Yerevan Journal – October 2007

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A return to Yerevan began, as usual, during the layover in Europe before finally boarding for Yerevan. Partly due to the departure gate changing several times, Armenians began mingling with each other, comparing notes and eventually how each knew the other’s relatives, friends, and village or city. I met with one of the newscasters of Hay Lur and saw the director of the National Opera besides meeting several people from Gyumri and Yerevan. This all continued on the flight back, the stewardesses looking shocked as there were often more people standing and talking than sitting. Reaching the airport and finally home, the active life of this part of the world continued, as personal and business-related phone calls and a visit from a friend and his wife, which ended up with a lunch of dolma and grape vodka, prevented me from attaining much rest. Then, as it happened, I accompanied Hasmik and part of Shoghaken to the Paradjanov Museum, where a dinner-reception was going to be held for the wife of the famous cellist Rostapovich, who died last year. The Armenian first lady, culture and health ministers, and others accompanied the woman as she toured the museum before sitting for dinner, when Hasmik, Gevorg Dabaghyan, Karine Hovhanissyan, and Vardan Baghdasaryan entertained with ashoughagan melodies and, finally, Hasmik singing lullabies from Taron and Akn to duduk and kanon. Being told the guest probably wouldn’t be interested in hearing more than ten or fifteen minutes of music, they had prepared a short program, but happily went along with the guest’s request to continue, leading to a short concert of Armenian folklore and troubador music. Only afterwards I learned that our guest’s foundation was sponsoring the vaccination program now underway in Armenia. As the musicians changed into their regular clothes, I walked outside and looked out over the Hrazdan Gorge, as restaurant music blared and people danced and sang in a series of restaurants next to the river. In the distance, I saw the huge black house where Levon Ter Petrosyan lives, just below the Genocide Memorial and Museum complex, and the Ararat soccer stadium. Next to the Paradjanov museum, I saw the partially-built hotel that had caused so much controversy due to its close proximity to the museum and nearby apartment buildings. Within just a few hours of returning to Yerevan, I had been reintroduced to the current culture and life of Armenia.

Armenia’s Golden Autumn is in full swing, with warm, balmy days and an abundance of great-tasting fruit, namely pears, grapes, and black figs, likely the same Missions we had on the home place in California. A drive to Echmiadzin revealed a lush garden of marigolds and other flowers at St. Hripsime, and the street leading towards the Holy See lined with various blooming bushes and flowers. Leaving St. Hripsime for the cathedral, we flagged down a taxi, whose driver turned out to be a repatriate from the 1940s from Beirut. “I was a kid then. I’m an old man now, and shouldn’t have to be driving a taxi. I’ve had chances to go and live with relatives in Beirut or America, but why leave? Everywhere is the same . . . people have to work for a living, and nothing comes easily. Unless you’re a thief, but I want to be able to sleep at night, not worry who’s looking over my shoulder.” After taking care of business and lighting candles in the cathedral, we walked towards the Echmiadzin-Yerevan transport station but ended up in another taxi, whose driver was gathering people to take to Yerevan. The younger driver had a similar opinion, but didn’t ignore the problems here. “I work all day and barely make enough to live on. This country is a paradox. Uneducated truck drivers become generals and government leaders, while scientists sell cigarettes. If everyone here made a normal salary, and old people got a pension enough to live on, no one would leave Armenia. Why should they? But as it is, I’m thinking of going to Germany, where a cousin is, or to Ukraine, where my uncle lives and is doing very well. They keep people poor here, then give them sugar and 5,000 dram for their vote. And people will vote for Serge. For me, that’s hard to believe.” A woman in the taxi spoke about Armenians and their love for other nations and cultures. “We’re a great people, and a sad people. We have Komitas, and we have rabiz. You know what I just heard? The ‘stars’ are having another ‘Two Stars’ competition, and the hosts are MP3 Aram and Sprot. MP3 Aram at least has a little talent, but the other, well, I should stay polite here.” I was reminded of when I woke up this morning and heard one station starting their day with Armenag Shahmouradian singing “Kilikia” and another station with a song by one of the female stars, a song for which the video has the girl acting in a manner that would have gotten her beaten not many years ago. Later in the day, a Turkish station had a male singer singing an Armenian fedayee song put to Turkish words, doing quite a good job at it all, while an Armenian station advertised the new “Two Stars” series. Another Hayastantsi in the taxi continued: “You know what I saw last night at 1:40? When most of the country was asleep? National Television had film of the Malyan Theater’s recent trip to France, accompanied by folk musicians (Shoghaken). It was great. Too bad Armenians around the world saw this, as it was on at a good hour for them, but in Armenia almost no one saw it due to its late night broadcast. And I know they won’t show it here in the daytime. Why don’t they want people here to see this kind of program? What do they want to turn us into?” This again made the driver angry, who started talking about Diaspora Armenians. “You know what a wealthy Armenian told me, while we were at the Musa Ler celebration, eating harisa and dancing? ‘I don’t understand why people leave Armenia. Life here is good.’ I got mad, told him to come and live here himself, that maybe he’d understand why people leave Armenia. I told him that he’d live well here, with all his money. He said he’d love to but ‘my business is there, my family, what can I do?’ I saw there was no hope, so I stopped talking with him and just drove the taxi, which is what he hired me for.”

