Today I went to Bangladesh.
Not the Bangladesh you’re thinking of.
Bangladesh is how locals refer to the district of Malatia-Sebastia in western Yerevan. I’ve found a few different explanations for this, but this Russian-language blog post offers my favourite version, whether it’s true or not. It says that the district “was built in the early 1970s, at the height of the conflict between Pakistan and the breakaway state of Bangladesh. The Soviet Union for some reason supported Bangladesh, so news programmes at that time were full of urgent messages and reporting from the war zone. The ruins of Bangladesh bore such a similarity to the building sites in the south-western neighbourhood that people gave it this nickname, which has stuck with it to this very day.” At the very least, it’s true that the Soviet Union was a firmly in favour of independence for Bangladesh – which has been cited as one reason why Bangladesh was among the 58 states that abstained from the recent UN vote affirming the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Nowadays, the name Bangladesh is still likely to resonate with tourists, if they stray far enough off the beaten path to get there. The nickname itself seems calculated to evoke the stereotypes of eastern urban development. It’s certainly not a slum district, if you’re wondering, nor does it have anything like the population density of Dhaka. However, most people do live in tightly packed apartment blocks – ten to fifteen stories high – between which you can sometimes catch a distant glimpse of snow-capped mountains, including Mount Ararat. Bangladesh is also home to Yerevan’s largest market, which seems to cover a few square miles. We begin at the clothes section – a labyrinth of stalls selling everything from faux fur coats and bejewelled evening dresses to denim jeans, Barcelona football shirts and Adidas soccer boots. Clothes lead into hardware, hardware into electronics. The roof is made from overlapping sheets of corrugated iron, and at the exits are fast food stands with a difference: here, the kebabs are turned over coal fires in stone ovens.
By way of contrast, the grocery section is made up of one large open space with a single roof overhead. For the most part, the produce consists of potatoes, onions and cabbages by the vanload, but the most eye-catching stalls are those with a vivid array of spices, nuts, fresh and dried fruit, herbs, pulses, cheese, and of course fish, some of which are still flopping their tails in the packing crates. The majority of those driving the vans and pushing the trolleys around are men, but the sellers are mostly women, many of them with greying hair and gold teeth that sparkle when they smile. We are a novelty for them – four obviously western females, only one of whom can speak any Armenian (that’s not me, by the way). Our Armenian-speaking companion comes here quite often, and one of the sellers greets her enthusiastically and offers us all generous samples of something that tastes like Georgian churchkhela, but comes in wafer thin sheets.
At the edges of the market, the air is filled with dust and exhaust fumes. The most popular car here seems to be the Soviet-era Lada (white being the colour of preference), but several shiny new vehicles are also on parade. There’s a small funfair where children have the opportunity to play on brightly-coloured rides, from miniature fighter jets to giant ladybirds. A little boy sits in the driver’s cab of a train that goes round and round in a steady loop – the carriages behind him are all empty. Occasionally, a stray dog shambles meekly past. The streets are crowded with people – young couples with one or two children, middle-aged women shopping alone, teenage boys moving in gangs, old men gathered around chess or backgammon boards. According to the Armenian Orthodox calendar, today is Palm Sunday, and now and again I see someone, usually a child or adolescent girl, with a willow wreath on her head.
I haven’t spotted a single other non-Armenian person in the entire place. Compared with the scores of old monasteries and churches around the country, Bangladesh doesn’t rate very highly on the “must-see” lists for visitors. And I have a hard time deciding: in spite of their well-earned reputation for hospitality, do the traders here look on us as transgressors, or merely aliens? My companions switch to speaking Swedish among themselves, and I wonder if the decision was subconscious. This is definitely one of those situations where Irish speakers would dredge up their native vocabulary so as to avoid being mistaken for British or American tourists. In the end of the day, I doubt it makes much of a difference. After all, the marketplace is founded on economics, not foreign policy. And when it comes to economics, the gulf between us, the traders and their regular customers is still painfully obvious.
What is less obvious, perhaps, is that things here weren’t always like this. Many of those who work at the market day in and day out would never have imagined this in the days before Armenian independence, when they were factory workers, production managers, teachers and housewives – with a stable income, one way or another. In 2010, Bangladesh was the subject of a short film by Austrian artist Oliver Ressler, in which his Armenian collaborator interviewed people working there about their lives before, and after, the collapse of the Soviet Union. All twenty minutes of it are available for free on Ressler’s website –for a sobering perspective on post-Soviet transition, I highly recommend it. It remains to be seen how the Armenian economy will change when it becomes a fully-fledged member of the Eurasian Customs Union (something which is due to happen in the near future), but as far as changes in the political culture are concerned, the outlook is certainly doubtful.