April – August, 2013, Yerevan
For four months I lived in Yerevan. It felt good – if not like belonging, then resting. An extended period of time without planning the next destination. It had been a long time since I did that.
I arrived in a post-election fervour. The oligarchs had won, to nobody’s surprise. Elections are always rigged in Armenia. Impoverished people are paid 10,000 dram (around $25, in a country where the minimum wage constitutes around $100 a month) to vote for particular candidates; bus loads of elderly people are transported around polling stations and assisted right into the voting booth by ever-helpful candidates. Nobody was surprised when they won, but there was a rage swelling. Protests erupted daily in Freedom Square outside the Opera. I noticed remarkable differences from the protests I’m used to, these being dominated by people waving flags and chanting the name of their country in Armenian – “Hayastan! Hayastan!”
There appeared to be something of a dearth of grass-roots social movements in Armenia. As always on my journey, I dug under the surface, unearthing an ecology movement; fledgling feminist and LGBT movements and a tiny voracious queer scene. I visited the Women’s Resource Centre, some small feminist events and The Screenery: a monthly community film screening event, held in a variety of venues. The Screenery is run by Leslie, also one of our neighbours. It features a broad range of genres ranging from protest films (If a Tree Falls) to Persian and Armenian cinema. Held in a variety of bars and other indoor spaces during winter, the screenings moved outdoors as the weather warmed, with films projected onto the wall at the back of the house.
Our house and Leslie’s house next door were both owned by the same man: a portly ruddy-faced alcoholic named Anush, which roughly translates as ‘Sweetheart’. Anush had his garage under the mezzanine that runs around Leslie’s house. During my four months in Yerevan, I saw him working on a car in that garage approximately three times. When he wasn’t working on a car, Anush could usually be found at a table either inside or just outside the garage, depending on the weather, drinking vodka and playing games with one or more of his friends. “Just a moment please!” Anush would occasionally call out to Hrach and I on our way past the table. He would then command Hrach to translate while pouring us shots of vodka and elaborating a lengthy toast, usually to ‘mothers’ (he had recently lost his), or ‘friends around the world’. ‘Just a moment please’, from what I could make out, is Anush’s only English sentence. As landlords go, he’s not a bad one. The worst thing he ever did was bring a sack of live crayfish to the house and command Hrach to boil them alive. Anush is a patriarch, there is no arguing with him. Hrach, who had never purposely killed any creature before, shut me in the bedroom until the evil deed was done.
Both our two houses had a variety of international people living in them. Leslie shared her place with Dagna from Poland, and Simon, an inquisitive-minded chap from Sheffield, later replaced by the very loveable Pierro, from Venice. It was living with and around these people that really made my time in Yerevan.
Both houses were tucked away from the noise of the main street, part of a myriad of higgledy-piggledy houses without names or numbers. Hrach and I would sit in our shared yard most mornings, sipping Turkish Armenian coffee under the mulberry tree. Our own house was largely filled with Armenians from Aleppo, with one or two exceptions, like Courtney.
Courtney came to us in the spring; a chirpy Canadian girl who stayed a month in our little spare room. Garo also lived with us by then. Like Hrach, Garo grew up in the Armenian community in Aleppo, Syria. More and more Syrian-Armenians were coming to Yerevan, fleeing the conflict back home.
Thanks to the tree outside, our yard was a carpet of mulberries, many of which would get squished into our fraying carpets and the kitchen lino, which nobody but I seemed to clean. Harvesting mulberries with Courtney and Hrach’s friend Lennard is among my favourite Armenia memories.
One thing about staying in one place for so long is that suddenly you have routines. Twice a week at first, then less as the weather reached furnace point, I would go jogging through the gorge, on quiet roads that run alongside the river. Nobody goes jogging in Yerevan. People always stared. One day I discovered an outdoor gym right by the roadside. Big men would perch there on the exercise machines and gossip with bellies that billowed out over little shorts, then pump iron, drink vodka on car bonnets and drive home.
24th April is an important day for Armenians around the world. This is the day to remember the Armenian Genocide during the Ottoman Empire, from 1915 to 1923. Although the genocide is considered to have lasted several years, the 24th April was the date in 1915 when Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul were rounded up and deported. In the Republic of Armenia, 24th April is a public holiday, when almost the entire population flocks to the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial to lay flowers at the eternal flame. Hrach, Dagna, Simon and I joined hundreds of thousands of mourners on that sunny April day.