On my way home from the Matenadaran, I stopped at an advertising center, where I translated several short news articles, doing the work there due to a slow, unreliable Internet connection at home. Although the infrastructure in Armenia is slowly improving, some time is still needed to recover and improve on what was here before. After my day’s work was completed, I went with Hasmik and her brother Aleksan to a wedding at the Ojakh restaurant, a huge complex near Abovian on the road to Sevan. As a friend of Hasmik’s son was getting married, Hasmik and Aleksan were asked to sing several traditional wedding songs, thus our trip to Ojakh. The two-storied restaurant is nothing short of lavish, as was the celebration last night, which had in attendance, besides the 400 or so guests, 2 ministers, Yerevan’s mayor, and the prime minister. Arriving late, we were barely seated when the toastmaster invited Hasmik and Aleksan to sing. The brother and sister sang several songs, including “Kanachetsav” and “Tagvoragovk,” a song from Moush praising the groom. After several toasts and songs by a local rabiz singer, a recording of Armenian folk dance music blared over the loudspeakers, to which Hasmik and Aleksan danced the Msho Khur, after which Aleksan grabbed the microphone and sang dance songs from Moush, bringing most of the people to the dance floor. Seeing and hearing what was going on, the rabiz singer told Aleksan, to the side, that the Kochari was coming on next, that he should go and dance, thus removing any competition to his quite mediocre singing. Soon, a parade of several “stars” did their lip-synching, with the professional toastmaster occasionally introducing and praising various family members. A pity, I thought, that it has become the style at large weddings such as these to hire toastmasters, knowing there isn’t a family here that doesn’t have someone capable of carrying out this task, not to mention one who knows the family members well. And money doesn’t seem to be an object, as each star demands up to $1,000 for “singing” a song or two. One of tonight’s stars, not known for her or her dancers’ modesty, was suprised after her first song, in which her two dancers performed much like those at an aerobics class and coming quite close to being lewd, when one from the groom’s family whispered in her ear that the prime minister had demanded that the dancers not take part in the second song. The two dancers slipped out the back, while the singer went on alone. A good move, I thought, by the prime minister, as even though such a performance might have its place on certain stages, a wedding party certainly wasn’t one of those places.

In Soviet times, if someone wanted to enlarge their apartment, they had to prove to the authorities that they had a good reason. If someone just wanted to enlarge it for the sake of enlarging it, they weren’t given permission. But if they could show that, for instance, their children didn’t have enough space to sleep or study properly, permission was granted. Such isn’t the case now. A friend told about his attempt to gain permission to add a bedroom to their apartment, for that very reason, that his two sons and daughter didn’t have any space or privacy. Someone at Yerevan’s city hall demanded the sum of $10,000 . . . a personal payment, also known as a bribe . . . before our friend could even start the normal, legal application process. He refused to pay, and the apartment stays the same.

