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"Sahar, Khanoom," Haniye started asking me "Are you married?" Where the hell did that come from? Please shoot me now.


Sahar Dastmalchi
August 17, 2005

It is hard enough being a single woman in the 21st Century, living in the West. These days you are expected to be educated, work a 50-hour week, every week, be secure and independent one minute, all insecure and vulnerable the next and look impeccable while doing all of that. Just thinking about it makes me want to go on a very long vacation.

Having said that try being a Persian single woman.

First of all if you are nearing 25 and have not taken the great nuptial leap. People around you start speculating.

"What's wrong with her? We know she is not ugly. Looks are of great value in the Persian nuptial market. You can be a rocket scientist if you don't have the looks, forget about it.

If you are not ugly there must be something else wrong with you. "I bet you she can't have babies." The elaborate stories people come up with to explain your singleness. In this imaginary world of the gossip society one thing is inconceivable, the fact that a woman... any woman could choose to stay single.

A few weeks ago I was enjoying one of those rare Saturday mornings, I was alone in my apartment and didn't have to be anywhere, no papers due, hadn't taken any work home, didn't have to go grocery-shopping, didn't have any family obligations. I had the whole morning to my self. I actually had time to read the paper and drink my cup of coffee while sitting down. As I was enjoying the virtues of being single and untied my phone rang. I answered it not taking my eyes from my paper.

"Hi Sahari!" I heard the familiar voice of one of the few Persian people I actually like.

"Salam Nazy Joon, How are you missy?" Nazanin is my friend; she is beautiful and smart, and always fun to be around. If she wasn't such a good friend I would have hated her guts.

"I am fine," she said somehow not quite confident.

"What's wrong Nazy?" short and to the point. Looked at the clock it was not 11.00 yet.

"Sahari, I volunteered to show a guest from Iran around, but she is driving me mad."

"Oh, Nazanin... " I already knew what she was going to ask and decided to beat her to the punch. "Nazy, no... you can't do this to me..."

"You either come now or you'll be baking cakes with files in them soon! And who will give you advise about your love life while I am in jail? And you know you need it!" She had a point there. "Just, come... we are on the boardwalk in Scheveningen, that's only ten minutes from your place."

"Do I have to dress up?"

"Not, if you promise to leave NOW!"

"I am still in my Pajamas... I'll be there in 20 ... "

"Oh, Sahar you are the greatest!" Nazy said excited and relieved. "I owe you."

"Yes you do, you do realize that the only reason I am doing this is because, I can't bake?" And she had gotten me curious about her mysterious guest. See there weren't many people that could make Nazy put in a call to the troops.

"Yeah whatever, just get here," she said laughingly.

I could do worse than to get a bit of late break fast with Nazy on the boardwalk. I jumped in the shower; put on the oldest raggedy pair of jeans I owned threw on a top and stepped in to my very ugly yet very comfy sandals put my hair up in a hairclip and put on my huge sunglasses and some chapstick and went out the door. I was on the beach in a flash.

As I was walking towards where they were sitting, I noticed Nazanin sitting and staring intensively at her glass of OJ. Like a little girl sent to the corner to contemplate her bad behavior by her kindergarten teacher. Across from her a young woman about our age, wearing a designer dress and Italian leather shoes holding a little black fluffy dog in a doggy-dress which matched her Italian wardrobe, was sitting, Very occupied in what seemed to be a very one-sided conversation.

As she saw me approaching she leaned towards Nazy and loudly whispered in her ear: "Is that your friend?" while eying me like I was something the cat had dragged in. At this point Nazy looked up from her glass and looked my direction, almost delirious like a child that has lost her mom in a large department store and now after hours of searching had finally found her. She jumped up and greeted me with a hug. At this the dog started barking violently, and the lady trying to calm the dog down said something like "FiFi, herss nakhor."

I was determined not to let anything ruin my Saturday. And so I told my self not to judge the book by its cover. Even if she is carrying a huge Chanel bag, that only would be stylish on my grandma, and no one our age could afford. I extended my hand to accompany Nazy's introduction, her handshake was elegant in a sort of duchesse way, she held my hand with her fingers. If she had been a guy I would have sworn he was a wimp.

"Sahar Dastmalchi, nice to meet you."

"Haniye Z., khosh bakhtam."

As we sat down the waiter came to take my order, I asked my companions if they have had breakfast ... and if they minded me ordering food.

"Dastmalchi is an interesting name... of the bazaar Dastmalchis?" she said accusingly, while petting the dog.

