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Saturday, 23 February 2013


Sometimes when I get tired of teaching, I wonder whether the whole thing is worth it. In every class the back row is filled with students (“tourists” as we called them when I was a student in Greece) who play games on their mobiles, chat in whispers or simply daydream, thinking that I have never been a student myself and that I am so old that I can’t see them or hear them. On days like these I wonder whether I should give up.

But then I remember the good things. After the first lesson of the new term four weeks ago, a young man whom I have taught for the last three terms came over to my office. He had been depressed throughout last year, attended erratically, did only the absolute minimum of written work and had repeatedly told me how he felt that there was no point in studying and that the whole of life was a dead-end. I had tried to help him be more positive, as had many counsellors, but without success.

He looked changed now. He came in smiling brightly, saying that he had got a job teaching English, was preparing for an international exam and had never felt so positive in his life before! Although I hadn’t had anything to do with his transformation, the fact that he came to share it with me reminded me that I should count myself lucky to have witnessed one of the many miracles that can, and do, happen.

Maybe teaching is worth it after all.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

How lives end

The bizarre process of dementia is taking my father on a reverse journey: from independent adulthood he progressed to childhood, when he clapped his hands, delighted at watching movies of animals and playing games. About two years ago, he took his last steps and slipped into bed-ridden infancy. He is now past the babbling stage, only smiling when he hears a familiar voice. We can only observe and feel helpless.

A few days ago I got out of the underground station at Shahrerey, where a number of taxi drivers usually stand around calling out for passengers. One of them, holding a small glass of tea, came up to me.
“Where are you going, haj khanum? The university?”

He was dishevelled and untidy, but I didn’t have the nerve to ignore him. I followed him to his car. He finished off his tea, opened the boot and put the empty glass in it.

The rear windscreen bore a funeral announcement like the ones stuck on walls. I sat in the rear seat. The driver wore a black shirt, had a grey, untidy beard. After a couple of minutes of silence, he mused, “When one’s wife is alive, one doesn’t appreciate her. She used to prepare some breakfast at least; now I have breakfast in the car, and go home all alone in the evenings, no-one to talk to…”

“May God grant her peace,” I whispered. “Was she old?”

“Only forty-five, but she had had a stroke and a heart attack. She had survived the bombing during the Iran-Iraq War. Our house fell on her and she was rescued after two hours. I was at the war front then. Out two-month old baby had been with her too, but he died under the rubble. This affected her speech, and gradually she spoke less and less, until her heart gave way.”

“May this be the last of your sorrows,” I said, finding refuge from my feelings of inadequacy in the conventional formula.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Twenty four years ago

Twenty-four years ago, on the second of February 1989, I arrived in Iran for the very first time. That was six months after the end of the Iran-Iraq War and during the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the victory of the Islamic Revolution. I worked for Iran Air at Heathrow Airport at the time, and I had been sent to Iran as an official guest for the festivities, along with other non-Iranian colleagues from other stations. My in-laws, who could not wait to meet me, were at the Homa Hotel almost as soon as I was shown into my room and got my tour guide’s permission to spend the night in their house. I took a black chador I had borrowed from a friend in London out of my suitcase. My friend had explained that Shahr-e Rey, or Shabdolazim, Hossein’s home town in the south of Tehran, is a pilgrimage destination, so a chador is always to be worn in the street (I have written more details about Shabdolazim in a previous post; for the record, the convention of wearing black chador everywhere in Shabdolazim only now applies within the shrine compound and not to the whole town). I found the idea of wearing a chador exciting, like a child dressing up. The trouble was that I was one hand short: overnight bag in one hand, bag with presents in the other, and the missing one to hold the chador in place. I must have been a ridiculous sight as I stumbled out of the lift to meet my father-in-law and sister-in-law. Haj Nasser the Blacksmith, as he introduced himself, was shorter and stockier than Hossein, but had the same endearing smile. Sister-in-law Mansoureh, a primary school teacher, was the same age as me and single, with eyebrows still unspoilt by the beautician’s hand over hazelnut-coloured, almond-shaped eyes. This was the first time I ever travelled outside Europe: I felt as if I had stepped into another, magical world. Everything seemed strange, exhilarating and yet familiar, as if I had come home to a place I had never seen before. I had not realised it then, but now whenever I am asked why I love Iran, I say I suppose it’s the people. (Except for the last paragraph, this text is adapted from Among the Iranians: A Guide to Iran’s Culture and Customs, Intercultural Press, Boston, Mass, 2010)