Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Letter 17: A village named “Horse” Draft needs editing

You must have heard of the silk road. You must also remember that it goes through Armenia, and that Kirk Krikorian’s Lincy foundation has just completed the segment from Yeghegnadzor (where I call from these days) to Martuni (on Lake Sevan). The official opening of this segment was accomplished with the presence of the benefactor and Armenia’s President. It is abeautiful road that goes through some of the best scenery anywhere in the world. Marco Polo had gone through here on his way to meeting the Great Koublay Khan and he described the poor and primitive conditions of the Armenians living there. The Mongols had appropriated the best lands and local Armenians were indeed living in very poor and primitive conditions. They still are. Most people barter their products and quite a few have never seen a 5000 dram ($ 10) banknote. But the spirit and hospitality are there, and the natural beauty is untouched.

If you have seen Martiros Saryan’s 1923 painting entitled “Armenia” (now at the National Gallery), you will recognize the scenery on your way to the Selim Saray pass, high up, at 2200 meters altitude. On the way there, after you pass Getap (pronounced “Get-up”) where the famous semi-dry Vernashen wine is produced and Sally where the famous Armenian goat cheese is churned, you will come to a sign pointing to a village perched on the edge of a cliff. The sign used to say “Gors” in Russian (the Russians don”t have an ‘h’ sound so the h’s are pronounced and transliterated ‘g’), but now there is a new sign in English and Armenian.

Last week, when I went to get Andrew, Sis, unlike Masis was not covered in snow, but on the way back, it’s top was white again. Today it rained in Yeghegnadzor, but the three mountain ranges surrounding us (Vardenis, Zahgezour and Nakhitchevan are now covered with snow : a sure sign winter is coming. The temperature in the house is now 17 degrees. Outside this morning, with the sun it was 15.5. It went up to 17 and then when it started raining it went down to 14, and I still don’t have the stove hooked (sounds familiar? We need to have the hot-water in the bathroom tested before we put the floor).

The sun now comes in to the edge of the kitchen door from the kitchen window and from the LR window all day. I wish we had more windows on that side..
We changed the hour last weekend, so the sun rises earlier and also it gets dark faster (7 :00 p.m.)

By the way those thin walls between the rooms, despite the inch thick plaster on both sides is not soundproof at all. I could hear the guest’s bed creaking next door.

We went with the Nabatians to the Areni wine factory. I had arranged for musicians and dance troupe. We had a fabulous time. The wine was fantastic. They seemed to think that Areni was at it’s best at 3 years, after which it went down. So we asked to try the 99, it was great, so we tried 98 it was even better. They had not kept any of the previous years!

It is wine time now here, everyone is extracting wine or oghi. I tried some of the vin nouveau from Malichka, it was so powerful! I kept some in a coke bottle, a week later when I opened the bottle I got it all over my clothes. It reminds when I used to go to Alberobello, south of Bari and buy wine by the gallo0n from the farmers, it was still bubbling! What memories! All I need is spaghetti carbonara.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Letter 16: Call Mama if you want your father

October 2003

The Georgians call their father "Mama". To call their mother, they go: 'Déda'. Armenia's neighbors to the Northwest are a people hardly known in the part of the world I come from. I knew Stalin and Beria were Georgians, and I always loved their songs and dances, but this was unfortunately all I knew about them. I knew many Armenians lived there, and that Tbilissi (in the past Armenians called it Tiflis - Charles Aznavour's dad was born near Tiflis - but since Georgians prefer Tbilissi our Yerevan airport signs now say Tbilissi in Armenian characters) had been a center of Armenian culture, producing some of our best artists and writers. In fact, Georgia is a country where Armenians still constitute over 8.5% of the total population, which is the highest percentage for Armenians anywhere in the world outside Armenia. Georgia is a country also shared by many ethnic groups. Other minorities living side-by-side, peacefully* with the ethnic Georgian majority are: Svans, Mingrels, Chechens, Russians, Yezdis, Kurds, Azeris, Ossetians, Abkhases, Jews, Greeks, and so on... (Did you know there is a sizable Greek Minority!).

We (Armenians) call them Vratsi (the ones above). They call us Somkhebi (no meaning I could determine!). They call themselves Kartelebi. And their language Kartuli and their country Sakhartvelo. Contrary to what I previously thought the name "Georgia" has nothing to do with St George, who happens to be a patron Saint of Georgia (as well as England). The name Georgia comes from the name given by the Russians to the land of the Kartelebi: 'Gruzya".

I could not miss the opportunity offered to me when Greg Levonian invited me to accompany him there towards the end of September. Especially since he suggested he could get me in there simply with my Armenian Passport, without having to pay the hefty Georgian visa fee of USD 80. Greg, an Ottawa native, is a seasoned traveler who has been working in Armenia and Georgia for a few months. He loves Georgia, the Georgians, their music, songs and dances and has even taken Georgian dancing lessons (Have you ever seen him dance?). He is an excellent "ambassador" for friendship with our Georgian neighbors, for he believes, like myself, in friendship among all peoples. I consider myself lucky to have had such a great guide, companion…

On my guide's advice, we declined a faster private taxi offer to go to Tbilissi and took a common 'marshutka' instead. You can take a marshutka to Tbilissi from 2 locations in Yerevan: We had just missed the marshutka from in front of the railway station (Sassountsi Davit statue), so we took a taxi to the Kilikia central bus station. There, a marshutka was ready to go around 10:30 a.m. The driver checked our 'Armenian' 10 year passport and looked for the round 'peshat' (official stamp) on page 4 (It should say "This Passport is Valid for All Countries"). We both had it, so he declared us fit to cross the Georgian border and took our money (13 USD each). My guide and I rejoiced, we had just passed the first hurdle toward saving the US$ 80 visa fee exacted from normal Canadian visitors.

