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.