Sometime after the Presidential Elections, the Municipal Elections came around. After the flagrant abuse of process at elections, a conglomerate of NGOs formed and began recruiting volunteers to take part in the greatest independent electoral observation effort in Armenian history. The volunteers were recruited by a system of trust: friends of friends of friends of the NGO workers who began the initiative. It was a only a few days before the training that I received the email. I would never imagine myself observing elections in the UK, but in Yerevan, things felt different. I found myself at a polling station early one morning, surrounded by political hyenas. I focused my video camera on them and pressed record. Unlike others, I didn’t observe any truly outrageous abuses, but I did see plenty of problems, and there were undoubtedly dodgy things going on around the corner outside the polling station.
I discovered a tiny Soviet library with a surprisingly strong wifi connection not far from our house. It quickly became my favourite place for writing, on an old-fashioned wooden school desk, amidst dusty old books that nobody ever came to read. The only other visitors were two or three elderly men, who read newspapers at the desks, then doddered off back to who-knows-where.
Sveta would always wave at me on my way home from jogging or the library, my arms laden with groceries and the village eggs I buy from Sonja’s market stall. Sveta would also come by the house to collect our bottles, which we would save for her. I heard she has a house in a village somewhere, but it’s a long way to travel without much opportunity for bottle collecting, so mostly she sleeps under the flyover. There’s no water in her village either and I doubt she gets much opportunity to wash. Although unsurprisingly a bit mad, Sveta always seemed cheerful to me. A true survivor.
One day the Armenian Government suddenly decided to increase the public transport fare on the metro, buses and marshrutkas (shared minibuses) from 100 dram (around 15p / 25c) to 200 dram. Protests erupted once again in Freedom Square, this time taking up the cry “Haroor (100) dram! Haroor dram!” Small gangs of protesters rode buses and minibuses all day long, making speeches to encourage people not to pay more. Volunteers arrived regularly at bus stops in independent cars with “free car” written on the side, to help people boycott the transport system. The government caved in. The people were victorious. The fare will remain 100 dram.. for now.
At night Hrach and I could often be found in either Calumet or Music Factory, our two favourite bars. Calumet is all prayer flags, throws and a big Om sign on the wall. Music Factory is a rock bar, open later than most other bars. People would usually flock into Music Factory late at night, after Calumet and the other popular bars had closed. The ‘stiletto count’ would usually be very low in these venues. In most other bars, as in the streets and cafes in general, most women wear a ton of make-up with sculpted hairdos and nine inch heels.
15-20th March, 2013
After leaving Barış’s apartment, I go to live with Jane and her friends in Mafia’s place, just around the corner in a different part of Zeytinburnu. It’s another world.
Jane and I share a room with Mafia and his partner, our friend Helen. There are two other rooms in the flat. One, which under different circumstances would probably be a lounge, is occupied by Mafia’s brother, their sister, her husband, their 6 year old daughter Farzana, and an adult male relative, probably somebody’s cousin.
The third room is occupied by a fluctuating number of boys who, like Mafia and his family, have fled from Afghanistan. The boys, mostly young teenagers, came to Turkey unaccompanied and are all working in the textile sweatshop down the road, trying to scrape a living and hopefully save up enough to continue their journey – to Greece and beyond. The textile factory bosses are known for not paying their child labourers and Mafia is often heard booming – “Get the money, get the money!” before storming out of the flat to fight a sweatshop boss or demand payment for one or other of the kids.
Farzana’s deep brown eyes stare into mine. Her outstreched arm clutches a tetrapack of orange juice. “Oh, yes please!” I tell her. She doesn’t understand the words, but she delicately unscrews the small plastic cap and pours the juice into a cup. Placing the carton back on the floor, she lifts the cup with both hands and holds it out to me. When everyone has juice, Farzana busies herself dusting surfaces with a scrap of cloth from the pile we found at the bottom of the stairs.
Mafia kicks Jane. She jumps up and lunges herself at him, pounding him on the back. He laughs and swings her to the floor. She grabs a leg and starts beating it. He pins her to the ground, then grabs her neck and cracks it to one side. “Aaaaarrrgh, that’s not fair!” she yells, before collapsing in giggles.
If Mafia and his brother are anything to go by, cracking various body parts is the national pastime in Afghanistan. They are constantly cracking themselves and other people. Mafia can even crack his own skull.
Farzana, her mother, father and the possible cousin, leave early one morning to catch a boat to Greece with people smugglers. They are taken to one of the Greek islands, where they wander around waiting to be arrested and call Mafia nervously. They have met some people who have offered to help them, but don’t know whether to trust them or not. Mafia tells them not to trust anybody. “Don’t worry”, he tells them, “just walk around and sooner or later you will be arrested.”
Farzana does many drawings while in the house with us. Some of them are of crossing borders and asylum procedures, others we have no idea about.
