Armenia’s civil rights record isn’t exactly unblemished, but to thousands of Iranians eager to hear pop singers banned in Iran, the conservative South Caucasus country still ranks as a land of liberty.
Israeli singer Ishtar Alabina, sometimes described as “the Queen of the Middle East,” proved to be a mega-attraction in the line-up of privately sponsored concerts staged in Yerevan during Novruz, the 13-day Persian New Year celebration, which started on March 20. Joined by Armenian fans, thousands of Iranians at her March 30 concert waved the Iranian flag and sang along to the 42-year-old performer’s pulsing songs in Arabic, French and Hebrew.
“This was a huge surprise!” said 36-year-old Iranian engineer Fehdat Jafargholi, who traveled to Armenia from Tabriz with his wife and five-year-old daughter to celebrate Novruz. “Naturally, Alabina’s concerts cannot be held in Iran. Pop music performances are forbidden in our country, and this was a great gift to us for Novruz.”
Jafargholi, like other Iranians interviewed for this article, claimed not to know that Alabina, who sings mostly in Arabic, is from Israel, enemy number one for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration in Iran.
Over the past two weeks, to commemorate the Persian New Year, Yerevan concert halls have offered up an array of banned Iranian music, with performances by Iranian pop singers Andy, Leila, Pouva, Kouros and Sepideh. Restaurants and clubs in Yerevan now offer menus in Farsi, while Iranian and Arab music plays in the background. “We look forward to these concerts the whole year, and only during these days and only outside our country do we get a chance to enjoy them,” said Fatima Djavadi, a teacher from Tehran.
Such events, though, are not a sudden manifestation of multiculturalism. The large number of Iranian visitors to Yerevan, a city of just under 1.1 million people, nearly requires that local businesses cater to the tourists’ tastes.
Although data does not yet exist for the Novruz tourist season, Armenia’s Ministry of Economic Development claimed the number of Iranian visitors to Armenia so far in 2011 was running 40 percent ahead of the total for the same period in 2010. The total number of Iranians who crossed into Armenia in 2010 (120,000) was nearly 30 percent higher than in the previous year.
“It’s very easy for them to come, and they enjoy an unmatched freedom here, get an opportunity to watch their favorite singers perform live, and, in general, have a good time,” said Mekhat Apressian, head of the Ministry of Economy’s Tourism Department.
Hotel managers and apartment owners, in particular, have benefited. Four of Yerevan’s mid-range and high-end hotels (Erebuni, Golden Tulip, Ani and Europa) have been booked solid since early February. On average, rents for downtown studio apartments increased by 40-50 percent to $50-$100 per night, Yerevan real estate agencies said.
But not all Armenians welcomed their Iranian neighbors with open arms. Yerevan’s police chief, Maj. Gen. Nerses Nazarian, said that some “minor brawls” between Iranians and Armenians, “caused by an atmosphere of intolerance,” had been recorded by police. Larger disturbances have not been reported, he added.
Yerevan State University Professor of Psychology Mariam Soghomonian attributed such incidences to “Armenia’s “mono-ethnic” society, which means that “if there are no vacant places at restaurants and shops get crowded because of [foreign] visitors, [Armenians] get annoyed.”
Overall, though, Armenia’s economy has reason to welcome the influx of Iranian visitors; the tourism department estimates that Armenian businesses overall will take in some $25 million from Iranian tourists during the 13-day celebration of Novruz.
Some Iranian tourists say that the relatively low cost of hotels and food in Armenia compared with Turkey and Dubai, both more popular Novruz destinations, prompted them to opt for Yerevan.
“Armenia is much closer, we can travel by car, and, besides, the city seems somehow dearer to us. We have co-existed with Armenians for ages and understand each other better,” said 45-year-old professor of mathematics and engineering Marizeh Saberi. Diaspora organizations estimate that some 70,000 to 90,000 ethnic Armenians live in Iran.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, meanwhile, on March 24-27 commemorated Novruz in Tehran, at the invitation of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who stressed that the Iranian government “has placed no limits on the development of cooperation with Yerevan,” Armenian news agencies reported. The two countries already share several multi-million-dollar energy and transportation projects.
Gayane Abrahamyan is a reporter for ArmeniaNow.com in Yerevan. Gohar Abrahamyan contributed reporting to this story.