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Perfect stranger
By the time we landed, he wasn’t just some soldier with questionable fashion sense, but a three-dimensional human being who I understood


August 10, 2005

“Teach me then because, as I understand it, teaching someone who doesn’t know something is an act of charity.”
-- Jose Saramago, THE DOUBLE

There’s nothing like a flight delay to bring people together, I say. Picture it: Portland International Airport, Alaska Airlines, 8pm last night. I had just put down my book with the above quote when a guy loomed over me in the aisle and gestured to his seat, apparently the window seat I’d coveted. He slid into it with minimal ceremony -- I don’t recall now if an “excuse me” was heard, the majority of my attention having gone directly to his jeans, which were white, and purposefully shredded right above the knee. I shuddered and looked back down on my book. He spent some time trying to get comfortable, returning calls on his phone as I rolled my eyes and tried to read, wondering what I’d done to piss of the Airline Gods this time.

After a few minutes ignoring his tossing and turning, he asked me if I knew when we’d leave. I answered and somehow we began talking about where we’d come from and where we were going. I had a bag full of work to do, and it was clearly NOT in my plans to conversationally engage with Mr. Fellow Flyer. But as my mom says, “How do you make God laugh? Make a plan.”

He asked me what I do, and after a curt answer, I politely returned the curiosity. He told me he was a Marine. Now, let me say right here that I have yet to fully understand the differentiation between the various wings of the American military. I hoped my ignorance wasn’t written across my face, and that my secret fear-slash-avoidance of all things military didn’t linger on my face. While I enjoy the daily perks of freedom in the ole Red, White and Blue, I can’t generally be troubled to wonder about its costs, and who is paying them.

Our conversation rambled forth, taking on a life of its own. I knew about his father’s business, his dreams of becoming a history teacher, and his desire to speak German but travel Italy. Smile smile, nod nod, this and that. Then he said he was on his way for his third tour of duty in Iraq. THIRD tour.

Stand down, fellow Iranian readers, I’m not done yet! This boy was all of 22. I swing between describing him as a boy and then a man, because while only a man would climb into a plane and fly to Iraq to lug 60 pounds of gear and fight for his country, the reddish hair, pink face, and excited personality was that of a boy who turned out to be only slightly older than my brother.

Three tours of duty. He was dismayed. But he had made a commitment, one (I didn’t hesitate to tell him) that I can’t begin to understand -- that of being willing to take death for the cause of an ideal, a concept. Say it with me now: Freedom. He had eleven months left to serve, and appeared ready to do it (despite a sprained hand and stretched foot ligaments). It was just how the cards had been dealt, and he was playing the hand.

I began learning about his various missions and what he had seen, and I was surprised at every turn. He had been to many of Saddam’s palaces, but he had also gone for a tour of Babylon, and visited many of the mosques, which he found to be incredibly beautiful. He told me about the cultural training he had received, and wanted to know how similar Iraqi traditions were (the social faux pas of showing the bottom of one’s foot, for example). Or if I thought it was weird that they were told to ask for the man of the household when they knock on an Iraqi door.

I was in flight from Portland to San Diego, but vividly the mental footage from his tours of duty unfolded and spilled forth onto my tray table, at a speed so fast I could barely process. It’s unusual to have such an open dialogue with an absolute stranger, and I took the opportunity to ask him what I could be doing -- what any of us should be doing -- to comfort soldiers.

But when they’re sitting in a tent absolutely still hoping to survive what became 140 degree heat, he assured me that there isn’t much we can do. Oh, except send magazines and news plus underwear and socks -- apparently our tax dollars don’t go that far! How do they keep themselves busy, I asked. They start rumors. "Like the one my friend started about JLo having died." Sick but funny. And clearly a sign that we can send these guys some entertainment while they're camped out.

I asked him how he feels when he comes back from Iraq and watches the news; what inconsistencies he observes. He told me that it’s difficult for soldiers to watch the news and see how American media covers death after death -- on both sides- without any reports of progress or the more uplifting stories. My freshly-waxed Persian eyebrow went up in a hurry, and I asked for elaboration.

Brace yourselves, because this story kept me up last night: at one point, his group (Regimen? Troop?) surrounded a house and prepared to search it. Around the back, they found a shed. And within the shed... the door was opened upon a young boy, clearly a victim of Down’s Syndrome, chained to a stake in the floor. They untied him and had him Medivac’ed away for treatment.

I didn’t see that on the news, did you?

Our journey had rapidly become a two-way presentation. He innocently asked me if I’d ever traveled anywhere unusual. I thought about it -- South America would have been the safe bet, but what’s the fun in that? I smirked and mentioned that I, too, had been on a jaunt to the Middle East. “Oh Lordy,” I thought, “here comes another guy whose understanding of Persian is limited to the feline and the textile.”

But I dove right in, realizing that he wasn't even born yet when the Revolution-Hostage Crisis double feature took place. Soon the story of pre-Revolutionary Iran, the fine points of its culture and history, and my cultural pride became part of our exchange. I told him how Once Upon A Time, Iran was a resort oasis in the Middle East. I explained how we are often confused with Arabs, but that in actuality, he knew more Arabic than I did. The hours passed, and soon San Diego came into view.

I can comfortably put my money on the fact that I was first Iranian he’d ever met, but I was one who cared about his old camping trips with his dad, his mother’s cancer diagnosis, and whether his ride would have waited for him at the airport. I suppose it’s in these daily interactions that we make our name as people, good or bad, and in which we have the opportunity to put our best foot forward.

By the time we landed, he wasn’t just some soldier with questionable fashion sense, but a three-dimensional human being who I understood in a completely different light and who will make me look at Marine uniforms (whatever they are- still haven’t figured that out yet) completely differently.

In our everyday lives, we, each and every one of us, are cultural ambassadors. I don’t claim to be -- nor do I want to be -- omniscient or omni-representative of All Things Iranian. Heck, I can barely speak without making someone giggle. I’m just me, and part of that is Persian, and I like sharing what I know. We often live under the presumption that the only important pro-Persian/Iranian/Iranian-American work is done large-scale, in the formal organizations, functions, fundraisers, and protests. Much of it is... but not all.

There are millions of ways to make ourselves known to the world we live in, and these can trickle down to the basic -- and powerful -- human currency of casual chit-chat. How we interact with others daily forces change, by encouraging new people to understand us under a broader umbrella of “Understanding Humans” or “Cool People”, moving beyond ethnic and political perimeters. And -- lest we take the focus off ourselves for a moment -- in the process we might just learn a thing or two about some others.

Tray tables up, folks, it’s time for liftoff.

Lilly Ghahremani is a principal in Full Circle Literary, LLC. An attorney, she now “uses her powers for good” as a literary agent. She represents a range of nonfiction and children’s books, as well as some fiction. Needless to say, books with a Middle Eastern angle are welcome with her. For more information, please visit

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