About Last Weekend

Wow. A year is a long time to not update a blog. It’s not that this blog or indeed its wider topic is unimportant to me or far from my mind. On the contrary; it is so important that I don’t want to fill it with fluff or trivial posts just to hit certain targets or improve SEO ratings. I’d rather post when I think of something that really means something to me, or I am truly inspired to share my thoughts and feelings. Which is the position I find myself in at this moment.

Photo by Roji

This is because last weekend, I found myself right back in Iran. Not actually, but stay with me here. I spent the weekend with a group of (primarily) Iranians at a birthday celebration event and retreat. And although it’s coming onto six years (WHAT?!) since I lived there, and life has taken me on all sorts of twists, turns and somersaults since, during the retreat I kept feeling as though I had never left. More than that, the weekend put me right back in touch with the essential reasons why I wanted to share my experiences from Iran and start this blog in the first place. I had a magical time over those couple of days, which for many reasons I can’t describe in words, but one that will stay in my mind forever more. And the integral component of this was the company. Not since I was living in Iran have I felt so strongly how close our cultures are and how much we share between us, especially within younger generations. This is in terms of humour, values, music, dance, aspects of our food, cultural and behavioural traits like hospitality, joviality and profound warmth, and more.

Photo by Roji

Now, our region certainly doesn’t need any more stereotypes; we are multidimensional and multifaceted peoples, not to be lumped together whether in a negative or positive light – and I’m not suggesting that what I have described above is the case across the board for all Saudis and all Iranians. Nonetheless, there is so much common ground between us, so much that we already share and even more that we could – under different circumstances – potentially share: jokes, recipes, our respective cultural experiences, good times, travel buddies, bloodlines (don’t @ me, it’s the 21st century this should not be a taboo) – you name it. And it just seems like such a bizarre reality, and frankly a shame, that we instead are induced to focus on what divides us. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it endlessly: this “deep-rooted” and “eternal” rivalry that the mainstream media love to talk about is just a construct, and it’s up to us to step over the invisible line and say no more.

Back to that weekend. I don’t want to suggest that it was only due to this group’s Iranian-ness that it was so special; as I mentioned, there were a couple of awesome souls of a different background, and it was everyone’s unique characters and vibes that contributed to the whole enchanted experience. But still, because of all that exists in the form of arguments and tropes claiming that we are star-crossed and destined for mutual hatred, I feel it is important to emphasise and exaggerate this fact: that I had the weekend of all weekends, supposedly surrounded by a bunch of my enemies. And I would do it over again, and again, and again!

Photo by Nivad

Movie Mornings

In our mutual nostalgia for our Iran days of yore and the ongoing attempt to stem the haemorrhage of our Farsi vocabulary since leaving the country four years ago, my friend Alice and I decided to initiate an Iranian movie day once a week. I say ‘movie day’ for a reason. Given that she lives in Melbourne and I’m on GMT, we watch the movie during my morning and her evening. I must admit, it is an odd feeling to wake up and watch a film first thing in the morning. But then again, what is 2020 known for if not for being the year of turning things upside down? So every Sunday, we’ll give each other a video call (at least when my ageing and ailing iPhone camera allows me to switch on my video) and after a quick catch up we begin our synchronised viewing. Whether we’re watching the uniquely humanist story-telling of Kiarostami or the profound symbolism in the films of Makhmalbaf, for a couple of hours we firmly ensconce ourselves back into the culture that we lived, breathed and (happily) ate during our studies in Iran.

Alice and I deep in discussion during a school trip — probably about something food-related.
Photo courtesy of Agha Goudarz Mirani, taken at the Karim Khan Citadel in Shiraz
One of our post-film discussions when my phone gave up and we migrated to the laptop + 2020’s constant companion, Zoom

After finishing the film – usually in instalments – Alice and I discuss our impressions of it. This always takes me right back to a Farsi Film Class we used to have every Wednesday at the University of Tehran. It was the class I looked forward to most in the week – and not just because it was the only one where we had a license to bring snacks. The sessions were held by Agha Kazemi, a charismatic and sharp-witted teacher who also led our reading and comprehension and conversation classes. Agha Kazemi had a teaching style that was the perfect combination of light-heartedness, wit and rigour that made me enjoy his classes tremendously while also learning a great deal. I still remember the details of some of our post-film class discussions. In addition to the subject matter of the movie at hand, we would often explore and debate all sorts of fascinating topics relating to culture, social mores or just everyday life and its challenges. I’m certain those discussions played a crucial role in advancing my Farsi level as well as my level of introspection.

As it happened, Agha Kazemi’s wife also taught us grammar, vocabulary and writing at the university. Khanom Rastgar was a serene, attentive and unassuming woman. Although she was reserved in her demeanour, an aura of kindness and sincerity emanated from her petite frame without her having to say a word. She was the sort of teacher that made me want to impress her with my grasp of Persian vocabulary and become an unapologetic teacher’s pet – despite the fact that I was 25 at the time. Agha Kazemi and Khanom Rastgar were, each in their own way, the kind of people who made you feel positive when you were around them. In my eyes, they were a dream team; if there was one (and only one) time I would utilise the phrase ‘relationship goals’, this would be it. And outside of those class walls, when the zenith of political tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran was fast approaching; when people back home would implore me “just what are you doing there Sara? Don’t you watch the news?”; when even Alice openly worried and asked me whether I’m sure writing a blog as a Saudi in Iran was a good idea given the sentiments in my own country; Khanom Rastgar and Agha Kazemi were among the people who would always ground me in reality. The kind of people who reminded me that we are all just that – people. People who can share teachings, compassion, support, stories, jokes, and friendship with each other despite what is going on way up above. That we don’t have to be living breathing extensions of what is playing out on the stage of world politics, but instead judge each other by our qualities before our nationalities. My erstwhile teachers unconsciously reassured me that what I was doing was worthwhile and didn’t have to be controversial, but rather that immersing myself in a culture and learning a different language was the simplest thing in the world, as simple as watching a movie.

I often think of Agha Kazemi and Khanom Rastgar, along with my other teachers, and wonder how they’re doing in these times. I feel nostalgic for those classes watching Iranian classic and modern cinema, munching on popcorn, reflecting on cinematic themes, and picking up new terminology and trying to find opportunities to drop them into conversations. Despite everything that was going on regionally, it felt like a simpler time; but in hindsight, I suppose it always does. I take solace in the fact that my former classes and those at their helm made an everlasting impression on me, and ultimately remind me – when those doubts or sceptical questions inevitably resurface – of what a special time I had.

Tehran to Karabarun

I’ve often mentioned on this blog that I made strong and lasting friendships during my time in Iran. Very high on this list are Alice and Zehra, two of my best friends from my master’s course with whom I shared many wonderful times and adventures (and some misadventures) there. Last summer we planned a little reunion holiday in Zehra’s native Turkey, meeting in Istanbul and then travelling on to the idyllic coastal village of Karabarun in Izmir Province. Although it was the first time we’d seen each other in over two years, with all our lives having changed considerably since we studied together at the University of Tehran, upon meeting at Istanbul Airport it felt as though no time had passed at all.