Standing at the bus stop across from the Marriott Armenia hotel, a university student-aged male walked up and asked if the yertooghayin van he needed passed by there. Seeing him walk up, I had thought he was Iranian, but hearing his Armenian and his accent, I understood he was an Armenian from Tehran. Are you from Beirut? he asked me. When I told him I was originally from Fresno, he said it was great that the Armenians from the USA were fighting for the congress there to recognize the Armenian Genocide. When I asked him what he thought about Turkish threats such as sending the 70,000 Hayastantsis working in Turkey back to Armenia, he said, Let them. They always threaten us. Its our job to be strong here, to where they don’t even make those kinds of threats. While thinking about his reaction, I saw the stage being set up in the central square, where the same stars are going to again sing lip-synch for some sort of Yerevan holiday. I thought about the huge amount of money spent on this and other concerts that take place off and on during the year — money mostly, if not completely, coming from the state budget. No doubt, the money spent on one of these concerts is equal to the yearly budget for orphanages and old age homes.

I stood confused as Hasmik and a friend dug out the insides of several eggplants, until they told me they were going to freeze the eggplants so they could be used in the wintertime to make dolma. The two friends then fried up what they had cut out, along with onions and parsley, for lunch. Dinner presented another surprise, the gyalagyosh dish made famous by Vanetsis, where cooked lentils are spread over dried lavash and covered with bits of browned onions and sour cream. The traditional way to eat the lentils is with soft lavash, which I did, yet occasionally using a fork when the going got tough. We made sure and called dudukist Gevorg Dabaghyan, who insists on being told when we have gyalagyosh. On television, we watched part of one of the concerts dedicated to Yerevan, this one broadcast from the downtown central square. A huge crowd stood or sat as they listened to the concert, featuring the usual lineup of pop stars. Disinterested city officials sat in the front row, looking as if they wished they were elsewhere. Possibly this is because they were at the Opera building a night or two before for another concert, featuring the same stars lip-synching the same songs. I remembered Bella Kocharian happily telling (famous cellist) Rostopovich’s widow, upon seeing her obvious delight listening to Shoghaken at the Paradjanov museum, that the group was going to have a concert at Carnegie Hall. Sad, I thought, that traditional music is something saved for outside Armenia, while the local population is presented almost exclusively a select list of pop stars. Yet, those making the calls understand well that this music wont be accepted elsewhere, as in the case of the upcoming Armenian Cultural Days in Minsk, Belarus, for which the Conservatory symphonic orchestra, a theater troupe, and Shoghaken were chosen by the Culture Ministry to perform.

Besides two well known Yerevan painters, a district mayor and a few of his staff and several Frenchmen from a Yerevan sister city gathered along both sides of a long table, eating and toasting each other and their countries. Hasmik and I, along with other Shoghaken members, had been invited to entertain the Frenchmen and the district mayor, who had wanted to meet Shoghaken after hearing their Traditional Dances and Armenian Lullabies CDs. I noticed a Yerevan-born sculptor, now living in Italy, taking a picture of Hasmik and me, leading me to ask him about his picture taking. He pulled out his wallet and took out small black-and-white photos of Hrachia Nersisyan, Komitas, and William Saroyan. “I’ve had these in my wallet for fifteen years,” he said. “I saw that you looked like Saroyan, and wanted to take your picture.” He then began talking about his work with a film now being shot in Armenia, for which he is part of the film crew. It happened that several months ago I had translated the script, about the misfortunes of a village girl from a Vandzor-area village. As we talked about statues by Donatello and other famous sculptors of the past, including Armenia’s Yervand Kochar, Shoghaken began their performance, consisting first of kanon and duduk lead ups to Ashkharums akh chim kasha and Nazani, sung by Aleksan and Hasmik. From there, duduk and kanon solos reigned, followed by Hasmik singing a lullaby and Aleksan Yeraz im yerkir, hayreni. Dudukist Vahan Harutyunyan, taking a busy Gevorg Dabaghyan’s place, surprised people with a fifteen-twenty-minute series of fast dance tunes, leading both Frenchmen and Armenians to the dance floor, small but sufficient for the enthusiastic dancers. The gathering lasted well past midnight, after which our hosts guided the Frenchmen to their hotels, while several of us took over the cleanup duty, to the recorded music of Sayat Nova and Louis Armstrong, further maintaining the evening’s international flavor.

