Everywhere we go in Iran people want to say hello. “Hello!” they say. And then “Welcome to Iran!” Often there’s some variation of “From country?” Their smiles suggest they’d love to ask more, but they don’t know how.
In Qazvin there were more people who could take the conversation a little further and wanted to prove it. My best guess is that’s because Qazvin, scarcely two hours from Tehran, is in a richer, better-educated part of Iran, but sees fewer tourists than the bigger cities. So we were still a big novelty.
These conversationalists would get in step with us when we walked the city streets. They’d rattle off an elaborate, and presumably much practiced speech. It’d include a welcome, for sure, and probably a thank you to Fiona for respecting local customs and wearing hejab.
One was an English teacher for kindergarten. He told us, with great excitement, that we were the first native English speakers he had ever spoken to. He showed us around an old caravanserai – an inn where traders with their camels stopped to rest along the Silk Road – and he showed us the book he was learning English from. It was published in the US, a rarity in Iran, and he’d covered it with Persian newspapers so it wouldn’t be recognised and pinched.
Another informed us, as part of his opening salvo, that he liked German people very much, but hated the English. “Impolite!” he said “one English say she want to be alone, not talk to me!” With his English so forceful it came out aggressive. I knew how she felt, but we felt some obligation to oblige him lest New Zealand end up on the hate list too.
Then there was Vahid. He introduced himself when he heard us pondering options over the guidebook as we bussed in from Tehran. He was headed to Qazvin to start the first semester of an MBA. Remarkably, he’d chosen that over a Masters in Engineering at University of Auckland where he could continue his studies in earthquake proofing. The first base isolators, he said, were in a tomb in Iran, but it didn’t amount to invention, because the system was inadvertent.
It was great to talk to Vahid. His English, education and background meant we could have meaningful conversations about a wide range of subjects: health insurance premiums and retirement savings in Iran; why alcohol is banned in Islam; Iran’s tempestuous relationship with Saudi Arabia; internet speeds; constitutions and tax. That’s to say nothing of the far superior taxi fares he bargained for us when we traveled to a nearby valley together the next day.
It was great to make a connection where we were more than an English language learning resource. We learned a lot from Vahid. We really hope he makes it to New Zealand one day so we can show him around.