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Armenia’s Vanishing Udis
Small community is slowly losing its ancient language.
By Tatul Hakopian in Dedebavan (CRS No. 398 28-Jun-07)
Seda Kumsieva, a teacher for 36 years, lives in Armenia although she used to teach Russian language and literature in the village of Vardashen in Azerbaijan.
The crisis of the late Eighties that led to the Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorny Karabakh forced her to flee her home and resettle in Armenia.
Seda is an ethnic Udi – a Christian group with its own unique language – but her husband is Armenian, a fact which sealed her fate. Her family is now scattered across the Caucasus.
“Some of my relatives stayed in Vardashen, others settled in Tbilisi. I am completely Udi by blood, but my husband is Armenian and we and other families who had mixed marriages left Azerbaijan,” she said.
Eleven Udis from Azerbaijan resettled in Dedebavan and many more have found homes in other villages. In conversations with IWPR, the Udis made it clear they feel quite secure in Armenia, but are worried that their unique culture is dying out.
The head of the village community in Dedebavan Georgy Babayan told IWPR, “We don’t make any distinction between Armenians and Udis. During the emigration from Vardashen in 1988, several Udi families came with the Armenians. Later on, many of them emigrated to Russia. We are the same as the Udis – we share our joy and grief with them.”
Hranush Kharatian, an ethnographer who has written extensively about the Udis, says that there are only around 200 of them in Armenia.
“The community does not have the status of a national minority,” he said. “Today there isn’t a single regulatory document on this issue. Only those groups which systematically try to preserve their ethnic identity are recognised as minorities.”
Kharatian said that the Udis had fled Azerbaijan not just because of mixed marriages with Armenians, but because they were a persecuted minority.
“Udis who were persecuted in Nij have resettled in the Georgian village of Oktomberi. Until the recent deportations from Azerbaijan there were not just two but five whole Udi villages. We don’t know much about three of the villages, because although the Udis living there were Christians, they spoke Azeri. These villages were called Jourlu, Mirzabeilu and Sultan Nukhi. Several people from there emigrated to Armenia.”
Seda Kumsieva uses her cousins in Tbilisi – who now go by the surname Kumsiashvili – to get information about relatives who stayed behind in her home village. She still badly misses Vardashen – now renamed Oduz.
“Although our way of life and traditions are Armenian, Udis have their own specific festivals,” she said. “As a child, I remember how in May they used to tie multi-coloured threads round the hands of little children and then hang these little bundles on the branches of trees. Everyone used to make a wish to have their dream come true. The festival was called Dimbaz.”
Forty-five-year-old Zanna Lalayan is married to an Armenian and her family is also scattered. “My brother Oleg and other relatives live in Nij. My other brother and other relatives live in Ukraine – his children don’t know the Udi language. Our generation of Udis based in Russia and other countries doesn’t know our language.
“Our nation is gradually dwindling.”
Seventy-year-old Arshaluis Movsisian, an Udi whose late husband was Armenian, lives in the village of Bagratashen and left behind a large part of her family, a whole troop of nieces and nephews. “My heart is breaking, I want to see their faces,” she said, holding back the tears.
“Like the Armenians, we recognise the cross and the church,” she said. “We didn’t marry our girls off to Azerbaijanis and we didn’t marry theirs, because we are people of the cross. Like the Armenians, our brides come out in white clothes, with uncovered faces , we dance Armenian dances and bury our dead according to Armenian customs. Apart from the language, we are no different to them.”
Armenian historians, like their Azerbaijani counterparts, say that the Udis are the descendants of the Caucasian Albanians. But Armenians say the process of assimilation happened much earlier - that the Albanians converted to the Armenian church in the 5th century and at the same time began to adopt the Armenian language, customs and names.
The Udis alone, the historians say, survived as a tiny remnant of a once much bigger culture. They point out that the Udis’ language has nothing in common with either Indo-European Armenian or Turkic Azeri.
Some unique Udi customs also seem to date back to pre-Christian times.
Arzu Dargiyan recalls how in Azerbaijan they used to pay homage to sacred trees. “We would choose a fruit tree in the garden and performed an act of worship in front of it,” she said. “We lit candles and sacrificed animals. It was forbidden to climb the sacred tree or pick its fruit. You could only eat them if they fell from the tree.”
Oleg Dulgarian is an Udi also from Vardashen, although he left as a small child. He runs a non-governmental organisation for refugees, and is passionate about trying to preserve the culture of this ancient but tiny community.
Dulgarian says that he wants to create an organization called “Aghvank” (the ancient name for Caucasian Albania) that will aim to preserve traditions and engage in academic study of the Udis.
“It’s not a problem to be an Udi in Armenia; no one forces us to renounce our ethnicity. The main problems that Udis who have emigrated from Azerbaijan face are the same as those facing the Armenian refugees.”
Dulgarian wants to get government help for his project but the main element of Udi culture – their language – is now in apparently terminal decline.
“My sons don’t speak Udi at all,” lamented Alexei Kazarov, who also fled from Vardashen. “Our nation is gradually disappearing. There are only eight or ten thousand Udis left in the whole world.”
Мадмазель, Медам, Месье! "Глория" меняет курс и направляется в Кейптаун! Кому это не нравится будет расстрелян на месте. (с)