Monday, June 24, 2002

Letter 04 : Amberd and Mount Aragats

Saturday, June 22, 2002

Today we drove to Amberd and Mount Aragats. We rented a minibus for the whole day (11 passengers from 9 till 18 hrs) and it cost us 15000 drams. The driver, Alig, is an actor-musician from the Spendiarian Institute. He plays percussion equipment and the Xylophone. Most of the Spendiarian artists have defected to the West. He decided to stay and earns his living driving the minibus. It was a beautiful day, and we were treated again to the beautiful sight of Ararat, all along. Amberd is a 12th century fortress that was destroyed by Timor Lang’s Mongol –Tatars before they sacked Baghdad in 1233. The fortress walls are still standing but the town below is destroyed. The Church outside the walls, however, has been repaired. (You can see the photos/description of this and other sites on www.cilicia.com ). The guide to the Church, Aram Manookian is a WWII veteran whose battalion was wiped-out during the siege of Stalingrad. He was wounded there but survived with 3 other companions and continued all the way to Berlin with Marshall Bagramian. You can see him in Atom Egoyan’s film ‘Calendar’. Of course the view of Ararat, from all angles, is spectacular. It is such a beautiful, clear and warm day. I cannot resist the call from the torrents running in the ravine on each side of the fortress. Soon I am bathing in and drinking from the limpid and cold water (sorry, no digital photo available).



On the way back, we take a vote: Shall we drive-up mount Aragats to the lake and the observatory? The yeas win, and Alig is happy to accommodate us. The paved road is a single lane, but reasonable. Alig is a good driver, but we have to stop in high altitude to let the motor cool down (and allow our bodies to adjust to the altitude. We pass by some shepherd encampments. The shepherds in Armenia are mainly Yezdis (pagan tribes of Armenia). Their encampments looked like Gypsy camps, but I noticed a car covered in cloth, to protect it (keep it new?) from the elements. Again Ararat seemed to grow taller as we rose up Aragats. I now know why: From Yerevan, unless you are on a very tall building, you really only see the two peaks of Ararat. However when you climb a mountain or a tall building, the higher you go the more you can see of the valley between Ararat and you, and the more you can see the full body of Ararat from his peak to his feet.



To reach the lake and the Aragats observatory, the road goes through eight feet high snow-banks, but in the sunny slopes, the grounds are bare and green. We are high above the tree line, and there are no trees. The air is rare. The lake is mainly frozen, but the beach is bare and the crystal clear water is inviting. Some of us dare go in, knee-deep. It is a beautiful sunny day. I am in short sleeves. Someone has planted a huge cross on the hill dominating the lake. The observatory buildings are modern looking. An enterprising family has brought-in a camper trailer which they use to serve light meals and refreshments from, to the visitors. There is a middle-aged man who has packed about 10 children in his 4-wheel-drive (new-looking) vehicle and brought them there for a picnic lunch. The children run all-over the snowy slopes… a great spring-skiing day (Toros: don’t forget your snowboard!). The man is eager to engage us. He insists that we join them. He offers us kyababs wrapped in lavash, delicious tomatoes and cucumbers, wine and oghi. Most of these children are not his, but he brought them up for an outing. In the rarefied air near the peak of Aragats, this man exhales Armenian pride and happiness. Meanwhile, Sarah has befriended the family with the camper-trailer. They offered her (and our group) ‘sourj’ (Armenian coffee), she has not yet finished her cup when we have to get back in the minibus. She had turned her coffee cup upside-down, but there is no time to read it… The young son of the café owner is bewitched by Sarah's charm. He predicts that they will read the cup when she comes back in a month. I am in a teasing mood, I can’t resist it, I start singing*: “Sareri hovin merrnem… Im yari boyin merrnem… Me amiss a Kenaliss… desnoghin achkin merrnem” .. Our group has caught-on to my teasing mood and roars the now well rehearsed refrain: “kena, kena, hedt yem hahahahahahaha!… Sarino yar djan, varino yar djan, our vor yertas modet yem-ha, sarino yar djan, varino yar djan” met by great laughter and accompaniment of the family. …And then, we hear this voice from the lake. It is that of a pubescent young male singing. His voice, unwavering, rises majestically over our laughter. Alig turns-off his engine. No one utters a word. We can see the boy standing, above the food spread on the ground, and his family’s picnic. There is no hesitation in his voice. He is singing about the longing for the fatherland…. He goes on and on… he names them all: the lost cities, the mountains, the valleys, the rivers on the south side of Masis …the whole song!…. It is as if time froze on this frozen lake on top of Mount Aragats. … Is the song finished? We applaud…. I don’t look at the others. I know, like me, they have tears in their eyes.





