My Cultural Exchange with Iran

The Match: Argentina v. Iran

The Date: Saturday, June 21, The Summer Solstice — Anything is possible today

The Venue: Warren 77 in the West Village of Manhattan, the unofficial headquarters for Iran supporters in New York City

The overflow crowd of Iran supporters at Warren 77.
The overflow crowd of Iran supporters at Warren 77.

Lionel Messi smiles at me from 1000 taxi cabs and bus stops. A “Don’t Miss Buenos Aires” advertising campaign has swept New York City and the world’s greatest soccer player is its face. God, I want to go Argentina. It must be beautiful. The food must be delicious. The weather must be perfect.

Argentina is a trendy pick to win this World Cup. And why not? They’re full of recognizable stars who play an entertaining, attacking style that would appeal to any casual fan. The Argentine national team is iconic.  They are revered masters of international soccer along with Germany, Italy and Brazil. Their uniforms are classic and beautiful. Argentina is like the Dodgers of world soccer. If only they had a Vincente Scully calling games.

This year, the Argentine offense seems unstoppable. Sure, Bosnia stifled them for a while, but that was a fluke, right?  They have Aguero, Di Maria, Higuain and most of all Messi! The most phenomenal player of his generation. I swear you could make your most soccer illiterate friend watch ten minutes of a game in which Messi is playing and your soccer illiterate friend would know Messi is different. When Messi possesses the ball, it is attached to him. He touches it with every step.

So we swoon over Argentina. What then of Iran? We sure shit on them a lot. If they’re not Public Enemy #1, they’re certainly high on our government’s Most Wanted list. There is no “Don’t Miss Tehran” marketing campaign here in NYC. Actually, there’s an explicit “Don’t Visit Tehran” campaign sponsored by the federal government.

On the first day of this Dear Gyan project, I met an Iranian woman named Sanam in the Little Brazil “neighborhood” of Midtown Manhattan. Sanam was very cool and invited me to watch the Iran v. Argentina match with her and several other Iranians at Warren 77 in the West Village.  I realized that I knew nothing about Iran or Iranians. I had never spent more than a few minutes with someone from Iran. I didn’t want Argo to be my most memorable encounter with that country.

Plus, my grandpa spent time in Iran during World War II. Who knows — I may have some cousins there.

I arrived at Warren 77 just before the noon kickoff and the crowd already spilled out the door. A pack of about 25 fans watched the game outside through open windows. When I heard them squeal from a block away I started to jog across the street and toward the bar, but I stopped myself. I had to play it cool.

For the past few days, I imagined I would be attending a relatively small get-together with a few young Iranians sitting around a table. I squeezed into the bar and discovered that I was at a gigantic viewing party where almost everyone was Iranian. I was astonished.

I couldn’t find Sanam in a clutch of Yuppies my age who were sitting in tiers at a big booth. Some were stacked on top of the booth, some in the booth, some on the floor. They were all dressed in red, white and green. A few had jerseys. Throughout the match, the booth contingent led the cheering and the cheering never stopped. Every time Iran regained possession, the crowd erupted as if they had just scored a goal. When a defender tackled Messi in the box and took the ball off his feet in the 41′, the crowd was ecstatic. Oh my God, this was  a better experience than the last two places I visited.

Warren 77 looks like an old industrial space. The brick walls are painted off-white and there are rotund air ducts spanning the length of the bar. Crumbling tin coats the ceiling in the back of the bar and large round lamps face the wall, casting a dim glow over the room. A giant CBS eye hangs above the door, ominously observing the crowd.

The room is shaped like an ax. There is a thin handle leading to the bar, which opens up into the ax head. I wedged my way through the handle to a spot right across from the bar next to the bathroom. This choke point allowed me to meet several people who were getting drinks or waiting to pee. I watched one of four large TVs over the bar next to a guy named Pouyan who has lived in NYC for six years and works for a ratings agency.

Pouyan came alone and we chatted for the entire match. We giggled when the camera focused on Maradona sitting in the stands. The Hand of God looked like a Bag of Leather. His grotesquely altered face belongs in the Real Housewives of New York.

There was a birthday party for a toddler at the table in front of me. Most of the children had Iranian flags painted on their faces. I felt bad for the guy who had to maneuver through the crowd with the big cake and the woman whose flag-faced baby dropped her iPad.

Behind the birthday party, a long wall was covered with hundreds of 1960s baseball cards. There were old Knicks and Rangers championship banners and photos. In one, Dave DeBusschere and two other Knicks poured champagne on Howard Cosell and in another, Herb Brooks patrolled a Rangers bench lined with helmetless players. I imagine Warren 77 is the only Knicks/Rangers/Iran bar in the country.

Inside Warren 77 with an energetic crowd of Iranians  during the match between Argentina and Iran
Inside Warren 77 with an energetic crowd of Iranians during the match between Argentina and Iran

On my right stood a friendly woman named Masa who sipped an Abita. She invited me to another Iranian viewing party near NYU at half-time, but I turned her down. Before Masa left she handed me her iPhone to type in the name of my blog. The keyboard was in Farsi.

Another young woman replaced Masa. She was sweet too. She offered to translate the various chants that flooded the bar.

People were being so nice to me! I scanned the smooth, olive skin and dark brown hair. Then I considered my own blonde hair, blue eyes and pinkish, yellow skin. I fantasized that for the first time, I was exotic! Maybe the people around me want to tell their family members that they watched the Iran game with an interesting American!

Those are just narcissistic daydreams, though. I think the people around me were just friendly people in good moods. Somehow, Iran was holding off the mighty Messi. They even had two fantastic scoring chances. It was only the early afternoon and the weather was gorgeous. In addition, everyone seemed to know each other.

Throughout the match, people approached Pouyan and exclaimed, “I know you!” Others converged from opposite ends of the bar and caught up in front of me while they waited for the bathroom.

I pointed this out to Pouyan and said, “It seems like there’s a strong community of Iranians in New York City.”

“Everyone who comes to the USA is a student or very rich,” Pouyan explained. He added that many people know each other from attending undergraduate school in one of three universities in Tehran. He said they come to the USA for graduate school and most stay. For example, he went to USC thirteen years ago and lived in LA for seven years become he came to New York.

Earlier, I asked Masa where people in Iran were watching the game.

I really don’t know, she responded. I haven’t been there in ten years and things change. There are no bars in Iran, though.

Pouyan told me people were likely watching with their families at home because it was about 9:30 pm and it was a weeknight. He said the Iranian weekend is on Thursdays and Fridays.

Back to Masa’s comment about there being no bars in Iran. When I watched the Brazil game with Sanam I asked her about alcohol in Iran. She told me it is illegal, but most people her age drink anyway. I guess so — Her friend ordered a margarita and shot of tequila, which she dumped into the margarita. Sanam said booze dealers show up to parties with duffel bags stuffed with liquor. Oh, like freshman year of college, I joked.

Well, not really. The punishment for drinking alcohol is 100 lashes, Sanam said. She then estimated that 70% of her friends in Iran have been lashed. People drive to the courthouse, get lashed then head immediately to the hospital, she said.

The World Cup provided me with an opportunity for cultural exchange that I could not possibly experience otherwise. Seriously, in what other context could I spend time with 100 Iranians and learn all this new information?

Sadly, Messi scored in the 91′ and Argentina won 1-0. The crowd, who cheered during the entire game, was silent after that goal. A few moments later they resumed chanting.  When the referee blew the final whistle, the crowd at Warren 77 applauded.

OVERALL ATMOSPHERE: 9/10. The crowd was loud throughout the entire match and everyone I talked to was so friendly. This was an unforgettable experience.

 

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