By Naneh V Hovhannisyan
In the year 2000, my mother, my younger brother and I were living in ‘Bangladesh’. Officially, the administrative district was called Malatia-Sebastia, after the two towns that Ottoman Armenians who settled there in the early twentieth century had fled. In the 1920s, the two separate hamlets were not yet swallowed up by greater Yerevan. By the time we moved there, Malatia-Sebastia had been absorbed into the Armenian capital, its inheritance of expulsion replaced by a reminder of resistance, General Andranik’s statue at the main roundabout, and 1970s and 80s high rises. In brutal, phallic glory, they rose up in clusters along wide streets, overlooking a district of functionality divided into nameless segments: A1, A2, B1, B2.
I begrudged Bangladesh for being far from our relatives, even further from the centre of the city, where all my friends lived, and for its less than flattering reputation. According to legend, when the area was being developed, the news was full of reports from the South Asian republic, then fighting a war of independence. Builders, equating this god-forsaken edge of town with the far-away trouble spot, joked that they worked in Bangladesh, meaning a hot and messy, peripheral and poor place.
Which is how it felt to me. It was as if I did not live in Yerevan, being nowhere near a metro station, at the end of the bus route, unmistakably dead on the margins. Beyond our street, whose address we neither knew nor needed to, was arid scrubland. Our part of Malatia-Sebastia, the same age as me and Bangladesh, the country, seemed malformed, aged – without ever having blossomed.
The area’s best-known landmark, both its cash cow and its eyesore was the market, with a several-lane-wide, hippodrome-like approach. Like Roman charioteers, buses and rickety minibuses, marshrutkas, headed in and out of the district down the wide, straight road with the open vista culminating in a church. At the top end, by the entrance, were one-storey stone houses, freshly coated with cement, fronted with metal gates. Signs stuck to the façades of warehouses advertised carpets, carton juices and Pall Mall. What many called the shoukà consisted of two randomly organised parts – the agricultural and the household – and offered famously low prices for infamously low quality: fabrics from Dubai, toys from China, and Iranian ghee. You entered the cacophonous space like you would an underground bunker, knowing it may be dingy but safe. A mere speck in this meandering and manoeuvring, you soon got used to time standing still. You could kill hours – or get antsy – in no time wandering through this haphazard place. Past wooden stalls with foldable metal legs; past makeshift covers against the rain. Past Soviet era open top trucks with cabbage, loaded since pre-dawn. Past a middle-aged, podgy woman in black, groaning under the weight of bulging bags. She would put down the burden – this one she could – and wait for her transport.
People downtown, such as my colleagues, who shopped in the newly opening smart grocery and interior stores, saw Bangladesh as a ghetto of naff and provincial folk. For me, who never invited them round, its unexhibited charm would have to be excavated.
Bangladeshtsi – they are not Bangladeshi in Yerevan – not disturbed by the area’s remoteness, had an unambiguous view of themselves. Self-sufficient and young, kissed by the curse of all suburbs, the district was free of idling visitors – except those to the market – its air of peaceful resignation left to its own folk. Young trees, a carousel and tiles were neatly laid on the pavements in the park. Residents roamed – grannies with swaddled babies in their arms, toddlers on fathers’ shoulders, schoolboys playing football. Bakeries churned out warm matnakash – soft inside and crusty on the outside, seasons happened, wives hung the washing out, husbands brought home the meat, and lifts in the high rises whirred and creaked their belaboured way up.
Our sparsely furnished, rented apartment was on the top floor of a nine-storey, concrete panelled block in B2. Standing in the sun-flooded lounge, my brother, barely out of school, negotiated with the owners in quiet tones of casual conversation. They had two teenage children and lived in another block nearby. The husband’s seasonal work in construction in Rusastan afforded them enough money for a new flat and a yevro-remont, they said. No chance of a Euro-renovation here. On the upside, the fact that this property was just for side income, meant no danger of them moving back in. It would be good to finally settle. Insolvent, without being homeless, this flat was all we could afford. Running water was a problem, so showers were a bitty affair involving buckets, immersion heaters and scoops. The roof leaked, so under the crack in the hallway permanently sat either a bowl or a pail, swapped in quick choreography when either one filled up. We cleaned the clumps of dust that formed on our disused balcony where we hung the washing. Alongside it, we also dried colourful plastic bags – a status symbol and not cheap – that swayed heavily, bearing creases from rigorous wringing, paint having rubbed off their erotic images, foreign words or western brand names. In our home of less than two years, we struggled, as before, to marry our reality with our aspirations.
