Sergei Paranjanov’s “Sayat Nova” (“The Color of Pomegranates”) and Caucasian Cosmopolitanism

The more I think about, the more I think that one of the themes that continues to animate me – in travels and writing – is that of 20th century cosmopolitanisms in unexpected places. Today, for example, I spent much of the morning riding the trains (whilst reading Bulgakov’s excellent Theatrical Novel) to arrive at the archive of the Humboldt University Berlin, one of the major academic institutions in Berlin, and the main university in what was Communist East Berlin. I was there to investigate whether they had any files on an Afghanistik department that the university had started in 1978, the same year as the Soviet invasion. Starting then, students were able to capitalize on a wonderful, if bizarre education, that trained them in Dari and Pashto, had them studying Central Asian history in a rigorous way and – good luck getting an insurance policy to cover this one today – study abroad trips to Kabul in occupied Afghanistan throughout the 1980s.

Many of the students who went there had wonderful encounters and changed lives in spite of truly grim conditions. One of them, Kerstin Beck, disguised herself as an Afghan woman and escaped across the Hindu Kush with mujahideen to Pakistan and, from there, West Germany. Another one, whose dissertation I was reading and copying today, managed to hang out with some of the Communist feminists whom I have written about in other settings in some of my academic pieces. Next week some of my research at the Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archives) will take us in the other direction: what did Afghan women coming to East Berlin, the most developed part of the socialist world, think about the German women they saw here thirty years ago?

It’s one part of a story of unexpected encounters that has, I think, echoes for Americans’ own attempts to liberate Afghan women over the course of the past ten years. Thrown together with other material on the anti-mujahideen, anti-Communist feminist opposition, I feel like I have brewing an interesting story that ties together a lot of our histories of the 1970s and 1980s with that of the invasion and that of feminism. Now to only write the thing …

Kerstin Beck's "Veiled Escape: My Road to Freedom" is one example of Afghan-German feminist (?) encounters.

Afghan feminist encounters aren’t the only kind of cosmopolitanisms on my mind today, however. Last night, I had the chance to take in at the Arsenal Movie Theaters Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates), a Soviet/Armenian film I had wanted to see for some time. The film, directed by Sergei Parajanov, was a visual treat. Perhaps the best place to start is the director himself. Parajanov, whose house-museum I had the chance to visit in Yerevan last year, had a tumultuous life. Born in Tbilisi, Georgia to Armenian parents, he was able to move to Moscow in 1945, where he had the chance to study with top Soviet directors and receive, even in the years of High Stalinism, an excellent film education. There was not, however, space in Stalin’s Soviet Union for homosexuality: Parajanov was convicted of homosexual acts with, essentially, a KGB officer in 1948, and had to spend three months in jail (down from five years) for his acts. He later married a Muslim Tatar woman who converted to his own Eastern Orthodox Christianity to accomodate him, but this prompted her relatives to murder her.

Broken by these events, Parajanov moved to Kiev, where he made socialist realist films, married a Ukrainian woman and became fluent in Ukrainian, and had begun to establish himself. But by the early 1960s, the film scene in the USSR was being upturned by artists like Andrei Tarkovsky, and Parajanov felt compelled after watching Ivan’s Childhood to remake himself into a leading member of the cinematic avant-garde. Still, this entailed an almost-necessary clash with film censors and higher authorities, even as he moved from Kiev to more provincial Yerevan to carry out his creative work. Parajanov made two well-known avant-garde films, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (based on folk legends from highland Ukraine) and Sayat Nova, but throughout the 1970s and 1980s he was hounded by the police or in Soviet labor camps for crimes of homosexuality. He died in Yerevan in 1990, a year before the USSR imploded. While I don’t claim to be an expert on him, I am struck by the juncture of identities – Armenian, Georgian, Russophone, Ukrainophone – that characterized Parajanov’s life; again, unexpected cosmopolitanisms no longer quite possible today.

I'm fond of peacocks anyway, but throw in polyglot Caucasian poets, and I'm there!

The film itself lends itself poorly to review, at least to someone of my ineloquence. In theory, Sayat Nova is the story of … Sayat Nova, an 18th-century poet and bard who wrote primarily in what we today would call Azerbaijani, but in the Georgian alphabet. He also composed many poems in Armenian, Georgian, and Persian, and was apparently also fluent in Arabic. (Stories and histories like these that animate what’s now “Trashcanistan” are, for me, so much richer, so much more illustrative of these lands than some of the more tired content major magazines put out these days on Russian and Central Asian developments.) The film roughly follows the course of Sayat-Nova’s life, but it is really a series of tableaux vivant, ones which illustrate the development of the poet more elegantly than many other films I’ve seen. The film opens with the monastery where young Sayat Nova is resident being drenched by a huge downpour, which prompts the Orthodox monks to lay their tomes out in the son and squeeze them under rocks to dry them out. There are amazing shots in the opening fifteen minutes of thick, thick Armenian- and Georgian-language Bibles, utterly waterlogged, squeezing out many ounces of water as the young poet either sits on them, or squeezes them down with heavy stone runs. He’s living in an intensely Christian, highly literate subunit in the 18th century, and these shots of the young boy squeezing all of the water – all of the content? – out of the books he has grown up with stuck with me.

