Friday, July 31, 2009

Our guest had some less-than-kind remarks about where he had stayed, at the city center hostel, happy to be able to leave the place. Leaving all that behind, we journeyed to Echmiadzin, visiting the churches of St. Hripsime, St. Gayane, and the main cathedral. Especially impressive to the traveler, who was in Armenia for the first time, was St. Hripsime and its classic dome, almost being more impressed by when it was built, some 1400 years ago, than with the actual construction.

Back in Yerevan, as we ate lahmajoon on Tumanyan Street, he told me of a conversation he had had the evening before with some young, well educated Hayastantsis. “They told me that most in their generation were getting good educations and learning foreign languages for one be able to leave Armenia. And this is the generation that should be building Armenia’s future, I thought to myself. When I asked them why, their reason was simple: ‘everything is mafia here,’ they said.’

Walking towards the area of the National Opera building, we passed the small lake and towards the side of the building, where tickets are sold. It happened that some sort of scuffle was going on, in the area of the Opera Club. A middle-aged man was shouting at some youths and chasing them from the club, or so it seemed, when one of the youth appeared from up above, with a well-pummeled, bloody face. As he began chasing somebody, the police entered the scene, running after the youth.

“My first comment is this,” our guest said. “Why is a club like this part of the Opera complex? And second, look at the quality of the young people gathered here, who are obviously working for or frequenting this club. It would be nice if this type would leave the country, not the ones I was talking to last night. It’s hard to believe that there are Armenians who have sunk to this level.”

“Does Armenia have hope?” he asked.

“Good question,” I answered.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

After yesterday’s experience taking a tourist to a place that I suppose could be termed a hostel, it seems the best thing to do would be to write a tourism manual that told the truth. After greeting a guest from Fresno at Zvartnots, we took him to the address listed in the travel manual (not published by Armenians) where he was to spend 3-4 nights. Arriving at the building, near the city center, we realized that it was the wrong building, so we called the phone number written in the manual. A woman answered that their address must have been written incorrectly in the book, and told us the correct address. Finally finding the building, and the right entrance, we entered to a damp, unpleasant odor, surprising in a city center building.

Knocking at the door of the hostel apartment, a woman answered, overweight and dressed inapropriately, to say the least. Taking a step into the apartment, we saw that it was in what’s known here as “petakan” condition, meaning, no renovation whatsoever has been done since being built (the manual said that the rooms were well-renovated and clean). The woman said that her apartment was already full of guests (where they were going to sleep, scattered in different rooms, I won’t describe), so our friend would have to go to the apartment one floor up from her. As she spoke, the landlord of the upstairs apartment/hostel arrived, smiling as he greeted us. His lifestyle was one we won’t go into now.

After walking up a flight of stairs, we went into his apartment, and he showed the “bedroom” where our friend would be sleeping. It was a side room of sorts, with two old couches, which turned out to be where our friend and another guest would sleep. When we asked about the damp, odd smell in the apartment, the landlord said it was because of a large dog that someone keeps in the basement of the building, or possibly because the roof needed repair, seemingly not in the least concerned.

After leaving, an uneasy feeling later in the evening caused us to call our new friend, and offer him to stay with us the next day or two. “Thanks,” he said. “The apartment wasn’t exactly what I was expecting...”

In other words, if anyone wishes to rent an inexpensive apartment in Yerevan, be careful, no matter what the travel manual might say.

Monday, July 27, 2009

“The Mujaheddin sent 3,000 soldiers to fight in Karabagh,” the Karabaghtsi said. “When they’re fighting for their homeland, they can’t be defeated. But they were fighting as mercenaries, and we took care of them. After they lost 600 men, they left Karabagh and went home.”

Such were the words of this proud Karabaghtsi from Chaylu, a village located just north of Talish, in the region of Mardakert.

“Our village land borders Talish’s,” he continued. “A river runs by Chaylu. Each street has its own stream, or tributary. It was a beautiful place. Now, the Turks have our village. Instead of living there, they’ve flattened everything. I’m not sure why, maybe they know they won’t have it for long.

“In the mid-1940s, when the repatriates were arriving in Armenia, some came to Chaylu and Talish. They were Khoyetsis, Armenians from Iran. They stayed until the war, always remembering their roots. My wife is Khoyetsi. If someone asks her where she’s from, she says she’s Karabaghtsi, but if they ask about her roots, she always says she’s Khoyetsi.

