Thunder Road

I call it the Thunder Road, although there is nothing loud, scary or stormy about it, and there’s not a Hell’s Angel or Harley Davidson in sight. No sign of Bruce or his bandana either. The road from Sisian to Melik-Tangi bridge–surely one of the most beautiful in the world– runs beside the Vorotan river and to Vorotnavank monastery and Vorotnaberd fortress. Vorot, if you hadn’t guessed by now, is the Armenian word for thunder. On the day I was there, the weather was sunny and serene, and no rolling thunder–indeed no engine of any kind–was heard. That’s one of the best things about Armenia’s emptiness: you often have the road to yourself. Historic sites, though usually lacking a tea-shop, a museum shop and a toilet,  feel like yours alone. Better yet, you can clamber all over them–there are no signs, no notices and no guards.

Our first stop on the road from Sisian was at a 6th century memorial to three battling brothers who fought off the Persian army. The land around the monument  in Aghitu is dotted with khatchkars—cross stones—depicting a playful range of people, children and animals along with Christian symbols. Climb the monument to see the cross engraved on every side of the center stone, or stay on firmer ground and marvel that bits and pieces of ancient rock carving that would be behind museum glass in darkened rooms in most other parts of the world just lie around by the roadside here, like rubble.

You’ll see the river on your right, deep in the gorge, flanked by tangles of green. In the foreground at this time of year, yellowed grasses. Behind the river, blue and grey mountains stretch for miles. Round a corner and there is Vorotnavank monastery. I defy you not to gasp. The monastery is a monument to Armenian girl power. The complex was built  in AD 1000 by Queen Shahandukht and added to by her son Sevada in 1007. The monastery also served as a fortress (those pesky Persians again) and within its walls were a once shops, a seminary, workshops and housing for the poor. Today you can see a snake pit in one of the churches, the remains of a 11th century painting, and the new dome, rebuilt in 1931 after the original was destroyed by an earthquake. The ancient cemetery, surrounded by a centuries-old dry stone wall, contains two incongruously modern graves— those of a famous translator who died in 1965 and his son, a general killed in the 1994 war with Nagorno-Karabakh. At 10am on a summer Saturday morning, the place was deserted. We ate small, sweet apricots from a tree overlooking the gorge and listened to the silence.

On to Vorotnaberd, the remains of a fortress first mentioned in reports of liberation from –yes–the Persians in 450 AD. Today, just one wall of the fortress remains, strung between two giant basalt rocks, high on a steep hill 1,365 meters above sea level. You can scramble up the grassy side of the rock, but I recommend walking beside the river to the Melik Tangi bridge and admiring the fortress wall from the bottom of the towering, natural pillars. I got dizzy looking up. As a citizen of Northern Ireland, home to the Giant’s Causeway, it pains me to say this, but really the rock formations here are more impressive than those on the Antrim coast. Here, there is no heritage center, no opportunity to buy a teatowel, or earrings made from igneous rock. The guide books hardly mention the  volcanic activity, or the beauty it left behind. The bridge at the bottom of the valley was built in 1855, using two enormous natural rocks as its base. Today it is used mostly by sheep and cows, but it’s sturdy enough for cars, if there was anywhere to go.

 

At the Shops

Everything in Armenia looks like I built it. Skirting boards stop short of the door trim. Plastic piping pokes through jagged holes in plasterboard and tiling tails off when the money runs out. The whole country is not quite finished and in most places, interior design ambition seems to have outstripped artisanal aptitude.

Here, every man is a handyman, and every second shop is a hardware store. You buy what you need for Do-it-yourself and you do what you can.  At first, the rough edges and state of unreadiness are somewhat shocking to outsider eyes. Those of us raised in a world of contractors and kite marks, bonding, insurance, punch lists and perfect finishes are inclined to turn up our noses at what looks like the work of cowboy builders. But when men and women tell you the story of how their homes started to happen, you start to see the love and pride they cemented into every structure.  These couples built their houses from the ground up, adding here and there when they could, and teaching themselves as they go along. Homes are haphazard but they hold together (for the most part) and honestly, does the world need more straight lines and gleaming surfaces? Even if home improvements are more down and low than Lowes and Home Depot,  housekeeping is of a very high standard. There is many a multi-million dollar McMansion in the United States that could do with a little Armenian elbow grease and bear in mind that people here–well, women here–clean their own homes. I know! Unheard of…

Well-equipped though the hardware stores are, they lack two items regularly featured in the US big box stores. This is not a culture with garden furniture, and there is no such thing as outdoor equipment for hire. The other night, I sat outside on a rickety office chair and talked to a friend from home by phone. “Sorry if it’s noisy” she said “The men are here power washing the deck”. I looked at the rusting infrastructure that screens off the stairs to our cellar. “Ah yes, power washing” I said, and felt a little wistful. I’ll be pining for a carpet steamer next.

