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Photo essay: A journey through Iran



Kodi Khadivar
January 11, 2006

This is a short story about a few of my experiences during my first trip to Iran (November 21 – December 16, 2005). During my trip, I kept a journal of nearly 70 pages. This article captures only a small portion of the amazing culture and emotional roller-coaster I experienced >>> Photos

Masood waved from the escalator platform. He looked stoic amongst the small assembly that had gathered around him; all were staring down, searching for someone in the crowd. They were energetically waving and pointing, and at first, I thought they were all waiting for us. Mahnaz and I were hot under our mantos (long coats) and headscarves, as we waited in a sea of people that moved toward the first security checkpoint as one large, single mass, never really forming a line until the last few steps before the checkpoint. I was nervous as I looked around, trying to spot another foreigner. Masood looked just like his picture, and his smile was comforting.

The security guard waved for us, and I followed Rasoul to the window. He asked Rasoul if I was his wife and where I was from. I wondered if he had ever heard of Iowa. Another guard took my passport and escorted us to a bench. I was praying it had nothing to do with my nationality. About ten minutes later, the guard returned with my passport, apologized for the delay, and welcomed me to his country.

We quickly moved up the escalator looking for Mike, Amir, and Mahnaz, who were traveling with us and had all passed through security without a second glance. We saw Masood next to the luggage carousel. He grabbed Rasoul, crying out loud, hugging his brother for the first time in 10 years. Then came my first experience with Persian emotion, as he grabbed me in his arms with hugs and kisses. We gathered all of our luggage and walked toward another security checkpoint. I remember showing my passport, as I looked up and spotted dozens of familiar faces looking through the glass. My heart was pounding. I tried to help get the luggage through security, but I could not take my eyes off of the crowd, all waving, some holding flowers. As we got closer, I could hear the cheering and the kelling (high-pitched rolling sound made by the women).

The next half hour or so was such a blur to me. I was standing outside the airport but didn’t notice any of my surroundings. The luggage disappeared, carried off and taken back to the house by friends and relatives. I was holding bunches of flowers and moving from person to person, kissing and hugging so many people, recognizing some from Masood’s wedding video. Then Rasoul’s father kissed my face, and I began to notice the emotions around me. I looked for Rasoul or Mahnaz. I saw Rasoul hugging his mom, as everyone cried, out of happiness to see us and sadness that they had not seen Rasoul and Mahnaz for so many years.

And then I was in a car, heading toward the house. That was another taste of what was to come, as the cars raced down the streets, flying through intersections, dodging other vehicles and squeezing through non-existent lanes. I should have been scared for my life, but instead, I was happy to feel the breeze through my scarf as I sat back with exhaustion.
I was sitting next to Mahnaz, my beautiful sister-in-law who is now a U.S. citizen, married to John and living about an hour from our apartment in Chicago. Rasoul’s uncle Mike, whose birth name is Mahmood and who would once again become Mahmood for the next 26 days, was in a different car on his way to Cousin Hushang’s house to rest. I lost track of Amir, a family friend who had come with us to visit his sister in Tehran.

Rasoul’s parents, brothers, sister-in-law, and niece lived in a house in Andisheh, outside of Tehran. That’s where we were headed. It was about three in the morning local time. I soon realized why Mike had gone to Hushang’s house to rest, as family members from around the area filed into the house in Andisheh to visit with us.

Conversation was a little difficult on my first night in Iran. Because I am still learning farsi, I had to translate everything in my head before I could respond. By the time I processed what was being said and prepared my response, the conversation had moved on. People didn’t seem to mind. They were delighted with even a one- or two-word response. By 4 a.m., I was very tired but on an emotional high. This is how each evening in Iran would end – very late and surrounded by people.

We woke up in the afternoon, and Rasoul’s mom, who we call Mamani, immediately wanted us to eat breakfast. She cut me a huge piece of grilled sheep liver and put it on a plate in front of me. It was from a lamb slaughtered for us – one of the many that would be slaughtered during our visit. It was a lot, but I was hungry. There was also a special lavash (flat bread) with sesame seeds, homemade black cherry jam, aged honey and honey comb. It was delicious.