“Not far to the south of Chaylu is Yeritsmankants (three youths) church. Have you seen it? Did you know there’s secret openings into the wall, where they hid people if Turks or Persians were attacking?

“Nobody can defeat Karabagh,” he said. “They might rule us, but only for a while, like the Soviets did. Even Genghis Khan couldn’t conquer Karabagh. He gave it a try, then said, ‘enough, we’ll just pass through this place on our way to other conquests.’ And the Azeris...they’re all talk. God gave us a great gift, giving us Azeris as neighbors. All they do is make noise. If they start a war, they’ll be defeated. All the weapons in the world won’t help if the one using them has no heart, and, let’s not forget, isn’t fighting for his homeland. That’s why they’re going to the international community, crying about their lost lands. They know that’s the only way they have a chance.

“If war breaks out, we’ll take care of them. Even Karabaghtsis living elsewhere will go and fight. Not all of them, of course, as some who left their homeland fell in love with money. But don’t worry. We’re a wild tribe...we’ll take care of everything.”

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A friend from Tsaghkavan village in Shamshadin arrived at our home with a big smile and a large sack of kanach lopi (string beans), the long, thick variety grown specifically in the area. “I also have a bottle of honi oghi (vodka made from a variety of sour cherries), made in our village,” he said. “It’s been a while.”

As we talked, and as Hasmik prepared the kanach lopi, another friend arrived, this one from Echmiadzin. I was saddened to hear about the death, from cancer, of a farmer friend from Echmiadzin, one who had fought in Karabagh and battled all his life for justice in the country. Once, he had said, “We live in a bad country, with leaders who don’t care about the people. But they’ll come and go, and we’ll stay. We have to keep up the struggle...”

Hearing about the death of a freedom fighter, the Shamshadintsi (Shamshadin is a region in the northeast of Tavoush, bordering Azerbaijan) started telling about the war: “One day, when standing in the central square in our village, the Azeris shot a grad missile into the village. I think it came from the mountains near Paravakar, or maybe from near Aygebar. Two or three men who were standing and talking were blown to bits. I saw this with my own eyes. And they tell us to trust the Turks?

“Shamshadin is a paradise, forests and farmland, a mild climate, everything you want. Of course, that mild climate might change if our greedy government gives the go-ahead and they start cutting our forests, like they’re doing in Lori.

“Shamshadin is in the ‘Turki beran,’ (Turks’ mouth), and if a war starts in Karabagh, the first place they’ll try and enter is Shamshadin. We don’t have a buffer zone like Karabagh or Zangezur do. I’m a little worried, as during the first war, our village men defended the border, and they did it well. Now, half or more of the men have gone to Russia to work. This, I blame on our government, as they could have done more to improve the situation here, opened factories, something.

“Before coming here today, I was downtown, a place I don’t like to go, as it’s all cement now. Close to the Justice Ministry and Prosecutor General’s office, a group of 30-40 had gathered, and were shouting ‘Azat, ankakh Hayastan’ (Free, independent Armenia) and ‘Paykar, paykar, minchev verj’ (Struggle, struggle, till the end). I’m not even sure what they were protesting, probably about the political prisoners, but it doesn’t matter, they were protesting, so I joined them. Today, 30-40, tomorrow, 10,000...we can’t give up...”

Luckily, our friend was speaking in basic Eastern Armenian, as the dialect of Shamshadin, something like Karabagh’s and Zangezur’s, isn’t the easiest to understand.

Later, having dinner, he raised a glass of honi oghi and said, “To our freedom...and I mean real freedom, not what we have today. And our safety and security. I have a friend who wants to get married, and have the wedding at Khoranashat Monastery, right on the border of Azerbaijan, near Chinari village. It’s a famous monastery, and Mkhitar Gosh spent time there. But it’s not safe, as going there without soldiers could be your last trip anywhere. So I wish for peace, prosperity, and security for Armenians, wherever they are, Shamshadin, Karabagh, Yerevan, and unity...why not, we’ve never had true unity, as a nation, but with our backs to the wall, like during the war, we were unified. This is our last stand, this Armenia, but if unified, we can make it...”

