Iran's infinite risks and possibilities
By Gelareh Asayesh
August 22, 2000
Third excerpt from "Saffrom
Sky: A Life Between Iran and America" by Gelareh Asayesh (Beacon
Press, November 1999). Asayesh grew up in Tehran. Her family moved to the
United States in 1977, shortly before the Islamic Revolution transformed
Iran. In 1990, after fourteen years of absence, she returned to Iran for
a visit. Since then, she has returned almost every year, most recently
for three months this past spring and summer. "Saffron
Sky" chronicles both her trips and the emotional landscape of
the immigrant, describing her struggle to bridge two irreconcilable worlds. Also see more experts (1)
Tehran November 27, 1994
The sky is gloaming when we wake. Last night, Mina's first in Iran,
she screamed and cried, keeping our hosts up for hours. She is nine months
old, too young to handle jet lag with grace. We dress quickly and decide
to go for a walk. After sleeping the day away, it is a relief to trade
our tangled bedclothes and scattered belongings for the cold night air.
We walk down the hill to Niavaran Park, the baby bundled up in the stroller.
The sound of city traffic grows as we leave the quiet residential streets;
the park is surrounded by busy thoroughfares. The royal palace of the same
name is nearby, long since converted to a museum. But Niavaran Park is
unchanged, still beautiful and well tended. Bright lights illuminate the
avenues; the trees cast looming shadows.
Our path leads us to a glass hut where a silent young man sits under
a lumpy orange canopy -- huge bags of cheese puffs suspended from the ceiling.
He sells us stale cakes in cellophane packages and tea bags in Styrofoam
cups of hot water. The transaction closes with ta'arof -- the elaborate
courtesy ritual that is so quintessentially Iranian. I fall quickly into
the familiar pattern. Three times he says, "It is not worth it,"
when I attempt to pay. Three times I respond with "Please." Eighteen
tomans changes hands.
We sit on a stone ledge, cupping the steaming Styrofoam in chilled hands.
A late-night runner huffs around the perimeter of a rectangular pool. The
lit fountain is a rainbow of bright spray, and the sounds of traffic are
cushioned by the stillness of the park. Caught up in the slow creep of
uneasy thoughts, I have little to say to Neil.
It has been two years since I last visited Iran. Now I am here with
my husband and new daughter. It is a momentous occasion, one I have dreamed
of. But I feel no joy, none of the excitement and anticipation of prior
trips. It is as if each trip has peeled away layers of romance and novelty
until at last I have arrived at unadorned reality. And on this night, reality
I came here seeking the sense of connection -- to myself and my past
-- that eludes me in America. But as I watch the light play on the water
and try to make sense of my jumbled emotions, my mind keeps returning to
the image of the man in the glass hut, alone in the dark spaces of the
ON THE WAY back, we have to keep the stroller on the street. Iran's
sidewalks are brief parentheses in the larger disorder of water-filled
gullies and stone slabs, tree roots and asphalt, all jumbled together.
In my near-constant attempt to define my country and its unique appeal,
I find this disorder poignant. There is an elusive quality that sets Iran
apart from the gleaming, efficient West in ways both repellent and appealing.
It is the essence of the Third World, of richness of culture and poverty
of resources, of deprivation and burgeoning growth. It is depressing yet
exciting, the unruliness bordering on chaos that prevails here. Everything
in America seems restrained in comparison -- the land has been tamed by
concrete and the people by laws similarly impervious and uniform. I live
in America in a well-ordered society -- although a violent one -- and thrive
in its orderliness. Iran is not very violent; murders here retain intense
shock value. But it is untamed. Life seems more accessible, less closed
Most Westerners see Iran as primitive and backward. Perhaps that is
true, although the truth depends on one's viewpoint. Tales of Jeffrey Dahmers
and Ted Bundys, of schoolyard massacres and drive-by shootings, are as
shocking to Iranians as stonings are to Americans -- and far more common.
I think of Iran as primitive in a different sense, in the sense of being
closer to God, man and nature. Here in Iran, everything is broken pavement,
weeds growing in an atmosphere of infinite risk and possibility. Faith
and myth are part of the fabric of daily living. Simple people stop in
their tracks to pray when the muazzin's call to prayer drifts from the
mosques. Sophisticated people believe in miracles. ("Have you heard
of the Blind Shaykh?" a beautifully coiffed relative asks a country
acquaintance over tea one afternoon. "I hear he can divine where stolen
jewelry is hidden.")
