Smoking the Pipe of Peace
Just another early evening in Yerevan, and the streets are still full of people. Despite the temperature slowly dropping, their destination for a night out before the cold weather finally sets in might be predictable, but for those few seeking an alternative to the glitzy cafés that have all but decimated the parks and other green areas downtown, there are now a few other options. In particular, there is Calumet [Facebook Page], an ethnic lounge and bar close to the corner of Pushkin and Parpetsi streets, which opened in July.
Calumet is co-owned and run by three ethnic Armenians from the Diaspora, and its clientele is as diverse as the bar’s interior and far more eclectic than the modest sign erected at the top of a set of street-level stairs leading down to an unassuming metal door otherwise suggests. Inside, beanbags cover nearly half of the floor space, cushioning the area around half a dozen low-level round wooden tables situated next to a stage area located in the far right-hand corner of the modestly sized, but somewhat cozy, bar.
In the other half, Farsi is spoken by Iranian students from the Conservatory sitting at one corner of the bar opposite a few higher tables, and Armenian can be heard from another. English, the lingua franca of most expat workers, tourists and travelers in town, adds to the multilingual banter, and the music is varied too. Armenian reggae might be the preferred choice for those eager to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the capital on one night, while the frantic beats of ethno-dance music might be played on another.
“If anyone tried to create a place with the same atmosphere for the same amount of money that we spent, they couldn’t,” says Hratch Davidian, a 46-year-old businessman from Beirut, as his eyes glance around the bar, which is adorned with ethnic and cultural tapestries, decorations and artifacts collected from 30 years on the road, as he likes to describe his journey through life. His gaze settles on a peace pipe that takes pride over the well-stocked bar. “That’s a Calumet, and the Native American Indians would share it with their guests.” He explains. “That’s what we’re doing too. We’re sharing that same spirit with the people who come here, especially as we believe in a fusion of cultures.”
Representing the origins of those who have visited the bar, the flags of 60 nations adorn the length of one wall while national currencies, donated by customers, adorn the well-stocked drinks rack. True, the Turkish flag was torn down by one irate customer after just one week and is now replaced by a sign simply stating “not until recognition,” but the general atmosphere is otherwise one of diversity in what still remains a largely monoethnic country. Anyone is welcome, the owners are quick to point out, but this is still Armenia after all …
Alongside Davidian is his wife, Sylvie, and 28-year-old co-owner and friend Rudolf Kalousdian. The three opened the bar earlier this summer. A small kitchen offers a wide selection of hot meals, including a number of specially prepared in-house and vegetarian options. Ethnic fusion jam sessions are also common, as are poetry recitals or fund-raising actions staged by local grass-roots civic activists and organizations. There are also plans to offer free yoga sessions, as well as a space for local artists to exhibit.
“My first visit to Armenia was in 1978, but let’s not talk about that time,” says Davidian, preferring to also skip mention of ten very successful years spent in the film and media production business in Dubai. “I decided to move here in 1998, and in 2007 opened up my first business, The Hilltop Hostel. It was a way to help friends visit Armenia without them having to worry about wasting money in expensive hotels. We prefer this approach to travel anyway, but this was also as much about my wanting to come ‘home.’”
Kalousdian nods in agreement. Instantly recognizable with his long hair and tattoos, Davidian’s business partner can very definitely be described as “alternative,” especially in what still remains a traditional and conservative society. An accomplished ethno-folk-rock musician in his own right, Kalousdian first opened another bar in Yerevan in 2008. Like Calumet, the Yerevan Rock Bar was a labor of love with a custom-designed interior and a genuine sense of style. For personal reasons, he sold his share last year, by which time he had already met the Davidians.
With Kalousdian also spending much of his life travelling, including ten years living in France, the trio automatically clicked and found common ground. “Six months ago we discussed the idea of opening the bar,” he remembers, “and a week later found the perfect location. It was spontaneous and we naturally mixed Hratch’s and Sylvie’s experiences traveling through different world cultures with mine from Europe. We, of course, also combined that cultural mix with the fact that we’re all Armenians.”
By mid-evening the bar is filling up. Despite its relatively small size of just 80 square meters (96 square yards), there’s hardly a night when the place isn’t packed to capacity. The local alternative crowd mixes with students, civic activists, musicians and artists, while also mingling with ethnic Armenians from the Diaspora. “A lot of travelers also come here,” says Davidian before his wife interjects. “The most beautiful part is that they even come here with their backpacks before leaving for the airport and present us with gifts,” she adds.
Konstantinos Lekkas-Minos, a 22-year-old student from Patra, Greece, is just one of those foreign backpackers who liked Calumet so much that he even ended up working as a barman. “I met Rudy at a concert and he told me he was planning on opening a bar so I volunteered to work for free,” he says, adding that Kalousdian wouldn’t accept the offer at first unless he was paid. “It’s very international here and it’s very alternative — especially in people’s minds,” he explains. “Everyone is really nice.”
Another frequent visitor is Asis Romeo, a Spanish pilot working for Armavia, the Armenian national carrier. “I had spent a year and a half in Armenia before discovering Calumet and would probably have gone back to Spain had I not,” he says. “In fact, I’ve never seen anything like this anywhere, including Europe. It’s like a breath of fresh air, especially in this country. It’s the only place where you can find something so laid back. It’s very open-minded and like being part of one large, happy, extended family.”
But it’s not just a safe haven or escape for foreigners visiting or living in the city, Kalousdian is quick to point out. Many local young women visit the bar, including late at night, despite the fact that such behavior is generally frowned upon in local society. In fact, he says, it’s one of the few places that members of the opposite sex can enjoy themselves without attracting the unwanted attention of men who consider that any woman frequenting a bar without a male friend is “loose” and “easy prey.” No wonder, then, that on some nights women can even outnumber men.
Or, indeed, that the Armenian Women’s Resource Center staged a benefit concert for a Sexual Assault Crisis Center at Calumet in the third week of November. Kalousdian says that about 100 people attended.
“Armenia can be a traditional and very conservative place, but at the end of the day there are also those who want something different,” he adds, before being taken aback by one final question asking if he has any regrets. “Regrets? For what? We like being able to offer an alternative crowd something different. This is what we want for ourselves as well, and we’re really glad to be able to say that Calumet is the most alternative place in Yerevan today.”