Southwards from Georgia the land dries up. Green depletes and the mountains morph into jagged muscles of rock. We drove through these cragged valleys on a minibus that was blasting American pop music from a mini T.V. screen. The male passengers gawped at tanned bottoms gyrating on Californian beaches. Better for them than the stooped figures on the roadside, grey haired women in black headscarves turning shwarma on the grill. They call this land Haiastan, adopting the ancient Persian word for ‘state’, ‘Hai’ being the Armenian people.
The name is taken from Haik Nahapet, the 3rd century B.C. founder of what would become Armenia. Unfortunately for the modern nation the large majority of Hai people have abandoned their stan. Eleven million ethnic Armenians constitute a global diaspora reaching from neighbouring Georgia to far flung Argentina. Of the remaining 3 million on Hai soil, over a million are found in the Soviet built capital, Yerevan. Explaining this to me, one first generation American-Armenian said that her Russian-Armenian uncle described the country as ‘the nation’s office; they go in routinely to do business and then leave again to live their lives and spend their money elsewhere. This leaves the countryside largely untouched by enterprising hands and people’s construction projects. Damaging to economic development, but beneficial to the sensory experience of the passersby. The land left in its natural state is lush and diverse, ranging from the dry jagged rocks to the snowy peaks and green undulations surrounding Lake Sevan. The wind blows uninterrupted through overgrown valleys and after the rain, a scent rises from the land like washed herbs left out in a warm kitchen.
I became familiar with this landscape and with Yerevan over the course of four weekend visits to Armenia. My first trip was dictated by spontaneity. My snap decision to leave on the last minibus out of Tbilisi got me to Yerevan just before midnight. I alighted the bus in the backwaters of the city. I had no currency and there was no sign of life around the bus station. A fellow passenger, a journalist returning to attend a march being held in remembrance of students who were shot dead by government forces at the 2008 presidential election protest, offered to take me to the centre in a taxi. From there I found myself wandering aimlessly down Pushkin St. I knew there was a hostel somewhere nearby, but I was not sure where. Music and the sounds of joviality floated down the road and I went in search of their source. Beatles Bar, Underground Bar, a pub, and what was this place with no name? I descended the stairs into a smoky multi-coloured and crowded basement. A dark, tubby young man wearing a flamboyant waistcoat and Elton John orange-tinted glasses turned around from the bar as if he had been expecting my entrance, flung open his arms and cried, ‘Hallo! You want whisky? Where are you from? I’m so glad for you to join us!’
Younger, darker Elton John spoke in a high-pitched Korean-esque accent. ‘Korean?! No! I’m Iranian!’ He was one among a group of Iranians, all long-haired, thick-lashed eyes and flamboyant in gesture and speech. ‘Come and dance and drink whisky with us!’ They took me to a small tightly packed club where soles stuck to wet tiles and the sound system crackled and hissed. Nobody cared. Everybody was dancing and drinking and kissing. Women stood languidly in jeans and t-shirts whilst men bumped and grinded their hips up against them, arms flailing carelessly, chests bared, glistening. There seemed to be a surprising gender role reversal unfolding in the little club and everyone was enjoying it. Over in a far corner a circle of red jackets bobbed modestly. It was the Iranian ski team. They were making a whistle-stop here on the way back from Sochi. ‘How did it go?’ I asked them. I was met with a shrug, ‘It was O.K.,’ one replied moodily before turning away. Dark-haired Elton clattered towards me for the umpteenth time. In the whisky haze his speech had become a slur of inaccurate English vowels and missing articles. Now he said, ‘You are butterfly that came to me in dream I had last night.’ I shook my head and fluttered away into the fading night.
‘The trouble’s gunna spread all the way here, I’m sure of that.’ I awoke to these words not too many hours after my departure from the club. The speaker was a stocky bald guy on the bottom bunk opposite me. His words were directed at an older man with thin strands of long grey hair elegantly tied behind his nape, who sat nodding pensively over a polka dot cravat. The stocky guy continued. ‘What’s happening in Ukraine is just a prelude to what’s gonna happen all over the former Soviet Union I tell you. Next Georgia next Armenia. Shame to pack up my business but I had to get out of Ukraine. Dubai’s the dream anyway. That’s where the money is. Hey, you’re out of a job, aren’t you? You could get good work as a French teacher in Dubai. They’ll pay you lots of money. You’re not gonna find any in Armenia.’ At this point I made the effort of swinging my legs over the bed and sitting up. They stopped in conversation and both looked at me. ‘Bonjour,’ said the man with the cravat, ‘anglais ou francais?’ ‘English,’ I croaked, ‘and bon-joh to you.’ I was not in the mood for conversing and made a quick escape to the bathroom.
