- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 September 5 , 2003 

Living in Stone: A look at the lifestyle of one Armenian village

Seventy-three-year old Aregnaz Movsisyan gets up with the roosters to spend time with the cows.

Against a horizon marked by an infinity of mountain and painted red by sunset, villagers lean into sofas, taking rest at the end of the day in the village of Nigavan.

But this is Thursday, and 73-year old Aregnaz Movsisyan turns her kind, thin face to an important work.

She holds in her aging hands an old-fashioned iron, moving it back and forth over a worn-out sheet. The finished product is a shocking-white shirt that her husband, 74-year old Albert, will wear tomorrow to the city.

Like on other Thursdays, Albert is shaving and having a bath, getting ready for another Friday's trip to Yerevan.

With four red 10-liter cans full of matsun and glass containers, on Friday, Alik and dozens of other villagers in Aparan's Nigavan village takes a small, noisy village bus to Yerevan. There, he sells the matsun Aregnaz has prepared, to city people who might never understand why the Movsisyans tolerate country living.

"Civility is everything," explains Alik, "the entire village is working to be able to exist, however, among everything people appreciate not only the high quality milk and matsun but the way villagers talk and dress appropriately as well. These days there is a strong competition and everything you wear should be unspotted so that you could sell your goods."

Nigavan is about 65 kilometers northwest of the capital and the bus ride takes about 90 minutes.

Villagers pedal their dairy goods in Yerevan's suburban districts such as Shengavit, First and Third Districts, Malatia and Bangladesh. Depending on the villager and the suburb, a liter of matsun sells for 100-200 drams (about 17-35 cents). On average, each villager sells about 30 liters a week, earning enough money to return home with provisions for the next week, such as rice, sugar, spaghetti. And with vegetables such as tomatoes, because Nigavan's short growing season makes it impossible to grow that Armenian summer-time staple.

It's back-bending work, hauling water from a 12-meter well.

Today Nigavan exists thanks to sheep and cattle farming, and to patience.

Head of the village Artash Galstyan says founders of Nigavan settled there in 1828, during a deceptive spring.

From Erzrum and Mush and Kars (now part of Turkey), today's villagers' ancestors settled in Nigavan because of its lush green. But that spring of 1828 was not typical.

"Our village is located in a territory having one of the worst climatic conditions," complains 64-year-old Frunzik Hovhannisyan, who was carrying a book about religion, and is known to be one of the village's more knowledgeable inhabitants. "Our winter lasts eight months and spring lasts four months. And in such conditions villagers can rely only on cattle breeding."

And indeed, while the weather is boiling in Yerevan spring coolness reigns in Nigavan and in the evenings it's even cold there. The winter is tough. Every year villagers face snows of 1.5 meters. During those days the villagers join together to clear a passage for the bus, so that they don't miss their chance to go selling in Yerevan.

Like other Armenian villages, Nigavan was the site of collective farms during Soviet times. Everyone worked together for the State. Today there are 155 households and 725 residents.

"Before it was rare when villagers had cows or sheep," says the village leader. "However these days each household has at least four cows and 7-10 sheep on average as it is the only way of existing in the village."

Houses here are simple - a place for resting, following long days of cutting grass and preparing for winter.

Homesteads include cattle barns, hen houses, and rooms with "tonirs" for making bread.

Village houses keep the smell of milk production - a heavy smell - as all families process their dairy goods at home.

Mattresses placed one on another are the pride of every house. Mothers and grandmothers make them from sheep's wool as a dowry for their daughters and granddaughters. And spread everywhere on the floor, black and white wool marks homeowners as shepherds.

For 10 years residents of Nigavan have been selling hundreds of liters of milk and matsun in the capital every week. Sometimes they sell sour cream, incomparably richer than that produced in cooperate dairies.

Alik and Aregnaz rise with the roosters at around 5 or 6 o'clock each morning. Aregnaz milks three cows and sheep and then she makes cheese, matsun, butter and sour cream. She cleans the house and makes a meal while Alik sends his cattle to pasture, does some chores and, like other villagers, cuts grass so that animals could have forage in winter.

"Our small household takes care of several families," says Aregnaz. Part of what they produce also benefits families of sons and daughters. "We don't complain. This is how we live."

