yerevan letters #5: hiding

in the summer i used to half-joke that i had to count an extra 10-15 minutes in my commute anywhere for the men who would stop me in the street. it goes like this: i notice a man following me, sometimes for one block, sometimes for four. eventually they end up walking parallel to me. when that fails to produce interest, they start talking to me. sometimes i’m caught off guard and remove my headphones - that’s always a mistake. then a barrage of questions begins, in every language, to determine what i speak, where i’m from, what am i doing here? am i a tourist? where do i work? do i want coffee? or wine? can they take me to dinner? they have a sister they’d like me to meet and they’re sure we’d get along because their friend was in europe one time so we must have a lot in common anyways why am i so rushed? where am i going so fast? can’t he just talk to me?

            they’re usually possible to ignore, especially if you’re willing to take a detour around a block to lose them by cutting through a dalan. for that though you have to know the city and its hiding places. i took up the strategy of beginning to cross a street only to double back halfway. but there’s no doing that if one makes the mistake of taking out an earbud. or, worse yet, the mistake of making eye contact: eye contact, much like “lipstick”, “walking alone,” or “existing in a female body,” is well-known to be an invitation to interaction. at that point, you’re in for a good 5-minute discussion, in which you really shouldn’t smile, and you just have to repeatedly say “no” very sternly until they go away. when this happens, you’re being rude, so you should be prepared to be cussed out.

            that’s not so bad though. being pretty - which, here, often implies european-looking, and i fit the bill - comes with its advantages. i never lift anything heavy anymore and men always let me go first. and, besides, yerevan is safe. armenia has such a low crime rate. people help each other here, all the time, relentlessly. if i ask for directions in a shop looking lost, the store-owner might call their son/brother/cousin/friend/neighbor/cat-sitter to walk me to my destination of choice. besides, the bad things, they say, never happen in yerevan. it’s in towns and villages that women really can’t walk alone after 10pm. 

            a few nights ago i stopped at the supermarket on my way home from a pleasant night out. as i walked in with my roommate, two men standing in the entrance leer at us, and i hear them say something in armenian - i recognize the word “girls,” and by their gestures i gather they’re saying something like “look at how these girls are dressed.” i remembered i was wearing a form-fitting shirt they might have seen under my jacket; so i readjusted my scarf and coat and went into the store. there, another man comes up to us, starts to ask questions. we tell him to go away. he hears us speaks french and begins speaking french with us: where are we going? what are we doing? where are we from? why won’t we talk to him? he finally leaves after we both tell him to leave us alone three or four times. then i walk past an aisle, and i notice a man watching me from behind a shelf. i make the rookie mistake of making eye contact - bold of me to interact with him like i am a person - and he begins to kiss the air at me. after weaving our way through the rest of the stores, avoiding men whose eyes are on us, we finally get to the cashier, but before we can put down our items, another man blocks our way to wink at my friend.

            on our way home, two cars stop next to us to leer at us, make obscene gestures, or to shout  “i love you!” as though that might make us get in and drive away with them. by now we are frustrated and angry, speaking loudly, gesticulating, yelling on a few occasions at the men who approach us. but anger draws attention, and attention draws more men. it’s okay though: it was late, and we weren’t with a man, and this is the type of behaviour women can expect when they're alone.

            men, especially foreign men, like to remind me i have it easy here: it could be much worse, i could be an armenian woman expected to marry. (they’re right, but they say nothing when local women do not sit at the dinner table. they instead stay seated, drinking glass after glass of homemade wine with the husbands while the wives hurriedly eat over the kitchen sink between rounds of food and drink they spent a whole afternoon preparing.) plus, unlike in other places, there are rules you can follow here that protect you for real. if you don’t dress a certain way, don’t walk at certain times or talk a certain way, if you try to be around men or at least tell people you’re married, claimed, the men won’t hurt you. they’ll just bother you, like real-life counter parts of the pesky beginner-level enemies that video games throw at you in swarms as an annoyance that isn’t meant to threaten you. at least that’s what they told me, what i believed, and what i told women who were new here.

