The Glory of Trams

The Glory of Trams
IN TWINNED ESSAYS, American writer Christopher Atamian and Armenian novelist Aram Pachyan exchange childhood memories of trams and discuss how they serve to make up the cultural fabric of a city and nation. For Christopher, the tramway in his mother’s home city of Geneva represents freedom, speed, and the manicured, picture-perfect existence led by the Swiss. For Aram, the Yerevan tram represents Armenia’s socialist past, a Soviet system gone sour before being brutally dismantled, exposing the country to the traumas of late-stage capitalism.

This literary dialogue arose in the shadow of the 44-Day War waged against Armenia by its neighbors Azerbaijan and Turkey, and the publication of Pachyan’s 2021 EU Literature Prize–winning novel P/F, in which the now-defunct Yerevan tram system plays an important role. Two writers, two countries, two parallel views of the world, but with one common love: the tram.

By reminding people about the tram’s past importance, and its continued existence in the collective memory of an entire generation, Atamian and Pachyan hope to initiate a campaign to bring the trams back to Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan. This would represent a symbolic victory over the would-be destroyers of the past—government officials and developers who were so brilliantly satirized by Viken Berberian and Yann Kebbi in their 2019 graphic novel The Structure is Rotten, Comrade.



The Lover of Trams

You can never put it back together like it was.
—Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore


I. Geneva

I have a confession to make. I’ve been in love with trams ever since I was a child—madly, deeply in love with them. I spent summers in Geneva with my mother’s relatives in the early 1980s intoxicated by the dark red tramways that crisscrossed the capital of Suisse Romande from Moillesulaz to Carouge, where it linked Geneva to the French border. At the time, before the advent of quieter models with rubber wheels, there was nothing discreet about a tram. When one whizzed by, it carved a space through the air and plowed deep into rusted tracks in a veritable tornado of sound and fury. A bell would ring and then there would be a loud whoosh of something indescribable, like a flash of lighting and a long clap of thunder, and then a brief moment when the earth stood still. If there is one thing that you do not want to do in life, it’s stand in the way of 50 tons of passing tram—you might as well face down a charging rhino.

These trams were strong and elegant, understated and secretive as well—stereotypically Swiss. There was, of course, no other way to get around back then. I was 12 years old, my mother couldn’t drive, and since there was no speed limit at the time, my cousins Serge and Claude routinely got into accidents and had their cars impounded. There was also no subway system in Geneva, and I cannot remember any bus lines either, though they must have existed.

If “intoxicated” sounds like a strong word to describe my high esteem for tramways as a child, the adjective, in fact, perfectly describes the Zen-like state that I entered whenever I boarded a tram. I once rode the entire Moillesulaz–Carouge line four times, back and forth in a single day. At the end of each trip, I would disembark the tram primly attired in the blue shorts, striped sailor shirts, and sandals that I cherished; wait patiently; and then, to the bemusement of the conductor, hop back on in the opposite direction when the tram was once again ready to rock ’n’ roll—eight one-way trips in all, eight hours of pure tramway bliss.

My aunt and uncle, Valli and Max Locatelli, thought me insane: “Ma guarda quest’ ragazzo Americano. È completamente pazzo!” My mother knew otherwise and let me do as I pleased. She was a saint through and through and acquiesced to almost anything that I desired. My mother also understood that trying to stop me would be a futile exercise in matriarchal control. I was a determined child. If I wanted something, whether it was a new book or record, or a fetching hat, or a new-style shirt that I had seen in a downtown store window, I would cajole, wheedle, and act just upset enough that she had to make a choice: give in to me or go crazy from being endlessly asked for the exact same thing all day. I was a master of innocent guilt-inducement, and I was too sweet in demeanor, too convincing an emotional dealer-broker, and too good a student for her to ever get truly mad at me. Hence my complete Beatles collection, my five assorted Swiss pocketknives, and the seemingly endless boxes of Frigor chocolates that lined the bookshelves of my bedroom.

