At Finisterre’s edge of the world…

From time to time, and usually in the summer, I post photographs that friends send back from their travels–South America, the Balkan countries, the Middle East, anywhere and everywhere a traveler’s fancy has taken them for pleasure or pilgrimage, fun or enlightenment. Makes no difference the target, for travel–and the traveler’s alertness and openness to the unknown within and without — is its own reward, the road rather than the destination, the big prize.  In his gem of an essay, “Why We Travel,” Pico Iyer writes that travel is “a quest for not just the unknown, but the unknowing.”

Yesterday, my dear friend Rose Giovanetti  sent me photographs from her travels–from Finisterre on the western coast of Galicia, Spain, the end point of her weeks-long walk on the Camino de Santiago de Compostella.  The Romans thought Finisterre was the end of the world beyond which was the void, the huge rocks opening onto the ocean’s wild waters, the tired traveler face to face with the unknown and the unknowing.

Finisterre. (Photo by Rose Giovanetti)

Tradition has it that those who walk the long, long trail of the Camino engage in rituals to unburden themselves of their sins or desires–add a “stone of sorrow” to the piles along the way, build a wooden cross, attend a church service, or burn their shoes when they reach the journey’s end at Finisterre.    But for me, something far more modest, less dramatic will do as it has in the past: leave something, some object there, at the point where the earth ends, where all our knowns and knowings come up against mystery of the waters’ horizon.  Leave it for the ones who have left or who have been snatched too soon, always too soon. This time, too, my friend has carried a tiny something from me all the way to the edge of the world.  This time, too, from an elevated point on the cliffs, she’ll toss it into the waters for someone who has left this world.

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She is standing at the edge of the cliff, tired traveler, custodian of sorrows. Soon, she will throw the tiny offering into the waters for yet another dear person or more–hers and mine– who died too fast, and too soon, too soon.  If there is good wind, the ribbon will catch the glow of the sun, twist in the immense blue for one last time, and then fall in the ocean’s lap, into the final unknown.  Her eyes will well up with awe.

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Finisterre, the earth’s end, the Romans thought.  But for the one who returns, for the pilgrim or the secular traveler, there is the road back from the edge, from the earth’s end.  In the encounter with such bedrock truths, with a teetering figure on the cliffs, destination is a vanishing points, agendas and plans are ruses, and lives are slivers of light on “uncharted seas” (after John Fowles.)

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~

Posted in Aging, Meditations, Ordinary places, Passages and Homes, Those we Love | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vahé Oshagan: Tebi Gyank

Vahé Oshagan died on June 30, 2000.  On the anniversary of his final departure, here is a re-post of one of his best known poems, in translation. Դէպի Կեանք (Toward life) was completed in 1983 and published in 1991.  To my knowledge, the following is its first English language translation from the Armenian to be published separately anywhere.

~~

TOWARD LIFE
by
Vahé Oshagan

This midday too
god sits in death’s shade wipes the sweat off his forehead
takes out the round gold watch
looks
thousands cross-legged in circles listen to fairy tales
that swing from the tongues of tiny, suspended bells—
this is our life
dragging a torn fishing-net on our shoulder we walk the streets
the shrieking mob chases a decrepit whore ten months pregnant
liquid-eyed vagrant seven times over
for twenty-four hours we celebrate a single instant’s birthday
arms thrust in the wind fingers of nakedness opened
the longings throb incurably bit by bit—
oh this life
from the cradle they anointed us married us off in the stealth of darkness
we have now left home gone to the villages whoring with every passer-by
day and night hungry sleepless I’m out on the street I search
who is it? what is it? no one knows no one has seen
innumerable fetid wounds pave the world
I will bend down kiss
life is a street where the urchins have seized me chasing me, laughing at me
miniature holy desert I rent out to predators of human beings
and I flee stumbling through photocopy corridors:
How to live?
the invisible steel webs of wisdom cover the universe
caught in it I soar on the surface of consciousness
brand new useless furniture and housewares parade all day
isolated from the desolate living room we will stand face to face
look at each other to say what is already at the bottom of wind and water
fossils glitter in the pearly halls of the heart
seated on the ground I wait I’ve been jobless six months all the way back until there from where we did not yet start on the road all of us huddle nose to nose
no place left on the universe’s weathered sofa except to stand on one leg
cast a shadow in the morning and gather it at night.

And I live
in the pandemonium I have opened my palm begging from all four corners
whatever falls whoever steals in broad daylight
spreads it out carefully in the suburbs of loneliness without streets without sidewalks
but I sprout from the slits of desire bringing the light with me
to find the road before I’m lost traceless formless
caught in the sweet glue we wander how can we not love and hate each other?
the world and I are twins attached to each other on all sides
two bastards we lurk in the vicinity of the whorehouse
looking for our bashful mother
but everywhere the rustle of curtains the veil and patina of brides
thick dust of Vesuvius buried in it inside the horizon’s eyelid
leaning against each other we keep steadfast vigil for a miracle’s birth:

My life is the light
plastered wastefully on the eye of the world
poured freely for the famine-crazed wild multitudes
gigantic bribe for the hiding atoms to come out and look at me
perhaps we will recognize each other have something to say
at the exit of the same womb we too have crouched seated for centuries
our eyes on the empty white walls we smile like idiots
what business do we have in these parts?
for whose soul do these lamps burn?
what waste of luck this is which we barely managed to acquire
and arrived here spread the carpet on the grass took out the sandwiches and lay back
and already the guise of light covers us with the armors of dinosaurs
with insect feet we slide across the invisible hide of light
we have fun toast life strut around wearing shadows.

