Upon discovering that it is almost impossible to find a Persian who understands English, I decided to learn a few key phrases in Persian before my visit to Iran. Besides the basics such as 'please' and 'thank-you', I also learnt how to say, 'I don't understand Persian'. I assumed this would save me from a tricky situation I am only too familiar with, where a huge woman is bearing down on me, babbling away in Persian, oblivious to the fact that I don't understand a word she's saying. Unfortunately, I made a false assumption.
Before entering the mosque for Friday prayers in Qum, everybody is checked and handbags are searched thoroughly. Although cameras are allowed at the Holy Shrine, they are not allowed in the masjid. I was unaware of this and was therefore stopped at the door of the masjid by a fierce-looking woman, who pulled out my camera and began waving it in the air. As she began yelling at me, I desperately looked around for my sister, who knows fluent Persian. However, she too was being challenged about the contents of her bag, so I turned back to my interrogator and politely informed her that I didn't understand what she was saying.
She paid no attention to me and continued shouting. I couldn't tell if she wanted to keep the camera, let me in with it, make me take it outside or throw it out herself. Now panicking about what would happen to the camera, I grabbed her sleeve and repeated that I didn't understand Persian. By this time, another woman had come over to see what the problem was and when she heard what I had said, she turned to me with an incredulous look on her face. I roughly translated her next few sentences as:
"What??? You don't understand Persian? Why not? Anyway, it doesn't matter whether you undertand Persian or not, NO CAMERAS!!"
She grabbed the camera from the first woman and thrust it into my hands, vaguely waving in the direction of the exit. At last, my sister came over.
"Sorry, my sister is from England and doesn't understan what you're saying," she explained.
"Oh, England! I'm very sorry, I didn't know that. Tell her to take the camera outside and leave it in the lockers," said the first woman in gentler tones. She turned to me but before she could say anything else, I took my chance and rushed outside. So much for getting out of tricky situations.