Yerevan Journal – August 2003

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In Yerevan, everyone seems to be busy with the examinations high school graduates need to take to be accepted into a university or institute. Many study with an expert in whichever field, often for months, in preparation for these exams. The highest possible score is twenty, and a score lower than eight makes entrance into a university nearly impossible. Many teachers depend on the money earned from these lessons, since the average teacher’s salary is still below normal living standards. . . . With the beginning of August, the hottest month of the year, many Yerevan inhabitants leave the city, either for a village to stay with relatives, or one of several resorts, such as in Jermuk, Tsakhgadzor, Hankavan, Stepanavan, and Byurakan, where for ten to twenty dollars a day one can enjoy the culinary delights of Armenia, relax, hike, recuperate, or be cured of an illness, all in the beautiful mountainous nature of Armenia.

After spending Saturday evening and half of Sunday washing, pitting, and cooking plums to make juice and jam for the winter, we left for Byurakan to spend some time with my wife’s relatives. Two of her aunt’s “harses” and their children are in Byurakan for the summer, enjoying family and the clean air and village life of Byurakan. Good news arrived from Moscow, as one of the cousins gave birth to a baby girl. After a champagne celebration, we had a dinner made up entirely of homegrown and homemade delicacies. In talking about home-purchasing in the village, we found out that even though there are many empty houses in Byurakan, very few are for sale. This is because those who are in Russia working have plans to return to their birthplace, as opposed to the mid-’90s when people had little hope for Byurakan or Armenia and sold their houses when they left Byurakan to work in Russia. The next morning, we made a trip to the tenth century village church of St. Hovhannes, a basilica the foundation of which is said to be as old as Echmiadzin. At one time, the church was used as a fortress, with walls twice as thick as the present church walls. Several khachkars in the courtyard bear witness to the church’s ancient history. When leaving for Yerevan, besides taking a bounty of fresh madzoon, eggs, cheese, and various fruits and vegetables, we brought back a young cousin to spend a couple days with us in the city. Even though ten years old and living in Moscow, the girl spoke a pure Byurakan dialect, which has roots in Khoy, in Iran, where many Byurakantsis have their roots.

A trip north today took me to the province of Shirak, to Nor Gyank and Meghrashen villages in the region of Artik. Artik is the home of Haridj Monastery, a masterpiece of Armenian architecture located in the village of the same name. A few kilometers past Artik are Nor Gyank and Meghrashen, neighboring villages whose farmland runs up against each other. It is one of Armenia’s most important wheat-growing regions. In Meghrashen, the farmers all work together, deciding when to plant, fertilize, and harvest. Recently, when due to late rains weeds challenged the wheat crop of one of the farmers, the farmers of the village, along with their families, pulled out all of the weeds by hand, thus saving the farmer’s crop. Leaving Meghrashen, we drove about ten kilometers to Azadan, a village I had visited twice and written about in an earlier journal entry. A generous individual had read the journal entry, which contained information about a woman whose husband had been killed in the Karabagh war, and had sent a monetary gift to the woman, which I happily delivered today. Although a bit embarrassed, the woman was very thankful, and deeply appreciated this kind gesture from a fellow-Armenian she had never met.

Several Armenians of university age have been staging a protest outside the presidential palace on Baghramian. They are trying to call attention to the government’s selling of dormitories and other living quarters reserved for students who are from the provinces or have grown up in orphanages, and have no relatives or family in Yerevan to stay with while studying at a university or institute. Deprived of these living quarters, many of these students will be unable to afford university studies and will be forced into lives of mediocrity. Up to now, the government is silent to the students’ protest.