            only a few days ago, a friend wrote about what happened to her. a young man came out of the shadows at her, genitals in hand, pulling and rubbing in her direction. when she screamed he ran off, throwing up a middle finger. then she talked about how woman after woman after woman reached out to her saying “it happened to me as well, i’ve had this too, but i didn’t speak up.” then i remembered other stories: one friend who was followed to her building door, on which he started banging after she locked it; a friend whose cab driver wouldn’t take no for an answer; the time i myself was followed to my apartment door.

            i make my coffee stirring it three times before it begins to boil, and then once more after each of three times i let it bubble up. this is how i was taught by a friend who was taught by her grandmother. it’s something i feel compelled to do because someone believed in it before me. i couldn’t tell you what or who i am appeasing through it, but the world feels inexplicably slightly more ordered when i do it right. i have no explanations, and i’ll admit i don’t really look for any. i just like that there’s a place where stirring my coffee three times feels like a testament of good will and conscientiousness.

            this is a place where i must stir my coffee three times and old women come put candy in my pocket and there’s a man i often run into who wears a snake around his neck. here, i was happy to believe that those surface-level indications of sexism didn’t tug at anything darker, at the very least not for women who just want to go grocery shopping on their way home. but i know now that to assume that women are not constantly threatened by the desires for domination of the men around us was too much suspension of disbelief. to be clear, i don’t love armenia less. i’m not saying it is no longer magical or surreal in that way i’ve described before that never ceases to fascinate me. i’m just saying i suppose there isn’t magic enough on this earth to keep women safe.

yerevan letters #4: speaking

often when i go to bed here, sometime between midnight and two, the birds are singing, and it seems like it is almost dawn. it helps create the feeling of surreality that i find myself immersed in here, the intangible way in which time and space seem to follow different rules here. i’ve written before, hesitantly, that magic is real in armenia - but the thing i’m trying to describe is something both stranger and more human than that. everything here is always both more and less complicated than it seems from the outside.

            living here as a foreigner is living two lives: one where my feet are planted, and the other in the eyes of my loved ones abroad. this second life is always a caricatured reconstruction of the first, a collage of anecdotes that i’m sure, from the outside, seem disjointed and fabulated.

            every story here requires a meticulous setting up of scenes. for my favourite revolutionary anecdote, you must understand the haraparak, the main square. people gathered there for rallies every night, running into each other like campers around a bonfire. then you must know that at night-time, the square is aglitter: a big clock that shines as bright as the moon; the lights of the city; a great fountain with a nightly light show and ripples that reflect the scene as if it were covered in tiny diamonds. if you were to step into the fountain at that time, i suppose it would feel like being inside a firework. finally, you must know that in times of celebration, the square is filled with a mix of eclectic salespeople: small toy dogs! cotton candy! apples! fruit! coffee! small toy cats! popcorn! actual dogs dressed up as village girls! small figurine clowns! actual real-life clowns! bobbing electric light-up balloons!

            in this cacophony i am darting around haraparak with my camera. a large group of people is playing volleyball in a large circle. in a moment, i am surrounded by chaos: the ball has gone over my head; i duck to protect my camera; suddenly there is a clown holding a light-up balloon; a child blowing bubbles has somehow stumbled into us. i try to shrink and give people their space. suddenly i am being ushered into the volleyball circle. uncoordinated and one-handed, i try to gesture that i can’t play; the ushering doesn’t stop, and i am now in the centre. suddenly the volleyball circle has become a dancing circle, an armenian song has come on, and people are waiting on me to dance. i’m slow on the uptake and i am surrounded by men showing me how to dance my part and kneeling, clapping, encouraging me to start off the circle. as i start moving, the ring of people around me starts dancing as well, linking arms and circling in a miraculously coordinated thrash of arms and legs. if ever an armenian reads this, i imagine this entire description will seem, at best, endearingly uninitiated, and at worst entirely superfluous.