We spent three days in Tehran before our big trip throughout the country. Most of this time was spent visiting with family in the area. Our second and third nights were large parties, filled with dancing and eating. For one of these parties, we squeezed about 120 people into the house. We ordered most of the food for that evening, because we didn’t want Mamani spending the whole day in the kitchen. It cost under $100 to feed them all with salad, koobideh, chicken kabob, rice, bread and yogurt. Watching everyone dance was so much fun. Of course, they forced me onto the dance floor too. I reluctantly joined in a Lori dance, and Mamani started telling everyone I was part Lori (our family’s tribe from the middle of Iran). It must have been beginner’s luck, because that was my only successful Lori dance during the trip.

Samané, Masood’s wife, took Mahnaz and I shopping for lighter mantos, in preparation for the warmer weather in the South. Naser, Rasoul’s youngest brother, drove us to the stores. (While women can get their license and drive, most of them don’t because of how dangerous driving is in Iran.) We packed our bags once again, and hit the road. Our next stop would be Aunt Salimeh’s village, surrounded by the snow-capped mountains in the middle of the country. In the course of the long drive, Mahnaz told me that during her last visit to the village, they had to use candles for light because there was no electricity. When we arrived, I thought of the Iranian films I had seen; it looked just like one of those little villages from the movies.

While this village now had electricity, it did not have the luxuries of the city, and the people who lived here worked very hard. At one time the village’s population was around 2,000, but now was down to 20 or 30 houses, many damaged by floods. The houses were clay structures with large, dimly-lit rooms. I noticed that every house I saw during our trip boasted beautiful Persian rugs covering the floors; it didn’t matter whether the floors were made of lavish marble or mud from the earth.

We also visited the ruins of the villages where Rasoul’s grandfather had been the khan, or chief. Rasoul’s dad, who we call Aghaie, showed us where his room used to be, and the hill where he and Mamani got married, in a ceremony with 50 horsed men that rode over the hill with their guns. As Mike and Aghaie told us amazing stories about their father’s bravery and generosity, I learned about the responsibilities that Aghaie now has as head of a huge Persian family spread across the countryside.

We hiked through the mountains, near the famous “White Waterfall.” The views were breathtaking. Rasoul and many of the men hiked for eight hours up to the beautiful snowcaps, while the women enjoyed hot tea and the smell of the fire on a blanket on the mountainside. A few older men cleaned and cut a whole sheep to prepare for the picnic. We cooked it over the fire and ate everything, even the fatty part of the tail, which they call dombeh.

We moved on to visit more family in a town called Andimeshk, where another lamb was slaughtered for our stay. During our time here, I got to experience a few Persian games first-hand. As the Persian sense of humor is full of pranks and trickery, so is their entertainment. Mike led one game in which he would ask someone simple “yes or no questions” and they would have to immediately respond with the incorrect answer. We kept score and after three wrong responses, they would have to face a punishment. Darius, a cousin, was chosen to select the punishments. The women usually had to dance alone in front of everyone. The punishments for the men were a little more interesting and included kissing the wall while standing a few feet away with their hands held behind their back and being picked up and having their behinds slammed into a marble wall!

During our time in Andimeshk, we visited some ancient ruins nearby from 1275 B.C. It was a grand civilization that had built the first water-filtration system with coal. Our tour guide even allowed us to actually go inside the main temple, which was usually off limits in order to keep the structure preserved. Before leaving the town, we experienced their famous breakfasts of shir berenj (a rice pudding) and halim (ground whole wheat & meat with sugar).

On our way to another town, Ahwaz, we did some sight seeing, stopping at the tomb of the Prophet Daniel and the first watermills built by the Babylonians. We spent the night at a dear cousin’s house, and started our journey to Sarbandar, in the south of Iran near the Perian Gulf and the largest port in the Middle East. This is where Rasoul and Mahnaz spent most of their childhood. On our way, we saw the landscape become more salty and we saw palm trees without their tops, frozen in time from the blasts of the Iran-Iraq War.

