May 21, 2001
Valentine's Day is a precarious time for those not officially involved.
There is always the hope that a secret admirer would send you flowers or
some such gesture. Rarely does this happen. It's only happened to me once,
in high school. Even when you are officially involved with some one there
is no guarantee that you will actually receive anything on Valentine's Day.
There is usually some sort of acknowledgment of the day by the partner even
if it is in the form of criticism of its commercial values. This has often
been the case with me.
My partners have often been the self-declared intellectual type who diss
the capitalist commercial machine for turning every ritual and historic
event into an excuse for heightened consumerism. This I understand and agree
with. Yet what is so wrong with designating a day to celebrate love? Compared
to all the other things we commemorate I would say love is the best one
of all. And you don't have to fall prey to the Hallmark-Godiva complex,
you could do or say what ever you want. I mean being in love is something
to celebrate, isn't it?
I happen not to be in love right now. In fact I am deeply out of love.
Chances of a secret admirer showing up at my door are pretty slim. In a
way, I prefer this to being in love with someone who has only negative things
to say about Valentine's Day. I find that men's attitude toward Valentine's
Day changes drastically between the time you are just dating to the time
they think you are with them. For example, a wonderful man in my life, a
romantic by any standard, sent me twelve Valentine's Day cards the first
year we met and were living apart. This same person the next year when we
were living together took offense at the mere suggestion that we might do
something special on Valentine's Day.
He is not alone in this transformation. It is a common scenario I have
seen repeatedly among my friends. Some of it I think has to do with peer
pressure and men challenging each other to prove their manhood which in
most circles is equated with lack of emotional expression, of any sort.
The same is true for women. In a way we feel pressured to have a romantic
story to report the day after. My husband was sitting naked in a giant basket
of roses when I arrived home. Oh, you're so lucky! Or, my boy friend gave
me a red silk lingerie. So sexy!
Let me take this opportunity to express my complete disinterest in lingerie.
Frankly, I don't think it stays on long enough to justify the expense. I
wouldn't want all that lace and those stringy things in my way. But for
those who appreciate it I suppose it would make an okay gift on Valentine's
Day. The best gift I ever received on Valentine's Day was a poem my lover
wrote for me. I absolutely melted when I read it. I felt uniquely privileged
and deeply loved. We separated a couple of months after that but the time
we did spend together is among my most cherished memories.
His name was Farhad, the legendary character in Nizami's epic poem Khosrow
and Shirin who, to prove his love for Shirin, carves a tunnel in a
mountain with his bare hands. We met at a New Year's Eve party. He was dancing
wildly on the dance floor and I bumped into him as my dance partner whirled
me over and over and over. I clung onto Farhad in my dizzy state and didn't
really detach myself from him until we said good night leaving the party
in the morning. He was a fabulous dancer. Lost in the music he kept his
eyes closed and his body free. You would think he is not really there but
he was in fact acutely aware of his surroundings and entirely focused on
his dance partner. That evening we salsaed, tangoed and belly danced together.
He stayed with me when I insisted on dancing to Bee Gees' "I Started
A Joke" and I indulged him with ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All",
which we turned into a performance acting out the dialogue.The music was
eclectic, the food minimal and the alcohol plentiful. Needless to say much
fun was had by all, particularly the two strangers who got more and more
acquainted on the dance floor.
I actually remembered Farhad the next day or was it already January second
when I woke up? We chatted on the phone for a while and decided to get together
the next weekend. He showed up at my door that Friday evening with a pot
of miniature pansies wearing a bow tie. He was wearing a bow tie not the
pansies. I evaluated an array of responses before issuing my complement.
He graciously accepted and offered to take the bow tie off if it bothered
me. Not at all, I said. I am fully supportive of people expressing their
individuality. He continued to express his at every opportunity over the
next three to four months that we hung out together. Once he showed up at
my door with rollers in his hair. For the life of me I could not utter a
word of criticism or even question his choices. I always responded with
a smile, an almost admiring one if sometimes a concerned one too. Farhad
was younger than me. Maybe this was partly responsible for my hesitance
to judge. He was so cute, adorable and full of life that I simply could
not bring him down.
Now that I think about it maybe he was just trying to elicit some sort
of a response from me, something a little more passionate and specific than,
"How nice!" I guess I didn't really get it then. We met at a
time in my life when I had closed up my heart. The fear of another separation
was too much to bear. It was much easier just not to feel. Sitting at a
café that Friday night Farhad took my hand in his and began ever
so gently to run his fingers up and down my arm. I remember that I froze
inside but continued to talk as if nothing was happening. He kept searching
in my eyes for a reaction but I gave none. "I'm caressing your hand,"
he chuckled. "I know," I said. "It means I like you,"
he pressed on. I didn't know what to say. "How do you feel about me?"
he asked after some time. "I can't feel," It was the most honest
thing I've said in my life. He smiled and said, "You will."
I did. When I read his poem I felt deeply. It was simple, sweet and brief.
He addressed it to My Shirin. Shirin means sweet in Persian. In the story,
Shirin is an Armenian princess who falls in love with the Persian king,
Khosrow. Too much into wine, beautiful women, and being a hero, Khosrow
neglects Shirin and even marries the Turkish princess "for political
reasons" This sounds so contemporary for an epic written almost a thousand
years ago. Farhad is an artisan who falls in love with Shirin. If I remember
correctly, he dies at the end. My Farhad didn't die. My Khosrow had neglected
me long ago but still I was incapable of fully giving myself to Farhad's
love. I am no princess but in the palace of my heart there was room only
for one king. Without him only the sound of the wind filled the empty chambers
of the palace.
