Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Letter 25 : That stubborn pain, the pain of hope!

Yeghegnadzor, Monday, November 12, 2007



Here, on the steep slopes of our mountains, there is no time for life (Kyanqi hamar zhamanaq ch’ka). We do, like those who rise towards God: We forget pain! That stubborn pain, the pain of hope!



Onnik is the man in his seventies who lives on 5 Khachatryan st., the other end of our street. He welcomed us so kindly when we first moved in that I thought I would ask him for advice on where to acquire the goods and services we needed locally. I called several times the number he had given us; no one answered. Then I saw him on the street and asked if I had taken-down his number wrong. He said no, you have the correct number, it is just that they have cut my phone line (for non-payment - 900 drams). So I asked him if perhaps his wife would be willing to wash our laundry, since city water rarely reached our house at the time (because of our altitude). He checked with her and we started taking our laundry there and his phone line started working.



Onnik is an agricultural economist who had a relatively important position in Soviet times. His family came from Karagloukh, a village on the Silk Road, up in the mountains just before you reach the Selim caravanserail which was built in the 13th century by the Orbelyan princes. “Kara Gloukh” means “Stone Head”, not because these villagers are stubborn, I am told, but because of a big rock in the form of a head marking the entrance to the village. If they were all like Onnik, they should have called the village “Voske Sirt”, for Onnik has a heart of gold.

He used to visit me regularly when he knew I was alone and he recited Parouyr Sevak poetry for me, he explained to me the nuances and the different versions of the same poems published in Soviet times, some by the underground press.

He liked to indulge in a bit of oghi and used to smoke. When he noticed our non-smoking sign, he stopped smoking all-together. He ran to our house whenever it looked like we might be needing help or some vegetables from their garden. I always slipped him a banknote or two; then when he noticed that we liked our privacy, he always called first. Onnik complained about his eyes, so I helped him establish contact with some generous Americans who had come to visit us (the Eyecare Project and VOSH). They offered him free eye care and surgery.

Whenever we had visitors, we suggested they have a family meal at Onnik’s instead of going to a restaurant, it helped the local economy and it gave our visitors an opportunity to visit an Armenian village home and experience their hospitality. It is a win/win deal.



On their living room wall they used to have a framed photo of his older brother who died in 1944, in the “Hayrenakan Paterazm” (Patriotic War), just before his battalion reached Berlin. When I came to Yeghegnadzor last March, the photo inside the frame had been replaced by Onnik’s son, the one who lived and worked in Leningrad and used to send him some $ 100 per month. He had died in January in a car accident there and Onnik borrowed the money to go and burry him, in Leningrad; yes, they still call it by the old name here.

Last week he called me late at night. He wanted to borrow some money in a hurry to get his second son, Azat, out of the morgue so he could bury him. They had not seen him for a couple of days, they found him after breaking down the door of his house, where he lived alone.

I had seen Azat a few times at Onnik’s house, on the street, and even once lying on the sidewalk, dead-drunk (a sight you rarely find in Armenia). For some reason I never felt any sympathy for him. I thought there are enough people looking for work here, why would I encourage a drunken tramp. I never offered him work, nor did I ever invite him to our house. But I felt sorry for him this spring when I saw him limping badly. I was told his foot had frozen this winter and they had to amputate his toes. What a difference I thought between Onnik and him, how could they be related?

At the funeral I learned who Azad was. He was a brilliant child and student who graduated with honours from Yerevan’s Polyteknik Institute. He got married, built a beautiful house and had three daughters. Then came independence, the Karabagh war and unemployment. He went to Moscow and worked at anything he could find to send money for his wife and kids. He was one of those Armenians who were badly beaten in the Moscow metro by neo-fascist skinheads. He was lucky he did not die, although in retrospect, perhaps Azat died then. When he returned home, his wife was having an affair. He took to the bottle.



Yes, we forgot pain, that stubborn pain of hope!





