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Inside a kaleidoscope
Afternoon tea with my grandmother

By Farrokh A. Ashtiani
June 17, 2002
The Iranian

My grandmother's house was near Sarcheshmeh, an old neighborhood in Tehran not too far from the parliament. And to refresh your memories with another landmark, not too far from Akbar Mashdi ice cream shop. The shortcut to her house was to go through an alley that for whatever reason, used to be called Koucheh Shashe! But that was not the official name.

Grandmother's living room was about six feet higher than the ground level in her yard. Six steps up was an old door that you had to open wide to be able to go in without turning to one side. Inside her room there were three tall windows opening to her courtyard. The windows were as wide and tall as the entrance, the only difference was that they had pieces of glass on their upper half, allowing daylight in.

On top of each window there was another section, a rectangular frame as wide as the width of the windows. Inside of these frames were beautifully designed stained glass, held to each other by intricate woodworks shaped like a honeycomb.

From early afternoon until about four o'clock during autumn and winter, the sun carried a light show in her living room. For us kids, visiting grandmother in her living room was like going inside a kaleidoscope.

Grandmother was a colorful too. She wasn't talkative like most old folks. Instead she encouraged others to talk and tell her what was happening in their lives. She would then make comments, praise you for your accomplishments and occasionally just ignored what one had to say. She basically lent no ears for gossip, at least not too much.

I recall a particularly nice October afternoon. I walked straight from school to her house. It was a Thursday, the end of the week, and they let us out of school early. I usually went to her house on Thursdays and returned home Friday evenings. Grandmother's house was the center of all action.

On one beautiful afternoon I arrived at her house. Her maid Zahra-Soltan was in the courtyard washing clothes and hanging them on the clotheslines that were tied from one tree to another like a spider web. Colorful clothes were dancing slowly through the mild autumn breeze.

Some of the shirts cast funny shadows on the courtyard. Everything pink was always an underwear. I knew that. In summer it was always a joy to go in between moist bedspreads hanging on the clotheslines and feel the cool breeze through the damp sheets.

Grandmother also had a rooster. He was big, pompous and only a bit shorter than I. We didn't get along very well. I had to throw my shoes at him once in a while to let him know who was boss! Especially when I realized that he was showing me the finger (by raising one leg in the air and bending a thumb).

I greeted Zahra-Soltan who always seemed high on opium. She didn't smoke it, just took it orally. This was years after the period that the British used to buy the burned residues at their Embassy double the price of raw opium to promote addiction in Iran. Now there was no incentive and one could just take it orally.

I went straight to grandmother's living room, took off my shoes and entered. She was reading her big prayer book. This wasn't the holy book, but a prayer book. I never figured out why she would need that additional book. It was written in Arabic. The letters were large and bold which made it easier for her to read.

Her reading glasses were on her nose. She lowered her head to see me without having to remove her glasses, and then returned my greetings with a kind smile and offered me to go and sit next to her. I went close to her she kissed my face and padded me on the back and called me "Shah-pessar" -- something like "best little boy". Of course when I would do something wrong, she would call me different names. But as a young boy, it always began with Shah-pessar; always innocent until proven guilty.

She asked me if I wanted some tea and I said yes. She got up and approached the beautiful little brass samovar in the corner of the room. She usually kept it near an open window since she didn't like the smell of burning charcoal inside the samovar. She turned to me and said, "You came at a good time. I just made some fresh tea and it's ready."

The sunlight made the steam dance so beautifully; every few turns of coils of steam you could see a little rainbow. The gently boiling water inside the samovar created a melody like the sound of a violin in a distance. My father used to say the sound reminded him of classical Persian music of the Aboo Ata variety. It made sense.

She grabbed a teacup and saucer, poured some strong tea from the teapot and held the cup under the samovar's spigot to fill it with hot water. She put the teapot back on the top of the samovar, covered it with a little cloth and put the tea in front of me. She then went and opened a cupboard closet and brought a can of a delicious sohan. She opened the can and put it in front of me. (From time to time candies from her closet had a hint of naphthalene.)

Grandmother sat down and let out a sigh of relief, "Oh, thank you God!" I didn't know what she thanked God for, but it sure felt good and it gave us a little more security every time Grandmother prayed or thanked God. I always felt when she prayed, she did it on behalf of all of us. That's why I never had the urge for praying or fasting. Her prayers were like an insurance policy for everyone else.

I drank my tea, ate the sohan and listened to the samovar's melody. I watched the sun move slowly across the stained glasses. How I loved those Thursday afternoons, knowing that on Friday we did not have to go to school.

Simple childhood memories stay with us throughout life. Colors were brighter, scents were more elegant and taste buds were keen.

God bless grandma. She died at age 104. We have such a beautiful tradition of serving tea. Next time when an older lady makes you some tea, try to pay attention to the rituals and rhythm -- and respect the tradition.

And one last thing, if you see a rooster somewhere try to pay attention to his body language!

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