|Sarvenaz diaries -- Part 2
Summer in Iran
February 8, 2002
I went back to Iran the next summer to see my parents. I arrived in Tehran and
was immediately reprimanded by my mother about having abandoned poor, old, loyal,
Farhad. Who was a Mohandess, like his father, and ran their lucrative air conditioning
factory and business in Tehran. To tell you the truth Farhad too had lost interest
in me. To my, subconscious, disappointment he was not too unhappy about the break
up -- he in fact, seemed to secretly wish it. Our emails and telephone conversations
had seemed to fizzle off like an abandoned bottle of half empty coke. I tried to
explain all that, but my Mom approached the subject of my future with the wedding-white
tunnel vision that is peculiar, maybe, to Iranian mothers.
My parents were happy to see me. I was happy to be in Iran. I always feel immediately
at home as soon as I arrive in Tehran. Despite the seemingly vast difference in our
mentalities I feel at one with the place and the people. That sense of belonging,
even now, after so many years abroad, I have never felt anywhere else.
Anyway, I assured my mom that I would socialize and go to all the mehmanis, which
meant that I would go out and try to meet a future husband. The age of twenty-eight,
for an Iranian girl, is considered dangerously 'borderline' late for marriage. The
grant, the scholarship, the degree that I had from New York University, meant nothing
compared to the perceived need for me to get married. In Iranian society you can
be the most successful woman in the world, you can be Christian Amanpour or Oprah
Winfrey or Janet Reno, but if you remain unmarried you are a pitiable creature. It
is by far more respectable to marry and divorce than to remain unmarried or torshideh,
That first night back home I heard them whispering about my hard headedness, my mom
told my father, " injoori heechvaght shohar peydaa nemeekoneh. Cheh faaydeh
daareh velgardi dore donyaa? Une pesare be in khoobi raa, keh hameh arezooshooneh,
vel kard vali yek roozi pashimoon meesheh." ("This way she will never
find a husband. What is the benefit of all this useless globetrotting? That nice
boy whom every one dreams about, she has abandoned. Someday she will regret it I
tell you.") My dad soothed her with reassurances that I would find some one
soon, he was certain. I smiled. I was used to all this by now. When you are a twenty-eight
year old, unmarried Iranian woman you have already steeled yourself to questions
and criticism about your future matrimonial prospects.
One of the upshots of so much love and warmth and intimacy in a society, like mine
in Iran, is that everyone is engaged in everyone else's affairs in a very passionate
and active way. You could call it a collective nosiness. So, often when a person
leaves the room the others begin talking about her. It is, in a way, like having
a group of people who are all each other's confidants sooner or later everyone is
talking about everyone else. This, if it does not get too cruel, which it sometimes
does, is like a form of group therapy. Everyone feels better worrying about someone
else. In closed societies this prevalence of gossip serves the social and psychological
function of bringing taboo or difficult subjects into the collective conversation.
It even allows for a certain degree of empathy and tolerance because instead of rejecting
a person completely one merely gossips about them. If something is discussed amongst
a lot of people even if it is in hush, hush and gossipy it is, at least, out in the
open. I prefer much more the pech pech of Iranian relatives and friends than
the staring eye of some puritanical congregation! Iranians may say the worst things
about you behind your back, but that never keeps them from inviting you to their
next party. It may be superficial acceptance but it is acceptance non-the-less.
A few nights later, after I had visited all the relatives
and gotten rid of a suitcase of soghatis (presents) that I had lugged over
from New York, I was invited to my cousin Leila's house for a party. Which really
meant that they were going to show me off to the few unmarried friends they still
had. It was a typical Tehran party for the young. The music was the latest smuggled
hip-hop from the States. The girls with their nose jobs were out for the kill in
their best imitation or real (I could never tell) designer clothes. Nooshin and Roya
where talking about Leila's Escada, "Vaay deedi cheghadr Escadash fogholadast!"
(You see how wonderful her Escada is!) At first I did not know what they were
taking about. Is it a code name for a lover? A new kind of car? The name of a new
book? So, I asked, half ashamed of my ignorance of this mysterious term, "what
Nooshin replied with a disappointed tone, "You have been to Europe and New York
and you have never heard of Escada?" I assured them that I really had never,
ever, I promise, heard of Escada. "It is the German designer house
of the moment," said Roya pointing a red polished nail for effect. They proceeded
to point out to me all the girls who were fortunate enough to be wearing it. How
could Jafar tolerate all this? From Exeter and MIT and ending up with these kinds
of friends. Maybe he did it for Leila. These are perfectly nice and fun people I
said to myself -- stop judging them. These seemingly vulgar and materialistic women
were a refreshing break from the pretentious intellectualism of my New York friends.
