Sometimes a loss is best left alone because looking back may entail a whole new defeat we can no longer handle. That’s how I felt when I visited Turkey, a land with an uncanny resemblance to Iran of forty years ago, the home I had prepared never to see again, and a memory that could never be relived.
No one had told me about the many similarities between today’s Turkey and the homeland of my childhood. True that Turkey is a neighboring Muslim country with similar climate, but Iran shares such traits with other neighbors, yet those countries somehow maintain their distinct differences. I suppose Turkey’s constant demand for a surgical attachment to Europe had misled me into expecting a more European ambience. But it took me just one black tea in those gold rimmed, hourglass shaped containers to feel right back at home, the home I used to know, the one that seemed to have vanished when I last visited Iran.
As my daughter and I roamed around Istanbul in our normal attire, enjoyed the lively music, and even dared have an occasional glass of wine, the surrealism of it became overwhelming. It took me a while to believe the absence of a Kommiteh, and the fact that no one would accuse us of indecency for wearing short sleeve shirts. “Where’s my scarf?” my daughter asked the first day, but realizing her error, she waved her gorgeous long hair and repeated humorously, “Where IS my scarf?” Grateful for the weightlessness of our summer attire, we stepped out into the sizzling heat of a hundred and twenty-eight degrees and planned to go for a swim later on.
By the time we left the glamour of Istanbul for a tour of the country, my initial ecstasy had given way to deep sorrow. Memories of three decades rushed back, transforming me into the time traveler who could see into a gloomy future. While I was overcome by admiration to be among true Muslims, by the third day the repeated melancholic call to prayer left me with deep sorrow. Here, women willingly observed the Islamic dress code and kept a low profile in public. In most villages, women worked in the fields while men occupied the coffee houses for a chat, a smoke, or a game of backgammon. No women are allowed in these coffee houses and, except among visitors and tourists, gender mixture appeared limited.
My deep respect for their peaceful approach to religion did little to prevent the thought that these people were embracing a perilous future, stepping into the rough road Iranians know only too well. Would the women live to regret their demands for changing the law that bans hejab in government offices? Would those fathers ever be sorry for making their daughters keep their hair covered at school? The statue of Ataturk on a horse in a meydan in Ankara had a daunting resemblance to that of Reza Shah’s. How long would it be before the mob would dare to pull that down?
Our guide, a well educated, young Turk, talked incessantly about his country’s social problems. As he hinted at corruption within the government, described the issue of the homeless immigrants, and complained about the inadequacy of health care, his words had an alarming ring. However, by the second week, I had managed to convince myself that none of it was my problem and fought the urge to caution that young man against going from bad to worse.
Abandoning my heartfelt trepidation, I pushed away the dark visions, sat back, and did my best to savor the moment. Overcome by the bittersweet emotions one feels in autumn, I knew there lay a garden I was unable to save, so I tried to absorb the fragrance of what could be its last roses.