Monday, November 24, 2008

A friend, almost upon arriving at our home, began telling about his cousin’s recent court case, in which the cousin lost ownership of part of his home to a family he had given the right to live there, but had clearly not given them ownership rights. “Before legally appealing for ownership, they made arrangements with the judge of that area, in other words, bribed him. The case was already decided when my cousin went to court. He found out later what had happened. He knows that if he doesn’t somehow bribe the judge at the next court hearing, which will happen since he filed a protest, he’ll lose again. Things are out of line here. What can I say?”

On television, we watched a news report about sect activity in Armenia on “R,” the show featuring conversations with a priest and the head of an organization that supports citizens who have in some way become victims of sect activity. According to both, there are several large business owners in Yerevan who are members of this or that sect, and who secretly insist on their workers being members of their sect. When someone refuses, he is released from his position, the real reason of course not mentioned. According to the organization head, cases are pending in court, in which those who lost employment are trying to be reinstated, but, “the sects almost always win these cases.” He added that large amounts of money come into Armenia, funding the sects, especially the three or four major ones.

* * *

Unfortunately, a short break is in store for Yerevan Journal, as family matters abroad demand attention. Entries will resume on or about January 18, 2009.

Friday, November 21, 2008

A taxi driver, after being satisfied that I wasn’t a spy or government worker, told me his thoughts about the situation in Armenia: “I’ll tell you why there’s no hope here,” he said. “If you’re an honest businessman, or politician, or singer, you have no hope here. They won’t let you get ahead. If you’re a good singer, they won’t even let you appear. The people running the show have things completely in their hands, politically and otherwise. Andranik Margaryan was in their way. What happened to him? A week before his planned trip to France for heart surgery, he dies. He liked to eat and drink…it would have been easy to poison him.”

The driver continued, angry about how an expensive jeep shot past us at a high speed: “See that? If I had run into him, within five minutes his friends would have shown up, destroyed me and my car, and nothing would be done about it. That’s the type in charge here now. And they’re the ones who are making decisions, ready to give everything back to the Turks in Karabagh. None of them went and fought in the war. You know what? Everything is already decided. I don’t care what the political pundits and others are saying, how wonderful it was, signing the same paper the Turks and Russians signed. They’re giving everything back, letting Turks back into Karabagh, you name it. And after we lost so many of our men, spilled so much blood. After the war, I was embarrassed I didn’t go. At the time, I was a Dashnak, and saw how many of my Dashnak friends had fought and died. But since then I found out too much, and left the party. I think Dashnaktsutyun stopped existing after 1918. I think they were involved in selling off our country, our land, way back then. Maybe that’s why they’re against the Turks opening their archives…they might be afraid the truth would come out.”

As I got out of the car, he wished me well, and said, “This is the only place I can live. I’ll go down with my country; I have no other.”

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The contrasts in life here, even in what one sees or hears in a single day, are nothing short of amazing. To start with, news last night, and again this morning, told about the misfortune’s editor, Edik Baghdasaryan, had yesterday. While walking somewhere in the city center, he was attacked, Baghdasaryan resisting until a hit on the head had him unconscious. Doctors listed his condition as satisfactory. Visitors at the hospital included the prime minister, natural being is both oppositional and investigates injustice, wherever it might occur, as the government is showing Europe and others how Armenia has a free press, etc. In the past, Baghdasaryan was threatened by a certain oligarch, for writing less than positive remarks about his operations. Some here think that whoever the attackers were, their orders were probably made not by whichever oligarch or big businessman who might have been angered by Baghdasaryan, but by the thugs themselves, who likely work for this or that person and decided to take matters in their own hands, teaching Baghdasaryan a lesson without the knowledge of their boss.

The day continued with a meeting downtown with a musician who now runs a shoe store. “You were at Barsegh Tumanyan’s concert a few days ago. You saw the people in the audience. I was happy to see that such high class people are still in Yerevan. Now that the leadership of the opera has changed, they’re inviting Barsegh to sing the opera Almast. What a treat. But what we’re up against here is something. This morning I was buying fruit at a little stand, and a six-year-old boy started talking to me like they do on the Mafioso serials that are rampant on television here. When I told the boy he was a little out of line, his mother thanked me, but said that the boy is learning it on television. Picture this…National Television and its second station, Armenia, and its second station, Shant, and others — they’re all running these serials, it seems all day long. They’re propagandizing immorality and filth. Some will rise above it, true, but the masses, I’m not so sure.”

From our meeting, we went to the Pokr Talij (Small Auditorium or Hall) on the central square. We arrived in time for the last four singers of today’s Gohar Gasparyan concourse, in which singers trained at the Komitas Conservatory are competing, with several judges deciding the singers’ progress. Although the singers all had fine voices, and were fairly well trained, only the last one showed signs of heading towards the big stage. The opinion here is that opera hopefuls, at least most of them, are going straight to the Conservatory, without first attending the Arno Babajanyan music college, or similar music schools, thus their not being completely ready for these competitions.

Afterwards, we crossed the street to the Marco Polo restaurant, where we had lunch with Barsegh Tumanyan and his son, Davit, who had participated in his father’s recent concert. We talked about the concert celebrating Tumanyan’s fiftieth birthday, his current plans, including concerts and recordings, and hopeful participation in local opera productions, something he hasn’t done up to now. After I told him the concert hall seemed like it was going to explode during his finale, “Grenada,” on Sunday night, he modestly answered, “It’s a song everybody likes.” This, hardly, was the reason for the audience’s reaction, as Tumanyan’s singing was unbelievable, as was his communication with the audience.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Henrik Malyan Theater’s presentation of William Saroyan’s Stories on a Train continues to amaze and delight audiences, as tonight’s crowd literally spilled into the lobby of the Cinema House, waiting for the actors to emerge from the dressing room, to congratulate, talk with, and have their pictures taken with the quite fine actors. We heard several times in the lobby how people planned to bring friends and family members to one of the final two performances.

Old Malyan pros Lizza, Christine, Levon, Jhorik, and Araik were excellent, yet newcomer Samvel, from the Baronian Theater troupe, who had the main role, playing both Aram and Keri Khosrov, stole the show, his gestures and facial expressions so much like the men of the Saroyan clan that it seemed he had grown up with them. After seeing three disastrous presentations of Saroyan productions this year, this one was a special treat, a bright light in a sea of mediocre theater currently the rule in Yerevan. My only regret is that the presentation wasn’t taken to Fresno, Los Angeles, and all over Europe for Armenians to see just how Saroyan should be done.

For the third straight night, starting with a book presentation and concert of Hayrik Mouradian’s best known songs, and followed by the Malyan presentation, we were able to take part in Yerevan’s cultural life, tonight’s event being a concert celebrating Barsegh Tumanyan’s fiftieth birthday, in which the great bass sang for nearly two hours, accompanied by the National Academic Theater Orchestra. Tumanyan sang arias by Verdi, Rachmaninoff, Spendiaryan, Gounod, and Rossini. He sang with ease, his voice literally echoing through the hall, bringing the audience to its feet several times during the concert. I remembered the concert last week for dudukist Jivan Gasparan, in which both Tumanyan and tenor Gegham Grigoryan sang.Tumanyan, in excellent form, sang seemingly without effort, while Grigoryan, currently far from good form, struggled, barely able to force out his still excellent voice. A pity, as in his comparative youth (Grigoryan is about fifty-two), he was considered every bit as good as Pavarotti, replacing him once at La Scalla and continuing there by popular demand.

