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Yeranuhi Soghoyan

Tamar Sings to Get Warm: 65-Year-Old Woman Hasn’t Bathed In 30 Years

For more than one hour, I've been roaming the partly frozen, muddy narrow streets of the village of Horom, trying to find Tamar (Tamara Darbinyan).

A group of men outside the cultural center describe the location of her house, saying she went in that direction a little while ago. A resident from one of the neighboring houses advises me not to go to Tamar's house alone. "She keeps dogs, they might attack," she warns. "Do you see that house with the car parked in front? Go there, and tell Uncle Kolya to go with you."

I follow the woman's advice. As luck would have it, Uncle Kolya is at home. Immediately he takes an interest: "Why do you want to see Tamar? Are you a relative?" I say, I'm a journalist. "Wow, that happens? A journalist taking an interest in Tamar?" Uncle Kolya is genuinely surprised. "Are you going to film [her]? Show it on television, so people can see what a calamity lives next to us. But can it even be called 'living? We'll go and see if she's home."

We come out onto the street. Kolya shows me the tumbledown building across the street. "This is Tamar's house, but it's unlikely that she's there now," he says. The pack of 5–6 dogs lying, sitting, or simply circling the area greets us with hostility. Tamar's not home. Kolya shoos the dogs away. A big dog with a broken paw refuses to leave, throwing us a couple of indifferent glances and stretching his body to catch the rays of the winter sun. 

"This one is a smart dog; plus, he's old," remarks Kolya. "She's gathered all the abandoned dogs, gives them food. They won't move from the door; they'll bark, jump on passers-by. We say, Tamar, you can't do this. A person won't risk walking on the street. She tells us, so don't walk in front of my door. Once, she blocked the street with rocks, for cars not to pass. She says they disturb my dogs. Last summer, the village mayor shot stray dogs; their number dropped somewhat."

We step over a low stone wall and enter Tamar's yard. The unpleasant smell of smoke becomes stronger. The area that once served as a foyer for the house is missing a roof and a door. The main entrance is also missing a door. The rags hanging from above and the ash covered metal attachment partly covering the entrance create some impression of protection from the cold. Kolya says perhaps I might find Tamar at the village cemetery. "Does she go there often?" I ask. "Don't know. When it crosses her mind, she goes to the cemeteries. Since she's not home and she's not at her neighbors', she's probably there."

On the way to the cemetery I befriend two women who are going to visit their relatives' graves. We speak of Tamar. The older of the two speaks quite favorably about her, saying she is quite smart, had a normal education at one time, graduated with honors, and attended medical school.

"Tamar's an inoffensive person. She won't harm a soul, but probably something's up with her mental state, because for a few years now she's been living in that filth, dear girl. They say she lost it after her mother's death. The villagers say she had a child and gave it up to the orphanage; that's how she lost her mind. But overall, she's a peaceful, inoffensive woman. She wouldn't harm anyone, won't ask for anything from anyone. Neighbors give her a plate of food: she eats half and gives the other half to the dogs. She says they too are god's creations. It's just that the bad thing is that she's in a terribly unhygienic state," she says. "She has a sister, brother; they come, watch over her; give her food and clothing, but the next day it's the same situation."

Tamar wasn't at the cemetery, and I return empty-handed to the now familiar house. One of the neighboring households again takes an interest in me. I introduce myself and ask where their neighbor might be. The woman, speaking Armenian with a Russian accent, invites me inside, saying her husband is Tamar's cousin and can answer my questions until her youngest son locates their troublesome relative.

Mikael Darbinyan says his cousin has been this way since the Soviet period. After her parents' death, she lived in the house with her brother. Tamar's father had three children from his first wife and six from his second wife, and all have turned out quite smart. One of the children from the first wife, Razmik Darbinyan, worked at the Byurakan Observatory and was considered Viktor Hambardzumyan's "right hand." Tamar is from the second wife: her two sisters and three brothers likewise shone with their knowledge.