The Yerevan - Tbilissi road takes you through some of the most beautiful sites of Armenia. After passing through Ashtarak and climbing the mountain to Abaran (the object of Armenian Newfie jokes) the road takes you down the other side of the pass to Spitak (epicenter of the 1988 earthquake), then Vanadzor. After that the road follows the bed of "Debed" (pun intended) river. It is a beautiful site and drivers usually stop for a break near a fountain and by one of the restaurants nestled on the river. You can have a quick great meal there of khorovadz, salads and delicious madzoun for a very reasonable price. The road then goes by the Kobayr Monastery and Odzun, then through Allaverdi (“God given” historic gold mines) and by the Monasteries of Sanahin and Haghbat, which we had visited with Joan last March.

The border crossing is reached very soon after Allaverdi. Armenian and Georgian border guards face each other across a small bridge. We handed our passport to the driver who went alone to the Armenian border post, completed the formalities and drove off across the bridge. Now we faced our vital test! My guide, who is more fluent in Russian than I am, advised me to keep silent. A Georgian border officer returned to our minibus, took a look at the passengers and handed us our passports back. We breathed a sigh of relief** as the barrier went up and we crossed into Georgia.

If you think Armenian roads are poor, wait till you see Georgia. We practically went at 25 kms/hour for the first hour. It finally took us 6 hours for the 374 km ride between Yerevan and Tbilissi. When we reached the outskirts of Tbilissi, A roadblock was awaiting us. It was the only one we faced all the way in (if you travel by 'marshutka' - like we did on my guide's advice - you go easily through the border and any other road blocks, for these professional drivers have already paid-off all potential hasslers). My guide (Greg) explained that the Georgian government had lost control of large parts of the country and that this roadblock was their way of protecting Tbilissi. The roadblock officer asked me in Russian what I was doing in Tbilissi. I said I was visiting friends. He then wanted to know what work I did in Armenia. I said I was working on renovating a house. He was satisfied and let us through. Another Armenian passenger wasn't as lucky. He was called inside, and I guess he must have paid a bribe.

The taxi we took to center-town had Turkish music blaring from the cassette player, but when he learned we were of Armenian descent, he addressed us in perfect Armenian. He said he WAS Armenian. The fact he was playing a Turkish cassette in our presence didn't seem to worry him, and we listened to it all the way.

What strikes you when you arrive in Georgia is the street signs. You think you can read them, but you really can't, for it is in the Georgian alphabet. It resembles Armenian (it is said to have been invented by the same monk who invented the Armenian alphabet - Mesrob Mashtots). The sensation reminds me of my first visit to Addis-Ababa, when I thought I recognised the shop signs, but could not read them for they were in Amharic, another alphabet font that resembles Armenian. Yet my guide managed to learn enough Georgian to read the signs in Tbilissi. He was even ordering food at the restaurant in Georgian, and could effectively stop young beggars from pestering us by acting like a native! ("Ara, ara, ara!" He cried convincingly). You can see some artistic photos of Georgia taken by Greg on http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/gregorylevonian/album?.dir=8cd9&.src=ph . or if not available on: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aterjanian/sets/72157600803342944/

Tbilissi has many tourist sites. My guide made sure we went to many of them, from old churches to old-city quarter, to art galleries. My favorite spot was the 'Hamams' (bathhouses) for which Tbilissi is famous. In fact Tbilissi was founded by a Georgian King in this location because of the thermal water springs he found there. Like other water springs (Jermuk near my house) they are said to have medicinal properties. They are located in the old city, not far from the Armenian Church with its Sayat Nova memorial and the Azeri Mosque. If you remember the Soviet dissident movie "Color of Pomegranates", you would remember the boy Sayat Nova doing some voyeurism on the roof of these hamams. The movie was shot right here. Greg and I went to the most luxurious one. It cost us something like $5 each for one hour and another similar amount for a 'kissa' and soap massage.

Tbilissi boasts a Soviet style Metro, like that of Yerevan, but it goes even deeper underground, probably because it crosses under Tbilissi's river. Greg said it was a dangerous place for being mugged, but I insisted and we tried it without any problem.

The mosaic of cultures co-existing friendly side-by-side Georgia is proud of is exemplified by the two-storey Synagogue, a stone-throw's away from Tbilissi's Azeri mosque and its main Armenian Church." Jews have NEVER had any problems throughout history in Georgia" confirmed Greg, but like everybody else, they are moving out for economic reasons. Even Azeris and Armenians live in peace in Tbilissi, side-by-side.

