Sitting on the cool grass, high above Esfahan on Sofeh Mountain, Abolfazl who I met only several hours before pours me another glass of tea from his thermos as he pats the damp grass between us… “This spot… right here… this spot is where I come when I’m depressed about the state of things here. Here I feel happy… here I feel freedom.”
How did I end up here?? It was only 4 hours earlier when I was walking back to my hotel after checking out sunset at the Khaju bridge. Two guys sitting and picnicking in the park greeted me with a now familiar “Hello, how are you? Where are you from?” I paused to answer and they motioned for me to come over and immediately welcomed me with a glass of tea and fresh bread. Their English was basic, but certainly good enough for us to spend at least an hour conversing and getting to know one another. Abolfazl and Majid, classmates studying Psychology at the local university had come to enjoy the fact that the local river was flowing, something it hasn’t done for years due to a severe drought and ill planned dam project. Just as I thought the encounter was coming to an end and we began to fold up the blanket, Abolfazl turned to me and explained: “I have car, you come with us, we will show you our city.”
Moments later we are speeding off in a brand new Iranian Saipa – one of the ubiquitous local cars that fills the streets here. Sanctions have blocked the ability to import cars from pretty much anywhere in the world unless you are extremely rich, well connected to the government and willing to work with the smugglers who bring them in. Abofazl soon hands me his cell phone and explains that his cousin is on the line and I should speak with him, as he’s an English teacher. I nearly did a double take when I put the phone to my ear as if he hadn’t told me I would have assumed I was connected to a line in London. Abofazl’s cousin (whose name I sadly can’t recall!) spoke to me in absolutely perfect British English. He invited me to meet him and told me that Abofazl would drive us now to City Center mall….which ironically lies nowhere near the center of the city, a good 30 minute drive out of town.
Even though it’s now happened numerous times in Iran, I’m continually amazed at the unbelievable hospitality of the locals who will literally drop everything to spend time with a guest and a new friend.
Soon we arrived at City Center… an absolutely massive brand new mall development anchored by what at first glance looks like a Carrefour….wait a moment, why is there an H instead of a C in the familiar logo? Abo’s cousin soon explains Carrefour initially started this project, but it seems they got into some trouble with the hardline faction of the government here (a familiar theme that would repeat much of the night) and they pulled out, but somehow after basically creating a Carrefour. We parked and the guys excitedly led me inside to the massive Hypermarket. I’ll pause for a moment to acknowledge the fact that it might seem a bit funny that 3 20-something guys take me to hang out at a grocery story, but you have to understand that Iran literally hasn’t seen any foreign investment like this since the Revolution in 1979. For inexplicable reasons, Benneton and Zara are the only two Western brands that somehow have a presence here and no one knows why. It is simply assumed they are well connected within the regime.
Walking into the hypermarket, it is absolutely PACKED with people! Interestingly it seems as though some have come as we did, just to check it out and see what it’s all about. Majid runs off and returns excitedly with a free sample of juice for me exclaiming “they give free samples here!” I suddenly feel like I’m on a Sunday trip to Sam’s Club back in College with my roommates John & Bryan!
In the car Abo and I had discussed careers and it turns out his most recent work was for a distributor of a cosmetics company – a definite small world moment ensues when I tell him I worked at L’Oréal before leaving on this adventure. L’Oréal is met with nods of approval and excitement from all the guys…clearly brand marketing even works in countries with sanctions. Naturally I’m led to the L’Oréal Paris aisle… yep, strangely there is one here. Again, no one is totally clear on how the products get here, and they are absolutely convinced these are counterfeit items. Abo hands me a box of Age Perfect and asks me to inspect it…to see if it’s genuine. It’s clearly legit product, in fact it looks like it was created for the French market and not even relabeled in Farsi. I wish I had a photo to insert here, but at this point three 20-something guys are beaming with excitement in the cosmetics aisle! Quickly I’m led over to the L’Oréal Shampoo and asked which one they should use. In a moment strangely reminiscent of my time in NYC giving free Advanced Haircare Total Repair 5 to every friend I knew (all to rave reviews) I grab a bottle of it and tell them to use this. Quickly a small crowd gathers, not surprisingly as at this point we are all speaking quite loudly in English and the guys are grabbing random cosmetics products to bring me to for inspection. All of a sudden I’m the local L’Oréal representative, convincing folks that these are genuine products and that they should buy them instead of Nivea or Dove which lines the shelves nearby.
After a while spent perusing the store and stocking up on some juices and such we are off. Majid begins to sing a traditional Persian epic poem in the car which is then translated for me and has a wonderful sentiment… basically, seizing the day, seizing opportunity as you never know when they will come again.
Next we are off to Sofeh mountain….a beautiful overlook with breathtaking views of the city. We hike up to Abo’s favorite spot and spend several hours chatting about anything the guys want to ask me about. Some of my favorites definitely included:
- Marriage: I’m told how in Iran there is some sort of contract where the man agrees on a specific sum of money which the woman can demand “at any point.” (Majid keeps reiterating this) Majid, a self-described skirt chaser who when we were parking basically shouted out “Asses for the masses” when he saw some girls walking nearby is very concerned about all these marriage details and even after hearing the less restrictive covenants in America he begins laughing and declares that marriage is not for him….
