Thirty-six-year-old Iranian linguist Mariam Torabi came to Armenia last year with a goal not unlike that of other visitors: to learn a new language and experience another culture. But she also faced a challenge: how to live as an observant Muslim in one of the world’s oldest Christian countries.
When word first came that she had received a scholarship to complete her PhD in linguistics at Yerevan State University, her family in Isfahan, one of Iran’s more religiously conservative cities, was not happy.
“They were saying that in a foreign, especially a Christian, country, a Muslim girl cannot live alone. And that I would have a lot of difficulties,” recounts Torabi, who, at the time, was a linguistics lecturer and doctoral student at Isfahan State University. “My parents would prefer me to stay in my homeland and study and work there. They were dissatisfied with my decision, but as I had already made it, I came to Armenia.”
Though bordered by three Muslim countries (Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey), Armenia’s Muslim population is beyond tiny – just 812 people (as of 2011) out of a population of some 3 million, according to official data. The vast majority of Armenians are Oriental Orthodox Christians and often see their faith as part of their national identity.
With time, Torabi says she “got used to local customs” and made a lot of Armenian friends, but concedes that “[i]t was hard in the beginning.”
Mariam Torabi, 36, works as a librarian in the Blue Mosque every day for nine hours. The mosque’s library contains Farsi-language works of fiction, written by both Iranian and foreign authors.
Despite the stares she may encounter on the streets of Yerevan, in public Mariam Toabe always wears hijab, the head-covering for observant Muslim women.
In Armenia, her hijab, the head covering for observant Muslim women, “ is unusual for locals,” who sometimes look at her scarf strangely, she says. In response, she simply ignores them.
Food poses another tricky area. Like other observant Muslims, Torabi never eats pork and only eats meat prepared according to Islamic rules (halal). Armenia does have halal butchers, but the need to check constantly whether purchased meat is halal can add to that feeling of otherness.
“In that sense, the life of a Muslim person is hard in Armenia,” Torabi says. Her parents, though, have come to recognize that it is a safe country, she adds.
Knowledge of Armenian has helped her. She began studying the language in Iran, in conjunction with her doctoral work on medieval Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, and now can speak easily. She uses Armenian frequently in her current job as a librarian in Yerevan’s Iranian-run Blue Mosque, the only working mosque in Armenia.
Yerevan’s Blue Mosque, a Shi’a Muslim place of worship, was built in 1765-1766, while the city was under Persian control. It served as Yerevan’s history museum during the Soviet era. Iran picked up the bill for its restoration in the late 1990s and currently holds a 99-year-lease on the property.
Before the Soviet era, guest rooms were located in this part of the Blue Mosque. Now, the spaces are used as guard rooms, for storage or have been closed.
The building, a Shi’a Muslim place of worship, dates from 1766, a time when Yerevan, then under Persian control, contained multiple mosques.
Restored by the Iranian embassy, which now holds a 99-year lease on the property, the mosque today doubles as a community center for Muslims, primarily Iranian, who call Yerevan home.
“This is the only place where we gather with Muslims and receive spiritual nourishment,” comments 34-year-old Zara Salamat, a homemaker from Tehran who has lived in Yerevan since 2012. That is particularly important to Salamat since she is raising a child in a non-Muslim country.
Her husband, five-year-old daughter and she attend prayers at the mosque each week and celebrate religious holidays there. “Attending the mosque helps us to stay close to our roots,” she says.
Zara Salamat, a 34-year-old homemaker, moved to Yerevan six years ago from Tehran with her husband, a businesman. Fluent in Armenian, she says she now cannot imagine living in another city.
A Muslim woman talks with an Iranian mullah, Mahmood Movahedi Fard, at the Blue Mosque. Religious services resumed at the mosque after the end of Soviet rule in 1991.
During the celebration of Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice, one of Islam’s main holidays, women attending the Blue Mosque exchanged cakes, small gifts and best wishes after their daily prayers.
Women perform namaz, a ritual daily prayer, in Yerevan’s Blue Mosque.
An elderly Iranian woman at the Blue Mosque wears white to symbolize spiritual purity. She was attending prayers for Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, which marks the prophet Abraham’s willingness to submit himself to God.
Pre-adolescent Muslim girls are not required to wear hijab in the Blue Mosque.
Small boys can enter the women’s section of the Blue Mosque’s prayer room.
Most Muslims living in Armenia are, in fact, from Iran, the country’s southern neighbor. Some 220,000 Iranians visited the Caucasus republic in 2017, the Iranian embassy reports. They come for business, academic reasons or just plain tourism.
Seventeen-year-old Amin Ahmadipour, a native of the southwestern Iranian city of Shiraz, is one of them. He came to Armenia this July, he says, to study the tar, a Persian cousin of the guitar played throughout the Caucasus. At Romanos Melikyan State Music College, he believes the education is cheaper and of higher quality than in Iran.
But his first task upon arriving in Yerevan had nothing to do with music.
“When I came to Armenia, at first I found special restaurants where we can eat according to Muslim rules,” Ahmadipour says. In this regard, he continues, Yerevan has proven the most convenient place to be.
Amin Ahmadipour is a 17-year-old music student who moved to Yerevan recently from the Iranian city of Shiraz.
Each Thursday, 17-year-old Iranian musician Amin Ahmadipour, pictured here on the far left with two Iranian friends, attends Yerevan’s Blue Mosque to pray. He considers himself a practicing Muslim.
Aram Nikayin, a 17-year-old musician, came to Yerevan from the city of Shiraz in southwestern Iran on a summer vacation. A second-time visitor, he says affordable costs have made Armenia, Iran’s northern neighbor, his preferred vacation destination.
While the city’s buildings have no places for performing namaz, Islam’s threefold daily prayers, Ahmadipour visits the mosque on Thursdays for congregational prayers.
Otherwise, he says, he looks to what his father taught him from the Quran to know what behavior is permissible or not. Ahmadipour, for instance, intends to marry eventually, yet says he cannot go against the Quran and marry a non-Muslim woman.
“I’m getting used to local life step by step,” he says, “but I guess that I’m not going to live all my life in a Christian country. It’s not mine. I’m thinking about the future.”
Nonetheless, that goal should not prevent him from exploring a culture beyond his own, he believes.
“I’m a Muslim and the person in front of me is a Christian. But it doesn't matter where you live. You can keep your faith within yourself. God is one.”