I think a lot about community and diversity and how we can break through centuries of bias, fear, hate, and—most of all—the win-lose paradigm that humans embrace. The story I’m sharing is just another one of those ah ha moments of insight that help me to do better.
I’m an infidel. I’m Jewish. I’m an American, and I’m a woman. Any one or all of these factors put me at risk when I visited Iran in the summer of 2004. To my Iranian friend’s more religious relatives, I was an unwelcome guest.
My exclusion, however, was minimal, because most of the family embraced me warmly; I assumed certain behaviors that allowed me to fit into the wider community. For example, I rarely wore a hijab (head scarf), in the house, but dutifully put one on to go outside or to any public place. I left it on when relatives who wore their head coverings came to visit. I experimented with all kinds of scarves, since most often I looked like a Russian baba (grandma) in a babushka—not very glamorous or attractive. Muslim women seem to have the knack for looking gorgeous, even when covered from head to toe in a black chador—the outer garment worn in Iran by observant Muslim women. Frustrated by how I looked in a head cover, I blasphemed under my breath as I donned my scarf: “Allah is great. Mohammed is his prophet and they both hate women, or at least they hate me.” It was incorrect to do that, I admit, but saying it allowed me to vent my displeasure over forced clothing restrictions that included not only a head covering but long outer garments that added to my discomfort in the high heat of the Iranian summer.
There was one uncle, Hossein, a robust man in his mid to late sixties who, in keeping with Islamic law, would not shake my hand and, Allah forbid, gave no hugs. Otherwise, he was gracious and friendly. One morning, my friend’s father, Reza, told me that this uncle needed U.S. dollars for a hajj, which was occurring later that year
The last time he exchanged money, he had been cheated—given counterfeit bills.
“Would you mind exchanging with Uncle Hossein some of your U.S. cash for Iranian money?” asked Reza. Why not? I was still anticipating a few days of shopping at the old bazaar and would need to exchange dollars anyway. Maybe the uncle would like me better. The two men took my cash and went off to a corner to figure out the exchange. I sat quietly on the couch, unconcerned, reading one of the few English language books in the house.
When they finished, Uncle handed me the Iranian rials. “Do you want to count the money?” asked Reza. “Uncle wouldn’t want you to think you have been cheated.”
I stared at them while thinking to myself, “How in the hell could I know? I don’t have a clue what the exchange rate is, or even how to read Iranian money.” But to Uncle, I said, “No, I have no need to count it. I trust you completely.” Reza translated.
I was squeezed in a massive bear hug, my breath coming in ragged heaves against his chest. Uncle held me so tightly that I could hear his heart beat. The entry fee into this community was not money, not religion—it was trust.