Yerevan Journal – July 2003

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In Armenia, the “dznunt,” or birthday party, is a culture in itself. If it is someone’s birthday, it is quite normal to go to his home, announced or not, and to expect an array of good food, drinks, and assorted well-wishers toasting the celebrant and his entire family, those living and those who have passed on. Last night I went to my wife’s niece’s thirteenth birthday party. It was a noisy, happy affair that had been going on since mid-day, the birthday girl’s friends having arrived early for various games and camaraderie. Arriving at about eight in the evening, I was almost run over by the energetic youth. Some were playing computer games, and others were playing the piano and singing. In the dining room, members of the older generation — meaning everyone over twenty — were enjoying each other’s company and a variety of salads, dolmas, and vegetarian dishes from a book sent from a friend living in America. The new thirteen-year-old sat while the elders gave toasts, which included wishes for her to have a bright and successful future, and for everyone to always meet at happy occasions such as this. The girl’s grandfather, not doing well after heart surgery, wished his granddaughter health, happiness, and success in her first love, the piano. It was a sad toast, possibly the last he will say for his granddaughter.

Some sad news was revealed today in Yerevan: the killing of a newly appointed dean at Yerevan State University. The victim had just dropped off his young son at a school, and was gunned down after leaving the building, all in broad daylight, in the center of town. As unfortunate as political slayings are, at least they can somehow be explained, in one manner or another, and are a common occurence throughout the world. But an event of this kind, which happened this morning in Yerevan, cannot help but leave the average person in a state of shock. Hopefully, the authorities can solve this tragic murder.

After realizing the shvi (shepherd’s flute) I was listening to wasn’t from anyone’s radio or television, I looked out the window of our seventh-floor apartment down to a courtyard where a crowd of youths had gathered for an impromptu shvi concert by a boy around twelve years old. He was playing ashoughakan music, mostly by Sayat Nova. Not an uncommon occurrence, the boy plays his shvi for his friends or whoever may want to listen. Another boy was pounding on a table for accompaniment, simulating the sound of a dhol (drum), while those gathered enthusiastically clapped and cheered after each melody. No less than twenty people were watching from their balconies or open windows of two tall apartment buildings, while eating ice cream, visiting, or just enjoying the music. This was a welcome treat after a recent “tent revival” of some sort was held in a neighboring hall. It featured music that had the opposite effect, and most everyone closed their windows to block the sound.

In can be safely said that Armenians don’t currently have a lot of trust in their elected and non-elected leaders. Therefore, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone when the European Council recently announced they might deprive Armenia of its vote due to extreme irregularities in the recent elections. And, when it was announced that a major part of the forested area in Victory Park located next to the “Mayr Hayastan” (Mother Armenia) monument had burned, very few believed the official line that the fire was spontaneous, saying they expect the wealthy to be building houses or hotels there within the next few months.

Before leaving for Byurakan to visit relatives, we went to my wife’s home place in Charbakh, a village-like suburb of Yerevan, to gather mulberries (toot tapdaloo), possibly for the last time this year. Afterwards, I helped set up everything to make mulberry vodka (tti arak), since the toot gathered two weeks before had reached the perfect stage of fermentation to fire up the still. In the early afternoon, after leaving Charbakh and stopping at the Malatya Shooga (a large outdoor market) for tomatoes, cucumbers, and apricots, we left for Byurakan. On the way, near the Shirak bus stop, we stopped where the buses leaving for Aparan were parked, found an aunt who was in the bus, and gave her a pail of mulberries to take to the village. Continuing on, we drove through Ashtarak and then wound our way up the slopes of Mt. Aragadz until we reached the famous observatories and the mountainous village of Byurakan. Our visit was a delight, including time spent in the garden area picking cherries and various greens. After dinner, which consisted entirely of village-grown fruits and vegetables, we ate fresh cream on tonir lavash as well as homemade ice cream. Then we gathered up milk, eggs, cheese, lavash, and madzoon — probably enough to open a market of our own — to take home to Yerevan.

