Haziz and Our New Iranian Friends

I am in Dubai to present at a conference directed by the author of Cultural Detective Arab Gulf, Abdulhamied Alromaithy. His wife, Layla Al Bloushi, will moderate my panel. It’s my first time here, so I’m excited. Today was my tenth anniversary cancer-free, and we planned to celebrate by going to the top of the Burj Khalifa. It was beautiful.

In the morning, however, we walked around the old part of the city. Greg and I were fascinated by the organized chaos of the port. Boats were anchored three to six deep. How in the world did they get out once they were loaded? Packages were stacked everywhere! How did they keep track of what was where? Aren’t there waves in the Gulf? Wasn’t the loading precarious? Here the longshoreman show up in pickup trucks, SUVs and small trucks, to hand-load packages of textiles, boxes of spices, and many, many appliances to be shipped around the Gulf. We even saw electrical transformers.


The boats themselves were absolutely gorgeous, wooden structures brightly painted with filigree and other details. They looked very old. And the men who were working them were so very welcoming, cheerful, hardworking and happy.


The highlight of our day serendipitously became the invitation we received to board and tour an Iranian shipping vessel at the port in Dubai Creek. Our visit was accompanied by tea, lunch, shisha, and some great non-verbal communication that bridged my non-existent Farsi with our hosts’ non-existent English. Thankfully a spice trader helped us out with some translation.

To board the boat we had to climb up a very rickety ladder, then crawl over the side and jump down quite steeply. Our hosts very politely watched out for our safety and were extremely hospitable. They got a kick out of our adventurousness and curiosity.


We learned that it takes 15 hours to sail from Dubai to Iran, and that they visit five ports there. Our hosts assured us that even with our USA passports we would be safe and happy. As I have work today, going with them wasn’t really an option to consider.

They showed us the captain’s bridge, the sleeping quarters, below deck where there’s a kitchen and stowage, the roof where there’s more stowage. We were told they bring gold from India to Dubai, textiles from Dubai to Iran, and spices from Iran to Dubai. All of them had been doing this their whole lives. There were also loads of household appliances bound for Iran: washers, freezers, and loads of things made in China.

I asked how they got in and out of the port amidst so many ships. “No problem,” was the answer, as Haziz pointed to a small opening between boats, through which none of the boats would fit. Leaving port obviously takes a lot of cooperation between vessels. I asked how they knew where everything was, to load an unload. “We know.” I guess a lifetime teaches you the order in that apparent chaos.


Many thanks to David Benson of www.goexploreae.com, who told us we could go up to the multi-level parking structure across from the port to get a bird’s-eye view of that organized chaos going on in the creek. Thank goodness we did! What a view of both the boats in the waterway and out the other direction!


It was a wonderfully full day of cross-cultural interaction. We spent time with Filipinos, Malays, Indians. Not many Emiratis yet, but there is always tomorrow.

Using Our Perceptions to Discover Ourselves: Two Iconic Embraces

We often hear that feedback says as much about the person giving the feedback as it does about the subject of the evaluation.

Our perceptions can tell us loads about ourselves. Take a quick look at the photo below, and take a few notes on what you see.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Elena FriasKeep looking at the photo above. In case you do not already know, the photo was taken at the funeral of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez in March 2013. On the left is Chavez’s mother, Elena Frias de Chavez, and on the right is Iran’s President Ahmadinejad. Now, pause and take a few more notes on what you see in the photo.

Did your perceptions change between the first and second times you took notes? Before you proceed, take a moment to reflect on the values, assumptions, and beliefs that underly your perceptions.

Once you’ve done that, how about looking at another photo? Same instructions: take a look at this photo, and jot a few notes about what you see. Perhaps you have already seen both of these rather iconic photos.


Keep looking at the second photo. If you did not already know this, the photo was taken during the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Democratic Republic of Germany (East Germany) in 1979. On the left is Leonid Brezhnev, leader of the USSR, and on the right is East German President Erich Honecker. Now, take a few more notes on what you see in the photo.

Did your perceptions change between the first and second times you took notes? Before you proceed, take a moment to reflect on the values, assumptions, and beliefs that underly the perceptions you noted this second time around.

Finally, compare your perceptions, and your values, assumptions, and beliefs about both of these photos. In what ways did you respond similarly? In what ways differently? Why?