* « May I die in the wind of the mountains…. May I die in the beauty of my beloved… My beloved is gone for a month…May I die in the eye of the one who sees him/her ». Refrain : “Go, go, I’m with you hahahahahahaha! ..My beloved of the mountain, my beloved of the valley, wherever you go I’m with you-ha! My beloved of the mountain, my beloved of the valley”



Monday, June 24, 2002

We have just rented our own nicely furnished 2-bedroom apartment, starting June 30. So we have a guest room if you come. We are paying 270 USD / month plus heat & electricity.

Saturday, June 15, 2002

Letter 03: Kouyr Arusiag’s orphans in the Dzaghgadzor summer camp

Saturday, June 15, 2002

We’re waiting for the minibus promised to us for 9:00 a.m. to drive us to Dzaghgadzor, to meet the orphans of ‘Kouyr Arusyag’ (Sister Arusyag), the Armenian Catholic nun who spend 30 years teaching children in Philadelphia and decided to devote herself to the orphans of Armenia. To save time, we take a taxi to the ice-cream factory to buy ice-cream sticks as a treat for the children. The factory is near the Dzidzernagaberd Genocide Memorial. It seems like a state-of-the-art factory. Well organised, clean… we bought the 150 sticks at wholesale prices, in record time, no sweat… Armenians love ice cream! There is plenty of freezer-chests plugged-in all-over town selling ice cream to go… They are delicious, and your best Haagen-dash chocolate with nuts stick imitation costs less than 200 drams on the street (50 cents Cad.).



We finally take-off at 11:00 and climb the Caucasus range to leave Yerevan. The scenery is as beautiful as our first Saturday, and Ararat still dominates everything. We go by the castle built by the owner of the Kotayk beer factory; it is baroque looking, perched on top of a hill… Is it fortified? To redeem himself, the Kotayk owner has built an Armenian Church close-by, downhill from his castle.



We arrive at the Hrazdan hydroelectric plant. This is a major project built to help Armenia gain energetic self-sufficiency. It is supposed to bring excess water from Lake Sevan through huge underground pipes. Unfortunately, because of the Azeri blockade of the gas supply from Turkmenistan and acts of sabotage by Azeris in Georgia, Armenia has been forced to use more water than the excess, and the water level at Lake Sevan has been steadily falling in the last 10 years.



The city of Hrazdan, 70 000 inhabitants, used to be Armenia’s fourth largest city before the earthquake that wiped-out Leninakan in 1988. It is now the third largest city, but is a sight for sore eyes! Potholes all-over the downtown streets. The factories that used to produce Soviet tanks and armoured vehicles are shut. The engineers who worked there have left (Yerevan, Russia, anywhere)… Would you blame them?



Dzaghgadzor is a further 20 minutes away. It is Scotland all-over again… this time we see a lot of sheep. We pass by a beautiful church/monastery complex that we promise ourselves to visit. Dzaghgadzor was the training site for Soviet winter olympians and the facilities are still there, ski lifts and accommodation. We arrive at the ‘Diramayr Djambar’ (the Camp of the Mother of God). 150 orphans aged 5 to 16, neatly dressed are lined-up outside to welcome us. Some are wearing traditional Armenian folk costumes, and Kouyr Arusyag is standing in front with two of these folklore clad girls, offering the new comers the traditional bread and salt. We wish them that they never run-out of these. This ceremony is followed by a folkloric dance performed in the open by some of the older girls. We are then invited to have a small chat before lunch with sister Arusyag. Another nun, Sister Rebecca, having heard we are Terjanians wonders if we know her relatives. Her brother married a Terjanian. Guess what! She is Lena Avsharian’s father’s sister! What a small world! (Visit our Yahoo photo album: http://photos.yahoo.com/aterjanian to see all the photos related to my letters from Armenia).



