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.

Yank Don’t Tug

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​​You know it’s a good party when the men start the dancing, the wine is $2 a liter, and there’s a bouncy sheep. All of these were elements of today’s Sheep Shearing Festival in the mountains close to Goris. It was hard to see the sheep shearing competition because everyone was jostling to cheer on their village champion. Luckily I can watch it tonight on the news– all the national crews were there. The cameras didn’t capture the impromptu tug of war between the locals and half a dozen American volunteers, which was just as well: our boys were fit, strapping and strategic but sadly no match for the sinew of Syunik Marz. Tightrope walker? Oh yes, we had one of those too. 

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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.