My life is darkness
I fall in it at each step there are pot holes one inside the other they have no end
and no beginning on this hot pain they have poured thick asphalt
armies of ants carrying the world dance on my skin
who cares that people run barefoot crazed toward destruction
and then they are not there they have escaped and gone to the cellars of exile
and they keep me hostage or bury me or throw me in a corner
all by myself they have locked the photographer’s darkroom from inside and outside
all day all night nothing better to do than sitting around washing and drying film, hanging it on the wall without ever knowing who looks at you from whose voice is it from the depths of mouths the cassettes spin for twenty four hours a day
understand if you can, anyone knocking on the door at midnight? Does the world know                                                                                                                      you are alive?
holding on like this to the limitless sail of consciousness
taut and ready waiting, where oh where is the wind’s feather to come and take me
beyond this darkness this light there’s no address or identity—

only love
from the grids and cages of bones from the gutters of the sky’s roof from the neumes of                                                                                                                             my palms
in the downward sleep of time tumbling all the way to the pail of suffering
never ever use the word for happiness it will die
and with it will disappear love back to the table’s crumbs the crowd has left
everything begins after the feast no one tells you the news
by the time you find out it is too late you will stand under the wall and watch
no need anymore to crack jokes at dinner with your mouth full
to talk seriously about the Pope to hurry to the airport your heart full of fear
to stand in line at the unemployment office for hours and lifetimes
to shovel the snow toward the street toward the city toward the world which is not there
our eyes are cheap beads gathered from streams and sidewalks
the crickets the cars Baron Setrak and Vivaldi
all operate on the same loom of virgin silence mysterious and coded

what message?
whose tongues have Gengis Khan’s executioners cut
and thrown me back to the gardens of childhood filled with mines
now they explode one by one you must walk run play
sing scream this is my body poured like this to edge of the horizon
the ring where shall we take it? we are orphaned atoms all of us
bride and bridegroom father-in-law mother-in-law brother-in-law
sister-in-law cousin niece nephew, godfather, godmother
bridegroom come outside
see, everything and all of us are relatives and in-laws
from the old sorrowful whore seated at the door knees wide open saliva flowing from                                                                                                             her mouth
from the debauched indolent hashish addict the shameless lewd procurer
the virtuous lovesick inconsolable and abandoned nun
from the darkened and virgin thickets the beasts devouring each other
from the volcano’s exploding heart from the seas of misfortune from the houses stacked
one on top of another
from inside the contaminated filth until the altar the chrism the ointment
love a gigantic magnet thousands and thousands of crumbs which shine glitter quiver
stone water air tree light man and insect
we have gathered under the huge empty copula
hey bridegroom of ours look here
how will you recognize us you neither see nor hear nor touch
we sleep in hideouts made of syllables we have built sanctuaries of alphabets
clothes of words cover us, disguise us for eternity
now we are standing in groups our cocktail drinks in our hands we talk about this and                                                                                                                                              that
a little while later faceless employees will ask for our tickets
break the thread of conversation open the door push us all to the tarmac
outside in the dark no one will remember us greet us with a hello
suddenly voices will call us please come this way this way hurry up
and hundreds of hands will hold pull push into the line
it is the old couch of the whorehouse but the anxiety of waiting is not there anymore
the intermission has ended other people are standing in the corridors.

What did we understand from all that has transpired?
the heels always wore out on the outside
against closed doors we cursed we sobbed we yearned
we dyed our hair black secretly we swallowed many pills
we did not eat onions and garlic we used deodorant under our arms
we learned to read and write we had visiting cards printed
taking on the airs of people in the know reliable serious
our heads down with slow steps we walked back and forth back and forth on carpets
talking about immortality the black market the Secret Army
we had our pictures taken we made the sign of the cross we received greetings
on the phone we talked about life death love giving our advice
without a smile wearing glasses holding candles in our hands we walked around each
other
but no one was fooled
and we remained human-like scarecrows scattered here and there in the silent desolate                                                                                                                                          fields
not a single bird flying back and forth noticed us
while the solitary tiller from the distant mist waved his arm to us
but not a single seed reached the path of consciousness
and I am still here holding a child’s tiny silver spoon
confused useless words hang from my mouth
the colorful threads of the clowns have become a tangled mess

whom to tell the story how to tell it no one believes it anymore
that what happened was not an accident and the fairy tale has no end
a thrust cork floats on eternity’s surface and bottom
there was no escape when they lay the trap.

I will go toward life
to the stairs of the future there a duplicate standing naked
to the impossible appointment when is it where is it oh my god before they lock up the
coffee shop
to the sidewalks of midnight to wander a famished shadow
I am and I am not we will live in the multitude of the covered market
I sell memories . . .   I sell memories . . .  who will buy them . . . come take them . . .
I offer them for free
I am made of crumbs fallen to the ground around the potter’s chair
given shape in a hurry in the dark incomplete
placed at the center breathless to endure until I reach some place
the world poured all over the place  sand heap of an adventure-stricken truck
I sell memories . . . what do you care who I am what I am
I buy your torn underwear the smell of your mouth your shit
I am the only customer of your life you have locked the door inside what are you doing?
I am the sole heir of your treasures where have you buried them?
don’t you know that the desert begins beyond this point
the tortoise has fallen on its back the cripple has curled on himself
people each one a letter-bomb they explode in my hands as soon as I open them
the crumbs the echo fill the exotic bubble
which is carried across rooftops tumbles through the streets

that’s me that’s me
I have come before myself to herald my coming
the guest list in my hand to prepare the big feast
the last hope of the universe’s blind deacon of a firefly
may be this time for a second the narrow path will be visible
toward life.

