BY SONA HAMALIAN
Legend has it that Nero played his lyre while Rome was engulfed in flames. Some chroniclers tell us it was the emperor himself who had the city burned — specific parts of the city, to be sure. Something about getting rid of those ugly, smelly, poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Rome to make swaths of real estate available for Nero’s appetite for a lavish palatial complex, enormous enough to house his ego.
Sound familiar? It should.
All this should be painfully familiar to any thoughtful person who has lived in Yerevan for the past two decades. To anyone who remembers the exhilaration and promise of 1991 and can’t help contrast it with the cultural ghost town which Yerevan is now poised to become, despite its gleaming spires. And to anyone, lately, who sees the deplorable, still-unfolding scandal following Aram Gharabekian’s resignation from the National Chamber Orchestra of Armenia (NCOA) as a metaphor for a much larger, much more sinister inferno of greed, egotism, general moral decay, and — even worse — apathy and cynicism, which seems quietly to engulf not just Yerevan, but Armenia as a whole.
The Nero legend is in all probability just that, a myth, woven around the emperor’s persona — his professional incompetence in particular, his proclivities for decadence and debauchery. Wherever the truth may lie, however, the imagery of Nero playing the lyre to the flames of Rome has persisted for almost two millennia, serving as an abiding object lesson in imperial arrogance and corruption.
Let me hasten to state that I see the Nero analogy pertaining not to the Armenian government per se, though some in leadership positions are clearly at fault. And I believe it has a bearing not on Yerevan’s cultural workers and producers collectively, but certain types of individuals who couldn’t care less if the country’s cultural vitality went down the tubes, so long as their precious positions, incomes, and that dubious prestige factor are secure.
Yet, in a sense, it’s also true that the failure of Yerevan is the failure of its people, irrespective of rank or social status. If we’re serious about finding the answers to the tough questions which face our homeland at the moment, the closest mirror would be a good place to start.
I am a daughter of the diaspora who grew up, like millions of diasporans, cherishing the dream and mystique of an independent Armenia. That dream and mystique were heightened one more notch every time I went to see a performance by a dance ensemble or orchestra visiting from Soviet Armenia. The beauty. The astounding level of artistry. The grace.
I am among the very first wave of diasporans who rushed in the early 1990s to live and work in newly independent Armenia, the marvelously shape-shifting ground zero of the dream come true. In 1991, when I helped establish the American University of Armenia, what I longed most was to be a participant in the building of a miracle: a new republic — hence a cultural force — that was not only unlike anything I had experienced before, not only did its very existence seem wonderfully incredible, but which in every sense felt as though it were ours. Armenia, in other words, was home. We felt at home here. And we wanted, with every fiber of our beings, to make it a home worthy of its history and breathtaking potential. We had a stake in its success.
These days, whenever I reflect on the Armenia of the past 20 years, especially in terms of art and culture, I find myself at turns profoundly saddened and frustrated.
It is neither my intention nor within the scope of this essay to attempt an exhaustive analysis of why more than 700,000 Armenians have left Armenia since 1991, as the United Nations confirmed recently, why that exhilaration and promise which filled the air when I first arrived in the country have fizzled away with each passing year, becoming nothing more than parodies. But I do know for a fact that those 700,000 people who departed include many of Armenia’s best and brightest artists, and they’re not coming back. I do know that greed and corruption, in the form of cronyism, a dog-eat-dog ethos, and a cavalier attitude toward backstabbing, have become so prevalent in the cultural sphere that many would rather steer clear of the muck, preferring to seek professional and artistic growth in distant lands. I also know, by extension, that artistic excellence and vitality are functions of not just talent, personal initiative, and popular acclaim, but also institutional and peer support. No matter how accomplished and beloved of the public an artist might be, the cards are stacked against her or him if people in positions of power have a divergent agenda. And I do know, finally, that the reprehensible manner in which Aram Gharabekian was made to resign his post, and the vicious smear campaign against him which ensued, have come to provide a fresh, disturbing backdrop to the Ruben Hakhverdyan refrain: “The best boys are leaving.”
Late last year, when, for lack of a better term, a coup was staged against Aram Gharabekian, artistic director and conductor of the NCOA, I was among thousands of fans who hoped that the matter would be resolved quickly and equitably, and that the illustrious ensemble which Gharabekian led would return to the stage under his baton. But our hopes were dashed in short order. Indeed, the fracas grew only louder and more embarrassing, despite the fact that Gharabekian preferred to resign at the outset rather than be part of a hideous debacle.
Today, six months into the controversy, the cabal of musicians which engineered the resignation of Gharabekian remains relentless in its mud-slinging, dead-set on making certain that the popular conductor will never return.
It must be stressed that not all Armenian media outlets joined the small yet highly organized chorus of Gharabekian’s detractors. Indeed, many news organizations stood firmly in support of the conductor, or at least insisted on treating the dispute even-handedly, though their voices of fairness and sobriety seem to have been muffled by that of the defamers.
If the misdeeds of these individuals are not entirely surprising, one has ample reason to be taken aback by the lack of constructive intervention on the part of the Armenian government, the Ministry of Culture in particular, which has a direct say in the affairs of the NCOA. Let us not forget the word “constructive.” Although the Ministry of Culture has not accepted Gharabekian’s resignation, today it still allows some musicians of the orchestra to perform under the name of NCOA and under the direction of other conductors, adding insult to injury.
As a fundraising and NGO-development specialist, I lament Gharabekian’s exit and the possible subsequent decline of the orchestra, because I see these twin events as a severe blow to Armenian culture, with repercussions for the worldwide Armenian community.
Under Gharabekian’s baton, the NCOA helped make Armenia a prominent musical force on the world stage. The orchestra performed in Armenia and internationally, and played a critical role in fostering young Armenian talent. It also brought the inspiration and exuberance of the musical arts to the Armenian grass roots, by performing concerts in various regions of Armenia. Furthermore, last year Gharabekian launched the Open Music Fest, an international music festival that enchanted thousands in Yerevan and earned global acclaim, once again helping make our homeland shine as a cultural hub and tourist destination.
When investors and philanthropists support such major cultural endeavors as the Open Music Fest, they do so precisely because they like to see the kinds of results which Gharabekian delivered. Those results, ultimately, are to the benefit of Armenia’s long-term cultural health and dynamism. They boost the country’s cultural self-confidence, promote tourism, encourage indigenous artistic talent, and enhance Armenia’s prestige in the global arena. Conversely, when a highly dedicated and accomplished artist such as Gharabekian is forced out of the picture, and, worse, made into a pariah, by his own peers, and his own government, supporters of Armenian culture begin to think twice before funding the next big project. In the end, of course, it’s not a particular project or musical ensemble that suffers, but Armenian culture itself. We all lose.
In fact, we have been losing for the past two decades. Losing our greatest talents to out-migration. Losing our cultural potential and self-esteem. Losing the argument for a certain cultural vitality that transcends the dour socio-economic woes still faced by an ever-expanding majority of Armenian citizens. And losing sight of the absolutely urgent need to regain our way.
For some time now, Armenia’s Ministry of the Diaspora has appealed to Armenians everywhere “to come back home.” I believe there can be only one reply to this plea: it’s time that Armenia transform itself radically, constructively, daringly — not only to convince its children to come back, but to prevent the exodus of another 700,000 in the next two decades.