After being away from Iran for more than twenty years, I didn't expect to return to the U.S. with a husband. However, everyone seemed to think that the ancient Iranian marriage ritual was awaiting me.
It all started at the airport when I arrived at Tehran's Mehrabad International. The passport control officer looked at my documents, including the fact that I entered the country without a valid passport. Then he smiled gently and said, “You are returning after 23 years in America? Are you coming to get married?”
I was shocked by this absurd personal question. But I did not want to irritate an officer of the Islamic Republic. “Not that I know of”, I said.
I explained that the reason for my return was the solar eclipse. Supposedly the best place to view it was in my hometown of Isfahan. So my curious new officer friend let me go without any problem. I thanked him and went on to greet my father with hugs and kisses, in front of the Hezbollahi guards and all.
I soon found out that my personal future was to become the business of everyone I met. Cousins, aunts, uncles, great aunts, distant cousins and even their friends and family were on some sort of crusade to find me “a good man.” However, I don't recall anyone asking me what I wanted.
The khaastegaars — or at least their mothers and sisters — would come with flowers and sweets. They would slyly ask me questions about my life. For example, “What do you do?” and “Who do you live with?”, or “Are you all alone in America?”
I would respond like one of Hafez's fortune-telling parakeets — I told them what they expected to hear. We played the khaastegaari game. They know you know it is a game and you know, almost instinctively, the rules and boundaries.
I always thought this game was a set up for disaster. But now I kind of like the idea of a pre-investigatory period before I go out on a date with someone. I mean, this is what a modern khaastegaari is. It is not the ancient business of “You are my daughter and you must marry this man to get us out of debt because he is a doctor or an engineer.” Not for the modern Iranian family anyway.
The family investigates the person for you, and once they give their initial approval, it is up to you to decide if you want to date him or her. It's fun having your family involved in your love life — to a certain extent.
Everyone thought my distant relative, a non-blood relation, would be a perfect match for me. So we met. But we were both so nervous that talking seemed impossible. We went sight seeing instead. But that too required some talking. And what did we talk about? How perfect we were supposed to be for each other.
After a few dates, where we illegally and fearfully went out in public together, we began to develop a friendship. All the while my father was positive and thinking of his future grandchildren. My khaastegaar, learning that I was leaving soon to return to the U.S., mistakenly told a family member that he was planning on giving me a rug as a present.
When my father learned that there was a possibility of a solid relationship, and that there was a rug involved, he began to point out all of our differences and all my khaastegaar's inadequacies and faults. So here I was, not looking to get married, but beginning a friendship with someone whom my family had picked for me, and I was being told that his intellectual level was nowhere near mine.
I was raised in America, I am attending college in America and I have traveled the world. I was beginning to wonder who I was going to marry. But I couldn't listen to everyone at the same time.
Before I left Iran I saw a television program about romantic relationships. A few doctors sat around giving advice while people phoned in with questions. During this Iranian “love-line”, the counselors pleaded with the youth not to listen too much to their parents. They said parental advice has often proven to be destructive or just plain wrong.
I found it refreshing that these older, wiser people were telling youth to listen to their hearts and do what they felt was right, instead of always trying to please and appease their parents.
I would like to tell that airport officer that I am not certain whether I will marry my khaastegaar. I have, however, come to the conclusion that getting the stamp of approval from parents and other family members is a thing of the past. In this day and age, women do not get married because the husband has a lot of horses or is able to protect the tribe.
People in the East — less so in Iran — have deeply ingrained rituals that could use some revising. Perhaps taking fate into your own hands is a sign of strength that demands respect from our elders.
The solar eclipse in Isfahan was complete. As the day briefly turned into night, hopefully some young lovers were able to steal a few moments of freedom in the Islamic Republic.