Those (cold) Persian eyes

By Farhad Froozan
The Iranian
May 1997

It was a beautiful New York day, and I decided to walk down Fifth Avenue on my way to an appointment. The sidewalks were brimming with the usual mad swarm of all kinds of people, rushing to God knows where. And I was looking at people's faces, scrutinizing them as they approached me, and then gently glided past me.

Nothing rude or obvious, mind you, but a subtle, quick overview glance, where your eye quick-freezes the image in your mind for rumination at a later time. I like watching people, and a big city such as New York is ideally suited for this particular sport of mine. Sort of a "mental snapshot" of whatever scene you happen to be looking at that moment.

Over the years, after a lot of experimentation, I can honestly say that most of the salient details of such snapshots can be retained for a good period of time, allowing one to savor them at leisure. It's a short period of time, as the snapshots grow fuzzy and quietly fade from your mind, leaving a bare, "outline" memory of it all.

I often wish that a contraption would be invented where one could actually capture and permanently retain either moving or still shots as viewed by the human eye. Just think of the revolution in image generation and processing. Kodak and Fuji stocks would go right through the ceiling, and home movies would take on an entirely new meaning. I think that you are getting the picture, the personal slant in editing notwithstanding. But I'm getting away from my story.

People have different reactions to such cursory glances. Men react differently than women, and the observer's gender often plays a decisive role in the unfolding of the end reaction. If the observer happens to be male, men tend to become extremely conscious of having "their space" invaded, and will shoot back a curt, semi-threatening look which is intended to hold you -- the aggressor, at bay. Women, however, react on many different and divergent levels. The results can be a little dangerous, and a lot more complex.

There is yet another level of this pastime, and that is the "nationality" factor. People with other nationalities have entirely different responses to such overtures. They can range from extreme openness and a welcoming of emotions to some rather dark and often sinister backlashes. My personal favorites are the Brazilians and the Italians. Both come from typically hot, and sensual Mediterranean cultures and are extremely open and friendly under such unusual eye contact conditions.

There is nothing quite as wonderful as confronting, for the first time, the amazing emotional warmth exuded by such people. It's almost as if there is nothing that could possibly daunt them. They freely respond with a dazzling and forthright look which can be devastating to the novice. It often appears that they welcome such encounters not only with foreigners, but especially with their own countrymen.

I can recall many occasions when I have observed Brazilians encountering their countrymen abroad, total strangers mind you, with such warmth and affection that it actually moved me. It was as if they all knew one another, not intimately, but well. I remember feeling quite jealous. Such an interplay can be honest, coy, sexy, inviting, and friendly all at once, and leaves one swept away by that glorious feeling called life.

Unfortunately this "celebration of life" is not shared by some nationalities. Persians, for instance, especially when traveling abroad, have this uncanny ability to "auto-detect" other Persians at quite a distance. A quick, furtive glance at the face or the eyes, or if the individual is too far away, just the body language is often sufficient to detect a fellow "hamvelayati". The manner in which the body is held, or the casual glide of the body's motion can easily unmask another Persian to the trained eye.

Perhaps it's just my impression that this bizarre skill of the Persians is so accurate, but what is most bothersome about it is what happens afterwards. Successful detection is almost immediately formalized by an averting of the eyes, as if to say: "No, you are surely mistaken; my dark eyes, or my olive complexion may seem to indicate that I'm Persian, but really I'm not... I am actually Swiss. I just happen to look like a Persian..." Then they silently pass by you, eyes cast downwards, with an awkward indifference so complete that you wonder how there could have ever been anything in common between you at all.

An unusual extension of this occurs when you come across a group of Persians either walking and conversing amongst themselves in Farsi. As soon as the first individual in the group "detects" you, everyone stops speaking Farsi in unison, almost like a school of tuna veering and changing direction all at the same time, and in complete harmony.

How do they do that? After a slight pause, they begin to converse again, but in some other language, depending upon the country where all this is taking place. This always irks me, particularly when it is accompanied by this implied feeling that "NO, you are definitely mistaken this time; that wasn't Farsi that you heard us converse in... It was merely our local Swiss canton dialect which got distorted by the wind..."

I have similar encounters all the time on the streets of New York, and they always leave a bitter taste in my mouth. It's almost as if we Persians are somehow ashamed or embarrassed to acknowledge another compatriot. I can't figure out why we do this. It becomes even more embarrassing once both sides have "detected" and "recognized" one another as bona fide Persians. Who are we kidding?

And it doesn't have anything to do with the revolution either. (We really have to stop blaming the revolution for every blessed thing that goes wrong these days). No, this is far more serious. Maybe, it has to do with the intrinsic and inherent national insecurities which we feel on a sub-conscious level? Could it be that we are just a tad uncomfortable with ourselves these days?

Normally one might leave it at that, put such a sad and unpleasant event out of mind, and go about one's business. But there is one other end-game variation left, and that is to take charge and brazenly approach a Persian among a group of starngers and "force the issue" by introducing and declaring yourself officially as a Persian. The change in reaction and response is almost comical as both the individual and the group collectively stumble over themselves to welcome you as a compatriot within their fold. It's almost as if they are apologizing for not having "noticed" your presence up to that point in time.

What's paradoxical is that Persians, once "properly introduced", are actually quite friendly, and hospitable to one another. There are other nameless nationalities which share this unfortunate "distancing effect" with the Persians, and who, upon being confronted, remain just as crabby and distant as before. I feel deeply envious of the Brazilians and the Italians.


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