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Red lipstick
No rules, no pre-conditions

January 4, 2003
The Iranian

I looked in the mirror. My lipstick was red enough and the very bright beaded blue top met my requirement. Bright colors have always been the symbol of my defiance and challenge to a culture I love so much, yet its hypocrisies and standards of being decent and good I find nauseating sometimes.

I was a child when I realized people often remarked that my parents should not let me wear such bright and shocking "zanandeh" colors. I thought they were insane. Red, yellow or bright green were such happy colors to me and I could not fathom what was bad about them. My father would always smile and say, "but she is such a happy child and the colors match her personality. Besides, she picks the colors herself. She has a mind of her own."

I was 13 when I realized most girls at school wore boring colors like beige and brown. I was told those colors were conservative and accepted by society. Well, I never wanted to be conservative and the hell with acceptance if it meant wearing stupid ugly colors. I would have looked hideous because I had brown hair and brown skin. It was quite asinine that people concentrated more on what color one wore than what was the person's contribution as a human being.

College was even worst. All the girls who talked about finding a husband while a student, wore dark colors and brown lipstick. Of course, dying the hair blond was okay!

I caused quite a stir as a freshman. I was loud and expressed contrasting points of view with a great deal of passion. I wore go-go boots and my signature was red lipstick.

I very vividly remember Akbar the senior who had wooed so many innocent girls with his classic good looks and very poetic demeanor. Having a few playboys pals, I had realized I found their "type" quite boring and predictable. He fit the profile.

The first time he stood in linein the cafeteria to get tea, he looked at me and said "natural beauty is the best seductress. You do not need red lipstick." I peered at him and in a sarcastic and nasty voice I said, "Please write this down. Your opinion is absolutely worthless to me because the site of you makes me yawn." He was shocked and taken aback.

Then he showed up at one of my classes. Some of the students had to recite and discuss a poem. Akbar had this look that I always found very comical. It is hard to explain but in my days in high school and college I called it "khomaar kardan", sort of like Rhett Butler looking at the women at a ball and trying to melt their hearts.

I went in front of the class and read "Gonaah Karadam" (I Sinned), one of my favorite poems by my favorite poetess, Forough Farrokhzad. I loved the horrified look on the faces of some of my classmates hearing me read:

I sinned, a sin filled with pleasure
In an embrace that was hot and burning

Then, I purposely lingered my eyes and mischievously hugged myself and finished the last line:

I sinned, a sin filled with pleasure

Some of the boys lowered their eyes in embarrassment. A few had admiration on their face but Akbar was the one that wanted to get back at my red lipstick and me.

He said very eloquently, "A woman is the Madonna, the holy figure and her image should never be smeared by this type of poetry." The 81-year-old professor had told me after the first class that people like me were the reason he continued to teach. He wanted to see fresh faces, especially women who were fearless and did not play by the rules. Surprisingly, I had heard the same encouraging comments from the older professors.

Professor Kamkar pulled his chair closer. I cleared my voice, and looking at Akbar, started to speak.

"Where did you come up with such an ignorant statement? Where is it written that pleasure cannot be holy? Does it come from your little mind with the big ego or is it because the motherly kinds are easy preys for you? Is it because you lack the confidence or the capacity to handle a woman that demands the same pleasures in a man's world?"

Some of the boys who hated Akbar clapped their hands and cheered. The professor's wrinkled face lit up as he interjected with "the young lady has a very interesting yet valid point of view." Akbar did not answer. I looked at the professor and he winked at me and that said it's going to be an interesting semester.

Akbar blocked my path as I walked towards the parking lot. He said, "What have I done except compliment you?"

"Listen and listen well," I said. "I do not like your type. I despise backward men like you who hide behind a charming mask pretending to be educated. Stay away from me because I will rip you into pieces if you ever try and corner me or mention my lipstick. Do you understand? Go on about seducing those innocent girls who think you're looking for the mother of your child."

He smiled and walked away.

It seems a lifetime ago but the dark colors and conservative clothes are still part of what is respectful to Iranian society. When you attend any Iranian function, how many women wear black? I would say at least 98 percent. I never liked black and was glad that my father would not allow us to wear black even when there was a death in our family.