Internet cafés are to be found, like in Yerevan on every city block downtown, with prices and speed similar to what you get in Yerevan. However cellular phones are so much cheaper than Armenia, that Greg only uses his cell phone in Georgia (so much for Armentel's monopoly). Tbilissi also has one more advantage on Yerevan, it has at least two MacDonald's restaurants. Greg said it was a disadvantage, I agree, but I was very happy to be able to use freely their clean washroom in time of need.

Although water is available 24 hours a day in Tbilissi (unlike many parts of Armenia), Georgia faces a serious energy crisis. They have no nuclear power generators and their hydroelectric power generation is insufficient for current consumption levels (eventhough they are very low by North-American standards). Georgia has to import most of its fuel from Russia and now Azerbaijan. Since they also have a foreign currency shortage, their situation is problematic. Electricity is often cut-off, and portable noisy gasoline generators, like the ones you see in the cities of Pakistan, is a common site in the streets, in front of most shops. These streets seemed cleaner to me than those I was used to in Yerevan.

While I am sad to have witnessed on TV a brawl caused by a member of the public "insulting" a campaigning politician by calling him " Somkhebi " (Armenian, like some Armenians insult Kotcharyan by calling him "Setrak-oghlu"); a very classy young Georgian lady we met, explained to us that "every proper Georgian family has an Armenian grandmother". She was proud to have a very loving Armenian grandmother.

Just to think of it, the fact they showed election campaign violence on TV… Isn't this a sign of freedom of the media?

I was pleasantly surprised to hear and see Armenian song and dances in discos and in classy restaurants with live bands. I was privileged to be invited with Greg to someone's birthday (you can see some photos at: http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/gregorylevonian/album?.dir=2314&.src=ph or if not available on: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aterjanian/sets/72157600803342944/ ). It was like going to an Armenian wedding. The food was so abundant and delicious, and the wine… Well, as you may know, Georgian wines compare very favorably with French wines (who in turn are often as good as our own Areni, Vernashen or Gandzag wines). But Georgian toasts are something else. They have a ritual of their own. While I can now make sense of Armenian toast rituals, I had to rely on my guide's savoir-faire to avoid making a fool of myself with our Georgian hosts. Georgians are in fact some of the most hospitable and jovial people I have ever met. And boy, do they ever love to dance. According to Greg, everyone there goes to dance school, and they take very seriously their beautiful traditional dances, and they know and practice them with pride at all occasions.

Polyphonic singing is when people get together to sing, but they sing different melodies at the same time for the same song. They manage however to harmonize the whole. While we have Armenian choirs who sing beautiful Armenian 'polyphonic' songs (Komitas, Ganatchian), especially in church (the Karadzayn Patarak - Ekmalyan or Komitas), the practice in Georgia is a lot more common. It happens regularly when 2 people or more get together to sing, privately, in a classy restaurant or in church. And it is just beautiful! (Greg: don't forget, you promised me a selection of my favorite Kartuli songs on CD!)

I close with extending my wishes to the people of Georgia, that they resolve their present political differences peacefully, without resorting to a civil war, and look forward to visiting Georgia’s Black Sea coast next time.

* Now don't ask me why they are sometimes reported to be on the brink of yet another civil war!
** On the way back I realized that our worries were not very well founded: A Georgian lady on our minibus didn't even have a passport. When she went through the border she had a 5 Lari note with it and she went through the Georgian border, no problem. At the Armenian border, the young border guard came and told her there was a problem, but he asked for 10 US dollars. She handed him $ 5, while another Georgian lady protested in Russian that $ 10 was outrageous. She went through with $ 5.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

Letter 15: Buy a popok to use with joy

Octobre 2003
Yesterday morning, I agreed with two neighbors to go to Getap (on the silk road) to look at a huge Popok for sale (Popok is Armenian dialect for a walnut tree.). Arsen, my neighbor who has 2 children (a girl & a boy) in University in Yerevan, has bought an old truck which he drives for a living. He rebuilt the motor himself and converted it to diesel, which was to transport the Popok. And Vartkes (our new Rhéal neighbor, expert craftsman in all, who borrowed 400 USD from me to pay for his daughter's first year in Yerevan U) came along as my expert and to help load. At noon, we got in the mechanically fit blue Truck and coasted down the mountain (to save on fuel) till we found a gas station. Arsen had asked me to pay only for the cost of fuel, so he asked the attendant for seven liters of diesel (called by its Russian name "Salyarka"). I intervened. It made no sense to keep stopping to buy only 10 liters at a time , so I insisted they put in 40 litres instead . (The habit in Armenia seems to be to put in only a little at a time, probably because they can only afford a little.), I insisted that they put in 40 liters.

Five minutes later we were looking upward at our house to the east, perched on top of the mountain, dominating the silk road. Two minutes further, and we were there. On the bank of the Yeghegis river (an affluent of the main river of the region, the Arpa), stood this huge popok (Walnut) tree. It still had many of its leaves but they were changing to yellow. Its twin-brother had already been trimmed the previous year and had already born excellent fruits this year.

