Sunday, May 31, 2009

Our friend had moved to Russia in 1994, when conditions in Armenia were still what is now known as the “dark years.” With his wife and small children, he settled in a city in the far east of Russia, and, slowly, did well in business, establishing himself in his new country.

“To our meeting, and our new friendship,” he said, readily accepting his role as tamadah (toastmaster). “I’ll never forget my classmates, and those years together. It’s been nearly 30 years. We are all doing well, in Russia and here in Armenia. We need to keep in touch. Without that, our success is nothing, meaningless…”

It was clear our friend missed Armenia. Not in the usual sense of the word. He truly missed his friends, the land and soil of Armenia. His eyes were sad. He sang songs from the late ’70s and ’80s, happy years in Armenia.

“I’d move back to Armenia in a second, if conditions allowed,” he said. “I hear our president issued an order to let small and medium businesses operate freely, without interference from the tax people. If that’s true, there’s hope here. I want to move back to Armenia. What am I, who am I, in Russia? Nothing. For sure, I’m not Armenian. Even if I am, my children aren’t. Already they speak Armenian poorly. What’s in store for them in Russia, away from the homeland?”

In the course of the evening, he spoke about the election for mayor and city council. “Of course,” he said, “that’s all decided. We know who will win. This is Asia, after all. We have to remember we’re not in Europe, the West. After the election, people will protest, take to the streets. But the political parties are all working together. People need to realize that none of the current parties care about honest elections, or the people of Armenia.”

“But, I’ll be voting for the ruling Hanrapetakan party,” his female cousin said. “If I want to keep my job, I have to.” To my question as to how the party will know if she voted for them or not, she replied, “They have their ways…”

Looking outside, we saw several workers and locals scurrying around with shovels, leveling out sand that had just been dumped by city dump trucks. “I see the city is paving your streets and alleyways,” our friend said, laughing. “You need to have elections here once a year. This city would turn into a paradise, no doubt.”

Later, after Hasmik sang a work song and a lullaby, both connected to Komitas, our visitor asked his niece, who sings in the Opera Theater, to sing a well known Komitas song. In pure operatic style, she sang “Kanche Krunk.” Seemingly embarrassed, she stopped part way through the song.

“You see,” he said, “you’re singing Komitas wrong. There’s no need to sing Komitas in operatic style. Komitas recorded folk songs that were sung by regular people, not opera singers. I was always against the Soviet-era mentality that made these songs something elite, to where an opera singer would stand by a piano and sing, making these songs into something they’re not. Komitas songs became distant from our people. I watched the Shant folk singer competition a year or so. When the contestants were singing ashoughagan, they did just fine, but when they did a show dedicated to Komitas folk songs, the singers were all lost, unsure of themselves. Singing Komitas should be like drinking water for Armenians. One thing, if we don’t start singing Komitas, and singing it right, the Turks will start, and then they’ll claim it as their own.”

In contrast to Armenia’s new rich, with their stereotypical thick necks, big stomachs, and immodest life styles, our somewhat wealthy friend from Russia was different, the way I like to believe Armenians were before the current wave of immorality and immodesty took over. Hopefully, he and others like him will return to Armenia, the sooner the better.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Watching reportage showing German farmers dumping milk from huge milk trucks into the street, to protest low prices, a Hayastantsi shook his head and said, “See how they’re protesting? What’s wrong with Armenians, they don’t protest anything, no matter what. If they do, it’s half-way (kes beran). All they say is, ‘what can we do?’ In my opinion, it’s an Armenian sickness.”

A few examples of this ‘Armenian sickness,’ as our friend put it: At a recent premiere of a film about Armenian history, our patience ran out and we left early, due to the quite good film being drowned out by synthesized versions of the songs “Kilikia” and “Hayastan Drakhtavayr,” not to mention synthesized music played throughout the entire film, making it difficult at times to understand the narration. Outside, when we told our opinion to someone involved in the film, his answer was, “What can we do? I don’t like it either, but they wanted to do the safe thing, and did the music this way.”

