Our flight to Mashhad was delayed an hour, which was okay because it gave me a chance to look around without moving. The first couple days everything was on the run, either from a car window or zooming through the bazaar. Now I had an hour to contemplate. It was beginning to settle in that I had finally made it to my destination.
I meandered around the departure hall while we waited. I saw two things. The first was a woman breastfeeding a baby under her chador. That was kind of cool. I wasn't positive, but I thought this would be the closest thing to sex I'd be seeing for a while. As we sat there I noticed a TV. The show looked like a local version of Jeopardy except that the contestants were all women, very covered, and not a hint of a smile. No one in the airport spoke. This place seemed serious.
Dad and I whispered in, what we thought to be, inaudible murmurs. A middle-aged woman, showing a few hairs smiled and tried to understand us. She couldn't. It's just as well, because we were already getting accustomed to using English vulgarities, as I would ask question after question.
Some Dutch coins fell from my pocket. They weren't worth much. The same woman picked them up, I motioned to her to keep them and she giggled. At that, a man seated to Dad's right mustered up the courage to practice his English with us, something else I would quickly get used to.
“Is it your first visit to Iran?
“Yes,” I answered.
“It is a very good country, but also very bad. Welcome.”
My father spoke to him momentarily in Farsi. I didn't understand nor try to. All I recognized were some numbers and the words for sister and uncle.
He turned to me again.
“Your family misses you. Have a nice time.”
How could they miss me, I wondered, they've never met me.
He rose to get in the line. What had been a quiet holding area was now bustling with people pushing to get in line. We joined in the frenzy and quickly boarded the Iran Air Topolof, a Russian jet that Iranians often call Telop-ofs, which means “falls from the sky”. Some folks I met were passionate about never flying in the Tolopofs, but I had used Soviet aviation on two trips to Cuba and felt comfortable enough with the prospects.
After only a few minutes on board, we were taking off, one step closer to delivering me to the home I'd always wanted to know. During the flight Dad and I didn't talk too much. For the past three years our conversations revolved exclusively around subjects Iranian. It was a way for me to learn about my heritage, but more importantly strengthen my relationship with my dad.
For him it was a way to teach me about something he knew and spend time with his boy. Now we were there and I was seeing for myself. He told me a few stories, but mostly I just looked out the window at the arid land we were hovering above. I have never felt such a sense of fulfillment as on that flight.
When the stewardesses, beautiful and young dark-skinned women, with large eyes and smiling mouths, came around offering lunch, Dad told them no thanks. There would be plenty of food, and much better waiting for us in Mashhad. I had no idea how right he was. With the stewardesses and all other people in the tourist industry, he always spoke in English.
As we began our descent, I was flooded with a new wave of emotions. The day I never thought would come was happening. I was living it. From the sky the first thing I saw in Mashhad was gold. It was the dome of Imam Reza, the holiest Shi'ite monument in Iran, a fully operational Islamic Taj Mahal or Vatican; the final resting place of generations of Rezaians.
I realized we were making a turn, which seemed uncalled for given that the airport was a few miles in front of us. Altitude was still dropping. The sight of this monument mesmerized me. Soon it become apparent we were circling the mosque. We did this three times.
“Someone has their orders,” My Dad said, smiling.
I continued to look out the window with the wonder of a little kid flying for the first time. The lower we got, the clearer the scene became: Thousands of pilgrims in the midst of their Friday afternoon prayer. Finally I understand the magnitude of Imam Reza, I thought. But I really hadn't seen anything yet.
When we landed, we were among the last to deplane. Iran is a Third World country, and getting from the plane to the terminal involves that ridiculous bus system familiar to anyone who's been to one of these countries. I suppose they don't want people running around the tarmac, but it always seemed to me that there would be no harm in letting folks walk. Anyway, we were on that bus, standing in the front.
I noticed a look on Dad's face that I'd never seen before. It was as though I'd been transported back to his youth and all the kicks in the teeth he's taken over the years had never happened. He looked like a little 61-year-old kid, and I loved it.
“You alright?” I asked him.
“Are you ready?”
“Are you ready?” He said, smirking.
We got off the bus and began walking to the terminal. People were hanging out the doors and small kids were peaking from around the waists of the armed guards. As we walked closer Dad started giggling.
“My family,” he said.
“Daie Taghi! Daoe Taghi!” Children were calling his name.
The first face I made out was my Amme Tahere. Seven years earlier she and her husband, had spent six months living with us in California. She cried and squeezed me.
“I'm your Amme Tahere!” She said in Farsi.
Unfortunately, “I know” was not something I knew how to say yet.
This sequence continued with a lot of people. Only two or three I'd met before. There was Mehdi and his wife Farzaneh, who had spent two months with us earlier that year, and a few others whose pictures I'd seen. Looking around, I'd say there were about 200 people at the airport and at least 80 of them were there to welcome us. Many showered me with flowers. It was the most overwhelming experience of my young life. I trembled and sweat. I was disoriented, so I hope they forgive me for not instantly knowing who everyone was.
The warmest reception came from my Amu Reza, at 80, he's Dad's oldest relative, his paternal uncle and his favorite. They cried when they saw each other and I realized that hellos at his age mean something else than they do to me: a confirmation that your world still exists and there's reason to get excited.
Finally, I saw my cousin Mohammad Ali. When he was 16 he moved to California for his education. Fifteen years later he moved home to start his life. Very few of my relatives, who came to live in America, ever moved back. I was sad that he did, because I always liked him. Earlier that same year he had come back to work on a project for six months. We saw each other a few times and I was really looking forward to meeting again.
“Howya doing Buddy?” He said.
Relieved to see a familiar face and one that I could talk to, I hugged him.
“Hey man, you're shaking,” he said. It was true. “Quick, there's a flower shop outside. Let's go make a few bucks.”
We laughed and were on our way back to my Amme's house, my home for the next two months.