In My House You Are Welcome

 By Patricia M. Walsh, Iran I

We didn’t get many visitors to Ahwaz Agricultural College in those days. So, the game between our male students and the boys’ basketball team from the American high school in Tehran was eagerly awaited by both our students and our faculty.

True, we weren’t located on the moon, but our neighborhood’s terrain in southwestern Iran did resemble a moonscape, and our village of Mollasani was 25 miles from the nearest town.

Yes, agricultural experts came by from time to time. Even the head of the Chaldean rite of the Christian Orthodox Church in Iran made a surprise visit to see me. Me!!! Imagine that!

I remember how the word flew around campus that day “Xoda (God) is here! Xoda is here!”

Storks visited the campus every year, making nests on chimney tops, and, of course, SAVAK, dropped by once (once that we knew about, that is). But, we were definitely not a tourist destination.

So, the basketball game was a big deal indeed. It had been arranged by the American embassy. Thinking back, although it might have seemed a little unfair to have pitted a group of high school students against a team of college students, the age difference wasn’t the only issue between them.

Our students were part of an ancient culture, yet they studied on a campus that was still under construction and lacking in almost everything.

The campus was located on the banks of Iran’s largest river, the Karun, in a province that bordered Iraq. The old section of the campus, where I lived, was the former guest quarters of the National Iranian Oil Company, and traces of elegance still remained. Palm trees, gardens, and the most fragrant flowers surrounded our house.

The new section of the campus housed about 100 students, and some faculty members and their families. The soil around it was a salty, dusty clay, that often erupted into dust storms that blotted out the sun and covered everything, including our teeth.

In the summer, the temperature in Khuzistan could reach 140 degrees F and, as one of the faculty members pointed out, “Our entomological world is very rich.” And so it was. Insects abounded, especially at night in the library, as they zoomed in through the unscreened windows, making

studying a constant battle between students and bugs.

Our young American guests lived very different lives. Persia may have been the land of the King of Kings, but their country was a superpower. They lived a more protected, manicured, green, and insular existence. Their parents’ salaries and positions allowed them to shop at the American commissary and avoid the local economy; to swim, eat American food, and socialize with other expatriates at the American Club.

Their’s was not a chelo-kebab kind of world. They had no need to bargain with Iranian merchants, or to learn Persian. If they chose, living in Iran didn’t have to be an adventure.

So, there they were: those two teams from totally different worlds, facing each other that day on land where Medes and Assyrians and Scythians had met in battle thousands of years before.

As the game began, we all gathered around the basketball court. Actually, it was a flat, dusty area with some markings on the ground, and a couple of poles with baskets.

I knew only three things about basketball. Follow the rules, play fair, and try to get the ball into the your team’s basket.

For some reason, the American team didn’t seem to know or care about Rules One and Two. They shoved and kicked and got angry, and frequently and deliberately elbowed their Iranian opponents. As their unruly behavior and lack of discipline began to work to our players’ advantage, the Americans began to look increasingly worried and out of sorts.

Now, you ask, which players were “our” players? I knew none of the American players. We had only a nationality in common. The Iranian players were another story. I knew every one of them. For me, the team loyalty issue was a simple one. The home team was my team.

Not so for Sara. Sara was 16, the daughter of an American faculty member who taught poultry science. During the game she started to cheer only for the American team.  Unfortunately for Sara, she was standing in front of me. Every time she cheered for the Americans, I let it pass. But when “our team” scored, a poke from me encouraged her to give them a cheer as well.

As the game continued, I could see the American players becoming increasingly unsportsmanlike, and losing points in the process. When they finally lost the game, they didn’t take it very well.

After the game, our students and faculty walked over to the dining hall for dinner. It wasn’t a fancy one like the one in the American compound in Tehran, but it was functional, and Mr. Sabzipour, our college chef was a superb cook.

The faculty section of the dining room had windows that looked out on the campus and also into the student dining hall. That night the faculty could see two scenes: One was our students, elated by their victory, eating and talking and laughing about the event. The other was a defeated, sulky, and very apprehensive American team trying to take the measure of their Iranian opponents and hosts, and afraid of the reception they might face if they entered the dining hall.

Finally, to their credit, or more likely because they couldn’t get a meal anywhere else for miles around, the Americans slowly made their way up the steps of the building, and into the dining hall.

As the Americans walked into the hall, the entire student body of Ahwaz Agricultural College, in the village of Mollasani, in the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzistan, in the second largest country in the Middle East, rose to its feet and cheered them.

Cheered them! Cheered the losers!

I couldn’t believe my eyes or my ears!

For two years, I had experienced Persian hospitality, but that moment of graciousness was a high point. My eyes misted over.

I was so proud of our students.

Sure they were the winners. Sure that made it easier. But they didn’t have to do that, and the American students knew that. They looked surprised, relieved, sheepish, and happy.

That night a group of American teenagers from Tehran sat around tables in an agricultural college in Iran eating Persian food, drinking Fanta and Pepsi Cola, and talking to dozens of Iranian college students who were eager to meet them, to practice their English, and to learn about America.

They were also learning the meaning of the Persian expression: “Manzele man, manzele shomast—my house is your house.”