The numbers game in Armenia

The numbers game in Armenia

YEREVAN – There are many odd, quirky, inexplicable, incomprehensible, and downright surreal aspects to life in Armenia, especially for those who are used to the things people in First-World countries take for granted. I’m not talking about conveniences like plumbing or electricity (which Armenia does have), or even lofty ideals such as human rights or the rule of law; it’s more the social dynamic that can take getting used to.

One manifestation of the public psychology is the Armenian obsession with numbers, or, to be perhaps a little bit more precise, cell phone numbers and license plate numbers on cars.

There is such a concept as a “voske hamar,” a “golden number.” (There are, of course, also platinum numbers and mere silver numbers.) A golden number can be the repetition of a digit or a combination of digits (such as 11111, or 121212, or 123123), consecutive numbers in either order (12345, 54321), or anything that would strike one as fanciful (“007” comes rushing to mind).

Admittedly, there can be convenience in choosing certain numbers – such as when one opts for a cellphone number the same as one’s home landline number (the prefixes for cell phone numbers and landline numbers are different) – but the matter of choosing numbers appears to take energy and money on a larger scale than one might imagine.

A friend of mine who studies psychology thinks it’s about standing out. Since we are small in numbers (hah!) something as seemingly innocuous as a phone number can be used to display status. Not that those who go for “voske hamarner” don’t bother with big houses or fancy cars. But the point is that in our little society, those numbers can stand out.

And there’s apparently a good trade in them too. Any cell phone place or underground pedestrian crossing has numbers pasted to walls of kiosks and booths. Legal or not, these merchants are basically reselling phone cards at a premium, cashing in on the prevailing mentality of the desirability of an easy-to-remember or impressive-in-some-other-way number.

If this were Ancient Greece instead of modern-day Armenia, the Pythagoreans would be delighted, because, for that school of philosophy, the number was the most divine and mystical phenomenon. I’m not sure how pious such practices are in Armenia, but there is certainly an air of mystery about them. At least to the uninitiated.