After the film, in the open area in front of Kino Moskva, Dashnaktsutyun was having a concert/rally for their candidate in the upcoming election. Besides one or two normal singers, at least 2-3 pop stars that perform in night clubs (where things happen that we won’t go into here) did their lip synching. When we asked a 40-year-old Dashnak why Dashnaktsutyun invited such people to perform at their concert, he answered, “What can we do? This is the way things are today…”

Walking towards the city center, with a Dashnak friend, we saw his amazement and disgust as he looked at the new construction going on downtown. “I’ve been too busy lately to see all this. They’ve ruined the city center with these disgusting buildings. Look over there, beyond the Central Post. Those buildings going up are destroying the downtown image and scenery in general.” He stopped and thought. “If real Dashnaks came to power, they’d destroy all this and start all over again. And the comment one of our leaders just made…now I know how wrong he was. He said Yerevan was advancing into the future, with all this new construction, but Paris, where they maintain and respect their old architecture, is stuck in the past. Ridiculous. Now I know why some say, ‘long live the Soviet Union.’”

Before departing, our friend told about a presidential award, a fair sum included, which was given to a sub-par writer. “When it became clear that the award was for a book written some 18 years ago, the other writers up for the award stayed silent. When I asked one of them why he didn’t protest, he said, ‘What can we do? This is the way it is.’”

I remembered a musicologist's words after a recent folk theater production, when she personally told the producer, “I bow down to the work you're doing," and later told us privately that she thought the production was bordering a disaster, and did nothing for folk culture and culture in general. When we asked her why she praised the producer, even though she obviously had a different opinion about his work, she said, "What can we do? This is the state of things now..."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The pre-election period in Yerevan is winding down to about four days, with tension between the major players occasionally turning violent, all this making news in the Armenian media, while regular Yerevantsis’ lives remain in a limbo of sorts.

“If you have dollars or Euros, don’t change them to dram now,” a neighbor said. “They’re keeping everything stable now, but after May 31, the exchange rates will change dramatically, they’ll declare the dollar stronger…then it will be a good time to change your money to dram.”

A friend told about his change of heart concerning the ruling “Hanrapetakan” party. “I’ve always voted for Hanrapetakan. But it’s no longer the party of Ashot Navasartyan or Andranik Margaryan. Now, there’s no respect for the common man, or the rule of law, by party leaders. Take for instance the government spending millions of dram to send the Kilikia ship around the world again. When pensioners are getting such a meager amount, how can they justify spending all that money on another Kilikia journey? And now they’ve put the ship at the base of the Madenataran, for their crazy ‘stars’ to have another concert, probably using the ship as a stage. And it’s pretty obvious to most that they put the ship where they did so that after the election, which is no doubt fixed, the opposition won’t be able to protest in their usual location. This is an old trick of theirs, arranging concerts at places they know demonstrations are going to take place.”

In our neighborhood in Ajapnyak, people are taking advantage of local government officials looking for votes, making quiet arrangements to construct small car garages on land they don’t own, for instance the 3-4 garages that have gone up in record speed in the past couple of weeks…not to mention the street lights that are being put up near our home, with local residents standing and smiling as they watch city workers hurrying to ‘beautify’ and ‘improve’ their neighborhood with new lights, phone lines, etc.

Monday, May 25, 2009

An 18-year-old musicology student said that even though she rooted for Armenia during the Eurovision competition, she had done it basically because of the ridiculous things the Azerbaijanis were saying, their moaning and groaning and crazy claims about Armenians stealing their land, their songs, and who knows what else, not to mention the book they just published, saying Armenia was Western Azerbaijan… “I guess they don’t know how to read old maps or history books,” she said.

“Most people my age agree that our entry wasn’t a good one, that it didn’t measure up to most of what the Europeans and even the Turks put up, and that our girls were chosen due to their connections. We know that European Armenians voting for Armenia stopped us from being totally embarrassed in the voting. Those making decisions here, even though they talk about how wonderful our contestants were, know deep down they have to choose an act with some life in it to have a chance of winning. People are already talking about who will represent Armenia next year…Razmik, from Karabagh, or Arman Hovhannisyan, from Armenia. Maybe it depends on who’s running the country next year at this time, Karabaghtsis or Hayastantsis.”