Later, we see the boy sitting on the tile roofs of the monastery, turning the books’ pages so that they will dry in the sun. Gradually, however, the production team turns on a wind machine, so that all of the massive Bibles that surround him in the sun begin to flutter and have their pages turned. The poet sits there, the beautiful illuminated pages of the Armenian and Georgian Bibles fluttering around him. I’ve seen artists and authors attempt to describe in different media the experience of growing up surrounded by books, or memories of the books that one grew up with, but I found Parajanov’s visual language especially compelling to describe the process of how we absorb, and are affected by, the material makeup of the books that we grow up with.

The works of the Armenian avant-garde, from Parajanov to Saryan (pictured here), are evocative of a dream-world for me. They're great!

The rest of the plot itself is not especially scintillating (the poet goes to the court, performs for the Prince, and begins to die himself), but many of the other images are. Somewhat like a Salvador Dalí painting, but also a bit like the paintings of the obscure Armenian painter Martiros Saryan, they feel like they’ve been cut from dreams. One that sticks with me is the death of the Catholicos, the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Sayat Nova, who by this point in the film has become older, must compose a song to the deceased head of the church, and there are some bizarrely wonderful scenes as he digs a hole in the ground in the middle of the Etchmiadzin Cathedral for the dead old man. Parajanov, in one of the many wonderful uses of animals in the film (peacocks, which I am personally fond of, also feature prominently), literally fills up the entire Cathedral with sheep, which mill around and get in the way as Sayat Nova attempts to dig the grave for the Patriarch and compose a final song to him. Even while operating on a very low budget, Parajanov manages to create scenes like these that fuse a clear love for the Armenian homeland, with an almost dreamlike Christian imagery, that stick in my head after seeing the film. The film, like the many small pieces of art that exist at the house-museum in Yerevan, reflect the childlike (a good thing) and creative mind of the director. Even with very limited budgets or with limited resources with which to make art, Parajanov seems to have been almost boundlessly capable of creating – with the natural world, with animals, with food, be they sculptures, photographs, or films – a world of art with its own unique and dreamlike idiom. It’s a pleasure to be led through it.

Parajanov

What to take away from the film viewing experience? I’m certainly interested to dive into more depth to Parajanov’s work more broadly, and open to suggestions on the next directions to go in there. More broadly, however, in the event that I have multiple lives, I am intrigued to explore the kind of cosmopolitanism that Parajanov embodied. True, he was persecuted by the Soviet system his entire life, but I was intrigued – and remain so – by the imperial connections that made it possible for film pupils in Tbilisi to go to élite All-Union institutions like VGIK, the premier Soviet film academy. Even when I was in Tbilisi and Yerevan in March-April 2010, I was surprised and struck there by the degree of multilingualism and multiculturalism that persisted there. Tbilisi, which many might otherwise think of as the homogenous capital of independent Georgia, was actually dominated by Armenians until the mid-20th century. While there, I stayed with a family of Armenians who had largely assimilated to Georgian culture (they spoke fluent Georgian and had lived in Tbilisi for decades), but who also had found success in Russophone Soviet institutions – the Navy for the engineer father and the universities for the academic mother.

The present alternative to Caucasian high culture

I’d be fascinated if someone with the time and resources could probe the history of this corner of the Caucasus more for the 1960s and 1970s. Even someone like myself, who likes foreign languages quite a bit, feels a bit nauseated by the prospect of having to master notoriously difficult Georgian and Armenian to carry such a thing out, not to mention Russian and potentially Azerbaijani, too … taking us up to pentolingualism for most parties willing to carry such a thing out. But I think it would be interesting to look at different kinds of cosmopolitanisms other than the ones we’re most familiar with in the New Yorks, Londons, or South Asian settings of the world. It might tell us more about how Georgia developed a more exclusionist sense of nationality in a way that Gamsakhurdia was able to stoke, as well as the historical roots of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Unfortunately, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the lands that Sayat Nova represent the best of have become more closed places: Armenia, while beautiful in parts, was one of the most inward-looking countries I have ever been to, and I have memories of a struggling Russian-language theater in downtown Yerevan that managed to retain its elegance and sense of purpose even as generations of young Armenians were clearly more interest in Dolce and Gabbana than indulging in the Russian theatrical tradition. Given the isolation of Iran as well as the poor state of Armenian-Turkish relations, as well as the decline of national educational systems, the world of Caucasian cosmopolitanism that Sayat Nova and Parajanov represented seems, quickly, to be becoming a memory. But perhaps by understanding this different kind of cosmopolitanism – and taking time out to indulge in the high culture it produced, too – we might better understand the roots of the current problems the region faces, and be more on the way towards renewed exchange in the region, where Turkic, Persian, Russian, Georgian, and Armenian worlds can come together, and produce an even more feverish dream than the one I saw at the movies last night.

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