Karabakh Artist Overcomes Suffering

Refugee tells IWPR how she survived war and tragedy to sing of love.

Karabakh Artist Overcomes Suffering

Refugee tells IWPR how she survived war and tragedy to sing of love.

When Julietta Arustamian fled her town, she left behind the music she knew. She had already fought prejudice against her – a woman – becoming a performer, now she would have to build a new life, learn to sing in a new language, and survive the war that drove her from her home.

Amazingly, she has done all those things and more. She has been widowed, and brought up her child alone, but still managed to become one of Nagorny Karabakh’s top singers.

Her life was turned upside down in 1988, when Armenians living in Karabakh began to agitate for more political freedoms. Karabakh was part of Soviet Azerbaijan and the Azeri majority, angered by the Armenian demands, rampaged through Armenian parts of cities.

“I can remember how I was on public transport and everyone was looking at my eyes, which were obviously those of an Armenian. And at that moment I physically felt the tension. Nothing had changed, but they had picked me out. Then a policeman we knew came to us and told my father there would be a pogrom, that he could not protect us,” she told IWPR.

They fled that night and, although they went back to collect some belongings a month later, they never lived in her home town of Minchegaur again.

She was only 25 but was already well-known in Minchegaur as a variety performer. She had learned to play her sister’s guitar, and played her own songs when sitting with friends on the beach by the Caspian Sea: a strong contrast from mountainous, land-locked, arid Karabakh, which still rules itself but has not been recognised as an independent state.

“For me Minchegaur means a permanent longing for the sea. Although there was a reservoir at Kura, it is water that I miss since we moved,” she said.

She learned much of her music from her father, who helped her set up a folk troupe in Karabakh after their arrival. Other musicians have not been so lucky. Strangely, the refugees have not banded together to make music, but all operate independently.

The lack of support has stopped some artists from being able to adapt to a country where only Armenian is spoken. When they lived in Azerbaijan, they would sing both in Armenian and Azeri, and they normally spoke in Russian.

Vilen Mikaelian is the artistic director of the children’s theatre in Stepanakert. He came with his father, a famous folk musician, as refugees from the town of Sumgait but only he managed to rekindle his art in the new land.

“It was a completely different way of playing, with songs we were not used to playing in Azerbaijan. We had to learn the whole programme all over again, the style was completely new. And in old age it is very hard to relearn everything. For us young people it was much easier to adapt. And it was then that my father decided to leave professional music, but every day at home he would play his favourite tunes,” Mikaelian said.

Arustamian faced the same problems when she was starting out in her new home. She was bringing up a young child, and trying to adapt to an Armenian-language environment while her husband was at the front fighting Baku’s army, which was trying to regain control over Nagorny Karabakh.

“I can remember how I wrote my first song in the Armenian language. I was educated in Russian, and did not study Armenian at school. There was war in Karabakh then, and I thought we needed a song which could help our boys in the same way as ‘Wait for me, and I’ll return’,” she said, quoting a famous Soviet poem beloved of soldiers in the Second World War.

“On January 25, 1994 I sat down and wrote my song ‘Come back’. My two-year-old daughter was my first audience, the first person to judge my songs. We were normally at home on our own, because my husband was fighting and not at home very often. And all morning I don’t know why I just sang this song, repeating it over and over. When I sang it to my mother, she was very upset, and asked me why I had written such a song, saying there was no need to. And later, later it turned out that my Sergei never heard it, because he never did come back. That was the day he died.”

As time passed, she married again, and her songs ceased to be so sad. She even won first place in the Karabakh Bards’ Competition in 2002. But she fears that she needed the turbulence of the past to realise her potential, and that now the age of her music has passed.

“I think that as a singer I have not survived, although I have survived as a person. But art, to write music, you need to suffer, you need a soul that is suffering. Sometimes I think that I should be sent to prison, and there would only be my instrument and some paper, and I could finally say everything that has stored up in my heart,” she said.

Karine Ohanian is a freelance reporter in Stepanakert and a member of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network.
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