I am sitting back in a bit of a daze too much wine, too much song, too much wom… Well you get the picture. Azin and I had just held the opening barbecue of the season and our friends were sitting around chatting, smoking a hookah. One or two people tried to keep the conversation in English for my benefit but they soon gave up.
Farzad, the latest addition to the group, fresh from Tehran, was getting very animated and everybody was chiming in, laughing and protesting. Just another typical evening in Tehran. Except I have never been to Tehran. In fact I do not even speak Farsi, and apart from the vague Arabic word that suddenly pops out of the general rhythm and flow of chatter, I can not understand a word.
My vocabulary in Farsi is equivalent to that of a toddler. Body parts figure predominately. But I did understand the conversation. Completely. I could have been at the Nekheil restaurant in Jeddah chatting and smoking a shisha, or in downtown Cairo or even on the banks of the Nile in my hometown of Khartoum, sipping sweet tea or illicit Araki.
I remember sitting in a pub in Scotland as a teenager trying to do to a young hottie what Margaret Thatcher had been doing to the country, when a rival walked up to me and asked if I was from Cuba.
“No I am from Sudan.”
“What's the difference? They're the same shit anyway.”
I had to laugh. Cuba/Sudan, Hizbollah/Hamas, Arab/Iranian. To the world it seems there is no difference between Arabs and Iranians and yet we act like two bickering relatives at a wake.
I had a friend, a Sunni friend who had grown up in Kuwait, who informed me that at the Shia mosque next to their house, the call to prayer did not mention the Prophet Mohammad at all. I was skeptical.
“What do you mean they do not mention Mohammad?”
“Yes they believe that Ali should have gotten the message and Mohammad was an error.”
“Are you trying to tell me that Shais hold that the Koran is perfect, the word of God, and yet it got sent to the wrong person?”
“That is what they say.”
“Does that sound rational to you?”
“That is what they say.”
“Gabriel didn't realise who he was dictating to?”
“That is what they say.”
When I first met Azin — we just got married last year — there was an immediate connect, a familiarity. I was looking at my own culture refracted through a slightly distorting mirror. Typical was the conversation we had about a year ago when I was trying to introduce her to Arabic food and prepared Kofta. Kofta, she informed me with icy calm, was Iranian.
“You're kidding. First the Greeks and now the Iranians. Mutalubitien! You guys are not even on the Mediterranean. Kofta is as Arab as my butt”
“Kofta is Iranian.”
She paused a minute and asked, “Okay if it is Arabic, conjugate the root of the word.”
Iranians 1, Arabs 0.
I remember reading the article ” Priceless” by Setareh Sabety detailing her confusion with Western notions of money and friendship and saving and investing. Been there, done that. At my boarding school in Wales, no one seemed to order anything unless I was close enough to the cash register to lunge in and pay. Dating nearly bankrupted me until I made a rule never to date west of the Danube River or north of the Pyrenees
I remember the virginal Azars and Farahs of my youth, dressed invariable in black, loaded with khol and makeup and with the “don't follow me, you smell” attitude. As with their Arab sisters, you knew that you were not going to get any, but boy did they make you light headed as they wafted by bathed in Coco Chanel and Diorissmo. Enough perfume to be a fire hazard.
Now when we go out with friends, I let Azin figure out what our share is. She watches me like a hawk because I would rather die than go with merely a small gift. Or when entertaining guests I prefer death to running out of rice, or death to running out of ice or death to running out of torshi etc, etc. Death is another fixation we share.
Again we are sitting home after a hard days work and Azin has Amr Diab, a recent discovery, playing on the sound system. All my life Amr Diab has been the equivalent of Michael Boulton, with cliche lyrics and teen bopper emotion. I mean give me the words of Abdel Halim Hafaz or Kabli or Warda.
But through her eyes I get to understand that there is something in the music, the voice, that is very Middle Eastern. Like the wind blowing through the trees on a hot sleepy afternoon. Or the taste of dates after fasting in Ramadan. Something that transcends the here and now, that speaks to 2,000 years of sharing a part of the world, a place to call our own.
Azin suggests that I be more direct in what I have to say so here goes. The world sees us as indistinguishable. The world does not care if the Gulf is termed Persian, Arabian or Iranian. Our region is the most incredibly diverse, rich and important in the world and always has been. United we have preformed miracles, divided we are the axis of evil.
We will get nowhere if we fall into the trap of blaming each other for our problems. For 2,000 years, for better or worse, Iran has been the intellectual heart of the Middle East, but as a part of the Middle East with 250 million Arabs, to the West. A very fruitful cross fertilization. We have to acknowledge the commonality of our history and stop this self destructive divisiveness.