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Poignant disorder
Iran's infinite risks and possibilities

By Gelareh Asayesh
August 22, 2000
The Iranian

Third excerpt from "Saffrom Sky: A Life Between Iran and America" by Gelareh Asayesh (Beacon Press, November 1999). Asayesh grew up in Tehran. Her family moved to the United States in 1977, shortly before the Islamic Revolution transformed Iran. In 1990, after fourteen years of absence, she returned to Iran for a visit. Since then, she has returned almost every year, most recently for three months this past spring and summer. "Saffron Sky" chronicles both her trips and the emotional landscape of the immigrant, describing her struggle to bridge two irreconcilable worlds. Also see more experts (1) (2)

Tehran November 27, 1994

The sky is gloaming when we wake. Last night, Mina's first in Iran, she screamed and cried, keeping our hosts up for hours. She is nine months old, too young to handle jet lag with grace. We dress quickly and decide to go for a walk. After sleeping the day away, it is a relief to trade our tangled bedclothes and scattered belongings for the cold night air.

We walk down the hill to Niavaran Park, the baby bundled up in the stroller. The sound of city traffic grows as we leave the quiet residential streets; the park is surrounded by busy thoroughfares. The royal palace of the same name is nearby, long since converted to a museum. But Niavaran Park is unchanged, still beautiful and well tended. Bright lights illuminate the avenues; the trees cast looming shadows.

Our path leads us to a glass hut where a silent young man sits under a lumpy orange canopy -- huge bags of cheese puffs suspended from the ceiling. He sells us stale cakes in cellophane packages and tea bags in Styrofoam cups of hot water. The transaction closes with ta'arof -- the elaborate courtesy ritual that is so quintessentially Iranian. I fall quickly into the familiar pattern. Three times he says, "It is not worth it," when I attempt to pay. Three times I respond with "Please." Eighteen tomans changes hands.

We sit on a stone ledge, cupping the steaming Styrofoam in chilled hands. A late-night runner huffs around the perimeter of a rectangular pool. The lit fountain is a rainbow of bright spray, and the sounds of traffic are cushioned by the stillness of the park. Caught up in the slow creep of uneasy thoughts, I have little to say to Neil.

It has been two years since I last visited Iran. Now I am here with my husband and new daughter. It is a momentous occasion, one I have dreamed of. But I feel no joy, none of the excitement and anticipation of prior trips. It is as if each trip has peeled away layers of romance and novelty until at last I have arrived at unadorned reality. And on this night, reality feels bleak.

I came here seeking the sense of connection -- to myself and my past -- that eludes me in America. But as I watch the light play on the water and try to make sense of my jumbled emotions, my mind keeps returning to the image of the man in the glass hut, alone in the dark spaces of the night.


ON THE WAY back, we have to keep the stroller on the street. Iran's sidewalks are brief parentheses in the larger disorder of water-filled gullies and stone slabs, tree roots and asphalt, all jumbled together.

In my near-constant attempt to define my country and its unique appeal, I find this disorder poignant. There is an elusive quality that sets Iran apart from the gleaming, efficient West in ways both repellent and appealing. It is the essence of the Third World, of richness of culture and poverty of resources, of deprivation and burgeoning growth. It is depressing yet exciting, the unruliness bordering on chaos that prevails here. Everything in America seems restrained in comparison -- the land has been tamed by concrete and the people by laws similarly impervious and uniform. I live in America in a well-ordered society -- although a violent one -- and thrive in its orderliness. Iran is not very violent; murders here retain intense shock value. But it is untamed. Life seems more accessible, less closed off.

Most Westerners see Iran as primitive and backward. Perhaps that is true, although the truth depends on one's viewpoint. Tales of Jeffrey Dahmers and Ted Bundys, of schoolyard massacres and drive-by shootings, are as shocking to Iranians as stonings are to Americans -- and far more common.

I think of Iran as primitive in a different sense, in the sense of being closer to God, man and nature. Here in Iran, everything is broken pavement, weeds growing in an atmosphere of infinite risk and possibility. Faith and myth are part of the fabric of daily living. Simple people stop in their tracks to pray when the muazzin's call to prayer drifts from the mosques. Sophisticated people believe in miracles. ("Have you heard of the Blind Shaykh?" a beautifully coiffed relative asks a country acquaintance over tea one afternoon. "I hear he can divine where stolen jewelry is hidden.")