The owner, an 80-year-old man, introduced himself as "Napoleon Bonaparte Without an Army". I laughed; another of my neighbors has Napoleon for a first name. They offered us coffee, but we declined and we proceeded immediately to examine a branch that had already been cut. Vartkes checked all the knots in it and determined there was no rot. Arsen climbed the tree with this huge Soviet-made chainsaw and proceeded to trim the other branches. Napoleon's son brought his soviet made jeep (called Milice) with a long cable and pulled the falling branches away from the river.

After 2 hours we had cut and trimmed 9 more huge branches. Arsen brought his truck to the river bank so we can load it. One 3 meter long branch measured almost half a cubic meter and I thought there is no way we (5 men) could lift it in the truck. I asked Vartkes to go look for a crane. He went in the truck with Arsen, and Napoleon (pronounced "Napalyon") got close to me and spilled his life story, while I calculated the volume of each branch on my credit-card-size calculator (that Lena got me on Iberian Airlines on her way back from Cairo in 1987).

Napoleon's wife died suddenly 5 years ago from a heart attack. She was 10 years younger than him and healthy. He said that she always climbed the mountain faster than he could. He had remained a lonely widower since then. Although he has one son and six married daughters. Napalyon had been born and lives in "Gladzor", a famous medieval university on top of a mountain near our house. But he had gone with his family to live in the Russian north Caucasus during his childhood. We were now at his "dacha", a decrepit old one storey building with a small barn for a few cows and two fierce Caucasian huge dogs to guard it. The bear-like-looking dogs were chained with heavy chains. My attention was drawn to two metal sheds next to the barn, with all sorts of stainless steel tubing and pressure gages sticking out. I was told that in these sheds was one of two liquid azot factories in Armenia, still in operation. This plant supplies the artificial insemination stations in Eastern Armenia with liquid nitrogen to store sperm. But like everything else, business is in decline and they can hardly scratch a living with it.

Soon later Vartkes had returned and he gave me the thumbs-up. Two minutes later a huge old soviet truck with a crane arrived and went down to the river bank. We started tying the logs with a cable and lifting them on to the truck. The operation for the ten logs lasted half an hour after which I asked the crane operator how much he wanted. He asked for 2500 drams (5 USD. He said as he was leaving : "For whatever purpose you are acquiring this wood, may you use it with joy".

Napoleon insisted that we should join him for a drink before we left. We entered the decrepit building into a small room with two beds end to end and with a small electric cooker on the floor. Napoleon's daughter-in-law had set a table for us and roasted some peppers on the stove. Napoleon's life memories (photographs) were glued on the wall. I could see his father with his black Caucasian costume, his mother with her head kerchief and all his children at different ages. He described each photo one by one with emotion pride and joy in his voice. We had some freshly baked bread with the roasted peppers, some mashed potatoes, some panir (cheese) and some home-made Touti Oghi (eau-de-vie made from mulberries). Of course we had one toast after another and Napoleon closed with another toast that we may use this wood with joy! (ourakhoutyamp)

I can just imagine the cupboards, dining-room table and chairs, beds that we will make. How can they not bring us joy after all this?

We returned slowly to Yeghegnadzor and took the wood to the sawmill (located on the highway to Yerevan, next to the USDA goat project). It reminded me of the Bénards' sawmill, next to our farm. The popoks will be sawed tomorrow and we will store them in our attic for a few months to dry before we process them into furniture.

The sun has just risen and Ararat is splendid and bright from my window as I finish writing these lines.
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Thursday, September 11, 2003

Letter 14: Water and Energy Shortages in Armenia

September 2003
The Blackout in North America this August is now almost forgotten. Yet I cannot help remember the number of times we thought we should teach these former Soviet Republics how to conserve energy. How they could make more airtight windows to keep the heat, how they can save water... This last item, water, is a sore point with me. I am now back in Yeghegnadzor, trying to renovate the house I bought, and am frustrated that drinking-water only comes sometimes through my pipes, and that for no more than one hour per day, while my neighbor downhill leaves his outside tap open to water his garden.

Yes, Soviet culture was based on free energy and water supply that were provided to every household. This obviously led to unwise consumption and waste. I remember when Sheila used to keep shutting-off the kitchen tap in our host family’s home, which was left running when washing dishes. She tried to make a point of it. One day, she did that in front of some guests. Our housemother quickly exclaimed: Oh I’m sorry, I forgot, Sheila likes to conserve water. The guest wondered: Do you not have enough water in Canada? Sheila said: Of course we do, and proceeded to explain how much water Canada had. The guest surmised: Then your large bodies of water must not be clean for household use!… Moral of the story: When you’ve got plenty for free, not even the smallest effort (such as turning a tap off – let alone fixing a leaky tap) needs to be made to conserve the resource… Yet Armenia, while having the world’s purest and tastiest waters, cannot be considered a country with water surplus... When we were in Yerevan, City water only came twice a day, 3 hours in the morning, and 3 hours in the evening. The rest of the time, people relied on filling-up bathtubs for their daily supply, or if they could afford it, install a reserve tank.

In 2003, Armenia decided to charge people for water usage. House and apartment owners were asked to purchase and install a water-meter; failing that they would be charged a much larger amount per month for water usage. A move that was welcome by some, but shocked so many others: Imagine, they said, now they want to sell us our own water! It is expected that this measure alone, will allow people in Yerevan to finally enjoy permanent water availability. I even heard that the pressure in the water system became so over-elevated when a substantial number of households in a neighborhood installed meters and fixed leaky taps that some sections of the network burst. Of course, there are also so many who cannot afford to buy a water-meter (about US $ 15).