"After her mother's death, Tamar and Noro turned out like this; otherwise, there isn't anyone with a genetic disorder among them," he remarks. "Now if you talk to Tamar, she'll respond very well, she'll say very smart things. But if you perhaps give her advice, she won't listen. She won't permit lights to be installed in her home; she won't agree to remove the dogs from there. They'll die, and she won't bury them. She'll let them rot, keep the skulls, and you don't know why. I've told her several times, take a shower, wash your hair, I'll bring you to my house and you can stay, [but] she doesn't want."

Noises are heard outside. Mikael's wife, Olya, says that Tamar has come. Turns out she had gone to the neighbor's house for coffee. I go out to the yard. Seeing me, Tamar rejoices. "Wow, dear girl, I knew it was you. As soon as they told me that some girl is asking after you, I quickly said, it's that journalist from the other day, surely she's come; otherwise, what stranger is going to be asking about me?"

Tamar's joy is genuine. In her radiant eyes on her grimy face, I notice her desire for attention. There's almost no change in her external appearance. It's the same raven black hands that when I saw the first time from a distance seemed to me she was wearing gloves; the same grimy, cigarette-smelling clothing. In the clear plastic bag in her hand, I see cups, a plate, lavash [Armenian flatbread], and food leftovers. Tamar, bending over the bag, empties it on the ground, pushing the food toward the dogs surrounding her. Then she gestures, come, let me show you my house. 

That, which Tamar calls a house, resembles a garbage dump more than anything else. On the latticed metal bed in the center of the room, I glimpse a bag full of rags, which most likely serves as her pillow. Instead of a wool mattress and blanket, there's only a threadbare woman's coat thrown on the bed. The other notable item in the house is a heater, without pipes, in which she burns everything to stay warm - old shoes, plastic bottles, tire scraps, garbage. The second bed serves as a cabinet. Showing the grimy empty pot, Tamar, in a somewhat embarrassed tone, says, "If you came two days earlier, I would've offered you macaroni pilaf."

"My neighbors gave me two heads of cabbage, supposedly I was to make borscht, but I haven't touched them. This fruit too froze and rotted like that. Do I look like I eat fruit? I only eat spicy [foods] — I don't eat meat either. And this here is my sister's old coat. I throw it over me when I sleep. When I'm not home, the puppies come and go under it to stay warm." Tamar sits at the edge of the bed and removes a pack of tobacco from her pocket. "I only smoke Prima. I don't like filters."

Tamar says she began smoking while she was a school-age child. It's a little difficult to believe this story considering village life, but I don't express my doubts. I ask why she refused offers to install electricity in her house.

"Dear girl, if they install it, who's going to pay the bill? I haven't received   my monthly pension check yet. Plus, the entire ceiling is covered in soot. It's not possible to clean it all up. And why do I need electricity? I have neither a TV nor a fridge nor a washing machine, for 15 years already. I like candles."

I say the neighbors complain that she sings loudly at night. Tamar narrows her eyes. "My brain gets cold at night. As soon as I sing, I become warm. I sing to get warm, dear girl," she says and begins to sing.

Tamar becomes genuine. She loved once in her life. The boy was Ukrainian; his name, Nikolai, from the village of Berezovsk in the Zhitomir region. "I had fallen madly in love, but I would keep it a secret. I was 19 years old at the time, but he didn't get engaged to me. His Russian friend told me that Kolya has a Ukrainian sweetheart, but he loves me too and now he doesn't know with whom to get engaged. I said, no problem, let him take two wives, I agree." Tamar marries a year later, but to a young Armenian man. But the marriage doesn't last long — just six months. 

"I wasn't in love, I just liked him and my father and aunt didn't agree to my choosing him, but I got engaged. The day after the wedding, I almost ran away, came [back] home. At five months' pregnant, I ultimately returned to my father's house. Four months later, I had a boy. I took him to the orphanage, but then I gave him to a very good woman named Rosa. She couldn't have kids, [so] I gave him to her," says Tamar calmly, and removing her hat, and parting her felt-like hair, tries to show the "three lines of fate" on her head.

