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Dancing in the fog
Iranians in a San Francisco garden

By Mona Shomali
June 20, 2002
The Iranian

This mystical and ethereal place
where there is a fountain surrounded by all that is lush, green and supple.
But we never talk about the opportunistic flowers that are uprooted from one garden to another
that struggle to grow and aspire to rival their native counterparts in the new environs.
In the soil that does not recognize them.
For some reason or another, these displaced flowers are parched for the fountain.
Yet they are reminiscent of a place where there was no such need.

Standing in a garden of a friend of my parents in the thick fog of San Francisco hills, I began to absorb my personal and collective Iranian history. It is a story of my parents immigrating from Iran to America.

They came to start life again in a new ground, water and air. With them they bring other lives they pass on through listening and understanding of others. A history that would not live on if I was careless with it. An impression, a fragrance, an allure, a touch that could so easily be lost, forgotten or dissolved; overwhelmed by the other flowers in this garden that are already accustomed to the heavy thick damp of the night air.

Like the clumsy tropic-loving flowers in the garden I was standing in, like my parents had withstood the first unforgiving cold current of evening and compromised an existence. I suddenly noticed these tropical flowers born into a different humidity, as parched from having no audience to understand them. Amidst the blanket of misunderstanding San Francisco fog, I could see them in the garden. I could finally see them.

My father stands in a circle of clad dressed men in suits of all shades of black. He is a professor. This is important because professors love to explain things to other people and never tire of it. I have sat in my fathers class and I have seen how his hands are covered in chalk as he explains an idea to his students; his hands callously rolling the chalk between his palms.

In the garden he is standing in a circle of men who are all professors in different universities here in California as they were in Tehran. They are professors of politics, math, international economics. Even if they were not professors, the storytelling and rise and fall of their expressions and eyebrows is something that they would share.

These men are standing in a huddle. They face each other with soft and jovial eyes, framed by the dark line of their eyebrows. I see that they share a laugh. It is followed by a familiar silent and more serious conversation. One man shudders, eyes wet, and there is shaking of a head as if "what a shame".

A minute later, I see they have broken the silence with a heavy relief and weighted laugh as stomachs are heaving and falling one after another. The skinnier men laugh faster, as the fatter men must laugh slower because of the enormous body movement.

I walk towards them to take back the Cuban cigar that my father and I began to share ten minutes ago. As I get closer, I hear them discussing like so many other nights, what has brought them together in the garden here in America. They remind themselves that they were involved in think tank politics in Iran, they were advisors that represented dissident opinion to a dynasty government that was slowly eroding under its own greedy weight.

They talk about the revolution; they ask themselves again what has happened to the country, and they ask what they can do for the country they fled. Some of them cautiously recount stories of assassination and persecution of their friends with bold leftist opinions. Occasionally they bring up the story of one good friend who was living in Paris after the revolution, an exile who was shot while checking his mail in the hallway of his building.

Now they stand in a private patio in a terraced garden of aesthetically unusual ornate flowers that struggle to compromise the fog that has rolled in with the night air. The smell of rain is still wet on stone tiles in the patio. I look at my father, "Do you mind if I take the cigar?" He shrugs, "No." I ask him, "Dad, do you mind that I'm the only woman here who is smoking a cigar?" My father says, "Of course not, I will support you if you deviate from the norm, just look at who I married; just look at your mom."

I look over to a stark attractive woman with a long graceful neck. With a tumbler in her hand, I see my mom pinch the fat cheeks of an older man with affection and laugh her unconventional laugh that leaves her gasping for air. His eyes fall on her with a gentle look of recognition. My mother stands tall and erect and sophisticated, listening to a group of men telling jokes whom she thinks are more fun than the women at this party. They have always included my mom because she has included herself. She has always been ahead of her time in that she has a certain receptivity and expansive openness to her surroundings.

My mother has always been bold in that she will walk into any room she likes and she is just as bold to walk out. She has walked out of numerous conversations where Iranians, who did not know she was from a minority religion, would begin an attempt to denounce her faith. She has compassion for them despite their harsh words and explains to me, "Well, many Iranians have not been exposed to anything else. They repeat stories they have heard from others."

My mother holds her head up high. She crosses the room with a gentle sway of her hips and when deep in thought, her expressions are piercing. She gains the respect of those who view her from across the room, even before they walk over to meet her mysterious eyes, milky white skin and jet black hair.

I hand my father the cigar again after I have blown the smoke into the out of my mouth and into the air. My father motions that we should cross the patio and join my mother who is now standing next to the musicians. The musician begins to play the music of the villages in Gilan and Tabriz; his fingers delicately drumming on the parchment of the drum skin.

My father's shoulders roll through his suit, his arms outstretched and his feet take big steps one in front of the other. They recognize the Turkish melodies and the distinct rhythms of the local regions of Iran. My mother dances, her eyes flirting, laughing and hiding. It is the mischievous expressions, the sweeping subtle movements of the eyebrows and forehead that Iranians perform with such ease.

Iranian dancing is so that the movements are intimate and draw in a closeness, although the dancers never touch. The smoothness of the women in rhythm with the charisma of the men. The wives and the husbands on the patio are dancing, looking so simultaneously satiated and unsatiated. It is the familiar and the unfamiliar again as they dance all around the fountain.

They dance in this San Francisco fog. For so long they have pretended not to notice how far they are from their own arid and dry jagged hills spotted with the narrow Iranian cypress trees. They dance around each other as they dance around their own experiences; what they should tell their children about the past; what they should protect them from.

They dance around the discomfort, the painful events, as well as the lovely nostalgic experiences of koocheh alleys and neighborhoods they grew up in; the relatives they left behind; the things their children will never see.

In this garden that we stand in, I am their daughters and sons. They have taught me to ask them questions although they were unclear about how to answer. I have been born into this life here in America with a comfort I took for granted, without a real responsibility or burden for what they felt they left behind in Iran.

However, I do feel responsible for the uniqueness of their experiences, how they gave up what was recognizable to live in foreign, and at times, hostile soils. They brought with them the behaviors they wanted to keep and transplant into this new soil in hope that one day, I would be able to grow up and recognize them again.

It is these people in the garden that have helped create something that will starve to death if I am careless with it; if I do not care to understand it, if I do not finish growing it for them. This is how I have come to understand my parents and their friends, their beauty, their histories, their struggle to make the events in their lives make sense to me. Their drive to make certain that I have access to everything they did not have; that I find in the fountain what they fear they never did.

What I want to tell them is that I have found the fountain.
Standing on the patio, the weightless beauty of these once clumsy and awkward flowers that are dancing in the fog astonishes me and makes me proud.
Standing in the mystic and ethereal place,
the garden found in their stories, I thank them for bringing me here.

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