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.