We caught each other up on our preceding years throughout the taxi, plane and bus rides on our long transit to Izmir as we tried to shore up our Farsi language skills – which had taken quite a beating all-around since leaving Iran. The multi-leg journey itself reminded us of our countless travels across the diverse Persian landscapes, either alone or accompanied by our other good friends Rahime and Kenichi. Alice told us about her experiences as a human rights lawyer in Melbourne, and Zehra spoke about her work with various refugee organisations in Turkey. Our conversations were peppered img_4393throughout with memories from our time there as we thought warmly of old friends, teachers, and numerous escapades, recounting seemingly long-lost tales as if from a storybook: road tripping through the snow-topped mountains of Kurdistan while our Kurdish university friends taught us some of the local dialect with traditional ballads blaring in the background; climbing through the man-made cliff dwellings of Kandovan before trekking through nearby Tabriz in search of a WiFi-equipped café where we could submit our mid-term essays for our Iranian History module; learning traditional Iranian dances at a wedding in northern Iran and later taking part in Shab-e Yalda, the time-honoured winter solstice celebration. We remembered the looks of surprise we would often get from Iranians when they asked where we were all from and wondered aloud what brought us all together in their country, in what always sounded like a localised rendition of ‘an Australian, a Turk and a Saudi walked into a bar.’

We also found this to be the case in the small town of Karabarun, where three Turkish, Australian and Saudi girls walking around speaking Farsi made quite the conspicuous trio. Well-natured curiosity followed us everywhere we went, as we were more or less the only foreigners in a town accustomed primarily to local tourists. We stayed at a charming family-run guesthouse where we were warmly greeted and extended every courtesy possible. We enjoyed lazy days at the beach and long walks to the main pier at night, where I would buy delicious midye – mussels stuffed with herbed rice – from a cheery street vendor while Zehra would get her favoured local ice cream. On Alice’s birthday night, we sat for dinner at a lovely little seafood restaurant right by the water. Though the restaurant was initially full when we first asked for a table, the hostess managed to make some space for us. This was likewise reminiscent of the overflowing hospitality we found in Iran, where people would always try to accommodate us as foreigners to make sure we didn’t miss out on any of the local experiences.  

As we were being handed our menus, our waitress heard us speaking Farsi and perked up noticeably. In gregarious Iranian fashion, the waitress – who also happened to be called Zahra – introduced herself and told us that she was Iraqi-Iranian, having moved to Turkey six months ago from Iran. She expressed how happy she was to meet us as she deeply missed hearing and speaking her language. We shared lovely chats with Zahra throughout our dinner, which ended with her bringing out a birthday cake for Alice from the kitchen while we all sang Happy Birthday in English followed by Farsi – to the amusement of the restaurant-goers around us.

After Karabarun we returned to Istanbul to spend a couple of more days exploring the lively and sprawling city together, traversing its labyrinth walkways and devouring its ever-present street food. At one point we went to visit Boğaziçi University, Zehra’s alma mater, and walked around its stunning campus grounds that date back to the mid-nineteenth century. Later we sat at a lookout point with a spectacular view of the Bosporus and the metropolis beyond as we played with some of Istanbul’s famously vivacious street cats. No matter our surroundings (or age), being around Alice and Zehra never fails to bring out the inner child in me – perhaps due to our playful spirits and history of adventures while exploring Iran together. I cherish this, and hope we’ll always be the people that have so much fun out of something as simple as a trip to a department store to stock Zehra’s new flat.

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On our last day in Istanbul, we ran to catch a ferry across the Bosporus to the Asian side of the city as the sun set. On the other side, we sat on the rocks by the shore eating endless pumpkin seeds while chatting against the backdrop of young Afghani boys playing the guitar and singing nearby. The discussion turned again to our respective life img_0503circumstances, and almost inevitably we pondered aloud on how or whether we were utilising what we had learned from our time in Iran in our present day lives. In my case, upon leaving Iran I had so many practical ideas on how to try to use my experiences to foster deeper understanding across national lines in our region, for example with regards to some of the frictions between average Saudis and Iranians. I saw so much opportunity in the vast and digitally-connected youth populations in both countries, who in many ways share a great deal of similarities in terms of social disposition, outlook and
aspirations. Though I even started on a couple of these ideas with like-minded partners, they remain floating listlessly in the ether. As the politics around us have become evermore toxic, battle lines are hardening while a worrying blend of intolerance and ultra-nationalism is growing unabated. The already negligible space for apolitical grassroots initiatives and commentary on such issues is rapidly shrinking, while cyberspace itself increasingly resembles a battleground rather than a place for bridge building. In that context, those floating ideas have sadly faded into the background as I settle into more conventional and less controversial occupations, despite the fact that I sincerely believe we need those bridges now more than ever.

Does this mean that my time in Iran meant nothing, if I haven’t yet been able to make something more tangible out of it? I don’t think so. The relationships forged there that last to this day; the beautiful and poetic language that we learned, even if it is somewhat rusty now; the memories made, with barely one sitting going by without Zehra, Alice and I recalling some funny or heart-warming anecdote. More than that though, it was the culture we immersed ourselves in, the kindness of strangers in an unfamiliar place. Arriving to any country as an outsider and being welcomed so wholeheartedly by its people inspires deep elation, let alone one in which you are told to expect the complete opposite based on something as temporal as your nationality. Ever since then, I’ve felt even more inspired to pass on that warmth wherever I can, and to always look beyond to the humans behind the superficial labels that we hear through popular channels ad nauseam. What I gained isn’t necessarily palpable or measurable. I nonetheless sense it whenever I think back to the camaraderie and solidarity I felt in simple everyday conversations and gestures there in spite of the regional fires that were raging around us. Or in the bonds we are able to strike with people like Zahra in Karabarun, where a simple cultural curiosity to explore Iran years ago meant that we brought her a little piece of home now that she herself was in an unfamiliar place.

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Uma and I

It was about three years ago when Uma first messaged me online after reading my blog. Originally Iranian-Malaysian, she’d grown up in Australia and had always had a deep interest in Iran. She wanted me to elaborate on my experiences there, and encouraged my endeavour to open a space for communication and empathy between our communities; having many Saudi and Palestinian friends in Australia, she too took issue with the long-standing fable of an inborn and perpetual hatred between Arabs and Iranians, or between any peoples for that matter. We engaged in lively and lengthy discussions on these topics, and brainstormed about potential projects we could jointly pursue one day to challenge the dangerous prejudices and stereotypes that have become such a firm fixture in minds region-wide.

Our chat topics grew to our interests, families, aspirations, pet peeves, and pretty much everything under the sun. I always looked forward to reading Uma’s messages when I’d see them pop up on my phone; we increasingly found that we had an unbelievable amount of things in common. The conversation continued until well after I left Iran, and when Uma mentioned she was soon travelling to France for a 7-month teaching placement, we promptly decided to meet somewhere in Europe. We eventually settled on Portugal, a country we both really wanted to visit.

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The planning process took place incrementally between emails, messages, voice-notes and various time zones. As we started firming up these plans and receiving our flight confirmations, Airbnb reservations and the whole shebang, the peculiarity of the situation began to dawn on me. Not that I was travelling to another country with an online pen pal that I’d never met; but the very fact that it all felt like the most natural thing in the world. Of course, this wasn’t the case for everyone. My sister could barely hide her trepidation, and was categorically convinced I was the victim of a long-term “catfishing” scheme. My mother, by now more than used to my less than conventional way of doing things – but also clearly unnerved by the prospect – wondered aloud why I couldn’t just travel with friends that I had already met. Both though, as always, were ultimately supportive – with the caveats that I would send a message the moment we met and I confirmed her identity, check in periodically, and send a photo of us together as soon as possible.

