<%-- Page Title--%> Reflection <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 117 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 08, 2003

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Mount Ararat and the Flute Player of Yerevan

Milia Ali

Two vivid images float in my memory when I reflect on my days in Yerevan, Armenia. The majestic Mount Ararat, cradling in its craters the country's checkered history, and the lone flute player in the Republic Square attempting to recapture through his music the lost Soviet era. The reader might rightly question the association between the biblical mountain of Prophet Noah and an anonymous flutist in the streets of Yerevan! But strange are the ways in which our grey cells draw parallels -- the sight of the Ararat peak and the sound of a flute symphony are embedded in my mind in close proximity creating in their interwined chemistry a wistful longing for a rocky, sparsely populated country with its severe winters, languid summers and its warm and hospitable people.

Before I went to live there with my husband in 2001, Armenia for me was a remote reality, merely another country which was a part of the former Soviet Union and became independent after its collapse in 1991. A chance encounter with a seventy-year old painter kindled my interest in the Armenian people. The first time I met her in her studio, Armine Galentz surprised me by quoting Tagore's “Caged Bird and Free Bird”(in Armenian). She told me that the poem was her constant companion because it was a true representation of her life: “I was a caged bird in the Soviet Union but now that I am free, my wings have forgotten how to fly.” Needless to say, she touched my heart at its most tender and sensitive spot--my devotion and dedication to Tagore's philosophy and poetry. I learned from Armine that the Soviets taught Tagore in their schools. As a matter of fact, Armenia is the first country I visited outside Bangladesh and India where Rabindranath Tagore is almost a household name!

As the days passed, Armine and I became friends. I would sit with her for hours singing Tagore's compositions while she painted my portrait. Through her conversation I began to feel the pain of a fallen nation with a rich heritage combined with seventy years of socialist indoctrination. Thus began my journey into the real Armenia and the simultaneous expansion of my consciousness. Although I only touched the periphery of my destination, in many ways it changed my perspective of life and made me more appreciative of diversity, not only at the individual level, but also of peoples and nations.

Armenia, a nation which claims that it was the first to accept Christianity as a state religion about two thousand years ago, has survived several calamities. Situated at a critical point in the silk route, the country was historically a trading centre for merchants and in many ways formed a bridge between Europe and Asia. The Arab invasions and attacks by the Turks, resulting in a genocide and mass exodus in the early part of the twentieth century, left Armenia scarred and vulnerable. As a matter of fact, its people still demand an apology from the Turks. Being a citizen of a country which has been the victim of genocide, I could empathise and relate to this trauma and in many ways admired the resilience of a nation that did not allow seventy years of rigid Soviet rule to obliterate its history and heritage!

According to the Armenians, the constant invasions by its hostile neighbours prompted their leaders to opt for the USSR in 1918. Having made a voluntary union with the Soviets, Armenia enjoyed some rare privileges, for example, a certain degree of religious, linguistic and cultural freedom. Although one could not climb to the top echelons of the Central Soviet Committee unless he or she was a self-proclaimed atheist, many Armenians, even in the Stalin era, maintained some form of religious practice at an individual level. It is, therefore, not surprising that religion plays an important role in the socio-political and cultural scene of post-independent Armenia. The Armenian Orthodox Church has its own Pope (the Catholicos) who wields considerable moral and political authority over his people. It is also interesting that an increasing number of men and women have reverted to religion to connect to their Christian roots. For Diaspora Armenians (about six million who live in the US, Europe, Middle East and other ex-Soviet countries), the church is the social and cultural centre that keeps them united and linked to their motherland.

Mt. Ararat, originally a part of Western Armenia, now lies in Turkish territory. Whatever its geographical boundaries may be, the mountain's spectacular beauty can be experienced from every corner of the capital, Yerevan. The play of sun and shade on its snow clad peak provides a welcome respite from the otherwise monochromatic architecture and character of the city, with its matchbox like soviet-style apartments and ornate, red-bricked structures which house the governmental offices and Ministries. A casual walk through the city gives one a sense of depression and pessimism transmitted through the unsmiling and somewhat dejected faces of its citizens. A deeper insight into the country's situation explains why -- when internal markets collapsed and funds from the central Soviet budget were no longer available, the country, like many other former Soviet countries, plunged into economic gloom. In Armenia's case this phenomena has been more pronounced since it has no natural resource base and its main asset is its pool of well-educated population with high expectations but skills which are not altogether relevant in today's open market competition. It is thus difficult for the Armenians to accept the fact that they are no longer a super power, neither do they have free access to housing, water, electricity, health care, education and, above all, a secure job and pension any more.

