It’s a small coffee shop, a Shingle-style shack with blue trim, listed by Yelp as one of Laguna Beach’s best. Cookies and biscotti lie in a basket in front of the order window. The barista, an upbeat blonde woman in her late fifties, early sixties, comes over to me. As I’m trying to choose what flavor to put in my coffee, we start talking. She finds out I’m from Phoenix and…
Mom is here. Throughout our conversations I am beginning to see the origins of my beliefs, including superstitions. For instance, I believe in the evil eye and jinxing. When S moved to his new apartment I bought him a rather large evil eye ornament whose role is to catch the bad wishes or envy of others towards him.
In Iran, my family members go above and beyond a glass ornament. They are so scared of other people’s evil eye that they flat out lie to protect themselves. My relatives don’t even trust their own intentions. I remember catching a cold after a party. My aunt was convinced she had jinxed me because she complimented me on my dress.
Mom grew up the same way. Her grandmother had a routine. If someone she loved got sick after a party, she would hold an egg in her hand above the sick person’s head with a bowl under the egg. Then she’d call out the names of every attendee and for each name she’d give the egg a squeeze. Whoever’s name the egg broke on was the culprit, the man or woman with the evil eye. She’d say a prayer to the broken egg and discard it.
Her saga continues with her grand daughters. Here are two fresh stories from the motherland.
My dad is a chemical engineer and still does some consulting. He is currently working with a company in Iran and travels for work. During one of his trips mom told him: “If people ask your age, you don’t need to be so honest. Shave off a few years.”
“What?” I asked.
“What do you mean what?” mom answered. “They’ll put a curse on him. These young guys think 50 is old.”
It gets better. Apparently my family members are so important that they are at risk of being jinxed even by their treating physicians. Not too long ago auntie Jila brought granny to the doctor’s office for a routine exam. When the physician assistant asked my grandmother’s age, Jila quickly announced 75 (instead of 85).
“MOM! That’s her doctor! He needs accurate information to treat the patient. You can’t lie to the doctor.”
“What difference does it make how old she is? It’s not like she lied about medications. Besides, I sometimes tell granny not to wear too much jewelry when she’s going to parties. Most 85-year-old people are sick and dead. You can’t prance around looking beautiful.”
As we talked and laughed about it all with mom, I realized these beliefs may sound ridiculous, yet they are precisely what connect us to our culture and make us who we are.
When I booked my OBGYN appointment in Iran I didn’t realize there were no patient privacy laws. Here’s how it went.
Thank you Ami Angelowicz for publishing my story.
Vernal Equinox, the first day of spring is when Persians all around the world celebrate as their new year. We call it Noruz, which literally means new day. Here’s a taste of it in 500 words. I am grateful to Darin Beasley for publishing it in Marco Polo arts magazine.
Happy Noruz to you all.
I pull the covers over my face and turn away from the window. Outside, my parents are whispering, just as they did when we all used to live together, first in Iran, then in Houston. Before I left for the East Coast, my brothers moved to the West Coast, and my parents returned to Iran.
In a half-sleep state I hear mom complain about how her belly feels bloated. Now my father, the erudite spouse, gives his confident input: “I bet it’s from yesterday’s abgoosht.” Abgoosht is a Persian dish made with lamb, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, dried lime, chickpeas, and onions. Once the ingredients cook, we drain and serve the liquid with bread, then mash the solids together. Yes, beans can cause bloating but they forget that yesterday we had guests over, which at our house it usually means eating followed by more eating. Volumes. We had barely left the lunch table when mom offered everyone ice cream with Jell-O and asked me to serve tea. The coffee table already had bowls of nuts and fruits set on it.
Still, I adore how she agrees with her wise husband.
She fills the teakettle with water, and places it on the stove. Tsk, tsk, vroom: the pilot stove comes on. It won’t be long before the hiss of the kettle tells her that the water is ready for brewing tea.
My pillow, too firm when I first arrived in Iran two months ago, has yielded to me by now. It cradles my head softly.
Their next quiet conversation turns to dad’s work. This is when she becomes the sage advisor reminding him not to sell himself short, while always keeping a supportive tone.
Their give-and-take caresses my ears.
Thinking I’m still asleep, she takes care to put the small plates along with silverware on the kitchen table. Slow clanks here and there don’t bother me. They give me a stronger sense of home. And my parents’ shared bond gives me a relationship to aspire to.
Soon eggshells crack against the rim of the pan and a juicy sizzle follows.
When I hear the crunch of the bread crust, I imagine someone’s hands tearing a piece, spreading a bit of cheese on it, adding a dash of sour cherry jam and taking a bite. Oh yes.
At that moment, the sun puts her hand on my back and shoulder, gently kissing my eyelids to say, “it’s time to leave the bed. You only have a few more days before heading back to the States. Let’s not miss sitting at breakfast with them.”
As I open the door to the aroma of warm fresh bread and scrambled eggs, I hear mom finish her sentence in her characteristic hope-giving tone: “Inshallah, inshallah”, “God willing, God willing.”
I had heard that the sense of smell has the strongest memory association, and yet there are certain foods that instantly bring back memories of specific family members for me.
