Memories of travel to Iran/Koh Choon Hwee – a malaysian student- is studying the history of the
Middle East and Central Asia in the United States. She is currently enrolled in a Persian course at the Dehkhoda Institute, University of Tehran.
She wrote an article about her experiences in Iran:
Riding the subway back to my dormitory in Tehran, I saw, on the busy platform, a young girl of about six tugging vehemently at her father’s hand. Her father, a huge, tall man, was trying to hold her back. The train doors shut at that very moment, and she erupted into a huge tantrum, stomping her feet, her face crumpling up underneath large, plastic spectacles.
Then, as fate would have it, the doors reopened, and in a split second she ran out of his grasp into my carriage. Her father followed swiftly and ran in. The doors closed once more and the train started moving.
“But I cannot be here!” He protested to his daughter, who now surveyed her surroundings with satisfaction. This was a women-only carriage, a norm too in the subways of Japan, Malaysia and India.
The father looked about awkwardly; the women around looked on, some with bemused smiles. A lady nearby casually stroked the golden-brown braid of the small, rambunctious girl who held a grown man under her sway. Then the girl noticed me, the only foreign face around. After a series of curious, furtive glances, her father nudged her: “Say hello.”
She looked up at me, her eyes magnified by her clunky spectacles, and held out her hand: “Hello.” And then: “Where are you from?”
This is my third visit to Iran since 2010. Many have noted the extraordinary kindness of Iranians — in Persian, “kind” translates to “mehrban”, which literally means guardians (“ban”) of love (“mehr”).
The scene wherein a tantrum-throwing, tyrannical and myopic daughter dominated her haplessly doting father resonated deeply, not only because it reminded me of my own past misdemeanours, but also for the subtle gestures of kindness expressed in response to it.
While the passively benign acquiescence of the women in the carriage may not have been surprising, I was intrigued by how naturally that lady began stroking the hair of the little girl. This gesture seemed to be a silent acknowledgment, on behalf of the silent commuters, of the singular circumstances and also an endorsement of the father’s continued presence in their midst.
If this gesture marked an acceptance by the “inner” circle of an exceptional “intruder”, father and daughter’s subsequent spontaneous interaction with me, a foreigner, seemed to be a way of “paying it forward”, of repaying the kindness to somebody else who inhabited the “outer” circle.
Kindness here, at its most basic manifestation, is the acknowledgment of one’s existence — it is very common for Iranians to approach travellers (who stand out visibly), and what begins as a simple conversation may end up in an invitation for a drink, a meal and more.
Such attitudes have often been described as the Iranians’ incredible hospitality towards foreigners. Indeed, this hospitality towards foreigners comes from the same spectrum of social norms that also extends to their fellow Iranians.
These norms are based upon an Iranian understanding of kindness —an instinct to make the “outsider” feel at ease — as well as a strong instinct of group solidarity, the sense that everyone is part of the flock. Hence, in any public space it is normal for a conversation to start among strangers or for transient group dynamics to take place.
A vivid illustration of this occurred last week, when I unwisely boarded a mixed-train carriage during rush hour. Suddenly, I found myself in a crowd of men that was jostling and pushing with a momentum of its own. Just as I started panicking, a burly voice boomed, instructing everyone to leave a space for the women.
The crowd adjusted itself and a generous bubble of space opened up for another Iranian lady and me. When I had to alight, other voices boomed, telling everyone to make way — I saw the crowd part and made my way out, untouched.
The glazed, unseeing commuter so common in many cities around the world does not exist here — everybody is attuned to other human beings in their midst. However, knowledge of Persian is crucial to moving beyond the threshold.
Arguably, one also observes tactical uses of Iranian kindness in the arena of high politics. Some readers may know of the United States Republican Tom Cotton, infamous for authoring a threatening letter to the Iranian government declaring (erroneously) Congress’ constitutional ability to renege on any nuclear deal President Barack Obama might broker with them. In April this year, Cotton published a series of provocative, angry tweets challenging Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to a debate on the US Constitution. In response, however, Zarif calmly (and kindly) congratulated the US Senator on his newborn child.
Of late, one question has been nagging at me: With the likely lifting of the sanctions and opening up of Iran to the world, how will Iranian society change? A temporary answer came to me unexpectedly on that subway train.
After a brief conversation with the father and daughter about Singapore, we arrived at the next stop. The train doors opened. The father tried in vain to carry his daughter out, but she kicked wildly and screamed. Her earlier bashfulness in front of a foreigner had dissipated.
However Iranian society might change after the lifting of the sanctions, it may be safe to expect that we will all remain essentially human, if not kind.