When night falls in Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city, a traveler finds himself sharing the dance floor with unlikely companions.
THE CITY IS IN DARKNESS. All streetlights are off. Furious packs of stray dogs have colonized certain streets. There are no women anywhere, only men, usually in pairs, arms linked, talking in secretive tones. After a day’s hitchhiking from the mountains of neighboring Georgia, Gyumri, in the northwest of Armenia, spitting distance from the closed border with Turkey, is a strange place to find yourself dropped into.
We find ourselves tailing a guy in his early twenties, dressed, like every other Armenian we have seen, all in black, who tells us he will lead us to the address we are looking for. He doesn’t speak a word, just keeps walking slightly ahead of us, turning around every so often to check that we are still in tow.
Eventually we enter a large and unlit block. The man knocks the door of a ground floor flat and an old lady answers. They speak in Armenian, and just like at the border, we clearly pick out the word “American,” despite neither of us being American.
The old lady responds enthusiastically to the word. She knows what we want: the American who lives upstairs. Our guide leads us up to the second floor and knocks loudly on the door. It is answered by a man who looks Portuguese.
“Luis?” I say.
“Yes. Welcome. Come in.”
Luis is our Couchsurfing host. We thank our guide, who says nothing, just nods and leaves.
Inside the flat, the group of ten young, slightly drunk people of various European nationalities, all in Armenia on volunteer placements, inform us that we are about to go out clubbing. I have diarrea brought on by the previous night’s foray into the pleasures of homemade Georgian wine. I am exhausted. Fragile. I desire a bed, a toilet, and nothing else.
My request that I jump under the shower before we leave is met with universal laughter.
“One of the wonders of this city is that we only have water for a couple of hours each morning, and then for an hour late afternoon,” Luis tells me.
I tell him a cold shower will do just fine.
“No, you don’t understand. We have no running water of any kind. You can’t even flush the toilet. You have to pour water into it from this,” he points to a bucket full of water.
As these words sink in, a sharp pain stabs at my stomach. I ask if nightclubs have running water.
“Yes. All public buildings do.”
“OK, let’s go!” I blurt out and start ushering people towards the front door.
As we walk the streets in darkness, Luis and Iustina – a larger than life, both physically and in character, Romanian girl – give us a local studies lesson.
“The reason you don’t see any women or girls on the streets is that there is an unwritten curfew for females. All women must be home for 7 in the evening, and they aren’t allowed out again until morning. Nor can women smoke cigarettes, at least not in public,” Iustina explains.
“What about young people, don’t they go on dates?” I ask.
Iustina smirks, before continuing: “Dates? No way! Girls here don’t date; they marry. The norm is to marry in the teens. If you are a girl, you must remain a virgin until marriage, otherwise no man will take you, and you will spend the rest of your life alone, being thought of as a whore.”
The rest of our group walks ahead of us in pairs. Closest to us are two German girls, who are being trailed slowly by a white Lada. Both the driver and his friend in the passenger seat are leaning out of the windows and speaking to them. On these unlit streets it looks sinister. I ask Luis if we should intervene.
“No, it’s fine. It’s what the men here do. The girls will probably get in the car and let them drive them to the club, and then possibly let them buy them a drink,” Luis says. “Nothing bad will happen. The girls use it as a free taxi service and a way of getting free drinks, and for the men, they get to have some interaction with the opposite sex; something they can’t get with Armenian girls.”
I ask Luis if we are heading to a sausage party.
“The place is called Relax. The only club in the city. Armenian girls, because of the curfew, can’t go there because women out late are seen as legitimate targets for sexual assault. The local boys don’t go there either because it has a bad reputation, and also why would they if there are no women? So the men are either from the local Russian military base, or they are Armenian gangsters. You can tell which is which by their clothes,” Luis says.
“Why do they go if there are no women?”
“Well, there are some women,” Iustina replies. “A few prostitutes earn their money in there. Mostly Russian; you also get the occasional Armenian girl.”
“Don’t you and the other girls get pestered?”
“Nope. The men here have a weird code that they adhere to strictly. They want to dance with and talk to us, but they won’t do it without first being given permission by the men we are with. Tonight that will include you,” Iustina says. “The soldiers will come and try to make friends with you. They will tell you that you are their brother. Then, they’ll ask to sit down. Eventually, they’ll ask your permission to take one of us to the dancefloor, or just to sit with us and chat over a cigarette. They see us as your property. They are not bad guys, though.”
A gang of Russian lads stands around the battered wooden door of the club. Inside, one of the walls is a large floor-to-ceiling mirror. The dancefloor is empty, as the few patrons stand around the outside in small groups, chatting and smoking cigarettes. At the near end, a fat Russian DJ stands behind his CD decks wearing a Tap-Out MMA vest, playing cheesy Russian dance music and occasionally spitting some words into his microphone in the style of a wedding reception DJ. And at the far end is a bar.