In fact, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was criticized for consoling Chavez’s mother in this way; she is not a member of his family, and thus, such touching is haram or forbidden. While my research shows the photo to be real, there are reports of the photo being doctored in order to cause problems. I personally find the actions captured in the photo quite believable: a man consoling a grieving mother and bridging cultures in the moment. Below are two sources for those of you curious to learn more about this photo and the response to it:

  1. Daily Mail article
  2. IranPulse English language news blog

It was quite commonplace for Communist leaders to kiss on the mouth as an expression of brotherhood and solidarity. This iconic photo was taken by Régis Bossu, a freelance photographer for European Stars and Stripes, Stern, Spiegel, and Sygma. Most observers of the time viewed this Brezhnev-Honecker kiss as more enthusiastic than usual. The photo was quickly and widely circulated.

Berlin, East Side GalleryIn 1989, during the euphoria following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dmitri Vrubel painted a replica of the kiss on the Eastern side of the Wall. If you wish to learn a bit more about the photo and the painting, here are a couple of links:

  1. Lite Strabo Stories from History blog
  2. Wikipedia

While we can learn much about history and politics from photos such as these, we can also learn about customs and values. And, perhaps most importantly, we can learn to see our own cultural filters and biases a bit more clearly. Exercises such as these can be used to complement the learning we gain about ourselves via the Cultural Detective Self Discovery.

Coincidentally, when she was proofreading this post for me, our editor, Kathryn Stillings, shared with me that she had just read this article, about our perceptions (socially constructed) of race: What Does “Black” and “White” Look Like, Anyway?: Obama and His Grandpa. I share it with you as it would seem to support, as well as build on, the point of this post. I particularly love the morphed photos at the bottom of the article.

Before I close, I’d like to thank a few of the members of SIETAR Argentina, who recently used the second photo above in a training, and reminded me of it after so many years.

And, in conclusion, I leave you today with a few quotes:

There is no truth. There is only perception.
—Gustave Flaubert

Science is nothing but perception.

Studies have shown that 90% of error in thinking is due to error in perception. If you can change your perception, you can change your emotion and this can lead to new ideas.
—Edward de Bono

Movie Review: The Separation of Nader va Simin (Iran)

The media attention on Israel’s potential response to Iran’s nuclear activity has piqued my interest to learn a bit more about Iranian culture. Last week our family watched a most incredible film that I felt provided so much insight, so I asked my very good friend, Cultural Detective certified facilitator Pari Namazie, what she thought about what I had learned and seen.

I trust you’ll all enjoy her insights as much as I have. It would seem that this film could be an excellent learning tool for those working with Iranians.

Pari joon, thank you for sharing your insights with us!

They were proud moments for us Iranians when Asghar Farhadi received the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, as well as the Golden Globe and the Golden Bear of Berlinale, for his film A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin).

The film, which talks about a divorce between Nader and Simin, has two main underlying themes: responsibility and truth. Though one initially thinks the film is about a divorce case, Farhadi cleverly weaves many layers of Iranian society into his film, including power, religion, truth, gender, family, and social class. The points which stuck out most when I watched the film were:

The role of women: Iran is governed by Islamic law. The society is patriarchal and the laws between men and women unequal. Although the foreign media might portray Iranian women as weak and dominated by men, the reality of the matter was captured well in Farhadi’s film, which showed Simin wanting to leave Iran with her daughter, as she believed it was not an environment for a child to grow up in. When her husband refused to immigrate with her (due to his father’s condition), she then insisted on divorce and moved into her parents’ home. It also showed a more religious woman taking fate into her own hands looking for a job, despite the fact that in her family the breadwinner was undoubtedly her husband. Any one who has visited Iran will know the strength of character and conviction of its women.

Truth: The film beautifully portrayed the search for truth in the Iranian culture: from the court, to Termeh (the daughter) asking her father if he knew Razieh (the helper) was pregnant when he pushed her out of the house, to Razieh swearing on the Koran that Nader’s pushing her caused her miscarriage — if she swore on the Koran and it were untrue, then she would condemn her daughter’s future and fate. These behaviors show one of the strongest elements in Iranian culture: the search for truth.

Religion: Beautiful to see how Farhadi craftfully showed the secular and religious segments of society, how they came together respectful of one another, and yet also their existing tensions. Nader and Simin are more secular and Razieh and her family, religious. On one occasion Razieh called her religious authority to ask if it was permitted by Islam to work with an elderly old man, who was not related to her and where she would have to wash and change him.

Responsibility and Family: The relationship and responsibility towards family from the younger to the older generation. In the opening scene at the family court, Nader tells the judge that he cannot immigrate with Simin as he has an elderly father suffering with Alzheimer’s and can not leave him. Other scenes show Nader’s commitment to his father and his relationship with his daughter Termeh. Although he is under many pressures he still maintains his attentive concentration towards Termeh’s studies and taking care of his father, the two main priorities in his life.

Farhadi competently shows the different viewpoints of all the actors, without taking sides, and lets the audience reflect on the circumstances and situations. This film is a must-see if you have not yet!