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.


Are you married?


Why not?

(Laugh) No one asked me. (This is not true)

But you have had a boyfriend?


Do you have a brother?

Yes, I have a brother and a sister and I have two children. 

You have two children? But you said you weren’t married?

I adopted them. (Why did I say that? Why? Why did I want this stranger to think of me as ‘good’ rather than ‘fallen?)

Do you have pictures?

Yes (I hand over my phone)

Why did you adopt black children?

Washington DC is a black city. All the children available for adoption are black. 

But I have been to Washington…

The people you see in the center of the city are not the people who live there. White people are the minority in DC. (This is not now true, but was until very recently. I do not have the language skills to explain urban regeneration, gentrification and suburban spread)

She is light. Not too black. 

(Firmly) She is black

Yes, but light. That’s good. 

(Stiffly) I don’t think it is bad to be black. 

No, but we don’t have black people in Armenia. We are not used to–dark

There are millions of black people in the world. And people of all colors in America. We like it. 

Yes. Is your daughter married? 

No, but she has a boyfriend. (Again, why?)

And your son, is he married?


But he has a girlfriend? 


(I didn’t mention my granddaughter, my son’s baby. I am ashamed of that, but not of her. I just think this was enough chat for one day. Awkward.)

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.