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.
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