Dressed and breakfasted I headed out to a place I had heard was well worth a visit for the tourist to Yerevan: Etchmiadzin, the spiritual centre of the Armenian Orthodox Church and the incipient seedling of all Christendom. As any Hai will tell you, Haiastan was the first Christian nation. I bussed it back to the bus station in the backwaters. It was livelier in the light of day; fruit stalls and shwarma stands cluttered the roadside, dominated by a government building standing on high above the motorway. It was flanked by a wine factory and a cognac factory, running a country is thirsty work after all. I spent some time walking to and fro though an underpass. With no Russian skills to speak of and even less Armenian, directions were hard to decipher. I was also suffering from whisky withdrawal symptoms. I bought an orange and took a moment to gather my fading wits. The girl I had contacted on couchsurfing.org had told me to get a minibus from here to the holy site where I would find her in the museum to the right-hand side of the pink tufa stone church. Her instructions might as well have been in Russian or Armenian because I had no idea what pink tufa stone was. As it turned out, it is what all the official buildings of Yerevan are made from: a pale pink, cream or grey-coloured marble-textured stone, solid as the rock valleys but softer on the eye. It is local to Armenia and what bestows Yerevan city centre its stately air.
Etchmiadzin lies forty minutes outside Yerevan. To one side of a dusty town road I found the entrance to the holy complex and went in search of the pinkest building amongst the domes and stained facades. Everything looked beige. I sauntered uncertainly down the wide avenue and admired the trees, turning right in front of a domineering building. ‘Do you need help?’ A sharp-nosed man with slick hair and a long detective’s coat was looking at me with curiosity. The day was hot and I did not envy the coat. I told him I was looking for the museum. As I spoke he stepped towards me with more interest. ‘Where are you from?’
‘I love English!’ he said with sincere joy. ‘I taught myself. Let me practise with you. I will show you around. Don’t worry, I want nothing more than to do something for humanity.’
I wanted nothing more than to get out from the sun and find the girl who would talk me around the cool shade of the museum, but I decided his was a nice enough gesture to put my agenda to one side. As we walked around the complex he talked excitedly about the architecture and even more excitedly about the tufa stone: ‘See here, in the early churches they didn’t use paint for the interior, no colour, just the stone. It is beautiful, no?’ I said it was beautiful, although I enjoyed the added frescoes and tessellations of later centuries. I lingered by the world’s first church to inspect the weathered carvings of a fourth century stonemason. At this my guide become impatient, ‘Ali!’ He beckoned me over with a childish eagerness out of sorts with his stiff character. ‘Come see this now! You must see this!’ He stood in front of some tombs where he folded his hands in respect and assumed a sombre air. ‘These are the tombs of the patriarchs. There are eighty-three of them here.’ He bowed his head. I cleared my throat and asked if we could go into the museum. He was slow to respond and when he did his words were tinged with regret. ‘Yes. Let’s go inside.’
The church air was heavy with the smell of incense and candle wax. Orange faces half concealed flickered above rows of small flames. Some uttered silent breaths of prayer and others were still, washed clean of all expression. We walked into the back room where my internet acquaintance was waiting. The museum held a multitude of Christian relics catering to the superstitions of the faithful: a fragment of Noah’s Ark, a splinter from the cross, a torn rag of St. Peter’s robe. All were embedded into precious stones and so small as to be almost imperceptible. We stopped in front of a Chinese-carved priests’ cane formed by two bejewelled serpents intertwined. ‘The snake,’ whispered my acquaintance, ‘protects the unmarried priest from the devil.’ ‘And what about married men?’ I inquired. She suppressed a giggle, ‘They are already protected.’
