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Hidden beauty
I want to start my day with a small glass of tea

By Minou
September 11, 2000
The Iranian

When you reach the heart of life
You shall find beauty in all things.

-- Kahlil Gibran

I love going back to Iran. It fills me with a sense of wonder that soon I will be able to plant my feet on ancient soil and lift my upturned palms to a desert sky filled with stars. I want to wake in the cool, fresh morning before sunrise in Isfahan. To first become aware of the sound of the fountain splashing in the courtyard. Then to hear the distant muezzin call from the city that stirs the birds to their own joyful songs of praise. I want to start my day with a small glass of tea sweetened with nabat, fresh lavash, goat cheese and cherry preserves. I want to jump into a taxi and smile under my hand as we furiously dodge and weave through plumes of exhaust. I can't wait to start each day with the knowledge that there is something new to explore, a sound, a smell to add to my collection of memories of Iran.

I want to shed my Western self and embrace my adopted country - at least for awhile. I come laden with American goodies for my nieces and nephews and others whose relationship to me I still cannot fathom in my husband's large Iranian family. They give me lovely precious gifts in return, a small coin, a jewel box, a gold ring but they don't realize that for me the greatest gift is feeling that I have joined them. The connections between family in Iran are at once bewildering and wonderful to me. My parents raised my brothers and I in New Zealand far from our extended family, we were a lonely unit of five. Loneliness, self-sufficiency and awkwardness as well as my love of privacy are all over ruled when we get to Iran. There are long family meetings that I can't keep up with in my fledgling Farsi, but boxes of chocolate are universal crowd pleasers. Once the children realize I am a well-stocked candy-dispenser they overcome their shyness then giggles become the shared language.

Iran answers many things for me. It surprised me that it gave me an almost instant sense of belonging. I feel more at home there than I do in America. The absence of unlimited consumerism, the bowls of fruit instead of chips, the discussions between family and friends long into the night instead of being glued to the television remind me of the daily routines on my family's farm in New Zealand. I find that simplicity comforting and nourishing.

I confess to an initial apprehension. Is there a Western wife of an Iranian man anywhere who hasn't been given dire warnings by her so-called friends and had that awful piece of trash "Not Without My Daughter" rammed down her throat until she can't help wondering if all the scaremongers are right?

When I was given my first visa to Iran, between feeling nervous and curious, I felt the same elation travelers have always felt when they embark on a journey to a place they have never been before. I put aside the scaremongers and took as guides my heroines of literature Freya Stark, Lisa St Aubin de Téran, Karen Blixen and Isabelle Eberhart - each intelligent, curious women who took their lives in their hands and traveled into the wide unknown chasing knowledge, adventure and love. The whiff of danger is only added incentive to a confirmed adventuress. That there was no danger and that I received only the gentlest most courteous hospitality everywhere we traveled in Iran was in no way a disappointment!

The polite curiosity I encounter in Iran is one of the loveliest experiences I have ever had as a traveler. From the families who call out "hello" in English from their Friday picnics in the parks, to young students in museums who manage to gather their courage enough to come over and ask me (in perfect English) if I am enjoying my visit in Iran, to the groups of women in their chadors who whisper and surreptitiously point at this tall foreigner - then smile to cover their curiosity. My experiences in Iran make me wonder what excuses can be left in the world for rudeness. I have met cab drivers who started their shifts exhausted each night after finishing their regular day jobs, men who hardly saw their families because they needed to travel to find work, women who were managing their careers and raising large families without any conveniences or household help. And everywhere I encountered nothing but civility, kindness and a sincere desire for me to fall in love with their country. How could I not?

My first flight into Iran is etched in my mind. Carefully covered with the requisite scarf and my Burberry I boarded the Iran Air flight at Heathrow and after a delicious dinner (that defied this critic of airline food) I fell asleep. I woke to find that my scarf had slipped down around my shoulders and I hastily scrambled to adjust it properly. It wasn't until I got up to stretch my legs that I saw half the women on the plane were asleep and their heads were barely covered as every shade of silk, cotton and flimsy chiffon slipped from their foreheads and fell about their shoulders. No one seemed to be outraged. I relaxed. Looking down on the lights of Tehran around midnight, I was filled with a sense of excitement. I have traveled all over the world and lived away from my own country for many years. I have never felt quite so overjoyed to be somewhere entirely new.

Now I plan our trips back to Iran almost as soon as we come back to America. I peruse every sale and bargain shop months in advance and hoard as deftly as my husband's Ammeh (paternal aunt). I confess to a desire to push the envelope when it comes to my own clothing. There is the potential for great drama in being clothed head to foot and with a love of theatre inherited by all the women in my family, I indulged in something I don't get the opportunity to wear in America, a full-length black velvet opera cloak.

It covers me entirely rather like a chador, except that the generous hood falls in soft folds and is easy to manage. It is impractical in the heat but is ideal for the cooler months. I can wear it with high-heeled sandals or tall boots, it covers evening dress and cargo pants alike and I love the full folds of fabric that swish when I walk. I don't want to have to wear a full-length opera cloak for the rest of my life - but it is one way I try to make the strict clothing laws more bearable - to pinch a little squeak of fun and variety from an otherwise drab state of affairs. My young Iranian friends find my conservative dress hilarious, they tend to want to push the envelope in the other direction, allowing their scarves to slide off nonchalantly revealing their sleek bobs and highlights, hitching up the length of their manteaux and experimenting with quantities of makeup. As a newcomer and being a foreign-looking Iranian, I sense I have to choose my forms of self-expression carefully.

I like the sound of a dialogue of civilizations. It makes me hope that Iran is entering a wiser phase, one where all the strands of her troubled and triumphant past can be woven together into something beautiful for the whole world to appreciate and enjoy. It makes me feel part of a country that I truly love - flaws and blemishes, warts and all. I can't wait to get back as the summer drought hopefully breaks and the joubs (deep gutters) lose their stale summer smell as they rush with autumn rain.

I want to stand in the great mosque in Isfahan and marvel at the architecture, the detail and the creation of a sacred space. I want to stand in awe at the towers of silence near Yazd and I look forward to travelling again through the cool, pink streets of Abyaneh. I want to overhear conversations in the teahouses and get a sense of the many hopes and frustrations. I want to laugh and gossip with friends in their homes as we share each other's languages and cooking. I need to climb the hills around Damavand and forget politics and the restrictions we place on one another - lose myself in the world of the shepherd, the changing season, the care of the land and the flock.

I try and ignore the divide between the West where I live and the East that I love, because I want it to go away. It is a yawning hole of ignorance and fear that can only be banished with tolerance and praise for our differences. There is much for me to criticize but it has all been said before. As I write, I want most of all to tear away at a few of the layers of mistrust and misunderstanding that cost us all so much, and to show instead the beauty I have found hidden underneath.

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