Antoine S. Terjanian



Went there to move mountains

to read all my letters from Armenia, click on http://lettersfromarmenia.blogspot.com/



Please feel free to disseminate this letter.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Lettre 25: (French) Ce mal tenace, le mal de l'espoir

Yeghegnadzor, lundi, 12 novembre 2007



Ici, aux pentes raides de nos montagnes, pas de temps pour la vie (Kyanqi hamar zhamanaq ch’ka). Nous faisons comme ceux qui s’élèvent vers Dieu : Nous oublions la douleur! Ce mal tenace, le mal de l’espoir!



Onnik est le septuagénaire qui habite au 5, rue Khachatryan, à l’autre bout de notre rue. Il nous avait accueilli si gentiment quand nous avions emménagé que j’avais pensé lui demander conseil pour savoir où acquérir les biens et services dont nous aurions besoin, localement. J’ai composé plusieurs fois le numéro de téléphone qu’il nous avait donné, personne ne répondait. Je l’ai alors croisé dans la rue et lui ai demandé de vérifier si j’avais mal copié son numéro. Non, me dit-il, vous avez le bon numéro, ils m’ont coupé la ligne (pour non-paiement des frais – 900 drams). Je lui ai alors demandé si sa femme pourrait faire notre lessive, puisque l’eau courante atteignait rarement notre maison (à cause de son altitude). La réponse positive de sa femme vint sans tarder. Nous avons amené notre lessive chez eux et leur téléphone se remit à fonctionner.



Onnik est un économiste agricole qui occupait un poste relativement important en période Soviétique. Sa famille est originaire de Karagloukh, un village sur la Route de la Soie, dans les montagnes, juste avant le fameux caravansérail Sélim, bâti au 13e siècle par les princes Orbélyan. ‘Kara Gloukh’ signifie ‘Tête de Pierre’, non pas parce que ses villageois sont têtus, m’ont-il-dit, mais à cause du gros rocher en forme de tête qui surplombe l’entrée du village. S’ils étaient tous comme Onnik, ils auraient pu appeler le village ‘Voske Sirt’ car Onnik a un cœur en or. Il venait me visiter régulièrement quand il savait que j’étais seul et me récitait la poésie de Parouyr Sevak. Il m’expliquait les nuances et les différentes versions du même poème publiées sous les soviétiques, parfois par la presse clandestine. Il aimait bien prendre un coup d’oghi et fumait beaucoup. Il arrêta de fumer complètement quand il nous a vu afficher notre interdiction de fumer. Il accourait chez nous chaque fois qu’il paraissait que nous aurions besoin d’aide ou de légumes de son jardin. Je lui ai à chaque fois glissé un petit billet; puis, quand il a compris que nous n’aimions pas trop être dérangés, il nous a toujours téléphoné avant de venir.


Chaque fois que nous avions des visiteurs, nous leur suggérions de prendre un repas ‘en famille’ chez Onnik, au lieu d’aller au restaurant. Ceci aide l’économie locale et permet au touriste un contact privilégié avec nos gens et leur hospitalité.



Dans la salle de famille où nous prenions nos repas, on voyait dans son cadre en bois, la photo de son frère aîné, mort en 1944, dans la “Hayrenakan Paterazm” (Guerre pour la Patrie), juste avant que son bataillon n’atteigne Berlin. Quand je suis retourné à Yeghegnadzor ce printemps, la photo à l’intérieur du cadre avait été remplacée par un autre jeune homme, le fils d’Onnik, celui qui travaillait à Leningrad et lui envoyait 100 $ par mois. Il avait été tué là-bas en janvier dans un accident de voiture. Onnik avait emprunté des sous pour aller l’enterrer, à Leningrad, oui, on l’appelle toujours du même nom ici.



La semaine passée Onnik m’appela tard le soir. Il voulait emprunter vite de l’argent pour sortir son second fils, Azat, de la morgue, pour l’enterrer. Ils ne l’avaient pas vu pour 2 jours. Ils l’avaient trouvé mort après avoir défoncé la porte de sa maison, où il vivait seul.