Kouyr Arusyag is full of stories about the orphans, some of them were orphaned by the 1988 earthquake, and many are social orphans. Parents, who are so desperate, they have to abandon their children. She refuses to admit many who are not really desperate cases. Very sad stories …. Sister Arusyag hovers over the children as if they were her own. She does not keep boys once they reach puberty… She knows ‘how strong nature is’ she says with a twinkle in her eyes. Armenian orphans are not different. She tells us how Markar was pampered to death by all the girls: they quarrelled about who was going to iron his shirt, bring him his lunch, sit next to him in class… “kich menats Markarin bid loghatsenenk” (what next? Are you girls going to give him a bath?) Cries Kouyr Arusyag! She also tells of Lousineh she was 18 and was in charge of feeding the chickens. She went to feed them so often that they noticed there was more than chicken feed involved. The young man came to ask for her hand from Kouyr Arusyag, who reluctantly agreed to a wedding before she turned 19. But he was a good young man. The orphans are taught a regular school curriculum in the orphanage and live in it (in Gyumri – this is their summer camp). K. Arusyag dreams of preparing them better for the working world. She wants to create a vocational school for them, with practical skills. She pleads with us, she was promised a volunteer by the AVC to teach the orphans English. A 19-year-old French-Swissess, freshly out of high school has just arrived volunteering to teach French for one month. K. A. is desperate for help. Are any of you out there interested? Here is her new email adress 2003: diramer@web.am



We are invited for lunch. The older children serve the meal. The service is impeccable; K.A. wants her children to get positions in the growing tourist industry in Armenia. She has even expanded 2 new wings with individual and double rooms and suites to receive vacationers and small conferences ($ 20 per night 3 meals included); this will allow her to rely a bit less on donor money. I am sitting across from her. She is so lively talking to her guests, yet running the whole show at the same time. She asks if we have any children, then she asks for their names. When I mention Toros, she pauses a moment, the name rings a bell, she once knew a Toros Terjanian. I tell her it is my father. She pauses again; this time she has an expression on her face. She looks at me; she does not say anything. We both remain silent, biting our lips, then we move on. I am sure she has a story there…. One day perhaps she will tell me.



After lunch we visit the different wings, we see where the older children are taught to make beautiful embroidery. Yes, they will embroider table-clothes according to specs. We plan to order one. We see where they sleep in bunk beds, 8 to a room, approximately all the same age. I remember the story K.A. told us about these 5 girls aged 5 to 14 whom she discovered living alone in Gyumri. The family had managed to survive the earthquake, but the economic collapse was too tough on the father who abandoned them in shame. The mother turned to prostitution, of all places in Turkey. When first discovered, the children refused to go to the orphanage. K.A. kept insisting. They put a condition: If you don’t separate us, we will come. This strong-as-steel nun made an exception, the 5 children all sleep in the same room.



We are then invited to their auditorium; there is a small stage. The children recite poetry and perform beautiful folksongs and dances in authentic costumes, made by themselves. They sing ‘Kna Groong, Hayots Tashdi, Dzaghigue dar, Bantoukhdneri. Ararati, Dzouyn dar tevit, Djour Sevana, Bantoukhdnerin**’. Our tears flow.



We then go out to discover that they have a small park on the property they have named ‘Robert Burns Park’ and have posted one of his poems on the sign. Sheila turns red (see photo). To top it all, the children cross their arms and join hands to wish us good-bye singing ‘Aule Lang Syne’ in Armenian. Sheila can’t take it anymore, she is weeping openly.



On the way back we stop to visit the beautiful church-convent complex built over different periods by the Pakhlavouni princes and completed in the 13th century. It has been recently renovated thanks to funds from the Arutyunian family. The four churches in the complex are truly beautiful, austere but warm, some of the ‘vortan garmir’ (the red dye extracted from a red nematode) paintings are still standing on the main door arch. What a tribute to the Armenian genius in Architecture that so many churches have survived in an earthquake-prone zone.



The countryside is so beautiful; I can see the heatherrr, but can’t smell it. Along the highway, young men are selling colourful wild flower bouquets in gorgeous symmetric designs (antaram dsaghigner). At least they are doing something useful with their time. Unemployment is so high in Armenia. Is it not the root of all these social problems?



