Friday, February 27, 2009

A friend said she talked with a policeman who had worked during the mass demonstrations last year on March 1 and 2. “He said that the policemen weren’t scared of the people protesting, but of the snipers they knew were stationed on the roofs of buildings,” she said. “The policeman said they did their best to stand with their backs up against walls, so that if the snipers started firing, they would be out of range.

“I also heard that soldiers from Karabagh, who will obviously be more loyal to the current leaders, are already in Yerevan for Sunday’s rally. And word has it they’ve passed out stun guns to the police. But I still don’t think they’ll take a chance and repeat last year’s beatings and murders. Europe is already watching closely, as word has it that if it’s proved that the army participated in last year’s March 1 events, the Europeans might declare the presidential election void. I’ve heard these kinds of threats before, and they’ve never been followed up on. This time, we’ll see.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

After asking Hasmik where a certain knife was, and if she was using it, she said she had only used it once, since it was such a good knife. This reminded her of a Vanetsi joke, one that refers to the cheapness that Vanetsis supposedly possess. The joke goes like this: A Vanetsi buys some new, expensive shoes, but doesn’t wear them, so they won’t wear out. One day, while wearing some old, worn-out shoes, he steps on a nail, ruining the shoe and injuring his foot. Happily, he announces “what a lucky day. If I had been wearing my expensive shoes, I would have ruined them,” not realizing the nail wouldn’t have punctured the expensive shoes…

Our early morning continued with a healthy serving of khash, complete with plenty of garlic, dried lavash, radishes, greens, and the like. A musician friend we had invited over, after saying his “bari luys” and finishing his first bowl, began talking about cultural happenings. He told us about a television interview where someone who was aware that a recent, major concert by two pop stars in the US hadn’t gone very well asked one of the participants about this, who then denied all and said the concert was a big success, figuring what had happened at the concert wouldn’t reach Armenia. “There was a Turkmen singer there who put the Armenian singers to shame,” our friend said. “Funny, the Turkmen wasn’t even mentioned in newspaper articles about the concert. How long are they going to play these games?”

Turning to a popular, current theme, our friend gave his opinion about opening the border with Turkey: “During the dark years, when people had no money, Iranians were coming to Yerevan and making friends with our girls, making arrangements for the girls to have children, after which they paid them $100 a month. In those years, many people would do almost anything to earn a few dollars. Now, they’re talking about opening the border with Turkey. Although things are better here than in the early 1990s, money is still tight, and a lot of our girls would start doing the same things with Turks. As long as the economy is in the shape it is, we have no business opening our border with Turkey, as the Turks would use this to their advantage, in more ways than one. Our parliamentarians, and our businessmen, who are usually the same people, want the border to open, for obvious reasons. But regular, patriotic Armenians don’t want such relations with Turkey, at least not now.”

Later that afternoon, on Abovian Street near Republic Square, I watched as dozens of youth from Javakhk, possibly Akhaltsikhe, marched down the street, waving Armenian flags and holding banners that read “Stop the persecution in Javakhk” and “Protect Minority Rights in Georgia.” The Javakhk question has been the subject of several evening talk shows recently, with the main points being the confiscation of historical Armenian monuments and the Georgians saying they are on good, brotherly relations with Armenia…several of the guests on these shows saying that Georgia is probably the only country in the world that claims such close relations with a certain country while acting in an almost completely opposite manner.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Today marks the holiday of Bari Kentan, the beginning of Lent. This reminds me of the traditional greeting in Old Moush, where, upon entering one’s home, a guest would say Bari kentanutyun, a wish for good or goodness in life, which would be followed by the reply, Anush anmahutyun, a wish for a long life, or “sweet eternity” ...
“The signatures are already there,” the small businessman said. “All they’re trying to do now is convince people that this is the best way to go, to give back the territories in exchange for peace and some sort of self-determination for Karabagh. But once they officially announce this, there will be a civil war in Armenia. Not Hayastantsi against Karabaghtsi, and not Armenian against Turk. It will be Armenians against the government. And this time the government won’t be successful, like they were last March 1. The people will win. And then, a war will start with Azerbaijan, as the Azeris won’t allow independence for Karabagh, or the loss of the territories.”

