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Sarvenaz diaries -- Part 2

Opium dream
Summer in Iran

By Sarvenaz
February 8, 2002
The Iranian

I went back to Iran the next summer to see my parents. I arrived in Tehran and was immediately reprimanded by my mother about having abandoned poor, old, loyal, Farhad. Who was a Mohandess, like his father, and ran their lucrative air conditioning factory and business in Tehran. To tell you the truth Farhad too had lost interest in me. To my, subconscious, disappointment he was not too unhappy about the break up -- he in fact, seemed to secretly wish it. Our emails and telephone conversations had seemed to fizzle off like an abandoned bottle of half empty coke. I tried to explain all that, but my Mom approached the subject of my future with the wedding-white tunnel vision that is peculiar, maybe, to Iranian mothers.

My parents were happy to see me. I was happy to be in Iran. I always feel immediately at home as soon as I arrive in Tehran. Despite the seemingly vast difference in our mentalities I feel at one with the place and the people. That sense of belonging, even now, after so many years abroad, I have never felt anywhere else.

Anyway, I assured my mom that I would socialize and go to all the mehmanis, which meant that I would go out and try to meet a future husband. The age of twenty-eight, for an Iranian girl, is considered dangerously 'borderline' late for marriage. The grant, the scholarship, the degree that I had from New York University, meant nothing compared to the perceived need for me to get married. In Iranian society you can be the most successful woman in the world, you can be Christian Amanpour or Oprah Winfrey or Janet Reno, but if you remain unmarried you are a pitiable creature. It is by far more respectable to marry and divorce than to remain unmarried or torshideh, pickled.

That first night back home I heard them whispering about my hard headedness, my mom told my father, " injoori heechvaght shohar peydaa nemeekoneh. Cheh faaydeh daareh velgardi dore donyaa? Une pesare be in khoobi raa, keh hameh arezooshooneh, vel kard vali yek roozi pashimoon meesheh." ("This way she will never find a husband. What is the benefit of all this useless globetrotting? That nice boy whom every one dreams about, she has abandoned. Someday she will regret it I tell you.") My dad soothed her with reassurances that I would find some one soon, he was certain. I smiled. I was used to all this by now. When you are a twenty-eight year old, unmarried Iranian woman you have already steeled yourself to questions and criticism about your future matrimonial prospects.

One of the upshots of so much love and warmth and intimacy in a society, like mine in Iran, is that everyone is engaged in everyone else's affairs in a very passionate and active way. You could call it a collective nosiness. So, often when a person leaves the room the others begin talking about her. It is, in a way, like having a group of people who are all each other's confidants sooner or later everyone is talking about everyone else. This, if it does not get too cruel, which it sometimes does, is like a form of group therapy. Everyone feels better worrying about someone else. In closed societies this prevalence of gossip serves the social and psychological function of bringing taboo or difficult subjects into the collective conversation. It even allows for a certain degree of empathy and tolerance because instead of rejecting a person completely one merely gossips about them. If something is discussed amongst a lot of people even if it is in hush, hush and gossipy it is, at least, out in the open. I prefer much more the pech pech of Iranian relatives and friends than the staring eye of some puritanical congregation! Iranians may say the worst things about you behind your back, but that never keeps them from inviting you to their next party. It may be superficial acceptance but it is acceptance non-the-less.

A few nights later, after I had visited all the relatives and gotten rid of a suitcase of soghatis (presents) that I had lugged over from New York, I was invited to my cousin Leila's house for a party. Which really meant that they were going to show me off to the few unmarried friends they still had. It was a typical Tehran party for the young. The music was the latest smuggled hip-hop from the States. The girls with their nose jobs were out for the kill in their best imitation or real (I could never tell) designer clothes. Nooshin and Roya where talking about Leila's Escada, "Vaay deedi cheghadr Escadash fogholadast!" (You see how wonderful her Escada is!) At first I did not know what they were taking about. Is it a code name for a lover? A new kind of car? The name of a new book? So, I asked, half ashamed of my ignorance of this mysterious term, "what is Escada?"

Nooshin replied with a disappointed tone, "You have been to Europe and New York and you have never heard of Escada?" I assured them that I really had never, ever, I promise, heard of Escada. "It is the German designer house of the moment," said Roya pointing a red polished nail for effect. They proceeded to point out to me all the girls who were fortunate enough to be wearing it. How could Jafar tolerate all this? From Exeter and MIT and ending up with these kinds of friends. Maybe he did it for Leila. These are perfectly nice and fun people I said to myself -- stop judging them. These seemingly vulgar and materialistic women were a refreshing break from the pretentious intellectualism of my New York friends. Who cared if they hadn't read any books, they threw the best parties and were never jealous of anything but other women's clothes or figures.

