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IRAN, ARMENIA: Booze and relative freedom lure Iranians to Christian enclave to the north

May 16, 2010 | 11:24 am

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Landlocked and still recovering from the decades of Soviet rule and a war with Azerbaijan that quickly followed, Armenia may not be the world's most attractive vacation destination.

But for those living in the neighboring Islamic Republic, it's a kind of earthly paradise.

Iranians purchasing souvenirs In March, 27, 600 Iranians spent Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. 

But late spring and summer -- when the weather is comfortable, delicious fruits are harvested and outdoor events are numerous -- tourists also come in droves. 

An Armenian community leader in Tehran said up to 80% of Iran's Armenians, speculated to be as many as 500,000, travel to Armenia at least once a year.

The visitors can enjoy Armenian shish kebab and rice pilaf with a bottle of pomegranate wine or homemade liquor, or pick up a lahmajoun, an Armenian thin-crust meat pizza, on the street.

"Iranians are looking for reasons to leave their country so they can experience some freedoms," said Vanoohi Googasian, a Persian Armenian tour guide living in Yerevan.

"It's not about the specific holiday," she said. "It's about Iranians finding an excuse to leave their country to party."

002 While Armenia may not be your typical tourist destination, it's cheaper than other countries in the region and much more accessible. In a world where Iranians feel unwelcome in most countries, they can enter Armenia without applying for a visa in advance and hop on a bus to cross a shared border.

In what is one of the region's few Christian nations, Iranians can drink alcohol, dress and dance freely -- Iranian women can throw off their headscarves while men enjoy the view of Armenian ladies in high heels and skirts.

Out of Armenia's four neighbors, Iran is arguably its most reliable. Iran supplies Armenia with energy and electricity, and the two countries are working together on other projects that will further Armenia's economic development.

Despite this friendly relationship, and the fact that Iranians spent their holiday injecting much-needed cash into Armenia's economy, the Iranian influx is not wholly welcomed in Yerevan. 

Because of the small size of Armenia's capital and its essentially mono-ethnic community, the Iranians' presence feels unavoidable. It was easy to spot the drunk Iranians on the streets, some of whom became a public nuisance. But if they were drunk, it was because they were buying Armenian cognac and drinking at Armenian bars, which is good for the Armenian economy.

Iranians also come to Armenia during the summer for concerts of banned musicians.

During Nowruz, the Iranian Armenian superstar Andy gave a concert in Yerevan. The 52-year-old pop star sings in Armenian, English, Arabic and Iranian, and is popular among Iranians and Iranian Armenians. Since Iran's 1979 Revolution, Andy's music has been banned in Iran due to strict government censorship of music recorded outside of the country.

"Music in Iran is a complicated issue," said one Iranian tourist. "It is forbidden to listen to certain pop music, so people come to Yerevan to listen to singers give concerts. Andy, Dariush -- not female singers, of course, because women are not allowed to sing in Islam. They can sing to themselves, but it is forbidden for anyone except the husband to listen."

-- Olivia Katrandjian in Yerevan, Armenia

Photos: Iranians gather, buy goods and stroll through the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Credit: Edna Baghoumian / For The Times

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