By Gayane Mkrtchyan
Earlier in the morning when the clouds shrouding the village of Tatev, which is in the southern Armenian ‘world of Syunik’, start to withdraw, the village in the bosom of late autumn begins to wake up. Red, yellow and brown are everywhere. Some tree branches are already covered with snow, but next to them ripe apples shine bright as if trying to prolong autumn in the Syunik mountains for several more days.
Detached from and unaware of the rest of the world, people in Tatev live with their own cares and problems, making sure they are on time with the autumn sowing campaign, that they have stored up enough forage for cattle, watching the weather… and answers to everything end with a question.
“They live somehow, trying to make both ends meet. What should they do? That’s their lot. But the good thing is that in the last few years they don’t leave the village,” says the village head, showing the way to the Khachatryan’s hut.
Everything is so beautiful that even the village’s muddy streets where shoes forget about urban welfare do not put a visitor off. Narrow village lanes with peculiar houses with typically long balconies alternate each other.
A sound of an axe cutting wood disturbs the tranquil serenity of the village. I follow the direction of the sound, and still before I enter the yard I understand that the family I’m looking for lives here. A middle-aged man with powerful strikes hews a piece of wood in two. Then he puts his slanted cap right, looks up and notices my glance. Smiling he invites me in.
To a smile he replies with a smile which also carries a greeting and an invitation. The man comes forward to meet me. I briefly present the purpose of my coming and try to go inside. I feel he avoids inviting me into the house, but I try to do it in a delicate way and eventually he gives up and we walk inside.
Inside, right next to the door, Charzhok’s wife Greta, 49, is washing up dishes in a basin. A sack of flour is lying on the floor, several heads of cabbage. I make another step forward, there is still room to set a foot. The heater has become hot-red from fire. Greta’s cheeks are also red-hot. She feels ashamed of receiving guests.
“I feel embarrassed, but that is our life,” says Charzhok, 57.
An earthen floor, earthen walls, a ceiling built of logs stuffed again with earth. The walls are decorated with a modest chain of red pepper and garlic hanging like beads on a thread. The door is like a thick pasteboard. Four beds with care covered by covers. There is neatness next to squalor.
“This used to be my ancestral house’s tonir (for making bread), my father’s house is a little that way. But I got married and left it, my brother lives there together with his family,” and then trying to justify their living place, he says: “Our forefathers used to live in tonirs on the earthen floor and that’s why they were so healthy.”
One of Charzhok’s sons, 14-year-old David, is at school. The other, 16-year-old Navasard is in the orchard, but he does not come in, even after his mother calls him.
“He knows there are strangers at home, and he feels ashamed of coming in. He doesn’t even bring his friends home. He is a boy, he feels embarrassed,” the mother says.
The Khachatryan family lives relying on God. The family benefit paid every month is enough only for one sack of flour, which now is sold for 12,000 drams (about $40). The rest they spend to pay for the electricity bill and a little is left for pasta, and granulated sugar bought from the local store. Village head Murad Simonyan says that a small garden had been allocated to the Khachatryans from the reserve funds belonging to the rural community so that they at least can have potato in winter. In a small land near their house they grow cabbage and carrot, they have a few apple trees and that’s all. Charzhok does not forget to mention the one cow that they have, the apple of their eye, which they take good care of.
To the question what they will have for dinner tonight, Greta shrugs her shoulders and says: “We have potato, beans, God is gracious, we won’t go hungry, we will get over it.”
“We eat like villagers, we don’t complain, we buy meat whenever we can, when we don’t we go without meat,” Charzhok adds, proudly.
Villagers say that Charzhok is a hardworking man and does not shun any work only to maintain his family. Village head Simonyan says that Charzhok even agrees to dig graves only to earn a living for his children.
The Khachatryans, for their part, are thankful to their fellow villagers. Greta says that everyone helps as far as they can.
“Neighbor Nora lent her donkey to us, and one donkey today is worth 40,000 drams (about $130). It is good that they go on it to the forest to fetch some firewood,” says Greta. “And we buy from the local store on credit. There’s no other way. They are children, they want clothes, they go to school, there are lots of things they want, not everything is limited to food alone. We are thankful to them for their support. Or else, we would have gotten lost.”
Charzhok keeps smoking and no matter how hard he tries to turn the conversation into a more humorous tone, he can’t hide the misery that reigns in the family. He confesses that it is 18 years they have lived in this hut and he does everything to be able to expand their living space a little to make room for the boys, but he can’t.
“My boys were born and raised here. I barely managed to feed them, life has become too complicated. This is our situation – in summer or winter, sleeping, washing, having diner, we and this 15-square-meter space,” he says.
The couple does not complain of their health and say that this is the only thing they’ve got in their ‘reserve fund’. In the end, Charzhok does not forget to say that he has authored 115 verses.
“But there they are, all put to sleep,” he says.
He has written since 1970. He recites some of his poetry and evaluates himself. And in the end he adds: “Faith is a companion and hope of a person’s life. But for faith, we would have gotten lost in this life a long time ago.”