A Small Window to a Pretty Limbo
by Dana Hachwa
“Now that you’re here, we’ll get to do fun things together!”
Lucine, the youngest member of the host family I stayed with in Armenia in April of 2016, said that to me at the beginning of my week-long stay. I was not very enthused. You see, I was there purely on business grounds, not pleasure: I was to collect my Armenian passport one year after my family and I started the citizenship process, but this time, I was there alone.
I remember looking at Lucine, with her frizzy, curly, almost-black hair… eyes beaming, as they always were, with much-too-youthful glee. I smiled, looked away, then smiled some more, giving her some sort of vague agreement. The time I spent in Armenia the year prior was not something I would have classified as “fun”. I was 19 then, and can you blame me? The country was a bore, the people too melancholy, eerily quiet and reserved. It reminded me of my home country, Syria, and yet it also didn’t – the Syria I knew before the civil war was livelier and bountiful a thousandfold. Nevertheless, it was enough of a similarity to breed a sort of nostalgic sweetness yet also a sharp distaste of the kind of country I wanted to belong to.
My host family’s house was a humble one. It was big but sparsely furnished, so that anything besides the living area and kitchen were bare and cold. And I don’t say cold lightly, at least for me. April was near the beginning of springtime in Armenia, and it was chillier for me than full-blown winter in the desertous United Arab Emirates where I permanently lived. The trees that generously dotted the house’s square garden, as they also did the pavements of central Yerevan, were as bare as the house, with scruffy beards of green sprouting thinly here and there. Despite my bitterness at being there in the first place, the very obvious shift in seasons was marvellous to me: one of the few positives in those gruelling first two days. Although the country does experience snow in the wintertime, there was none now, with the exception of the frozen landscapes I had encountered thousands of metres below me on the plane, draping Armenia’s welcoming party of mountain ranges. Those mountain ranges were followed by the snowy salute of dormant volcano Mount Ararat, one of Armenia’s revered symbols and the alleged resting place of Noah’s Ark. Mount Ararat is also the resting place of much political tension: the Armenians call it their own, yet it falls within Turkey’s borders after the Turks seized it in the Turkish-Armenian war of 1920. A dormant volcano indeed.
This tension was alive beyond the mountains, and was always present in the house. The little television in the living room’s corner was always on the Armenian news channel, with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the star of the show. My hosts hated him as all Armenians did: the Turks would always be thorns in Armenia’s side. Indeed, it just so happened that days prior my arrival, the four-day April War fought between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces was taking place at their borders – with Azerbaijan allegedly supported by Turkey. And so, sentiments were even more sour than usual, and Lucine’s mother made sure to vehemently explain it to me in broken Arabic whenever I asked.
Ironically, inside the house was colder than the outside – something I, the desert dweller, couldn’t quite wrap my head around. Lucine, in her 30s, and her elderly mother and father would spend the majority of their time in that rectangular living area in front of the TV, with closed double doors on one side and the kitchen doorway draped with tarp on the other. This was to trap warmth in the only room that they could afford to heat. Thankfully, I had an electric space heater in my room. My designated space was upstairs in the top-left corner, simply furnished with a dark brown bedroom set and overlooking more clawing, newly flowering trees in the neighbours’ gardens. Lucine’s mother would later tell me, to my amazement, that she would buy her milk and yoghurt from her neighbour’s cows, yet she would complain, her countenance crumpling with displeasure behind her metal-framed spectacles, that the milk and yoghurt were too expensive. One of the reasons why, she said, was that they weren’t native Armenians: Lucine and her family were Syrian-Armenians, who’d fled their home after the Syrian civil war. “They can tell by my accent,” Lucine once told me while we were on a taxi ride, as minutes earlier, the Armenian driver had begun questioning her excitedly on her origins, her marriage plans, and other personal information. “They’re always interrogating me. They’re so nosy, it’s annoying.”
Keeping to her word, Lucine indeed took me along with her to many sites in Yerevan, which had to be reached by taxi ride from their house in the outskirts of the main city. The very first place she led me to was Matenadaran, the Museum of Ancient Scriptures. Its exterior was sharp and imposingly grey, a classic example of Soviet architecture left over from Armenia’s time in the USSR, built from basalt and rising strictly from the surrounding pale-green landscape. Six large statues lined its facade, depicting historical Armenian scholars Toros Roslin, Grigor Tatevatsi, Anania Shirakatsi, Movses Khorenatsi, Mkhitar Gosh and Frik. The inside presented many manuscripts as promised, and was much more welcoming with its carpet-lined grand stairways, marble pillars and colourful murals.
Our next destination that day was a crowded candy shop, where Lucine and I sipped hot chocolate and ate large, beignet-like pastries sprinkled with powdered-sugar. That store was Grand Candy, and was a replica of what I thought Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory might be: chequered floors and multicoloured pastel walls, and high up near the ceiling was a suspended miniature train track, where a toy train would chug round and round as shoppers and candy-lovers below buzzed about in much the same way. This cheery little place was the liveliest I encountered on that trip. You see, we had traversed Yerevan’s streets on foot to reach it, as we did regularly over the next few days, and my memories of those walks were the opposite of lively: they were quiet, calm.
