Yerevan Journal – June 2003

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After making my way to the back of a crowded yertooghayin van and somehow sitting down without falling, I was greeted with a handshake and smile by an actor from the Mailian Theater. This theater was founded by director Henrik Mailian, and is famous for its presentation of the fables of Hovhannes Toumanyan, including “Kikosi Mahu” (The Death of Kikos). I viewed these fables for the first time soon after arriving in Yerevan, and was amazed at the ingenuity of the fables and the natural humor and expertise in which they were presented. In September of 2000, at the Armenia Festival in Die in southern France, these fables were presented by the Mailian actors to the roaring approval of French audiences, who, even though they didn’t understand a word, turned out in droves to see the presentation. Now, the actor told me, the Mailian Theater was on the verge of collapse, with no funding coming from the government, and the public not having the money to attend performances. It is a pity for such a theater troupe to not be preserved and funded as the national treasure it is.

My grandmother was ten years old when the elders of her family decided to leave Moush and go to America. Her grandmother, whose husband had been killed by the Turks, also made the trip. They were joined by their in-laws, the Saroyans of Bitlis. My wife’s grandmother, also born in Moush, was there when massacres forced her to flee to Eastern Armenia, traveling with General Andranik and his soldiers. Yesterday I visited her grave for the first time, in the Charbakh cemetery of Yerevan. Quite the nationalistic Armenian, she had asked, before dying, to be buried in her native Moush, but was told such a thing wasn’t possible, to take someone to Moush to be buried. Her answer was very appropriate: “Are the Turks even scared of dead bodies?” After visiting her grave, we went to her son’s burial place; it had been two years since his death. My wife and I pulled a few weeds and lit some incense, and silently paid our respects to this son of Moush, the father-in-law I barely knew.

This morning on the “Bari Looys Hayastan” (Good Morning Armenia) television show, the birthday of the late Lucine Zakaryan, the best-known singer of sharakans, was celebrated. Her husband, Khoren Balyan, talked about her life and love for singing. He told about the time she sang at the Spendiarian Opera Hall with a blood sugar reading so high that she should have been taken to the hospital, only to perform one of her best concerts before nearly collapsing at the end. Also, this year, the 100th birthday of the famous composer Aram Khachatryan will be celebrated, with daily announcements on television and parts of his great Masquerade symphony being played. It is said in Armenia that great artists aren’t appreciated, and are even forced to leave the country (or worse) by those of mediocre talent, and that had Khachatryan lived in Armenia, he wouldn’t have become world famous. If true, this phenomenon seems to be continuing, with a certain Armenian world-class opera singer leaving Yerevan and now living in Moscow, and conductor Ohan Tourian being forcibly retired from the Armenian Symphony. Armenians need to appreciate their great talents, as they do those Armenians who have become renowned in Europe or America — for instance, Charles Aznavour and William Saroyan.

I always enjoy visiting Byurakan, a picturesque mountain village with a unique culture and dialect, the dialect hard to understand for the untrained ear. My wife’s mother was born there. Yesterday her niece came to our apartment in Anastasavan, to visit and to pick up a letter from her son, who was recently inducted into the army and is serving near Meghri in southern Armenia. Soon after arriving, she went with my wife to see the neighbor who had received the letter. She read her son’s letter, which consisted of several “Mom jans” and “Pop jans,” usually followed by “Tsavt tanem,” an Armenian phrase better left translated but which means something like “I take your pain.” Relatives visiting from Moscow had also come from Byurakan, and all were wiping tears as the letter was read. The relatives from Moscow are staying in Byurakan this summer and are renovating their empty house, with plans to return to the village within a couple of years. As the mother said, not only do I miss the village, but when I see my daughters making friends with non Armenians and speaking with foreign accents, I know it’s time to be in Armenia.

A bright spot in National Television’s “Music Station” program is its flashbacks to past singers, today’s being Norayr Mnatsakanyan, an excellent singer of ashoughakan music. His voice, although not powerful, is sweet, and of good quality. In the famous movie from the Sixties about the life of Sayat Nova starring Babken Nersissian, Mnatsakanyan’s voice was used for most of the songs. There were also two songs sung by Hovhannes Badalian and one by Glakho Zakaryan, whose rendition of “Dun En Glkhen” is so well known that Zakaryan is rated by many as the best singer of ashoughakan music. It happened that earlier in the day, also on National Televison, a rare clip of ashoughakan singer Araks Gyulzadyan was played. She sang mainly during the 1960s and 1970s, and is the best known, along with Ophelia Hambartsoumyan, of female ashoughakan singers. Gyulzadyan had a quite natural style, trained yet never losing the original feel of the songs, as some singers do after “refining” their voices at various music institutes.