Who cared if they hadn't read any books, they threw the best parties and were never
jealous of anything but other women's clothes or figures.
This was a bigger party than I imagined. I thought to myself that Khomeini must be
turning in his grave. Here was the future of the country, its enfant doré,
listening to Snoopy Snoop Dog, dressed in German designer clothes sipping imported,
Swedish akband vodka. I thought of reading The Great Gatsby in high school.
I remembered Mr. Halliday telling us about how well Fitzgerald portrayed the "the
decky dance" of the twenties. Well here was a similar "decky dance"
right in front of me and I wondered whether prohibition was the culprit. Could it
be that by telling a people not to do something you turn them, unwittingly, into
I was by far the most under-dressed of all, in a simple low cut, black cocktail dress.
My mother had complained about the lack of color and general drabness of the dress
but I had just smiled and run out the door intent on avoiding all confrontation.
I kept telling myself do not judge your parents; they are of a different time and
place. Treat them like you are Margaret Mead on the field, as quiet simply of another
civilization, like so many tribes to be befriended and studied. I wonder if that
great anthropologist could look at her parents and relations like so many tribes
to be studied? For me it was a matter of survival. This way I could love them and
never, ever, expect myself to fully be them.
After a bit of circulating and chatting with old friends I felt, like I often
do at these parties, like I badly needed to get a drink. So I looked around and before
you know it Leila's husband, Jafar, came to me with a chilled shot of vodka and a
lime in hand. I told him that he had read my mind and we did the shots like we had
on so many previous occasions. He always told me that he liked the fact that I could
"drink like a man", as if that was the greatest compliment in the world.
But in that party, in that context, it was meant to be a praise and I took it as
such raising my shot glass for a refill as if to affirm his compliment. Often in
my childhood in Iran, whether it was when I rode on horseback with my father, or
played soccer with my brother's friends on the street in Tehran, I had been praised
for doing one thing or another like a man.
They thankfully started playing better music. Jafar took me by the arm and introduced
me to some of his friends. One of them, a slick looking guy with loads of gel in
his hair, who wore a beautiful suit over a tee shirt, and immediately stated that
he lived in the U.K most of the year, started the conversation with a few questions
and then proceeded to flirt. I really did not want to flirt with this man. So instead
I started talking about European football hoping that would keep the conversation
on a boyish safe level. As we were talking about the relative merits of Arsenal and
Manchester United, the door opened and a short man in glasses and a tall beautiful
woman with dark, straight, long hair walked in. "Salam Rashid khaan, salam
Goli jaan, befarmaaeed," Leila greeted them with the usual pleasantries
that roll out of Iranian women's mouths with a sweet graceful ease, like honey that
is being poured with those spiraling wooden spoons.
She introduced them as "Mr. and Mrs. Banani... You know, the famous poet."
Of course I knew. I had read the man's poems, which I did not really like. It was
the kind of 'new' poetry that was much too restrained and pretentious for my taste.
The wife of Mr. Banani, Goli, possessed such radiant beauty that even before uncovering
her loose headscarf and taking off her roopoosh, she lit up the room. The two of
them looked really incongruent. He, a scrawny, large nosed man and she tall, much
younger, and breathtakingly stunning standing side by side -- a freak of nature,
I thought to myself feeling immediately ashamed about it. I had heard that he had
wooed her with many lines of poetry, lavish presents and soirées at his villa
in Lavassan. His was a very wealthy family who managed to keep their wealth intact
after the revolution because his maternal uncle was an Ayatollah.
The poet's wife flashed me a broad welcoming smile and I immediately knew that I
would like her. I smiled back and told her that her dress was gorgeous. Was it Escada?
I wondered. She told me with Iranian politesse that seemed genuine, that she liked
my antique silver pendant with a tiny Koran in it. I told her it belonged to my grandmother
and she extended a long pale arm, reached, and touched it and smiled again. The brightest,
broadest smile, which revealed the most beautiful set of white teeth, and filled
a large circumference around her with warmth. I looked around and noticed Jafar and
his friends staring at her.
The dinner, like at most Iranian parties, was a mouth watering Iranian culinary journey.
One look at the spread on the table and I thought, "This is edible art."
