From Saffron Sky: A Life Between Iran and America, by Gelareh Asayesh (Beacon Press, November 1999).. Asayesh moved from Tehran to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1977, at the age of fifteen. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. She is a longtime journalist who has worked as a staff writer for The Miami Herald and The Baltimore Sun. She has also written for The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.
At the glass and chrome kitchen table in our house on Honeysuckle Road, my father held weekend lectures. “I want to talk to you,” he would say to Afsaneh and me, and our hearts would sink. My sister and I would eat our pita bread and cheese and jam and eggs without our usual gusto. Homajoon would sip her tea silently, looking down at the table, rubbing fiercely at a stain on the glass now and then, her face drawn and sad.
My sister and I dreaded these talks, not only because they were virtual monologues, lasting for at least an hour, but because they focused on uncomfortable topics. Like a preacher on his pulpit, Baba would try to impress on us two things: one, the importance of going back to Iran; and two, the importance of retaining our identity. This latter topic was littered with references to the iniquities of Western culture.
Baba told us early and often that there is only one thing American boys want from girls: bed. His face was twisted in distaste as he said this, for he is the product of a puritanical culture. Like most parents, he was also acutely uncomfortable discussing sex with his daughters. In Iran, it would not have been an issue. But now my sister and I were living in a moral jungle, rampant with sex, drugs and alcohol. My parents lived in fear that we would fall prey to these dangers.
Afsaneh and I were in no risk of succumbing to drugs or alcohol — we were far too strait-laced, too centered in our family life. Boys, though, were a different matter. Baba's views seemed, at best, extreme. Although I had no desire for the way of life of my classmates, which seemed shiftless and sordid, I wanted to flirt and dance and talk with boys. In Iran, this would have been the stuff of adolescence, weathered with an argument or two or three. In America, where the social boundaries are so much broader, my interest in the opposite sex was like a fuse connected to a powder keg.
I was not allowed to “date” boys. Dating was a wholly foreign concept to me, because it removed young people from the family context that reigned supreme in Iran. In Westernized Tehran, we may have gone to a movie with a boy, but we lived our lives in a context shaped by adults. Here, teenagers seemed to live in their own parallel universe in which they made the rules. To me, it looked like anarchy. I had no interest in trading my world for theirs. But if by some fluke some boy someday asked me to go to Purdy's, the teenage disco on Franklin Street that my classmates raved about, I wanted to be able to say yes.
It was 1978. I was a junior in high school, well into my second year in the United States. Still an outcast, I had formed my own tenuous connections — primarily with other outcasts. We started a badminton club; it included myself, a Chinese student who spoke barely any English, an Indonesian girl who fared somewhat better, and two American girls who were too warmhearted to disdain our company. My efforts to tutor my fellow foreigners prompted the school counselor to nominate me for the National Honor Society. My interest in my English classes led to my writing for the school newspaper. I was still on the social fringe, but I no longer crept through the hallways like a frightened fawn. I had learned how to pretend nonchalance.
My fragile confidence changed the way others responded to me. Suddenly, the mantle of invisibility I had worn since I came to America seemed to lift. Boys started to notice me once again. I started spending lunch hours with a tall, curly-haired classmate named Doug. Once, to Homajoon's horror, he came by the house. I received him with a mixture of anxiety and delight. We talked on the porch; I was afraid to invite him in. In Iran, Homajoon would have asked Doug to take a seat and served him fruit and drinks. He would have been the family's guest, not mine. Here in America, though, there was that parallel world. It made it possible for Doug to visit me without acknowledging my mother. Neither Homajoon nor I knew what to do.
In the spring, Doug asked me to the prom. It was a family crisis of the quiet kind — no shouting, just a pall hanging over the house compounded of my guilt and longing and my parents' fear and dismay. After much deliberation, my father decided that I could go — he did not want me to feel deprived, he said. My parents' permission should have lightened the atmosphere, but it had the opposite effect. Baba looked grim all the time. My mother wore the resigned, grieving look of someone absorbing a mortal blow. Afsaneh did her best to blend into the background.
Homajoon took me shopping for a new dress, a swishy pale rose gown that came to my feet and looked suitably prom-like. Under a pretext, we borrowed a black shawl from Mina Vakilzadeh. My mother was horrified that our Iranian friends might learn that I was going out with a boy, never thinking that they were far better acquainted with the concept than she. As for our family in Iran — we all knew that my aunts could never catch wind of this transgression. The knowledge of how shocked they would be weighed heavily on my parents. Like me, they were caught between two irreconcilable cultures.
In the days leading up to the prom, I vacillated between misery and excitement. I tried hard not to betray my feelings, seeking instinctively to downplay the occasion in front of my parents. I was tormented by two great anxieties. What were my parents thinking behind their bleak faces? And would I make a fool of myself in front of my classmates? I wanted desperately to seize this chance to belong; but I was venturing into uncharted territory. “Prom” was a new word in my vocabulary. I had to call a friend to find out what a corsage was and what I was supposed to do with one. I was sixteen years old, but I had never been alone with a boy before.
When Doug came to pick me up that Saturday night in May, I wasted no time in saying good-bye to my parents. I wanted to reassure them, but it was beyond my power. Instead, I walked out of the house, feeling a great weight slip from my shoulders. In the car, Doug showed me the flask he carried in the breast pocket of his tuxedo. I eyed it with disapproval, refusing when he offered me a sip. We had dinner at a restaurant just outside town, the Slugs at the Pines, where other overdressed teenagers mingled with the middle-aged. Then we were driving up the lonely road to the high school, walking into the gymnasium that was decorated for Chapel Hill High's Junior/Senior Prom.
I retain a confused recollection of bright lights and loud voices, my classmates reeling about with over-bright eyes, faces gleaming with makeup and sweat. My fragile confidence evaporated in the beat of the disco lights. I felt like a child once again as I saw the couples around me dancing, exchanging deeply sexual kisses. We sat on the bleachers and watched, and Doug slipped his arm around my shoulders . I stiffened and pulled away, avoiding his eyes. When we danced, he held me in his arms and tried to kiss me. I ducked and turned my cheek. I knew I was violating the rules as he knew them. I knew I had been allowed to bend my parents' rules with the unspoken understanding that I would not break them. I felt trapped by who I was, what I was. I longed fiercely, suddenly, miserably, to be free — free to belong in the world that was now mine.
That night, the web of belief and expectation that bound me broke apart and formed a new pattern. I slipped the tight moorings of my heritage and began to yield to the imperative of the here and now.
I remember the precise moment it happened. It was toward the end of the evening, after a few moments spent outside in the cool night air. We were walking back into the gymnasium, and Doug swung an arm around my shoulder.
This time I did not pull away. Casually, as if I had done this thousands of times before, I let my own arm come up and settle gingerly around his waist. It was as far as I was prepared to go, a tiny shift in my narrow boundaries. Even so, I trembled at my own daring.
I can still remember, as if it were seared into the palm of my hand, the cool silk of his jacket, the forbidden heat of the body beneath.
I can still remember the moment when I let go of that girl from Iran.