Persian Lessons: Heartache for Iran

A few years ago, a fellow came to work with my team who grew up in Iran. He wasn’t very tall, but he was dark and handsome. He had features like many Southern Europeans—Spanish or Italian or Greek or French—narrow nose, strong brow, sculpted jawline, brown eyes.

His hair was silver when we met, wavy and long, down to his shoulders. He fancied himself an artist: a painter and musician and a poet. But he was hired on a technical writing project in Persian: his native language, the language of Iran. As I would soon find out, he felt responsible not only for accurately presenting the language but the whole of Persian culture.

“Don’t call it Farsi, it’s wrong to call it Farsi,” he said. “In English, you should call it Persian. It would be like me saying Inglés when I was speaking in English. It’s not proper.” And that was the first of many lessons about the great Persian people.

“It’s an Indo-European language, you know. Do you know what the Persian word for thank you is? Merci.”

We talked in working meetings of the food; of the diet of grains and fresh fruit and very little meat. He told me about the special stew that they made in clay pots that was served in the cafés, and how the café was a special gathering place; more than a coffee shop here, really a place of social activity. For men, mostly. Much of Persian public life was reserved for male activity. Which was ironic, because women had been relatively liberated under the Shah. Once the Islamic Republic was established, the hajib became compulsory. Although some females still worked and even participated in politics, men and women were largely separated, even during wedding ceremonies. “The only people left are poor or uneducated. The majority of the population of Iran today are ignorant young people.”

Farid, as I’ll call him, must have been in his late teens or early twenties when the Shah was overthrown in 1979. While he had no love for the Shah, whom he called corrupt and greedy, he really seemed saddened by the current state of his homeland. He spoke of how the culture had been devastated after the Revolution. How religious fundamentalists had pushed out all the intellectuals and professionals, and how he came to Los Angeles as a young man to escape them. His father stayed at home with his mother and sisters in Tehran, and he tried to visit as frequently as he could, but it was difficult. Years passed without seeing them, and this seemed to make him sad.

I got the impression his father was a difficult but successful man, and that Farid had never truly pleased him.

Farid had settled in Los Angeles, in an area with so many displaced Persians they call it Tehrangeles. He spoke of being involved in the music and film industries. He sent me to his My Space page, where he featured recordings of classical instrumental music. He could quote Ferdowsi, Rumi and Hafiz, and he felt that none of them had been properly translated into English. He wondered if they ever could be.

“See, the Arabic calligraphy is art. The letters are art, the way they are shaped, the words and their placement on the page. It is all lost in translation.”

He purchased a motorcycle and a house in a good neighborhood soon after he arrived. I got the sense that he didn’t need to work for a living. He worked very slowly and methodically, and was very perfectionistic. He complained as soon as he arrived that the project was going to take twice as long as projected. I explained that there wasn’t much hope of extension beyond its allotted scope. He had grand ideas and felt confident the higher ups would understand.

He gave wonderful and plentiful gifts. He brought back scarfs and beaded pillows and some kind of honeyed pastry for the whole team after a trip home, despite the no-fly lists and political tensions. He kept fresh tea in his office and offered it to anyone who came by, with a tray of fresh dates.

I asked him about Islam. He said it was a good religion, but that he wasn’t a very good Muslim. He explained the connection to Jesus, how he was a special figure in the religion, which I already knew a bit about. I was more surprised by the 5 Pillars of Islam, and the imperative to pray five times a day, to travel to Mecca, rituals of cleanliness, and the spiritual idea that interest on money is evil (something that after the Wall Street melt down, I might be inclined to agree with). After several such talks, he gave me a Qur’an, a beautiful edition with colorful text and a yellow binding, the paper thin as parchment. I still keep it on my shelf next to my Bible.

I spoke to him of my simple home life with my husband and child, and he asked about them often. My husband, due in part to my workday reports, he did not think very highly of Farid: he thought the fellow was arrogant and selfish, and in some respects, he was. Farid never gave an indication of anyone significant in his life except his mother and father. The thought crossed my mind more than once that he may have been a homosexual: but nothing he ever said or did confirmed or even indicated it.

He was not easy to work with. Others started complaining about his aloofness and the dryness of his prose. He got very angry with me once, and I with him, but we sat down and talked it through, and I felt like our relationship was for the most part repaired.

As the deadline for his project approached, the higher ups decided to let his contract lapse. They did not tell him, but they already had someone else in mind to finish the project. He was crushed after they told him his position was not going to be renewed. I tried to be encouraging, and told him I would be happy to be a lateral reference if it would help.

In the days before his departure, he began to get more angry about his own personal situation—“They are children!”—he said of the bosses, and frustrated with the United States over its policies with Iran. He ranted about how the U.S. was wrong for supporting the murdering Shah, but also wrong for not intervening against Ahmadinejad, who he thought was crazy. “He doesn’t believe that the Holocaust happened. A lot of people in Iran don’t believe it,” he would say shaking his head. At that point, I wasn’t 100% sure he believed in the Holocaust himself.

“You have to understand. Tehran is a huge city. It’s like Los Angeles. It’s bigger than Paris. It needs power. We have to have nuclear energy, or we’ll be a third world country. Who is the United States to try to deny us that need?”

Farid was proud of his Persian heritage. Of the great kings of the days of Alexander. Of the Zoroastrian fight of good over evil. He was a human being torn between to opposing forces, truth and falsehood, and two nations, his homeland, and his adopted home. I believed he suffered much, in that land between, not knowing whom he could trust; not knowing if his mixed loyalties were warranted and his moral convictions sound. He so wanted to do something right, to work for the good of peace and understanding. But in this instance, his message and his methods fell largely on deaf ears.

He stopped by the office once, several weeks after he had been released from his assignment. He poked his head in my office unannounced. And I hate to say it but he gave me a start, standing there in his black leather jacket with his motorcycle helmet in hand. He was nothing but kind, and I fought back tears listening to his deep regrets that he could not finish what he started. He had two promising leads for new work, and told me that he was not at all worried. That he would be fine, if God was willing.

In the end, how could he trust either nation or people? He didn’t belong fully to either.

As I reflect on Farid, I wonder where I belong, and whom can I trust? Then, as now, few of our leaders seem truly good and just. As both nations again skirt the issue of war, can we really maintain hope for a peaceful solution?

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