My friend and I met our host on a street corner in Gyumri, a dour and dusty city in western Armenia. He was beefy and broad-shouldered, with watery eyes and sharp features rounded slightly by fat. He strode over to introduce himself, and though he did not speak English, succeeded in inviting us back to his house for dinner. His name was Lernik.
We obliged and were ushered into a taxi which, after a clipped conversation with the driver, Lernik drove. Gyumri was ravaged by the Spitak earthquake in 1988, and its halting restoration is ongoing. Once out of the city centre, plains of rubble stretched out either side of the long straight road along which we sped. “Spitak,” said Lernik, noticing us gazing at the wasteland. Then, pointing at himself, “Mama”; then “Hay-soos”, finger to the sky. After 15 minutes we turned off, and a suburban avenue emerged from the landscape. His house was small but cheery, with a wooden porch draped in ivy. His brother-in-law was waiting for us by the door, and warmly invited us inside.
Five thousand Russian soldiers are stationed in Gyumri, which sits on the border with Turkey, and just as we seated ourselves in the kitchen a group of them walked by the window. I had expected their presence to be a source of tension in the city, but Lernik scrambled for a freezer-bag full of cigarettes which he rushed out to offer them, returning visibly inflated with admiration.
A large bottle of vodka was produced, and we tried to make conversation. At one point I excused myself – and as I left the room I heard Lernik mention “Karabakh”.
Nagorno-Karabakh is a region between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the ongoing dispute over its administration is one of numerous post-Soviet “frozen conflicts” in the Caucasus. It is landlocked inside Azerbaijan, although the Azerbaijani state has not exercised political authority there since 1988 and most of the region’s inhabitants identify as Armenian. The deadlock over the de facto independent republic is one of the main obstacles to a rapprochement between Armenia and Turkey, who staunchly support Azerbaijan. This was something I’d wanted to discuss, and I asked Lernik if he was in the army when I returned. My friend looked paler. “I think more of a mercenary,” he said quietly.
I glanced over at Lernik, who had stripped down to a string vest and had a knife in his hand; with it he sliced a pomegranate which he placed carefully on the table in front of us.
He looked bemused by the question. “Soldat?” Then, drawing a finger slowly across his throat, “Azerbaijan! Turk!” When this failed to elicit anything from us, he opened his palm and made heavy pressing motions towards the floor. “Musulman.”
After that point, it was impossible to ascertain the exact nature of Lernik’s activities in Karabakh. An official ceasefire was reached in 1994 but both nations maintain a military presence along the contact line and militia groups are also known to operate within the region. Sporadic violations of the ceasefire have seen military casualties on both sides, and International Crisis Watch also report occasional kidnappings and civilian deaths. We never worked out from Lernik whether money had changed hands, nor could we agree on whether this changed the moral character of his involvement – whatever it was.
The arrival of Lernik’s family interrupted our speculation. His wife, aunts, and English-speaking sister burst through the door and greeted us boisterously. His elderly father, solemn and silent, nodded gravely. Amongst the party was Lernik’s six-year-old son Martin; the meal, we discovered, was to mark his first day at school.
When we moved into the main room we discovered a long table already groaning with food. As we helped ourselves to barbecued lamb wrapped in thick lavash (an Armenian flatbread), the family asked us anxiously about our time in Armenia and our impression of its people. Lernik sat opposite, ensuring our plates were always full and our shot glasses brimming.
Dissonance lingered amidst the convivial scene. I thought at the time about another meal being shared, in a house in Azerbaijan, by the family of someone Lernik had killed. Perhaps.
Once we’d finished eating we were ushered upstairs and seated around an old computer on the landing. Lernik disappeared downstairs and returned with cigarettes and Armenian brandy. He brought up his Facebook profile and asked us to add him, disappearing again as we browsed his photos. We saw a map of Greater Armenia in the second century BC, stretching far into modern-day Turkey; a cartoon of the Armenian lion leaping onto a Turkish fox as it crossed the border; and Lernik’s profile picture, with him standing atop a rocky outcrop holding an AK-47, his black clothing bearing none of the heraldry we later saw on Armenian army uniforms.
His return was announced by the sound of bullets bouncing down the stairs. He’d brought us a handful as a gift but he kept tripping drunkenly over his feet. He gathered them again and began popping them out of the magazine. “Here,” he said smiling, pushing the empty clip into my hands. The bullets, he gestured, were for him: “Azerbaijan. Musulman.”
Later he brought out a rusty flick-knife from his bedroom, its pewter handle emblazoned with the hammer and sickle. “Old. USSR. For you” The weapon was appalling and poignant, and I tried to return it discreetly to his sister when she finally came to offer us a lift back. “No, he wants you to have it. He is a good guy. We want you to have it. We will never forget your visit.”
We piled into the car; Lernik propped up between us in the backseat. He was reeking by this point and his drunken platitudes were barely comprehensible. We were family. We were his brothers. We would always have a home in Gyumri. When we were dropped off he followed and, oblivious to our efforts to shake him off, tailed us all the way back to our hostel. As we hastily wished him goodnight, he told us to expect him at ten o’clock the next morning to pick us up.
We were shaken, and it was only once we were in bed and the adrenaline had subsided that we realised how much we had drunk. We left very early the next morning to catch the first bus out of the city, stopping on the way to throw the magazine and knife into a bin.
I have struggled to make sense of this encounter ever since. Reflecting on the whole, long trip – in which we went on to the remote mountainous regions of Georgia, and then along Turkey’s south-eastern border with Syria – this dinner stands out, seeming to promise something profound. I desperately wanted to find a lesson, comforting in its solidity, and to extract from my confusion something ordered and enlightening.
The evening was the most dramatic example of something that returned to disorientate us frequently: the disparity between deep nationalistic hatreds in the region, and the astonishing kindness that was extended to us. In all of the cultures we moved through – Armenian, Georgian, Kurdish, Turkish – hospitality is celebrated, valorised, taught to children. Often it seems this co-exists with the hostilities bound up with rejection of ethnic or national outsiders. Lernik, I concluded, embodied this tragic doublethink.
Recently however, I began to see how the ease with which we travelled was founded upon our even greater degree of difference. The adversarial nature of south Caucasus nationalism is not abstract; the violence of recent history makes the threat feel tangible. Georgia was invaded. Kurds face ongoing political oppression. The genocide of 1915 stains Armenian collective memory. My friend and I were non-threatening because we were alien. National identities have congealed around deep networks of historical, political and material conflict, and the more I think back to our travels the more I see how we glided through them as well-meaning but blinkered voyeurs.
I will never understand Lernik, and vivid as our meeting was I certainly don’t know him. Every dictum I’ve tried to formulate rings hopelessly hollow. How can I say why he hates or if he will change? I’m not even sure what he’s done.
More than this, whenever I try to turn my revulsion at his views into judgement my remove from his life feels too much like privilege. I am haunted by his kindness to me, then feel haunted by the pain he may have caused. Wherever I stand is an insult to someone.
The truth is that I didn’t learn anything. If nothing else, I was reminded how often we reduce one another to bewilderment. We become radically, bafflingly different. Sometimes – in fumbling, mutual incomprehension – we have dinner together.
Image: Felix Frank