The village of Byurakan, located on the slopes of Mt. Aragadz, is the largest village in a region including Akarag and Tsorap, the latter meaning “on the edge of a valley.” Tsorap is the home of the burial place of the royal family of Arshakuni; the site is just off the main street of the village. A drinking fountain close to the gates of the tombs, with water that never stops running, is said to have healing powers, as I found out last year while passing through Tsorap. After stopping to visit the tombs and drink some water, the fever I had been battling all day had miraculously dropped by the time we reached Tegher Monastery, just up the hill from Tsorap. Tegher, where the queen Khatun (also associated with Dadivank in Karabagh) is buried, is one of two famous sites near Byurakan, the other being the fortress of Ambert, situated on a plateau overlooking two rivers which bring water from the peaks of Mt. Aragadz.

A sad coincidence was reported from Lori province on the news tonight: a devastating hailstorm recently destroyed hundreds of hectares of wheat and potatoes, on the same day and at precisely the same hour as a similar storm last year. Pictures of the battered potato plants and wheat stalks were horrible. Another story about refugees from Karabagh showed officials congratulating those who were granted living quarters, some after waiting years for a home of their own. On the other side of the story were those still waiting, and arguing vehemently about how some were chosen over others for the free housing. Even more unfortunate than those left out of the process was the reaction from many in Armenia, who said that the reason there was so much competition for these homes is that once ownership is declared, the new owner often sells the house and uses the money to flee the country, either to the US or Russia.

National Television’s recent special about the State Dance Ensemble was a real treat. It showed how, as recently as the 1970s, the dancers had maintained the Armenian folk dance, wearing traditional folk costumes and dancing with vigor and true enjoyment. Now the Ensemble does more of a staged production, and many of the dances they perform lose their original folk flavor. Shortly after, on “Shoghakat,” a station sponsored by Echmiadzin, a high-quality video of a recent trip to Western Armenia was shown. The journey was arranged by a local Armenian with roots in Van. The viewer was taken through Kars, Erzurum, Moush, and Van, and the island of Aghtamar and the church of St. Khatch, with a narrator telling both the recent and ancient histories of each place. I was particularly happy to see the shots of Moush, the birthplace of my grandmother and her tribe, since I didn’t make it there on my trip to Western Armenia in 1996. The ruins of the famous St. Karapet and Arakelots monasteries of Moush were shown, along with the river Meghraget. Interesting were the faces of the people, mostly Kurds, in the town of Moush. Many had strong Armenian features. This was especially noticeable in the eyes of the children.

Even though it is said that Armenians are terrible drivers, there are amazingly few accidents here, probably because no one follows driving laws and every driver knows what the other will or won’t do. Since the police don’t stop people because a law was broken, but to earn their salary by collecting a thousand drams for an imagined driving error, drivers don’t have the incentive to drive according to the law. Today I saw the aftermath of an accident, an out-of-service yertooghayin van where the driver’s side was completely destroyed, with glass all over the road. Even though I passed by too late to see if anyone was injured, the scene made me further delay my purchasing an automobile here. Also, driving has been made temporarily more difficult by all the construction going on in Yerevan. This includes the construction in Republic Square, and the removal of the tramway tracks on Baghramian Boulevard east of the Paregamutyun Metro, which has forced all traffic to divert by way of Orbeli Street, resulting in traffic jams and quite possibly the above-mentioned accident.

Tutoo Choor is a village of Aparan located about thirty minutes east of that town, in a valley nestled up against the Dzaghkoonyats mountain range. Yesterday my wife’s aunt’s granddaughter married a young man from the village. Nearly everyone who lives in Tutoo Choor participated in the wedding. The bride was brought up in Russia. She told her parents she saw no point in living in Russia, so she returned to Tutoo Choor and began working in the neighboring village of Tsoraglookh. As the khorovadz was being lowered into the tonir oven, the sounds of the zurna and dhol were heard in the distance. The groom and others danced through the streets toward the bride’s family home, where a small table with bread, cheese, and vodka awaited the group. After they arrived, female family members and friends dressed the bride in her wedding attire, while everyone else gathered in the living room at long wooden tables lined up along the sides of the room. The wedding party, including the future bride and groom, danced into the room. This was followed by toasts to the new couple and their kavor (godfather). The toasting continued through a dinner of khorovadz, lavash, and salad. Musicians played dance melodies in between the toasts. Later, my wife and her brother started singing dance songs from Moush to the Mayroke and Ververi melodies, such as Lelum Lele, which resulted in the room nearly exploding with clapping, singing, and dancing. After this, most traveled to the church in nearby Aparan for the wedding ceremony, and then on to the groom’s family home for another, more extravagant gathering. Tables were set up under a giant tent and another khorovadz dinner was served. The singing, dancing, and toasting continued. This time my wife and her brother danced the Yarkhooshta, to the blaring sounds of the zurna and dhol. This is a lively dance from Sassun, in which the dancers move toward each other and clasp or hit their hands, then dance apart, then return and repeat the hand-clapping.

