An Armenian Diary
Wednesday, February 26, 1997
For once the elements are not raging to frustrate my intended departure: it is merely pouring, overcast and miserable in the Hoosier state. This pro vides a suitable backdrop for the bureaucratic miasma that surrounds every venture I make into Transcaucasia1. At the check-in desk in Indianapolis airport the lady asks me whether I want to book my case through all the way to Paris. I tell her that it would be better for everyone if we book the bag all the way to where I intend going_to Erevan. Not only has she never heard of Erevan, neither Northwest Airlines nor she has ever heard of Armenia either, and so I cannot send the case further than Paris can’ t. Exactly this happened when I went to Georgia last year, though there is never any problem coming back. This spells trouble. Jill and I indulge in a last American lunch at the airport McDonald's, partly out of a desperate sense of patriotic gastronomic fervor since today's Wall Street Journal carries a lead article proclaiming dire views of that firm's economic downslide, and its loss of business to foreign (British) owned "Burger King." I decide halfway through the meal that some things are better left to die.
There is nothing much one can say about a flight to Detroit, except, perhaps "don't." It is hard to believe that without changing airlines we have to cross the entire airport to find the departure gate. Once there, one can only marvel that we are standing in the richest and most powerful country on earth, for this NW terminal takes on the attributes of Khartoum. It long since failed to cope with the numbers, and is a total shambles.
But, in good time, we are boarded and almost immediately I am approached by a sweet young thing from Ann Arbor who has been separated from the love of her life, and desperately wants to exchange seats with me so this torture may continue not a moment longer. This gesture to romanticism done, I am now placed next to an outstanding mother and daughter act from North Carolina. Melissa, the daughter has a wry sense of humor, while the mother is true sit-com material. But most of this is lost on me as I sleep from Detroit to Paris.
Thursday, February 27/28, 1997
Through the right window a bright silver moon in an ebony sky. To the left, a purple sunrise over an awakening Paris. A token miserable airline gesture toward breakfast and we are there. Painless exit into a cloudless 40 degree morning. There the anticipated snafus begin. I have to collect my case because it could not be checked through to unknown Armenia. This done I try to put it in the left luggage, but there isn't one because of a spate of, supposedly, Islamic Fundamentalist-inspired bombings since Christmas. For the same reason, I cannot check in my bag early, so I am stuck with it like a ball and chain. This might not have been a major concern if i) I did not have a 16-hour connection between planes; ii) I had not arranged to meet six women from the Paris-South exchange program for lunch. It appears that I shall have to haul this incubus with me like the ghost of Christmas past.
Even though it is only 7:30 the roads into Paris are choked and frenetic. When I do arrive on the bus at the Opera terminal, Magalie Roisin and Isabelle Manevy are so deep in conversation that they entirely fail to notice me until I tap on the window of the bus shelter. However, they jump when they see me as though confronted by the ghost in Don Giovanni. Magali insists on hauling my bag, and we begin a long odyssey to find some place to consign it. Thus it is we take the Metro to the Gare d'Austerlitz, trundling the bag up and down endless flights of stairs in this system that is clearly untouched by the Americans with Disabilities Act, I consider this suitcase as a great disability as any limb lost. Of course the Gare d'Austerlitz has closed its left luggage and there is nowhere to put this thing. Eventually, Isabelle calls the restaurant, the Maison d'Alsace, where we are to have lunch and they agree to stash it, bomb or no bomb. So it comes to rest on the Champs Elysees. The streets are thick with para-military forces resulting from a recent bomb alert. Even the foreign legion is to be seen back from rescuing African dictators from the threat of democracy.
Disregarding the bombs totally, we gather for a wonderful lunch, as only the setting of Paris can provide. The conversation is lively and seems to concern mainly the fact that I am still single. My dead suitcase issue is resolved by Lawrence Remond who works for a large American cabinet of lawyers nearby, and this will provide a temporary, and very exclusive, resting place. So we make our way through corridors of intimidating opulence, into a creaking French lift with room for one average Hoosier, and we lay the bag to rest among the tax attorneys.
Thus liberated we wander through the Luxembourg Gardens where Magali informs me that her sister recently sailed to Kerguelen, in the French Antarctic Territories to get married among the patriotic French penguins. It provides a stark contract with the tropical island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, where she currently works for the Ministry of Agriculture. It is so wonderfully liberating to be strolling through Paris in such admirable company, the ever-smiling Magali with the russet hair and blue e yes, and the dark and fragile ever-organized Isabelle who keeps us all moving in the right direction. One could not have asked for a better day, or a better way to spend it.
It all ends, the bag retrieved, at the Air France bus, a drive through strangled traffic and an astonishingly painless check in for Erevan at the Air France desk, a testimony to the ancient historical links between Armenia and France. A glance around t he waiting area reveals Armenia, judging by the sample of people we have here, to be a nation of swarthy, stocky gents in leather jackets looking like a convention of drug dealers. Strange, the Armenians I met in Moscow were all clad similarly in black leather. If I saw these people anywhere else I would never have been able to place their geographical origins. It is also interesting that there seems to be no one but Armenians on this flight. Clearly it is not a popular international business or tourist resort at the moment.
Parked outside at the end of the ramp is a Russian Tupolev airbus in the very handsome livery of Armenian Airlines, so we are in business. The Armenians stand around casually disregarding all the no-smoking signs, perpetually encircled by a careening, out-of-control example of over-indulged childhood. When the time comes, there is what is politely called "general boarding," which means a rush like that for the helicopters on the last day in Saigon. Inside, the aircraft is a barn-like structure, which is good given the amount of carry-on baggage. The entire back part of the plane is partitioned off for some reason, though one lady sits in solitary splendor there. We leave Paris about 45 minutes late and are served a surprisingly good dinner with pat ‚, salmon and other delicacies. I manage to sleep all the way to Erevan and awaken only as the undercarriage comes down. As we land people are smoking and wandering around the aircraft, which is a first for me. At least, in contrast to Georgia last year, this city clearly has electricity. The airport is modern and impressive though only two immigration officers are on duty, it is, after all 4 am, and that slows things down to a crawl. But no problems, and once through I have to present my passport again f or the details to be inscribed by hand in a ledger: no computers here. Then to the baggage area where some of the people wearing security badges look like the folks whose pictures you see in the post office back home. I have to fill out a customs declaration that comes in a choice of Russian or Armenian. A charming lady completes it for me and I make my way through where Manvel, the driver awaits with a recent-model BMW that he drove here from the Netherlands. He is already in the company of my colleagues from LA, a professor Joel Handler, and his wife Betsy.