I have met so many construction engineers, either unemployed or doing (trying to do) something else. Can’t we employ these skills? There are so many construction contracts being awarded around the world, can we not have an Armenian company bidding on these. Apparently one such small Armenian Company bid on a contract in Kuwait, they had all the qualification, but they could not post the bid-bond and were eliminated…. Couldn’t we find a sister Canadian or American Company that would bid jointly with them and benefit from bid-bond posting by an agency such as the CCC? If any of you is interested, we could work together for the next suitable contract that comes up…. I believe Armenia should export ‘services’… any ideas? Will employment agencies in Ireland be interested in 5$ per hour qualified labour? We should all be creative with ideas and finding and facilitating contacts for Armenians to create employment…



We arrive late to Yerevan. We had invited our host family and Anahid Keusseyan for supper at the fresh fish restaurant (England Garden). Thank God for mobile phones, we had called from the minibus to tell them that we would be a bit late. They are waiting patiently and we walk to the restaurant. In fact we have been walking all the time in Yerevan. It is great not to have a car. We walk everywhere… 15 minutes to work, 10 minutes to lunchtime restaurants and we usually take a longer walk in the evening. The Fish restaurant is 16 minutes away; we invited Anahid Keusseyan to meet us there. It is called England Garden. They have a pool in the middle with water fountains springing, a forest of climbing vines cover the whole garden, and we sit to eat under these. They serve ‘Ishkhanatzoug’ (‘Prince of Fish’) it is live in the pool, they pick the one you want and cook it for you the way you like. We chose ‘Khorovadz’ (Bar-b-q’d) and ‘Lavashov’ (wrapped in Armenian paper-thin bread ‘Lavash’ with butter and baked). They were both delicious, and we paid by the kilo (3000 drams /Kg… 8 $Cad/kg). A first class 5-person live band played beautiful romantic and dance music, including folklore with traditional instruments (duduk)…We paid for the whole meal, including wine and tip 14000 drams ($46 Cad for 6 people). Yerevan is full of outdoor cafes and restaurants many within public parks with view of the water and live swans and children boating entertainment, all very affordable. For instance a glass bottle of Coca-Cola is 200 drams in a restaurant; hard liquor wine and beer are even comparatively cheaper than Canada: 300 drams for a shot (50 cl) of vodka in the best hotel in Yerevan. We had been very careful in the first week and ate no uncooked or un-peeled vegetables. We have followed advice and experience and adjusted slowly and are now eating and drinking almost anything …with moderation… what a delight!)



The fruits in Armenia are the best I have tasted anywhere in the world. We only eat the local fruits that are in season. Now it is the mulberries’ first season, and they are scrumptious. We pass under several mulberry trees on our way to work everyday, and we always stop to pick a few. Last week it was the peak of Cherries and strawberries, also delicious. We are waiting for the apricot season. Fruits are so plentiful and delicious in season. I pay 1 cad$ per kilo of mulberries (in Canada they are for at least15 $ per Kilo. Imported bananas are the same as in Canada; we buy them to please the Dadig who lives with us.

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Letter 02: The Orran urchins

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

This afternoon we visited the ‘Orran’ (the haven) Centre in downtown Yerevan. It is an old building that smells like boiled hamburger fat, where the social ministry or other institutions send street-children. Children are fed and taught there and sent back home (usually single parent families). Orran’s director is Gail Howard, who came to Armenia with the Red Cross and is now managing this centre created by Raffi Hovannissyan’s wife. Gail is a wonderful woman with a huge heart and bosoms to match.

There were some 50 children there when we came, and Sheila pointed-out a young boy who reminded her of Raffi. He turned-out to be one of the smartest ones and was the first to win a candy in the little intellectual/vocabulary games our volunteers had prepared for the children. I don’t know if they had had enough candy that day (I’d be surprised), but several of these children came to me and offered me the candy they had just won, as if I needed any candy at my age. Among all of these children yelling with delight to try and win these small competitions set-up by us volunteer foreigners, one of the boys, Ashot was sitting very quietly and not participating in any of the competitions. When we wanted to have those who had not won any candy try-out on easier questions, he still would not participate; he said he did not know the answers. Yet he was quiet and looked healthy and clean dressed. I pointed him out to Gail during their class break. She said that he might be having a bad day and she quickly went to him and took him under her wings and brought him inside.