This was a bigger party than I imagined. I thought to myself that Khomeini must be turning in his grave. Here was the future of the country, its enfant doré, listening to Snoopy Snoop Dog, dressed in German designer clothes sipping imported, Swedish akband vodka. I thought of reading The Great Gatsby in high school. I remembered Mr. Halliday telling us about how well Fitzgerald portrayed the "the decky dance" of the twenties. Well here was a similar "decky dance" right in front of me and I wondered whether prohibition was the culprit. Could it be that by telling a people not to do something you turn them, unwittingly, into children?

I was by far the most under-dressed of all, in a simple low cut, black cocktail dress. My mother had complained about the lack of color and general drabness of the dress but I had just smiled and run out the door intent on avoiding all confrontation. I kept telling myself do not judge your parents; they are of a different time and place. Treat them like you are Margaret Mead on the field, as quiet simply of another civilization, like so many tribes to be befriended and studied. I wonder if that great anthropologist could look at her parents and relations like so many tribes to be studied? For me it was a matter of survival. This way I could love them and never, ever, expect myself to fully be them.

After a bit of circulating and chatting with old friends I felt, like I often do at these parties, like I badly needed to get a drink. So I looked around and before you know it Leila's husband, Jafar, came to me with a chilled shot of vodka and a lime in hand. I told him that he had read my mind and we did the shots like we had on so many previous occasions. He always told me that he liked the fact that I could "drink like a man", as if that was the greatest compliment in the world. But in that party, in that context, it was meant to be a praise and I took it as such raising my shot glass for a refill as if to affirm his compliment. Often in my childhood in Iran, whether it was when I rode on horseback with my father, or played soccer with my brother's friends on the street in Tehran, I had been praised for doing one thing or another like a man.

They thankfully started playing better music. Jafar took me by the arm and introduced me to some of his friends. One of them, a slick looking guy with loads of gel in his hair, who wore a beautiful suit over a tee shirt, and immediately stated that he lived in the U.K most of the year, started the conversation with a few questions and then proceeded to flirt. I really did not want to flirt with this man. So instead I started talking about European football hoping that would keep the conversation on a boyish safe level. As we were talking about the relative merits of Arsenal and Manchester United, the door opened and a short man in glasses and a tall beautiful woman with dark, straight, long hair walked in. "Salam Rashid khaan, salam Goli jaan, befarmaaeed," Leila greeted them with the usual pleasantries that roll out of Iranian women's mouths with a sweet graceful ease, like honey that is being poured with those spiraling wooden spoons.

She introduced them as "Mr. and Mrs. Banani... You know, the famous poet." Of course I knew. I had read the man's poems, which I did not really like. It was the kind of 'new' poetry that was much too restrained and pretentious for my taste. The wife of Mr. Banani, Goli, possessed such radiant beauty that even before uncovering her loose headscarf and taking off her roopoosh, she lit up the room. The two of them looked really incongruent. He, a scrawny, large nosed man and she tall, much younger, and breathtakingly stunning standing side by side -- a freak of nature, I thought to myself feeling immediately ashamed about it. I had heard that he had wooed her with many lines of poetry, lavish presents and soirées at his villa in Lavassan. His was a very wealthy family who managed to keep their wealth intact after the revolution because his maternal uncle was an Ayatollah.

The poet's wife flashed me a broad welcoming smile and I immediately knew that I would like her. I smiled back and told her that her dress was gorgeous. Was it Escada? I wondered. She told me with Iranian politesse that seemed genuine, that she liked my antique silver pendant with a tiny Koran in it. I told her it belonged to my grandmother and she extended a long pale arm, reached, and touched it and smiled again. The brightest, broadest smile, which revealed the most beautiful set of white teeth, and filled a large circumference around her with warmth. I looked around and noticed Jafar and his friends staring at her.

The dinner, like at most Iranian parties, was a mouth watering Iranian culinary journey. One look at the spread on the table and I thought, "This is edible art." I could see a performance art display, in some SoHo gallery, of one of these dinner tables, with the audience asked to join in and eat. Art for taste buds sake! The khoreshts, and the joojeh kabobs, the beef straganoff, the tahchin and the albaloo polo were displayed in voluptuously over filled trays and soupiéres of silver and china. With the best lemon dressing salad, a huge wooden basket of herbs and plenty of coca-cola and seven up in tall crystal glasses filled with ice, served on trays. Every time I go back to Iran I feel like I have tasted tomato, cucumber, lettuce and almost all fruits and vegetables for the first time since my last visit. A tomato in an American super market should not have the right to bear that name. I bit into a plum, juicy slice soaked in the olive oil and lemon juice of the salad. Funny how simple things matter -- would you give up a lifetime of tasting tomato? At this thought I knew that I had had one too many shots before dinner.