My daily Geneva routine involved jumping out of bed at 7:00 every morning, making the short trip to and from the local boulangerie to buy fresh milk buns and croissants, and downing the requisite large steaming cup of café au lait. Then I would tug at my mom’s stylish beige or blue dress: “Maman, on va aller prendre le tram maintenant? Please.” It was neither question nor command but simple affirmation, rather like saying, “Hey, it’s raining out,” or “The Yankees beat the Red Sox again.” And off we went, like Mary Poppins and the Banks children or Auntie Mame and Patrick Dennis. I can’t understate the sense of purpose that I felt as we left Chêne-Bougeries and overtook tram station after tram station, past my grandmother Margarita’s house and the stately old walled manor of the École Internationale at Grange-Canal, followed by the immaculately curated gardens at Les Eaux-Vives, the fragrant Roseraies, and on down past the famed Collège Calvin to the Bongénie department store, where we usually got off. We would then make a detour to see the majestic Jet d’Eau on the Lac Léman—and then we were on our way again to the Île Rousseau and its hundreds of multicolored mallards or to the Vieille Ville and its dusty old antiquarians. My only regret was that my cousins Vanessa and Dorian were still too young to accompany me.

I don’t think that I’m alone in my reverence for trams. There are few things that can inspire such a state of wonderment in a little boy as a speeding tram (A jet plane passing overhead? A rocket ship headed to the moon? A humpback whale jumping out of the ocean and crashing back down again?). There’s also the methodically repeated sound of its metal links as they hit the electric wiring above with metronome-like consistency, and the scenery that flashes by like so many movie stills—especially fantastic on days when lightning fills the sky and rain pours down on all sides while you remain safe inside, watching less fortunate souls stuck on the outside scatter like insects in the downpour. On a few special occasions, my mother and I rode together all the way to the end of the line to attend an art opening or visit the university—more wonders to be discovered, thanks to the Geneva tram!

Once inside the tram, I would climb up and kneel on my seat, my back to the other riders, and simply stare at the outside world as if I were a zombie in a trance. Unlike their American counterparts, Swiss tramways rely on an honor system. You’re assumed to have paid to ride, so no one checks your ticket when you embark or disembark—except on those rare occasions when the “contrôleurs,” men in impeccable blue outfits and kepis, would quickly hop on at a given station and yell “contrôôôle,” elongating their o’s in typical Swiss fashion. Right before they could yell out “Your tickets, please,” about half the tram wagon—mainly students and a handful of people who couldn’t afford the one-franc ticket, or tourists who didn’t understand the admittedly unique payment system—would leap out of the tram so as not to be incur the 50-franc freeloading fine.

The summer of my 12th birthday, my mom bought me a pair of beautiful roller skates—real black leather ones with Krypto wheels and hard, round iron sockets that one had to pull the laces through with all one’s might in order to tie them properly. I had honed my skating skills back home in Central Park doing six-mile loops until I could go up and down hills and skate forward with ease (but never—to this day—backwards). In Geneva that summer, I would swoosh down from Grange-Canal and back to Chêne-Bougeries—a proverbial piece of cake. One day, however, I decided to come back from my skate along Lake Geneva by taking the steep hill past the stately mansions in Cologny, cut back over the tennis club at Grange-Canal, and then skate all the way back to Chêne-Bougeries. As one is wont to do at that age, I both underestimated the length of the hill—some two miles—and overestimated my athletic prowess. By the time I made it all the way up the 45-degree incline past Cologny, I could barely put one booted foot in front of the next. Feeling an imminent skating disaster coming on, I decided to take the tram that I could hear a few streets away.