During intermission, a culture ministry worker told me about her research into a tribe, or small nation, of people in the Dersim province of Turkey, located close to Erzingan, these people known as Zaza. Her interest about the Zazas had increased when a European Armenian had come here, and she had seen him playing Zaza music on a saz. The theory is that this tribe is Armenian, and that when the Armenians were converting, or being converted, to Christianity, the Zazas refused to accept the new religion, maintaining whatever old religion they were practicing. It is also said that they have many customs peculiar to Armenians. There are caves in the area, our friend told, that the Zazas won’t let anybody but their own people enter, as they say old books and drawings exist that tell their entire history. When asked when they might allow entry into the caves, they say they will when their territory becomes independent. Interesting that the Zazas maintained their old religion, while the Dersim region in general was famous for its large number of churches and monasteries, at least one constructed in the style of Geghard.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

After spending a few hours celebrating our friend’s engagement, several of us went out into the garden area, to get some fresh air and to gather some greens. Being there were both Dashnaks and Karabaghtsis in the group, the talk turned to the Dashnak party, including its position on the Karabagh negotiations.

“I think (history professor) Ashot Melkonian will be the Dasnhak’s next candidate for president,” one of the men said, somewhat on the lighter side, yet half serious. “I went to the premiere of his new film about Mt. Ararat. Everybody with a name in Yerevan was there. The second half of the film showed Melkonian and a few others on their trek to the top of Ararat. Reaching the peak, Ashot gave a good Dashnak speech, about taking back the old lands. I think he has plans. Who knows?”

Another Dashnak looked worried as he talked with a Karabaghtsi friend, who was angry about the ongoing negotiations. “How can they talk about giving back lands?” he said. “Why are our leaders scared? I fought alongside men, real men, from your party (Dashnaktsutyun). They’re all ready to fight again. But they might not have the chance, if our government signs away our lands.”

The Dashnak’s look changed from worry to anger. “I have one thing to say,” he said. “If our government agrees to a peace deal that gives our land back, and lets Azeris back into Karabagh, and our Dashnak leaders stay in the ruling coalition, I’ll leave the party. My people have been Dashnaks since the beginning. But we have a limit, and that would be it.”

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A friend from Echmiadzin explained why he is attempting to obtain a Green Card: “Injustice, and corruption,” he said. “Seeing what’s going on here has me really disappointed. Bribery is on the increase, in spite of their preaching that they’re battling it. Imagine, the president telling the police they should battle harder against bribery and corruption in general. A normal policeman should be doing that anyway. If I told you about the court cases I’ve heard about recently, the buying off of judges, you’d be in shock. Why is it like that here? I blame the Soviet Union and what it did to our people. Armenians changed from a hardworking people to one who tries to get by doing as little as possible. The Soviet system encouraged this. If one was a Communist party member, he could go places, whether in politics or the arts. Party member or not, people tried to get by doing as little as possible. The hardworking individual saw that his neighbor did nothing but lived as well as he did or better. And this mentality lives on today. I don’t know if it will ever change. I’m not worried so much about myself, but I don’t want my children to grow up here. You know about the tens of thousands of Hayastantsis in prison in Los Angeles and across Europe. Why is this? They want everything now, on the spot, without working or struggling. They want to live as well as their friends and neighbors, not in the future, but right now. So what do they do, steal credit cards, print credit cards, simple thievery, drugs, gangs, you name it, any way to avoid work…like working for a living is something to be ashamed of. Remember this: you were brought up in the US, thinking that by your work, your sweat, you could get ahead. We weren’t brought up that way.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

At least temporarily, the most talked about subject in Yerevan has changed from the Karabagh negotiations to the melee in the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Shocked by it all, relatives and friends in the US are writing, sad that such an event, with Armenians involved, has been broadcast on various world news networks, making Armenians and Greeks appear more like brawlers than people from civilized countries, least of all Christians.

Here, all sorts of opinions are being heard — for one, comedian-actor Vardan Petrosyan saying that the behavior shown isn’t Christian at all, that patience is the way for a true Christian to act. One Armenian priest said that the Greeks had set the whole thing up, giving narcotics to various hoodlums in order to start a problem with the Armenians, who were only going about a service at their appointed time and place in the Holy Sepulcher. Another priest said that it was strange that so many policemen were on the scene, making it seem that everything was planned in advance…in his opinion, the trouble was started so that one or both sides would have to pay bribes to higher-ups in Jerusalem just in order to keep their rights in the church, handed down over the centuries.

I remembered my stay there in 1984, when one day several deacons, myself included, with baseball bats or various pieces of wood in our boots, under our robes, headed out to the Holy Sepulcher, expecting problems during Holy Week from none other than the Greeks.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A set of circumstances had us attending Opera, Opera, another in a series of presentations this year of works by Saroyan. I won’t bother giving a critique here, just to say that the show had nothing to do with Saroyan, didn’t have the feel of something written by him, and, as someone sitting next to us said before he left (before the end), “This is a big zero.” My only thought is that it’s amazing that the actors and others involved aren’t embarrassed about what they produced.

That aside, our reason for being there in the first place was another case of the “lifting” of one of Hasmik’s songs, this one being “Taroni Oror” from her Armenian Lullabies album. An acquaintance had told us about hearing the song towards the end of the presentation, after which Hasmik called the music director and the director/producer, asking why they had done such a thing. After praising Hasmik’s singing, we were offered tickets to attend one of the performances, with promises to never use another of her songs without permission.

Tonight’s was the third Yerevan theater (besides Sos Sargsyan’s Hamazgayin Theater and Karen Gevorgyan’s presentation of Gigor) to use one of Hasmik’s, Shoghaken’s, or Ensemble Karot’s music without bothering to ask permission, not to mention Shant Television, who just had the second of their children’s music competitions for which they used the entire Hayrik Mouradian Children’s Folk Song and Dance Ensemble CD, again without permission.

An interesting note about the second show is that the children who sang did a far better job (in spite of musical arrangements that were closer to Egyptian than Armenian) than their older counterparts, winners and runner-ups in last year’s “Folk Singer” competition, one of Shant Television’s several televised music competitions.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Driving his Lada towards our home, the commander apologized for having come to an abrupt stop. “I was wounded in the battle of Shushi,” he said. “And after that, in Lachin. I was hit by grad missiles. Lost my right leg, or most of it. They even sent me to America for treatment, which only partly helped.

“I have just one comment about the meeting in Moscow. I expect nothing good from this meeting, or whatever follows. When it comes to Russia and the Russians, we’ve always come up on the short end. And another thing. If we end up giving up the territories, and letting Azeris back in to the territories and Karabagh, everything is lost. If not today, then tomorrow. At that point, I’ll leave Armenia. I won’t be able to live here, in this nation of cowards. Sure, we have some brave warriors, but that’s not enough. The average person is only concerned about his family and his job. There comes a time when a person has to sacrifice himself for his nation.”

The commander continued his thoughts, now about the Dashnak party: “I sincerely think the Dashnak party was created by the Turks or some other outside party, as a tool to destroy Armenia. They talk well, but their deeds are otherwise. I can tell stories about what I saw in Karabagh. Simple stories like when they passed out good cigarettes, during battle, and gave them only to Dashnak party members. We were all Armenian, and fighting for the homeland. What Dashnak, what party? And when they were passing out twenty-dollar bills to people there if they joined the party. And, even worse, the day I came across a fighter, a real fighter, one who had fought in Afghanistan, and was fighting in Karabagh, near Shushi, and I discovered lying there wounded, his shoes and socks torn, and his feet freezing…he might have frozen to death if I hadn’t found him. I went to the Dashnak party office and asked them to give the fighter some new socks and shoes. And what did they answer? ‘If he joins the party, we’ll give him new shoes.’”

