My Yerevan

By Naneh V Hovhannisyan


Author in her childhood yard ['baak'], photo from personal archive


A patch of asphalt in a green Yerevan suburb on the right bank of river Hrazdan. A cul-de-sac framed by four-storey, multi-entrance apartment blocks. Typical Khrushchevkas, rolled out in the 1960s all over the Soviet Union, these identical buildings made from pink tufa stone share a snug, misshapen front yard. It is the 1980s, Soviet collapse is unimaginable, and the lilac trees in the communal garden surrounded by mesh wire are in full May bloom. A primary schooler, my euphoria is induced by a game we girls are playing.

Called gortsagorts – a corruption of the Russian ‘from city to city’ – it is far removed from its name. A flock of mixed-age girls in the middle of two strikers are facing one of them, about to hurl the ball at the team. Their aim is to dodge it, then turn to the other striker before she catches the ball and repeat the manoeuvre. Inevitably, one by one, they get hit and come out. The last girl standing – incredibly lucky, extremely nimble or both - can save the team by avoiding the ball ten times. Today, it is down to me. My teammates watching from the sidelines, the pure blue sky above me, the draft under my skirt, my pulse so ferocious it drowns out all sound. Facing the striker, I count one (nine to go), turn around like a flash and assume brace position again. My body is a mere warm expanse, my sandals are scraping the ground, my heart is in my mouth. Glancing up, I fear that any minute from our first-floor enclosed balcony, an unwelcome voice will beckon me to lunch. That piece of ground outside my childhood home is my Yerevan.

If there are pillars that held Yerevan together, one of them must be the courtyard, baak in Armenian. During school holidays, including the three-month-long summer break, children here went out after breakfast and, save for lunch and dinner, played games till the deep dark. Gortsagorts, or games with elastic or a skipping rope. We colonised the space, roaring, running, and hitting the ball on ground floor neighbours’ walls, occasionally parting to let the odd car pass, resuming with shouts of elation until crickets started chirping. The air was scorching hot and heavy, but life was light as the sparrows in the baak, and domestic routine was its only annoying interruption.

‘Li-an-naa… Lunch is rea-dee,’ hollered my friend’s mother from their window, parting the tulle

curtains. A year older than me, Lianna won’t haggle for extra time: as the sensible one, she’ll head straight up. With her crystal blue eyes, gracious gait, and mild manners, she’s the darling of the neighbourhood. Beautiful like her Russian mum, talented like her jeweller dad, she wanted to be a dancer when she grew up.

Nearby was the bisedka: a basic shelter knocked up by the residents, found in any baak. Covered with a corrugated iron roof, it had metal benches, a small table - all concreted to the floor - and at a push accommodated ten people. There, the youth had nocturnal chats, and the grandparents from adjoining apartment blocks gathered at dusk to play chess or draughts, escaping from the chores or chaos at home. In that oasis, they occupied their hands with prayer beads.

‘Where’s my tuzbekh?’ Grandad says, folding his book away. He has an air of nobility about him, a gruff voice, and stern features moulded by the harshness of war-time upbringing. ‘I’m going outside.’ He’s just read a passage from Aznavour on Aznavour out loud to us – about how Edit Piaf encouraged Charles Aznavour to correct his Armenian nose with surgery to help his stage career, and later teased that he looked better before.

The bisedka was the social hub. Here, to the background burble of the water fountain, women

gathered to peel aubergines for winter preserves – in separate bowls but united conversation. ‘The best thing any girl can do for herself is marry well,’ says Mariam the divorcee, originally from Tbilisi. Everyone remembered the days when her husband drank and beat her up. Now she was ‘the posh one’; she worked at a dental clinic and wore a chiffon peignoir at home.

Out in our baak late on cool summer evenings, my world shrank, engulfing me in the clinking of cutlery heard from the lower floor apartments, the noise of conversation or raucous laughter, of television or violin practice, chairs scraping parquet, a domestic, a telephone ringing. All would be drowned out by Sona blasting Alla Pugacheva’s Kings Can Do Everything from her record player.