A trip to southern Armenia and the mountains of Zangezur took me through the province of Syunik to Sissian, Goris, and Khundzoresk. After visiting wheat fields in the high mountains of Noravan village, near Sissian, we went to two historical sites. The first was a burial site dating from the seventh century in Aghadoo village, a monument surrounded by khachkars and tombstones, with ruins of a foundation which was likely a church. From there we went to Vorotnavank, a monastery overlooking the Vorotan River gorge. The monastery is an architectural masterpiece, with the main church, an adjoining church, and a separate chapel that are all part of the same complex. There were also ruins of other original monastery buildings inside still-existing walls surrounding the monastery. In the forecourt of the second-largest church, a hole resembling a tonir oven is actually the opening to a tunnel that continues all the way down the canyon to the Vorotan River — the tunnel serving as a means of escape or of reaching water in times of siege. The monastery guard said that Vorotnavank was built in 1000 AD by Queen Santukht of Syunik. Late that night, we continued our journey on to Khundzoresk, where we spent the night after being treated to a dinner of dolma, cheese, tonir lavash, and tti arak. A villager explained that the village homes are only about forty years old. Before that everyone lived in the well known caves of Khundzoresk, where the famous Mkhitar Sparabet, who fought alongside Davit Bek in the eighteenth century, is buried. In Khundzoresk, the dialect resembles that spoken in Gharabagh — not surprising since the village is on the old border between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and only about 100 kilometers away from the province of Hadrut in Karabagh.

Today we drove north of Yerevan, along the Sevan highway, to the town of Hrazdan. There, we delivered a letter to the family of our new acquaintance in Estonia, made at the folk festival there last month. Questions were asked and answered, as we learned about the family’s struggle with having one of their members living away from his parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters. This is an unfortunate, yet common occurence in Armenia, which will hopefully take a postive turn as the economy improves. We were told that there is some economic improvement in Hrazdan, with the opening of a new large factory there, along with several new shops and markets. After visiting for about an hour, we returned to Yerevan and stopped at one of many roadside khorovadz stands, where we sat in an area shaded by poplar trees and enjoyed our tahn, and our khorovadz, onions, and parsley wrapped in lavash. The stand’s owner said she was from the nearby village of Solak, and invited us to next week’s grape blessing celebration at the St. Asdvadzadzin church there. She said that families prepare their own “madagh” (sacrifice) and take it to the church during the celebration, where village musicians will entertain with the pounding sounds of the zurna and dhol.

There is no doubt that things are done differently here in the Old World. Right now my wife is helping one relative, now living in Russia, buy a house in Yerevan. Since the documents proving ownership can be delayed by red tape, my wife is calling certain acquaintances to help things go forward. Also, the notary is insisting that there be proof that the home-buyer is married, and that the husband, in Moscow, agrees to the sale. Of course there is no such law, but in Armenia, unfortunately, people at times create their own laws. And, at the same time, my wife’s sister is helping another relative whose son is in the army and whose health has deteriorated due to a bad back. Several letters have been written, and as many phone calls, to make sure the youth is brought to a hospital so doctors can see to the problem. In this part of the world, the family takes care of such problems, in this case the mother traveling several hours to the military base to personally bring her son to the hospital. It seems both issues will have positive endings, yet without the many phone calls and letters, the outcomes would have been left to fate.

While I was waiting for a mechanic to return to his shop, a woman who had been busy making sandwiches in a shaded area behind the mechanic shop told me I had a real Armenian mustache, like the Mshetsis and Sassuntsis have, or used to have. I told her my grandmother was from Moush, and asked if her ancestors were from there also. She said she was a Vanetsi, and a great-niece of Khrimian Hayrik, the great church leader and Catholicos, and could find her family home in the old city of Van if she went there. I told her that I had been there several years ago, and that the Turks had long ago destroyed the part of old Van where the Armenians used to live. This saddened the woman. She went on to say that her mother’s side was from Shamshadin, a village north of Sevan famous for its beautiful nature, great tasting honey, and, for me, a dialect almost impossible to understand. The woman lamented that the population of Shamshadin had decreased, most of the men of the village having gone to Russia or elsewhere to find work. She said she always faulted the Armenians for being in such a weakened condition to allow the Genocide to happen, including in her beloved Van. But she was especially saddened to see the condition of Shamshadin and similar villages, this time not the fault of the Turks, but, as many believe, the fault of the Armenians themselves.

