I DON'T KNOW WHY I CAME HERE," says Cher. It is a late April afternoon, and she is standing before a group of 1,000 students at Yerevan University, deep in the ravaged heart of the former Soviet republic of Armenia. No one in the unheated, dank assembly hall seems to know why she is there either. They remember Cher from the not so long ago days when they had television and batteries and something other than candles by which to read the newspapers at night. And so to them she is an intriguing apparition, a sudden shaft of light slanting in from the West, even if her message is not full of hope.
"Most Americans have no idea you are here," she tells them, in her characteristic let's-cut-the-b.s. fashion. Now, suddenly, she seems to grasp her mission. "The most important thing I can do," she continues, "is take a picture back to America so they can see what it's like."
For three days, Cher, 46, traveled through Armenia, collecting—and generating—such images of a country and a people who have fallen through the crack of consciousness between Bosnia and Somalia. She arrived in Yerevan—once a prosperous capital city and now a ragged shadow of its former self—on a sunny, 50°F Wednesday. She had departed her home in Santa Monica several days earlier, paid a visit to her 17-year-old son, Elijah Blue Allman, at his New England prep school, slopped briefly in London, then flown to Armenia under the auspices of the United Armenian Fund, a nonprofit relief organization, on a rickety DC-8 cargo plane. With her came 45 tons of medical supplies, books, printing equipment. candy and toys—including Glitter Beach Barbie dolls. Then, at the airport, she and her companions—including her old pal and assistant Paulette Betts and true love turned best friend Rob Camilletti, 28—boarded an ancient bus crammed with an international group of reporters and photographers who had vied for the chance to join her. "I want to bring a face to the name Armenian," she had said. Her itinerary included an orphanage, a typical Armenian household and—because she is, after all, Cher—a brief stop for Diet Pepsi with the president of the country. Levon Ter-Petrosyan.
To understand why Cher undertook this journey, it helps to remember that behind the leather and lace costumes and the club-scene poses, she is still Cherilyn Sarkisian, the only black-haired member in a family of Southern California blonds. Cher, who grew up with one half sister, is the daughter of a mother, Georgia, with Irish, English, German and Cherokee bloodlines, and a father, John, whose parents left Armenia after an ethnic-cleansing campaign conducted by the Ottoman Turks in which an estimated 1 million perished. Her parents divorced when Cher was 14 months old, and she enjoyed meaningful contact with her father for only a few months when she was 11 and Georgia and John briefly reconciled. Although her relationship with her father, who died in 1985, was volatile, and the two seldom spoke, Cher will always remember that first sight of his dark eyes. "I just looked at him," she recalls. "Until then, I didn't know there was such a thing as an Armenian."
In 1993 there is barely such a place as Armenia. The country of 3.7 million—shattered by a 1988 earthquake, economically ruined by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and locked in an unwinnable war with neighboring Azerbaijan, which has blockaded most of its borders—is so staggeringly dysfunctional that it could rouse maternal instincts in a stone. Unemployment brushes 85 percent in the cities, electrical power is sporadic, and a pound of beef costs 1,000 rubles—for most people, two week's pay. Scattered along the route that Cher's bus traveled were the weirdly uniform stumps of trees that had been cut down for firewood during the long winter.
So why plunk herself down amid the misery? Cher says that at this point in her life she actually feels herself drawn to such grinding need and utter turmoil. One reason is that her family responsibilities are lighter these days. Elijah (her son by second husband Gregg Allman) is off at private school. And her daughter (by first husband Sonny Bono), Chastity, 24, is pursuing a rock career with a band called Ceremony. "I was living a life of seclusion—and it wasn't working," Cher says. Later she adds, "If you want to represent people as an artist, you've got to live your life with your ear to the ground, to be disturbed and restless."
During the last few months, Cher has been shaking up her world. She has put all of her real estate holdings—a house and 1.3-acre spread in Malibu, and another house on 7-plus acres in Aspen—on the market. She has stepped up her contributions of time and money to the Children's Craniofacial Association, a group she learned about while making the 1985 movie Mask, in which she played the mother of a teenage boy with a severe facial deformity. And though she hasn't made any definite plans to pull out of the infotainment business, her days of huckstering hair and skin products on late-night TV appear to be numbered.
