Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Persian dreams

It is a warm Sunday afternoon. I am at the residence of Mr. Mohammed Aslam*, an electrical engineer from Iran. Miriam*, his wife ushers me in with a warm smile.We are soon seated comfortably in their living room. Mr. Aslam introduces their sons Abu* and Ali*. After civic formalities, I get down to business. The Iranians soon put me at ease with their warmth and cooperation. I notice a shadow pass over their faces when they talk about the homeland they miss. However there is a ring of complacency and hope as they narrate their tryst with India.

Neena Padayatty: First things first, what were the circumstances which brought you to India?
Mohammed Aslam: Both of us came to India for studies. Iran is such a country where a plus two education gets you a good job. It was a fashion to go for higher studies. Students usually chose U.S.A, Canada or India.I just happened to choose India. I had an Iranian friend studying in Rajasthan.

NP: Was there any particular reason to choose Kerala?
MA: I got a seat in the government quota reserved for foreign students at the College of Engineering, Thiruvananthapuram. So I came here. I had not even heard of this place before. I met my wife (also an Iranian), who was doing her degree, in Rajasthan. We got married in Iran. After finishing her studies she came down to Kerala with me.

NP: Studies would have taken five to six years, at the most, why did you decide to stay back?
MA: You must have heard about the Iran-Iraq war of 1980.Our hometown Abadan is right on the Iran-Iraq border. So when the Iraqi army invaded our town was the first to be seized. My family home was destroyed. My wife’s parents were killed while fleeing. We had no home to go back to. They had expected us to return. If we had gone back we would have had to stay as refugees in some part of Iran until Abadan was released from Iraqi siege. Then we would have to start from the scratch. We didn’t want to do that because we were leading decent lives here. We still can’t go back because anyone whose been out of the country for a long time, whether rich or poor, are considered spies.

NP: It’s been almost 20 years since you’ve been here. Have you become citizens yet?
MA: We have applied for citizenship long back ever since our student VISAs got extended due to the war. The paper work is now complete. Verifications are going on. Our friend, Laurie Baker got his citizenship at the age of 76.I hope we wont have to wait that long. The people who have vouched for us are all respectable government servants. So I hope to have the postman delivering the good news soon.

NP: Do you miss your homeland?
MA: Of course, we do. Though our immediate families are no more we do have a large extended family. There were no calls from home for along time after the war. But now the situation has changed, our relatives have recouped after the war and have re-established connections. Whenever we have Iranian friends visiting us we ask them to bring cassettes of songs and films. It is a great culture.

NP: Malayalis are generally known for their hospitality, what does your experience testify?
Miriam Aslam: Malayalis are lovely people. Very helpful and cooperative. In Bombay, if you ask for directions they just point vaguely. But here, people are even ready to take you there. However curiousity is very peculiar in Malayalis. They ask too many questions. If you are ready to answer two or three questions you can make friends. We used to find it irritating in the beginning, but now we know that it’s a way of breaking the ice. We have a lot of friends here.

NP: Migration from Iran in the Middle East region of north-western Asia to Kerala must have been a sea-change. How far have you adapted to this change?
MA: I think we have adapted to a great extent. The language is still difficult. We still speak very little Malayalam. I teach English in schools and also take spoken English classes. My students have helped me a lot. As for our cooking, it is a cross between non-spicy Iranian and spicy Keralite. Our guests love it. The climate here is good, though summers are hot. After the rain it is beautiful weather, clean and cool.

NP: How is life as refugees?
MA: Under the United Nations, a refugee is a person who has no country to go back to. But we are slightly different because we told them we didn’t want financial aid. We are educated, we work, we lead respectable lives. This was welcome by the U.N. We just wanted permission to stay here until we became citizens. Every year, we have to go to Delhi to refresh our documents.

NP: The government of India is known for its benevolence to refugees, asylum seekers and the like. What has been its attitude towards you?
MA: The government of India is welcoming to people from Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan But a person from a Muslim country is viewed with suspicion. Maybe because of the terrorist activities. A few years ago when there were terrorist attacks we were summoned for questioning. When they found us innocent, we were cleared. That’s all part of the national security. Generally we don’t have much of a problem because we do not fall in the category that depends on the government for sustenance.

NP: Kerala leads in the number of NRIs, a majority of who have migrated to the Gulf in search of jobs. Being non-citizens was it difficult to find jobs?
MA: Yes, it was difficult. I know a lot of Malayalis go to the Gulf, because there the wages are high, work is plenty and workers are less. Here it is just the opposite. The wages are low, work is less and the workers are plenty. I wasn’t prepared to work here as I had only intended to study. But when I chose to stay back, I was forced to work. There was the language problem but people trusted me. I used to work as a service engineer but now I am into teaching. My wife is also teaching. SISO books recently published her grammar book.

NP: After 20 years, you still hope to become citizens of this great nation. Would you mind sharing your dreams and hopes for the future?
MA: Citizens or non-citizens, everyone has hopes for a bright future. We expect our citizenship soon. If it gets too much delayed, then we might think of moving either back to Iran or to USA or Canada. Opportunities are more there. After all that’s what we learned from living in Kerala. We want our children to have a permanent home .So God-willing that might happen soon.

* Names changed to protect privacy.