Birthday With Enemies
cultural interchanges, hospitality, Iranian neighbors, refinement

Birthday With Enemies

Three years ago today I was visiting Istanbul, where Sankar was already hard at work. We decided to take a day trip to one of the Prince’s Islands, a popular destination in the Sea of Marmara that features well-preserved Victorian homes. As we sat on the ferry waiting to leave, a family arrived and sat down next to us: mother, father and three daughters. The mother and two older daughters wore scarfs on their heads, not an uncommon sight in Istanbul. But when we began talking we realized they were not Turks. The family was from Iran.
They introduced themselves in excellent English. The father was a hand surgeon, the mother a scholar of world religions. Their oldest daughter was about to graduate from the University of Tehran in electrical engineering. The middle daughter was studying medicine, and the youngest was a squirmy, artistic eight-year-old.
We had a three-hour boat trip ahead of us, and we ended up chatting with them the entire trip. They offered us sweet, dark Iranian dates and we discussed the recent movie, Avatar; U.S. graduate schools (of great interest to the engineering student); 3M surgical products the father used even though sanctions prohibited their import; and the country’s recent, failed Green movement.

It was exhilarating to talk with “forbidden” people. Kind of like encountering citizens of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But I had to stop and compose myself several times so I didn’t start to weep. I was aware of what my country had done to Iran. The U.S.-sponsored coup that removed its democratically-elected leader in 1953. Our support of the repressive Shah who kept our oil prices low, but sparked the widespread outrage that led to fundamentalist rule. Our assistance to Saddam Hussein during the 8-year Iran-Iraq war. What did these friendly, exquisitely polite folks think of us and our country? 

It was a fascinating day, more because of our congenial new friends than our quiet island destination. 
Three years ago. We were poised at the beginning of our time in Asia Minor, with dozens of interesting experiences ahead of us.  Now our years in Turkey have ended. We are back in Minnesota, and the gray snow and long winter months have done their work. We have learned to be “normal” again. We have learned to talk infrequently about our experiences. Minnesotans are good at prodding us back into place.
But I still think of that day, my 55th birthday. I wish I was back on that boat. Back at precisely the moment when five strangers sat down beside us.

11 thoughts on “Birthday With Enemies

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