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.

Where am I? It looks familiar

Sitting on a chair in Ani’s kitchen, I had a flashback. Ani, my new next door neighbor,was drying my hair and was about to style Elsa’s. It reminded me of when we were children in Belfast, and used to go to our neighbor’s house for haircuts. June lived at the end of our street and did hair in her spare room. One day she put my hair in rollers and styled it as though I was thirty-five. It was 1971 and shortly after my mother died. I was ten years old, and June thought I should look and behave like a grown woman.  My hair, which had hung quite happily to my shoulders,  was hair-sprayed high on my head like a Gorgon helmet. I was horrified. Luckily so was my father, who did a double-take when I came home looking like Sophia from the Golden Girls.  I combed out the stiff curls and resumed use of my bobble.

Life in this village in the shadow of Mount Ararat is very much like growing up in Ireland in the 60’s.  Women make pin money doing neighbors’ hair. Small children squeal with delight sitting on their father’s knees and holding the steering wheel for short drives. Households grow their own fruit and vegetables. Wives make jam, pickles, relish and sauce to see them through the winter. Husbands and sons are very rarely seen in the kitchen, except to eat.  Bedrooms are not heated. Everyone shares the same bathroom. People speak to each other when they pass in the street.  Kids play outside without hovering adults, and old women ask all young women when they will get married.  In the last week, my memory has been jolted many times. I feel I know where I am. It may not be very PC or 21st century to say so, but for the most part I feel fondly secure and at ease. 

I imagine for the younger volunteers, particularly the women, there is more of a culture shock. It is clear that early marriage and homemaking are the done things here. Answering endless questions about one’s marital status and prospects can be tedious.  For women used to wearing t-shirts and jeans, or going out in a tank and running shorts, it is a shock to be asked to wear a dress, tights, make up and even heels to work, and to be advised to cover up at all times.   Women– even me–are not allowed to entertain gentlemen callers in our rooms, and reputational damage may result from having a gentleman caller at all.  This is difficult for a group of people who have traveled the world sharing tents with almost-strangers and forming study groups with peers of all and any gender identities. 

Of all our 42 volunteers, I am probably the one with the least international experience. We have women who have taught in Uganda and South Korea, Guinea and Hungary. Men who have hiked across Jordan, learned Arabic in Lebanon, and camped out in Mongolia. Let’s face it, my only overseas experience has been in America itself. But what I lack in air miles and war stories I make up for in time travel. I have been here before, 40, nearly 50 years ago in Ireland. 

I can cope when I see a toddler bringing a half bottle of cognac to her father, so he doesn’t have to move. I first saw it in a hotel in Donegal in 1968.  I get it when the woman of the house says “Eat. Eat” and piles everyone’s plates high. My Aunts Annie and Lizzie used to do that, in the days before people worried about portion control or calorie counting. I remember our immersion heater, and my father getting up to turn the water on 15 minutes before we all had a wash, drying ourselves more often than not with the same scratchy towel. 

Today my Armenian language teacher, a lovely woman of 30 or thereabouts, told the story of her broken night’s sleep. She is staying with us in our border village, far away from her home in the capital city, Yerevan. At four in the morning she was woken up by mass activity in the street “my heart was thumping. I was sure the Turks had invaded and were coming to kill us in our beds. I thought  ‘it’s happening again and I will never get home'”. The noise subsided and eventually Sona calmed down enough to go back to sleep. At 6am she heard the same rampage. By now it was getting light and so she got up to look out the window. A large flock of sheep were being hastened down the street. She had to pick her way to school through piles of sheep droppings.  

Sona told the story against herself–the city girl terrified by country sounds.  But her story revealed something else: a deep-seated fear of history repeating itself; the terror of being small and vulnerable and surrounded by people who you feel will do you harm. Her story took me back to Belfast again and the nights in the early seventies when my dad would go out. I’d lie in bed taut for the sound of bombs in the city, or the welcome crunch of his car pulling into the drive. Like Sona, I was never in fact in any danger, but the fear was real.  As I said,  I’ve been here before.