Navigating the language barrier

 In Iran, Iran grassroots diplomacy delegation, Peace Action West News
Payun, me and Mehran at the store.

Payun, me and Mehran at the store.

We arrived at our hotel in Esfahan around 4:00 yesterday afternoon after a short flight from Tehran. We didn’t have any planned activities, so I decided to take a walk and see if I could find a new converter to plug in my laptop. The one I brought with me is not suitable for use with a laptop and had started to emit a troubling smell, making me think it or my computer might explode. I had tried unsuccessfully to find one by popping into stores, and was having trouble explaining what I needed to people.  I decided to give it another try in Esfahan.

The first store I went to I said “salaam” as I walked in and then handed over my current converter to try to see if they sold them.  The clerk knew some basic English and was able to direct me to a street on my map where I could find a store and gave me directions. I took my map and headed out, but soon found myself lost, so I stopped periodically and asked for directions by showing my map with the street marked and having people point me in the right direction. At my second stop I got oriented on the map and realized that what had thrown me off was that the street signs (which are sparse as it is) are hung perpendicular to the street, as opposed to the way I am used to seeing them in the US. Once I got the Taleghany Ave., my destination, the next step was figuring out which of the many stores would have a converter. More than one person had recommended the street as the place to go, but no one could tell me the name of the store I wanted since they’re all in Farsi and I wouldn’t have been able to read the signs. I started stopping in stores that looked like they had various electrical items.  Often times I would hand over my converter and two people would look at it and speak Farsi to each other and eventually determine they didn’t have what I was looking for a point me farther down the street.  I really wanted to understand, but unfortunately it’s difficult to pick up many words just listening to conversation, so it wasn’t much help.  Finally one man called his friend over from across the street, they talked some, and he started walking with my converter so I followed him.  After passing a few stores, he pointed across the street and handed it back to me. Despite my inability to communicate what I needed accurately, everyone I met was very helpful in getting me to my destination.

I walked into the store and greeted the two young men and the older man behind the counter. As soon as I handed over the converter, the young men asked me what country I was from. When I told them the US, they were very excited because they had never met an American in Esfahan before. They asked me a lot of questions about why I am in Iran and I talked about the work we are doing to promote peace between our countries. They were shocked when they asked how old I am and I said 29 (this is pretty much the universal reaction here—everyone thinks I’m younger. Is it the head scarf?) I asked them what they thought about the United States, and Mehran and Payun said they ignore governments; everyone is human and they want to be friends. Then they asked me what Americans thinks of Iranians. I explained that most Americans want peace with Iran, but a lot of them do not know much about the Iranian people which is why I am here, to go back to the US and help build understanding between Iranians and Americans. Not only did I finally find the adapter I had been looking for over several days, I made some new friends.

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  • Sarah Ford

    Thank you, Rebecca. for being a voice for the millions of Americans who believe that a peaceful and respectful approach to Iranian relations is the only approach that will succeed. The scene you described looking for your converter could have taken place any where in the world. Thanks for sharing it with us. By the way — you look great in the head wrap.

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