Yerevan Journal – February 2004

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In spite of feeling somewhat less than human after a thirty-two-hour trip from Oregon to Yerevan, I found myself smiling as the plane lowered into the dark Yerevan night. I picked up my suitcases and scooted past the workers who all wanted to help me with the suitcases or offer a ride home, but one of my wife’s nephews greeted me and took me to a waiting taxi. After a few minutes of cultural shock, driving around the holes in the road in the Bangladesh and Shahumyan regions, I commented that the roads seemed a little worse than when I left in December, to which the taxi driver said of course, they fix the roads only well enough to last a year or two, to guarantee work in the future. We reached the apartment building where my wife was staying and found the entrance dark and icy after a recent snow. Somehow I didn’t mind having to walk up five flights of dark stairs, using my experience at counting steps to know when one reaches the next floor. I greeted my wife and her sister and sat down to an early morning meal of cabbage dolma, madzoon and cheese from Aparan, and “horadz” cheese from Byurakan, a kind of cheese that is buried in clay containers in the ground. I walked into the kitchen and saw some ground meat in a bag hanging from the clothesline outside, the cold air serving well due to a temporary lack of a refrigerator. It was good to be back.

After recovering from my long trip, I woke up to a clear, crisp morning. A glance out the window revealed a snow-covered Massis, which seemed to greet me after being hidden behind clouds and rain the past two days. Then, after finding out that my wife’s brother had the day off work, we went to the home place in Charbakh. On the way, passing the Sebastia/Malatia neighborhoods and along one of Yerevan’s worst roads, where the tracks for the now-halted tramway system still lie, I asked when the city planned to pull the tracks and pave the road as has happened elsewhere in town. The taxi driver bitterly said he doubted this would happen, since there was no “customer” for the iron. Apparently, according to the driver, the iron was pulled in other parts of Yerevan and then sold, and that without customers for the iron, these tracks would have stayed with the streets remaining in the terrible condition they were in. . . . Later in the day, I heard the unfortunate news that an Armenian we had met in our European travels this past year, who we knew had been murdered, was killed by Armenians. It happens the killing was retribution for an earlier incident where Armenians had gone to our acquaintance, who had done quite well financially in his new country, and demanded money. When he refused, they pulled out knives, after which they were shot and killed in self-defense . . . the recent murder being revenge by the victims’ relatives. Even though this sort of event happens everywhere, it is sad to see Armenians stoop to such a level.

Today I took a yertooghayin van from Anastasavan to a business on Charents Avenue, just north of the city center. I met with someone who had spent five years studying in Texas, after which he returned with his family to Armenia. As he explained, he saw his young son and daughter growing up without Armenian culture, including music, folk traditions, and the like . . . thus his return to Armenia. After my meeting I walked down Tumanyan Street to run some errands. I found myself back in the habit of not watching for lights signaling “walk” or “wait,” instead crossing streets as traffic allowed, and winding my way through cars stopped at stop lights instead of using crosswalks, something I wouldn’t have done my first year or so in Yerevan. At a store on Tumanyan I bought goat cheese and a small chicken to have later for dinner. That evening my brother-in-law joined us for a dinner of chicken, cheese, greens, tahnaboor, and Lenten dolma, made from beans, garbanzos, and lentils, wrapped with cabbage. We listened to a question and answer session with President Kocharian, where he painted a rosy picture of Armenia’s improving economy and political stability, saying Armenia’s neighbors were learning politics from observing the situation in Armenia. True or not, I noticed that hard questions weren’t asked of the president, I suppose much like the rest of the world.

I was disappointed and a little angry to hear that National Radio went through with their plans to stop airing most of their cultural shows, recently letting go over twenty long-time and well-known radio hosts. For now, National Television, although doing less propagandizing of Armenian culture than other nations, including the Turks, on their national television stations, still continues to broadcast interesting and informative programs about Armenian culture, be it music, dancing, or the daily short presentation of clips of famous Armenians from the past. Today I turned on National Television and heard the voice of Komitas being played while showing photos of Komitas and the ruins of Zvartnots. The same program yesterday had poet Hovhannes Shiraz reciting one of his poems in front of a small yet admiring audience. I was told that Shiraz, whose appearance was a bit pitiful, was very poor in his final years. A contrast was an elder Baku Armenian shown on the news who was living in his former shoe repair shop, a small metal building with barely enough room for the man to lie down. Sick and no longer unable to work, neighbors and acquaintances take him food every day, at least keeping the former tradesman from starving.

