Saturday, 21 June 2008

"The Little I Saw of Armenia"

Since I have returned safely from Yerevan, a few background notes might be in order for anyone planning a trip there:

Armenians are an ancient, charming and deeply cultured people whose mountainous homeland lies in a strategic location in the South Caucasus. Consequently, they have spent much of the past 2,000 years having the cr*p kicked out of them by their larger and more aggressive neighbours. But do they hold a grudge? Well, yes, actually. Few conversations pass without one's interlocutor checking that one accepts the Armenian Genocide of 1915 as a historic fact. Dropping the (true, in my case) fact that one's grandfather served at Gallipoli is a useful ice-breaker, surprisingly.
"You mean your grandfather killed Turks?"
"You are friend! Have brandy!"
Do not, under any circumstances, order Turkish delight.

The Armenian population consists of delightful, exquisitely groomed women and larcenous looking men who always manage to achieve 2-days' stubble. The men turn out on the whole to be super chaps once you've had a drink with them and clarified your position on the Armenian genocide, however. Men and women alike stay strikingly slim through a combination of a traditional diet, chain-smoking and inadequate public transport.

Armenia's economy consists of two main activities - making alcohol so strong it can strip paint, and generating nuclear power. In an earthquake zone. I said it was nice, not safe, OK?

Yerevan will be a beautiful city when they get round to finishing it. Until then, a combination of large areas of building site and strong mountain winds mean that walking through many of the streets gives a passable impression of what it's like to walk through a desert sandstorm. One slight surprise was the affection that people feel for the Soviet Union. Many of the older buildings still proudly display the hammer-and-sickle logo of Cap Scott 'Scottie' Scott's personal masseuse*, and I even saw the red banner flying at one location. One of my Armenian colleagues explained the background to this as being that after the genocide, the choice offered to the Armenian people was "Join glorious Bolshevik revolution and stay alive for foreseeable future" or "Have a Turkish pasha drink raki out of your skull." Your live skull.

Actually, one possible reason for the long-term oppression of the Armenians did appear - their habit of putting the pepper in a shaker with a single hole and the salt in one with multiple holes. one can imagine a Turkish governor, having just put pepper on his chips once too often, flipping out.

Armenians drink. In their favour, they produce excellent brandy, exquisite red wines (Areni is rather pleasant) and very passable beers (I recommend kalikia for drinking with food and kotayk for achieving rapid oblivion**). So when one goes out with Armenians, what do they order? Apricot vodka; which - as its name suggests - is made from apricots and industrial coolant. And they don't just drink, they toast. "Let us drink to our foreign guests" (glasses clink, vodka goes down in one, there is a collective gasp of pain from the foreign guests and a struggle to focus). "Let us refill our glasses and drink to world peace!" (same routine again). "To the beauty of women!" (etc etc - I trust you'll forgive me if I fail to remember some of the later toasts). Then you all start calling each other "X-jan" which either means "dear-X" or "gullible British berk" depending on what impression I made on them.

I am already angling to go back at the earliest opportunity...

* See Dr Linstead's "The Wounds of Capt Scott 'Scottie' Scott" (Delhi, 1947) Vol 38 - "Superficial-Metaphorical-Political (Treasonous)-Blonde ladies in uniform"
** Old Russia hands will be pleased to note that Baltika is also available, though the billboard adverts for it pose an interesting semiotic conundrum - they show a baltika bottle and a young Russian lady with her blouse partially unbuttoned. The message could be either a) "after twelve bottles of baltika, all women will appear like this!" or b) "after twelve bottles of baltika, you too will be incapable of doing up buttons like Svetlana here!"


Gadjo Dilo said...

Ahh, and they have fine music and dancing as well. When I was in the Caucasus area I talked with Turks and Azeris who left me with the impression that everybody does (and should) hate Armenians. Hitler, I believe, reckoned that history would not judge his Final Solution too harshly because people had already forgotten the Armenian genocide of 1915. I guess that's why Uncle Joe Russia is a preferable option for them. I imagine that their famous business skills may have made some succesful in America too. Please tell us more.

Rosemary said...

Great reading!!!