Today while walking down Bashinjaghyan Street I saw that besides strawberries, cherries were for sale, and also green apricots and plums, thus ending the winter reign of apples and oranges. Inside one store, the owner was arguing with a woman about having run up her account a little too high, saying she would give her bread on credit but not the lentils she wanted. Armenians never turn down someone who doesn’t have money for bread, putting bread into a class of great respect, almost worship. Now, for some unknown reason, flour has become somewhat scarce in Armenia, with the price of bread almost doubling. For those with meager or no income and hardly enough money to buy bread, the effects are devastating. For now, no one is really asking why. Perhaps after the questionable elections in Armenia, people are feeling a little helpless.

It has been one hundred years since the birth of composer Aram Khachatryan, whose monumental ballet, Gayane, along with the Masquerede symphony and his famous piano concerto, has made him a giant among classical composers. On his one hundredth birthday, concerts were shown on television from various Khachatryan works, as well as clips from his life and meetings with Armenian artists such as poet Yeghishe Charents. A student of Khachatryan remarked that the composer had given him some interesting advice: to keep his originality and talent intact, it was important to not listen to whatever was being played on radio or television, the great composer adding that he rarely listened to radio or television. Though possibly unrelated, I recall watching a biography of painter Minas Avetisyan which stated that Aram Khachatryan gave advice to the painter after Avetisyan had been hit by a car and was recovering in a hospital. Khachatryan told the great artist he should leave the hospital immediately, and that his life may be in danger. A couple of days later, Avetisyan died.

A friend told me recently that the Armenian nation had all the signs of a dying nation. Although I can’t say I agree, it made me think when this morning a music video was shown on National Television made by an Armenian who left here and lives in Los Angeles, and has a television show there. The video seemed pretty much a duplication of black rap music, which I have nothing against but wonder why this Armenian made such a video and why it was shown on National Television. I changed to a Russian station, and what was on but a competition of Russians trying to outdo each other, singing and playing traditional Russian folk songs, to a huge crowd of admiring Russians.

At a meeting with a bank director born in Zangezur, I was asked why I had moved to Armenia, and how I made the change from life in America to life in Armenia. This usually means “from the easy life in America to the difficult life in Armenia.” After explaining that there were more important things in life than having hot water twenty-four hours a day and roads without holes in them, he began to understand. To the question about what I like about life here, I answered that, in my opinion, only in Armenia can one have a taste of old Armenian culture, whether song, dance, theater, literature, or otherwise. For instance, later in the day I watched Pepo, a movie from the earlier days of Armenian film written by Gabriel Sundukyan, for whom a theater is named in Yerevan. It had the real flavor of old Armenia, including manner of speech, music, and facial expression. The movie’s actors include Vladimir Abajyan, perhaps best known for his role as one of Sayat Nova’s friends in Sayat Nova. Pepo is the story of the engagement and marriage of a girl, with the payment of the dowry being the central theme. The traditional sounds of the duduk and dhol rang throughout the film, most of the music being written or arranged by Aram Khachatryan, who, although known as a classical composer, never lost his national roots. One of the songs arranged by Khachatryan is Sayat Nova’s “Blbli Hid” (With the Nightingale), a haunting version that is slower than that written by Sayat Nova.

California native Monte Melkonian died on June 12, 1993, in Karabagh. He commanded forces in Martuni, yet participated in battles in Mardakert and Kelbajar. A commemoration was held in the “Medz Talij,” the auditorium at Yerevan State University, with hundreds in attendance. Many traveled from Karabagh to attend or participate in the event. Speeches ranged from formal, to stories told by those who fought alongside Melkonian. Khoren Balyan sang sharakans and conducted the Yerevan State Choir, and Taniel Yerazhisht (Taniel the Musician) conducted his group, Gandzaran, which performed “Shogher Djan” and other folk songs. Actor Vladamir Abajyan gave a dramatic recitation. This was followed by folklore singer Hasmik Harutyunyan’s “Im Hayrenyats Hoki Vardan” and “Te Hayrenyats Bsakatir.” . . . Monte Melkonian’s honesty was legendary. While Melkonian was commanding forces in Karabagh, no one dared take a profit from anything war-related, be it gasoline, weaponry, or anything else. One would hate to think, as some have suggested, that his death might have come as a result of this honesty.

