Yerevan Journal – December 2007

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Word out of Stepanakert has it that Armenians are renovating the mosque in Shushi. A recent visitor to Karabagh told us about this, angry that Armenians were again showing good will, if that in fact is the purpose, this in the face of the Azeri destruction of the Old Julfa khachkars, not even admitting to the world the khachkars were Armenian, not to mention destroying churches in now-Armenianless Nakhichevan. The same visitor told us he found out that there were no prisons in Karabagh, that they sent their criminals to Armenia to serve time, after which they stay here, both because Karabaghtsis back home would look down on them, besides having made acquaintances in the criminal world here, and the naturally more opportunities for a criminal life in a city the size of Yerevan. As is known, the anti-Karabaghtsi feelings here, caused by this and other issues, such as dissatisfaction with the current ruling clique in Armenia, have pushed Levon Ter Petrosyan back into the limelight, with the current leaders starting to become concerned, now hearing that films prepared from Ter Petrosyan’s rallies are being sent to Armenian centers in Russia and the US, where Armenian citizens have the right to vote in the upcoming election.

As it seems I’ve taken to asking taxi drivers for whom they intend to cast their vote in the upcoming presidential election, yesterday I asked a driver the same question, to which he said, “Raffi, of course.” I asked if he knew about the recent decision repeating the earlier decision stating Raffi Hovhannisian wasn’t qualified to run for president, being he hadn’t been an Armenian citizen the required ten years. The driver didn’t know. “They just gave permission for Karabagh’s foreign minister to run. He wasn’t an Armenian citizen for ten years, just like Kocharian and Sargsyan, but for them, it is fine. Now, this new candidate will become known, and probably will run in the next election, to keep things here in Karabagh’s hands. Don’t they remember, that without our Hayastantsi boys, they would have lost the war?” Such is one of the common opinions heard here, yet, of course, not the only one. In the cultural realm, National Television viewers were shown film of a concert of the Etchmiadzin-based children’s ashoughagan group, founded by Ruben Matevosyan. Again, as is their style, the group sang in unison, a style purely Turkish, not Armenian. If the Turks sing this way, fine, this is their culture, yet why this Etchmiadzin-based group chose this path, who knows. One wonders where their funding might be originating.

I remember first hearing about the tragic earthquake while still living near Fresno, California. Understanding the terrible nature of what had happened, without the extensive video material now available, etc., it was hard to picture just how bad the situation there was, the tall apartment buildings collapsing, people digging through rubble looking for loved ones, people identifying deceased family members lying in long rows, covered only with some sort of blanket. Now, on the earthquake’s anniversary, television stations are showing video footage of the aftermath, heartbreaking to say the least. Amazing is the fact that Armenia somehow survived all this, the northern third of the country mostly destroyed, not to mention a war in which many of its best sons and daughters died. Yet, surviving isn’t enough. As was put by our guest today, “I was there, near Gyumri, helping out in the days following the earthquake. We did what we had to. At that time, we had nothing. I was a university student then. But I thought, no problem, an earthquake just hit, my country needs me, who cares if I have money or not. Then, the Soviet Union collapsed, as did our economy. But I still wasn’t worried, as I was young, and had high hopes for the future. Then, I graduated and became a professor. Now, I still don’t have money. We just get by, and as far as when my children make it to university age, I don’t know what I’ll do, as that’s all expensive. All I can hope for now is for a good future for my children, here in Armenia. And now they say Ter Petrosyan has a chance of being elected. If he is, I think I’ll give up and move to Russia.” We then came across, of all things, Hin Oreri Yergu, on Yergir Media, and one of the saddest, if not the saddest, scenes in the history of movies, where Mher Mkrtchyan ate the “sev tught” (notice to a family when a soldier is killed in wartime). Soon after, our friend left to go home, not surprisingly barely eking out a smile as he said good night.

A friend’s fourteen-year-old daughter was rushed to the hospital a couple of nights ago, with pains in the midsection that had the parents worried about possible appendicitis. After tests, doctors found that appendicitis wasn’t in the picture, that it was some sort of stomach disorder, one that will need treatment but doesn’t appear to be dangerous. The girl’s mother told us that her daughter is having a hard time adjusting to the culture of corruption here (the girl grew up, until now, in Europe), in this case in the schools, and that is probably the origin of her stomach problems. She said her daughter, a good student, came home crying one day, saying she had received a lower score on a final exam that someone who had given the teacher a bribe. The school the girl attends is supposedly one of the best, with many wealthy persons’ children attending, but those wealthy persons are said to be buying their children’s education. Apparently a fourteen- or fifteen-year-old boy walked up to the teacher one day in class and presented the teacher with an envelope full of money, this in front of the entire classroom. No one batted an eye. The thing is, had the teacher refused the money, she would have likely been approached later by the boy’s parents, no doubt not to tell her they appreciate her honesty.