I finished ordering some pancakes and coffee. "No" I responded as I had now done millions of times defending the family honor of the sherkate nafti (Iranian National Oil Company) Dastmalchis. Good lord! The dog stopped barking and was now only grinding its teeth at me. It occurred to me that the dog was more in favor of the sherkate naft than he was of the Bazaar.

"Are you from Tehran?" I felt like the new maid being interviewed. She might as well have asked which village I was from? Wait that is exactly what she was asking!

"Not really, I was born in Tehran but we moved a lot when I lived in Iran. I spent most of my childhood in the south."

"Oh, pas shahrestooni hasti?" (So you're from a provincial town?) She said like she finally had me figured out. This reminded me of a theory that a friend from Masjed-I-Soleyman had shared with me years before. He had told me in a quick introduction to the Iranian culture for the European-raised, "People from Tehran seem to think that the Iranian borders don't go beyond Tehran, in fact that's where their world ends. Karaj is already a foreign country, any thing beyond that might as well be Mars."

According to my friend this thinking pattern went so far that if you ever told a Tehrani you were from any where else in Iran, they would pityingly respond "eh, shahrestooni hasty?" I had laughed at him at the time and told him he had too much time on his hand. Remembering this incident I couldn't help laughing at Haniyes response as I looked at Nazy, who was mortified by my behavior.

"Bale, baa ejaaze," as I looked at Haniye again with a huge smile.

Nazy now relieved was smiling at me mischievously. The waiter arrived with some drinks. I thought I could perhaps use the waiter as a diversion. So I tried to change the focus of the conversation, I started asking Nazy about her political activities. Nazy started answering my question.

"Well, I talked with that guy from Amnesty International... "

"I don't understand why people occupy themselves with politics," Haniye said without any concern. Both Nazy and I looked at her flabbergasted

I myself only get worked up if historical sites are at risk, but Nazy a great idealist and activist couldn't compose herself any longer and passionately said, "What don't you understand? Don't you think Iran is worth fighting for?" I could see the fury of hell in Nazy's eyes.

"In politics there are always a few people leading and messing with general publics life." She sounded like a little kid who had overheard grown-up conversations and repeating it to impress her friends.

I needed to intervene before WWIII landed on the Dutch coastline.

"Haniye dear," I tried, "don't you think it's admirable for anybody to fight for what they believe in?" Of course she didn't care about politics; she could buy her way out of any situation.

"Yes," she actually meant NO, "but it ruins the youth," Haniye replied more to Nazy than to me.

Nazy was already turning red in the face...

Sahar you better find something to distract them with. Drastic measures are needed here tap in to your girly side! You should have worn a dress. That would have made it easier. Looking at my hands I saw my unique silver bracelet, which my mom had bought me on a market 13 years ago. "Jewelry!" It came to me as a sign from god! And Haniye was wearing a whopper of a ring on her right hand. It looked expensive too.

"Haniye, that's an interesting ring you are wearing." YES disaster averted

"It's my wedding band." Now I had Haniye's attention. As she turned towards Nazy to finish her argument I interrupted.

"Can I see it?" as I reached out my hand towards her so imprudently demanding her attention while glancing at Nazy. Haniye placed her hand on mine. It was a very nice ring indeed. "How long have you been married?" There I had succeeded in putting an end to the argument before it had gotten underway.

After half an hour of conversation about the best jewelers in Tehran, Haniye's wedding, art, clothes, various other things all with price tags attached and me promising to visit her if I ever was in Tehran, again peace had returned to the Western European coastline. You should work for the UN peace keepingers I told myself.

Nazy left us for just a minute to go to the ladies room, I was forking a new load of pancakes in my mouth, and I was truly enjoying my breakfast on the beach this beautiful sunny Saturday morning. Crediting myself with genius, when I was ambushed.

"Sahar, Khanoom," Haniye started asking me "Are you married?" Where the hell did that come from? Please shoot me now.

Sahar, you idiot. She's Iranian! Of course she's going to ask you that. It's the next logical question after they have figured out either you are from Tehran or not.

"No, I'm not," I said smiling

"Why not?" she asked as serious as a heart attack.

I couldn't tell her the truth that I had managed to dodge that bullet a few times. Where the hell was Nazy? What was keeping her? Just tell the truth and the truth shall set you free, or part of it anyhow.

"Well, I am happy the way things are ... I like my independence, I like the way things are now, my job, my apartment, my education I am the one in control I like that. And why should I get married?"

The look on Haniye's face had completely changed to one of utter disbelief, and then suddenly as if the puzzle had been finally solved.

"Ahan, pas shoma Ahle zendegi nisty!" (So you are not cut out for life, basically you are not marriage material.)

