Christmas, Khatami, Ahmad, and I
My younger son helped me set up our Christmas tree again this year.
It feels like it was only yesterday when I wrote here about Christmases past in Tehran. Today I remembered another memory of my days in Tehran. I remember the first Christmas Mohammad Khatami had been elected President. Iran was a rainbow of joy and hope, and Tehran was hosting the Organization of Islamic Countries’ Summit in December 1997. I left a meeting in downtown Tehran, hailed an orange taxi cab, and asked the cab driver whether he could spend an hour or two, taking me around Tehran to buy some things. He agreed. He was a middle-aged man who was dressed in what we would consider “laat-e-kolah-makhmali” attire. His coat was resting on his shoulders with his hands free from the sleeves. The back of his shoes had been pushed inside, and in his hands he sported a green rosary with which he was playing as he drove his Paykan. True to form, he also had a black felt hat on. He had kind eyes and a deep Tehrani accent, complete with lingo that was reminiscent of old Iranian movie characters. I told him I needed to pick up a Christmas tree first. He took me to the Armenian neighborhood of Tehran just below Takht-e-Tavoos Avenue and helped me carry the tree and secure it in the trunk. On our way to my next destination, he and I started talking about politics. I told him I had watched President Khatami receive his foreign counterparts at the airport that morning. I told him how impressed I had been with him. He looked at me in the mirror and asked me what about the President had impressed me. I told him I didn’t really know. Maybe it was that he seemed to be speaking to the arriving leaders easily, in English? In German? In Arabic?, and that he was acting “stately,” something I hadn’t seen before. I told him also that even in his clergy outfit he seemed lithe and somehow contemporary, belonging to today. Maybe it was because he wasn’t wearing sandals, I guess. The cab driver kept moving his rosary in his hands and looking at me in the rearview mirror. He asked me gently: “Really? You are obviously a woman who has seen more than life in Tehran. Do you really think that a president who can chit-chat in a language other than Farsi is impressive? Or one who wears regular shoes? Does that make him a good president?” He said: “I feel so sorry for my country. Who would have thought there would come a day when knowing a second language at conversational levels or wearing shoes would be considered impressive?” I was so embarrassed. The “laat-e-kolah-makhmali” cab driver didn’t look so laat anymore! I asked him his name and his background. He told me his name was Ahmad and that he had a master’s degree in political science from Tehran University. He had been a teacher before he had been dismissed because of his political beliefs. We talked a lot more about a lot of other things before I bid him goodbye, tree and turkey and fruits in hand. I learned a few important lessons about myself, about life, and about Iranian politics from him that day. Those lessons have only become bolder and more important with time. Merry Christmas!