Don’t hold the front page 

There are no newspapers and magazines to be found in Goris. And, now I come to think of it, there were none in the small local shops in my first village–although that was less surprising. In Yerevan, where I know there are some very good bookshops, perhaps it is possible to leaf through a copy of Cosmopolitan, or The Economist or Yogurt Producers Weekly, but I can’t be sure.

Although print is in decline all over the world, I don’t know if locally-produced media has gone out of business here, or if it never existed? This country has a small, spread-out and poor population and a language all its own: perhaps a daily newspaper (considered the poor man’s pleasure in Britain since the time of Pepys)  has never been part of life here? I haven’t been to a dentist’s office so I don’t know if they have Russian language magazines, or none at all.  When I went to the hairdressers for a highly luxurious mani/pedi, there was no way of keeping up with the Kardashians, or following the social ins and outs of Armenia’s oligarchs and their offspring. That was rather a relief. 

Cigarettes, sweets and other small essentials like batteries and disposable lighters are available in corner shops and supermarkets, but there are no newspapers and magazines either domestic or international where you would expect to find them.

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Annahit–bosom pal material?

That is not to say that there is a shortage of local journalism. There is a Press Club in Goris — I met a rather glorious woman called Annahit today, and she is one of five journalists based there. There is a National Press club in Yerevan which seems to generate a TV news story every evening: important looking foreigners spend a lot of time opining from there. I have met two people in Goris–a town where I have perhaps  spoken to twenty people in total–who are photojournalists and have their own professional video and audio equipment. One of these chaps trained as a history teacher but now supplements his income from camerawork by working on the reception desk at a local hotel.  There is also a woman who has a professional blue screen studio set up in the same building as our crochet collective, but I haven’t met her yet.  

Across the country there are as many half a dozen TV stations–I still get them mixed up–who all have extensive newscasts before the Indian soap opera hour at 9pm. Whatever channel you watch, there is always a story featuring the President, something about Nagorno-Karabakh and the general shortcomings of Azerbaijan as a neighbor, and a tale of woe from a home or community with subsidence, or flooding, or mould or similar. The newsreaders are women with immobile faces, scary lips and nails, and strict expressions. They are undoubtedly the ones in charge. Their male counterparts are usually slightly tubby and nerdy looking. The men who do the sport are sweaty, dark of brow and jowl, and stuffed into suits that are just a little too small. Their knotted neckwear never quite meets the top button of their shirts.  They become very worked up when talking about Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona and always look at though they want to rip off that troublesome tie, and shrug off the too-straight jacket. Usually, they have no moving pictures of the game to show: Armenia isn’t really a player when it comes to bidding for soccer screening rights.

Last night there was a happy story about UNHCR and European Union support for Syrian refugees in Armenia. The refugees were filmed enjoying a hop-on hop-off bus tour of Yerevan. On the bus was this slogan in English:  Yerevan. Feel the Warmness. They could have used a bilingual copy-editor. 

As part of the Syrian story, I saw my friend Hayasa on the news– she runs Aleppo NGO here.  I probably know 50 people in all of Armenia and it is almost certain that at least one of them will be on the news every night. This may be because the news programs always finish with a feelgood story and so the volunteer community is often featured, helping sick children, strolling appreciatively in nature while monitoring water quality, or challenging locals to a bracing game of something involving a ball and a net. But I think everyone in Armenia knows someone on the news every night, I really do. 

Other than a shortage of information about red-carpet dresses and celebrity autopsies, I am not deprived of news from the world beyond the Caucasus. Here in Goris I have 24 hour internet access and can listen to BBC Radio 4 (the 6 o’clock news, the light relief, and the Archers) as I get ready for bed–we are three hours ahead of London.  Boston’s excellent NPR speech station, WBUR, keeps me informed during the night. I have also discovered the deep joy of the podcast, thanks to a new venture launched by a friend in Washington DC. I have known Bruno Falcon, the presenter of Applying to Everything since before his voice broke. Nowadays he asks a broad range of questions in deep, velvety tones and talks to people you haven’t heard of, but who have something interesting to say. Last night’s conversation was with a therapist who shares Bruno’s love of superheroes and comic books. I can’t stop thinking about the Incredible Hulk and his response to fear… 

Arts in Armenia: A Beginner’s Guide

Hooked on Trivia? Compulsive when it comes to crosswords? Proud of your performance at the pub quiz? Don’t risk being caught out by a question on the arts in Armenia–it could come up at any time. I am as fond of a general knowledge test as the next nerd, but I will confess that, up until very recently, my mental file on all things arty in Armenia was very slim indeed. I could still easily be stumped but, in a spirit of information-sharing, I pass on such knowledge as I now have. At the very least, it may help you set fiendishly difficult questions for your foes. Ch’argi. Ձարժե It’s nothing. Khantrem. խնդեմ You’re welcome.