An immunologist laughed as she told me about a well known television personality’s request for her to treat someone suffering from some kind of allergic reaction. Agreeing, she met the person, and after tests found out certain medicines were needed, which she informed the television personality (who is quite wealthy) about. “He got mad, and said I should supply the medicines myself, for free, and that if I continued treatment for the person, he would mention my name on his television program, which he said would help me and my business. I told him I wasn’t a child, and didn’t need his advertisement. He got mad again and said I wasn’t a good person.” The immunologist’s mood became more serious when she told about an architect who had taken part in the building of Yerevan, decades ago. The man was being treated for allergic reactions caused by nerves. “He said he gets nervous every time he comes out of his house, and sees what is happening in Yerevan, the tall apartment buildings, the trees being taken out, the traffic problems.” Then, the doctor’s mood turned angry as she talked about the demonstration in front of the government building, protesting the destruction of the famous rock formation in the Garni canyon, named Symphony of Stones. “They’re taking the thing apart, removing stones, and do you know what they’re using them for? To build a house in Garni for the director of the National Art Gallery. Only in Armenia could such a thing happen. We are a great nation. Or is it, we were a great nation?”

Several years ago, before visiting Moush, I dreamed that I had gone there and was looking around the town when Turks attacked me, killing me with hatchets. I remember waking up refreshed, for some reason, feeling good about the dream, even though knowing Armenians had been killed in that and similar manners during the massacres in Moush and elsewhere. Now, with people talking over whether Turks would actually follow up on their threats to throw the US out of Incerlik, etc., I think about the threats against Armenians living in Turkey, and about what religious fanatics and others might do to Armenians there. Time will tell. With all this going on, life goes on here, with old country-style preparations for winter, putting up pickles, drying and freezing string beans for winter use, etc. The local cultural scene remains the same, with yet another concert featuring lip-synching stars, this one for the one-year anniversary of “Nor Radio.” Most repeated songs heard at recent Yerevan Day and other concerts. Once, after a song finished, the singer tried to say something to the audience, but his microphone was turned off, proving to an amused audience that he had in fact not been singing. . . . Soon, I leave with the Shoghaken Ensemble for the week-long “Armenian Culture Days” in Minsk, Belarus. Depending on Internet availability, I hope to send reports from Minsk; if not, Yerevan Journal will resume on November 1.

After several minutes of Shoghaken musicians and Conservatory musicians placing their instruments in the overhead compartments and who knows where else, I saw that comic Manuk Hakhverdyan was sitting next to me. We talked about several “Candid Camera” style skits he had done, and whose idea each was, on the way to Minsk. Reaching the airport, we all started taking carry-ons and instruments from the overhead when the lights went out in the airplane, causing difficulty including one cognac bottle falling and breaking on a seat. Such was our entry into this former Soviet country, and, as many say, still-Soviet country. The passport control room, unheated, had us filling out forms with our frozen hands and using the walls as tables. After that, we entered Minsk, all of us noticing that not one piece of trash was seen on the roads and sidewalks in this modern, clean city. Reaching the hotel, we went to breakfast in the hotel restaurant, our adjoining table of all things occupied by Azeri Turks, who kept looking in our direction, obviously wondering if we were Armenians. One finally came up to us and asked if we were Rumanians, to which we said no. Finding out we were musicians, and that we had duduk players amongst us, they became even more suspicious, but eventually went their own way. As the day went on, we walked the streets of a cold Minsk, later having a rehearsal for today’s Gala concert, featuring Shoghaken, the Youth Conservatory Symphone, and the Yerevan Chamber Theater.