I could see a performance art display, in some SoHo gallery, of one of these dinner
tables, with the audience asked to join in and eat. Art for taste buds sake! The
khoreshts, and the joojeh kabobs, the beef straganoff, the tahchin
and the albaloo polo were displayed in voluptuously over filled trays and
soupiéres of silver and china. With the best lemon dressing salad, a huge
wooden basket of herbs and plenty of coca-cola and seven up in tall crystal glasses
filled with ice, served on trays. Every time I go back to Iran I feel like I have
tasted tomato, cucumber, lettuce and almost all fruits and vegetables for the first
time since my last visit. A tomato in an American super market should not have the
right to bear that name. I bit into a plum, juicy slice soaked in the olive oil and
lemon juice of the salad. Funny how simple things matter -- would you give up a lifetime
of tasting tomato? At this thought I knew that I had had one too many shots before
After dinner Jafar asked me to come to the back room. I knew what this meant. They
always went to the back room to smoke opium after dinner. I had tried it a couple
of times but had not really felt anything. I entered the room that was hazy with
smoke, and was greeted warmly by those inside. People who indulge in opium love it
when new people join them. It legitimizes their addiction to have a variety of people
partake in it -- around the manghals, at different parties, there are those who are
the real smokers and others who are tourists trying a puff here another there. The
tourists make the addicts feel better and the addicts provide a source of occasional
indulgence for the tourists. Sometimes, and I see this more and more each time I
go back, the tourists become addicts themselves. It never, ever works the other way
All were gathered around the manghal, which was glowing with red-hot charcoal.
It was quite large. Each of its corners had a concave rest place for the opium pipe
or vaafoor, to keep it warm when not in use. On one side of this beautiful
brazier was a surface to place the tea ghoori. Tea, especially sweetened tea,
is an essential ingredient of smoking taryaak. It soothes the throat and its
sweetness keeps the blood pressure from dropping. Next to the manghal were
placed an assortment of Iranian sweets for the same purpose of keeping blood pressures
from dropping. There was also a silver tray that held the little silver wrench and
a knife for cutting the very hard taryaak and a long narrow silver stick for
opening the pipe's hole after each puff of the vaafoor.
Banani, the poet and his wife, were sitting next to Jafar, who was busy breaking
pieces of the opium. The gel-haired guy from the U.K was also there and about to
take a hit when I sat down. He showed a great level of comfort with the vaafoor,
and I wondered if he was an addict or just a tourist. I had heard that the price
of taryaak in London was around 300 pounds for a lool or 18 grams stick
of opium. In Tehran it cost around five pounds. Many a young man including, apparently
a poor pilot that I heard about, risk everything and sometimes get caught when smuggling
some of this stuff for the consumption of their more fortunate compatriots abroad.
"Okay stop thinking like this, smoke the pipe and enjoy, it is Iran, in the
summer and you are young despite what your mother thinks, let go and enjoy yourself,"
I told myself.
The poet who was older than all the others, and seemed to have more manghal
and vafoor know how than the rest, put the tip of the pipe to my mouth and
told me, "foot kon." I blew remembering that unlike a hash pipe
you have to blow first into the vaafoor and inhale only after the charcoal
has caused the piece of opium (or bast) to start to bubble and smoke. So I
blew into the pipe which was long, smooth and beautifully carved with an oval porcelain
head that was laajevard blue with gold rims, until the poet said, "Ahaan!
Barikalaa! Haalaa bekesh too" ("Yes! Good job! Now inhale") at
which I, ever the obedient partaker of tribal customs, sucked the smoke in and let
it fill my lungs. I remembered E.G Brown writing in his travel memoirs, A year
amongst the Persians (1893), about picking up opium smoking in Kerman, known
for the great quality of its poppies. The longest chapter in those memoirs is on
Kerman. It seems like Mr. Brown had a hard time leaving that beautiful province which
is also known for its beautiful carpets and its brilliant star filled skies. I am
sure sitting on those carpets under those skies and smoking that opium did as much
for his understanding of our literature than his mastery of Farsi.
I held the smoke inside for dear life, never having been one to fake things. The
poet's wife looked at me with that smile that you could swim in and said, "You
are a professional! You smoke like a man!" I looked at Jafar, and smiled still
holding the smoke in my chest wishing every bit of it to enter my blood, permeate
my body, flood my brain.
Goli picked up a slender waisted, gold-rimmed glass and poured some tea. With her
long slender fingers she broke some nabaat and gave it a stir with the little
gold spoon and said, "Biaa in raa bokhore behtare meeshee" ("Come
drink this; you'll feel better"). I sipped and let the familiar taste of good
tea linger in my mouth. I leaned back on the large pillow behind me bringing my legs
under my body trying hard to cover them with my skimpy black dress. Surely this was
meant to be a cocktail dress, one in which you could stand up and drink but not to
recline and smoke opium! Jafar, ever attentive, covered my legs with one of the fine
cotton shamads that Leila had provided just for this purpose. A good host
thinks of everything.
All around the square room, against the four walls, futon-like mattresses with congac
brown damask covers were arranged. The huge cylinder shaped cushions, covered in
turquoise blue raw satin with little powder pink rosebuds all over, were arranged
so all would have easy access to them should the urge to lay back over take them.