In the hallway they had a series of photographs from the life of a 72 year-old lady who is fed at Orran. There was also a summary of her life story that they had compiled for her birthday. Both her parents were orphans that took refuge in Yerevan after the 1915 genocide. She was born in 1930 and had been an important teacher who participated in different communist congresses in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Some of these old people tell the kids their life stories and about the way life was in the old days, the children find their stories very interesting. What is interesting to me is to see from how high these elderly people have fallen: from participating in international conferences abroad in Soviet times, to being clients of Orran now.

Gail asked for some of us to volunteer with her centre for she had no one to look after the elderly. Arina immediately volunteered.

Sunday, June 02, 2002

Letter 01b: First impressions (continued) Lousavorich Cathedral

Sunday June 2, 2002 We slept-in… our hostess did not want to disturb us and waited patiently… we have 20 minutes to be in church… fortunately across the street… We make it in time for the ‘tapor’ procession. The church is impressive… The largest Armenian Church ever built. At the entrance, a small marble kiosk containing the relics of Sourp Krikor Lousavorich, recently returned to Armenia by the Vatican.. The ‘tapor’ is impressive… I am moved to see the faithful gather to the side of the church to try and touch/kiss the banner, kiss the cross in the bishop’s hand… The deacons exhaling encens from their little ‘encensoirs’ the others shaking the small bells… the faithful donate encens from their hands straight into the recipient held by the head-deacon. This is their offering!… they go all around the huge church… It is beautifully built… The painting of the mother and child on the altar is unique.. They look Armenian (it is a painting made by Soureniants in the 19th century and donated to Etchmiadzin. The original is in the Etchmiadzin museum (just behind the altar). The faithful take the order to worship God literally and some bow to the ground and kiss it (the word for ‘worship God’ in Armenian is: “Asdoudzo yergir-bakestsouk” which literally means ‘kiss the ground before God’… other faithful touch the ground with their hand and kiss it… There is a young man from Karabagh, standing proud to my left, he makes those huge and slow signs of the cross every time, starting on the top of his head, widely across his shoulder… He seems so proud to do it, almost boasting to be Christian…Yet he bowed his head with such humility towards the altar every time..

Then there is the group-confession… the priest is standing there in his black robe, with a lot of humility in his eyes, the flock kneeling in the side of the church on a large carpet, surrounding him… someone reads an unaudible list of sins and the crowd roars ‘Megha Asdoudzo’ (I sinned Lord)… The priest in all humility, not pompous at all, grants them God’s pardon, then comes the next list, the roar again and the pardon..

I was shocked at communion time, all lined-up for the altar, so I stayed a bit behind… there were too many people, then I saw this head deacon tell a bunch of them to get back below the altar, rather unceremoniously I thought.. I thought to myself, I am glad I was patient… Then a lady told me I should be up-there with the men, first… That’s when I realized the head- deacon had chased away the women (at least 60% of the faithful of the Church that day)… I wasn’t going to make a point then, I went for communion with the men… later I told my host about this event… he assured me, it was in the scriptures (Bible or Gospel ???) he promised to show it to me…

End of week one Friday, June 7, 2002 He did show it to me…. It was Saint Paul’s Epistle… The great Misogyne… We did have several friendly discussions on the subject, in the presence of his wife… who is very smart/vivacious, but willing to play second fiddle… They discuss decisions before they are made… They are happy together, they went through ups and downs together… Waiting for the men to have Communion first is not that important. It still bugs me…I am going to ask him had he had a son in addition to his daughter would he, as in KSA have his son eat first then send the leftovers to the women in the family? Why wouldn’t the Lord’s table be the same? I know of course the answer.. they don’t do that here, they eat all together… It is the Church! someone has decided on a certain interpretation of the scriptures and the traditions… Yet I noticed, they did not enforce the rule about women covering their hair to have Communion… Also, unlike the Catholic Church, the Armenian Church has remained neutral in the debate on abortion and birth control… Progressive?