- Philly Lawyers: Abo’s cousin randomly asks me about Philly. I try to answer as well as I can, but he keeps talking about this stereotype of a Philadelphia lawyer. Isn’t it funny when people know more about your culture and sayings than you do?
- Booze: The guys all talk about their favorite scotch, smuggled over from Erbil in Iraq, but then sadly concede they know it’s all just American bottles refilled with local crappy whisky.
- Depression: This is a topic that comes up all the time talking to kids in Iran. While they are outwardly some of the happiest people you’ve ever met, everyone speaks of just how depressed they are. And how can you blame them? These are some of the best educated kids I’ve ever met. Friendly, good natured, smart – and yet there are no good jobs. Abo’s cousin speaks better English than me, perfect French and of course Farsi – and he’s unemployed. This is an absolute travesty that goes beyond Iran, I’ve heard similar stories in Kosovo and the Balkans…. To me there is nothing as sad as seeing kids who in some cases have PHD degrees left to hang out on the street. Perhaps it’s time to toss out some of the politicians who’ve shown themselves only competent to take lobbyist money and give this new generation a chance.
- America: Abo’s cousin always prefaces these questions from the guys (if he’s translating) with “Now, this is more of a hot button topic…” Interestingly at first they actually take the tone that America has every right to be suspicious of Iran’s government, as the government is not one to be trusted. We talk further though and agree that in the case of relations between our two lands that can be mutually applied, especially considering a CIA sponsored coup to overthrow their first democratic government. Clearly coming to any sort of Nuclear agreement is going to take monumental leaps of faith on both sides, and anything further (re-establishing relations between Iran and the US) are years, if not decades away, sadly. Government aside, Iranians love American people. Interestingly (and I agree) they see themselves as very similar in terms of personality.
- Religion in Iran: Basically to sum this one up and paraphrase their words – Iran is not a religious country. Abo’s cousin makes a great point – when you force people to “believe” in a faith they are that much more likely to rebel. It’s not as though they are against Islam, they just tend to see it more as a cultural identity than the religious aspect. You barely hear the call to prayer here, and when you do, it is universally ignored. Every Iran I meet goes to endless lengths to distinguish themselves from both the Arabian people, Sunni Muslims, and of course Daesh (their name for IS, which as a name they tell me is extremely offensive to IS, that’s why they use it J). A guy randomly came up to me on the street in Shiraz actually and declared after learning I was from America that “Iran will CRUSH the black flag of Daesh.”
- Sanctions: This one obviously comes with some emotions. Abo’s cousin spoke emphatically at how Iranians are literally hanging on every word out of the negotiations in Geneva. When the framework was announced in March he spoke of parties in the streets, and now with limited progress people have begun to resign themselves that things may not in fact change. Everyone I’ve spoken with brings up the same point – ironically the hardline religious government of Iran wants them to continue as they make money off of their control of the economy. So in fact the one purpose sanctions are intended to have doesn’t work and instead does the exact opposite. Barack Obama himself said of the Cuban sanctions: “In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new.” Perhaps Barack in his infinite wisdom can apply this beyond Cuba.
Perhaps just as interesting, no one ever speaks ill of Jews, or even Israel, other than to say that Israel needs to allow the Palestinian people to have their own state. Absolutely none of the “wiping it off the map” garbage that we hear in the media. In fact, in each city someone always points out to me the local synagogue. A theme that is absolutely re-occurring with everyone I meet is that “all people want is to love and to be loved.” That Christianity, Islam & Judaism all ultimately stand for the same thing and that is belief in a higher power and a sense of morality. Wow, the Christian fundamentalists in America could learn a bit from these folks.
I know I’ve rambled a bit here, but to be honest I simply wanted to do justice to a promise I made to my new friends – to share the actual opinion of real Iranian people with the world.
As the conversation began to taper off, we wandered back to the car for the drive back to town. As we came close to Esfahan, Abo’s cousin told me that Abo & Majid invited me to stay at their place, that I could check out of my hotel and spend more time with them. Seriously, the hospitality goes beyond anything you could imagine. I stumbled to graciously thank them and told them since I had already paid for my room, I would stay at the hotel for the night. I think if I had accepted all their kindness I would never leave Esfahan!
We said our goodbyes and I was told that next time I’m in Iran I need to bring Risa, my entire family – anyone, and that we won’t have to spend a dime, and we have a place to stay and hosts to take us around. All this from friends I met perhaps 5 hours before. A humbling experience and a reminder of the beauty of humanism.
“We love the idea of America; for what it has been, for what it could be, for what it stands for, and for what we hope one day it will be again.” – A wise farmer I spoke with for several hours in Yazd said this to me, and I pulled out my phone to type it as to not misquote him later since I thought it perfectly summed up a theme that so many have tried to tell me here. Interestingly I think he summed up far more eloquently than I ever could my feelings on America as well….