by zara kevorkova
и я взорву все вокруг
надо просто переждать шторм.[a day will come / and i will blow everything up / with my essence. / just gotta wait out the storm]
A few years ago, my father and I visited the Yerablur Pantheon in Yerevan. Quite a few of my father’s friends, being the veterans of the 1990s Nagorno-Karabakh war, are buried there. Many of them died long after the war; after they lived a long, happy life, filled with adventures and stories told as anecdotes to this day. Many of them have been married at least twice, traveled the world, and seen the country they fought for recover from ashes.
On the 11th of October, I visited the Yerablur pantheon. A friend of mine, who happened to be a soldier during the new Nagorno-Karabakh War, is buried there now. He died during the war after he lived an unfairly short but happy life, filled with some adventures and a few stories we’ll tell and retell to each other now. He didn’t get to be married or have kids. He traveled the world but never ended up moving to Boston and studying social sciences.
All these people are together now, or at least I believe they are. I believe that my friend is somewhere, looking down on me with a glass of cold rosé and an unlit cigarette in his hands. This is what you have to believe, right? Otherwise, what’s the point? Otherwise, all that is left of a person after his death is a note, written many months prior, a gravestone with two dates, and a few photographs.
The war started on September 27th, 2020. I found out about it because many people texted me, asking if I am safe. You see, I came back from Stepanakert, the capital of Artsakh, a day before the war began. By mere chance, I forgot to warn my manager about a day off on Friday and had to come back early. Otherwise, I would have stayed until Sunday. Coincidences are a funny thing.
Two years ago, a friend of mine and I visited our friend Nina in Stepanakert for the first time. We went there as tourists; we visited museums, landmarks, and historical sites. Last year, Nina and I went there to conduct interviews for a university project.
This year, visiting Stepanakert was an idea I had ever since April, when, thanks to COVID-19, everything went online in a matter of days, and leaving the house stopped being a necessity. Somehow, this adventure kept being delayed for this or that reason.
And then in September, everything finally fell into place. We packed a suitcase, called Igor (the taxi driver that drove us to Stepanakert and back many times), and next morning at 6 a.m. sharp, we were on our way.
This year there were three reasons to visit Stepanakert.
Reason #1 Stepanakert is a city of warmth
Stepanakert was the fastest I ever fell in love. After staying there for only a day, you start to feel at home. The city welcomes you with open arms and holds your hand throughout your journey. The people there are warm and will help you no matter what you need. Occasionally, they may even change their plans and walk with you, simply because you asked them for directions.
On one of the days in Stepanakert, my friend’s mom (who open-heartedly welcomed us to her home and treated us like her own daughters for a whole week) gave us a little tour of the city. Among other things, she showed us buildings that, to this day, carry the painful memories of the Karabakh War in the 1990s. When looking at these massive embodiments of socialism, one would think they are impenetrable. But then you start to notice little holes in the walls of these giants. These holes show you how much they have seen and how much more they are ready to endure.
The people in Stepanakert are proud of their city. They fought for their right to live there, and they cherish every inch of it. The brutalist buildings, the noble monuments, and the carefully handcrafted store signs show the effects socialist design had on the city. But right along with the restricted, boxy buildings, you can find captivating street art, bars, where the music doesn’t stop until the last person is gone, and cafes, where everyone can get a warm waffle and a wide variety of teas.
Coincidentally, my Stepanakertsi friend Nina is the owner of a similar cafe. Saying that her cafe is beautiful is a rude understatement. It is cozy and warm, even on cold days, which are not rare in Stepanakert. It is located in the city’s very heart, just a few minutes away from the main square. Frankly speaking, pretty much everything there is located in the heart of Stepanakert. It is a small city, but it’s got a huge heart.
Her cafe is warm, not only thanks to the teas, cocktails, and checkered blankets, but also thanks to the people. Each person working in the cafe deserves a separate story written about them. From Angel’s innocent twinkling laugh, Edmon’s loud gentlemanliness, Syuzi’s perfect waffles, to Samvel’s experimental cocktails, all these people are the indivisible part of the cafe’s warmness.
Reason #2 Stepanakert is a city that brings people together
When Diana and I visited Stepanakert for the first time, we were not very close. We knew each other from university; we met up occasionally and had a few drinks. We shared a few jokes and shared a mutual love for Soviet cartoons. So when we decided to take this trip, we were much more than strangers but a bit less than best friends. After traveling for six hours and spending four days in Stepanakert in 2018, there was no doubt that we would go back to Yerevan closer than ever. After returning to Stepanakert in 2020, we knew that the city would find a way to bring us all even closer. And it surely did.
There we used to walk all the time. Since the city is relatively small, you can get from one end to the other in a few hours. Unless, of course, you don’t get lost. Which Diana and I did, repeatedly. Even after asking for directions, we somehow managed to get confused and appear on the other end of the street. Later we learned the right way to the cafe from home, and we stuck to it until the very last day, refusing to walk through shortcuts.