Armenia is a land of paradox. With the new ministers, deputies, and appointees all congratulating each other and promising to do their best for Armenia, the man on the street is somehow in a different mood, with stories of disappearing ballot boxes, etc., still fresh in his mind. And, Armenia being a small country, it’s difficult for someone with a less-than-ideal reputation to stand in front of the people and say he’s always fought for the Armenian people, and always will. So be it, on the other hand, and in spite of the current brain-drain, intellectuals remain in Armenia whose knowledge is to be admired. For instance, in a current series on National Television, physicist Baris Herouni, who has reached the highest title in science, that of “academician,” talks about studies proving that the idea for building Stonhenge was conceived in Armenia. He explained that in England at that time, science hadn’t advanced to a stage which would make building Stonehenge possible; whereas in Armenia, the rock observatory at Karahoonj was already in existence. He also disagrees with Armenian historians who claim Mesrop Mashtots invented the Armenian alphabet, saying that when Mesrop went to Greece to study and develop the alphabet, he was merely going to record the old Armenian alphabet, because when the church fathers established Christianity, they destroyed not only the pagan temples, but all of the books written prior to Armenia’s conversion, leaving nothing remaining of the original Armenian alphabet — thus Mesrop’s trip to Greece, to find old Armenian books in libraries there.

A woman prayed for the health of the king, even though he was a cruel king, hated by everyone. When asked why, she said, “Do you remember the last king? Everyone thought he was terrible and they prayed for his death. He died, and now this king is worse.” When the Ararat Cognac factory was sold, Armenians were outraged, saying it was wrong to sell Ararat, that it was a national treasure, something of pride. Then came the selling of the telephone service, water — the list goes on. Last night, a pilot from Armenian Airlines spoke on television about the recent sale of Armenian Airlines to the Russians. He reminded everyone about how Armenian pilots, during the recent war in Karabagh, risked their lives transporting medicine and goods to the war zone, and rescued refugees from the pogroms in Azerbaijan. As he said, would Russian pilots do the same, heaven forbid, if the need again arises?

While riding in a yertooghayin van, I was surprised to see a child with Down’s Syndrome, only the second or third time in three years I’ve seen someone here with Down’s. Although retarded individuals don’t venture out much here, as opposed to the West, there is no doubt the occurence here of retardation is low. Some say it’s due to the fact that when one marries here, not only are the future mate’s family and relatives all taken into consideration, but if one has even the most minor defect, anything more than a simple lisp, for example, chances of getting married become lower. Although none of this is statistical, it seems somewhat true considering the low rate of retardation here. I’ll also mention here a retarded man who apparently lives near Yerort Mas, a large Yerevan neighborhood, or taghamas, with a large metro and bus stop. Here, buses and yertooghayin vans stop to let off and pick up passengers, the area always being crowded with transport vehicles and passersby. The retarded man is a natural part of the scene, walking amongst the vehicles, talking with the drivers, asking for money or something to eat. The more playful drivers may pull the man’s cap over his eyes, but they almost always give him 50 or 100 dram. Without Western style institutions and the like, this man is taken care of in real “old world” fashion.

After attending a delightful piano concert at the Tchaikovsky Music School in central Yerevan, I wasn’t quite ready for more news about the airport/airline business in Armenia. But on the nightly news, it was revealed that parking fees at the airport had increased from about 100 drams to 3,000 drams, a price more or less equal to what is charged in the West. Not only will this cause the price of a taxi from the airport to go up, but for the Yerevantsi who needs to pick up his relative returning to Armenia, this new fee is almost the amount of a week’s salary. One person being interviewed said he would somehow carry his suitcases to the street outside the airport. Another said he wouldn’t bother returning to Armenia at all, because even though he had a job and home in Yerevan, the injustice in Armenia, not to mention the selling of the airport and other major industries, was starting to make him wonder about the future of the country.

Nalband, known now as Shirakamoot, is located west of Spitak in northern Armenia. It was once a bustling village and home to a railway station linking Vanadzor with Gyumri, as well as a factory that produced elevator parts. Village farmers grew wheat, potatoes, and other crops. On December 7, 1988, it was completely destroyed by the same earthquake that leveled nearby Spitak. Today I met with the village mayor, who told about losing his young son and brother, who were crushed in the rubble of the village school. Although the man wasn’t crying as he told the story, his grief seemed unbearable. He stared into the distance as he described making his way into the village after returning from Yerevan and finding out what had happened. His wife, he said, was miraculously saved from a collapsed building. Now they have a new daughter, after deciding they needed a symbol for themselves, and the village, to bring new life into the area which had seen such horrible sadness.

