27 September 2020. A date that doesn't remind us of anything, if not the doubling of some politicians’ salary and the scandal of Trump's unpaid taxes. But not far from us, in the heart of the South Caucasus, a scar that had never healed was beginning to bleed again. A still open wound called Nagorno Karabakh.
This poem sung by a young soldier takes us back to a country, Armenia, which has always had to struggle with various enemies for the recognition of its existence and its borders. Analyzing the etymology of the name Nagorno Karabakh, we can understand the complexity of the situation in the region and the main protagonists: Արցախ Artsakh in ancient Armenian language, Dağlıq Qarabağ in Azeri, for the others Nagorno, from Russian 'mountain', and Karabakh from kara 'black' in Turkish and bagh 'garden' in Persian. Nagorno Karabakh is a country that does not exist, but whose population - less than 150,000 individuals of which 99% are Armenian and the remaining 1% is divided between Assyrians, Greeks and Kurds - has been struggling between war and peace since thirty years. The conflict has ancient origins. We must go back to 1923, the year in which Stalin, creating the Nagorno Karabakh Oblast, assigned the Christian and Armenian Artsakh to Muslim Azerbaijan. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the Armenians demanded that Nagorno Karabakh be transferred from Soviet Azerbaijan to Soviet Armenia. Ethnic tensions escalated, leading to a bloody civil conflict that left between 20 and 30,000 dead on the ground, as well as hundreds of thousands of refugees on both sides. In 1991 the region unilaterally proclaimed itself independent, under the name of the Republic of Artsakh, never recognized internationally. After six years of violent clashes, an apparent truce was reached, with a ceasefire signed in 1994 under the auspices of the Minsk Group. However, the end of military operations did not lead to disarmament. The agreement was often violated by both sides and the negotiations proved useless, especially due to the so-called caviar policy implemented by the Azeris, a corruptive policy that aims to block any possible diplomatic solution. This situation of relative stability was broken on September 27, 2020 with the invasion of the southern part of Nagorno Karabakh by Azerbaijan.
The UN appeals went unheard and Russia - which according to official sources has supplied both sides with arms - intervened on November 10, deploying 1.960 peacekeepers with a 5-year mandate, along the Lachin corridor, the road that leads communication between Nagorno Karabakh and Armenia. Azerbaijan’s final spoils: the construction of a road that connects Azerbaijani territory with the Nakhchivan enclave and Turkey, a notorious supporter of Azerbaijanis. If the news was welcomed with joy by the Azerbaijani, making the hashtag #Without Nagorno Karabakh Azerbaijan cannot exist, Armenia has accused the Prime Minister Pashinyan of treason. As in a modern Iliad, Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed to exchange prisoners and return the bodies of those who died in the conflict to the opposing side - according to unofficial estimates, 5.000 total casualties, including civilians. This is the official story, the one that will be reported with rigor in the books and that will be read with coldness and detachment.
5.000 casualties. A datum, a calculation. But numbers, by their definition, are abstract faceless entities. Today I want to give a dramatically real name and face to one of those 5.000 victims. His name was Mher Potoyan, he was twenty-two and like every boy his age he wanted to live with and for his passion, the music. Mher, in that war that taken a back seat to Trump's exploits or the updating of Covid data, is dead. I wrote to Narek Potoyan, his brother, who with great strength and kindness agreed to tell me about Mher. This is his story.
Who was Mher?
Mher, my brother, was born on January 30, 1998 in the village of Kanakeravan in the Kotayk region - about 20 km north of the capital Yerevan. He was the fourth son in the family.
How was your passion for music born?
From an early age, Mher showed a great interest in music. At the time all of us brothers were attending the Kanakeravan music school, each with a different instrument. One day Mher saw the kamancheh on TV. He was bewitched by it. He said he wanted to learn how to play it too. We advised him to choose another instrument, but that was his final and irreversible choice. For us music was, and still is, a fixed component of our home. Mher began with us to attend traditional music lessons. Over time he became more and more passionate about popular musical art and devoted himself completely to the study of kamancheh to learn all its secrets.
That passion has grown with him and over time it has also become his profession...
Yes, at around 10-12 years, Mher began attending various music schools in the capital. He took the courses of the Yerevan art school named after Kristapor Kushnaryan and directed by Edgar Gyanjumyan. At 13 he took part in the Gyumri Revival International Festival, winning second place in the category of kamancheh players. He later continued his education at the Jivani Music School and the Yerevan State Conservatory dedicated to Komitas in the department of folk music and traditional musical instruments. While studying, he played in the Naregatsi ensemble in Art Union.
Despite his young age, Mher was already a recognized and respected professional. Did he also perform outside the Armenian borders?