Tomorrow, Sunday, I will wake up with the gypsy street sweeper’s swoosh or the travelling knife sharpener’s call. Later, Khrushchevkas will empty out: everybody will be watching the travelling tight-rope dancer. We girls will buy a paper cup of roasted sunflower seeds in shells from the neighbourhood babushka. ‘Auntie’ Arous will lean out her ground floor apartment window as we stretch up to grab our newspaper cones full of freshly roasted warm black seeds costing mere kopeks. Sona, Lianna and I would settle on top of the garage roofs, crack and spit the shells out frivolously. Soon, Sona’s school sweetheart Aram would join us. There was no pretence about the conversation (inconsequential) or the agenda (non-existent): we had nothing better to do.

Other than watching Razmik’s pigeons play. The pigeons lived in his garage, behind the yellow painted metal doors with tiny holes for ventilation. He swung open the garage, and the birds flocked to the breadcrumbs, ferociously flapping their wings. They breathed in the sky, toyed with each other, and cooed loudly. Done with the bread, they pecked on the gravel, pacing in circles, nodding their heads. Meanwhile in the garden, the cherry and the mulberry trees, the grapevine and the rose bush bloomed and burst to escape through the mesh wire.

But my rosy memories of our baak are tainted by the fate awaiting our neighbourhood. The fact is that our city, as the country, has relentlessly haemorrhaged inhabitants through emigration in its new age of disarray. As a child in Armenia, until the early 1990s, the only two people I knew with connections ‘abroad’ were my classmate Lilit, whose aunt brought her stationery from Hungary, and Eliza, who once offered us Wrigley’s chewing gum from her American relatives. Travel outside the USSR was severely restricted, and rare holidays were taken domestically - on the Black Sea coast in Crimea or Georgia. In our family, Grandad had once visited Riga, and my parents went to Moscow on business twice.

Then the USSR crumbled. In its wake, came regional conflict, economic paralysis and energy crisis. Our front yard struggled to carry our aspirations in the years post-collapse, as adults carried home humanitarian aid egg powder on ration tickets. Trees were cut down from the lush nearby park on river Hrazdan. We burnt the wood in makeshift stoves – for warmth, cooking, or to heat water. We sat around it, cursing the past, speculating about the future, as history passed through us one by one.

By mid-1990s, I was a university student in our capital where anything went. I fancied myself westernised, ate Yum-Yum donuts and listened to George Michael on a CD Walkman. Sona married Aram and left for Russia. As borders became penetrable - with or without visas - Lianna went on tour of Italy with her dance troupe and claimed asylum there. She married well – to an Italian – and sent hotel towels and gowns back home. They merrily flapped on the washing line in the spring wind, as my former playmate quit dancing for good.

On the cusp of the restless twenty-first century, the Yerevantsis found it hard to keep the idleness of the bisetka going. So, Mariam the divorcee, by then a pensioner, found a job as a live-in nanny in New York. She has moved to LA now. Sona is in Marseille with her two children, working as a seamstress, having divorced Aram, who was last seen in Voronezh. As for me, for over twenty years I have lived abroad.

Whether because of nostalgia in exile or advancing in age, I have chased our courtyard’s spirit from city to city, through travels and residence. And what of Yerevan itself? Visiting my birthplace - still deeply familiar - desperate to re-capture that sense of being carefree, flanked by friends, I fight off a feeling of alienation from it, of a curtain having been drawn on it. Gone is my bookish Grandad, as have Razmik, Auntie Arous and Armenia’s last tight-rope dancer. Pigeon-breeding is all but dead; we buy sunflower seeds from supermarkets; the garages are privatised, some used as storage for Soviet junk. Jeeps clog up the narrow entrance to our baak, where, nevertheless, children still play every day. Then I remind myself that life for some is better than before. And when our bilingual children replicate our games in the cosy neighbourhood, for a few moments continuity is restored in my haphazard universe.