And Sasun danced…

Today I passed my 4th exam on USA Area Studies. Among 70 questions there was only one question, on which the professor had never spoke. Not surprising it was that I took a ticket and turning it I read that exact question: “American-Spanish War”. For a moment I thought: “Aha, Zarchka, you’r caught, you’r flunked”. But eventually I dared let the professor know about it and he just calmed me down saying that that’s the same question as “War with Mexico”. Then again I thought: “Now keep calm Zarchka, consider that you’ve already got your excellent mark”.

But the worse is the best. I cannot treat myself to a holiday unless I pass my stylistics, which, I hope, will occur in several days.

Although, regardless of that fact, today I decided to have a walk with a friend of mine before getting again absorbed in my books. Our conversation was not a cheerful one and we both were in low spirits. The air was depressing, especially when we tried to avoid crowded places, but as far as the downtown is not big enough as to find a deserted place and the cafes appear at every corner like mushrooms, we decided to walk to Opera. For a moment I felt like characterizing the city as a ‘crowded desert’. The other moment I heard sounds of music coming from the Opera Square. Those were not the tedious sounds that you can hear at any café. Approaching we saw a crowd of people in Armenian national dresses (Taraz), who made a round holding by each others’ shoulders and dancing to Armenian National music, accompanied by ‘zurna-dhol’. I inquired and found out that ensemble of ethnic dances ‘Sasun’ had given a concert at Opera hall, after which they had decided to dance outdoors. “ Sasuntses are dancing”- said a woman with amazement.

That was so spectacular!! People had surrounded them and some of them even joined the dancers when they started dancing the ordinary and well-known dance ‘Ver-very’, (that is 2 steps to the right, left foot up and right, right foot up and left). For that several minutes I totally forgot about everything in the world and I was just grasping the energy which was sent by those people. Simultaneously I remembered words of a poem:

And danced Sasun
And all the people got amazed,
And danced Sasun,
And all the people understood
That not a dance this is,
But the history of the nation
Whose defeat even has its proud…
Dance Sasun!!!

I could hardly restrain myself from dancing and now I regret about it. Although I was pleased to see the youth knowing at least how to dance ‘ver-very’. I’ve always kept to the opinion that every person must know the ethnic dances of their nation. That is the strong power which keeps people united, at least while dancing…

I also regret for not having my camera with me… It’s not always that one can witness such an undertaking in the streets of Yerevan, but when it happens it is worth seeing and hearing and feeling. Later I had what is called ‘paradigm shift’ and announced that our city is a ‘crowded desert with small oasis’, just one must be at the proper place at the proper time…


19 Responses to “And Sasun danced…”

  1. Onnik Krikorian Says:

    While I agree with you that for countries such as Armenia, but also Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, and to a lesser extent Georgia etc, traditional music is a significant component of national unity, in Western societies it is not. Yet, countries such as Armenia are not more united than say England. In fact, there is more polarization and certainly less feeling of belonging as citizens in countries such as Armenia.

    That said, this is not Europe and closer to a more traditional and less individualized type of society than in the West. Perhaps this fascination with the traditional are more elements of Asian and Middle Eastern countries rather than Western ones. I suppose Spain has flamenco, but that’s specific to a particular region and I doubt that many Spanish people know how to dance it.

    Anyway, interesting post but I suspect the conclusion that national dance is some kind of unifying factor in countries is peculiar to those nations that have nothing else to unite them with. In fact, the strongest proponents of national culture as a popular phenomenon are generally nationalist forces in developing or regressive democracies, or those peoples that have no state or limited statehood. The Kurds are an example of that, I suppose, and to a lesser extent perhaps Armenians, Azeris, Turks, etc.

    I’m told, for example, that while Georgians have a developed form of traditional dance and folk music, most Georgian youth don’t know it as well as Armenians know theirs. However, I would imagine that this is because Georgian youth are more “progressive” and “western” than their Armenian counterparts. The only other time when traditional culture becomes elevated to the mainstream is in ethnic communities in host countries — Diasporas for example.

