Yerevan Journal – June 2008

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A friend from Lori told about her birthplace: “I was born near Kobayr, the monastery near the main road a little before reaching Alaverdi. It’s a difficult climb to Kobayr, depending on which direction you’re coming from. I know they’re working to restore the wall paintings, which miraculously are still intact after all these centuries, even though they’re open to the weather and elements. From the monastery, located on the edge of a cliff, you can walk to St. Nshan. The path is narrow. If you slip, you’re in the abyss. Once, as we were walking carefully along that path, a girlfriend saw a snake, and suddenly started running. How it was she didn’t fall, I don’t know. . . . As a child, we moved to Alaverdi. At that time, several of my relatives worked at the mining factory. I laugh when they complain now about the dirty air in Alaverdi. In Soviet times, the air was so dirty, we used to close our windows at night. Travelers had to hold their breath till they passed Alaverdi. The winds blew the air up the hill to Odzun. Nothing grew there. Now, they’ve put an expensive filter on the factory, and all is well. And this complaining about Teghut. I know the owner, who is from Armenia but has lived in Russia. He’s doing his best to maintain ecological standards. And it will give work to plenty of villagers north of Alaverdi.” Her husband, a businessman in Yerevan, continued. “This is wonderful,” he said. “But what are we facing here? I was approached by tax officials the other day. They were ready to throw me in prison because I didn’t have enough on me to pay a prepayment they demanded. I had to call a friend in the Justice Ministry to bail me out. A friend who owns a beauty salon just told me a similar story. She said she made a certain amount of money one month, and was taxed accordingly. The next month the tax officials showed up and wanted the same amount, if not more. The salon owner said that she had made the larger amount in January, due to demand related to the new year, but business had fallen off. The tax people didn’t care, just demanded the larger sum according to their busy month. This is what they do, they say, ‘You must have made this much, your business has to be growing, you have to pay accordingly . . .’ without looking at the season, how the business climate is, etc. They’re making it impossible to work in Yerevan. If a businessman doesn’t have a friend in high places, he’s finished. And everybody knows this is because the oligarchs don’t pay taxes, or very little. If they all paid what they owed, or even half, the country’s treasuries would be overflowing. But they’re empty, thus the stricter, unfair tax laws and collections. They’re breaking us.”

“The kind of people running our government, the ministers, parliamentarians . . . most of them were hiding in the cracks in Soviet times. Things were strict then. People with brains and talent ran the show, and those weasels hid behind their desks in fear. Now, with independence, they’ve taken over. It’s disgusting.” We sat on our back balcony, watching Massis sink into darkness, with NATO lights and lights from Kurdish villages dotting the slopes. The well lit runway of nearby Zvartnots Airport was ready to invite the night’s flights. “But more dangerous to this country than these clowns,” our guest continued, “are the sects operating here, and what they’re doing to the fabric of society. Where I live, in Nork, there’s a sect that sends its people from door to door, offering people to come to their center to pray, learn English, anything they want. We know they offer money too. Why not, we always see BMWs parked in front of their offices. Another one of the sects gets its money from its headquarters in the USA. I know there’s a plan, well funded, to break Armenia, by way of these sects. Have you heard what happened in Byurakan recently? A physicist died, or was killed, no one knows. He was a sect member. He was found dead, having fallen over a steep embankment, maybe a mountainside. Everyone there knows that his family didn’t call for help till the next day, when they were sure he was already dead. Nobody knows, for now, the exact details, except that sect members were involved. The other day, someone from that very sect came to our door and offered to pray or whatever. I told her to go to Turkey if she feels the need to convert someone. She got a sick look on her face. I think she knows what the Turks would do to her. We are too nice here.”