I rejoined my sharp-nosed guide on the gravel path outside. He was immersed in deep, solemn conversation with a priest. On noticing me he resumed his role as keen host. ‘I invite you to eat at my parents’ house… my mother has made chicken soup today.’ As a man in his mid-forties with a job in the foreign office, I was surprised to find that my guide still lived with his parents. I supposed this was not so unusual for an unmarried man in Armenia. My guide, the unmarried layman, was protected by neither serpent nor holy matrimony, leaving him unbound in an earthly limbo of devilish temptation where he had to fend alone for his male virtue. It would explain his stiff manner and the sadness is his eyes, and why he spent so much time amongst priests. In his invitation I heard a distant, ungraspable expectation, a desperate reach for matrimony and the shield it offered against original sin. I was not keen on the idea myself but was starving, so I accepted the invitation gratefully.
He lived out in one of Armenia’s many Soviet tower-block clusters which rise from the land like concrete seaweed from a dry ocean bed. The individuality of their interiors never fails to surprise; the family apartment opened out into an airy high-ceilinged abode decorated in nineteen-seventy’s floral wallpaper. Hanging plants swung delicately from the small terrace outside and inside the array of indoor foliage cast a soft green hue about the room. I sat on the edge of the sofa and gazed out of the window onto the low-lying plains. The light was long and golden. He sat across with his hands on his lap. We kept silence whilst the bubbling of soup and the clatter of aluminium came from the kitchen. Finally, his mother emerged and arranged a table in front of me: white cloth, cutlery, plates, bowls, salad and flatbread, pickles and roast potatoes and a chicken soup with the poultry’s limbs escaping from the liquid; fresh fruit, dates and honey. It was a delicious medley of the best Georgian, Persian and Turkish home cuisine. She and I chatted in our respective languages whilst her son watched on hopefully, translating when the need arose. Her eyes had the same deep green hue as the room; she was more handsome than her son. As I hugged her goodbye at the front door she gestured that I was always welcome back. I knew I would never return. Outside, magenta rays of evening danced upon the wheat heads. A hushed wind blew through the concrete rise. Life was calm. I wished my guide a sincere goodbye and hailed a taxi.
‘How did the job hunt go today?’ Back in the hostel dormitory the two men were sat where I had left them. The slender French speaker had changed into a three-piece suit for the evening. ‘Not well. I think I got something at the language centre but it is not enough.’ ‘You really should come to Dubai,’ insisted the stocky man, ‘I don’t know why you’re hanging around Armenia. There’s nothing here to stay for.’ Having come in and collapsed onto the bed, I now interjected. ‘And why are you here?’ They both looked over with surprise. The stocky one shifted from side to side and looked away. ‘I’m picking up some money to take to Dubai. I’m out of here next week.’ The elegant man addressed us both, ‘I don’t want to go to an Arab country. I want to go to Europe. I liked France but I had to go back to Iran for five years. I just left again. I can’t stand the oppression and I like to see women uncovered. Here I feel free but there’s no work. I’m waiting for a friend to help me out with a Swiss visa. Maybe that’ll come through.’ He spoke with a French accent. I could have sworn he was French. ‘I am French in my heart,’ he said. ‘You’re an old Casanova, that’s what you are,’ said the stocky one.
The three of us went out for beer. The stocky guy talked about making money in Dubai. He would be rich again. Rich and happy. Oh, he didn’t understand why people wasted their time in moneyless places like Armenia. He couldn’t wait to get out of here. His eyes bulged and darted unnervingly as he spoke, squeezed out from their sockets by the stress of making money and fear of losing it. The old Casanova and I listened half-heartedly. We were more interested in finding a place to dance. At my suggestion we went to the bar where I had met the Iranians the night before. It was the same hub of laughter and merriment I remembered, although I saw no sign of Iranian Elton John. My energy began to wane. Casanova and I danced a clumsy tango before I resolved to take up a final seat at the bar until closing time. I was ready to go home and about to do so when a troop walked in. They were a foursome all at once comedic, beautiful and frivolous, but with the air of tragedy about them. I was spellbound on my bar seat. The tall and busty bob-haired blonde among them blew me a kiss and waved her rose-tattooed arms about her head. She placed her hand around the neck of her male companion and they both looked at me and smiled, almost menacingly. She whispered something in his ear and turned away. I knew then I was not going home.
