Bazhak from the outside (photo Hayk Harutyunyan)

Tangled Up between Wine and War: A Story of a Small Artsakh Café and Great People

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STEPANAKERT — Walking down the Vazgen Sargsyan Avenue in Stepanakert, one can notice the smoke rising from a samovar near dark-brown fences that demarcate a gray compact building along the sidewalk. That is Bazhak (“glass” as in wine glass) — a new downtown café that attracts passers-by with its abundance of wine and the enticing smells of its cuisine.

From inside, an old Belorussian piano welcomes you with decorated with a vase of poppies and fancy paintings on the walls, which lead you to the hall. The wine corks in a wide container, the collections of wine hanging on the walls, and the paintings of wine glasses give a clue about what you will order soon — probably a dry red Kataro with a dish of fruits.

The story of Bazhak will become clear only after an eloquent conversation with Hayk Avanesyan, the owner of the café, who didn’t give up hope after losing another cafe in the heart of Artsakh, in Shushi.

The interior of Bazhak

During the 2020 war, Artsakh, internationally recognized as Nagorno-Karabakh, lost control of the town of Shushi, a symbol of Karabakh both for Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The loss of the impregnable fortress city became the turning point of the war: whoever holds the keys to Shushi is the victor.

“I was shocked,” recalled Hayk Avanesyan, the day of handing Shushi to the enemy. “Words cannot convey my emotions. I thought it was the end. I even wanted to change my surname, never to have the ‘yan’ at the end.”

Avanesyan has been earning his living since his teenage years, and by the age of 20, he became a cook at a restaurant in Stepanakert, later advancing to become manager and then director. This inspired him to start his own business, and soon, he launched his first restaurant in Stepanakert with a friend. Years of experience in the service industry helped Avanesyan master his skills to extend his business and come up with an idea for a second cafe in the fortress of Shushi.

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“A few years ago, I was in charge of a cultural event organized near the Shushi fortress,” remembered Avanesyan. “The ambiance seduced me so much that I decided to turn it into a new public place for cozy gatherings,” he says. He specifies that the foundation of the Parisp Gastro Bak was laid with just a shovel and a rake, with a minimal budget. Avanesyan didn’t perceive his new start-up as a commercial venture; it was instead a favorite occupation that later grew into a serious enterprise.

Hayk Avanesyan in his café, Bazhak. Hayk is the founder of “Parisp Gastro Bak” cafe in Shushi, which came under Azerbaijani control after the war. Hayk then opened Bazhak in the center of Stepanakert, which attracted the locals from the very first days.

Parisp became a center for cultural events, local concerts, and festivals, or simply a relaxing escape from the hustle and bustle of routine life. However, the sinister morning of September 27 became a fateful turning point for Parisp and Avanesyan.

Like many of his compatriots, Avanesyan headed for the frontline to stand together and defend his fatherland. He didn’t want to elaborate on his participation in the war. “I fought like everyone else,” he said.

On October 26, Avanesyan was taken to Yerevan for medical treatment and returned to Stepanakert after the war, with one of his legs amputated.

“I admired Shushi more than my hometown Stepanakert,” confessed Avanesyan. “The sceneries of Shushi were always flamboyant, so much that I fell in love with the town and decided to invest my vigor into its prosperity.” The war, however, deprived him of the chance to say one last goodbye to his café, as Shushi was soon handed over to Azerbaijan. Avanesyan didn’t rest even after losing Gastro Bak, and his previous endeavors made it easier to for him recover and attempt another undertaking.

Bazhak cafe opened its doors in Stepanakert in May 2020, and it soon succeeded in gaining the admiration and respect of the locals and became their brand-new favorite.

Starting a new business practically at gunpoint means facing the risk of losing everything at any unexpected moment. Still, it doesn’t seem to impact the inhabitants of Stepanakert, as the town has set its course for revival after the war. “I never thought that a human can get accustomed to everything when life addresses an ultimatum. But life hasn’t stopped; it keeps going, and so should we,” assures Hayk. He started as a washer and a builder, and believes that hard work pays off, so now Avanesyan is a future-oriented businessman.

“There is no secret to being successful,” he says, “you only have to dedicate yourself to your labor.” The love for his work was the driving force that didn’t allow Hayk to break after losing his cafe in Shushi, and it pushed him to open a new one that would become an occupation for him and a pleasant spot for others. He states that challenges are never insurmountable, and to overcome them, you must think differently and more creatively.

Despite his love of and devotion to work, Avanesyan doesn’t feel comfortable among people who surround him in Stepanakert and avoids interacting with them too often. “I don’t communicate because I don’t want to get disappointed in them. People here are too indifferent, and it’s worse than a betrayal,” he said. Shushi always felt livelier and more vibrant to Hayk, but it was even more challenging to find a common language with people in Shushi.

“If a person is apathetic towards his family and his country, then he doesn’t recognize the value of a homeland,” asserts Avanesyan. And even his complicated attitude to the locals does not prevent him from creating and contributing to Artsakh, and the thoughts of leaving the country are preposterous to him. Hayk has undergone two disastrous wars (2016 and 2020), invested a lot into the prosperity of his motherland in cultural aspects and business, and is willing to fight again if necessary. “Artsakh is not just a word for me; it is my family, it is mine, and I know who I am here,” says Avanesyan. “You can live in Switzerland and earn a lot more than here, but you are nothing in Switzerland. It will not accept you.”