The student’s father, quite the patriotic Armenian, continued with his own thoughts on the subject. “We have to support our contestants, no matter what. After what the Azeris are saying and doing, we have no choice. Look at the kind of people they are. First, they lose on the battlefield, and ever since have proven they’re poor losers…destroying Armenian khachkars in Nakhichevan, when Armenians weren’t there to stop them, and hacking to death an Armenian officer who was asleep…I tell you, these people are something. They’re lucky the Russians don’t destroy them, like they destroyed the Georgians. Out of nothing, a conglomeration of small nations and peoples, the Russians created their country, and now they’re feeling brave, with their Turkish and Georgian cousins on the same team. I’ve heard our boys are digging new trenches in the liberated territories. If so, they’re doing the right thing. With the Azeris feeling so brave, who knows what they might try.

“But we don’t have a lot of friends anywhere in the world, as there are those who know that if left alone, Armenians and their country will blossom. For example, look what just happened in Jerusalem when the Pope visited the Armenian Quarter and the Monastery of St. James. The Israelis, in the name of protecting the Pope, sacrileged the church by sending in dogs and policemen…something they wouldn’t have done in a Russian cathedral or any other, for that matter.”

Friday, May 22, 2009

After the usual toasts and wishes for a long and bright future, the talk at our friend’s birthday party in Zeytun turned political, which is natural considering the upcoming election for mayor, not to mention the Armenia-Turkey talks and what may or may not come of them. A Hayastantsi Dashnak, a Karabaghtsi, and a non-affiliated Hayastantsi gave their opinions:

“For the first time in my life, I’m voting for Dashnaktsutyun,” the Karabaghtsi (who had fought in Martuni and Mardakert during the war) said. They finally left the coalition, so people are taking them seriously. I think they might actually do something.”

The Hayastantsi, who had fought Azeris along the old border in Zangezur, wasn’t satisfied. “Why do you think they’ve changed? They’re no different than the rest. Everybody knows that the oligarchs here don’t pay taxes. But do you know that Dashnaks who own big businesses here don’t pay taxes? Why don’t they set an example and start paying?”

The Dashnak then told about his recent encounter with several Ter Petrosyan supporters. “They came up to me, completely serious, like they were our saviors. I couldn’t believe what they were saying. ‘On June 5, Serge is going to hand in his resignation. This is because he is giving up Karabagh…’ I told them, ‘Who do you think you are? You are all losers, and you know it. You’re using the bad situation in the country to try and come to power again. I hope you all learn your lesson.’”

The Hayastantsi chimed in, saying, “They don’t know what they’re saying. The war is over. Everything is settled. I don’t care which politician is saying what, be they from Europe, the USA, or Armenia. Can you picture what those living in Karabagh would do if their land was handed back to Azerbaijan? Or what patriotic Hayastantsis would say?”

He then added, “I don’t really like Dashnaks. But I’d vote for them in a minute if they had people who said, ‘we need to have everybody pay taxes, no matter who they are. We need a leader who truly loves Armenia, its land, its water. Enough of the clans, the oligarchs who don’t pay taxes.’ If they, or someone else said this, and followed up on what he said, this country would blossom, overnight.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

While in Poland this past month, an excellent folk singer from Serbia told us of the situation she faces in her home country: “I keep the old traditions, sometimes I think all by myself. I go to meet old people in villages, record them singing and talking, and ask them if I’m singing correctly. If I ask the government or culture ministry for financial help, they say they have no money. But when someone who is using synthesizers and doing old music in a contemporary way asks for money, the government suddenly comes up with funds. I’m not one to believe in conspiracies, but it seems something is going on, in the name of globalization, where an unwritten law has nations not maintaining their old culture, to where in the end we’re all the same.”

