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.