I realize that present-day Iran and 19th century England have
more in common than meets the eye. But at the end of the day, it
only a matter of perspective.
August 20, 2005
I have been in Iran for a month and already
I detect shifting attitudes in those around me, particularly those
of the "gentler sex" in my parents’ age category.
When I first arrived, they took on a "let her be" attitude
and allowed me to relax. I explored Tehran (never alone, of course)
and spent time with my family friend, Sepideh, with whom I was
living, and her close friends, the five of whom together formed
a sort of "Friends" television show of their own, constantly
gathering at one or another’s homes and chattering away while
nibbling on pistachios and sipping tea.
But slowly I have met some interesting young people and am spending
more time with them. We visit galleries, see films at each other’s
houses, and go out to parties. And a change has come over the "family
friend" crowd. They mean business, and their industry comes
in two forms: marriage to a suitable boy from a good family, and
prevention of any behaviour that refutes that.
It starts when Sepideh throws a party for me three weeks after
I arrive. Known for her fabulous gatherings, she attracts quite
a crowd -- it feels as if half of north Tehran is crammed into
our living room. Painstakingly arranged bouquets of flowers dot
the room and candles flood the space with shimmering light. Loud
Iranian pop music plays in the background and several people dance.
And then there is the food: starters such as tender liver kabab
and dolmeh (stuffed grape vine leaves) are circulated by waiters
in smart black bowties. Large steaming silver platters of adas
polo (rice with lentils, dates and raisins), khoreshte fesenjoon (duck stew with walnuts and pomegranates), and kashke
bademjan (aubergine puree), make sure that no one goes home hungry (catastrophic
party etiquette at any Iranian event). Several lady friends have
kindly arrived with gifts for me. One of them has carefully entwined
tiny white flowers into the elegant gift wrap: "Gol-e arousee," she
coos knowingly. Wedding flowers. After I have placed it in my bedroom,
she pinches me by the sleeve and drags me into a corner.
"Now listen to me," she says importantly. "There
is a very handsome young man here this evening."
I smile politely but make no comment.
"Look," she presses, nodding her head to the right. "He’s
right over there. His name is Ali. Wouldn’t you like to meet
him?" She looks at me expectantly.
I mumble an excuse and rush off. She finds me after five minutes
and taps me on the shoulder. I turn around. There she is, beaming
at me, and with the poor chap in tow! She begins the typical introductions:
Ali is "very successful" and "runs his own business" and
I am "a fine girl" from "an excellent family" and "did
you know, she even speaks German," the last word drawn out
like dripping honey.
The next morning, after Ali and I had spent the rest of the evening
avoiding each other, the matchmaker makes a 7 a.m. telephone call.
I wake groggily to the sound of Sepideh’s voice making excuses
for me. "Well, you know how it is, I’m not sure he was
her type." I bury my head under the pillow. I know the matchmaker
means well, but it’s really too early for this nonsense.
A week later, I am invited to dinner by the son of a good family
friend in America. I have never met him, although I know his mother,
who is visiting for a couple of weeks. It is nine in the evening
and I am in my pyjamas, cooking dinner. Sepideh hurries into the
kitchen. "Quickly!" she says. "Jaleh has invited
you to dinner tonight. At Mehran’s place!"
I stand there confused, my hands coated with minced ginger. "Like,
tonight tonight? Who’s Mehran?"
"Jaleh’s son." She plucks the spatula out of
my hands. "Hurry and dress, she’s picking you up in
There is little use objecting. As I said, she means business.
She ushers me into my bedroom and chooses my outfit for me. "You
can wear this," she says, laying it on the bed. Admittedly,
her excitement is contagious and I feel I am Cinderella with my
fairy godmother, dressing for the grand ball. Following me into
the bathroom once I’ve changed, she watches as I pick out
earrings. "No, not those," she decides. "Wear these." She
selects large diamond hoops, earrings I reserve for special occasions.
"Isn’t that a bit fancy?" I ask.
"It is important to look glamorous," she instructs. "The
first time you must look your best. Afterwards it doesn’t
Then she educates me on how to walk. "Many girls walk like
this," she says, imitating a sluggish cow-like walk that is
impossible not to giggle at. "When you walk you should take
small elegant steps, like this, brushing your knees together when
you do so."
I imitate her, half laughing, and she nods. It is adorable how
seriously she is taking it, but by the time Jaleh picks me up,
my heart is pounding. I have never even met the guy, yet I know
it is important for both Sepideh and Jaleh that I get on with him,
and I am nervous in spite of myself.
These situations are never one-sided, however. I go to lunch
soon after with a new friend of mine. Like me, he grew up in
the States, but is in Iran for six months working on a film project
for graduate school. We meet in a bustling cafe on Vali-Asr and
compare stories while dipping bread into our bowl of mast-o-khiar (yoghurt
dip with mint and cucumber).
He waves his hand flippantly: "Aw, you have it easy. It’s
a lot tougher for us men." Several months earlier he had been
working closely with a young woman on a film set. He hadn’t
made many friends in Iran and was quite lonely.
"A couple of people on the film crew suggested that the
two of us 'hang out'." He shrugs. "I figured
they were good people and knew where I came from and all that,
so I said why not? We went out three times, having totally normal
dates like going to lunch or hanging out in the park. I told her
from the very beginning that I wasn’t looking for marriage
or anything like that. I wanted to make sure she didn’t get
the wrong idea, you know? But I guess it didn’t work. On
the third date she tells me, 'I think we should take this
relationship to the next level.'"
"Wait," I stop him. "Seriously, the third date?"
He nods. "It hadn’t even been a week and she wants
to get engaged!"
My eyes widen.
"Of course I freaked out," he says. "I mean, what
can you expect. And her response was 'well we don’t
actually have to get married, we can just stay engaged, and that
way we can hang out in public and not have to hide anything'." He
pauses long enough to ask for another bowl of khiarshoor (pickles)
with a comment of "I can never get enough of these, so much
better than the knock-offs back home" before continuing with
his story. "When I told her I’m not the type to just
get engaged like that, I mean come on it’s a big deal, she
flipped out, saying 'what kind of a girl did you think I
was, some girl like those in America that you just pick up off
In the end he had to leave the film set and
seen her since. The poor guy is too scared to even talk to any
Iranian women at this point!
While all of this is going on, I happen to be reading Anne Bronte’s
Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In one scene the protagonist’s
aunt chastizes the young girl for desiring passion and love over
a more "suitable
match" to a richer, uglier and significantly older man. Suddenly
I realize that present-day Iran and 19th century England have more
in common than meets the eye. But at the end of the day, it is
only a matter of perspective.
I am fortunate to be surrounded by
people who care about me and want to see me happy. For them, marriage
to a successful young man from the right family is the equivalent
of packing me snugly into a box, wrapping it beautifully, and tying
a red velvet ribbon with a flourish at the top. Once the job is
done, they can brush their hands off and get back to the pistachios
and black tea. They can pat themselves on the back, for they have
triumphed. But unlike many other girls in Iran, I have a choice.
I’m not forced to live there: I can leave anytime I want
to. And although there may be suitors pushed in my path, I can
always escape the obligation.
Part of a novel in progress. Copyright
remains with the author.