Since it is before dawn it is hard to form any serious impression of the city, but one surprising fact is the number of roadside provision stalls that are illuminated and open for business. Armenians, of course, are legendary for their business acumen worldwide, but Manvel explains that it is safer for the proprietors to keep the stall open than leave it locked while he or she sleeps elsewhere unable to keep an eye on the goods. As far as I can tell there is no actual buying and selling going on. I n addition, Manvel's explanation seems to ignore the complicated question: When do these shopkeepers sleep? On our left is the cognac factory and much damage has been done to my upright reputation by this mellow agent in the past. As we cross the Hrazdan river that flows through Erevan, Manvel explains that the bridge we are on was constructed using captured German troops after the war; it is curious to think of Nazis doing something positive, "and it is a very fine bridge too," he adds. Onward up one of the many hills on which this city is based, past a district known, for a reason I never understand, as Bangladesh, until we can see the mighty edifice of the American University, and then a left turn into a street over which vines are trained on steel lattices that arch clear across the road.
The Hotel Bass is clearly new, and is built of the massively solid red grainy sandstone that seems to predominate. The receptionist is awake even at this hour, and reassuringly the hotel looks charming with an abundance of fine wood. Our late-night host's only foreign language, strangely, is Italian, but that doesn't seem to slow things any as we check in. As is usually my fate I am consigned to the 5th (top) floor where I am nearer God and the stars as well as the threat of a stroke after the climb. One splendid detail is fixed onto the door next to mine. Clearly this is where the service staff reside and it is called, on the brass plate, "Subservient's Room." Good-bye socialism.
My room is a joy, like workover of La Boheme. Light, when dawn comes, enters through two mansard windows. A large bed sits on the floor and the carpeted area seems to be measured in acres. Best of all there is a modern, well-equipped bathroom for, by now, I bear a broad coating of grime from the USA and France. Duly refreshed I hit the bed even though this will do bad things to my jet lag. But I set the alarm clock for 8:30 as I don't want to miss breakfast, for which I duly stagger down. Two Russian in suits are the only occupants of the restaurant. The food is good and reviving. Then, back to bed. The time difference is a crippling 12 hours, which puts your body as far out of its natural rhythm as it is possible to be.
At noon I descend to meet the driver who is going to show us Armenia, well, part of it. First I change money and acquire lots of drams** All four of us (Joel and Betsy) set off through beautiful squares with imposing sandstone public buildings, this is Republic Square, the center of Erevan. One corner of the largest square is occupied by a large boarded-up space where Lenin stood during Soviet times. I have some time to become acquainted with the driver as Joel and Betsy have gone off to change travelers' checks, always a major headache in the former USSR. They have to wait while the teller meticulously examines a pile of $100 bills under a magnifying glass before they can get him to attend to their needs. Manvel, meanwhile, tells me that things are improving a lot in Armenia now that the war crisis has died down, the currency has more or less stabilized, and goods are back in the stores.
The roads out of the town are dreadful and Manvel winces every time we hit a pothole in his prized BMW. In one or two places the road recently passed into history as winter rain carved a gash right through it, often owing to the absence of any visible road drainage system. A driver's attention must not be diverted on these roads, even for a moment, or a gut-wrenching thud will follow a sudden descent off the asphalt into highway hell.
We are climbing steadily now out of Erevan past monuments to writers and poets, who seem to form a substantial part of the Armenian population. In the highest part of the city land has been given over to summer homes, but these are uniformly massive and almost universally ugly. It seems that just after independence there were fortunes to be made on the edges of the law, and probably way beyond. Those who benefited sank their profits into these monuments, but monuments they remain as the money ran out to complete them. There they stand in their scores, mute testimony to greed and folly.
In contrast, nature is putting on an amazing spectacle as range upon range of snow-covered, treeless slopes form the endless mountains of this country. There towering over everything in mute testimony is the solitary majesty of Mt. Ararat; legendary landing ground of Noah and his family2. The base of the mountain is invisible in the mist, which makes its soaring triangular twin peaks all the more surreal and awe-inspiring. It dominates everything in the landscape for it rises from a high plain in Turkey and not from among the hills of Armenia. It is reminiscent of Kilimanjaro in that respect, soaring alone and seeming all the more splendid for that. Reminding us where we are in the Middle East, the mountain sits across the troubled boundary in eastern Turkey. Manvel tells us of the Georgians who rob Armenian trucks, the Iranians who can be capricious and, of course, the Azeri's who are occasionally at war with Armenia over the outlying republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. An uneasy truce governs this last unresolved hot zone. The tranquility of this glorious landscape belies a potentially terrible reality for this outlier of Christianity in an Islamic world. But, today, politics, religion and ethnic strife are given a rest.
Manvel, dodging potholes, tells us that many of the Armenians are going abroad, about a third by his estimation, leaving only those who are unskilled or deeply patriotic. Actually, many of those who have left are Russians and Azeris. Along the way, as we discuss this fascinating place, we pass many monuments, often simply erected amidst urban sprawl and without any landscaping. One of these, a muscular figure holding a huge rock over his head, represents the bond between the people of Armenia and the mountains. Often, in the past, when this ancient nation was invaded, as it was so regularly, the people would retreat to the high fastnesses and, in extremis, hurl rocks down upon their foes. Thus it way they survived through the centuries.
