Special to the Armenian Weekly
The Vernisaj Market is that tiny part right in the heart of Yerevan where one can find a collection of books, gifts, silver, and Armenian souvenirs. This is where I first meet the prose writer Levon Djavakhyan. “Vernisaj was mainly set up during Armenia’s years of transition,” he tells me, “when people were forced to bring their belongings and sell them at accessible prices to make a living.”
Melik Arsinyan makes a living selling plates, Armenian-style hats, and canvases painted by his friends to make a living. He welcomes all with a smile, and dispels the idea that Yerevan residents are a sullen lot who don’t know how to smile. He isn’t disappointed with the business he does, and compliments his wife. “I am very thankful to the people from the diaspora,” he exclaims when shaking my hand. “They are very pleasant. They come and make their purchases. We are very happy.” He then adds a loud, “Long live our nation!”
Before visiting Melik, I passed by a few booksellers. They all refused to answer my questions and to be photographed.
On one end of Vernisaj is a section devoted to booksellers where Edik, a Yerevan resident around 65, is selling a copy of Gostan Zarian’s The Ship on a Mountain for 1,000 AMD (US$ 2.50). Here, you can find works published by HayBetHrat on sale for decent prices. And volumes by Terian, Charents, Shiraz, Sahian, and especially Sevak lined up in neat rows.
Edik says these are the works that people look for the most. Unlike Melik, Edik isn’t happy with the way his business is going, and tells me he has to pay 10,000 AMD ($25) every 2 days for his stall spot. At the end of our conversation, he forgets his complaining, and wishes us all well. “The most cherished thing is life is your health,” he says.
My next stop is a stall run by a 70-year-old woman selling hats, army clothes, shoes, and other items. She refuses to talk to me and somewhat angrily warns me not to photograph her. “I don’t want to say anything to you. I know nothing about this place,” she declares, adding, “Go talk to the boss.”
There is such a class of people in Armenia, people getting by on 30,000-40,000 AMD per month (the average monthly pension in Armenia), and they must become worthy of our attention and care. We can’t tolerate that 22 years after independence, Armenians still face such daily problems of survival. With these people, patriotic exhortations fall on deaf ears. So you just hang your head and walk by.
It’s not surprising to meet people who once were professionals in their fields and have now been relegated, through the exigencies of time, to selling books and other items at the market.
One of them is Babken, who didn’t want me to take his photo. Babken sells a variety of new and old books, especially art albums. “The general impression that people don’t read is incorrect,” he says, adding that people from all over the world make a beeline to Vernisaj to buy books at highly competitive prices. Babken then tries to convince me that he doesn’t like to give interviews, even though he says he highly respects the diaspora and appreciates the role Armenian Diasporans play.
At every turn, one hears people haggling over prices: 3,000, 2,000, 1,000. Buyers and sellers usually agree to something in the middle.
The next man I meet is roaming the market looking for a bargain. “The Vernisaj prices are quite low. Our people live poorly and can’t afford expensive stuff. Here, the prices fit our budget,” he says. Turning to the diaspora, he expresses the hope that ties between Armenia and the diaspora grow stronger. “We lose out and so does the diaspora. I regret the fact that there are so many intelligent people in the diaspora, successful people, but there is no organization or leader that can unite us all.” The man doesn’t want to give his name. Smiling, he adds, “Is my name so important? Just say it’s an average Armenian, an average Yerevan resident.”
In this part of Yerevan, it easy to spot foreign tourists. One is Pierre from Belgium, who has come to Armenia with his Armenian girlfriend. He tells me it’s his second trip and that he’s here to buy old books. “You can find very rare books. Just today, for example, I found a book on rug making written by Manya Ghazaryan.”
I talk with Kolya Andreasyan, who sells minutely detailed musical instruments. “I made all this by hand,” he says. As I look over his work, he continues, “I’m not complaining but the business here is seasonal. Our business really picks up when the tourists arrive.”
Vernisaj’s only writer
It’s not easy talking with Levon Djavakhyan. He starts by asking what I’m writing about, and then complains, “My boy, how can you write about such a topic?” As I try to explain that I would like him to say a few words about Vernisaj, one of his friends chimes in and speaks his mind. Everyone in Yerevan seems to have an opinion on just about everything.
To regain control of the situation, I pull Levon to one side and try to wring a few words out of him. He says, “Life must be lived little by little. It’s not like drinking a glass of water in one gulp. I have just turned 60 and realize that you have to drink water by sipping it. I enjoy life the same way, little by little. People try to find happiness in life and have thousands of things to say about this. They search for happiness within happiness. If you set goals for yourself and try to achieve something, that itself is happiness. Life is all about resolving problems.”
“If you write, you are setting down a series of issues. If you live and see a ceiling in front of you that you’d like to reach, that too is a miracle. One must live before dying and a writer, a good one, lives until immortality, and only after does he die. That isn’t happiness but paradise.”
Djavakhyan, who sells silver crosses, chains, rings, and earrings, didn’t stay cooped up at home during the years of transition, lazily boasting that he was a writer and that the nation was obliged to take care of him. Instead, he struggled to maintain his dignity.
The first drops of rain begin to fall, wetting the pavement of Northern Boulevard as I walk its expansive length. I sit down at my favorite spot and begin to write. My keyboard isn’t angry; there is no ire hidden beneath my words and sentences. There is no political message or superfluous angst. Just a search for love in a city destined to be ours. You must snatch the first and last words of love from its residents, from its blackened and rain-soaked faces, from the mouths of the people who call it home, struggling with the tribulations of surviving in it.
Sure, there are people here who barely get by from day to day. Sure, there are people here whose poverty and pain belongs to us all.
But, it is ours.
At first glance, this city is crude, Caucasian, with a pronounced unappealing streak. But, deep within, it is different.
It is important to enter its depths. There are great reserves of love to be found there.
One must knock on the door and enter inside. After a tiring day, sweaty, burdened with all the emotions of longing and having a morsel to eat, when you turn the key in the door of your house…
Yerevan is inside you.
Inside are friends and family. Inside is your world. With all it possesses—its history, struggle, its emigrant past, quests, and most importantly, its word.
This is Yerevan.
With great dreamers ready to greet winter with a cup of tea.
This is how I spent my one day in Yerevan.