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My home my soul
Photo essay: Going to Iran after 23 years


April 13, 2007

I had waited for the moment to board a plane to Iran for 23 years. The last time I went home for a three months visit was March of 1983.

The practically empty plane (a few diplomat and a few pasdars in their formal uniforms) had a somber atmosphere and the ticket for an economy class cost me $3,515.00!

Every time I wanted to go something beyond my control would take place and finally this year after having had my birth certificate stamped “dead” and many efforts I got my birth certificate and Iranian passport.

The Air France plane was packed and although I had told the ticket counter attendant I was claustrophobic, he had given me a seat at the window with the steel wall of the bathroom in front of me. The flight to Paris was horrible and did not help to have a three year old and a 5 months old screaming all night long next to me.

Paris airport must be the worst in the world. I felt I was in midlevel time going through tunnels. I bitched loud at how difficult it was to get around and no wonder they were not a Superpower. Most passengers agreed that they would never fly this airline again. I agreed.

It was 10: 15 pm when my plane landed in Mehrabad on March 18th. My eyes were dry because I was afraid if I cried or showed any human emotions I would wake up and not be in Iran.

My, what a difference 23 year makes!  In 1983, my suitcases were searched by bunch of females in black chadors and the airport had too many bearded men with stern faces.

This time the airport was very clean and there were two clean shaven, young males dressed in green uniforms that checked passports. It was a breeze and even when my luggage went through the scanners, the man checking my passport welcomed me.

The porters in yellow uniforms were friendly and my God at over 6 feet tall was a real eye candy!

Although I had asked my dad not to tell anyone, there were quite a number of immediate family members outside. They played Bandari music and danced in the street. I was surprised that no arrests were made and nobody bothered us.

I also was given two bouquets of Maryam flowers which I had not seen in more than three decades.

We stopped at a restaurant on the road to Arak and I ate my Chaghaleh Badoom.

Got to Arak at 2:00 am and the next day scores of visitors began to come.

My mom, dad, sister and her son, and another nephew got up for the new year change and I lit candles and made wishes for a better world and thanked the divine for having given me the chance to see my homeland again.

The second day of NoRuz we boarded the train. It had been my wish to travel by train so I could go back in time and re-live my college days.

It was brutally cold and to my disappointment, the hallways were empty and unlike in my college days nobody was walking around.

The one pleasant difference was having well dressed and good looking servers who would take orders and deliver meals and drinks.

Ours was so good looking that my baby sister joked he should be a “brother-in-law” to either me or my second sister who is a few years younger than me.

For personal reasons (and with heart break) we had decided to stay in Ahvaz and traveled back and forth to Abadan and Khorramshahr.

My baby sister is an attorney and a court specialist so they have the privilege of staying in places with attendant, kitchen, shower and court yard at no charge.

Arriving in Ahvaz, I was overjoyed. We went to the place and left our bags took a taxi and went to the place where after three decades I could eat the vegetable soup called Ash that you can only get in Khuzestan.

There were so many tents with in the area and according to the government six million tourists had flocked to my region.

My young nephew has a fascination with old trains and busses and begged us to ride a bus to Abadan.

Well, the adventurous child in me was alive and well and despite everyone’s protest, I won.

Abadan was packed and the sounds, the sites and the stores as well as the street vendors were welcomed by me. Of course, I would have preferred fewer crowds of non-natives but I can not always get what I want.

I had planned to buy everything from Khuzestan so every time I looked at the object I would remember the moment where I got it. Of course, the fact that I was helping the local economy in a small way was truly heartwarming.

I was so touched by the local merchant’s warmth once they knew I was fro that region and they would offer me extras as gifts such as the two young boys who gave me an extra lipstick because I was a fellow Khuzestani.

Of course I annoyed the hell from the tourist who was bargaining too much (which I hated). On two occasions I heard the Isphahani accent (which I hate) and having bought so much form the store, I smiled and said “my god this item costs ten times more in America, and I can not believe how cheap you are selling it for”.

We walked around the streets in Abadan and I got to eat real Samoa while listening to Bandari music blasting in the street. I ate Konar (tart fruit the size of cherry tomatoes but green color). I bought gifts for everyone from Abadan.

My sisters who are not used to walking were lagging but my 82 year old dad kept up with me.   The Tahlenj (bottom of the boat) bazaar which is new was filled with European and American Merchandise at unbelievable prices.

We drank tea at a traditional the house with water pipes and carpet covered benches and had the best jelly rolls and cream puffs in Abadan.

Late at night we caught the bus back to Ahvaz and the next morning as usual I got up early and went outside and bought some fruits and spoke to the vendors which for the most part where from Khorramshahr.

This time we rented a Samand which is a roomy car with air-condition and the driver was a retired professional now carrying passengers because he had two daughters in college. It was great because I got to look at the road I used to drive (in those days if anyone in my group was drunk after going to Caravanserai Hotel, I would drive to Ahvaz and just drive around until the morning when they were sober so we could all go home!).

I had asked the driver to take me directly to the small jewelry bazaar in Khoarrsmahr. I had dreamt of this moment for three decades. In the past thirty years every time I looked at the young girl in pink gown (60 pounds thinner of course) I got choked up because the bangles on her hand were taken by Iraqi soldiers along with her other memorable possessions including two silk rugs and her priceless shah maghsood prayer bead she had paid one thousands toman in 1977 for.