~~Translated by Taline Voskeritchian~~

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At the Librairie Orientale Hrant Samuelian, Paris

The recent death of Armen Samuelian, co-owner of Librairie Orientale in Paris, marks the end of an era. In addition to its substantial holdings, the LO was cultural landmark, exilic gathering place, and community-builder for the generation of Armenian survivors of the Ottoman genocide against the Armenians of the empire. For decades after its establishment, the LO held a prestigious presence in the scholarly life of Paris, and for those thousands of visitors to the Parisian capital for whom the LO was a mandatory stop.
The Librairie Orientale was for the generations.

Passages Home Blog

On my last day in Paris, a gentle drizzle in the air, we make our way to Librairie Orientale Hrant Samuelian, to meet up with two other friends.  “Let’s meet at Samuelian,” we’ve told each other. The four of us–an Armenian friend originally from Beirut who lives in Paris; another friend originally from Istanbul who also lives in Paris; and a French woman whose ancestry is Russian, and whose family includes prominent Orientalists, the four of us–brought together today by a visit to the Librairie Orientale.

It’s always like this with Librairie Orientale, the visit itself larger than the actual walk up Monsieur Le Prince to the bookstore, narrow, with an unassuming, almost self-effacing exterior. This time, I am here at the request of a friend from Los Angeles who wants the two-volume fascimile edition of the first Armenian periodical published in Madras, India, between 1794-96, and reissued in 1970…

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Darwish: If You Were Not the Rain, My Love

Passages Home Blog

If you were not the rain, my love, then be the tree

Saturated and bountiful, be the tree.

And if you were not the tree, my love, then be the stone

Saturated and moist,  be the stone.

And if you were not the stone, my love, then be the moon

In the dream of the loved one, be the moon.

This is what a woman said to her son at his funeral.

~~Excerpt from Under Siege by Mahmoud Darwish~~

Translated from the Arabic by Taline Voskeritchian and Christopher Millis

(Thanks, S., for the archive!)

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It’s Bloomsday: Reading Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ in Arabic

Reading Joyce in Arabic on Bloomsday…

Arabic Literature (in English)

Among non-European languages, Omar Qaqish writes in a 2014 paper, Arabic has been one into which the writings of James Joyce have been reproduced prolifically:

ulysses3There are a number of published translations of Joyce’s short stories and novels, as well as criticism of Joyce’s work, but these books don’t represent the breadth of interest in Joyce’s work. As Amir Zaky’s recent survey of translations of Dubliners into Arabic noted, “By a fleeting search on the web, one can find some of the 15 stories in the collection translated by a number of amateurs and professionals.”

Indeed, Zaky said, “Arab translators have made great efforts to bring Joyce’s work into the Arabic.”

Moreover, those translations have been widely influential. According to Rasheed El-Enany’s Naguib Mahfouz: The Pursuit of Meaning, Egypt’s Nobel literature laureate said of his characters’ internal monologes: “All that happens is that I sometimes encounter a Joycean moment in my hero’s life…

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The Eyes of Yerevan

This essay of mine appeared in Agni Review, #49, 1999. Given all that has happened in Armenia in the last 15 years or so, not to mention the urban and human transformation of Yerevan during this period, the essay is a bit dated.  It was written in the wake of the monumental events that brought about the dissolution of the USSR and the independence of Armenia, and as such it is both documentary and meditation wrapped in that all-purpose term, travel writing.

“The Eyes of Yerevan” was nominated for a Pushcart Award.

~~The Eyes of Yerevan~~

On my first morning in Yerevan I do what all visitors to this city do on their first day—I go find a public space. In Yerevan, as in other cities where geography and history have conspired to make daily life very difficult, public space is an antidote. While home is often small and crowded, public space is the realm of the imagination and possibility. As I negotiate the obstacles of the road—huge potholes, pieces of vicious wire jutting out of the ground, sudden steps which appear without warning, huge pipes running parallel to the pavements—I have this sense that, at any minute, something unanticipated, perhaps even unknown, will appear out of nowhere.

The urbanism of the city makes this almost inevitable. If you can find a good map of Yerevan, the thing that strikes you first about the city is its circularity. The city is always around you, enveloping you in its amniotic grid, keeping a kind of liquid watch over you. Long, straight streets stretch across the entire circle, connecting flat surfaces to steep ascents. Add to this the preponderance of large open spaces— parks and gardens and stadiums and squares—and you have the makings of a city where the human impulse for display has found its natural stage and audience.

I am in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, to teach two five-week courses at the American University of Armenia, one on writing pedagogy to English teachers at institutions of higher learning and the other on business writing to young, aspiring professionals. It is a curious combination, but one which will bring me in contact with the two poles of a nation in transition. The teachers of English are mostly women from established families of the Soviet era; the business and management professionals are much younger in age, less attached to the past, and more preoccupied.

Armenia is a small, landlocked republic in the heart of the Caucasus, where the the first glasnost demonstrations erupted in February, 1988. For months, millions of people gathered in the city, demanding the unification of the contested region of Nagorno Karabagh (in Azerbaijan) with Armenia. Ten months after these demonstrations, in December, 1988, the country was hit by a powerful earthquake in the north. Since then, Armenia has been in the grip of seemingly insurmountable circumstances: sudden independence, conflict with Azerbaijan, economic blockade by Azerbaijan and Turkey, and political transformation.

On this hot July morning, Yerevan has the feel of a meydan. Meydan (a word common to Arabic, Farsi and Turkish) is not the same as a square, its literal translation. A meydan is something much more lively and animated and colorful, something like a carnival or a bazaar. Something like the Vernissage, though not quite. Lined with yellowish greenery, the Vernissage is tucked between two major streets. In the early 1990s, in the wake of independence, the Vernissage was a huge outdoor art show. Since then, and as Armenia has moved toward a market economy, the Vernissage has become a site of commerce, a crude but often charming example of nascent market forces in action. Everybody is here; everything is for sale. Every vendor has a small plan and large hopes. Weavers from Nagorno Karabagh have hung their rugs up, scholars and teachers have placed their old books on makeshift tables, young boys have tied puppies and kittens to the trees, auto mechanics have rested tires against rocks, women have displayed old samovars and silverware on stools.

