I met an Iranian man this weekend. Suffice to say, he was not as I expected. I met him while out and about with my roommates. He had just arrived in Strasbourg and informed me that he would be studying here for the next six months—post-grad research at the university, all funded by the Iranian government. He spoke not a lick of French, much to my surprise. Instead, he spoke perfect, fluent English. For once, I was the ‘expert’ in the art of French, which amused me greatly.
I spent the entirety of the rainy Saturday afternoon conversing with him, while exploring the sights of Strasbourg. I peppered him with questions, about his research, his journey, what the weather’s like in Iran, etc. What follows are a few of the things I learned from him. Mind you, I realize this doctoral student doesn’t speak for all Iranian people, but he had some fascinating opinions nevertheless.
First of all, he attempted to clear up a few things about Iran’s social life. According to him, it’s not as bad as it was right after the revolution. Sure, women are only a rung below the cat on the familial totem pole in his country, but at least they can go to college and drive cars, unlike in Saudi Arabia. I noted that he seemed to dislike the status of women in his country—he much preferred the more egalitarian attitude of Europe.
Furthermore, he informed me of the severe disconnect between the government of Iran and its people. Governments not representing their people? What a crazy thought. I recounted to him the many videos and reports I’d seen of people in the streets of Teheran, exclaiming “Death to America” and all that jazz. He laughed after hearing that, informing me that often times the government had to bring in and pay people to do that, and more often than not, it’s more for the ego of a local bureaucrat than anything else. The average city-dweller certainly isn’t that extreme—at least, he certainly isn’t.
Not only that, he gave me a glimpse of how the Iran Nuclear Deal is seen in his home country. Basically, they are beyond excited to see it go through and reenter the world economy at large. Years of political and economic sanctions are about to fade, and hopefully with time, tensions with the United States as well. Also, they see the old President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as a laughing stock…and an embarrassment. They much prefer the new President Hassan Rouhani, who is comparably much more moderate.
We also discussed the situation with ISIS and Arab states in general. Contrary to what many Americans I know believe, Iranians aren’t Arabs. And they’re proud of that fact indeed. He was very impressed when I let him know my knowledge of their several thousand year history, going all the way back to the Parthians (who sparred many times with the Romans). Opening up to me more, he let me know about how its a large controversy to teach Arabic in classes. Apparently, many people in Iran want to keep Persian only education, as well as Persian only names for children. According to him, the Arab-Persian divide is greater than just a Sunni/Shia divide. It goes all the way back to when Arab Muslims purged Zoroastrianism from Iran in the first place. "We have long memories back in the Middle East. We hold grudges for a very long time, so don't get on my bad side," as my professor Cyrus Partovi would often tell me, jokingly. I suppose he's right.
We finished our political discussion with a chat about the oddities of combat with ISIS. When I mentioned ISIS, he cocked his head. I corrected myself and said, “Daesh,” after which he understood what I was talking about. Daesh is the acronym for ISIS in Arabic: ad-Dawlah al-Islāmiyah fī 'l-ʿIrāq wa-sh-Shām or Da’ish/Daesh. As some of you may know, Iran combats ISIS on the ground (although the Iranian government has openly denied this in the past) and by air. The U.S. has also intervened against ISIS, albeit by air in general. Despite our two countries being opposed, we happen to be fighting against a common enemy. The good old enemy of my enemy is my friend, no? In practice, foreign policy makes strange bedfellows, particularly in the Middle East.
Moving on from politics, I found out that he was enamored with American culture. Excitedly, he told me about how he learned to play the Blues and how he had a whole band of friends who played American music on the daily. He seemed to exalt facets of Americana, despite being in a very European place. He told me he would have liked to go study in America, but alas, our two countries aren’t on well enough terms. So he ‘settled’ for Strasbourg.
Later on, we had some traditional Alsatian food for dinner, which he reportedly enjoyed. Beforehand, I asked him about Persian food and he told me that I had to try khoresh, a sort of savory stew. In return, I explained to him the wonders of Japanese food and sushi in particular. Admittedly, I know more about Japanese food than any ‘traditional’ American food. I wonder if Kraft Mac n’ Cheese counts?
Eventually we parted ways, but not before taking a look at the cathedral in Strasbourg. This weekend was the last in a series of celebrations for the 1000 year anniversary of the building. It was lit up exquisitely with precise projections and at times during the evening, a light show would commence, causing figures and images to dance across the venerable stones of the cathedral. We both marveled at the massive, old building. I have to admit, the mega-churches in the Bible Belt simply can’t compare.
After he left, I took some time to reflect. I had made friends with a man whose country openly despises my own, and vice versa to an extent. He was genial, open and even invited me and my friends to dinner the next time we were free. It’s possible that he’s not representative of his people, but after my day with him, I sure as hell hope he is.
When I hear about the hawkish remarks made by certain politicians in my country, I can only cringe. Because if war ever came between our nations, I know who will bear the brunt of the damage. Millions would die and they certainly wouldn’t be Americans. For a moment, I shuddered when I thought he might be one of the victims, if such an unlucky event came to pass. Empathy is a scary bitch indeed.