"When they say, you have three fates on your head so you have to take three men, it's a lie — it's a sign of a good memory. My toes too are up and down, they're not equal. That too, they say that you're a physically strong person. My hands too are pretty; it's just that they're black now. My fingers are neither crooked nor short. If I bathe, will my beauty show?"

Despite the cold weather, Tamar is without warm socks. "I cut the arms off my sister's coat, put them on so my legs don't get cold. I had socks, [but] they wore out and I threw them away. My boots too were given to me by my younger sister from Yerevan, but why they cracked, I don't know. They were lacquered; they were supposed to last long," said Tamar, puzzled. 

I ask when she last took a shower.  "30 years ago, dear girl, in 1986. My brother came, shaved my head, took me to a bathhouse in Leninakan [present-day Gyumri], but I wouldn't want to go at all, if I knew that an earthquake was going to happen. I told my brother, don't take me to Leninakan, I won't go. I see people's black silhouettes on the buildings."

My interviewee excludes the possibility of lice in her clumps of hair, which hasn't seen a comb in months. "Our priest says that a clean environment is needed even for lice. Now where is there a clean environment on my head for there to be lice?" Tamar laughs heartily. "I used to cut it every spring with scissors, but these past two years, my mother has appeared in my dreams, tells me, don't cut your hair, [so] I no longer cut it."

Tamar enumerates the list of illnesses she has: cancer, pleurisy, hernia, kidney stones. But she doesn't remember ever catching a cold. She says her treatment is unfiltered cigarettes and hot pepper, which she uses a lot. She's not displeased by the attitude of her fellow villagers. They help her: give her food, offer her coffee. On New Year's Eve, they gave her lots of fruit. She hadn't eaten it: it froze and rotted. Three times alone she was saved from poisoning. She says that too happened as a result of her being careful. "After the burial at cemeteries, they leave food. Someone had been wicked and had put bug repellent in a juice bottle. I was almost poisoned, I almost died. It's good that I only wet my tongue and didn't drink the whole thing."

She's not unhappy with the village mayor, but she doesn't recall him ever helping her. "The mayor? No, he hasn't helped, but I too haven't asked. The mayor's brother has a store. If I sit on his stoop, he'll bring me bread, tobacco. Our current village mayor, when he was first elected, that was the only time I appeared near his house. His mother gave me cheese and an apple, and I haven't been back," says Tamar. Her brother living in the village of Hayrenyats and her younger sister living in Yerevan have been helping her with food and clothing for years.

"Recently, my brother stopped helping. He found out that I'm going to bequeath the house to my younger sister. He says, well then let Gohar take care of you." Showing the bottles and pots thrown in the corner, she explains, "And this is my kitchen. I put the plates, bottles, everything upside down so no animals fall inside and die. They too are god's creations. And I don't pour the trash that I burn on the ground: I've made a heap in a corner of the house — we cannot pollute the soil. I can't carry [the heap] somewhere else, and so I've poured the soot and ashes in a corner of the house."

The day is coming to an end and I'm rushing to say goodbye to Tamar. "Yes, you're doing the right thing, go, a person shouldn't be outside when it gets dark. My Grandpa Khacho used to say, when the sun goes down, both men and women should rush home. Thieves and hookers go out at night. There are thousands of evil things in the dark — dogs and jackals. I too, when it's not yet completely dark, definitely go home."

Tamar shoos the dogs. "But I talked so much. I don't get caught up in conversation as much with my acquaintances as much as with strangers. Our stars have surely aligned, dear girl, that's why I talked so much."

P.S. Village mayor Ashot Paskevichyan, in phone conversation, said the issue with Tamar Darbinyan goes back a ways. They made attempts to improve the woman's life, but they were met with stubborn resistance. "She doesn't accept money. Usually they go and take food. Last year, she became a pensioner. About three years ago, we tried to take her to a hospital to be examined. She fled, didn't come. We say, take a shower, wash [yourself]; she refuses, [saying] I'll get sick if I take a shower. She has no desire for us to improve her conditions; otherwise, it's about 10 days' work, installing electricity, a door, windows. She has a sister and brother who come often, bring clothing and food. We're embarrassed to have such a resident in our community, but we can't do anything forcefully," he said.

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