The village of Arjoot, near Spitak, is nestled in a river gorge of the Bazum mountain range, and is the only village of the region where the Turkish name hasn’t been changed to Armenian. It means something like “family of bees,” and is known for its great-tasting honey, not to mention its pears, apples, grapes, and various kinds of berries. The summers are hot, much more so than nearby Vanadzor, making it ideal for farming. Previously a Turkish village, Armenians became the inhabitants after the Turks fled upon the outbreak of the Karabagh war. Recently, half of an ancient khachkar was discovered, having been buried possibly for centuries in the courtyard of one of the village homes overlooking the river Arpi. As one leaves Arjoot and travels south toward Yerevan, he passes Jrashen and Gegharod before leaving Lori and entering the region around Aparan.

Bagaran was the ninth capital city of Historic Armenia, for a period of only a few years, in the mid-800s. When the first Armenian republic fell in 1920, Bagaran, located alongside the Akhourian River, fell into Turkish hands. This forced the Armenian population to leave their village, cross the river, and establish a new village, which they also called Bagaran. To this day, Bagarantsis of all ages have an amazingly close tie to the village of their ancestors, in sight just across the river. Today, a farmer said that he is working so that he can stay in the area, near the village where his grandparents were born. This is the first year in which the farmers of Bagaran and the neighboring village of Yervandashat are able to irrigate all of their fields, thanks to a new pump that draws water from the Akhourian. Hundreds of hectares of wheat, corn, beets, and potatoes have been planted, along with apricots, peaches, tomatoes, and watermelons. Today, several village men were working together to clear rocks from a future wheat field, while women hoed around tomato plants as irrigation water crept up in the furrows behind them.

The struggle for Genocide recognition does not take place only in the halls of various congresses and parliaments. Today in the Genocide Museum, the museum’s director, Lavrenti Barseghyan, was preparing a letter in response to an invitation to Kars, to view a mass grave which the Turks say contains the remains of their massacred countrymen, killed supposedly by Armenians. In refusing the invitation, Barseghyan told the Turks to first check the skulls and see if they were Armenoid or Turkish. Then he invited the Turks to Armenia, saying he would show them mass graves of Armenians massacred by the troops of Nazim Karabekir, created when tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of Armenians were massacred in northern Armenia before the establishment of Soviet rule.

I remember well watching an old Turk race up a huge mulberry tree in Armenian Anatolia in 1996, during an outing near the Eurphrates River. It was the first time I had witnessed the gathering of “toot,” or mulberries, as several people held the edge of a large canvas and caught the fruit as the Turk hit and shook the branches high in the tree. It is a process repeated several times as the mulberries ripen, beginning in early June and lasting most of the month. Yesterday was the first day we gathered “toot” in my brother-in-law’s yard in Charbakh. In ceremonial fashion, family members and neighbors of all ages took turns holding the canvas and picking up what had fallen to the ground. With each full pan of mulberries, a portion was given to older neighbors sitting around on benches, each eating what they could of the sweet mulberries. After the entire tree had been freed of its ripe berries, everyone went inside and ate more mulberries. Most of the harvest will be put in barrels and, as nature takes its course, stirred daily until the time arrives to make one of the favorite drinks in Armenia, “tti arak,” or, mulberry vodka — said to have great curative powers and health benefits, especially for the stomach.

The road was still wet from a morning rain when I left for Echmiadzin, traveling by yertooghayin taxi from Mashtots Prospect in downtown Yerevan. Just outside Yerevan, the road to Echmiadzin is lined with casinos, which were recently removed from the city of Yerevan. After passing the villages of Arevashat and Zvartnots, located by the airport of the same name, one passes the famous cathedral of St. Hripsime and the church of St. Shoghakat. The town of Echmiadzin, known in history as Vagharshapat, has lost much of its population due to the economic problems in Armenia — this even though Echmiadzin has a healthy tourist trade. After finishing my business at the Holy See, I sat for a few minutes near the entrance of the church. An old man was busy telling Armenians from France about Khrimyan Hairik, the much-loved catholicos who is buried near the cathedral entrance. Nearby on a wooden bench, several old men were cursing Gorbachev, blaming him for destroying the Soviet Union and, along with it, Armenia. Before leaving, I did as I did during my first visit to Echmiadzin in 1982 and walked past the ancient cemetery and on to St. Gayane, one of Echmiadzin’s seventh century churches. From near Holy Echmiadzin, I rode a bus back to Yerevan. On arriving back in Yerevan, a woman with a large sack of a variety of small apples told the driver she had no money to pay for her ticket. The driver asked, “Are those apples good?” “Try one,” she said. The driver took an apple and said, “Give me two hundred and fifty drams worth of apples,” which she did, to the delight of everyone watching.