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Continuing the discussion from the most recent blog entry, the first Hayastantsi said, “You see, here’s another reason protesting is something we can only dream about. Without even protesting, just handing out fliers announcing an upcoming opposition rally, government police beat the people handing out the fliers. They took one of them to prison. Democracy? This is more like a police state. Actually, it is a police state.”

Another opinion expressed was the following: “They’re scared of the opposition, any opposition, weak or strong. And the opposition here isn’t strong, like in Georgia. When they put a basic citizen in prison for passing out fliers, you know they’re scared. But this is how police states operate. We need to stick with the political prisoners, even if they’re supporting Levon Ter Petrosyan. If we don’t like Levon, and I don’t, we can’t just say, ‘so what, he’s a Levon supporter, do you know what Levon is?’ We need to stick together in this, otherwise there will be no hope.

“If we’re ever going to be able to stand up to the regime, take to the streets, we need to make noise and back our political prisoners. These days, not only protesting but doing anything they consider to be anti-government is dangerous. We need the people, all the people, on our side to have a chance. Soldiers and police are people too. A year ago, they turned on the people. Maybe next time they’ll turn on the government, this den of criminals...”

Monday, July 20, 2009

A question by a Diaspora Armenian as to when Armenians in Armenia might rise up and protest against the various injustices faced in the country today prompted me to ask two different Hayastantsis what they thought. “We protested, demonstrated, and marched to close Metsamor, and then, about Karabagh,” one said. “We know how to protest, to rise up. What happened then? We faced the Dark Years, no electricity, people, young and old especially, sick and dying. Many, up to a million, understandably left the country. To a point, at least, our back was broken. I’d like to see what would happen in the West if they had to face even a week, a month, of no electricity with the temperatures at -20, -30, or worse. We faced this for several winters.”

The other Hayastantsi continued: “After the war, unity prevailed, and nobody thought about being Karabaghtsi or Hayastantsi. We were all Armenian. Then, Karabaghtsis took over the government. With the help of certain oligarchs, they stole everything, made it hard for the small guy to make it, and were proud, sat back and smiled about it all. I won’t even mention how Karabaghtsis started getting most all the good jobs...anyway, all of this together created a situation to where it’s hard to be patriotic, or even think of protesting against this or that injustice. Like after the last presidential election. People protested, took to the streets. And what happened? Our Karabaghtsi leaders took care of everything, if you know what I mean. Several of our fighters, our patriots, are in prison. When you imprison leaders, it’s hard to organize protests and the like. The Turks did the same thing in 1915.

“And we demonstrated, by the thousands, a year after the flawed presidential elections,” he continued. “Our so-called leaders did their best to keep people uninformed, so they wouldn’t find out about the demonstrations. Not only that, they stopped transportation to and from the regions, so people couldn’t come to Yerevan and take part. ‘Administrative resources,’ they call it...”

“Who is going to protest?” the other continued. “Armenia is full of Karabaghtsis. For sure, they won’t protest. And there are lots of Diaspora Armenians here now. This is fine on one hand, but are they going to take to the streets against injustice? No way, not more than a few. They all have money, or are at least comfortable, and comfortable people don’t protest, they just talk. Remember the rich Armenians of Van, of Istanbul? They thought because they had money nothing could happen to them. Then, they found out...”

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A request (demand) by the team from Karabagh participating in the “Hye Aspet” program on National Television has turned into a major discussion in Yerevan with musicologists and others trying to find out just who wrote the lyrics to the song “Cknagh Hayastan” (wonderful, marvelous Armenia). It happens that the song lyrics were written praising the mountains and nature of Armenia, but the Karabagh participants insist the lyrics are about Karabagh, and want to sing, during the program, “wonderful mountains and nature of Karabagh,” etc., in spite of the lyrics being otherwise. The debate even reached the Culture Ministry, where workers have more or less given up on finding out who wrote the lyrics, knowing that in the end the team will do what they want, and no one will have the nerve, program judges included, to question the Karabaghtsis.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"We're in a tough neighborhood," the musicologist said. "Our best friends are the Iranians. But I don't like them buying houses in the city center, and marrying our girls. And haven't you been to the big markets in Yerevan, and heard what language is being spoken? Not Farsi, which is a nice language, but Azeri Turkish. They are from the north of Iran, and many lived here before the war.