            here’s another small miracle: armenia chose the time of the revolution to fall into summer. almost overnight, the streets are now full of women in sundresses and shorts and children eating ice cream. but the weather is volatile: since the end of the revolution, the sky has spent its days building these dark, heavy clouds, and there will be just a few moments of silver clarity before it starts raining. it will rain lightly for a few moments, as a sort of warning, and then the skies will open onto you in a springtime hail storm. i often watch these thunderstorms roll in from my balcony: i watch the lightning creep from one side of the city to the other, and it reminds me of when, during the week or two after may 8th, people set off tiny fireworks show throughout the entire city. it is almost like the earth itself is saying shnorhavor, the word for ‘congratulations’ that bounced back and forth between people for days after the revolution succeeded. it feels like maybe the city itself soaked up the word and was now throwing it back at us.

            the city has mostly recovered from its post-revolutionary hangover. everyone who was here during that time has vivid memories of the time: everyone has an anecdote like my volleyball story. but ever since the beginning, the revolution has been incorporated in our day-to-day lives: in april, it affected whether we could take the metro to work, whether our workplace was open at all. today, the people have their ears to the ground, listening for foundational shifts in the country: what will the government change? what about taxes? what about the police? what about gender issues? what about? what about? what about?

            at the same time, the bombastic, kaleidoscopic nature of the revolution has now been locked away, so distant now it is almost like a dream. in fact, it’s almost strange to talk about it now in large abstract terms - besides good party anecdotes, how do you explain what the revolution is like? you could say “crazy,” but then “crazy” is what i used in university when i had four essay deadlines in a week. i think i would have to say that it happened like one of yerevan’s many flash-floods: a short buildup, a flash flood, and then a knowing silence. describing it doesn’t make much sense unless you’ve ever gotten as wet as armenians do in the spring.

            on the day the revolution started, i was on my way back to yerevan from tatev, a small city high up in the mountains where it was still winter at the time. i don’t really believe in god but i on that drive i understood why they call this land holy. it is hard not to think  of the mountains as intentional. the summits are that look soft and sharp, and they wear lines like a topographical map, telling you how they grew, where they came from. the softness makes them look like dough, after it has been balled up and smoothed out and laid to rest.

it makes me think of giant hands working the earth here: smoothing some mounts, pinching others to make some ridges, pulling here, tucking there. i don’t really believe in god but here in the middle seat of a van i wonder whether she would call herself an sculptor or a baker. that day, i learned that when the clouds open to let through a spot of sunlight, it is called a “crepuscular ray.” but the person who told me that described it first as a “god light” and i think i like that better. here, at least, i like that better.

            a friend here taught me “ehtkahn el djisht,” an expression which literally translates to “that much is true.” it is used when someone sneezes mid-conversation, and it kind of means something similar to “God agrees” – God has manifested through your sneeze to prove you right. how do you describe life in a place where even sneezes have a purpose?

yerevan letters #3: heaving (part one)

“you have a better view than the president.” this was said to me by someone as we looked out into the city from my balcony, which gives onto the bend in the hrazdan river that gives the gorge its name and shape. there, just across the water from me, the house of serzh sargsyan is perched just above the children’s railway, nestled in thick, rich foliage. as she finishes saying her sentence, her eyes open wide as though she had startled herself: sargsyan is no longer the president – he is no longer even the prime minister, as he resigned just a week ago, days after having appointed himself, triggering mass protests throughout the country. 

it is a mansion, stately, sleek, and the same colour pink as the other buildings built out of volcanic rock. here, for some reason, it is the same colour as the sunset some days. the neighborhood is oddly shaped, following the lines of a hill so steep it is actually a cliff in some places. from the window i’m sitting at, you can see the houses of baghramyan street neatly lined up. the neighbourhood’s verticality gives it a strange sense of voyeurship: i’ve never met my next-door neighbours but i know they are police because i see them sitting on their porch during their smoke breaks.

