It's 4 a.m. and the groom is tucking into what looks like raw trout, stopping every now and then for a shot of vodka. He's 25 and a fledgling entrepreneur, flush with Russian money. The bride is 16 and a village girl. Earlier in the day, she arrived at the wedding to a traditional Kurdish welcome which in this part of Armenia consists of being showered with red apples and sweets, hurled down from a rooftop by her new husband's drunken cohorts. But she has long since left the party, and retired to the conjugal bed.
As we wait for our homeward taxi to arrive, we wonder, pityingly, why her husband hasn't joined her. Custom demands that the marriage be consummated on the wedding night (and a red apple be presented to her family on the morrow if the bride is found to be a virgin). "She's probably exhausted and just lying there waiting for him," whispers my scandalized companion Nahro. But here's the groom, heedlessly drinking vodka with his friends, and with us for we, too, are pouring more shots.
In Armenia, there are rural, mountain-dwelling, poverty-stricken Kurds and there are urbanized, lowland-living, comparatively wealthier Kurds. We are sitting among the latter in the village of Argavand, located in the province of Armavir on the Turkish border and when it comes to which group makes the better first impression, there's no contest. The lowland Kurds of Armavir mostly migrated to this region during World War II and live as a tiny minority among the Armenians, with whom relations are often strained. Racism and harassment are a fact of daily life. Violence is common. Their religion, Yezidism, has strong similarities to the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, yet is branded heretical by all three. All of this means that the lowland Kurds can be a bit circumspect in the way they carry themselves, and sometimes reticent about their ethnicity.
There's none of that in the mountains. In fact, there's not much of anything in the mountains except snow and the cheery, forthright welcome of a people who have hardly anything else to offer. The Alagyaz district a cluster of 11 Kurdish Yezidi villages is just 50 km from the Armenian capital Yerevan, but in terms of development it might as well be a universe away, for the people there live a spartan if not subsistence-level life. They moved to these mountains nearly 200 years ago fleeing persecution in Turkey and very little has changed since. There is no running water; people and livestock live under the same ramshackle roof; the schools are unheated and woefully underequipped; and the only health care for miles around is provided by a single nurse and clinic funded not by the state but by private donations, and responsible for everything from delivering babies to pulling teeth. The state, in fact, is glaringly absent in many facets of life. Perhaps this is the price the district pays for its open sympathy for the militant separatist guerillas, the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, or Kurdistan Workers' Party a sympathy that the Kurds in Armavir would almost certainly not express if they shared it.
These political realities mirror the apparent social differences between the lowland Kurds and their highland relations. Encounters with the lowlanders are self-conscious and awkward, leaving me feeling as if I'm on display; meetings with the highlanders are marked by spontaneous warmth and the ready inclusion of the traveler in their midst. The contrast strikes me hard as we sit in Argavand, waiting for a taxi that seems like it will never arrive, and wondering for how much longer the young groom will sit up drinking when he ought to be in bed with his new wife. I recall an evening in the mountains, when we were invited to the local schoolmaster's for dinner, and I got out my violin to learn some of the simple, beautiful Kurdish tunes. Before long others joined in, and after a few more vodkas dancing started. It all seems so remote from the morose gathering we now find ourselves in.
But the taxi does finally pull up outside. As we putter home, Nahro, who understands the Kurmanci form of Kurdish, talks with the driver about the groom's reluctance to go to his bride on their wedding night. The driver says something in reply and Nahro blanches. "What? What is it?" I ask. Nahro translates: as well as consummation on the wedding night, local custom equally stipulates that the groom not leave the party until the last guest departs. So if anyone had been forcing the bride to stare at the ceiling, waiting for her husband during tonight's lonely, agonizing hours, it was us. Suddenly, I'm mortified by my own presumption. In fact, I want the night to swallow me up but dawn is already breaking.