I met my mother in-law, Zahra, soon after my husband and I married. Zahra visits the U.S. every year and stays for six months with us and other family members, breaking up the time so she doesn't overstay her welcome too long at any one place. Middle Easterners, however, have a different view of what is too long of a stay than do Americans. But that's another article.
Before Zahra and I met, my husband told me that his mother was very educated and worked most of her life as a teacher and principal. He said she always dresses in the latest fashions, preferably from France or Italy (hence, where the term “snob” is often associated with Iranians,) and conducts herself with the best of manners. That said, my husband was almost terrified in his reluctance to tell her that I was a professional belly dancer.
The first time we met, she was polite and seemed totally accepting of me. She made some “dance” hand gestures, displaying that Arabic dancing was very beautiful. My husband told me later, however, that she was not pleased with his new wife being an American (Oh no! Oh my! Not one drop of Persian blood!) nor did she trust that I would be a good wife since I liked being “on stage” and was, perhaps, not “modest” enough.
Through the years, I think she has truly learned that “good girls” also dance. And I also discovered an artistic side to her: She is a very good singer and might have pursued such a career had she grown up American…..or at least, in America. I am constantly reminded just how lucky we are to be in this country, mostly void of oppressive, religious oppressions that shape people's decisions and lives.
Her English is limited, so she has some charming ways of putting things she doesn't know any other way to put:
“Before years, I…. (fill in various things here such as “always wore high heels,”)” is the way she replaces “Long ago” or “At one time.”
“You have line,” she often tells me, which is her way of admiring my 5'7″ frame (she is barely 5').
Once when she witnessed my husband and I arguing, which resulted in my husband leaving the house in a huff, Zahra exclaimed to me, “All men BAD!” She went on to tell me (which took some creative deciphering on my part) that even her late husband was “bad,” and women cannot change men's habits nor cure their immaturity. She accepts these things not as a wimp, but as a reality. She believes women are simply just stronger and better human beings.
She is most curious about my dancing yet rarely asks me questions about it in front of my husband. But when we're alone together, she asks me what's happening in the dance world, how much money I made the night before (somehow that's very exciting to her) and what big show is coming up.
“Beverly, last night…” she will eagerly ask me with dollar signs in her eyes, “How much, how much?!” She will also ask if I made more money than the other dancers, as if the success of making more money than others might justify an otherwise shameful profession.
One night I took Zahra to see one of my friends dance at a restaurant. She was comfortable in the setting and enjoyed herself but remarked to my husband the next day (who later told me) that she couldn't believe people were giving the dancer tips during their meals. I've come to learn that Iranians don't like to touch their money while eating since money is dirty, so that was enlightening for me and I passed the information on to my dance friends.
Zahra has brought me some beautiful fabrics from Iran, some of which originated in India or Europe and most of which I make into Mideast or Central Asian costumes. Every year, she brings back a suitcase full of things from Iran and much of it is for me. Along with the material, she always brings 18K Gold jewelry and handicrafts. She brought back one Iranian folk dance costume for me, so she is actually encouraging my dancing. This year though, we pleaded with her to stop bringing us so much stuff from Iran as our jewelry boxes and closets are now full.
Through my broken English talks with her, I have, unfortunately discovered she is anti-Semitic. I suppose it comes from the many stories I have heard (even through Iranian.com) that many non-Jewish children in Iran and the Mideast in general are brought up to believe Jews are “unclean” and one must wash their hands seven times (the magic number!) if touched by a Jew. I felt it was my duty to challenge her and attempt to expand her acceptance of Jews.
I noticed, for example, how similar the Jewish “yamaka” (men's hat) are to a certain style of Iranian men's hats and recently remarked to her, “Oh, did those hats that Iranians wear originate in Israel?” She looked bewildered at me and smiled, probably not really understanding what I said, but I try to find ways of telling her that we are all more alike than different.
She prays a few times per day, although I can't say it's exactly five times a day, the requirement for moslems because when you're a moslem on vacation, you are not held to the “five day” requirement. To pray, she goes off to her room, puts a veil over her head and rocks back and forth, praying. It is strange, to say the least, though I suppose it is meditative and helps people center themselves.
Zahra does take over the kitchen while she stays with us. At first, it was extremely frustrating to have someone always in my kitchen, cooking away…. all day! Sort of like having hired help you could never fire. Food and serving food seems to be Zahra's main goal in life. I still find it hard to believe she ever had a career at all since Iranian meals take at least half a day to make.
And when you shop in Tehran, there are no “one stop” grocery stores. You have to go to separate stores to get bread, cheese, meat, etc. and there are long lines everywhere, much like the Soviet Union. So couple an all day shopping spree with cooking half or all day and I don't see any hours left in a day to have a job…. and raise children!
Anyway, my husband claims she was the perfect wife, mother and gourmet cook. She also kept an immaculate home, made time to do her hair and nails impeccably and had a full time career. That's what I have to live up to.
But hey, she's not a belly dancer! Now there's a challenge!