A similar kind of a solution was devised to alleviate the energy shortages of the mid-nineties. First, the gas pipelines were blown-up by Azeri saboteurs. The people of Armenia spent almost three years freezing in the dark. The Government forced people to install electric-meters. Butane tanks became common practice, then natural gas returned and gas was provided to those who installed gas-meters and paid for their consumption. I must say, it seems to have worked, for I do not recall a blackout in Armenia during the year we spent there.

I have another anecdote that sheds some light on what happened. This past winter was the coldest on record in Armenia. Before knowing about this, we, as environmentally-conscious Canadians installed plastic sheets on all our windows to conserve the heat (and hopefully feel more comfortable). We noticed however that very few Armenian households had done the same. The cost was minimal (for us). It came to about US $ 10 to do all windows in our apartment. It wasn’t the most elegant thing, but we felt good about doing this. I was curious to see how our electric bill would compare with that of our neighbors this winter.

In Yerevan, householders do not get individual bills in the mail for their electric consumption. Instead, every apartment building gets one single printout that shows the electric consumption of each apartment and the amount to pay for each. The printout is posted at the building’s entrance for all to see. One then goes to the Post-office to pay one’s bill. It is therefore very easy to know what your neighbors consumed. Can you imagine my surprise when month after month this winter our electric bill surpassed that of all our native-Armenian neighbors by three-folds. Yes, despite our energy conservation efforts, extra insulation etc., we were far behind our native-Armenian neighbors in saving energy! And no! I checked, nobody was siphoning-off our electricity. So how could that happen? Did they go to Florida for the winter? Wrong again, they were still there. They simply did without.

Before we returned to Canada on June 7, we spent our last night again with our host family. We had moved-out of our apartment and they, with their usual generosity, offered us their bedroom. When I went to the bathroom in the morning to have a shower, there was no hot water. They hat unplugged the water heater and had not remembered to turn it back on for us.

Who are the winners, and who are the losers in this?
Among the winners are people like me, on the top of the mountain, who are the last in the queue to receive their share of “free” water, and who will finally get some. How many of us are there? A small minority, I suspect. Next come the civil servants who administer the distribution networks: They get to add their salaries to the distribution / meter-reading costs and they finally get paid. The manufacturers of electric and water meters are also winners because they realize sales to about a million Armenian households, keep in mind, all these meters are imported. So the people who hardly used water before, and conserved energy are penalized. They are forced to pay for imported meters. Yet again had there been no suspected waste of water and energy, would we have embarked on such an endeavor?
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Friday, July 11, 2003

Letter 13: The Lone Cyclist in the Snow

I am now back in Ottawa. It is a hot day; We have not been spared the heat wave, and I cannot help reminiscing about the coldest winter on record we spent in Armenia in 2002-2003.

In December, one of our volunteers, Narineh Azizian, a young woman with a huge and golden heart, conceived the idea that we, volunteers, would do something to cheer-up the thousands of less-fortunate children in Armenia. After a few meetings the idea took shape and we immediately started working on preparing group trips to visit orphanages in even more unfortunate cities than Yerevan.

We took "Dzemerr Babig" (Santaclaus) along, together with his beautiful helper "Dzuyn Anoush" (Snow-beauty, word-for-word translations from the Russian "Dyet Maroz" and "Snegourichka"). Being from Canada, I knew some of the risks involved in winter driving and warned our group of the dangers, we therefore made sure that we would check weather conditions before going.

That Saturday morning, we were to go to Gyumri. It had snowed on Friday, and Yerevan was covered by some 8 cms of snow, but it had subsided and the temperature was hovering close to the freezing mark. I was tempted to say: Let's not risk it, specially since the weekend before we had gone to Spitak in an old Marshutka (Minibus) and the water in their radiator had frozen and busted it. It had taken us then 5 hours to get there and 7 to return. But this time, we had splurged the extra money and hired a modern Minibus. The driver was there ready to take us. How could we let down all these children who were anxiously awaiting our arrival, all these preparations that our Gyumri volunteers had gone through, the fact that other volunteers from Spitak and Vanadzor were going to join us directly there... So we hoped "Rudolph the red-nose-reindeer" would guide us and we chanced it.

The road was snow covered but clear. Hardly any traffic. Not a good sign! I thought. But with all these enthused, beautiful young people around us how could we worry. Armen, Arina's new fiancé had joined us. He is a kick-boxing champion and instructor, fit like a tiger, so I felt re-assured. We sang, chatted and shared some of the goodies we brought along for the road.

