Pilgrim’s Progress

Mt. AraratEven though a meal at a fancy restaurant is only about $8, I managed to spend over $200 this week, so tonight I’m celebrating the end of my first week in Armenia with a home cooked meal. I only have one pot, so it will have to be stew. Unless I buy pans, I guess it will have to be stew every night for the next two months.

What I dread the most are solo trips to the grocery store. Armenia is not a service-oriented country. It’s the post-Soviet hangover. For example, it’s not unusual for customers to stand in a queue without complaining because the cashier needs a break to call her boyfriend. I guess we all divide our time between being workers and being customers, so I can’t figure out if this system is better or worse than ours.

At the Mom & Pop across the street I pantomime for salt and pepper. The salt they get, but they don’t understand it when I combine my salt shaking motion with sneezing, although this gets a huge laugh. I point to a red pepper in a bin, then point to the proprietor’s wife’s black dress. Now they get Khor Virapit. Next, I try to figure out a way to ask them if they have olive oil. I pick up a bottle of corn oil and try to think of a mime for “olive.” Screw it, I decide, and drop the corn oil into my basket. I point to a piece of meat. I don’t know if it’s beef, pork, or lamb, and I don’t care. The wife pulls out a huge abacus (I’m not kidding) and tallies my bill. She’s so rattled by the fact that there’s a foreigner in her little store that she gets it wrong and I have to correct her.

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I’ve done a lot and learned a lot in my first week. For example, I figured out that it’s not a coincidence that my “landlady” lives in a crowded apartment just next door. The apartment I am living in is hers. The books in the library, the crystal in the cabinet, the antiques, the Persian rugs, and the piano all belong to her. Her family has temporarily squeezed into the neighbor’s apartment while I wallow in spaciousness. When I first realized this I felt terrible, but then I found out that across The Cascadethe former Soviet Union, subletting your apartment to an American is like winning the lottery.

What else have I figured out? Well, I figured out that they are not renovating the apartment next door. The sound of a saw biting into concrete that I hear every morning is simply the sound the pipes make when I flush the toilet. This means everyone in the building is aware of my bowel movements:

“Natasha, there’s that horrible noise! I can’t sleep!”

“It’s that damned American professor, Boris, he pooped again.”

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Central Yerevan is a mile-wide grid circled by a street that changes its name three times. In one place it’s called Sarian Street. That’s where my apartment is, so I’m right on the circumference of all the fun. At my end of the circle is The Cascade, a huge stairway that leads from the plaza that surrounds the Opera House up to a plaza that overlooks the city. From the Opera House plaza one can amble through parks and past outdoor cafes to the other end of circle, Republic Square, where one finds grand hotels, dramatic fountains, the National Gallery, and on weekends a huge outdoor Wilcomen zu der Cabaretmarket that sells everything from Kalashnikovs to vacuum cleaner hoses.

The nightlife in Yerevan rivals the nightlife in Barcelona. It doesn’t get dark until 9:30. People typically eat around 10:00. The plazas and cafes are still crowded when I head home around 11:30. And music is everywhere. In addition to the live music coming from every sidewalk cafe, there are also free outdoor concerts. There are also lots of nightclubs and there is the opera. In fact, there’s a nightclub in the basement of the opera house, which is more expensive to get into than the opera! No matter, it’s all pretty cheap here.

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A few nights ago Armen, the Dean of Engineering at AUA, invited Barry and me to go hear the Armenian Navy Band at the Zigzag Club. On the way there we stopped at a sidewalk cafe for dinner. Several people in the cafe knew Armen. One of his acquaintances looked gnarled and menacing. He was missing a hand and had a dead eye that stared off into space. Armen later explained that this guy had been an important figure in the ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) a terrorist Tsitsernakaberdorganization that went around assassinating Turkish diplomats in the 1970s and 1980s. He was making a bomb in his Paris flat when it went off in his face. He spent several years in a French prison. A deal was eventually cut with the French government and he returned home a hero.

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Of course Armenia has no seaport hence no navy, so the name “Armenian Navy Band” is a joke. In fact ANB’s performance contained a lot of humor, but their music was a serious fusion of jazz and Armenian folk music– sort of like Ornette Coleman playing the theme from the Godfather. ANB’s instruments were an interesting mixture of brass, bass, and saxophones combined with ancient-looking flutes, lutes, and autoharps. But the talent of Arto, the bandleader, was too great for any single instrument to channel. Anything he touched became an instrument: a coke bottle, a piece of tin foil, a voice synthesizer. The most amusing was an old metal pot with a little water in the bottom. Arto drummed the pot with his fingers while swirling the water. He seemed to be able to imitate the noises coming from the audience. The audience caught on and mewe began imitating him, but we couldn’t keep up with the strange sounds and complex rhythms he was getting out of that damned pot.