Geneva is possibly the most hygienically minded city in the world, so you couldn’t simply take off your skates and get on the tram in smelly socks, as you might comfortably do on the A Train in New York, for example. The Swiss are the Swiss and you don’t mess with their sense of hygiene or decorum. Store owners must legally clean three times a day in front of their property, and muesli bottles must be perfectly rinsed and dried before being chucked in the recycling bin. If someone steps on your foot in public, you should just wince the pain away. In Bern, to my great dismay, I once witnessed someone knock my mom over in the street, only to hear her apologize as if it were entirely her fault. So, on this particular day, I waited on the bench at the station for the tramway to stop, then hooked myself onto the back of the rear car and flew home—positively giddy, I was. When I got home, I ran to the bathroom to wipe off the dirt and sweat, only to overhear Tante Valli complain to my mother: “Rosa just called to say that she just saw some kid on roller skates latched onto the back of the tram like some hoodlum, can you imagine? The police are searching for him, I hope. He’s probably some spoiled foreign kid from the Ecolint.” I held my breath until I heard my mom scream: “Christophe!” My goose, as the expression goes, was cooked, but I would not have traded my unorthodox ride home on the Geneva tram for anything in the world.

A brief tramographical note. The Geneva tramway, or “Réseau tramway de Genève” in French, was founded in 1862. It presently has five tram lines, with plans to expand again soon. According to Wikipedia, Geneva’s first tram system launched in June 1862, “with the opening of a horsecar tramway between Place Neuve and Carouge.” The history continues: “In 1889, a steam tramway was opened, and in 1894 Geneva’s first electric tram entered service. Finally, in 1899, the Compagnie Genevoise des Tramways Électriques (CGTE) […] was inaugurated.” However, as the editor points out, “by 1960 it had contracted to just one line. Since 1995, it has been greatly expanded.” We also learn that the track gauge on current trams is 1,000 millimeters, the voltage 600 volts, and the route length 36 kilometers, or 22 miles.

The lessons in all of this information are several, I believe. First, trams are more than simply a mode of transportation. They are cultural reference points, fellow travelers through urban history, and records of important technological change. While the bus says, “I am slow and old-fashioned,” and the subway warns, “I am fun but dangerous,” the tramway proudly proclaims: “I am sleek but friendly, speedy when needed but always at your service.” The second lesson we can draw is most encouraging: a city can pull up all its tracks one morning, but when the folks in power realize that they’ve committed a grave, soul-annihilating mistake, they can reinstall them a full decade later, with a more extensive and modern network.


II. Yerevan

Two parents, two cultures, two cities. Swiss and Armenian. One repressed but content, the other warm but suffering from collective PTSD. While Switzerland has remained geopolitically neutral and is admired by its neighbors for its wealth and beauty, Armenia has suffered a long series of historical traumas that have left it weary for the wear. Take your pick: the Hamidian Massacres of 1894–96 (up to 300,000 dead); the Adana Massacres of 1909 (up to 25,000 dead); the Armenian Genocide of 1915–23 (up to 1.5 million dead); the Armenian–Tatar Massacres of 1905–07 (countless more dead); the fall of the First Republic in 1918–21 and the loss of over half of its remaining territory; the 300,000 intellectuals and peasants sent to the gulags during the Soviet era; the 1988 earthquake that leveled its second-largest city Gyumri (up to 50,000 dead); the First Artsakh War with Azerbaijan in 1988–94 (around 200,000 Armenian refugees, up to 30,000 total dead from both sides); and finally, the 44-Day War of 2020 (up to 5,000 young conscripts murdered by Ilham Aliyev and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s henchmen, and the historic lands of Artsakh lost).

Armenians live in a tough neighborhood, surrounded by two belligerent Islamic republics (Turkey and Azerbaijan) and a paternalistic colonizer (Russia). Iran and Georgia are the closest things the country has to regional allies. As a child, I grew up living in the widespread Armenian diaspora, born to a father whose refugee parents had resettled in Zahlé, Lebanon, and somehow prospered. Meanwhile, the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic was sealed off behind the Iron Curtain until I was in my twenties. In nationalist “Tashnag” Armenian summer camp, and at countless anti-Soviet rallies, the main motto was “Getse Hayastan!” (“Long Live Armenia!”) and “Angakh oo Azad Hayastan!” (“To an Independent and Free Armenia!”), while the more bourgeois Ramgavar Armenians agreed that Armenians were “better red than dead.” Like Jews at Passover who repeated for over 3,000 years “Next Year in Jerusalem,” diasporan Armenians at New Year’s celebrations often intoned “Kal dari Vanin Metch” (“Next year in Van”), referring to the former capital of Armenia and seat of Western Armenian culture, now under Turkish jurisdiction after a brutal 100-year campaign of extermination by successive post-Ottoman governments.