1st February -15th March, 2013
Most tourists in Istanbul have probably never heard of Zeytinburnu, a working-class neighbourhood on the European side of Istanbul, just West of Fatih on the shores of the Marmara Sea.
I found my room there through a certain well know hospitality exchange website, on one of the Istanbul accommodation groups. The room was cheap, the guy seemed friendly. We exchanged some emails and I prepared to move in on arrival in Istanbul.
Zeytinburnu is an important lesson for city planning in Turkey, because it was one of the first Gecekondu districts. In other words most of the buildings were built illegally, without infrastructure, and without any aesthetical concern. In the 1960s legislation was passed to prevent this type of building but by then this type of development had become unstoppable. At first these were little brick-built single storey cottages. From the 1970s onwards the little houses were replaced by multi-storey concrete apartment blocks built in rows with no space in between. In most cases the ground floor was used as a small textile workshop, and thus Zeytinburnu became a bustling industrial area with a large residential population living above the workshops. All this was still illegal and unplanned and still lacked the infrastructure and the aesthetics. After a heavy rain the streets would run with dirty water for days.
On meeting my new landlord Barış (pronounced something like “Barush”), whose name means ‘Peace’, it quickly became clear he was somewhat paranoid and perhaps even paranoid delusional. He took to me straight away though and lowered the price of the room still further, saying he wanted to help me. “There should be more people in the world like you”, he said. Barış began regaling me with tales from his past. He told me about his psychologically abusive father, his ex-girlfriend who went out of her way to be mean to him and his downstairs neighbour, whose main pass-time was apparently to continuously torture Barış in lots of fun little ways – such as turning his electricity off at random intervals; drilling small holes into the wall in his bedroom that would allow carbon monoxide to seep in when he lit his fire in the flat downstairs, and pumping the smell of glue up through the floor vent in the bathroom. Subsequently, to keep this downstairs madman at bay, we had to keep to lots of little protective rituals in the flat, such as keeping a large bottle of water over the floor vent in the bathroom. Barış also informed me he’d had the electricity in the flat rewired, making it impossible to trip. This concerned me somewhat. I considered the idea that Barış may be mistaken about the neighbour and could possible have faulty electrics that tripped when a certain appliance was plugged in. He had effectively rewired out the safety mechanism that could keep the flat from going up in smoke.
Along with the safety precautions regarding the downstairs neighbour, came a strict cleaning regime. Everything must be cleaned spotless the moment it was finished with. The house was perpetually gleaming, but that didn’t stop Barış from making a fuss, complaining about the mess and the grime. I reasoned with him that since I cleaned the bathroom each and every time I used it, cleaning it weekly as well seemed a little pointless and perhaps even a tad excessive. He glared at me.
I was in Istanbul to take a CELTA course. This idea had been turning over slowly in my mind since I first came to Turkey two years previously. Finally, the germ of an idea had seeded and sprouted into a fully-grown plan. Now here I was, about to become a professionally qualified English teacher. I was terrified.
The CELTA course would take place over five jam-packed weeks, during which I would commute four mornings every week to 4. Levent, across the Golden Horn. I did this with several million other people, who all attempted to squash themselves into every available tram, train, bus and metro each day. I took pleasure in this daily dash, feeling important. I had something to do. I was a busy person. I ran up and down the escalators every day, even when I wasn’t running late.
Living with us in Barış’s flat was a young eccentric chap named Murat. Murat labelled himself a ‘Vintage Enthusiast’. He was passionate about bicycles, helping other people, and vintage clothing and accessories. One day, for example, I came home to discover Murat had found a couple of Rainbow hippies out somewhere on the streets and invited them to share his tiny box room with him, despite being previously unfamiliar with the concept of Rainbow.
I was lucky to have Murat around on the day I moved out of Barış’s apartment. I was also fortunate enough to be sick on that day. If I was my usual self, I wouldn’t have asked my friend Jo for help in moving my things, and she wouldn’t have been there to sit down on the floor with me in protest when Barış refused to return my deposit, claiming that I didn’t wash my sheets and should therefore be penalised the 225 Turkish Lira I had given him – (around £80).
When Barış lost his temper completely and began to push me forcefully out of the front door, Jo pulled me back in and Murat tried in vain to calm our nutty landlord. It was futile. I never recovered the full extent of my deposit, but I got about half of it back in a compromise, after phoning for backup. When someone began hammering on the door from the other side, Barış began looking seriously nervous. “Mafia’s here!” Jo grinned. Our backup had arrived.
Barış told us he’d given Murat his bank card and pin number and instructed him to give us the money once we’d all exited the building. On getting outside, we discovered he’d given him 125 lira to give to us, rather than the bank card. He still owes me 100 lira. Barış has since deleted his profile on the hospitality website.