Transit via Bayandur

From October 28 to November 1, HAYP Pop Up Gallery took over the Yerevan-Gyumri train with an art installation and a series of performances. One of those performances was an original project put together by Nairi Hakhverdi, titled “Literary train” (Stories from the 1920s).

For three days, Nairi Hakhverdi rode the train, inviting passengers to read two short stories from the 1920’s, “Transit via Bayandur” by Aksel Bakunts, and “We Also Need a Ticket?” a 1928 complaint my Mko from Gyumri. Bakunts’s story was presented in a beautifully designed, vintage newspaper, complete with old-fashioned ads and illustrations. [If you’d like to get your own free copy, contact us via facebook or email!]

“Literature everywhere!” was the motto behind the project. “Literature opens up the imagination, it lets people think about their own context, their own issues, their own stories”, writes Nairi Hakhverdi. “For some, it even inspires them to write down their own stories. Some stories may seem old and outdated, and yet they resonate with us today. Genuine human experience never fades with time”.

We’re happy to present one of the two stories that were comprised in Nairi Hakhverdi’s performance for “In Motion”. “Transit via Bayandur” was written by Armenian writer Aksel Bakunts in 1928; this in a original translated version into English by Nairi Hakhverdi.

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Transit via Bayandur

Aksel Bakunts

Maksut Ekmekchian is known among his relatives for being benevolent and patriotic. Every year on his birthday, the daily paper Voice of the Homeland wishes him a long life and endless prosperity, remembering the sum that Ekmekchian donated to the Relief Society or the Society of Mixed Adult Orphans.

Ekmekchian goes to his office every day at the same hour. He sinks deep into his couch and manages, calculates, and sometimes smiles kindly if the smile will add to the funds of the office in East Watertown, and sometimes knits his thick eyebrows and holds the anger on his face through a dense smoke of cigar, so that a second later he can thunder like lightning at a dissatisfied weekly employee.

In that hustle and bustle, when it is crucial to support the growth of hundreds of small houses, to keep an eye on the manusa cotton and linen work (in one article in the Voice of the Homeland, Ekmekchian is praised for being the only trading house in the country to sell woven linen and manusa cotton), to follow the High Painter Association that paints the interiors and exteriors of houses and does cheap and clean plasterwork, and finally to read the daily accounts of that giant store, of which he was one of the managers and where, as an electronic billboard announced every night, “you can find all kinds of household utensils for apartments, especially coffers, etc.”; in that hustle and bustle, Ekmekchian finds time to leaf through the calendar of the Holy Savior Church lying on his desk and to follow the Voice of the Homeland to know in which national venue the Palm Sunday “Basket Party” is going to be held or which association is organizing the egg-tapping game at Easter, and so on.

If we added to all of this the fact that he has a habit of going to church on Sundays and eating “Armenian flatbread baked in a tonir,” we would essentially run through depicting his days like a roll of film.

Sometimes in the evenings, when he’s in a cheerful mood, he likes to listen to the music of the master of the native canon, Oksent Tashjian, on the record Stambul, and smile contentedly when the canon plays “Let me die in your arms.”

But what makes Maksut Ekmekchian stand out the most is his love for Armenian workers. With special pride, he says that he has given work to many compatriots. And every week in its Sunday issue, the Voice of the Homeland prints an announcement by M. Ekmekchian Assoc. in large letters:

“Whoever knows how to spin cotton and wool using a spinning wheel and distaff, let them hurry to this address…”

And a little below, another announcement:

“Compatriots, only M. Ekmekchian Assoc. sells woven linen and manusa cotton in the country…”

***

That day Maksut Ekmekchian’s smile played like a ray of sun on a floral carpet. His eyes were brighter and the creasy yellow leather of his face shone with the inner satisfaction of a man sleeping peacefully and having no reason to be upset. The telephone had brought good news from the office in East Watertown.

As he put aside the daily paper, his eye suddenly caught the best linen master, Yervand, behind the glass door. Yervand was a modest and humble man who worked with his head bowed down at his spinning-wheel and did not complain if they were late in giving him his weekly wage. For months on end he did not leave the factory courtyard, in one of whose corners, in a cell in the basement, surrounded by a clutter of empty cases, shards of iron, and broken furniture were his bed and big trunk.

He had come a year before the war, and in his memory those years had neither destroyed his native village on the Shirak plain, nor his house from whose skylight smoke rose like a blue film on the night he bid farewell to his relatives quite far from the village and hurried on to reach the city before dark. And that same night the train accelerated, leaving behind on the plain the sleeping villages resting like oxen on a moonlit summer’s night.

That was thirteen years ago…

“Come in, kid, Yervand! Why are you so quiet?” Ekmekchian called to him.

And when Yervand walked in and lowered his head, Ekmekchian got up from his couch, took a few steps towards him, put his hand on his shoulder, and asked:

“Are you weak? What’s wrong? Let me see. You seem sad.”