Artist: Martiros Saryan  is founder of the modern school of Armenian art and a painter whose pictures of the Armenian landscape you may well have seen–not least on the dress I had specially made for my swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  My favorite thing about the 1923 painting is not the depiction of Ararat (although I DO love that mountain), but the women dancing at my hem (there is a detail below). Women and music, plus mountains were a bit of a theme for Saryan. He lived from 1880 to 1972 and was awarded the order of Lenin 3 times. If you are unable to see me and my dress, you can always visit the M. Sarian House-Museum in Yerevan where many of his paintings are displayed.

 

Fashion Designer: I love the work of Edgar Artis  who designs dresses using every day objects. Will my next special occasion dress be made from salad–or pencil sharpenings? Follow Edgar on Instagram to see all his fabulous creations.

 

saroyanLiterature: The big daddy of the Armenian writers is William Saroyan who, like those pub quiz staples Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw is famous for saying lots of wise and memorable things, many of them contradictory. If you need a quote about writing, madness or being Armenian, he is your man. He won the Pulitzer prize in 1940–his is a handy name to know if you are asked to list five such winners.  He is quoted at the end of the Armenian film “The Promise”.

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

You can check out some of his other quotes here

FullSizeRender (13)Poetry: I want to give a shout out to Goris’ local boy made good: Axsel Bakunts, a poet and short story writer born in Goris in 1899 and killed on Stalin’s orders in 1937. His crime: alienation from socialist society. As a schoolboy in Goris, Bakunts was first arrested at the age of 15, for satirising the town’s mayor. Not much of Bakunts work is published in English–or if it is, it is not available online, or here in Goris. Wondering how Bakunts’ writing compared to that of Jonathan Swift or Flann O’Brien, two great Irish satirists, I asked my Hayeren tutor, a native of Goris, if she knew what Bakunts had said that so enraged the town. “Probably no-one read it” she said “It was just talked about, and that was enough”. Interesting to discover that sort of thing happened even in an age before Twitter…

Here in Goris there is a rather lovely small museum commemorating Bakunts, in the house where he was born. In addition to displays of many artefacts, paintings of his mum, and so on, there is also a beautiful garden where would -satirists can sit and think creative thoughts.

 

Film: The Golden Apricot Film Festival takes place in Yerevan in July and so presumably my knowledge of Armenian cinema will be broadened beyond The Promise, this spring’s Hollywood take on the Armenian genocide. The film, though hamfisted and with a couple of story twists of dubious morality (tut), is worth seeing. I didn’t need a hanky though, except to stifle giggles.

Music: The Armenian duduk is to Armenian music what the uillean pipes are to Ireland and the banjo is to Bluegrass. This wind instrument made from apricot wood could be useful to know if your Jeopardy category is music for 500. A contemporary of  all the chaps above is Soghomon Soghomonian, ordained and commonly known as Komitas, (Armenian: Կոմիտաս; 26 September 1869 – 22 October 1935) an Armenian priest, musicologist, composer, arranger, singer, and choirmaster, who is considered the founder of Armenian national school of music. The wailing noise of the duduk is the soundtrack for Komitas’ tragic life. Captured and deported by the Ottoman government during the genocide, he did escape with his life, only to suffer post traumatic stress disorder. He lived the rest of his days in terrible torment, in and out of pyschiatric hospitals. You will need your hanky for this music.

Martin Mkrtchyan, a sort of cross between Tom Jones, Daniel O’Donnell and Donny Osmond, manages to be much more cheerful. Recently, Elsa and I watched a recording of a big concert he gave in Yerevan’s Republic Square at New Year. Good stuff.

