Aydin was an Iranian mountaineer who had climbed 572 steps to the top of the Cascade — a towering architectural feat in the heart of Yerevan that now houses the Cafesjian Center for the Arts — with his wife.
On a South Caucasus road trip, Armenia was their last stop after having visited Azerbaijan and Georgia. They raved about the beauty of that country's capital, Tbilisi.
E.E. Cummings. Aydin wondered what Americans thought of contemporary Iran. I wondered what life was like in the country I was born in, beyond the headlines of protests and occasional bans on everything from Western hairstyles to the press.
He casually mentioned the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, calling it a “tough situation;” and I told him about the Blue Mosque, the one and only mosque operating in Yerevan.
Extending beyond the burgeoning trend of vacationing in Armenia during Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, Aydin and his wife are among thousands of Iranian tourists who arrive in Armenia to spend their summer holidays in the country, where they can openly drink alcohol, eat pork and engage in other forms of debauchery banned by the Islamic Republic.
In the city center or around Lake Sevan, one of the largest high-altitude lakes in the world, families and singletons are soaking up the nightlife and flexing their freedom muscles on a cheap excursion to Armenia, which is no doubt adding fuel to the country's economy via tourism.
In the first four months of 2011, more than 31,000 Iranians visited Armenia, according to local media. The head of tourism at the Ministry of Economy recently revealed that a poll of 101 Iranian tourists showed that around $1,600 is spent by the average Iranian tourist during a 10-day holiday, according to News.am.
Whether Iranians are pumping life into the Armenian tourism market or not, their presence has given rise to ambivalent reactions from locals who cite their loud, obnoxious behavior and alleged penchant for sex tourism as reasons they're unhappy with the influx. The country's mono-ethnic makeup, with about 98% of the population ethnically Armenian, also adds to some unfamiliarity when dealing with diversity.
With non-existent American-Iranian relations and the dangers of practicing journalism in Iran (the country is considered one of the world's worst jailers of journalists and has forced at least 18 native journalists to flee their homes in the past year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists), the mass of Iranian tourists is a personal blessing in disguise because I can mix and mingle with a people I consider as much my own as Armenians.
Through the Iranian men and women — many of them with their long, thick hair flowing free from the confines of their rusaris, or headscarves — I see glimpses of a country I was born in, a country my parents grew up in, studied in, worked in, laughed and loved in until the dire circumstances of the 1978 Revolution forced them to flee their home.
When I hear Farsi being spoken on the streets and in the supermarket, I almost want to close my eyes and pretend that I'm in Tehran, which is how I felt when I ran into Aydin, overlooking downtown Yerevan on a sweltering day.
We took a photo together, exchanged email addresses and spoke some more about philosophy and literature. For that half hour, I felt like I was reclaiming a part of my heritage, rings in the tree trunk of my identity that can never be erased — even if egged on by fear, I can’t seem to cross the border to see it myself.