“I don’t think a lot of Serge myself,” our Karabaghtsi friend said. “But to think Levon wants to come back is amazing. He’s lucky he wasn’t put up against a wall and shot. If someone in Azerbaijan conducted those politics, and did what Levon did, they would have strung him up. I remember when we were ready to take back Shushi. Levon said not to, that it would upset the world. Then, while he was on a trip to Iran, we did what we had to. And now, we see Aram Sargsyan and Stepan Demirjyan lined up with Levon. I’m not surprised. Don’t people know that Karen Demirjyan, while heading the government, would give Aliev chunks of land for a birthday present or who knows what. He gave Armenian land in Yegheknatsor and in Tavush, along the current border. I’m not saying Serge is an angel. But at least we’re heading in the right direction. Turning to Levon would be insane.”

“I can’t even turn on the television,” the Hayastantsi UN worker said. “All the Armenian stations are having these ridiculous song competitions, with judges praising contestants, no matter how they sing. Maybe the most ridiculous is the one on ‘Armenia,’ but they’re all pretty much worthless. Pop stars who don’t know how to sing are judging people, telling them how well they’re singing, how they get emotional listening to their great singing. If a new government isn’t elected this time around, this cultural situation will stay the same, or even get worse.” A day or two ago, watching the “Menk enk mer sareru” competition on National Television, we heard a girl sing a lullaby from Hasmik’s Armenian Lullabies CD, a song not recorded or sung anywhere else. Tears, real or not, were shed by at least one of the judges, each of whom praised the girl’s singing. One of those involved in the competition told Hasmik later he was using her CD to teach the girl lullabies. Sad, however, the dishonesty of these people, who use others’ work and don’t give credit publicly, reminding me of two singers who attempt to sing folk music and who said recently on television, “We learned these songs while visiting the villages, meeting with old people,” even though it is known they learned the songs from CDs they came across in Yerevan. Such is life. As the day passed, we got a call from our friends at Yerevan’s Hamazkayin office, inviting us to Dashnaktsutyun’s 117th anniversary of their founding. Thinking it was at the Aram Khachatryan hall, we walked towards the entrance, finding out that a concert of sorts was going to take place, basically by the “Club 32” comedians, who are now doing parodies of pop and rabiz singers, with those same pop and rabiz singers sitting in the audience and laughing uncontrollably at the supposed humor. Not that it matters, I wonder if they really think it that funny. . . . In any event, we made our way to the Dashnak celebration, which was loaded with noise, loud, patriotic music (all recorded, not live, unfortunately), and plenty of mention of names such as Gevorg Chavoush, Sebastatsi Mourad, Serop Aghbyur, Simon Vratsian, the list goes on. Vahan Hovhannisyan, Dashnaktsutyun’s candidate for president, gave a speech both political and patriotic, naturally praising Dashnaktsutyun’s past and present work in saving Armenia. Seeing the faces in the crowd, I saw many who could only be Dashnak, those ready to do whatever necessary for the homeland. As to whether the party leadership is worthy of its constituency is something left to the reader.