As we are crossing the dancefloor, a tall, blonde, Russian Barbie doll reaches out, taps me on the elbow, and smiles. I carry on to the bar, not wishing to waste her time.
A bottle of the local beer, according to the price list, costs 400 Dram (just under a dollar). I pay with a 500 Dram note and receive no change. Awkwardly, I tell the barman I think he owes me a hundred.
“Service charge,” he growls.
Rather than argue, I ask him where the toilet is.
“Customer toilet out of order. You can use staff toilet. Follow me.”
He leads me through a door into a dirty kitchen hidden away behind the bar, in which an old babushka sits on a wooden stool, under a flickering light bulb, silently watching me. In the corner is a tobacco-stained door with WC written on it in permanent marker. Inside, there is no working light. On a small shelf above the toilet, a collection of used disposable razors.
On my return to the dancefloor, I find the group of European volunteers dancing together in a circle, along with a cheery prostitute in a blue dress, surrounded by a group of large men, all dressed in black, watching them the way a pride of lions watches a herd of antelope.
There are four subgroups in the club, none of whom interact with any of the others. The Armenian gangsters patrol the edges of the dancefloor with Russian hookers on their arms, or sit at tables, with the girls on their laps, drinking cocktails and kissing.
The Russian bad men, dressed as though they have come straight from the MMA ring, stand in the corner laughing among themselves. Every twenty minutes or so one of them grabs a microphone and sings a popular Russian song in the middle of the dancefloor, to the visible enjoyment of his mates.
The Russian soldiers want nothing to do with their criminal element compatriots and keep themselves to themselves, dancing energetically and with smiles on their faces, looking at the girls of our group but not daring to act on their desires.
The European volunteers dance all over the place with reckless abandon, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there is anyone else in the building.
Three lads in their late teens pull up chairs next to me and shake my hand before firing a load of Russian chatter my way. I pick up the word “brat” (brother). They are not how I imagined Russian soldiers to be. They aren’t brutish, but innocent and childlike. Just kids. Dressed in blue jeans and casual T-shirts, apart from one lad of Kazakh appearance dressed in full uniform, who must have come straight from training. On realizing that I don’t speak Russian, they gradually disperse.
As the night wears on, small handfuls of the young Russian soldiers are thrown out by over-zealous bouncers, indistinguishable from the Armenian gangsters, supposedly for being too drunk, until eventually only three soldiers remain: the three youngest, smallest, and gentlest looking of the group; a blond lad; and two Kazakhs. Not that they appear to mind or even notice that their mates have been ejected.
The Russian bad men soon decide to call it a night and leave as one. When I return from another emergency trip to the toilet, Adriana, my travel companion, looks upset.
“You just missed the action. It was horrible. That blonde prostitute over there deliberately walked into the back of that Kazakh kid, almost knocking him over. When he turned around, the blonde shouted some abuse at him and then that big man in the brown coat started a fight with him. The bouncers pulled them apart,” she fills me in.
I look over to the dancefloor. The three Russian soldiers are dancing on their own, and the man who picked the fight is pacing around menacingly behind them while the prostitute who started it all lingers in the background looking crafty. It is obvious that it is about to kick off, but the three Russian lads are oblivious to it.
Then it has started. Five large Armenians are trading blows with the three young Russians, who don’t stand a chance. More Armenians pile in from outside and join their mates in the assault. The little Kazakh is on the floor, protecting his head with his hands as the Armenians kick him like a football. His mate in uniform flies in to protect him. The lad manages to get to his feet. Someone smashes a glass bottle on his head. He doesn’t go down. The bouncers watch without intervening. The three Russians are hurt, but not horrendously.
All three leave on their feet, blood running from their noses. The little lad with a large lump above his eye. He is still calling the big Armenian in the brown coat outside to finish it.
On the walk back to the flat, Iustina and Luis explain that the fight was probably race-motivated. The bouncers, in cooperation with the gangsters, slowly isolated the two Kazakh-looking kids throughout the course of the night by booting out all the other soldiers. Then, the prostitute did her part and lit the fuse.
“You see a lot of racism here.”
Before going to bed, I have one more question for Luis.
“Both the guy who led us to the flat and the lady downstairs said there were Americans living here. There are none. The two boys that we hitched the ride into the country with, despite being told where we were from, called us Americans. As did the border guards, despite holding our British and Romanian passports in their hands. What’s that all about?”
“You soon get used to that,” Luis replies, grinning. “Anyone here who is not Armenian or Russian is American. That’s just how it is.”