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And so the day finally came. We’d luckily managed to find flights that landed us in Lisbon within half an hour of each other. After a brief spell of superfluously searching in opposite sides of immigration, we managed to locate one another. It truly felt like meeting an old childhood friend. Our adventures began immediately, and we quickly discovered that our bond, far from being limited to the virtual realm, transcended it greatly. As we spoke in person for the first time while navigating the city through Uma’s Brazilian Portuguese and my lacklustre command of Google Maps, our intersecting interests, ideals and idiosyncrasies multiplied. It even turned out that her family shared the same reservations about our meet-up; her sister had made half-joking comments regarding my potentially false identity that very closely resembled those of my own sister’s about Uma.

There were, unsurprisingly, one or two hiccups resulting from our unfamiliarity with each other. Namely, I had reserved one of our accommodations in Almada, a charming municipality across the Tagus River from Lisbon with great views of the capital and most conveniently reachable by ferry. Unbeknownst to me when I was booking, Uma suffered from debilitating motion sickness. I’ll never forget her look of  muted horror as she registered that we’d be riding a ferry multiple times over the IMG_2302course of the trip.
Nonetheless, while I was busy feeling awful about my choice of lodging, she took it in her stride, put in her earphones and braved each ride gracefully – including the one where we had to flat out sprint across the wobbly platform to catch the ferry after a stand-off between myself and a tenacious ticket machine. We ended up falling in love with the serene atmosphere of Almada, and made some precious memories there.

The next three days between Lisbon and Porto were a whirlwind of laughter, impromptu adventures, chance encounters with eccentric strangers, long walks along winding cobblestone pavements, and a particularly jerky ride on Lisbon’s Tram 28 that felt more akin to a journey on Harry Potter’s Knight Bus (which definitely didn’t help with Uma’s motion sickness). This was actually quite fitting as Portugal is strongly linked to the book’s provenance, with JK Rowling reportedly finding the inspiration for her stories during her years spent in the architecturally enchanting Porto. While in that city, we dutifully visited the Livraria Lello, an ornate bookstore dating back to the late eighteen hundreds and on which the author is said to have mirrored Hogwarts. We spent the rest of the day walking across the picturesque city and stumbling haphazardly upon its many gems.

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As I came to find on this trip, there is something so simple and yet so wonderful about discovering a new country and culture with an unfamiliar companion, and through the prism of a new and growing friendship. On our last day in Porto, we both felt as though we were parting ways with a life-long friend or family member. Ahead of Uma’s trip back to Nice that night, we decided to go to a restaurant where we could hear some Fado – a powerful form of traditional Portuguese music IMG_2531characterised by its melancholic nature. After mistakenly thinking the restaurant we chose was one minute away and realising it was in fact closer to twenty (a new record for my Google Maps illiteracy), we ran non-stop through the pouring rain to put us on a good footing for Uma’s impending flight. We managed to make it in decent time, find seats with a good view of the beautiful Fado singer and her band, and eat some scrumptious spaghetti while we were at it. Like most of our other memories from the trip, that night is etched into my mind, and is a bottomless source of elation whenever I think back to it.

The next day, I boarded my flight back to London with a deep sense of peace and optimism. A chance connection, sparked by a digital message sent from thousands of miles away, had grown into a meaningful and loving bond between two people who had never before met; two people from backgrounds that, by today’s standards, are meant to pit them against each other. More than ever before, I lamented these artificial barriers we construct between each other that carry no meaning or benefit to our lives. Indeed, they critically stunt our collective progress and preclude us from perceiving and participating in all the magic this world has to offer. Though this notion may already exist in many of us, it is easily drowned out in the rush of everyday life and its all-encompassing but often inconsequential concerns. Thank you Uma for reinvigorating these ideals in my mind years after I left Iran, and for initially reaching out and starting our friendship – hopefully an everlasting one.

Is the Future Here?

At times of heightened political tension and rifts in the Middle East, the attack of first resort between ordinary people tends to target each other’s identity. Many consider it completely normal and indeed even patriotic to denigrate another’s background or ethnicity in the event that their state is engaged in some sort of conflict with one’s own. For example, I always notice that fear-mongering anti-Shi’a videos and messages spread at an accelerated rate on Saudi social networks whenever our leadership and that of Iran’s have exchanged confrontational moves or rhetoric. The flipside also holds true, with a discernible uptick in anti-Arab prejudice flourishing on Iranian social media channels during the same periods. Both appear to demonstrate self-contained attempts at supporting one’s own side and asserting its pre-eminence by belittling and disparaging the culture or heritage of the other’s. Nothing is considered below the belt as, again, it’s in defence of the home nation, way of life, and – as far as the rumours go – our very existence.

Of course, these kinds of phenomena are nothing new, and certainly not limited to the Middle East. Intolerance and discrimination have gone hand in hand with warfare and its build-up throughout the history of modern civilisation. Adolf Hitler stoked and played on the fears of ‘the other’ to convince his countrymen and women to commit the most atrocious acts of violence. Saddam Hussein successfully shored up nationalist sentiments to support his war effort against Iran by permeating Iraqi governmental, military and educational institutions with chauvinist anti-Iranian propaganda. Racist and bigoted discourse has long provided the justifications and context in which large-scale marginalisation and human rights violations could take place ever since we began using flags and national symbols to define ourselves. Anti-Japanese sentiments in the US prior to World War II; Ottoman portrayals of the Armenians that pre-empted the massacre of over a million of their community; and Israel’s dehumanising of Palestinians to incite its soldiers to humiliate and abuse the Palestinian people on a daily basis: these are all but a few examples of how dangerously powerful our words and narratives can be when used in the wrong way.

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It’s frighteningly easy to fall into the trap. I recently travelled to a country in Europe for the first time, one that I was very much enjoying until a random encounter with a young woman who subjected my friend and I to her passive-aggressive racism. The exchange left me so deeply incensed that I was ready in that moment to write off the entire country along with the rest of its people. In the following days however, I met such genuinely lovely people who showed us such warmth and friendliness that the previous experience was completely overridden; I felt ashamed for allowing myself to project that one simple encounter onto the entire populace, even momentarily. Indeed, sometimes even after meeting someone you can make a snap judgement that they’re just not a very nice person; oftentimes during the course of that meeting you discover you were mistaken and that they perhaps make a bad first impression, or have a different approach to mainstream social conventions. It can occasionally take days or even weeks to figure out how kind and compassionate that person is after getting to truly know them. In that vein, how can we be so quick to stereotype someone’s identity – no, a whole nation’s respective identities – without ever having met most of them?

