I wonder how much most Venezuelans knew about Iran when presidents Chavéz and Ahmadinejad began to get politically cozy, and Venezuelan and Iranian workers started flowing back and forth between Caracas and Tehran.
Iran first entered my own imagination through a world map my mother loved playing with when we were children. The map—a traditional Mercator projection of the kind that shaped the idea of the world we all had back then—covered almost half the wall of my brothers’ bedroom, and showed a country called Iran, with the word “Persia” in brackets just below. To me, at age 8, Persia was where one of my favorite games, Prince of Persia, took place.
As the years went by I encountered more Persian references in my mathematics textbooks, and Persian poets in my parents’ library. And also in movies set in that “faraway” land. Hollywood films, of course. One of them was the tragic story of an American woman who marries an Iranian and whose world falls apart when they visit his country of origin and she finds herself trapped by her husband’s deception and Iran’s repressive mores. Against the odds, she manages to escape with her young daughter, and knows she’s finally back home when she glimpses the good old Stars and Stripes….
This was a radically different image from the one I held of Persia. To me, Iran was part of the Middle East we all used to think was practically all Arab, an image shaped by the stories in The Arabian Nights. On the latter I wasn’t wrong, but I discovered this only much later, when both Iran and Persia turned up quite unexpectedly in Caracas.
In 2007 I was working at the Ministry of Popular Economy, the ministry that administered the finances for what became the Chávez administration’s backbone strategy at the time: financial support for cooperatives and training in entrepreneurship for disadvantaged communities, among other things. Most of my work involved editing and translating the documents that flowed down from management to the rest of the ministry. I would also copyedit manuals and presentations, and transcriptions involving sums of money so large that were hard to read in number form.
Among the documents that came across my desk were letters and invitations, and one of them captured my attention: a memo assigning places for a Persian-language course targeted at technicians and department heads. It seemed like a difficult and extravagant strategy, but I asked to be admitted to the course.
The classes were led by Iranians with degrees in Spanish translation and literature. Young people in their late 20s, some of them outside of Iran for the first time. For me, the classes were the gateway to a fascinating world, not only of language and grammar, but also of personal interactions. Two-thirds of the class would be spent on questions about Iran: “Why do women have to cover their hair?” “How come some of them don’t?” “Why do you have so many wives?” “In my religion, God is everywhere. Why do you people pray facing Mecca?” What began as a language class had become a class in Iranian Studies.
I advanced slowly in my language studies, but became an avid consumer of all things Iranian. The language teachers became dear friends, especially one in particular, who walked me through classical Persian music, cinema, poetry, and contemporary history. I read and listened to different accounts of the 1979 revolution, and about life in contemporary Iran. I discovered a long list of words that came from Persian to Arabic, and finally into Spanish. It was then that I found out that many of the Arabian Nights stories, including the tale that binds them all together, had strong ties with Persian traditional folk tales.
Observing how these new friends reacted to Caracas was a special experience, and hanging out with them in the spaces they lived and frequented felt like being in a tiny Tehran in Caracas. The women seemed happy not to have to wear the veil, and to enjoy buying the kind of clothes that were difficult to find back home. I got into the major experience that is waxing, Iranian style, together their ways of doing hair and make up. We exchanged Latin American rhythms with Persian ones.
The people I encountered through this exchange were a mix of language professionals, technicians, engineers and embassy employees. Some of them came with their families. Others had left families and loved ones behind.
During traditional observances, the Iranians’ political leanings became visible. Supporters of the government, for instance, would celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year, at the Embassy with prayers and a traditional meal. Opposition supporters would celebrate it dancing at home or at one of their favorite Iranian restaurants in Caracas.
In terms of freedom of speech, I was struck by an Iranian friend’s views on the newspaper I worked for after leaving the Ministry, a strong opposition paper created to critique the Government's moves and to challenge Chávez in any way possible (these days it’s in deep trouble due to the fierce backlash from the government and lack of resources). Visiting me at the office, he would stare in awe at the front pages displayed in the hallway and whisper: “In Iran this would be just impossible!”.
But most of all, we had heated conversations on Iran, Ahmadinejad, Chávez and Venezuela. Some of them liked Chávez and disliked Ahmadinejad. Some of them disliked them both. Some of them understood the popularity of both presidents, and some of them just didn’t get any of it and merely wanted a change of air. These conversations offered me a glimpse into the differences in class and approaches to religion, an insight that deepened with the arrival of new Iranian translators who had graduated from public universities, or who came from regions outside the Iranian capital.
Most of my Iranian friends were middle- or upper-class; they were more open to Western ways and more critical of the government and the idea of an Islamic Republic. To me they seemed similar to privileged young middle- and upper-class Venezuelans, but with a greater maturity that seemed to come from not having received everything they wanted.
The new arrivals were noticeably more conservative. One of the women ended up sharing an apartment with the Iranian friend who later became my boyfriend. She had a radically different attitude towards the veil from most of my friends, and would ask my boyfriend to stay in his room while she combed her hair, something he had a hard time understanding. I wonder if she disapproved of my visiting him, and even staying overnight, though if she did she never let on.
