Written and photographed by J. Javid
My daughter Mahdiyeh and I were outside the gates of a taxi terminal in southeast Tehran trying to catch a taxi for our trip to Babol. Our original objective was to avoid being over-charged. Since I lived in the U.S. and was only visiting Tehran for a few weeks, I didn't know how much the standard fare was. There were no tickets to buy and no taxi meters. We basically had to haggle -- or actually, I had to since Mahdiyeh was only 12.
But I quickly realized that whatever haggling skills I had had eroded during my years abroad. Besides, even if we were over-charged, my dollars could easily cover it. So we decided to focus on the personality of the drivers instead.
One of them seemed to be the nicest among the dozen or so who had parked their Paykans along the sidewalk. Manouchehr Nazari, was a mild-mannered 20-year-old who had been carrying passengers on the Tehran-Babol route every day for the past three years. He was going to charge us 5,000 tomans (about $12.50) for the six- or seven-hour trip up north. We agreed. I sat in front and Mahdiyeh took the back seat.
It was early morning on a Thursday in late summer 1995. We were going to Babol to see my older sister Sue-san and her family. I had not seen them for years. And a lot had changed. We had changed. The 18-year-old American high school graduate who had enthusiastically come back to Iran in 1980 to join the revolution was now a cynical 33-year-old journalist living in the U.S. Sue-san, on the other hand, had become more religious and remained a firm believer in the revolution.
But one thing had not changed. We were still brother and sister.
My immediate concern, however, was whether we were going to get to Babol or into a terrible accident at any moment. Manouchehr, our driver, was zooming on the narrow, mountainous Haraz road at what seemed like more than 100 miles an hour. For some inexplicable reason, I didn't tell him to slow down. Maybe it was because he told his sad life story and how he was struggling to make ends meet by making at least one round-trip per day. Or maybe I felt guilty that I was having a much easier life in the U.S. I just tried to pretend everything was going to be all right. And fortunately there was no need to calm Mahdiyeh since she had fallen asleep in the back.
What helped divert my attention were the breathtaking scenery and the music on my cassette tape , especially Louis Armstrong's "Kiss of Fire" which seemed to sum up my feelings about Iran at that moment:
I touch your lips and all at once
And though I see the danger
Just like a torch
And though it burns me,
I can't resist you;
We finally got to Babol in the early afternoon. I called Sue-san from a pay phone and her husband Hossein came to pick us up. It was so nice to see him. We laughed about how I had let my hair grow and shaved my beard and how his hair had thinned and his beard grown! I knew Hossein well from my high school days when I lived with him and Sue-San in Los Angeles for a year back in 1977. They now both taught at Babol's Mazandaran University and lived a comfortable life with their three adorable sons, Alireza (17 at the time), Ahmadreza (15), and Hamidreza (12), in a two-story house which they had built with the help of university subsidies.
Sue-san was her own warm, loving self. Over lunch, we caught up with much of the past and exchanged the latest family gossip (there are four sisters and three brothers in our family and we have 17 uncles and aunts just on our mother's side, constantly generating plenty of exciting gossip). Afterwards, we all sat around the TV and watched taped episodes of The Simpsons in a room where a framed portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini hung on the wall.
Since Mahdiyeh and I were returning to Tehran the next day (I had to get ready for my trip back to the U.S.), Sue-san wanted to take us to the zoo in nearby Babolsar. But Mahdiyeh wanted to go to the beach first. The Caspian waterfront was only a few hundred yards away from Sue-san's house. Mahdiyeh, the boys and I went for a walk along the beach and then we continued on to one of the main streets along the river, where we hired a motorboat for a little spin. Afterwards, Sue-san picked us up with the car and drove to the zoo.
Sue-san had told us beforehand that the Babolsar zoo was small and that we shouldn't expect much. But it was even smaller than I had imagined. The entire area was probably less than a quarter of a regular-size Safeway supermarket with about a dozen species of animals.
Two men sat on a three-legged desk at the entrance, selling tickets. There were about five people in line ahead of us and another 20 to 30 people inside. As we entered, on our left was a fenced area with bear chained to a tree in the middle. He was standing on his hind legs, growling at a man that kept agitating him. A painted sign at the bottom of the fence read, "BEAR: Habitat Iran."
Next was a large cage with several monkeys where most people had gathered since they seemed livelier than the rest of the animals. Suddenly we heard a scream. A small girl was crying as one of the monkeys reached from behind the fence, grabbed and pulled her scarf. The crowd rushed to help the girl and after a few seconds they forced the monkey to let go.
In the neighboring cage, two wolves nervously paced back and forth at the far end of the cage. Next to them was a smaller area with a lone elk, standing motionless. And next to it, the tiny lions' cage. The female lion was asleep, and the male seemed half-asleep and uninterested in the people that stared at him a few feet away behind the bars. After our visit with the powerful king of the jungle, we came the area housing a boar which was searching for scraps of food with his nose. And lastly, the birds: A pelican, a few ducks and a half-dozen peacocks.