Throughout the course of our lives, we’ve doubtlessly all come across and at times internalised certain depictions or subtle characterisations about different peoples, whether this relates to a nationality, ideology, social group – the list goes on. We might hear these from colleagues, friends, our media, or close family members. At the benign end, such narratives can have the effect of making us subconsciously view those of a certain background as innately less important than us, or less worthy of our empathy and solidarity. At the extreme end we learn to hate, eventually assigning these people sub-human status in our minds and creating a paradigm in which we have no qualms about seeing them subjugated, tortured or killed, as the aforementioned examples demonstrate. Select circles directly benefit from these trends, not least those that profit from the war machine and who need us to keep buying into these divisive ideas to keep that machine running – even at the most basic, everyday level of ‘innocuous’ generalisations and assumptions about each other. We’re now in the year 2018 (Happy New Year!), and the technological breakthroughs of the last decade have made many of us feel we’ve reached an advanced stage of civilisation, with some proclaiming that the “future is here”. Who can deny just how futuristic that year sounds? But we are still yet to collectively realise that, in the words of Sabra Desai, our realities as fellow human beings are inextricably linked “regardless of where race or cultural politics situate us.” And so too, therefore, should our empathies be linked.

One of the best resolutions we can keep for this year, and always, is to be more aware of how we are defining and judging others, and question whether those definitions have any bearing on reality – or indeed if they contribute anything positive to this world. Moving away from arbitrary preconceptions, no matter how seemingly harmless they may be, will only move us closer to our own shared humanity. Political divides are hardly a reason to further add to current cycles of violence and hatred by propagating senseless stereotypes; they should in fact make us strive harder to see through all the fog and prepare for a day when, optimistically, we can leave these conflicts behind and focus on truly advancing that humanity.

Dubai Airport Musings

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Takieh Mo’aven ol-Molk, Kermanshah

Can the state of the region get any worse? The question we always ask ourselves before things, inevitably, get worse. On the one hand, it feels as though inter-communal rifts have reached a point of saturation; on the one hand, nonetheless, it appears that political tides are categorically determined to pull us further and further apart. Middle East pundits and commentators are ever-ready with their boilerplate buzzwords: centuries-old bloody feuds; raging civil wars fuelled by identity politics; conflicts with deep-rooted religious and sectarian roots. We’re left with the inescapable image of hordes of angry (primarily) men teeming with bloodlust and animosity, battling it out at every juncture. And who can deny – this is often how the situation seems even from the inside. On air, in official statements and at dinner table debates, we often caveat that even if they predominantly hail from our countries, extremists are misguided souls, uneducated cannon fodder, twisted minds. But we tend to overlook how we can sometimes – perhaps unknowingly – play a part in creating, or at least allowing, a climate that emboldens intolerant dispositions and actions.

My memories of Iran are becoming more and more distant as the days go by and I settle into the next stage in my life. As do the chances of going back for a visit in the near future, as much as I might like to. Whenever I’m at Dubai International Airport and I look over at the flight information screen, I see the route I used to take to Tehran and think back to those times fondly. I then instantaneously become saddened at the thought of how such sentiments would be perceived by many in this current climate, and the negative connotation that would be ascribed to them. The last time I was at DXB, while waiting for the airport train to take us to the departure gates, I witnessed a scene that I can’t help thinking back to every so often. An elderly Iranian woman went up to a stranger, another woman, and asked her if she was Iranian in a mixture of Farsi and broken English. The second woman scowled and stepped away instantly, as if the former were speaking in parseltongue, and replied sternly in English that she didn’t understand her. An elderly man who appeared to be the husband of the Iranian woman – who was herself looking slightly crestfallen – came over and hurriedly steered her away back to their group.

Once we boarded the train, I was standing close to the man and proceeded to explain to him that I understood Farsi, asking if there was anything I could help with. He answered that it was nothing – his wife just wanted to ask if Iranians had to queue in a separate waiting area for the train. He asked me how I’d come to learn Farsi and I told him about my studies in Iran, which prompted a whole slew of curious questions. I offered my condolences for the suicide attacks that had occurred in Tehran just that day, to which he expressed his gratitude and said that Iran was just the latest of victims of the awful terror the rest of the world has been facing for years. I then asked him, as delicately as possible, whether he and his family had experienced any negativity at the airport or otherwise, perhaps due to the heated political environment of late – with tensions in the region ever-growing and Saudi Arabia et al having just cut ties with Qatar in part because of the latter’s ties with Iran. He responded, in a good-natured but resigned way, that it was no worse than it usually is. We both agreed and lamented how for too long politics have been rigidly dividing people who, under other circumstances, would very likely get along well. Arriving at the station that led to the departure gates, we said our goodbyes and he offered the customary Iranian ta’arof – which provoked a cascade of nostalgia – telling me to look them up if I was ever back in Iran so that they could host me at their house. I thanked him and said that as doubtful as it seemed, I hoped I could go back sooner rather than later.

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A quiet alley in Yazd

As I ran flat-out to my departure gate and, as usual, tried not to think of how many times they’d announced that it was the final call, I thought instead of the last sentence I’d said to the man, and the conversation in general. It is no exaggeration to state that quite a few of my co-regionalists would think me a traitor, or a spy, for just engaging in this innocuous conversation. The same goes for the parting gift I received from Donya, my neighbour who grew to be one of my best friends in Tehran. Being a wonderful jewellery designer, she made me a beaded bracelet with a silver cut-out in the shape of Iran in the middle. To her, and me, this was meant as a beautiful reminder of my time in the country and the deep bonds I’d made there. However, I feel a palpable cringe whenever I think of the hypothetical reactions some would have just at the concept of me wearing such a bracelet, given what it represents. I’ve personally come across similar sentiments before, for instance at academic conferences or workshops when meeting compatriots who had previously heard of my profile, and after recognising it was me would blurt out things like, “Oh so you’re the Iranian sympathiser they’ve been talking about!” Such comments and attitudes upset me not on a personal level, but primarily because they reflect the state we are in, where harbouring intolerance towards entire populations is considered a show of loyalty and valued more than attempts at fostering much-needed peace and good will.

The way it is today, people seem happier to discuss the possibility of World War III than think about our own roles in driving the forces that are making such a possibility appear fathomable. Namely, in allowing chauvinism and xenophobia to continue to masquerade as patriotism and national loyalty. Far more than we realise, we can cause tremendous amounts of damage in our everyday actions and discourse, sprouting our own little spirals of animosity that have ripple effects and will inevitably feed into the wider currents of hatred and violence we see today. If we truly love our countries and the world we live in, we each have a part to play in extending our understanding and empathy to each other, and in refusing to generalise or treat others in a denigrating way simply by virtue of on-going politics between our countries – or because we believe in static and irrational stereotypes about their nationalities. For those who just want to watch the world burn, this kind of talk is clearly superfluous. But even though it sometimes feels as though we are completely surrounded by the pyromaniacs, I continue to believe, and hope, that they are just an excessively loud minority.

For Shohreh

I’ve been wanting to write this piece since the day I left Iran. It’s a mystery to me why it’s taken so long, but part of me thinks it has to do with my inner fear of overstaying my welcome in the blogosphere, harping on about days gone by. Another part suspects it has to do with the sadness I’ll inevitably beckon by peeling back some of the most sentimental layers of my time there. Given the subject, I should really be writing this in Farsi; unfortunately, my level of Farsi most likely wouldn’t do justice to the message I want to convey here. Nonetheless, I feel that it’s both a duty and an honour to write about the most important person, and by extension the family, that I was privileged to know while in Iran.

