Across a Line Nobody Drew


Slowly, I scan the room, making a few evasive eye movements to throw him off the scent. It’s all subterfuge: I’ve long spotted a yellow tissue box under the coffee table.

“I spy with my little eye…,” I begin, “…something yellow.”

Consecutively, he points at a painting, a wall and some flowers, pronouncing their names with care. Grinning, I shake my head. This is a difficult one.

Shahram is a 42-year-old Iranian man with two children, I am a 22-year-old Dutch student. We could be worlds apart, but instead, we’re sitting in his living room in Utrecht, drinking strong tea with sugar and eating biscuits.

I have to illustrate the concept of getting warmer and colder before I clue him toward the tissue box. And then I explain the different words for tissue and handkerchief. After we’ve had a laugh about that unnecessary complication, we decide that there’s time still for our favourite game.

This one’s called Hangman. One person picks a word, marks as many dots as it has letters, and then gets to draw a part of a gallows for every letter the other person guesses wrong. It ends either when the other player guesses the word or when they’re strung up.

The first time we played Hangman, I suddenly thought, “Wait, is this an incredibly insensitive game to play with someone from Iran?”

And then: “Wait, is it an incredibly Western stereotype to think that there’s public executions in Iran?”

Stacked liberal guilt. When Shahram looked up the word “gallows” in the dictionary, I thought I saw a moment of confusion about why I would reference that. It’s strange to realise that for many of us, gallows are such ancient history that our only relation to them is through a game.

I stick to words we’ve talked about today but Shahram likes to browse the dictionary for short words with as many consonants as possible to mess with me.

He and I meet every week to improve his Dutch, as part of a volunteering programme. He’s been in the Netherlands for two years, but got stuck in a vicious cycle: because his Dutch wasn’t great, he almost always spoke Farsi, so he didn’t make Dutch acquaintances and his Dutch didn’t improve.

Basically, we hang out for two hours a week eating homemade cake, dates, boiled beetroot and the proclaimed epitome of Dutch-ness: stroopwafels.

Where difference meets, there are many possible reactions. Today, Shahram asked me about my feelings and observations regarding Donald Trump’s election last week. It made me incredibly conscious of my positionality as a young, white, highly educated, queer woman from Europe. I said something about voices being heard, gesturing at my ear so he could place the word, because he has difficulty with Dutch verb conjugations. And something about immigrants, trying to involve his experience.

Meanwhile, I attempted not to overwhelm him with Dutch newspaper analysis and our shared worldview, to avoid making him feel like his truth was inferior. In hindsight, I’m not sure that’s even possible. With every word I speak, I probably exude Dutch liberalism.

Being around someone so different constantly involves confrontations with myself; weekly, I am forced to face my own embeddedness and unquestioned judgements. One may expect that during a conversation about politics, but then it suddenly happens during a silly game. Considering the amount of violence, physical and otherwise, that difference leads to globally, I find hope in the fact that in our micro-worlds, we and others like us build friendships that incorporate it.


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