By Michael Krikorian
The good thing about eating bad food in a conflict zone is when you have something that hits the spot, well, it’s like a slap upside your head reminding you that food isn’t just fuel.
After succumbing to war food, I got that slap Sunday in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno Karabakh, aka Artsakh, where the Azerbaijanis are attacking the Armenians.
I had the soup at Samra restaurant on Tumanian Street. The soup, the owner tells me, is called Gerusoos, which roughly translates to “Eat it and don’t ask.” So I don’t ask. It’s a soulful chicken soup with a little rice, potatoes and it hits the spot. So much that I loudly announce to the owner, Hovik Asmaryan, and a few others present that Samra is the best restaurant in Stepanakert. He reluctantly agrees, but insists on telling a story related to my bold announcement.
“A boy comes home and tells his parents ‘Papa, Mama! I won first place in the running race. 100 meters. I won!’ The parents are so proud. ‘How many other runners were there?’ the father asks. The boy proudly says ‘It was only me running the race. But, I won.’ ”
“That’s how I feel,” Asmaryan, 50, says, “I have no competition. All the other restaurants are absent because of the war.”
Samra he says means a light brown or tan-color. In fact, it is a common Muslim name for girls. This Samra is not so much a restaurant any more, but a way station that dishes out free food to soldiers, journalists, or anyone who drops in. Asmaryan will not take money, though he is open to taking product donations so he and his wife, Isabel, who is the chef, can cook for others.
Hovik and Isabel and three children, ages 14, 13, and 11, lived in Aleppo, Syria, where he made a good living running an auto parts store. But, after living through two years of the utterly brutal war, they moved to the then-tranquil Stepanakert.
Then war came to town the morning of September 27. The family heard the first explosions and gathered in a hallway of their two-story home. “I didn’t want to panic my children so I told them that it was fireworks. My youngest son shook his head and said ‘No, those are bombs. The war is here now.’”
Like many, Asmaryan felt a war was coming because he knew of the extensive arms build up of the Azeris, especially drones from Israel. “They were busy buying so many weapons. Why does someone buy weapons when no one wants to invade your country? To invade someone else’s land.”
When the shelling started, the family closed Samra, a fast-food restaurant specializing in sandwiches. A couple of days later, soldiers were walking by and Asmaryan offered them sandwiches. Isabel offered soup. The fighters longed for home cooking. The soup made the day. And they knew better than to ask about it.
Behind the restaurant, in front of his home is his garden of rose bushes, fruit trees and a trellis that will someday produce kiwis. Asmaryan sits down and talks about his paradise.
“When my children and wife are here with me, this is my heaven. My children are in Yerevan now. It’s better for them to be there, but it hurts they are away. My wife, she is there now, but she will return tonight.”
He is silent for many seconds. Then he looks around his lovely little garden and smiles sadly. “There are no birds singing here now. Only bombs. But, in the spring the birds will be back. I know they will.”
One last thing. I show him my notebook and ask if my spelling of his wife’s name, Isabel, is correct. “I don’t know,” he says. “I never have to write her letters. Why should I? She is usually always with me.”
Also Read: On Karabakh Frontline, Faith Remains a Key Weapon
Michael Krikorian is a writer from Los Angeles. He was previously a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and for the Fresno Bee. He writes under the pseudonym "Jimmy Dolan" for the Mozza Tribune. His website is www.KrikorianWrites.com and his first novel is called "Southside".