My father, a heavy smoker all his life, died in 1995 from lung cancer having never set foot inside an independent Armenia. If he had, he might have been bewildered—amazed even—that Armenia still existed at all, perplexed by its many contradictions, at the obvious creativity and intelligence intermixed with so much base corruption. And therein lies a paradox: while it is the Armenians who on the surface seem so invested in the past and their history, it is the Swiss who have protected theirs and who today understand the full importance of their civic and public institutions. Geneva without its tram would be unimaginable today, just as New York would be unthinkable without its subways or Venice without its vaporetti. The same cannot be said of the city of Yerevan, the 13th capital of Armenia. Founded in 782 BCE by King Argishti I, Yerevan just celebrated its 2,804th Anniversary—it’s been around a while, to say the least.

When I first visited Yerevan in 1995, after the initial thrill of discovering a functioning country full of Armenians, there wasn’t all that much to celebrate for a diasporan boy come home to the fatherland. Attractions included a ponchikanots that sold Armenian-style donuts, a beautiful opera house with a statue of the composer Aram Khachaturian in front of it, and the Matenadaran repository where one could marvel at some 25,000 illuminated manuscripts, including a Bible that had been cut in two during the Armenian Genocide and carried by elderly sisters some 500 miles on their backs to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Turks, who would have certainly destroyed it. There were a few beautiful house museums, including one dedicated to my favorite experimental filmmaker, Sergei Parajanov, and a few first-rate restaurants and cafés, including killer Chinese takeout started by an Armenian from Sofia, Bulgaria, of all places. And that was about it. I tried to appear positive and enthusiastic whenever I was introduced to new people, but inside I felt the constant throb of disappointment. It just wasn’t exciting.

Then suddenly, one day as I climbed the steep hill that leads to Yerevan State University, I heard something familiar, something powerful, something truly wonderful. Could it be? I wondered. My entire body started to shake, as if I were about to go on a tryst with an old lover or be teleported into outer space—it was the sound of a tramway! Just then, a red and white tram came swooshing down the hill at breakneck speed and rang an old-fashioned bell. I barely had time to jump out of its way before being mowed down. What could have been more ironic? I imagined the headlines in the next morning’s papers: “Prominent diasporan returns to fatherland, gets run over by tram.”

Needless to say, I rode the Yerevan tramway daily during my stay. In fact, during my second day in the capital, I rode it from one end to the other and back, in spite of appointments elsewhere in the country with relatives of friends whom I had promised to bring, in no particular order, medication, books, a German pocket vacuum cleaner, handwritten letters, a Guerlain cologne no longer available in Armenia, and a bag of Snickers bars (because “they just don’t taste the same in Armenia”). Riding the Yerevan tramway, I scrutinized my fellow travelers as closely as I could, fascinated. Did these Armenians look like the ones back home? Did the young get up to give the elderly their seats? Why did one young woman, whom I twice spied on the tram, always clutch the evil eye around her neck as if it were protecting her from imminent death? Did the smell of body odor and cheap perfume that wafted in the air bother just me while everyone else was inured to it? In short, for a diasporan on his first trip home, the Yerevan tramway was an anthropological wet dream.

Information about the Yerevan tram has been more difficult to come by than its Genevan counterpart. I have tried to research its history and spoken to a few knowledgeable friends. Here is what I was able to learn: the Yerevan tramway system was inaugurated on January 12, 1933, and closed on January 21, 2004, after having been operational for a little over 71 years. Presumably like most such things in Armenia, the trams were manufactured in Russia and included at least two models: a red-and-white 71-605 model and a red-and-yellow PB3-6M2 model. At one point, Yerevan had three tramway depots and 12 tram routes, which included Arshakunyats, Leningradyan, Komitas, and Mashtots streets. And that’s about all I could find out, short of visiting the city’s libraries or newspaper archives.

