The mouse cursor moves up and down along the Hrazdan Gorge. Exploring the gorge with a Google Map brings a sense of calmness, creates a barrier for flashbacks and disturbing memories. The computer map does not show falling wild chamomiles and red tulips, dropping sweat on my skin, the sun― casting shadows on the pillars of the bridge, countless needles and condoms buried in the scorched grass, green moss floating on the Hrazdan River, men waiting for the right moment to pop up out of nowhere… yet I sense the alarm inside now while sitting in my room.
Why do I always pick up on topics that scare me? Why do I sense pain everywhere? Almost two years later I am standing in the same gorge, except for this time being a woman is not my only identity. I lean and rely on the camera to guide me, to save and ease the pain like it always does. It will likely rain soon.
It takes 10-15 minutes to get to Hrazdan Gorge from my place by car, almost as much as it would take if I go there from the city center. That is to give you an impression of how close it is to downtown Yerevan, yet neither the visual nor emotional experiences remind me of my hometown. Yerevan is a city of hellish high-rise buildings, ruins of architectural treasures, a bunch of shopping centers and cafes in every corner. Green public areas are limited to several parks, in many of which it is prohibited to walk around, let alone sit or lay on the grass. In contrast, in some parts of Hrazdan Gorge, one can find many trees that serve for more than just decorations. Besides, there is a river there, dirty, disgusting, but a real river that has not dried up yet, like Getar. However, this area does not have a reputation as an oasis at all. Plenty of restaurants and entertainment venues that are only reachable by car, the Children’s Railway left from the Soviet-era, which is now more for adults, several bridges and roads that are a convenient way for drivers to avoid traffic jams…This is a masculinized area. Part of the river even unofficially belongs to the old men who swim here. There are also young groups, mostly sexual minorities, who surprisingly benefit from the nature of the place, and people only whisper about what usually happens there so that they do not harm those communities.
I do not have any role that would will ensure my safety in that area, many women don’t., because I perceive it as a green space, that I want to the public where one can stop and stare instead of consuming and rushing all the time. Yerevan rejects such narratives at all costs.
For almost two years now I have been talking about the gorge with my friends. Sometimes I turn on the voice recorder, other times I don’t. I tell them that I was sexually assaulted there, I ask how they feel about the place. With a caring or anxious tone of voice and facial expression, they ask why I went alone and why I went there at all. One of my friends told me that the first time she went there, she was with a foreign friend. A man. She said that when she was with a group of men there, she felt safe, but once she went with a woman, she noticed a man following them through the bushes and masturbating. When they began to run, he chased them until they managed to escape. Another female friend was chased by a car, and even some of my male friends have said they prefer to drive through the gorge instead of walking. Once a female friend of mine said that I was just upset that some clumsy guys were trying to flirt with me when I simply said that I do not like the area. I do not think that being catcalled and persecuted by men who are not sober has to do anything with flirting. One feminist girl said that there are many stories that women are afraid to speak out and that Hrazdan Gorge is not the only problematic area in this regard.
At some point I started looking for reports on crimes that took place in the gorge. The Armenian police does not have an organized open source database that would clearly indicate the places of the crimes. It is possible to find a couple of court cases in DataLex, as a result of the “goodwill” of the investigators, that’s it. Later on I started reading articles, watching videos about the connection between urban planning and the perception of the area. Eventually, I found an Armenian architect living in the Netherlands. She told me about the importance of zoning, evacuation plans, and the presence of guiding signs, security systems, accessible transport and WiFi connections as well as separate roads for passengers, cars and bicycles. Yet what hit me the most was her saying that women can not feel safe in an area where men hang their underwear from the trees, which they proudly do.
Yerevan Municipality does not have any information on which part of the city the gorge is located in. Which street does it start from? Where does it end? What are its geographical coordinates? Is it only in Yerevan or does it include other regions as well? The state body that ordered Yerevanproject CJSC to make a development plan of the gorge in 2005 and 2011, which claims that it regularly carries out cleaning and landscaping works in the area, said it does not know the exact location of the gorge. This information is also missing in encyclopedias and the online sources I managed to find.
So where am I standing now on this rainy day? What am I photographing? Where do the trees end and my fears start? At what point does the noise of the Hrazdan River merge with my inner conversations? Why are there spaces in my hometown that do not belong to me, that I do not belong to? Why is that?