    Anyway, I do appreciate Armenian traditional music and culture, but I don’t see it as a unifying thing. Instead it is a nationalist phenomenon or is exploited for other purposes. For example, Aghvan Hovsepian’s Circle Dance around Aragats was an appalling example of using culture for political purposes. Even then, the attempt at “national unity” failed. Still, it has to be said that it is exciting to run into traditional dance, custom, traditional and music, but in Armenia it’s more of an aspect of identity because of the nature and origins of society.

    In the West, we have different means to express our own identity. First and foremost, citizenship and a sense of belonging and ownership in a country and it’s future. Secondary to that are other aspects such as cuisine, lifestyle and those things that represent our history and evolution to democratic states but not to such a point that it defines and controls our lives or threatens our ability to express our own individuality.

  2. Onnik Krikorian Says:

    BTW: Congrats on your exams again. I still think you’re gonna get a 6 in there somewhere (in a rating system that only goes up to 5 😉 )

    Good luck for stylistics.

  3. Onnik Krikorian Says:

    Just one more point — sorry for yet another comment in quick succession — traditional dances such as those you mention are often tied into regions and not specific individual ethnic nations. The same is true with traditional music which is why there are some overlaps in both traditional music and dance among Armenians, Turks, Kurds and others. A bit like how languages evolve, I guess, or cuisine. I think we tend to choose to overlook this fact — again for nationalist purposes.

  4. Zarchka Says:

    Onnik, probably you are right to some extent saying that there are different means to express our own identity. And I think that dancing is the one of the best ones to outline personalities. Every dance contains a message within its gestures and movements. For instance, remember the Indian group. That was their self expression and in this respect that is the dance that keeps them united. Armenia is an old country and throughout the history it has lost many of its characteristic features. But at least our ancestors could preserve national and ethnic dances and songs, which were sang and danced at every occasion, be it before or after war, be it at mourning or glorious hours. And yes, this is the nationalistic and traditional aspect of this matter. And if there’s to be a nationalism, let it be here.

    Regarding Georgian youth, well, I know Georgian dances and I can dance equally with a dancer of a Georgian dance group. Does it mean that I am less progressive? And for God’s sake, I don’t want to be “westernized’, because even then that will mean a loss of identity. And, one more thing, while having a workshop in Goergia we interacted with a group of Georgian youth who didn’t know Russian. Not that they pretended as if they didn’t know, but they didn’t know literary. As a result we kept separated and the relations suffered. Probably not knowing Russian also supposes that they are more “progressive” and “western”.

    The Circle Dance around Aragats went flop and everyone know the reasons. As you said it persuaded political purposes and not national, and that was the main reason that some people, who were authorized in supporting the empty road lines with people, just didn’t want to do it, though they had taken that responsibility long ago. It’s outrageous to think that it was a “healthy” political competition.

    If I meet a Spanish I will definitely ask him to show me some movements of flamenco, because he is supposed to know them, famous music known to the entire world. And I will also get too much disappointed if he says he doesn’t know a single one. What I mean is that music and dance is also a characterizing component of each nation, and not knowing it means lacking that feature.

    Armenian cuisine is not rich, moreover it’s poor. Its variety is limited in some 14 dishes and the most we can offer to the world is barbeque, dolma, but even the origin of these meals being pure Armenian is in question.

    Yes, the west has many other means to express his identity, but let us not mingle art with politics. I’m fed up with politics and people longing to occupy positions with higher income not giving a fig to whether the situation is tense, people are starving or whatever. This attitude even exists in history when Napoleon said “Even a flood, but after me”. And it found its continuation not in the future of France, but in that of people like Armenians, as they like imitating Europe in the worst way of it and the result of which may be the great apathy derived from that quotation.

    Art knows no boundaries, it knows no time, no people, no nations. No, I’m not talking about Eurovision, another political identification of Europe. I’m talking about real art which stood against the thumps of history and survived up to these days. These traditional dances have nothing in common with religion. Just on the contrary, they are strongly tied with traditional ethnic perceptions of the individual and the nation. They have their aura, their own energy and soul, which is perfectly known only to the person who is entirely involved in it. So, for understanding what those dances mean, one must know them not only theoretically, but practically as well.