A glance from our balcony this morning revealed a small old bus that stops at the same spot every Friday morning. The bus comes from a village of Aparan, near Tutoo Jur. We hurried to the bus, knowing that their supply of madzoon, milk, sour cream, and eggs would soon be sold. After buying several jars of madzoon and a liter of milk, we saw that a woman had already put all the eggs in her canvas bag. Unsuccessfully trying to convince her that eating that many eggs would be bad for her and her family, we went home, but not before being invited to meet the family from Aparan at the bus stop at four p.m. and go to their village for a week. . . . An hour later, while walking up the hill to the Genocide Museum for a meeting with the director, I received a call from “Voski Dziran,” asking if I could meet with them this afternoon to discuss possible collaboration. As the day turned to afternoon, I went to the Hovhannes Tumanyan Home-Museum, where Shoghaken was going to be filmed for Italy’s National Television station. A film maker and journalist told us that each Sunday, shortly after the Pope greets the nation, their program features a certain country, its culture, etc., and that they were in Armenia for a few days to prepare a show about the country. I watched with amusement as the cameraman and journalist, with wide smiles on their faces, filmed and took notes while Shoghaken played a rousing “Angin Yars/Tamzara,” the camera taking general shots of the group and of each instrument. After the filming, Hasmik was interviewed about Armenian folk music, in particular the Armenian lullaby, after which she sang “Butanya Oror” and “Nani Bala.” Then, putting away the camera, we sat drinking coffee and talking under trees in the back patio. “We had no idea such a group existed in Armenia,” the Italians said. “We have seen your National Television station, which mostly just shows pop music. And, two days ago, we went to a wedding here in Yerevan. We heard every kind of music but Armenian. Strange, if you go to a wedding in Austria, you hear Austrian music. In Russia, Russian music. I wonder what’s going on here.” They told us their journey was to continue the next day by traveling to Khor Virab, Noravank and Tatev, where they would spend the night. Outside, before leaving, one of our musicians told of a girl who had traveled to Los Angeles as a participant in concerts for Shant Television’s “Folk Singer” program, saying the girl was approached after one of the concerts by a young man who apparently proposed marriage. Keeping her plans secret, she told the program officials she would be staying at a relative’s house, and that the relatives would bring her to the airport for the flight back to Armenia. As the flight’s departure neared, and program officials nervously pacing, it became obvious the girl was staying behind. The US embassy, without doubt, won’t look kindly at future trips organized by the program. The day ended with a comical piece of news concerning the Kyavartsis who accidentally crossed the border into Nakhichevan, after visiting a friend serving in the Armenian army in the region of Yeghegnadzor. It happens the Azeris are holding the Kyavartsis, accusing them of being spies. An Armenian defense department official stated something like: “If the Azeris think this is how spies work, crossing the border in a car, they are very naïve. And, we know everything we need to about Nakhichevan; we have no need to send spies there.”

Two of the latest jokes going around Yerevan: A Russian, Armenian, and Georgian were condemned to death. The court gave the Armenian the choice of dying by hanging, the guillotine, or death by injection. “I choose the guillotine,” the Armenian said. “At least it will be quick.” His head down and in place, the rope was pulled, but the guillotine malfunctioned. Smiling, the Armenian walked off. Meeting the Russian, he told him about the malfunctioning guillotine. The Russian then told the judge, “I choose the guillotine,” and walked to the assigned spot. Again, the guillotine didn’t work. Walking away, he met the Georgian, and told him about the guillotine not working. “I’ll choose the rope,” the Georgian said. “It’s apparent the guillotine isn’t working. . . .” Another joke has an Armenian dying and going to Hell. Satan gave the Armenian a choice: “You can spend eternity in one of three Hells. In the French Hell, the day is spent with beautiful women, wine, everything. But at night we hammer three nails in your head. In the Russian Hell, you spend the day the same, but at night we hammer four nails in your head. In the Armenian Hell, the whole day is terrible, just like your reality. And at night, we nail five nails in your head.” The Armenian pondered the choices. “I’ll take the Armenian Hell. The days, I’m already used to. And I’m not worried about the nights. One day, they’ll run out of nails. The next day, Satan will be late with the hammer. The next . . .”