Of course, sometime between my 46th and 47th birthday I grew sideways. I became officially a voluptuous Iranian woman. Now that I have the 30-inch waistline and the 38-inch bottom, I have compromised and wear black bottoms, but the tops must be in vivid colors and the red lipstick is a must.

I looked in the mirror. I was ready to go to Moin's concert. I have great memories from listening to his tape when he was a local singer in Isfahan, although I never cared for his personality on the stage. I was dying to see if his behavior had changed because of the letters in From readers who had blasted him for insulting the crowd in Arkansas.

The phone rang. It was my girlfriend Elahe, who had just come back from a three-week business trip to the Middle East. She said, "I just wanted to remind you that you are coming to my house for dinner and we can chat and you can take your souvenirs home with you."

Now, any souvenir from Iran fills my heart with joy and the fact that it comes from home has a magical feeling about it. By the time I arrived at the concert hall most of the people were already inside. I was glad because I only had to greet a few people outside.

The concert was going well and I noticed that in fact the comments at had changed Moin's behavior. He was more talkative and his deep Isfahani accent was quite amusing as he tried to come across as humble and personable. That was the cause of my mishap and embarrassment.

He announced that he was going to sing, "I love somebody but that person does not know." I screamed. Then he smiled and with his very deep accent said "being in love is a good thing, isn't it?" The impulsive in me shouted "Yeah! As long as mine does not come in a form of a short and bald Iranian man." A few laughed but I heard a nasty "thank you very much" in the back.

I turned around and saw three bald men from out of town because I had never seen them at any function before. Two were young and actually smiling but the older one seemed miffed. I looked at the two young ones and genuinely said, "Truly forgive me." The one in the middle smiled and said "actually I have been watching you and love the fact that you are in your own world, I found it quite fascinating and I admire your spontaneity."

The older one cut him off and said "Lady, there are important qualities such as intelligence, integrity that should matter." I was annoyed at his tone and said, "So who said that a tall and attractive man necessarily lacks intelligence or integrity?" Then I got up and excused myself. I did not want any more mishapS so I went and sat next to my parents' friends.

Moin left and someone named Michael came on stage. He was quite funny but then he sang a song about Iran anD tears started to roll my face. I hate it when my vulnerability is exposed. I tried to hide behind the lady I call Maman Joon and as I turned my head I saw someone looking at me.

Those beautiful brown eyes, that handsome face with the thick and beautiful straight hair that is now all gray even though he is not even 40 years old. The "gentle giant" in my life of so long ago. The giant that was so kind towards everyone and never threw his weight around and never used his towering height and 100-pound weight difference to intimidate me.

For some reason I remembered my last argument with him. I guess the nasty attitude of the bald man had triggered it.

I was in charge of the arrangements for a large function. He had called me and told me that some people had requested "Islamic meat" and possibly not having a visible open bar. I lost my temper and started to yell at him. Then I went and shut my office door so my staff members could not hear me shouting, even though it was in Farsi. I was livid. These backward Iranians. Why don't they move back to Iran and stay there? For crying out loud, this is the 21st century.

He remained calm and kept trying to make me understand that I could not change the world and should not make a big deal about this. All I had to do was to ask the Iranian chef. I got really mad and called him backward, a fanatic and supporter of the dark ages. He simply said twice, "I am going to leave now, have a good day." Then he hung up.

As always, I quickly gathered my composure and the anger just evaporated. In less than an hour he called and in a very serious tone said, "Is your neighborhood safe now?" I was reviewing a large deal so I did not get the joke. I asked, "Why?" He said there was a news bulletin announcing that a dangerous and angry Iranian lioness was roaming around and warned all backward Iranian men to avoid her path.

I started to laugh. In his gentle voice he said, "That temper of yours is really not necessary. You work so hard yet let your temper ruin everything for you. Just accept the limitations of others." For the first time in six years I missed him and realized it was not anything physical, but his kindness and gentleness I missed.

I had had enough of the concert. I decided to sneak out. I got home at 3 in the morning and was starving, so I made myself breakfast and went to bed at 4:30.