I walk down the main path. A woman invites me to look at her beautiful handmade dolls; her son is trying to catch my attention with a stack of watercolor paintings. He displays them like a fan and repeats his price. On the other side, a quiet, white-haired grandmother watches us intently, her dark figure against the big white embroidered tablecloth which dances gently in the wind. Unlike the other pieces which are on sale here, hers is not representational. No gaudy replicas of peacocks and orchids and mountains and rivers, no nationalistic kitsch. Hers is a large rectangular piece, with intricate geometric patterns sewn in white thread. It is an exquisitely abstract piece of handwork, an emblem, if you will, of a dying art form. Where did you learn Aintab embroidery? I ask her. Aintab is across the border in present day Turkey, close to Syria. At the beginning of our century, Aintab was heavily populated with Armenians. Her answer is the narrative of her life—from Aintab, to Gumri, (formerly Leninakan) to Yerevan. “Who knows where I will go next?” she says smiling, as she wraps the embroidery. Our hands touch. “Maybe Los Angeles.”

From the Vernissage, I walk uptown past the foreign embassies toward Kievian Street, trying to find a good point from where I can cross the street without being hit by some reckless driver in an old car. There is a frenzied bustle in the air, a mixture of theatrical bravado and unrelenting bargaining. There, in front of one of the shops, I see a father-and-son team of jugglers competing with the traffic noise; a woman accompanies them on the accordion. A small crowd has gathered around them. Some people here seem visibly embarrassed by such sights; they turn their gaze away from the spectacle. The music is bad, they probably think, and the jugglers are peasants. The streets have become trashy places. Some perhaps reminisce about the good old days when Yerevan was a more “European” city. But I do not share the anxiety I see in their eyes. I grew up in such “Oriental” cities and am utterly devoted to them. I want to watch this spectacle. I want to be at this intersection—of material necessity, expressive compulsion, and everyday resourcefulness. People have to live. Come on, come on! Look at me! Look at what I can make manifest, out of nothing, out of trash! And if my spectacle pleases you, then give me some money. People have to eat.

~

The American University of Armenia, which was once the site of official meetings of the Armenian Communist Party, is a monumental structure, its innumerable windows like multiple eyes which kept watch on the pedestrians of Bagramian Street. The university entrance is at the top of one hundred sixteen steps which I must climb at least once a day, usually at noon. This is my daily ritual, my obstacle course. The scorching heat beats down relentlessly, mercilessly, soaking me in sweat. I stop, catch my breath and then continue the ascent. When I reach the top of the stairs, I turn back and look at the city, a mixture of tufa stone buildings in its center and ugly apartments on the outskirts.

In the distance, I catch a glimpse of Mount Ararat, magisterial and awesome, across the border in Turkey, enveloped in a web of mist. On the morning of my arrival in Yerevan, I had stood on the porch of my fourth floor apartment. It was a clear day, unusual for this time of the year. Behind the clotheslines and the houses, I could see the Ararat Plateau which separates Armenia from Turkey. And beyond that, still farther away, the mountain itself about which Armenians the world over have written, spoken and sung from time immemorial. They have imputed it with collective hope and personal desire, stamped its name on grocery bags and candy wrappings, decorated their homes with paintings which try, with little success, to depict its majesty. I stood, looking, the border dissolving, my eyes wandering over the mountainous landscape. I stood, transfixed, motionless.

It was four in the morning when I had arrived in Yerevan, the city enveloped in the first magenta rays of sunshine. I dragged myself up the stairs of my apartment, stood there for a moment in the corridor, and then turned the key. As long as it’s clean, I thought. It was—clean and compact and basic. Even quaint in some ways: the floors made of wood, the mattresses covered with thick Egyptian cotton sheets, the stove equipped with a butane tank, the shower and bathtub attached to a suspicious looking heater, the kerosene containers under the sink. Traces of the horrible winters of 1992 and 1993, when Armenia had no heat or electricity or water, were all around me. And in the back, adjoining the kitchen a make-shift porch which was more like an exhibition of worn-out Soviet consumer items—a huge circular washing machine, a disgruntled refrigerator, an old vacuum cleaner. Across the length of the porch, a clothesline. And there I was at the crack of dawn in a place I knew partially, if at all, with a cup of tea in my hand, my gaze directed toward the mountain.

From these elevated positions at the university entrance and the back porch of my apartment, Ararat—opaque and impenetrable, removed from my reach, yet visible—arouses all the longings which distance can suddenly propel to the surface. “The peak of Ararat is a reclining woman, naked and inviting; to look at her is to know desire,” one of the most revered poets of Soviet Armenia is reported to have said on many occasions, as he too walked in Yerevan with friends, in the shadow of the mountain. It makes little difference the vantage point of the gaze—whether from the native locus of Yerevan or from some tenuous place in the Armenian diaspora where I have lived all my life. In the longing for Ararat, all are exiles, voyeurs. Everywhere I go in Yerevan, the mountain is around me yet out of my reach. I walk in its intimations and invitations, in what it whispers from a distance, in its silence. For days after my first sighting, and during my entire stay, Ararat is there, sometimes visible, often enveloped in mist.

In the afternoons, when the air begins to cool and the people of Yerevan are out on the streets, young lovers linger on the university stairs, shadows swaying to the movement of the breeze. If the burning heat of the day makes the residents of the city fiery with contentiousness, the evening comforts their spirits and cuts down their loud voices to whispers. If the darkness of ’92 and ’93 has hardened them, the luminous tapestry of better times inspires more complicated impulses — solace and trepidation and eagerness and confusion.

