Arabo, the inspiration for Zartir Lao (Courtesy of Music of Armenia)

LOS ANGELES — Armenia’s new opposition movement is seeking a change of government in Armenia and is using a revolutionary folk song to unite nationals and the diaspora. Two words from this song have been used as the unifying element in all these protests: Zartir Lao, or Arise My Son.

The protests started in April when Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan gave a speech that expressed Armenia’s willingness to open peace talks with Azerbaijan. Since then, the opposition has been holding protests within Armenia and the diaspora seeking his resignation.

In the past, the song served to create a sense of urgency, and as a call to arms for defense against the Turks. Today, the song has been used in pop culture and many Armenian opposition rallies, including current opposition protests. The Armenian opposition’s usage of the song has become popular not only within Armenia but during protests in the diaspora as well.

Although the use of the song has become widespread during these protests, the evolution and use of the song have shown that the focal point has drifted away from its main hero, Arabo. To understand how and why the song is being used politically today, one must first understand the historical context.


Zartir Lao: A Brief Overview 

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According to the book Armenian War and Soldier Folk Songs, Zartir Lao was written in the late 19th century by Fahrat, or Feyrat, an Armenian ashugh from Diraklar village (Karnut), Shirak Province, Armenia. A profile on Fahrat written by the Institute of Armenian Studies at Yerevan State University explains how he was born Khachatur Gevorkyan in 1867, and his parents later moved to Alexandrapol (Gyumri) in 1880. Just four years later, Khachatur was given the title of master, which won him the pen name Fahrat. His status allowed him to travel to Constantinople and Western Armenia. Many of his songs addressed the themes of war, homeland, and freedom – including Zartir Lao.

Its hero is Arakel Avedisian, or Arabo, a bandit turned fedayi who was active in Mush and Sasun. In 1893, Arabo returned from the Caucasus with his group of fedayeen. He and his group were surrounded in the Gyalerash gorge of Bulanikh, a town in the Mush province, and were ultimately killed.

What many would consider his martyrdom sparked the inspiration for the song by Fahrat and its many renditions. The song combines the lullaby format with a call to arms against the enemies of Armenians. One version of the song displays the form of the lullaby just with its title: Mshetsu Mor Ororayin Yerge, or The Lullaby of a Mother from Mush.

The focus on Arabo as the song’s main figure has faded with the development of new renditions. It is apparent when observing the song titles from different versions of the song: The Song of Brave Arabo, The Song of Mush, The Lullaby of a Mother from Mush, The Song of the Mshetsi and eventually Zartir Lao. One line that has stayed consistent across the song’s evolution was the double “zartir lao, mernim kzi,” or “arise, my son, I beseech you.” The mother is particularly frustrated with her son’s attitude, rebuking him for his vain hopes.

Today, the song is being covered with the title Zartir Lao. Some notable singers who have covered the song include Nune Yesayan, Hovhannes Badalian, and more modern covers by Adana Project, and gorgeous beats.

What was formerly an apolitical song, has grown to be used in several contexts — including in popular culture and protests.

Present Day Context of Zartir Lao 

Prior to the current protests, the song has been used in other instances. It has been used in pop culture, with a rendition by Ruben Matevosyan in the 1967 Soviet Armenian film “Triangle.” The film takes place in Leninakan (Gyumri) and the song is used as a call to fight the Nazis.

Zartir Lao was also used in opposition protests led by Raffi Hovanissian in 2013, which were ironically against Serzh Sargsyan’s regime. While the song is a call to arms for Armenians to face the enemy, today it pits one group of Armenians against another.

The opposition is essentially calling Armenians to join them and “wake up before it is too late.”

Varak Ketsemanian, a historian who has tackled subjects such as nationalism and inter-communal stratifications, addressed how he believes the opposition is relating the lyrics of the song to the present-day realities of Armenia.

Tigran and his Wife Meri cooking khorovats at Tigran’s uncle’s house in Hadrut.

The song starts with “khuzhan askyar zork e zhoghver,” which translates to “the barbarian soldiers have gathered.” The song is referring to the Turks, and Ketsemanian believes the opposition is making connections to the Azerbaijani military having a presence on sovereign Armenian territory.

Another lyric says “merav Turki bardke (other versions use harke) dalov,” which speaks to the  oppression of Armenians due to the taxes levied by the Turks.

“This is especially and exactly the message that the opposition leadership is actually communicating to its followers saying, ‘this Pashinyan regime is supported by the Turks, it’s actually realizing the interests of the Turkish government or the Azerbaijani government,’” Ketsemanian said.

Ketsemanian believes there are three main groups within Armenian politics at the moment. Ardent supporters and sympathizers of Pashinyan, supporters of the opposition, and the third group that remains undecided for various reasons.

“People are very skeptical about how these two [former] presidents or their sympathizers, or the political groups that follow them, will actually resolve the issue now that Armenia is in a very vulnerable situation, diplomatically, militarily, and regionally,” he noted.

Ketsemanian explained how the skepticism stems from the main argument which questions former Presidents Robert Kocharyan and Sargsyan’s intentions, and whether they are just using Artsakh as a trump card for them to regain power because they have not clearly communicated a pragmatic agenda.

Among those who are on the fence, but lean towards the opposition is Tigran Balayan, a Los Angeles resident who hails from Hadrut, Artsakh. He can trace four generations in Qoçbəyli (Aygestan) village.

Tigran’s children gather mulberries from Tigran’s Uncle’s trees in Hadrut

The war caused devastation within his family, not only because they could not return to their ancestral lands, but also because a video surfaced on Telegram of his uncle’s home being ransacked by Azerbaijani soldiers.

“There’s not a day I don’t see Hadrut in my dreams,” Balayan said.

Balayan made it clear that he is not a fan of Pashinyan because of the aftermath of the 2020 Artsakh war.

He also has his problems with the opposition. He lived in Armenia until 2013, served in the army from 2003 to 2005 in Khojali, and says he experienced the corruption of the old regimes firsthand.

The goal of the opposition would be to convince people like Balayan to join their movement — to essentially “wake up.” Balayan is not fully convinced.

“I’m already awake, but I don’t see anything,” Balayan said.

However, he said he would fully support the opposition if it picked up steam.

Ketsemanian argues that the opposition’s communication and use of the song is narrow, targeting their followers or party affiliates and leaving little room for people who may slightly disagree to get involved. Specifically, using the song to label anyone who is not actively supporting the opposition as a Turk or Turkish sympathizer.”

Martin Adamian, a UCLA PhD candidate in Armenian history, expressed that he is a fan of the song, but had mixed feelings about its use. He interpreted it as the use of the term “Turk” in internal politics.

“It’s bringing it to a new level of enmity between the opposition and the government,” Adamian said. “It’s little by little justifying violence.”

Adamian explained how the song is directly connected to the idea of the Turkification of Armenia, and there are two present-day interpretations of this. The first, which in Adamian’s opinion is the real risk, is opening borders with Turkey and then using their capital to gain economic influence in Armenia. The second interpretation is literally calling Pashinyan and his supporters Turks. Both of these interpretations of the song have been used in the opposition’s messaging.

The opposition’s messaging is hardline and circles back to their song of choice — arise, overthrow what they believe to be a Turkish-supported regime, or be seen as vain — just as the mother saw her son in Zartir Lao.

( The author tried to contact the supporters of the opposition movement, including Saro Paparian, the Creative Director of 301 AD, for interviews. The author also contacted the Armenian Youth Federation of Armenia and did not receive a response. Tigran Balayan is not related to Brandon Balayan, the author of the article.)


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