As I started to make friends with many nationals, I began to observe a very interesting characteristic--the inability to think out of the box or operate on two or more parallel planes. This results in an inherent refusal to accept and adapt to change. Candid discussions revealed that this was partially due to the Soviet education which did not encourage freethinking and entrepreneurship. It is, therefore, interesting that an ordinary cab driver can recognise the notes of Beethoven's seventh symphony without much effort, yet he gets lost when forced to take a detour to a well-known destination! The content-based education that he received prepared him to fill a specific employment gap but did not teach him to apply his academic knowledge to a different work situation or even transfer his skills from one job to another. There are only a few who are willing to try out new ventures and professions. In many cases this turns out to be quite a traumatic experience. Thus, most continue to dwell in their past and are confused about how to use their redundant skills in post-Soviet Armenia. Like the flute player in the Republic Square, who lost his job when the concerts and operas were no longer state-sponsored. He continues to suffer the indignity of unemployment but is not motivated to walk across the street to the Marriott Hotel and ask if there is a need for a musician to entertain guests in the lobby! I never understood why--was it the fear of being refused or just that he lacked the capacity to market his skills in a competitive world? So, he sits in a deserted street corner and makes beautiful music with so much passion, technical perfection and enthusiasm, as if he is performing to a packed audience in the Bolshoi theatre!

I would not be accurate if I create the impression that the Armenians lack initiative -- their Diaspora are among the best entrepreneurs in the world and many young people who live in the country have also learnt to be proactive, in some cases resulting in blatant aggressiveness. In truth, present Armenia is the site of two opposing forces -- the older generation, steeped in socialistic ideology, clinging to the remnants of Soviet ideas and beliefs and the youth, impatient to make the quantum leap into the MTV screen and hence to Coca Cola land! This may be an over generalisation of the complex psyche of a proud nation, but it becomes apparent when one observes the middle aged men and women sitting in parks in their dark, dreary clothing designed to suppress diversity and imagination, and, in contrast, the young women walking down the rugged pavements of Yerevan in stiletto heels, mini skirts and tank tops as if they just stepped out of a James Bond movie! Candid discussion with the new generation Armenians explains this phenomena. During the first years of independence there was an upsurge of anger against all socialistic values and customs which discouraged independent thinking and behaviour. As a result, the tide turned in the opposite direction and this manifested itself through the younger generation asserting their independence in the only way they could--by rebelling against any form of dress code, etiquette and culture which even remotely reminded them of the pre-independence period. It is, however, unfortunate that in the absence of proper guidelines for a “new Armenian”
cultural and ethical code, the youth adopted the only option available to them -- emulating the Hollywood or TV soap opera style of behaviour, fashion and mannerisms! It may require another mini revolution and years of exposure to the outside world to break this syndrome.

My story of Armenia will not be complete without the human perspective. No story ever is ! Of the many relationships that made a difference in some way, I would like to mention my brief friendship with the dancer, Sofi Devoyan, who proposed that she compose a ballet based on Rabindrasangeet which we would perform together. My one regret is that the project was conceptualised toward the end of my stay and was lost in the pile of other professional and social priorities. As I mentioned at the outset, Tagore was widely read and respected in the USSR. Since people were not familiar with his songs, my few musical performances generated a good deal of interest and curiosity, especially among the artists. It is interesting that, contrary to views propagated by some groups of Bangali intellectuals, Rabindranath Tagore was not regarded as an elitist writer by the guardians of Soviet culture!

The other remarkable discovery I made through my interactions on a personal level is that there is a tremendous amount of inquisitiveness and admiration for South Asian culture and traditions all over the former USSR, mainly because the Soviets had close ties with India. As a matter of fact, Indian cinema offered the only glimpse to the outside world during the rigid Soviet period when every piece of art and music was monitored and approved by Moscow before it was made available for public viewing and enjoyment. Thus, many remember Nargis and Raj Kapoor films with a sense of romantic nostalgia. Whenever I walked into my favourite restaurant, the violinist moved from the intricate notes of Mozart to “Awara hoon” and “Mera joota hae Japani” as a tribute to the lady from “India”. I was often stopped by men and women in the streets with a “namaste” and questions about the saree -- how to wear it, does it come off easily, how many metres etc.

Finally, all those who touched me in many visible and invisible ways. The numerous friends and acquaintances who invited me to their homes. Whether it was a modest two-roomed apartment or a luxurious chalet in the mountains, the spread was always lavish and the warmth and toasts even more exuberant. And, of course, the street children of Yerevan! How can I forget them? At the request of the NGO that cared for these children, I organised a charity concert for their benefit. The most enjoyable part of the task was that I taught them to sing Tagore's song: “Ami chini go chini tomare ogo bideshini…”(I know you. Oh! Foreigner--you live across the seas…. I have felt your presence in the depths of my heart.) which they performed on stage. After this event, whenever I walked through the main streets of Yerevan I would have a little boy or girl following me singing “Ami chini …” How apt! Just as I carry a little bit of Armenia with me wherever I go, I have also left a part of me there -- the part which will be recognised as the Chena bideshini (The known foreigner)!




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