Portland

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Portland is the main center of the tiny Armenian community of Oregon.


Portland Tribune, OR
Sept 9 2005

What's Armenian for `shake your booty'?

Without being overpowering, the scents of cigarette smoke and cologne define the atmosphere inside Ararat on a Friday night. The restaurant and nightclub, named for the mountain that is a symbol of Armenian culture, draws a mainly Eastern European crowd to its small dance floor every weekend.

At 11 p.m. the place hasn't started to jump yet. A long banquet table in the center of the room, with `reserved' signs on it, is still empty. A few girls are dancing together to melodramatic Russian disco.

The decorations are spare but striking. Vinyl records suspended from the ceiling twist in the breeze. Huge gold letters, spelling out A-R-A-R-A-T, give the awning over the tiny side bar the look of an outdoor kiosk. The dance floor makes up for its size with style: It's lit from beneath by flashing, pulsing, multicolored lights.

We settle down at one end of a long table for some people-watching. Just before midnight, the place starts filling up. A group finally claims the `reserved' table behind us. The waiter brings them three bottles of champagne.

A woman selling flowers circles the room. She looks familiar - one of the tribe who wander, mostly ignored, through Portland's bars and nightclubs. But unlike others of her ilk, she's doing a brisk business here. She sells out within an hour, and stays to watch the dancing.

The dance floor is now filled with rhythmically moving bodies. Suddenly, the music stops. The DJ asks everyone to sit down, which they do reluctantly, to make way for the belly dancer. Dressed in a spangled scarlet ensemble, with long black hair and a dazzling smile, Eva appears. Her elaborate, sinuous routine concludes with a circumnavigation of the room, collecting dollar bills in her waistband.

Afterward, I step outside with her to ask a few questions. Her full name is Eva Van Derlip, and she's filling in tonight for the regular belly dancer, known as Yemaya. Belly dancers have a solid community in Portland, she says. As if to prove her point, we're joined by Debra Souki, another belly dancer, who is planning to teach beginners lessons at Ararat starting next month (call the restaurant for details).

`Have you seen the back?' Souki asks me. She rounds up one of the owners, Nelli Grigorian, and they lead me past the now-packed dance floor, down a hallway, and into another world - albeit one also defined by its aroma. In this case, it's the sweet, enveloping scent of freshly baked bread. We're surrounded by kneading tables, ovens and racks filled with loaves.

Grigorian, handing me a braided loaf, tells me she came to Portland with her husband, Avo Karapetian, 11 years ago. They first came to Los Angeles from Armenia, but didn't like it, and continued north. Now, handing me a package of sweet rolls (which, by the way, make a great 2 a.m. snack) she tells me she loves Portland, loves how friendly people are here.

I decide that, purely for research purposes, I need to dance on the flashing dance floor before I leave. Unfortunately, after midnight, the music is mostly techno, which I don't find very inspiring. Nevertheless, one of my friends and I thread our way into the group, which has achieved critical mass.

In dance floor terms, this means it doesn't much matter if you're a bad dancer, because no one can see you. You're just one small moving part of a larger organism. It also doesn't matter if you don't like the song - there's a contagious desire to keep moving, anyway ... at least up to a point.

The music changes. It's the first song tonight that I've actually recognized. It's a terrible, annoying, repetitive pop song that was once a huge hit in Europe. I was traveling there with my parents at the time, 20 years ago, and we heard it everywhere we went, to the point where it became a family joke. Now here it is again, although apparently no one else likes it either. The DJ actually puts a halt to it partway through.

Still, there's no escaping this song. It's been stuck in my head ever since.


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