On the Armenian Side of the Akhouryan: “In worse shape than the ruins of Ani”
The only sign of life in the Armenian village of Tlik, located just this side of the barbed wire that stretches along on the banks of the Akhouryan River that separates Armenia from Turkey, is the smoke escaping the chimneys of the few houses scattered here and there.
It was so cold that even the village dogs couldn’t be bothered to leave their warm crevices and bark at me, an unknown visitor.
The municipality office was closed. I then tried to find someone who could point me to the school. After a few minutes, a middle-aged woman exited one of the houses and told me I was going the wrong way. She then called her son who invited us inside. He said that due to the cold, classes had been suspended.
Entering the living room of the one-story house, I was taken aback for a moment. It seemed that there was a birthday party taking place. I felt a bit uncomfortable intruding. It turned out that the family was celebrating Aida Sltan Ezid, a Yezidi national holiday.
The homeowner, 30-year-old Alik, told me that people fast for three days before the holiday celebrated on Friday. On that day, Yezidis visit the graves of their departed. Alik said that some do not celebrate the holiday because they have converted and become Jehovah’s Witnesses or simply because they can’t afford such a celebration.
The Aida Sltan Ezid holiday table isn’t any different from your usual festive table. Since Yezidis are mostly engaged in raising animals, khashlama (a boiled lamb/beef and potato stew) is the main table fare.
74-year-old Tlik resident Sourik Khalatyan recounts that wine was served at the holiday table in years past, in addition to whatever god granted. “Now, since we have developed, we serve fruits and vodka,” Sourik joked. He says that the old customs have markedly changed.
On the day before the holiday, kids would play hol-hockey; whether there was ice on the ground or not. “If someone scored a goal they would yell, ‘hol, hol. Sltan Ezid. The more goals scored, the greater the grace of Ezid’,” Sourik says. “Now, who does such things. There’s no one left in the village.”
Sourik points to his married daughters, now mothers. He asks if I can tell whether they are Armenian or Yezidi girls. “The national dress has changed,” he says somewhat bitterly. “Traditional ways have lost out to the European ones.”
Mr. Khalatyan remembers that in his day, the menfolk also wore the traditional dress, but that it was mainly the women who did so. “The head was always covered and the dress had to be long enough to cover the shoe heel. Daughter-in-laws wore a veil made from silk. Now, they changed it into who knows what. Back then, we’d go to Tiflis for the veils.”
He says that the traditional attire gradually disappeared with each new generation. “When the seniors died off, the attire changed. We have a 78-year-old invalid woman in the village. She’s never married. Whenever there’s a wedding or some event in the village, she goes wearing the traditional attire. Now, without the old attire, you can’t tell if the person is a Yezidi or Armenian. A person must be identified by their national attire.”
Mr. Khalatyan was born and raised in Tlik. He’s had various jobs over the years – a mechanic, driver, and, after independence, a bookkeeper and municipality secretary. He fathered eleven children, two of which died.
“My eldest son was a tank driver in the army. There was a fire in the tank depot. He saved eight, but died himself. He was just twenty and was about to be discharged a few months later. Another son was just one-year old when doctors at the Talin hospital killed him with a transfusion. Thank god the rest are alright.”
Of the seven sons and two daughters remaining, four sons and the eldest daughter are in Russia. They’ve asked their father to join them, but Sourik doesn’t want to. “Their mother died 13 years ago. If I leave, who will look after it and the grave of my twenty-year old son. Let the young ones go and find their future lives, but not me.”
Mr. Khalatyan isn’t optimistic about Tlik’s prospects. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Tlik had a population of over 500 comprised from 116 households. Today, only 18 families remain.
Sourik says that back in the day, there were 78 cars in Tlik and no need for a bus to take people to a wedding feast.
“In the spring, the young guys would go abroad to work. They’d bring back at least four cars on their return,” he says. To describe the situation better, he stresses that when the first car in a wedding procession would reach the nearby village of Getap, 3 kilometers away, the last car hadn’t yet left Tlik.
He says that the main reason people are leaving Tlik is the lack of irrigation and potable water. The village hasn’t had any since 1993. When it had water, Tlik 72 hectares of arable land and 30 hectares of garden plots produced a bountiful crop.
Tlik has suffered a drought for the past three years. Mr. Khalatyan was able to sow 2.5 hectares of barley. But that only produced 98 bales. Usually, a half hectare produces 100 bales. There are two combines in the village and they need repair. Parts have become quite expensive.
Given the village’s less than rosy picture, I ask why nine families from the village of Araks have moved to Tlik. Sourik wastes no time in replying. “They’ve come for our pasturelands. Did you think it was because of our pretty eyes?” His friend Alik chimes in, “It’s good. At least there are more people in the village.”
The banks have refused credit to Mr. Khalatyan, arguing that he’s in no position to pay. Alik says that about fifteen of the eighteen families in Tlik have received loans. He says the money is used to buy animal feed.
Tlik residents also buy the water they drink. Once, they used the Akhouryan River. “There was a water shortage until 1997. The Save the Children organization came and placed a pump in the gorge. But it wasn’t drinkable. The children got diarrhea and rashes. Now, we just use the water for the animals and for laundry, Sourik recounts. With a touch of resentment, he adds that anywhere a person cannot drink his or her fill isn’t a place to live.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed, it took all the god stuff with it,” says Mr. Khalatyan. “People lived well. They were building new foundations for the village to expand. Today, it’s in worse shape than the ruins of Ani.”
Sourik then points to the yard outside his house. “There’s no one around to say good morning to. We’ve forgotten how to say it.”
Photos: Narek Aleksanyan