Straighten Your Back

Marshrutkas (minibusses), the main transportation of Armenia, is what most of the population uses to get around: to get to school, to university, to work, to the grocery store, to wherever. And inside of these marshrutkas, everyone suddenly becomes quiet and modest. The passengers, of course, are not proud to be leaning under some guy’s armpit; they’re not proud to be almost standing mouth to mouth to a fellow passenger; they’re not proud that they’re squeezed to their bone and the door is practically closing on them. They’re not proud that they feel like slaves in a box in that moment, and they definitely know all this is not right and not normal. But they shut up and tolerate the discomfort. There’s not much more they can do. And so, they treat their marshrutka-experience as if passing through a portal; it just happens, and they don’t talk about it.

The assortment of passengers: men and women, children, teens, adults and elders all swing, balance and twirl synchronically while the driver vibrates his way through to the next bus stop. While dancing, the passengers’ faces huff and puff, yet they can only mumble their concern and distress. Many of the passengers, like any typical Armenian, may feel that they’re popular, they’re important, they’re of high status. Many of them truly attend respected institutions or workplaces; they may be the head of a family, a manager, a leader, an executive of some sort,  but at that moment, hunched beneath an armpit, they feel like a nobody. Their confidence, arrogance, and dignity are overpowered by the ceiling of that darn crouched marshrutka. 

Loss of dignity is especially true for men. Instinctively, young men usually feel drawn to express masculinity when they first have access to cars or when they come of age. The appeal of asserting masculinity through technology (cars) and the appeal of being in control of their own “destiny” and destination is why guys dig and need cars. A car denotes social status, freedom and individual lifestyle, gendered mostly to males. And feeling powerful and respected, especially in Armenia is what every guy strives for. Losing respect is another story. No one is allowed to step on an Armenian man’s dignity, or else… And yet this white lunchbox, this marshrutka, succeeds to do the stepping over. 

Men are also supposed to give up their seats to any female who gets on the bus, and so most of the time they’re left standing: their backs arched and their heads facing down. Already emasculated by not being able to afford a car, these men feel so much worse when their only other option is to become crippled in front of everyone. They stand there with their sweat dripping, nose running and shoes being stepped on because no one gives a damn about their health or self-respect. And as if that isn’t enough, they also have to pay for every sister’s friend and neighbor’s aunt they seen inside the marshrutka. Crippled and robbed, can’t get better than that. 

The girls and women, on the other hand, don’t know who’s touching and stroking their various body parts. Sometimes they’re so squeezed that they can’t even turn around to see the accuser, and they can’t really blame anyone because they don’t even know if their accusation would be valid or not. Is he touching me or is he really falling from his handle? 

Hunched people are everywhere on the Yerevan streets. They are often forcefully immobilized, in preparation to beat Quasimodo at the next hump day. A well-fed camel in good condition has a firm upright hump. A fairly-fed Armenian on a good day is a walking-Ararat. 

To be honest, every marshrutka ride should come with a free back and neck massage, but sadly we don’t have enough Thai girls in the country.  The Filipinos, though, are adding up lately; they might like the Halloween show on our streets, but alas, we’re all wearing the same costumes. 

Back and neck pain is a perhaps a medical trend in Armenia, the most debilitating musculoskeletal disorder of the last five years. But no one cares. Moreover, hunches and humps are in style now. People wear them every day and get special treatments called Màrshrûtkâz to emphasize their hunchbacks (the treatment is recommended at least twice a day). Their heads are also already naturally bowed down to show respect to the system that has 300-400 busses in storage (all gifted to them by China), but decides to not use them and keep the marshrutka spectacle, just for fun, you know. Because why not? 

The fashion trend is called the “Forward Head Posture,” informally known as the “Humble girl”, “Lav txa” (Good Guy) and “Lav axjik” (Good girl) pose. The head is slightly looking down, and the back is a shaped into a sleek, rounded dome, enhanced with what’s called a ”love apple” at the back of the neck. If you’ve achieved this pose, any and every nice guy will notice you from afar and will know that you’re a good, humble tun-tanlu axjik (girl you can bring home). If you’re a guy, this voguish pose is also perfect for hiding your bulging beer belly, eliminating it in seconds.

Armenia doesn’t have Six Flags or Disneyland, so marshrutkas should definitely stay to fill in for the country’s absent amusement and entertainment industry. Armenians too, like Europeans and Americans, should feel content with at least some component of their lives. They too, feel a need for a magical world of enchanted creatures. 

“To make democracy work we must be a country of participants,” said Louis L’Amoure. The people know best. And according to the people, they truly want the marshrutkas to stay. The other day my Russian teacher was mocking the car-model Nissan-March, one of the cheapest, average-looking conventional cars that at least some Armenians can afford. “A lot of girls like it, but it’s too small, too compressing and rather ugly…I don’t like how it looks”, she said. But would you rather have a Nissan March instead of riding in a marshrutka? “No, I’m fine,” she said. 

Ok, then fashionistas. Keep the hump.

Work it.

Lucia Yegyan 

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