My Iranian Friend

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by Walter Block by Walter Block

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When my son Matthew was growing up, my wife wanted me to teach him practical things like carpentry and plumbing. But when I was a kid (my father was an accountant), when a door jammed or the pipes were stopped up, this wasn’t the sort of thing you did yourself. Instead, you called a carpenter or a plumber. So, I knew nothing about these skills and cared less. Frankly, they bored me.

Of course, part of bringing up a child, a big part, is doing things with him. To me it didn’t much matter what I did with Matthew, as long as it was something. So, what skills did I have that might interest him? Well, I played the violin, swam, and played handball. So I tried to involve him in any of these activities. Music was an utter failure; he took up the clarinet instead (My daughter Hannah and I sometimes play duets; she plays the cello). I insisted that both my kids learned to swim, just as a matter of safety, and they did, but they were as interested in swimming as I was in carpentry and plumbing. It is all I can do to get each of them to promise me they will swim only once a year, just to ensure their safety.

Matthew was interested in the martial arts. He first got involved in kickboxing. I would watch from the sidelines. But, I quickly noticed that this was a full contact sport. These kids were bashing each other in the entire body, head included. I figured Matthew needed all the IQ points he could get, and pulled him out of this forthwith, much to his disappointment. What then? Well, karate was about as close to kick boxing as I could determine, and the Shotokan School of Karate emphasized kata (a ritualized dance featuring kicking and punching) over kumite (actual combat), and when they did the latter, at least at the Vancouver, B.C., Canada dojo we joined, actual hard contact was specifically proscribed. You were supposed to just barely touch your opponent with your fists or feet; anything more, and you were disqualified from the tournaments.

Matthew won several medals in kata events. This meant a finish in the top three out of oh, 25 or so opponents or so. (Children were not allowed to do freestyle kumite.) I, too, entered tournaments, but I would invariably finish at the bottom of the pack. I tell you, I was pretty bored by this entire experience 99% of the time, and terrified the other 1%. How would you like to kick 500 times with one foot, and then do it again with the other foot? Well, at least I’m to this day pretty good at standing on one foot. Team kata was pretty; when dozens of people were kicking and punching in unison, it was almost like ballet. Nor was my experience of much value in most real world events. My training mainly consisted of aiming (but only barely touching) at people’s necks with the flat of my hand, and/or their crotches with my foot. Well, who knows, maybe one day all this will come in handy.

We met several black-belt instructors in our years practicing karate (Matthew and I both rose to brown belt status, one level below that illustrious height), but none more impressive than Houshang Memarzedeh. This will sound like an utter and complete contradiction in terms, but Houshang was one of the gentlest men I have ever met. Yes, he was a highly skilled karateka, but his emphasis was on the philosophical aspects of the sport. Whenever I engaged in combat with him, I felt utterly safe; he would never hurt me. He was also without any danger from me; I never would have been able to lay a hand or foot on him, even if I had wanted to, so superb was his defense. (Although the teaching from him to me was all in one direction, I remember fondly the one time I was able to "correct" him: his glasses kept sliding down his face, and he would move them back up; I bought him a rubber band contraption that kept this from occurring.)

He brought his family to Canada to make a better life for them, but toward the end of Matthew’s and my karate career went back to Iran. He father had passed away, and he was now the head of his extended Iranian family. He felt a deep pull back there.

Houshang had two sons also engaged in our karate dojo. Omed, and Aptin (his third son Arash was a baby at the time, too young for this sport). Both were a bit younger than Matthew. My son is now 28, so this would make Omed about 26 and Aptin perhaps 24 at present. I would guess Arash’s present age at 18. Our families would sometimes get together, and my daughter Hannah would play with one of his nieces, who was about the same age as she. Omed and Aptin had similar personalities to their dad, Houshang. Nice, nice, nice kids. I remember that at one tournament the three of them, Matthew, Omed and Aptin, entered the team kata event. This is sort of like simultaneous diving. Credit goes not only for individual effort, but also for how synchronized the team members are with each other. Before that event, the three of them would regularly practice together. A beautiful sight to behold. To my eyes, they were perfect. Houshang, however, had many constructive criticisms for them.

It is entirely possible that in the next few months the U.S. and Iran will be at war with one another. Let me put this in other words: it is likely that the U.S., without a declaration of war against Iran, will begin bombing the latter country. It is certainly not within the realm of likelihood that Matthew will be called upon to fight Omed, Aptin and Arash. This would be actual battle, not the simulated non- or low-contact friendly sport of karate. And yet, the thought keeps rising unbidden to me. I see Matthew and these sweet gentle kids shooting at each other. The thought actually sickens me. I am sure that Houshang would join me in the thought that were this, horrors, ever to occur, it would be like brothers aiming to kill each other.

Wherever you are now, Houshang, Omed, Aptin and Arash, I wish you peace. And happiness. I hope you are all doing well, and will continue to do so. Let not the craziness now engulfing the Middle East impinge upon any of you. I wish George Bush would take up karate. Maybe he would be able to sublimate some of his blood lust in that manner.

Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans, and a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is the author of Defending the Undefendable.

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