Her words came to mind at two cultural events in Yerevan over the recent weekend. In one, choirs consisting of school-age children, from all over Armenia and Karabagh, participated in a one-concert festival commemorating the 140th anniversary of the birth of Komitas. By the time the three-hour concert had finished, only two or three groups had sung songs by Komitas, the others singing modern Armenian compositions or songs from Europe or the USA. As a musicologist sitting next to us said, “The children sang well. This isn’t the question. Why did groups from towns and villages, from Togh village in Karabagh to the Ararat Valley to Gyumri, sing these foreign compositions? I think it’s because choirs and groups who sing these obviously foreign songs and styles have no problem getting grants and foreign money, so those directing even these school choirs know that if they’re going to ever have success, it won’t be by singing Armenian songs.”

A second concert, featuring a folk dance troupe, was the result of a project to bring back the tradition of folk theater in Armenia. This project was funded by the Culture Ministry. Oddly, most of the narration and all of the music, basically zurna and dhol, was recorded, this in spite of the project receiving ample funding. Although folk dancing took up the major part of the two hour presentation, through this and acting they attempted to cover Armenian history all the way from pagan times to the advent of Christianity to the Genocide, concluding with undoubtedly the best part of the night, three dhol players and a zurna player from the village of Musa Ler, the dholchis of Musa Ler famous for their huge dhols, which they pound vigorously with wooden sticks (gopalov dhol). By this time, everyone had forgotten whatever they had thought about the lengthy program, not to mention mistakes like playing the Alashkerti Kochari and dancing another, unrelated dance.

Outside, conversations that at times turned to arguments lasted around two hours, with several experts (musicologists and culture ministry workers) and two pop/folk singers giving their opinions about the right way to maintain our folk culture. “The program had many shortcomings,” a folk/pop singer said. “But what can we do, it’s better than nothing, it’s better than what we see on television…” To this, the musicologists and ministry workers in the group insisted that it was wrong to not demand these songs and dances be presented in their true forms, as if they’re not, we’d end up like the European countries that have already lost their old culture.

“Armenians and non-Armenians alike visit Armenia, and when they leave, they say they’re disappointed they didn’t see any real folk culture or music here, just pop music and pop stars trying to sing folk,” a culture worker said, adding, “I’m getting tired of hearing ‘it’s better than nothing, it’s better than what our rabiz and pop people are doing.’ If we don’t demand higher standards, and continue with our ‘oh, well, it’s better than nothing’ attitude, we’re finished as a nation.”

The pop singers then said, “To get our youth to listen, we have to modernize these songs…” to which the musicologists said, “If the youth hears these modern, half-ruined versions of our folk songs, they’ll never appreciate the real thing. Europeans of all ages are listening to folk music and searching for their roots, and if they don’t find them, they search the roots of others. Why do these pop stars in Armenia think that we have to modernize or synthesize our music, besides the fact they don’t have the talent or interest to do it right?”

This conversation, which started near the central square, where the performance took place, ended towards midnight near the Opera.

Monday, May 18, 2009

While waiting for someone in the Kino Moskva coffee shop, a Karabaghtsi friend (roots in Vank village, near Gandzasar) appeared on the scene. He began talking about Karabagh-related subjects, from the Road Map, to Serge, to Eurovision.

“I was born in Yerevan, but I’ll always consider myself Karabaghtsi, and I’ll always be proud of my roots. Sometimes, though, this isn’t easy.

“We don’t have a television in our house, so I hadn’t seen the video clip of our girls (who participated in Eurovision). One day, driving through town, I turned on the radio, and when their song started, I was scared, startled. Then I realized it was sung by our Eurovision contestants. I was embarrassed that these two girls, with roots in Karabagh, would sound like this.

“They had taken the start of Komitas’ Horovel, ruined it, then went on with I don’t know what. And watching them during the competition…now I know why someone who works in producing here in Yerevan asked, jokingly, if the girls’ dressing rooms were too cold, as if so perhaps this is why they had worn such heavy costumes. And, one thing for sure, if there hadn’t been so many Armenians in Europe voting for the girls, they would have been way down in the voting. Almost all their votes came from countries with a large Armenian Diaspora.”