you can tell by the architecture of the neighborhood that it is, or at least at some point was, quite wealthy. the family two houses over has walls of a brilliant, sparkling white and a bright blue oval-shaped pool that’s been empty since i got here. in fact, of my immediate neighbors, at least four have pools, and the back yard under my balcony has a symmetrical design and a concrete structure in the center that was obviously supposed to be a fountain. at the same time, there’s a strange, kitschy clash between these signs of abundance and a strange scarcity: the police officer’s fence is made out of chicken wire and the would-be fountain is filled with the remains of a would-be DIY construction project. the next roof over is made out of tin.

of all the houses visible from here, sargsyan’s is the only one that demonstrates absolute wealth, the sparing of no expense. it is clearly modern yet built in a consistent style, which means that unlike most people and even unlike the government, he did not run out of money during the financial crisis in two thousand and eight.

i’ve described my apartment before as sitting in a wrinkle of the city. i used this term because though it is in a strange, windy, and largely hidden neighborhood, it is in fact quite central not only to the city itself but to the revolution that has happened around me this month. if you follow my street in one direction, you will end up at the intersection of proshyan and baghramyan, a stretch of road that hosts the national assembly, the parliament building, and the british embassy. going in the other direction, and weaving through backstreets and parking lots, you’re just five minutes from pushkin street, a place where people go for bar-hopping and drinking.

if you, like me, were to take bagramyan home on april sixteenth, you would eventually find baghramyan barricaded with a line of armed police standing behind barbed wire. if you followed proshyan to demirchyan, the street leading downtown, you’d then run into city buses filled with police and, depending on the time and day, one or two large tanks.

  a child looks out from a protesting car as another car behind it flashes a strobe light.

a child looks out from a protesting car as another car behind it flashes a strobe light.

on the seventeenth, you’d find the entire affair carnivalesque. elderly women sitting on benches pulled into the middle of main streets, military officers taking selfies with protestors. understanding some of the language here, you hear tidbits of the conversations in passing: among the older generation, they’re about pride of the children and their devotion to the movement; among the youths, they’re about the movement and what they think of its various leaders.

here, you learn that when the city is run by the people, the space is for the children. children are lining the streets, cheering and chanting; children doing tricks on their bikes; children are using their scooters to drive through the barricades. with the heavy presence of children comes a youthful, cheerful exuberance. they’ve been calling it a velvet revolution, but at least in the early days, i think bubblegum would be more fitting. that’s the only way to communicate not only the peacefulness of it but the joy.

republic square is the beating heart of the city and the central nervous system of the protests and the gathering there grows in size every time you see it. for the eleven days, every night, you go down to the square; you run into people you know and you gossip. about opposition leader pashinyan, about president/prime minister/soon-to-be-deposed autocrat sargsyan, about the mutual friend who got detained, about what you did last night after the protests. if you remember the last day of school in your small suburb, where you left the classroom only to meet with the very same people that night at the park, you sort of know what it felt like in the first part of the revolution.

this lasts until april 22nd. when pashinyan is detained (some say kidnapped) and sargsyan threatens to use force to put down the movement, the country heaves. during the day, the revolution becomes more serious: joyful still, but no longer in the summery, bubblegum kind of way. now, as you walk down orbeli towards baghramyan, all the buildings are empty - they have all thrown their people into the streets to chant and protest and support. on april 22nd, you walk down the street and your friend turns to you and says: “you know what this feels like? this feels like a revolution.”

