Thursday, 17 September 2009

East & West: Cross-Cultural Encounters, Part 1: Diversion - St. Andrews - An East West Cross Cutlural Encounter In Itself

Cathedral

School of Art History, St. Andrews University, 11th and 12th September, 2009.

On the East cost of Scotland, sort of southernish by Scottish standards, there’s platform in the middle of a field with a metal bridge slung a bit carelessly over the top of it. That’s how you get from the train, which just about remembers to stop for a minute or two by the platform, to the road. Otherwise you’d just tumble straight into the field. This windswept, lonesome, soulful looking place, something between Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, is Leuchars. It’s where you get off to go to St. Andrews.

St. Andrews, just five miles or so down the road couldn’t be more different. Home to one of the oldest universities in the world, - founded in 1413 – it is busy, thriving, wealthy beyond its modest size, and astounding beautiful. The town is the university and the university is the town. Shops, restaurants and hotels rely on the busy-ness of academia and on the achingly beautiful coastal landscape for their incomes - its other industry is tourism, especially tourism related to golf.

So, imagine my surprise, when stepping carefully off the train in Leuchars, and looking around at my fellow travellers, I spot a woman who, I decide, must also be coming to the conference, and accordingly invite her to share a taxi. ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Forough’ she says. ‘Crikey,’ I’m thinking, ‘what are the chances of that?’ I spend all summer in London in the company of Iranians, I come to a very very small town in the east coast of Scotland, whose railway station is 10 miles away in the middle of a field, and the first person I meet is Iranian.

Later that same day, I venture into town to the beating heart of the university, and find the New Arts Building where I plan to register for the conference. Almost every name on the conference list is Iranian. ‘What the hell’s going on? Is there anyone left in Iran?’ Then I read the title to the conference programme, ‘Historiography and Iran in Comparative Perspective.’ Ok, so I’m about to gate crash someone else’s conference. But seriously, is there anyone left in Iran? – they all seem to be in Scotland.

Market Street

But you see, it’s not so surprising. St. Andrews and its quaint medieval Scottish streets is also home to the Institute for Iranian Studies. It’s cunningly hidden in the History department, not, as I thought, in The School of International Relations – although there you will find the intriguing Centre for Syrian Studies. I have to say, a bit of Syria and a bit of Iran, a chunk of unusually interesting Art History mixed up with bits of Armenia, Georgia, The Caucasus – all based in Scotland, near Edinburgh, but in St. Andrews, sounds like my idea of Heaven. Surely I could squeeze myself in somewhere…

Sea

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