The businessman continued, now about Turkey: “If the Turks were smart, they’d give the provinces back to Armenia. Then Armenia would have the Kurdish problem, and Armenia would eventually get swallowed up by the Kurds. But remember one thing about the Turks: you can do business with them, talk with them, do cultural exchanges, anything. Just don’t forget one thing, that it’s a Turk sitting opposite you, and in the end, he doesn’t want you or your country to exist.”

Smiling, he then asked if we had received the trophy for winning the best folk album of 2008. Seeing my reaction, he laughed and said, “I wouldn’t even accept it now. How long has it been, 10 days, two weeks, since you won the award? They say the trophy was dropped and broken? Or was it thrown and broken, because it was for a folk album?”

Hearing this, I remembered when Shoghaken was invited by the Culture Ministry to play for the Armenian and Greek presidents in Sevan, and a higher-up at the ministry called Hasmik and told her not to sing that day, saying if she sang, it would be clear that a certain pair that was also supposed to appear couldn’t sing folklore, and that wouldn’t be good, being their sponsor was someone high in government. It happens that this pair is now representing Armenia in Eurovision.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Our farmer friend from Echmiadzin ate, drank, and worked like a madman all his adult life. This visit was different, as cancer has literally brought him to his knees. In his living room, we sat at the table as he slipped and slid to the floor to try and ease the pain. “A year ago I was fine,” he said. “This is agony,” he continued, as his wife put a pillow on the floor under his knees.

“I feel for the villager, the farmer, in this country,” he said. “I worked all my life, and we’re just getting by. I fought in Karabagh, in Hadrut. While I was gone, my family put up with the cold winters and lack of food. The generation born during those dark years has grown up sick, all sorts of problems. I blame Levon. Even if I could, I wouldn’t go to the rally on March 1. Levon and his gang are all criminals. They sold our electricity, everything, while Armenians froze to death.”

Another farmer, loyal to Ter Petrosyan, gave an opposing view: “How can you blame Levon for all that happened in the dark years? There weren’t any taxes being collected at that time, nothing. How was he supposed to run a war, get weapons? I don’t blame him for selling electricity and whatever else he did. Without the money from that, we would have lost the war. I don’t forgive him for everything, but he’s better than what we have now. They should hang our leaders, let the people know that nobody can get away with selling off our country, stealing all that money.”

Two patriots, two different opinions…

Later in Yerevan, I ran into a director who had produced one of the several bad productions of Saroyan stories or plays during last year’s Saroyan Centennial. “Haik (who played Uncle Khosrov in the Malyan Theater production of Saroyan short stories) was overdone. There’s no way Saroyan and his clan talked that loud, that exaggerated.” I proceeded to tell him that Haik had done a great job in capturing the Saroyan family’s exuberance, coming quite close to the real-life characters of Uncle Aram and Archie Minasian, Saroyan’s uncle and first cousin, and then told him his production didn’t have any of the feel of Saroyan’s works. Needless to say, it didn’t enhance our friendship.

A meeting with a small store owner from Erebuni was less than heartening, as he told how the major stores had falsely advertised just before New Year celebrations, his store unfortunately losing a lot of business to these stores. “I had borrowed money to buy extra stock for my store,” he said, “then this happened. It’s going to be hard to recover my losses. The big stores made it known they were selling popular holiday items at discounted prices, but this was a lie. They drew lines through the original price, wrote a new price, then charged the original price. People didn’t realize this until they got home, and due to being busy, transportation problems, etc., they didn’t go back to the stores to get things straight. They cheated people on weight, too, for example, saying a block of sujuk was cheaper if bought whole, not cut in half or whatever, but then charged as if the sujuk was cut in half, or wrote the wrong weight on the label. But another thing is bothering me. They won’t let people work in a normal, legal way here. In the morning, they say there’s a new law that you have to follow, then someone else comes in later in the day and says something else. You don’t know whom to listen to. You pay legal taxes, and illegal taxes. I’m trying to sell my store, and when I do, I’m leaving this country. Not because I hate Armenia, it’s just that I’m becoming a walking time bomb, due to all the tension they create, and I’m afraid of what I might do. And I don’t see change. All I hear is talk, but nobody means what they say. The same goes for Europe and the West…they just talk about democracy and the rule of law in Armenia, but close their eyes to reality.”