The pavements were clean, their tiles were neat, and the architecture of the buildings was European at times and Soviet at others with neat flower beds and trees, and more trees, with trunks painted chalk white. We walked through several public parks, of which there were many, some not even fenced off, and we encountered scores upon scores of Armenian figures immortalised in grey sculptures: musicians, military commanders, deities, novelists. It’s strange for me to reminisce about all of this in the present, because I realise that what I remember most about Yerevan was sombre silence and a sense of emptiness. Of course, there were many Armenian citizens scattered across the city as we explored it, most of them middle-aged or elderly (Armenia’s population is an ageing one) and going about their daily work and activities. Yet curiously, I envision myself wandering the city alone with Lucine, as if no one else was there – like the people themselves were part of the city, cemented in its grey stone, rather than independent, mobile actors. The city, or perhaps the entire country, was suspended in a torpid pocket of air in the world: it was in some sort of twilight. Or, it could be because it wasn’t tourist season.
Over the next few days, Lucine and I visited Yerevan Cascade, a giant limestone stairway interspersed with modern artistic sculptures, fountains and indoor art exhibition spaces. We visited Victory Park, located on a hill overlooking Yerevan, where the statue of Mother Armenia stood atop a basalt pedestal-museum. A newly-married couple was taking pictures at the entrance of the grey structure, the groom in a black suit and the bride in her pure white gown, and in the background of this romantic display was a Soviet rocket launcher and a surface-to-air missile, large and real, but inactive of course. Above this, Mother Armenia held aloft a large sword horizontally across her abdomen, watching over the city of Yerevan with her coppery gaze: a symbol of peace through strength. The basalt pedestal below her predates her, as it once held the statue of USSR leader Joseph Stalin.
At this point in the trip, I had already collected my Armenian passport from the immigration office, and unlike the start, I was accustomed to the city and was more than happy to accompany Lucine on the personal tour she’d promised to give. We bought that signature crispy-yet-fluffy Armenian bread and fed some swans at a small park, we had chocolate lava cake at a tourist cafe, we passed many street vendors selling bushels of flowers, we admired rows and rows of artwork displayed under now-fuller trees, we sat and talked in Lover’s Park with its small ponds and sculptures wrapped in greenery, we visited a local mall and watched The Jungle Book in a small movie theatre, and we took the underground train back home when we travelled too far for a walk or a taxi-drive back. At the end of each day, Lucine’s mother had a new and elaborate meal ready to fulfil our hunger, and all four of us sat and enjoyed it together, relaying all that we had done that day. There were large zucchinis stuffed with rice and beef mince, and another day there was a lentil soup containing pasta and vegetables, or rice and chicken with roasted cashew nuts on top, as well as beef kebabs with french fries, or a pink salad with cabbage and beets, and on one day there was a vegetarian “kebbeh” made of mashed potatoes and fine bulgur. And the next morning, the same was done over breakfast, where we had either scrambled eggs or pastries topped with thyme and olive oil, but bread and cheese (two Armenian staples) were always a certainty.
One of our final destinations that I wanted to speak of last was the Armenian Genocide Museum. The entirety of the museum was underground in a winding, man-made, charcoal-grey cave, and it snaked around as it led visitors chronologically through the events that took place before, during, and after the Armenian genocide. Above it was a larger memorial complex, where a structure composed of twelve angled slabs surrounds a pit alight with an eternal flame remembering the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians. The extermination of the Armenian people beginning in April 24, 1915, was perpetuated at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, and continued until after World War I. The genocide began with the removal of Armenian intellectuals and scholars from Istanbul and their murder, followed by the killing of men and the deportation of women, children and elderly into the Syrian Desert, where they were subjected to hunger, thirst, rape and murder, though some survived. Many returned to Armenia, and a vast majority now dot the globe, including Syria, with Lucine and her family being one of them. The Armenian Genocide is what I and many others believe is ground zero for the determined, humble, faithful yet idle demeanour of the Armenians, a state of mind that had left the country suspended in a twilight ever since.
“Now that you’re here, we’ll get to do fun things together!” was what Lucine told me in the beginning. Lucine, with her youthful heart and adventurous spirit, was stuck here. Fleeing her home with her parents in the midst of civil war and bound to them by duty, she was suspended in a twilight herself. She had an older brother who was married and away, yet she, unmarried, and despite her far- reaching aspirations and hopes, was confined to Armenia, a land that is both strange and familiar to her. She could leave and lead her own life, but, “My father and mother have bad health, I can’t just leave them.” And that was when I understood: I was a respite from all of that, and in my visit I’d allowed her to live out her adventures with me, and through me, if even for a moment. She had thoroughly enjoyed her time with me, as I had enjoyed my time with her as well, and she did so despite the sombre, yet somehow hopeful truth that she had to return to, which is to wait, immovable, silently and persistently.
Like Armenia and its people, after suffering much hardship and discrimination in its long-gone, and arguably current, history, there will be moments, days, or even years, where we will be stuck in a twilight, waiting in idle, pointless limbo. Yet Armenia and Lucine both exist as a proof of this: even in twilight, we must conduct ourselves with modesty, integrity and pride, and should never miss a chance to gaze outside our limbos whenever a window materialises, for someday, it might in fact be a door.