I love the road to Gyumri, for if you sit on the left side, you can see Ararat for a good part of the journey. It normally takes less than 2 hours on this new highway by marshutka, and we were moving quite well, despite the snow-covered road. We hardly saw any other cars, and the packed snow muffled the noise of the road. It was a very serene morning. We were well dressed and warm. After we passed Talin, and started climbing the Shirak escarpment, I saw this dark dot in the snow on the road ahead of us. As we got closer, we saw that it was wobbling up and down the small bumps on the left side of the road, a wise move I thought for a cyclist. What! I thought: Do we also have crazy cyclists in Armenia, who tackle the snow-covered roads like we do in Canada? What kind of tires did they use? I was all curious and as we approached the 'crazy cyclist', the whole minibus had moved to the left-side windows to take a close look at this phenomenon. It was not till we were about 200 meters behind him that we realized that this was not a cyclist. It was a man running and pushing an automobile wheel alongside of him. There were no houses or cars in sight, and I could not remember how long ago we had passed a village on the road, nor did we know how far the next village would be. We all genuinely asked our driver to stop so we can offer the man a ride. He stopped. Armen, Taliban and I walked back to the guy to offer him help and a ride. He soon was in front of us, thick steam pouring-out of his nostrils. We noticed it was a young man in his mid-teens, but well-built. He didn't even stop to talk to us. He kept on going. He was not really dressed for the outdoors and I noticed that his gloveless hands were blue and swollen, or were his bones that thick?.. But he kept pushing that tire along. We offered to take him with us, in a warm minibus, offered him water, food, gloves... But he politely said No! and kept on running. We asked him: Aren't you cold. He said: "Votch-inch" (nothing!) shrugging his shoulders.

We were obviously intrigued by this brave and proud young man. So we cleaned the snow that had accumulated at the back of our bus then asked our driver to go slowly behind him, just in case he changed his mind. Soon enough, after a couple of turns, we saw a car stranded on the right side of the road with a wheel missing. It was covered with a bit of snow, and an older man was already outside waiting for our young cyclist with his tools in hand. I thought: What a brave and proud people. They have gone through so much hardship, this IS nothing for them!


Antoine Terjanian

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Letter 12: The dance of Sassoun

I came to Armenia to “move mountains” (read that: to “create jobs”). So what am I doing selling boxes with Grigor Khandjian’s “Sassountsineri Par” painted on them? I have never produced, designed or sold a piece of art in my life!

I love Russian art, and I particularly like the papier maché boxes painted by Russian miniature artists (from Palekh). They are beautiful! But it bothers me that they are being sold as souvenirs in Yerevan’s Vernissage street market and in souvenir shops around town. Don’t we have our own miniature artists and our own Armenian themes to paint?

Thinking about this, an idea came to mind -- why not reproduce Grigor Khandjian’s “Sassountsineri Par” on native-Armenian obsidian and ceramic boxes. Our famous poet, Gevorg Emin, had immortalized the proud struggle of the inhabitants of Sassoun in a poem by the same name. The poem is based on a true story. After three weeks of resisting a full fledged attack by the Ottoman army, the inhabitants of Sassoun had run-out of ammunition and food. They decided to face the final Ottoman army assaults dancing together. In their typical white costumes and with their typical pride, the Sassountsi decided they would dance together in a semi-circle, arm-in-arm. When the Ottomans shot them, they would keep on dancing, holding-up their dancing comrades that were hit by bullets. One-by-one the Sassountsi were hit, but together they kept on “dancing”, until finally, they all fell together.

Gevorg Emin wrote:

Baryx Sasovnn5 ov o.] a,qarhu hiaxaw5
Baryx Sasovnn5 ov o.] a,qarhu hasgaxaw5
Or bar [e sa5 a3l` mi yrgri
Ka] badmov;3ovn5
Ovr bardov;3ovnn ancam ovni hbardov;3ovn5
Yv [i ha.;i o[in[ a3n hin =o.owrtin5
Or a3s ]ankow ov a3s gamko\w
Baryl cidi777
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . .. .
Yv a3s baru
Masis ly-an lan]in barys777

Sassoun danced and the whole world marveled,
Sassoun danced and the whole world understood,
That this is NOT a dance, but the brave history of a country,
Where even defeat has pride.
And nothing can vanquish this ancient nation,
That knows how to dance with such ardor and will...
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . .. .
May you dance this dance on the slopes of Massis

Grigor Khandjian immortalized the poem with his painting by the same name and you can find it in Armenia’s National Art Gallery. I found three different Armenian artists who reproduced Khandjian’s painting on obsidian and ceramic boxes. I am proud to say that all three, first produced, boxes are already sold. The theme had touched the soul of Armenia’s Ambassador to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), Mr. Zohrab Malek. Our artists are now producing more of them for your enjoyment. You can see these boxes and learn how to order them by visiting: http://www.flickr.com/photos/armenvahramian/sets/72157602322325957/

(Antoine Terjanian is an Economist, Statistician and Geomatician from Canada. He is working as an AVC volunteer in Armenia on several projects, helping make Armenia self-reliant). To read the Armenian script, you require the arasan.ttf font.

© All rights reserved. This letter can be reproduced with full acknowledgements.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Letter 11: A wedding between 2 elections

February 19, 2003

Today is election day in Armenia, most businesses / government offices and schools are closed to encourage people to go and vote. I have some time to write, as I do not qualify to vote here. It has been snowing since last evening in Yerevan and we have a good 7 cms on the ground. The city is calm, and by what I observed, this is a fair election. However some may differ, and I am happy that those who differ (specially my good friend Peter Eicher) would like to see much higher standards applied for democracy and human rights in Armenia. see http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/field_activities/2003armenia/). There are many false rumors spread by opposition members. For example, a good and serious university student I know asked me on Monday to let Peter Eicher know that Kocharyan's supporters were offering people 20,000 drams for their passport, which they would hold so they can be sure they don't vote. She assured me the information was very reliable. I spoke about it to others to see if it was true. I did not find anyone to confirm the story. Some poor people I talked to were genuinely interested to deposit their passport for the duration of the election against a payment of 20,000 dr.