After dinner Jafar asked me to come to the back room. I knew what this meant. They always went to the back room to smoke opium after dinner. I had tried it a couple of times but had not really felt anything. I entered the room that was hazy with smoke, and was greeted warmly by those inside. People who indulge in opium love it when new people join them. It legitimizes their addiction to have a variety of people partake in it -- around the manghals, at different parties, there are those who are the real smokers and others who are tourists trying a puff here another there. The tourists make the addicts feel better and the addicts provide a source of occasional indulgence for the tourists. Sometimes, and I see this more and more each time I go back, the tourists become addicts themselves. It never, ever works the other way around.

All were gathered around the manghal, which was glowing with red-hot charcoal. It was quite large. Each of its corners had a concave rest place for the opium pipe or vaafoor, to keep it warm when not in use. On one side of this beautiful brazier was a surface to place the tea ghoori. Tea, especially sweetened tea, is an essential ingredient of smoking taryaak. It soothes the throat and its sweetness keeps the blood pressure from dropping. Next to the manghal were placed an assortment of Iranian sweets for the same purpose of keeping blood pressures from dropping. There was also a silver tray that held the little silver wrench and a knife for cutting the very hard taryaak and a long narrow silver stick for opening the pipe's hole after each puff of the vaafoor.

Amazon Honor SystemMr. Banani, the poet and his wife, were sitting next to Jafar, who was busy breaking pieces of the opium. The gel-haired guy from the U.K was also there and about to take a hit when I sat down. He showed a great level of comfort with the vaafoor, and I wondered if he was an addict or just a tourist. I had heard that the price of taryaak in London was around 300 pounds for a lool or 18 grams stick of opium. In Tehran it cost around five pounds. Many a young man including, apparently a poor pilot that I heard about, risk everything and sometimes get caught when smuggling some of this stuff for the consumption of their more fortunate compatriots abroad. "Okay stop thinking like this, smoke the pipe and enjoy, it is Iran, in the summer and you are young despite what your mother thinks, let go and enjoy yourself," I told myself.

The poet who was older than all the others, and seemed to have more manghal and vafoor know how than the rest, put the tip of the pipe to my mouth and told me, "foot kon." I blew remembering that unlike a hash pipe you have to blow first into the vaafoor and inhale only after the charcoal has caused the piece of opium (or bast) to start to bubble and smoke. So I blew into the pipe which was long, smooth and beautifully carved with an oval porcelain head that was laajevard blue with gold rims, until the poet said, "Ahaan! Barikalaa! Haalaa bekesh too" ("Yes! Good job! Now inhale") at which I, ever the obedient partaker of tribal customs, sucked the smoke in and let it fill my lungs. I remembered E.G Brown writing in his travel memoirs, A year amongst the Persians (1893), about picking up opium smoking in Kerman, known for the great quality of its poppies. The longest chapter in those memoirs is on Kerman. It seems like Mr. Brown had a hard time leaving that beautiful province which is also known for its beautiful carpets and its brilliant star filled skies. I am sure sitting on those carpets under those skies and smoking that opium did as much for his understanding of our literature than his mastery of Farsi.

I held the smoke inside for dear life, never having been one to fake things. The poet's wife looked at me with that smile that you could swim in and said, "You are a professional! You smoke like a man!" I looked at Jafar, and smiled still holding the smoke in my chest wishing every bit of it to enter my blood, permeate my body, flood my brain.

Goli picked up a slender waisted, gold-rimmed glass and poured some tea. With her long slender fingers she broke some nabaat and gave it a stir with the little gold spoon and said, "Biaa in raa bokhore behtare meeshee" ("Come drink this; you'll feel better"). I sipped and let the familiar taste of good tea linger in my mouth. I leaned back on the large pillow behind me bringing my legs under my body trying hard to cover them with my skimpy black dress. Surely this was meant to be a cocktail dress, one in which you could stand up and drink but not to recline and smoke opium! Jafar, ever attentive, covered my legs with one of the fine cotton shamads that Leila had provided just for this purpose. A good host thinks of everything.

All around the square room, against the four walls, futon-like mattresses with congac brown damask covers were arranged. The huge cylinder shaped cushions, covered in turquoise blue raw satin with little powder pink rosebuds all over, were arranged so all would have easy access to them should the urge to lay back over take them. The cotton throws or shamads where piled on one corner, and a thick haired namad was spread under the manghal. One of the walls displayed Jafar's collection of antique Iranian erotic miniatures. Another wall, the one right in front of me, boasted a rather large painting/calligraphy by Zenderoudi, repeating the name Ali a thousand times in different sizes and colors. On another wall hung Jafar's collection of music album covers in one giant glass frame.