Snow descended on Yerevan today. The northern, hilly parts of town received a snowfall of around six inches. Television news had film of the road from Ashtarak to Aparan, showing cars that had slid off the road, drivers and riders struggling to push or pull their cars and trying to regain traction to continue their journeys. A snowy trip downtown to the Republic Square revealed a huge new video screen on the spot where Lenin’s statue once reigned. I had hoped this spot would be the new home of the Sassuntsi Tavit statue, which is located at the central train station in Yerevan. It seems something of this stature would be more appropriate to greet the thousands of visitors to Armenia, not to mention local Armenians . . . better than a video screen, which happened to be showing a Whitney Houston video clip as I passed by. And, the famous Armenia Hotel is no longer such; the giant letters on top of the hotel, proclaiming the hotel’s former name in Armenian and Russian, were removed. Now the name “Marriot” is just above the main entrance to the hotel. . . . Back in Anastasavan, near the corner of Bashinjaghyan and Margaryan, a woman was selling fresh fish from Lake Sevan, about fifty fish partly covered with snow in an old cardboard box. For about twenty-five cents each, I bought two fish, and also a bunch of amazingly sweet red grapes, a treat this long after the autumn grape harvest.

Armenia’s version of “Candid Camera” had two hilarious skits yesterday, one with a man setting up a small table and selling sunflower seeds next to an actual seller and selling seeds cheaper than the real seller, driving him crazy with each sale lost. Another had a man with a fake knife stuck in his back and fake blood dripping down his coat. The man, feigning horrible pain, asked people passing by where the nearest hospital was, then walked bent over in the direction of the hospital, to the shock and screams of most of those unaware of the joke. Humor remains alive and well in Armenia, in spite of the less-than-ideal economic situation of most Armenians. A Yerevan-born Armenian told me today that around sixty percent of Armenians are living in poverty, most with barely or not enough to eat. He continued that, in his opinion, around twenty percent are living decently, with ten to twenty percent now wealthy. These are figures I hear regularly, yet, a friend calling from Los Angeles said that the impression he had was that things were much better in Armenia, judging from what certain political parties were saying, the response being here that those in the political parties were the ones living well, not the average person. Another interesting opinion, maybe fact, is that Armenia’s population is now around three million, more than the popular belief that no more than two million are in Armenia today. I heard this opinion twice recently, both saying that before the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia’s population was around four and a half million . . . far higher than the word from official Yerevan.

The birthday of General Andranik was celebrated all over Armenia, with commemorations and the laying of flowers and wreaths at the great general’s burial place and statues in Yerevan. My wife’s grandmother, who made her way to Eastern Armenia with hundreds of other Armenians under the protection of General Andranik and his soldiers, spoke highly of Andranik. She told her family that Andranik was not only a great leader but a great man, whose character was beyond reproach. Yet . . . the main news in Armenia is the murder of an Armenian in Hungary, a student at a military-related university who was killed as he slept by a fellow-student, who happened to be a native of Azerbaijan. The Azeri killed the Armenian with a hatchet. In Azerbaijan, the murderer has been called a national hero. The official line is that Armenians had insulted the Azeri, since he was supposedly from the Jebrail area, part of the lands liberated by Armenians during the Karabagh war. True or not, I wonder what the Azeris would have thought if when I was insulted by an Azeri at the Smithsonian Folk Festival in 2002 I had become enraged and killed the Azeri. And, it happens that tomorrow in Armenia the Sumgait, Azerbaijan, massacres of 1988 will be commemorated.

The brutal murder of the Armenian in Hungary seems to have reawakened some Armenians about the nature of our neighbors to the west. Today I turned on the television to a fiery speech by Zori Balayan, speaking at the Genocide Monument, about the Sumgait massacre. Far more Armenians visited Dzidzernakabert this year than past years to commemorate the Sumgait massacre, most likely due to the recent murder in Hungary. For a short time, the crowd was nearly as many as on April 24. President Kocharian, the Catholicos, and other government figures all paid their respect the the Sumgait victims, some mentioning the tragedy in Hungary. It happened that the victim was buried today, in Yerevan. Hundreds attended the funeral. The open casket revealed several bandages on his face, where the Turk had attacked him with a hatchet. And, it seemed somewhat ill-timed the news I read on CNN that the Europeans were trying to create some kind of an economic cooperation zone in the Caucasus, including Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Such cooperation would be nice. Yet, I wonder if the Europeans understand the real nature of some in this area.
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