J’s beautiful face is surrounded by the hijab she uses to cover her hair. Her hijab is the only one I have seen in Armenia. J speaks Farsi, Kurdish, Arabic and of course English. She glowed as she talked about the TS Eliot poems she is teaching. I asked her about Irish writers she admired, hoping to steer her onto a topic where I could similarly shine. She enthused about Beckett and Joyce. Perhaps she’ll explain them to me one day, if I can persuade her to leave Yerevan. In Armenia’s capital, J says that people have been unfailingly kind and helpful–although they do stare. Her experience outside the big city might be a little more testing: Armenia’s relationship — or lack of it– with Turkey and Azerbaijan means that many people in my Syunik circle fear a religion other than their own. As in so much of the non- Muslim world, too many people in this Christian nation tend to paint all of Islam in Isis colors.
J has adventure in her soul. Born in the Middle East, she has lived in Iran, Iraq and Cyprus and studied in Ohio in the United States (where she says she often had to deal with cruel remarks). She wants to see more of the world. I hope it makes her welcome. We finished out our conversation enthusing about First World War poet Wilfred Owen, whose work we both love. Owen was killed in action aged 25, just one week before the Armistice. He writes of the drudgery, misery and horror-smell of war. Of its futility. I wonder how his terrible, beautiful works strike young men in J’s classes about to go to the Karabakh border for their compulsory military service? There, sniping claims the lives of several young Azeri and Armenian men every week. War isn’t confined to poetry here.