Someone told me that Armenians are endowed with an unfailing optimism, but also that this powerful zest for life is actually the camouflage of an extreme sadness, deeply buried in the soul of their people. Indeed, how is it possible to cross Armenia without being touched by the kindness of its inhabitants, and without feeling oneself the harsh bitterness that many Armenians still feel towards all those who mistreated them historically?
One of the most fortuitous encounters of my entire trip on the Silk Road will probably remain the one of Sergey Barseghyan, this happy chap my friend Estelle and I randomly met one day in the streets of Yerevan while asking our way to the nearest kebab restaurant. Behind his cheerful air and his scouting dress style was actually hiding a sensitive heart and an overwhelming voice, which offered us, later, the most beautiful and unexpected testimony of the pain of the Armenian people.
Sergey is an Armenian opera singer who, like many other armenians, has for a long time tried to make a career out of Armenia. Pursueing his studies in New York, he later gave several concerts in Italy, in Spain, in the United States and in Paris, where he sang in the prestigious restaurant Bel Canto. Facing visa issues, he had to go back to Armenia, putting an end to his promising Parisian career. Convinced Francophile, he asked me several times to help him accurately pronounce the french texts of his operas of Faust or Rossini. And later, i sang to him a version with accordion of “La Bohême”, from Charles Aznavour, of which i had especially learnt the lyrics before going to Armenia.
Inviting us for an ice-cream on his confortable sofa, in his modest Yerevan’s apartment where he lives along with his aunt Monique, venerable doyenne graduated from the music academy of Saint-Petersburg, Sergey sings the Armenian Genocide with a piano. His deep tenor voice invades the room, and his magnificent songs transport us to terrible and bloody days.
You can play the song “Mayr Araksi Aperov ” on the player just below.
Located at its expenses on a strategic crossroads, Armenia has long endured the domination of various powerful empires – the Ottomans, the Russians and the Persians -, its land most of the time fragmented under different rules. When WWI brought these great powers into conflict, the strewn Armenians unfortunately paid the bill : the Young Turks decided in 1915 to clear the Ottoman Empire’s land of the Armenian people – assuming they were on the side of the Russians -, resulting in what we know today as the Armenian Genocide. The Aras River, a natural demarcation line between the Ottoman and the Russian empires at the end of the 19th century, became then one of the boundaries of this massacre.
Sergey’s first song, “Mayr Araksi Aperov ” (“Along the Aras River”), is precisely about a distraught man, wandering along the Aras river, looking for his lost family. The river, flowing at the foot of Mount Ararat – Armenia’s holy mountain once in the heart of the land of Armenia and nowadays in Turkey – was probably the witness of a terrible scene. Because it now rumbles like a muddy torrent, the result of a very bad storm, and the man, crying, contemplating the dirty water, can’t believe he has lost his whole family.
Few days later, Estelle and I venture in the Aras valley, nearby the closed border with Turkey, at the foot of Mount Ararat. With some of this fortuitous magic that Armenia seems to hold for us – this time not looking for a kebab but hitch-hiking randomly around – we are invited for a coffee in a family home in the nice little town of Artashat. This innocent coffee talk, slowly transforming itself into an invitation for dinner, then for the night, and eventually ending up in a 24h soup-and-apricot-liqueur-kidnapping, will plunge us a bit more into the tempestuous history of Armenia. This sweet family, Petik the taxi driver at the wheel of his red-quilt-seated racing car, his kids as sly as little foxes, his wife queen of the cabbage soup, his brother elegant bank employee, the old lady working in the factory until 1 in the morning, and the old man roaming in slippers in the living room with his fly swat and his glasses like bottoms of a bottle; the whole happy bunch lives in the family house built 99 years earlier by the great-great-grand father. Running away, in 1915, from the city of Van – one of the main center of armenian culture in the Ottoman Empire – while turkish soldiers track and exterminate all the armenian people of their empire, the ancestor takes refuge on the other side of the Aras river, on the russian side of Armenia, where he settles and builds in Artashat the family house in which we will show up a century later with our accordions. (Actually, the house has been extended since, and the hundred-year-old part of it is today nothing more than a dusty and dark jumble of rooms sheltering the henhouse, the shelf of candied cherries and pickles jars, and an antique still producing this apricot liqueur which stuck us in the bed the next morning).
The next day, Petik brings us to the first holy site of the christian Armenia, Khor Virap, a monastery perched at the foot of the Mount Ararat, nearby the border. In the distance, we can glimpse the Aras River, as well as some minarets of the first turkish villages on the other bank. Sergey’s songs come back to our ears. We contemplate the Mount Ararat, and, as wrote Manouchian, famous french resistance fighter originating from Armenia, we go on our way.
LE MONT ARARAT (Manouchian, 1927).
De l’antique coupole de l’Ararat
Des siècles sont venus comme une seconde
Et sont passés.
Le glaive des foudres sans nombre
Ont frappé son diamant
Puis ont passé.
L’œil des générations effrayées par la mort
S’est posé sur son sommet-lumière
Puis ont passé.
Maintenant c’est ton tour
Toi aussi contemple son front altier
*The second song i recorded in Sergey’s living-room, “Urri”, is a popular armenian romance from the XXth century. “Urri” means “weeping willow” in armenian: Urri is an old solitary willow who watches the water of the river flowing at his feet, like a world in constant change, made of perpetual births and deaths. Urri watches, and has never felt so lonely among so many people.