Iran is a lovely country and a fantastic culture, for which I’ve always had deep fascination. This piece is not about Iran per se, but about my personal interactions with and vignettes about (expatriate) Iranians. As always, I apologize ex ante for deleting any cheap or baiting comment at my discretion 🙂
I recall my first vicarious interaction with Iranian people in the stories I grew up with. One of my uncles (Dad’s first cousin) was an Indian diplomat in Iran, who was posted in Tehran for a few years before the start of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The stories of Tehran, especially of its high society, of the brutal Savak and the political intrigues in Shah’s regime were the topic of many a dinner conversation in our home. My dad told me he could never square his own experience of the local, overtly-religious Shia Muslims of Kashmir with the lavish and (ostensibly) liberal accounts of their Iranian co-religionists by his cousin and always thought that this shit wasn’t going to last long. And it didn’t. After Iran turned Islamist, my uncle was deputed to Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania which imploded in the late 80s, and he had many weird (and sad) stories of Communist Romania to regale us with later … talk about out of the cauldron into the fire 😉
Nonetheless, the stories of Iran made a deep impression on my mind growing up. I was told they too have plane trees – the boonyi (Platanus Orientalis) is as ubiquitous in Kashmir as the chinar is in Iran. And cherries too, called gilas in Kashmiri, which is a Farsi loanword (indicating the fruit is a Persian import in Northern Himalayas). So, to the younger me it sounded like a place of great adventure and in many ways similar to home. As with most things of childhood, and especially in one as tumultuous as mine, these early impressions ebbed away as I grew older .. until I had the chance to visit Rome many years later as a college student on summer internship. On my second day at the institute I was interning at, one of the researchers spoke to me in a foreign tongue I could not comprehend. It was clearly not Italian, and the person didn’t quite look Italian either, and my befuddlement at the question must have alerted him to the fact that I hadn’t understood a word of what he was saying. He immediately switched to heavily-accented English and asked me where I was from. I responded that I was Kashmiri from India and still remember his eyes lit up as he remarked khodemooni (one of us). The conversation triggered a lot of early childhood memories in me of the fascinating account of Iran of the 70s that I’d heard but had shelved away in a corner of my mind.
Over the next few months, I met the lecturer a few times over lunch and quizzed him about his life in Iran (in rural Bonab, Iranian Azerbaijan province), about the Islamic revolution and its effect on Iranian people. His account made me realize what a thin slice of society the Shahdom and his “Westernised” coterie in Tehran represented. Back in India with my interest in Iran renewed, I soaked up a lot of historical material on that country in my (fairly well-endowed) college library in mofussil West Bengal. This included a fascinating travelogue on revolution-gripped Iran by V S Naipaul in Among the Believers. The book remains one of my all time favourites and perhaps I’ll review it on brownpundits at some point.
My interactions with Iranians, including students and faculty, continued during the time I was in university in the UK. I recall many such instances but one encounter still makes me chuckle: in Heathrow where an Iranian in the Departures queue asked me if I was travelling to Iran. I replied in the negative. On hindsight, my reply may have been a little too dismissive as I was running a little late for my own flight and anxious to board. The chap persisted, and kept on asking me the same question many times over. Perhaps he thought I was a fellow Iranian who, for some reason unbeknownst to him, had chosen to be stand-offish. I had to show him my passport in exasperation to prove that I really wasn’t a fellow countryman.
While such encounters due to mistaken-identity are usually harmless fun, they can sometimes be more distressing. What prompted me to write this blog post is the latest curious encounter couple of weeks ago when I found a graceful old lady with an unmistakable Iranian-accent at my door. She was a political dissident who had fled to the UK after, as she claimed, her son was put to death by the regime for blasphemy. She asked me not to travel to Iran and dissuade anyone I knew from doing so, and wanted a donation for the cause of Zaghari-Ratcliffe [a much publicized issue of a British woman of Iranian descent, who did not live very far from where I do, being detained in Iran over spying charges].
Now I am no fan of the Iranian regime, which after all I have read about and discussed with Iranians, proved nothing short of calamitous for the country (though it has done some good too). The talk of losing a child and then your home is especially traumatic and my own relatively recent fatherhood makes me quite prone to feeling strong empathy on this subject. Yet, I had no confirmation of the truth-value of her story and her incessant tirade against the Iranian regime made me a little suspicious. Furthermore asking for a monetary donation in support of a very political cause got my hackles up a bit.
Having been brought up in the midst of a Muslim-majority community, it was ingrained in me (especially by my grand father) from a very young age to never appear overtly political or express opinions on religion in public. They obviously had a very real fear of inviting violence from the Muslim majority. To me that social conditioning remains second nature, even though the stimulus which that social response was adapted to no longer exists around me (or does it?). Therefore, conversing with a dissident from a Muslim-majority country on a very political topic and being asked to pay money for her cause rang all kinds of primordial alarm bells in my head.
I had to decline as respectfully as I could but the lady would have none of it. She persisted and wanted to know why. And my (terse) reply of avoidance of political causes on principle just wouldn’t satisfy her. She still seemed unwilling to let go, wanting to know where I was from, to perhaps give some antecedent context to my resolute denial. It is possible she slotted me as an oddball Iranian regime supporter living amidst British Israelis and Jews, I do not know. Whatever the case, I said I am Indian and she repeated “Oh Indian!” half expecting not to hear that answer. I could tell from her face that she was still rather unconvinced, but there was nothing more I could have done at that point but smile and shut the door.
Iranians continue to remain a part of my life. Some of my close work colleagues are Iranians (bright Sharif boys), including a half-Iranian half-Arab bloke (they do exist!). The araeshgah (barber shop) I take my son to is run by an indefatigable Iranian gentleman. From a Shirazi rug-weaving family who fought in the Iran-Iraq war (and lost two older brothers to it), immigrated to the UK and re-trained as a barber. I have conversations with him about Iranian history and about Shiraz, in particular. He does not know I’m Kashmiri, as I don’t want to complicate things. I also try on my very limited Farsi (which I brush up, now and then) with the primary purpose of extracting discounts from the Iranian plumber. Maybe I ought to blog about how much good plumbers cost in London…
I haven’t yet travelled to Iran though I have seriously toyed with the idea many times. For an Indian passport holder like me, visiting Iran is no longer the doddle it used to be. The visa on arrival for Indian nationals was revoked 3 years ago – roughly coinciding with BJP coming to power 🙂 If that weren’t enough, my wife and son are British for whom an official government “escort” is mandated by Iranian law. Besides my wife’s (very strongly held) objection to covering her hair, let alone capitulating to some sanctimonious dude asking her to (as actually happened to an aunt of hers on business in Tehran), means the country remains a no-go zone for her.
So, while the Achaemenid ruins of Persepolis and Naghsh-e Rostam do beckon, maybe we’ll make do with a holiday to Israel in the meanwhile and wait for a saner regime for our khodemooni.