One Day in Yerevan: A Dark, but Colorful ‘Vernisaj’

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.”

Yerevan is inside you.
Yerevan is inside you.

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.

“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.”
“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.”

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.”

It is important to enter its depths. There are great reserves of love to be found there.
It is important to enter its depths. There are great reserves of love to be found there.

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.

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Sako Arian

Sako Arian is a Yerevan-based journalist and poet. He was born in 1972 in Bourdj-Hamoud, Lebanon. In 1997 he published his first book of poetry in Armenian titled "Tartam Togher" (Hesitant Lines). In 2000 he published "Ganayi Harsanik" (Marriage in Cana). His poems have been published in Open Letter Magazine (Los Angeles) and Literary Horizon (Montreal). Arian also contributes to Hetq Online (Yerevan) and Jamanag daily (Istanbul). This is his first article for The Armenian Weekly.
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19 Comments

  1. Fist I like to express my appreciative thoughts to Sako about giving us/Diaspora Armenians -who keeps hearing some untold stories from here and there and many of those things we hear about how the daily lifes are in Armenia don’t really make us happy.
    The impression that we got so far from what we heard and what we read from what Sako wrote says only one thing which is the fear of Local Mafia among the people of Armenia.
    The diaspora Armenian societies in the world are very concerned about how our Armenia is Ran .
    It seems like many of the Local political authorities don’t bother to care what the needs are of Armenians living in Armenia but only their pockets which is filled up with illegally collected Mafia money.
    No wonder no one wants to stay in Armenia and trys to leave .
    The ones from diaspora who have attempted to settle in Armenia were also not very welcome by these local Mafias at all either therefore even under the severe war condition our Syrian and Lebanese Armenian brothers and sisters still rather to continue where they are instead of moving in our Hayrenik/Armenia..
    It is a shameful situation for our Armenia and nothing to be proud of.
    We must find a solution to straighten up our Hayrenik /eastern Armenia so We can also continue to have the strengt to demand our Rights in occupied Western Armenia by Turks and Kurds.
    We must do this ,either we do it or do it,,we have no choice.
    Long Live Armenians
    Long Live Hayrenik/Armenia

  2. I visited Yerevan in July, Vernisage was just outside our hotel door; what a joy. I see Vernisage a bit differently. The greatest thing about it is the nascent evolving capitalistic spirit, the vigorous effort by individuals to scratch out a living by the sweat of one’s own brow. After years of Communist suffocation, it was good to see that the entrepreneurial spirit was alive and fourishing.

    • lolo,
      During the years of “Communist suffocation” people didn’t worry about “scratching out a living” as they do now. This is a typical stereotype mentality by some people who just don’t admit that there were many positive sides to Soviet life. Not everything was as bad as Western propaganda rammed into the heads of their citizens. Everyone had a job, a modest but guaranteed income, free education, free medical care. Utility bills were miniscule, and although one would wait for several years to have an apartment, it was given free of charge and there was no rent to pay for it afterwards. Our children would go to kindergartens and summer camps free of charge and our elders would receive guaranteed social welfare. Yes, private entrepreneurship was forbidden, but it certainly doesn’t amount for “suffocation”. Please…

    • Sorry, Sveta, I just cannot agree. All that “free” stuff that you got under Soviet Communism was not free, it had to be provided by someone. Poor quality and shortages were the norm. And essentially, no one had the freedom or the right to find a way to better themselves by working harder, starting their own business, to save their money and actually buy an apartment, not wait for years. I visited Armenia at the peak of Soviet power (1987), and saw with my own eyes the shoddy construction in those apartments that resulted in so many people dying in the earthquake the following year. The Soviet Union was billed as a worker’s paradise; it had strict occupational health and safety laws which were routinely violated while the offending industries went unpunished. Likewise with environmental protection laws. I could go on and on. Soviet is dead and gone. wistfully looking back won’t restore it. The new system is not perfect but at least, as Vernisage proves, an individual can work to improve his lot and the choice of things they can buy with their money is endless.