It's difficult not to imagine how shocked the more conservative and religious Iranians, like those who worked for the Embassy, must have been on first encountering Caracas. The skylines of Venezuela’s main cities bristle with huge billboards showing women in provocative bikinis, beers in hand, their open mouths beckoning sensually. The overheated rhythms of reggaeton and erotic salsa spill out of buses, and in the clubs people dance suggestively in the dark, chest to chest. It’s practically a requirement for TV stars to show lots of skin.
I know, of course, that such activities aren't entirely unknown in Iran. There’s Persian reggaeton and wild parties are reported to take place in certain sectors of Iranian society. But much of what I describe above could hardly be experienced so openly in Iran. I recall seeing a group of Iranian Embassy staff dining at a popular Persian restaurant, looking down at the table, visibly embarrassed, as a Shakira-impersonation contest degenerated into a pole dancing session on the restaurant’s TV set.
My male Iranian friends say that when they first arrived it was hard not to stare at Venezuelan women in shock, but they adapted quickly to the laid-back atmosphere, despite long hours working under the sun on projects in the countryside, translating for Iranian technicians that needed them to continue working with them, often with no compensation for the many hours of overtime. Despite, too, the wretched housing conditions they often had to endure, and the odd selection process under which they were rarely told the exact dates or conditions of their departure from Iran. After acclimatizing to Venezuela, even some of the Iranian women would adopt the more revealing dress style of their Venezuelan peers.
It was not uncommon for the work contacts the Iranians made to turn romantic, as happened in my own case, or even to evolve into marriage. Romance bloomed in spite of language barriers, and at the construction plant in Guarico state where my Iranian translator boyfriend was posted, one heard stories of Iranian technicians disappearing with female co-workers during the work day. The bus that brought the work teams to and from the plant was full of couples who could barely communicate with each other, and the Iranian translators were sometimes called upon by their male compatriots to translate love declarations for prospective Venezuelan girlfriends.
Venezuela’s relationship with Iran hasn’t been free of controversy. Opposition leaders fear the country’s becoming an active player in the politics of the Middle East. In 2009 Chávez reported that Iran was helping Venezuela explore for uranium, and online political commentators (es) and others have spoken of an alleged influx of Hizbollah fighters into the country.
Meanwhile, other kinds of exchanges have taken place on both sides: Iranian streets named after Chávez and Bolivar; Venezuelan bands making music videos featuring Tehran. A new television and online channel proposed by the Iranian government is targeted at a Latin American audience, while in Venezuela Iranian cooking workshops and Persian language courses proliferate, something that would have been impossible to find ten years ago.
Cultural exchange? Propaganda? A bit of both? It is difficult not to worry about the direction certain alliances can take, but what fascinates me are the cultural and personal encounters that take place outside the sphere of government interference. Omitting these would leave the picture incomplete.
The political alliance continues. We do not know how long it will last, despite the ardent declarations made by leaders, who say it will last forever. Like some of the love affairs I saw blooming back at the plant in Guárico state, the relationship between Venezuela and Iran may be passionate today, but it is also tumultuous and uncertain. What will happen to the relationship if oil prices keep going down, and if Venezuela's social and economic situation continues to deteriorate?
But beyond these fears, I know that many invisible bridges have been built for good. All of my female Iranian friends married Venezuelans, and will surely raise a new generation of Perso-Venezuelans that few would have thought possible a decade ago. A special group of Iranians is still discovering Latin America in different ways. My own romantic attachment may have not lasted, but the one I forged with the cultures of Iran is unbreakable.
I still turn my head when I hear somebody speaking Persian, I still try to memorize poems in the language, and in moments of doubt I look for answers in Hafiz’s ghazals. I’ve chose Iranian subjects for academic papers, and I suffered deeply when people dear to me were caught up in the protests and the repression that followed the Iranian elections in 2009, particularly when one of them was jailed and wounded morally and physically in prison. I still wonder if, after that experience, he managed to keep alive the fine and sensitive spirit that had so attracted me when I met him back in Venezuela.
Cultures exchanged, but through human interactions. Cultural horizons opened, comfortably or uncomfortably, for better or worse. The intercultural is the interpersonal. As I dust off these memories I remember the words of a dear friend, a writer and a longtime Venezuelan activist, who, like me, became quite enchanted with Iran through its people. He was once married to an exceptional Iranian woman, an activist before and after Khomeini’s times. He once told me: “Once an Iranian crosses your path, you will never be able to escape their charm.”
Years later, even now that I'm living in France, his words still resonate. Whatever Iran or Venezuela were, or will become, the thing that will last are the new cultures built by people out of the need to open oneself to new worlds. My encounter with Iran is the proof that cultures are in reality an almost ungraspable universe, difficult to define in a decent number of words. History, class, politics, religion and literature draw so many different pictures of this country, that one is always shocked by attempts to oversimplify the reality.
It feels right, then, to draw inspiration from the words of a beloved writer to explain what Iran was, is, or can be, at least for me: Only with the greatest simplification, and looking for convenience, we talk about one Iran. In reality, except for the geographical appellation, the Iran we think we see might not even exist.