The first member of the Sepehrara family that I met was Donya. After helping me move into my newly rented flat on Sheikh Bahaei street, my landlord, who co-owned the property with the Sepehraras who lived in the neighbouring flat, brought her over to introduce to me. Donya couldn’t speak much English, and my Farsi was still at the ‘sign language + praying your recipient will fill in the blanks’ level. Even without a proper conversation though, her kindness and gentle nature were evident and – after a whirlwind past few days of finding my bearings in the dizzyingly fast-paced metropolis of Tehran – extremely welcome. We did manage to exchange numbers, and that was enough for then. Shortly after, her mother, father and sister came over to greet me. Before even knowing why, the moment I met eyes with Shohreh khanom, the girls’ mother, I felt at home in my new temporary home.

Over the coming weeks, Donya would take me out with her friends and invite me over regularly. I was still discovering the ins and outs of life in Iran, so having someone my age and seemingly quite similar in outlook – even if we didn’t totally understand each other at the time – was invaluable. We would go for shisha (ghalyoun in Farsi); drive around Tehran at night; or meet up with her friends and eat kebab-e-jegar (liver kebab) and other Iranian street foods. She was my go-to person for everything I needed, from where to fix my broken iPhone screen to how to order food to my place. Regardless of the fact that our early conversations were for the most part stunted, not to mention punctuated by periodical Google Translate searches, we somehow connected on a deep level and swiftly found a place in each other’s hearts. I soon started helping her with English homework and applications, and she was always helping me advance my Farsi. Before coming to Iran, I hoped that I would find kindred spirits and friends I would feel comfortable with, but as is always the case with the unknown, I wasn’t really sure. I never guessed I would be finding them right next door.

While my friendship with Donya’s sister Sara blossomed later on, I cherished and still cherish it just as much. She’s a few years older than Donya, and as much as her younger sister is tender and shy, Sara is banterful and bold. Admittedly it took me a long time to understand her jokes and general humour, given that a lot of the language initially went over my head. At first I misconstrued Sara’s sharp demeanour to mean that she perhaps didn’t take to me. But as we got to know each other better, I came to realise that she is one of the most caring and thoughtful people I’ve ever known. She was also very patient with me when it came to her jokes – repeating, deconstructing and dissecting them until I would understand exactly what I was laughing at. Humour is one of the doorways into contemporary culture, and it was never in short supply in Iran. From taxi drivers to store clerks to fellow passengers on the bus – I’d sometimes get the feeling I was walking through a roving stand-up comedy show (of course, with varying degrees of comedic quality). This may not seem so exciting for others, but as someone who always thinks of a witty remark about five minutes after the fact, I enjoyed it very much.

The more Sara and Donya helped me get acquainted with this side of popular culture – by introducing me to local comedy shows on Aparat (Iran’s version of YouTube), adding me to Instagram channels, etc., the more I would draw comparisons with satirical pop culture back in Saudi, which is also highly entertaining. In both countries, such cultural aspects unsurprisingly go unnoticed to the outside world amidst the more edible sound bites that are passed around in mainstream media: authoritarian regimes, the new ‘cold war’, sectarianism, what have you. But I always thought that shared characteristics like humour, as well as the increasingly creative ways people in the region are expressing themselves despite restrictions and commonly-held stereotypes, would be a good way to break the ice between us more generally.

This was certainly the case between Sara and myself. Soon after arriving, for instance, I was faced with my first sweltering Tehran summer night coupled with an unresponsive air conditioner. Unable to doze off and in the hopes that she was awake, I texted Sara in the middle of the night asking if she could bring over what I thought was an electric fan to help me get to sleep. She dutifully came by with a baad bezan, or a handheld fan (which is what I had in reality asked for), and a confused look on her face – probably wondering why I got her out of bed for something I could have made out of some folded paper. After that, I never forgot the word for electric fan – panke, in case you ever find yourself in a similar situation. When the mutual realisation set in and the bouts of laughter died down, Sara brought over an electric fan. Being exceedingly handy, the next day she took me up to the roof where she kindly fixed the air conditioning unit. It was the first of many unforgettable laughs we shared together in the coming months during our talks, outings and travels together.

I’ve saved the lovely Shohreh khanom for last, partly to emphasise her significance to me and partly because I know that even writing about her will make me tear up. At first, she opted to give me space and let me settle in. After a couple of weeks, however, following a long day at university, I heard a knock at the door. It was Shohreh khanom holding an aromatic plate of gheyme polo, an Iranian rice dish made with beef and split peas, which was soon to become one of my favourites. After thanking her extensively for her thoughtfulness, we exchanged some small talk; I learned that she was a university professor of the arts specialising in textiles, and spoke to her about my previous studies and interest in exploring Iran. Over the coming weeks and months, this would become a regular occurrence. On days when Shohreh khanom wasn’t teaching in the late afternoon, she would bring over a plate of fruits or a snack she had made for me shortly after she’d hear my front door closing, signalling my return home. Many nights, she would bring over an elaborate tray of dinner, introducing me to the wonderful world of home-cooked Iranian food, to which restaurant meals cannot compare. Every time I would thank her profusely and bashfully insist that she shouldn’t have, internally feeling guilty for accepting her kindness, especially given her busy schedule, without giving anything in return aside from the occasional bouquet of flowers. At one point, however, she stopped me mid-sentence and gently told me that she sees me as one of her own daughters, and that it made her happy to cook for five and make sure I was eating enough. As for me, I’d always feel a rush of happiness when I heard the knock on the door, as seeing and chatting with Shohreh khanom would always brighten my day – even more than eating her scrumptious meals, which is truly saying something.

Shohreh khanom and I grew very close; when I’d travel to other cities around Iran, one of my favourite parts about coming back to Tehran was seeing her, catching up and giving her whatever souvenirs I brought back for her and the family. Whenever I was feeling under the weather, she would constantly check up on me, bring me hot soups and other natural remedies, and genuinely care for me from the bottom of her heart. We would sit in her living room and she’d give me detailed explanations of complex and intriguing Farsi sayings or concepts that I’d read in books and asked her about. Our talk gradually became less small and more lengthy and intimate. She was there for me when I suffered personal hardships and needed more than a distant Skype call with family, and would give me considerate and thoughtful advice on issues great and small. When my mother came to visit me, she embraced Shohreh khanom fondly and thanked her for looking after me. She told my mother that, as I was a part of her family now, she couldn’t imagine it any other way. If she hadn’t heard from me in a few days, she would worry and come to check if everything was alright. As much as I was enjoying it, life could sometimes get hectic in Tehran – with my studies, work, etc. Knowing she was there would always give me a sense of calm and comfort. In the run-up to my departure, she helped me with all the moving logistics and wrote down my favourite recipes for Iranian dishes she’d cooked for me, complete with all her secret tips. Upon bidding a long farewell when I was to leave Iran, we were both overcome with tears as we hugged goodbye. I wondered if and when I would ever see her again, knowing deep down that even if I did, it would never be the same as this time spent so close to each other. It really hit home at that moment how strong of a bond I had formed with this woman who I had barely known, in this country where I arrived as a complete stranger; it was something I hadn’t expected to happen, and something I will never forget. I regularly think of her and the whole family fondly, and we stay in touch through messages, voice notes and other marvels of modern communication.