    Well, I’m all ready to help you in it 😉

  5. Onnik Krikorian Says:

    Uh oh, I walked into that one. 😉

    Anyways, it’s interesting that you mentioned the Native American Indians because this is one group that I was thinking of when I was refering to those groups of people that would keep their traditional culture alive. Some Americans out there might argue that this isn’t the casee, but anyway, assuming it is and traditional culture hasn’t been killed among them, they are first an ethnic group within a larger nation, and secondly they lost their country.

    Like I said, traditions seem to play a larger role in Diasporan communities, ethnic groups within multi-cultural societies or Middle Eastern and Asian type societies. I suppose there are some exceptions to that — the Japanese, for example, who have absorbed modern western influences to create something quite unique, but I guess I’m just trying to say that I think your argument works for Armenia but not for Europe. I mean, I doubt if you could actually find many Spanish people who can dance flamenco.

    Anyways, regarding becoming “western” I think Armenians need to adopt a balance between the traditional and the modern, but unfortunately this doesn’t seem to exist as it does in other similar countries. Maybe emigration of the most educated from Armenia and the emergance of the rabiz as the defining force in society is a reason for this, I don’t know. I mean, in the Soviet era it appeared as though there was a balance between the traditional, modern (as it was comparatively in an authoritarian system decades behind the west) and Russian.

    Personally, as a European I prefer the Georgian model although admittedly I don’t live there so perhaps I shouldn’t say this. However, I believe in individuality within a democratic system rather than collective traditionalism in an authoritarian one. Ironically, coming from a multi-cultural society such as the UK, I value the traditional culture, music and dance that each ethnic community has to offer. Perhaps what I regret about Armenia is the lack of that.

    Strangely, I believe that if Armenia was less mono-ethnic, Armenian culture would be stronger because it would be necessary as an element of identity as it is in some of the Diaspora at least. Like I said, I enjoy traditional Armenian culture and dance, but lament the fact that there is no contemporary Armenian identity. Maybe that’s because Armenians have never been able to create one having been under the influence of other nations. Perhaps that’s also why traditional culture is considered so important.

  6. Esoteric Says:

    *dances el paso doble on the table* Olé!

  7. Liborale Says:

    Zarchka, this is a beautiful and evocative post. Thank you.

    Onnik, I just dont understand your reaction. There is nothing wrong with people knowing their own folklore and being attached to their ethnicity. In no way is this reactionary or retrograde. The European example just does not hold water as most if not all Western European countries until recently were mono-ethnic. Many of them now are revisiting multi-culturalism and excessive individualism.

    You do well to mention England since Great Britain is far from being cohesive and the English of course are notorious for their depradations in Ireland, Wales and Scotland – not to mention the class system and the bloody Imperial history. England has taken centuries to get to its current ‘liberalism’.

    As far as Georgia goes, Georgian ethnic nationalism was a key reason for the secessionist movements in Abkhazia and Ossetia. Currently such nationalism is having negative effects on Armenians in Georgia.

    Armenia is 15 years old for heaven’s sake! A ‘contemporary’ Armenian identity is in the process of being created. Not so long ago the traditional culture was almost wiped out. So let’s let Zarchka and other young Armenians revel in it before they fade into some homogeneous narcissistic global culture.

  8. Zarchka Says:

    Onnik, traditional culture will always be of utmost importance for us regardless of the number of mono ethnic groups, emergence of rabiz, or some other factors, because there are people still living who passed, pass, and will pass that culture from generation to generation, and one of them being me. The lost of it will mean the lost of everything, and in the first place the identity that more or less we have created during past centuries. Now Armenians adopt everything taking the model of Europe or US, say in the case of democracy, and not preserving the traditional culture will mean imitating them like monkeys, not having nothing of our owns. It’s not always that Europe can offer best solutions or choices. Let’s take Holland and it’s homogeneous marriages, I can never admit it and perhaps my traditional cultural background has a great role to play here. We can also offer something to Europewhich was the case with A. Khachaturyan, H. Ayvazovski, or A. Babadjanyan, and don’t argue that they were educated in Russia, no, the period was that, famous USSR period.