"And then there's the Georgians. I heard that the police caught a Georgian architect trying to blow up St. Hripsime church, because it's the oldest church of its type in the world, just a little older than a similar Georgian church. The Georgian wanted their church to be the oldest, so he was going to blow up St. Hripsime to take care of the matter.

"We know the Georgians won't do anything good for Armenia. The Turks have a plan to take control of northern Georgia, and create a bridge into Central Asia. They're already buying land in and around Batumi. The Georgians have agreed to give the south of their country...Javakhk and the Turks and Azeris. It might stay Georgia in name, but Turkey and Azerbaijan will control everything but Tbilisi.

"And then there's the Turks. Does anybody really think they have any plan other than our destruction? First of all, do you know what they're doing in Javakhk? They're paying families of Meskhetian Turks $50,000 each to settle in Javakhk.

"If the border between Turkey and Armenia opens, we're finished. It's true that the border being closed harms our economy. But that's better than what would happen if the border opens. Picture this. There are nearly three milllion Islamized Armenians in Turkey. All the Turks would have to do is choose which ones they wanted to settle in Armenia...they could choose 100,000, or more, even half a million...and pay them to come to Armenia. They wouldn't choose Armenians that showed any sign of patriotism, just those who would come to Armenia and start making demands..."We need radio stations, schools, books, it's too hard for us to learn Armenian, so we need all these things..." At that point, you'll hear Turkish spoken as much as Armenian.

"And what influence the border opening would have on our culture, goes without saying..."

Monday, July 13, 2009

A high-powered attorney, formerly associated with the Justice Ministry, was noticeably agitated as he spoke, saying, “The only honest person at the Justice Ministry, someone with a very high position, was asked to resign. When he protested that he had done nothing wrong, he was told, simply, ‘you have no choice.’ When he refused to resign, they opened a case against him, inventing charges that had nothing to do with reality. Now he’s no longer with the ministry.

“This is what’s going on in Armenia today. And under our current leadership, it’s getting worse. Why are there people leaving Armenia today, who have no financial problems, and are doing, in general, fairly well? Because of injustices like this. People who have talent, and this goes for all fields and walks of life, science, culture, you name it, are often under pressure to not speak up, to sit by and watch as untalented, dishonest people get to the top. It’s not easy for someone with talent and brains to sit by and watch as monkeys become kings.”

As we talked, Shant’s “Folk Dancing” competition played quietly in the background. The pairs, in their Armenian costumes, weren’t dancing according to the dance being played, yet, of course, were being praised by dancers and former dancers from the State Dance Ensemble, etc., those groups which in Soviet times choreographed folk dances to where very little remained of the original. Suddenly, our attention was grabbed as an Arabic song and dance was presented, as a dancer from Syria performed a dervish-style dance. I recognized the song from a cassette I had bought some 20 years earlier in Fresno, the song sung by a well known, at the time, Arab singer.

“This was the best song and dance of the night,” the attorney said. “It was pure Arabic. Whether it’s Turkish, Arabic, or Armenian, there’s nothing like the original. The Armenians tonight weren’t doing the original, and it was nothing, a failure. You see, this is another case of mediocrities in Armenia running the show, while real singers and dancers sit on the sidelines. I don’t know if Armenians were always like this, but that’s not really important. The important thing is for us to wake up, because if we don’t, when the border opens, Turkish culture will take over even more than it has already.”

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Armenia continues to be a land of stark contrasts. Yesterday I went, for the first time in months, to the offices of the Aghbyur children’s journal, and spent some time looking through the last few issues. The issue with a short piece I had written about William Saroyan and his relationship with our family, in the old days near Fresno, had several pictures painted by school-age children in Armenia. Several of the pictures were good, surprisingly good, by 8-12 year-old children, especially one that reminded of village scenes painted by Minas Avetisyan, and another in the image of an illuminated manuscript, the painter seemingly a future Toros Roslin.