He continued, talking about Obama’s recent April 24 speech, and Serge Sargsyan. “I wish people wouldn’t worry so much about what Obama said or didn’t say. Armenians in the Diaspora are saying how disappointed they are that the genocide word wasn’t used. But if you think about it, look at it logically, and legally, Obama recognized the Genocide. His saying that the resilience of the Armenians over the past 94 years and their contributions to society, in spite of the attempts to destroy them…with these words, ‘the attempts to destroy them,’ Obama, an attorney, is describing the legal definition of genocide. Not to mention him saying “Meds Yeghern,” the Armenians' word for Genocide.

“Therefore Armenians should be thanking Obama for recognizing the Genocide. They should concentrate on the positive part of what he said, not the negative. They should publicly thank Obama for recognizing the Genocide. And instead of spending all their time with what Obama did or didn’t say, they should be writing letters to Serge, telling him to forget this ridiculous Road Map, and to go ahead and recognize Karabagh’s independence. If this continues, this Road Map and all, Serge will go down in history as another Melik Shahnazarian, one of the great traitors in Karabagh’s history.”

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Sassountsi from one of the villages of Talin sat shaking his head as Parliamentarian Anahit Bakhshyan commented about the resettling of the liberated territories around Karabagh, saying that it doesn’t stand to reason that even Karabaghtsis would want to live in or around Karabagh if people like Kocharian, Arkady Ghoukasyan, Samvel Babayan, and others leave their homeland and live in Armenia.

“She’s right,” the Sassountsi said. “Not only have many regular citizens of Karabagh left for Armenia or Russia, even their leaders, who can’t say they have money or employment problems, usually leave Karabagh after serving their terms. And now Serge Sargsyan is making deals with the Turks, agreeing to the Turkish demand of starting a commission to study the Genocide, and recognizing the border between Turkey and Armenia, which more or less makes it impossible to demand our land back, not to mention reparations. Is it because he’s Karabaghtsi that he doesn’t care about giving up Western Armenia?

“I saw on the news yesterday that the Armenia Fund has helped a village in Hadrut with their water problems. That’s good, but what about us? In Ashnak, we only have water every other day, and that’s drinking water, not irrigation water. Our village of Oujan is almost in the same condition. Where’s the Armenia Fund? Why is everything going to Karabagh?”

Before leaving, the Sassountsi commented about the Eurovision competition: “When I saw the Azeri female singer, I was astonished. She was excellent, moved smoothly on stage. Our contestants, with their overdone makeup and sharp, jerky movements, look like they’re in pain. It looks like the Azeris are going forward, in this new century, while we’re slipping somewhere into a hole, into the past.”

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Hayastantsi construction worker who had worked for one of the wealthy Armenians in Russia told about his experiences and the different nationalities he had come in contact with:

“I must say, the best people of all there were the Tajiks. They were honest, hardworking people. If they saw something sitting there that wasn’t theirs, a tool, money, you name it, they wouldn’t take it. They figured, ‘this isn’t mine, why would I take it?’ They were the best of the Central Asians, without a doubt. The only way the Turks got to them in the past was converting them to Islam, otherwise, they have no tie to the Turks, like the other Asians I worked with. The Azeris, Uzbeks, Turkmens…all of them would stab someone in the back, literally, if they thought they had something to gain.

“But the way the Armenians stole things embarrassed me, made me ashamed to be Armenian. At the end of the day, they’d check the Armenians’ tool boxes to see what they had stolen. It’s like it’s in our blood.”

My friend then told his opinion about Turks and the possible opening of the border:

“It’s the worst mistake we could make, agreeing to open the border. First of all, Turks would buy homes here. Not that they’d live here…they know better than that. Their country is much better organized, a better place to live.

“And what are we talking about in the first place? Turkey occupies Cyprus, but tells us to leave Karabagh, then they’ll agree to open the border. And we’re listening. Do regular Armenians agree? Very few. Just businessmen, and the na├»ve.

“Our government has agreed to this so-called commission to study the Genocide, at a time the whole world is recognizing it. This sets back everything Diaspora Armenians have accomplished; it’s a slap in their faces.

“We should not only be demanding Shahumian, the Plains of Karabagh, and Nakhichevan, but Western Armenia. Our leaders are demanding nothing, just hoping the border is opened so they can make money. I wonder, are our leaders Armenians, or Turks?”