    Western Europeans countries don’t have that traditions, but for me that doesn’t seem a ground for boasting, even if presenting the fact that they have strong economy or such a country. Everything has its place, nothing must be left in obscurity. A Spanish not knowing flamenco is like an Armenian saying that he hasn’t tasted cognac. More or less Armenians identity is laid also in their traditional culture and it must serve as a basis for creating or completely finishing it’s identity in the future.

  9. Onnik Krikorian Says:

    Like I said, the focus on the traditional is an aspect of Asian or Middle Eastern countries, or ethnic communities in larger societies. This isn’t a criticism, it’s a fact. However, I will say that I don’t agree with Zarchka’s understanding of Europe. A simple example. Maybe your average everyday Spanish person doesn’t know flamenco, but they will appreciate their own architecture, and their cultural tradition will influence their own life. Compare that with Yerevan. It’s not that it’s following a European transformation, it’s actually following the path of developing Middle Eastern countries with ugly high rises being built by corrupt government officials or connected officials. These are neither Armenian or European / American in design.

    Culture is political. Full stop. You can’t deny this fact. It’s what makes countries and nations what they are. Zarchka can mention homosexual marriages in Holland, but that is just one country in Europe. Now, look at countries such as Greece, Italy, Ireland or Scotland and Wales in the United Kingdome and you can see that perhaps this is the best model for Armenians to follow. Ireland especially is always mentioned when talking about Armenia. Or Israel, of course. Anyway, the long and the short of it is that Armenia is not united and its citizens do not look to the future. Most have given up any hope.

    I’ve already said that I appreciate Armenian music and dance, but lets be honest. Most Armenian youth couldn’t care less. They are immature, their educational standards are so low now that some serious questions have to be raised regarding the state of this sector in Armenia, and the country continues along an authoritarian path. Incidently, culture has been hijacked by political forces in Armenia and this has frustrated the development of a contemporary Armenian identity. No wonder then that most youth listen to Western or Russian music, or rabiz which is arguably closer to Turkish, than Armenian.

    I mean, be honest Zarchka. I would guess that you spend only 1 percent of your leisure time listening to Armenian music or dancing Armenian. For 99 percent you’re listening and dancing to Western contemporary music. Western culture appeals to most people in Armenia because it is believed that local culture is inferior in comparison. One more thing about Europe, Armenian dance and music is appreciated more there than it is in the country where it came from.

    I wish people could face up to the reality and also understand that cultural diversity is key to making life interesting, and that freedom and individuality leads to unity. It’s also interesting to note that most Armenians who fail to understand this have never been France, Germany, Italy, the UK or even Greece. What we need is a balance and an environment where new forms of cultural identity can emerge. That isn’t happening as quickly as it should in Armenia, and this is the point.

    Respect for the past is important, as it is in Europe, but you can not say that what is wrong with Armenia is because of Western or American influences. Instead it is because a corrupt and an authoritarian system means that ARMENIANS who know NOTHING about western values and appreciation of culture are free to do what they want. They might they are being European, but instead their Asian mentality is coming to the fore.

    Compare Barcelona, Paris, London or any other major city in Europe to Yerevan and see that it is Armenians defining their own perverted and incorrect intrepretation of the outside world anod not foreign influences. There is no model of mature development in any sphere, and culture is one of those. Actually, this is probably what Zarchka was saying. Yerevan has been destroyed by Armenians and a simple dance made the city something better for her in as long as it lasted at least.

    You will NEVER see such a sitution exist in a European city. So, preserving a traditional dance among a divided nation so for 5 minutes they can pretend that they’re united means nothing in the context of a European nation that offers a democratic society which is significantly more united than Armenians are, and which preserves it’s culture, and more than that, appreciates other cultures as well. Like I said, Armenian dance groups and musicians are shown more respect outside Armenia than inside the country.

  10. Onnik Krikorian Says:

    I can’t say anything more better than the EU itself when it said:

    “As we build Europe politically, our common goals must more then ever, take inspiration from culture. All European States recognize the importance of culture in the life of our communities. Culture expresses the highest human aspirations, the human quest for beauty, purity, truth and perfection. It provides the momentum and creativity that drive progress in our societies. It is, for the individual, a way to achieve emancipation and fulfilment. In every nation in Europe, it is not a secondary, subsidiary activity but fundamental value. We recognize that culture cannot be left to the laws of the marketplace, just as it must not be harnessed by the State. Concentration is as much a threat to cultural diversity as cutthroat competition. It is therefore right and proper that the public authorities should act to safeguard freedom of expression and cultural diversity.”

