Reprinted with permission.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I said to Murad one balmy, sunny day, and together we strolled down Rishkov Street, past Yot Verk Church, and up the street to Central Park, where Armen Tigranyan’s national opera “Anush” had premiered in 1913. After walking in the park for a while, we made our way back to the square. Passing a row of fountains, we walked up Vahan Sherazi Street to Gyumri’s historic section, a captivating part of the city we had not seen before. Along the way, we saw single family homes and black tuf buildings, many of them in need of repair. As we strolled and talked, something suddenly reflected in our eyes. It was a silvery dome! So, this was the Russian chapel built in 1879 and known as Blblan Zham (Shimmering Chapel). After walking around the chapel’s perimeter, strewn with debris and broken glass and overgrown with weeds, we entered the place of worship. Among the religious pictures, icons, and hardened candle drippings, a single candle flickered. On the ground nearby lay a neatly folded blanket next to a bag of old clothes. Had someone taken refuge in this neglected place? Was it the one who had lit the candle? If so, what did he or she beseech of the saints, of the angels, of God?
Outside, under a tree behind Bilblan Zham sat a woman on a short-legged stool. She was elderly and shabbily dressed. With folded hands she looked up at the sky, then down at the ground. Perhaps she was praying the Armenian prayer passed down from generation to generation:
Asdvats, yes Kez madagh leenem,
Marmeenus Kez madagh,
Mee tsak tsakeer es joghovortee vra,
Amboghch ashkharee vra,
Voreets hedo, eem yerekhaneree vra…
God, let me be Your sacrifice,
Let my body be Your sacrifice,
Shine a ray of light on these people,
On the entire world,
And after that, on my children…
After leaving Blblan Zham, Murad and I continued on our walk, at times quietly reflecting, at times chatting, as we strolled down the street. The elderly woman we had seen minutes before sitting on the stool behind the chapel had reminded me of another woman I had visited. She too was seated with her hands folded; but instead of looking up at the sky and then down at the ground, she was looking at the ceiling and then at the worn wooden floor of the house she shared with relatives—the home of her youth. “Bala jan (Child dear),” she whispered as she raised her head, “please tell them I cannot chew the food they give me; I have no teeth.” Tearfully, she opened her mouth and pointed to her gums. “I tell them and tell them, but still every day the food is the same.” Tears rolled down her soft, wrinkled cheeks as she pointed to the cracked and chipped plate on the wide window sill. On the plate were four slices of potatoes and a small piece of meat—all too dry and hard for anyone to eat.
As I recalled her plea, my thoughts turned to yet another elderly woman I saw not long ago on Sayat Nova Street holding a plastic bag with a loaf of bread sticking out of it. She was trying to cross the street. “Aghcheek jan (Girl dear), please help me!” she called out as she reached for my hand. “Help me, I have been standing here for so long, but the cars will not stop and people just rush by.” Taking hold of her hand for a second and then releasing it to put my arm around her stooped shoulders, I held her tightly as we waited for the light to turn green. When it did, we stepped down onto the street and began walking, stopping every few steps for honking and speeding vehicles ignoring both traffic lights and pedestrians. As we approached the curb, we were nearly struck by a car. I will never forget the fright on the poor woman’s face or my anger at the fellow who gave us a dirty look as he came to a screeching halt and then sped by. As I helped her up onto the sidewalk, she took hold of my hand and squeezing it, she repeatedly thanked me.
“Maireek jan (Mother dear), it was nothing; it was my pleasure,” I said. I remembered thinking, as I watched her make her way slowly down the street, every once in a while stopping to rest, how difficult it must be for those who have no one who cares about them—their only solace, a prayer; their only hope, a plea. As the elderly woman disappeared into the distance, I could not help but think of our life back home and the various services offered the elderly. In Gyumri—in Armenia—every time I would see an elderly woman or man, or a handicapped person, with their hands meekly and barely extended, with their heads hanging low, I would think, They are not beggars; they are people earning their daily bread the only way left for them.
