26.11.2015Armenian by Birth
That was then…This is now
July 1970. A 26-year-old Armenian-American takes a 6-month solo trip around the world. While in Tehran, she decides to journey on to Armenia. This is her story.
I was raised in Los Angeles in a large, extended Armenian family. I spoke some Armenian, rolled sarma, sang in the church choir, went to programs on Armenian history and culture, ate gata, read Toumanian, listened toAnoush – you get the picture. My Armenian language, food and sensibility were Western, coming from the distant, blood-soaked land of history. What was Armenia in 1970, to me, was an artifice of the Soviet Socialist Republic, not what I thought of as Armenia. So, deciding to go to Armenia SSR was not a life-long dream or burning passion to see the motherland. It was, simply, opportune. I was in the neighborhood and figured, why not?
But easier said than done. I needed a visa, available through the Tehran office of Intourist. In truth, it should have been called Out-tourist as they made it extremely difficult to get a visa. I checked in with them almost daily, each time getting nyet, nyet, nyet. As I said, visiting Armenia was an afterthought. I didn’t doggedly pursue the visa out of desire; I did it out of stubbornness: I refused to take nyet for an answer!
Finally, I got the visa – for 5 days, though I had asked for a week – and was told it had to begin in two days. So I flew to Tabriz and took the train from there. Two trains, changing at the border, with the Iranian one almost derailed. As luck would have it, the wild, side-to-side rocking coincided with the attendant delivering food. He and the tray went flying and so did the khorovadz and pilaf, all over me.
The Armenian train sat in the heat at the whistle stop till after dark. I don’t know why and the young man with the very large rifle didn’t seem like the type to chat. We travelled all night and, in the early morning, arrived in Yerevan. Tired, dirty and still picking parsley out of my hair, I wanted nothing more than a hot shower and a comfortable bed. With only that in mind, I exited the station and was suddenly awestruck. I was in Armenia – not the SSR – but home. I was near tears as I stood on the land of my forebears. I was shocked by the strong emotional connection, but glad of it. I have been to Armenia twice since then – since independence – and have not had the same depth of emotion. I don’t think it’s because the connection has lessened but, rather, because it’s now familiar, it’s known and expected.
I walked from the station to the Hotel Armenia (now Marriott). There were very few cars on the road and I recall a lot of dust. At the hotel, on each floor, there was a rotund, cheerless matron who sat at a table on a hard wooden chair, monitoring the comings and goings of the guests (of which there seemed to be about three). Since the position was kept 24/7, I assume there were different women, but they all seemed to be the same – rotund and cheerless.
I went to the hotel Intourist desk to see about a tour – they were the only game in town – and they were as charmless there as they had been in Tehran. I met and joined a British physics professor who had been teaching in Moscow and was touring various SSRs before returning to Oxford. He told me that of all the republics, Armenia was by far the most open and the friendliest. Aside from the matrons and Intourist, he was right. The people, then as now, were warm and helpful, once you got past the stern “Russian” demeanor.
Our tour took us to Garni, an overgrown pile of rubble (it was not reconstructed until 1975). It was a big letdown – but a wonder to see what it has become and what other Armenian sites could become with a dedicated commitment to preserving the past.
On a street corner, I engaged in a conversation with a woman who was thrilled to meet another Kharpertsi. That connection was enough for her to “adopt” me, taking me to her home with its outdoor tonar and on a picnic with her family to Lake Sevan. My time in Armenia was mostly spent wandering around, shopping at the little stalls on Republic Square, enjoying my new “family” and soaking in the life of what seemed like a quaint but drab village.
I returned 44 years later as a tourist and the next year as a volunteer. What began as, “I guess I might as well go” has become, “I must be there.” That was then, this is now.
By Linda Shahinian
By Linda Shahinian