Reaching home and walking up the stairs, it was obvious Shoghaken’s rehearsal was still under way, the sound of the dhol especially pounding its way through the air. Walking inside, I took a seat in the living room and enjoyed the group playing a dance melody (from Erzerum) saved from oblivion by Komitas and now being performed by our ensemble. Besides Gevorg Dabaghyan playing duduk, a second dudukist, Vahan Harutyunyan, had joined in playing the melody, making the sound even richer. I felt fortunate hearing probably the two best duduk players in Armenia and possibly the world playing together. After rehearsal, and into the afternoon, we got ready to go to Byurakan, to take part in Hasmik’s aunt’s hogihangist. One of three sisters and a brother, the woman’s entire family had gathered in the family home, located in the old, treed part of the village, not far from the St. Hovhannes church. Lying in repose in the upstairs part of the house, she was surrounded by her two daughters and a sister, with others standing or sitting along the edge of the room. Suddenly, an electrical outage hit, just as three duduk players had started playing. After some short scurrying, candles were lit, all the while the sound of the duduks droning their sad tones. I was surprised to hear a man sitting next to the duduk players and holding a dap start singing some sort of dirge, or “avagh,” in an obviously old style, something I later heard hasn’t been done in Armenia for decades, perhaps up to 100 years. Before leaving, an old Byurakantsi approached me, and started to ask me a question, yet I understood nothing, as he spoke in the pure local dialect. A younger relative came to the rescue, and told him who I was. Some minutes later, we made our way through the snow and mud to the car, then drove through the still-dark village roads until we wound our way down Mt. Aragadz, the blue sunset we saw while driving up the mountain now merely darkness. We talked about a suicide by a twenty-five-year-old Yerevan girl, who three days ago had jumped from the Kievyan bridge to her death, apparently distraught over a matter of the heart. Knowing her uncle, we had planned to attend the girl’s funeral, yet our Byurakan trip didn’t allow us to pay our respects, at least for now.

A late evening phone call revealed Hasmik’s two brothers returning from the hogihangist in Byurakan, saying they were on their way to our house, one brother planning to stay overnight so we could leave together in the morning for the funeral in the village. Some quick preparation had a meal ready before they arrived, after which we watched soccer before retiring for the evening somewhere past two a.m. A friend arrived at around ten-thirty the next morning, several of us piling into his jeep and then heading up the mountain to Byurakan. Upon reaching the house, we walked upstairs, where the female members of the family were watching over their departed aunt, lamenting and talking with her as if she were still alive, as is done in old world cultures. Outside, I stood talking with several men when suddenly a procession started from the house, starting with sobbing women and followed by about eight men walking as they held the open casket high in the air. Hundreds either walked or drove down the muddy roads all the way to the cemetery, where the casket was finally laid on a large, flat stone they called “hangsti kar,” which in effect was the place where the women bade farewell to their mother and aunt. Here, as in many other villages, the women don’t go to the actual gravesite until the day after the burial. Back at the house, outside, I stood with several men while the khashlama and potatoes were cooking in large pots over a fire near the tonir and now-empty stalls for animals. We set a table near the fire, with lavash, greens, and Russian vodka, not to mention several pieces of meat taken from the large pot. With each glass of vodka, we remembered the departed, with “voghormi iran” and similar words related to resting in peace. We talked about life in this mountain village, and about several of their relatives now living in Sacramento, California. One of the villagers told me that he, as many in the village, have roots in Khoy, in Persian Armenia. I noticed his “khmam” instead of “khmetsi,” amongst other examples from the local dialect. “Life here is difficult,” he said. “I haven’t been to Lake Sevan since I was a child. Life was difficult during Soviet times, as it is now. Nothing will change. Since we are a nation of barbarians, it has to be this way.” “Why do you say barbarians?” I said. “We have Komitas, and Aram Khachatryan.” “They’re more recent,” he said. “Fine,” I said. “In the past, there was Shiragatsi, and Naregatsi.” “Those were exceptions,” he said. “Look at us. What tie do we have with Shiragatsi?” Still not convinced he was being serious, we all went into the house, where tables and long benches were set up in several rooms, both upstairs and downstairs, where people gave toasts of remembrance, not clinking glasses but, while holding the vodka glass, lightly touching the back side of each other’s fingers or hand.

My conversation with several Byurakantsi men, when talking about life in the village, turned to the activities of one of the two major sects now operating in Armenia, and their success in converting many in Byurakan. “My own neighbors disgust me,” the villager said. “I thought these people were level-headed. Then the preaching started, and the offers of money, and people here started converting. I don’t know if they really believe in this religion, or are doing it for financial benefit. In any event, in my book, they have no pride. I remember going to a hogihangist about three months ago. Some of the same people here today were there that day. When the village priest from St. Hovhannes church walked into the room, these new ‘believers’ got up and left the room. I was furious. Even if they have to take part in their nonsense, why do they have to set themselves apart, and especially show no respect for our priest, our church? Who’s doing this to us? I think we all know who.”

