Last week I waited on a train platform in an Amsterdam suburb with a Dutch friend, with whom I planned to spend the day in the city. We spoke English, which attracted the attention of a short, brown-skinned older man dressed neatly but modestly, in clothes that looked like they’ve been in use since the 1980s.
“You speak English. Is this train going to the city?” he asked tentatively. Yes, we said. He kept talking. Beneath his bristly grey mustache were two rows of nicotine-stained teeth the color of an oak armoire.
“Where are you from?” my Dutch friend asked. A wave of anxiety passed over the little man’s face, and he smiled nervously, and began to stammer.
“Iran,” he finally said. “I come from Iran. I am ashamed.”
You know how certain dogs, when they encounter you, roll over and whimper and show you their bellies, to indicate submission? That’s more or less what this old man did to us two men of the West. He said that his government is full of bad men who do terrible things, and it makes him ashamed.
“All the best minds, all the best people, they went to the West,” he said. On and on he went like that. It put my friend and me in an awkward position.
“I think you have a great country,” my friend said to him. “Persian culture is very old. The people of Iran aren’t the same as the government. This government won’t last forever.”
The old man kept talking. He said that the upcoming elections in Iran don’t matter, that it is a religious dictatorship. No one is free. On and on like that. He struck me as a lonely man, a frustrated man, a man deep in despair.
He explained that he was in Europe visiting family members who had immigrated ages ago, and would be returning soon. When I told him I was American, he said back in the 1970s, he had studied in the US, and loved it. He was so friendly, and childlike in his eagerness to make an emotional connection with us. In fact, my pal and I had to give him a bit of the slip at Centraal Station, or we would have had to spend our only day together showing the eager Iranian traveler around.
I was thinking about him just this morning, though, and what a terrible thing it is to be ashamed of one’s country. Back in the 1980s, I read P.J. O’Rourke’s great Harper’s essay “Ship Of Fools,” about his miserable time on a Peace Cruise through the USSR with Nation magazine subscribers. Here he speaks of one of the American leftists in his group:
Nick Smarm began to speak. It was the standard fare. He laid the greater part of the blame for a potential international nuke duke-out on the American doorstep. What he was saying wasn’t wrong, at least not in the factual citations he made. But suddenly and quite against my will I was angry. To stand in front of strangers and run your country, my country, down — I didn’t care if what Nick said was generally true, I didn’t care if what he said was wholly, specifically, and exactly true in every detail. I haven’t been that mad in years. I had to leave, go below. I was ashamed of the man. And it occurred to me that I would have been ashamed if he were Russian and we were on the Mississippi. That big [Russian] fellow with the medals down his suit coat, my ally, he wouldn’t have done such a thing on the Delta Queen.
The sad Iranian man didn’t make me angry, not in the least. I happen to agree with everything he said about his government, and sympathized with him. Still, to stand in a foreign country, talking to strangers on a train platform, and to confess straight up that you are ashamed of your country — it was such a demeaning thing that it made both my Dutch friend and me squirm. You know? I understand exactly what O’Rourke felt.