and you realize he’s right. until now the protests were simmering and it seemed like people were calling it a revolution in the same way some people name their children joy: out of hope that if you say something out loud for long enough that it will become true. but today, an unspoken rule has conquered the city: “honk if you are against serzh sargsyan.” this seems small, but it is not: it means that the drivers have joined the protests as well, and that the last of the government’s arguments to put down the movement – that it is “disturbing the peace” and “impeding the city’s freedom of movement” – doesn’t mean anything anymore. whenever one car honks, for any reason, it immediately initiates a symphony of honks: long continuous honks, honks that punctuate the opposition slogan (“qayl ara merji serjin”), honks that spell out the tempo to a song another car is playing, honks in no particular order. this means that since protests began, every act in the city – every walk, every grocery trip, every commute to work – is been serenaded by the honks of the revolution. suddenly it is no longer a movement in the city: it has become indistinguishable from the city. it is woven into the streets and in the lives of the people that live on them.

  crowds on republic square on april 17th, listening to a speech by nikol pashinyan.

crowds on republic square on april 17th, listening to a speech by nikol pashinyan.

that night republic square fills up entirely, so much so that people are climbing on the walls to see pashinyan speak from the centre of the square. i’ve heard it was designed to be too large to hold a revolution, so that the people in it are shrunk immediately by the greatness of the empty space around them. if this is true, then it has failed: it is so full you cannot see the ground and from here on we know that the people have won.

on this night for the first time the revolution does not taste like bubblegum. there are no children in the crowd, there are few women, and nobody is smiling anymore. when you run into people you know, they ask: “aren’t you afraid to be here alone?” they say the police will deploy violence again and people remember the bloodshed of 2008 far too well.

it is eight in the evening and there’ve been rumours whispered through the city that police were ordered to “clear out” the streets by ten. i leave much earlier. as i sit at home in the windy neighborhood tucked behind the national assembly, i begin cleaning. i open all the windows so i can hear anything i might hear from baghramyan through my balcony, but the echoes from the gorge drown everything out. in complete silence, i sweep, i reorganize the kitchen, i rearrange the fridge, i alphabetize the spices, i scrub the stovetop. it is nine fifty-five and my roommate isn’t home yet. i hear from friends on the streets that they’ve been empty; that at republic square, they have started releasing a foul-smelling gas into the crowd to disperse people.

the silence in the streets is so loud it is heavy, like someone has just thrown a weighted blanket over them. it is the same silence you get when it snows for the first time, a silence everyone has wordlessly agreed to - but it is not wondrous childlike this time, it is frightened. my street is lined with police on both ends. i watch from my balcony as the lights in the houses around my turn off, one by one. the city soon drifts into an uneasy sleep: there is much to be done in the morning. we do not know what yet. but it will be much.

yerevan letters #2: floating

i have started keeping a planner since moving here. it is small and grey and filled it with old photos and i have five lines worth of space to write something each day. going through the weeks i’ve kept so far, i noticed how often i write about the light here, and the awe it makes me feel - though i rarely am able to truly explain it. 

sometime in february, i wrote: “the gold here.” and then later, sometime in march, i wrote: “the silver here.” then: “the rose here.” “the green here.” even, one day, “the grey here.” 

yerevan has moods. i no longer live at the foot of kaskad; i now live in one of the wrinkles in the city in a colourful apartment facing the hrazdan gorge. the first thing i see in the morning is the sky: i’ve learned to tell the temperature from the colour of it. 

the weather app on my phone is one of the things that makes the country feel mystical. it usually predicts rain well enough, but the temperature gauge never works: i’ve worn my winter coat on fifteen-degree days and t-shirts when it was five out. 

instead, you have to read the sky. today, it is a bright white, and as i walked to work it shone the whole city gold. days like today are balmy. on some days, it’s silvery; bright but with some clouds. those times, trees and plants look extra green. those days, the air is fresh and cool, like the city has had reprieve from the harsh sun and the earth itself is breathing again. days like that are melancholy, but melancholy in the same small way nostalgia can be both sweet and melancholy; people are still quiet but i sometimes catch them daydreaming. 