From the days of Anania Shirakatsi and possibly before, to Victor Hambartsumyan, Armenian science has been so advanced that even now the world looks to Armenia for the latest advances or inventions. Today, it was revealed that the great acamedician, physicist Baris Herouni, has invented a completely different method for developing solar energy. It employs a large rotating mirror, converting the sun’s energy in a way until now never dreamed of, and producing electricity for a price only a fraction of what is now charged. The project is funded by businessman Hrand Vardanyan, owner of the Armenian Canadian joint venture of Grand Candy, Grand Tobacco, and Grand Sun.

I was saddened to hear that a devastating hailstorm again struck northern Armenia, in Shirak and in Shirakamoot and Metsbarni villages in the Lori region, where I visited just last week. Wheat and potato farmers were happy that they were reaching harvest without any major weather disaster, and now, for the second straight season, they have lost their crops to an unusually late storm. Television news showed hailstorms in Vanadzor and the Spitak area, where Shirakamoot and Metsbarni are located. The hail was close to the size of golf balls and piled up several inches deep. It happens that before the war in Karabagh, a type of cannon was used to fire into the clouds when it appeared hail was imminent, this method having quite good success. All of these cannons turned into weaponry during the war, and haven’t been returned to help the farmers. It seems these farmers are just as important to national security as is Karabagh, because without farmers, where would Armenia be?

Last night while I was working at the computer, my wife announced from the kitchen that she was preparing some sort of surprise. Later, I was happy to find out she had made “Aparantsi dolma.” The main difference is that the meat isn’t ground, just cut up into very small pieces with a sharp knife, then wrapped with grape leaves. A real delight. Then, on National Television, a recent concert in Yerevan of a soloist for the Tatoul Altounyan Song and Dance Ensemble was shown in its entirety. After various guests and the stars performed, a special guest was presented — Albert Sarksyan, the “kavor” (godfather) of the short film, Melodies of Shirak. The 1965 film portrays a wedding in the province of Shirak, where people are known for their lavish weddings. Although the singing and dancing in the film are excellent, the high point is definitely the singing of Sarksyan, whose version of an ashoughakan song by Jivani, a song for the kavor, became so famous that from that time he has been known as “kavor.” Now about seventy, his voice remains sweet and natural. The applause following his song was spontaneous and long.

Our upstairs neighbor came for a visit and offered two kilograms of apricots at half the going price of eight hundred drams per kilo. After I ate an apricot, surprisingly sweet for so early in the season, my wife told me not to forget to make a wish, since I was eating my first apricot of the year. Here, besides eating apricots, making jam, juice, or even apricot vodka (dzirani oghi), Armenians crack the seed with a rock or a walnut cracker and eat the inside, said to be the healthiest part of the apricot. Another use of the apricot is of its wood, from which the duduk and blul are made. The blul is a long wind instrument the player holds at an angle while blowing into half the mouthpiece, the result being a haunting, wind-like sound. It happened that today on the Hairenik television station, which specializes in programs for children, Armenia’s foremost blulist, (known in Armenian as dziranapogh — pipe made from apricot) Norayr Kartashyan, was the guest on a show where he was interviewed by a young girl. He talked about the instrument, and said that it was Komitas’ favorite, and that Komitas called it the most Armenian of all instruments. Kartashyan then treated viewers to the unique sound of the blul.

This morning while eating breakfast we heard the sound of screeching tires and brakes, followed by a thud. We rushed to the window to see what had happened. Two cars were stopped in awkward positions on the street, one of them at the entry of a store, knocking down the store’s sign. From out of nowhere, about fifty people gathered, curious about the accident and to see if anyone was injured. The two drivers started arguing, which in Armenia is the usual way of deciding who the guilty party is. Within just a few minutes, the cars had driven off and the crowd had dispersed, making it appear as if nothing had happened. These type of matters are usually decided quickly, because if the police appear on the scene, court cases and occasional bribes are the result — thus it is cheaper for the guilty party to pay the other to fix his car, than to involve the police and courts. Once I saw an accident where a pedestrian was injured, and the driver of the car picked up the injured person and put her in his car, most likely taking her to the hospital, once again to solve the whole problem without involving the courts and all resulting costs.
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