Television in Yerevan today featured two movies starring Yervand Maranyan, a comic actor from the days of Soviet Armenian film-making. One, seen on the Art 13 station, also starred Armen Jigarkhanyan, who had both serious and comedy roles. This movie had three Armenian chefs in a cooking competition in Moscow, making dolma for their part of the competition. The three chefs also tried to ship a suitcase full of dondur (a plant which grows close to the ground, especially in vineyards and orchards, and is used by Armenians to make salad) to Yerevan, with several phone calls and a series of funny scenes accompanying this effort. I was happy to have met Maranyan at recent gatherings of the Friends of William Saroyan club, where Maranyan told of his meetings with Saroyan years ago in Yerevan. . . . Later in the day, during an interview, Maranyan spoke about Armenian families who had left Armenia for one reason — so their son or sons wouldn’t have to serve in the Armenian army — due to the possibilities of beatings, cruel commanders, or other problems which continue to plague the Armenian army, parents worried their sons may not make it home in one piece. Maranyan said this problem should be raised to the public podium, not left in secret, so something positive might be done in this sphere. A pity, that Armenians often leave the country due to problems in the army, or, in some cases, due to other injustices in Armenia (as people say, there is no law in Armenia), not due to war or even to lack of employment.

Ashnak is a village populated almost entirely by Sassuntis, and is located about an hour north of Yerevan, on the road to Talin and Gyumri. We arrived Monday night at about seven, traveling by a yertooghayin van that goes to Ashnak every afternoon from Paregamootyun Metro. We were greeted by friends and relatives at my wife’s in-law’s typically large village home, which is enveloped in a yard of apricot and other fruit trees and a huge vegatable garden. In an unfortunate accident, my wife’s niece fell and broke her leg only about an hour after our arrival. Due to this misfortune, I was able to become acquainted with probably half of Ashnak’s population — the closely-knit village of Sassuntsis coming to see the injured girl and offer their opinions and help in any way possible. After it was concluded that the swollen ankle area had no broken bones, a “snukhchi” appeared on the scene and declared the leg was broken. Arrangements were made to take the girl to nearby Talin, where an x-ray proved the snukhchi correct. The word snukhchi, meaning a natural, or village, doctor, is used in the dialect of the Mshetsis and Sassuntsis, close neighbors in Old Armenia. I had difficulty understanding the dialect spoken in Ashnak, where special care is taken to maintain the exact dialect of Sassun. My wife told me this was also the dialect spoken in Moush, spoken both by her grandmother, born in Moush, and my relatives, who left Moush before the massacres of 1915. In Ashnak, besides a seventh century chapel and remains of a fortress built by Ashot Yergat, a museum dedicated to the great fedayee Gevorg Chavoush, a Sassuntsi, is located in the center of the village. Also, a woman born in Sassun, the only Sassun native still living in Ashnak, recently suffered the loss of her son, in his seventies, to cancer. I had hoped to meet the woman, born around 1908, but her tragic loss made our meeting impossible.

The Armenians of Ashnak are quite patriotic, several of its young men having taken part in the Karabagh war, including the liberation of Shushi. One of those who participated in the war told me that he and others were disappointed in the way veterans of the war, especially those now handicapped, are treated, or, rather, ignored by the government. He said that although he would fight again if the need arose, he knows others who wouldn’t go a second time. A staunch Dashnak, he lamented the condition of the Dashnak party in Armenia, saying the true Dashnaks do what is necessary for Armenia, while those speaking for the party are far removed from the party’s original path and people. While in Ashnak, I was fortunate to meet the grandson of Gevorg Chavoush, a Sassuntsi, a Dashnak, and one of the heroes of the Armenian resistance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Chavoush’s grandson proudly showed me a map he had drawn up with his famous grandfather’s picture on the side and embedded into the map. The map was of the town of Moush, and showed where the fighter was killed and buried. He told me that his grandfather was so respected by the Turks that when he was killed, the Turks personally arranged and conducted a solemn, ceremonial funeral for the slain leader.

After a night of occasionally heavy rain and crashing thunder, I looked out the window to the west, expecting to see a clear view of Mt. Ararat in the crisp Yerevan morning. I was treated to a strikingly clear view of Massis, beginning from villages in the Ararat plains to the mountain itself. This day was my late mother-in-law’s birthday, meaning a visit to the cemetery and a gathering at the family home in Charbakh. Sons, daughters, and their spouses all paid their respects at the cemetery for their beloved mother and mother-in-law. Following lunch, a few family members took a bus to Byurakan to visit relatives, including my mother-in-law’s sister. When we arrived, the barbecue fire was already lit, in a covered area due to another possible storm. Instead of meat, I was happy to see around thirty eggplant put on the fire, along with tomatoes and peppers. As the eggplant finished cooking, my wife removed the peels, while her cousin was busy inside making fresh batches of cheese and madzoon from the morning’s milking. Dinner was mainly the eggplant and peppers, along with cheese, greens, string beans, bread and “khundzori oghi,” vodka made from apples. A young cousin, now living in Moscow, told of her desire to return to Yerevan, telling stories of drug use and other problems in Moscow schools, saying it was no place to go to school, or to live, for that matter. After another rainy night, we woke up in the cool morning. First we fed the chickens, which have free reign in the garden area, and, after breakfast, we harvested plums for an elder neighbor unable to pick the ripe fruit. After visiting my mother-in-law’s sister and husband, we returned to Yerevan, along with two cousins and my wife’s nephew, all enthusiastic to go to the Yerevan zoo and a carnival near the center of town.