The poet was going on and on about the importance of Zoroastrian religion in ancient times, while the gel-haired man from London intently listened. My eyes fell on Goli. Her dress was long with a slit to the side that seemed designed for sitting around the manghal. The slit revealed only a long sliver of her lovely legs ending just where the thighs get slightly wider. It was her turn to smoke and she declined her husband's offer to hold the pipe for her, "doost daaram khodam bokonam." ("I like to do it myself") And then to me in a perfect Mid-Western American accent, "I love this stuff, it makes me feel so incredibly light, like I can float like a cloud and cross the mountains and reach the sea and come diving down my chest scraping the surface of the cool water." She picked up the opium pipe and placed a bast on it. With the silver tong she picked a flat piece of charcoal and blew the white ash from its surface till it revealed its red hot inside. She then lowered the charcoal to just above the hit of opium and blew till it started bubbling and then inhaled the entire hit in a procession of tiny, well-paced puffs. She held the smoke deep in her chest, which made her breast heave. I looked around to see if anyone else was staring. I caught Jafar's eyes as he also moved them away from her, and smiled at me. The poet was still talking as the Londoner listened, mesmerized.

Goli finished her bast and gestured for me to sit next to her. "Biaa man yek khoobesho baraat begeeram," she told me as she prepared the vaafoor. I moved next to her as she held the pipe up to my mouth. She leaned, her shoulders pressing mine, to get the right angle, coaching me through the steps. From my position I could see deep inside her cleavage. Did she know about this view of her bosom? As I was holding the smoke she pushed me back onto the cushion and covered my legs again, only this time her hands touched, and seemed to rest on them for a long minute. I was feeling the full force of the opium. She ordered me to have some sweet tea. Again, I listened. That last hit was a dogholoo she informed me, a double hit mixed with a much stronger essence of the opium called sheereh. A wonderful feeling of euphoria swept over me. I felt lucid in the head and relaxed in the body. No wonder all these writers could write on the stuff, it actually gives your mind clarity and the ability to concentrate and relaxes the body so you can sit in one place for hours! Truly this was the shahanshah of all drugs.

Goli made a comment about the beauty of the Zenderoudi painting. Before she could finish, the poet cut her off and pontificated on the aesthetically inferior quality of the painter throwing some French terms for good measure. I, having been always fond of Zenderoudi, and disliking all those who like to listen to themselves, went on to say why and how I loved the painting as well. Goli said, "Ghorboone dahanet beram dokhtar... somebody finally stood up for me!" Banani retorted, "I have written a thousand verses for this girl and she still isn't satisfied." I thought of the idea of satisfaction and decided that I certainly felt it right now. "You are a lucky girl Goli jaan, no one has ever written me a single verse." I felt Jafar's eyes on me but did not look. Delete the thought I said to myself, delete the thought: HE'S YOUR COUSIN'S HUSBAND!

I spoke to Goli the rest of the night with my back slightly to Jafar. I did not want to look at him. This taryaak had made my imagination open the door to rooms in my head that I did not really want to visit. Goli told me about how she had grown up in Ann Arbor, Michigan were her dad had been a Physics professor. He had died after a terrible ordeal with cancer. They had come back to Iran the next year were her mother had fallen in love and re-married. At first it was hard adjusting to life in Tehran. But she had quickly made friends in the tatbighi school she attended, which was a school for children of Iranians who have grown up abroad and whose Farsi is weak. I told her that with that smile of hers I didn't doubt that she made friends quickly. She smiled and told me, "But I wore braces then," and laughed, covering her perfect wide mouth with those long fingers.

I returned home very late that night and laid in the bed, under the mosquito net, that Zeynab Khanom had prepared for me on the terrace. The white smell of Tide that I remembered from my childhood mixed with the honey suckle of the garden wrapped me in its embrace and carried me into the deepest realm of sleep. That night I had the most bizarre dream. We were all in Kerman, under a tall pillar where Zoroastrians lay their dead. Jafar was kissing Goli while the Poet with the E.G Brown book in hand was singing out its words. The Londoner was in the red and white uniform of Manchester United trying to shoo away the vultures above our heads. On the other side of the pillar, Leila and Nooshin and Roya, wearing the uniform of the Nazi SS, were fondling each other. I woke up as the first rays of the early morning sun came piercing through the mosquito net.

To be continued...

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Fly to Iran
Sarvenaz diaries

Part 1: The night flight
From Paris to New York

Part 3: Poolside swing
Never afraid of a dare

Part 4: Sad almond eyes
The way he avoided looking or talking to me spoke volumes


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