Ekmekchian had never been so affectionate, not even towards Yervand, whose diligence and modesty he had often brought up as an example to those dissatisfied weekly employees.

“The paragon of modesty, of humility… Both the food he eats and the work he does are halal… If I had ten Yervands, my work would run smoothly.”

“Oh, let me see, you’re hiding something…”

“I changed my mind, I don’t want to work… I’m going home…”

“Home? Is there a home left for you to go back to? It was a scourge, kid, it came and wrecked. Who would’ve thought? Whose mind could it have crossed? Didn’t we suffer enough? Here, read what today’s paper says,” and extending the paper on his desk to Yervand, Ekmekchian began to read:

“Terrible depictions of misery in Leninkan’s great catastrophe… In a matter of seconds, dozens of villages were swallowed into the ground, leaving not even a handful of soil for inhabited houses… Black waters are said to have gushed out in many places and added to the destruction of the catastrophe. Witnesses testify that the night of the earthquake reminded them of the legendary images of Sodom and Gomorrah… The horror-stricken and rescued multitude is fleeing to Persia… At this time, there is no sign of aid…”

“Did you hear, Yervand? We fled the sword and fell into the fire… This is our fate. We earn a piece of bread and eat it quietly. We have neither a house, nor a homeland.”

Ekmekchian muttered these words and, sinking into the soft couch, continued:

“Whatever few cents you’ve earned, they’ll grab it out of your hands if you go. They’ll exile you to who knows what corner of the world. The times are bad, Yervand! If there are no rules and regulations there, what is there? You’ll go and see the ruins with your own eyes, and you’ll come back. It’ll be a relief. They rob people in broad daylight. If you go like this, they’ll take you for a bourgeois and they’ll dig a hole for you.”

Yervand had a hard time finding a reply. He barely stammered:

“I don’t want to work. I can’t sleep. I can’t calm myself. My eyes won’t turn away from there…”

“I understand, Yervand… Isn’t that what happened to us? What can we do? It’s fate. We need to bear it. Of course there will also be a day when luck will knock on our door… Go, go tend to your work! If you’re not happy with your weekly wage, say it, I’m not one to spare…”

“No, I didn’t say anything about that…”

And after standing around for a bit, he walked out with his head bowed down…

Less than a month later, Maksut Ekmekchian was giving Yervand advice on how to conduct himself on the road. His departure had already been decided. Yervand had asked a few more times, and Ekmekchian had finally agreed to acquire the necessary papers and visa for the journey.

But Ekmekchian had managed to convince Yervand that if any one of his relatives had survived the earthquake, he should look for them in Persia, just as he had been informed when he received the visa.

His ticket was a transit ticket, and he was only allowed to see his native village through the train window…

“When you get to Russia, don’t get off at the stations for too long… Lie down and pretend you’re mute… Watch your trunk! They say they pull out trunk and passenger with hooks… When you arrive in Persia, go to the American consulate, show them your papers. If you need money, send me a telegram and I’ll send you whatever you asked for…”

And when Yervand shook his hand, Ekmekchian, wishing him a safe journey, said one more time:

“What can I do? You didn’t listen to me. I’m convinced that in a month, in two months you’ll be back here working. Don’t worry about your savings. As soon as you return, you’re back to work. Look at me, if there’s any trouble over there, find refuge with the American consul, show him your papers.”

That same evening, after wishing his friends well, Yervand found himself a place in the lower deck of the Barcelona steamship together with hundreds of other people.

The Barcelona splashed apart the waves of the ocean.

***

The conductor of the ninth wagon got very surprised when the train arrived in Baku and new passengers got on. Passenger No. 26, whose ticket was valid until the border, suddenly raised his head and, after listening in for a minute or so, approached the new passengers who were talking and arranging their luggage, and asked them something or other.

The conductor was surprised, because he thought passenger No. 26 was either mute or ignorant of those languages that were spoken on the train until then.

Passenger No. 26 only rarely got off at the stations and as soon as the departure bell rang, he hurried to take his seat. He understood that he was a foreigner, not only from the name of the station on his ticket–a name he had never traveled beyond–but also from the way of communicating only mutes and foreigners have. At one of the stations, the conductor watched how passenger No. 26 bought food, pointing with his finger at fruit without uttering a word, then giving a bill, and taking back as much as the owner of the stall returned.

Passenger No. 26 was Yervand Adamyan from the village of Bayandur in the district of Leninakan, who had not heard any Armenian on the train all the way to Baku. And when a few of the passengers getting on were speaking Armenian to each other, he got up from where he was lying and asked them:

“Where are you going?”

“Sanahin,” they said.

“You’re going our way,” Yervand added. But the passengers didn’t ask him about “our way.”

When they had sat down, Yervand anxiously asked them what they had heard about the earthquake.

