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