On Sunday I left my house in the afternoon and when I arrived at my Elahe's place she was cooking up a storm. I remembered that a few weeks before I had talked on the phone about her to one of my old time friends. He happens to be a very successful, eligible, and attractive man dying to be with an Iranian woman. I pride myself in never having crossed the line with my male friends and they respect me for that, so I wanted to be helpful.

I told him that my girlfriend the opposite of me. "She is kind, sweet, treats men well and most importantly, she cooks. And to top it off, she is a doctor, too. She is a real catch." He had laughed and said: "But is she as much fun and unpredictable as you are?" I chided him and said that is not a good thing. I do not even like the fact that I am unpredictable. "Besides, how would you know I am fun and crazy? We have been friends for nearly a quarter of a century and you don't know anything about me. I am different in private you know." He laughed again and said "exactly." I did not want to elaborate or find out what the hell that meant.

Here she was, the personification of a dream Iranian woman. While cooking several types of food, she told me about her trip. I also told her about the projects with which I had been involved. Then she asked me to set the table to eat. I had plenty of my favorite Sabzi Polo Mahi (herbed rice and baked fish) and forgot all about the steroid shot I would have to take if I overdosed on too much Iranian pickle.

Elahe made tea and brought my souvenirs -- a prayer rug, beautiful cornelian prayer beads, a very fancy looking little jar of Middle Eastern Kohl to make the eyes more seductive looking, and of course, the best part: Two big Iranian shortbread cookies.

The door opened and a tall, blond-haired lady walked in with her husband. Elahe introduced them as her neighbors, so I decided to go into the Persian room to have my tea and cookies. Now Elahe's Persian room has one of those big pillows to sit and another to lean on. It is called mokahdeh and poshti. I love that stuff. I was so pissed off in 1983 when I was told I could not bring any out of Iran because the country was at war. I thought they were total morons, but that is whole different story.

I sat down, placed my teacup and cookie, and turned on the Iranian TV program. I flipped through the channels and a few had Andy singing. Now as an Iranian, I have love and respect for him but, for the life of me, I can not believe he thinks he is a singer. His voice reminds me of a boy going through puberty who has fallen into a well and crying for help.

Then I stopped. There on the screen was the king of B movies, Beyk Imanverdi. The warm tea and delicious cookie had taken effect and I was feeling good. Looking at Beyk, my mind took me back to a breezy fall day when I was 13-years old. I had stopped to see my dad at his office and there on the chair was Beyk and his female counterpart, the very beautiful Fariba Khatami.

My dad introduced me to them and went back to talk on the phone. The first thing I noticed was the color of Beyk's eyes. They were hazel and I also noticed that unlike his movies, his voice was very clear and he was quite eloquent. I looked at him and said, "You know, as an artist you have a responsibility to the viewers of your movies."

Surprised, he pulled his chair and sat up straight. Looking at me with a smile he said, "What type of responsibility?" I said, "You should show the problems, such as lack of freedom of expression and struggle to make ends meet. Stop showing women as this sexy-fat ass thing who's just good for entertaining men." I could tell that he was quite shocked to hear the word "fat ass" from a young lady.

He smiled and said, "Well, we have many limitations, and the public wants an escape from their difficult lives." I was miffed at his lack of enthusiasm so I said, "Intelligent people know there are ways to indirectly show the struggle of people rather than portraying the masses as simpletons in search of cheap thrills."

He looked at me with puzzled eyes and I knew what he was thinking, "such a smart ass for such a young age." I knew that look too well and I was really disappointed that Fariba the actress was sitting as though just being beautiful was enough. Before Beyk could say anything further my dad said, "I see you have made the acquaintances of my very intelligent and opinionated daughter who wants to change the world." Beyk smiled and said, "Indeed, she is very unusual."

My dad addressed the two actors and told them that he had arranged for the shooting schedule. He then looked at me and said, "Beautiful lady, the driver will take you home." I even disliked my dad's action for using a government employee as a chauffeur to drive me back. I hated the fact that most people in the government used subordinate employees as their cooks, chauffeurs, and household staff.

