I believe small talk can bridge big differences. Before traveling to Iran, I thought small talk was trivial– at best a necessary prelude to more important topics and at worst a waste of time. I assumed only deep conversations about core beliefs could unite people.
As my father and I prepared to visit his homeland, I worried about how I would connect with the relatives I’d never met. My father comes from a religious family in Qom, the heart of Iran’s religious establishment. I was raised in the Great Satan without any religious beliefs. Would my family in Iran ask if I believed in God and the Imams? Would they reject me because I was living with my boyfriend?
Instead I was taken by a tidal wave of affection. With few exceptions, they just asked how I was—over and over. I quickly absorbed the elaborate Farsi variations of “how are you?” and wondered if we’d ever get down to the good stuff—where everyone stood politically and religiously.
As I immersed myself in the daily lives of my hosts, I began to doubt any common ground lay between us. Most outings included a visit to a shrine or mosque, car rides began with prayers, and every door that threatened to open on a group of unveiled women would scatter them like birds to retrieve their chadors.
Toward the end of my two-month trip, a group of female relatives and I gathered at my aunt’s house, abandoning our headscarves and the outer layers of our clothing in the absence of men. We took turns peeling oranges for one another and inquiring into the health of loved ones. As I sipped hot tea, holding a small piece of block sugar on my tongue—how Iranians sweeten tea– I told my aunt Zahra that Iranian sugar must be thicker than American sugar. American sugar cubes, I explained, dissolve before you finish your cup. Aunt Zahra giggled and stroked my hand. My longing to connect with her on a “deeper” level subsided and I relaxed into our meandering chitchat. Like the intricate designs of the Persian carpets we sprawled over, the complexities of Iranian and American politics and society became background.
In Iran I learned that deep understanding could take root in seemingly barren land. Smiles matter. Laughter matters. Small talk matters. A long conversation about nothing much convinced me that our internal lives aren’t bound by beliefs but can fill even the spacious silence we share with one another.
I got a message from my aunt Zahra last week. She said she felt the pain of my absence when a piece of sugar melted instantly in her mouth as she sipped her tea. She thought the piece of sugar might be American, like me. I don’t know why her words triggered tears but I know it has to do with our talk about nothing.
I believe people are more than their beliefs and that understanding between those of seemingly irreconcilable differences might begin with “hello, how are you?”
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