One day years later, great sadness overcame me when I learned that, along with landmarks such as the Afrikyants Building on Abovyan Street and much of the neighborhood of Hin (Old) Yerevan, the tram had also gone the way of many historical monuments. Aram Pachyan’s newest book, P/F (2020), takes up some of these themes. The novel is many things, but it is most of all a love poem to the past and to the memory of the Yerevan that Mkrtich Armen immortalized in his novels two generations before.

As Jeremiah Moss documented in his 2017 book Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul, many other great cities have also lost their traditional haunts, neighborhoods, and institutions. But as the history of the Geneva tramway proves, it’s never too late to learn from your mistakes. So, here are my parting thoughts on history and the tramway. If you are Armenian, then own it and do everything in your power to make your city and country prosper. To the government of Armenia, I most humbly suggest starting with something most people might find trivial: resurrecting the country’s lost trams. I hope that the mayor of Yerevan and the prime minister of the Armenian Republic will read this essay. Why trams? Because they are sleek, energy-efficient, and appealing as a tourist attraction. Trams have a longer life than buses or subways. Tracks cost less to develop than subway tunnels, which must be dug underground, or subway stations, which require escalators or steps. They are faster and more comfortable than buses. They bring in much-needed income from citizens and tourists alike, and routes can be reconfigured more easily than in the case of a metro.

And once the Yerevan trams are back, then other things, equally wonderful, may follow: new factories, new centers of learning, new technological discoveries. So, God bless Armenia—now can you please just bring back those fracking tramways?



Yerevan Tram

[Translated by Nairi Hakhverdi]


I. Tram No. 5

Our goalie, the Rostovite’s grandson, Hobo Little Artur, ran. Maybe we wanted him to run so that he’d be the one to stop the fate of our crime, he’d be the one to delay levying on at least one of our souls the slips and blunders and the hopeless burden of our cowardice. Hobo ran in broad daylight, in the middle of our soccer match when the score was already 18–0, when Team Malatia was having a real ball humiliating us. Hobo ran and jumped over the bright green fence, offended to the core by us, by Chelenti’s slap in front of everyone—worthy and worthless—and by our relentless curses. Hobo Little Artur, our scapegoat, our incomplete draft. How many times had he saved us, secured our goal, made awesome saves like Gianluigi Buffon, José Luis Chilavert, and Oliver Kahn? But what were the saves worth? What was the empty goal and feeling of superiority over our opponents, bestowed on us game after game by our savior, worth compared to one, just one, disgraceful nutmeg? In reality, it wasn’t about the 19th ball that our goalie let pass between his legs. It was about running away from our burning vengeance, from the sacrificial altar and the miraculous revelation of the biblical goat, that had obsessively enveloped us.

Hobo ran. We ran after Hobo. I don’t remember if it was afternoon or early morning. Had the sun already reached its zenith? Was Santa Barbara’s C. C. wearing a new suit? Which of our parents had died or come back to life in Nagorno-Karabakh? Had our people fixed the Primus stove, had they found kerosene, had they eaten the bread from Sevil’s kiosk? I don’t remember. As long as Hobo was running, we were running after Hobo. The road was quite far. He had to cut through from the tail end of the farmer’s market, and we also had to cut through from the tail end of the farmer’s market, which was a narrowing tortuous path where fruits, pushes and shoves, small balls of Chanakh cheese, decapitated smoked fish, more and more frenzied transactions, and the pulp of withering rinds and peels bustled. Even as he ran, Little Artur was a brave guy, and bravely he ran, cutting through the crowd, weaving and winding, swerving and careering, his back tight like the skin of a drum, pushing forward towards his final hope, towards the main road. Even though he was a brave guy, Hobo still ran into something, and he still bravely knocked something over.

A merchant yelled: “Slow down, fuckface!”

Hobo hurled back: “You just wait, I’ll show you, dickhead!”