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Even though the official Saroyan Centennial is over in Armenia, events continue, for example today’s presentation at the Krikor Zohrab school in the Erebuni district of Yerevan. Arriving, Hasmik and I were invited to meet the school principal, a woman dedicated to teaching children about Armenia’s great writers and cultural figures in general. Today, in the school library, in coordination with a special UN program, children of all ages presented short skits of Saroyan short stories and of a young Saroyan in elementary school and also being interviewed as an adult. A girl’s rendition of the song “Krunk” was especially good. As the presentation progressed, large black and white photos of Saroyan during visits to Armenia were shown, including one with Hrant Matevosyan, Razmik Davoyan, and other writers, all standing in front of the ruins of the walls of the monastery of Khor Virab, several years before its renovation. Stories were told of Saroyan’s meetings with Charents, Hrant Matevosyan, Shervanzade, and Vahan Totovents, whom Saroyan met on his first visit to Armenia, in 1939.

During a business meeting in a coffee shop in the city center I came across a friend who works in one of the folklore departments at the Ministry of Culture, as well as coordinating cultural shows on radio and television. “I need to leave the ministry,” the person said. “I understand when people help their friends and acquaintances, but things have gone too far. They give money, in the thousands, to people who present worthless programs, programs which don’t help culture at all. I can’t believe the staff there, most of whom have no tie to culture and don’t understand what they’re doing. Sometimes I wonder if there’s any point in raising my kids in this country, as if our cultural situation continues like this, I might as well move to Turkey. Let the Turks kill me, I don’t care, it’s better than a cultural death.”

My friend asked if I was going to the opposition rally on March 1, and I answered with a question, asking if it was going to be safe there. “If you even ask that question, you shouldn’t go,” the person said. “Did the Armenians have a choice before being sent on death marches? Did the people camped out a year ago by the Opera building worry about their safety and stay home? Armenians need to stop worrying so much and start taking chances, or in the future we won’t have a country.”

The day’s activities concluded at another Saroyan presentation, this one at the Puppet Theater on Sayat Nova, the opening day of a two-week film festival in Yerevan. For about the fifth time, we watched the Malyan Theater’s “Stories on a Train,” based on several short stories by Saroyan, including the “The Poor and Burning Arab” and the story of “poor Uncle Missak” and his travels around the world. Not only did the full house enjoy the evening, but also the movie and art experts who spoke at the discussion after the presentation ended. When a poet said that he thought the actor who played Uncle Khosrov and the barber during the Uncle Missak skit spoke in a loud and exaggerated manner, several of us explained that not only Saroyan but the entire clan spoke that way, and that their hand gestures and loud voices were famous during their day.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A celebratory weekend began with a trip downtown to the Painter’s Union, adjacent to Kino Moskva, to visit the exhibitions at Art Expo, which was sponsored by the Culture Ministry. Our original invitation to attend was from Garegin Chukaszyan, whose organization had created a website dedicated to William Saroyan. After a brief meeting with a film director at Kino Moskva, Hasmik and I went to the exhibit hall, where we found the prime minister and culture minister talking with Chukaszyan. Garegin introduced the site,, explaining its interactive nature and his plans for expansion.

