They’re scattered around the Cascade, stealing away to quieter corners. Couples, mostly in their late teens and early twenties, eyes glowing with affection. There’s passion, there’s fire and they’re clinging to each other like lifeboats. The sky above is the dullest shade of grey but they see only endless blue. Because they’re in love. And their hearts are on fire. And it’s now and forever.
But they’re not going home together.
And they’re not having sex.
Armenian culture is a complex series of contradictions, most of which appear to stem from religion. It was the first country to adopt Christianity in 301, after the king was miraculously healed by the power of prayer from a man called Gregory, who had been living in a dungeon jail for the past thirteen years, which doesn’t sound ideal.
As a result, most of the tourist attractions are monasteries and shrines. One such shrine, ‘The Divine Underground’, came from a man who day began digging a hole for potatoes and simply didn’t stop. After working every day for the next twenty-three years, he’d constructed a cave system of sixteen rooms that stretch about twenty-five metres down. They don’t appear to have any practical function, but Master Levon kept digging anyway, only ever by hand, sometimes compelled by a higher power to go through the night under lamplight during winter. Largely useless or not, the results are stunning. Just the sheer scale of both the caves and his faith.
Religion, to no-one’s surprise, was also behind the mass genocide here in the early 1900s, with Christian Armenia separating the Muslim worlds each side. What might be a surprise is Germany’s role in it, forming alliances with the Muslim population with a view to a united front against the Christian West on the eve of World War One – declaring Jihad, essentially. The contemporary irony is provided by the fact that Armenian refugees during the genocide were deported to Syria, Aleppo particularly.
And the final, chilling quote from the Genocide Museum? “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’ – Adolf Hilter, 1939.
Which is a bit of a tangent and a rather circuitous route to the point: the roots of religion are buried so deep here that it’s not just a consideration, it’s the foundation of everything. Particularly social behavioural patterns. Especially sex.
The air here is loaded with it. From those furiously kissing on the Cascade to the stolen glances between pedestrians to the lustful looks that linger in bars, it’s everpresent, and it’s because the majority of people aren’t getting any.
We all know satisfaction is the death of desire and deprivation stokes the fire, which means there’s this pervasive sense that its all about to spill over. Imagine a glass of water. It’s full to the brim and placed outside in the rain. Every raindrop should be a step closer to it overflowing or the bubble bursting, chipping away like every year of contemporary youth culture and increased cultural awareness from the internet – particularly regarding the liberalisation of women in the bedroom – should on these archaic values, but it never does.
Only a select few drops escape. In the constant war between faith and biological urges, it’s led to some open secrets and strange phenomena from individuals and groups who succumb to the latter.
For the ‘obscene’ women who have had sex before marriage, there is an underground scene of deliberately bad vagina reconstruction surgery to make sure they bleed as if the hymen broke on their wedding night. If not, there will be questions, and in some cases, shaming, divorce and social exile. Most men are taken to a brothel at sixteen, usually by their father or older male family members, to make sure they’ve lost their virginity before their stint in the army. Gay men having secret affairs still have every intention of marrying women and having children in the hope that the pearly gates will still open for them.
Antiquated views on sex and marriage just haven’t died here yet. An American Peace Corps volunteer who works in one of the more rural cities explained that his Armenian guide was taking him around the city for the first time, saw a woman across the street and exclaimed “bitch!” with pure venom. Because his English wasn’t fluent, the American thought the local might have misspoken. No, he explained, she had just had sex before marriage. Just once. The whole city knew about it, and she was labelled a whore.
But then it’s so tactile, too. Straight men walk around holding hands, linking arms and kissing each other on the cheek as an expression of friendship. They’re tactile and openly physically affectionate when in public with women, too, whether as friends or more. It just never goes beyond that. The bedroom door never closes, they’re never tangled beneath the sheets. Love and sex, kept separate. The tension mounts.
There are more liberal nonconformists, of course, particular in the bars I’ve tended to frequent in the capital, Yerevan, but the vast majority seem to be waging this internal war of denial and restraint. It’s a tapestry of taboos and unwritten rules which are then broken in ways that appear illogical. A local informed me that one of the first words they’re taught as a child is “amot”, which means shame, something I found hugely illuminating.
And shame is most probably how they would feel that their most famous export, the impossibly awful Kim Kardashian, built her fame off a sex tape. Outside of her family, the second most known person with recent Armenian heritage, the impossibly awful Dan Bilzerian, is hugely ostentatious about his sex life. Both were born and raised in the US so this might be a stretch, but maybe there’s something in it too – a kind of inherited sense of sexual repression that they don’t have to adhere to, leading them to approach their liberation with a feverish zeal. In England? Rita Ora.
I get the impression that the contradictions in Armenia will remain. I’m sure I couldn’t begin to comprehend the depth of double standards and intricacies, I’ve been here a week and I’ve barely scratched the surface. Though you can feel them all, it’s so rarely tangible or visible – the calm ocean surface hiding the shipwreck beneath.
Armenia is an incredible country with impossibly beautiful landscapes, even in what is an unseasonable time to visit, while Yerevan has unexpectedly stolen my affection. Underground bars that wouldn’t be out of place in Berlin or Amsterdam, a thriving social scene, beautiful architecture from the squares to the Opera House, and most of all, wonderful people.
If only there was more sex.