    Ironically, when Armenian traditional and contemporary culture is strengthened, that support will likely come from Europe and not the Diaspora or the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Armenia. Zarchka, you speak Spanish so perhaps I should suggest you go to Spain on holiday this year.

    You might not find many Spaniards who can dance flamenco but you will find more unity, cultural diversity and support for local arts in the country. Not because of their economy, but because of the importance placed on culture, arts, freedom of expression and yes, respect for their history. I believe these values are stronger in Europe than in Armenia.

  11. Onnik Krikorian Says:

    Incidently, talking of youth in Armenia and Georgia I remember one story told me about a visiting group of Georgian University students in Yerevan. They could sing their traditional folk songs while their Armenian counterparts couldn’t. Of course, music and dance are just a tiny part of what constitutes “culture,” but anyway. Regardless of whether you believe that the traditional takes precedence over the modern, the fact is that culture of all forms is in my opinion less evolved than in Georgia. Even the fact that the Georgians favor their own language over English or Russian, when the opposite is true in Armenia, says a lot.

    So, I stand by my initial point. That is, that some passer bys dancing for a few minutes in central Yerevan doesn’t represent unity of the nation because let’s be honest, none exists. Traditional culture is simply used to perpetuate a dream that in reality doesn’t exist. Instead, almost every sphere of life in Armenia has become distorted and mishandled. Culture, especially in the area of contemporary music, is one of those. Ironically, as I said before, it will be European support that might just put such things back on their normal path.

    Meanwhile, ugly buildings and loud Russian or Western music will be blasted from cafes built at the expense of Yerevan’s green areas not because of European or American “influence,” but because of Armenian greed, corruption and an inherent lack of respect for building a balanced and democratic society.

  12. Zarchka Says:

    The reason that most of my leisure time I prefer listening to Western songs or dancing to them suggests that I’m open to accept music of every type or origin and there can’t be a slight shape of nationalism here. Western contemporary music is much better and more audible than that of Armenian “stars’” whose every attempt to resemble just goes flop, at least I think so, because they have their followers. You know my attitude regarding that. But I never lose the chance to sing Armenian traditional songs and dance Armenian national dances, which seem perfect to me, as well as Moldavian, Russian, Georgian, even Gipsy. If not so, then where would I know those songs from, or how could I know how to dance?

    Anyway, Onnik, I think in a way we say and mean the same things, just the formulations are different…

  13. Esoteric Says:

    🙂 Spain can only afford to place emphasis on such things only because of the political calm and national security to be found. Besides, if you look under the surface Spain isn’t all that unified either.

    Their national football team is a perfect example of this; Catalans, Basques, etc. There isn’t a common spirit and that’s why they never can achieve a win at the World Cup, there just isn’t an esprit d’corps, as one might think. There isn’t such a unity anywhere in the world, it’s naive to think there is.

    I think in order for Armenians to be able to express and appreciate their culture better, primarily we must be able to stop grieving. At the moment Armenia is still grieving for their losses – Genocide, WW2, Communism, ’88 quake, and now Arstakh (you can ignore the millenia of bloodshed and difficulty if you’d like but all this has taken it’s toll subconsciously) – aren’t we technically still at war too?

    We need to resolve the aforementioned things first. It is of utmost importance, so that the youth can break out of the viscious cycle of tragedy and then educate themselves.

    I personally don’t accept this kind of self-hating nonsense; Armenians are this, Armenians are that. It’s total rubbish and is brought about by a subtle, all-consuming, colonially racist undertone found in western countries. The ‘spitak-djart’ as we know it. This is exactly the thing which has affected our youth, they hate themselves, because of racism and insecurity from elsewhere.

    Even anglo-saxon youths are not free from it, even though they spread it across the globe; they so desperately want to be Australian, in this case, and differentiate themselves from their heritage because of bullshit marketing. As if being French, Greek, Brazilian, or Italian is a bad thing. Heritage only seems to be a good thing when there’s a buck to be made for a westerner.

