A Conversation in the City of Poets and Nightingales
By Julian Worker
Shiraz is called the city of poets and nightingales in Iran. I had been in this city of nearly one million people for three days since arriving from Esfehan.
I was walking towards the bazaar in the late afternoon, when a voice suddenly said, “Ex’coose me, do you speak Engleesh?”
“I am English,” I said, turning towards the speaker who emerged from the crowd. He, a Shiraz youth of late teens with dazzlingly white teeth and wearing a yellow sleeveless shirt, looked confused by my answer.
“Engleesh,” I said pointing at myself.
“Ah, you Engleesh, ah good, me speak Engleesh with you?”
“Farsi balad rustam,” I repeated from memory, telling him I didn’t speak Farsi.
“Ah good,” he said, “My name is Ahmed, what is your name?”
“Hello Ahmed, my name is Julian.”
This exchange of pleasantries took place in front of some stalls selling fruit, pistachio nuts, and cigarettes. Tuk-tuks and buses whizzed by on the road.
Ahmed took a deeper breath and said “I understand the weather in Manchester is very dirty.”
I tried not to smile too much.
“I live near Manchester,” I said.
“Oooooh, I see that is interesting,” he replied.
I explained about the Manchester weather and when I had finished he took another deeper breath, “I understand the weather in England is very rainy.”
I told him that Shiraz has a lot less rain than in England, but that there had been a drought in certain parts of Britain and that there was a water shortage. I don’t think my weather report went down too well with his preconceived chat-up line as he then changed the subject.
“My uncle son in America.”
“Where in America?”
“Whereabouts in America?”
“He paused before saying in slight desperation, “In America.”
“In which city, New York?” I tried not to sound too frustrated.
“Yes, er, no, in Los Angeles, Cal-i-forn-i-a, he has a job, in insurance.”
He grinned because his pronunciation was correct, “Where do you work?”
I explained that I worked in the computing industry.
“Oooooh, I see that is interesting. This is my Engleesh book.”
He handed me a medium-sized dictionary cum phrasebook with every useful word in it from bandage to zebra and sayings such as “Can I order four plane tickets for next Monday, please.”
He took a deeper breath, a sure sign that a prepared question was on its way.
“Excuse me, can you discrib Engleesh flig?”
“The Engleesh flig, discrib,” he almost pleaded, waving his arms in a rectangle.
I gathered he wanted to know the layout of the British flag and before I could stop myself I was explaining the geography of England, Wales and Scotland and I traced 3 very square countries with my finger on the back of his book.
“That’s England there, that is Wales, and that is Scotland.”
“That is Engleesh flig?”
“No each country has a different flag, which are all part of the British flag, which is called the Union Jack.”
That was too much, “Please use words that are easy.”
“OK, I will try,” I said and looked in his book for some help; there was none to be found, telling him his pet hippopotamus had glaucoma would have easy using his book, but there were few geographical references at all, especially to Western nations.
I did find some colours though, “Discrib, English flag,” I said and pointed to the red and white in the book.
“Oooooh, that is interesting, how is it?”
“Like this,” I said and drew an imaginary flag, “The cross of St. George.”
“St George, an imaginary person, a knight, a fictional character, a crusader.”
“Please use words that are easy.”
“I can’t I’m afraid,” the book didn’t help again; I then had a brainwave, “St George killed the dragon!”
“What is dragon?”
I found lizard in the animal section of his book, pointed to it and then moved my arms very wide, like an exaggerating angler and said “Dragon” triumphantly.
He looked at me slightly pityingly, “St George kill lizard, this big,” he said and moved his hands about three inches apart. He giggled, “He was very brave!”
I smiled and shrugged my shoulders.
Then came another deeper breath, “What is interesting to see in London?”
I paused; there were so many things to see, “The Tower of London.”
He looked a little unsure.
“The Tower of London is a castle, a big fort.”
“What is fort?”
“A fort is a place with large thick walls like,” I paused and then remembered the police headquarters in Shiraz, “Like the Shahrban there,” and I pointed behind me.
“The Shahrban is over there, yes,” he said.
I tried something different, “The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.”
“In London – houses?”
“Lots of them,” I said.
I then tried suggesting St Paul’s Cathedral, but this line of conversation progressed from me trying to explain that a cathedral is the Christian equivalent of a large mosque to Ahmed asking who Jesus was. I then became aware that the two of us were being listened to by a small crowd of people.
I looked at my watch, “I have to go back to the hotel, I have some washing to do.”
“May I walk with you?”
“May I spend some time in your room?”
“No, not really, my girlfriend is there.”
“Oooooh I see, that is interesting.”
Ahmed was then engaged in conversation by two men who were walking along hand-in-hand, a quite common occurrence in Iran. After the three of them had finished talking, my friend carried on walking with me.
“What was all that about?”
“They wanted to know who you were. I told them you were tourist. They asked me where you were from. I said England. They said they didn’t think you should be here.”
“You can’t please everyone,” I thought.
“You phone me, please?”
“When should I phone you?”
He ignored me and asked a taxi driver in a parked Mercedes for some paper and a pen.
The taxi driver provided them, shook my hand, and offered me some lovely fresh bread, which I gratefully accepted.
My friend had written down his number.
“You phone me at 10 ‘o’ clock please,” he said and gave me the paper.
“I can’t phone you then, we are visiting the Boghe-ye Shah-e Cheragh shrine and then tomorrow we are catching the bus to Yazd.”
“Ooooh that is interesting, OK, I will go now. Thank you for talking to me.”
And with this he disappeared back into the crowd.
Julian Worker has written articles on Middle Eastern and European architecture for the US
magazine Skipping Stones. He has written travel articles that were published
in The Toronto Globe and Mail, Fate Magazine, The Vancouver Sun, and Northwest
Travel. Examples of Julian’s writing can be found at his website.