So I went back to this friend and asked where people could get 20,000 dr. She called me back after checking with her “reliable” source and said: unfortunately, they will only give the money to their friends. I pointed-out the contradiction in her statement.

The male/female ratio is quite exceptional here as the country has lost a lot of young men from the war in Karabagh as well as many of them leaving Armenia in search of work in Moscow or the United States. As a result, there is a surfeit of young women here and now that people know that I had a visit from a son, I have been getting all kinds of invitations for the next time James comes to Armenia! There are lots of young women here and they are very pretty and generally well educated -- so this may be one of the reasons for his inclination to come back!

The weather has now warmed up considerably and winter is more like the winter we had been expecting. The temperature hovers between about 4º Celsius and minus 4 or 5, which is very bearable for Ottawans and the sunshine and warmer weather have melted all the ice and snow that were making walking dangerous while Anoush and James were here. They really saw the worst of Armenian weather. People tell us they haven’t seen a winter like we had in December and January for 40 to 70 to 100 years, depending upon the person! So it is a little disappointing that we were so focused on staying warm while they were here. We did have a lot of cosy times around the kitchen table, surrounded by heaters and Kleenex boxes, but we couldn’t warm up our living room and so we weren’t able to do much entertaining for them. The sun is wonderful here, and I am now sitting in the kitchen with the lovely sunshine streaming in on my back.

So with this better weather, I have decided that it really is a great place to live in the winter and have started to look at apartments with the thought that I might make this our winter residence. There is so much to do here that is useful. I guess my problem is that I am just not a golfer! I really enjoy the work we have been doing here and every where you turn, there is another place that needs our experience. In addition, it is rather exciting to be in a young country that is starting to grow and it is very pleasant to be working with young people again. We are also surrounded by orchestras and theatre groups and dance troupes that are extremely accomplished and we can see the kind of concert that we would enjoy in Ottawa for a fraction of the price -- although you have to keep your coat on!

Yesterday we were invited to another Armenian wedding - the daughter of the sister of an Armenian immigrant in Ottawa that I had befriended when he first arrived. Her name is Laora. This family, like everyone else here, has been living frugally on the salary of the only employed member, Laora. She is a linguist and specialist in international relations and has a job at the Egyptian embassy - probably as a secretary and probably earning no more than $200 a month if she is lucky. Her mother is an unemployed engineer and her father is dying slowly from lung cancer and she also has a brother who is 28 and appears to be unemployed as well, though trying for work in Moscow.

She married a lovely young Armenian from Tbilisi and so the wedding was unusual in that half of the guests were from Georgia, although they were all Armenians. As requested, we arrived at their apartment for 1:30 in the afternoon and found her there in a simple white wool dress with her mother, her aunt and her mother’s cousin and daughter. We weren’t sure at all what was going to happen! They had set out a table with cakes, nuts, fruit and lots of glasses, cognac, and vodka. About an hour after we arrived, there was a great honking and noise on the street below and we all hung out the windows (we were on the 9th floor) to see a bus and lots of cars arriving and then three musicians playing traditional Armenian instruments come out and people began dancing in the street before the apartment building and holding great baskets in their hands. The next thing we knew, the apartment was invaded by the musicians and about 40 people who all piled into a rather small living room. After introductions, I suddenly noticed that all women had left the room and they all squeezed into the bedroom, into which they had brought the biggest basket. It turned out that the basket contained the bridal outfit - complete with underwear and shoes! The tradition is that the groom’s family dresses the bride (actually they even take her to the public bath and dress her there) -- here the groom pays for all of the weddings. So I had been taking all kinds of pictures (see: http://photos.yahoo.com/geghamvoskanyan ) when we first arrived, thinking that Laora’s simple wool dress was her wedding gown and here she was being decked out in lace and flowers and chiffon! In the meantime, the men were drinking cognac and eating sweets in the living room. When she was ready, the groom came to bring out his bride and then we all descended to the cars and bus below, once again to the loud and lively music of the three musicians.

The actual wedding ceremony was only about 10 minutes long, and we waited our turn as wedding parties came in and out of the church, one after another. (There are only seven churches in Yerevan, a result of the Soviet period when churches were destroyed. We were relieved with the short ceremony as the Armenian orthodox mass is three hours long!) Then we followed the bride & groom’s car, honking in the street and circled Republic Square (former Lenin Square) three times. Then we all went to the “Miami restaurant”. When we learned of the wedding, Laora’s mother came to borrow some money from me because “she needed money for the wedding”. I had offered our apartment to help them out and they declined as the guests were “invited to a restaurant” afterwards. Well, I was happy to see that Laora has evidently married into a well-off family as the “restaurant” turned out to be a magnificent hall with high ceilings, great tables filled with food and a live orchestra and wonderful dance floor. To my delight, we started with plates of black and red caviar. As the night progressed, the food kept coming. At 11 p.m., the last platters arrived - platters of what Armenians call the prince of fish, a great trout from Lake Sevan -- and we left at 11:30 to the protests of the bride and groom -- but we were exhausted!