As I stepped out of the car, I looked around and I asked god to make sure there would be no Isphahani merchant anywhere near. I specifically asked for Khuzestani or Kurd merchants.

I walked by three little stores and the fourth one was the one my instinct chose. Sure enough he was a Kurd who had lived there for ever and knew my dad and accepted dollars. Later on, I looked at the beautiful business card and it had my favorite name Arash so I was pleased.

We went through another bazaar where I got to buy basoork (nuts in shell which taste out of this world) and fabrics so I could proudly were them at events stating “this is from Khorramshahr”.

I even bought the green monto (a long sleeve thin and longer goat dress) which is what I wore coming back (I gave away all my clothes in Iran).

I had thought that I would cry or be really sad but surprisingly I was calm and happy. Perhaps the ever optimist in me was grateful that my hometown was still standing even though like me it had changed in appearance.

I did not recognize Chehel Metri which was the area we had lived in.  It was lunch time and we decided to eat. The place was packed. I went to the person behind the desk and told him that our house was in that area and I was his fellow Khorramshari. He smiled and said “I am your servant”. The meal of fish, rice and sour yogurt drink was honestly the most delicious food I have eaten in my life.

We went across the street to see our old house.  Two beautiful and every expensive house had been built but the road was destroyed. Our house which was sold last year had not been renovated and the windows were covered with newspapers (pictures). The holes on the wall reflect the shelling of the eight year war. I prayed that all responsible for the war, would spend best years of their lives in total oblivion like Regan (which I had prayed hard for) or end up bedridden with worst diseases in the world wishing to die every day with no such luck.

We were hoping that our Arab neighbor would be home so woe could pay to have mahi Sobbor (a fish available in that region which is grilled in brick oven) but only the old man was home and he complained that since my mom was not there to bring the mayor to the street each time there was a problem, the road was neglected.

We walked along the river. The boulevard and the street were clean but the water was 1/3 of what it had been in my time. There were beautiful new building half constructed and there were many tourists. My sisters and I decided to ride in a balsam (very tiny speed boat). There were no life jackets and the ride was quite an experience because the person behind the engine would go near a ship and we would scream because the boat and the ship would be inches apart and then he would maneuver the boat and we would scream more because we thought for sure the boat would cap side.

We then went to the park by the bridge were I had so many memories from childhood. I chatted with the tea vendors and stood by their side while they took pictures with their cell phone’s camera (everyone does that in Iran).

We then took a cab to Abadan and to me Abadan was a busy and crowded as thirty years ago during the New Year time.

We walked around and shopped more and found the fact that a mosque and a church were side by side without any graffiti amazing. You will not find that anywhere eels in the world. That shows how progressive Abadanis are and how respectful of their fellow Iranians with other religions.

We ate the best ice cream and noodle mix in Abadan (of course I made sure I asked some local person after emphasizing that I was not a tourist).

It was nearly midnight when we went back to Ahvaz and the next day, I went to see my old friend Hamid whom I always remembered with posters of Alice Cooper and other Western bands surrounding his room.

He had not changed much but had turned gray. His sister fardieh (the real character in “Here is not looking at you kid”) had been my childhood friend. I was shocked at how she looked. Of course she had nearly died twice and thanks to modern medicine her heart had been revived but she was battling all modern diseases from high blood pressure to high cholesterol. She wanted me to stay in Ahvaz a few days but I promised her next year.

We boarded the train that afternoon and got back to Arak after 2:00 a.m.

Every day after that I was like a visiting dignitary who was accepting visitors and then had to get dressed and go to lunch where there were large members of my family (cousins and their kids), come back in the afternoon to receive some more visitors and then get dressed at about 7:30 to go to dinner at a relative’s house where there would be a lot of people. I was exhausted (I was up at 7:00 every morning and would not get to go to sleep until after midnight with no rest time in between).

My brother-in- law wanted to take me to Isphahan where he spent many years but I passed.

I had always said that I wanted to retire at home and skeptics kept saying that I would change my mind once I see Iran.

I am pleased to say that once again I was right and home is where I belong.

I am like a child with a biological parent (Iran) and an adopted mother which I have spent more time with (America). I have worked very hard to be a good citizen but more than ever I am determined to get to spend my golden years with my biological mother with occasional visits to my adopted mother and my friends.

Of course if I win the lottery, I will be in Iran the next week buying an apartment in Khorramshahr where I will open a consulting office and hire locals who need money and all the money earned would go to help improve lives.

The only thing that bothered me about Iran (not so much Khuzestan where most drivers were skillful and respectful) was the traffic and how people drive but they drove the same when I used to drive more than three decades ago but now there are more of them so I really do not need a car or to drive.

It was ironic that the day before I left, I was reading Pablo Neruda’s biography and the passage that day stated “man must live in his own country”. This coming from a man who had spent most of his life outside his homeland. Well, I agree with him and of course that must suit the person’s need.

Being in my homeland, I felt alive, truly loved and fulfilled.

I was in such a euphoric state that I feared if I did anything normal as paying attention to the camera being focused or making sure the setting was right, I would wake up and not be in that moment so I took the pictures without attention.

Some are not very clear but tell the story anyway >>> Photos

For letters section
To Azam Nemati

Azam Nemati



Crowning Anguish
Taj al-Saltana, Memoirs of a Persian Princess 1884-1914
edited by Abbas Amanat

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