"Those two bullocks are my grandchildren's payment for education," says Alik, referring to his herd and to two granddaughters who are getting higher education in Yerevan. "My grandchildren are students and all of us are working to help them stay in the institute, as education is a great thing. We must help them as long as we can."

Alik and Aregnaz have earned the respect of other villagers, in part because they managed to send their grandchildren off to study.

A person who works hard could "live in a stone" Aregnaz says.

There are approximately 160 children studying in the secondary school of Nigavan. Schoolchildren dream of becoming actors, poets, famous singers, however, they realize that it is only a dream for Nigavan villagers. There aren't many children who study seriously. Either they cannot go to Yerevan or they just have no time for study or they don't even think about it.

"Children also do a lot of work in the village," says teacher of Armenian language and literature Gayane Grigoryan. "Of course it creates obstacles to their study. They are working on the same house and household and after hard work they can't be romantic enough to write a composition."

Despite everything, teachers assure that it is not possible to live through such conditions without being romantic, and especially during wonderful spring weather senior schoolchildren sometimes escape the lessons.

There is no cinema nor Intenet in Nigavan. The only television is the Public Channel, which doesn't interest youth that much. Older residents watch the Hay Lur network and curse at the news.

Young people prefer escape into the mountains, where they can dream.

These dreams are about future education, leaving the village to find a different life, or about, of course, marriage and creating families.

Those who can afford it, attend Mesrop Mashtots Private University in Yerevan, where a former resident of Aparan is an official and helps the villagers get in. But most agree that the education is of little result for anyone who plans to stay in Nigavan.

"We have many clever children," says director of the village school Nver Baghdasaryan, "however, they have to stay in the village as they haven't got means for leaving and as a result they don't get any professional education."

The director says that in such conditions when desire doesn't correspond to means there are teachers who cannot take care of their daily needs with their 25,000 dram (about $43) salaries and they have to sell matsun like everyone else.

"Today teachers have no other choice," he says, "and if a child sees a teacher in such conditions the possibility appears that the teacher could lose his or her authority, however, today there is no other choice."

More than talks about education and study there are talks about marriages and love affairs, which don't happen often enough during recent years.

Albert Movsisyan says villagers should give a good appearance when they go to the city to sell their goods.

"Mainly parents see and then choose a girl for their son. And the beginning of future marriages between young people from different villages takes place in village buses, where villagers selling matsun meet each other and boys find their girls," says one of the villagers. "Then they ask for the girl's hand and if she agrees they get married. Girls get married at an early age here, before they become 20. If a girl is older than 20 and she is not married then it means she is a maiden."

Medical assistant of the village Tsovinar Sahakyan says a few years ago 20 to 25 babies were born in Nigavan each year. Last year, however, only five babies were added to the population. Two of those were born at home to parents who couldn't afford to go to the hospital in Aparan, seven kilometers away.

Sahakyan says she has tried to encourage more reproduction in Nigavan.

"I visit houses and explain that women become more beautiful and younger after pregnancy. Some villagers listen to me, some don't but I continue my agitation," she says. "Maybe it will help."

However, villagers don't think about becoming more beautiful and younger. They mainly try to take care of their households and increase their income.

"Every year there are difficulties," says Alik Movsisyan. "This year the problem is thousands of mice that have appeared in fields. They damaged the work of villagers that has taken a whole year. Mice have damaged all the barley that villagers have seeded for feeding their animals in winter. The government promised to do something but the promise has profited nothing and mice have already managed to eat the entire fields.

"It is not clear whether these mice are for us or for the government."

It is clear in Nigavan that what might be called "simple" living is hard living. For example, water is gathered by lowering a bucket into a 12-meter well and hauling up the load.

But it is a life that can be managed. For most there, it is the only choice.

"Times have changed now," says Aregnaz resting her hands upon her knees. "There's no sense to complain, as there are still possibilities to live. There are no dependences and there is an independence.

"If villagers work hard then they can live. People must work to live. If you work you can live even within the stone."

According to Agnes
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Wooly work

Near her home in the center of Yerevan,Flora Sarkissyan, like many Armenian housewives after the season of sheep shearing, prepares wool that will provide warmth when a sunny September day is but a memory.



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