“Is it true? They say there’s no one left… The earth cracked and swallowed houses…”

“They’re my grandmother’s fairy tales,” one of the passengers said, “there’s been damage, but the ground is not a watermelon to crack, is it?”

“Is there anyone left at all?”

“Of course! They didn’t fly up, did they?”

“Is our village, Bayandur, still there?”

“That I can’t say. I haven’t been around there,” he replied and turned to his other side.

***

In the evening, the train puffed to a halt in front of a platform flooded with the light of electric lamps.

Yervand was sad…

The train would arrive in Leninakan in the morning and stop for only half an hour, and then move on to the south until the border, on the other side of which was a country unfamiliar to him. He only had half an hour to look out of the train window at the familiar plain on whose edge was their village.

Is it still there? Will he even see it?

If only someone he knew would run into him and tell him how the catastrophe happened, where everyone is, who’s left behind.. If only this person could tell him about his mother, his neighbors, Godmother Shushan, Hagop-the-Carpenter’s daughter… She was so little, now she’s grown; she was probably married off a long time ago…

But is there anyone left?

Clank-clang, clank-clang, the wheels rattled monotonously and evenly… When the train passed through a deep valley and breathed, it left an echo in the valley…

Yervand rocked. His thoughts swung back and forth, subsided and suddenly surged again… What would they do if they caught him, if they found out he had a transit ticket, that he was an alien and was supposed to arrive and depart together with the train?

A hand pressed him, a soft white hand adorned with a ring. That hand was on his heart, and the papers were on his lap.

It’ll be morning soon, he’ll lean in and look, and the hand will push him forward again.

“Have your tickets ready!”

Yervand started. Two people walked in. They were checking tickets.

“Hey, Mukuch, son, why are you crouching? Come lie down!” one of them turned to a passenger dozing in a corner. They brought over a light. They were looking for his ticket…

Yervand’s heart pounded, fluttering like a slaughtered bird. Where had he seen that face?

And when the man lowered the light, Yervand quietly said:

“Onnik!” The man looked back.

It was his fellow villager, Onnik Kiramidchonts.

This time Onnik’s friend checked the tickets by himself.

“Your mother got a little scared, but it was nothing, it passed… I was in the village on Saturday… They’re building, wood, stone, so much fell! It happened all of a sudden… We were talking like this and suddenly it started rumbling like a Molokan’s van. It was a like a gunshot or a bullet that was fired… Rocks beat against each other, the ground waved… There were also casualties… You remember Serob Susanents? So many rocks fell on his head, he was buried where he was standing… One of our oxen got stuck in the barn… But let’s hope the government stays the way it is. They quickly came to help, or else the people would have died of cold…”

It seemed to Yervand as if it were neither true that he was transiting, nor that rocks were crushing Serob Susanents… He had forgotten him, he had never remembered him… So his mother is still alive…

It was like a dream, but Onnik, their neighbor, was telling it.

“Ah, how are you? Wait til I bless your mother for your arrival… Who would’ve thought you’d come? How are you? Are you well? You look a little older, you’re not sick, are you?”

“Hakob-the-Carpenter’s daughter… Is she in the village?”

“Yeah, she has three babies… She married a man from Mush. He lives in our village now…”

A little later, Yervand was whispering in Onnik Kiramidchonts’ ear about the distant country where he was going, where he had to go…

He was saying it and shaking…

Dawn was not a long way away…

***

To this day, the chairman of the executive committee has not forgotten the incident that happened on that day. And whenever anyone brings up the earthquake and people begin to unwind the yarn of their memories, the chairman, every time he describes that surprising incident, recalls a man with a fuzzy face and dishevelled hair making noise in the hallway. And when the chairman called the guard standing by the door into his office to ask him what was going on and who was making that noise, the man suddenly ran in, took a few steps forward, threw aside his hat, and extended his arms:

“Take it, my friend, take it! I won’t go to Persia! Hang me, don’t send me from here!”

“He threw a piece of paper at me. I was stumped. I thought he was crazy. His eyes were those of a madman: they were yellow and bulged out. I was looking at the piece of paper and he was talking… He was saying: ‘I’ve come from America, I’m from Bayandur, they’re sending me to Persia. They lied to me. Then I got it… Now I’ve called the chief of police to arrange for my return. Now he’s bothering me, telling me I have to kiss your hand.’ In the end they somehow managed to get him out…”

***

Every morning when Yervand goes to the factory he hears the whistle of the train. He sits at his machine and weaves linen… When the train puffs by, he recalls that day… He smiles and hits the shuttle harder…

Maksut Ekmekchian no longer brings up humble and modest Yervand as an example. And he knows that letters are passed around among his employees that Yervand sends!

He knows it and he fails to catch a single one of them…

Copyright, 2015. Translated by Nairi Hakhverdi.

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