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Bohjalian: The boulder's big, but our children can move it

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  • Bohjalian: The boulder's big, but our children can move it

    Bohjalian: The boulder's big, but our children can move it
    By Chris Bohjalian // August 31, 2013

    A child brings two heavy buckets of water into the home of a strange
    old woman and discovers there a wall of cages with dogs trapped
    inside-and a small carpet on the floor that has been woven from dog
    fur. A nine-year-old girl refuses to go to bed, reducing her parents
    to tears of happiness. . .because her verbal defiance marks the first
    time she has spoken in years. And a young adult befriends a stream and
    then, when it dries up, has to journey far up a mountain to push aside
    the massive boulder that has rolled into the streambed and dammed the

    I saw these stories enacted by young adults last month in an
    experimental theater piece in Karakert

    Behind these short stories are much longer ones. Behind these fables
    are powerful sagas of survival and poignant tales of transcending a
    life in which the cards are stacked against you. In some cases, it's
    the universal dramas that accompany adolescence anywhere; in others,
    it's the litany of problems that confront many teenagers today in
    rural Armenia-poverty, absentee fathers, the seeming impossibility of
    escaping a world of moldering Soviet industrial sarcophagi that blight
    an otherwise preternaturally beautiful landscape.

    I saw these stories enacted by young adults last month in an
    experimental theater piece in Karakert, a town of about 4,000 people
    an hour northwest of Yerevan. The program is part of the Children of
    Armenia Fund (COAF) initiative in Karakert, an effort that is centered
    around a $700,000 school renovation, but also involves teacher
    training, elevating the community's health care, economic and
    professional development, and-in this case-summer theater.

    COAF is the non-profit brainchild of Armenian-American businessman
    Garo Armen, and has been working to elevate the lives of rural
    Armenian children for a decade now, with schools and programming in
    twelve villages today.

    The rehearsal dazzled me. Before I left for Armenia, some of my
    friends who live in Yerevan told me I wouldn't see any theater or
    opera on this visit, because so much of the city's performing arts
    community is on vacation at the end of the summer. No worries: I had
    Karakert on my calendar. The ensemble featured twenty kids between the
    ages of 12 and 17, working with a Yerevan director who has been
    journeying almost daily to work with the young actors. Together they
    have written their monologues-or, in some cases, brief scenes-as well
    as chosen the music and choreographed the occasional dances.

    I speak about fifty words of Armenian, most of which involve greetings
    and food, but the emotions in the performance were clear and they were
    raw. If I didn't understand the details, I got the gist. I watched
    enrapt, impressed by the actors' authenticity and moved by their
    emotional candor. This wasn't merely about drama: It was about
    catharsis and growth.

    After the performance, the students surprised me by wanting my opinion
    as a writer on their original narratives: What, in my judgment, worked
    - as well as what didn't. I tried to be helpful and honest, but I kept
    coming back to this reality: A decade ago, their school was a husk
    with neither windows nor water, a casualty of the earthquake and
    sudden Soviet collapse. In the winter, it was heated with kerosene and
    burning manure. Now it's a vibrant and inspiring world with a computer
    center, creativity lab, painting loft, and cheerful, comfortable
    classrooms. In some ways, these kids are the product of both a nation
    brought to its knees between 1988 and 1991, and of the tangible
    progress that is occurring daily. They know where they are coming
    from-and where they want to be going.

    We in the Diaspora are right to worry about oligarchic dishonesty and
    political corruption in the small swatch of our once massive empire
    that today is our nation. It's natural to wonder how we can pull our
    fellow Armenians from a fiscal quicksand created by closed borders and
    an unfairly landlocked geography.

    But if I learned anything on my most recent visit to Armenia, it is
    this: Our youth there are not merely resilient. They are not merely
    talented. They make the most of the opportunities we in the Diaspora
    give them. They are ready and willing to climb the mountain to push
    aside even the most damming-and damning-boulders. With a little help
    from all of us, they are capable of building an Armenia that will make
    the next generation very, very proud.
    Chris Bohjalian's most recent novel, The Light in the Ruins, was
    published this summer. In October he will be receiving the ANCA
    Freedom Award in Philadelphia.