I'm abruptly distracted from my increasingly ravenous glances at Tajrish square by the mangled and rather limited English of my reticent companion. He i- actually never mind about him just yet, as his time will come near the end of this piece. In retrospect, I take immense satisfaction with my retort since these questioning words were uttered midway through my rendezvous with the historical lands of Persia. Sans several ingredients, the complete concoction of experiences was yet to be stewed and stirred. But I was able to, rather miraculously, accurately encapsulate the taste of the cooked Persian stew (a steaming Kashk-e Bademjan) to my hitherto silent chaperone, and in turn prognosticate the rest of my trip.
In early December, as I tentatively broke the news of my travel to Iran to family, friends and foes alike, I was predictably greeted with histrionic exclamations fraught with dread, despair and denial. A decade of accumulated bias and media-projected negativity had fostered in our minds - even mine, regrettably, as I was the hapless by-product of the what the agenda-driven media wanted to thrust down my gullible gullet.
It seemed to the people to who loved that imminent danger was in my fate, as I was willingly venturing into a pit of peril; consciously acquiescent of an innocuous dance with impending doom!
But who do I blame? Myself or the consistent images I was fed of an Iran caressed with maleficent licks of violence, hatred and prejudice?
"You will get shot."
A decade of projected bias and negativity weighed down upon me, aided and abetted by the baggage of my dear ones.
A decade of projected bias and negativity, and in just two days I had fallen in love, helplessly and irrevocably, with the people of Tehran.
My initial encounters were exacting, as my knowledge of Farsi was negligible and so was their English. Yet there is a certain art of understanding without speaking in common tongue, and I found that when the limitations of spoken word lurk over two individuals, the sublime and elementary language of the heart adopts precedence. The magic of love - immortal, omnipresent and omnipotent - hovers eternally, waiting to be summoned.
In a day, with my laudable amelioration of rudimentary Farsi, our conversations start to sustain. I have also, to my mild surprise, found an unlikely icebreaker - Bollywood. Young and old, rich and poor - the magnetic power of an excessively extravagant genre of cinema was palpable. Hungry for some form of communication, I break out some of my choicest Salman Khan impressions to delighted chuckles. A youth from the land of Hindustan romping to Bollywood classics! My exoticism tantamount to theirs for me.
An intriguing union of cultures, and hearts.
Several middle-aged men tip their hats to Amitabh Bachchan, while a cigar-enamoured cabbie is flummoxed when I inform him that Salman Khan had just turned 51. I’m guilty of ruining his life at that moment, as he stutters incoherence amidst the unrelenting Tehran traffic, now aware that the newfound knowledge that his supposedly timeless icon was double his age would effectively result in transient insomnia.
The fanaticism is unbound by age, I tell you, as a wizened veteran limps up to me and croaks, “Vyjayanthimala!”, his finger quivering with the antiquated theatrical fantasies of his yesteryears.
A towering security guard whose face crinkles into a smile as wide as Talbiat bridge and he booms, “Govinda!” (at which point we both high-five) and then croons,
At which point, both of us put our hands on our hearts, collectively and momentarily losing ourselves in lustful fantasies of a classical beauty, as you do.
Danger and prejudice is what I feared, hospitality and love is what I found. Not a gun pointed to my head, but a cupid's arrow aimed at my heart. I was welcomed a brother, an exotic traveller that had graced their doorstep. In a quest for the Holy Shrine of Imam Khomeini, Google Maps decided to forsake our bond of trust, having not acquainted itself with the alleys of Persia, and led me dead centre at the end of my journey in a jewellery store. The chuckling, sadistically amused jeweller (once again in the magical language of unspoken word) beckoned me to stay, rest and feel at home.
Feel at home! Ensconced in the shadow of Talbiat bridge, Khoone restaurant welcomed me into its homely interiors, replete with fancy teapots, dishevelled bookshelves and flowery curtains. I asked for a menu and was blatantly refused because as the waiter assured me, ‘Khoone’ meant ‘home’ in Farsi and I was to feel completely at home. No one asks for a menu at home, and hence I didn’t get one.