Yesterday began with a breakfast of khash, a little earlier than the official khash season, which starts September 1. Our early khash was for the young niece who broke her leg in Ashnak last week. As I understand it, something in the khash benefits the healing process. Another healing process has begun as a relative who recently began his army service, even though he had a spine injury resulting from karate lessons, arrived in the military hospital in Yerevan. In spite of negative stories rampant about the armed services here, our relative is being cared for wonderfully, as they decide what kind of treatment he will receive. Another kind of reality struck as I talked with a visitor from Iran in a music store on Abovian. The visitor had participated in the Pan Armenian games, and had come to Armenia with high expectations after hearing and reading news about the economic improvements in Armenia. Unfortunately, the girl was leaving Armenia quite dejected, telling me that all she saw was poverty and a depressed populace. Possibly, or at least what is apparent to the fresh eye, the economic recovery hasn’t reached the common man in Armenia.

Yesterday evening, a Mshetsi poet and his wife and six-month-old son came to our home for a dinner of harissa and salad. As usual, our conversation turned to our ancestors from Moush, and this time I showed him a book from Moush in which my grandmother’s grandfather had kept a sort of diary in and around 1889. I know from stories told by the old generation that he had been one of the founders of the Hunchakian party in Moush, and had been imprisoned by the Turks for revolutionary activities, eventually drowning somewhere around Bitlis. Our poet friend told of his great-great-grandfather, who had killed a Turkish sheikh in Moush for “bothering” a female family member, then fled to Erzurum and finally to Jajur in northern Armenia, a village populated entirely by Mshetsis. Appropriately, the poet’s young son is named Moushegh, and is called Moush for short. After making plans to visit Moush together someday, and deciding that the two best actors in recent Armenian history are Mher Mkrtchyan and Hrachya Nercessyan, we heard on the news that an unseasonable hailstorm had ruined the wheat and potato fields of Vardabloor. A village near Stepanavan in northern Armenia, Vardabloor is also the home of an old church where the great Komitas first sang his famous “Lori Horovel.”

“Stereo Studio” is located in the National Radio building on Alex Manoogian Street in Yerevan. Part of National Radio, “Stereo Studio” features a variety of music, news, and talk shows. For an hour Friday evening, Hasmik Harutyunyan, of the Shoghaken Ensemble, talked about the state of folk music in Armenia, her recent concerts in the Viljandi Folk Festival in Estonia, and the importance of the Armenian lullaby in ensuring a child of growing up with an Armenian spirit and mentality. Hasmik sang two songs, and several of her songs were played from Shoghaken CDs, including “Gorani” and three lullabies from a soon-to-be-released lullaby CD. After the hour-long program, the host continued the theme by accepting calls from listeners, who expressed their opinions on Armenian folk music and made requests for their favorite folk song or singer. Callers were almost unanimous in expressing their longing to hear traditional Armenian folk music. This is interesting, because they are usually forced to hear and see various forms of “adulterated” Armenian folk music played on Armenian radio and television stations, such as music put to synthesizers or arranged by those working under American or other western influences.

A relative in Byurakan said his nephew recently visited the village after having moved to the U.S. nearly three years earlier. He said the twenty-seven-year-old had become rather nervous and somewhat argumentative, and that his expression and even his features had changed — all this in spite of having a good-paying job in his new country. It is a pity that a great place to live, like Armenia, cannot, at least for the time being, create an economic atmosphere to entice the huge number of Armenian males working in Russia and the U.S. to return to their homeland. Add to this some news I heard from the town of Martuni, by Lake Sevan, where a family with a large debt was forced to allow their young children perform various kinds of heavy labor for the family’s creditors — something that shouldn’t even be thinkable.
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