Censorship from one nation to the next.

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"So, do you know the different types of Muslims out there?", he asked me, seemingly having rehearsed the question in his head; I guess it was an inevitable question to follow with considering he'd told me he was from Jeddah and I'd said I was living in Iran. In anticipation of this question I'd considered the array of potential responses; I'd concluded that he must be Sunni and figured he'd know that my being from Iran, invariably and unwittingly makes me Shia. "We have two main types of Muslim: Sunni and Shia", he added, not entirely sure if I knew the difference what with my muddled background I'd informed him of between the questions. "Yes, I'm aware there are four – potentially a fifth – and I guess you must be Sunni?", I asked. "Yes, and you must be Shia?", he responded, to which I eeked out some kind of vague answer.

Prior to this, we'd sat beside one another in silence for seven hours before he settled my curiosity as to whether he was Indian. He'd put his in-flight sandwich to the side and waited till I'd eaten mine, "is this a ham sandwich?", he then asked, and to my embarrassment, I wasn't entirely sure. "Turkey, I think" – it was a Muslim question and how I wished to be correct, fully aware of the ensuing conversation. I asked the air steward, who confirmed that it was indeed Turkey, and so we got started.

"Are you learning Arabic?", he asked after I remarked upon the Islamicness of his question. "No, the dictionary I was fingering through was a Farsi to English one", I told him, "but so much of the language uses Arabic". He seemed to think that Iranians spoke Arabic, yet he wasn't so incorrect, I explained my frustrations of trying to learn Farsi and being confronted with so much Arabic thrown without foundations. We flicked through the dictionary and I pointed out the compound verbs, "see, Arabic word, Farsi verb", I said pointing to the word 'utter' - 'to utter'. "But you're not pronouncing it correctly", he exclaimed, repeating the word with a throaty flex. I flicked through to the pages containing Arabic characters, "all the words in this section are Arabic", I told him; he looked at me with a pause; leaned back as if to check if a punch-line was up my sleeve, then laughed. I pointed to several compound verbs and proceeded to read them out with a tongue flex; he laughed again, asking me why I'm bothering to learn.

He restrained to make a comments regarding Sunni-Shia differences and was nearly clever in holding his true opinion back. "It clearly says in the Koran that there are no further prophets after Mohammad", for which wasn't precisely the issue I thought. "Well, as you know, the distinction comes from recognising the leadership after Mohammad", I precariously interjected before he came back at me, "so, which holds more power, an Imam (leader) or a prophet?", he asked, as if he was holding a trump card. I had to concede that in such ranking he would be correct, but I felt the need to explain some background.

Iran struggles to keep some semblance of identity through three main theatres: culture, ideology and rule

"Our language, Farsi, has so much Arabic in it due to an Arab invasion", I cautiously started, managing to find some continuation from our previous discussion. I explained that before this time, Islam – as far as I knew – was not the dominant ideology of Persia. I explained what little I knew of the Zoroastrian faith and referred to Iran's two and a half thousand years of monarchic rule. I ventured far into matters I knew little about, mentioning variations of Islam though various dynasties within Persia. I dropped in my patchy history of England's not too dissimilar predicament with Henry VIII; "to me, it seems like Iran struggles to keep some semblance of identity through three main theatres: culture, ideology and rule", I boldly stated, attempting to explain that these elements are inseparable. It seemed that from my fellow passenger's point of view, Iran was making a mess of things.

We arrived in America and repeated that awkward moment whereby one says goodbye only to meet again in queues. I joined the visitors queue hoping to not have to revisit the second-interview room and explain why 'Iran' appeared on my visa-waiver form again. "So what language do they speak there in Iran?", the upbeat immigration officers asked me as I added various biometric details in, "Farsi is the national language, but it's interesting you ask...". I summarised the conversation I'd just had with my new found Arab friend, flinching after I said the words 'Arab invasion'. He took a look around him and hushed his voice, "invasion are just a sad fact of life". He explained that we're all one side of it at one time or another. I stood feeling very uncomfortable as he vaguely mentioned how the native Americans know this only too well. I left, having been given the all-clear, feeling slightly glad that Iran and America, thus far, were not on either side of this sad fact of life.

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