After meeting with friends from the Malyan Theater, who invited us to a special presentation of Saroyan’s short stories, we went to Orran, where Hasmik’s sister had organized “Drntes,” a church holiday with roots in pre-Christian Armenia and known by the Armenian Church as “Presentation of Christ to the Temple.” A large crowd gathered in the Orran lobby to listen to explanations of the meaning of the ceremony, after which the teachers and children of Orran sang and danced to traditional Armenian children’s songs and dance melodies before going outside to the patio, where a large fire had just been lit. According to tradition, older people were given an entire, round gata, which they placed on the back of one of the Orran children, who were bending forward, then cut the gata into slices to be served later inside. After walking several circles around the fire, everyone took their turn, usually in pairs, jumping over the fire. As the fire died down, and the sun sank in the west, everyone went inside to eat gata and other treats.

Arriving home in Ajapnyak, we lit our own fire, this one to barbecue chicken, watching the courtyards down below as Drntes fires burned everywhere, with noise and smoke filling the air. The next day, before sunset, the celebrations continued, as technically Trntes was from around five p.m. on Friday until sunset on Saturday. Our participation continued at the family home in Charbakh, as family members gathered to celebrate the recent engagement of Hasmik’s niece, with future in-laws invited to join the festivities. Just before dark, the fire was lit in the street down below the house, with the family and in-laws joining hands as they circled the fire, singing and occasionally tossing wheat seeds on people and into the fire, signifying the respect, almost worship, of bread in Armenia.

Everyone then gathered inside for dinner and an assortment of treats including gata, halva, and pokhind, the latter made from gorgod (pearled barley) and flour.

As we were leaving, I talked with several with roots in Karabagh, including two who had participated in the liberation war, about the peace talks and the new laws, or proposed laws, limiting activities of sects operating in Karabagh. “We are two few to let those people operate freely,” a freedom fighter said. “I don’t think they even know it, but they’re tools of people from outside, trying to weaken our new state, our will.”

Another who had helped in the war effort spoke angrily about the rumor of giving up the liberated territories: “Now they say they’re giving up Kelbajar,” he said. “This is crazy. I don’t even want to give up Fizuli and Jebrail, but to give up Kelbajar is like suicide. Serge says our land has no price, that it is something we can’t negotiate. We’ll see in the end what he agrees to. He could be a national hero, or another Melik Shanazarian.”

Friday, February 13, 2009

Recent events in Baku, unlikely to be reported in Western news outlets due to obvious pro-Azerbaijan leanings in Europe and the US, were the subject of a reportage on Dashnaktsutyun’s “Yerkir Media” yesterday. Angered by the Israeli assault on Gaza, Azeris attacked Jews living in Baku, sending over 20 to the hospital. Aliev, not wanting a bad image for his country, asked international reporters not to report the incident.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A taxi driver in Echmiadzin was his usual entertaining self: “See those men standing on the steps of St. Hripsime church? They were talking about Serge Sargsyan’s remarks about Armenia not wanting a war but would fight if necessary, and how they were all ready to join the fight. I know them,” he laughed, “they’re all good-for-nothings. But one of them was saying something interesting. He said he heard that Hovik Aprahamyan received his new position as a result of a wager, beating Serge Sargsyan at a game of cards. Sounds kind of strange, but usually there’s something to what people are saying. And…I heard on Russian news that when Putin was in Yerevan he ate aveluk (spinach-like greens that taste something like a goat or sheep would smell) for the first time, and ever since, he has aveluk shipped to him in Russia.”

Later, reaching Yerevan, I had the opportunity to see the new statue of William Saroyan, located across the street from the Yervand Kochar museum near the Opera building. My first impression of the statue, which I had seen the day before while passing by in transport, was unfortunately at least somewhat accurate, as the statue is in the worst possible location, next to the sidewalk and in front of some rides for children, and was hardly a great work of art. It was obvious the sculptor hadn’t understood Saroyan, the man and the writer, as he looked more like a detective than a writer, with the head too narrow and the shoulders more like Napoleon’s than Saroyan’s. On the humorous side, two boys around 10 years old who were walking down the sidewalk approached me, and asked if Saroyan was my father. “Almost,” I answered, which sent the boys off smiling.

