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Are Iranians different?
Why am I, an American, learning Farsi?

By Kelly Hulme
November 7, 2003
The Iranian

I am often asked why I, a blond-haired, grey-eyed American ex-pat living in Canada, have suddenly and impulsively taken up the study of Farsi. There is no simple answer. No, I say, I do not have an Iranian husband or boyfriend. Did you used to live there? No. Are you going there? Probably not. Then why?

There is no one answer that will satisfy a logical mind. There is only an answer for those who accept that sometimes you just hear a little voice whispering to you to do something. When that happens to me, I don't ask hy. I just say, "Yes, ma'am."

But lately I'm beginning to think there is a rational, if complex, answer...
Today my Farsi teacher said to me -- when I remarked at the thoughtfulness of my tutor of three weeks to have asked his parents back in Iran to send me a children's book to help me in my first weeks of Farsi study, "People are people and love each other."

People are people, this is true. But I have been exposed to the cultures and peoples of Mexico, Cuba, Spain, Germany, England, Bolivia, Portugal, Greece, Italy and France. In university I was surrounded by students from Bangladesh, India, China, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, among others. But Iranians are DIFFERENT. Or am I imagining this?

From the first moment that I was exposed to Iranian people and a small taste of their culture from being around them, something came over me that I cannot describe. It was more than a simple fascination with a far away land.

Sorry, I really cannot put this into words. I don't completely understand it myself. Part of it surely has to do with the richness of the culture and the fact that the culture has roots that reach way, way back into the past. This is a dimension my own culture lacks, so perhaps I am hungry for a sense of historical belonging.

Try to imagine growing up in America--a land so culturally impoverished, so young and without history, where extended family barely exists. Imagine being raised in a culture of selfishness and greed, ethnocentricity, bigotry and arrogance... everyone clamouring for a piece of the "pie," metaphorically speaking. Then imagine meeting Iranians for the first time. Can you begin to get the picture?

I think another factor that makes Iran different from all the other countries I've studied and people I've been around is the fact that it is so misunderstood by the Western world. So few people in my world are aware that Iranians are not an Arab people. So few know how really progressive most Iranians are. So few know that Persia had Zoroastrianism long, long before Islam was foisted upon her. (Not that there is anything wrong with Islam, but few realize that Iranians are not originally a Muslim people.)

A friend of mine watched a show on television the other day about Iraq. Later he was telling me about it as if it had been about Iran. I'm not sure he knows that there is a huge ethnic difference between Persians and the rest of the Middle East.

Margaret Atwood, in her article in the debut issue of the new Canadian journal Walrus this month, said:

"Although included in the well-known 'axis of evil' trio and thus a potential target for another pre-emptive U.S. war, Iran is not the same as Iraq--a country hammered together during the horse trading that went on after the Great War--nor is it the equivalent of wild and mountainous Afghanistan. True, all are Muslim, all have oil--an extremely mixed blessing--and all have experienced several decades or more of civil war, repression, invasion, and unbelievable horror. But Iran is--and it prides itself in being--the Persia of old, once the centre of a sophisticated empire, renowned for the beauty of its gardens, the intricacy of its literature, and the refinement of its culture."

" was the Muslim world that was civilized and inventive--'modern,' if you like--and the West that supplied the nasty barbarians, ...."

These words are written for an audience who may not know any of this. But that's not all of it. If Canada produces the most coffee drinking donut eaters per capita, then surely Iran produces the most poets per capita... and armchair philosophers!

I have very warm memories of sitting in the student union of my university campus in 1981-82 while a knot of young Marxists around me debated the recent revolution and the future of their homeland. Oh, we were drunk on youthful zeal and idealism. We thought we could change the world overnight. I sometimes wonder where they are today, wonder whether the decades have mellowed them, as they have me.

These young men were different from other students I knew from many other places. The Saudi students I met wanted to pay me $50 to write their research papers for them. The Iranians had me over to their homes, invited me to sit around the makeshift sofreh, offered me the first piece of tadig, and were always, always respectful. This was not the contrived respect I felt from men of some other countries, men I often discovered would do as much as they could get away with so long as they could sneak the behaviour through a loophole in their religious tenets.

No, it wasn't a respect born of fear of God or fear that the disappointed faces of their distant parents would haunt their sleep that night. It was a true human to human respect straight from the heart. These things you feel.

These things you know.
These things are parts of my Why.

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Book of the day

Cultural Schizophrenia
Islamic Societies Confronting the West

By Darius Shayegan, et al

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