It’s 90 degrees outside (a cool evening, according to locals), pitch black and I’m sweating like an excited, yet confused dog. I’m ambling along with my family in tow in Ahvaz, Iran, which is in the Khuzestan province. I’m 15 years old, just young enough to dodge the mandatory draft. There was hot desert dirt as far as the eye could see and it was eerily silent. We planned on taking a short stroll to visit our cousin who lived down the road.
It was my fifth month there, and I was sure I understood most of the sociocultural nuances – or so I thought. I could play the tarof game with the best of them and not look the slightest bit awkward. And, most importantly, I knew that most Iranians did not follow the strict attire codes in the privacy of their own homes. Getting private and public life mixed up can lead to sticky situations with authority figures, though, especially in the only remaining theocratic country in the world.
As I’m cracking jokes to my cousins and exaggerating about my exploits in America, I notice a small nondescript car roll up right alongside me. It’s the morality police – I know this because the two people staring at me did not look amused. One mustachioed police officer points to my legs and says, in Farsi, “Hey guy, I didn’t know there was a flood.” I look down at my shorts, look back up and say in English, “Sorry, I don’t speak Farsi.” That’s a lie. I knew exactly what he meant: Men are not allowed to wear shorts in the Islamic Republic of Iran – and my cargo shorts did not pass the modesty code.
I wasn’t in the mood for being flogged (this is the actual punishment) so I decided that playing dumb would help me out. I let my aunt take care of the officers (read: bribe) so my careless mistake would not get out of hand. After the negotiations, one of the officers scrunched up his face and yells at my mother, “Is it that hard to teach your son how to dress? He looks like a typical American.” I looked into the sky, whistled “Yankee Doodle” and pretended like I had no idea what was going on.
Sometimes you need to be quick on your feet in order to keep tempers from flaring. Uncultured Americans looking for sympathy cannot charm the morality police, and I wasn’t about to test their kindness. I had been warned several times of their mercilessness. I think I just got too comfortable.
But in the end, it worked – the officers let me off the hook and told my mother if they ever saw me in “flood gear” again, they would hold me in a jail cell until I got the appropriate attire on. It was a scary send-off, but I learned my lesson: Always be conscious of the way you portray yourself in a foreign country, even if you think what you’re doing is harmless.
You see, going from a world filled with McDonalds and democracy to a world filled with Ghormeh Sabzi and theocracy proved to be intimidating, especially when you don’t know all the rules. That’s why it’s important to be very observant of all that is occurring around you. I noticed how people interacted with one another. I noticed the nuances. I took mental notes. And then I tried doing the same things they did. Sure, I would fall flat on my face sometimes, but the idea is to keep trying. You need to be okay with being embarrassed sometimes. Forbearance is key.
I later recall chatting it up with a policeman on the Khuzestan border who was waving an AK-47 in my face as if it were a toy. Normally, if you were to tell me that someone was going to brandish a large semi-automatic rifle in front of me, I would have been genuinely frightened. But this situation, like all situations, was different. He gruffly asked me to open up the trunk of my Peugeot to do a routine inspection.
While he was rummaging through my personal possessions, I chatted him up about Iran’s failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. After we commiserated over the poor performance, he gave me directions on how to navigate out of town. I then realized the assault rifle was secondary to our conversation. Above all, people – anywhere – just want you to relate to them on some level, even if it’s about something as trivial as football. That’s how trust is built.
DAVE KARIMI actually refrained from using Sailor-talk in this column. That’s because this is an essay he used for his Peace Corps application. If you liked the column, or feel it necessary to continue pigeonholing him, you can shoot him an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.