Our first night in Melaka, some weeks ago, I met a young man named Ali. We played a few games of pool at our mutual hostel and during said games (where I lost horribly, I might add) we had a conversation that spawned a friendship.
Ali is from Iran. He’s in his early twenties and going to university in Kuala Lumpur. When I asked what he was doing in a small town like Melaka he told me he was on holiday until October and decided to see a bit more of Malaysia. Iranian culture is not something I know much about; I’ve more than doubled my knowledge in the last few months just from the tidbits about the recent riots and unrest due to the Iranian Presidential Election. I was excited to learn more…what I found out shortly was that Ali was just as interested to find out more about the United States.
Ali is from Tehran, the capital and most populous city in Iran clocking in at about 13 million in the metro area. He has a brother who is abroad as well. He spoke fondly about his family and their desire to see him succeed. He also added, rather randomly, that most Iranians generally do not have a problem with Americans. He stated, “Your government and our government don’t get along. The government is not the people. No one likes Ahmadinejad anyway.” People want the same things for themselves and their kin, work towards the same goals in life. He asked about our taxation system and what it paid for; he was appalled when I said we didn’t get big discounts on college or free health care. “What do your taxes pay for, then?” Infrastructure and public services, I said. “You should get more than that.” Hmm.
He was also keen to point out that Iran is not an Arab nation. It is Persian. The Iranians have a deep-rooted dislike for Arabians, and the Iraqis in particular stemming from the 1980-1988 Iran/Iraq war. There isn’t a whole lot of interaction between Iranians and other countries, as Iran restricts a lot of outside culture from penetrating the Persian way of life. I suppose it’s a way of preservation.
The next day, Ali had to leave and get some things done in KL, and we moved on too. We met up again soon after, though, as we both went to Tioman Island at the same time and hung out. More conversations were had.
Iranians speak Farsi, which shares a few traits with French surprisingly. It’s difficult to emulate, but we did our best (to Ali’s amusement.) One question he asked was what the difference between image and photo was in English – we explained, but then started discussing what image could mean, including self-image. He asked if it was the same root word for imagination – because, he says, in Farsi, they are related – image is Tasvir, imagination is Tasavor.
We spoke music. Ali is a fan of Persian music (Sonati) and some of the electonic scene (yes!) but said there isn’t much Western music in Iran. Surely he’d heard of some of my favorites, even if I played some of their music for him. Foo Fighters? No. Pink Floyd? No. Journey? No. Genesis?? No. Michael Jackson?! Yes. Finally! That man was universal. It appears that hip-hop was starting to leak through, as he knew of (and didn’t like) Eminem but enjoyed 50 cent. Of course, none of the bands he named I was familiar with. I fail at cultural awareness.
We spoke religion. Ali prefers spirituality to religion, as many of the fanatical figures he’s known have invoked ‘religion’ in their doings and have been corrupt representatives. The three of us sat on the beach and talked about God, the stars, and the earth. At that point, we were just three human beings. Nothing more, nothing less. It was rather beautiful.
As time came for us to part ways, I was struck by our fast friendship. We’d spent a lot of time together and the whole “US/Iran Relations” thing hadn’t crossed my mind since day one. Ali is quality, and a wonderful representative of his people. I made a promise to make him a list of American movies that I felt captured the spirit of our country, a wish I still need to follow through on. I hope to see him when we return to KL later this month.