But there was neither time to wait nor even probably to live. We finally got out of the farmer’s market. And even though we weren’t in any way inferior to Hobo in our bravery or running skills, we’d fallen significantly behind; but the sweet revenge we would take on Team Arabkir’s goalkeeper—Braindead’s godson, the Rostovite’s grandson, Hobo Little Artur—would still burn for another 500 years in our hearts. But we saw how Hobo made it to the tram stop, right when Tram No. 5 was taking off with a shudder, ringing a “ting,” then gliding across the glistening parallel rails. The light was there. The hope was there. Hobo made it. We saw him appear in the half-empty wagon, wandering about excitedly. He calmed down and sat in a window seat. What we saw was not a melodramatic movie. It was real life. We really saw it: Hobo was sitting in the wagon, facing the front, not looking for us through the window, not blinking in our direction. He was waiting. We were left standing breathless. Frozen.

I don’t know if we were happy or sad.

The tram picked up speed.


II. Tram into Oblivion

Hello Chris,

I’ve decided to write the second part of the story in the form of a letter—a letter about the history of Yerevan’s tram and about an individual denizen of the city. I’m sorry, I promised to finish the second part sooner, six months ago. It’s easy to lose yourself when digging through archives and records of the past. I was gathering material about the tram: reports, publications, tickets, turn-of-the-century photographs, and books in which Yerevan’s tram transforms into poetry, remembered in novels and appearing as a protagonist in plays.

As my exploration was coming to an end, I was preparing to connect the historical past of the tram with my own personal memories, like a Chinese jewelry box, where unfamiliar boxes or foreign baskets woven with stalks of straw all look the same on the surface but what they hold inside is something for our imagination to guess or an invention of our memories. In short, I was thinking about finding parallels between collective and personal memories, digging a trench between them, and moving my essay forward in this way, sometimes pitting the collective against the personal, sometimes arguing with the personal, even if it meant somewhat diluting the facts, the dates, and the records of this murky history. I had all kinds of thoughts running through my head. A big plan was taking shape, when all I was cherishing was the hope of writing two, three pages of something sensible.

Before the tram, it was a horsecar that rode up and down Astafyan Street (now Abovyan Street). It was the beginning of the century, in the 1910s, when Yerevan, which was divided into districts and hamlets, was becoming a city, and the horsecar had come to replace the slow, deafening oxcart on the road and the aristocratic coach cutting through Erivan’s legendary mud and dust. There was the cart and there was the coach—they stayed. The curse was the horsecar: first and foremost, as a form of entertainment. In his unfinished 1938 novel Yerevan, Michael Manvelyan describes the horsecar thus:

With wheels barely an inch off the ground, a creaking roof and rattling sides, the wagon of the horsecar glided under the ravenous ringing of bells. Pulling it were two emaciated, wispy-tailed horses. It often happened that the wagon would derail, the passengers would pour out, and with much effort, laughter, and roars would put the wagon back on the rails and push it from behind so that it moved forward and they could run and sit on it again. Few made use of this convenience. The rich saw it as inferior to their station in life and took instead swift coaches from place to place, while the poor preferred to walk and arrive at their destination more quickly, rather than be subjected to accidents or to the whims of the driver, who sometimes stopped the horsecar for 5 to 10 minutes at a time to wait for an acquaintance or buy something from a shop.

The horsecar was an attraction, possibly Yerevan’s first reality show, its first real carousel, then and now at the heart of the city’s flashiest and most symbolic street.

The orphans who had survived genocide, famine, and persecution in the First World War and who now flooded the streets of Yerevan reveled in the entertaining horsecar on Astafyan Street—soon taking part in the entertainment themselves, which allowed them not only to have fun but also to see the city in motion. As Nairi Zaryan recounts in his memoir Second Life (published in 1982),

[a] type of covered wagon, whose wheels moved on iron rails, jingled to a stop in the main square. A total of two horses pulled the covered wagons attached to them. They said this was called a horsecar. “Guys,” I told my friends, “let’s sit on this horsecar and see the city. I’ll buy everyone a ticket. Get on!” The horsecar jingled along, drove through a street lined with one-story houses, came out onto a deserted field, arrived at a station, and then turned back again.