One of the things I love here is that everyone loves to dance and the dancing went on all afternoon and night. The music is usually Armenian but this time they also played some Georgian and some Russian music, as well as a couple of Arabic songs in honour of the Egyptian ambassador who was there with his family. It is almost as if they can’t help themselves; as soon as the music starts, everyone streams onto the dance floor. It is not necessary to have a partner. Men dance with women, other men or in groups and similarly for the women. And, of course, they do these great traditional line dances that we know so well. In between, there were speeches and toasts. Armenians love to give toasts and they can talk on and on in very poetic language. In addition, the groom sang, the bride’s brother sang, the ambassador’s children sang; everyone loves to perform here, especially with a live orchestra. About half-way through the dinner the Master of Ceremony, suggested to guests to present their gifts to the Newlyweds. Many had nicely boxed jewellery, but some had envelopes that they handed the Bride or Groom. So it was a very lavish wedding. And now hopefully, this family has another wage-earner who will be able to provide them with a little easier life. As I am very fond of Laora, I was happy to find that the groom is a terrific fellow, kind, serious and very respectful to Laora’s family. I especially loved him because he dances traditional Armenian dances well!

We have another wedding next week. One of our Armenian friends in Ottawa married a widow here and her son is getting married to a young woman in a village (Garni) about half an hour’s drive from Yerevan. The actual wedding is being held at a beautiful monastery called Geghard (http://www.cilicia.com/armo5_geghard.html ) that was carved out of the rocks of the mountain in 1200. We expect a very different wedding this time and we figure we are pretty lucky ‘tourists’ to be invited to both a posh Yerevan wedding and a village wedding, all in the same month.

Tuesday, March 4, 2003

Tomorrow is “election day” for the second round of the Presidential election. Yesterday was a televised debate between R. Kocharyan and S. Demirjyan, handily won by the incumbent President. Demirchyan has organised massive but peaceful protests, and accusations of fraud during the elections are prevalent. What a pity that we are such a nation that still has not learned to respect democracy and the will of the people.
The wedding of Moses Keoshkerian and Narineh’s son (Artyom) to Manoush went very well. But the actual church was not Keghart because of the snow. Photos can be seen at: photos.yahoo.com/narinekoshkaryan

Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Today is election day for the second round of Presidential elections. All is very calm. We went to see last week an excellent satyric play making fun of the incumbent President and of politicians and of everything that is wrong in Armenia.

I don't know if this country NEEDS a change of government. It needs most of all economic development, jobs, our involvement. People would not cheat in an election, or accept to be paid to vote or cheat unless they were desperate. But unfortunately I have a strong suspicion that the present regime is trying to maintain itself via cheating tactics, to be fair, perhaps in fear that the opposition is doing the same. I am disappointed. Is this the country we want to be? Is this the people we are? Do we have to cheat to win? Do we always complain that the situation is unfair to us when we loose and that there is either cheating or treason involved? I just witnessed such an incident myself coming to work this morning. It is one incident, is it prevalent? But I saw it and tell like I saw it:

Rhoda, another AVC Volunteer from Britain, has taken time off to be an OSCE/ODIHR official observer. She is assigned to the schools next to our office. So on my way to work, I dropped-in to say hi! As I entered the room, an attempt to cheat was in progress. A young (25) man was attempting to stuff ballots in the box and the inspector (a 40 yr old woman) caught him and grabbed his hands before he was able to stuff them. He started punching her. Ignoring all AVC warnings, I jumped on him and grabbed him. He started to try and run away, still with the stuffing ballots in his hands. At this point, a tall young man, wearing eyeglasses and a black leather jacket punched me and then grabbed me to make me let go of the offender, who got away. By then the police arrived, three 30 yr old men in uniform. I pointed to the guy who hit me and was walking slowly away, and said that’s him. They walked behind him with no attempt to arrest him. I went to the office and recounted the event to Jason and asked him to accompany me back to the polling station in case they needed an eye witness. We went back in there. Because the tall man in the black leather coat had a strong resemblance to Jason, people pointed to him as we entered. But we quickly explained who we were, and found out that the offender had gotten away with the fake ballots he was attempting to stuff. No one was interested in having an eyewitness. I suppose the officials were busy and did not want to jeopardize the process. On our way out two men followed us, one was well dressed, the other unshaven. They asked us who we were supporting, we said “no one”, we are diasporans and cannot vote. The unshaven guy said he was working for Kocharyan and wanted to calm the situation. The clean guy said he was an official observer (but not with OSCE). None of them showed ID (we did not ask). The clean guy wanted to note my name. I asked them to call the policemen so I can give my particulars to them. They said the police is not allowed in here so as not to intimidate voters. I said we were outside and they could come, but they offered again to take my name, I replied that I will give it to the OSCE observation mission. When we walked away, a woman who was there voting and leaving told us she knew the young tall guy who punched me and identified him as a Kocharyan worker. She looked and sounded honest and afraid to speak-up.