Despite being away from Yerevan’s hustle, our classes still went on, the deadlines were still in place, and we needed to find somehow the motivation to finish them. It was nearly impossible to find a will to do assignments, when there is so much in the city we haven’t yet seen, when there are so many foods in the cafe we haven’t yet tried, and when there are so many drinks, David still hasn’t given us to try. So logically, we tried to find this motivation in each other. Every day, we would make plans and force each other to follow them. And every day started the same way.
“Девочки [Devochki – girls], today we are not drinking – Nina would say, sitting on the edge of my bed.”
“I agree – Diana would whisper from under her blanket – let’s focus on homework today and finish everything.”
“Okay, but we should work from the cafe, so we concentrate better – I would say foolishly.”
All three of us knew very well that we would go to the cafe, take out our laptops and start chatting with the staff. Then, when the judgemental empty docs would stare at us for too long, we would say.
“Okay! No! Let’s finish this!”
And then someone would offer us some food, and the laptops would close with a fair justification that “one can’t work on an empty stomach.” After finishing our food and convincing each other to study, we would do some work. It turns out; you can actually bully someone into studying. But then, as soon as someone gets distracted for even a mere minute, the laptops would close again, and we’d start planning our evening.
We’d always go to Bardak, a bar made from scratch, and run by Azat. The second you enter, the usual tidy, silent Stepanakert is left behind. Bardak is vibrant and loud. Posters from different eras, broken phones, icons, old street signs, and generally anything that comes to mind can be used as design hangs on Bardak’s walls. The bathroom of Bardak is decorated by the customers themselves. Everyone has a chance to leave a note on the bathroom wall and immortalize their presence there.
Disregarding the promise made in the morning, we would order drinks. David (Bardak’s bartender) would surprise us with a new cocktail every day. And he always promised that if we didn’t like it, he would happily drink it himself. But he didn’t disappoint us even once. He and Azat would drive us home every night since we always stayed until the very last song.
Stepanakert has a way of bringing closer even people you meet for the first time. After having a drink with them in Stepanakert, be sure you have a friend forever.
Reason #3 Stepanakert is a city of friendship.
Nina was not the only friend I came to visit this time. This time, I had another friend waiting for me in the army. He left in January of this year, back when we only knew each other for a short four months. We became friends over our mutual music taste, drinks, and stupid jokes. Later, we got closer when he was in the army.
He awaited this meeting for a long time since he barely saw anyone outside his army mates after being of quarantine. Occasionally Nina would send him sweets and waffles from the cafe, but he really missed Yerevanian candies and his books. So he was not only waiting for me, but also for a chance to finally get his hands on new books and some coffee.
I visited him on the very first day I arrived. Frankly, I didn’t recognize him at first; he had lost a lot of weight. But after a brief five-minute talk, it was easy to realize he was the same old guy that left in January. The same guy, with a few reevaluated worldviews.
We sat in the bushes near their building and talked until two in the morning. We discussed everything, from the Yerevanian drama between mutual friends to philosophical ideas on life itself. We told each other stories that thought would never be disclosed and confessed hilarious secrets that seemed very important before. We went over a bundle of old jokes and memories we both share but remember very differently.
He was finally smoking his favorite cigarettes that another friend of ours asked me to buy at the last minute. We sat there, smoking until two in the morning, and when the topics for reminiscing were done we just sat in silence and listened to mutually adored music.
That night, as we sat in the bushes and glimpsed at people in the windows, we thought of everything we haven’t yet done in our lives. Everything we have been scared to say, feel, or even think about. Every thought we kept in secret because of our tendency to overthink the consequences. Every carefully picked word because we didn’t want others to know too much. We thought of everything we are still meant to do. Every new song we have to discover every new poem we have to learn. Every new heartbreak we have to feel and every new lover we have to find. And then in that night, my friend said this
“You know, a day will come, and I will blow everything up with my essence.”
I know what you are thinking, but don’t worry. He is safe and in Stepanakert. He calls me every now and then and tells me that everything is okay on their end, that they are listening to music, reading poems, and even eating cookies sometimes.
But so many others are not. Here I am, standing in Yerablur, looking down on a grave. A grave of a person who had so many songs to discover, so many poems to learn and so many hearts to fall in love with. I am not trying to find justice or fairness in this anymore. I am done trying to find a reason, a bigger reason for things to happen. Maybe wars happen because people in power are assholes? Maybe battles for lands are simply a game to them? And maybe coincidences are just coincidences and not higher signs of things? Maybe we give too much importance to signs and forget that all that really matters is what is right in front of us. Maybe we think too much. Think about words we say to each other and words we don’t. Life is too short for bullshit like this. It is an old cliché, but in moments like this, you realize it’s true. We spend too much of our lives arguing with each other; too much effort into hiding our essence from people, because we are afraid of something probably stupid. We spend too much time in silence and inaction when we can be yelling the names of our loved ones from rooftops, chasing them down the street, and kissing them in the rain.
That day has come. A day to sit together, strangers, friends, and lovers. Sit with a cup of tea, share our favorite songs and embarrassing memories, reminisce about people who are no longer with us, immortalize them in the stories we will tell and retell to each other. So let’s drink sweet cocktails and rosé wine, let’s cheer to the lives we all have yet to live. And let’s love each other a little stronger every day and scream from the top of our lungs about that endless love in our hearts.