FullSizeRender (79)In among the hardware stores, there are a plethora of toy shops and stationery stores. While I am sure that people here do spend more on small children than they should, it seems hard to believe that there is enough trade to keep all the toy shops going. And surely stationers must have to shift an awful lot of envelopes, biros, erasers and post-it notes to keep even the most ramshackle roof over their heads? I do love a stationery store though. In the last week I have bought water colors and brushes, rolls of two-inch tape in the colors of the Armenian flag, and some very pleasing primary school posters featuring old-fashioned illustrations of fruits and vegetables. I have my eye on some stencils and am looking for glass paints and blu-tack. It’s all-consuming.

And then there the supermarkets, where it somehow comes as a surprise to find that the personal grooming aisles are filled with familiar packaging–Proctor & Gamble, Colgate, L’Oreal and Garnier are all in evidence here. The choice of tea, coffee and confectionary is huge, but there are maybe two types of cheese–locally made salty sheep product and something resembling Edam. God knows who buys the fresh produce and the booze, for every family here seems to grow and make their own.

No-one here does what an American would consider a big weekly shop. Diapers, disposable razors and cigarettes are sold singly, as are toilet rolls, a reminder that people cannot afford to buy in bulk.

There are vending machines outside many supermarkets that sell bottles of beer, wine and even cognac along with the more standard sodas and bottles of water. In case of emergency, as my kids would say.  There are machines in bigger stores where you can pay your phone bill once a month. Household bills are paid at the post office.

Pharmacies are white and green, clean and cool. Terribly reassuring. No one seems to sell feminine hygiene products and these are never mentioned. Peace Corps supplies tampons to our young women. I imagine delivery trucks piled high with cardboard tubes and cotton wadding barreling across the country. Girls here should stage a highway robbery. I don’t know what they do otherwise.  

So what do you do there anyway?

I spent the 4th of July cutting out pictures of hamburger buns, cheese slices and dill pickles. Black and white pictures, because we don’t have a color printer here. I used the pictures to teach an English conversation class about the American holiday. Students–five women aged from 15 to 50–order a burger with their choice of extras from me. Then they show and tell what they will eat. Bacon strips, tomato, red onion slices, ketchup, mustard and french fries were among the options. I left out lettuce. No-one likes lettuce and the word is not used here. I play a short video of my colleagues singing the Star-Spangled Banner. We wrap up when everyone can say stars and stripes and point to the right images on the flag. I am not actually here to teach English, although a lot of volunteers are. But English lessons are valued in Armenia and random people, hearing an American is in town, will turn up to ask to talk and learn. I am happy to help. Some of the women I have met in the last month in Armenia blow me away with  their poise, determination and capacity to learn. Say magic words in English and you can conjure up a glorious future. They are determined to master the language.

At home, my family made a mattress. When I woke up in the morning, wool not long shorn from the back of a sheep, had been washed and hung out to dry. Later, it was laid out on top of an envelope of hotel-white sheeting. Much patting and teasing and prompting ensued, until the cloth was covered in a four inch thick mat of the unruly wool. Deft rolling and squeezing and pummeling and Aleta and Karina had wrangled the wool into its new cover. The quilt was rolled and carted upstairs where it was laid out on two dining tables–extensions added–and sewed with string to stop the wool shifting about. It looks like the mattress of my dreams. They will make another one tomorrow.

 

I am a community development volunteer, which means I work with an NGO. My focus is management skills and organizational development, just like it was in the states. I work with a more than averagely successful grant-funded organization which has offices in Yerevan and here in Goris. P&T NGO wins and administers grants from organizations including USAID, the European Commission, UNHCR, sundry foreign administrations and various branches of the Armenian national and local governments. Most of our work concentrates on civil society development training we provide for other, smaller NGOs. The training–in NGO management, Social Entrepreneurship, Communications and PR, Financial Diversification, Fundraising, Project Design Management, Managing Volunteers and Members, and  Advocacy–is first-rate. Practical, engaging and very hands on. I, of course, cannot facilitate, because my Hayeren isn’t up to it. This means I concentrate on trying to improve office processes, and on PR work.