Although it was my first time living alone in a new country with no family closeby, I never once felt truly alone – and I have my former neighbours to thank for that. But more than what my relationship with the Sepehrara family, and Shohreh khanom in particular, mean to me on a personal level, it confirmed to me more generally that the strongest of bonds can be forged between strangers of ‘opposing’ backgrounds despite all the white noise of politics, ethno-chauvinism and the rest of the chaos we find in the Middle East these days. There is nothing more sacrosanct than fellow humans showing each other kindness, empathy and goodwill just because they can, and no matter how much extremists or alt-right bigots would like us to think the following is the case, politics and ideology can never fully obstruct that instinct. Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf contends that the “ties in people’s lives are not always the allegedly major allegiances arising out of language, complexion, nationality, class or religion.” Such ideas have an important place in this day and age, when currents of fear and xenophobia threaten to pull apart our common humanity at the seams. Whenever such thought gets me down, I think back to Shohreh khanom, and all those like her out there, to whom acts of all-encompassing compassion come far more naturally than anything else.

Don’t Believe the Truth

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It’s been almost a year since I’ve written anything on this blog, and I’ve been missing it very much (hence the rather long post). Although I still have lots to say about my experiences and memories of the country, writing on a blog entitled Saudi in Iran just didn’t seem so sincere while not being in Iran. I’ve also been preoccupied with my dissertation – which is now thankfully done and, with the help of my faculty at the University of Tehran, I am now an MA graduate in Iranian Studies having completed the rest of my course remotely. My thesis itself was on the topic of how contemporary Iranians view their Arab neighbours; writing about this topic, which drew from some of my personal anecdotes and experiences, is what got me thinking deeply about my erstwhile blog, my time in Iran, and how this all started in the first place.

As mentioned in my second post, one of the most prominent questions I (as well as fellow foreigners) was asked in Iran is “what made you come here?” Although in this day and age people choose to travel and study all over the world for various reasons, I believe this question is of particular interest to many Iranians partly due to the political isolation the country has undergone in the past decades, along with the associated demonization of the country in external media coverage and the decline in foreign tourism. The latter trend is reversing dramatically, with a significant spike in foreign tourists as well as students going to Iran following the nuclear agreement. For the most part, in my experience Iranians feel pleased and proud that foreigners have chosen their country, culture and language to explore and study. In my case, the questions regarding my reasons for choosing Iran were always coloured with a particular acuteness, given the sour and ever-worsening state of relations between our governments.

This, to me, was exactly the problem – and one of the reasons that inspired me to move to Iran in the first place. The only narrative or shared space that has existed between the two peoples recently is that of the political sphere and, for most people, media coverage about the latest confrontation, escalation, or war of words. Other than the minority in both countries that travel or live abroad and are open to socializing and cultivating friendships with the ‘other side’, countless Saudis and Iranians (and many more across the region) base their mutual perceptions on what goes on between their governments. At a time when widely diverse peoples, ideas and cultures are being brought closer through modern communications and globalisation, the tenacity of politically-driven assumptions is still an obstruction to genuine human interaction in the Middle East. I remember clearly the final trigger prompting my decision to move to Iran for further studies a couple of years ago. One of my closest friends, of Iranian origin himself, was considering organising a group trip to Iran. He proclaimed that as much as he wanted me to see his country, he was distraught at the prospect of his people mistreating or disrespecting me because of my Saudi Arabian origin, and therefore wasn’t sure if it was a good idea.

This didn’t sit well with me at all. Not that my friend’s concerns about our countries’ long-running disputes and their effect on popular attitudes was news to me; however, I couldn’t reconcile my hitherto experience with Iranians and all I had learned about the culture through my friends and studies with the idea that I would be simplistically treated as persona non grata by an entire population due to prevailing politics. So, after finding a worthwhile course of study and resigning from my position at the LSE Middle East Centre (a sad affair but made easier by my colleagues’ wonderful support for my next step), I took what little Farsi I knew, along with my minimal knowledge but deep curiosity about the country, and headed to Iran. What I found when I got there, and overall during my year and a half in Tehran and beyond, was far from what my friend anxiously predicted.

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I was welcomed gracefully and met with hospitality regardless of contemporary events in the geopolitical realm, indeed many times with profound and well-natured interest in Saudi Arabia. Yes, many people asked me about politics and current developments, sometimes with a hint of indignation – especially after the hajj stampede in Mina. Nonetheless, the space for civilised interaction and human empathy – distinct from politics – was never shut down because of blind prejudice towards me, except for perhaps one instance (among thousands) that I’ve previously mentioned. This is aside from the abundance of encouragement and support I received from Iranians and fellow Arabs for the dialogue opened up by this blog, and the attempt to dispel mutual stereotypes by travelling to Iran. In my view, this demonstrates the willingness and readiness among many who refuse to let age-old or even present-day disputes poison their outlooks and obfuscate communication with fellow human beings. Yes, there are those who would prefer to call Arabs grasshopper-eaters and denigrate their culture rather than engage in conversation with them. There are also those in the Arab world who would rather spew atrocious slurs against Iranians or others than befriend them. Just as there are racists in every corner of the world who blindly stick to their own narrow definitions instead of widening their horizons and basing their opinions on real interactions. There’s no need to deny that racism, prejudice and increasingly politics-fuelled sectarianism exist in strong forms across the region; but neither is that a sufficient reason to disregard the multitude of moderate, open-minded and empathetic people that exist on all sides, or the possibility for common ground.

When the Saudi embassy in Tehran was ransacked after the execution of the Shi’a cleric Nimr al-Nimr in January of this year, followed by Saudi Arabia cutting diplomatic ties and banning its citizens from travelling to Iran, I stayed up for nights on end watching the news and – not to be overly dramatic – crying. This wasn’t just because I knew I would have to leave behind my friends, studies and the life I had built for myself in Iran. But also because I knew it would be just another nail in the coffin of mutual understanding, pushing the possibility for a positive change in perceptions even further back while strengthening the argument of those that insist on maintaining fences between us and clinging on to archaic stereotypes. It is so easy to get caught up in a flurry of nationalism, of ‘us versus them’ narratives, when we feel that our particular group is being threatened, and this is what has been playing out all over the world ever since the idea of distinct ethnicities came into being.

This is all the more potent when religion is added to the mix; it’s very sad to see overt verbal attacks and excommunication between the Islamic sects in the 21st century, especially when the religion itself preaches respect for and acceptance of others as long as they do not mean you harm – even if they belong to different religions, practices, cultures, etc. The ravaging religious wars of Europe and countless other past conflicts that were ostensibly fuelled by a sense of clashing identities may not be enough of a historical lesson to avoid similar catastrophes today. Nonetheless, as strong as some of these identity markers seem to be for many people, I think there is still a case to be made for defining ourselves first in terms of our common humanity, and making the effort to look beyond supposed justifications for alienating or belittling others. Because so much of the time, these prejudices or misgivings are ‘learned hatreds’ – just a function of our social environment – and they are far from innate. The true sign of being cultured is recognizing that others might value their own culture or background just as much as you do yours, and failure to respect that ultimately causes more long-term harm to yourself than to others.