  3. you have to understand these are just people trying to survive, they are worried about their future and next meal, when hope and opportunity does not exists then misery and anger takes over, i have been to Armenia seven times, people are always trying to give them money, i can understand why? i would do the same thing if i don’t have a decent job. it is just survival instinct.

  4. I have been to exactly the stall that is pictured in this photograph. I was so excited to see it again in AW. I bought bags full of hats and purses to take home as gifts. They are perfectly made with good quality wool. They are extremely beautiful, and I can hardly wait for spring to go back again and buy more. I didn’t see the beautiful vests when I was there, so they are a new item I will be looking for.
    The marked prices in Vernisaj were generally ridiculously low –far too low. For any Diasporan to” haggle” as Sako writes is shameful. If you can afford the airfare and hotel, you can afford to treat these people with respect and pay exactly what they ask – and then tell them to keep the change. Shame on those, who haggle with our less fortunate brethren. They work all winter in hopes of making enough money to just barely get by the next winter. You don’t haggle at Walmart, why do you haggle with your brethren? The man at this stall will offer you a discount if you are buying many items. Refuse the discount and insist on paying the regular price, and you will see the look of gratitude in his wife’s eyes. I cannot imagine why anyone would buy gifts to take home from the overpriced American brand name chain stores now in Yerevan, when they can go to the Versnisaj and meet their Armenian brethren who remain in the country in spite of desperately hard times.
    Thanks to Sako and AW for these wonderful photos that brought back sweet memories of a day in Yerevan.

  5. The woman standing beside him has the stall right across from him. She does exquisite hand embroidery – tiny, perfect stitches in Armenian patterns. Here is your chance to buy hand work that is made in Armenia and not made in China. She is rightfully proud of her work and will engage you in long conversation about how she did a particular piece and why. There is also a woman there who dyes silk scarves in gorgeous colors and patterns.

  6. Just a minute, Sveta, don’t try to legitimize Bolshevik propaganda. I was there in Soviet times too. I saw the long lineups for bread, and those at the end going without. You then left the bread lineup and hurried over to a lineup for fish or meat, and hoped you got some. I saw the apartments that you got for free. I visited an entire family that lived in one room. There was a shared kitchen and bathroom on each floor for all the families on that floor. Yes, you got free medical care, but we are not talking about the superior care you can get in Yerevan today. The kindergarten you are talking about was simply day care – long lines of children tied to one another being taken out for a walk. I saw children marching around in camps in their red communist uniforms. Yes, of course utility bills were “minuscule” as you say. You did not have electricity and water and gas 24/7. The use of the word “suffocation” is right on the mark. You kept your mouth shut. You had no opinion about anything. You did not complain. You went where you were told and you did whatever you were told. Tourist buses were all rigged with tape recorders in the head rests to monitor conversation. Hotel rooms had a woman sitting at a desk on each floor to check out any guests you might have, and of course, to keep an eye on you. Tourists were followed on the streets. There were separate stores for them to shop in – remember the “dollar” stores, Svelta? You could only shop in them with USA dollars.
    Our Armenia will be fine, thank you very much, as soon as the last of the oligarchs are turfed out, as soon as our country is rid of the last vestige of Bolshevik mentality. It will come to pass. Our people are hard working, intelligent, and adaptable. The country is rich in natural resources. And there is nowhere on earth more beautiful. Everyday life will afford more opportunity for our people. Soon. The younger generation in both the diaspora and in RoA will make it happen. There’s no room for Communist BS.