Haykush is up at  6 o’clock to clean our office. She takes care of the kitchen and bathroom, dusts and tidies the desks, empties the waste bins and sweeps and stairs and outside areas, front and back. On her way to her day’s work in the garden, she stops to stir the vats of mulberries outside my bedroom. The berries are fermenting nicely now. Haykush has beans to tend, fruit to pick and seedlings to thin. Later, she’ll make yogurt.

God knows, I am not great at systems but I have learned the hard way the value of thinking first and doing later; of labeling files and folders by date and name; and of storing only the most updated version of materials to be used for publicity. I try to touch things only once, committing to finish what I’ve started, and attempting to answer questions before they are asked. In the States, I am at the back of the class when it comes to this sort of order and organizational ability. Here, my colleagues  consider me pedantic, process-oriented and positively nit-picking. Somewhere far away from Armenia Jacqui Barrett, Natalia Banalescu-Bogdan and Caela Coil are rolling their eyes…

Artur is spreading concrete on what will be the floor of my new shower. Next he will grout the floor tiles before doing a taxi shift. The work on the bathroom has been held up. We had heavy rain and our roof sprung a leak he had to fix. He needed to drive to Yerevan to get something to make the shower drain better. The next-door neighbor is too old to climb his own mulberry tree–Artur must stop his remodeling to help with the harvest.

At work, I write strategy documents in English and share them with my colleagues on Google Drive. Everyone here mistrusts Google Drive more than they mistrust lettuce. I can’t say I like it myself, but it is one way to make sure everyone is looking at the same version of the same document. Not that anyone reads my strategy papers. Even for those fluent in English, they are too fatiguing. I don’t blame them.

Natalie has cycled across town to meet her friend Sarkis. They are both teetering on the edge of puberty. Next summer, will she ride her bike? Next summer, will she be allowed to see Sarkis? Diana does her hair and her make-up and then does it again a different way. She is 19. Robert is outside playing in the street just as a four-year-old should be.

I come up with ideas to increase our visibility and illustrate our impact. We are having a big conference next Monday–200 people. We decided on the title the day before yesterday and we finalized the announcement in English, Hayeren and Adobe Indesign late last night. My friend Emily at the other end of the country has Indesign on her computer so I asked her to give me a couple of hours of her graphic design expertise. Two exhausting days later and everyone was happy. Thanks Emily.

The conference will pull together representatives from business, government and the NGOs we have been working with. I have drafted a press release for translation and want to start the conference with challenges to sector teams to attach themselves to each other with ribbon in the colors of the Hayastan flag. I can see it all now: executives and social workers and elected representatives knitted together by Armenian colors threaded through bracelets, down shirt sleeves and around ankles.  It will give the TV crews something to film I tell my colleagues. They look at me in bewilderment. This is more than a language difficulty.  They think I am crazy and ridiculous. By now, Jacqui and Natalia and Caela are nodding in agreement. This is the Liz they know.

I coached the female executive director of a NGO in Yerevan by skype. Another young woman who speaks perfect English. I coached another volunteer on managing her emotions as she settles into her new life in Armenia. I decided to call it a day.
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Aleta spring-cleaned the living-room. She took down the curtains  and washed all the windows with vodka and crumpled paper. Yards and yards of freshly laundered netting to be rehung. She made a tray of pound cake and a small batch of raspberry jam, before our raspberries spoiled. I joined her and Karina for cake, jam and tea after watching the exhausting business of the mattress. The cake was cut in perfect diamonds and the jam was still warm. This is what we do here.

 

 

Don’t mess with my Toot Toot.

It is time to make toot vodka. Toot is the Armenian name for the mulberry– we have white and dark purple varieties here. The white mulberries, larval-looking but honied in taste, are the most prized. A couple of days ago, we spread tarpaulins on the street outside the house–passing cars were expected to swerve–and got ready to harvest. Artur climbed the tree and shook branches till the white mulberries rained. His mother and youngest daughter were the ground staff–filling old margarine crocks with fruit they wanted to enjoy later. Then Artur shook the fruit from the tarpaulins into giant metal buckets where the berries will ferment. He’ll set up a homemade still outside my bedroom. We are all saving plastic bottles–we’ll have about 70 liters to see us through the winter.
Goris had a mulberry festival this weekend, a small civic attempt to draw tourists to our town. I went to the festival with Pat, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, also from Maryland. Like me, she came to Peace Corps in her prime, and some decades after graduating college. Like me, she helps local organizations develop strategic thinking and management skills, and helps with branding, marketing, communications and sales plans. It can be uphill work in a country where local customers have no money, and where foreign buyers are unreachable. There is no access to Paypal or Etsy and the postal service is at best capricious. There is no way of taking money direct from the diaspora and no way of being sure that shipping will work. Everyone competes for the dollars of one million tourists who visit Armenia each year. Like me, Pat likes it here, although her two years of service are nearly over. She goes home next month. 