The rich collection of wines and mixed drinks create a perfect ambience for pleasant evenings at Bazhak, and the delicious desserts with herbal tea complement the milieu. Avanesyan collaborates with Christina Khachaturyan, the owner of Mille-feuille Confiserie, who provides the cafe with the best cheesecake and apple strudel in Stepanakert, as people say.

Jengyalov Hats, a popular Armenian bread with greens at Parisp Gastro Bak (photo Trip Advisor)

Khachaturyan, 25, represents the fourth generation descended from an indigenous Shushi native, Arsen Khachaturyan, who was the president of the Real School in Shushi back in the 19th century. Khachaturyan’s family always lived in Shushi and was displaced twice, during the First (1991-1994) and Second Nagorno-Karabakh Wars.

As a consequence of the war, tens of thousands of Armenians fled from Nagorno-Karabakh and found residence in Armenia, some temporarily and some permanently. An official post states that as of May 2021, Armenia hosts around 37,000 people as refugees. The Khachaturyans’ household was also displaced from their hometown Shushi and now they reside in Stepanakert.

The Khachaturyans were mostly intellectuals — doctors and teachers, whose commitments were to developing the community in Shushi.

“I learned from my family how to love and respect my hometown,” affirmed Christina Khachaturyan, “and we spared no effort to develop Shushi.”

She is the eldest offspring in her family, and now her younger brothers serve in the Artsakh Army, as she is proud to declare.

Her mother was the deputy director of the Khachatur Abovyan School in Shushi, and along with teaching, she had a passion for cooking at home and for guests. The idea of opening the Mille-Feuille confectionery originated in 2016, after several suggestions from her relatives to start baking cakes for sale. At first, the bakery became known by word of mouth, but later Christina made her final decision to promote their products as a brand.

Mille-Feuille continued to gain popularity among the locals throughout the year, and they organized shipments to Stepanakert to increase the number of customers. The population of Shushi was only around 4,000 back then, so the deliveries to Stepanakert, Martuni, Hadrut, and other regions propelled their business to a broader clientele. They even received orders from soldiers’ families to ship birthday cakes to their military units.

“We were planning to open a cafe near the bakery so that people could taste fresh sweets and cakes every day,” said Khachaturyan, “but life had different, unexpected plans for us, and we left everything in Shushi.”

Her family rented an apartment in Stepanakert and resettled there, and soon after the war, their customers returned with new orders for cakes. After the war, the bakery condensed its assortment because of the lack of necessary equipment, but the Khachaturyans didn’t give up on their occupation. “We do not have the same confidence to purchase new equipment for the bakery because it is all connected to finances,” confessed Christina. “I feel like we’re back to 2016 when my mom cooked everything, and my dad was in charge of the delivery.”

During the war, the Khachaturyans stayed in Shushi and supported the rear lines, doing voluntary work. On October 28, they were forced to depart and temporarily resettle in Yerevan.

Having left a whole family history behind, the Khachaturyans’ devotion to Artsakh has remained solid and pure. “If we ever thought to break the connection with Artsakh, we wouldn’t return and work again,” she says, “and the biggest mission we’re fulfilling now is serving for the army.”

Christina is currently promoting their business in Yerevan and plans to represent her brand in festivals and exhibitions, which will symbolize Artsakh and Shushi. “I will never allow our wounded Artsakh to be forgotten, and that’s the best I can do now,” she stressed.

Another important person who links Bazhak to Shushi is Edmon Shaqaryan, a 17-year-old teenage boy. Edmon has been working there since the summer of 2020 when another cafe operated in the same building, and he adores his job as a bartender. Despite his relatively young age, Shaqaryan came up with new ideas for cocktails and other beverages. He is beloved and respected by the visitors, with many of whom he has become friends through his work. Like Hayk, the owner of Bazhak, Edmon is passionate about the job. “When you work somewhere for a long time, you get tired of it,” said Shaqaryan, “but even when I take short breaks, I realize that I cannot live without my work.”

He is developing his know-how in the catering business and desires to launch a network of his restaurants.

Edmon was born in Stepanakert but lived the best part of his life in Shushi, in the surroundings of ancient castle-like buildings and traditional architecture. However, the bond to Shushi was not strong enough for Edmon: “I admired Shushi for its glory and history, but not the atmosphere, I was out of my element,” he said. “Whenever I drive through the road to Shushi, I recall the days when I took the blue bus to get home in Shushi. But I did not belong there.”

Warm conversations accompanied by tranquil Armenian music, the sounds of a unique dialect, and delicious pizza aromas complete the day at Bazhak, but a short talk with Hayk Avanesyan rearranges one’s priorities. When the value of a homeland overcomes personal barriers, you know that the fight has a value.

“If we abandon everything and leave, the struggle would be in vain,” said Hayk. “I will become a traitor if I ever think of leaving my fatherland.”

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