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A friend whose first cousin (brother, as they say in Armenia) died in fighting in Mardakert in the early 1990s was furious as she talked about the meeting in Moscow between the presidents of Armenia, Russia, and Azerbaijan. “The first thing I have to say is this: who gave Serge the right to make a decision, any decision, about Karabagh and the territories? At least Kocharian was in the midst of things, during the war, but where was Serge? And why isn’t he talking about the return of Azeris to Karabagh? It’s convenient to keep that part of the proposed peace deal quiet. That way the Diaspora Armenians will give even more money for this or that telethon. And the rich Armenians, and organizations, who are ecstatic about the Moscow meeting. What do they care about giving back the territories? Not one of them spilled blood, or saw what we all went through. What country wins a war, gains territories, and gives it all back, without a fight? I was in Ararat yesterday, meeting with several men who had fought in Karabagh. They’re all ready to fight again, if fighting broke out, but are angry at the talk going around about giving back the territories. I think that if Serge agrees to give up the territories, and lets Azeris back into Karabagh, Armenians will reject the plan, and Serge will have to resign, like Levon did.

“Those in the Diaspora who are so happy now about the proposed peace plans don’t know Turks. I’ll tell you what happened in Shamshadin during the war. My neighbor, from Movses village, told me this story. During fighting along the border, near Movses, the Azeris captured a commander and a few fighters. They tied the commander to a wall and, in front of his fighters, had Azeris, one by one, break the commander’s arms, then legs, then fingers, one by one, till he died. They want to make peace with these people? In the end, they’ll pay. But, those living in the Diaspora won’t pay, it will be the locals here who pay. How many came from the Diaspora to fight in Karabagh? Maybe two hundred? They were all brave, those men and women, Monte and the others. But where was the rest of the Diaspora?”

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Yerevantsis waited today for news from Moscow, concerning the meeting between the presidents of Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. As Armenian stations rarely have news updates on Sunday, we, like others we talked with, watched Russian news. If anything was decided on, it wasn’t passed on by Medvedev or the news anchors, as all that was shown was the three presidents signing a document stating that any solution to the Karabagh conflict would be done peacefully. Talk here ranges from the Dashnaks saying they’re ready to take even more territories in Azerbaijan if fighting resumes, to freedom fighters and die-hards saying they’re not about to give up even a handful of soil in the liberated territories, to the Armenian president stating that he won’t sign anything unless peace keepers are placed in the territories (once Armenians pull out), that Armenia retains a land corridor with Karabagh (Lachin), and that the citizens of Karabagh have the right to vote for their future. An important item he left out was the sticky point of whether Azeris would be allowed back in Karabagh proper, as if this is the case, the acceptance of any peace deal by the population here would be in doubt (if that matters to the president and others in power). Watching the Russian news report, a neighbor who was visiting said, “I hope Monte Melkonian and the others who sacrificed their lives for Karabagh and the homeland can’t see what’s going on now. What would Monte say to giving up Kelbajar, after what he and his men went through to take it? And what about the Diaspora Armenians who have given millions to rebuild Karabagh…what will they say if Azeris start moving back, into Shushi, Stepanakert?”

Saturday, November 1, 2008

While there are some who shout with raised fists and proclaim their patriotism, be they politicians, singers, etc., others silently do their work, in Armenia and abroad, usually without acclaim.

The accompanying picture is taken from a hill near Dadivank, a classically built monastery on the border of Mardakert and Kelbajar. The picture was taken from where a freedom fighter lives, one who fought for the lands on which he now lives…a patriot in the true sense of the word. Should there ever be the need to defend this land, this former fighter would no doubt again take up arms, unlike the many who have left their land and villages in Karabagh under the care of their parents and grandparents, thus seemingly sealing the fate of these villages.

Related to this would be the group of Dashnak freedom fighters who expressed their thoughts about the current negotiations concerning the Karabagh conflict on Dashnaktsutyun’s Yerkir Media television. Listening to these fighters and their concerns about being forced to give up the liberated territories, and their own leaders being part of the ruling coalition, which could soon decide to give up these lands as part of a peace deal, I wondered how their leaders could even possibly follow a different path as these freedom fighters, those who sacrificed life and limb for the liberation and defense of their homeland.

We were recently introduced to another type of patriot by opera singer Barsegh Tumanyan, who showed us his copy of Ancient Pagan Bible: The Brave (Crazy) of Sassun and told us about his friend, Artur Armin (Babayan), the book’s author. Armin, now living in Los Angeles, has gone to great lengths to uncover the ancient nature of the Armenian epic, also proving that the epic “Sassuntsi Davit” is far older than believed, and that the story of Sassuntsi Davit running the Arabs out of Armenia is only the modern version of a much older epic story. Armin goes so far as to show similarities in time and style to ancient Egyptian and other epics, part of his proof that the Sassuntsi Davit epic has roots long before what has been taught by Soviet scholars and others.

It is curious that during Soviet times, when singers and tellers of these fables were still living, that most of them were from Moush and Shatakh (Vaspurakan), while none with roots in Sassoun were found that knew the epic fables. I found all this even more interesting being that I had heard the songs associated with Sassuntsi Davit performed by Hayrik Mouradian (in recordings), in recordings by Akunk (sung by Hasmik and her brother Aleksan) and by members of Hasmik’s Hayrik Mouradian Children’s Folk Song and Dance Ensemble, songs in which I heard the names Sanasar, Baghdasar, Msra Melik, and Sassuntsi Davit, all members of a tribe of which Sassuntsi Davit is one of its members.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A quite interesting travel show of sorts on Turkish television had a young couple in the Kurdish village that leads the bravest of mountain climbers up Mt. Ararat, in Eastern Turkey. A pity I don’t understand Turkish, as the narrator told about different monuments in the area, including khachkars. It happens that several of the exact same style of khachkar that stand in the area of the St. Khach church on Aghtamar Island, on Lake Van, are on the base of Mt. Ararat. The khachkars are ancient, with only a simple vertical and horizontal line forming the cross. Another surprise was a rock identical to those at the Karahunj rock observatory near Sissian, in the southern Armenian region of Zangezur. The camera showed how in the past one could look through the hole in the rock and see different views of Mt. Ararat, as opposed to those in Karahunj, which were used to study the stars. I wondered why these monuments hadn’t been photographed or filmed by Armenians who were in the area before climbing Mt. Ararat.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Rumors abound after Levon Ter Petrosyan’s surprise announcement of a two-to-three- month break in opposition rallies while the Karabagh conflict is undergoing serious negotiations by the major powers. The latest talk has Ter Petrosyan having secret meetings with Robert Kocharian, with the latter becoming prime minister and Ter Petrosyan being named as president of parliament, the post currently held by Hovik Aprahamyan.

Many say Ter Petrosyan is satisfied with the way negotiations concerning Karabagh are going, as they are close to what he wanted back in the Nineties. Others go so far as to say that the reason Ter Petrosyan has been able to win over so many who hated him not so long ago is the kind of music being played over loudspeakers before and after opposition rallies, saying he has help from secret, foreign organizations who are experts in the area of brainwashing.

All these rumors were at least somewhat forgotten today, as the ninth anniversary of the October 27 parliament slayings was commemorated at the Pantheon and Yerablur, the latter where Vazgen Sargsyan is buried. At the Pantheon, we expressed condolences to Anahit Bakhshyan, who lost her husband, Yuri Bakshyan, that fateful day in 1999, as well as Aram Sargsyan, whose brother, Vazgen Sargsyan, also died that day.

The large crowd that gathered at the gravesite of Karen Demirjyan included Stepan Demirjyan, his son and former presidential candidate, Heritage party members, other opposition politicians, and Levon Ter Petrosyan. While there, I remembered being in Yerevan on that infamous day in 1999, and watching the shock and panic of Yerevantsis when the news of the shootings was broadcast. I remembered the tens of thousands who lined up at the Opera building to view the victims, and the way many, if not most, Hayastantsis lost hope in their future.