    • Dear Perouz,

      All I said was that it is incorrect to portray life in Soviet Armenia as “suffocation”. It’s off the mark! There were many problems as in any country on the globe, but Armenians were not suffocating. I, for one, wasn’t. Perouz, what does “Bolshevik propaganda” has to do with my own experience having lived in the USSR for thirty years? Should I believe you, an outsider, the Bolshevik propaganda or my own eyes? I hate it when people paint everything in either black or white color. Do you think America can be painted only in white color? What will happen if you lose your job and stop paying your mortgage bills? You’d longing for a free apartment to move your family in. Many Soviet families lived in the so-called communal apartments with shared kitchen and bathroom on each floor, but starting from the 1960s almost every family could have their own apartment for free. My family of four lived in a three-room apartment in downtown Yerevan. We had electricity and gas 24/7. Shortages of foodstuff occasionally took place, yes, but no one was hungry and no one was rooting through dumpsters. Electricity and gas problems intensified during the Gorbachev era in the late 1980s and in the early 1990s after the break-up. What problem do you have with day-care children or children marching around in camps in their red communist uniforms? Do you prefer shootings, drugs and guns over communist uniforms? We kept our mouths shut to a certain degree. No one dragged me to prison for telling jokes about Brezhnev sitting in a public café. If you don’t keep your mouth shut in any establishment—communist or capitalist—you may similarly face problems to a various degree. And any establishment keeps not only an eye, but also an ear on you. I guess the Patriot Act was one hell of legislation in the free society? Or maybe NSA’s listening to every word you say and collecting your phone records and conversations is one hell of a practice in the free society? I share the hope with you that Armenia eventually will be fine. But the country was—although under the foreign domination and alien ideology—in a way fine during the Soviet times, too. Again, I hate it when people see only bad things in any society. How was it possible in such a bad country as Soviet Armenia to produce such brilliant scientists, engineers, doctors, nuclear and laser physicists, generals, poets, and artists, such an industrial, agricultural, and intellectual level still unmatched by the modern republic? By the way, oligarchs are the product of the capitalist, not Bolshevik, formation and mentality. And although the country is not rich in natural resources, I also believe that the entrepreneurial spirit and hard work of our people will prevail. I never said there was a room for Communist BS in new Armenia. I just wish that people who didn’t live in the second (Soviet) republic would refrain from telling us that we lived in “suffocation”. With all the shortcomings, it wasn’t “suffocation”.

    • Perouz jan: If the last of the oligarchs is turfed out and our government fails to develop middle class, then I’m afraid you’ll get the same Soviet-type society you so much hate.

    • Sveta, lolo said that USSR suffocated the “entrepreneurial spirit,” which is true. You yourself acknowledge that USSR forbade free enterprise. Forbidding something amounts to suffocating it. It is the freedom of enterprise (coupled with rule of law) that draws millions of people, including thousands of Armenians, to the United States each year. And it is that freedom which in a free society generates so much variety, quality, and abundance of products and services, something which, I hope you admit, Soviet citizens were deprived of (hence the long bread lines).

      You may face some consequences for expressing unpopular belief in the United States (such as people not liking you), but you will not go to jail. I would much rather have NSA listening to me than KGB dragging me to its basement for criticizing the government.

      What I find troubling is that you take it personally when someone criticizes the Soviet system. From your perfect English, I might guess that you live in an English speaking democratic country, such as the U.S. If that is the case, you have made a choice to live in a free Western country and enjoy its benefits. You know how much Armenians suffered under the USSR, especially under Stalin. Armenia may have been one of the most developed republics in USSR, but being in USSR put Armenia behind compared to other developed countries, especially in terms of economy and state development. The current oligarchic system copied the old mafia system in USSR, minus the Communist ideology. Why would you defend a system that did so much harm to us and that is gone?

      I understand that you may feel nostalgia for the old days. As time goes by, we selectively choose to remember the good and try to forget the bad. If you do live in the United States, I suggest that you learn more about its history, culture, and the legal framework. In time, you may come to appreciate it and see the things that Armenia has missed and still continues to miss.

    • Yes, Vahagn, the USSR suffocated the “entrepreneurial spirit” being a socialist state. But to say that the whole life of Armenians was one big “suffocation” is historically and factually wrong. With all the shortcomings that we all are aware of, there were many positive sides to Soviet life, enabling Armenians to register progress in many fields of national economy, arts, science, education and more. This is not, by any account, a “suffocation”.