Finally reaching home, I was in time to see an interview by a journalist known as Petros, who has a show on Kentron, as he was talking with an Armenian rock star and Sprot, an infamous pop star being mentioned as a possible candidate for this year’s Eurovision. Although saying nothing negative to the two stars, Petros tore into the recent National Music Awards show, saying not only was most everything pre-determined, but asked why Nazeni Hovhanissyan did the announcing, that she emcees everything in Armenia, saying, “Isn’t there anyone else in Armenia? Did you see the way she was dressed? It looks like her lips are more swollen every time I see her. And if the Ministry of Culture thinks that by having a classical quartet perform, while the awards show was 99% pop stars, that somehow culture is in good shape in Armenia, they should know they’re not fooling anybody. Go to the restaurants and see what people are listening to. We’re buried in garbage, and they, the Ministry, know it.”

Late at night, a friend who leans toward political activism called, saying he had gone to the most recent court hearing for those imprisoned for their supposed roles in last year’s March 1 events. “The hearing didn’t take place, since the accused refused to stand when the judge entered the room,” he said. “I plan on going to the next scheduled hearing, and to the protest rally on March 1 too.” When I asked if he thought it would be safe going to the rally, he replied, “Of course. The authorities won’t dare repeating what they did last year. They’re on their knees to Europe. They know they’ll lose everything if they get out of line.”

Monday, February 9, 2009

A percussionist who participated in Yerevan’s annual National Musical Awards came to our house the day after the concert/presentation of winners. “Any semblance of moral standards no longer exists, when it comes to those running our culture. Did you see how several of the female stars, the best known, were dressed? I’m sure any non-Armenians who saw the show were laughing their heads off. These people, who call themselves singers, have no pride. I heard that one of them tried to have a concert in Fresno and only 30 tickets were sold, so the concert didn’t take place. And when she and another of the big stars planned another concert for the New Year, again not enough tickets were sold, so they sang for a banquet that had already been organized. The Armenian papers, naturally, praised the event and the singers, as if there was nobody on the planet with their talent and patriotism.”

The musician continued, now about the award presentation in Yerevan: “Most of those in the audience were from the young set, which had no idea of anything except Yerevan’s pop culture. They cheered wildly when one of their heroes received an award, but when Barsegh Tumanyan got his award for the best classical disc of 2008, there was hardly anyone who clapped. And when Shoghaken received notice for their Music from Armenia as the best folk recording of the year, again almost no one clapped. This is sad. Like when you (Hasmik and Aleksan) were on stage and thanking everyone for the award, no one knew that the trophy you were holding wasn’t yours, that yours had been “dropped and broken” by some pop stars, and that you’d be receiving your trophy later. And perhaps no one noticed that every other album had a proper presentation, announcing who the singer or singers were, yet your names weren’t mentioned, either for your Music from Armenia or your Horovel: Work Songs of Armenia CDs.

“Do you know what I saw behind the scene, in the dressing rooms? Young male pop stars and their stylists, putting eye liner on their overly-trimmed eyebrows, not to mention the excess makeup on their faces. No wonder most of them make a whining noise instead of singing. And another disgusting thing, when they have their pop stars, some who have probably never heard of Khachatryan or Beethoven, presenting awards to people like Barsegh Tumanyan or Malkhas, the jazz musician. They’ve taken over everything. But this shouldn’t be a surprise, none of this. Don’t forget what happens during the Shant music competitions, especially the folk singer competition. Deputies from the parliament make phone calls to the show’s producers with all sorts of mild threats concerning their favorite candidates. No wonder, then, that there was a crowd of parents of the Shant program participants who were at the awards show last night, all dressed to the hilt, probably expecting the CD of competition participants to be announced as the winner of the best folk CD division. I’m sure they all went into shock when the Shoghaken CD won the award.”