Today, opposition politicians declared the case unfinished, a cover-up, while coalition politicians claimed the case has been solved and the guilty punished. As to what Yerevantsis think, it is safe to say that most side with the opposition, believing the murders were well planned and organized, with the organizers, be they Armenian or, as some say, powers from beyond our borders, still free.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Karabaghtsi originally from a village near Togh, in Hadrut, lamented the way his countrymen have taken over so many important positions in Armenia, a major reason for the ill will many Hayastantsis feel towards Karabaghtsis. “Everybody was together during the war, and afterwards, at least for a while,” he said. “And now, seemingly every day, we hear news like this, like what I heard just yesterday. The former education minister of Karabagh was shown in his new position, as pro-rector of Yerevan State. He deals with students from abroad. ‘Why didn’t he stay in Karabagh?’ people here ask. ‘Doesn’t he care about education there?’ I have nothing to answer them. It’s beginning to look like Karabaghtsis came here, took over, and now are ready to give Karabagh back to the Azeris. A few of those at the top are giving us all a bad name. Once, we fought together, now, this.”

A farmer from Voskevaz, a village neighboring Oshakan, and whose ancestors happened to emigrate from Karabagh some 200 years ago, overheard the conversation and continued: “I can’t believe how most Karabaghtsis who came to Yerevan already own homes and property, and have good jobs, like the one you’re talking about,” he said. “The big shots own half of Armenia, from Tsakhkadzor to Jermuk, and no longer seem to care about their homeland. True, they funnel money there to upgrade and renovate the country and its infrastructure, but many Karabaghtsis have no love for their land, and are quite happy here, in Russia, Europe, wherever.”

The Karabaghtsi from Hadrut sat silently.

Our conversation took place in one of the villages of Echmiadzin, where several of us had gone to check on plantings of winter wheat and corn and vegetable harvests. A fifty-year old farmer, who I found out is battling lung cancer, energetically prepared us a barbecue of pork chops and freshly picked peppers and tomatoes. During the early Nineties, he fought in Karabagh, yet, being the modest type, never talks about those years. Tired, and without color in his face due to his illness, the farmer took care of the entire barbecuing process and then served us tsirani oghi, the tasty result of two large trees behind his home. Without doubt, he will continue with such hospitality until no longer able; he knows no other way.

Leaving the village, and reaching the road leading back to Echmiadzin, we came across two old women who were standing on the side of the road, alongside several large bags of peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant. The women, who appeared to have come from another, long-past century, had come from Echmiadzin, and had gleaned the fields after their final harvest, with plans to can their goods for winter use in their homes. As they weren’t local, and weren’t part of the huge makeshift vegetable market near the main road, they had been left behind, and were waiting for someone willing to take them to Echmiadzin. Tossing their bags of vegetables into the back of our Niva, we all headed towards Echmiadzin.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A head doctor, an attorney, and a young mother with a small child sat in a hospital room in the Zeytun district of Yerevan and talked about life in Armenia. “Of course,” the attorney said, “a battle against corruption is underway in Armenia, as the higher-ups say. But the laws are changing so fast I can’t keep up with them. With so many rich businessmen in parliament, they write a law, it’s accepted, then when it no longer suits them, the law goes back to what it was. And money still changes hands, but now they’re being careful, and accepting money only from trusted sources. I hate to see the judicial system in this condition. I know of a case where a family of Karabaghtsis moved into a house and refused to leave, lived there a few years, gave a judge some money, and got ownership of the house, with the innocent party out of luck. Sometimes I go to sleep at night hoping I won’t wake up.”

The doctor, who has a quite good reputation in his field, continued the conversation: “I hide my head when I have visitors from outside Armenia, especially those we work with professionally. A Swedish colleague told me, in so many words, that it’s ridiculous for Sweden to continue funding our program, as it’s obvious the government here could be doing better than they’re doing. ‘Leaving the airport, all I see is expensive jeeps and casinos,’ he told me. ‘In Sweden, you don’t see so many Mercedes, BMWs, and jeeps as you do here in Armenia. And the government says they have no money. If there was no money here, there wouldn’t be so many of these expensive vehicles on the streets. Something doesn’t make sense.’ I don’t know what to say. People have lost their sense of modesty. Haven’t you seen the weddings here now? They spend $5,000 to shoot off some fireworks, and bring in pop stars at over $1,000 a song. I just heard one of them recently demanded $8,000 a song. Why not, one of the oligarchs is supporting her, took her out of the restaurants and made her famous.”

Hearing this, the young mother angrily said, “How can I bring up my daughter in this country? We turn on the television and all we hear is pop stars. None of them has a good voice, and not one is actually a singer. They close the door to anybody who knows how to sing. And the male singers, many of them, are starting to talk with a certain ‘less than manly’ kind of slang. That’s all we need here.”

To note, this morning the culture station in Armenia was broadcasting a circus, from wherever in the world, while Turkey’s culture station had Turks aged forty or so and up, in national costume, in a house in Kharberd, singing Turkish folk songs.

Monday, October 20, 2008

At the opposition rally, a Hayastantsi fedayee told me his thoughts about the Karabagh conflict, and if fighting resumed: “Even though I, personally, would return to fight the Turks in Karabagh, I would never allow my sons to go there. Whatever happens there, I can handle it. But I remember well what Karabaghtsi commanders were saying to Hayastantsis under their command. ‘If we want, we can put you on the highest mountain and shoot you. Or in the lowest valley.’ I remember the beatings and threats of beatings of Hayastantsis during the war. Maybe this is why Karabaghtsis don’t serve in the Armenian army. They probably know what would happen to them. And now, like Levon says, the proposed peace deal, apparently approved of by our leaders (from Karabagh), has us giving up the liberated territories and having Azeris move back in, and not only that, back into Karabagh proper. Then they’ll have a vote, some time in the future, to determine the status of Karabagh. The Azeris will fill the place up, and easily outnumber Karabaghtsis. And I can guarantee you, none of the thousands of Karabaghtsis now in Yerevan or Russia will go back to live in Karabagh. Mark my word.”

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Walking up Mashtots Boulevard, known here by its old Soviet-era name, Prospect, short for Lenin Prospect, the crowds became thicker, as a large number of Yerevantsis and others had gathered near the Matenadaran to hear Levon Ter Petrosyan’s plans for the newly-formed Armenian National Congress and his thoughts about the political strategies of Serge Sargsyan concerning the solving of the Karabagh conflict and other matters. Arriving just before seven, we heard Ter Petrosyan’s voice echoing over the loudspeakers, and slowly made our way through the crowds up the stone steps, noticing people standing and sitting throughout the entire area beneath where the speaker and his entourage were standing. Although not adept at estimating crowd sizes, it would seem that up to 50,000 were present, not what organizers had hoped for but still a sizable throng. Looking down the stone walkway, I saw several Armenian flags waving, and one that simply said “Aparan.” Heritage party members gathered in an area alongside the walkway. Noteworthy was the fact that people were seriously listening to what Levon had to say, even though many there undoubtedly disapprove of the politician, but support the cause, including the ousting of the current rulers.

“All I have to do is look at the faces of the higher-ups in today’s government, and I get sick,” an acquaintance said. “Something has to change, before it’s too late.”

Another said she had come for the “cause,” as she said, “Hearing Levon’s voice makes me sick, but if things stay the same, we’re finished.”

Just after darkness fell, it was announced that the rally would continue at Northern Avenue, and directions were given as to which route to take to get there. Most of the thousands present, young and old alike, marched down the right lane of the street below the Matenadaran, with police walking along the white lines and traffic crawling along the other lane. Marchers waved flags and shouted “Serzhik heratsek,” “Levon Nakhagah,” and “Hayastan, azat ankakh.”