I felt very nostalgic and by now figured quickly that the movie was about a Gypsy girl that Beyk (playing the role of a rich cabaret owner) had brought from the countryside and had transformed into this famous singer.

I heard the door shut and my girlfriend came in. I motioned her to be quiet. I hate watching movies with any Iranian, because they talk and tell you what they think the next scene will be. That is why I prefer to go to the movies by myself. She sat and at this time the lead actress, overly made up, walked up to the piano player who had written a song specifically for her. She looked at the music sheet and began to sing: never never without you would I smile. Never never without you, would I fall in love. My heart raced. I had been looking for this song for years.

I realized that she was in love with the poor piano player but he thought he was unworthy of her. Now that's my kind of love story. The hell with the rich boy, you just choose love, abandon or defy the family, and break all the rules. Then there was the argument scene where she told the rich cabaret owner she was in love with the poor piano player.

I was really focused now as she ran out the door and then the next scene showed them walking in the park. I liked what she told him and in my mind tried to picture me saying those words to a man without thinking it was absurd. She said, "Under this vast sky with all the temptations in the world, all I want is to be with you. To have a piece of bread and eat it in happiness with you." My friend Elahe was looking at me, trying to see if I would make a sarcastic remark about such cheesy expressions, as I normally call them. I thought the Gypsy was not very talented and I could have sounded more natural, but she was the actress.

The next few scenes showed her leaving a life of luxury for a small place in a poor neighborhood and then the piano player being beaten up by Beyk's gang. She was threatened that he would be killed if she stayed with him. She told the piano player she did not love him and asked him to leave. He did and she ended up singing sad songs in cafes located in poor neighborhoods with working class audiences.

Then a distinguished man showed up backstage and introduced himself as so and so with great deal of money and asked her to sing in one of his cabarets located in a ritzy part of town. She said, "What is the point," because he (Beyk) was going to buy his cabaret to prevent her from singing. The distinguished man said that he was much richer and Beyk would not dare to interfere.

I could tell that my girlfriend had gotten into the movie too. The climax was the last scene. The actress, all dressed up, walked on stage in a very elaborately decorated cabaret with a very elegant and well-dressed audience and a big orchestra. She looked at the audience and said, "I want to sing my favorite song for you."

My tears had started to flow as I anticipated the ending. Sure enough, as she began to sing, "Never never without you would I smile," the piano started to accompany her and she looked to her right and there was the piano player. I started to sob but did not want my girlfriend to hear me so I bit my lips hard and tried not to make any sounds.

All of a sudden Elahe burst into laughter and pointed at me, "Oh my God, I don't believe this! Nobody is going to believe this. The Queen of Mean is such a sucker for love. I wish I had a camera." I started to wipe my tears and avoided her eyes. She was laughing so hard she rolled on the floor and said "You have no time for a man in your life and yet you are such a romantic." Annoyed, I said, "Well this proves that we are innocent still."

She sat up straight and said, "You and I have been married twice and each of us have a child. How could we be innocent?" I looked at her and said, "Look around you, most of the people our age are so cynical and cold and devoid of emotion. This shows that we are still idealistic and romantic."

Then I said, "You know maybe that is love at its best." She looked at me inquiringly. So I said, "Love is at its best when there are no requirements, just simply love with no goals and no plans and attachments."

Having the privilege of being my friend, one is bound to have some of my bad characteristics rub off on them and she is no exception. The smart ass in her said: "Does that mean you would consider loving a man less than 6 feet tall and bald?" I said a very profound "perhaps."

"I want to hear about this change of heart," she said. Really annoyed, I said, "Thanks to the Iranian men from I have had a great revelation." She said "Hold it right there, I am getting us fresh tea so you can tell me what do men from have to do with having changed your etched in stone requirement."

She came back and filled my cup with hot tea and then waited for me to unravel the mystery.

I said, "When I started to write for, not in my wildest dreams did I anticipate the amount of emails I would get from total strangers. For the first time in my life I was talking to people without knowing what they looked like and amazingly I was not even curious. I loved the fact that these people exchanged ideas and had discussions about everything from life, philosophy, and politics without any inhibitions. There was a man from Europe who became almost a cyber pal because he shared his students' and his personal problems with me. He was a brilliant man with great knowledge of Persian literature and history.

