Ten years ago, Arto Tunçboyacıyan paid some people a lot of money to build a house in Armenia.
The world famous musician was taken for a ride; cheated out of thousands of dollars.
“Here, in this café, seven out of ten people probably know who Arto Tunçboyacıyan is, but I don’t even have one room to call my own in Armenia,” the Istanbul born singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist told me in an October interview.
Arto had purchased some land in the Martouni village of Zolakar to buiHowld a house. He forked up $17,000 and his friend Nareg Hartunian, president of the Naregatsi Art Union, put another $7,000 in the pot.
The founder of the Armenian Navy Band didn’t hide his feelings: “I’m disgusted already. When I come here I have to pay rent here and there, for hotels. Am I the only stupid one here, that I destroyed my family, I left and came here?”
An uncomfortable silence descended on the café. Arto was with his producers and had to rush off. He promised to continue our conversation the next day. As we walked up Abovyan Street on that cold evening, Arto looked sad. The story about his house remained unfinished, until a few days ago. Arto is now in the States.
Arto says that ten years ago he and a friend, Arayik Tonoyan, who managed the Avangarde Folk club at the time, purchased a 2.5 hectare tract of land in the Gegharkunik village of Zolakar. Arto’s piece of the property amounted to 1.25 hectares. (He notes that Tonoyan is a native of Zolakar).
With the intention of building a house on the land, Arto went to Sevak Arzarouni at the suggestion of Nareg Hartunian. Back then, Arzarouni was drawing construction blueprints for the Hartunian family.
“Nareg told me not to worry because Sevak was in the business. I said fine and gave him $17,000, and the work began,” Arto told me. He adds that the entire job should have been covered with that amount, but that he noticed mistakes being made in the initial phase of construction.
“The foundation was wrong. It was like they wanted to cut corners,” Arto said.
He tells me that they started to build the house on unlevel land, where the rain runoff would easily seep inside. According to Arto, when he voiced this concern to Sevak, the latter told Arto that he was ‘doing him a favor’, and didn’t appreciate being thanked in such a manner.
“I slowly realized who this guy really was,” Arto said. “I told Nareg that I didn’t like Sevak. But Nareg would say, ‘he’s my friend, etc’.”
Arto says he first met Sevak in the Hartunian family office. “He was working for Nareg’s father. Nareg said he would give some money for the work to continue. While he can’t remember exactly, Arto says Nareg put up $6,000-$7,000 for the construction. Arto also pointed out that it’s because of Sevak that Nareg has been taken to court and that he should have been more cautious dealing with such people.
When I asked what happened and why the construction dragged on so, the musician answered, “That’s how they think. You know, that I’m some rich guy they can cheat by playing Dele Yaman on the duduk and with cognac toasts. Some who come to Armenia from the diaspora are like that. They get all emotional. Maybe they thought I was one of those people. But, I’m no Michael Jackson with a bottomless bank account. For them, it doesn’t matter if it’s $5 or $5 million. If they find a way, they’ll take it.”
Arto’s house remains unfinished. It’s a two storey structure, and the musician’s intention was to build a place for artists to meet, to stage festivals, and for young people to come and learn.
“Many just think about filling their pockets, but we have to take a long term view of life and give others opportunities for growth and advancement,” Arto says, adding that he’s grown tired of such games.
He gives me a surprised look when I ask if the $17,000 was ever returned. “No. Who is going to return it? And it’s more like $28,000 that I wound up giving.”
Joking, Arto says that the house would have been long finished if each person had brought one rock to the building site. The musician doesn’t have the funds right now to complete the house.
“I thought about bringing the family over, to live here six months out of the year. But when your spirit has been broken…”
Nareg Hartunian says he and Arto were really close friends and that they always shared their feelings and thoughts about Armenia. “It was 2003-2004, a time when the Naregatsi Art Union and Knaravan were being built. When Arto told me of his desire to have a house in the homeland, I told him I had a friend in the business, Sevak Azarouni. Up until 2010, I was pleased with Sevak’s work and naively trusted him. He had taken on the Knaravan construction. So I told Arto that this guy Sevak could assist him and that I would participate as much as I could,” Nareg says, adding that Arto doesn’t know that he gave more money to the project, just so Arto could have a house in Armenia.
Sevak told them that the house would be completed in two years. But it dragged on and on. “Every time it was another story. Sadly, I believed him at the time. So I’d ask him how much he needed to get the job done,” Nareg says.
Nareg says that when Arto kept telling him that Sevak was a swindler, he didn’t believe him. “Before 2010, I never thought that Sevak was capable of conning me. I found out that I was sadly mistaken when Sevak and five bodyguards came barging into my father’s office, smashing things left and right, and threatening my life. That’s when I saw the light,” Nareg explains/
So I asked Nareg how the story of Arto and his dream house finally ended.
“Arto was angry. His heart was broken over the house he’d never have and the fact that they conned him. It’s a terrible story. But when there is evil in a person, he or she thinks about filling their pockets; not or helping another, but of cheating them. It’s a reflection of what is going on in Armenia. That guy Sevak is one of the swindlers. How can one Armenian take advantage of another, a person like Arto, who has come here and wants to have his little corner in the homeland? To corrupt that dream was sacrilege. But Sevak pulled it off,” Nareg says.
I tried to get in touch with Sevak Arzarouni by phone but it was inaccessible.
In response to my observation to Arto that the musician doesn’t have a place in Armenia to call home, he said: “You’re right, I don’t have a physical home, but in a spiritual sense, almost all the homes here are mine.”
But he ended on a hopeful note, saying that he intends to finish his dream house once he has the means.