At the town of Garni we pull off the road and visit an exquisite miniature Parthenon from the 3rd century. It sits on a spur overlooking a breath-taking view of the mountains and the deeply incised gorge of the Azat River. Tiridates, King of Armeni a, built the temple. He was an interesting fellow, for although he was supported by the Parthians, sworn enemies of Rome, he realized which side his bread was buttered and set out on a long journey to Rome to see Nero and gain his support. It took nine months to get there, and he almost lost everything when he refused to disarm in the presence of the emperor, but that was smoothed over. Nero liked him and sent him on his way with a small fortune, part of which he used to construct this lovely building. As an aside, Manvel explains that the mortar for the construction was made of lime, egg yolks and spit. The temple stood foursquare on its promontory for 17 centuries until a major earthquake destroyed it in 1679. The Russian Nikolai Marr rediscovered the site in the last century, but it was only in 1966 that work began on faithfully reconstructing the edifice. So what we see now is a modern replica, but using as many parts of the original structure as was possible. The final product has the look of great authenticity. The site was the retreat of an early Armenian queen, and the bath building has been lovingly restored. Ancient decorated stones intermingle with new, plain block but the effect is one of enormous glory in this location. Nearby in the bathhouse the mosaic floors depict mythical sea creatures, the whole thing heated by under-floor vents in the Roman manner of a hypocaust. We are reminded what an ancient culture this is, for inscriptions are in Armenian, Greek and Aramaic, the language that Christ spoke. Interestingly, one of the inscriptions that survives in the bath area states We did this without payment. I am not sure whether this is a matter of pride or complaint! The whole effect of this solitary building is glorious, and stands in stark contrast to the ugliness of the Soviet period that will be our generation's legacy to the future.
Our final destination is the church-monastery of Geghard3. Along the way children hold out bunches of crocuses for the passing traveler. In Armenian these are called, appropriately, snow flowers. In one spot on a bend in the mountain road, a tiny girl in bright red, her arm outstretched makes a dramatic statement against the virgin whiteness of the snow. The monastery of Geghard is in a truly remote location, and served to provide protection as well as spiritual retreat. It is remarkable because, a part from the sandstone facade built out on a massive stone pedestal, the whole edifice is cut out of living rock. The builders started 1200 years ago at the top cutting a hole that would be the apex of an inner dome providing the sole source of light, an d then painstakingly chipped out mighty chambers adorned with altars and the elaborate crosses of early Christianity, which began here 300 years after Christ. These chambers sit one above the other with connecting windows at different levels to allow light to pass. Centuries of water dripping from the dome have worn a depression in the basalt floor. The carvings are picked out in red deriving from a vegetable stain that was applied to slow down erosion. For one of the inner chambers of the rock church an early dynasty, a thousand or so years back, carved two huge lions over an eagle with a sheep in its talons. I wonder where the image of a lion came from? Did they roam these hills as wolves and boars still do. It is a very strange-looking version of a lion, but somehow you know that is the intended object of the mason's limited personal experience. They look like the sort of lion you might want as a friend.
Outside, in the courtyard, is a huge boulder half buried in the ground. It seems it fell from the cliff above in the late 1970s and crashed into the courtyard avoiding all the visitors. It seems, also, that a stone mason fell off the high roof and was unharmed, testimony to the sanctity of this spot. Set into the walls are cells where those on religious retreat would dwell, and the head of the order occupied a room to which was affixed a fretted, wooden balcony in the old Turkish style. This is a p lace for deep contemplation. Alongside the monastery is a raised, covered pedestal where animals are sacrificed, still, and the meat consumed or distributed to the poor. The animals are mostly sheep; poorer pilgrims sacrificing chickens, and the poorest liberating pigeons they buy from vendors at the gate. Manvel tells us these are homing pigeons that return to their lofts to be sold again in an early Armenian form of recycling.
This monastery has a special significance, if legend is to be believed, in the iconography of Christianity. The Armenian word Geghard means, "spearhead," and it is reputed that the spearhead that pierced the side of Christ was brought to this location for safekeeping. Indeed, the relic itself is something we were to see later in the collection of the Armenian Catolicus or Patriarch.
Around us as we stand in a quiet contemplation are the gaunt and twisted frames of the walnut trees, the orderly rows of sweet cherry and pears; the last finding their way in part into bottles of that marvelous cognac that Russians treasure. Despite the snow on the ground, the air is warm and the sunshine brilliant, the blue sweep of the sky throwing the rounded, snow-blanketed hills into sharp relief. The luminescence of this wintry cover, in turn, makes the contrast with the deep grays and black of the basalt, some of it soaring up the sides of gorges in fans and columns as only basalt does.
I wonder what gets anyone started on hewing a large church out of a solid wall of stone? Well, it is secure for a start, as there is no back way in for marauding armies, a rather crucial factor in this much-trodden part of history. The interior has , I notice, a well, so people could provision themselves while the enemy was at the gates. I am not sure about the wisdom of the hole in the dome however. These rock refuges I have seen in Jordan and Slovenia, and some recluse carved one for himself south of Moab, Utah as I recall. In agricultural societies there is a lot of down time, I suppose, and chipping away for 20 years makes for a good winter project.
Back in Erevan, passing the villas of the nouveau riche, we are impressed by the amount of activity. Betsy and Joel tell Manvel that they would, as a result of jet lag, like to go back to the hotel, though it is only around 5. I ask him if he would , instead, take me to a handicraft shop to get some idea of what it is Armenians do on long winter evenings. At the mention of the word "handicrafts" Betsy abandons all other plans and we all go to the stores. Thank heavens she is as inveterate a shopper as I am.
