Wiebke Zollmann (David Galstyan photo)

Wiebke Zollmann Finds Her Joy Living, Working and Creating in Yerevan

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YEREVAN — Wiebke Zollmann is German poet, translator, photographer, and arts manager. Born in Stendal, Germany, from 2011 to 2014, she studied at the Swiss Literature Institute in Bienne. In 2014-2015, she has taught at the Brusov State University for Languages and Social Sciences in Yerevan and worked at the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) Information Center. Since 2015, she has been the manager of the Naghash Ensemble of Armenia. Wiebke has published poems and short stories in literary magazines and anthologies, and translated Armenian authors (Kostandin Yerznkatsi, Mkrtich Naghash, Kostan Zarian, Yeghishe Charents, Gevorg Ter-Gabrielyan, Shushan Avagyan, Aram Pachyan, Tatev Chakhian, Grig).

Dear Wiebke, in your blog and elsewhere you often write about Armenia. How you would describe shortly your experience in living Armenia?

I love living in Yerevan. The city has changed a lot over the past years, but it remains a fantastic place to be. People are hospitable and helpful, there’s easy access to the cultural scene, and the town is super walkable. (Though we all must admit: Traffic has become unbearable. We’d need a better public transport system to ease the situation. Let’s bring back trams!) After you’ve been in Armenia for a while, the city center feels like a village. You go for a walk and always run into people you know, stop for a moment to chat, or spontaneously spend the rest of the day together. Things don’t have to be planned weeks beforehand. (And even if you try, it probably won’t work.) They just happen, and that’s mostly in a good sense.

Was it a coincidence that you arrived in this country?

When I first came to Armenia in 2009, I was only 19 years old. It was my German philosophy teacher who “sent” me there. She asked what I wanted to do after high school and in response to my lame, lukewarm answer, she simply said: “I think you should go to Armenia and work in environmental protection.” My first response was: “Wait, where?” I must admit: before she mentioned it, I had never even heard of Armenia. But I trusted her advice — and the rest is my Armenian history. I volunteered for SunChild/FPWC for three months and later for another year. I adored the team and everybody’s dedication to preserving Armenia’s stunning but highly threatened nature. From that point on, I always kept coming back to Armenia…

It is always interesting to know about how a non-Armenian learned Armenian and what were the main challenges.

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Armenian is very tricky! ձ,ց,ծ – I know the difference when I read or write those letters. But hear me try and pronounce them — you’ll see I’m struggling. To me, they sound utterly similar. Normally, people in Armenia are very forgiving when a foreigner tries to speak Armenian. But I remember traveling to Urtsadzor, a village where SunChild does many projects. I was walking around and met a group of schoolchildren. They were asking me what I was doing there, and when I answered in Armenian, they all just stared at me but didn’t understand a word. It took one girl to repeat every sentence I said properly for the others to understand me. So yeah, the grammar is fine. The vocabulary is hard to memorize, but pronunciation is the main challenge.

Have you ever written any poem on Armenia?

When I first got to Armenia and worked in environmental protection, I wrote many “environmental poems,” often inspired by the news we discussed at work.

Usually you translate from Armenian with Anahit Avagyan, complementing each other – from medieval poets to contemporary authors. Those are commissioned, but are there some authors whose works you simply like to translate just for fun or for bringing to the attention of German readers?

When I read for pleasure, I usually read literature in German, so I can’t claim to have an extensive overview of Armenian literature. The following are random yet heartfelt discoveries. All the Charents and Shushan Avagyan texts we translated were on my initiative. I’m a poet by training, and last year, we worked on a collection of Tatev Chakhian’s fantastic poems. It was a commissioned translation but very dear to me.

Also, a few years ago, I stumbled on the French version of “Glissement de terrain” by Vahram Martirosyan, and I’d love for this book to exist in German! Part of it my students at Bryusov University and I already translated together from Armenian to German. This text brilliantly captures certain very Armenian elements of life.

Some people ensure that music is one of positive sides of living in Armenia. You are a great music lover.

When I worked for the DAAD and taught at Brusov University, I made it a habit to attend a concert every evening. It could be anything: A Komitas recital, a classical concert, a rock show at The Venue, a singer-songwriter at Calumet, I was just curious and exploring it all. And somehow, Armenian music very much resonated with me. I’ll hear a Mansurian piece in a mix of many things on Spotify and will feel: That’s it, that’s cool! Then I’ll look up who wrote it — et voilà, an Armenian. Same with the Komitas songs, they’re just very close to my heart. I had been a fan of composer John Hodian’s work for a long time — since 2009 when I first came to Armenia. In fact, I remember in 2012, after attending a concert of his in Germany, I told my father: One day, I’d like to work with him. Well, that certainly became a reality!

The Naghash Ensemble, founded by John Hodian, became one of vivid musical collectives of Armenia, presenting very special music. Your contribution in making it known in the world is much appreciable.

It’s the most fulfilling thing in my life. I adore this music; I love this group of musicians. I’ve probably heard over 100 concerts since 2015, and I still can’t wait for the next concert to begin. This music deeply touches your soul. It doesn’t fit into any category — is it world music? New classical? Sacred music? Should it be performed in front of a seated audience in a concert hall? Or ancient ruins somewhere in Europe? Or in an airport hangar? Is it Armenian? (Yes!) American? (Probably.) Does it make you proud to be Armenian (or ABC, Armenian by choice)? YES!

Give it a listen: https://www.naghashensemble.com/music-video

When the ensemble performs in Europe, for many audience members, this music is their first encounter with Armenian culture. I’m always proud if they later decide to learn more, listen to more, read more, watch more, and eventually visit. In this sense, the ensemble is a very powerful cultural ambassador. I love it!

There are German and German-speaking expats in Armenia and even a small NGO “Teutonia” unifying the few Armenian citizens of German origin. Have you ever got in touch with them?

I haven’t. I believe there’s also a regulars’ table for Germans, but there’s only one German I regularly meet with. Plus a few Armenians who speak German. But with the internet and access to online newspapers and ebooks, I don’t miss German culture. The only thing I miss is the ease of speaking my mother tongue — the precision you have in your native language.

Wiebke, after the tragic war of 2020 you stayed in Armenia. Some Armenians living abroad are skeptical about returning to their homeland, although today we see many non-Armenians living, working and creating in our country. What would you say them given your experience?

Armenia strongly benefits from the contribution of its old and new diaspora as well as of non-Armenians. I meet many Armenians abroad who’d like to make Armenia their home (again) or even just their temporary home. Of course, in 2018-2020, there was a different, very optimistic repatriation movement. Armenia’s future seemed bright, hopeful, and almost naively careless. I understand everybody who hesitates post-2020. The situation is dire. At the same time, Armenia never needed you more. And we must continue to exist, create, and thrive, let it be in Armenia or abroad. Just like Saroyan says in his famous quote.

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