Together with Naregatsi ensemble, Mher has taken part in numerous concerts in Italy, Greece, Spain and France, bringing Armenian art and music to Europe. In Italy he performed in 2018 on the occasion of the commemoration of the Genocide - April 24 is the date on which Medz Yeghern, the Great Evil is remembered - in Tricase (Lecce), Milan and Rome. In addition, he has performed in Switzerland and Turkey for the Armenian community in Istanbul. Before being drafted for military service, he also played in Russia.
After these performances, satisfactions and victories, the call came from the Armenian army...
It was 2019 and Mher was called for compulsory military service. When he was drafted, he took his kamancheh with him. During those tough months, he played his instrument along with other musicians in the basements of their military unit and in the trenches. He never gave up on music. His friends told us that one day, returning from the border line, he did not take his kamancheh with him. The distance from the music made him deeply sad. So, he decided to take a military shovel and a twig to continue practicing and dreaming of being able to make music. When his companions asked him what he was doing, he replied that he was realizing that his manual dexterity was diminishing. It was an unacceptable idea for him. Then on October 27, 2020, the war silenced the incomparable voice of Mher's kamancheh.
I ask you a question that does not intend to imply a judgment, but an attempt at understanding. Is it worth dying for the homeland?
From Armenian kings to the humble, every single man has always protected the homeland. For every Armenian it is a sacred mission, an honor, to join the army and protect our land. I too have been on the front line with my comrades throughout the conflict to protect our borders.
What did you think when they told you that your brother had lost his life?
I learned of Mher's death while I was on the front. It was a pain that I can hardly put into words. Even though I know my brother is dead, I still expect him every day. I do not wish anyone to feel the pain I am experiencing. We, Armenians, have been fighting for centuries to protect our faith, our cultural values, our freedom. Each of us knows very well that we can die for these values. My brother died to defend them. Other brothers have died. Each of them, even if they were not part of our lives, was our brother. I am ready to die too for my homeland.
To pay tribute to your brother, you have created an NGO. What are its goals?
The Mher Potoyan cultural NGO aims to re-evaluate and disclose the long and great history of Armenia, a history that began over 7,000 years ago. We have a great cultural, musical and artistic heritage. Our will is to organize cultural events that allow us to rediscover all these aspects, as well as to discover new talented musicians.
On the official page of the NGO you can now find the bank details to make a donation to support the cause of these young Armenian musicians.
What role does music play in Armenian culture? What value does it have for you?
Armenian culture has thousands of years of history. Most of that story is the music. With its help we express our love for our homeland, parents, family members, everyday life, being Armenian and being Christian. Music and culture are large parts of a country. The history of a nation, the arts and every branch of music, can all be considered the heritage of a nation. For me, true wealth is being a Christian and a son of a land that gave birth to people like Narekaci, Komitas, Makar Ekmalyan and many other great talented people.
Mher played the kamancheh. What are the other main instruments of the Armenian musical tradition?
There are about twenty musical instruments always present in the repertoire of our music. Tar, oud, qanun, qamani - also known as the ''kamancheh of the Black Sea'' - baglama, santoor, dhol, daf, kaval, tsiranapogh - duduk - shvi, pku, parkapzuk and zurna are the most common instruments.
I venture a question, aware of the fact that your bereavement is recent, but confident in your sensitivity and intelligence as an artist and as a man. Could music be a means to reconstruct the dialogue between enemies? Do you think that one day, even if far away, Armenians and Azeris will be able to find themselves playing together?
Culture is a connecting bridge. Culture is history, it is peace, it is love for everything. I am sure that kindness and culture are the only things that can bring different nations together on one stage. I am currently creating a great platform, which I hope it will be able to make our opponents dialogue around a single cultural ideology which will also be a sign of peace. From my point of view, friendship between different countries should be based on culture. I hope that this project will offer both parties the opportunity to learn more about culture and history, with a view to friendship and exchange.
It's people like Narek and Mher Potoyan who make this world special. People who, despite the ferocity of a - sometimes incomprehensible - reality, never stop believing in their ideals. Narek's words are an example of strength, value and faith in great but possible ideas, if shared and supported. ''The things for which we are willing to die are also the things for which we live: what gives meaning to life, also gives it to death", said Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. For us, born in a land with safe borders, it is difficult to rationally understand why a young, talented and full of life boy could meet death. It is difficult to understand how one accepts to deliberately go towards a nefarious end. Difficult, but not impossible if armed not with judgments, but with respect. This is what culture and travel teach us: to immerse ourselves in the other without having the presumption of being able to say what is right and what is wrong. First of all, the humble desire to feel, listen and reflect is needed. Wanting is the secret. The confirmation is offered by Narek himself with his desire to believe that music will keep alive the memory of his brother and make possible an ideal of peace that rises beyond resentment. I was honored to be able to tiptoe into Mher's story, a story that didn't end with his death. Thanks to Narek's story that 5,000, a faceless number, now has another meaning. I hope it is the same for you too.
I also thank the very kind Karpis, first contact with Armenia and with Narek.
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