Following up on the tragic wind-related accident in Sardarabad just before May 28 celebrations, in which several dancers and a singer were hurt when high winds caused lighting and sound fixtures, etc., to collapse onto the stage, it happens that the singer who was hurt badly was recently operated on, with his physical future and his future as a singer still in question. The singer performs for the Kohar ensemble, the Yerevan Chamber Choir, and as Saro in Anoush. It recently became clear that another singer, with roots in one of Armenia’s provinces and a participant in the Karabagh war, warned those in charge that day that the weather was becoming dangerous, that the winds would increase and become dangerous to those on stage rehearsing, and that everybody should leave the stage for their own safety. “After all this trouble setting everything up,” came the answer, “we need to continue.” Criminal charges, which would seem to be an obvious result of all this, aren’t even being considered.

Riding in yertooghayin yesterday, I noticed the traffic in Yerevan’s city center was worse than normal, almost at a standstill, but this time it wasn’t due to the seemingly unending road repair and various construction plaguing the city. It happened that the hogihangist and funeral of Karen Asryan, a chess grandmaster and member of Armenia’s national team, was taking place. The twenty-eight-year-old died of an apparent heart attack. As the current competition being held in Yerevan legally had to continue, after about ten minutes of each match, the Armenian players declared a draw, with the opposing players, from another country, agreeing to the draw.

A friend with a mid-size grocery store said that since the tax laws became stricter, her husband has had to stay in his store the entire day, as the tax people appear without notice, check financial records, and start asking the store clerks questions “they may not always be ready to answer.” She continued: “At first, I hated all this, as it created a lot of extra work for us, and not all of the tax people are real honest. But if we’re ever going to turn into a real country, all this is needed. We have to do something to put money into the country’s budget. I only hope the oligarchs, big and small, have to pay at least part of what they owe. Now the presidentis talking about equal treatment for all, telling how the policemen look the other way if someone in a Mercedes or BMW breaks a law, fearing that person might have connections in high places, instead ticketing some pitiful citizen driving a broken-down Lada. If the president is serious here, we have hope. And the big opposition rally planned for June 20 . . . the president says they gladly gave permission for the rally to take place, saying everybody has the right to hold public rallies. But I know a lot of people who want to go but have the fear that the police and army could repeat what they did on March 1. And Levon’s people could test the patience of the authorities and try to stir things up. This is a big day, as Europe, the US, everybody, will be watching. Come to think of it, how can I stay away?” . . . A phone call a few minutes later revealed that John Hughes, an American-born journalist who headed the ArmeniaNow site, wasn’t allowed back into Armenia after having traveled to the US to give a lecture at an Armenian-related event. He apparently won’t be allowed to enter Armenia for at least a year. No one seems to know the reason, as Hughes’ site had lost the biting, sometimes anti-government rhetoric of its early years.

After leaving the closing concert in a week of classical music concerts at the Aram Khachatryan hall, we talked with friends, folk music fans, and political figures from Heritage. An actor who had quite enjoyed the concert said the following: “Did you see the president sitting up there with the honored guests? I remembered him telling the public that there would be no problem for the opposition holding a rally on June 20. I was glad to hear his words, and thought maybe things were really going to change. But, haven’t you heard? City hall has said that there were already plans to hold an event at Freedom Square, so the rally would have to be held elsewhere, perhaps somewhere around the Hrazdan stadium. I remember when Raffi Hovhannisyan had a rally planned in the same place, next to the Opera, a couple of years ago. All of a sudden, a stage was set up where Raffi was supposed to speak, and a lineup of pop stars loyally danced and sang around the stage, while Raffi was forced off to the side somewhere. Now they’re doing the same. They know how many people would show if the rally were held by the Opera, and how hard it is for people to get to Hrazdan. I wasn’t going to go, but after this, I’m going, even if the rally is on Aragadz. And another thing. They say Arax Davtyan, our best female opera singer, went to see Serge Sargsyan, and told him Conservatory professors were only receiving 9,000 dram a month. Sargsyan, surprised, called the rector, who said it was true, that this is the amount the government had decided on. Nothing changed. Davtyan is now teaching and singing in Moscow. And Sargsyan, perhaps Kocharian, I don’t know, bought Forsch (pop singer) a house. Nothing against Forsch, but isn’t this a little crazy, a little out of balance?”