Much as in Ireland where I grew up, most of the songs in this ancient country but new and vulnerable republic are nationalistic–about the beauty of the land, the value of birthright, and courage in the face of enemies. It’s like living with the Wolfe Tones. The song below was sung to me by Arsen, aged six. He pumped his fist and cocked his imaginary gun as he sang. Boys here must go to be soldiers when they graduate high school and Arsen is already ready for the fight. I hope that here, as in Ireland, they will reach a level of security and prosperity that will allow their young singers to write of something other than threat and loss and war. More Snow Patrol than Stiff Little Fingers, if you like…

There is one well-known song that has an unexpected link to Armenia–Rosemary Clooney’s Come ona My House. This, it turns out, was written by the aforementioned William Saroyan and his cousin in 1939 as they motored across America.  Once you know this, the plums, apricots and pomegranate in the lyrics make complete sense. The cousin later went on to have great success as one of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Saroyan wrote no other popular songs. Now if that isn’t the stuff of great trivia quizzes I don’t know what is. Listen to Rosemary and enjoy.

Border Post: Part Two

armenia-azerbaijan-karabakhMay 9 is a public holiday in Armenia and is known as Victory Day.  The day marks triumph over the Germans in the Second World War, where Armenians fought as part of the Russian Army, joining the allies to defeat Hitler. This year though, the commemoration in Yerevan was widened to honor those who fought for Nagorno-Karabakh 1988-1994, and again in the four-day war in April last year.

Nagorno-Karabakh?  If you are British you may remember Sue Lawley carefully pronouncing the name when she read the BBC news at the time war broke out nearly 30 years ago. If you are American you have probably never heard of the place at all, unless you live in Glendale, CA, which is a sort of Armenia-on-Sea. If you are Armenian, you would likely die for N-K. You may yet have to.

My potted history of the conflict is bound to contain inaccuracies– it’s a complicated story by any standards, and my knowledge of the region is both recent and slight. Try not to get bogged down in the detail, but read this more as a story of identity, ethnicity, territory, heritage and geopolitical maneuvering: themes explored in my other Border Posts. Please know that my intention is not to criticize, meddle or upset. I am genuinely trying to observe, and to draw broader conclusions about the nature of all humankind from this particular painful dispute.

The gist seems to be this:  back in the first part of the 20th century, an enclave of ethnic Armenians (Christian) in Soviet Azerbaijan were given some autonomy by Joe Stalin. I don’t know why: I don’t believe he ever said, and no one liked to ask. The set-up mattered not a lot for 70 years or so while all of the Caucasus were under Soviet rule. As things started to crumble at the end of the 20th century, the ethnic Armenians declared independence, and argued they should align with Soviet Armenia, not  Soviet Azerbaijan, which is Muslim. They held a referendum. Not everyone liked or accepted the results. Think Scotland, think Brexit, think partition of Ireland…

As the Soviet Union collapsed, Nagorno-Karabakh, backed by newly independent Armenia, went to war with newly independent Azerbaijan. Everyone’s numbers are different, but it seems clear that some 800,000 Azeris and around 230,000 ethnic Armenians were forced to flee their homes.  20,000–30,000 people on both sides of the dispute died between 1988 and 1994. More than 3000 have died since, including those slaughtered  in four bloody days of fighting last April; and young men on both sides now killed almost nightly in sniper attacks.

Across two thousand years, Armenia has not had much luck with borders and territory. It has been squeezed and re-shaped and trampled upon and invaded. Think Poland, but smaller and with no coal. Knowing this, it is easy to see why there is so much pride in having pushed back the Azeris 1988-94, helping N-K to stand its ground. As an Armenian friend said to me “We haven’t won anything since the 7th century, so this was a big deal for us”. Quite so. The problem is, it isn’t over, not by a long way.

Today around 150,000 people live in N-K. It is pretty and mountainous and no one can fly there because the Azeris won’t let anyone encroach on their airspace. You can drive there from Armenia at the one point where the borders touch, and the Armenian President did so this Victory Day, turning up to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the N-K defense army. If you look at the map, you will see how tiny N-K is –and how small Armenia is– compared to Azerbaijan (all the area shaded orange). Although Azerbaijan has had its own economic problems in recent years, it is still better off than Armenia. Azerbaijan has oil, which Armenia lacks. Azerbaijan thinks it should hang on to the land claimed as N-K because it’s within its current borders and therefore within its rights. Armenia argues that the land was once its sovereign territory and should be restored as such. Those people are its people, no doubt about it. France and America and Russia form what is known as the Minsk Group, holding ongoing but unsatisfactory talks with Armenia and Azerbaijan to try to keep the peace. N-K does not have a seat at the table. (Mistake? I would say so. But it would probably make more sense to ask George Mitchell, who has more experience in conducting Peace Talks than I do). It is fair to say that the whole issue is not a top priority for the French, the Yanks or the Russians. Russia sells old, cheap weapons to everyone involved in the fight. They’re fair like that.