The store, in which Manvel tells us "look, don't buy now. Maybe you find it cheaper. If not we come back," is full of desirable things. I find myself salivating over a walnut table with a green marble top until I realize it makes a very poor carry- on luggage for Armenian Airlines at around 230 lbs.). The woodcarving is extraordinary, bowls in latticed walnut, and clocks in pear wood. Then there is the local obsidian, dark and alluring with hidden planes of reflective translucence that flash and disappear mysteriously as the stone is turned. So many lovely things softly whispering my name.
From the handicraft store we bundle into the car for a short drive to what Manvel calls the "museum store of stone." Armenia being part of the Caucasian mountain chain that stretches down from Russia has a wealth of decorative stones such as onyx, rhodalite, malachite and others. This store is an outlet for those who fashion nature into highly polished decorative pieces. At the center of the store is a large, white marble fountain, and I have visions of this in my conservatory, but it is not exactly practical to move from here to there. The translucent hues of these various stones are very beautiful; but it is a pity that nature never produced a light rock that can be easily carried. I end up with a couple of obsidian candlesticks in the Napoleonic classical revival style, a similar candelabra and an endearing "book" made of rhodalite, nephrite and white marble. As Susan would have said, "more stuff." Two gentlemen enter wearing the standard long Gestapo-style black-leather coats carrying large marble urns. These beautiful objects are somewhat compromised by the fake flowers emerging from them. The place begins to look like a funeral parlor during a Mafia wake. In charge of the store is a delightful man with keen sense of humor and solid command of English. He tries to get my interest revived in the fountain with, "perhaps a statue of sir in classical Greek style on top?" I like that idea. I also like the fact that nobody tries to push goods at you here, which is to be commended, for nothing gets m y sales resistance up more effectively than being hassled.
Accompanied by many bags we make our way back to the hotel and an early dinner. In the dining room CNN competes at one end with a pianist at the other who is more intent on proving his virtuosity than providing a mellow backdrop. The unadorned stone walls of the room emphasize the sound and conversation is compromised. However, the schnitzel is excellent, the bottle of Armenian red wine disappears rapidly, and life looks good. There is a keen sense of service here in dire contrast to every hotel in the former USSR that I have ever experienced. Amazingly, everything on the menu is available and well presented.
Joel and Betsy are from LA where he is a law professor and she is an attorney. They are making a holiday out of this and will go on to Turkey next week on the one flight to Istanbul that leaves on Wednesday. Though relations with Turkey are poor, and the land border is still closed, it is now possible to fly there. Two years ago Turkish air space was forbidden to Armenia because of Ankara's support for their Turkic brethren in Azerbaijan. The main supplier of goods now is Iran, though Turkey is still the second partner, but everything from there has to be trucked in via Georgia. Still, there seems to be nothing one cannot buy in Erevan.
Saturday, March 1, 1997
As expected I awoke at 2:30 am as a result of the 12-hour difference in time with Indiana. Instead of fighting it, I get up and write up a large piece of this literary masterpiece. Eventually weariness sets in, as it probably has for anyone reading this. A normal schedule ensues and I awaken at 7:55. Manvel arrives on time and Joel and I set off for a day of interviews. These take place in a huge, solid building that houses the Mathematical Institute. Inside it is a model of Soviet architecture with broken chairs and a weary desk and that curious mixture of fine decorative stone and the world's tackiest fittings. These is no concession in the direction of decoration. The office of our host institution is, mercifully, much more cheery. We go over the administrative details and Joel and I get a list of the sixty Armenians we are to interview.
I am to conduct my sessions in a high-ceiling room with the most rudimentary furniture; a couple of spastic chairs and an empty glass-fronted cabinet. The victims and I have to huddle around a two-bar electric fire in an otherwise glacial chamber. In the far corner an ancient faucet runs ceaselessly with inexplicable surges. Michael George, our host, is very solicitous of my general well being, and mercifully switched on the fire earlier to thaw the room. He brings me tea, and we begin the job for which I came. A parade of raven-haired women with huge dark eyes challenge my powers of concentration to the limit. One of them has a name that begins with five consonants, but I could forgive her anything. They all have a strong presence and interview we ll. A man, a final-year medical student, has, he tells me, started a program of education with respect to AIDS. He seems particularly concerned to change the very negative attitude of the medical profession, and he tells me there was a move to put infected people into complete isolation in jail, though it was not carried out. There are, he says, 15 persons diagnosed with AIDS and two more arrived yesterday from Ukraine when they were deported following diagnosis. The actual number, he believes, is much higher.
Eventually, as my extremities freeze and numbness sets in, the morning session comes to an end. Betsy is in the office downstairs when I descend, and we all use the lunch hour to go to the Vernisage or weekend street (flea) market. This is packed and consists of one section that is a true flea market selling everything imaginable. The rest is made up of craftspeople trading in paintings, dolls, obsidian objects and wonderful wood carvings. There is a corner with ancient rugs, often torn and ragged but so beautiful, another with books. I purchase a couple of beautiful watercolors of ancient Armenian churches. Manvel moves into high gear with the bargaining and knocks the price down considerably. He is negotiating directly with the artist, and I feel so guilty because the man has true talent and here we are hammering away at a couple of dollars on the margin. But, I realize it is expected. I also buy, of all things, an ingenuously made wooden folding stool. Why? The guy looked happy I bought it.
Duty calls in the frigid chambers of the Mathematical Institute, and so back to the BMW passing used purple, plastic soviet telephones of surpassing ugliness for sale on the way. The interviews continue during the afternoon, one candidate is sick a t home in bed so that speeds things up a little. My last candidate of the day is a woman who works in the "Department of Especially Dangerous Diseases."4 She tells me how all sorts of grim reaper diseases are beginning to reappear in Armenia; particularly among the military "who are not very sanitary." She is especially concerned about, of all things, the Norwegian rat and wants to go to the States to learn how to control it. I think we are talking Bubonic Plague here and I have visions of the apocalypse. I shall watch out for tall, blond, blue-eyed rats. She starts to talk about "disaster management" and civil catastrophes when there is a sound exactly like not-so-distant artillery. We pause. Suddenly the whole building starts to shudder, and we both realize that we are experiencing an earthquake. My mind instantly recalls the 1988 earthquake in Armenia in which 50-100,000 people died and entire towns were consumed. Michael appears at the door and says it would be advisable for us all to go outside in ca se the Mathematical Institute is reduced to a bungalow. This we do and stand in the courtyard. Yesterday there was a severe quake in neighboring Iran in which many died, and this could be a residual part of that. Nothing more occurs, and gingerly we make our way back in. It cannot help the composure of the candidate to have that happen. But she seemed unmoved by it all.