In The Traveller & His Road (1928), the other Zaryan, Kostan, brings an entire era to a close via the sudden disruption of the life of the horsecar, marking the imminent fall of czarism and the ushering-in of the new, of the October Revolution: “And then one day, history furiously ruffled its pages. The wheels of the horse-drawn tram that slowly crawled on Astafyan Street met with stone. A storm howled, the horses neighed, and Yerevan fell into a ditch.” For Aksel Bakunts, the tram is (as the title of one of his short stories has it) a “provincial sunset,” and not only a sunset on a vainglorious future but also on the black ribbon of a man being newly born—a future embryo, one of whose victims would be the writer, shot in who knows which backwater, without a casket and without a gravestone.

Even so, they arrived with jubilation: the revolution, the new man, the proletariat, all marching toward communism with rough tongues and robust bodies. The iron muscle was their seed. The sun was their nutrition. And ideas were deeds. Districts were built for workers in Yerevan that were linked to factories by tram, which was introduced in 1933. Now, when you leaf through one page after another of the literature of the 1930s, it’s as if the introduction of the tram was some kind of messiah, a maddening religious ecstasy, finally programming a way of life, bringing order to the routine of a person’s work and meaning to their existence, as if it were a sectarian symbol of salvation and of what was to come. And everyone was singing its song, celebrating its birth, sounding its voice like a pecking bird, and witnessing its dream. Books were published dedicated to the tram, as were illustrated albums and enlightening posters. The tram was lyricized and Parnassusized. From then on, it was not the church but the tram depot that would be the house of the soul, and it was not the priest but the tram driver who was the guardian of the soul.

In the 1970s, when Mkrtich Armen was assembling his collected works, he didn’t feel the need to include his 1931 novel Yerevan, in which an entire section is an ode to the glory of the tram:

This is it: the tram. […] In old Yerevan, where there was no tram, the city had a central district with good streets and an outskirt with bad streets. The difference was big and the difference was much. It was wide in places and narrow in others. There were differences between the buildings and even bigger differences between their inhabitants. The tram erased all of that. Wide streets now stretched to the edges of the city, lights didn’t decrease in the outskirts, and there were no differences between buildings and inhabitants. […] And that’s what the tram is.

In Armen’s novel, it’s as if the tram is again a confirmation of the mildness of proletarian dictatorship and a symbol of the equality and democratization for which Yerevan’s wretched workforce, exploited by capitalism and colonization, was yearning.

The birth of the tram was as loud as its death was quiet, and its oblivion bearable. Yerevan’s tram lasted around seven decades, after which it was destroyed—in 2004, 13 years after the fall of the Soviet Union.



It is forbidden for the driver to be lost in reverie while the tram is in motion.
—From a 1939 technical user’s manual for tram drivers

I’d like to write a sentence that didn’t think, didn’t remember, didn’t imagine the tram. A sentence about the tram that resists literature, opposes reflection and reflective recollection, whose resistance and opposition do not become opportunities to rewrite or in any way fall into the cunning traps of oblivion. Whose memory is not a pretext for remembering. I’d like to silence words in such a way that they do not disturb their silence. If I could do this, the insincerity of writing wouldn’t torture me, and I would stop pleading with myself for sincerity.

There were people who’d sit on the tram and circle the city from morning to evening. It was warmer on the tram than at home.

When the fans were turned off, the trams stopped in their tracks and parked like beads one after another on Komitas Street. Sometimes the tram driver would leave the doors half-open. We’d skip class and hop on the tram. We’d cram into the corner of a wagon and make invaluable trades: a Donald for a Turbo, a lotto ticket for a chewing gum, a Snickers for a Nuts, Romàrio stickers for a Baggio ponytail, Mama Lassie and Papa Mongrel’s whelp for a Tupac T-shirt, a bottle of gas for half a bottle of bleach, an Escrava Isaura for a Simplemente María, a big trap for a small trick. To kill time, we’d tell each other stories. One of them was about a dead man who lived in some nearby district. He was a fedayee. He started a fight in the city at night, got caught, and was thrown from the Kievyan Bridge. He fell straight into the Hrazdan Gorge. His body was taken to the morgue. In the morning, he came back to life and asked, “Where’m I at?” The guard at the morgue didn’t lie; he straight up said, “You’re in the morgue now.” The fedayee wanted a glass of water; he drank it, and then went home. A few days later, he died again. Apparently for real this time. But just in case, they wired up his coffin with a lamp and put in a week’s worth of food and water, cigarettes, and a crossword puzzle.

