by David Zenian
TEHRAN- The principal of one of the Armenian schools of Tehran is an ethnic Azerbaijani-Iranian. Armenian women wear black chadors – even to church – and are allowed to use the community swimming pool only on days when the men are not there.
Even in elementary schools, boys and girls attend separate classes and are not allowed to play in the same playground. Live bands are illegal, and so is “slow” dancing at public gatherings such as weddings and “kef” parties.
The programs of any cultural event – including poetry readings – are scrutinized by the authorities before presentation to the public.
But these rules, like many others in the Islamic Republic of Iran, are described as nothing more than “inconveniences” for the country’s more than 150,000 Armenians – the largest in the Middle East.
“In fact, the Islamic Revolution has been a sort of blessing in disguise,” said an elderly member of the Armenian community. “It has tightened the nationalist bond among Armenians,” he said.
The man, like others in the community who preferred not to be identified, said the Islamic Revolution has put an end to intermarriages between Armenians and Iranians.
“I have not seen a single case involving an Armenian male or female marrying an ethnic Iranian in recent years … Such instances were quite common during the days of the late Shah … Another positive outcome has been in the field of education … There are no Armenian students in Iranian schools,” he said upon reflection.
Scores of Armenians interviewed in Tehran and the central Iranian city of Esfahan agree with this revealing evaluation of the Islamic Revolution’s impact on the Armenian.
Iranian Armenians constitute the oldest active community outside Armenia. Thousands of Armenians were brought to Iran by Shah Abbas nearly 400 years ago – initially settling in Esfahan and then spreading to a number of Iranian cities including Tehran which today is the epicenter of Armenian community life.
“As a community, Iranian Armenians have not been as politicized as the Armenians of Lebanon … the only politics we get involved with is Armenian politics … and that is low-key … We have never taken sides in Iranian politics,” said another Tehran resident.
“This was the case during the Shah and it is very much the case under Islamic rule … We defend our rights as a community, and we enjoy the respect of the Islamic authorities … We are not discriminated against, in fact, we are much better off than other minorities like the Kurds, for example.”
The Kurds and the Azerbaijani Iranians have no schools of their own -the Armenians do – more than 30 of them in Tehran alone. There is no such thing as a Kurdish Moslem mosque or a place of worship used exclusively by Azerbaijani Iranians. A policeman is posted outside Tehran’s only functioning synagogue, but there are no guards outside Armenian churches.
“As a general principle, the Islamic authorities tend to turn a blind eye toward some of the things we do as a community … they are good to us, and we are good to them … there are some inconveniences, but no problems,” commented another long-time active community member.
The Islamic way of life – for Iranian-Armenians.
Some of the “inconveniences” are harsh compared to western standards, but for for Iranian Armenians they are nothing but “secondary issues” which are taken in stride. The Islamic dress code is one such “inconvenience”.
Outside the confines of their homes and community centers, Armenian women follow the same dress code as fellow Iranians. If there are any fashion buffs, they are not out in the streets where women are covered in black – or a darker shade of gray – from head to toe.
The very brave wear colorful sneakers and let a bit of hair show beneath their otherwise all-concealing black scarves,” says an Iranian teenager. “Wearing a sneaker is a sign of protest … but that is just about it,” she says.
Other restrictions involve couples holding hands in public and in some extra-religious neighborhoods, even riding in the same car unless accompanied by other family members.
If the dress code and personal conduct seem harsh, adjusting to the Iranian education system has called for greater flexibility and imagination.
Armenians have accepted the fact that their schools must have non-Armenian principals, but these circumstances have not interfered with the standard of Armenian education.
Officially, Armenian schools are not allowed to devote more than two hours a week to teaching the Armenian language. But because the teaching of religion is permitted, arrangements are in place to make sure that the children are not deprived of learning how to read and write Armenian.
“We manage to improvise and I can assure you that the children are not missing anything,” says a teacher with a smile. She is one of nearly 200 Armenian teachers employed by the school system to teach Armenian to an estimated student body of more than 11,000 in Tehran alone.
One such improvisation has been through the many Armenian clubs and the youth movement as a whole.
On any given Thursday evening or Friday – the Moslem weekend – thousands of Armenian youngsters – and their parents – gather at the sprawling Ararat sports complex.
Situated on the hills overlooking Tehran, the 80,000 square-meter fenced facility includes an olympic-size soccer field, swimming pools, tennis courts, basketball fields, indoor recreation areas and banquet halls.
The land for the multi-million project was donated to the Armenian community by the Iranian government in the late 1960′s and the construction was done with local and other donations.
Today the Ararat complex, which has more than 1,500 fee-paying members and thousands of other supporters, is the centerpiece of Armenian community life. “This is the only open space in Tehran where Armenian women can remove their chadors and freely mingle with the menfolk … This is where our youth meet … and propose … There would be no Armenian community life without the Ararat sports complex,” says a long-time member.
Across town, scores of young boys and girls participate in other sports activities provided by the Armenian General Benevolent Union.
“We do not have quite the same facilities, but nevertheless we have a strong following … Our basketball team is one of the best in town,” says youth director Henrig Aprahamian.
But there are restrictions – even within the sanctuary of the Ararat sports complex, and the walls of other Armenian community centers.
“Men and women are not allowed into the swimming pool at the same time … they use the pool on alternate days … the girls’ basketball team wears long sweatpants rather than shorts, and the women cannot use the tennis courts when men are playing,” says an Ararat staff member.
Armenia and the Armenians of Iran.
Iranian Armenians were among the first in the diaspora to mobilize after the devastating 1988 earthquake, and today they are ready to help Yerevan establish trade with neighboring Tehran.
Iran has a narrow northern frontier corridor that links it to Armenia through the Meghri pass. It also has its share of Armenian businessmen and traders.
Braving such local considerations as the sensitivities of a large ethnic Azerbaijani population, Iran’s 150,000-strong community was able to raise more than 4.5 million dollars in earthquake aid money.
Days after the earthquake, Armenian schools, churches and community centers began a fund-raising campaign and within days, millions of Rials were collected together with large quantities of food and clothing.
“We were involved in a balancing act,” says a Tehran Armenian involved in the fund-raising process. “On one side we were all geared to help the earthquake victims, and on the other hand we had to be careful not to arouse hostile feelings on the home front,” he said.
“We kept reminding ourselves that there are an estimated 12 million ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran … We had to be careful not to arouse their anger … But thanks to the understanding of the central government, everything went well,” said the young businessman who declined to be identified for what he said were personal reasons.
With the rapid demise of the Soviet Union and Communism, Iranian Armenians hope to play an important role in future Armenian-Iranian relations.
“We are experts in quiet diplomacy … and we enjoy good relations with the Iranian authorities and we think we can play a constructive role in building trade across the Meghri border with Armenia … this will take time, but it can be done,” says a local businessman.
Most Iranians also agree, but point out to the need of a speedy resolution to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno Karabagh.
“The Armenians are good traders, and so are the Iranians. If it comes to business, there is no reason why we should not cooperate … quietly,” he said.