  7. Sveta: You sound like one of those little children marching around in red communist uniforms in a “summer camp,” who were fed Soviet propaganda instead of sandwiches for lunch. Your response reveals your lack of experience and knowledge about free societies.

    • We were fed both Soviet propaganda AND sandwiches for lunch. In this society we are fed American propaganda with NO sandwiches for lunch. And I’m afraid your response reveals your lack of experience and knowledge about how societies—free, semi-free on unfree–work. I came to believe after living in both societies that the Establishment in any type of society tends to suppress the individuality of its citizens: in different ways, in different forms and to different extent. One thing is clear: if someone lacks experience and insider knowledge about a society, it is always better to be silent. There are real-life Western(!) statistics about the level of development in various fields of Soviet Armenia. How is this propaganda, I don’t understand?

    • In my country, the United States (or in Perouz’ case, our arch-enemy Canada), you have the means to make or earn your own sandwich, without begging for it from the government. Plenty of choices for sandwiches, various sizes and varieties, depending on your appetite. I say that makes democracy superior. True, you should gain experience and knowledge about how a free society functions. And that is what I recommend that you do, Sveta: learn about the great country that has given you so much more, and so many more rights, than your homeland did. Otherwise, you will always be that bitter malcontent.

  8. Sveta:
    What made you or your family so special that you were accorded three times the living space of most families in Yerevan while others waited – as you say – years for an apartment? Yes, I have a lot of “problems with children marching around in camps in their red communist uniforms.” Try and find out what children do in summer camps in America. As for your question; “Do you prefer shootings, drugs and guns over communist uniforms?” Communist uniforms represent shootings, drugs and guns.” And before you ask about the drugs, I’ll tell you that the Bolsheviks were notorious for poison gas and truth serum drugs crumbled into drinks that prisoners were forced to take; prisoners who were held because they had dared voice even mild dissent about the government.
    Today, our people can have hope for increasingly better times, for the eventual emergence of a strong middle class. The Diaspora can help by planning their vacations to RoA, by supporting entrepreneurs like those in the Versinaj. We need to take our young children there. This is a very welcoming country. It is exhilarating to be in a country where you hear your language spoken all around you, where there is a memorial that honors your murdered family. And the police do not follow the tourists on the streets.

    • I’m sorry, Perouz, I understand you live in Canada? I’d never put a word about life in Canada because I haven’t lived there. But you dare give assessments of life in Soviet Armenia. I guess the only reason being that the name contains “Soviet”, which you hate? I also despised things about the Soviets, first of all that Armenia has been Sovietized in 1920. On the other hand I appreciate the fact that had Armenia not been Sovietized, the Turks would have most probably finished the job they started in 1915. All I’m saying, my friend, is that it’s wrong to paint everything in black color. I believe when more time will pass, Armenia’s Soviet period may be considered our nation’s third Golden Age given our achievements in various spheres of cultural and scientific life. This is not nostalgia as some suggest, this is a fact. Our nation was incomparably more educated, well-mannered, and developed. Whoever disagrees with this must be a complete idiot. There was nothing special with my family that we were accorded a three-room apartment. You don’t know simple things. Each person in a family was eligible for a certain amount of space. Four people would normally, not exceptionally, live in a three-room flat. Your other points are just rabid hatred. I already said that I share the hope that Armenia will be fine, after all it is the same nation whether under the Soviets or as an independent nation. But you have to learn how to appreciate the history of your nation regardless the fact whose rule we’ve been under. You seem to spew hatred more against the Soviets rather than the murderous barbaric Ottoman Turks.

  9. Sveta: “You seem to spew hatred more against the Soviets rather than the murderous barbaric Ottoman Turks.”

    Almost all of my family were butchered in the Genocide. I find your comment offensive in the extreme.

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