Here in Sydney, Australia, where I've been lecturing for a week, I may have had one Australian-born waitress or waiter and one Australian-born taxi driver. As is my wont, I ask all of them where they were born and, whenever possible, have some discussion about their native country.
I say "whenever possible" because, unlike in the United States --where taxi drivers, whether foreign- or American-born, are known for being talkative -- that has not been my experience in Sydney, where apparently the influence of the famous British reserve is still very much in evidence. I ask where the driver was born, he responds, and the discussion is pretty much ended.
But the waiters and waitresses have been quite willing to talk, and one of these discussions was of particular interest.
After attending a performance of Giacomo Puccini's "Turandot" at the magnificent Sydney Opera House, my wife and I dined at a nearby Italian restaurant overlooking the Sydney Harbor. I asked our young, personable waitress where she was from, and she said Iran. I then did what I almost always do when I meet an Iranian -- spoke the only thing I know how to say in Farsi (Persian): "Let's all go study with the ayatollah."
Many years ago, I asked an Iranian friend in Los Angeles how to say that phrase, figuring that if I were ever in Iran and arrested by the Revolutionary Guard, that might help me considerably more than, let us say, "Where is the men's room?"
It has become a terrific icebreaker with just about every Iranian emigre I have ever met. Some laugh out loud; others immediately "correct" me, insisting that the ayatollah is the last person anyone should ever study with; and others don't know what to make of me.
Our young waitress laughed herself silly and wondered how I ever learned such a phrase. I explained that I have numerous Iranian friends, living, as I do, in "Teherangeles" -- the name Iranians in Los Angeles give to the largest Iranian community outside of Iran, and a name with which she, though living in Australia, was well familiar with.
I asked Shakila if she was Muslim. She told me that though one could say she was a Muslim, she did not identify as such, that in fact she was an atheist.
She was not the first Muslim-born atheist from Iran I have met. And from what I am told, an entire generation of atheists has been produced by the Islamic Republic of Iran. How could it be otherwise?
Nothing produces atheists like despicable religious people. They do far more harm to religious faith than all the atheist writers and activists in the world put together.