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Kristine Aghalaryan

Koubar the Lavash Baker: Struggling to Make Ends Meet in Armenia’s Yezidi Hako Village

I only saw a smattering of people when I visited the Yezidi village of Hako in Armenia’s Aragatzotn Province.

But there was a hustle and bustle near the house of the Koubar family.

A mobile store, in the form of a minivan owned by a Talin trader had arrived, and women were busy buying and selling various items.

People were also waiting for the tonir (earth oven) to heat up again. There was bread to bake.

A half hour ago, a sack of flour had been miraculously transformed into a stack of lavash. It was now Koubar’s turn.

The travelling minivan store arrives at Hako once or twice weekly. There’s no other stores in the village. The trader knowns everyone and extends credit until residents can pay their tabs.

Koubar’s tonir hut

Koubar has been baking tonir lavash for the past thirty years, since she was sixteen. The women say Koubar is the most proficient baker in the village.

When she was younger, Koubar rode a horse. She no longer does, but can harvest the hay as good as any of the menfolk.

“You should visit at harvest time to see how she handles a scythe,” says Koubar’s neighbor Khazeh Khdryan.

Koubar and her tonir

The dough is opened by Zineh Tamryan and Khaylaz Charchoyan. Khazeh doesn’t know how to bake, but assists the women.

Zineh, 31, has four children. Khaylaz, at 67, is the oldest in the group. Whatever question I ask, the women let Khaylaz answer. They say that she’s the mayor’s mother and knows everything.

Koubar is smack dab in the action. Taking the dough from two women working with rolling pins, Koubar then must ‘massage’ the dough for it to expand. She then places the flattened dough on the wood peels and then affixes it to the sides of the tonir, making sure to remove the bread before burning.

Koubar moves with a grace polished from years of experience. Her hands are roughened from doing all kinds of work. Even the heat of the tonir doesn’t seem to faze her fingers. She periodically wipes her eyes, which tear from the smoke.

Koubar has five children. Every day, she milks six cows and forty sheep. Her only son is in the army.

The village of Hako is twenty kilometers from the town of Talin. But the road is in such poor shape that it’s easier to drive the seventy kilometers from Yerevan to Talin.

Zineh’s daughter

I only spotted one car on the road from Talin to the village. The impression that the entire area was totally deserted soon changed when approaching Hako. Well maintained patches of farmland appeared. In fact, the Yezidis of Hako are primarily engaged in farming and raising livestock.

Given that the village’s irrigation system hasn’t worked since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the wheat and barley fields depend on adequate rainfall.

Khaylaz Charchoyan tells me that animal husbandry no longer provides an income. She milks 100 sheep per day. She sells one liter for 150-160 AMD. Sheep wool once provided an income as well. Today, residents burn the wool. There are no buyers.

“We’d like a store and transportation, a bus to take us back and forth. We want a factory here to work in. In the Soviet era people would come and we’d sell them the wool. We’d use the money to buy food and clothes for our kids. Not today,” says Khaylaz.

The village hadn’t had potable water for years. Finally, last year, the issue was resolved.

Khaylaz jokes, “When there was no water, there were people. By the time they brought the water, people left.”

Out of the 150 households in the village during the 1990s, only twenty remain.

Village mayor Seryozha Charchoyan says that while 207 individuals are registered in Hako, only 107 live there.

While Yezidi families traditionally have many children, only one pupil, that of the village’s only Armenian family, will be entering first grade this September. 

Hako’s school

Today, Yezidis the world over celebrate the New Year festival Sere Sal (literally ‘head of the year’).  Sere Sal commemorates a remote time when the ‘Peacock Angel’ Tawûsê Melek descended to earth to spread his brilliant wings to calm the lifeless earth from its agitation and to bless the earth with peace and fertility as represented by the peacock, the rainbow, and their bright colors.  

When I ask what festive meals will adorn their tables, the women say that they no longer prepare the traditional wheat dishes, drizzled with oil and placed on trays, of the past. They complain that the new generation no longer eats them.

In addition to local young women, potential brides are brought in from neighboring Yezidi or Kurdish villages. There are no mixed Yezidi-Armenian marriages.

Koubar’s stack of lavash is done. The women move on to their other chores. She’ll bake more for her family in a month.

In the meantime, Koubar will be visiting her neighbors, helping them bake their own flat bread.

There’s a tonir in every Hako household