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 throughout 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.
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 circumstances, 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.