Armenian Volunteer Corps

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Monday, October 12, 2009


Aram Pirjanian

[Ah-buh]: an exclamation of summation, tantamount to a combination of “there you have it”, “well…”, “so…” and “hmph”
[vochinch]: literally "nothing", but generally connotes a combination of “que sera sera”, “c’est la vie" “comme si comme ça” and "meh".


Journalists Club “Asparez” non governmental organization anti-corruption center. That mouthful is where I’ve worked for the better part of the last three months. Serje will vouch for me. From Ani district, if you strike a bee line down Khorenatsi into Shirakatsi st. on the #22 marshrutka (hopefully the one with enough head room), hang a left at the white hospital, pass the minstrels statue, get off at the Central Square stop, get out your umbrella (oh…I forgot to mention, it’s either already raining or threatening to) head east on Pushkin (but not before glancing up Rijkov blvd to admire the only really bustling ¼ kilometre stretch of the city), walk up hill six blocks saying hello to the Bachelor, Little Foot, the Scotsman, Bear-Dog and Momma’s Boy (all stray dogs that you’ve named), you will finally arrive at the three story building at 96 Pushkin. Just climb the five odd steps, push open the door that feels like it could withstand the Second Coming – or at least a nuclear holocaust – and you will be inside Gyumri’s own headquarters of justice. Odds are Serje will be there to greet you.

I’m not surprised there’s an anti-corruption center in Gyumri. I mean I’m used to hearing about corruption in Armenia (full disclosure: this is my 5th time in the motherland), but some things about this city are particularly duplicitous. Hell, almost everything has an alias: Rijkov blvd is aka Kirov; Gyumri is aka Leninakan, aka Lennakan; Ani district is aka “58”; five minutes is aka forty five minutes. Ah-buh.

My third day in Gyumri I was introduced to my de facto boss, Levon Barseghyan, though if it were up to me I would capitalize every letter in the name. He’s a large, towering man in his forties. I would later find out his wife died a short two months before our first meeting. It showed. When I met him, he gave me a brief tour of the building, and then took me into his office upstairs. Right away you noticed two large posters on the left wall: one of Marilyn Monroe, the other of John Lennon. Beneath these was a map of Gyumri, a copy of which he was to give me. Beneath that, sitting on the couch, you would probably find Serje, his eyes closed in smug satisfaction and his paws curled under him (oh, Serje is the office cat Levon adopted 5 years ago). He was very welcoming – Levon, that is – soft spoken but direct, let me know what exactly my tasks were going to be (teaching English and translating when needed) and afterwards…I was lucky if I caught even a glimpse of him. For two and a half months, every so often I would hear – actually, feel bowel shaking yells from upstairs tumble down the walls and spiral staircase, and that was for the most part the extent of our interaction. Apparently the man takes his job very seriously. Vochinch.

I spent almost all of my time downstairs with the lawyers (all young women, who often served the dual purpose of go-fors and secretaries, going for coffee, cheese, bread then preparing coffee, cheese, bread to be taken upstairs). I taught them English for a time, but since my pedagogical skills were directly proportional to their interest in learning – both were lacking – I stuck mainly to translation. It was in this task that I want to share a story.

Now there are many stories I could tell about my time at Asparez. I could tell the story of the people I met living in the ramshackle filled district officially called the Barracks; or about Washington Kishmishyan, the 72 year old Zoroastrian national socialist who’s confessed and been thrice convicted of the murders of three Zionists during fist fights, who also held a barbecue in celebration of my birthday; or about G., a lawyer with a 3 year old cherub of a child whom he loves dearly, who also kicked his wife so hard he sent her to the hospital; or about my first press conference that grew to a fever pitch with a teacher claiming she had been fired from her job by the vice principal for trumped up charges. Oh, the vice principal turned out to be our Armenian teacher. I should probably note: if you feel anything but violently ambivalent about this country…you’re either not here long enough or you’re doing something wrong.


Now this is the story. About a month ago, the translations began pouring in. I was tasked to finish translating and editing the organization’s statutes so we could get our Euro-AID ID (this is a feature film in and of itself) so that we could bid for a 120,000 Euro grant. In so many words, Levon and Nadezhda (the director of the anti-corruption division of Asparez) were told by their contact at the European council that winning the bid was pretty much in the bag. All they had to do was turn in their packet. The deadline was September 22nd at 16:00. It’s now 10:00 on September 21st. Long story short, 18 hours later, after editing the statutes, being blindsighted with translations of some articles and minutes of meetings that were apparently sorely needed, not eating a single morsel of food for the last 7 hour stretch, I am thanked and driven home by a tired, dishevelled, scraggly bearded Levon at 0400 on September 21st. It felt good to be done.

The next day, i.e. four hours later, I hitched a ride into Yerevan to hand in my passport for an upcoming trip to Karabagh. That night, I got some of the best sleep of my life. I took the marshrutka out to Gyumri the next morning. It’s 11:30 on September 22nd. I heaved open the front door and walked in. Serje wasn’t there to meet me. Instead I was met with a few tired, grim, disenchanted faces. I asked what the matter was.

16:06. That was the time Levon got to the European Council’s head office in Yerevan, and that was the time when he was quite unconditionally refused the opportunity to hand in the bid. It turns out that, even though he had left with plenty of time to spare – and this is a man who has successfully turned in hundreds of such bids to sundry different offices – he happened upon a small obstacle in the form of a traffic checkpoint. The police, who had for some reason searched his vehicle and found a small kitchen hatchet in his trunk, decided that, in spite of Levon’s pleas, this instrument of death, this device of dastardly proportions merited detaining him for about an hour and a half. After they had satisfied themselves, they let Levon go…as soon as he had promised to come back for further inquiries. So after a month and a half of people working on a 120,000 euro bid, after an 18 hour marathon day of finalizing the work, after a sleepless anticipation filled night…16:06. Ah-buh…

Again, this is just one story among many, and there are just as many flip sides to this story’s coin. It’s a mountainous land after all, with striking highs and precipitous lows. And if you walk along the small orchard in Asparez’s back yard (yes, we have an orchard at work; jealous much?) and let the burden of disenchantment fall off like an overripe pear, you’ll be ready for just another day at work. In any case, they were.


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  • At 1:27 PM, October 12, 2009, Blogger Unknown said…

    Wow, Aram. That was just like reading a work of literature. I've never seen a blog article so voluptuously full of visual storytelling, descriptive plot thickening anticipation, not to mention shrewd use of vocabulary. Nice job. Great read.

  • At 3:47 PM, December 04, 2009, Anonymous Chelsea said…

    Aram-jan! Horus arev ara. I remember you mentioning to me on one of your last nights in Yerevan that I should read your blog. I kept that idea rolling around in my head until I finally had the impetus to do so. I can't believe I waited so long. Your post was wonderful and so effective at capturing the essence of existence here. Apres.


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