The politics between our countries have become even more toxic since my friend first spoke those words. But thankfully since then, I have learned and hopefully shown some of my readers that this is not the whole story. I will always treasure all the love, support and kindness I received from my friends, university faculty, neighbours and random strangers not just as good memories, but also as a reminder that behind every headline, every myth of eternal animosity, there are millions of people who want nothing to do with such abstract labels and are ready to show compassion and respect to anyone who gives them equal consideration. Many seem to be calling to arms these days in a show of patriotism, and those calls grow louder and more widespread with each new geopolitical clash. What is really needed however is more awareness that despite our differences, there are humans on the other side who are deserving of our respect and understanding, and a sense of empathy can exist regardless of national disputes. In Orientalism, Edward Said tells us that it is a common human failing to prefer the superficial authority of what we read over “direct encounters with the human”. I believe this rings true now more than ever, not just in the Middle East but globally. Instead of relying on popular narratives and politics as reasons to write off communication and close down spaces for shared solidarity, we should take them as reasons to push harder to build those spaces and discover new sides to the timeworn story.

Khuda Hafez

IMG_4340 It seems like this may be my last blog as a Saudi in Iran, or to be precise, a Saudi who was in Iran. This fact brings with it tremendous sadness, but also reassurance that the efforts I had in mind when starting this blog and going to Iran in general are now more important than ever.

As political events take on a life of their own, as usual it is the average people who bear the brunt, and the relations or potential for constructive relations between them as well as between future generations that are poisoned. In this region it is common practice for most to sit back and, while perhaps feeling uneasy about developments, watch them all unfold. I truly believe however that we have failed as a people when we fail to speak out against intolerance and harmfully divisive narratives against each other, or indeed when a simple call for moderation can grant you the label of a traitor.

Many of those who insist that Islam is a religion of peace and acceptance see no contradiction whatsoever in using violent and bigoted language against supposedly ‘opposing’ sects, nationalities and peoples – this is a critical problem that cannot be underestimated. The principles of moderation, understanding, forgiveness and tolerance, which are abundantly provided for in local cultures in the region as well as in its dominant religions, are progressively being eschewed in the face of rising animosities between its inhabitants, which will in the end take us nowhere but down.

I’ve repeatedly mentioned on this blog that during my time in Iran, I did not encounter any racial or other prejudices as a result of my being a Saudi Arabian, and instead was met with overwhelming kindness and warmth. I should add one caveat here: on one of my last departures from Iran, someone at the airport questioned me on what I was doing in the country after learning of my nationality. I proceeded to tell him that I was a student of Iranian Studies and language, at which he seemed perplexed, commenting that relations between our nations are sour. In line with my usual responses to such comments (which are typically put forward out of curiosity towards my being in Iran more than anything else), I said that I don’t believe the tensions or animosities have anything to do with an innate enmity between the two peoples, but rather arises out of specific circumstances and commonly-held narratives – both in history and the present day. He disagreed with this fact, and said that he himself held an inherent dislike towards Arabs. I narrate this now not to emphasise or inflate this unfortunate point of view, but in the name of full disclosure and indeed to stress that in the course of meeting and interacting with hundreds of Iranians over my year there, I only once came across such chauvinistic views.

On the other hand, among the countless messages of support and positive feedback that I received after my blog was publicised – mainly originating from residents of the region itself – I received only one negative one from a young Egyptian man who could not understand why I would choose to live in the ‘land of infidels’. Again, this can be contrasted with a young Egyptian lady in my class at the University of Tehran who possesses a deep and profound interest for Iranian culture and language, and to be sure many other Egyptians and Arabs in general who do not hold such parochial views. The point here is that extremism and intolerance no doubt exist, and sadly they are here to stay. What must be focused on instead are the positive engagements and trends that also exist and have the potential to slowly but surely ameliorate some of the dangerous views and rhetoric circulating around the region. Compared with the countless wonderful Iranians I met, who do not share and in fact are ashamed of such views, the words of the airport fellow were not even a drop in the water. My decision to live and pursue studies in Tehran was partly driven by my endeavour to discover, in the face of embittered regional politics and popular portrayals of ‘intrinsic hatreds’, what kind of reception I would find as a Saudi Arabian in Iran. Not only was this reception warm and wholehearted, but I have also found myself making some of my best memories in the country, as well as some of my most cherished friends. I can only hope that the reverse experience would be the same.

Regardless of the dominant or more forceful narrative, more must be done to show the other side – the abundance of people in the region whose only desire in these troubling times is to live in peace and goodwill with each other. Otherwise, all we are doing is allowing the cycle of prejudice to begin all over again, subjecting generation after generation to blind hatred, until the idea of tolerance or coexistence is nothing more than a distant memory. We are seven billion people on this planet represented by roughly 200 nations. It is conceptually impossible to fathom that what goes on at the highest levels of statecraft must perennially affect and jeopardise our potential ties with each other. There are many who brand this as a lost cause, stating that things will never change. Yes, many of the deeply entrenched and negative attitudes are unlikely to be positively modified. Nonetheless, it is vital for average people to do their part in halting the stubborn advance of such bigotry and prejudice, which is only being exacerbated along with political developments on the ground. Even if the regional media and common parlance are not providing hopeful impressions, this is not reason enough to give up on the overarching ideal to promote better, more peaceful relations between us. Good will begets good will, and it’s becoming evermore imperative to emphasise the human side to the prevailing issues and increase our exchanges with each other. It is harder to blindly hate someone who you can relate to, someone whose story you know.

On a lighter note, the Mexican standoff of generosity and gift-exchanging that was running between my mother and my neighbour (who had kindly given herself the task of becoming my proxy mother and took care of me immensely) will finally come to an end. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my unsung heroes of the blogosphere, my family and friends, who tirelessly helped me with edits and posts from afar when my internet connection just couldn’t handle it. Lama, who gave me the push I needed to start this blog in the first place; and Jumana, who did the same when moving to Iran was still a half-formed dream I was daring myself with. The experiences and memories I take with me from Iran are unparalleled in their beauty and will always stay with me. Thank you all for reading.

House of Strength

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A couple of weeks ago, I managed to negotiate myself into a zoorkhaneh. The term literally means ‘House of Strength’, and refers to an ancient Persian institution where athletes practice rigorous regiment training in a domed structure, a sort of traditional gymnasium (the zoorkhaneh). As a system of athletics originally intended to train warriors, it dates back to the Parthian era and is currently recognised by UNESCO as one of the world’s longest-running forms of such training. Although there were efforts to curb the sport, first during the modernisation campaigns of the Pahlavi era due to it being a ‘relic of the past’, and then shortly after the Islamic revolution due to its pre-Islamic origins, it is currently promoted as varzesh-e bastani (ancient sport) and is a symbol of Iranian culture and pride for many. In their contemporary form, zoorkhaneh rituals blend elements of pre-Islamic Persian culture (including Zoroastrianism and Mithraism) with the spirituality evident in Shi’a Islam and Sufism. While difficult to do it justice in words, the sport is ritualistic in essence and consists of a series of exercises combining martial arts, physical aptitude and special skills which are practiced against the backdrop of sacred poetry chanted by a musician, with drums and bells being sounded to mark the beginning of the different sections.