When the four-day war broke out last year, Armenia of course sent troops to support their brethren in N-K. All over Armenia, and particularly in the southern regions closest to the Azeri border, volunteers– men who are veterans, schoolkids and women not required by law ever to serve– offered to join the fight.  The army had way more volunteers than it could usefully deploy. Why? “If we don’t stand up to the Azeris they will come for us next” one of my teachers told me “we are not so much fighting for N-K as for our own children and the land that will be theirs one day”.

A look at that map shows that fear may be well founded. The Azeris have suggested to the Minsk Group that perhaps the territorial dispute could be resolved by a land swap. Azerbaijan will cede N-K and some surrounding disputed territory in return for a slice of Armenia that borders Iran and bisects two parts of Azerbaijan– the lighter beige colored territory on the map. Hmmm.  Bear in mind that the Armenian/Azerbaijan border is closed, as is the Armenia/Turkish border. Passage to Iran is vitally important for Armenia. They don’t want another frontier hemmed by the Azeris. And then there’s the disruption involved in territorial manouvering. Sure, if part of Southern Armenia suddenly became Azeri the people who currently live there could move either to N-K or to other parts of depopulated Armenia where there is plenty of room. But people don’t want to. That’s how people are.

In Armenia, the government can use fear to whip up patriotic feeling, raise funds and boost support. This is helpful in terms of distracting from everyday economic and democratic woes. I saw the same thing in Northern Ireland in the ’60s and ’70s. A journalist colleague of mine used to say that in NI we were fighting each other for “the square root of F*** All”. While ordinary people are engaged in hating and fearing their neighbors, they are not asking difficult questions about taxes or development or governance. Powerful people grow rich and serve themselves while citizens are tilting at a different target.

I have no idea how the N-K issue should be settled, or how to restitch the quilt that is the Caucasus; or all of the former Soviet Union; or all of the world. I know identity and autonomy are important to human beings. I know territory is important to all animal life, of which we are a part. I know oil companies, and soda companies who now own water rights, and those with dominion over data are the world’s real rulers, and that they juggle power through mergers and acquisitions, hostile takeovers and buyouts.  They pay politicians to get past arbitrary lines on a map.  While we worry about our own little square on the chess board, and those it touches, they see the whole game and cheerfully leapfrog, zig and zag to their own advantage. I know too that tsunamis and earthquakes and ice-flows are no respecters of borders, and that therefore all the peoples of the earth might be better employed stewarding the whole planet, rather rather squabbling over their own little piece of the action. I don’t know what to do about any of those things. I will think about it, and let you know what I come up with.

 

 

Armenia the Beautiful

Video credit: Peace Corps Volunteer Olivia Route.

Olivia’s short film about her springtime in Armenia is less than five minutes long and worth watching. Everyday for the last couple of months she has recorded a few seconds of footage on her iPhone. She used only two seconds from each sequence in her final cut. The result is pacey, comprehensive, personal and universal– a true record of her volunteer experience here, and a cheerful introduction to authentic Armenian life. Just like Olivia herself, the film is  spirited, clear-eyed and warmed by respect and gratitude for those she meets.  I love it.

I watched videos made by other volunteers before I arrived in Armenia. Most of these were profoundly depressing, detailing malfunctioning bathrooms and grim walks to dilapidated schools. “I don’t see much that looks beautiful” I confided to a friend before I left home. I wondered  how I would cope without the Chesapeake Bay, and my irises, and the bits and pieces that brighten the Barron abode. I said a regretful goodbye to my table lamp with the tulle tutu shade, and my retro red glass trinket bowl hauled all the way from Sydney, Australia. I rubbed my face one last time in the velvet quilt I brought home from India last year. I printed pictures of the irises and packed them along with photos of the children.

