A while ago I was leading a seminar on intercultural issues with a group of masters students in migration studies. They were particularly diverse with backgrounds from across the world.
I showed them a photograph that I had taken myself of a café in downtown old Tehran, Iran. In the photograph are young women and men, possibly university students, talking, looking at books and papers and, I think quite clearly, enjoying being together and engaged in discussion.
I was surprised when one of the students put up her hand and said that this was Café Naderi. I didn’t think anyone would recognise it. I had said that we could discuss as the seminar proceeded; so I was happy to stop and talk about the café’s iconic nature. It has been there since 1927 and has had a constant reputation for being a meeting a place for generations of artists, writers, students and people who just want to enjoy the atmosphere. I only went there once; but felt that I knew it immediately based on what people had said about it.
I noted how proud the student who put up her hand seemed to be – as though so pleased that other students in the class could see this positive image of where she came from – an image of immense cultural and intellectual sophistication that would resonate with everyone in the room. It was a café like many others across the world, but a special one – and an image that was so well-known that a British professor was using it in his material.
The student’s apparent excitement indeed matched my reason for showing the photograph. It was part of my point that self-directed critical discussion is not only found in the ‘Western culture’ that claims to monopolise it. The photograph was juxtaposed with another one of a seminar at Tehran University in which the lecturer and students are sitting around in the sort of animated discussion that many people think can only happen ‘in Western universities’. (I remember myself being surprised, pleasantly, at the very high level of extremely well-informed discussion when I did a question-answer session with students at Tehran University twenty years ago.) The fact that all women in the café are wearing hijab might also lead people to imagine, falsely, that there might be traditional restrictions against such 90-year-old ‘modern’ café life.
Another photograph that I used was of young Iranian women celebrating, with huge colour, diversity and self-expression, being allowed, after decades of protest, to attend football matches. That many of them are holding, wearing, painting on their faces Iranian flags indicates that they can be both intensely critical and proud of their country.
However, the student’s intervention made me think of something more. I have often said that what we bring with us is our greatest resource in making sense of the cultural Other – once we can see past the destructive ‘us’-‘them’ grand narratives with which we have been brought up. But also important are the images of ourselves at our cultural best that we can bring as threads to connect with others. These are not restrictive, blocking statements about how ‘in our culture’ we don’t, cannot, never … – but memories from our personal cultural trajectories – our histories – that remind everyone that ‘we can’.
I think that the student who put up her hand felt under some sort of attack. Her country was suffering from bad press. She needed something positive to be associated with.