She steps on the cobblestones of the Old Hermitage’s inner courtyard and I see her. What initially catches my eyes is her bright smile and the apparent ease of her quick steps. Soraya has just finished another day of internship at the Hermitage Museum and as we make our way through the winter palace’s grand courtyard, past the scarce crowds of cameras, I find out that despite being fluent in English, Spanish, and Italian, she cannot speak Farsi. “It’s all there, I know it’s all there!” she says as we sit down in a cozy cafe on Nevsky, “I just need a little practice and it will all come back to me in no time. She stopped speaking Farsi simply because there was nobody to talk to, “Dad was always away…” and her mum, being a New Zealander just couldn’t speak the language. It is hard to doubt her innocent enthusiasm when she starts reciting the names of her favorite Iranian dishes in Farsi, “I went to a Georgian restaurant here once and they had a dish which closely resembled our Qorme-Sabzi” (Lobio Nigvzit, a Georgian stew consisting of kidney bean, herbs, and walnuts does actually resemble our beloved Iranian dish).
Soraya was born to the Iranian photographer and filmmaker Faramarz Beheshti who broke into the international scene with Salam Rugby (2010) a feature detailing the amazing yet painstaking journey of women playing Rugby in the Islamic Republic of Iran during the difficult years of the Ahmadinejad presidency. Rugby is big in New Zealand where Soraya was born but “the idea actually occurred to my father when he saw a photo of women playing the game in Iran.” says Soraya. He dropped everything else, Soraya recalls and instead took it upon himself to accompany a team of female Rugby players travelling through numerous cities encountering a fair share of kind, unjust, sad, bizarre, and funny incidents. The film went on to win international acclaim and recognition at numerous film festivals, including winner of the Human Rights Award, Sports/Movies Festival of Milan, Best ’Non-European Documentary Film’ at ECU Festival in Paris April 2011, Best Feature Documentary In Cambofest- Cambodia 2011. (Watch the ECU interview with Farmarz Beheshti.)
Now that our conversation is flowing easily, I tell her of this sense of gloominess I have found in Piter, but she playfully brushes this off. To her, the city beams with life. Sad? How could it be? When elderly “Babushkas” smile at her warmly and chivalrous boys offer to carry her bike and bags; when they offer her “Chay” just to get to know her and listen to her and in turn tell her their own stories. She speaks affectionately even of Putin, “he has done so much for this country, why do everyone keep on hating on him?” she recalls a recent trip to Moscow when in an anti-Putin protest rally, she asked the protesters why they were actually there and they simply couldn’t answer. She, herself, dreams of being a politician someday, maybe even in Iran but I am skeptical as an image of Marzieh Afkham, spokeswoman and head of the center for public and media diplomacy in Iran’s Ministry of Foreign affairs flashes through my mind.
What does she think of this whole when-in-Russia-drink-vodka thing? “Not quite true” but she laughs and admits that despite not being much of a drinker, there was this one occasion when she was inclined to; it was at ICOM (International Council of Museums) conference at Hermitage where champagne flowed freely. Soraya’s arm was twisted after she discovered that Vladimir Tolstoy was among the guests, “How could I turn down Leo Tolstoy’s great-great-grandson?!”
She was browsing internship positions all over the globe when she fell upon the Hermitage; had her fairly bitter taste of the Russian bureaucracy before she could finally get her visa and when she arrived, she was settled into a cold lodging with a Russian DJ; afterwards, she saw only sunshine even when it was gray in Piter. She made friends with a Russian girl who is a vegan just like her and they got to know each other before even she was there; through “CouchSurfing, I just typed the word vegan and there she was in Piter, waiting for me to show up!” They even went on to attend a Harekrishna ceremony together on the outskirts of Piter. “Fascinating…everybody was dressed the same way, plain dolman, chanting in harmony… just fascinating.”
Soraya’s gaze in now lingering on the crowd hurrying by on Nevsky; the city is singing to her and she is whistling a tune back…perfect harmony.