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Two-colored lollipop
Reflections on life in Iran and the U.S.

January 18, 1999
The Iranian

Excerpts 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:

* Parents
* Japanese?
* Pinching
* Fake Farsi
* Kurt
* Political argument
* Chanting
* Freemason
* In L.A.
* Italian
* Fragile Baba
* Boyfriend
* In Tehran
* Defying rules
* Missing the Shah?
* Visa
* Untethered
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Parents

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."

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Pinching

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.

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Japanese?

"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 lollipop.

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Fake Farsi

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.

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Kurt

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 says.

"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.

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Political argument

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 Iranian film."

"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 usual."

"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 time ago..."

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Chanting

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 close.

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Freemason

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.

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In L.A.

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...)

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Italian

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.

Catholic.

Italian.

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 list.

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Fragile Baba

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.

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Boyfriend

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.

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In Tehran

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.

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Defying rules

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."

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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.

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Visa

"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.

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Untethered

... 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 lag...

Author

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

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