A couple of years before the revolution, having made my life in Paris, I found myself in Tehran, visiting family. One day, I was walking in Ferdowsi Square with a dear friend, a famous writer now long gone. He was also a doctor with two areas of specialty, one of which was psychiatry. He pointed at a building on the square, the top stories of nondescript bricks in a state of disrepair while the lower part sported arches covered with pretty blue mosaics. Isfahan it was not but still, at street level, the effect was quite pleasant. “See,” he said, “this building is a perfect image of the Iranian soul. Dual personalities”—he used the word ‘schizophrenic.’—“One, the façade that the outside world sees, attractive and agreeable. And then the other side, irretrievably bleak and troubled. That,” he added, “is an illustration of our psyche. What’s worse, the two sides cohabit in disharmony, just like this building with two styles of architecture that have nothing to do with each other.”
Words to remember when we look at ourselves. On one side, we’re filled with contradictions and insecurities; on the other, we’re remarkably resilient, talented, generous, and intelligent. The two sides of our soul are at war with each other. We profess to love the mellate sharif but when we’re abroad we cross the street if we see Iranians or lower our voice if we think we can be overheard by them. We will sell our last shirt to offer lavish hospitality not only to friends and family but to any stranger who crosses our threshold, and yet, through nasty jokes and banter and put-downs, we belittle and humiliate and make kheet people around us, lest for a moment they be proud of an achievement that isn’t our own. We have given the world some of the greatest art and thought humanity has known and our civilization makes us one of a handful of indispensable countries in history. Yet nowadays we rarely see the difference between tripe and great creation or original reflection and tired banalities.
Our Iranian-ness sets us apart. Does it also have to doom us?