There are a lot more Syrians in Yerevan than there were two years ago. Everywhere we go, we meet people from Aleppo, a city which, until very recently, was home to one of the largest Armenian diaspora communities in the world. Since the start of the troubles in Syria, this diaspora has been returning to Armenia.
The story goes something like this… A hundred years ago, in what was then the Ottoman Empire, most of the Armenians were rounded up, and marched into the deserts of Syria. Many died along the way and unimaginable suffering was endured. There are still piles of Armenian bones buried under the sands of the Der El-Zor desert.
The survivors of the Armenian Genocide spread around the world, forming one of the world’s largest diasporas. Many of those who made it to Syria remained there, and now they are returning home – or at least, their children and grandchildren are.
But, the Armenia of today is very different from the one left behind during the genocide of 1915-1922. To start with, it’s another piece of land entirely. The “Western Armenia” of the Ottoman Empire now lies in modern Turkey, while the modern Republic of Armenia was a Soviet state for 80 years. The Eastern Armenian language, already different from the Western Armenian spoken in Anatolia, has taken on Russian words and influences, while the Western Armenian spoken in Syria has taken Arabic and Turkish words.
Wikipedia claims that Western and Eastern Armenian are easily mutually intelligible. Tell that to our Syrian-Armenian friend Victoria and her Eastern Armenian flatmate Ana, who speak to each other in English, rather than muddle through sentences that can take up to twenty minutes to decipher in their own languages.
Victoria has a crowd of friends who swear at one another jokingly in Turkish and reminisce about favourite Aleppo foodstuffs, much of which is now available here. My old favourite restaurant Lagonid (still the best for vegans and vegetarians) has been joined by the popular Anteb, along with Lebanese restaurants like Babik.
Yerevan is changing rapidly. There is an explosion of Middle-Eastern restaurants; the music scene is thriving, and H doesn’t feel like such a giraffe any more. Long hair and beards seem a more popular trend among Syrian-Armenian men, than with Yerevantsi men, whose dominant trend is to have short hair with a very straight fringe, and cleanly-polished chin.
One of many bands to emerge from the returning diaspora population is Shiver, the singer of which is now running Melrose bar. We were fortunate to catch one of their live performances one evening.
There are also changes among the local Armenian population. I notice a lot more Yerevantsi Armenians are frequenting bars these days, pointing to an emerging middle class – something that wasn’t here only a year and a half ago. The kids born after the collapse of the Soviet Union are now growing up, and this is also making a significant shift in culture.
Armenia is still run by the same election-rigging oligarchs, and the divide between rich and poor is as acute as ever, but now there are people in the middle. All these factors lead to some refreshing changes in the city.
I’m curious how things will look in another couple of years, and am also wondering when these developments will start rolling out to the still deeply impoverished regions of Armenia – everywhere outside the capital.