Farhad continued to bore through the mountain. Watching him I longed
for another. But under his gentle touch I remembered what it felt like to
be loved. Waiting for his call I recalled the trembling of a heart in anticipation.
My Farhad was sweet, kind and unique. From the Christian calendar's New
Year to the Iranian New Year on first day of spring, we spent one hundred
magical days together. During those days I opened the curtains and allowed
the sunlight to fill the palace rooms. We danced, laughed and made love.
He gave me hope that maybe one day I will be able to love again. I trusted
him, I believed him.
The celebration of Iranian New Year involves several steps. First comes
Khooneh-tekooni, literally meaning shaking the house, where you do
major spring cleaning. This usually starts about three to four weeks before
the New Year. Then comes Charshanbeh-soori, celebrated on the last
Wednesday eve of the year, it is the last attempt at destroying the negative
energy of the past year. Charshanbeh-soori is an extensive celebration
with multiple rituals of varying symbolism and significance. The two most
common rituals are the one where people jump over fire, giving their yellowness
(ills of life, or the past year) to the fire and taking on the redness (life's
energy) from it, and another called Ghashogh-zani, or spoon-banging,
where you would knock on people's doors and ask for goodies usually in the
form of dried fruit and nuts, very similar to Halloween in a way.
I remember as a kid in Iran I loved Charshanbeh-soori. First and
foremost because we always tried to outdo each other on building the biggest
fire and surviving the jump. Burned hair and eyelashes were common occurrences
as were injuries related to fire cracker use. For ghashogh-zani, the boys
in the neighborhood would throw a chador over their heads and pretending
to be poor old women would knock on people's doors and beg for food. This
too was a competition to see who could collect the most. Another ritual
is Falgoosh, meaning to listen in on a fortune. It goes like this:
you're supposed to stand on the corner of the street with a key under your
foot. It helps if you have a specific wish or question that you want answered.
Basically, you just stand there for a while and listen to the conversation
of the passers by and try to make sense of it in response to your quest.
This ritual I found pretty boring and useless as most passers by never addressed
anything remotely close to my questions.
But overall, Charshanbeh-soori was one of the most fun celebrations
of my childhood. My favorite part was at the very end when we were all exhausted
from too much running around and poking fun at adults and we would roast
potatoes in the dying fire. Sitting there gazing at the brilliant red coals
I felt alive and at peace. The New Year held the promise of many wonders
and imagining the possibilities brought a satisfied smile to my lips. After
Charshanbeh-soori comes New Year's eve dinner and the New Year's
day celebration, both of which are spent with family. On New Year's day
everyone is supposed to visit the eldest in the family and receive some
gift usually a coin or new bills. The richer the family the more lavish
the gifts but usually the gift giving is a symbolic gesture more about the
act of giving than the content of the gift.
This is not all. After New Year's day come thirteen days of celebration
during which you're supposed to go visit friends and family wishing them
a happy and prosperous New Year. The schools are closed for two weeks during
this time. When I was growing up most families would go out of town and
not really visit anybody. Some teachers had the bad habit of assigning homework
to be completed over the New Year holidays. I find this particularly distasteful.
Not only because I always found it impossible to do homework over vacation
but also because it seems contrary to the spirit of the New Year, a time
to be focused on family and friends and not really worry about satisfying
some sadistic teacher's needs for discipline.
The New Year celebrations conclude on the thirteenth day of the year,
or Sizdeh-bedar, a day of mass picnicing. On Sizdeh-bedar
the entire family will pack up an incredible amount of food, impossible
to be consumed by the number of participants even if they had been starving
for a decade, along with tea which usually meant a full size samovar, tons
of sweets, and various instruments of entertainment be it backgammon, cards,
musical instruments, as well as football, volleyball, badminton, etc. Logging
all this stuff to a remote campsite conspicuously packed with other families,
we would spend one last fun-filled day together before heading back to work
and school the next day. We still perform most of these rituals during
the Iranian New Year in the US. Certainly the food consumption has not decreased
When I took Farhad to our family dinner on New Year's eve my grand mother's
eyes glowed with the hope that maybe I am finally over my previous relationship.
My mother challenged Farhad's capacity for humor and self-depreciation,
he passed. The rest of the gang just hung out and took the opportunity to
get to know "the new man in my life." I knew he wasn't. He felt
this and eventually got tired of it. At Sizdeh-bedar he started flirting
with another woman. Her name was really Shirin. You can't fight with a love
predicted (or is it just depicted?) in an epic poem a thousand years ago.
They are now married with two children. We are friends. I visit them during
the first thirteen days of the Iranian New Year and give little gold coins
to their kids. Some times I see them on Charshanbeh-soori and Sizdeh-bedar.
They seem happy together. There must have not been a Khosrow in her life.
Or maybe there was one and she was more successful at getting over him.
Sitting here tonight on Valentine's Day, night, I think back to the men
in my life and appreciate my choices, and theirs. Some people know immediately
when they have found their soul mate. I probably won't know even if he lands
on my head. I need to experiment, learn over time, grow. I need to hang
out with different types of people. They may not seem that different from
the outside but for me they represent different aspects of myself, or address
different needs. I open the good bottle of Cabernet and pour myself a glass.
I drink to the freedom to love, or not to.