Sunday, 24 January 2016

"No Farsi"

If there's one thing visitors to Iran swear by, it's the hospitality.

One German tourist I met on a tour to Persepolis said he became friends with an entire family in Esfahan who were picnicking next to the river. An Italian woman I had breakfast with at my guest house in Yazd spoke of a similar experience, where she was taken out for dinner by a group of Iranians she had met at a cafĂ©.

Me? No such luck.

Maybe I look arrogant, something I've been accused of several times (yes, the problem with first impressions). But as it turns out, they (the Iranians) thought I was one of them.

By the time I reached the desert city of Yazd towards the end of my trip, I had gotten used to being taken for a local. Virtually everywhere I went, people would speak to me in Farsi until I convinced them I have no knowledge of the language. Many times they would refuse to believe me. One guy at a train station even looked at me in disdain.
'Oh, no Farsi!'

He probably thought I was a foreign-returned Iranian for whom speaking Farsi had become uncool.

But Farsi wasn't entirely foreign to me. Hindi and my own mother tongue, Punjabi, owe parts of their vocabulary to the language. For example, some numbers are similar, which made learning them that much easier. I was also told that many Iranians watch Hindi films and though they may not know the language, they understand the gist of the dialogues (a little bit of trivia here: the 1975 classic, Sholay, is wildly popular in Iran).

On some level then, maybe I wasn't a complete stranger to Iran, and visiting the country felt like returning to a faraway homeland. It made travelling to Iran that bit more special, never mind the countless incidents of mistaken identity, one of which puts a smile on my face even now.

In Yazd, I was walking to guest house a Swiss couple I had met in Shiraz were staying at. The road was a narrow one, with a vintage car parked on one side. A group of four to six tourists were blocking the path. Two were posing next to the vehicle, one was armed with a camera, while the others stood by. I managed to vaguely identify the words that escaped their lips as I slowed to a halt a short distance away to let them finish. Judging by their appearance alone, I narrowed their origin to Malaysia or Indonesia. But the vocabulary was not Indonesian. As I waited for them to finish, I concluded they were from Singapore or Malaysia.

Walking alongside them, I contemplated being friendly. As if on cue, one of them smiled, giving me the sign I was looking for.

'Awak semua dari Malaysia (Are all of you from Malaysia?)'
One shot back a look of horror, another stopped dead in her tracks.
'How do you know Malay?'
'Oh, I learned it while I was in school. I'm from Singapore.'
'Ya Allah! We thought you're one of them!'

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