Just before leaving for Byurakan, a neighbor came over to drink coffee and pay his respects for the family’s recent loss. It happened our taxi driver, who was to take us to the village, arrived a few minutes early, so he joined us in our early morning meeting in our apartment. The two men began talking politics, not unusual these days considering the upcoming presidential election, and one, who had fought in Karabagh, not to mention other places along the Armenian-Azeri border where Azeris had repeatedly tried to make incursions, said he planned on voting for either Vazgen Manukyan or Levon Ter Petrosyan. “Neither of the two are worth much,” he said. “But we need to remove Karabaghtsis from power, before it’s too late. When I was fighting, it wasn’t for Karabaghtsis. It was for our land, our water. But had I known they were going to take over everything here, I might have thought twice before risking my neck.” After a few minutes had passed, we picked up a couple of relatives along the way and headed towards Byurakan, stopping along the way to drink water from a spring located in a picnic spot just after turning off the main road, which leads one to Gyumri. From the fountain, we looked in the direction of the snow-covered Mount Ara, named after the legendary Ara the Beautiful. “In May,” the taxi driver said, “I go to Tsaghkevank, where people go on pilgrimage. We eat khorovadz, drink, and dance. By the way, do you know there’s a place on the mountain where a small flock of sheep and a shepherd froze to death? They say they’re still there, in the same place they died.” Once in the village, we went to the family home of the deceased aunt, where relatives and a few close friends had again gathered. We talked, ate, and toasted the departed, then walked through the large garden area, now vacant except for fruit trees and an area of strawberry plants. Inside, noticing a small room completely full of apples, we filled boxes and bags and loaded them in the trunk of the taxi, to take to Yerevan both to sell for our relatives and to eat ourselves. Then, on our way down the village’s main road, we stopped where we knew a family was selling walnuts. There, we each filled sacks and further filled the now-full trunk. We promised the family we would return the next week and take more walnuts to Yerevan to sell for them, our new friends smiling and wishing us well as we left the village.

A construction worker told me he was having trouble making ends meet, as living costs in Yerevan, he said, were skyrocketing. “We are renting an apartment, like many in Armenia are. I hope things get better, not for me, but for my children. But I have my doubts. Why, you ask? For example, for president, whom do we have to vote for, Serge, Levon? They only care about their pocketbooks. They can be billionaires, and probably are, but still want more. I think we should have a president from outside Armenia, not a Hayastantsi or Karabaghtsi. Even a Turk, if we elected one for president, would take care of our country better than an Armenian. I lived in Turkey, in Trebizond, for several years, and had no trouble with Turks. You know what? It’s safer for Armenians in Turkey now than in Russia. They killed Hrant Dink, but that was political. Three weeks ago, Russians killed my twenty-three-year-old nephew in Moscow, near the Metro station. He was born and educated in Russia, and was a musician. But the fascists there don’t care. Chauvinists, all of them. Here, in Armenia, things aren’t good, but at least we’re safe, for the most part. Although life here is difficult, and I can’t seem to get ahead, if war broke out again, I’d be the first to go. I went when I was eighteen, and would go again. I fear nothing. I know the rich kids would all hide or leave the country, like they did during the first war. But I wouldn’t be fighting for them, I’d be fighting for our country. We’ve been around too long to worry about today’s hooligans.”

Today we had the first meeting of the committee chosen to plan for next year’s William Saroyan year, on the occasion of the writer’s 100th birthday. Sitting at the oval table in the meeting room of the Culture Ministry, we talked about what events would be best for the year-long celebrations. Committee members included Culture Minister Hasmik Poghosyan, Levon Ananyan and Davit Mouradyan of the Writers’ Union, filmmaker Ruben Gevorgyants, and others from the literary and cultural world of Armenia. As a relative of Saroyan, I was invited to give advice and opinions about what the author would want, resulting first in the likely invitation of one or more family members who personally knew and spent time with Saroyan. Agreeing on the timing of further meetings, we left the building and went our own ways. Riding the bus back to our home, I met a Hayastantsi whom I had worked with several years ago. He lamented the changes taking place in Armenia, on a general cultural aspect. “We are an Eastern people,” he said. “Our neighbors are Turks, Persians, Central Asians, Afghanis. I don’t like the way our country’s culture is being westernized. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be working with Europeans and others in the political realm, but culturally, no. I suppose it’s natural, now that the Soviets are gone and the walls torn down, that American and European music makes its way here. But I don’t like it when Armenians from around the world come here and force the cultures they adopted elsewhere down our throats. Every Armenian has a right to visit or live here, but not at the expense of bringing their foreign-influenced cultures. Our weddings, our funerals, and our traditional holidays are all unique. We stand the danger of these things changing or even being lost. Today I saw an Armenian talking on television, telling how he was arranging a Western-style Christmas celebration in downtown Yerevan, with everything western-style, music, everything, and in English too. We don’t need this. A pity much of our population is poor, as in this condition people accept everything presented to them, be it a religious sect or this foreign culture. What can we do?”