But hope was no abstract concept. I worked at a radio station, and my brother was a student. My mother looked after us and the flat, since employment prospects for her, as for many of her generation, were dire. ‘The main thing is that you kids feel fulfilled. I’ll make ends meet, you take English tuition if need be,’ she said. On weekdays, we huddled together around a coil heater as she remade old sweaters into cardigans, while my brother revised. A child prodigy artist, he dreamed of being a surgeon. Every weekend, he as a porter and I as a receptionist, we supplemented our household’s income at a boutique hotel an hour away. ‘We’ll sort it out, Mum,’ or ‘It’ll be alright’, we said. With the backs of our necks, through unarticulated pathways of our minds, we knew that that day would come, as we nursed a distant ambition for a long-awaited place, our own roof over our heads in central Yerevan.
Meanwhile, we had an almost daily light relief. On weekday evenings, the Colombian soap opera Coffee with the Scent of a Woman aired from Moscow and, in anticipation, our world softened. In it, Gaviota, a mere – yet spirited – plantation worker, made her way in a world set up against her. Peppered with adverts for stock cubes and mayonnaise, the extravagant, saccharine seriàl was a butt of jokes, a talking point, and a respite.
As was visiting my mother’s friend, astrolog Rita. Also renting in Bangladesh, unemployed and divorced, single mum Rita was unconventional and entirely unconcerned by her social predicament. She played Eduard Zorikyan’s songs with her guitar, stored sugar in a Café Pelé tub and, as a certified Tarot card reader, earned a modest living through word of mouth with her seances. On my days off we – mother-and-daughter zealous hopefuls – visited her flat beside the amusement centre Lion King. Rita forecast our future for free, shooing away our shared ennui, and the prognosis she offered took ten years off Mama: ‘This Capricorn,’ she said eyeballing me, ‘will go far.’ Say a flat in central Yerevan, I thought. With every soothing sentence, she watered seeds of hope; every word leaving her mouth was a lifebuoy.
We headed home. Placid stray dogs ignored us, taxis were parked on the curb – the driver’s door open, one leg out, the radio on. Cars screeched up the tarmacked slope, honking various tunes, and youngsters in Zico sandals squatted, silently smoking. Couples strolled past – the man with an arm on the woman’s shoulder, the woman gazing ahead. Maybe this corner of Yerevan – was it still Yerevan? – though not in the centre of events, did have its tranquil charm.
Still, I daydreamed about the city proper, which seemed light years away. Light years away seemed the clever conversations in Abovyan Street’s new cafés, busloads of glamorous visitors from the Diaspora, luxury bouquets from Brabion Flora, mushrooming electronics shops, and – a novelty – black 4x4s, driven by shady characters. Light years away one of the radio bosses who owed us salaries but was rumoured to have acquired a private beach on Lake Sevan. Light years and fifty-minutes’ ride from our ultimate stop in a rickety number 77 white Latvian RAF minibus on its uptown route (for, in topographic terms, you are below the centre here, in a dip). If the marshrutka’s floor happened to have a hole, I would follow the asphalt’s run through the layers of linoleum and metal. No timetable, but no matter; only to roll down Baghramyan Avenue to Operà, only to be where life pulsates.
Here for my radio show one day, I interviewed an editor of a women’s magazine. Non-state media had been booming, but those owned by women were a rarity. First, I asked her about her home life. Speaking literary Armenian, softly and slowly, she said: ‘I start every morning with a coffee, weather permitting, in my garden. Right in the middle of Yerevan, you wouldn’t know it’s so peaceful. Then, I research some women’s books; right now it’s Silva Kaputikyan.’ She was living my dream: her own business, impeccable style and a home in Central Yerevan. I wondered about her career, her remarkable rise from being a regular journalist, her business acumen and her all-female team. Even when she was talking about premises and the magazine’s circulation, subscriptions and readers’ comments, I was under her spell. Then I enquired about her future goals: ‘Your ambitions – in work or private life?’ She smiled a wide, red-lipsticked smile, shook her mane of wavy black hair, swept her fringe off her magnificent forehead and said, ‘Pareez, Pareez, Pareez.’ Then, she added, rolling her eyes, ‘All I want now is to see Paris and then die.’
