Reflections on life in Iran and the U.S.
January 18, 1999
from Tara Bahrampour's To
See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America (Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 1998). Also see some of the reviews:
Whenever I asked either of my parents how they got together, they
always mentioned Mama's jeans. Mama's roommate had considered Baba
her own discovery, and had invited him to drop by one afternoon.
The roommate offhandedly introduced him to Mama, who was stretched
out on the couch in a pair of tight new blue jeans. Her red hair
was pulled back, setting off her deep brown eyes, pretty mouth,
and pale, freckled skin. As soon as the roommate left the room
for a minute, Baba made his move.
"You want to go to Carmel with me on Sunday?" he asked.
"Sure," Mama said.
"I'll pick you up at five in the morning."
The first couple of summers after we move to Iran, Mama takes
me and Ali on trips to America. I can't wait to go. In America
no one pinches my cheek or screams in my ear or tells me I should
be speaking Farsi by now. I hate when my relatives say that; and
even when I do understand them I sometimes look at them blankly
as if I don't. Then they get mad and tell Baba that I should learn
my own father's language.
"Are you Japanese?"
I laugh, and the [Iranian] shopkeeper realizes he is wrong. My
wavy brown hair, light skin, and slightly flat-lidded eyes are
a mix of a lot of things, but I'm not Japanese. On my mother's
side I am English, Irish, Scottish, Swedish, and German. My father's
side is harder. Agha Jan's family is said to have come from the
Qashqais, a nomadic tribe that moves between the mountains and
the plains of the southern province of Fars. Baba says that is
why even the old ladies in our family go out every evening for
a brisk stride around the block, with the blood of the nomads pumping
through their legs...
"I'm half Iranian and half American," I answer in Farsi.
"Ah, do-rageh," he says, nodding. Do-rageh means
two-veined, or two kinds of blood in one vein, and whenever people
say it I think of my two bloods swirling together like a two-colored
Naneh is half crazy; my Farsi is good enough to know that.
But I am even better at fake Farsi. Ali and I can make ourselves
sound just like the Iranian TV broadcasters who string together
unending chains of complicated words to announce the news. Deciphering
them is impossible; instead we make up Farsi-sounding sentences,
keeping all the same pauses and inflections. Ali hums the opening
music of the news. I frown, clear my throat, and round out my lips
to produce the formal pronunciation I've only heard from newscasters
and from Iranians reciting poetry.
"Salaam, beenandegaan-e aziz [Hello, dear viewers]. Emrooz
beest-o-chahaarom-e septaambr, va hala aghaz-e pakhsh-e akhbaar [Today
is September tewnety-fourth and this is the news.] Behdaayyat-e
maftanboolian, baad az forojamegaanha-ye khaghenaammat-e youstekarianhaa-ye
ostobaran, dofarbiat-e nashenooshidan-e khabraw-mellayi, ghashchafoor
shodeh-and." It means nothing, but Ali starts to giggle
and my voice breaks as I try to make my sentence as long as the
ones on TV.
At [Tehran's American Community] school there is a boy I like
named Kurt. He is in my grade and he has straight brown hair and
tan skin and sometimes last year we would talk to each other before
class. At the end of the year I secretly got my fifth-grade teacher
to give me Kurt's picture from the display where the teacher had
put all our pictures up with captions to describe us. Kurt's was "nonchalant." Mine
was "Cool, calm and collected." It was a perfect match.
But I don't feel calm or collected when the phone rings and it
is Kurt on the line. No boy ever calls me, let alone the one I
like, and I clutch the phone tightly, my heart pounding hard.
"I just wanted to tell you we're going to America tomorrow," he
"Oh." My stomach shrinks into a ball. "For good?"
"No, we'll just be gone a few weeks. I'll be back by Christmas."
He doesn't say goodbye, but "see you," and, euphoric
and heartbroken, I run into the closet and bury my face in clothes.
See you, see you -- he wants to see me. Only two months until Christmas...
every day at school there are more empty desks besides Kurt's.
Upstairs at Aziz's, none of my relatives agree with each other.
