Like all great ideas, this one started with one simple goal: visit the family still living in Iran. And like most great ideas, it didn't end up as anticipated.
My mother is Iranian, my father American. We have been living in the U.S. since 1978. We consider ourselves one of the lucky ones because we managed to leave Iran with everything we owned. In the beginning, very few of the family lived in the U.S. Over the years, my other relatives started coming to the U.S., one by one to settle here. Now, almost 20 years later, the tables have turned. Most of the family is here, and only a handful are still in Iran.
My daaee and his family still live in Iran. My cousins have now married and it drove us crazy to know that we had not met their husbands or their children. My parents, my brother and I are all American citizens, and we weren't brave enough to travel directly to Iran, despite hearing that it is “safe” now for Americans to travel to Iran. That's how this trip to Turkey started.
We would all meet in Turkey. We knew that Iranians could travel to Turkey freely and did not need a visa to enter. After a year of speculating, after being canceled and replanned a dozen times, a date was finally set and two weeks in August were reserved. The American constituency included me, my parents, my other daaee and his American wife. I was too excited to sleep on the flight, which took us eight hours to get to Paris, and then a two-hour flight to Istanbul and finally, another hour to Ankara. Despite the jet lag and frustrations encountered with Turkish Airways, we made it to our hotel and our family.
I can't express the emotion we all felt that first second we saw each other in this dimly lit hotel lobby in Ankara after waiting 13 years. We laughed, we cried. I stumbled with my Farsi and both of my cousins replied in beautiful English! I met their husbands, and my cousin's ten-year-old son for the first time as well.
We spent the next few days sight seeing and catching up, taking bus rides to the hot springs in Pammukale and to the Aegean seaside town of Bodrum. Friendships were rekindled over pistachios and nokhod and we soon were comfortable enough to pull jokes on each other and tease each other. It felt like no distance had kept us apart at all. But, it didn't take too long to realize that something was different. That we would be torn in two different directions.
I guess the first sign of trouble was our first night out to dinner. My cousins were dressed in mini skirts and tight shirts, sometimes it was a half shirt or a tank top. They always had their faces made up and their hair done. The American group was dressed for an archeological expedition, with jeans or khakis and t-shirts, sandals or sneakers, and our hair in a pony tail! Soon after this, I realized that no matter what city we visited, my cousins wanted to go shopping and to buy blue jeans and shoes. The American group wanted to experiment and try the Turkish cuisine and visit ancient ruins. The Iranian group wanted McDonald's and Pizza Hut and Ray Ban's and Levi's.
We spent almost a week on the Aegean coast, in the town of Bodrum. It was a beautiful place, with crystal blue waters and a pleasant climate. Bodrum also attracted many Europeans. You were constantly doing double takes seeing women walking around in tiny bikinis and tight dresses and yet, a few yards away from a tourist trap, you would find a mosque and hear the morning, afternoon and evening azaan being blared out into the streets. My cousins didn't seem to mind and they fit right in with their tanned bodies and their modern bathing suits. While I, Miss Paleskin, put on sun block and read a book in the shade, soon forgetting about my stressful job back in America. My cousins went to the discos and danced the night away. They enjoyed shopping at the bazaars, drinking beer and eating french fries. My cousin's son looked like your typical ten-year-old American boy, with his Michael Jordan t-shirt and hi-tops, carrying his happy meal from McDonald's. He didn't look like the product of an Islamic country.
Compared to my Iranian family, I guess we Americanized Iranians seemed dull and boring. We didn't go out all night. We had our share of discos and clubs back home. We didn't buy a new wardrobe of clothes, either. We could find better quality in the U.S. We felt dirty most of the time and didn't wear an ounce of make-up when we were walking in the sun climbing the ruins of Ephesus or some other ancient city.
I soon realized that this trip was all a novelty for my cousins. They bought music CD's, hoping that their bus driver would live up to their promise of helping them smuggle the CD's back into Iran. They lived for the moment and enjoyed everything they saw and touched to the fullest. I felt like a crabby spoiled American wanting my air conditioning, my American toilets, my hot water and my clean drinking water. It wasn't a surprise that the American group got sick with food poisoning!
As our trip neared it's end, I began to realize that I had so much to go home to. Being a single working woman, I enjoyed my freedom and took advantage of it. Even in Turkey, I felt suffocated with the jeers and glares I received from the fanatic Muslims I passed in the bazaar. My cousins were beginning to dread their long bus ride back to Iran, and the long wait they would have to endure at the border.
So, we ate Big Mac's and Pan Pizza with them. We let them shop and let them enjoy this new freedom that they would have for only two weeks. Now that I look back, it was a small sacrifice on our part.
Despite our opinions of the political situation in Iran or in U.S., one thing is clear: We enjoy more than we realize here in the U.S. from our basic freedom of speech and freedom of religion, to the freedom to study whatever field you want, to eat whatever food you choose, to wear whatever clothes you like, and to have a telephone in every room, a computer on your desk and the opportunity of a lifetime at your fingertips.