When I arrived in the Ararat region, my first impression was of dust, dull brown dust. The roads are made of it. The cars are covered with it. It gets on to and into everything. Then I saw the concrete–rough grey walls on half finished houses. I noticed that the women wore clothes of durable jersey usually grey, black and brown. My village name means “garden jewel” but in late March there was precious little sign of gem tones anywhere. But you live somewhere–anywhere– and begin to love it. In loving it, you see it with new eyes. Here, Ararat helps.

 

Seeing Ararat is like glimpsing God. It gives succor to the spirit, and uplifts the soul. Days with Ararat are marvelous and make possible great things. In months with low clouds, it is possible to doubt the mountain’s existence, or to forget that it is there at all. Then a shift in the sky reveals the peak and it is not possible to look away.  Today Ararat filled the background– dazzling sunlight on pristine snow –while I shopped at the farmers’ market. Last week in the same place there was no sign of the mountain at all. It is not the only time Ararat has taken me by surprise. Twice, in different places, I have been walking home from school and have rounded a corner suddenly to see the mountain. Both times I stopped and gasped. On other days I have loitered in the same places and strained to see but the glory is denied. To have lived in Ararat’s light has changed me, I believe. The Psalmist had it right: lift your eyes to the mountains and you will find strength.

IMG_3300It turns out Armenia has irises too, just like the ones at home. Maybe even better. There are hoopoes I see every day on my walk to school but haven’t yet been able to photograph. There is lilac. On the drive south from Ararat to Syunik Marz there are small cairns of stones, built perhaps by shepherds or by hikers taking a moment to remember someone close to them, and be glad. There are sweeping views of undulating mountains shaded in blues, and greens and greys. It is  like the West coast of Ireland, but on a larger scale, and there is no yellow, purple or brown. If there is gorse, heather and peat here, I have yet to see it.

 

 

IMG_2858While Armenia is blessed with every natural beauty but the sea, there is man made beauty too. These people can torture scrap metal into shapes that stun: great  things they have wrought in front of schoools and around parks. Windows are screened with iron sunbursts and doors are shrouded with lace the weight of lead. Then there are the khachkars, stone carvings from single-figure centuries: sandy, intricate and surprisingly enduring for stone so soft.

The women I am lucky to know take pride in setting a beautiful table here. China is always used at mealtimes. It matches, and it isn’t chipped. Glasses usually have a gilt band. Tiny coffee cups are candy colored and edged with gold. Inside houses there may be concrete walls half-primed and never painted. Tiles may be cracked or missing on floors or bathroom walls. Living room furniture may be covered with hardwearing polyester in stoic browns. But the kitchen table will have a gold and cream oilcloth cover and sweets will be served in a Royal Doulton-type bowl. Preserves are set out in small glass dishes and you will be invited to help yourself to apricot, raspberry and black currant jam with a dainty, ornate spoon. Slices of fresh-cut cucumber glisten green-white. I am sure Armenian radishes inspired the complexion of Snow White in the Disney film.

 

There is ugliness too of course. Abandoned, rusting cars, people shouting at their children, litter left on hedgerows, and corrugated iron roofing on dilapidated hen  houses curtained with blue plastic sheeting. There are seventies Soviet buildings and sex-selective abortions and dogs that bark all night, perhaps because they know someone will come to shoot them soon. Young men are dressed up as soldiers and equipped with remaindered guns. Corruption is as common as ketchup, served up everyday. Streets and towns are empty of shops and customers, for all the paid work is thousands of miles away, in someone else’s country.

But the kindness of the people blinds incomers to all of this. The woman with gold teeth who offers to pay your fare on the bus, because you are a volunteer, and don’t earn much. The host who makes spas because you are sick, and insists you drink your tea with a healthful honey made from pine cones. The English teacher in the supermarket who stops to sort out a mix-up over baking ingredients. The cab driver who forces the garage owner to find a USB and charge a dead phone, so you don’t miss a particularly good view of Ararat. The 8 year old who demonstrates ballet moves on her bike, providing an escort home every night from school. The grandfather who walks tenderly behind a crippled child playing ball in the street, ready to catch him if he falls. The teacher who decorates a miserable looking classroom so an American far from home has a lovely birthday. These people, and many other things, are what makes Armenia beautiful. Come and see for yourself.