“Whether one sides with Levon, or Serge Sargsyan,” an onlooker said, “It’s good to see the energy here, to see that people haven’t given up. That fact alone gives me hope.”

Thursday, October 16, 2008

At times in Armenia, one is given a stark reminder that not only we are far, distance-wise, from the West, but just as far concerning culture. Today’s trip to Byurakan was such a reminder. The occasion was a sad one, as Hasmik’s fifty-two-year-old first cousin, Jivan, was laid to rest, passing away after suffering a stroke some three weeks ago. I remembered being at his house during St. Khach, and his lamenting how we hadn’t bought a house close to his, saying he would have watched over the house if we were gone from the village, and what good neighbors we would have been.

Reaching Byurakan, Hasmik, a sister, and I walked down one of the main, winding streets to the home where the funeral was to take place. On the way, we passed St. Hovhannes church, entering the oldest part of the village, almost overgrown with walnut and other fruit trees and vines. At the family house, men were sitting on benches under the trees and most of the women were in the living room, where the open casket was set on a table, lamenting their dear father, brother, relative, and friend, in the quite vocal way practiced in this part of the world. Soon, two duduk players and a man with a dap showed up outside, took their places on three chairs, and began what is known in the village and area as Bayati, or, more completely, Bayati Shiraz, a form of mugham in which the singer carries on a conversation with the deceased, asking why he doesn’t answer, why he left his family, and whatever comes to the singer’s mind.

Up to this point, most of the wailing, or lamenting, was done by the women. Then, the casket was brought outside and placed on a table with a carpet on it, with the family men now joining the lamenting women.

After a few minutes had passed, the casket was taken to a nearby waiting van and placed in the back, with the two back doors left open. The long procession to the cemetery then began, with most of the men walking behind the van all the way to the cemetery, with two lanes of cars following behind.

Near the entrance of the cemetery, the casket was put on a large, flat rock, where the women bade farewell to Jivan. Since according to custom women don’t go to the actual gravesite, they started heading back to the village, with the men walking alongside the casket all the way to the edge of the cemetery to the gravesite.

Again, the duduk players and singer began their mugham. After lowering the casket and filling it with soil, several wreaths and bouquets were spread over the fresh dirt. In the distance, to the east, I saw the village of Agarak and the city of Ashtarak. To the west, at the end of a ravine, the dark-stoned Tegher Monastery loomed over the landscape.

An elder relative spoke: “Jivan left us at a young age. In his entire life, he never said anything to hurt anybody. No one can say he ever did anything bad to anybody. He never asked anybody for anything. Our village lost one of its best sons.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A closing note concerning the Saroyan Conference: although most of the participants gave quite interesting talks about the author, a few proceeded on more or less invented themes, which weren’t necessarily based on anything real, in order to receive an invitation to attend the conference. A certain expert on Arshile Gorky, for instance, presented “When Saroyan met Arshile Gorky.” During the talk, she theorized that Saroyan might not have approved of Gorky, possibly because he changed his Armenian name, or some other similar reason, and talked about circumstances under which the two might have met. After her presentation, a guest commented that it didn’t really seem Saroyan had ever met Gorky, to which the presenter admitted that there was no record of them meeting, but that “it certainly is possible.”

On a different subject, someone who owns a store in the city center said that during an investigation by tax people she was told “We’re going to charge you with a violation, so you might as well cooperate.” The store owner then gave them a copy of a relative’s passport, as if this relative was working illegally at the store, thus giving the tax people the reason they needed to levy a fine. If she hadn’t done that, the store owner said, her penalty would have been much more severe.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The much awaited Saroyan Conference has come to an end, almost sadly, with a flurry of activity following three days of speeches, reports, meetings, interviews, and studies of the great writer.

On the final day, Friday, October 10, participants visited Garni and Geghard and several museums, notably the Martiros Saryan home-museum, where a special gathering was organized to honor Saroyan and talk about the relationship between the two cultural giants. A great-granddaughter of the painter showed the two portraits Saryan painted of Saroyan, including the famous one often used in books of his paintings.

During the program, Hasmik, backed by Shoghaken blulist Levon Tevanyan, sang “Gorani,” a song of Moush, “Tnen Ilar,” a work song from Shatakh, and “Bari Luso Astgh Yerevats,” a work song written by Khrimyan Hayrik. Later, at a reception held in the artist’s studio, we were told that Saryan had painted the portraits of twelve Armenians known in the arts and sciences, and how these paintings were all burned one day in the Opera square by the Soviets. We were also shown a certificate given to Saryan by the French government, and told that when the Soviets found out about the certificate, they decided not to send Saryan to Siberia (in 1937), where he would have likely met the same fate as many other Armenian intellectuals. Standing on the outside balcony, we saw the dome of Zoravor church, and the tall apartments buildings facing Pushkin street. Saryan’s granddaughter told us how angry the painter became when the buildings were erected, as it blocked the view of Mt. Ararat from his home.

After leaving the home-museum, we made our way through a traffic jam, caused by several roads being blocked due to a concert of pop stars to be held that evening in the central square, to the Congress Hotel and then to the Painters’ Union. There, hundreds of guests and noted figures in the local culture scene attended an exhibition of paintings by the well known painter Arevik Petrosyan.

Leaving the exhibition, we were drawn to an open air presentation in front of Kino Moskva, where a group of African singers and dancers performed ethnic African songs to a throng of somewhat enthralled Yerevantsis. A parliamentarian who had stopped there on his way to the painting exhibition told us his opinion about the presentation at the Sundunkian theater, another of many done this year of works by Saroyan.

“Again, someone took money and said he could put on this play, and again, the result was nothing short of a disaster. It was sickening. I only hope people start to tell these people their real opinions, not just say, ‘oh, what a good job you did,’ as I think these directors actually believe they have great talent and anything they produce is noteworthy.”

Then, after talking with several friends and relatives near the African presentation, we walked to the American-Armenian University to attend a reception there for someone in the law department, after which several of us crowded into a taxi and went to the Paplavok restaurant, where we ate, drank, and listened to jazz, tonight played quite well by Yerevan Armenian musicians. We then made our way to the Congress Hotel, where we bade farewell to our cousins and friends, which included Haig and Connie Mardikian of San Francisco and other Saroyan experts we had met over the past week.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Saroyan Conference continued with reports given to small groups by the writer’s relatives, Hank Saroyan and Jackie Kazarian, who gave both personal and professional stories about the author, and others who had known the writer on a professional basis or who had studied his works, this taking place at the Picasso hall at the Congress Hotel. Another cousin, Bruce Janigian, in his talk, related the story of when General Andranik arrived in Fresno and went to Aram Saroyan’s office, where he met with Uncle Aram, as he was known, and a young William Saroyan. When General Andranik asked Saroyan what he wanted to be when he grew up, he answered, “A writer,” to which Uncle Aram stated, “I’m already a writer. I write checks.”

Closing the day’s presentations, Garegin Chukaszyan presented the beginnings of an interactive website about Saroyan, a site which promises to be on the level of Chukaszyan’s organization “Internet Technology Education” CD-ROMs about Aram Khachatryan and the Armenian Genocide, both of which won international acclaim.

