Excerpt from “Let Me Tell You Where I've Been: New Writing by Women of the Iranian Diaspora“, Edited by Persis Karim, University of Arkansas Press, (May 1, 2006). Book Description: Until recently, Iranian literature had overwhelmingly been the domain of men. But things have changed. The new hybrid culture of Iranian Americans has given way to a uniquely feminine literary voice. LET ME TELL YOU WHERE I'VE BEEN is an extensive collection of the poetry, fiction, and nonfiction of women whose lives have been shaped by history, exile, and immigration. They represent an emerging multicultural generation of female sensibility and eloquence. You will not find flat predictable images here. Rather, these women write beyond the boundaries of place and instead inhabit a space somewhere between language and literature.
(Tehran, January 2004) It's 10:01pm and everyone in the house is already asleep. This will be my second new year's that has slipped by without fanfare and for which I'll probably be asleep when the clock strikes.
The streets, though, were bustling. After dinner I decided to save money and walk home — the weather was nice and the young hipsters paraded around in the latest styles. A cab drove up and offered to take me the whole way for a very good price. I made the ceremonial “that's too expensive!” face and said I didn’t need a ride. But it was getting late and I had a stack of work to finish. Then he lowered the price.
He drove an old Peykon, the Iranian national car, white like most of the others. Unlike the others, though, his was spotless and the upholstery was intact. He offered to role up the window if I was cold. I’m ok, thanks. I figured he’d light a cigarette so I preferred the window down. He said something about the streets being unusually busy tonight. It hadn’t occurred to him that New Year’s energy in much of the world had seeped through Iran’s semi-permeable membrane and driven the restless to the streets.
He drove like a Canadian — signaling before switching lanes, stopping completely at red lights and to let pedestrians cross. He didn't cut anyone off, didn't come to any grinding halts and he didn’t scream insults. I don’t think he even honked his horn. I was relieved that he wasn’t peering at me through the rearview mirror but had his eyes steady on the road ahead, occasionally turning his gray head to the left or right to check for oncoming cars. It was a few minutes into the ride before it occurred to me that I wasn't digging my nails into the palm of my hand, my typical reflex when I'm in a cab in Tehran. This, I said to myself, was a first.
To my surprise, he didn't even assault me with weird questions except to ask if my destination was, in fact, the amusement park — the landmark by our house that I usually tell the cab drivers.
“Actually, I'm going a little ways into Evin, just up the hill.”
What? No haggling for a higher fee? My driver was a cross between Gandhi and Yoda.
My car experiences in Iran often result in near-to-fully-realized freak-outs. Something is always going wrong, or feels like it will any second. Either I’m wedged between two huge, burly men, with one of them asking me if I’m “available” while the other inches his fingers closer to my leg, or the driver is gripped in a screaming match with a car that just cut him off while his cigarette loosens ashes and smoke directly into my face.
In especially uncomfortable moments, I make a mental list of the contents in my bag — I think through what I have that could possibly be used to identify my disfigured body. Or I check to see that I have enough money to catch another car because I'm planning my escape from the one I'm in. This time, though, I was practicing what to say because I wanted to give him a generous tip and thank him for such a pleasant ride. I had to practice saying this in my head because, after all these years of not speaking Farsi, my mother-tongue felt more like my second cousin’s half-sister.
A while back, I learned that if I want to point out something positive — like a subtle gesture that would normally be overlooked — that it's best to be very specific. To say, “That was nice!” or “Thanks for being so sweet” is not as effective a technique for reinforcing good behavior as something like, “Gosh, it was a very tactful how you pointed out that her skirt was tucked into her pantyhose” or “What a well-crafted and concise message you left on my voicemail…” To encourage good behavior, we have to train ourselves to spot it and articulate it immediately to the person caught in the act. That way, maybe they'll repeat it.
So there I sat, thinking of how to say, “I really appreciate how well you maintained your car,” “I wanted to thank you for being such a conscientious driver,” “Your high professional standards are commendable!” But, unfortunately, in most languages I learn the bad words first. I can spew rapid-fire complaints and insults, surprising myself as much the unsuspecting offender. “Look, you unshaven baboon, if you can’t drive a goddamn car without steam-rolling two cats and grazing an old lady, getting us lost and making me an hour late, then be prepared to foot my hairdresser's bill for what it's going to cost me to cover the grays I got riding in your diesel-spitting heap of shit.” As it was, I was searching my mind for the Persian translation of conscientious, commendable, and appreciate.
Instead, I thought of only my usual gratitudes: “Thank you for not asking if I'm married” and “I'm so happy that I'm not dead.” We were getting closer to my stop and I could see the top of the ferris wheel of Shahreh Bazi, suspended in motion for the winter.
He drove without my guidance and soon we arrived at the top of my street. I pointed to the pizza shop where I would get out. I fumbled through my wallet for two touman, instead of the one-fifty we agreed on, and when I handed it over to him I said, “Don't need any change, thanks.”
“Khodah barekat bedeh,” he replied. “May God shower you with blessings.”
And as I opened the door, I took a deep breath, collected myself, and did the best I could at that moment.
“Tonight was the first time that my nerves were not wrecked in a cab — thank you for driving like a Canadian and have happy New Year.”