Friday, November 14, 2008

Arshiya: Maverick, Cynic, Persian

 Arshiya on campus

I met Arshiya through another couch surfer, one of his classmates studying English literature at the prestigious Esfahan University, on the steps of the Si-o-seh (33 Arches) bridge, which spans the Zeyandeh River. Iranians describe Esfahan, known as the City of Art, as being the most beautiful city in the country. I found both descriptions apt, as I wandered Imam Square, the winding labyrinth of its bazaar and its charming riverbank parks.

He is 18, though he looks about 13, making his offer to host me at his home feel somewhat like having a middle school student invite you to his marriage.

"I have four homes," Arshiya explained to me, "so don't worry about a place to stay!"

Esfahan is in mine (and popular) opinion, the most beautiful city in Iran
They include his father and stepmother's home, where he normally stays, his mother's apartment, and two grandparents' homes. In busy rush-hour traffic, we opted for one of the latter, where we spent the night with his two aunts and 11 year-old cousin, Fatima.

They chose not to join us for dinner, for religious reasons, leaving Arshiya and I to discuss Iran's education system, which is quite distinct from that in the West. From primary through to high school, they attend classes from around 7:30 to noon, finishing before lunch. They also begin streaming from tenth grade, receiving a diploma by eleventh in their chosen specialization. Arshiya specialized in humanities, and it showed. Though only beginning college, he is already well read in classical Persian poetry, reciting (in translation) stanzas from Khayyam's Rubaiyat by heart and making casual reference to Plato, Nietzsche and dialectics.

Shah Mosque at Imam Square, Esfahan

He also, with a puff of his chest, provided me with his exact academic ranking. Of the two million or so Iranian youth competing for a place in university, he knows where he ranked nationally, out of his division*, and then for English literature positions in his institution (17th out of 50). Coming from the West, where people tighten up at the notion of ranking people explicitly, it reminded me of my Singaporean cousins' culture of "Childhood as Academic Coliseum." But for a prodigious young man like Arshiya, who claims to be "married to the English language" and has already been teaching the language for two years, he basked in the placement of his ranking.

He wears a gold Farshallah medallion around his neck, the symbol of Persian people, and like almost every Iranian I've met, he detests Arabs and their influence on his country's language and culture. When a Polish backpacker had mentioned his plan to head to "the Gulf," Arshiya immediately interjected: "You mean the Persian Gulf."

One of his aunts is a theology teacher at a high school, and I had the opportunity to speak with her later in the evening, as Arshiya translated a series of questions we posed one another. Described by her non-believing nephew as "extremely conservative," she maintained the full-length chador, compared to my host in Tehran, who dressed openly in shorts and t-shirts within the home. We spoke of wahabism (falsified and power-driven), nuclear energy and weapons (the first a national right, the second undesirable), Israel and Judaism (no problem with Israelis and Jews, problems with the Israeli government), Iranian women's rights (they are completely free) and why I came to Iran (to have these very discussions).
Arshiya's aunt and family (the theologian is the one on the right)

It was amusing watching Arshiya's expression as he translated his aunt's answers. He makes no qualms about voicing his dislike of religion, Islam included, though he goes through the motions of prayer and other rituals sometimes in order to satisfy his aunts and society.

"All Muslim women, in Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and so on are completely free," he translated, before turning to me, eyebrows raised, to add: "She claims!", leaving no doubt to his own opinion.

But just as things were getting interested, his aunt left quickly, apologizing as she left the room. Had I offended her? My one chance to talk to an actual supporter of the regime, and she had run off!

"Her favorite serial is starting," Arshiya explained, "and it’s the final episode of the season."

Later, an interview between Ahmadinejad and Larry King was being broadcast, and Arshiya's aunt called us in to watch. He translated ably for me, having just explained his rather grim belief that Ahmadinejad and the mullahs who he thought engineered his election are intent on attaining a nuclear weapon and attacking Israel, whether or not it also leads to the destruction of their own country.

"Everyday I wake up I thank God that there's still peace," he confided.

With a friend of his after a fancy dinner

Walking around town, and whilst visiting his campus, it felt clear that I was being talked “at,” and not “to.” He and his fellow English majors would often make fun of each other if they made a minor grammatical slip, asking me for feedback and to correct their English. Studying English connects them to the outside world, and more directly: to prized Western backpackers like myself, whose attention they could be quite catty over.

Whilst outside a bookstore, a young girl asked me if I needed any help. Arshiya suddenly reappeared.

“No, he’s with me. He doesn’t need your help!” he declared, aggressively, and she left, taken aback by his attitude, and Arshiya continued to shoot death glares at her long after she had left.

“Some people want to just use you to practice their English, but they just talk shit,” he told me.


*Major cities make up Division A, whereas small towns and villages take up a different position, similar to affirmative-action quotas

A young couple enjoying a biryani lunch off the main commercial thoroughfare (Esfahan)

1 comment:

Francisco Galárraga said...

Arshiya seems like a very weird guy. Was the girl who asked you the question arab or something?