Today was a typical day of surprises and spontaneity. It started with my decision to get out of the yertooghayin van I was riding in, just after passing the Opera House and the Writers’ Union on Baghramyan Boulevard. My wife and two musicians were at the notary on the narrow street adjacent to the Writers’ Union. It happened that my wife had stopped to see the Union’s secretary, poet Hovik Hoveyan, who had asked her to sing for a gathering of Dashnak youth visiting Armenia. At the four o’clock event, held in the “round room” of the Union, Hoveyan greeted the youth, and poet Gevorg Harutyunyan asked the visitors if they had any questions for the writers who were present. Following the discussion, my wife, Hasmik Harutyunyan, sang “Nani Bala,” a lullaby from Vasbourakan, and “Khorodik,” a folk song from Sassun. It was a pleasure to see some of the same Dashnak youth we had met last summer and traveled with to Saghmosavank and Ambert fortress. Arriving home later in the evening, I was told that our Kyavartsi neighbor had been by and had repaired the hole in the bathroom floor, which had resulted from his earlier “repair work” at our downstairs neighbor’s flat. Thankful the work was finally done, I took two Kilikia beers to their flat, where we enjoyed the beer and some specially prepared fish from Sevan.

A friend told me recently that Armenians have been around this long because they have a history of driving their artists and intellectuals out of the country, leaving more of a barbaric element to run the nation, fight wars, and deal with less than friendly neighbors. I can’t say I agree with this theory, yet, when I saw the look on the yertooghayin driver’s face when a woman gave him a large bill for an inexpensive ride and he said, “Next time you give me a bill this large, I’ll throw you out of this van onto the street,” I thought the theory may have some merit. A rider further down the road did the same thing, and his mood by this time was so violent that although I had the exact change to pay for my ride, I was glad when I got off the van without a fight. On the subject of driving artists from the country, one “method” is paying musicians so poorly to play in restaurants, etc., that they are sometimes forced to leave the country for normal-paying work. A relative had been playing folk music with his group in a “nice” restaurant in Yerevan, each member receiving about two dollars a night. Naturally, when a wealthy Armenian in Russia offered good pay and a place to live for the group, they had no choice but to accept the offer, and at least temporarily leave Armenia.

After a long, cool, often damp spring, summer has now descended on Yerevan. Great tasting fruits and vegetables are abundant, usually at very reasonable prices. And, depending on the region, the harvesting of wheat and barley is now under way or soon to begin. Yesterday’s work took me to the province of Armavir, to a barley field near the town of Armavir, past Sardarapat. The previous day, workers had worked late into the night, finishing their work around five a.m. I arrived the next day in mid-afternoon, and after taking several photographs, rode on the combine as it made a round harvesting the vast field of barley. The driver said they again planned on working late, long after the stifiling heat turned into darkness. Later in the day, in downtown Yerevan, while waiting for a yertooghayin van under a cement overpass, I saw several pieces of lavash that had been placed high on a flat ledge in the overpass. In Armenia, wheat and bread are held in such high esteem that if someone finds a piece of bread on the street, he picks it up and places it on a high location for birds or other animals to eat — so not even the smallest piece of bread will go to waste.

While riding in a yertooghayin van down Tumanyan Street near the Opera House, two female passengers in the back of the van started laughing suddenly and almost uncontrollably. The reason was not apparent until they began pointing at the new statue of composer Arno Babajanyan. The statue’s archictect had been asked to tone down the claw-like fingers on Babajanyan’s hands, each hand raised into the air as if the composer were ready to begin playing the piano. Not exactly pleasing to the eye, the statue has caused some controversy in Yerevan. Some, including the architect, say the statue captures the composer’s inner world and feelings, and that it isn’t meant to be an exact replica of Babajanyan. Whatever merits the statue may have, the laughing girls didn’t calm down until we had left it far behind. Nearing home in Anastasavan, we passed a large outdoor cement swimming pool, where possibly hundreds of children were playing and swimming, enjoying a temporary respite from the summer heat. The streets and parks of Yerevan are unusally active, most likely due to Armenians living in Russia visiting their families and friends in Armenia. Just after passing the pool, the pounding sound of thunder was heard. This was followed by a brief but powerful thunderstorm. Although it caused no problem in Yerevan, we heard on the news later that a five-minute hailstorm had ruined eighty percent of the apricot crop in Katnaghpyur, a village in the Sassuntsi-populated region of Talin.

