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Traveler

The end of the smile
If your heart is truly in Iran, prepare for it to break

By Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani
August 25, 2003
The Iranian

In my thirty years abroad, I failed to visit my homeland - Iran - as often as I should have. The first time I went back, seven years ago, I found it hard to absorb all the changes and adjust to new regulations, but all of that failed to make a difference in the overwhelming joy I felt in my heart.

Every corner stored rich memories of a life gone by and I marveled at the unconditional love and the generous forgiving offered by the people I had left behind. Though the names and appearances of many sites had changed, deep down it was the land I knew in my loving memories. I knew then that I would go back.

Seven years went by without a chance to return. Life got complicated, I retired from a busy job and we moved across the country to another state. Friends and family who went back and forth to Iran told colorful tales of their adventures. They talked about the arts, the renovation of old monuments, the museums and a new level of social freedom. Once settled in our new home, I decided it was time to go back for another visit, this time with more hope and expectation.

Was I old or had everyone aged? I never could tell, but something had changed drastically. The land was as beautiful as ever, and people seemed as sweet and welcoming as I remembered. The cities were larger and more crowded. There were yet more parks, restaurants, hotels high-rise buildings and even a smooth running Metro in Tehran. There was live music in restaurants and the restriction of 'hejab' -- the Islamic veil -- a little more accommodating for the summer heat. So, what was wrong?

"Could one get arrested for smiling?" My daughter asked. She was serious and wanted to know the social rule so as not to cause any trouble for me.

"Don't be ridiculous," was my response. But that naïve comment pointed out what was different. Behind the pleasant faces, behind the welcome and the generous feasts and beneath the treasures of art and humanity were a people with no desire to smile. "Hope" was missing and a shadow of pessimism followed us everywhere like a stubborn cloud.

In just a few days I felt shame in the simple act of shopping and knew I was being overfed. It offered little comfort to just give money to those who asked for it and even large sums of donation to charity did not feel quite right.

A week went by and we got past the original pleasantries. Conversation with friends and family took on a more personal tone and I felt their pain which had spread like cancer. People have just given up. Family problems were due to anything from health to wealth.

Observing the abundance of merchandise in the market, I was embarrassed to offer the humble gifts we had brought along. Baskets and bushels of make-up, jewelry, clothes and leather goods were offered at prices we could only dream of.

But the economy, I was told, was far from a dream. The average income is so low that those modest prices were an actual inflation. No longer did I find the tradesman willing to pose for a snapshot or even participate in a chat. They saw me as the rich who's there for a souvenir  picture, haggles over the price of what to her is dirt cheap to begin with, turns her back and leaves them all behind.

People knew by now that the 'visitors' would only sympathies a few miles beyond the border. They had seen us come and go, make promises and forget and care but not enough. By the second week I stopped to expect smiles and by the third week had none to offer either.

How does it feel to walk on thin ice? I walked the walk despite the 105 degree temperature and managed to get across, but the chill it left in my heart is still there. It took decades of war, poverty and censorship to bring about a national depression in all the meanings of the word, but there is very little one can do to change all that.

I saw many beautiful Persian eyes but they either had lost the sparkle or avoided eye contact. They welcomed me and yet I felt un-welcomed. They loved me but I was long forgotten. They were parts of me, but somehow on another body or just amputated.

I try to understand why some visitors enjoy the trip more than I did. Iran is still the true home to most of us and no other country can touch our souls the same way. For some, it even offers the best chance to shop, invest in real estate, receive high interest on their money and be pampered for a while. It is a beautiful and painfully familiar home to most of us. It offers the ties and companionships we have missed for years. But if your heart is truly there, prepare for it to break.

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