After meeting with several friends, old and new, from Fresno, everyone went to lunch before attending the evening’s presentation of Saroyan’s Hello Out There, at the Chamber Music Theatre and directed by Davit Hakobyan. The highlight of the operetta/ballet was the bass singer from the National Opera, who played the part of the character unable to escape from prison. Besides his fine singing, we watched with amazement as mediocre dancers pranced around the stage, further amazed by the way the story was changed and how it didn’t end at all in the style Saroyan intended, not to mention a music score that definitely won’t be something remembered. Fortunately for Saroyan, he wasn’t present, or he likely would have joined the culture minister official who, not holding back, told us and others nearby what a fiasco we had just witnessed.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

“1937 has returned,” a store owner said. “You can’t trust anybody. If you say something that would have stayed a secret before, forget it, those days are past. Part of the reason is jealousy, and age-old Armenian problem. But part of it is due to the political atmosphere. If someone who has a big business considers you as competition, and he has connections in high places, usually parliament, all he has to do is make a phone call and the tax people start putting pressure on you and your business, making unrealistic demands, eventually forcing you out of business or bringing you to your knees with payoffs. But the worst thing is not being able to trust anybody anymore. This day will pass, but it sure is making it tough on a lot of people.”

Such was a conversation I had, of all places, in the lobby of the American Armenian University, during the first day of the William Saroyan Conference. The general atmosphere, however, was festive, with local cultural figures and guests invited to deliver addresses both at the opening ceremony and at short presentations to be held at the Congress Hotel this week. Guests included the author’s nephew and niece, Hank Saroyan and Jackie Kazarian, and another cousin, Bruce Janigian, all from California.

During the opening, several speeches about Saroyan were given, the most interesting probably by Professor Dickran Kuyumjian, newly retired Armenian Studies head from Fresno State, who talked about the author’s paintings and sketches, comparing them by picture and words with several great painters, Picasso included.

Introductory speeches were given by the prime minister, culture minister, and new ambassador from the US. A low point was the scene created by three Georgian women in the audience, one of whom had translated several of Saroyan’s short stories into Georgian. The women talked the entire time, in Georgian, not listening to the speeches at all, be they in Russian, Armenian, or English, even though all were being translated and could be listened to using the headphones by each seat. Obviously mocking the ceremonies and Armenians in general, those sitting near them asked them to lower their voices, leading to a loud but brief scene, the women finally moving themselves to the back of the auditorium.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

In my artist-friend’s studio, a first glance went to two new paintings, or at least paintings I hadn’t seen before. One was of a woman, with the mountains of Garni in the background. “This girl was in a beauty contest in Yerevan,” the painter said. “She reached the finals, then it became evident that a bribe was needed to either win or place in the top five or ten. She didn’t pay, and of course didn’t win. Disappointed with what she had seen, she eventually left Armenia. The other painting is of Beethoven. I tried to capture him as he lost his hearing, which happened when he was a little over fifty. It’s something; Beethoven died in poverty, as did Wagner, who idolized Beethoven. There’s a story of a rich Englishman who had composed a classical piece and took it for Beethoven to listen to. Beethoven, who didn’t like the English anyway, wouldn’t meet the visitor, but as Wagner was there at the same time, the Britisher made his way in to meet Beethoven. Beethoven hated his work, and told him he should stay far away from music. Wagner kept the negative note Beethoven wrote to the Englishman, just to have the handwriting of the great master.

“Notice the Garni landscape in the first picture,” he continued. “Da Vinci used this same backdrop in a few of his paintings. The Italians say Da Vinci was in Armenia, and painted the portraits of several rich merchants. The men are in native Armenian costume, that which only the intellectual class wore at the time.”

On the radio, one of Hayrik Mouradian’s famous songs, “Khio, khane,” recorded years ago with Agunk, was played. “I remember when Hayrik started singing,” the artist said. “The Soviets wouldn’t let him on television, giving airtime only to Ruben Matevosyan, Ophelia Hambartsumyan, those types, who didn’t sing folk music. Both of these singers, and most others who gained fame, sang pure Baku style, which is why both were far more comfortable singing ashoughagan songs than folk, as ashoughagan music is far closer to Turkish and Arabic than Armenian. People here got so used to hearing Ophelia and Ruben singing Baku style that when the famous singer Zaynab came to Yerevan from Baku, the entire Hrazdan stadium was full.

“Once Hayrik Mouradian tried to teach folk songs to Ruben, Ophelia, and Hovhannes Badalyan, for a concert or recording, I’m not sure. Hayrik said that none of these singers were able to sing a folk song from start to finish. Badalyan did succeed on one song, ‘Makruhi Jan.’ The influence of Baku radio was just too much here, and is at least partly responsible for Turkish music being so in demand here, and for the pop singers to sing Turkish songs with Armenian words, or sing songs with Turkish-style melodies. The ashough Jivan complained that if he didn’t write Turkish-style melodies, no one would listen to his music here in Armenia. I understand why the Communists did this, to keep Armenians away from their true culture, but why our leaders are doing it now, not only not promoting true Armenian folk music but not allowing it to be aired on national television or radio, I’ll never understand. Or maybe I understand but don’t want to.”

Friday, October 3, 2008

“Everyone sure seems tense these days at the Conservatory,” a student in musicology said. “First of all, this is the time of year a lot of decisions are being made, and a lot of money is passing from one hand to the other. I won’t go into that. But Armen Smbatyan is back in town, and people are talking about his tie with the apartment building adjoining the Conservatory, and saying that it was paid for by Conservatory funds, with the purpose of serving as a dormitory, but now has been sold, with only people of means living there. And then the article in Azatamtutyun, accusing Smbatyan of everything under the sun, including ruining the Conservatory. What comes of it all, no one knows.”

All this aside, this week was an excellent one for culture in Yerevan, first of all with the Tatevik Hovhannisyan concert early in the week. Hovhannisyan, daughter of Ophelia Hambartsumyan, showed her professionalism, not to mention her good voice, in front of a full house at the Aram Khachatryan hall. Yet, Hovhannisyan occasionally had trouble hitting high notes, and showed an occasional shortage of energy, as the passing years seem to have begun taking a toll on this quite fine jazz singer. Also notable was the extreme ease which Hovhannisyan sang American jazz compared with Armenian songs, the arranging of which she did herself.

As good as this concert was, the cultural highlight of the week for me was the Malyan Theater presentation of several of Saroyan’s short stories, which they titled “Stories in a Train.” Eleven actors sang, danced, and brought the audience to laughter and tears with their acting. Six of the actors were long-time theater members, all with their comical facial expressions and gestures, only to be found in Armenia, and which I saw in the US only in the Saroyan generation of Armenians. Five quite capable newcomers also joined the cast. The story of Uncle Khosrov and the Arab who longed to see his family back home was a highlight, in typical Malyan style with both sadness and humor.

As it was Henrik Malyan’s 100th birthday, the theater was full, with culture ministry officials, actors from other troupes, and others in attendance. After seeing other presentations of works by Saroyan that were less than successful, such as the Metro Theater’s recent production, this was a breath of fresh air, as the actors truly captured what Saroyan was all about.

Afterwards, I found myself shuffled off into the back reception room, where the actors, Malyan’s daughter Narine (director of the troupe), movie head Ruben Gevorgyants, culture vice-minister Davit Muradyan, and friends gathered and began giving toasts, singing, and telling whatever stories they knew about Saroyan and Fresno and, amidst all the noise, even imitating the various hand gestures made famous by the writer and his male relatives, including the famous Uncle Aram, with several of the actors adding that the most important thing to them was to keep the taste, the feel of Saroyan in the presentation. It was a party the great writer would have definitely enjoyed.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

A report from a Yerevan Armenian who just spent some time in Los Angeles: “Of all Hayastan Armenians who have moved to Los Angeles, I’d say eighty percent are rabiz, ten percent are all right, and ten percent are educated, intelligent people. The Armenians that leave Armenia for Los Angeles aren’t usually of the highest class, and when they get to Los Angeles, they go downhill. Fifteen thousand, maybe as many as 18,000 Hayatantsis are in prison there. What disgusted me was how they brag about beating the system there. One said, ‘With fake credit cards, which we use to draw money out of the bank and get gasoline, we make $50,000-60,000 a year. I haven’t worked since I got here. Armenians own all the houses on this street. Almost none of them work.’”