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

After a year in the making, the long-awaited premiere of the film Saroyan’s Will, ordered by the Armenian Culture Ministry, took place at Kino Moskva on Monday night, May 11. Arriving, I met several of those who had worked on the film, such as cameraman Ashot Movsesyan, director Grigor Harutyunyan, and Garik Nazaryan, and others in the local film industry, including cameraman Shavarsh Vardanyan, with whom I had worked on a film about the history of Garni, and historian Ashot Pilibosyan, who had recently taken part in a historical film about Tigranakert.

In the main hall of the theater, Hayk Film Studio president Ruben Gevorgyants introduced those who took part in the making of the film, after which movie expert and writer Davit Muradyan, also vice-minister of culture, talked about the making of the film and his trip to Fresno in early 2008. It was then that the Saroyan year officially started, as Muradyan and then vice-minister of culture Karine Khodikyan came to Fresno with the Shoghaken Folk Ensemble to kick off the year’s activities.

Before the film started, Grigor Harutyunyan thanked his team of cameramen and editors, and then gave me special thanks as the one who had given him archival video material and set up interviews with Saroyan’s relatives, along with recordings of Saroyan reading from The Human Comedy.

I watched as the film unfolded, the film makers doing a good job of introducing Saroyan as a person, not just a writer, showing him in various old video material and pictures, with accompanying interviews by actor Sos Sargsyan, Fresno sculptor Varaz Samuelian, Professor Dickran Kouyumjian, and several of Saroyan’s cousins from interviews taken at my grandmother’s sister, Stella Amerian’s home in San Jose, California.

Highlights of the film included Saroyan’s reading (and singing) from The Human Comedy, with the movie being played in the background, and Archie Minasian’s remembrances of early days in Fresno and Saroyan’s final days. Minasian was Saroyan’s first cousin, and my grandmother’s brother.

Although reactions about the film were mostly positive, there were those who said that “if the same film had been about someone other than Saroyan, it would have been considered a failure. There was nothing to it; it had nothing to say.”

The English version of Saroyan’s Will will take place in June in Fresno.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

As a small group of European promoters wanted to see the Shoghaken Ensemble for possible concerts in 2010, we arranged to meet them at the Avetik Issahakyan Home-Museum, and present a short concert in the upstairs exhibition room, often used for small concerts and recitations. Afterwards, dudukist Vahan Harutyunyan, who often performs with Shoghaken, came to our home, to visit and make plans for a future concert. Hasmik suggested he play a lullaby she had just discovered, “Ha Tztsim,” recorded by a woman named Mariam who had married someone in Zapna, a village of Moush. A few of the lyrics, in the dialect of Moush, go like this:

          Sleep, my son, the winds have begun
          Sleep, my son, it is stormy, vuy`
          I rock the khnots (to make butter).
          I tie the child to my back and walk through the mountains
          The aunt comes; I don’t show the child
          The grandfather comes; I don’t show the child
          The grandmother comes, I show the child.

After debating whether the child is alive or not, and whether the song was actually a lullaby, or perhaps a lament, Harutyunyan put the song to duduk, no doubt a first, and the two sang and played this classic old song from Moush....

On Echmiadzin’s Shoghakat television, noting the liberation of the town of Shushi, a program about Monte Melkonian was featured, with his wife, Seta Melkonian, a friend/commander, and a general talking about Monte, especially his skill as a commander and his honesty, and his contribution in freeing Martakert, Martuni, and Kelbajar.

Hasmik remembered going to Martuni in the early 1990s with Akunk, a folklore group of which she was still a member. She told about how shocked everyone was when Monte arranged a dinner for everyone, quite a large number of soldiers and guests, with a lamb on the center of the table, its stomach stuffed with pilaf and dried fruit, Beirut style. This, Hasmik told, was at a time when simple vermicelli was almost impossible to find.

It was at this time, Hasmik said, that Monte said, “Give me 5,000 soldiers, and I will take Baku....”