Such innocence is rare in the country where I make my home. I must bring my daughter halfway across the world to experience it.

My family here complains that Iranians become colder and more self-centered day by day, as the economy crumbles and the battle for survival worsens. Yet the fruit is ripe, the wash dries on the line, and when a car breaks down in crowded Tehran, there is no shortage of people stopping to offer advice, water, a ride.

Despite a web of taboos and conventions, lives are lived ad hoc, not ordered and groomed and managed. Mrs. Z, who sews, falls in love with the cloth seller and threatens to leave her husband and children. A great to-do ensues, many tears are shed, but all is soon smoothed over. She thinks better of her folly and goes home. Her brothers beat up the cloth seller. Her husband's family hushes up the rumors. Mr. Z. visits me in a Tehran living room less than a year later, with no hint of what has happened other than many more gray hairs.

Life goes on -- no counseling, no divorce. A river overflowed its bounds, then subsided in the fullness of time to its own ordinary bed.


December 1994 , Tehran

Time goes by in a blur of disturbed nights and cluttered days. We seem to spend most of our time taking care of Mina. First-time parents, we panic when she develops a mysterious rash, rush her to the doctor, disinfect her bathtub every night. In between family gatherings I am busy arranging interviews for Neil, who will be writing a newspaper series on Iran at the end of this trip. There are no leisurely shopping expeditions, no trips to the museum. There are not enough hours in the day. Even so, I decide, four years after first returning to Iran, that it is time to visit the home of my childhood.

It is a few days before we leave Tehran for Mashad. We are at a lunch date downtown, meeting the man I have known since birth by the name Amoo - uncle. He married and later was divorced from my father's sister, my Ammeh. He takes Neil and me, baby in tow, to a restaurant tucked away in a neglected garden, where he checks to make sure the salad greens have been washed in disinfectant before eating them. Over chicken kabab, we talk of family and the country's economic problems. Then we climb into Amoo's Mercedes, which only recently replaced the Volvo I rode in as a child. We are headed for Shemiran, the uptown suburb where I grew up.

Driving through the narrow streets, I am afflicted with double vision. I look at a hillside and see it twice -- once as it is on this mild, sunny December day in the year 1994, once covered with snow in a year I cannot name. I see my father panting with exertion as he tries to change a flat tire while I stamp my feet next to the car. At home, Homajoon and Afsaneh will be getting worried.

Where our house once stood on its hilltop, there is now a fancy apartment building with lacy white ironwork and a gleaming new door. Standing there, I imagine that I am visiting an alternate future; that the fancy apartment complex has never been built and our house is still there, marching down the steep hillside: two tiers of rooms descending to the pansy beds, the green lawn, and the willow trees, followed by the twenty-three steps to the garage below.

I imagine a young woman walking out to throw both halves of the garage door open, then backing her car out into the alleyway, getting out with the engine idling, locking the double doors again and driving away.

She has lived all her life in Iran except for a brief sojourn in the United States as a child. She lived through the revolution and dresses up her obligatory manteaux with the most interesting scarves she can find. She grumbles about traffic and air pollution and the cost of living. She works downtown. She knows all the best pizza joints. She reads Iranian poetry. She is married and has children.

She is the woman I would be today if my parents had not made a momentous choice years ago. Now I am someone else, someone defined by otherness. I drink black coffee. I use too many swear words in English but know none in Farsi. The lexicon of my daily life includes words like Honda, play group, linguine with clam sauce. For years I thought it normal to build my life entirely around work.

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, the words of my first language bursting into my mouth from some long-suppressed place. For days afterward, the English words feel like foreign objects on my tongue, metallic and cold, like the loose filling of a tooth. I walk around full of hidden despair until I manage once again to forget my childhood self.

My uncle smokes a cigarette. I pose for photographs under the sign that still says Shaghayegh Alley in blue. We leave.

Weeks later, Neil regrets that I did not include Mina in those pictures. It is not until I come across the photos one day at home in St. Petersburg that I realize the choice was deliberate. When I look at the images, there is nothing to distinguish the woman I have become from the one I might have been.

No Mina. No Neil.

There is only a young woman in a black manteau and colorful scarf, smiling at the camera with eyes narrowed against the sun.

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