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The issue of using another’s recordings and work (stealing) has reached new levels in Armenia. By chance, we came across another of Shant television’s music competitions, which have become good business for them . . . the “Folk Singer” and “Superstar” competitions, for which concerts in Yerevan and Los Angeles have been organized, and now another competition, tonight’s show featuring children’s folk songs. The female announcer, whom we know, introduced each song and the singers of each, after which we heard all the songs from the Hayrik Mouradian Children’s Folk Song and Dance group’s CD, arranged (synthesized) by a local musician/arranger, with the melodies and singing a copy of the music from the CD. A group of “experts” judged the singers (as they do for all of Shant’s competitions). After the show, a call to the female host revealed something interesting, that when planning for this folk program, she requested that Aleksan and Hasmik Harutyunyan, being they had produced the CD (music) they were going to use, be amongst those who judge the singers, and help make sure the singing was done correctly in the first place. At the committee meeting, the person in charge of these competitions refused, saying Aleksan isn’t well known (in spite of appearing at Carnegie Hall and Theatre De La Ville with Shoghaken, as well as singing with Hovhannes Chekijian’s choir, the Kohar Ensemble, Hay Folk, etc.) and that Hasmik would require the singers to sing correctly, not merely announcing how wonderful someone sang (as their so-called experts do), saying at the end, “Hasmik Harutyunyan won’t step foot here.”

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A small business owner took the morning off from work to help Hasmik cook up a batch of eggplant caviar, pronounced here as “khaviar.” The main ingredient is eggplant, but tomatoes and green and red peppers are also used, as well as various spices. Yesterday they had bought two huge bags of eggplants and separate bags of peppers, all for less than 3,000 dram.

At around ten-thirty, as the eggplant was cooking away in our large pan, which is usually used to make khash, the familiar old blue-and-white bus from Aparan arrived down below, leading us to take a break and join the crowd of locals buying village eggs, milk, potatoes, madzoon, pipert (what we used to call cheese weed in Fresno), and aveluk. To round things out, we took pictures of our friends from Aparan before resuming our work upstairs.

Later, we took a short coffee and fruit break, and talked about happenings in Yerevan. The business owner, angry about today’s rally for one of Levon Ter Petrosyan’s people for district mayor, said, “If any of Levon’s crowd makes it into government, we’re finished. I don’t know anybody who likes Serge, but at least we know just how bad he is . . . we know his limits. There is even hope he helps clean up corruption here. We saw Levon and his followers and what they did when they were in power, and believe me, it was far worse than now. The only thing that would destroy what hope I have is if Kocharian became prime minister. Which reminds me of the latest joke. A Hayastantsi, a Karabaghtsi, and an Azerbaijantsi ran into a golden fish, who promised them it would grant their first wish. The Azerbaijantsi naturally said, ‘Kill all Armenians.’ The Armenian gave his wish: ‘Kill all Azerbaijantsis.’ When the fish asked the Karabaghtsi what he wanted, he asked the fish this: ‘Are you really going to grant their wishes?’ to which the fish replied positively. ‘Then fine,’ the Karabaghtsi said. ‘Just give me a cup of coffee. You’ve taken care of everything.’ I don’t know what to say, except there’s some truth in this joke. During the war, Hayastantsis and Karabaghtsis got along well, fought together. After all, Karabagh has also given great heroes in the past . . . Nikol Tuman, Aram Manukian, General Pirumyan. I have to think there are outside powers trying to tear us apart, by creating such rifts, by sending sects into Armenia, etc. Our battle is a hard one.”

Thursday, September 25, 2008

“I’m worried about what’s happening in Armenia,” the academician said. “I listened to culture and language expert Henrik Hovhannisyan speak on the new culture station, which is part of National Television. Hovhannisyan lamented the way the Armenian language is used in Armenia today, and gave several examples of common mistakes made, not only by every day people but by those in government and announcers on television and radio. Yet, when Hovhannisyan was done, I switched to the main National Television station, and a new, Armenian-made serial, complete with street jargon and mafia-style language was on, as if mocking what Hovhannisyan had just said. These serials are something, as now not only are most stations showing the usual serials from South America, with their ‘who’s with whom’ and ‘who’s child is it’ themes, the Armenian serials, done by National Television, Armenia, Shant, and others, are all Armenian mafia-style, with the kind of language Hovhannisyan and many others abhor. And National Television has the ‘Odar Khagher’ show, which before had actors, or regular people, I’m not sure, acting out problems supposedly foreign to Armenians, yet not explaining that they were foreign. Now, the show has advanced to something just shy of the American shows where people argue and then supposedly beat each other while the audience cheers them on. I suppose that’s the next step, the beatings. Now, Channel Five, part of the Armenia station, which is seemingly doing what it can to destroy Armenian culture, announced that they’re going to broadcast ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians.’ And the common Armenian, who like anybody around the world, turns into what he sees on television. Maybe we should be watching television from Turkey, instead of the new culture station…last night I saw a group of young folk musicians singing ‘Hoy Nar,’ with Turkish lyrics following the hoy nar, then the famous ‘Garun e, sirun e,’ and a song with the exact melody of a patriotic song about the fedayee Arabo. Why shouldn’t they sing these songs, if what we’re promoting is singers who, just a few years ago, would have been beaten for acting like street walkers?”

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Today on Yerkir Media television, singer Rubik Hakhverdyan commented on Armenian Independence Day and what has been accomplished in the years since independence was declared. He said the Yerevan of Tamanyan no longer exists, that not one of the new structures (meaning mainly the new apartment buildings scattered all over central Yerevan and elsewhere) has the beauty of those buildings constructed before independence. Hakhverdyan especially complained about what has happened with the Armenian language, saying that the Soviets, in spite of whatever faults they may have had, maintained the Armenian language at a high level. “You on television,” he said, “don’t speak good Armenian. You put accents on your words like they do in England or the US, like you’re trying to show how Western you are or something similar, I don’t know what.”

Hakhverdyan went on to talk about the low level of culture produced since independence, forcing those with real talent, especially folk artists, into the background or completely out of the country, then continued by mentioning the recent announcements of “vastakavor artist” (meritorious artist).

“I’d like to have seen Harout Pampoukjian get this award, even though he doesn’t live in Armenia,” he said. “But I know many here who are worthy, but don’t have the right connections. This is sad.”

I am reminded of when, a couple of months ago, a friend at the culture ministry phoned Hasmik and asked her to prepare a document stating all the work she had done for Armenian culture, about the folklore CDs she had performed for and produced, her presenting of Armenian folk music around the world, her founding and directing the Hayrik Mouradyan Children’s Ensemble, then saying that she thought that with this resume that Hasmik would without doubt earn the “vastakavor artist” calling. Hasmik told her friend that she wouldn’t receive the calling, due to not having the right connections and other reasons, but she would apply, just to show her friend that such a thing was impossible in the current cultural atmosphere. When announcements were made, Hasmik’s name wasn’t amongst the “winners.”