It had been a goal of mine to visit a zoorkhaneh ever since I’d heard about the ancient practice during my first couple of months in Iran. I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it – while in the past one could expect an audience to be watching the athletes’ exercises, this is no longer the norm; moreover, women aren’t exactly a prominent feature in the zoorkhaneh, as the sport is traditionally practiced by men. The idea of visiting one got pushed to the back of my mind over the months as it seemed less and less of a possibility, to be occasionally brought up between myself and other interested friends but never truly acted upon. Most recently, we decided to try the most obvious method – shamefully late for people of the internet generation – a simple online search. This hadn’t occurred to us before; perhaps this had something to do with the pre-historic roots and mysticism surrounding the sport. In any case, after finding a list of Tehran-based venues, I called one that was very conveniently located in a hamlet adjacent to my neighbourhood. I got through to Agha (a term denoting ‘Mr.’) Sasani, and explained that we were a group of foreigners studying Iranian culture, history and the like, and would be extremely grateful for the opportunity to watch a session at the zoorkhaneh. Judging from his reaction, it seemed to be the first time Agha Sasani ever received such a request, but he was nonetheless extremely forthcoming and welcoming. He suggested a suitable evening for us to attend, and before I knew it I was sitting in an underground zoorkhaneh along with my Japanese friend Kenichi and my Iranian-American friend Ramin, ready to finally see what it was all about.

Without a doubt, the athletics on display for the next hour or so were unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. About ten men of varying ages were in the main octagonal pit, with several more practising in the surrounding areas of the gymnasium. Lining the walls were trophies as well as photos of past members and champions of the zoorkhaneh, some seemingly dating back numerous decades. In an elevated stand in the corner sat the musician-cum-reciter, along with his fellow drummer, who turned out to be the elder brother of one of the most talented athletes we were to see.

IMG_5941Now, for the crux of the matter. First we watched the swinging, with precision, of the ‘meel’ or ‘Indian club’ in sync with the drumbeats, perhaps one of the most well-known symbols of zoorkhaneh rituals. The weight of the specific meel chosen by the athletes can vary, but even the lightest ones are considerably heavy (as a post-session attempt at lifting one showed me), which accentuates the skill and strength required to wield and control them for prolonged periods of time. Following this, the athletes performed sequential acrobatics in unison, again to the pace of the accompanying acoustics. The intense focus of the men was palpable with every movement, as was the physical discipline and dexterity necessary for the gymnastics being practiced. This was no more apparent than in the case of the eldest athlete present, whom I was later informed was 80 years of age. Observing his agility and vigour during the practices, this was quite hard for my friends and I to believe. Another feature involved the athletes spinning around the pit in turn, in a practice somewhat similar to Sufi whirling but – from what I could see – with a wider sphere of movement and more emphasis on physical capacity rather than the quest to reach a state of trance. That being said, during this and all of the other activities we watched, one could discern a clear link between the physical and the spiritual in both the participants’ actions as well as the general mood. Moreover, an atmosphere of camaraderie and mutual encouragement prevailed. For example, one of the customs I found particularly intriguing was during the abovementioned individual spinning exercises, when the remaining athletes would form a circle around the pit; whenever the spinning athlete would approach one of the sides or edges of the pit, the others would raise their arms as a gesture of protection and support. While this may well be done out of tradition rather than necessity for most of the athletes, the beauty lies in the meaning of the gesture itself. Incidentally, the act seemed to be performed with more attentiveness when one of the athletes brought his two young sons into the pit (who were previously practising enthusiastically in the outer area) to practice spinning; in both cases there were a couple of close falls, during which the athletes would ring closer to ensure the safety of the boys, while later offering words of advice for the development of the skill.

 

All the while duIMG_5917ring the sessions, the musician would sing/chant in a calming tone in harmony with the exercises; in the ancient practice, this singing is said to have served as a form of oral education intended to imbue social knowledge, moral codes and religious teachings to the warriors in training. In between the sessions, he would recite valuable idioms and anecdotes, broaching topics such as human dignity, togetherness and respect for all. From what I understood, one such saying expressed the fact that we humans are all the same in essence and will eventually all end up in the same place, and we must therefore show the utmost empathy and understanding in our dealings with each other; this is in line with the whole philosophy and ethics surrounding the zoorkhaneh, which is comparable to Sufism in its emphasis on purity of the heart and excellence of the mind. My friends and I also found ourselves to be the subject of the narrations at one point, as the musician drew attention to the “foreign guests” in the audience. He proceeded to graciously welcome us while praising our inclination to observe this aspect of Iranian culture. As the athletes looked on with interest, he continued to wish us continuous health and safety, and hoped that we experience and witness nothing but good in Iran. He then ended this commentary by asking if their honoured sister (yours truly) would kindly translate his words to my two friends. Since I had organised the logistics, Agha Sasani had assumed I was the only Farsi-speaker among our group, which gave us a bit of a chuckle considering that Ramin is natively fluent. From my previous knowledge as well as some of the reactions I gauged when I first entered, it was exceedingly apparent that having a woman in the zoorkhaneh was an extreme rarity. This is not to say that there was any noticeable objection or discomfort; on the contrary, similar to the musician, the athletes seemed to appreciate our interest in the practice, regardless of gender. There was a tremendously positive, light-hearted and congenial vibe to the place in general, for example when the athletes would praise each other’s execution of a particular exercise. From what I could garner from my impressions, it seemed that these men truly strive to live by the philosophy underpinning the zoorkhaneh. As the final session had come to an end, one of the athletes who it turned out was an employee at the Japanese embassy in Tehran came over to speak to Kenichi in Japanese; as I looked on, I saw another athlete putting on his robes, showing that he was a member of the clerical class (a rouhani). I caught myself somewhat surprised that this religious man was a member of the zoorkhaneh, before realising that this was a completely baseless assumption, especially considering the musician’s previous orations regarding our common ground; there’s no reason why this type of practice wouldn’t be appealing or beneficial to people from all walks of life.

Today, there are reportedly still about 500 zoorkhanehs in Iran. Traditionally, rather than relying on payment from the athletes, the zoorkhaneh sustained itself through public donations in return for community services and protection. One such example is a ceremony in which athletes would hold Iranian wrestling, or koshti, matches and other displays of strength to raise funds for the needy, including those faced with unexpected, adverse circumstances. Such ceremonies were named gol rizan, or ‘casting of flowers’: the money would be gathered on a wide piece of cloth, however the term ‘flowers’ was used instead of money out of respect and consideration for the sensitivities of those receiving it. While such customs may no longer be in widespread practice, the zoorkhanehs maintain strong ties with their local community, especially in more remote areas of the country. In a subsequent conversation with Agha Sasani, he explained that this particular zoorkhaneh was established as a cooperative by a number of locals who together raised the funds to open it. After setting up a board, he was elected as the administrator to be responsible for the zoorkhaneh’s management and maintenance. Climbing the stairs up to the main door to exit while contemplating the possibility of becoming a female zoorkhaneh champion, I felt quite a distinctive contrast, having just watched one of the world’s oldest and most spiritual sports to then step back out to the spectacle of ‘modern civilisation’. The irony is in the fact that if the ideals and philosophies espoused by ancient institutions such as the zoorkhaneh and other comparable traditions were recognised and practiced more widely, I believe humanity would on the whole find itself to be far more civilised at this point in time.