"It's the Shah himself who is behind all this," one
says. "He had them set the fire in Abadan so everyone would
blame it on the religious people."
"Yes, it's true," says another. "The religious
ones only burn cinemas that show foreign movies, and that was an
"Well, if it's the Shah who is behind all this, then why
doesn't he put a stop to it?" someone says.
"He will, you'll see. He's just trying to satisfy people
by allowing the shoolooghi to go on a little longer than
"Naa-baba, what are you talking about? It's the Americans,
don't you get it? Iran has gotten too independent since the Shah
drove up oil prices. America wants Iran to stay backward because
it's easier to control that way."
"Independent? This Shah is just a servant to the Americans.
Why do you think he released those political prisoners last week?
Because Carter told him to. If he weren't so scared of Carter he'd
shoot them all and get it over with."
"No one listens to me." Agha Vakili's voice rumbles
out from the corner chair. "The English planned this a long
It stars as a low rumble from far down the boulevard; by the time
it reaches us it is a roar.
"God, did you hear that?" Baba says, his eyes wide. "I
can't believe they're saying it out loud." Mama shakes her
hand and raises her eyebrows, and Baba translates:
May your crown prince die!
You butcher Shah!
Why did you kill
The youth of the motherland?
Even though I'm not sure of all the Farsi words, the tune and
rhythm of it get into my head. It is fun to be here, chanting silently
along with the thousands of people screaming by. I even kind of
wish the police would come and we could see fighting and shoolooghi up
Lists are posted in the mosques. My cousin Javad, who is a student
at Tehran University, tells us that there are lists of Imperialists,
lists of Westernized People, lists of Friends of Americans, and
so on. One day, Javad says that a friend of his saw Baba's name,
on a List of Freemasons.
"What's a Freemason?" Baba asks, baffled. Everyone looks
at Dadash, who doesn't know either.
When Baba arrived in L.A., three days after us, we picked him
up at the airport and drove him to grandma and grandpa's house
just in time to watch the Shah and Queen Farah stepping off their
private jet in Egypt. The Shah said he was taking a short vacation,
but the newscaster repeated this in a voice that meant we all knew
better. The Shah himself must also have known. He was said to be
carrying a jar of Iranian soil, and as he stepped forward to receive
a kiss from Anwar el-Sadat he looked drawn and shaken; he may even
have been crying. (Years later, Mama told me that on that first
night Baba had cried too, for all that he had left behind...)
Shahrzad writes from California. "I am going to a new school
in Simi Valley. I've changed my name. I'm telling people I'm a
Catholic Italian now." She signs the letter "Love, Sherri," with
a bubble dot over the i.
My eyes run back and forth over the two words. I might be embarrassed
by my relatives. I might not tell people at school that I am Iranian.
But this letter is a like a slap in the face. Shahrzad - my partner
in a fifth-grade oral report on Iran's Khorasan province, the only
friend who understood how much I missed Community School -- has
slipped from Iranian to Italian like the misreading of some alphabetical
Early one morning Baba comes into my room to kiss me goodbye.
I have been awake for a while, listening to him get ready, but
when he walks in I pretend to be asleep. He is leaving and I should
hug him, but we haven't hugged in so long that it would be embarrassing.
So I stay still as he kisses my forehead and walks out. The front
door opens and clicks shut and I push aside a corner of the curtain
and watch his yellow car back slowly down the driveway.
Down in the street it pauses for a moment, suspended, as if it
wants to boomerang back up to the house. Then it starts up the
street and disappears behind Mrs. Shoemaker's trees. A knot of
tears sticks in my throat.... I was afraid that that thing inside
him would become even more fragile now that he was going out into
America alone, without us to translate for him.
Sometime I try to imagine how I would have been different if there
had been no revolution. We would have stayed in Iran. I would have
spoken better Farsi and I would have been closer to my relatives.
I would have spent my college summers in Iran., seeing old school
friends; maybe I would have dated an Iranian. Baba would have liked
that. He never says that he'd like me to go out with Iranians,
but I suspect it's true, and whenever I bring a boyfriend home
from college I am always nervous that the boy will seem too American.