It happens that the Turks run a prison in Tigranakert (Diyarbakir) famous, at least back in the 1980s, for its severe treatment of prisoners, mostly Kurds, which goes without saying. The prison is several stories high, and houses several thousand prisoners. It is said that certain Western countries send torture experts there to see just how much a human can endure before he is ready to betray his country, colleagues, religion, or whatever. Some time in the 1980s, an Armenian who had attempted to assassinate a Turkish diplomat was captured and sent to this prison. At that time, Kurdish prisoners had been tortured using unheard of methods and cruelty, and had said they could no longer hold out, and were ready to tell their captors anything they wanted to hear. Then came the Armenian’s turn. Chained, he was taken to an arena, much like was made famous in the movie Gladiator. For twenty-four hours, this Armenian withstood tortures that had Turks and Kurds alike amazed. Kurds declared their shame and embarrassment, as they knew their recent ancestors had helped the Turks murder this race, and here they saw an Armenian withstand torture they themselves couldn’t. Kurds began declaring things like “My grandmother was Armenian,” or “My uncle’s father was Armenian,” and the like. Then, the following April 24th, these Kurds paid special respect to the Armenian and his race on the event of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide.

A usually happy, boisterous businessman changed his tone as he told me his concerns about Armenia. “Even though the economic situation in our country is slowly improving, at least for a sizeable part of our population, I wonder about our long-term future. We have a history and culture of 7,000 years. But we stand the possibility of ending up like the Assyrians, Byzantines, and Romans. They all fell because they lost sight of all morals. Here in the East everything is different . . . bribery and what goes with it are widespread. But others maintain their sights on what is right, and how to keep their nations strong. Here corruption and bribery are so widespread they are becoming the norm, and that is dangerous. Like yesterday, when I was trying to park my car on Abovyan to pick up my kids, who were doing some Christmas shopping. One of our best known oligarchs was in the area, so his tall, big-headed bodyguards stopped all traffic, not letting anyone pass. I ignored them and continued trying to park my car. I knew they could kill me if they wanted, but I was so mad I didn’t stop. This kind of idiot is becoming what many are looking up to. As if it wasn’t enough fighting the influx of foreign cultures, we have this kind of oligarch becoming accepted, and even respected, in a sick sort of way. Without a change in the right direction, do you really think Armenia will exist in fifty, 100 years?” From our meeting, I went to the “Dzmer Papik” gathering at Kino Moskva in central Yerevan, where a film was to be shown featuring several of the poor families “Dzmer Papik” is trying to help. The film went from village to village, city to city, in Armenia and Karabagh, showing and talking with those living in unbelievably sad conditions. I was shocked to see that one of the families was from Byurakan, as the man of the family happened to be one of the men I was talking with outside the house just before entering the house for hogejash. I had thought the man had a pitiful appearance, but had no idea he was living in this condition. Anyone who might be interested in helping these people can go to www.armenianow.com, where “Dzmer Papik” information can be found.

Our holiday season officially kicked off today with an all-day celebration for Hasmik’s birthday, starting with a Shoghaken rehearsal and party and continuing with visitors and phone calls from Germany, England, Moscow, and Siberia, as well as Yerevan and Byurakan. As we prepared the table for the evening guests, a Vanetsi family whose daughters were in Hasmik’s Hayrik Mouradian children’s folk ensemble arrived, leading to early toasts and us learning the Kochari of Van, after an old recording of Akunk’s version was broadcast on radio. With guests arriving over the course of the evening, those who had finished dinner moved to the living room and picked up a dhol, dap, oud, and guitar and started singing Komitas, Sayat Nova, Arno Babajanyan, and others, finally dancing the Msho Kher (Kochari) and Shoror, this time to Shoghaken recordings. . . . As the famous, active Armenian holiday season is about to start, not to mention preparations for Shoghaken’s soon-to-begin concert tour are reaching a fever-pitch, Yerevan Journal will take a break, likely until April 24, with entries possible during Shoghaken’s tour in February and early March. I invite readers to attend any of our concerts, in Canada and the USA, with all information on www.traditionalcrossroads.com at News and Tours.
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