"Then one day he sent me a picture of his family. As I opened the attachment I pushed my chair away from my desk and walked away to ease the anxiety attack I normally get when I realized an unattractive or bald man was looking at me. Well, he was not bald and had a head full of dyed black hair but he was very unattractive. I felt a sense of shame for being so superficial and tried to remember how wonderful he was and how much he contributed to the intelligensia by writing and discussing every issue so brilliantly and without judgment. He said he wanted me to know what 'this humble being' looked like.

"Afterwards he even joked that he wished he was tall, dark and handsome so he could just drop everything to propose to me, to which I answered 'Oh God, trust me that is a bad idea. I will be a nightmare.' He said he was so glad I was capable of handling 'jokes.' He was having a hard time with his personal life and I suggested that he concentrate on that and not to worry about writing to me for a while.

"I continued to get emails without knowing what these people looked like and then one day I got email from someone who had listened to some music I had sent to the site. There was something about the way he had written to me. He came across as someone very easy going, witty, and totally comfortable with himself. I felt I had known him all my life. I asked him to read my written material and give me his opinion.

"I loved his feedback. He was so open and honest. His feedback was on my writing and not me personally. His conclusion amazed me. I loved his honesty and the fact that he did not kiss up to me and did not tiptoe around me either. It was as though he really knew me, which was very surprising. We exchanged emails about our ideas in life, the music we listened to, the books we read, and our culture. He had to go away for a few weeks so I did not hear from him. I was so looking forward to see his really witty one liner and his strong ethics on the issues he believed in. I could not wait for him to come back.

"When he came back he told me about his trip and I realized how close his ties to Iran were and you know how much I love an admire that. He also plays the instrument you love and you are dying to learn to play.

"I gave him my personal email and sometimes he would just send me a one liner that would make me laugh so hard and loud everyone wanted to know what was so funny. He used words and terms I have always yearned to hear but nobody uses them anymore. I had sent him the pictures from some of the functions I had attended and he did not comment other than it was nice to put the face with the writing. By now I was so curious to know what he looked like and had all sorts of images in my head but did not want to come across as shallow by asking him about his looks.

"One day, I was going through my emails and deleting the ones I did not want to keep. I realized I had some of his emails and I came across one that had an attachment. The email had said that was his picture. I looked at the date and realized this had been just before he left on his trip. I smiled and knew in my heart for some reason the universe had made me overlook this email so I could get to know the person. I opened the attachment. It was a headshot. He was bald and had a hooked nose.

"For the first time in my life I did not get an anxiety attack and looked at his smile and realized that his personality was exactly what I had perceived. Full of life, witty and having a blast just living. I asked one of my colleagues to come in and look at his picture. I was amazed when she said, 'He looks like a lot of fun. I bet his personality is so much like yours.' I never discussed his picture and he has become my confidant. I trust him completely and share things I had never shared with anyone, not even you."

She smiled and said "interesting." I cut her short and said "Now, let's not get carried away. That does not mean that I am going to walk around and assume every short and bald man is like him. I still would like to find Shahram Nazeri alone, pin him to the wall and kiss him so hard he would have to gasp for air. I would like the bald man to be a John Malkovitch or Arnold Voozloo (The Mummy) look-alike, but I have been cured of the 'ignorance bit.'"

It was almost 9:30 and we both had to go to work on Monday. So I grabbed my presents and said, "I have to leave."

I always find it so exhilarating and almost liberating when I admit that I have flaws. I was feeling really good and as I drove I thought we all need a dose of old Iranian movies to remind us that love is best when it has no requirements and is accepted "as is, no conditions." In all aspects of my life I had applied my favorite poem, "Let's treasure tonight my friend because we may not see tomorrow." I should apply the same to love. That felt so exciting. I love it when I discover something new about life.

Sometimes life's lessons are subtle and serene as expressing love on a spring morning, other times they're as exhilarating as reading a provocative poem to one's beloved in bed with nothing on but a vivid red lipstick. The thought makes me smile.

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By Azamin Nemati





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