Breathing New Life into Armenian Soil
Breathing New Life into Armenian Soil
The Land & Culture Experience in Armenia
By Lucine Kasbarian
Sept. 13, 1995
Published in Noyan Tapan Highlights, Yerevan, Armenia
They filed onto the bus at 6 a.m. from the halls of Zvartnots Airport, weary from the unfamiliar routine of being shuffled like a deck of cards. Although deprived of sleep and comfort, they eagerly examined their new surroundings as I recited the first rule of thumb for newcomers to this unfamiliar yet well-remembered land. “Never travel without your tools for survival: toilet paper, a flashlight, a water bottle, a plastic bag, pen and paper, and most important, your work gloves.”
This was no summer tour group headed for Lake Sevan. Each seat on the bus was occupied by an Armenian from America, Argentina, Australia, England, France or Italy. And each member of this group paid from their own pockets for the privilege of serving as volunteers in the remote villages of Armenia with the Land and Culture Organization/ Organization Terre et Culture (LCO/ OTC).
Some went to Artsakh, where in the village of Getavan, they worked side-by-side with the Hye Jampah organization of France to assist local farmers struggling to prosper in undeveloped areas newly liberated from Azeri rule. Others helped renovate Sourp Minas Church in the village of Datev. Yet others rebuilt a fourth century church in the small earthquake-torn village of Gogaran, near the city of Spitak.
None of the volunteers had previous experience in farming or construction – only the will the rebuild a country they had never seen yet had ancestral attachments to, attachments that could not be severed by the historic deportations that sent them far away from Armenia.
Established in the 1970s to preserve the inherent Armenian presence on historic Armenian lands presently outside of the homeland, the LCO was comprised of a handful of dedicated visionaries, architects, agriculturalists and construction experts who sought to maintain ancient and endangered churches and to resuscitate communities on historic Armenian lands in Iran, Syria and Turkey. Over the years, the LCO attracted able-bodied volunteers interested in devoting their energies to such worthy pursuits under the supervision of trained experts. With the tragic occurrence of the Armenian Earthquake in 1998, the LCO brought its objectives to the homeland for the first time, where it took on earthquake relief projects and co-operative programs with the Armenian Committee for the Preservation of Historic Monuments and Sites.
For many Diasporan Armenians who want to do more than write a check to their favorite charities, working on native soil with the LCO allows them to feel that their own two hands are directly contributing to the development of the land of their forefathers. Annual month-long campaigns in July and August give participants an inside look at what it is like to live, work and encounter the realities of daily life in Armenia.
In the village of Gogaran, where I was situated this summer, about 20 of us per month had the unique opportunity to become part of a 700 person farming community. To see a Gogarantsi rise at 5 a.m. to milk cows, tend sheep, harvest crops, preserve fruit for the winter and water potato fields until 2 a.m. was to understand why the average villager looked 10 years older than his/her chronological age. On a daily basis, we learned lessons we could never know from Armenian schoolbooks back home.
As we trekked the one-mile route from our makeshift dwellings at the Gogaran schoolhouse to the work site of Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church each day, we would find the strange conditions under which we lived more and more familiar. Every time I recollect how the lack of telephones in Gogaran required that I spend most of the day organizing activities on foot, I thought less about inconveniences and more about the level of interaction with the natives these circumstances afforded me. Each time electricity was unavailable, I thought less about the lack of light and appreciated the beauty of lit candles and how my vision adjusted to see in the darkness. As some volunteers washed their clothes at our water-source – a cold-water spout near the school, I marveled at how the villagers stared in curiosity at our men doing their own laundry. To see the interactions of natives with Diasporan Armenians was a cross-cultural experience I will never forget. Just some of the popular questions we had for each other included:
LCO Questions to Native Armenians:
Why did your family arrange your marriage?
Why don’t females wear pants?
Why do husbands go out to kef at night without their wives?
Why do the men drink so much vodka?
How do you support your family?
Gogarantsi Questions to LCO Volunteers:
Why are your girls over age 20 unmarried?
Why do you all wear shorts?
Why are all the men and women living together in one dwelling?
Why do the women smoke cigarettes?
How much salary do you earn in one month?
Of course, the campaigns had their complexities. Raw materials were not always available. Five different people hailing from five different countries all with varied solutions to one problem had to learn to compromise and work as one. We had to learn to accept that events would not always take place as planned, or on time. And we sadly grew to see that many natives could not comprehend the idea of a strict work ethic supported by no monetary compensation. But this, with all its failings, was an unfettered glimpse at Armenia as it is today.
When I look back upon the days when I was covered in dust, mixing cement and hauling chiseled tuff stone up two flights of scaffolding, I and many like me feel intensely proud of how the summer was spent. I can only reflect that for every precious church destroyed by our foes over the centuries, each one a tribute to Armenian perseverance and artistry, it is a rare achievement to say that a few Armenians from Armenia and abroad had a hand in replacing just one of those churches in the present day. It is an honor to know that this structure will serve its people and the cherished traditions that have sustained the Armenian people for over 1000 years.
Upon completion of Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church in 1996, those with no means of transportation to the city of Vanadzor will be able to walk to church any time they wish.
Lucine Kasbarian is a second-generation Diaspora-born Armenian writer, veteran LCO site leader, and board member of the USA-branch of the Land & Culture Organization.