of an age
I find nothing objectionable in the fact that the young scholar, as may be observed even in my retelling, was flirting a bit with erudition. Later on, scholars began to flirt with illiteracy and achieved in this regard a suspiciously natural effect.
– Fazil Iskander,
’The Story of the Prayer Tree’
(Sandro of Chegem, p. 162)
We were discussing the eternal struggle between age and youth in one of our classes, teenagers wanting to listen to loud music and choose their own friends, parents and teachers wanting very different things (homework to be done, for instance). The book referred to 86 being the average lifespan in some country and Tigran1 piped up: ‘Well in Abkhazia, the eighties are still considered young! Since they live to be over a hundred…’ Words cannot express how satisfying it was to hear a remark in class that was not mandated by a textbook or a mere expression of boredom or laziness. Even if it was in Armenian rather than English.
This chance remark also reminded me of two collections of stories that I’ve been reading: Fazil Iskander’s Sandro of Chegem and The Gospel According to Chegem.2 While not quite the rip-roaring picaresque I had hoped for, the stories had a wry, local-color charm.3 The picture of Caucasian life is very familiar – visiting, drinking, all moderated by tradition – but what I liked best about the interrelated stories is something one doesn’t see much in Armenia: interaction between different ethnic groups. The Abkhaz trick the Georgians and Russians – speaking in Abkhazian to work their conspiracies in plain sight and trick the foolish foreigners – the Georgians do the same to the Russians, and Armenians and Greeks and Turks and Azeris appear with naturalness and a sense of belonging, a nativeness, if you will. The stories are usually quite digressive, particularly in the second volume, and a wide range of personalities intrude on the reader’s notice, if only for a few paragraphs. One of my favorites is the coffee chef, Hakop-Agha, who insists that coffee must be made by burying the jezves in hot sand rather than on a stove.
It all began with Turkish coffee and a bottle of Armenian cognac, and then, well, things went on as usual. During the session Khachik photographed us about ten times from various angles, on one necessary condition, that the prince be at the center of the picture. Sometimes he had the coffee chef Hakop-Agha join us. Here’s a fuller description from the story ‘Uncle Sandro and the Slave Khazarat’:
This tall old man – his face a deep brown, as if cured by the coffee fumes and his long wanderings through the Near East, from where he had been repatriated – would sit down at our table from time to time and turn the conversation toward the Armenians. His fervent Armenian patriotism was touching and comic. From what he said it appeared that the Armenians were a terrible nation because they didn’t want to do anything good for Armenians. His bitter grievances began with Tigran the Second and ended with Tigran Petrosian, who from his point of view had flippantly frittered away the chess crown. This seemingly illiterate old man knew the history of Armenia like the biography of a neighbor down the street. (230)
- I will call him Tigran because it is a noble name, and there are many students named Tigran in this school, so you won’t be able to pin down this utterance to any one of them in particular. [↩]
- Chegem being a fictional town in Abkhazia, a formerly autonomous region in the USSR that is now a breakaway region in the republic of Georgia. [↩]
- Though I think the comparison to Twain is a bit stretched, really. [↩]