The same evening, on National Television, competitions took place to see who would represent Armenia in Junior Eurovision. Last year’s contestant, an Armenian girl from Baku, sang, in the words of many here, “like someone’s morkuyr (aunt).” This, while other countries featured individuals and groups who actually sang like children, after all, it is a competition for children. This year’s Armenian contestants, while being interviewed, spoke in either street slang, or mixed in English, with some acting like little mafia characters or rap stars. Even our 11-year-old guest, visiting with his parents, became disinterested and shut the program off.

While some blame our bad cultural situation on the Diaspora, some on our leaders, who love rabiz and pop, and some on forces trying to destroy our national culture, now, Armenian singers and actors who had been working in Los Angeles and elsewhere are returning to Armenia, due to the financial crisis in the US, and are appearing in serials, concerts, and the like…”with their new accents and movements, how disgusting,” as a local actor put it. “And not only that, besides the mafia serials, there’s one starring orphans, several being the sons and daughters of those in other serials…I guess they want everything, all the money, for themselves…”

In closing, a joke is going around Yerevan about an Aparantsi who can’t find a job, and who changes his approach, telling possible employers, “I’m from Aparan, but my heart and soul is in Karabagh,” referring to the general feeling here about Karabaghtsis getting so many of the better jobs in Yerevan.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

An academician friend walked through the door smiling, saying he had heard the latest absurdity going around Yerevan: “Have you heard, (pop singer) Sirusho is the Armenian ambassador to Greece? Even though this might not be true, the fact remains that in Armenia, it’s a possibility. Now that Sirusho is a member of a ‘royal family,’ and that family is from Karabagh, it’s more than a possibility.”

This statement didn’t go over very well with a Karabaghtsi visiting our home at the time. Nevertheless, the academician continued his thoughts. “Many who remember the Dark Years in Armenia, and what Levon Ter Petrosyan did during those times, think that it’s better to have these Karabaghtsis in power. But in Levon’s time, our culture hadn’t slipped to where it is today, with oligarchs promoting their girlfriends into becoming major stars, and, education was still at least fairly strong, which isn’t the case today.

“And you can’t say that Karabaghtsis aren’t favored when it comes to getting jobs, good jobs, in banks and the ministries, especially in Yerevan,” to which the Karabaghtsi answered, “This is because they’re good at math, and are better workers,” to which the academician said, “I’ve seen Karabaghtsis working in banks who barely spoke Armenian, and had no experience in banking at all, so what are you saying? Karabaghtsis and oligarchs, together, are ruining our country.”

Thursday, July 9, 2009

An anti-Dashnak said, “How was it that after 1918, when Armenians had the Turks on the run, chasing them out of Armenia, from Aparan, Sardarabat, and elsewhere, that by 1920 the Dashnaks signed the Treaty of Alexandropol, giving the Turks the right to overlook Armenia’s railway system, and to prevent Armenians from returning to Armenia? The Dashnaks never should have signed that treaty. It was the Soviets, disapproving of the Alexandropol treaty, who signed the Treaty of Kars, which wasn’t all that great but was definitely better than Alexandropol…”

Such continues the conversations being heard daily in Yerevan, all connected to the possible opening of the border with Turkey, and its positives and negatives.

“We’re not ready for it, the border opening,” a Dashnak said. “Between globalization and a government that propagandizes rabiz and pop music, culturally speaking we’d go under in a second if the border opens.”

A note about Bishop Nerses Bozabalian, who died recently after being beaten by intruders at his apartment in Holy Echmiadzin, as told by three elderly women in the courtyard at St. Gayane church, where the hogihangist took place:

“Bishop Bozabalian was going to be elected Catholicos,” one of the women said. “He had passed the first round of voting, and we all thought he was going to be elected. Then ministers and others started mixing into things, and the result was, Bozabalian wasn’t Catholicos.”

Another commented, “He was a man of the church, an honest man. It’s obvious there were those who thought he wasn’t the right man for the job, as he wouldn’t have agreed with a lot of what’s going on these days.”

Continuing, the third woman said, “Why haven’t they found the guilty? Who were the guilty? Nothing is even being announced, possible suspects, nothing. And it’s disgusting to me, that hoodlums were able to get to a bishop’s apartment right on the grounds of Holy Echmiadzin. Remember the old walls around the vank, which they decided to tear down in 2001? Do you think they would have gotten to his apartment if that old wall had been there, with guards at the gate, like in the old days? No way.”