I am in the airplane, about to land in Tehran. My family left Iran during the revolution, in 1979, and this will be the first time my feet touch Iranian soil. Looking out the window now, I see dense, arid mountains taking shape behind a city of cement block buildings, one after the other like Lego pieces lining the streets. My eyes blur with tears. After all these years, I am finally going to see Iran for myself. As we touch the ground, my heart swells and flutters with emotion. I am in my country, MY COUNTRY, at last!
Initially my decision to come here was met with mixed feelings. Neither of my parents had returned to their country, and clearly my desire to go stirred up all manner of emotions. My father was the first to voice his concerns: “What the hell do you want to go there for?” he asked, none too sharply. “Just live your Western life and forget about Iran.” But this was not an easy task.
My parents’ memories of Iran had been tarnished — belonging to the privileged classes under the Shah’s regime, they were forced to leave when Khomeini came to power. Friends were killed or put in jail, property was taken over, their wealth and livelihoods confiscated — their entire lives changed within a period of a few months. “The Iran of today has nothing to do with our Iran,” my father told me. “What you are going back to see does not exist.”
But try as I might, I could not forget. I was not like them, fleeing their country with a multitude of memories remaining to gnaw at my heartstrings. I had never been there and therefore had no such recollections to haunt me. But having grown up immersed in Persian culture, food, language, and customs, to put this out of my mind would be to ignore a most essential part of my self. For years I had struggled with my identity, with the idea of “home” and where I belonged. I often felt as if a giant chunk of me was missing.
Growing up in England and America, I defined myself as Iranian. Not belonging was not a problem, because there was a place for me somewhere else. And one day I would go there, I thought, and I would finally be someplace where I could feel grounded, where I could feel confident about whom I was. I was aware that this may not happen, but I needed to discover this for myself. Perhaps that was the most important part of all — I had to come to Iran to find out who I really was, to feel these different parts of me start to fit together.
I was no longer satisfied with the mere storytelling of my family, trying to envision those colourful scenes of Iran, trying to imagine the rich flavours and the noise and the musty scent of the rain on the trees in autumn. For me it was only natural to want to see Iran. I knew it was a different country from that which my parents had lived in, but the essence would still be there. And I had to follow that longing with an open mind.
Sitting in the plane now as it taxies on the runway, these visions whirl through my mind, and I suddenly realize there is something more practical at hand: I have no experience in tying a headscarf, or roosari as it’s called in Persian. Hastily I wrap it around my head, stuffing the ends of my long hair under my collar, and exit the plane with dozens of Iranians, all chattering away as if landing in Mehrabad airport were the most normal occurrence, oblivious to my wonder, my trepidation, my excitement. I feel like a child, gaping at everything I see.
A long queue awaits us at passport control and while waiting I can finally relax and take the opportunity to observe my fellow passengers. I am surprised to find that several of the women are wearing open-toed heels with bright red toenail polish and that they are all blonde, their bangs poking out most elegantly from beneath their roosaris. We wait nearly twenty minutes for one Japanese family to go through but no one complains. Policewomen make their rounds, reminding me of the women in Jafar Panahi’s “The Circle” with their sweeping black capes cloaking their heads and bodies like funereal gowns. Their expressions are solemn and their faces plain and colourless, without a trace of the excessive make-up worn by the female passengers.
When it’s my turn I nervously slide my brand new Iranian passport to the officer on duty. A young man with a pleasant expression, he flips through it several times, his brow furrowed, and starts chuckling upon discovering it is empty. “It’s my first time,” I explain timidly. He looks at me and smiles, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Khosh amadeed, kheireh maghdam,” he says, “Welcome, your presence brings happiness,” and I grin back, my heart jumping about like a jack-in-the-box. I am in Iran! And I am welcome here.
At that point, the day takes a turn for the surreal. The emotions are overwhelming and I exit in a blur, finding myself in an area which does not strike me as being particularly different from any other airport exit, the same pile up of waiting cars, families greeting friends and loved ones, the ugly grey parking lot. The outside of the airport looks like an impenetrable concrete block. Several policemen hang around in green army outfits, smoking cigarettes.
Persian is written everywhere, on posters and billboards and on the backs of cars, and although it is a common scene, I drink it in eagerly. I am not sure that I expected huddled groups of scary policemen and hoards of veiled women, or men giving me sleazy glances, but I am somewhat taken aback at the normalcy of it all, at the juxtaposition of my huge, momentous occasion with these perfectly ordinary people going about their routine day.
That night I fall asleep trying to get a sense of my feelings. Three days earlier I had written the word Iran in my journal and let my mind wander. I imagined brilliant red pomegranates, ripe and juicy, the smell of dill and cardamom and advieh (spices), picking out peste (pistachios) in a crowded supermarket and swirling the salty shells around in my mouth, the delicious smells of kabob mingling with gasoline in the streets, the visions of clogged traffic and little white Paykan cars from the 1960s, the drivers honking at each other and driving like maniacs, women in black chadors, little girls without them, men with dark skin and moustaches, pollution, the mosques with their turquoise domes, mullahs, tasting khoresht and pungent oranges, and strolling through beautifully manicured Persian gardens.
Less than a day after arriving I can already see to what extent these visions are realistic or sheer fantasy. Now, I have real, solid sensations to fall back on. When I think of a Tehran motorway, I feel the tingle of the pollution in my nostrils and the sting in my eyes, and I remember my fright as our family friend drives me home, her hands covered in black lacy gloves as she holds the wheel with one hand and curses at a driver with the other.
The mountains provide a stunning backdrop in the distance and the long boulevards in the north of the city are lined with towering plane trees. Men sell watermelon at the side of the road, the ripe fruit sliced open in the middle to show off the succulent red flesh, and we stop to buy one. “Make sure to give me a good one,” our family friend commands. “If it’s bad, I will return and show it to you.” The man laughs, “What bad?” he asks. “They are all good. But I will give you the best one.” And we continue on our way, in and out of halting traffic, me spending the entire car ride nervously holding onto my roosari for fear that it will slip off.
Just before falling asleep tonight, these impressions start to fade away, and my mind grows calm. I still cannot fathom that I am in Iran, sleeping in this bed where the sound of chirping birds will awake me in the morning. I wonder how long I will be here, if I will ever be able to live here, if I will dislike it so terribly that I will have to run away. But for now it is early days and these are questions with no answers. I let my mind empty and am left with the clear vision of the beautiful Alborz Mountains, snow capped in powder white, the peaks gentle and round. And slowly I feel the gap within me beginning to close.
This article was first published in Lahore Friday Times in Pakistan. Copyright remains with the author