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How old are you? How much do you weigh?... Are numbers really necessary?

April 12, 2005

People’s sensitivity about age has always fascinated me. Would I dare ask how old you are? Certainly not, at least, not unless you’re under thirty.

When it comes to age, I envy the old generation of Iranians. My great grandfather didn’t even have a birth certificate. Nobody celebrated birthdays back then and no one kept track of them, either. There were four age groups: child, adult, middle aged and old. Even in our previous generation, nobody seemed to care about birthdays. In fact, not too many of them seemed to know the exact date.

“You were born in the year of the big earthquake.”

How much clearer can one be?!

“Farvardin -- March -- is when I was born,” my aunt would say.

“Nonsense,” my grandma responded. “You were born on the chelleh koochick after the first snow, so it couldn’t have been the month of Farvardin.”

My uncle, who is older than auntie, often would jump in, “Oh, but I know I was born in Farvardin.”

“If my husband -- God rest his soul -- had his way,” grandmother would say with a dismissing wave of her hand, “You’d all be born in Farvardin.”


“He believed Norooz to be the most auspicious moment of the year, so he paid the guy who issued birth certificates to make it the first of Farvardin. But, trust me, I was the one who suffered the pain and I should know when it happened.”

So much for birthdays, but when it came to age, it wasn’t any better either.

“So, how far apart are you and my father?” I once asked my aunt.

“I think two years.”

“You think?”

“Yes, because mother says I began teething when he was being potty trained.”

Although seniority had its significance -- for it was seniority that determined who said the first hello and who gave eidee money to whom -- the rest became irrelevant. The modern day witty phrase, “Age, is a matter of mind; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” was taken seriously back then.

Alas, Westernization changed all that. The temptation of a delicious cake, multiple presents and above all, recognition -- an absolute novelty to the Iranian child at the time -- was too much to ignore. But, no matter how good that birthday cake may taste, or how exhilarating it is to blow out all your candles in one breath, soon it’ll be payback time. Once you pass thirty, you wish none of it had ever happened and begin to regret the number of candles that escalate rapidly on your birthday cake.

Kids, oblivious to the bitter truth, can’t wait to grow old. In fact they report their ages in increments. “I’m three-and-a-half.” Or, “I am five-and-three- quarters!” And, my favorite, “I’m almost seven,” with ‘almost’ meaning any number of months. So, what causes us to suddenly jam a whole decade into “Thirty something?” Or worse, consider people rude if they should have the audacity to ask the forbidden question.

As the youngest in my family, I enjoy birthdays and am always on the lookout for unique cards. Once I found this interesting message on a card, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?” I gave that some thought. There are days when I feel twenty and on other days I’m on my way to the grave but, most of the time, I find better things to do than worry about age. I believe we all feel younger inside than it says on our birth certificates and the resentment of those mean bathroom mirrors has to be universal.

This may be why some people succumb to painful procedures and risk their lives in pursuit of a more youthful appearance. It isn’t necessarily an attempt to deceive others, but rather a need to look as young as they feel. “A man is as old as he feels and a woman is as old as she looks.” Whoever said that is either a plastic surgeon or otherwise cosmetically biased.

The bitter truth is, we all grow old and invariably reach an age where we wish we could stop the ticking clock. Some people, regardless of age, seem to get there too soon. For example, an unmarried woman in her thirties may feel too old, while a grandmother at that same age feels pretty young. And, there are those who, in pursuit of a lost youth, follow in younger footsteps: Women may have babies later in life and men marry young girls who could be their daughters and granddaughters. I guess it all goes back to, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are.”

Last year, I met a few old schoolmates at a party and, I’ll admit, most of them seemed much better preserved than I am. In particular, one of my classmates looked remarkably young for our age. She obviously had taken good care of her skin and I noticed she was careful not to smile too broadly for fear of laugh lines. When I referred to our class, she raised an eyebrow and stepped back. “You and I?” she said and shook her head violently. “We were never in the same class. You were my big sister’s friend.”

I won’t even discuss the geniuses who recall having been in the same class as child prodigies who were decades younger than the rest. The way some women talk about age makes calendars futile. In fact, it now seems as if some of my classmates couldn’t have been born until after graduation.

I don’t know how to deal with age. I make sure my hair is colored in time not to remind me how, with a bit of luck, I could be a grandmother. Mathematics has done me a great disservice because my personal choice would be to talk without the use of numbers. How old, how tall, how heavy... Are numbers really necessary? Can’t I just be middle aged, kind of petite, not too heavy? I guess not, because those who ask such rude questions want a documented answer and they will not rest until they have it.

I’ve had friends who would make a Xerox copy of my driver’s license if I left for the bathroom without my purse -- not to mention women who, if they guess you’re lying about your weight, will produce a bathroom scale out of their purse.

The other day, I met a few schoolmates at a luncheon and everyone shamelessly lied about their age. Before I knew it, most of the guests had slipped into a younger generation and I was the only one left out. So when it was my turn to confess and all eyes were on me, I did some calculations in my head and finally caught up with them by saying, “I believe I’m a couple of years older than my daughter.”

Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani is a retired dentist and a freelance writer. She lives in San Diego, California. Her latest book is "Sharik-e Gham" (see excerpt). Visit her site

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The Legend of Seyavash
Translated by Dick Davis

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