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.

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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.