The end of the smile
If your heart is truly in Iran,
for it to break
By Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani
August 25, 2003
In my thirty years abroad, I failed to visit my homeland
- Iran - as often as I should have. The first time I went back,
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
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.
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
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.
it feel to walk on thin ice? I walked the walk despite the 105
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.
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,
for it to break.
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