"Excuse me?!" I responded in disbelief, while trying not to choke on my food. Who even says things like that not cut out for life? My grandma in Rasht is more modern than this chick. And what life? Isn't mine a life? Why? Because I'm not married?

"Maybe if I ever met the right guy I will be ahle zendegi! But right now I'm still in college."

"Man kheili ahle zendegiam," (I'm greatly cut out for life) she continued, "I always was."

Nazy came back followed by the waiter asking us if we wanted anything else and how the food was. I know it was barely noon but I needed a drink... so I looked the cute waiter straight in the face, "Can I have a vodka and orange juice?" I paused and then continued, "On a second thought make it a double and hold the juice... do you guys want something?" I asked my companions.

Nazy just shook her head, giving me a worried look.

"Reza doesn't approve of me drinking." Should have asked for a triple.

Now Haniye continued to tell us about the virtues of married life. I occupied myself with my pancakes so not to blab out a response, and only nodded occasionally. Nazy from time to time made polite conversation, asking a question now and then about the little details. She was much better at this than I was anyhow.

Haniye told us her life story right there and then. She had married a man old enough to be her father twice over, when she was only18. The man was insanely rich due to import of German cars to the Middle East. He was educated in the states and had divorced his first wife not long before he had met Haniye. This chick shopped in the best boutiques in Dubai. And spent her holidays any where in the world she wanted. But most of her story was some how about money. You could do worse I guess.

What she told us and what I heard were very different things. She had married this guy in search of a missing father figure. She had sought in him the identity and status that many women raised in our culture search for in affluent older men. I can't say she was unhappy, but I don't know if her definition of happiness was the same as mine.

I was intrigued by a life so different from my own, yet a life that could have been mine had I done a few things differently, had I not broken up with that guy for calling me "doll" or had I said yes to going on a date with the 20-years-older-Californian-Persian doctor, or had I accepted the $50,000 college fund offered to me by a former Hollywood bigwig in exchange for dating her son, who had been a great friend to me during my stay in the US, that is up until the time his mom thought she could buy me for him. Perhaps I would have dated him had it not been for his mom. The truth is these people had felt I could be bought, and I had always felt I was priceless. Sure I was jealous of the traveling, but I didn't envy her.

This was close to the Jerry Springer Show as I was ever going to get. So I might as well seize the day.

"So how old is your husband?" Forget what she thinks of me; in fact forget manners all together... I have the upper hand here with or without the vodka.

"He will be 60 in October," she replied

Nazy and I looked over at each other spontaneously. Yes we were both just as dumbfounded as the other.

"60? Really?" I must have heard wrong

"It's very common in Iran!" she felt the need to explain

"How old are you?" Nazy asked

"26," Haniye replied

"Now I have to ask.." I couldn't stop myself if I wanted to: "What do you guys talk about?"

"We, talk about everything." Judging from what I knew of her everything meant, all that is Gucci, Armani and Chanel.

"Do you work?" Nazy asked

"No, I run the house."

"Hold on," I couldn't believe my ears "you don't work, you don't go to school, you don't have kids, so what are you doing all day? Cleaning the house?" Maybe she's a neat freak!

"No, I have people who clean my house, I do have my cats and FiFi here," she said bringing the dog to her face.

"So what do you do all day?" Nazy and I asked simultaneously.

Haniye basically woke up afternoonish. She took all sorts of fashionable classes such as computers and English, and exercise classes for ladies only at the most exclusive clubs... and played rummy with women her husband's age all night. And occasionally she showed up at events where the Rafsanjanis (the Tehrani equivalent of the Hilton Sisters as I understand things) were mentioned to attend. But of course they only bought their way in to society by "partybaazi".

Nazy and I decided that we wanted to party that Saturday night. And as Haniye was there we asked her to join us, just to be polite.

She of course turned down our invitation. We weren't the Rafsanjani girls and our bank accounts weren't at all similar to theirs. Haniye used the famous last words, "I have a life!"

And of course because Nazy and I weren't married, we didn't have a life.

By this time I knew enough of this kid not to respond. I nodded and smiled at her. Trying not to burst out laughing or respond by saying, "of course you do dear!"

Later that Saturday Nazy and I hooked up to go out clubbing... what are two girls to do in the absence of a life but to dress up, go out, dance all night, and raise a toast to "Life" and laugh out loud every time the word came up...

That Sunday Nazy sent me the following text. "Have you found a life yet? J xo N."

I smiled and continued looking at the stack of bills in front of me... perhaps Haniye was right. But for now my rent was over due.

For letters section
To Sahar Dastmalchi

Sahar Dastmalchi



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Inside Iran
Women's Lives
by Jane Howard

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