J’avais aperçu Azat quelquefois à la maison d’Onnik, je l’avais croisé dans la rue, et même trouvé couché sur le trottoir, ivre-mort (ce qui n’est pas commun du tout en Arménie). Je ne sais pas pourquoi, mais je n’ai jamais eu de sympathie pour lui. Je pensais : Il y a tellement d’autres personnes qui nous supplient pour du boulot, pourquoi encourager un clochard? Je ne lui ai jamais proposé du travail et ne l’ai jamais invité chez nous. J’ai cependant eu pitié quand je l’ai vu boiter misérablement ce printemps. On m’a dit que son pied avait gelé en hivers et qu’on a dû lui amputer les orteils.


Je me disais : Quelle différence entre Onnik et lui? Comment peut-il être son fils?



J’ai su qui Azat était, à ses funérailles.


Il avait été un enfant prodige, un étudiant brillant, premier de sa promotion à l’Institut Polytechnique d’Erevan. Il s’est marié, construisit une belle maison et eu trois filles. Puis vint l’Indépendance, l’écroulement de l’Union Soviétique, la guerre du Karabagh et le chômage. Il partit pour Moscou où il fit n’importe quoi pour envoyer des sous à sa femme et enfants restés en Arménie. Il fût l’un de ces Arméniens qui furent sauvagement battus dans le métro de Moscou par des néo-fascistes au crâne rasé. Heureusement, il eu la vie sauve; mais rétrospectivement, Azat était peut-être déjà mort ce jour là. Quand il rentra en Arménie, sa femme avait pris un amant. Il prit la bouteille.



Oui, nous oublions la douleur, ce mal tenace de l’espoir!



Antoine S. Terjanian


J’y suis allé pour déplacer les montagnes


Pour lire mes lettres d’Arménie, clickez sur http://lettersfromarmenia.blogspot.com/



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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Letter 24: When Mané's great-grandmother died


Letter 24: When Mané's great-grandmother died
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Her name was Elizabeth. She was born in 1918, a few months after the Sartarapat victory. She got married in 1936 and had two daughters, one of them Rima, Mané’s grandmother.
I met her for the first time six months ago, the night before Mané flew to Canada on a scholarship. Mané had invited me for a good-bye dinner party at Rima’s house.

They called her ‘Nana’. She was sitting on the couch side of the dinner table and she looked so sweet with her hair covered in a cone-shaped scarf, I decided to sit next to her.
I found out she had almost zero vision, but she was sharp and witty and laughed and responded in kind to my jokes. She was so sweet, I couldn’t help go and visit her regularly after that. I brought her bananas (an imported fruit in Armenia, a luxury in Soviet times). I always joked: “Don’t let anybody have them, these are for you”. She never ate any, they all went to her great-grandchildren. I always brought my lap-top along during these visits and showed the rest of the family photos I received from Canada. She sat-up in her bed and listened to the conversations, to my jokes, she sometimes commented or asked a question.
I saw her two days before she died. She had been refusing to eat or drink. She did not sit-up in her bed. I tried to joke with her, my usual joke : “Get well quickly so I can come for you and kidnap you and take you away”. No response. I left heavy-hearted.
Today I went to her funeral. As is the custom in Armenia, her coffin’s cover was standing at their house’s entrance. Men, friends and neighbors were standing nearby. She was laying in the open coffin, right where the dining table was, surrounded by benches where women, family and neighbors were sitting, mourning in silence. I stayed in the ante-chamber for about an hour and a half. I listened to the emotional mourning of one of her great-granddaughters. She sat by her coffin and went on and on: My Nana, my sweet Nana, my wise my docile Nana. My Nana who kept my secrets. My tortured Nana. You’ve suffered so much for us. These hands, Nana, these fingers that clawed the soil constantly to feed us. My sweet my sensible my delicate Nana… I wept.
They carried her open coffin to the cemetery nearby. They wept and said goodbyes and covered the coffin with earth and went back home to mourn. The day after burial, Armenians hold a wake. Friends and relatives go to the deceased’s home and have a meal together and then go a second time to the cemetery to visit the deceased. It is during this funeral meal and related traditional toasts that I learned a lot about Mané’s Nana and the hard life she had. I would never have guessed it from looking at her, so delicate, so sweet. Soon after she had her two daughters her husband was sent to the Ukrainian front and was killed in action in 1941. Did she receive a Soviet pension? Of course she did, but what is a pension when you have to raise two toddlers on your own, and what happened to Soviet pensions when the USSR collapsed! She went to work in the tobacco fields in their kolkhoz, so said her kolkhoz colleague who headed our table. Stalin used to say that agriculture is an activity that needs to be done at the ‘right time’. If you did it earlier or later than required, you are doomed to fail. Elizabeth worked the fields day and night, ‘like a man’ they nodded. They recalled how she once dragged an abandoned log home to heat the house for her children. She never stopped; she continued to work their own garden and fed her household till last year when she became incapacitated.
Nana, so frail, so delicate and considerate. I could not imagine that she would have toiled so much. Didn’t they all?
Hoghu vran tetev lini (may the earth be light on her).