Betsy is eating fruit in her room back at the hotel, a little under the weather, so Joel and I enjoy a splendid Armenian red wine and pork BBQ to the strains of a violinist and a pianist in the almost deserted dining room. A gentle end to the first day.
Sunday, March 2, 1997
Another 3am awakening, a drink and more writing of this diary. From my window the huge mass of Ararat (16,946'), crisp and clear, rises against a clear blue sky. It is hard to imagine that the entire massif is in Turkey, (though the Armenians refer to this eastern part of Turkey as "Greater Armenia"), since it seems so close, It provides a stunning backdrop to this city. I stand and look entranced. This is not Indiana. The voluptuousness continues with a high-pressure shower and breakfast. There is not too much to say about the interviews, other than the fact that these young people are universally impressive.
At lunchtime Manvel takes us to the area beside the soccer stadium where the new capitalists of Armenia gather to sell clothes. Hundreds of traders are selling exotic leather coats, designer shirts and other costly items: hundreds of dollars apiece . Who has the money to buy these? Around the stadium are lines of people along the sidewalk. Each person has a piece of paper pinned to his or her chest. It looks ominously like some wartime deportation, but actually this is where people trade apartments. The papers give details of the homes to be traded. This is the market economy at work in its most basic way. I end up with a new (Turkish) bathrobe and a (Japanese) coffee service. A strange combination.
During the final afternoon session I interview a woman whose husband is an inventor who has developed an electrical connector. She wants to go to the USA to study patent law to protect his many ideas. I cannot comprehend the device she is describing, and so I ask what it is for and she tells me that people buy foreign appliances, cutting off the plugs and causing a fire hazard with jerry-rigged wiring. As she speaks, as though on a signal, my electric fire bursts into flames and smoke pours out of the walls. "There, just like that," she observes. I think her husband is onto something. That brings the day's interviews to a dramatic end. Yesterday we had the earthquake, now this.
We decide to eat out. Round the corner from the hotel is a restaurant in the basement of a house. We pick our way gingerly along the disintegrating sidewalk in the absence of streetlights. The maitre d is a taciturn individual who looks like he jus t lost his entire family in an air raid. However, the food is delicious, though we pass on cow's brains in mayonnaise. Before long a man sits at a complex synthesizer and proceeds to emulate the entire Marine Band and conversation becomes impossible. The room is also filling with smoke and we feel the need to leave. Up to this point, however, we had been discussing the OJ trial, as both my colleagues are lawyers and they live in the jurisdiction where the trial was held; indeed Betsy was conducting a case in the same courthouse. Betsy and Joel are unquestionably NY Jewish intellectual liberals5 who moved to Pacific Palisades (California) by way of Wisconsin (America's fattest state). This process could be called out of the melting pot and into the fire. Betsy could not take the mid-west, which is definitely an acquired taste but something of a shock after Gotham City. I imagine it would seem like an island of post-nuclear holocaust niceness. Anyway they moved to one of the most intriguing judicial areas a s it is the home of the Rodney King, Menendez brothers and OJ fiascoes. The principle involved seems to be that a person is innocent until we can get the verdict we want, or, if at first you screw up, try, try again: the made-for-TV verdict.
Back in the quiet contemplation of my room I read Robert Kaplan's book "The Ends of the Earth," which does for world politics what Paul Theroux does for travel, provide a vehicle for endless gloom and disappointment. He covers this region that I am in, and one is left with a sense of vast, grinding prejudices reawakening to cause mischief in the post Soviet vacuum. So engrossing is this book that I fall asleep late having been unable to put it down, and wake up still clutching it.
Betsy told us earlier that Manvel's brother was involved in a serious road accident yesterday night, which is why he appeared distracted and unshaven this morning. It seems he stopped for gas at one of the informal roadside vendors (tankers) and was hit by a car as he stood in the road. Manvel asked Betsy not to tell us because it would upset us, which is typical of the concern of these people. This is certainly one of the friendliest place I have been.
This afternoon Michael, the ACTR representative, told us that Armenia is one of the most homogenous populations, about 96% Armenian. This is particularly true now as 25% of the population, particularly Azeri's and Russians have left since independence. Most of them went between 1992 and 1996 when the economy was desperate and there was no electricity. The war with Azerbaijan did not help.
Monday, March 3, 1997
Somehow our communal breakfast schedule has become disrupted, and so I eat alone watching terrible pictures of the earthquake in Iran. Maybe that was the cause of the aftershock we felt during the interviews on Saturday. At the Mathematical Institute Michael has made the supreme sacrifice and moved his heater into my room. This does not immediately solve the problem of the sepulchral chill of the office because I plug it into an outlet that turns out to be for a cable wireless system, not a power point. Eventually, the frigidity dissipates. My first interview is a no-show, which is unfortunate as she is a 36-year-old diplomat who is single! She never does appear and there is no word of her. Just my luck. One man has clearly prepared a set of answer s and he delivers them, more or less regardless of what I ask. He also talks like a machine and I cannot stop him. Some time later, after a couple more people have been interviewed, he knocks and comes in to ask me if I "really liked" his interview. What am I to say?