Armenians do not come easily to capitalism, perhaps because of their recent Soviet past, and perhaps because they are just too kind and generous to charge anyone for anything. At the festival, held in a bumpy, downward sloping field, they offer plates of fish stew, bean salad, dolma and beetroot vinaigrette to enjoy with free drinks. People pillage small stalls to pile their plates, picking through the food they want to try, and leaving the displays looking like Tom Jones’ dinner table several hours after Fielding’s description of the feast. It is an unholy, unhygienic mess.

The stall holders do sell packaged mulberry products– vodka, wine, a syrup that is good for the throat, and jam.  A liter of wine in an old Coke bottle will cost 1000 Armenian dram– about $2.  Half a liter of vodka in a water bottle costs $3. No one has bothered to switch the labels from the original bottles. I fear for the toddler who reaches into his mother’s shopping bag for a thirst-quenching glug  from what looks to be a bottle of Jermuk’s finest spring water. A mouthful of mulberry ori is far from mother’s milk. 

Sitting on a haybale in the shade, Pat and I watched people eating mulberries straight from the trees and kept an eye on a game of nardi– the local name for backgammon. We ate pistachio nougat and baklava while she drank a tot of vodka and I sampled the local red wine.  We got chatting to a gay couple from Australia. They had just come from Iran, a couple of hundred miles south of here, and they are on their way to Georgia, many hours of travel north, after a short trip to Nagorno-Karabakh, which is just down the road. “Try the beetroot with the sheep cheese” said the taller Aussie. “And get your mulberry wine from the French guy over there.”  Homosexuality is illegal in Armenia and, let’s face it, not likely to win friends in Iran. I asked the less lanky antipodean if they had felt under threat. “Not at all” he said. “Iran is surprisingly secular. It was Ramadan when we were there but no-one we stayed with was fasting. Everyone was very friendly–glad to see us. It’s not at all like you see on TV.” I fear I may never know. Current US/Iran relations mean that Peace Corps Volunteers are forbidden to travel to Tehran.

Three teenage boys rode by on a hijacked donkey. Vodka may have been involved. An Armenian grandfather showed off his overdressed baby to this American grandmother. A Japanese American with a man bun sampled the green beans, fish dolma and red currants. We ate cherries and talked to a Czech tourist. 10-year-old boys in itchy vests of Armenian design got ready to dance. The duduk player blew out his cheeks one last time. His instrument, uniquely Armenian, sounds like a mix between a gazoo and irish pipes.  A beautifully melancholy sound.

Bridenapping for Beginners

The conversation started when Tatik Haykush and I were looking through old family  photo albums–both hers and mine.

“Do you have any photos of Artur and Aleta’s wedding?” I asked. Haykush is very proud of her only son, and his nuptials twenty years ago would have been a long-anticipated event.

“No photos. No wedding”. said Haykush and shrugged. I goggled. This is not a country where people are casual about connubial commitment. “Are you married?” is the first question asked of any woman 17-75 and if the answer is No then people find it a worry. What did Haykush mean, no wedding?

“He just came home with her one day and said this is my woman” said Haykush. She laughed in embarrassment. Everyone else in the room guffawed.

“You realize what we just heard” said my fellow volunteer Anna, who speaks Hayeren better than I do. “There was a bridenapping here…”

Bridenappings, unfortunately, have long been part of the culture in the Caucasus. Another Peace Corps volunteer, Christopher Edling, now back in the States, conducted a survey on the custom about five years ago. He did his research in Goris and surrounding villages–the area where I now live. Working with women from Goris Women’s Resource Center he asked local woman to speak voluntarily and anonymously about bridenapping. 163 women came forward of whom 54.6% said they had some experience of an attempted bridenap, or were bridenapped themselves. Most of these women were still with the man who took them away. Of the women interviewed, 65% said they knew others who had been bridenapped too. Obviously, Christopher’s survey group were particularly motivated to speak on this topic, but still the group numbers and the percentages seem disturbingly high in this day and age, even in this very patriarchal and conservative country where women still have little autonomy.

