At 6 o’ clock in the morning, the cock crows through the silent mist in the mountains of Khndzristan in the Askeran region of Artsakh. Arkady Beglaryan stirs from his sleep; the rest of the family, who enjoyed the fruits of his labours the previous night, continue to rest in their beds. Standing on the balcony, he breathes in the fresh air of the day, and the tranquillity of the landscape; the routine of Nature drives what he needs to do with the two being in tune with each other.
In the yard he prepares his single cow for milking. She is getting old, and has given birth to many calves and the quantity of milk each day is reducing . The time will come when she will need to be replaced and there is no opportunity for sentimentality. The milk is a rich resource for many products for Arkady and his family and the skills passed down have ensured that healthy and tasty food can be made. His 20 or so chickens need their daily feed, as do the pigs, and the sheep will be rounded up and taken to the hills for grazing. He meets with his friends from the village and they take it in turns to look after their combined flock during the course of the day. The bee hives, which produce modest quantities of produce per year look after themselves and serve up fine honey. This life is about co-operation with each other, and with the Nature.
Also living in Khndzristan is Paro Hovsepyan. At 98 she is the oldest person in the village and remembers life when it was really tough with no electricity and with the buildings in a poor state of repair. Nowadays, the village is served with more of the basic facilities and although conditions are still difficult, people have been able to improve their properties and level of comfort. Paro tells of her simple upbringing and how she went to college, and then graduated from University in Baku; a completely alien concept in 2012. She returned to the village and taught in the local school for 60 years, initially covering many subjects due to the shortage of staff and then concentrated latterly on Geography. Her influence was not just with children, she included adults as well who could benefit from her broad teaching skills. Now she is very frail and has difficulty hearing but her strength of character shines through. Many people in the village, including those who have left to live in Stepanakert, and further afield, will have Paro to thank for her solid schooling in their early days.
10 years ago Paro was interviewed by the state TV and was asked what her secret was of her long life – her answer was simple and poignant; it was the love and caring from her grandson, Norayr Zakharyan, and his family. Paro lives with him and his wife, Narine.
Norayr and Narine met as teenagers in the local shool – Noraryr being the local heart-throb during his early years which resulted in the attentions of many. Narine’s positive character meant that she had decided that she wanted to be friends with Norayr and over time their relationship blossomed. At University, Narine graduated in Architecture in Stepanakert, and Norayr from the Pedagogical University in Yerevan, and then in Physical Training in Stepanakert. During the early war years Norayr was encouraged to leave the country and go to Ukraine, however he chose to stay; he subsequently fought in Lachin and other areas. In 1993, despite the constant presence of war, and no electricity, they got married.
Although conditions were difficult in the village, they chose to stay as they had a strong sense of ancestral patriotism for this area. They followed in the footsteps of Paro, and now teach in the village school. A few years ago they opened up a small shop to help with additional provisions that the villagers could not grow themselves. As money was very tight, the custom was that people would promise to pay later for their goods, however over time the level of these debts became so great that they had to close the shop down. The opportunities for alternative work in the village are very limited, and it is always difficult for people to stay when they need additional money. Although Stepanakert is not that far away, the roads are very poor which makes the journey very long and arduous, and this is made even more problematical when it rains. One of Norayr’s wishes is that the main roads are improved to allow better access to other places. His other main concern is that there are no places for the young people to go to, and his wish would be for a youth centre that would recognise and provide the modern needs for young people.
Given this hardship one might struggle to understand why anyone stays. However, sitting at the dinner table, and being fed with local, freshly grown vegetables and fruit, unencumbered by chemicals and artificial additives, served with free-range meats, and dairy products, soon changes one’s perspective. Each day Narine and Norayr ,along with other villagers, fire up the local open-air oven and prepare for baking lavash. The smell, feel, and taste of this warm, freshly baked bread, is a culinary treat in its own right.
And as for the prospects for the country , Norayr’s view is disarming, “I know that the future will be bright. We don’t have any other choice”
In the next village of Astkhashen, Vilen Verdiyan, provides a philosophical view of village life.
“Every day, every kind of work in the village is as if you pass a University exam. You overcome difficulties, you are given tasks that you need to solve and when you do it you move ahead, and then eventually you graduate from this University of Life”
Vilen was born in the village, and went to school there, and then served in the Soviet Army in Kazakhstan. After having also worked in Russia for 5 years, he returned to the village to live. During the war, Astkhashen was one of the villages targeted by the Azeris during Operation Ring, and Vilen managed to persuade 20 of his fellow men to hide in the forests to evade capture. Unfortunately those who didn’t believe him were taken to Khojalu and Shushi where they were imprisoned and beaten.
His children were brought up living the village life, enjoying and benefitting from the challenges of the situation. He sees this as a positive experience and is necessary for a good upbringing. The idea of living in a city where there is no interaction with Nature he sees as completely artificial. As he says “I can’t imagine how a human being can live deprived of the Nature”.
As an Englishman from a big city, my initial reaction to village life a few years ago was somewhere between shock and pity, particularly for the lack of conveniences and poor conditions. Whilst no one in Artsakh would ever consider this to be a perfect life neither is living in an urban landscape with thousands of people anonymously crashing and conflicting with each other. Whilst we might be prosperous in resources this can quite often by a superficial shield from reality and I have begun to realise that in some ways the pity should be for those who might be materially rich, but spiritually poor.
As night starts to fall, Arkady stands on his balcony, smoking his last cigarette of the day, his job of nurturing nature, unrelenting. Narine and Norayr make sure that Paro is safe and well at home and prepare foods for the following day. Vilen looks out into the distance, feeling comfortable in his environment, and whilst he can never be sure what the next day will bring and what challenges he will face he is re-assured that he knows that “Nature will never lie to him”.
Categories: Life and People Artsakh