Someone crossing the street at the Leningradyan stop photographed you. You’re not lying. He was crossing the street. You were on the tram. He photographed you and took off. A second ago, you were looking into the camera with your forehead pressed against the wagon window. Your only picture with the tram. Your clichéd gaze out of the wagon window.

A passenger was saying how he’d done a hypnosis session with Kashpirovsky. The whole tram was speechlessly listening to the storyteller. The storyteller was saying, “I was asleep, but I was also awake, as if I were in a dream, I was a bit scared, but how do you scream? Who knows why, my left eye started to twitch. Suddenly the hypnosis picked me up and carried me, carried me, and then threw me 10, 20 years into the future. I saw us from the future. We’ll all be saved.” And then he told us how we were going to be saved. The tram abruptly came to a stop. The tram driver left his cabin, walked up to the storyteller, and yelled, “Take your Kashpirovsky and get the fuck out!” The storyteller said “okay” and got off the tram. The tram moved. It was sad without the storyteller.

Years later, in 2011, strolling around Geneva at night, you saw tram rails. You waited. The tram didn’t come. It was the middle of the night. You noticed fresh, black drops of oil that had dripped from the twin tram wheels onto the surface of the rails. You picked up a drop with your index finger. You licked it. And ran.

I remember it very well. My family tells me it never happened, that I’m making it up. We never saw such a thing. But I saw it and I maintain that there’s no reason for me to make it up—they saw it too. We, all of us, were on Tram No. 5 on the way to Malatia while they were transporting a deceased person. The passengers were sitting in silence and few glanced at the deceased. They got off one stop after the farmer’s market. Two of them were carrying the coffin. It seemed very light. People were giving way to them, in a gentle sort of way, with mournless compassion. That never happened. The 1988 Spitak earthquake. The First Nagorno-Karabakh War. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. It never happened. And I remember it very well.

When there were blackouts, we’d walk a little dwarf dog around. It was serious business. We had to seriously walk it, up and down the wagon. At the end of the walk, the dwarf dog would have to look out of the window. And cheerful people would be amazed that a dwarf dog was looking out of the window. You’re of the immortal generation of those who walked a dwarf dog around in a deserted tram wagon.




Christopher Atamian is a New York–based writer, producer, and director who has been awarded two Tölölyan Literary Prizes. He is currently finishing a novel, Manhattan Boy, and working on several film and theatrical projects.

Aram Pachyan is considered one of the most prominent representatives of the post-Soviet generation of Armenian authors and a member of the so-called Generation Independence. He was awarded the 2021 EU Prize for Literature for his book P/F.


Featured image: Kathe Kohlsaat. Abstraction, 1922. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of the Estate of Katherine S. Dreier. Photo: Yale University Art Gallery., CC0. Accessed February 10, 2023.

LARB Contributors

Christopher Atamian is a writer, translator, director, and creative producer. He co-produced the OBIE Award–winning play Trouble in Paradise, as well as several music videos and short films. Christopher has been awarded two Tölölyan Literary prizes and was selected for the 2009 Venice Biennale on the basis of his video Sarafian’s Desire and received a 2015 Ellis Island Medal of Honor. He continues to contribute critical pieces to publications such as The New York Times Book ReviewThe Huffington Post, and Scenes Media while working on other creative endeavors in film and theater. He is currently finishing a novel, Manhattan Boy, and working on several film and theatrical projects.
Aram Pachyan is considered one of the most prominent representatives of the post-Soviet generation of Armenian authors and a member of the so-called Generation Independence. Born in Vanadzor in 1983, he studied law at Yerevan State University and works as a journalist at the newspaper Hraparak. He was awarded the 2021 EU Prize for Literature for his book P/F.


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