Iranian impressions

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…

Epilogue

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.

Author: Slapstik

I was born in Kashmir and a strange turn of events spanning over 2 decades led me to London, where I now live and work. I have a deep interest in linguistics, geo-political history, Science and philosophy of Science and occassionally my writings reflect that interest. I am an ardent Popperian, a technophile, a trekkie and a below average cook. Twitter: @kaeshour

11 thoughts on “Iranian impressions”

  1. Iranians have recently achieved great success in US academia, nearly 700 Iranian nationals got PhDs in Science & Engineering in 2016, compared to about 2300 Indians and 5500 Chinese who have a far larger population. Many young Iranians have become faculty members in prominent American universities.

    My hypothesis regarding Iranian PhD prominence, especially in comparison to other well-populated Muslim countries (Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey), is that the emphasis on learning ultimately stems from the status of the institutionalized Shia clergy in society.

    It is apparent that they have a very strong sense of national identity, although I am unsure how much of this is attributable to the substantial Persian literature versus their status as a Shia minority population in the wider Islamic world.

    1. I think you may be overselling that point of Iranian competence in academics vs Turkey and Arab countries because of sampling bias. Against Pakistan, point taken, but that is such a low bar – e.g. even Bihar has better literacy rates (for women a whopping ~20% higher).

      Turkey had a serious overhaul of its education system (Ataturk’s reforms) and Turkish students/researchers are completely well ensconced in European academia (and to a lesser extent in American). Though this may change under Erdogan.

      As for Egyptians (or N African Arabs), you don’t see them in the US for the same reason you don’t see many French in the US. France has an extensive and excellent uni system, which absorbs thousands of Maghrebi and Egyptian students. Perhaps when you net numbers across Western academia on the whole, you’ll see Iranians (though impressive) aren’t the only major group from the Muslim world.

      Iranian national identity predates Islam for sure. But Shia Islam does buttress that identity. In any case, it is all correlated now much like how Anglicanism is enmeshed with Englishness.

      1. Agree with Slapstik’s comment. Very fine article Slapstik! Please post more anecdotes and thoughts. I like you love Iranian culture and the sound of the Farsi language; I would love to be able to enjoy the store house of Farsi songs, poetry and literature.

  2. I don’t mean this to be a cheap comment, so sorry if it comes across as such. What objective criteria are you using to decide whether a particular regime is so bad that you are willing to forgo traveling to that country? I get that Iran would force your wife to cover her head and that they don’t have the best record on human rights. But Israel also doesn’t have the best record on human rights–at least when it comes to Palestinians (and they are currently deporting African migrants back to the countries they fled). So why is Israel an acceptable holiday destination while Iran is not?

    1. There seems to be a fundamental disagreement between you and me (as was apparent on the other thread on Israel) on what constitutes a good/bad regime. To me, the first order approximation of goodness-of-regime is how it treats its own citizens. Second order, how it treats non-citizen immigrants. Third order, how it treats non-citizen neighbours etc etc.

      Iran fails the test of treating its own citizens (esp. women) in a manner they ought to be treated. That to me is the hallmark of totalitarianism. When a husband is violent towards his own wife and children, no matter how good he may be to his neighbours, he is an arsehole and his ostensible goodness to his neighbours is shallow and quite untrustworthy. A terrible neighbour, on the other hand, may be a good father and husband – and can be reasoned with.

      My point, ultimately, is not whether Israel has committed no wrongs or human rights’ violations. It has. My point is that the state provides means to correct this behaviour and improve (albeit slowly). The Iranian regime does not. That improvability in principle is my objective criterion.

      PS: That was not a cheap comment by any means. By cheap I meant “ad hominems” or silly off-hand remarks to that effect.
      PS2: I have a lot of love for Iran and its culture. Their Persianate culture has enriched ours in ways neither most Iranians, nor Indians realize. So it is indescribably sad to see them under such a terrible regime.

      1. Well, Israel is not that great towards Palestinian citizens of Israel either (you can see how the “Arab” lawmakers are treated in the Knesset). And I don’t think it is fair to call Palestinians in the West Bank “non-citizen neighbors” when Israel is de facto Occupying their territory. When you Occupy a people, you are responsible for their welfare. If Israel isn’t particularly nice to Jordon or Egypt that’s one thing, but the Palestinians are something else entirely.

        I’m totally with you on Iran though. No love lost for the Ayatollahs here.

        1. Kabir, Israel treats most people very well, including most muslims. Its only people of Palestinian ancestry that they mistreat. Can’t figure it out for the life of me 🙁

          I think that all of us, including me, you and Slapstik would likely be treated well if we visited Israel. I think this is what Slapstik meant. Of course Israelis should also do right by Palestinians. Agree completely with Slapstik’s comments on this.

          I, like Zachary Latif, would be very interested in reading your review of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi Sahab’s “The Sun That Rose From the Earth”.

          “definitely see the Persianate influence on North Indian/Hindustani music” . . . couldn’t agree more.

          1. “Israel treats most Muslims very well”– This doesn’t square with what I have heard and read. I follow Israel/Palestine quite closely since I used to work for a Palestinian rights organization in DC. Even US citizens from Arab/Muslim backgrounds can be deported straight from the airport (despite having the proper visas) if the security staff doesn’t like your answers to their questions. Even Jews who have a history of pro-Palestine activism can now be barred from the country (including members of the group “Jewish Voice for Peace”) because they have advocated for BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions).

            Since you are Hindu, I am sure you would have no problems visiting Israel. As a Muslim of Pakistani background (despite holding foreign citizenship) who has a history of pro-Palestine activism, I probably wouldn’t make it past Ben Gurion Airport. Pakistani passport holders can’t even go to the country since Pakistan’s passports note that they are valid for travel to all countries except Israel. That’s probably because of Pakistani and not Israeli policy though.

      2. On the Persianate culture, I am currently in the middle of reading Shamsur Rahman Faruqi Sahab’s “The Sun That Rose From the Earth”– his own translation of his Urdu collection “Savaar aur Doosre Afsane”. It is a collection of stories, all of which are around the great poets of late Mughal India–Ghalib, Mir, and Mushafi. All the characters are constantly spouting Persian poetry (in awkward English translation), whether they are Hindu or Muslim. It is an interesting book and gives a real sense of India during that period–perhaps a worthy subject for a review on Brownpundits.

        Also, I was listening to Ustad Amir Khan’s rendition of Raga Darbari (I am teaching a course on South Asian Music at LUMS) and he goes from a Urdu/Hindi composition “Kin bairan kaan bharay/moray piya mosay bolata nahee” right into the Farsi “Yar-e-man Beya”– definitely see the Persianate influence on North Indian/Hindustani music.

          1. Thanks Zach,

            I would be happy to do so. It might take a while though since I’m currently stuck in the middle of the book. I’ve just started teaching a course too which is taking a lot of work.

            You and I are both big fans of the Mughals in general, so I think you would like the book.

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