My sari mama: Manushak

Narrator Ani Kojoyan speaks about her great-grandma, an inspirational teacher who used the power of education to help girls realise their dreams

[The picture shows (From left to right), my great-grandfather Zarmen Balyan and my great-grandmother, Manushak Khojayan.]

I love flowers: lovely, nice, sweet and colourful – all of them. Not only they are mood-changers, but each has its own character – demanding, bringing joy, fastidious, capricious, warm and strong. Some grow in the mountains, others in the fields and meadows, and still others in gardens. Some blossom and flower in spring, while others do so all year round. A rose may turn from tiny to huge, from pinky to purple, red, yellow, white and even blue. It grows inside and out, in the North and South, and its way of protecting itself is the thorn – visible and warning. Or what about the dandelion? It comes from the daisy family and has a rosette of leaves but is a warm and cheerful little sun flower which seems to have the very force of the rising sun. The dandelion has healing powers and thrives in difficult conditions. And at some point, when she is tired of everything, she flies, flies high with her feather-like seeds. They say that this can fulfil our wishes. Isn’t she amazing, funny and mysterious?

Of all the flowers, my favourite is the violet. I like the way it smells. I like its colour, which goes from purple, to blue, to white. It doesn’t last long – appearing fast and going quickly. If you are not attentive, you can easily miss or hardly notice when she appears and leaves. She leaves quickly and subtly, in one or two weeks. I particularly like wild violets. They are tiny and grow in the mountains: free, open and tiny but well-rooted, deep violet, with a humble appearance and alluring smell, strong velvet leaves and a smiley look.

People are also like flowers. Some are strong with their deeds and ‘roots’: brave and never giving up, they try to survive and make others believe in them. Others are pampered or even over-pampered all their lives, like garden-flowers or room-flowers.

Each spring brings a memory of my great-grandmama, Manushak. I was five; I do not remember clearly whether it was late February or early March. I was in the village with Grandma Melita, at great-grandma’s place. Great-grandma came after school (she had been teaching all her life in the village school) and some of her students were with her. She gave the girls some books from her bookshelf and candy to each one from a jar. The jar was carefully hidden behind the old curtains – old, but ironed carefully, creamy white, patch-worked in some places and embroidered at the edge. At the centre, there were large violet flowers.

Manushak had some other curtain-like covers, one meant for covering newly-baked bread (which she always used after baking), one for her books (not those on the bookshelf but those without a place on it, which she had carefully placed on a small square table), one for the old churn and, finally, another for her hair stuff. Every evening, she carefully took her hairpins out, loosening her long, grey braid and carefully combing it with a tiny wooden comb. Then she cautiously put all her hair stuff on one of those embroidered covers. This was some kind of evening ceremony for her, which she enjoyed fully.

In the village, candy was real happiness both for kids and adults: real but rare; there was no shop in the village where people could buy some. Each family baked their own bread and each one’s smelled and tasted different. To me, ours was the best – sometimes crispy, and sometimes soft and tender. In fact, great-grandma’s bread was the most ordinary and also the most delicious, made from just flour, water and salt, and spiced with love and care. For other stuff, including sweets, families needed to go to the nearest cities, Dilijan or Ijevan. Each time Manushak’s students came over for books or tasks, she always granted them one piece of that ‘rare happiness’ – those tiny, colourful, glasslike candies that will always remain part of my childhood memories.

Village life was not easy

Manushak was teaching Armenian literature and language at the village school, and her husband, my great-grandpa Zarmen, was teaching maths there, where he was also principal. Great-grandmama Manushak’s full name was Manushak Khojayan; ‘manushak’ literally means ‘violet’ flower. She was born in Gardmana land (Barum/Barumashen/Garnaker village in the Shamkor region in the historic Utik province of Mets Hayk) in 1923. At the age of 18, she got married and had two children by the age of 21 – my grandmama Melita and a younger daughter, Juliet. At that time, Manushak was already teaching at the school but did not have any recognised university degree in teaching or pedagogy. She entered university (part-time) in Stepanakert (Artsakh) and had to leave her kids with her husband and mother-in-law for some time while taking her exams there. She finished university but never got a diploma. Her uncle was a methodologist in musical studies in Stepanakert and promised to send it to her as soon as she returned home.

Manushak returned to her village but never did hear about her diploma. Later, her youngest daughter Juliet died, but she gave birth to other children – Gurgen, Harutyun and Suren. She stayed in the village as a teacher. The years passed but her desire for education never left her. At the age of 19, my grandma Melita married and moved to Yerevan.  She was 22 and got a letter from her dad, my great-grandfather Zarmen, Manushak’s husband, with a note of congratulations:

‘My dear daughter Melita,

Let me congratulate you: your mother is a university student again but this time she will graduate with a diploma for sure, won’t she?’