We have had a marvelous week… Our host family is so nice. Every time I travel, I never let my guard down for the whole trip… I spent 2 years like that in Senegal… Here, I am completely relaxed at home. I can sleep on both ears the whole night…This is such a great way to get to know a country and people… getting to live with a family… We learn so much from them and vice versa.. I would have never thought that Sheila and I would sleep together in a ¾ size bed, and manage to share one bathroom with a family, with water only available 2 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the evening… and be delighted..

We have had Armenian language classes in the mornings, and lectures on development in the afternoons… very interesting… It is interesting to get to know the other volunteers and hear of their motivating factors.. Many of them are very smart and capable… It is going to be interesting to see how many mountains we can move together!

I worked during lunch or ran errands, but twice I had lunch with the group and got to know some of them.. I have been careful, drinking only bottled or boiled water, no uncooked veggies or fruits… I have not been sick and will start eating slowly a bit of cucumbers and tomatoes tonight, as well as a small cup of water every two days, till I get used to their conditions…

This morning, we got Ararat and little Massis on the digital….One mystery is solved about the ‘mystic’ mountain… It was simply technical, about focusing on the right spot… We are still attracted by the mountain, and whenever we get a chance we take a few steps or stretch our necks to see it, as if to make sure it is there, or to help us orient ourselves…We are yet to figure-out how to transfer the photos to Sheila’s computer, so we can email them, or perhaps set-up a public website.

Sunday, June 9, 2002 09/06/02 8:07 We had a good and long night’s sleep. Yesterday we went with all the volunteers to help a man build a cement patio to his house. It is part of the ‘Habitat Armenia’ project… He had filled an application and 20 volunteers were brought over with an engineer by truck. We mixed gravel, crushed-stone, sand and cement, cured it with water, then mixed it again and carried it and laid it on the platform with steel rods. Six hours’ work for 20 youths, with 2 coffee breaks and a celebrative lunch out in the open, with a view of the glenns, the new constructions, the orchards and the rubble. It was a great team effort, great spirit, with Armenian songs, wine, juice, tsoreni oghi (vodka made of wheat and Armenia’s pure water), even Armyanski Shampanskoiy The whole interspersed with toasts to friendship, Armenian brotherhood, wishes of a happy life in the new home to the family ( younger looking wife, 3 sons and a daughter age 6-11, and a husband who looks like he has aged, shy about receiving this free help)…. No neighbours showed-up to help, but they were quite benevolent when I went to borrow extra shovels, rakes.. feeling of a disconnect… Are we a drop in the bucket? Do we make any difference? Does one really move mountains a pebble at a time? … We are all tired, muscles aching, but careful not to overstrain our backs… We returned piled in the back of the truck, tired but happy and jovial with a sense of having achieved something!..

In the evening, at supper time, we started-out talking about cheating and corruption in society and ended-up arguing with Hakob about moral values in Communism and scriptures-based religion. He grew-up as a communist atheist till age 22… his family fled Van in 1915 and took refuge in Etchmiadzin, and it was the Armenian Church that looked after all these refugees. Unlike the Russian Imperial Church, the Armenian Church was frugal and monastic. Although there was some good in the ideal of communism of sharing, they had reigned by terror. It wasn’t the ideal of comrade communism that made local merchants and official not cheat, it was the terror that if many people reported against them Moscow would interfere and the official or party boss be purged. It was ‘terror’… There isn’t one family that has not lost one or several members to the terror… and it was not Russians doing it, it was local Armenian commies. While he saw some merit to Nikita Krutshov’s and Gorbachov’s resigning from power, other Communist leaders were corrupted by power and clung to it… to him, morality could not exist without religion… but he does not necessarily represent mainstream Armenian thought…

Before going to bed, I notice a new face in the kitchen, a frail and young looking woman… She is sitting at the table, and Hakob is having a ‘serious’ conversation with her… I had not heard the bell ring… I found-out from the Tatig, she was hungry, she came in to eat… It must not be the first time…

