking the minister for her decision to invite Shoghaken to perform that day in Sevan. . . . Shortly after this phone call, another call had a program director from “R” television inviting Hasmik to talk about her and Shoghaken’s activities, and about the importance folk music plays in a person’s everyday life. . . . On another subject, the illness of an immediate family member will mean a temporary break for “Yerevan Journal,” which will be resumed around the first of October.
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