Knowing a trip to Moscow is in the offing, relatives from Byurakan arrived this morning with apricots and string beans from their garden for my wife to deliver to family members living in Moscow. All of us then proceeded to Charbakh to help gather apricots and mulberries, the apricots there just now ripening. While my wife’s brother set up the still to begin his work making “tti arak,” the rest of us picked up the apricots that had already fallen from the tree. These apricots will be used later for “dzirani arak,” or apricot vodka. Then we spread the giant canvas under the apricot tree. With one person holding the canvas on each corner, my brother-in-law climbed the tree and shook and hit the branches. This sent apricots flying from high into the tree onto the canvas. Then the process was repeated on the mulberry tree, the last time this year, the trees finally relieved of their tasty burden. The next couple of hours were spent taking the pits out of the apricots, machine-squeezing the juice, and cooking it on two fires in the garden. The juice was then poured into large jars and sealed. It will be saved for drinking in the winter months.

A special on National Radio today featured the songs of historian/ethnographic/singer Hayrig Mouradian, who was born in Shadakh village near Lake Van and came to Armenia during the 1915 massacres in Historic Armenia. It is always a pleasure to hear the voice of the great master, who saved countless folk songs from the regions of Shadakh and Van, most of which would have been lost without the efforts of Mouradian. I was introduced to Hayrig just four months before he died in 1999, by his student, singer Hasmik Harutyunyan, whom I married the following year. Tomorrow Hasmik, along with two musicians from the Shoghaken Ensemble, kanonist Karine Hovhannisyan and blul/shvi player Levon Tevanyan, and I are leaving for the Viljandi Folk Festival in Viljandi, Estonia. Hasmik and the musicians will perform the folklore of Old Armenia, including the songs Hasmik and other Shoghaken members learned from Hayrig Mouradian. Upon returning on the 29th of this month, I will update “Yerevan Journal” with news of our musical journey, and life in Yerevan.

From July 24 to July 28, the Viljandi Folk Festival was held in Viljandi, a small town in central Estonia. During two concerts, Hasmik Harutyunyan, Karine Hovhannisyan, and Levon Tevanyan, members of the Shoghaken Ensemble, presented the folk music of Armenia to receptive audiences. Hundreds gathered to listen to the songs of Old Armenia, especially the areas of Moush, Sassun, and Van. A workshop was also held in the Viljandi Cultural Center on July 24, in which Hasmik taught participants the songs “Janoy,” “Hoy Nar,” and “Mur Tan Itev.” She also demonstrated the Gyovend and Ververi dances, which were enthusiastically embraced by everyone present. Many workshop attendees later danced in front of the stage and amongst the audience during Shoghaken concerts. The songs and dances highlighted the many genres of Armenian folk music, including epic songs, work songs, lullabies, dance songs, and songs expressing the longing for the lost lands of Historic Armenia.

The Armenian community of Estonia numbers about 2,000, most living in the capital city of Tallinn. An Armenian church, with a khachkar in the courtyard, is located near the center of the city. While in Tallinn, we were offered real Armenian hospitality by Armenians living there, including lunch at an Armenian restaurant owned by an Armenian from Ashtarak. While in Viljandi, we were surprised and delighted to discover an Armenian restaurant, owned by an Armenian from Hrazdan. It was like we hadn’t left home, every night being treated to khorovadz, tahn, and Estonian beer. One evening at the outdoor restaurant, Shoghaken members Hasmik Harutyunyan, Karine Hovhannisyan, and Levon Tevanyan treated those dining to Armenian folk songs and dances, with the delicate sounds of the kanon and the blaring zurna echoing through the Estonian night. The Armenians of Tallinn and Viljandi asked about life in Armenia, gave letters to deliver to their relatives, and expressed their longing for their homeland. They even asked us to stay in Estonia, telling us of the difficulties of living in a foreign land, far away from their homes and families.
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