on some days, though they are few, the sky is a dark, somber greyish-blue, and it looks like it feels like it is rumbling. this usually precedes a storm; they are warm and heavy here. though sometimes, after a few hours of rumbling, it’ll rain a rain so fine it’s almost fog; and then just like that it will let up and turn back to silver like it thought better of the whole ordeal. 

this is a city without a golden hour: on silver days there is no gold at all, and on gold days it is gold from dusk to dawn. the day yesterday could have been the first day of summer and it seemed like the city itself was giggling: the streets were so full with children it was hard to walk. then when the sun starts to set, it becomes pink instead. walking downhill towards the centre of the city when the light is like that, you can see clearly how it sits nested between the hills that surround it. when the light hits right it feels like it is sitting in the centre of a rose. 

i apologize for this letter; it should’ve been a postcard. the things i describe here, the colours, the sky, the nest-ness, would all be better expressed by a photographer. i had never found anything i needed more than words for, & i had never wished i were a visual artist. 

but then, that’s the thing about this city: it pulls at yearnings you didn’t know were there.

yerevan letters #1: landing

i live in a big one-bedroom apartment at the foot of kaskad, an impressive, larger-than-life staircase that sits on the city like a crown. the monument is split into five levels, each with its own oversized sculptures. from my balcony i can see a large eagle carved into the fourth and, inexplicably, two plastic men in colour-changing lights seated on tall pillars. the landing of this monument is a long strip that flaunts art. it is impressive but the display seems awkward: like someone planned it the same way they might plan a résumé, boasting achievement after achievement.  

from virtually anywhere in the city, when the light is right, you can see the majestic mount Ararat. it presides over the city from a distance in a way that, unlike everything else here, is almost humble: it has the type of confidence that large dogs have, the knowledge that it is simply so momentous that it must make no effort to have authority. but even if you managed to avoid the mountain, you’d be hard-pressed to forget it – its name is everywhere. it is the name of the cognac, the name of the wine, the name written on the cigarettes you get offered in bars, the name of the bars themselves. always written in capital letters: ARARAT has a pleasing symmetry, and this is a city that likes symmetry.

in two words, i would call yerevan stately and kitsch – a combination that, like the city itself, doesn’t make much sense until, very suddenly, it does. its map is circular, and it is somehow planned on both a grid and a gradient system so that every few blocks, you happen upon a square with some grand round building. they are not ornate but they are symmetrical, and they would almost look roman if it they didn’t look so soviet. it is a circular city with no real epicenter – or rather, a circular city with a thousand epicenters, competing for attention.

everything here competes for attention. the Armenian alphabet is rounded, friendly and elegant. to the foreign eye, it looks mysterious and magical, like something that might be used to illustrate fairy spells in a children’s book. the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets are also ubiquitous, so that at any given time you might be trying to read three things at once. 

and there are lights everywhere. in every colour, on every corner. flickering lights, bright lights, dim lights, large neon lights, strings of small lights with the yellow-white tinge of Christmas lights. they, too, compete for attention. 

i’ve been mesmerized, also, by the way the crowds move here. when crossing the street, people walk so close to the edge of the sidewalk their toes are dangling off; and then, after receiving a signal i haven’t quite understood, they jump out into traffic, cars slowing for them as they cross. men, when they walk together, sometimes walk in large bands, arm in arm in arm in arm. it is almost choreographed: it is not uncommon to watch four men, shoulder to shoulder, turning a corner like the arm of a watch.

everything here is designed for attention. the way things intersect here seems too mathematical to be real - but not in a way where they are lifeless or automated. rather in a way that seems second-nature to all but me. i, uninitiated and grotesque in my cultural illiteracy, consistently collide with it. over the days since my arrival, however, the collisions have been fewer and softer – perhaps over time i will dissolve them altogether.  

today i learned that the word for “water fountain” here is pulpulak, after the sound the water makes when it falls back onto the dish. i wonder how they would describe the sound of a cat when it lands on its paws.