    Armenians should be proud that we have lasted as long as we have, longer than most in-fact and with all the undeniabley beautiful culture we have given to the world.

    Spaniards have it bloody good. Seriously! When has Armenia had a chance to breath? I’m not trying to make excuses for certain attitudes and behaviour, but come on, if someone can create a dream country that leads us into a perfect future given the circumstances, I’ll eat my own hat!

    So yeh… Im conclusion, I’m tired of typing, Spain is about to play and I have to go watch!!! I think Armenians will be alright. We just need to stop being so negative. Olé!

  14. Onnik Krikorian Says:

    Hey, Esoteric, I didn’t say that Spain or any other European country was united fullstop. I said that they were more united than Armenia. Meanwhile, we can all pretend that we are, but the reality is that Hayastantis and Karabakhtsi dislike each other, and Hayastantsi and Diaspora are different too. In the Diaspora, we can then talk about divisions and discrimination between Middle Eastern Armenians, Russian Armenians, European Armenians and American Armenians.

    Menk Hye Enk?

    It’s just a phrase that’s easy to say, but difficult to live by. Still, I’m half-Armenian, half-English from England and I think that this makes my world view wider and, I would say, richer. Then again, that’s just my own opinion. Thankfully, a discussion did at least take place here although I can already see the risk of it turning sour. Incidently, I’d agree with Esoteric’s comments about war and stuff. That, in fact, was my initial point and why you find traditional culture seemingly more evident among such peoples.

    However, I lament the fact that Armenians dancing for a few minutes and not being able to use culture for anything other than political won’t last longer than for a few minutes. So, some guys danced for a bit, but nothing changed otherwise. No becoming part of the process of building society or nation, no desire to fight against corruption or to build a future. Probably they went on to a cafe and spoke about nothing if they managed to find anything to speak about at all.

  15. Esoteric Says:

    It’s just a discussion; no need for anything to go sour… Nothing didn’t change with a bit of dancing? Perhaps, but, that’s not entirely bad since there’s an obvious underlying desire for Armenian culture.

    I believe, thought in itself is action. If we think we are united, if we think we want a better future – as with anything else – and think it enough, it will become so through habitual routine.

    So yeh, that’s enough blab outta me. You can have your blog back now Zarchka! 🙂

  16. Onnik Krikorian Says:

    Esoteric, the comments sections of posts are an important part of blogs, and in the Armenian context they are especially important because the institutions in Armenia or the Diaspora rarely — if ever — allow discussion or freedom of thought and expression.

  17. Onnik Krikorian Says:

    Just a pity that dancing for a few minutes is all anyone can do, although I remember from last year’s “Dance of Unity” that participants had to be taught how to dance what is meant to be a simple dance. I’d also like to see more than 30 people turn up outside the Russian Embassy to protest attacks on and the murder of Armenians in Moscow. Still, in the London-Armenian Diaspora of 12-15,000 only 2 people turned out for their protest.

    Perhaps we need to re-evaluate what “unity” is and what it should mean. Is it simply the superficial token dance once in a blue moon, or is something more substantial that makes people feel part of a nation, and with a stake in its future. This is the main problem facing Armenia, and especially youth, today.

  18. Zarchka Says:

    Oh, thanks for giving back my blog 😉
    But this is meant for discussions and you can all feel free to leave any kind of comments with your opinions. This is a great means for self-expression and ,nay, I’m not against, self express yourself as much as you want !!! 😉
    Eventually I came to the conclusion that in a whole we all say and think the same thing, just in different ways. Someone said: “ Something somewhere is wrong in this world”… And methinks it will always be so.

    I’ve always mentioned that what this nation lacks is unity. Separations are in every field, in every sphere without exception. And every attempt to get united, even the smallest and not long lasting one, must be supported for taking another one. Rome was not built in a day…

    And as once I wrote in one of my blogs: “Gossiping, the only thing we do best of all and united…”

  19. Onnik Krikorian Says:

    Kind of related to the idea of unity and identity, especially as the One Nation — One Culture event is almost upon, is the question of dual citizenship. Garo has an interesting post on that, which touches upon the issue of multiple identities throughout Armenia and the Diaspora, at:

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