Marsen and Leyla

You have no doubt heard of a region in the Eastern Caucasus called Nagorno-Karabakh. It’s OK if you haven’t. It’ll just be one more of the myriads of things that I happen to know about and you don’t. I’m saying this in jest of course. I can’t reach out and tickle you, so this is the next best thing.

Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous enclave, shaped like a bean, in Shia Muslim-majority Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, the word ‘nagorno’ being given to mean ‘highlands’ in Russian. Ruled by the Ottoman Turks till the early 19th century, this region was annexed by Imperial Russia in the early 19th century. Then, after the Bolsheviks took over in 1917, it came under the control of the Soviet Union, along with the rest of Azerbaijan and it’s neighbor, Armenia.

In spite of being situated entirely within Azerbaijan, the population of Nagorno Karabakh is 95% Armenian – Christians who follow the Armenian Apostolic Church. Obviously, these folks have a much closer bond with neighboring Armenia than with Azerbaijan (somewhat akin to the way the Russian speaking Crimeans feel about Russia). Couple that with the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh is completely enclosed inside Muslim Azerbaijan and it’s easy to see why there have been major flashpoints over ethnicity and the right to rule.

While they were ruled by the Soviets, Armenia and Azerbaijan were restrained from squabbling, with brute force. But the moment the Soviet Union broke up and these two became sovereign nations, the majority Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh began to press for secession to Armenia.

At first the agitations were peaceful. Soon, however, the revenge killings began as word filtered through, of two Azerbaijani girls – medical students – who had been raped and murdered, allegedly by Muslims, inside the Skin and Venereal Deseases Clinic on Arakelyan Street, in the capital city of Stepanakert.

The nascent Armenian insurgency blossomed into a full scale uprising started, till it reached it’s peak sometime around 1988. The story I’m about to tell you is set in this turbulent period of open conflict and brutal reprisals.

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Over the years that you’ve known me, you have learnt to take my writings with a pinch of salt, maybe even a bushel. Several of you suffer from high BP as a result. I’ve heard a snicker or too from the back benches but kept my counsel. Boys and girls will be boys and girls. But this narrative really happened. And what prompted me to write about it, aside from the fact that women in the Caucasus are exceedingly lovely, was the riveting first-hand account of the events, related to me by my colleague, a chubby Armenian ex-pat by the name of Marsen Sarokyan.

A rotund baby-face with powerful horn-rimmed lenses, Marsen was born in Stepanakert. He can’t be sure exactly when but is pretty sure it was right after the unmanned probe, Pioneer10, was launched atop an Atlas-Centaur rocket from Cape Canaveral, in March 1972. Having photos of Nasa rockets was frowned upon those days and could get your bottom into a gulag as a guest of the Soviet State, before you could even begin to say ‘Tigran Petrosian’.

Marsen’s father was however a member of the Soviet elite and therefore above the law. A scientist in the Soviet Academy of Sciences and a space buff, he had smuggled a picture of the crab-like satellite from his office, framed it and secreted it under a pile of old photo albums in his closet, hoping to present it to his son one day. When Marsen came over to Canada, the photo was one of the articles he made sure to pack. On it, his father’s flowing handwriting in Armenian, is still visible,’ To my son, Marsen, who will go even higher one day, than Pioneer10’.

Marsen asked me to write the following account of a slice of his life in Nagorno Karabakh in the first person, present continuous tense. I’ve done his bidding, stepped into his shoes. Here and there I’ve gotten carried away a bit, tweaked the truth a little -transgressions you won’t even notice. Otherwise it’s all true and…I’ll leave you for now, while Marsen tells you his tale. Nice having you here. I have had the exits blocked so you won’t flee…..

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Marsen Sarokyan. In itself, the name sounds benign. It conjures up an image of a well behaved boy, calm and collected. Guy with a name like mine probably has to have been a front-bencher all through school, scrambling to raise my hand to every quiz presented by the class teacher and getting it right.

And that is just so in my case. Hello, I’m Marsen Sarokyan. Of course you knew that already. Spunky just introduced me back there. And that’s right, most Armenian last names end in ‘ian’ or ‘yan’. The late Russian airframe designer, Artem Mikoyan of the MIG fighter jet fame, was an Armenian. Another – Avedis Zildjian – was a 17th century alchemist who established a 400-year old business in hand-made cymbals. It is said that he was looking for a way to turn base metal into gold and he ended up creating an alloy combining tin, copper and silver that, when beaten into a sheet, made a clear tinkling musical sound without shattering. Today a Zildjian cymbal is worth it’s weight in gold. I should know – I am about to declare bankruptcy, getting my son a set of Zildjians for his drum set.

But enough about Armenian last names. I’m sick of them.

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Marsen’s story

At school, my grades routinely choke from the lack of oxygen, being way up there at the top, at 89% – just behind Leyla Pashayeva, who holds a lead of 3 torturous percentage points. I don’t begrudge her that. She’s brilliant, no question about it. I just wish she’d been nicer, that’s all.

And I know I’ll get there. And as to why I am so driven to get to the very top, my reasons are quite different from those of the famed mountaineer, George Mallory’s, who when asked why he wanted to scale the Everest, had simply said, “Because it is there.” George Mallory didn’t become an orphan at 15 and then brought up by ailing grandparents. George Mallory didn’t have to be both, father and mother to a ten year old sister, Akasma, crippled by spastic cerebral palsy, a condition that has not prevented her from thinking creatively and intelligently. It has however, impaired her movements and deprived her of the ability to perceive and gauge distances, heights and depths, causing her to stumble on stairs, trip over carpets and knock things over with her movements.

I know I have miles to go. I remember Papa’s words at the train station as the light turned green that night, a year to the day,” You’re now in charge now and I know you’ll fine.” They never returned. Unknown to the engineer, the tracks ahead, including a whole section of the Aras River Bridge, had been swept away a few hours before. The Russian-made 3250hp TU7 locomotive, hurtling on at 140kmph, had plunged into the Aras dragging the first four cars with it, it’s momentum it’s executioner.

My parents had been were in the sleeper car, the fourth from the engine. It had teetered over the edge, according to an eye witness, till the third car had dislodged itself, free of the steel pylons just below the tracks. And plunged, in a screech of tearing metal, dragging the fourth down with it.

Diyebusheki and Babushek, my grand parents, moved in. That was a year ago. A year of sheer effort later, I’ve caught up with the rest of the class. The Stepanakert Secondary School N8 sticks close to it’s star students. Akasma too feels better now. The jerks, swings, bobs and shakes that are meant to state that she is happy and content, are back.

(to be continued….)