Walking alone in Tehran for the first time in fifteen years, I
feel as if I've been given the key to a locked garden. I want to
talk to people, but hardly anyone else is out at midday... I dash
across a street and duck into a little general store, and its odor
of sour cheese and stale candy immediately takes me back to Ramezan,
my own old corner store. In fact, the merchandise here is so familiar
that I don't even need to look at it carefully -- I know the unbleached
paper notebooks whose stapled binding falls apart after a day,
I know the rooster-brand chiclets that have to be worked in the
mouth before they become soft enough to chew; I smile when I see
the little red-and-orange bags of Pofak cheese curls hanging along
the wall like old friends.
In Iran it is no longer just political dissidents who lead double
lives. Defying the rules has become a national pastime. When our
car approaches an intersection where the komiteh has set
up one of their ubiquitous roadblocks, Massi nibbles at her pink
nail polish like a guilty school girl. When we walk down a street
and a small woman in black barks out, "Clean off that lipstick!" Leila-khanoum
wipes the back of her hand across her mouth. But as soon as we
pass the woman, Leila cups her lipstick in her hand and swiftly
reapplies it ... Even a religious old woman whom Massi and I visit
smiles wickedly and opens a cupboard to show us her tiny bottles
of Jack Daniel's and Stolichnaya. "From the airplane, when
I visited my son in Europe," she says with a twinkle. "Gifts
for my grandchildren."
Missing the Shah?
Not only have the schools been reorganized, but recently when
I flipped through a copy of Roya's daughter's third-grade reader
I noticed that the books have been altered as well. The primer's
main nuclear family has remained intact since the days when I used
the book, but all the furniture has disappeared from their house.
The girl, Sara, the boy, Dara, and their parents now sit on the
floor in traditional Iranian style. Their father has gotten rid
of his old suits and ties and sports a new Islamic five o'clock
shadow; their mother has substituted scarves and cloaks for the
perky dresses she used to wear.
But even people who miss the Shah's time don't seem to miss the
Shah himself. Political repression and corruption aside, the Shah
could be embarrassingly childish in his drive to imitate the West.
"Speak English to her," Haideh hisses to me when her
neighbor Delbar comes upstairs to visit. "She has to practice
for her interview so she can get her Canadian visa too."
"Hello," I say in English. "Why do you want to
go to Canada?"
Delbar begins self-consciously. "I want to go to Canada," she
enunciates carefully, "because I can't get a visa to America."
I smile. "Okay, but why to do you want to go to America?"
She giggles. "You know why. It's better!"
"Why is it better?"
"You have more fun."
"What makes you think that?"
Delbar is silent for a minute then she laughs and pushes away
an invisible load. "Too hard," she says in Farsi, winding
a strand of long hair around her finger.
... my family were not expats in Iran. We were growing up there,
our relatives lived there, it was our home. When we saw the red-painted
letters that spelled "Yankee Go Home," we did not turn
the focus in on ourselves. Yankees were the apple-cheeked American
military fathers who wore pirate costumes at the Iran-America Society
Halloween parties; Yankees were the wide-hipped midwestern mothers
and the thin-lipped blond California mothers who complained about
how the Iranian-made cornflakes just didn't taste as good as the
real thing. When we saw those dripping red letters telling them
to go home we shrugged, half agreeing that they should leave if
they were that nervous, half surprised that they left so fast and
easily. Our school closed and opened and closed again like an illness
in remission, but we did not take it personally.
And yet, when we finally left, we were not immigrants to America
either. Three of us had been born there; four of us spoke perfect
American English. Landing in America, we went straight to Grandma
and Grandpa's backyard swimming pool in the hills. But as soon
as we arrived I began to miss what Carla calls the expat life.
Abroad, our lives had been unlike anyone else's. We had not fit
into any mold; compared to Iranian kids in Iran or American kids
in America, we had had a sense of being untethered in the world.
We had traveled all our lives; we were seasoned experts on jet
Tara Bahrampour was the fourth generation of her family to
attend U.C. Berkeley. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism,
she has written for The New York Times Magazine, The Wall
Street Journal, The New Republic, and Travel and Leisure. She
lives in New York City. To to