Fear and Football in Yerevan

by Nathan James Thomas

From a football match attended by local and foreign glitterati to a frightening warning near the Azerbaijani border, a traveler attempts to connect with Armenia and its swaggering capital, Yerevan.

“They will shoot you right away.”

She smiles as she says this. 

We have just passed hard by the Azerbaijan border, and our Armenian tour guide is cheerfully batting away a question from a Dutch tourist — who overindulged on wine at lunch — on what would happen if he attempted to cross it. The tour guide is young, well-made up, with thick black hair. She alternates seamlessly between English and Russian, and her smile never falters as she launches into an impromptu litany of the alleged crimes of their neighbor. We hear a gruesome tale of a woman tortured and murdered and theories about why CNN refuses to broadcast the story. Her smile still fixed, her hands animated, she talks about a peace conference some years ago in Hungary. An Armenian and an Azerbaijani delegate were lodging in the same room. The Azerbaijan delegate broke into the Armenian’s room and “killed him. With an ox.” We are silent. The guide holds her smile, then turns her attention to the Russians sitting nearer the front. We in the back exchange eye contact. The van rolls past parched fields and brown mountains. But the guide has not finished her story.

The bar is smoky and strange. An old man in the corner is reading a thick book even though the place is rowdy and it’s long past midnight. A man with a guitar is singing in Russian and Armenian, and everyone else knows every word. And somehow we get to chatting with a young man and a young woman from right here in Yerevan, and they are telling us old-timers their life plans. They are both soft-featured with brown, curly hair, his short, her’s long. She is studying Chinese and is excited to go to Shanghai. She doesn’t know what she is going to do with this language, but it’s a gateway to a bigger world. He is studying geology and knows it will help him get a good job. Our rapport builds, and we’re all fairly tipsy now, and I find myself asking about the war, the invasion, and what they think of all this. I listen intently to their answers. I know I will remember every word they speak. I don’t need to write them down.

Their words are, of course, lost to wine and song. What I do remember is that there was no anger. Not even sadness that I could detect. More a wise acceptance, and perhaps a renunciation of resentment as a dead end that leads only to more suffering. And as for Armenia today? They love their country, though find it sometimes embarrassingly outdated. The girl laughed as she told us that it still wasn’t uncommon for the mother-in-law of a bride to burst into the marital room the day after the wedding and hold up with pride the stained sheets attesting to her daughter-in-law’s (former) virginity. She giggled while explaining that many young women can easily fake the evidence. She told us that she worked part-time as a waitress while studying but could never tell this to her father – he wouldn’t approve of this kind of occupation for a young woman.

Even the woman working the checkout at the supermarket wears a Dolce & Gabbana belt. Outside on Matriso Saryan Street, as I pack the two water bottles I’ve just acquired into my backpack, every passer-by is a walking billboard for high-end fashion brands. The women are impeccably made up, their lips bursting with filler, the Russian tourists blonde and fair, the locals with their faces made-up to look even more pale than the Russian visitors, encircled in wavy, dark hair. 

Luxury cars line the street, and men in darkly clad suits mutter into walkie-talkies and maintain avid vigilance. The tables in the outdoor cafe are occupied by the young, the beautiful, and the rich. A black sedan pulls up, and more James-Bondesque figures emerge from the doors. They fan out down the street, some facing the cafe, others watching the pedestrians who walk by. A disheveled man is sweating and muttering into an old-fashioned cell phone, the kind you purchase to throw away. The secret service, whoever they are, watch him closely as he twitches and hurries by.

The football stadium is far outside the city, and the taxi is small. I’m traveling with a Dutch journalist, and we are going to see a match between two Armenian football teams because one of the teams has recently been bought by a billionaire who has gone on a spending spree. In that spending spree, the billionaire added four Dutch players to his team, and my friend knows one of them. We’re both tall for this country, and my friend’s shoe brushes lightly against the driver’s seat. The driver snaps angrily. We lurch forward in stinking, belching traffic, the city fading away, replaced by gas stations and sleazy hotels, one ambitiously calling itself “The Bellagio.” 

The area around us begins to fill up, and a beautiful European woman arrives, perfectly made-up and dressed as if for a cocktail party. She is accompanied by a large, pot-bellied Armenian bodyguard and two small children. My friend identifies her as the wife of one of the Dutch players, and they strike up a conversation. 

More Armenian men arrive in jeans and black T-shirts, each belly larger than the last, clutching walkie-talkies. The reason for the sudden security presence becomes apparent when I smell a whiff of cologne and look up to see a short Armenian man in a dark suit with a Dolce & Gabbana belt standing next to me. He raises his eyebrows, and I stand up to let him pass, which he does without a word of thanks. He then sees the Dutch woman and smiles warmly, shaking first her hand and then the hands of each of her small children before moving to a seat behind her. He is soon joined by a friend who is dressed more casually but equally awash in logos, with the Louis Vuiton on his white cap and a gold watch bright enough to be seen from outer space. He drags along a bored-looking kid of 8 or 9 who is wearing a Gucci T-shirt. The seats are dusty, and when the man in the dark suit gets up to greet his friend, the bottom of his pants are stained white. 

The bodyguards gather at the front of the stadium, and I deduce a rule: The more Louis Vuitton items the rich spectator wears, the larger the belly of his guard. The guard of the man in the dark suit has the largest belly of them all, and the skin of his face is blotchy, white in patches and dark in others. He catches me staring at him, and I break off eye contact and try to focus on the game. It takes as long as a football match takes, and the team with the Dutch players loses 3-4. The sunset behind the stadium was beautiful.

Budapest is almost 3000 kilometers west of Yerevan. Here, far from the thickset bodyguards and svelte security men, a man called Balázs Kuti has come down with a fever. It’s February of 2004, and the city is cold. Balázs gets an early night, and his roommate, an Armenian called Gurgen Margaryan, wanders out to see a friend. They are delegates at a three-month English language program put on by NATO’s Partnership for Peace. In the small hours, the lights in the room flick on. Margaryan has returned. But he is not alone. Over him stands Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani delegate on the program. He is wielding an ax.

Margaryan is tragically murdered. Safarov spends some years in jail in Hungary before he is returned to Azerbaijan. There, the president quickly pardons him, promotes him high up the ranks of the military, and gives him, as our tour guide explains, her smile unwavering,  “A big nice house, and lots of money.” We sit in the silence as the hills roll by.

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