Remember Muhammad? He was the cleric who we met buying plane tickets, had an extended chat with Fi about the virtues of headscarf wearing and was a useful tour guide to us around the Holy Shrine in Mashhad.
Muhammad liked us. Sure his views on hejab weren’t to our tastes, but he’s a conservative Shiia cleric in a conservative Muslim country so that wasn’t, like, a surprise. Also they came as elegantly explained as he could muster with very limited English and amidst an endless offer of other kindnesses. He wanted to take us to dinner, to meet us in Tehran, to drive us to Shiraz and host us in his home. None of his offers really suited our plans, but we gave him our phone number when he asked for it. We’ve seen virtual strangers swap numbers on the street here, so we thought it was the right thing to do.
Then we heard from Muhammad a lot. He called a few times a day. He got worried when we didn’t pick up. He wanted to know where we were and what we were doing and most of all he wanted to see if there was any prospect in meeting up again. No obstacle to this reunion would be too great…
We were in Tehran! Could we wait three days for him to get to Tehran? No we could not because our visa was expiring and we had to leave the country. On exactly what did did our visa expire and when might we be able to return? Soon, and then we had people to meet in Turkey. Could we bring them back to Tehran and he would host us all?
We tried to be polite and then evasive but polite. Our visa and our plans in Turkey really were a constraint. But the more evasive we became the more calls we got. And the worried texts when we didn’t pick up. He missed us, he said. Meeting us had been the best time of his life, he said. We’re hoping that message was motivated by limited vocab rather than sincerity. We tried to make it increasingly clear that we wouldn’t be able to meet in Iran again and to do our best to extinguish the idea that Muhammad should join us in Turkey. And then we just had to end our Muhammad subscription, stop taking his calls and replying to his texts.
If we were from a different culture (or possibly just frank people) we would have told Muhammad he was bothering us and he might have gotten the message. But where we come from telling someone not to talk to you is kind of a big deal, and we usually rely on them picking up on social queues to establish when they’re not wanted. That’s less effective in cross-cultural communications, I guess.
We’ve been a novelty in lots of the places we travel: China, Pakistan and Iran especially. People want to practice their English on the street, to learn about New Zealand, to take photos with us (more or less surreptitiously) and a couple of times lately people have wanted to explain Islam to us. I like to think we’re pretty tolerant of this. We always say hello back. I don’t think we’ve ever turned down a request for a photo. Some of these interactions have turned into the most insightful conversations we have had about local life (like this and this). Some have ended up a bit uncomfortable. And sometimes the sheer volume and intensity of people who are interested in you can be tiring. I’m now a little more sympathetic to zoo animals and those dolphins who are trained to do tricks.