Thinking of Hasmik’s earlier prediction, I remembered a concert several years ago when a quite mediocre actor who is at minimum a “vastakavor artist,” and likely possesses the higher “jhoghovrdakan artist” title, told Hasmik before the concert, “You are not going to sing tonight” — this because his daughter was trying to establish herself as a singer, and was going to sing a number or two that night. Such is the current state of culture in Armenia, when someone like actor Khoren Aprahamyan, whose acting abilities were far above and beyond the usual mediocrities here, was denied the directorship of the Sundukian Theater troupe, Aprahamyan then moving to Los Angeles and eventually dying an early death at around age sixty.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A surprise visit from an old friend resulted in remembering past meetings, talking about how younger family members are doing, and about the political situation in the country:

“My brother fought in Karabagh, under Seifilian’s command. He says Seifilian was a good commander and very dedicated to his nation. Now, fifteen years later, his type isn’t needed or wanted here. When I think about how the presidential election went, then the March 1 events, and now with whom they’re talking about for speaker of parliament and who might be elevated to prime minister, I wonder if all is lost. I wake up at night and think about all this. I see history repeating itself, with the Turks and Russians deciding Armenia’s fate, as they did early last century, when they gave Nakhichevan and Karabagh to the Turks, not long after the Armenians, for some reason, gave up Kars without a fight. Picture this. Gul comes to Armenia. Afterwards, he says the Armenians are ready to give up Karabagh, the territories, who knows what else. Then, Serge says he agrees to a commission to study the Genocide. All this, and no one in the ruling coalition says a thing. Not the Dashnaks, nobody. The Dashnaks organized a few protests when Gul was here, but are saying nothing about giving up Karabagh, only that we should be opening the border with Turkey . . . something most patriotic Armenians here don’t want. It’s clear, if Russia agrees with Turkey for a solution to the Armenian question, Karabagh, or whatever, our government will agree. No one from the ruling coalition will dare open their mouth. Even Levon isn’t for this. But I don’t trust him either. I used to think he answered to the West, but now I think he’s a spy for the Russians. Either way, he hates Armenians, I’m convinced of that. I was at the opposition rally last week. On one hand, it was good to see the large crowd there, some 50,000. And I’ll probably go to the next rally, on the 26th. But those who think Levon will fight for Armenia are misled. What a choice, Levon or Serge. . . .”

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

It happened that the cousin from Byurakan whom I wrote about at the end of the previous entry suffered a stroke around two hours after I left his home. Finding this out, we went to the Republican Hospital, located on Margaryan Street in Ajapnyak. Several family members who were gathered outside his room told us he had hit his head as he fell while suffering the stroke. Being in intensive care, and in a light coma, we weren’t able to see our friend and cousin.

Saying a temporary goodbye, Hasmik and I went to a hotel in the city center to meet several actor/singers from Poland, who were interested in old, traditional music, preferably from pagan times. “In Poland,” one of the young actors said, “Our traditional music is lost. Gone. It’s the same in all of Europe. If there’s a folk festival there, all Europeans can do is put on a costume and sing something that might sound like their old music. Here, in Armenia, you’re lucky that your traditional music is alive. I find it sad, though, that apparently none of the youth here seem to care about their old culture, that only older generations are doing anything. If this continues, your traditional music will end up like ours, in archives, museums, or worse, completely lost.”

After making arrangements for a hopeful trip to Poland, we parted ways and left for the opposition rally (hanrahavak) near the Matenadaran. Crowds were thick, similar to the rally I attended a few months back. I watched and listened to people shouting cheers for Levon Ter Petrosyan and calls for Serge Sargsyan to resign. A Karabagh war veteran I had seen recently repeated his story about having gone to Martuni, in Karabagh, and seeing four modern Italian tractors in one area, all funded by telethon money. “Couldn’t they have sent one or two of those to Armenia, maybe to Sissian, where people are living terribly?” he again lamented. “If war breaks out again, I’ll go and fight, but it sure won’t be for our leaders from Karabagh. They have to go. I’ll never forget what happened on March 1. And, this has become the norm. Haven’t you heard about the elections for district mayor in Yerevan? The same things were going on. Nobody but those in Serge’s party, or Prosperous Armenia, had a chance. As to Levon, I don’t hold a high opinion of him, but we need him, or anybody, to throw these guys out.”

After a short time at the rally, and feeling a little weak while finally succumbing to the strange, cold-related virus sweeping Yerevan, we grabbed a taxi and went home.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Without doubt the most talked about subject in Yerevan, and elsewhere, is the visit of Turkish president Gul to Yerevan and statements that followed about the beginning of a new friendship and possible opening of the Armenian-Turkish border, and about Armenia being ready to withdraw from Azeri land. This conversation also ruled in nearby Byurakan, where I traveled for Khachverats (Exaltation of the Holy Cross) commemorations. Walking through the now-deserted garden area of the house we were visiting, a local in his fifties stated, “The weak always suffer. We do the will of Moscow, now of Turkey. Don’t Armenians have a memory? Don”t they know what would happen if the border was open? Turks would take over Armenia without firing a shot. Turkish businessmen would open factories in Armenia, and bring Turks to work in them. It’s only been 15-20 years since we cleaned Armenia of Turks, during the Karabagh war. And now this? We want to invite them back? They’ll fill our country, swallow us up. And, with an open border, more of our people will go there to work. I can’t say what might happen to our culture, or what’s left of it. The work Komitas, Hayrik Mouradian, and others have done will all be wasted.”

Another Byurakantsi, known for his opposing views on such matters, said he had just returned from Trebizond on business. “The best people on earth are the Turks,” he said. “I would much rather do business with a Turk than an Armenian. Didn’t you hear how Djemal’s (member of Young Turk triumvirate) grandson, I think it was, went into shock when he viewed the displays at the Genocide Museum? I think there’s hope with the Turks.”

Later, having dinner inside the large living room, I was reminded of the issue of sects and how they’ve made inroads into this picturesque mountain village. A woman with a strange sort of twisted, peaceful, and falsely contented look on her face came in the room and began talking in an unnaturally soft voice. After several minutes of being thoroughly disgusted, I left the room and walked with a relative to his home near the old church in the center of the village. Near his home, we ate grapes and pears, the latter, according to locals, is the original pear, with no breeding whatsoever, and almost no tie to the modern pear. A few yards from his home is a holy place, a small, stone structure with an altar and an ancient, simple khachkar. When I asked him how old this holy place was, he smiled and said, “Shat hin.” This I knew — I asked only in anticipation of his colorful reaction. He then told of a cousin whose funeral we had both attended about three months ago in Aparan. “My cousin died of fright,” he said. "“At his mechanic shop in Moscow, a little over a year ago, criminals came in and mowed everybody down with machine guns. My cousin was working under a car, below ground, and wasn’t noticed by the criminals, so he wasn’t killed like the others. Soon after this event, he began having trouble with nerves, trouble swallowing, that sort of thing. Nobody could help him. He would have been better off it he had been killed alongside his workers, who were both Armenian and Russian.”

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Upon returning to Yerevan, I learned of an earlier-published article, written about world-class bass singer Barsegh Tumanyan (left), in which conductor Edward Topjian accused Tumanyan of selling out, as Tumanyan had apparently sided with protesters, and not the government, concerning the March 1 events in Yerevan. This continued the naming of those opposing the current rulers as being unpatriotic, or worse, as put by one of Armenia’s better known pop singers, who said, “Those who were beaten or killed on March 1 shouldn’t have been out protesting . . . they deserve what they got.”

Continuing on the Tumanyan-Topjian issue, a concert was to be held celebrating Tumanyan’s fiftieth birthday, but Topjian persuaded his orchestra to not participate in the concert, which now will not take place. Later, when the culture ministry asked Tumanyan to sing for celebrations for the 100th birthday of His Holiness Vazgen I, Tumanyan refused, undoubtedly remembering the culture ministry’s earlier silence concerning Topjian’s actions. “Suddenly,” a prominent figure in culture stated, “Tumanyan became worthy of singing, no doubt because there were going to be a lot of foreign guests at the concerts/celebrations for Vazgen I.”

I was reminded of when the ministry asked Shoghaken to take part in Armenian culture days in Belarus, and when asked why they weren’t taking any of their state-sponsored groups there, they answered, “What, and end up being a laughing stock?”