At that time, great-grandma Manushak was already 42. She graduated from university at the age of 47.

Village life was not easy. People worked either in the school or the village union (in fact, there were only two places to work in the village) and after their work they turned into ordinary village-dwellers who needed to work in the fields, gardens and forests in order to afford and support their families. (Manushak had five children. Two of them had already passed away by this point: the aforementioned Juliet in her childhood and Harutyun in his youth. The rest lived in different parts of Armenia with their families – Byurakan, Abovyan, Armavir and Yerevan.)

There was no shop, no club, nor any entertainment besides the hot summer sun, Manushak’s candies and the small green apples that grew all year round behind Manushak’s house. Those apple trees were funny in a way – they were very small, bushy and there were many apples on them. Their leaves were half-green, half-pinkish and they grew all year round regardless of the mood of the villagers, the sun or the weather. Those trees were another reason to gather together both the local community and family members from different parts of Armenia. The community and family members, mostly kids, picked the apples up while Manushak wove and narrated to them – stories about family and women, fairy tales and poems.

Manushak liked telling stories to village kids and reading extracts from literature, and mostly it was schoolgirls who enjoyed them

Every day, Manushak went to school dressed neatly and modestly but elegantly, in a small black, navy blue or, sometimes, dark creamy dress. She was small and lovely, wise and lively, with a witty and straightforward mind, and small vivid eyes. She was agile and nimble in her actions and movements, speech and manners. She was a little creature and yet powerful. She gathered together all the members of the family, mostly in early spring, during the school holidays. She assembled her family, but her family was the whole village. The village, as mentioned, did not have any other place for any entertainment or gatherings apart from the school. Actually, people considered it an educational and entertainment place, which saved them from the ordinariness and troubles of daily life and work. (Children usually helped their parents in the fields or gardens after school.)

The school did not have a proper library and Manushak was their living-walking-talking library: she liked telling stories to village kids and reading extracts from literature, and mostly it was schoolgirls who enjoyed them. They also gathered in a small group and came over to Manushak’s place for books. Manushak turned their ordinary lives and school years into some ‘jarred’ magic. At Manushak’s place, they enjoyed and experienced the charm and spell of story-telling and jarred candies, and the belief that Manushak had in them. Their visits became tense during the summer holidays when the school was closed and the only magic was Manshuak and her ‘sharing’ land. With her words, she translated their daily lives into tales, and with her stories, they travelled to Yerevan (the capital of Armenia, where most of the children had never been). Her stories also took them to other parts and cultures of the world, leaving them able to ‘come back’ to village life again in a minute.

‘Could you tell me, what is the fastest and quickest thing in the world?’ Manushak would ask.

‘The human MIND!’, cried out the girls.

‘Exactly!” Manushak smiled and quickly added: ‘The human mind can travel everywhere, anytime, in a second and in just another second can come back to you. The human mind is a powerful thing. Use your mind and never stop dreaming.’ This was her favourite saying and she frequently reminded the girls of it.

‘One day you, girls, will become great persons, great in the very sense of the word, because your greatness and possibilities are within each of you, and they go hand in hand with your self-belief.’

Manushak, being an educationalist, believed particularly in the power of education and the power of the girls subtly hidden within them. Storytelling was also important to her; she believed that it had the power to gather and share human experience, and to her, sharing was another kind of magic and tool to shape new narratives. Manushak liked the way she was educating and narrating, and believed in that education as a way to change lives.

In the village, it took real courage to support and even fight for children’s rights to education, since many parents believed that kids could be more useful in the fields

Manushak did not know much about international feminist movements nor about the conventions on women’s rights. She was born just after World War I and her youth was spent during World War II. She lived in the era of Communism and Soviet propaganda, meaning personal life was far from sweet and easy – she lived in a remote village, which was not in fact her motherland. She had to leave her own village in Gardmana land before the start of the Nagorno Karabakh war. For the rest of her life, she would cherish her memories of her house and garden in her native Gardmana, and would always miss the sweet taste of her garden’s dark violet plums and blackberries.

Manushak was not only a mother to her own kids but she also considered each villager’s life important and treated each village child as her own. Despite all her troubles and struggles, she never stopped being positive and never lost her vivaciousness and joy.