"I think I kind of lost my way," she said one night in Armenia, speaking from the darkness of a hotel room that would have to wait another day for its allotted hour or so of daily electricity. "I've sold my soul in a way. What I've done is nothing to be ashamed of, but I just don't want to be a businesswoman who docs infomercials anymore. It doesn't feel good."
It's strange what does. During her brief but emotionally charged tour of Armenia, Cher did her makeup by the light of a sputtering candle, hid her unwashed bangs under a velvet cap and a striped headscarf, huddled for warmth each night under ratty blankets—then woke up refreshed and ready for more.
Each day in that land of poverty and chaos brought serendipitous surprises. For example, Cher probably never thought she would want to see the inside of an orphanage again. She had spent some six months in one when she was about 2 and her mother, a single parent, was too sick to take care of her. But Cher's visit to the warm but shabby Mangadoon home near Yerevan brought smiles instead of traumatic memories. Cher sat cross-legged on the floor in her leather overalls while two dozen children of preschool age recited the Lord's Prayer for her and sang the Armenian national anthem. She rewarded each child with a hug and a Barbie, a gilt that left many of the Mangadoon residents, who had never had a new toy before, speechless. "I always hated you, Barbie," Cher said to one of the dolls. "I always thought you were a blond bimbo, but now I see that you have your uses."
The woman who headed the supposedly typical Armenian household that Cher visited on her second day in the country was anything bill speechless. "I hope this is the worst of times," Alvard Keropian, a woman in her mid-40s, said to her celebrity visitor. Ensconced on the sixth floor of a concrete apartment block atop a hill in Yerevan, Alvard and her husband are raising five children on a diet of little more than rice, potatoes and powdered milk. Against a backdrop of dozens of books—which, along with brandy glasses, coffee cups and a few slicks of furniture, seem to be the family's only possessions she chatted with Cher, mom to mom, about the difficulties, and occasional joys, of having a teenager. "My son is doing so well at mathematics," she said, "that someday you, Cher, will be proud to say that you have met Vahan Keropian." The boy, standing nearby, emitted a strangled noise—the international signal for adolescent embarrassment.
The next day, Cher visited another household a few miles away and encountered yet a deeper level of need. Christina Agabekov, who lives with her parents and year-old sister, has been partially paralyzed since birth from cerebral spastia. Although she is only 3, she knows who Cher is because her mother, Nelli, reached the movie star eight months ago with a letter that she had entrusted to a friend who was immigrating to the U.S. and who found an address for Cher through a charitable organization in New York City. What the mother wanted was help in getting Christina to America, where her condition could be better diagnosed and treated. "It's a miracle that letter got to me," Cher say. But the family thinks it's an even bigger miracle that Cher not only wrote back, offering to bring Christina to the U.S., but showed up to sit in the parlor and confirm the arrangements. The child and her mother will be going to a hospital in Los Angeles some time this month. "Unbelievable!" said Christina's Aunt Irina, who traveled about 400 miles from Uzbekistan to be with the child and witness the celebrity visit. "Yeah," said Cher, with her patented deadpan. "This is kind of the Armenian version of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."
On her final day in the country, Cher took a short trip through Yerevan to pay a 30-minute call on President Ter-Petrosyan. They discussed a book Cher had read recently, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, about noble Armenians who fought the Turks. Then Cher went with her group to visit Echmiadzin, the headquarters of the Armenian Orthodox Church and Seminary built amid a peaceful setting of trees and gardens in the year A.D. 301. She look in the ancient archways and the painted and inlaid altar, then paused before a heavy jeweled crucifix as black-hooded priests chanted the morning Eucharist. After lingering over the tapestries, paintings and manuscripts in the seminary's museum, she wrote in the guest book that "visiting this place has been one of the most thrilling moments of my life."
Outside, the sound of hammering drew her toward a cave in the ancient wall where a stonecutter was at work on an ornate cross made from the crumbly pink tufa that is Armenia's native stone. She clambered down into the cryptlike space and asked for instruction. Guided by the stonecutter, Max Chazarian, she helped etch an elaborate chain design into the soft rock that will eventually be installed in front of the seminary.
As Cher hammered at the stone, intent on her work, pink tufa dust rained down on her black clothes. She couldn't have cared less. Malibu and Aspen seemed far, far away. "I could have stayed there for days," she said later, shortly before getting on the plane to head home. "I met a man, and he taught me to carve on stone. At that moment I began to feel Armenian."
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