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A Journey To Her Past

By Nina Mehta
New York Newsday
Jan. 3, 1999

TO SEE AND SEE AGAIN: A Life in Iran and America
By Tara Bahrampour.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 361 pp., $24.

TARA BAHRAMPOUR'S memoir, "To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America," is perhaps most striking for the broad, full-bodied nostalgia the author feels for Iran, the country her family fled in 1979 shortly before the Iranian revolution. Bahrampour was 11 when her family moved to California and fitfully made their way up the West Coast, eventually settling in Portland.

"Simply by coming to America," she writes, "it was clear we had fallen behind." The family had no servants in the United States, her parents had trouble affording a down payment on a house and her father, an architect in Iran, wound up working as a carpenter for a time. Her mother, an American pop singer who had cut two albums in Los Angeles while the family lived in Tehran, went to welding school, became a paralegal and then wrote a novel that evidently wasn't published.

The book's title comes from a Farsi phrase: deed-o-baz-deed, which means "seeing and seeing again" and refers to the round-robin social calls relatives pay one another in Iran. By sitting together, drinking tea and talking, natural allies emerge from an obligatory and relaxing social ritual. The benefit, in the author's eyes, is that this intimacy provides a sort of placemark for people, drawing them into a community that understands their part in the larger scheme of things.

The author's hesitant, sometimes ambivalent search for a place she can claim and that claims her runs through this book. In her mid-20s, Bahrampour decided to revisit Iran. Staying with relatives in an area that once belonged to the grandfather she never met (a landlord whose property was washed away by the shah's land reform bill in the early 1960s), she fantasizes about her father's early life: "It must have felt good to him to know that [the local village women] knew him; to be seven years old and already have a place in the world. I knew it must, because it felt good to me. These women had never seen me before, but hearing the name of my father brought tears of recognition to their eyes."

Earlier, in college at Berkeley, everything Iranian reminded Bahrampour of a lost life, a lost side of herself that had been "put aside" years ago. For some people, the author implies, changing cultural allegiances is a concrete, clear decision. For others it's a concession. And for children whose parents come from different cultures and lands, who did not themselves make the decision to pack up and move across an ocean to another nation, the shift in real estate can launch a slow, halting and often delayed process of reconciliation.

This isn't true of everyone with a hybrid past, but it does seem to be true of Bahrampour. When she went to Tehran in the early 1990s, she went without an Iranian passport, and her American passport was confiscated by airport authorities. They told her that without an Iranian passport (which she had planned to get once in Iran), there was no official record of her departure in 1979, and she must therefore have left the country illegally.

The irony, of course, is that even as Bahrampour was anxious about returning to Iran and worried about feeling awkward, being exposed as an imposter and thrown out of the country where she once lived, the Iranian officials considered her ipso facto an Iranian - and, moreover, a citizen who had irresponsibly abandoned the motherland.

Bahrampour visits familiar spots in Iran, goes to her old home and gathers information about her family history. What is unfortunate about this spry, well-written memoir, however, is that the author's nostalgia crowds out the possibility of opinion. There are shrewd observations from cab drivers and relatives about the particular merits of one government regime vs. another and about the paradoxes and hypocrisy of modern life in what was once Persia. And Bahrampour writes about the convoluted dramas young people go through in order to date and figure out who they are.

But while she incorporates many insightful observations into her narrative, she seems so fully concerned with re-establishing her loosened connection to Iran that she doesn't manage to step forward and comment directly on what's going on around her. Her approach is accommodating; she provides explanations but little judgment. She is amazed that her relatives don't visit their ancestral and childhood homes. She doesn't understand the materialism of many members of her family. She also tells us, periodically, that maybe it's not so unfortunate for women to have to wear chadors, since these full-body coverings present women with intriguing social challenges.

In some Arab quarters, this is a fashionable feminist response to more pervasive - and, yes, Western - arguments about the myriad restrictions women face in Muslim countries, but for Bahrampour the chador seems to be more of a keepsake. Wearing a chador allows her to slide into Iranian culture and participate gladly in a life she had dreaded was well beyond her grasp. It's a link to her Iranian past.

Nina Mehta teaches writing at Fordham University at Lincoln Center.


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