By lunchtime I am glazed over and find Betsy waiting after adventurously taking a tram from downtown. We depart for the brandy store. This is Armenia's most famous export and we are confronted with a mass of different types, all totally unknown to us. The labels are beautiful and the final decision is based on this as much as anything else. In fact, for a mere 6,000 drams you can have your own label printed. I have no idea what to select: Manvel says you would have to be Armenian to appreciate the difference anyway. At $4 a bottle who can complain.
Back to the handicraft shop to look again at a truly beautiful handmade sweater that I noticed the first time round. First, I can barely get the garment over my head, and then when I do it is very snug. The shoulders are square and stand up making me look like a Samurai warrior. I wander around trying to make up my mind about this totally unsuitable object, and my eye lights upon one of the most beautiful items I have ever encountered. It is a large fruit bowl exquisitely carved out of a solid bloc k of walnut. This is more than I had thought to pay for anything. But, of course I yield and land myself with a first class baggage problem.
Tuesday, March 4, 1997
A day for a walk, but since I don't wake up until 9:30 that will be short. I stagger into a deserted breakfast room at 10 and, zombie-like, watch Russian daytime TV. Then Joel and Betsy arrive for breakfast and I don't feel so bad! They tell me about his lecture at the American University last night, seems I didn't miss much. The students were all told that their notes would be collected afterwards, so they were writing like demons. At the dinner reception after the talk Joel was told that everyone was going Dutch, even though he had given them their lecture free! The law dean intervened, and Joel was spared the cost of the embarrassment. After a breakfast of meat-filled pancakes and good Armenian bread, I make my way to the siren that sits at the reception desk. I ask her to call Mr. Kalantourian, my correspondent from Nagorno Karabakh who wishes to meet me. He does not speak English so she fixes our meeting for tomorrow at 11. Then I stroll off in the sunshine to the vast Republic Square. The streets are relatively uncluttered with traffic, and I amble along past the Parliament with its mighty Armenian flag, and the US embassy barricaded, like all US embassies, against the world. The Chinese embassy appears closed, maybe because of the death of D eng last week. Cutting across from the main street I enter a world of low stone houses, often with elaborate facades that must have been typical of Erevan at one time. Now the street is festooned with rubbish and the shells of dead Russian cars. There see ms to be no civic pride any more. Interestingly, there seems to be no main shopping street either, and many of the stores are converted basements. There are a few ghastly leftover Soviet food stores (Gastronoms) of hideous ugliness. Nearby all the women, regardless of age, are clad in sleek fur coats like some ecologist's vision of hell. But, they do look very elegant, especially with that thick, shiny black hair. One very drunken man, even at this precocious time of the morning, lurks up to me and says " what's cooking baby?"
Manvel has offered to take us on a tour today. He is a little late because he has been to the hospital to see his brother who was the victim of a hit and run accident two nights ago. Mercifully, his brother is much better and this is reflected in Manvel's countenance. He tells us that from debris he picks up at the scene of the accident, the car involved was a late-model BMW. He has told the police this, but they maintain they do not have gasoline to pursue the inquires. So, Manvel is doing it himself, and each time we see a BMW, and there are 1,500 in Armenia, he examines it for damage and notes the number in a small black book. He is determined to resolve this issue and I would not like to be around when he does.
As we climb out of the city we enter a zone of intense roadside trade. Dozens of stalls sell liquor and vegetables. This type of informal trade is forbidden within the city limits and so you are able to tell the moment you cross the municipal boundary. The different activities are grouped, so suddenly everyone is selling furniture from Romania, and Italy, and then the road is lined with gasoline tankers. This area, Manvel informs is called "Kuwait." This was the scene of his brother's accident. At a roadside police check Manvel pulls over and tells us "this [police]man is my best friend and so I must stop and kiss him." He also tells the police officer, whose hat bears both Soviet and Armenian badges, to be on the lookout for a BMW with a broken mirror. The web is widening.
It is a glorious sunny day, though the air is a little brisk. We pause at a red tufa wall around a compact, seventh-century church, On the way here we paused briefly at Mousaler (Mountain of Mousa). Here, in the early part of this century, the local villagers retreated before the advancing Turks and held them off for 40 days. Each year Armenians from around the world come here to celebrate this event, a sort of Armenian Masada. The church is dedicated to Ripsimi, an early Armenian saint who was martyred when she caught, and resisted, the amorous attention of a local king. Manvel tells us the tale, but we become hopelessly lost in the complexity: anyway she ended up dead and canonized. From within the circular church comes the sound of an organ, somehow a sound that one does not normally associate with churches this Far East. The churches are uniformly simple inside lacking the ornate character of some of the orthodox edifices.
Our destination today is the town of Echmiadzin, a busy regional commercial center. The central plaza of the town is surrounded by glass cases containing exquisitely detailed models of all the most notable Armenian churches including some that are no longer standing. At one side of the square stands a stark black statue of a gaunt old man. This is the composer Komitas who lived here and taught in the conservatory. However, the events of the 1915 genocide of the Armenians were so terrible that he was driven mad, never recovered and died in confinement. All the time in this country one is reminded of the parallels with Israel, an outlier of westernism in a sea of Islam, the Diaspora, the defining genocide, the brilliant artistic culture, the tangles with Rome, and so on. The only difference, and it is a considerable one, is that the Armenia is an almost totally homogenous country and the Armenians have always been here.
Just behind the square is a seventh century church built on an earlier Zoroastrian temple. This church holds the remains of St. Guyan‚, another woman sacrificed for the lustful king. Her tomb is in a tiny crypt where a recessed illuminated painting shows the cruel act. Nearby two men are skinning a chicken that had been offered as a sacrifice. There is timelessness about it all in these cloisters, and a remarkable sense of continuity. A thousand years ago or more people were standing here, sacrificing chickens and the church was old then. Of course, let's not forget we have buildings in Indiana that date back as far as 1824.