Rehearsal for the week’s Gala Concert started in one of our hotel rooms, covering the basic program and then having fun trying mughams from regional countries, from Arabia to Baku. It happened that when I left the room for a short break, I ran into a tall Azeri, probably twice my size, who started saying “Baku.” It turns out he was passing our room when a Baku-style mugham was sounding, arousing his interest. I told him “Yerevan” but he insisted “Baku.” In this case, he was right. Our next visitor was director of the local traditional dance group, who wanted to tell us the dances they were going to do at the concert. When we heard the name of one of Yerevan’s pop stars, we told her to forget it, and gave her one of our Traditional Dances CDs, and told her to take it and have her group dance to whichever tune they wanted. Later, reaching the hall for a sound check, we were delayed by a slow stage crew, causing us to be late dressing, tuning instruments, etc., including me standing and holding the kanon as Karine tuned the instrument just before walking onstage. Nonetheless, the group was ready, performing to the satsifaction of the audience, which included several figures from the Armenian and Belarus cultural and political scene. Following a day of rest and walking the city, we left for Brest for a concert there, in the country’s second largest city. After a stop in an apple orchard and enjoying some of the best apples I’ve had in some time, we reached the concert hall, where we were greeted by zurna and dhol and several from a traditional dance group that was also to perform that night. A good representation from the city’s population of about 3,000 Armenians was there to greet us, staying to watch the concert, started with the Conservatory Symphony group and concluded by Shoghaken. Besides ballads and lullabies, Shoghaken peformed several dance numbers, bringing the mostly Armenian audience to their feet, clapping to Zurni Turgi, Zangezuri Par, Shalakho, and others. A banquet sponsored by a local Armenian businessmen followed, at which our two duduk players and dholchi blared several melodies, bringing the businessmen, who happened to be from Tashir, in northern Armenia, to the dance floor. . . . The next day, after visiting the Brest fortress, and seeing the Brest-Litovsk treaty, of which Armenians are all too familiar, we returned to Minsk, to get ready for tomorrow’s live appearance on their national television station.

A Yerevan-born Armenian living in Brest told me that before the Soviet breakup, some 3,000 Armenians lived in all of Belarus. She said that now there were officially 13,000, with 3,000 in Brest and 10,000 in Minsk, but that in reality there were up to 30,000 Armenians in Belarus, most not registered with the government. Many Armenians who leave Armenia, temporarily or permanently, choose Belarus over Russia, as life there is more stable, less dangerous, etc. She laughed when I asked her if a revolution might happen in Belarus, as happened in Georgia and Ukraine, saying the local mafia won’t let the American mafia into the country. “The important thing is getting back to Yerevan,” she said. “My son will be in school in two years. I don’t want him going to school here. I know in the end he won’t stay Armenian. It’s impossible here. And we are just getting by, even though my husband has a decent job. I know Armenians here from Yerevan, and from Tashir, who work from early morning till after midnight, and sleep wherever their work day ends.” The next day, back in Minsk, Shoghaken rehearsed for a short appearance on Belarus National Television. After going through the program, I listened in amazement as our duduk player, Vahan Harutyunyan (Gevorg Dabaghyan had stayed in Yerevan to prepare for his nephew’s upcoming concert), played fast dance tunes, with dhol and dham accompaniment, for close to one hour. Afterwards, he said that at a recent wedding he had played non-stop for an hour and twenty minutes. Later, in the television studio, the group played solo and ensemble pieces, and were interviewed by the show’s host, who said happily that he had served in the Soviet military in Nakhichevan, and knew Armenians well. The show, unfortunately, was to be aired when we were to be at the airport, making it impossible for us to view. The next evening, after somehow checking in at an airport seemingly stuck back in the Middle Ages, we left for Yerevan.
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