Hagop was from Baku. He moved to Yerevan at the age of 17 to honor his father’s dying wish so that he could study architecture there. It was the right career path for his son, he believed, and being a structural engineer by profession he thought it best that his son realize what he could never possibly accomplish in his lifetime. In Yerevan, Hagop encountered scorn and jest from people he came into contact with, including classmates and some professors, for being a Russian speaker, as his Armenian was poor. At the end of the semester he left Yerevan and returned to Baku to continue his education there. After a short stint in the military, which was obligatory, he went to Moscow to complete his studies. Then his mother called him back to Yerevan to be with her and find a wife. He quickly found a job and soon settled down to have a family. Unexpectedly, the Soviet Union began to crumble and he found himself out of work along with millions of others shortly after Armenia declared its independence.
It was January, 1994 and the war in Karabagh was raging. Due to the brutal cold, there was no ability to heat the home properly with the absence of natural gas and unpredictable allocation of electricity. Hagop’s family wore several layers of clothing to safeguard them from the numbing chill. By chance of luck he was able to land his hands on a wood-burning stove though a personal connection, but since there wasn’t a consistent supply of wood to be had they also burned old newspapers, cardboard boxes and books he deemed to be of little personal value. Special padding prepared from old clothes and odd pieces of fabric was used to completely close the gaps in door and window jambs. They all huddled around the stove in the living room where it was installed and only left that room to go to the toilet or outside the apartment.
Hagop had thought about going to fight as a volunteer soldier but he thought it best to stay put and care for his three young children as best as he could manage. Work was virtually non-existent as the state architectural firms had closed three years prior. Joining the army was not an option for him, whether or not it meant defending his own people, as his ancestors were from Karabagh. He could never muster the courage to kill a man. His conscience would never have allowed it, and he thought he would probably go insane if he did not heed its demands. He still had Azeri friends in Baku. What would he do if he encountered an old pal on the battlefield, he thought? Would he be able to kill him? He deduced he could not, that it would not be possible for him to even wound another man. Besides, he had never handled a rifle in his life. When he served in the military during the Soviet area he was part of a special intelligence unit and was not required to wear fatigues or train for war. He practiced shooting a pistol—that was his only experience with a gun. Perhaps, he pondered, he could manage to donate some of the money he made from selling dollars on the street, which was his only source of income. It was a long shot, but nevertheless it was the only thing he believed he could do to participate in the war effort.
With the little profit he made from the currency exchange trade he was able to buy a kilo of cheese, a kilo of sugar, a box of tea, some bread, assuming it could be found, cigarettes for himself and other essentials on which his family could survive for an entire month. If there were more foodstuffs to be had in the markets or stores lined with empty shelves for most of the week, he bought them. Given the situation the country was in, in the midst of a bitter war with a trade and energy blockade imposed by its nemesis to the west, he was bestowed good fortune to place that much on the table.
The spot where he chose to work was on the stairway at the foot of Gassian Street leading into the underground circular passageway at Paregamutiun Square. He stood on the steps about 20 feet below the initial decline downward to stay out of sight from policemen walking the beat. There were others doing the same a few steps below him as well as in the adjacent stairways. Once in a while he would be detained by the police or even the KGB as the national security service was still commonly known, but he was always released within a few hours after they determined he posed no threat and persuaded him to be back with a carton of cigarettes. It was a routine procedure. But the streets were practically devoid of men as they feared being suddenly whisked away while out and about and sent directly to the front lines. It was not a rare occurrence. There was always the need of fresh soldiers. Men who knew how to actually hold a rifle properly and shoot were few in number. Save for some specially trained regiments of volunteer soldiers, many of whom made the long trek to the front from abroad, the men were generally unprepared for combat. Their courage and determination led them to battle. Their legs simply put motion to the purpose of their convictions, gun in hand, motherland to protect. One way or another they would eventually learn to fire straight. They had to. It was a struggle for self-determination.
Hagop arrived at his spot every morning at eleven, then he would wait. There were days when he didn’t sell a single dollar. He waited in the scorching heat or in the bitter chill of late afternoon. The climate meant nothing to him, he became impervious to temperature fluctuations. He was able to tune out discomfort because it didn’t matter. The family needed to survive. He channeled his energies to the task, lingering in the moment.
But he didn’t want very much from life. In a perfect world, he would sit and draw, that’s all he cared about. Just sit and draft architectural plans, with the hopes of being able to support his family in the process. To him it didn’t seem to be an unmanageable demand, but given the circumstances before him at the time, he would have a while to wait before he could turn his fortune round.