By the end of the evening the show turned into a full-fledged collaboration between performers and audience. Half-drunk men holding hands formed a dance line that snaked around the club, while enraptured women with hourglass figures stood on their chairs doing undulating belly dances while sweeping out graceful arabesques with their hands.

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While the Armenian culture has remained in tact over the centuries, their borders have not, ranging from a 70 BCE empire that extended from the Caspian to the Mediterranean, to the puny present day republic, which is about the size or Maryland. The only geographical constant has been Mount Ararat, the spiritual symbol of Armenia. Today Mount Ararat sits a few miles behind the sealed border with Armenia’s sworn enemy, Turkey.

I hired a driver and translator to take me to Khor Virap monastery, which is the closest point in Armenia to Ararat. Legend has it that King Trdat III, annoyed by copies of the Watchtower that accumulated in his mailbox every week, tossed Gregory the Illuminator into a Garniwell at Khor Virap. Thirteen years later, in 301 AD, the king developed an alarming skin condition– the head of a boar sprouted from his shoulder. He fished Gregory out of the well, where the Illuminator had apparently managed to survive thanks to Christianized birds and squirrels that brought him food. Gregory cured the king and in return the king declared Armenia the world’s first Christian country. (N.B. I’m pretty sure this story is bullshit. I climbed down a ladder into Gregory’s well, and I think I could have squirmed my way back to the top without the ladder. But then I ain’t no saint.)

Standing on the walls of Khor Virap, in the shadow of Ararat, I pointed out a minaret about 1000 yards away on the Turkish side of the border, but both the driver and translator said, “We don’t see it.”

“What, are you kidding,” I said. “It’s that tall white thing right in front of us.”

Without looking they replied, “We don’t see it.”

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Why the bitterness toward Turkey? Near my apartment there’s a tunnel that goes under the street and comes out in the Hrazadan River Gorge. The banks Avan Gorgeof the river are dotted with little cafes where one can stop for a cool drink. I hiked through there a few days ago. At the other end of the gorge I climbed up a steep trail that led me to Tsitsernakaberd, the Museum of the Armenian Genocide. Inside were photographs of naked mothers standing over the corpses of their starved children. This was the result of a Turkish policy to exterminate their Armenian population under the cover of the First World War. 1.5 million Armenians are believed to have died. Like the German Jews would do 25 years later, the survivors fled to the distant corners of the world. To this day the Turks deny any genocide took place, so the museum also contains displays of official documents. Their most prized document is a signed letter from Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of the largest population of Armenians outside of Armenia. The letter affirms that the genocide occurred and declares April 24 “Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day.” But the document that caught my attention was from a Turkish official to the commanders of the army. The letter ordered them to kill Armenian men, women, and children. The last chilling sentence read, “Do formationsnot be deterred by the worm of conscience.”

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One last story. The American University organized a trip for several of us to Garni and Geghard, located in the mountains about an hour east of Yerevan. Built in the First Century CE, Garni Temple is the only Helenistic structure that survived the rampage of enthusiastic Christians eager to erase Armenia’s “pagan” past. A few miles from Garni, Geghard Monastery (named after the spear that pierced Christ’s side) is a thousand-year old monastery carved into the side of a cliff. Both sites sit on the rim of Avan Gorge, its walls formed by strange bundles of perfect hexagonal cylinders of rock.

After visiting Garni we asked Armen, our driver, if he could drive our van into the steep gorge so we could have lunch by the Azat River. Armen let out an exasperated sigh. After searching and talking to locals, he finally found a “road” that went down. The road was ridiculously steep and was filled with boulders and potholes. In places small streams rushed across it. For thirty minutes we lurched and bounced in our seats like spastic marionettes. With the bottom in sight we thought the tight rope walkerworst was over when suddenly an angry gnome came dashing out of his roadside hovel with a rock in his hand. He threw himself in front of the van and started screaming at Armen. Our translator told us that the old man claimed that he owned the gorge. He pulled out some meaningless scrap of paper that supposedly proved his claim. Worn from the torturous drive, Armen snapped. He got out of the van and stood nose to nose with the gnome. For ten minutes they screamed into each other’s open mouths. Soon the gnome’s posse came galloping out of the shrubs. Predictably, the argument ended with a generous $3 bribe.

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Here’s a link to the web page of where I work:

CIS Dept/AUA

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