After class one evening, my students and I walk down the stairs of the university and begin our ascent toward Kond. Kond, one of the oldest and more impoverished sections of Yerevan, sits tenuously on top of a hill on the edge of the city center. If you are fortunate enough to find someone who will take you to Kond, you come across a lot that you would rather not see in Yerevan: makeshift homes, litter, loud music blaring from everywhere, children playing in the narrow streets barefoot.

“Kond is ugly and depressing,” my companions tell me. “Do you really want to go there?” We go, climbing the cobblestone street, and entering its maze of pathways and music and children. Right there and then, a few meters away, a woman is stooped over a tiny plot of land which she has improvised into a lovely garden of cosmos. She is engrossed in her work, completely oblivious to the commotion around her. The flowers have turned their faces to the sun. She is working the earth with her bare hands, pulling the weeds, humming a song. I’ve seen this kind of thing in the poorer sections of other cities the world over—a moment of vernacular beauty. For a moment I want to engage her in a conversation, but I don’t, preferring to walk on. I have seen such moments which shelter meanings of profound import, when I learn as much as I teach.

I do not try to discuss these moments directly with my business students at the university. Their priorities are more immediate. They are eager to learn English and learn it well, because they are convinced that if they speak English well, their road to success will be assured. One of my students, Avedig Chalabian, a contentious, bright young man who works in the Ministry of Economy, insists that we must do more drills in conversational English. I try to tell him that to know a language is to write it, to make it a companion, a fellow traveler, if you will. He is not convinced. “When I was in D.C.,” he says, “I felt so bad when I saw how fast Americans were talking. I could not speak as fast. That’s why I am here, to learn,” he adds with a tone which suggests finality and exasperation. I try to respond to his insistent demands. I try.

I don’t discuss such moments with the teachers of English in institutions of higher learning. They are taking the course because they are eager to be good teachers of a language which everyone wants to learn. But most of them have learned English through grammar books and vocabulary lists. For most of them, language is primarily a tool, although they are remarkably well read in literature written in English. We talk a lot about pedagogy, about reading, about writing. But at the end of the day, I know, as they do, that good teaching always works by indirection and disguise—elliptical and oblique, its rewards reaped over time. To believe otherwise, even in circumstances such as the ones in which so many of my students find themselves, is to attach agenda to the work of the classroom. It is to practice the most insidious kind of contempt, that which masquerades itself as the belief in a right path, a correct prescription. People have to live.

From Kond we make our way back to the center of town, toward Bagramian Street again. Right there, at a busy intersection, a white apparition catches our eyes. In the middle of the street, right there in the thick of traffic and the din of the vendors and shoppers, three women in white are gesturing to the drivers racing down the street. They want the traffic to stop so that they can cross at leisure. They are all wearing long white dresses whose edges sway in the gentle breeze. Their makeup is dark and pronounced, their high-heeled shoes suggesting a possible orthopedic disaster. They stand there, their arms reaching out to the drivers who stare at them but do not heed their pleas. A few seconds pass, and suddenly the traffic stops. They smile, hold each others’ hands, and walk across—their hips swaying, their white dresses shining in the sun, their long hair thrown back. For an instant, it seems like everything has come to a sudden halt. The whole world is watching.

~

This afternoon Yerevan has the feel of a spectacle, constantly drawing attention to itself. I can see it in everything—in the often audacious clothes women wear, the insane driving habits of those more fortunate to own cars, the everyday dramatics of conversations around street corners. Zaven Khachigian, a physicist turned photographer of the human face, jokes about the Armenian’s long love affair with photography. He and I are sitting on the steps at the entrance of Yerevan State University. We have just seen the Paradjanov Hat Exhibition on the fourth floor of the university. It is a playful little show of hats— some outrageous, others quite restrained and classical, all inspired by the visual art of Sergei Paradjanov, the great filmmaker of the Caucasus. This evening, there is a fashion show where the creators of the hats, most of whom are university students, will display their creations. As with all of Paradjanov’s work—the films, the dolls, the homoerotic sketches, the collages—this evening’s show will certainly be a celebration of the decorative possibilities of the human body—the hands, the torso, the eyes. The eyes.

Behind us a dozen students are getting ready for a group photograph. “You know,” says Zaven, “when people get together in Yerevan to spend a fun-filled day, away from work and study, you know what they do? They don’t go drinking or hunting or dancing. ‘Let’s go to Lake Sevan and have our photograph taken!’ they say. That’s what they do. They go to Lake Sevan seventy kilometers away, have their picture taken and come back.” My friend is prone to hyperbole, to a kind of wit which, like everything else here, hovers at the extremities. But the sights which I encounter in the city and beyond bear out his observations. In one way or another, and like my friend’s humor, people here are fascinated with extremes. “Armenians are obsessed with ‘firsts,’” Levon Abrahamian is fond of reminding me. He is a molecular biologist turned social anthropologist. “The first people to adopt Christianity. The first genocide of the century. The first glasnost demonstrations. The first to grow apricots!”

I make my way down Bagramian toward the center of town. Make a left and walk a bit. Illuminated in the distance is the Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, named after Mesrob Mashtots, the inventor of the Armenian alphabet. Armenians call it the Matenadaran. The Matenadaran is where Mashtots ( formerly Lenin ) Avenue, one of the most beautiful yet steep thoroughfares in Yerevan, comes to an end, perhaps gives up its ascent. The change in the name of the street is more than an example of the post-Soviet frenzy to erase from the urban landscape traces of the empire. It is also emblematic of a meeting, a union, between street and museum. From my vantage point below, I can actually see the point where this meeting comes about: A large, open space, a kind of urban blankness, inviting the pedestrian into its midst. This is one of the sites of the glasnost demonstrations of February 1988: One million people, there in the shadow of the statue of Mashtots, in the gaze of his eyes. The heads high and defiant, the gaze directed somewhere far away, as though at that moment everything, everything mattered and mattered deeply, irreparably. The eye in the act of imagining the unknown—the bodies taut; the feet cemented; the arms raised; the fists clenched. And the eyes, the eyes—the look toward somewhere far away.