One winter morning as he walked up Kievyan Street towards Paregamutiun Square, managing as best as he could with his tread-less rubber-soled shoes to stay erect along the ice-coated sidewalks, he saw from a distance a primer gray school bus with its windows painted. He suspected what was waiting for him but he was not about to run back home. He had a job to do. The bus had parked in the middle of the square. It was silent, no motor running, and it seemed that there was no one about or even on board it. He stopped on the curb and studied it, listening carefully for the slightest proof of life, but there was nothing, no sound. He stepped off the curb and began to walk across the street, which was void of any other vehicles. There was something not right, he was sure of it, but he went along with his business as if nothing was unusual. Three officers emerged from his stairway as he approached it and grabbed his arms, the third held onto the back of his wool coat and inadvertently tore a portion of the center seam that ran down the middle. They forced him towards the bus and when they approached the doors folded open. He was pushed up into the bus and landed in a seat at the front. About 20 men were seated in the rear, completely motionless and mute, gripped in terror.
“Where are your papers?” one of them asked him.
“In my coat glove pocket.”
“Give them it to me.”
He reached for his passport in which was inserted other bits of identification papers with seals stamped on them. One was an invalid driver’s license, another was his architects union card.
“Let’s see here… Mkrdichian, Hagop of Vartkes. All right then, Mkrdichian of Vartkes, what are you doing out here, anyway?” the officer asked.
“Going to work.”
“To sell dollars, right brother? We know all about that, we’ve been watching you for some time without you having a clue. Well, we’re here to officially inform you that those days are over. You’re off to Stepanakert.”
A vision of Hagop’s children shimmered before his eyes. He began to panic. “I hold a PhD,” he blurted.
“I do. I swear it.”
“Prove it. I don’t see anything in your papers that indicates you have a higher education.”
“I can show you my diplomas.”
“Then give them to me. Why didn’t you show them to me before?”
“I don’t carry them around, they’re at home.”
“At home? That’s useless to me. We’re here together, now,” the officer smiled. “In another 10 minutes I think we’re going to be great friends. We’ll probably figure out that we’re related somehow. I bet you’re from Mush. And I bet your grandfather was born there, and kept chickens in the garden, planted vegetables there and made a nice little home for himself and the family. Am I right? My grandfather was from Mush, too. In fact, his wife’s maiden name was Mkrdichian. You see, I told you we’re cousins, if not by relation then through association at least.”
“Too bad my grandfather was really born in Martuni.”
The officer’s tone suddenly changed and his brow tightened. “Now I’m going to tell you like I would my dear brother—sit down and shut your mouth. I don’t care about your motherfucked diplomas, sisters or whatever else.”
“Look, I only live a short distance away, on Kievyan Street. I can call my sister, she can bring them here to show you.”
“How are you going to call her, pal? You see any telephones around here? Or do you have one up your ass?”
Hagop pointed out the bus doors, which were still open. “Listen, that grandpa over there… you see him? In front of that green kiosk, selling cigarettes. He has a phone, I can pay him to call my sister, and she’ll bring the diplomas. It’ll take five minutes for her to come here. I swear it.”
The officer gazed at him for several moments and frowned. His voice relaxed and the arrogance faded. “Alright, Mkrdichian, let’s call your sister. Come on.”
They made their way to the kiosk. The old man stared blankly at Hagop and the officer, wondering what they wanted from him.
“Is your phone in order?” Hagop asked him.
“Yes, sure it is,” the old man said.
“Then hand it to me. I want to make a local call.”
He looked at Hagop, then caste his eye on the officer again before passing the Soviet kitschy, blood orange-colored rotary dial phone to him.
“How much for the call?”
“Ten dollars, brother,” he said.
“What? Wait a minute… why so much?”
“Seems you need to make a very important phone call by the looks of things. My service is presently in high demand, so you have to pay more, brother. That’s the way it goes.”
“Man, will you look at this? Capitalism is in full swing in Armenia. How sweet,” Hagop retorted. “Here’s your ten dollars. Now I have a phone call to make. Hand it over.”
“You tell her she has ten minutes, no more. Then we get moving,” the officer shouted.
Hagop tried the line twice before the connection was made. “Hello, Hasmik? I’m fine, but listen to me carefully. Bring my diplomas to Paregamutiun immediately. Don’t ask questions, just do it. Be here in five minutes, you understand? That’s right, in five minutes.” He hung up.
