By Shahriar Zahedi
It was August 25, 1975. The Iran Air jumbo jet landed at New York's JFK airport, and I set foot on American soil. Wearing a three-piece suit custom made by some tailor in Laleh-Zar, I must have looked pretty third world-ish, but I didn't care. Heck, I didn't even know our worlds were numbered like that! Upon entering the immigration and customs area on that hot and muggy day, a strange odor hit my hypersensitive nose.
"Wow! What's that smell?" I asked myself (in Farsi).
My most pronounced sensory organ; my nose, was failing me. I could not identify that odor. It wasn't very obnoxious, but it was everywhere, permeating the whole area. And above all, it was of an unknown origin. My first dilemma in the New World was before me; I could not identify this smell.
This was a great disappointment. After all, I'd come from the land of one thousand and one smells. Like the shoekeeper stand at the religious shrine with its unique smell of feet mixed with rosewater. Or the smell of the public restroom at the roadside coffee house on the way to Qom. Or the joob odor in Salsabeel. And or my cousin "Mo", who passed gas just for the heck of it!
But this one was none of those. This was the smell of America. But what was it?
Even though I failed this first challenge, I went on with my new life. I hopped on a plane to southern California and arrived at my uncle's house in Orange County. After 24 hours of continuos sleep, I awoke having but completely forgotten about the smell issue. My uncle took me to McDonald's and after having a gourmet meal there, he took me to this marvel of Western civilization; the indoor shopping mall.
It was yet another hot and humid day in the city, and again, upon entering the pleasantly cool confines of the mall, I smelled something. It was the same thing, the same smell. I took a couple whiffs, and was still unable to identify it. This was quite perplexing. I had to involve a third party. The frustration was killing me. So I confronted my uncle, "What is this smell?" I asked him as if it was his fault. Looking puzzled, he responded: "What smell? I don't smell anything." It was then that I realized that this was my problem and mine only. No one else could help me. No one else cared.
I had to get a grip on myself. I couldn't afford to get carried away like that. After all, it wasn't as if the world was coming to an end. It was just a smell. But at the same time, I needed an answer. I had to collect my thoughts and at least try to come up with a logical explanation.
By that time I had gathered that the smell was a collective one. A group smell, if you will. But what caused it? What is so unique about this place that makes it smell like this?
I still couldn't come up with an answer.
Several months passed. I was renting my own place and going to school full time. I often thought about the smell issue but didn't let it bother me. And besides, I wasn't really smelling that odor anymore. I had probably gotten used to it by then. Little did I know then, that my smell question was going to be answered by the most unlikely person.
In late January of '76, a distant relative from Iran came to Los Angeles to go to school and ended up staying at my place for a couple weeks. One night while watching TV with him, sitting on the couch, I suddenly smelled that smell again. But this time it was a much stronger version of it, maybe more concentrated, and to be honest, quite repulsive too. As I slowly distanced myself from him on the sofa, I realized what I smelled was the smell of inadequate rectal hygiene.
Yes, yes, that was it. That's the ticket! My relative was a newcomer to the world of the toilet paper, and as we all know, the transition from tahArat and AftAbeh to toilet paper can be a tricky one. He had single-handedly produced a stronger version of this subtle collective smell, thanks to his inexperience with this new cleaning tool.
I was so relieved! All the pieces of the puzzle fit together. My dilemma was no more. I had found the answer to my lingering question. And it felt so good!