And behind the square dominating the entire landscape, the Matenadaran itself, austere and huge, home to the more than 10,000 ancient manuscripts, some complete, others fragmentary. Aided by the faint light of a candle, the patient hand of the scribe has embroidered some of its most beautiful work: devotional and exegetical gifts which stretch across fifteen centuries of monastic culture. Here, each manuscript is a document of faith, of knowledge, of intertextuality, a disciplined, exuberant celebration of craft, where parchment and ink, type of print and implement, style of illumination and binding, color of paint and method of sewing collaborate in the creation of something akin to a miracle; a refuge, crafted in the contemplative solitude of the scriptorium; a home for what would otherwise be lost or ambushed or destroyed.

Although the Matenadaran is a research center which draws scholars from all over the world, for the population of the republic the place has also a practical significance. In the reading room, with the sunlight streaming through the tall windows, my friend Erna Shirinian speaks of this significance in a hushed voice. She is a senior researcher in Byzantology, an accomplished jewelry designer, and mother of two. “People from all over the country return to the Matenadaran year in and year out,” she says in that elegant, plaintive way of hers. “It’s a pilgrimage they make to speak to their family Bible which they have donated to the Matenadaran. They come back, whole families, from the most remote villages, to be in the presence of their Bible. They tell it who has died, who has married, who has had children, who is ill.” Gentle whispers in the immense silence of the sanctuary.

To enter the Matenadaran is to return to the source: the pressure of the hand against a more or less resistant parchment. To meet writing at its edges—in its translations, its illuminations, its silences. Writing made visible, writing made silent, writing made other. This is where the bustle of the city ceases, where action finally gives way to introspection, where time stops. This sacred ground—the hope of pedestrians and pilgrims, natives and visitors who see the end of the journey in something as tremulous, as radiant, as the written page. The hope of us all. Home.

~

Weathered and tired, the interiors of Yerevan are also sites of ceremony. On the plane which brought me here from Boston, I may have been a tourist, in transit. But the minute I set foot on the land, I knew that this is no country for tourism, not yet at least. “Can we become a touristic center of the Caucasus?” Avedig asks me one day after class as we walk down the stairs of the university toward the center of town. “Armenia is an old culture,” he adds in that declarative way of his, “and it has a lot of things to show visitors.” Yes, a lot. In fact, perhaps too much for such a small country. During Soviet times, visiting Armenia meant being schlepped from one ancient church to another, from one awe inspiring monastery to the next, all of which have withstood the ravages of time and centrally planned tourism with remarkable grace and indifference.

These days the country is caught between the practices and residues of the past and the prospects of as yet undefined future. A macabre dance of opposites. There is a lot of talk about the market, about exploiting the ancient beauty of the landscape. People have to live. Yes, but Armenia is also in the grip of monumental transformations, I want to tell him, which do not allow you your story. These days, Yerevan is a grand arena where spectacle and desire and hope and uncertainty and need all inhabit a common space, where guests and pilgrims and natives and tourists improvise the visible.

To turn this lovely place into a touristic center involves not only the story but the packaging as well—crude and deliberate and market driven—I think to myself as we walk on to the center of town for ice cream which, according to people here, is the best in the Caucasus. “Better than Tbilisi,” they insist. Everything here is expressed in the superlative—the best, the worst, the first, the last. I want to tell Avedig that he is interrogating the wrong person. Tourism does not come easily to me; it has never been a leisurely activity. I have no love for vacations and itineraries and sites that I am often told I should see. No desire for seeing local people dance for me and make me feel at home. I am full of anxiety each time I plan for any kind of passage. I have none of the cockiness which comes with being grounded in a place, with being identified by a specific landscape; I am of sand and wind and water, always in transit. I too am full of questions but of a different sort. Without agenda, without a sponsoring organization, without humanitarian yearnings, I am here for other reasons. Some known to me, others dark.

It is true that the ice cream here is extremely good, but I have tasted better kinds on the street corners of Damascus and Aleppo, the seashore kiosks of Beirut, the makeshift stands of ancient Jerusalem paths, even in Boston. On my own now, I continue walking, the flavor in my mouth taking me back to the cities of my childhood and adolescence. These places, crowded and contentious, have shaped my sensibility and marked me, marked me for life. Now, more than thirty years later and several geographical crossings, all of which have taken me further away from the sites of my childhood, I find myself walking to yet another festive dinner in a city where pedestrians and guests and natives collaborate in the alchemy of meetings and departures.

Exteriors and interiors in Yerevan are always inviting, always lovely and gentle, the sadness of the world imprinted on their surface. But this in-between flight of stairs between the street and the home, this is no-man’s land, left to decay in a society which has yet to learn to care for that which its members share with each other. Between the public realms of possibility and the domestic corners of hope, there are huge spaces of abandonment. It’s the same story all over the former Soviet Union — the traffic and the trash and the cigarette butts and the vodka bottles and the paper on the ground. When you enter the building, the first things you notice are the dilapidated walls and the smell, which is less pronounced on days when the stairs have been washed. The mercurial tufa stone, with its grey and black and pink shadings, may give the facade a lovely, melancholic look, but the minute you take the first step into the building, you become aware of the huge divide which separates the street from the home.