The cotton throws or shamads where piled on one corner, and a thick haired
namad was spread under the manghal. One of the walls displayed Jafar's
collection of antique Iranian erotic miniatures. Another wall, the one right in front
of me, boasted a rather large painting/calligraphy by Zenderoudi, repeating the name
Ali a thousand times in different sizes and colors. On another wall hung Jafar's
collection of music album covers in one giant glass frame.
The poet was going on and on about the importance of Zoroastrian religion in ancient
times, while the gel-haired man from London intently listened. My eyes fell on Goli.
Her dress was long with a slit to the side that seemed designed for sitting around
the manghal. The slit revealed only a long sliver of her lovely legs ending
just where the thighs get slightly wider. It was her turn to smoke and she declined
her husband's offer to hold the pipe for her, "doost daaram khodam bokonam."
("I like to do it myself") And then to me in a perfect Mid-Western American
accent, "I love this stuff, it makes me feel so incredibly light, like I can
float like a cloud and cross the mountains and reach the sea and come diving down
my chest scraping the surface of the cool water." She picked up the opium pipe
and placed a bast on it. With the silver tong she picked a flat piece of charcoal
and blew the white ash from its surface till it revealed its red hot inside. She
then lowered the charcoal to just above the hit of opium and blew till it started
bubbling and then inhaled the entire hit in a procession of tiny, well-paced puffs.
She held the smoke deep in her chest, which made her breast heave. I looked around
to see if anyone else was staring. I caught Jafar's eyes as he also moved them away
from her, and smiled at me. The poet was still talking as the Londoner listened,
Goli finished her bast and gestured for me to sit next to her. "Biaa
man yek khoobesho baraat begeeram," she told me as she prepared the vaafoor.
I moved next to her as she held the pipe up to my mouth. She leaned, her shoulders
pressing mine, to get the right angle, coaching me through the steps. From my position
I could see deep inside her cleavage. Did she know about this view of her bosom?
As I was holding the smoke she pushed me back onto the cushion and covered my legs
again, only this time her hands touched, and seemed to rest on them for a long minute.
I was feeling the full force of the opium. She ordered me to have some sweet tea.
Again, I listened. That last hit was a dogholoo she informed me, a double
hit mixed with a much stronger essence of the opium called sheereh. A wonderful
feeling of euphoria swept over me. I felt lucid in the head and relaxed in the body.
No wonder all these writers could write on the stuff, it actually gives your mind
clarity and the ability to concentrate and relaxes the body so you can sit in one
place for hours! Truly this was the shahanshah of all drugs.
Goli made a comment about the beauty of the Zenderoudi painting. Before she could
finish, the poet cut her off and pontificated on the aesthetically inferior quality
of the painter throwing some French terms for good measure. I, having been always
fond of Zenderoudi, and disliking all those who like to listen to themselves, went
on to say why and how I loved the painting as well. Goli said, "Ghorboone
dahanet beram dokhtar... somebody finally stood up for me!" Banani retorted,
"I have written a thousand verses for this girl and she still isn't satisfied."
I thought of the idea of satisfaction and decided that I certainly felt it right
now. "You are a lucky girl Goli jaan, no one has ever written me a single verse."
I felt Jafar's eyes on me but did not look. Delete the thought I said to myself,
delete the thought: HE'S YOUR COUSIN'S HUSBAND!
I spoke to Goli the rest of the night with my back slightly to Jafar. I did not want
to look at him. This taryaak had made my imagination open the door to rooms
in my head that I did not really want to visit. Goli told me about how she had grown
up in Ann Arbor, Michigan were her dad had been a Physics professor. He had died
after a terrible ordeal with cancer. They had come back to Iran the next year were
her mother had fallen in love and re-married. At first it was hard adjusting to life
in Tehran. But she had quickly made friends in the tatbighi school she attended,
which was a school for children of Iranians who have grown up abroad and whose Farsi
is weak. I told her that with that smile of hers I didn't doubt that she made friends
quickly. She smiled and told me, "But I wore braces then," and
laughed, covering her perfect wide mouth with those long fingers.
I returned home very late that night and laid in the bed, under the mosquito net,
that Zeynab Khanom had prepared for me on the terrace. The white smell of Tide that
I remembered from my childhood mixed with the honey suckle of the garden wrapped
me in its embrace and carried me into the deepest realm of sleep. That night I had
the most bizarre dream. We were all in Kerman, under a tall pillar where Zoroastrians
lay their dead. Jafar was kissing Goli while the Poet with the E.G Brown book in
hand was singing out its words. The Londoner was in the red and white uniform of
Manchester United trying to shoo away the vultures above our heads. On the other
side of the pillar, Leila and Nooshin and Roya, wearing the uniform of the Nazi SS,
were fondling each other. I woke up as the first rays of the early morning sun came
piercing through the mosquito net.
To be continued...