“I would have been there all day and night, but I had my business to run,” our friend said about the March 1 events. “I felt bad when I wasn’t there when the action started. I fought in Karabagh, and somehow came out alive. This is nothing. Of course I’ll be there tomorrow.” Such is a typical conversation heard in Yerevan these past few days. Another, fearing for her job, said she’d stay away from the Friday, June 20, rally. “If my employers see me there, I might lose my job. They’re afraid of what the president’s people might do to their business, and are being very loyal. So I won’t go. Maybe I’m making a mistake, but I’m not going.” Still another, a well known intellectual, said she decided to go, even though she had a fear of the worst. “I don’t think the authorities will dare to repeat what they did on March 1. But they might, who knows. Yet, what right do I have to stay away? My family depends on me to support them, but I have to attend, it’s my duty. Our country’s future is at stake.” A store owner said, “You see, they decided to let the rally take place at the Matenadaran, where people can attend normally. People talked so much about their ‘allowing’ the rally to take place at Hrazdan Stadium, which was ridiculous, that they decided to let the rally take place downtown. We’re lucky Europe is here, making demands. Otherwise, it would be 1937 here. Maybe it is anyway, I don’t know. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.”

A well known intellectual talked about Turks, Azeris, and the state of Armenia. “We know the Azeris and what they’re capable of. They just knifed an Armenian to death in Russia. In Chinari village, in Shamshadin and right on the border, Azeris shot and killed a twenty-one-year-old working in the fields. They have the advantage of having a mountain overlooking the border and Chinari, so they can carry out their cowardly acts. I don’t know why we act so pure . . . we should shoot one of their villagers and see how they feel. No matter what Europe says. With oil, Azerbaijan can do no wrong, no matter what we do. Turkey is another story. Armenia has become their third or fourth most important question, now with the Kurds operating out of Iraq and wanting independence in Turkish Kurdistan. But you know, in so-called Turkish Kurdistan and to the West there are over two million, maybe three million, Moslem Armenians. I foresee Turkey being divided into European Turkey, near Izmir and Istanbul, Moslem Turkey, which would include Sivas, Erzurum, and Trebizond, Kurdistan, and Moslem Armenia. I wonder what this Armenia would say? Would they support them? I think Moslem Armenians are probably preserving Armenian culture more than we are here. And the Turks . . . do you know what they’re doing? While we’re promoting Andre and Sirusho, do you see what they’re promoting? Have you ever watched Turkish television, with their folk and Turkish classical music? Their leaders understand the importance of national music. Now I ask, who is civilized, and who are barbarians? And another thing. The authorities here keep changing the location of the opposition rally. They set up a concert so people can’t gather at the Opera. Then they say the rally will be held at the Hrazdan stadium. Then at the Matenadaran. People were planning on marching from Northern Avenue to the Matenadaran. Then they started saying that city hall decided the rally should be at Hrazdan, to make it hard to attend. And the head of police is saying they’re ready for trouble, and will act instantly to ‘protect the innocent.’ I don’t expect anything major tomorrow, but do you really think there won’t be a change of power within a year, year and a half?”