God, i miss that Apricot Brandy!

An Armenian Aussie, dying to get back to Armenia!

Mrs Pouncer said...

Dear Mr Dilo My dear grandfather was a great admirer of Saryan, and was privileged to meet him several times during his sojourn in Paris. In fact, I am looking at a framed watercolour from the Okhik illustrations (an Armenian folk story) as I write. Your trip sounds most interesting, but did you see anything of the culture? The art? Cordially etc Mrs P

Gyppo Byard said...

Gadjo-jan - The Russians are their friends (to our slight surprise, there were Russian border guards stationed alongside their Armenian comrades on the Turkish border). Russians also own much of the infrastructure and business interests, and nobody seems to mind. When you live where the Armenians do, powerful friends are welcome. The diaspora (mainly in France and the US) is alos a valuable 'economic flotation device'. I found some figures that suggested that Armenia - population 3 million - has a supportive diaspora of 8 million, many of them owning businesses in the West. You could only hate Armenians if you've never met them socially. Which, of course, Turks and Azeris haven't.

Mrs Pouncer - alas the exigencies of work prevented me getting into the delights of Armenian culture, but I shall attempt to get back for longer. Some of the public architecture reminded me oddly of New Delhi - classical form with 'oriental' detail (and the occasional cast iron hammer-and-sickle). And very handsome for it too! One also hears much of Khatchaturian, another name it pays to drop into conversation.

You know, the famous Soviet-era composer of the hit song "Khatchaturian and put it in your pocket, never let it get away..."

Gyppo Byard said...

Dear Rosemary - Thank you! While I hesitate to correct an Armenian on the matter, the lethal liquid involved in last Thursday's 'Yerevan incident' was not apricot brandy, but apricot vodka.

Apricot brandy I have long been familiar with - apleasantly sippable drink and a long-time favourite of my mother's, it was something my sister and I were allowed liqueur glasses of at Christmas as a special treat when we reached the age of 10 or so.

Apricot vodka was developed for the Soviet space programme but abandoned after a series of devastating launchpad fires as posing too much of a risk to the cosmonauts.

Mrs Pouncer said...

Dear Mr Boyard, Tres amusant, as the French have it; a pun worthy of the pen of Mr Mallett. Incidentally, I see that you admit to living in Reading which, although in the Thames Valley, is not of it, in my view. We were driven through the centre of that blighted town after Ascot on Saturday en route to a Houseparty in Pangbourne. It is almost Hogarthian. Mr Pouncer and I were befuddled at the sight of wastrels and scantily-clad adventuresses on every corner. Whatever happened to that once proud Minster town, ask myself? Kind friends warn me NOT to venture to Maidenhead for fear of an even crueller shock. Has the world gone mad? Cordially etc

No Good Boyo said...

Welcome back Gadjo!

Here's the Victorian music-hall song I mentioned, as sung by Sir Rufus Pit-Hivier at The Blazing two midsummers ago:

The Turkish Sun

By the Bay of Karadonglak
On the Shores of Dildorum
There I shot the Black Armenian
Neath the burning Turkish sun.

Where he came from no one noticed
Whither bound still no one cares
Know we do that he departed
Flesh and blood with sulph'rous flares.

Crashed the cannon through his temples
Seared the shot his cumberbund
As I lanced the Black Armenian
Neath the burning Turkish sun.

Perchance he sought us bearing tidings
From the front at Ninevah
Perhaps a cheer from Major Tarry
Sacking souks in Kandahar.

Or they say he could have borne us
Missives from our kith and kin
News of births and maypoles festive
Or perhaps a christening.

Speak it not, perchance he hastened
With the order to attack
Lance aloft and sabre scabbard
Crammed with shot and nutty slack.

Quoth he nought and ne'er will quote it
As he staggered into sight
For my howitzer spoke sprightly
Setting sand and sky alight.

From the Sevan lakeside cloisters
From the Mount of Ararat
Came the Black Armenian
Who never more will doff his hat.

Through the morning air there shimmered
Shards of steel from ev'ry gun
As we slew the Black Armenian
Neath the burning Turkish sun.