My Zanbil, Copon and Kooloocheh

The Shah was King, bell bottoms were fashionable and “Naneh” was our cook. My father’s large family gathered for dinner parties a couple of times a week and Naneh meticulously and patiently taught my mother how to cook and entertain. Despite all Naneh did for my family over the years (including scaring off burglars with a broom), not a single picture remains to document her presence in my parent’s first home. She seems to have been invisible; her very existence, a rumor. Today, no one quite remembers much about her except that she was an opium addict! 

Before the revolution, the only person in my family who was well acquainted with the rationing system was Naneh. The government took care of her fixes by distributing free rationed opium. When the fury of war descended upon us, everyone needed hand outs and not of the opiate kind. Shortages of all consumer goods introduced millions of Iranians to rations. The copon culture was born.  

People had to stand in line for long hours. Everything was in short supply. I remember sitting in the car for over two hours at a gas station while my father waited for his turn at the pump. Waiting endlessly each week for meat, chicken, rice, eggs, fabric etc was routine.

When it came to standing in line, my mother expected me to help out. But if it wasn’t for an accompanying adult, the other women cheated me out of my spot in line. Much to my weekly dismay and anxiety, my mother decided to use these line ups as an opportunity to toughen me up. My best friend was a year older than me, outspoken and aggressive. My mother asked her to mentor me.  

I never had the guts to operate the way my BFF did. When we arrived at the store, instead of going to the end of the line, my BFF used to take our shopping bags, red plastic zanbil, and walk straight to the middle of the line. When the women complained that we weren’t allowed to cut through, she would simply lie. She would tell people we’d been first in line but the adults had taken advantage of us and moved our bags along to the end of the line. And since that was absolutely unacceptable, not to mention against the teachings of the Prophet, we had the right to move, at least, to the middle of the line. If anyone persisted, she would say: “eva khanoom! Migin man dudurgh migam?” I just wanted to melt or run away. She lied with absolute confidence, with one hand on her waist and her nose in the air. She routinely told people we were from: “khaanevaadeyeh shohadaa” (martyr’s family). I don’t know how she got away with this because everyone in the neighborhood knew she was full of it.

If there was anyone in the area who was never going to be a martyr for anything, it was my friend’s dad. The government would probably pay him not to join the war effort. Grant it, he worked hard and had two jobs, like many other Iranians. But the rest of the time, he was busy chain smoking, playing backgammon or waxing his chest hair in the bathroom to Ghamar’s music. He collected newspapers. Once in a while he’d bring them out and we looked at major events from 30 or 40 years prior. He had an eclectic taste in music. He played accordion at my friend’s birthday parties and santoor for adults, after hours. I never saw that man without a repair tool in hand. I bet he spent half the war looking at pipes underneath the kitchen sink, with his shirt off, listening to Pink Floyd. What kind of a sink takes 10 years to repair? He also spent many hours experimenting with techniques to make illegal, home made booze, with none other than my father. I loved amoo.

My parents were always worried that production would sink to levels that would cause mass starvation and famine. During the missile crisis, they didn’t like going shopping at all. No one knew when a missile was going to drop and where it would hit. So our freezer became my mothers Mecca. They filled it with frozen meat. I blame the war for my mother’s fascination with freezers. She can’t pass a Sears store without a quick look at the latest brands and models, always like a child in a candy store.

One time, my father’s fears of dying from famine lead him to buy ten whole chickens. Later on, we found out the owner of the store was killing and skinning the chickens in his bathtub! On another occasion we discarded frozen meat because Tehran was buzzing with rumors about horse and camel meat.

My mother tipped store clerks generously and they always saved the best fruits and vegetables for us. Once a week, “Zahra”, part of my mother’s network of food suppliers, would bring one bottle of milk and leave it outside our door. Pasteurization crazy, my mother always boiled the milk.

My mother treated “Zahra Khanum” charitably and she, in turn, showed her gratitude by delivering extra milk whenever she could. When people were out of town, old Zahra, would bring their bottle for us. I have a feeling she cheated people out of their milk and shuffled things around. My mother couldn’t have been the only person who tipped her. To supplement our calcium in take, we had lots of yogurt.

Iranian hot dogs were delicious; they came in cocktail sizes and were spicy. During the missile crisis when we had black outs at sun set, sometimes my mom made hot dogs and fries. If dinner coincided with the chant of evening Muslim prayers rising from a nearby mosque, my baba started his meal by muttering “madar ghahveh-ha”.

I loved Bulgarian feta cheese with burned toast, “Minoo” cookies, strawberry milk, “Yum Yum” choclates, “Kooloocheh”, “albaaloo khoshk” and pizza. Take out “Chelo Kabob” was out of this world.

For school, my mother gave me tangerines and cucumbers, the aroma of which still takes me back to elementary school recess breaks. I wasn’t allowed to purchase snacks but my friends were! We shared salty chips and greasy cheese sticks or “pofack”. We use to lick the ends of the cheese sticks and attach them to each other to see who could make the longest pipe.

We had lots of Tamarind, “tamreh hendi”, which is one of the strangest things I’ve ever tasted. Despite its name, Tamarind isn’t indigenous to India but was introduced there from Sudan and Madagascar. We had to check the packages for cockroaches because you never knew about factory sanitation standards! I grew up with the best delicacies the junk food industry has to offer. Dirty, expired and oh so sour! I’m sure I’ve had a cockroach or two.

On street corners, at the right season, poor men with dirty clothes sold fresh walnuts. Much of the food being sold in Tehran, especially by street vendors, was incredibly dirty. My mother would seldom let us eat that type of food. But behind her back, it was easy to persuade my father. I owe my strong metabolism to Tehran’s street vendors.

Naneh died when I was a budding zygote but that’s when the rations started. As a kid I wondered whether it was my fault. Thank goodness we don’t worry about rations anymore. Amoo still calls me from time to time and asks if I remember the expressions he taught me, when say, “bah! Dadash, chaakeretam be mola” he just laughs.

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