I thought about Artur and Aleta. They will have been together 20 years in November. They have three children of 19, 13 and 4. They appear more than averagely loved-up for people who  have been together so long. Artur is a mild-mannered, gently humorous man who works night and day to support his family. Aleta is feisty, irrepressible and cheerful. She is not the type you could imagine being bundled into the trunk of a car without protest. If she is unhappy in her marriage, she hides it very well.


Most of the women featured in Edling’s report had no complaints about their kidnapping. They knew and loved the assailant and the bridenapping was a romantic elopement rather than than a brutal assault and attack on their human rights. When Armenians talk to outsiders like me about this phenomenon, this is always how they will present bridenappings: love finds its way.  This conservative culture couldn’t allow a woman to just move in with a man she liked the look of, and so it is necessary for her to be seen to have no choice.  But not every bridenapping is a love match. 9% of Edling’s interviewees–let’s call it 15 women–reported being forcibly abducted by someone they didn’t care for. “Ruined” by the unwelcome attentions of their ‘napper, most of them felt they could not go home, and that they needed to make a go of the “relationship” in order to remain part of their own family, and the wider community. This is a horribly uncomfortable thought: perhaps 15 women walking around in the small city where I live who were raped, denied choice about a life partner, and decided to make the best of it. Unthinkable.

It is easy to comfort ourselves with the thought that this sort of behavior was “back in the day” and that we are hearing historical reports of wrongs committed half a century ago. Well, maybe. But a young male volunteer on the other side of the country reported that his (male) lunch companions were hooting and hollering about a recent bridenapping in their neighborhood just last week. It really shook him up. And he’s from small-town Georgia, so he’s not easily shocked by family matters. 

According to Edling’s report,  when brides–whether bruised and bewildered or cheerfully complicit–are brought home to their new family for inspection, they are generally welcomed. Concerns may be voiced about the couple being too young, or too headstrong, but the deed is done. Families will often try to convince a reluctant bride that, being used goods and all,  she might as well settle down, assume her new role in the family and grow to love their son. I could find no reporting about the feelings of mums and dads whose daughters, without warning, suddenly live somewhere else. Surely, surely most would urge them to come home?

Back to Artur and Aleta. I had them both alone at the breakfast table the other day. The talk turned to weddings –they were off to a family ceremony in Yerevan.

“Did you know each other before you were married?” I asked carefully. It is hard to know if Artur ignored the question because he couldn’t understand me, because he thought it was silly, or because he didn’t want to share. I persevered and eventually Aleta understood where I was coming from.

“Oh yes, we knew each other for 5 months before”

“But no wedding?”

“No” she laughed. Artur sloped off, muttering something about a vacuum cleaner he needed to mend.

“Why not?” Always one to ask  an extra, unwelcome question, my powers are particularly sharpened here. If you know only a very few words you use them how you can, and people forgive your bluntness and nosiness because they know you don’t know how to dress it up as anything else.

“I don’t like weddings” said Aleta, and pulled faces and made hand gestures to suggest that she finds them fussy and irritating and tiresome. “And it was 1997 and the country was in a terrible state–no lights, no water. No-one had any money….”  She shrugged, remembering the awful years after the fall of the Soviet Union when the fledgling Republic of Armenia had to pick itself up, dust itself off, and start all over again.

I exhaled.  As a matter of preference and practicality Aleta and Artur had decided to forgo a visit to the Orthodox priest, the big family party, the pouffy dress, the fireworks, the cognac and the dancing. I would do the same myself. I have no idea whether there is a piece of paper from a courthouse or if community presumption of a sexual relationship is enough to seal a lifelong deal, in the absence of a wedding ceremony.  Certainly in these parts there is only married or unmarried: terms that directly correlate to sexually active and not. (You can imagine what a culture shock this is for a lusty busload of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers, working here in Armenia for two years.) Whatever the semantics, I  am glad to know that Artur is not a villain, and that Aleta is not a victim. Sadly, not every couple in these parts can say the same.

That’s enough talk about marriage for now. It is staple of conversation in Armenia, much as the weather is in the UK, and the price of gas can be in the US. I have never spent so much time discussing my own marital status,  and that of my children (at 24 and 27 everyone here worries that they are aging out of the market. I have no such concern). I note with pleasure that Aleta, a wife at 17, is not eager for her own 19-year-old daughter to be married. “She’s little. She’s young” she says.  Diana loves sparkling dresses and full hair and make-up so it seems reasonable to assume that she will want a big wedding when her time comes. Let’s hope no ardent but aggressive admirer robs her of the occasion.

You can read more about bridenapping in Armenia here.

Hear Christopher Edling talk about his research on Armenian bridenapping here.

 

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.