Manushak, my great-grandmama Violet, was like a true violet: tiny but mighty, strong, brave and vivacious. In the village, it took real courage to support and even fight for children’s rights to education, since many parents believed that kids could be more useful in the fields and would benefit from that rather than by attending school or dreaming about something big, great and ‘impossible’. It took Manushak years, actually all her life, to fight for children’s, and mostly girls’ education rights in her community. She would go to the schoolgirls’ parents, who were much more concerned about how to marry them off successfully, talking to them for hours or sometimes even days, finally leaving their houses with that satisfied and content smile. Most of the time she succeeded in her quest to convince them and the girls would restart school.

I was proud of her: proud of my Manushak. She, like a violet, lived in a mountainous area. Like wild rocky violets, she had deep roots, deep enough to be strong before and after any trouble and storm. She was a big dreamer, hope-giver, change-maker, freedom-seeker, peace-bringer, educationalist, teacher and storyteller. She was my muse and friend, a source of inspiration for any women in the family and community. Until the end of her life, Manushak encouraged each and every one of us – every girl in her community and village – to find themselves. She encouraged all the women in her family to continue their education, helped them with tuition fees and believed in them:

‘I believe in you and I also believe that you should have the right to education in order to have a chance to choose, define and find yourself.’

Manushak was a change-bringer to our lives. Community women would come to her for advice on literally anything. Wise and thoughtful, dear and much missed, my dear Manushak – my ‘sari mama’, as we in the family called her. ‘Sari’ means ‘mountain’ in English. My father called his grandparents ‘sari mama’/sari mom’ and ‘sari papa’ because they lived in the mountains. The narrative of ‘sari mama’ was initially used by my father when he was a kid and later adopted by the whole village. Later, all grandchildren who visited their grandparents in the village from other parts of Armenia during the summer started calling their grandparents ‘sari mama’ and ‘sari papa’. Summers were fun and joyful, full of ‘sari mamas’ and ‘sari papas’ in the village of Antaremej (which means ‘within the forest’ in English). When I was a kid, I thought those were their real names: ‘Grandma, couldn’t they come up with other names in the village? Why are they all named “sari mamas” and “sari papas”?’ And Grandmama Melita would smile. And, only now, I understand the power of the narrative ‘sari’– sharing, caring and uniting, like my great-grandmama, Manushak.

‘Ani, dear, dare to dance with the reality and fly with your dreams high. Make them titles in your life and never put them into footnotes.’

My sari mama, Manushak, how much I miss our friendship and intimacy, our talks and narratives, our magic gossips about the world, realities, possibilities and dreams.


Postscript

It was late February or early March. Manushak came home after school, quickly prepared bread dough and left it to rest for a while. She made some tea for us, took out candy from a jar, put some small green apples in her pocket, wrapped me up with a winter rose woollen scarf, put on her creamy woollen jacket and said to me: ‘Ani, let’s fly away for a while!’

We went through the school and along a narrow forest path and then arrived at a hillside. It was a fairly sunny but very windy day, and the grass was partly covered with snow. We came over the hillside and Manushak said to me: ‘Wait for me here, Ani.’ She continued to climb and suddenly stopped. I could see her small bending body and her nimble fingers, quickly picking up rocky snowdrops and wild violets. Then she turned and approached me with nimble steps. I clearly remember that moment, those violets and snowdrops with their long muddy roots, their enchanting smell, her frozen fingers and happy and satisfied face.

‘It is worth flying, isn’t it, Ani?’

‘It is, sari mom. It is!’

Dedicated to the memory of Manushak, my sari mama, my wild violet of the mountain, devoted friend and great woman.

AUTHOR BIO

The image shows Ani Kojoyan, a light brown-skinned woman with long wavy brown hair, wearing a white cowl-necked dress and silver chain necklace. She stands in front of a window with a countryside scene faintly visible behind her. Ani's hands are held together in front of her and she is looking straight into the camera with a confident gaze and slight smile.Ani Kojoyan is a scholar who combines engagement in varied causes and activities with a solid academic career of teaching, research and writing. She holds the position of lecturer of in Early Modern English Drama, and English, Gender, and Communication Studies at Yerevan State University (YSU) (since 2009.) She received her BA and MA in English from YSU, and earned her Master of Studies in English from the University of Oxford. She is a PhD candidate.

In 2013 she was a visiting scholar in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University (ASU). She has carried out 5 research projects and has over 20 academic publications. She is a WEF scholar at IGS, LMH, University of Oxford and within the frames of IGS WEF programme is working on a project of Syrian-Armenian women refugees, their identity performance and social empowerment issues. Simultaneously, she is working on a project of “Woman, gender, power and language in a political discourse”.


The picture in the main body of this piece has been supplied by the author and shows (from left to right) the narrator’s great-grandfather Zarmen Balyan and her great-grandmother, Manushak Khojayan. The picture above is of the narrator Ani Kojoyan and is taken from the LMH site.