Antoine S. Terjanian

Went there to move mountains
to read all my letters from Armenia, click on http://lettersfromArmenia.blogspot.com

Please feel free to disseminate this.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Letter 23 Buying a cement truckload in Armenia

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Thank God the parliamentary elections went relatively well (better than the last election, improving like everything else in Armenia)… Thank God there is no war going on here… We still have quite a few problems to deal with though.

This morning, my neighbour Vartkes asked me how much I paid for a truckload of cement I bought directly from the factory last week. When I told him I paid 37000 drams per ton + 26000 for the transport, his reaction was: ‘Aynkan tangatsel e’ (It has gone up so much)! And he proceeded to blame ‘Doddy Gago’ for jacking-up the price after he bought the factory. (Doddy Gago is one of those oligarchs who made a quick buck buying-up everything when the Soviet Union collapsed. He is now reputed to be ‘Godfather’ to thousands of local Armenians.)

On May 10, I took 300,000 drams cash (about 1000 US$) out of the bank and rode with two young men in an old ‘Zil’ Soviet truck to the town of Ararat, normally a one hour trip across the Nakhichevan range west of Yeghegnadzor. The town of Ararat, in the Ararat valley, is 20 kilometres east of Khor Virap (the place where Srb Grigor Lousavorij was held prisoner in the third and fourth centuries). Ararat was an industrial city in Soviet times, but now most factories are closed, except for a large cement factory, which now operates 24 hours per day and is fueling the construction boom in Armenia. A Canadian-owned gold mine and a stone cutting facility are two other operating plants I know of.

In 2003, when we first started building our house, we paid 2000 drams for a 50 kilogram bag of cement. Now the price has risen to 2300 drams per bag in the local stores. This time, I went to buy the cement directly from the factory in Ararat basically to help a young man, Arman, who wanted to earn some income selling the extra cement we would bring in his truckload. I thought I would learn something in the process. I did.

When we started climbing the Nakhichevan range towards the ‘Toukh Manouk’ pass, the driver, noticed that the motor was heating-up, so we stopped and added water to the radiator. Ten minutes later we did the same thing. It was obvious the old radiator had sprung a leak. I suggested we return to Yeghegnadzor, reasoning that if we were having problems with an empty truck, how would we manage with a full load? But both Arman and the driver insisted they could fix it. So we stopped in a restaurant by the road and bought another packet of cigarettes and some ‘Karmir Pipar’ (red pepper). The driver ground the tobacco with his fingers, added the karmir pipar to it, and then put this mixture into the radiator and off we went again. Needless to say, an altitude of 1800 metres was too much even for that miraculous concoction, and by the time we got to ‘Zangakatoun’ (birth-town of our famous poet ‘Barouyr Sevak’, also where his ‘house-museum’ is located), the motor heated-up again. The rest of the way, we stopped every ten minutes to refill the radiator with whatever water we could find.

By the time we made it to Ararat, it was half-past noon. First, we lined-up with other trucks to pay for the cement. The ‘treasurer-cashier,’ a lady in her mid-thirties, asked us where we were taking the cement. We said to Yeghegnadzor. She then asked whether it was for our own use or for sale by a registered company. When we said it was for our own use, but that we intended to make some money on selling part of the load, she replied: “You therefore don’t need an official cash-register receipt. I will only give you a special voucher which will allow you to load the 8 tons you paid for and ask you to bring me back the voucher on the way out.” I quickly realized what was going on” “But how will we show the owner of the house how much we paid for the cement?” I said. She replied: “You are bringing him the cement aren’t you?” When I insisted that we would still need to show him how much we paid, we reluctantly got an official cash-register receipt for the full amount of 296000 drams and proceeded to the factory to load the cement. As if this was not enough, while loading the cement, the manager there approached us and offered to load an additional ton for 20,000 drams cash (under the table).