I climb the stairs, ring the bell. I wait: time suspended, stretched out taut. In the half-lit corridor, I can actually feel the physical excitement in the home I am about to enter. I wait, my back toward the window whose glass has been replaced by a large nylon sheet taped to the wooden frame. A persistent draft escapes from the edges; there is broken glass on the floor. My students often respond to these sights with embarrassment. “During Soviet times, the government used to take care of all this,” they say. “Now, our country is economically strapped. Everyone is for himself,” they say. I want to tell them about the loneliness of places where the market has really turned everyday life into living hell. You are still blessed, I want to tell them, with something precious: strong human ties— of family and friends—which alleviate and console and sometimes heal.

These ties—this seamless web of looking out for each other—into which I am about to enter are tenuous and brittle, even under the most normal of circumstances. In the dizzying madness of Yerevan—the traffic and the construction, the jugglers and vendors and the hustlers—it is easy to lose sight of such nests of caring. Pounded and made thin, these shelters are there, still the irreducible units of human dignity in a country haunted to its marrow by the interminable winters, the dark and cold of its rooms and beds. My students sometimes seem annoyed by the closeness, the stifling closeness, of their everyday life. They speak longingly of privacy, of the impossibility of intimacy and love and freedom in a place where everyone knows everyone’s business to the very last detail, where everyone helps each other to death! It is difficult to tell them otherwise, without sounding patronizing and self-righteous. Moments pass. Conversations come to a temporary halt.

The awkward transition toward a market economy has spawned a million and one anomalies to which my students respond with questions whose simplicity belies their deep import. Their fear of the possible eclipse of traditional values is often mixed with something else: a deep fascination with the crude, elemental consumerism which they see all over town. They want to get ahead, taste prosperity, but they are full of questions, about everything beyond their circular life. Full of eagerness, they offer quick answers. Impatient, they want solutions that work in real and concrete ways.

We are reading an essay by Raymond Carver, whose style and surface is radically different from their previous experience of reading literature written in English. They are very literate, my students, well-versed in Hemingway and Faulkner and Wilde and Poe. “But this Carver,” they say, “he is different.” They are intrigued by his unadorned language yet suspicious of its pedagogical merit. They suspect that there is something “unreal” about the way he writes, and they are judgmental in their commentary. They question his true intentions.

“How does one teach this essay?” I ask. How does one come to it? Meet it halfway?” Our discussion leads to other questions, this time about writing. What does one write? “We write what we know,” they say. “That’s what we have been taught,” they add. “Collect from here and there and then put it all together!” Perhaps we also write what we don’t know, I respond gently, or what we half know? My students are gracious men and women, polite and attentive. They smile. Again, the moment passes.

We often write what we don’t know or know slightly, often find ourselves in a half-lit corridor. We are often the guest from somewhere distant and strange, the pedestrian who knows the road partially. I wait. The hiss of the wind, the shuffle of footsteps. The door opens. This is the moment where ritual and affection and physicality all mix with each other. A flourish of kisses. A festive table has been prepared. The smell of nicotine and alcohol looms in the air. There is music in the background. These days, everyone wants to listen to Western music— Elvis Presley and the Beatles and Gypsy Kings and R.E.M. and Madonna. It’s all over the city.

After a while, I relax, stretch my feet, take my shoes off. Little by little, the place begins to grow on me. I lose my inhibitions and anxieties. People ask questions of all sorts—about family and mutual friends, about the hurricanes in the American Midwest, about the U.S. presidential elections. And then it’s my turn to ask. My questions invariably spawn an avalanche of words—about the changes which have occurred in the country in the past few years, about local politics, about jobs, about corruption, about the hope of better times.

At some point in the evening, all conversations in Yerevan lead to the same place: the winters of ’92 and ’93—the terror of the interminable darkness, the howling of hungry dogs, the sound of trees and pianos being chopped to keep homes warm, the crackling of books in the fireplace. An entire country in the grip of unrelenting darkness, for months and months and months. The visible in retreat. An entire country reduced to its skeleton, its muscle withered away by the aftershocks of the 1988 earthquake, the sudden jolt and bitter taste of actual independence, the war in Nagorno Karabagh and the resultant economic blockade of Armenia by Turkey and Azerbaijan. At this point, there is usually a long, long silence, an eerie lifelessness to the evening. But it does not last long. “Let’s have some walnut marmalade,” someone says. More cognac and tobacco tuck in the edges of the night. “We’ll walk you home.” Yes.

~

The people of Yerevan are night people, their city the realm of meetings. After midnight, we walk up Bagramian, away from the Matenadaran, past the university to my apartment. The legendary hospitality of cities like Yerevan is not really about making the guest feel good or extracting some illicit gain, I think to myself. No, this is about welcome, about meeting the unknown or the partially known. This is about taking the shadowy figure in; about the path and the song and the silence; about allowing distance to do its work slowly, languidly, over time. To instruct, to teach lessons which only the slow drop of moments—like thick, October honey—can teach.

This is abundance born of adversity, luminosity sparked by darkness, welcome squeezed from a sense of need. This is how those who love expressivity, who know the taste of skin against skin, choreograph their lives. This is how ceremony—of entering, of staying, and leaving— consoles the heart, populates its empty spaces, alleviates the fear of the unknown or half-known, chisels passions, makes the leaving less sorrowful, puts things into perspective, textures and layers them, shows us how light travels through things.

And like this, half-awake, we walk through the streets of Yerevan, our flashlights in our hands. The air is cool and dry, the poplar trees gently whispering. Ahead of us, someone is walking slowly, singing a familiar song in the Eastern Armenian dialect, whose transliteration into English goes something like this:

Tsakhort orér, tsmran nman, goukan ou gértan,
(Days of misfortune, like winter, they come and go,)
Portsank, haladzank yev neghoutune azkeri klkhits
(Tribulation, persecution and adversity which befall nations)
Intchbes djanabarhi garavn goukan ou gertan
(Like the caravan of the road, they come and go)

It’s a song from my childhood, a lamentation, a palliative in my moments of frailty, moments of passage. I had heard it earlier in the week, in a moment of spontaneous beauty, outside the church high on top of a hill, near Lake Sevan. The way the light burst through the rain, fell on the trees and the flowers which were trembling in the wind. And in the background the lake whose boundaries seemed to extend and expand upward and outward. Under the pouring rain, sheltered by a narrow eaves, I had heard it from the throat of an old man, his chest to the elements. He accompanied himself on a banged up mandolin, his eyes wild and fiery, a small leather pouch next to him. People have to live.

