Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Renewal and Remembrance

While not quite an adventure, experiencing Easter here was different just like everything else is. And this year was even different for the Armenians because it happened to coincide with the national day to commemorate the victims of the Armenian Genocide.

Some Easter traditions I learned about are similar to the US. People color eggs although the church would prefer that they only be colored red to remind us of Christ’s blood. Using onion skins as a natural dye is preferred but I saw dyes of other colors sold in the markets so it is clear that many people don’t follow that guidance.

While some may engage in an Easter egg hunt, the more popular tradition is to have “fights” with Easter eggs, hitting them against someone else’s to see whose shell will break first and the winner gets both. We were told about kids making eggs out of wood or coating their eggs with other things to make them harder to crack to improve their odds.

Candy is not as popular as an Easter treat, probably because people eat candy here on a regular basis. Nonetheless, I did see jellybeans and candy similar to marshmallow peeps for sale in one store the other day so maybe another US tradition is creeping in over here. They have no “Easter Bunny” here and I was at a loss to explain why we have a holiday mascot that can’t reasonably provide colored eggs on his own.

But in keeping with the fact that Christianity is the state religion, the religious traditions were key. Last weekend, I witnessed the observation of Palm Sunday. As in the US, virtually everyone seems to go to church on Palm Sunday even if they do not regularly go. One difference, though, is that I did not see any real palms anywhere, and someone in my conversation club confirmed the obvious reason – because they don’t have palm trees here (people in the club were surprised to hear that there are palms in New York churches since we don’t have palm trees there either). Here, people brought branches from various plants to have them blessed, mostly willow branches as preferred by the church. Many vendors had set up outside of the main church so you could buy some in case you didn’t have any. The branches are then kept in the home until the following Palm Sunday.

This past Saturday, people again went to church to light candles from a common flame, similar to what I saw at Christmas. Again the vendors were set up outside the church, this time selling plastic bottles with the bottoms cut off as a shield to protect the candles from blowing out. While there was not a service in progress while I was there, I did see a lot of people going to the altar to kiss an icon there. While women often wear a scarf or head coverings of some sort in church, it is not mandatory and the younger women seem to follow that tradition less than older women do. To visit the altar that day, however, all women had to have their head covered and someone was there to make sure that was adhered to. Temporary ones were provided to those without and I even saw two women sharing a longer one. Men did not need to have their heads covered but the women substantially outnumbered the men in the time I was there.

Both times were solemn affairs, but I did notice, as often before, people taking cel phone calls in the church.

I did not go to a church on Easter itself but did attend an Easter meal. A few weeks back, some of my fellow volunteers happened to meet a relative of Gyumri’s mayor (his brother’s daughter-in-law to be exact) and she invited all of us to lunch. It had many of the characteristics of other celebratory meals I had been to (lots of food, freely pouring wine, scotch, vodka and brandy). Traditional Easter dishes were served (rice with raisins, a salad made of potatoes, beets and cream, Armenian pastries, fresh and dried fruits, nuts). Toasts were made to the United States, to Holland (a pair of Dutch tourists cycling through Armenia had joined us), friendship between our nations and other things.

My lunch companions and host

We had also been told to bring pots with us to take home some food that was to be cooked for Easter. While I did not get a potful of my own, I sort of inherited a pot of soup that a fellow volunteer did get and would not be able to eat since she was to be out of town. Leaving the house, we saw a pair of sheep’s heads lying on the lawn, so I think I have a pot of sheep khash in my refrigerator now (see my earlier post about cow khash). Yum.

While Easter is normally a joyful holiday in Armenia (including a text message I got from the main Armenian church – imagine getting a text from the Vatican and you get the idea), as I noted above it was also Martyr’s Day, the day of remembrance for victims of the Armenian Genocide. It marks the day in 1915, when Armenian leaders, writers, thinkers and professionals were rounded up, deported and killed in Constantinople (now Istanbul) under the “Young Turk” government. Meanwhile, over 5,000 of the poorest Armenians were killed in the streets and in their homes. Although numerous prior atrocities had been committed by the Turkish Government against the Armenian people, this day marks the official beginning of what is referred to as the Armenian Genocide.

To this day, the Turkish government denies the occurrence of an Armenian Genocide. And while the US Ambassador attended a memorial service, the fact that President Obama has not yet used the word “genocide” in commemorating the event is a very sore point with the Armenian people and the Armenian diaspora.

Every year on April 24, masses of people go to the genocide memorial in Yerevan to lay flowers in memory of the victims. I visited the memorial last summer and, while there are always flowers there from the people visiting on a given day, the quantity brought on the commemoration day is understandably much larger.

Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial

The memorial flame and flowers last summer

April 24, 2011

But not all of the remembrance events are the same either. On April 23rd, for the 11th consecutive year, a youth group in Yerevan has held a torchlight procession, including the burning of a Turkish flag. The government, which has been working for some time on rapprochement with Turkey, disavowed the action, which was responded to with an Armenian flag burning in Istanbul [article here].

While rain had been in the forecast for Easter (as it has been raining most of the month) it turned out to be a beautiful day. A good day to be both happy and solemn as you wish.