So I decided to recount this story to Vartkes, explaining to him that if the price of cement went up, it was because these crooked employees were robbing us all. He nodded in agreement: “We always blame the king, but how could the king be good if his people are so rotten!” he said.

This conversation reminded me of how shocked I was on my first visit to Armenia, in the summer of 2002, when a worker on lake Sevan had made this fortuitous assertion: ‘Hayu misht gogh e yeghel, Hayu chi gara ch’goghanal.’ I also remembered the approach to combat corruption in Armenia advocated by Tom Samuelian: Start with the judicial system, offer the judges a proper salary so they do not need to take bribes.

Were these cement-factory workers paid properly or were they just greedy?

Sheila often recounts what our friend Gegham told us in Canada before our first trip to Armenia. Gegham said that when he was driving in Armenia (indeed the Soviet Union), he always had a small banknote in with his driver’s license. Whenever he was stopped by a policeman, and he presented the driver’s license, he got it back minus the banknote. He would then tuck another banknote with the license in preparation for the next time he was stopped. He explained: “You people think this is a bribe, but to us, we know this policeman is not paid enough to feed his family, and we can afford a car, so think of it as an extra tax.” Well if this policeman was able to supplement his salary this way, how would his chief of police who does not have direct contact with the driving public? We learned that to be hired as a policeman one had to pay a small fortune to the chief of police, usually borrowing it and paying it back by stopping as many drivers as possible. Wait a minute! How is that different from the corrupt tax-collectors of Ottoman times who bought their function?

Take for another example the school teachers. Everyone knows that in 2002 their monthly salary was 12000 drams (approximately 25 USD$). No one expected them to live on that. So it was natural that they would work overtime to supplement their income. They gave private lessons after hours. Now this is perfectly normal and honest. But what if the teacher came and suggested to the parent: ‘Your child may not pass the grade unless he got private lessons’, or ‘your child will not get good enough grades to enter university unless he got private lessons’… What if the child actually never got the private lessons, only the good grades?… What if the school principal only hired school teachers who paid him?...

In June 2003 when I left Armenia for the first time, I had bought four carpets to take home. I knew that they had to be accompanied by certificates from the Ministry Of Culture stating that they were not cultural heirlooms, so I had these ready with me. Sure enough a customs official approached me and asked for the certificates. He examined them and then pointed to the photograph of one particular carpet and said: where is the yellow sheet that goes with this certificate. I had left it at home. Without that extra yellow sheet, you have to pay taxes, he said. Since friends had accompanied us to the airport, I decided to leave the carpet with them and wait until my next trip to bring out the carpet with the proper documentation which, I knew, was in our house in Yeghegnadzor. I told the official that I had been working in Armenia for the past year as a ‘volunteer’ trying to promote exports, and I thought that what he was doing was counter-productive as he was, in fact, discouraging exports. He replied, without any irony in his voice: “Did you say you worked as a ‘volunteer’? Does this mean you worked for no pay”? I said yes. Well, he said, then I am also working here as a volunteer because I have not been paid for 6 months.”

Needless to say things, have improved since then (in fact, every time I return to Armenia I notice things that have improved): The teachers’ salaries have now gone up to 60,000 drams per month (about 170 USD). A Presidential decree in 2003 abolished any luggage inspection for customs purposes upon exit (in fact I have never had my luggage checked since on entry or exit). This year when I returned in March, the Militia (police) stations on the highways, at the entrance to Yerevan, had disappeared. (I am told they were replaced by automatic cameras). I know judges’ salaries have been raised. So while it looks as if the public service is being cleaned-up, I frankly never expected that the ‘private sector’ would still be so corrupt.

AST 
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