It is the same song I hear now, less crude, more urbane but full of the same hope, from a shadow which walks ahead of us. Yes, it is not truth that inspirits us, I think to myself remembering the words of an old, wise friend continents away. But hope, soiled and tired, too late, too little, perhaps, but hope still. This is not the kind of thing we North Americans are accustomed to, our lives shrunk and flattened by layers of mediations and hesitations. Here, there is no optimism of the bleached, synthetic sort we hear and read about ad nauseam. This is a more archaic thing—generous and sorrowful and often inarticulate, from the throat of a foolish, toothless singer with a pouch next to him. Language made visible, language made melodious.

In the distance, the Ararat Plateau is a luminous tapestry, though we cannot see the mountain tonight. Bagramian Street bellows with the noise of traffic. Yerevan is the ground of meetings and departures— mysterious, unplanned for, shaded. Of those who come out of nowhere, stay, leave. Yes, our beginnings never know our ends. The hope of the traveler, the joy of the road, the sorrow of departure.

Every evening in Yerevan is the last; every dawn is a clean slate. I have packed my valises; the place looks as lackluster as it did when I first entered it five weeks ago. There is a gentle knock on the door. The shadow in the half-lit corridor.

The murmur of conversation stretches past midnight. After the goodbyes, I stand on the porch one more time, my heart in the grip of something unspeakable and large. Across the border, the landscape is dark. I eat the last two apricots in the bowl. I squeeze out the seed and think of that peasant woman, the wild mushrooms in her hands, in the northern region of Alaverdi, close to the Georgian border. The human hand in its moment of need. “Trust me. They are the best,” she had said. “Trust me. Buy them,” she had pleaded bending forward, her body firm and gaunt, her hands toughened by the picking, her eyes turned to the mountains. Her eyes in their moment of attention.

These last hours before departing Yerevan, between midnight and dawn, my mind races through the maze of conversations and faces and gestures and silences and embraces of my five weeks in this city, and then unexpectedly settles on the image of the peasant woman whose name I do not know, deep in the mountains of the north, her arms pulling out the mushrooms from an old bucket. How unmediated and heavy is the physicality of this place, I think to myself as my eyes trace the outlines of Ararat across the border. How different its sensuousness. Yes, to experience the sensuous, one must know delight, and there is not much delight in the difficult lives of people here. No delight, but something else—dark and archaic and rough and a bit untamed and perilous. Trust me, she had said, gripping my arm. Skin against skin. Trust me, she had said.

One hour left before my departure. I stumble onto the sofa and, lulled by the refrain of a song, fall into a deep childhood sleep. Unfortunate days, like winter, come and go . . . come and go . . . There is a knock on the door. I jump up, collect my valises, and descend the stairs. Yerevan is black and inert. Our car moves slowly through the darkened streets to the airport. The flight for Amsterdam will leave at the crack of dawn, when the first threads of sunlight break through the night.

~~for Ohannes

 

Taline Voskeritchian teaches composition/writing at Boston University. Her writings and translations have appeared in Ararat, International Quarterly and American Writing. (1999)

 

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Theeb, the Other of Lawrence’s Arabia

~~Today I saw Theeb, Naji Abu Nowar’s directorial debut and Jordan’s entry to this year’s Academy nominations in the Best Foreign Film category. A first, for sure.

Theeb is a marvelous film in conception, cinematography, and narrative force.  Abu Nowar draws on several genres and traditions–the Western, the coming-of-age-narrative, the suspense, even the tourist film.  Abu Nowar makes the desert and its inhabitants howl and burn in colors and shades that are as beautiful as they are unsentimental–no colonialist grandeur, no tear-jerking sentimentality.  Theeb is violent and cruel, tender and wise, but above all, it is a love song to the desert–beautiful, perilous, unforgiving.  But Theeb‘s desert is also its inhabitants, its Englishman, its bandits, its tribal characters, but above all Theeb himself, a dark-haired, almond-eyed lad whose journey into uncharted sands gives the film its pulse and depth, and Jacir Eid al-Hweitat portrayal of Theeb its as authentic as it is disciplined.  Against the vastness of the Jordanian desert, Theeb the boy slowly becomes its equal, and when he returns to his tribe he has seen the unspeakable and lived the horrific.

v1Theeb is a love letter to the desert itself which is both intimate and enemy, shelter and exile.  Those of us who have been in the Jordanian desert know its beauty, its awe, its echoes.  And Theeb‘s desert is all these things and more–it can be harsh and heartless but can also offer moments of moral choice, brotherhood, and action.  Unlike Lawrence of Arabia’s desert, Theeb’s desert does not carry that sheen of mystery and mystification. In Theeb, the desert is alive with sounds and shades, with a flaming faces and rotting bodies strewn against the white sands through which a railway has recently been built.  There is a kind of magnificence in Theeb‘s desert, but it is a magnificence extracted from the wretchedness of the human body in the throes of mortality, survival,  tribal loyalties, changing times, a collapsing empire, the intruisve railway. (The film is set in 1916–in the Hijaz desert).

All this, because at the center of this film is the native himself–a curious, alert boy whose distinctive gaze we will remember for a very long, long time.  Theeb is that kind of film.~~

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