Thursday, May 7, 2009

In a perfect case of what is known here as the “Armenian reality,” Shoghaken played a short concert of sorts for President Serge Sargsyan and his wife and the first lady of Russia, even though a call the night before from the Culture Ministry assured they would be playing at a banquet for the well known Abkhaz conductor Gergiev as well as several classical musicians visiting from Russia. Watching from outside on the sidewalk, as I had been asked to leave the quite small restaurant by one of seemingly dozens of security guards, I saw the president and his wife walk in the restaurant, but wondered where the conductor and musicians were, thinking simple-mindedly that they had slipped in through another entrance, or while I was talking to or being questioned by security personnel.

After an hour or so had passed, Shoghaken members left the restaurant, located on the edge of the Cascade in downtown Yerevan, holding their instruments and smiling but with shocked looks on their faces. Still unaware of anything unusual, I asked how the concert had gone, and they laughed, saying the room was so small they were told to play quietly so as not to disturb the small presidential party, until they were asked to leave for “security reasons.” They also said that the restaurant owner continually apologized, as he hadn’t been told that eight musicians were going to perform, and that he had no place for them to change into their costumes, thus their changing in places I won’t mention…

While still waiting outside for the musicians, I sat down at a sidewalk coffee shop and ordered a glass of berry juice, when I saw a painter who I knew had just returned from an exhibition in Europe. After talking about his exhibition, the talk turned to his family:

“My oldest son just finished his army duty. My youngest son is serving in Vardenis, and still has a year to go. All I can say is, from what they tell me, is that it’s understandable why many of our youth enter the army with all the right patriotic feelings, but when they’re done serving, they leave the country, disillusioned.

“They say the food is terrible, not fit for beggars. One of my sons got sick, which isn’t the end of the world, as he got better, but the reason he got sick, pneumonia we think, is that one winter day, when it was minus-20 or so, the commander had the soldiers all line up to check whether their shoes were clean or not, and by the time he got through all of them, the result was that within a couple of days, nine of the soldiers had pneumonia.

“We have to be smarter than this. We’re a small country, and have to use our heads better than this. We don’t have the population the Russians do.”

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A friend normally neutral when it comes to politics nearly lost his mind when I told him I had gone to the opposition rally on May 1.

“Don’t you understand who Levon is?” he said. “First of all, we liberated the territories against his will, in spite of him, not because of his help. Also, when president, during the war, he did exactly what the Israelis told him to do. He’s anything but a patriot. I’ll tell you this much. Serge and Robert are nothing to brag about. They’ve made plenty of mistakes, and leave a lot to be desired. But neither one of them would ever give up even a handful of Armenian soil. They talk about Serge giving back Karabagh. Don’t you believe it.

“And, don’t you know, outside sources gave Levon $300 million to get back the presidency, after he lost the 2008 presidential election. He spent some of that paying people to camp out overnight by the Opera. You think those people were there on their own? Each was getting 10, 15 thousand dram a day for staying there. Levon is acting like a saint now, but people should know better. The sooner he leaves the political scene, the country, the better for everybody.”

After our brief meeting, in the lobby of the Marriott, and after waiting for a friend who had arrived from Fresno, I went with Hasmik to the nearby Ministry of Diaspora, for a meeting with minister Hranoush Hakobyan. There, we talked about a program in which the ministry plans to record CDs for Diaspora youth, starting with a CD of traditional Armenian lullabies. We were told that the committee for this and other traditional music CDs consisted of an actor, a singer of ashoughagan music, a jazz singer and arranger, and, finally, a Komitas Conservatory professor, the only one in the group with a tie to folk music. In any event, it seemed the minister, quite a friendly and receptive person, leaned towards doing a CD of true folk music, as opposed to what her committee had been proposing.

