Monday, December 30, 2013

Postcard from Yerevan,

Of Swans and Wolves

My fourth floor balcony in the center of Yerevan overlooks a small man-made lake. It is called Swan Lake and it is in the shape of Armenia. Up until recently the weather was mild and the lake had water in it. Sometimes the two swans swimming on it were white and at other times the two swans were black. I guess someone switched them every few days. Black swans are hot weather birds from Australia. Recently it began to get cold and I am imagining as it begins to snow, one black swan turns to the other; “what the frick was that?”

Now the lake has become an ice skating rink. The swans have gone and I watch the skaters doing ballet moves to Celine Dion’s Titanic song, loud through big speakers in the crisp air, ‘near far wherever we are, I believe that the heart does go o-on…”.

Today it is -5C, it started out this morning at -13C so it is warming up. My little electronic weather station also tells me that the humidity is -55%. What do you suppose that means?
Having a cup of tea on my balcony I noticed four council workers each carrying a life-size white plastic swan and apparently a map trying to figure out where to put them. I came out later to clear the used tea bag from the patio table and found it had frozen solid to the glass table top. That is a new experience for me.  I see the neighbor below puts bread on the table in the balcony below presumably to keep it frozen.

I have found this winter weather is fine if you dress for it. A few weeks ago I went to the outdoor market and in preparation for these days and bought a Russian fur hat. One of those hats you see people wearing in Moscow on -30 degree news reports. The Armenian man at the hat stand spoke no English and so we did miming interpretations of the various animals, he had hats made from rabbit, mink and other animals I couldn't figure out from the miming.  I wanted something a bit exotic and ended up in buying one made from Wolf fur. Thinking I might be  part of some wolf extinction story,  with passer by translating, I asked him if the wolf was a problem in Russia or if it was somehow sustainably farmed for its skin He looked at me like I was completely mad and even with translation I was not able to get any kind of coherent picture except for, a wolf is a wolf you stupid man.

When I got home I checked on the internet and sure enough wolves are a problem in Russia. Recently 400 wolves got together in a super pack and surrounded a village and villagers had to mount snowmobile patrols while they waited for the army to arrive.  Apparently there is a high bounty paid for dead wolves and in Siberia the state has extended the hunting season on wolves to be all year round and on January 15 is officially beginning a “three month battle against wolves”. Anyway I bought the hat; it looks ridiculous but better than my ears shriveling up with frost bite.

Speaking of fur I noticed many bars in Yerevan have signs that read ‘fur bar’. I never went into any of them as I thought it might be the local term for pussy bar and that is not my thing. But now I know that the Armenian script for Bar looks like fur.

I still only know four things to say in Armenian; Barev dzez  - hello, barev luys - good morning,  lav em -how are you? And my newly mastered shnorhakalutyan – thank you. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Saint’s Tooth

Stories from the Road

The Saint’s Tooth

Once upon a time, there was a village where the people were very poor. There were many reasons for this. The ground was hard clay and covered in small iron pebbles. In the dry season top soil became a fine dust and the hard clay on the tracks and hillsides dried and cracked. Often in the summer months the wind picked up the dust and carried it into the people’s huts and into everything they owned. The summer heat made thermals and the grey dust spiraled upwards in mini tornadoes that in the local language were called “the angry person”. And in the wet season the rain came in torrents and turned the walking tracks and roads into rivers and the dust became mud and each year more of the scarce top soil was washed away. Because the people were so poor they progressively cut down the trees on the surrounding hills to use for fuel to cook their food and boil water. The villagers grew as much corn and vegetables as they could and kept a few goats to milk for their children. In the previous year the rain came early and then stopped and the crops which had begun to shoot died and there was no time then to replant, so now there was hunger in the village. There had also been feuds and land disputes between villagers which went  back many years and the people did not trust each other and only worked together grudgingly.The chief was a wise man and realized that the people’s lives would only improve if they worked together and built an irrigation channel from the river that was over a kilometer from the village. But the people couldn't agree how to share the work and many thought that those who had land closer to the river would stop their labor once it had reached their land and so the work was never started.

One day the chief called a strong young man and said “We need a miracle if our village is to survive; I want you to go and find a holy relic and bring it back to the village so that we can pray to it and God will bless us and we will be saved.” So the young man went off with all the food he could carry in search of a holy relic to bring back to the little split logged dirt floored church.Initially the villagers were hopeful that the young man would return but several months passed and there was no sign of him and soon he was forgotten.The young man, faithful to his task traveled the county searching for a relic from a saint, but his food had long run out and he lived by scavenging what he could. Eventually in a barren place, weak from hunger, he tripped and fell. And next to where he fell there was the carcass of a dog. In desperation he pried one of the teeth loose from the dogs jaw. In a few days he returned to the village with the tooth. He told the whole village of his search and his eventual success in finding the tooth of a venerated saint. The villagers took the tooth and together built a case in which to display and venerate it in the church.

Now when the villagers came to pray at the church, they felt they were in an especially sacred place. Together they felt their village was now special as it was the home of this sacred object. Some people said that they had their prayers answered and others said that they had seen the tooth glowing in the dusky half-light of the church.The chief again called a meeting to discuss the digging of the irrigation trench. Now there was a different mood among the villagers. Seemingly there was a certain unity as they now saw themselves as the village of the saint’s tooth and blessed by God, where as previously they only thought of themselves as a poor cursed village.  Now they felt that they were unified as the only village in the area that had a relic from a genuine saint.It was not long before the chief was able to organize a team to begin work on the channel and they decided together that they would all start the trench from the furthest farmers land and work back toward the river. And within a month the trench was dug, the water flowed; the villagers built bonds of trust and friendship that had not existed before. Some said it was a miracle made possible by the tooth of the Saint but others wondered why they had not been able to work together all along.


I have told this story numerous times when trying to generate thought and discussion as to  how when we believe that something is possible, that it often is. This is a story about the power of faith and hope and also how we create our own reality,whether we live in the cursed village or the blessed one, the future is in our hands or rather our heads. It is about the realization that we live in mystery and, in this mystery, the hope that we can make a difference in our own situation.On one memorable occasion I told it to a group of poor Muslim farmers in Senegal and they had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. I remember well my colleague at the back of the room looking up at me from her laptop and I could see she was thinking, ‘can’t wait to see you get out of this one’. As is my habit I kept digging myself a deeper hole for a while before just giving up in front of the very respectful but perplexed audience. I think what I failed to do was to make the link between their current situation as they saw it, their fate, and the possibility that a different future was possible. This required a shared belief and, based on that belief, a shared hope; what could be their Saints tooth?It is a fact that some towns or neighborhoods prosper and others in similar situations struggle socially and economically and even disappear. What is it about their faith and how this links to  hope and then action for a future which results in success? Believing in something outside ourselves is generally called faith and often it is this faith that allows us hope and in turn the motivation to work towards a different or better future. I am always encouraged by the following words by the esteemed late Czech playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and politician Vaclav Havel.
“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem hopeless as ours do, here and now.”[1]

Jock Noble November 2013,

Jock Noble is the Lead of World Visions Economic Development Learning Hub for the Middle East and Eastern Europe. After a career of trying to teach turtles to fly he finally got into the water and is learning to swim with them.

© Words and pictures Jock Noble: Original pictures by the wonderfully talented Armenian Artist - Anna Avetisyan

[1] Václav Havel in Disturbing the Peace: A conversation with Karel Hvížďala, (Knopf, 1990), p. 181. Originally published 1986. Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson. Also available in The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A citizen’s guide to hope in a time of fear by Paul Rogat Loeb, (Basic Books, 2004), p. 82.