“Levon Ter Petrosyan is doing a very important thing,” the intellectual continued. “He’s keeping pressure on the authorities, who would be worse if Levon wasn’t there. No one else can lead the opposition at this point. I hope he stays where he is . . . in the Opposition. Just so he stays there, and doesn’t become president. . . .” As the day turned to evening, and the location of the rally still unclear, a call came around eight p.m. saying to come to the Matenadaran, that a huge crowd had gathered there. Taking yertooghayin down Baghramyam, I noticed a large contingent of soldiers gathered on the corner of Baghramyan and Demirjyan, near the Parliament. Along with several others, I stepped out of the van near the Opera, and started walking up Mashtots, the crowds getting thicker as I neared Shrjanayin (Koryun Street) and the Matenadaran. Hundreds were standing on the sidewalks and streets, unable to reach the walkway to the Matenadaran. The walkway was completely packed with people, with many standing in the street below, ringed by police and soldiers. Winding my way into the walkway, I heard someone from Heritage speaking, followed by Davit Shahnazaryan, of Levon’s party, a short speech by Stepan Demirjyan, and finally, with much noise, Levon Ter Petrosyan. I had wanted to see just how much the people supported Ter Petosyan, as opposed to just wanting the removal of the authorities. Shouts of “Levon, Levon” went in waves from the top of the walkway down to the street. With each challenge to the authorities, especially the current and former president, the shouting and chanting echoed through the crowd. Although the shouts of “Levon” were often, fist raised, the loudest cheers came when Ter Petrosyan called for the imprisonment of Kocharian and the removal of the “garbage,” mentioning the names of the prime minister, general prosecutor, the former defense minister, etc. Ter Petrosyan demanded the release of “political prisoners,” talked about the dissatisfaction of Europe in the current authorities, mentioned the new tax laws and the huge profits of the oligarchs still being untaxed, with the medium and small business owners being taxed to death, finally announcing at the end another rally, scheduled for July 4 at 7 pm. One wonders how, in the long run, the current authorities can stay in power.

“Serzhik, heratsek, Serzhik, heratsek . . .” Such were slogan-like chants that rang through the crowd at Friday’s opposition rally. Also, a statement made by Ter Petrosyan rates notice, that the current prime minister isn’t in fact the prime minister, that those duties are being carried out by a certain Armen Gevorgyan. I noticed people smiling, almost blushing, when they heard Gevorgyan’s name, saying things like “Oh, he’s close to Kocharian.” Also, accusing the authorities of being scared of allowing the public to gather at such rallies, Ter Petrosyan informed that they had applied forty-five times, but had been turned down each time. “Mr. City Mayor, Mr. President, just who do you think you are, going against the will of the people . . .” again to big cheers. Once, at the rally, a Yerevantsi said, amidst the chants of “Levon, Levon,” that she resents being called a supporter of Levon, or, “Levonakan.” “I’m in the opposition,” she said. “But I’m not for Levon. He was nothing short of a disaster when in power, and would be the same if back in power. He’s only there because the opposition didn’t have a strong, charismatic leader. You think I, and other citizens, don’t remember what Levon, Arzoumanyan, and the others did in the early
’90s?”

A scientist friend went into shock when I told him I had gone to the opposition rally on Friday. “How can you go somewhere where people are shouting, ‘Levon, Levon?’ Don’t you remember what he was saying during the recent presidential campaign? He said that if president he would reduce the size of the army to 15,000, a ‘professional army.’ Levon knows his statistics, as do the Turks and everybody else. If one country attacks another, it loses three times the number of soldiers as the number of soldiers the country it attacks has. Right now Armenia has just under 100,000 soldiers. That means Azerbaijan would lose up to 300,000 soldiers. And they were shouting for Levon, the author if this crazy plan to reduce our army’s size? With an army that small, the Azeris would cross our border in a day, laughing all the way. And March 1. Video taken that day shows that there were, indeed, trouble-makers, inciters, making sure there would be casualties, so the authorities would look bad. Not to say Kocharian was innocent. That’s not the point. We need to look at whom Levon is working for. Certain powers, organizations, that want to weaken Armenia. Everybody here knows this. I don’t trust anybody that stands with Levon. Including Raffi. Just because he’s supposedly in the opposition, does that mean he has to go against Serge, and back Levon? Serge might not be the best we have, but he needs to stay, at least for now.”