Monday, June 10, 2002 We had a great day yesterday, Sunday. We started by taking a walk to the ‘Vernissage’. It used to be a park where artists exposed their paintings all day Saturday and Sunday. It is now a large flee market. Most good artists have gone back to the park near the Opera. We could have spent the whole day there. There is beautiful artifacts, carpets, hand made/decorated table-clothes, china, pots, antiques, music instruments, among which the famous Armenian ‘duduk’ made of apricot wood… We had to leave for we were invited to Kegham’s sister, Esfira. She lives up the mountain, on the road to Lake Sevan, just next to the Coca-Cola factory. We climb up the highway built during the war by German war prisoners. We go by the light-bulb factory… It used to export to the whole Soviet Union, it is now operating at 20% capacity, a large part of it’s equipment has been cannibalised and exported to Iran. Esfira’s daughter (Laoura) had come downtown to pick us up, so we don’t loose our way there. She has hired a taxi and had him waiting for us at the steps of St. Krikor Lousavorich where we agreed to meet… she did not want us to waste time looking for a taxi… so thoughtful… She is the Egyptian Ambassador’s assistant. She had studied Persian and Arabic at the Institute in Soviet times… The Iranian Embassy would not hire her unless she were married, but the Egyptians did, and they treat her very well. The Egyptian Ambassador’s daughter, 6, speaks fluent Armenian, with no accent. We go by the youth palace with its revolving restaurant, now occupied by refugees from Gyumri and Karabagh , the victory memorial,. Laoura is a great guide. We finally reach the house, kind of semi-detached clinging to the mountainside with a fruit orchard behind it. Laoura uses her mobile phone to warn her mother that we are there in 2 minutes. The table is copiously filled… There’s enough for 20 people, they had set places for 7 people… I had misunderstood that I should have invited our host family.. We call them, and the 2 Anahids come by Marshoot… It takes them half an hour, Laoura goes out to wait for them in front of the Coke factory.

The food is marvelous, Esfira has even prepared the Apricot juice from her own orchard. She has a delicious apricot liqueur and a cherry liqueur made from her own orchard fruits and Armenian wheat-vodka made with the best water in the world… They drink the best Coke, made with the best water, then she brings-out the ‘apricot lavash’ an apricot jam dried and preserved like a flat thin bread, also home made, paper-thin, out of this world, like everything else. Esfira was trained as a construction engineer and worked for 18 years in the light-bulb factory down the road. She has been unemployed since but tries her hand at everything…. From wool tricot to food preserves… seems like not much income though, although that does not alter her generous hospitality. Her son is looking for work in Moscow… She will NEVER leave… she will be here to say good-bye to the last Armenian leaving Armenia… Armenia is like Lake Sevan she says, the water level goes down,, but one day it will come back up again… She reminds me of Shake Guenkababian’s mother, diguin Arousyag… we watch some videos of Kegham that I shot in Ottawa, they are in tears… time flies… we have to meet our next social appointment who are also waiting for us outside so that we do not loose our way. Laoura has called for a taxi… we realise she has prepaid for it….

Our new hosts are the young Armenian-American couple who volunteered last year. They are about to return. Kohar Der-Simonian’s mother is of French-Canadian descent in central Maine. Armen Karapetyan is an economist whose family came to the US from Iran… They live in this modernised apartment near the opera. It has been such a re-birth for them to work a year in Armenia. She, with a political science degree, was just accepted into medical school in the US, otherwise they would have stayed. He was hired by ARLEX. We nibble at their food and listen to their stories. They are very descent people, with a big heart. The hardest story comes from Armen… he was walking down the street, this cold evening, this frail young man comes to him and says: ‘Sovadz-yem aghpeyr… pors mashel eh’ ( ‘ I am hungry brother, my stomach is worn-out’)… Armen runs to the store to buy and give him some food… By the time he’s back, the man is no longer there, he had not realised that Armen ran to get him food. This memory still bothers Armen, who now carries bread on him.

There are of course some professional beggars, who make it difficult to identify the bad cases… This is a society that suddenly moved from a communist welfare state to one where they divided-up ownership of everything among themselves and each was left to his own. After the factories stopped functioning for a few years, people got tired of acting like they were going to their factories/offices and not receiving any pay, the government divided-up the land, houses and means of production to the workers, and they all started to look for ways to earn a living. Some never succeeded. Hakob, our host, was unemployed from 1995 to 1999. With a partner he tried to open a small commerce. He used to leave at 7:30 in the morning and return at 11:00 at night. Often he'd fall asleep in the Metro and miss his station and have to walk back. There is still a large proportion of unemployed people, many have emigrated, fleeing unemployment and corruption.


Antoine Terjanian
Still trying to move mountains
www.armenianvolunteer.org