By Crystal Allene Cook
Arriving in Yerevan, Armenia on a Fulbright in 2004 to research a novel, I had some specific things in mind. Once on the ground, making friends, talking to people, traveling, many of my preconceived notions of those things, and of myself, soon began to change.
Scratching the surface, it very quickly became apparent that along with the remnants and implications of events in the early and mid-twentieth century (Genocide, Russian Revolution, WW I, Turko-Armenian War, WW II, gulags), the country and its people were still very much coming to terms with the active years of their war in the 1990s with neighboring Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Ugly and brutal (which war, really, is nice?), and also a conflict between Christians and Muslims, this war was largely overshadowed in the West by similar events in the Balkans. But, many of the same factors were in play: crumbling Soviet infrastructure, disintegration of enforced camaraderie, power grabs, old cultural wounds, massive displacement and re-settling of ethnic groups, access to powerful weapons, neighbors against neighbors.
Although active fighting ended over a decade ago, now and again soldiers still exchange fire across the Azeri and Armenian borders. In fact, peace has to be brokered, and, this continues to paralyze the region: (although Turkey’s president recently attended a soccer match in Yerevan) Armenia’s borders with Turkey and its borders with Azerbaijan remain closed (blocking the most direct land route between Europe and Central Asia, and, by the way, the most direct land access to Azeri oil. That’s one reason it’s being pumped to Georgia) and hundreds of thousands of refugees remain displaced and abroad (many of whom landed here in LA in the early 90s). Due to embargoes and import bans, local mafias maintain a tight grip on commerce.
So, learning this, I was still stuck trying to get past analysis; I had, after all, set before myself the task of writing fiction. I needed to talk to folks about their experiences. I needed to try, vicariously, and no matter how naively, to feel what war may have been like for them. To attempt this, I was very lucky to have many people make introductions for me. One of them was with a prominent documentary filmmaker with his own production company.
A beautiful early fall day, the weather finally cooling after the brutality of heat and hot wind of summer, I sat in Vartan’s office. Books, DVDs, and videos lined the walls from top to bottom. Just outside the open door, Armenians, and, foreigners enthusiastic about his politics and profile, worked at computer editing systems and computers.
I’d come to ask him about his main project, a documentary following up with war survivors, with the soldiers he’d followed in the field. His eyes widened. He stroked his short beard. Its own energy field, anxiety crackled around him. He sat, stood, took down books to show me. Like that of many people he re-encountered, Vartan described his own struggle with depression after so much destruction and deprivation.
Turning from these to stories about the early days of the war, Vartan recounted an experience that left me cold. Hmph! I thought. How embarrassing. How stupid this woman was. How inconsiderate and ignorant and thoughtless.
Out filming the fedayin (yes, Armenians used a “Muslim” word to describe themselves as guerilla soldiers), sometime in the early part of the war, a blonde American journalist showed up. She wanted someone to take her to the front. None of the men would, so she waited and poked around.
One evening, the men, tired of the flat dried bread they usually ate, caught a rabbit. The American journalist was horrified. “Please don’t kill it,” she pleaded.
The irony was not lost on the soldiers. They slaughtered the animal and enjoyed their meal.
The American journalist found and finally persuaded a general to take her to the front.
Ah, ha! I thought. This is the stuff of fiction! Maybe this will be the basis for my novel. I’ll write about this journalist, a typical “Ugly American.”
Back in the apartment I rented on Mashtots Boulevard in Yerevan, as promised, I emailed some of my work to Vartan. I was excited. I’d just finished a draft of a collection of short stories and short forms. In my enthusiasm, I emailed him the whole manuscript.
Even after trying several times, I never heard from Vartan again.