Gyumri 1988-2013: Haircuts and history from the oldest barbershop and the oldest barber

“Distinguished master Khanan Aristakesyan at your service”. This notice is fastened to the mirror along with the photo of the young master himself, showing little difference with the smiling reflection of the 80-year-old man in the same mirror.

“This giant barber shop used to serve a hundred people in one hour” says the oldest barber of Gyumri’s oldest barber’s shop. “Now it is the same amount only per day… where are all the people, where has our nation gone? Why did they destroy their homes, their nests and left? The earthquake ruined Gyumri in its way, what followed the earthquake, broke it, ruined, devastated in another way.”

Number One beauty salon during the Soviet years, renamed by the current owner as Luxe, has preserved all the soviet-time equipment – barber chairs, tools, furniture, sinks, mirrors, even vessels for heating water.

Master Khanan, who has 58 years of professional experience in hairdressing, says he has trained 120 barbers, and now they and their students work side by side with him. All the 11 chairs are busy.

Luxe director David Galstyan, a working barber himself, says the shop was build in 1940, renovated in 1976 and in 1982. After the devastating earthquake of 1988, which took the lives of 25,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless, many businesses stopped, they continued to operate and the number of barbers reached 24. However, years later, that number dropped again.

The latest and hottest news finds its way here quite quickly. In excited high-pitched voices they discuss, almost argue, reproach one another and criticize, then the shop explodes with loud laughter. Each has an earthquake story, mostly tragic, but they prefer remembering better things, and talk with pride about the once prospering Gyumri. The last half of the century is divided into black and white for Gyumri residents.

Before the earthquake Gyumri was a multi-profile industrial center with textile, machine-building, construction hardware, food products, shoes, woodwork, glassware, and other. Armenia’s second city’s 50 economic entities employed 40,000 workers; the Textile plant alone had 6,000 workers in three shifts, from different parts of the Soviet Union.

The director says Gyumri was a city of trade.

“We had a holiday camp, Russians used to come and brought canned stew, Czech beer, condensed sweet milk, black caviar, coke… olives used to cost 35 Rubbles for a 5 kilo jar… There wasn’t anything you could not find in Leninakan [soviet name for Gyumri]. If nowhere else, one could go to the ‘Moscow’ railway station – all the workers were from Gyumri, the Yerevan-Moscow train would stop and all major traders would come off here. Yebo from Papakhan [district in Gyumri] was the first crystal glassware dealer, she was an old lady, her full name – Yepraxi,” recalls Galstyan.

There is regret, heartache, nostalgia towards the city that once stood out for its active cultural life, skilled craftsmen, unique beauty and fulfilling lifestyle. That city, along with the years they spent in it, now exists only in their memories.

“Twenty five years later if things were properly arranged, Gyumri would not be experiencing such misery. Just like this barber shop. Did we not look after it? Others sold, destroyed and ‘ate’… Textile was given to someone, who used to work at a cheese workshop. How he managed to achieve that, we have no idea… If they cared and made efforts, they would have continued to work. The earthquake wouldn’t have such devastating aftereffect and break Gyumri’s back if the plants did not shut down, if people had jobs and did not leave,” says Galstyan.

“There was no equal to Gyumri either in the Soviet Union, or elsewhere… Our Leninakan used to feed the whole Caucasus, Akhalkalaki and Tbilisi,” says Khanan and explains why people call natives of Gyiumri “braggarts”. “Where do the most famous people come from? Gyumri. Our four gymnasts became champions, our four girl athletes won European championships, and they had to grow up eating plain pasta and cream of wheat.” (The reference is that their childhood was spent in the years of deprivation following the earthquake and the independence challenged with a war, blockade and energy crisis).

These proud people, who have survived the natural disaster that razed their beautiful city to ground, toughened by the hardship and misery that followed, are still optimists and believe Gyumri is, nonetheless, Armenia’s only urban settlement with city culture.

“Some time ago we were in Yerevan. I said ‘What a shame! So now you are a city and we are province? You grew up wearing the underwear and socks our textile produced, acquired the meat from our plant, along with basturma, sujukh [spiced meet products] and sausages, our khash [cow feet soup] with the tail, our Chanakh cheese, our lavash (flatbread). You came ate our khash, our ‘kyalla’ [cooked cow head, specialty of Gyumri], now we are the province and you are the city, ha?’” Galstyan says with frustration.

“It would take Yerevan a great deal to even come near Gyumri,” adds Khanan, drawing a circle in the air with his index finger – a typical Armenian gesture, to show the comparison is even ridiculous.

The cleaning lady at the shop, 70-year-old Tamar Melikyan, who used to teach Russian for 34 years at Gyumri’s school N.27, brings in aromatic Eastern coffee. She says her pension of 30,000 drams ($75) is not enough to cover her living expenses. Her face seems to be both happy and sad – part smiling, part crying, because the memory of the earthquake is still bruising her heart.

“I had gone home for a break at that hour, and was waiting for my friend, but she never came… I lived in a private house so ran out, five-six buildings around me crubmled down. It was dark, dust in the air… even 25 years later the pain is still there. It is easier for the young, they did not experience it, or were too little to remember. But for me it is impossible to forget the red, green and yellow coffins…” she says and tears find their path down her cheeks.

In the mind of Galstyan, the barber shop owner, the earthquake was like rocking sea waves…

“The ground would move in waves, you couldn’t stand on it, imagine sea waves. The nine-storey buildings collapsed right in front of my eyes. I ran to find my kids at their school, it turned out they were safe. We found my wife’s body on the 11th day and buried her under the cover of night, so that our children did not witness it. We didn’t live even ten days in that new apartment, we received it on November 27. It had been ten days we had moved in. Twenty three people from our building were left under the ruins, they managed to run downstairs to the third floor only and the building collapsed,” recalls the 60-year-old man. “My children were 6, 7 and 8 years of age. A year later I remarried, had another son, who is now 21, back from army service. My second wife raised all my children, we now have seven grandchildren.”

Khanan hurries to the barber’s chair; another customer is waiting for the skillful service of his hands. The same chair ‘hosted’ and the same hands gave a haircut to such great minds and talents as writer Avetik Isahakyan, actor Mher (Frunzik) Mkrtchyan, poet Shiraz, Levon Madoyan…

Inside Luxe, it is the 1960s-70s in appearance. And inside each person is a story of the day that stopped time. Beyond the windows of this antiquated barber shop a proud city of culture carries a 25-year burden that still marks time here today . . .

Editor’s Note: In this series ArmeniaNow visits Armenia’s “second city”, Gyumri, where on December 7, 1988 earthquake destroyed the city while taking the lives of 25,000 and left thousands homeless from the epicenter in Spitak, to Gyumri, Stepanavan and Vanadzor. The fallout from the quake revealed the crumbling condition of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and signaled the beginning of new relations between Armenia and its broad Diaspora. In the immediate years to come, the earthquake would be seen as the starting point of struggle as Armenia dealt with recovery, while also engaging in war with Azerbaijan, a blockade by Turkey, and energy crisis. Orphaned from the USSR, and left to the mercies of foreigners – mostly Westerners who had for nearly seven decades been shut out of contact – Armenia was shaken on every front as it dealt with destruction, displacement and war during historically cold winters and as the country was in recovery while also facing the challenge to reshape itself into a democracy. No crisis had been as severe since the Armenian Genocide some 70 years earlier. The Shirak province of Armenia is no longer a “disaster zone”, but life there is surely still in recovery. Approaching the 25th anniversary of that seminal day, residents relive their stories and reflect on the years since . . .