Our last ecclesiastical stop is the main one as far as Armenia is concerned. This town of Echmiadzin is the seat of the Catolicus (Patriarch) of the Armenian Church worldwide. Indeed, this monastery where he resides has been the ecclesiastical metropolis of the Armenian nation since the fourth century AD. This makes it the oldest monastic foundation in the entire Christian world. On the way past the palace of the Catolicus, Manvel tells us that he is an atheist, but his wife is a believer, and this leads us into a strange tale. When she was pregnant with their second child she had a dream that a horseman approached her and told her he was St. George. He wanted her to name the child after him. This was strange because the doctor had informed them definitively that their next child was a girl. When the infant came forth it was, indeed, a boy scoring one for the saints and zero for the gynecologists. The infant was, naturally, christened Gevorg, the Armenian form of George. As Manvel recounts this story his joy is obvious as boys are highly prized. Betsy maintains a stoic liberal silence as the tells of his annual sacrifice of a sheep for the lad, and how fortunate he was that it was not another girl. Curiously, the boy gets to pick the sheep.
The mother church is also a seminary, and black-robed seminarians glide among its pear trees and shady gardens. At the far end is the palace itself, which is off-limits to visitors. Manvel tells us, confidentially, the old Catolicus, who died in 19 94_was much loved. His replacement, however, is unapproachable and spends all his time chatting with the president. The portico of the main body of the church, which we are about to enter, is painted with frescos, and on one painting of the Virgin Mary a scorpion became trapped in the wet plaster over a millennium ago, and there its mummified corpse remains. The church is, again, rather austere with high dome supporting a huge chandelier. The main body of the church is circular with a large gold cross-sew n onto a purple drape. There is evidence that the interior was painted, but the artwork is dark and largely indistinguishable now.
In a back room is a reliquary full of centuries of miters, robes, staffs and crowns as well as church plate. Small fragments of bone from various saints are set in gorgeous gold ossuaries, and there is an ancient spearhead said to be that used to pierce the body of Christ on the cross. Most beautiful, from my point of view, are volumes of illuminated manuscripts in vibrant colors belying their great antiquity. The combinations of red, cobalt and pure gold are gorgeous. A priest rolls back a cover o n the glass case that we may see them better and a gentleman with an American accent remarks on the work to us. Then he addresses the priest in Armenian, so he may be part of the Diaspora returning to visit the seat of his religion. There are, of course, far more Armenian's abroad than the 2 « million who remain in their native land. There is, for instance, a huge Armenian population in Russia, and the Russians are building a monumental embassy in Erevan. All told, relations between the two countries are good, and the Russian language is still much in evidence here.
After all this religion our thoughts move in a more secular plane towards lunch. Manvel wants us to try Armenian food, and so in the depths of a flea market he leads us downstairs into a restaurant of true Soviet austerity. Interestingly, all the tables are enclosed in booths with a door: a style popular in turn-of-the-century Germany for secret assignations. It is almost Arctic in its bone-chilling frigidity down here too.
Our meal starts with lavish, Armenian bread much like pita, on which one heaps cheese, cilantro, olives, and dried beef. This is only for starters as Manvel has ordered 40 Khingal‚, which to my untrained eye look like pirogis, and are Armenia's contribution to the ubiquitous eastern dumpling. There is an art to eating these; otherwise you end up wearing them. First, they contain meat (minced beef) and water, making a sort of soup. If you bite straight into them they spray you and the entire surroundings. The trick is to hold them by their stubby pastry tail and insert the entire thing into your mouth biting off the tail. The problem is they are rather substantial in dimension. It takes a while to get the knack, and then after a few you are totally bloated. We all fall by the wayside, but Manvel is relentless until even he balks at the last few.
Eventually we stagger back up into the sunlight and what, by comparison, is the warmth of a March day. As we go around the square we see a lovely old rug in warm reds and oranges hanging on the wall. There is a store nearby looked after by a totally shifty young character in a long, belted turquoise coat. A true rug merchant. Still he has beautiful items at $120 which is a giveaway. Manvel warns us we will be relentlessly hassled by the customs if we try to export these and so we leave it at that. Of course I do not have one square foot of floor space left on which to put a rug, but that never stopped me in the past.
On the journey back we stop at a church that was destroyed in an earthquake in the tenth century. Despite its massive form, it was more or less flattened and there have been attempts to reconstruct it. All around pieces of fallen masonry have been grouped together and numbered, but it will be a huge job. Every so often you are reminded that this is an area not only of ceaseless political instability, but seismic activity too.
A little further on a dammed lake has been drained for cleaning revealing an old road and a perfectly-preserved bridge made of wood, which people are using again until it, once more, vanishes beneath the waters: a sort of Armenian Brigadoon. Nearby is a traffic underpass on which work has also stopped for the last several years. We are now worn out and return to the hotel where Michael joins us for a quiet dinner.
Wednesday, March 5, 1997
Last day in Erevan, and the first task is to bid farewell to my two lawyer colleagues who have been excellent company. They are due to fly out to Istanbul at 11, and I am truly sorry to see them go. At 11:10 Manvel arrives to look after me, and soon my other guests walk in. My correspondent from Karabakh, Mr. Kalanturian is accompanied by a stunning young woman in a fur coat, and Mr. Gregori Petrossian who was the speaker of the N-K parliament. After introductions we all leave for the post office t o mail my ten postcards. It is a huge modern Soviet-style building with immense ugly chandeliers. Despite its vastness, only one service window is open, and Manvel jumps to the head of the queue. While there he meets the head of the Armenian Philatelic Un ion who takes the postmarking device from the lady behind the counter and proceeds to cancel his own mail! He invites us to his club, but before that I buy a beautifully engraved lottery ticket for $1.