I must say, I did resist the insurmountable urge to point out no one asks for the bill at the end of the meal at home either, but such impudence was unwarranted in a haven where prejudice was shed at the doorstep.
As I wandered through the bazaars of Tehran, drowning myself in the musical cadence of verbal Farsi, there were sights, colours, sounds, smells and mostly, voices, that the world paid no attention to. In the family of nations, Iran had been boycotted because it refused to comply with a certain domineering uncle's whims.
An entire nation left behind at the orders of Uncle Sam.
Blatant, steaming hot hatred. Found in just one place - a den of darkness.
As I walked past a skeletal simulacrum of the Statue of Liberty, it was evident that Uncle Sam was no longer welcome in what was once his home - the former US Embassy in Tehran, now commonly referred to as the Den of Espionage.
Scalding, coagulated hatred.
The former Embassy, now a miniature museum, welcomed visitors to view rows of contraptions intended for decoding, transmitting and pulverising confidential documents. A machine which they touted tapped into all the telephone lines in Iran, including the government’s. Walls now covered with anti-American murals, painting corridors that once nurtured surreptitious whispers.
A covert, devious den of espionage. An affirmation that none of the hostages were harmed in the Iran Hostage Crisis. Wistful reminiscence of the lives Uncle Sam had taken in vengeance.
On a huge canvas, a lifeless corpse of a bloodied child. Crude symbolism for the lives lost in the Iran Air Flight 655, which Uncle Sam impassively shot down without apology. The words below the dripping blood of the lifeless corpse, as haunting as death itself -
‘What sin did he commit?’
Who am I to comment on right and wrong? Good and evil? Ben Affleck’s Argo depicted the same event with different filters, and I’m being asked to discern one bias from another? All I know is that, in this particular tussle and all others, poor men suffered the brunt of rich men’s quarrels. This eclectic motley of Iranian humanity, bullied and ostracised from the world at large, had a voice no one wanted to hear anymore.
Uncle Sam runs the house and Uncle Sam decides who stays in the family.
One of my newly acquired Iranian friends with whom I gelled with over a mutual love for rap music (and who was also an underground DJ) said tha-
Are you struck by a thought?
Did you ever think of an Iranian DJ? In fact if you jump back a couple of paragraphs, was it minutely fathomable to imagine a homely restaurant, amused jeweller, Bollywood fanatics, rap aficionados or a clandestine DJ in the purported war zone of Iran? Yet, here they were in their hugging, kissing, laughing, welcoming, Govinda-mimicking, Tupac-extolling and remixing glory.
An eclectic motley of Iranian humanity that has remained unheard; painted a dark shadow of bigoted hatred.
…all of which brings me back to the question in the beginning of this piece, the mildly curious eyes of my laconic friend and the answer I unknowingly, yet truthfully, ended up giving. His face, gruff yet affable, bears the resigned look of a man succumbed to the monotony of life. He seems well-off and judging by the briefcase and suit he’s heading to work. He would have headed to work, uninterrupted, had I not approached him a couple of minutes earlier asking directions to the Tajrish Metro Station. His English vocabulary was on par with my Farsi, and the magical wands of unspoken words were brandished once again.
He took a detour from his usual path to guide me to my destination, even though it might’ve made him slightly late for work. I was engulfed in the dynamic colours and rich cacophony of Tajrish, and as a result, our journey was primarily marked with silence, until I was reminded of his presence by that fateful trip-defining question.
I gaze into his eyes, and maybe it was just the gratitude of a helpless astray man guided to light or a prophecy for the ages, but there was no other word I could’ve uttered but -
A question he asked in English and an answer I give in Farsi. A consummation of the cultures of Hindustan and Persia, one step towards Tajrish square at a time.
He grins. Heads bow down once again, and we continue our mute odyssey. I have an inkling he had more to say on the topic but was limited by more than just the impediment of spoken word. His voice, much like the desolated ruins of Takht-e-Jamshid, the unearthly murmurs at Naqsh-e Rustam and the innocence of the 66 children on board Iran Air 655, would remain perennially to the world at large - ignored, ostracised and unheard.
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