“. . . Don’t be so closed-minded,” a translator replied. “I’ve studied what Levon has said recently, and he realizes his mistakes of the past. He’s our only hope. As the rally ended, I found myself saying, ‘President Levon, President Levon.’” Such went the conversation at, of all places, a bus stop just across the street from the Armenia Marriott hotel. As my friends went on their way, and I thought I was going on mine, one after the other of my Yerevan acquaintances began stopping to say hello and talk, lending my stop at the bus stop into being over an hour of visiting with friends. Before going home, I went to the Congress Hotel to meet with a group of Fresno Armenians, in town for some sort of charity work. Later, upon reaching home, a relative called and told of the death of a fifty-two-year-old cousin in Aparan, meaning the next day would have us at the funeral of this cousin, who had died of a mysterious nerve ailment. The next morning, taking the Yerevan-Aparan yertooghayin from the Shirak bus stop, we headed past Ashtarak, Mughni, Ohanavan, and on to Aparan. Reaching the town, and drinking icy water from the famous fountain on the side of the main road, we walked down a dirt road to a neighborhood of Soviet-era private homes, which were unfortunately not in good repair. After paying respects inside the house, I sat outside in a shady area and talked with family members and friends, until it was time to go to the cemetery. Near the cemetery, I saw the road leading to Tutoo Jur, Chknagh, and other villages resting against the forested mountains. Overlooking Aparan, I saw the monument to the heroes of the battles of 1918, and where General Dro was buried in a special ceremony in 2000. An area villager told me the story a well known historian had told him about General Dro and General Andranik. “General Andranik was in Echmiadzin, in 1918, and the independent republic was already established. General Dro, who was jealous of Andranik’s huge popularity, gave the order to have Andranik killed. Word reaching Andranik, he got fed up with it all and left Armenia. He knew that Dro had the power, and would eventually reach his goal if he stayed. Many don’t know the real reason Andranik left Armenia. This is it.”

While standing at the bus stop alongside the monastery in Echmiadzin, a long funeral procession passed by, led by a black hearse and followed by a long line of expensive cars, Nissan and other imported jeeps, etc. I thought of the day before in Aparan, when the “hearse” was a beat-up old Russian van of some kind, the back doors flung open with the casket resting inside, bouncing along the muddy dirt road until reaching pavement and, eventually, the graveyard. In the circumstances, it all seemed natural, considering the financial situation of most of the people there and the condition of the neighborhood they were living in. Then, seeing the procession in Echmiadzin, I was reminded of the huge difference in the way people live here — the haves and have nots, as they put it. A friend tells that in Moscow the wealthy are using some sort of remote control to open and close the casket lid. Armenians being great copiers of others probably means that remote controlled caskets are on the way here.

Even though apricots are ample, at prices as low as fifty dram per kilogram, an equivalent of ten cents or so a pound, we made our way up the hill to Nork-Marash, where a friend had three apricot trees ready to be picked. As the trees were somewhat buried amongst other trees and on different levels, we couldn’t do the regular method of spreading a canvas and someone climbing the tree and shaking and hitting branches, leading to us picking by hand, shaking branches, climbing the trees where possible, tossing apricots to those standing below, and picking up whatever fell, no matter where. When this was done, we washed the apricots and took out the pits, after which we rigged up a meat grinder and turned it all into juice, a two-hour process that led to several liters of juice. While all this was going on, family members and a neighbor picked plums, mulberries, and bal (sour cherries). Towards dark, we sat under a 100-year-old walnut tree and had dinner, tired yet satisfied with the day’s work. We talked about everything under the sun, the talk finally turning to the activities of sects in Armenia, likely due to a former student at the Jemaran in Echmiadzin being amongst the guests. “One village where the sects have a strong foothold is Byurakan,” he said. “There’s not one, not two, but several sects active there. I’m sure you heard about the astrophysicist who died mysteriously there, probably sacrificed by one of the crazier sects. I like the reception certain sect people received in Aparan. They chased them out of the town, beating them with wood, whatever it took. ‘We never allowed Turks into this town, who do you think you are?’ they told the intruders. When threatened with a lawsuit, the Aparantsis told them, ‘The prosecutor general is Aparantsi, as is the Catholicos. Feel free. Take us to court.’ There are no sects in Aparan. The only thing, Aparantsis are a little too honest, too simple. While other towns and cities are slowly advancing, taking advantage of foreign money, etc., Aparan is staying poor, as the people don’t want to work with people, accept their offers, and the demands that are part of it all.” . . . Due to family responsibilities, Yerevan Journal will temporarily suspend until mid-September.

Yerevan Journal, which has been a part of Road to Armenia since 2003, will now continue as a separate blog. It can be found here.

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