Such innocence is rare in the country where I make my home. I must bring
my daughter halfway across the world to experience it.
My family here complains that Iranians become colder and more self-centered
day by day, as the economy crumbles and the battle for survival worsens.
Yet the fruit is ripe, the wash dries on the line, and when a car breaks
down in crowded Tehran, there is no shortage of people stopping to offer
advice, water, a ride.
Despite a web of taboos and conventions, lives are lived ad hoc, not
ordered and groomed and managed. Mrs. Z, who sews, falls in love with the
cloth seller and threatens to leave her husband and children. A great to-do
ensues, many tears are shed, but all is soon smoothed over. She thinks
better of her folly and goes home. Her brothers beat up the cloth seller.
Her husband's family hushes up the rumors. Mr. Z. visits me in a Tehran
living room less than a year later, with no hint of what has happened other
than many more gray hairs.
Life goes on -- no counseling, no divorce. A river overflowed its bounds,
then subsided in the fullness of time to its own ordinary bed.
December 1994 , Tehran
Time goes by in a blur of disturbed nights and cluttered days. We seem
to spend most of our time taking care of Mina. First-time parents, we panic
when she develops a mysterious rash, rush her to the doctor, disinfect
her bathtub every night. In between family gatherings I am busy arranging
interviews for Neil, who will be writing a newspaper series on Iran at
the end of this trip. There are no leisurely shopping expeditions, no trips
to the museum. There are not enough hours in the day. Even so, I decide,
four years after first returning to Iran, that it is time to visit the
home of my childhood.
It is a few days before we leave Tehran for Mashad. We are at a lunch
date downtown, meeting the man I have known since birth by the name Amoo
- uncle. He married and later was divorced from my father's sister, my
Ammeh. He takes Neil and me, baby in tow, to a restaurant tucked away in
a neglected garden, where he checks to make sure the salad greens have
been washed in disinfectant before eating them. Over chicken kabab, we
talk of family and the country's economic problems. Then we climb into
Amoo's Mercedes, which only recently replaced the Volvo I rode in as a
child. We are headed for Shemiran, the uptown suburb where I grew up.
Driving through the narrow streets, I am afflicted with double vision.
I look at a hillside and see it twice -- once as it is on this mild, sunny
December day in the year 1994, once covered with snow in a year I cannot
name. I see my father panting with exertion as he tries to change a flat
tire while I stamp my feet next to the car. At home, Homajoon and Afsaneh
will be getting worried.
Where our house once stood on its hilltop, there is now a fancy apartment
building with lacy white ironwork and a gleaming new door. Standing there,
I imagine that I am visiting an alternate future; that the fancy apartment
complex has never been built and our house is still there, marching down
the steep hillside: two tiers of rooms descending to the pansy beds, the
green lawn, and the willow trees, followed by the twenty-three steps to
the garage below.
I imagine a young woman walking out to throw both halves of the garage
door open, then backing her car out into the alleyway, getting out with
the engine idling, locking the double doors again and driving away.
She has lived all her life in Iran except for a brief sojourn in the
United States as a child. She lived through the revolution and dresses
up her obligatory manteaux with the most interesting scarves she can find.
She grumbles about traffic and air pollution and the cost of living. She
works downtown. She knows all the best pizza joints. She reads Iranian
poetry. She is married and has children.
She is the woman I would be today if my parents had not made a momentous
choice years ago. Now I am someone else, someone defined by otherness.
I drink black coffee. I use too many swear words in English but know none
in Farsi. The lexicon of my daily life includes words like Honda, play
group, linguine with clam sauce. For years I thought it normal to build
my life entirely around work.
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, the words of my first
language bursting into my mouth from some long-suppressed place. For days
afterward, the English words feel like foreign objects on my tongue, metallic
and cold, like the loose filling of a tooth. I walk around full of hidden
despair until I manage once again to forget my childhood self.
My uncle smokes a cigarette. I pose for photographs under the sign that
still says Shaghayegh Alley in blue. We leave.
Weeks later, Neil regrets that I did not include Mina in those pictures.
It is not until I come across the photos one day at home in St. Petersburg
that I realize the choice was deliberate. When I look at the images, there
is nothing to distinguish the woman I have become from the one I might
No Mina. No Neil.
There is only a young woman in a black manteau and colorful scarf, smiling
at the camera with eyes narrowed against the sun.