The man in question was a gangly, wild-haired fellow with a most peculiar face, so peculiar as to be charming. The laughter lines of his mouth spread around his nose which itself protruded from between two deep-set dark-ringed eyes. His teeth were small and badly cared for but they were framed by a smile that was in love with life. Our eyes locked together for a song. His look showed no signs of sleep, only of wild fantasies that I dared not share. He danced sensationally and wordlessly and when the bar closed he asked, ‘Will you come with us?’ There was a smile in his voice too. We piled into a car driven by the other man in the group. He was very short and slightly rotund and smoked one roll-up cigarette after another from a metal tobacco box with an inbuilt rolling device. He did not speak but bobbed his head to the music making the huge curls of his hair bounce in unison. The girl with the rose-tattooed arms turned and asked my name then took a hold of my wrist and dabbed on it a sweet, pungent perfume. She had the restless gaze of a wild cat. ‘I love England,’ she pouted, ‘I fell in love in London.’ The second girl spoke up for the first time, ‘I would love England, but it has terrible immigration laws that I cannot agree with. It won’t allow my Mimi to enter. I bring her all over Europe with me only to reach the UK border and be told she is not permitted entry into the country. And it is her native land! Imagine, a Yorkshire terrier never seeing Yorkshire! It’s so unfair.’ She frowned before continuing, ‘but I love English designers. As you can see I am wearing head to toe Vivienne Westwood. Well, not to toe because my boots are Jean Paul Gautier.’ I nodded. Certainly her outfit was not one to be overlooked: furry bear-eared hat, traffic-light red puffer jacket, leopard print leggings and enormous high-topped shiny purple boots. The car stopped and the troop jumped out. A rose-tattooed hand held itself out to me. ‘Come,’ she said, ‘let’s dance,’ and I was led into a hollow and sparsely peopled club.
Whisky bottles and forgotten drinks cluttered the tables. A few men and women slouched in corners. There was an atmosphere of inactivity in the neon-lit room despite the DJ’s best efforts. That was until deep red-rose tattoos swayed onto the dance floor dancing over wide, shivering hips. Her smile glinted blue under the club lights. I was later informed that she had once been Armenia’s sex symbol. Now she was a little older, a little larger and no longer graced magazine pages, but she still inspired sex. A carnival of gangly limbs and wild black hair followed in her wake and she and the man with sleepless eyes began to writhe across the tiles. Others looked on from their seats in wonder. The two of them drew me into their tireless and predatory dance, crying ‘We love you!’ and I was compelled by a kinaesthetic magnetism to carry on in that reel of limbs and casual laughter until I was ready to collapse. I threw myself onto the divan, lungs heaving. The short curly haired man turned and smiled like Behemoth. He pushed a roll-up cigarette between my fingers and said, ‘You are beautiful.’ The sex symbol of yesteryear and the gangly man with sleepless eyes came towards where we sat and bore the words upon me: ‘You are our queen tonight!’ ‘We love you!’ cried all three. I was beginning to feel like Margharita at Woland’s ball: worshipped to exhaustion but fuelled by a great desire to meet the ends of this unexpected twist in the adventure. The man with the gangly limbs bent towards me, smiling still in his sunken eyes. ‘When are you leaving Armenia?’ He spoke softly, curling the ‘r’ with the front of his tongue.
‘From now until then you are with me.’
The command slid through the air like the hiss off a lizard’s tongue. I was intrigued to follow it. I measured him up and then the scene before me: a carnage of whisky, ice and sweat and a mass of bright and beguiling faces that would not take no for an answer. It was the antipode to the devout naivety of my guide from that afternoon. In here there was no protection for anybody, marital or otherwise, and nobody desired it. Gyrating backsides on the T.V. screen and scarved heads through the window: preliminary snapshots of a long weekend in Armenia. From then on I took no more notice of the headscarves bent over the roadside and I never contacted my church guide or the Iranians again. I was too dazzled by the treasure chest of frivolity I had stumbled upon in the austere Soviet city, too intrigued by the smiling voice and sleepless eyes to look for anything more in Armenia. I responded to his command with no more than a nod. Another hand slid into mine – I was not sure whose it was anymore – and the voices around me sang out, ‘There is so much love here. You will come back, won’t you?’