In front of us, just before the road curved, a father and his two young sons were playing ball in the street, while the mother stood nearby watching. In front of their house, the dadeek was sitting on a chair watching them all. Across the street, a young woman was sweeping the steps leading to her house; to the right of the door, large and small shoes were lined in a neat row. We stopped for a moment to watch the children and the father playing and then continued on our way. Just as we were about to turn the corner, we heard loud, fearsome barking, and a large black dog came darting toward us. Suddenly someone whistled and the dog turned around and disappeared down the street. We looked at each other with relief as we turned onto a short street. Unlike some of the other streets, this one had no quaint old homes or embellished black tuff houses or buildings of long ago—the work of skillful stone cutters. Instead, this one was lined with shacks and a few destroyed buildings that had piles of debris dumped in and around them. Behind the destroyed buildings was a sports stadium. Bending in the wind alongside the cracked and crumbling sidewalks were overgrown weeds riddled with debris. Nearby, a couple of sickly dogs sniffed the ground. We walked cautiously and quickly past them and made our way to a street called Kars, once the road to Kars. On this road to Gyumri, in 1829 and 1830, Armenian refugees escaping Turkish oppression had fled from Kars and Erzerum. They were traders, craftsmen, and peasants; they had come to this ancient city filled with new hopes and dreams. We walked south and came to a domeek standing at the edge of the pavement. A whiskered man in tattered clothes was sitting on a chair in front of it smoking a cigarette. He stared at us, and we greeted him. He nodded and blew puffs of smoke into the air as we walked past him. In the near distance we saw dilapidated houses and a crumbling, large, round, shallow, empty pool. The pool had several rusted fountain pipes jutting from the bottom of it, and it was overrun with stumpy weeds growing from the cracks.
A boy about nine-years old appeared out of the tall, rustling grass and tall weeds near the pool and greeted us with a big smile and robust “barev dzez!” We in turn greeted him and asked if he lived nearby. He pointed as he replied, “Down there. See, that is my dadeek. My father died a long time ago and my mother works somewhere far away. We do not see her often.” The boy then got closer to us and said, “I am a very good guide. If you would like, I can show you around here. See the pool over there? The fountains in it used to work and all the area kids would come here in the summertime to cool off, but the pool has been dry for years. Come this way.” We followed him to a tree-lined walk. Weeds were growing in between the cracks, and scattered on the walk were used condoms, some old and disintegrating, others not yet. We looked up, and there before us stood Mayr Hayastan (Mother Armenia). Two couples sitting on the steps leading up to the statue were passionately embracing and kissing one another. When they saw us approaching, they stopped. They glanced at each other, then giggled as they raised their bottles of beer in the air and called out, “Egek, join us for some drinks!”
“Shorhagal yenk (We are thankful), but another time,” we answered as we passed them on the steps.
“Come this way,” the boy said. Just above, to the right of where we stood, was the black and round Sev Ghul (Black Fortress) built in 1837 by Czar Nicholas I. In that same year Gyumri, a town at the time, was renamed Alexandropol. One of the oldest towns in Armenia dating back to 401 B.C. known first as Kumayri, then Gyumri, and then Alexandropol, soon would grow and develop into a trade and handicraft center, as well as a strategic military location. In 1924, during Soviet rule, it would be renamed Leninakan and flourish as a cultural, industrial, and scientific center. Evolving from a town to Armenia’s second largest city, now once again, it is called Gyumri.
With our eyes fixed on Sev Ghul, we asked the boy, “Are we allowed to go up there, to climb it?”
“Ha, follow me.”
We walked up the hill and into the fortress where puddles and mounds of cow dung dotted the ground. We stepped carefully as we made our way to stairs leading up to the top of the fortress walls. What a breathtaking view it was! Facing west, the province of Kars was before us. Down below, close to the Akhuryan River, was the Russian military base. We could hear bugle calls, singing and marching, voices shouting out as one—soldiers performing military exercises. In the near distance looking north was Garmeer Ghul (Red Fortress), Sev Ghul’s “smaller brother.” We turned around, and there it was—Gyumri—glimmering in the sunlight! Visible in the distance was the steeple of a church, one of several Armenian churches in the city. Once, there were also Greek and Russian churches.
“Son, you have been a very fine guide,” we told him as we prepared to leave.
“Would you like to come to our house?” he asked.
“We would love to, but it is getting late and we have a long walk back home. Here is a gift for you.”
He smiled as he put the bill, without looking at it, in his pocket and began skipping then running through the weeds to his house, every so often looking back and waving to us, and we to him.
We began walking at a quicker pace. Before too long it would be evening and time for the street dogs to form their packs…