“She’ll bring them, she’s coming now. You’ll see, in just a few minutes now,” Hagop confirmed.
“Yeah, alright, I’m sure she will,” the officer said patronizingly. “Might as well smoke while we’re waiting, right? Give me a cigarette, Mkrdichian. You light up too, you like you need one.”
Hagop put a cigarette in his mouth and offered one to the officer from the pack. The officer grabbed it from him, placed one cigarette between his lips and pocketed the rest. Hagop lit a match for the officer before lighting his own cigarette. Then the officer snatched away the matches as well.
“So tell me something Mkrdichian, did you ever serve in the Soviet army?” the officer asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“Where did you serve?”
“Special intelligence unit, third department.”
The officer studied Mkrdichian’s eyes. He sensed no fear in them. “You better not be bullshitting me, you understand?”
“Yeah, I know….”
“I’ve never done this for anybody, I want you to know that. For no one! I can’t figure out why I’m even doing it for you. It makes no damn sense at all. If it turns out that you’ve been messing with me you’ll be dead, got that asshole?”
Hagop looked at him, but said nothing. He smoked and looked the officer in the eyes. Zen had taken hold of his senses and thoughts. Every pore in his body was dry, his eyes were vivid, gleaming like diamonds, conveying assurance, in full embrace of his destiny. There was no indication that he felt anxious or was in distress. He was in communion with the moment.
“There’s something about you I just can’t place. It’s obvious you’re not like those poor saps on the bus. I can tell just by talking and looking at you that you sure as hell are different from them. And right now I’m dying to see why. You don’t seem very scared for one thing, which is strange considering that those bastards are shitting their pants.”
The officer looked at his watch. “You don’t have much longer to show me what you need to. You’d better pray that your sister shows up in the next two minutes, let me tell you something.”
The wait was agonizing. He was suspecting that his sister was not able to find all the necessary documents as she erroneously fumbled through the wrong piles of papers. By the time the week was out he would be dead, he thought. It was a morbid moment he found himself in. He imagined his weeping children who went malnourished and lived uncomfortable, wretched early years of their lives. An irrelevant, absurd formality would deliver that horror to them, he guessed.
They were standing close by the bus and the officer was getting agitated. He was fidgeting and looking at his watch at 10-second intervals.
“She hasn’t shown up so we’re out of here. Come on, get on board. We’re late as is it.”
Just then Hasmik began calling out to Hagop from the far side of the square. “Wait Hagop, I’m coming. Wait one minute!”
When she came up to them the officer roughly took the papers from her. “So these are the diplomas? Thank you very much. Now you may leave.”
Hagop looked at her and nodded his head to indicate that she should walk away, fast. She knew he didn’t want her to interfere, and in any case, it may have made more problems for them if she opened her mouth.
The officer examined the documents carefully, reading each line of text and scrutinizing every seal. A lit cigarette hung from the side of his mouth, and some ashes dropped onto the diploma he had been examining. He did not brush them away.
“Let’s see here. A PhD in architecture… and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, some other uninteresting papers….” he said, shuffling through the documents between his hands.
“Wow, look at this, there’s even an award certificate for a youth piano recital competition. Man, you certainly loved to study, didn’t you? What a smart boy we have in our midst, it’s amazing. Indeed, very impressive.” the officer taunted. His peers looked on, snickered and smoked.
Hagop remained still and said nothing. His diplomas and identification papers were handed over to him. The officer stared into his eyes again. He saw that the captivating brilliance of them was still there.
“Go home, Mkrdichian.” The officers boarded the bus and it departed the square.
On his way home his conscience became strained and he felt a tightness in his abdomen, the same he endured during times of acute stress. He pondered the incident with the officer, and the circumstances that led to his salvation from ill circumstance. The discomfort persisted for several days while the memories of that fateful day were still fresh in his mind, despite his contentment that he, after all, would not be separated from his family. But by end of the week he was concentrating on his business affairs.
The only thing that Hagop appreciated from Levon Ter-Petrosian as a president was the man’s insistence to prevent any intellectuals from going to war. In that way, Ter-Petrosian, whom Hagop hated passionately for the wartime blunders he believed the man was making, was oddly his and his own family’s savior. Yet for years after that episode he felt an gnawing sense of guilt that started to plague him immediately after he had learned that the other lost souls onboard the bus had all been killed in battle, including the very officer who spared him.