So, the ground under my feet was shifting. So, events had no centre, or it was always elsewhere.
We’re in a buzzy and dazzling Marco Polo on Abovyan Street. It’s past bedtime but we’re adults. Six of us – my DJ friends and I. On our round table, we have Kotayk beer and Marlboro cigarettes. Bright spotlights are beaming down on us, enlivening our sparse jewellery and dull hair. Muffled sounds have been filling the restaurant: diners around us, some sport game on television above the bar and distant, intermittent music from the passing cars. Not a sentence goes by without a witticism as, baring our teeth, we tilt our heads and squint our eyes. I want to pause here and linger. But the conversation flits from our carefree days of the night-time gigs and daytime shows, to immediate plans.
‘We’re nearly done with the French version of the CD-ROM for the tour agency,’ says Sasun, looking at Nazelie.
‘Lucky tourists, navigating Yerevan with your and Nazelie’s guide,’ I say.
‘Then, I’m off outta here to Holland,’ he mumbles.
Shahen is heading to Moscow for work.
‘I’ll move in with my brother to save on rent. Parents are thrilled, but they’re obviously staying.’
Lucineh, still waiting for her Green Card, is resigned.
‘My preference is for California. What can I say? Going on my own, I prefer to be near Armenians.’
Varag the Buddhist has a job offer from a Kiev-based marketing agency.
‘I look at it all philosophically, guys. If it’s editing commercials that pays now, so be it.’
‘Anyway, hope you get used to those cold English,’ Shahen says.
‘Not too much so as to forget us,’ shoots Nazelie.
‘Are you kidding me? Watch out for my emails from uReach,’ I say, demonstratively.
We toast and promise to stay in touch.
We are so full of ourselves, full of life and at home with one another that it seems wrong to round up. But go we must. Deep, cave-deep down I know that our friendship – intimate and innocent – has exhausted itself. We, that bunch of 1990s’ hungry youths, were wise and weary now. Our parents had several kids at our age. We’d had a good run, and it was time to grow up. I had grown up.
‘I need to head off, guys. Got a long ride back home to Bangladesh.’
Only after we disperse and the smoky sadness settles in my throat, it stings me that this evening wouldn’t have been so sweet had it not been for the parting – our parting – each in their own direction. In the clear May night sky, the stars witnessed my guilt about feeling liberated. And leaving Mum. Who kept repeating: ‘Never mind about me, kids, you do what’s right for your own future. So long as you’re fulfilled.’ My brother, working in America for some months, had already started.
As the twentieth century premiered, Zvartnots airport’s mushroom-like flight control tower stood as if in a sci-fi movie. In the departure lounge, husbands were blowing kisses to wives; grandparents wiping away tears. Those travelling en famille had packed bedding and pots and pans. Hardy suitcases wrapped in clingfilm to stop luggage handlers from stealing. Promises, pleas, reminders to call on arrival, orders to look after oneself, requests to look after the parents, or the kids. One more quick hug, holding tight till the last announcement to board the flight. Among them, my own one.
No photos exist of our time in Bangladesh – none were taken. A camera was beyond our means. Besides, documenting the present was the last thing on our minds: the future was the only place worthy of focus. All that preceded that hallowed point was a nuisance, an obstacle on our way to our own, one-bedroom flat. Yet our ninth-floor apartment with a leaky roof in Malatia-Sebastia’s B2, that swan song of our rented homes was the last home where the three of us lived together, and for that it is precious. Bangladesh, which I left like an accident victim walking away from the site of the crash, was to be our launchpad, our – my – stepping stone. After I emigrated, our mother moved to her sister’s family apartment, and from there to her own place we would later buy in a different suburb. Thinking back on our Bangladesh year or so, I do feel remorse. And I also wonder: did I skip living in Yerevan?
Photo by Govorkov, courtesy of Wikicommons
Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.