While there, a call from a Culture Ministry official had the Culture Minister, Hasmik Poghosyan, requesting that Shoghaken perform at a banquet the next night for the famous conductor Gergiev and several other classical musicians visiting from Russia. In late Soviet times, Gergiev had conducted the Armenian symphony, until local mediocrities more or less ran him out of town.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A neighbor arrived early in the morning with a jar of madzoon from Aparan, which she had bought from one of several Aparantsis who appear in our district every Saturday. Yet, what was on her mind was the May 1 opposition rally and the talk about giving up Karabagh:

“None of us know what to believe,” she said. “Levon says our government has already agreed to give up Karabagh. Last night on a television interview someone talking for the Republican party said that even Aliev’s language about territorial integrity has changed, that no one plans on giving up Karabagh, that even the Turks don’t expect to get Karabagh back, so why don’t the Armenians believe this? Then why does it seem Karabagh and Armenia are at odds? Remember when Serge wasn’t allowed into Karabagh, and Kocharian had to make arrangements to get him in? Karabaghtsis don’t like Armenia making decisions for them.”

Continuing, she said, “On the other hand, what do Karabaghtsis expect? Everyone there who could, escaped, either to Yerevan or to Russia. Now they want Armenia and the Diaspora to take care of them. Let their own countrymen move back to Karabagh first, show everybody they love their country, then we’ll gladly help them.

“But haven’t you heard, the Russians want to give Karabagh to Azerbaijan, expecting in return for the transport of oil to be by way of Russia. This must be something serious, as Hillary Clinton is meeting with our foreign minister, then going to Azerbaijan. Big things are happening.”

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The May Day holiday in Yerevan, and elsewhere, took on different overtones, what with the opposition rally planned for the day being the main thing on people’s minds. Different opinions were expressed by several men gathered near the steps of St. Hripsime church in Echmiadzin, where I had reached by taxi, as regular transportation wasn’t operating: “I was just in Armavir,” one of the men said. “The police were stopping people for no reason, asking where they were going. They were trying to discourage, or stop, people from coming to the rally.”

“There’s no public transport in the entire region,” another said. “Maybe it’s because it’s May Day?”

“No way, don’t kid yourself,” a Diaspora Armenian answered. “It’s rally day, and, as always, they try to keep the numbers as low as possible, and shutting down public transport is one of the best ways.”

Still another who had gathered said, “I wouldn’t go to the rally anyway, transport or not. Serge might be bad, but Levon is dangerous, as he has ties to Israel, which has never been our friend.”

Later, at about 3:30, I reached the area near Kino Nairi, and walked up towards the Matenadaran. The crowd was thick, though possibly less than the March 1 rally, where nearly 100,000 attended. After talking with a few friends, I walked up to the top of the stairs where Aram Sargsyan was addressing the crowd, followed by Stepan Demirjyan, and then Levon Ter Petrosyan, who gave a measured, well-planned speech about what he considers the ills, or dangers, facing Armenia today.

One of two main points was what he called the organization by five high government officials, and funded by oligarchs close to Kocharian, of 950 men to cause general havoc on March 1, 2008, giving the police the excuse they needed to start attacking the peaceful protesters. The second was his criticism of Serge Sargsyan’s agreeing to the “Road Map to Peace” with the Turks, saying Sargsyan shouldn’t have given the go-ahead to the commission of Armenian and Turkish historians to study the 1915 events, saying this merely gave Obama and the American congress the excuse they needed to not recognize the Genocide. Next, according to Ter Petrosyan, Sargsyan will give up Karabagh, which will give the Turks everything they want, after which the border will be opened, and Sargsyan will be given a Nobel Peace prize, all this at the expense of Armenia and its interests.

The speech ending, I started walking down the steps, and found myself in the middle of the march, heading down Mashtots Boulevard in the direction of the Opera. On the way, I talked with writers, a student I knew, and an old man, probably over 80 years old. “You see what the Dashnaks are doing,” he said. “They say they are leaving the ruling coalition, as they don’t agree with the peace overtures to the Turks. They knew all along this was happening, that we were giving up Karabagh, so why did they wait so long to leave the government? Now they’ll look clean, separate from what’s going on.”

A friend with whom I worked in the past said her former boss, now working high in the government, has labeled her and a co-worker as “Levonakan,” (supporter of Ter Petrosyan), and won’t talk to her anymore.

Later, on the news, footage of the rally, as in the past, showed the crowd to be smaller than it was, filming areas where there were few people, trying to give the impression that the turnout for the rally was small.