The stamp club is Spartan in the extreme and leads off from an inner courtyard stacked with rubbish. On the wall is a poster announcing new stamps for Chechnya with a portrait of the late general Dudayev. I buy a few stamps and pay in drams, my friend from Karabakh buys a lot and pays in $. Then we drop off the young lady at the N-K unofficial "embassy" and go for pizza. They tell me that there has been some sporadic violence in their area, and the road connection is very bad. Nagorno-Karabakh is a curious outlier of Armenians totally surrounded by Azerbaijan. This did not matter too much in the days of the USSR when there was one unifying structure. Once independence came to Armenia the position of Nagorno-Karabakh, or Ardzakh, as it is known locally, was perilous. In a war with Azerbaijan, Armenia seized most of the Azeri territory separating the exclave and Armenia proper. What the situation is now was something of a mystery to me--so I asked Mr. Petrosian. First he invites me to visit and tells me they will issue the necessary passes, for NK is a completely separate republic now, though nobody, not even Armenia, recognizes it. If I were not returning tomorrow I would have been with them immediately as I relish trouble spots. Our pizza is served by a tall, slender vision of loveliness that distracts me completely from the more weighty matters of discussion. Unfortunately my N-K friends have to leave to finish some business before returning to Stepanakert (the N-K capital), but it was a pleasure to meet them. The waitress shakes my hand as I leave and I am lost forever.
Manvel then takes me to the Matanadaran, which is the repository of ancient Armenian documents. It sits on a hill overlooking the city (and what was Lenin Street) and is a fine, solid piece of architecture. Outside, on the huge stairway sits a subs tantial statue of Mesrop Mashtots who invented the Armenian alphabet in 405 AD. Such a good job did he do, with thirty or so phonetic symbols, that it has not been necessary to add to it. Inside it is at first rather gloomy with Soviet-style hat racks. But upstairs is a display room of some of the most gracefully beautiful things I have ever seen beautifully presented. There is a treaty signed by Napoleon, another from Tsar Alexander II, and many illuminated manuscripts. There is one religious text bound in relief-carved ivory from the sixth century. It is staggering to imagine all the things that have happened since these images were created. I am totally lost among all this vellum and bright color so finely worked. The descriptions are in excellent English and fascinating.
Downstairs there are reproductions of some of the miniatures on sale. This is an institute for the study of ancient manuscripts and the current president of Armenia worked here once. Students here learn the art of the miniaturists using the materials and methods of the time, and their efforts are on sale. It is very difficult to make a choice among such craftsmanship and loveliness, but with Manvel's eternal patience, and that of the shopkeeper, I do. The shopkeeper is so delighted with my choice t hat he gives me another. One of these pieces was painted with colors made from the dust of ancient churches in Armenia and blessed on Christmas Day this year (according to the Armenian calendar).
We call at the office to bid farewell to Michael, for I do not expect him to see me off at 4am! He tells me relative to my lunchtime invitation, that Karabakh is extremely beautiful and I should return to see it. The old capital of Armenia, Shusha, is there. We discuss the impossible geography of Armenia and Azerbaijan and wonder how this situation will ever be resolved. It is beyond my imagination. I don't think I have seen the last of Armenia.
The evening melts into unreality once I have put away my veal all alone, to the romantic strains of the hotel duo for the last time. It is now 8 and I leave at 1:30. I have completed all my reading material and given it to Michael. What to do? Sleep seems the best option, but it is totally unattainable. CNN simply repeats the same material over and over, so there is a limit to the amount of that I can take. I simply cannot sleep whatever I do, and so the minutes pass agonizingly slowly until at 1 a m, a sweet voice tells me this is my wake-up call. Would that it were. I bundle myself up in the lobby and wait, cataleptic, for Manvel, not knowing that he has fallen asleep watching Manchester United play Lisbon at soccer. I call his home and he is around like a rocket.
At the airport I realize that I would get precisely nowhere without Manvel. He refuses to let me join the queue while he parks the car somewhere: "go sit there quietly until I come back". When he comes back he shoots to the front of the line, takes my passport and customs declaration and in a blur of movement seems to have achieved everything. Here, however, they have customs inspection going out. This is one of the more bizarre quirks of Soviet management, and it has to be remembered that this is considered a CIS frontier and is manned jointly with Russians. One lady at the modern x-ray equipment certainly looks Russian being heavily built and bleached blond. We now go through a bureaucratic comedy of errors. She is interested in the strangest things, particularly a small yin-yan ring of Susan's that I bought her in Nepal. We return to this ring endlessly though it has no real value. Manvel has a technique of blind-siding her by moving fast and unpredictably. She then wants my salad bowl unwrapped and calls the big man to inspect it. He immediately pronounces it "new" and, thus, non-taxable, and looks at me as though I was out of my head to travel with such a thing. Eventually we are released from the grasps of the peroxide harpy and move through other, indefinable, checks all manned by school friends of Manvel. Eventually he and I have to part when we come to the real, final, passport check: not even Manvel can finesse this one. He invites me to come back, rent a flat for a month and settle in to Armenia and interview likely candidates for my Armenian wife. I could do a lot worse, but I would need Manvel, a true "fixer" of the type that the USSR bred to an extraordinarily high degree of competence. But, it would be a pleasure to see all those walnuts, pears, cherries and the like in leaf. The interviews would be fun too.
I am eventually herded through even more checks until we are all ready to go. One lady appears to be stamping passports with what looks like an old brass bath stopper. At the appointed hour, with me and my fruit bowl in the very last row of seats, we depart exactly on time. The "stewardessa" offers me a bottle of Armenian red wine and a blanket. That does the job. Goodnight Armenia.
1That part of the world beyond the Caucasus Mountains made up of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.**470 = $12 Interestingly, I learned that there have been expeditions, including American groups, that have scaled Ararat actually looking for remains from the Ark. One group claimed to have found timbers that could have originated with Noah.
3 The "gh" in Geghard is pronounced as a guttural sound like the "ch" in German.
4 Which sets me wondering: do they have, for instance, a "Department of Irritating But Not Really Serious Diseases"?5 The sort of people Hoosier parents use to discipline their children: "If you don't sit down and shut up I will hand you over to the liberal lawyers--you understand!"