We spent six days in Sarbandar, going from house to house each day, visiting as many family members as possible. We saw many of the same family members every night, as most of them came to whatever house we were at for dinner. But they still wanted us to come to each of their houses too. It is an honor to have guests over, especially for dinner or lunch; and if not for dinner or lunch, at least for fruit, sweets and tea. I ate maybe 10-15 pieces of fruit each day (sometimes more), because at every house we visited, they pleaded with us to eat their fruit.

After the dinners, I usually cleared the sofré (a long plastic tablecloth spread on the floor where everyone ate) or dried the dishes. Almost all of the women participate in cleanup, so it gets done very quickly. After cleanup, I spent a lot of time talking with the women and answering questions about the United States. I was told that only about 10% of women in Iran work outside of the home, so I was asked a lot of questions about work. I noticed, however, that when I was asked about work, they were usually more interested in hearing about what I studied in college and discussing the degrees they held, as well. Interestingly, the questions I was asked most often were about my eyebrows and my hair. They wanted to know if I colored my hair and why I didn’t “clean” my eyebrows!

By this time, I had learned how I was supposed to greet others and had experienced the extreme politeness of the culture. One example to illustrate this politeness is the interaction I witnessed between buyer and seller in the stores. We were with Aghaie in the market once when he was buying dates. When he tried to pay the shopkeeper for his purchase, the seller refused to take his money, saying that it was nothing and he could not accept the money. Aghaie pleaded with him to take the payment for his purchase. They went back and forth, exchanging expressive Persian phrases, until the money was finally graciously accepted. I saw a version of this linguistic dance with every purchase made and every gift that was given.

After our emotional visit to Rasoul’s childhood town, we traveled to two of the most famous tourist cities in Iran: Shiraz and Esfahan. In Shiraz, we stayed in a hotel – Hotel Parsian. It had been a while since we had slept in a bed or used an American toilet, and the hotel had both! We visited the tomb of Hafez and Saadi (famous Iranian poets), visited a tea house, and ate faludeh (sweet frozen noodles) with saffron ice cream. We also shopped in the famous bazaar and toured Takht-e-Jamshid (Persepolis) outside of Shiraz. It was incredible to see the site where Darius’s majestic empire was toppled by Alexander the Great. Esfahan was one of the cleanest and wealthiest cities we visited during our trip, and we spent an entire morning at their famous Medaneh Imam (Imam Square) and visited a cousin while we were there.

Our trip back to Tehran was a difficult one. One of our cars broke down, and we weren’t able to fix it on our own. A few friendly travelers stopped to assist, but to no avail. We were excited to see a police car drive by, but when we stopped them and told them our problem, we were disappointed when their only advice was to find a mechanic. We found a rope and pulled the dejected Paykon (old English car owned by many in Iran) back toward Esfahan, at a painfully slow 35 kilometers per hour. The drive was dangerous, as cars and semis flew by. A semi even passed us on the right, driving off the road and into the dirt. But for $1.50, our car was finally fixed, and we were back on the road. We were so relieved to get back to Tehran, but in the back of our minds, it signified that our trip was almost over.

Much of the rest of our time in Tehran was in anticipation of our goodbye. It was so difficult to leave. About 60 people came to the airport to send us off. We went from person to person, saying our goodbyes. When I got to Mamani, I could no longer hold in my tears. Everyone was crying, and I was already dreaming about our next trip back. Aghaie came with me and Mahnaz to the women’s security gate. He told me he loved me very much, and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be part of such a wonderful family. As we met up with Rasoul, I could feel the pain of my husband and sister-in-law, and as we waited for our flight, we talked about our plans to return. For me, the trip had been an emotional, frustrating, beautiful, and amazing look into a place and culture I could never forget >>> Photos

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