Wednesday, 26 September

Master Blacksmith Rafik: “We hammer bread from iron”


Family traces roots and craft back to Moush

“You’ve come to Gegharot, Armenia’s Siberia,” says blacksmith Rafik, putting another pine branch on the fire.

The family uses a wood stove to heat the house. Rafik then takes a red hot piece of metal to warm his workplace.

“We’ve inherited the craft from our forefathers, says 65 year-old Rafayel “Rafik” Asatryan, whose father was one when the family migrated to eastern Armenia from Moush in 1915. “I was ten when I learnt the trade from my father.”

Accord to family lore, Rafik’s grandfather told the grandmother that they couldn’t take the baby and it was best to throw the babe in the water. The grandmother refused. Five brothers made the trek from Moush.

When I ask Rafik which was his father in the pecking order, he responds, “Older than the youngest. That’s to say the fourth. No, sorry, the third.”  

Everyone in the Aragatzotn village of Gegharot knows varpet (master) Rafik. There is just the one horse left in the village and one shoemaker. Rafik claims there are two horses. His wife, Osan, corrects him, saying there is the one horse left. Rafik begrudgingly agrees, “Yea, there is probably just the one horse.”

Villagers say that Rafik’s father Rouben also worked as a blacksmith. Then the brothers also got involved.

The cold workshop soon starts to warm up. The dried pieces of dung are neatly stacked. Rafik starts to fashion a horseshoe and explains the steps in making a good one.

When the family first arrived from Moush, they settled in the Aragatzotn village of Tzaghkahovit. Later on, Rafik’s four uncles   moved to the city and Rafik’s father moved to Gegharot. Rafik’s father Rouben worked for over sixty years at the Gegharot state collective’s (sovkhoz) workshop as a blacksmith.

Rafik and his brother Hrant inherited the trade from their father. Their younger brother became a driver.

The two blacksmith brothers would compete for business in the village, according to the locals. Rafik agrees, and says that Hrant was ten years his elder. At first, the two worked side by side in the family garage but later opened their own workshops.

While Hrant is no longer alive, Rafik talks about him in the present tense. “He also is a good blacksmith. He started working before I did. He worked as a child with my father. I do good clean work.”

Rafik says he makes all kinds of items – hammers, stoves, adzes and other implements.

Rafik estimates that he’s shoed 10-15 horses this year. He claims that people bring their horses, shoed by others, to him for repairs. Rafik used to make the nails himself but now buys them at the market.

“It’s tiring work making those nails. But I still make nails for shoeing cows. I will even shoe a donkey, but there are none in the village,” Rafik says.

There used to be eight horses in the village. They’ve been replaced with motorized vehicles. “Shepherds now use cars to transport animal feed. Only one person still uses a horse,” says Rafik, striking the anvil with a heavy blow. “No, no. I have no problem with equipment,” he laughs.

Much has changed in the village. Work is much scarcer for Rafik who once used to be up all night, even in the freezing cold of winter, to gets orders ready.

“The people have no work. I’ve made an oven, but they haven’t come to pick it up. They don’t have the money.

Rafik notes that craftspeople are getting fewer and fewer in Armenia. Demand for making things in the traditional way is decreasing. People, he says, are indifferent.

“After the earthquake, people have become somewhat lackadaisical about life,” notes Rafik, referring to the 1988 earthquake that rocked northwestern Armenia killings thousands.

Rafik hasn’t received a new work order for days. But he still gets to his workshop every day without fail. There’s always something to fix, he says.

Rafik is concerned that young people today aren’t interested in taking up a trade. The blacksmith has three daughters and one son, who’s a tile installer.

“My son is great at what he does, but was never interested in becoming a smithy,” says Rafik.

The blacksmith stirs the fire with an iron rod. “It’s torturous work. Sometimes I tell my wife to help out but she’s getting up in years as well. When I ask Rafik why he continues to slave away, his response is simple – “He, who loves to work, will work.”

Deep down, Rafik believes that craftspeople like him are the true heroes of today and should be valued.

“Yes, today’s hero is the person performing a trade; doing good work for the people,” he says.

As our conversation comes to a close, Osan treats us with coffee. Rafik places his cup on the anvil and drinks.

Suddenly, he looks at the cups and exclaims, “This anvil is holy. My father would get annoyed when someone placed anything on the anvil.”

I immediately life my cup. Rafik laughs and says he doesn’t get angry and will clean it later.

“Honestly, we hammer bread from iron. This anvil is our bread,” he exclaims.

Our conversation again turns to the current situation in Armenia. Rafik says that his son goes abroad to work, but that he’s tied to the water and soil.

“One can battle sadness through work. If there is work, the people will be happy. But if there isn’t any work, that’s the rub. People are going through tough times,” says Rafik.


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