Last week for the first time, I noticed quinces at our grocery store. It had been years since I’d tasted them. Overcome by a strange craving, I decided to purchase just one. Quince was known by The Greeks as the fruit of love. Too excited to sit down or prepare my quince into a single-serve stew, I peeled it, cut it into cubes, nuked the cubes in the microwave with some sweetener. Then just standing in my kitchen picked a square, steam still rising from it, blew on it and took a bite. As soon as the quince touched my tongue, my aunt was there with me, full of life. When she was alive, she used to make the richest, thickest, sweetest quince jams and stews. I chewed slowly as I let myself travel back in time, stand next to her in her kitchen and watch her plate the rice, then spoon the stew right on it, and bend down to hand it to me, her eyes smiling.
Dad loves fresh bread. When I visited Iran, on his days off, he’d wake up early in the morning, and take a walk to the bakery nearby to buy fresh, hot bread. I went with him once. We took our place in the line, which was much shorter than the ones we had during the war years. I watched the baker roll the dough, flatten it on a large paddle and transfer it into the dome shaped oven. It would bake over hot stones and is thus called noon sangak, stone bread, for the way the hot stones leave indentations in it. You sometimes have to knock off one or two stray stones left in your bread. That’s part of the fun. Dad never buys just one, but enough for a week, and most of the time he forgets that he is now buying for two people. His eyes are trained to always have enough food for a family of five. At home, he methodically cuts the breads into rectangular pieces, the same size, places them in plastic bags and puts them in the freezer, so every morning they can be heated in the toaster oven. When he comes to visit us here in the States, he always brings some of those bags along to make sure we get a taste home again.
The taste and smell of cumin ushers me back to mom Mahin’s (my grandmother’s) house. She was the only person who’d add cumin to zereshk polo, barberries with rice. I didn’t like the sharp taste of the cumin seeds as a child. But I love them as an adult. Now, cumin gives me my grandmother’s face. When she used to pray, her cheeks had a gorgeous rosy hue to them, her skin was smooth and radiant. We’d wait until she finished her prayers before eating. I see all of us in her formal dining room, careful not to break her antiques as we walk to the table and take our seats. No matter how much we ate, she’d still insist, “you didn’t eat anything.” With bellies full of her multiple servings, we’d thank her in proper taarof. “Daste shoma dard nakoneh. It was very delicious.” (Literally may your hand not hurt). And she’d always say: “noosheh jon.” (May it be sweet to your life)
There’s a Persian dish called shirin polo (sweet rice). It is my mom’s specialty. The dish is so appropriately mom. She loves color; she loves patterns and textures; she is creative. Shirin polo has all of those elements. Once it’s ready to be served, the rice is jeweled with green pistachio slivers, auburn orange rinds, ocher shredded carrots, cream-colored almond slivers, and caramel onions. Your imagination is the limit for how you decorate the rice just before the guests mix it. Mom usually reserves shirin polo for her parties, but this time when she stayed with me, I was her guest of honor. As she was making it, she called me over: “Smell this. What does it remind you of?” I took a whiff. “Pastry shops back home. What is that?” “Cardamom.” The smell of saffron and cardamom intoxicate. Every spoonful is an explosion of sweet and crunch. I still have some extra mixture in my freezer. So to all my friends I say: Befarmaeed (Welcome, please have some).
Auntie Zhila, my mom’s sister, is the die-hard career woman in the family. Even now, in her sixties, she does financial consults for corporations. Though she is a great cook, she loves cold cuts, cheese, baguette and soda. Open up her fridge and you are guaranteed to find at least three different kinds of cheeses, and two or three types of cold cuts. Mortadella is the constant player. I’m not talking about the packaged junk we find here, but the real thing that lets you know of its presence by emitting its garlic sent. Come dinnertime, she used to get a mischievous look in her eyes and conspire with us kids to vote for fun food, because who wants to cook? And we never turned down her perfect Mortadella sandwiches, in thin baguettes that crunched under her knife, with our choice of cheese, and sliced tomatoes. The closest I ever came to her sandwiches was at a cafe in Barcelona twenty years later.
I’m on the phone with mom in Iran reporting about cooking Persian food for the first time since my divorce and how it feels like New Year. She likes it. She finds it sweet that her domestically challenged daughter is actually taking a step towards “lady-dom.”
“When you guys come to visit, I’ll make you whatever you want.”
“That’s so sweet mom. Thank you.”
I remember my visit there last year. They really do whatever in their power to make their guests feel welcomed. This year my brother wants to take his wife and little daughter to Iran. She is three and Ali wants her to experience the family love and Iran. Rita, his mother-in-law wants to go with them too.
“Sounds wonderful, mom.” I get excited when others are open to experiencing new places, but more so when they are open to experiencing my family and country because I know they are in for a good time.
Mom says, “I’m not sure it’s such a good idea for them to come to Iran, though. In fact I think they should wait.”
“There’s been talk about Israel attacking.” But she quickly catches herself. “I mean we’ll be fine. We’ll go to Laheejan.”
That’s where we used to flee to during the Iran/Iraq war. The northern regions of Iran were too far from the borders and as such immune to the enemy planes’ bombs. But that was twenty years ago. Things have changed. Warfare has changed. We don’t know how they’ll attack.
She goes on, “I’m worried about the airports closing. They can get stuck in Iran. What happens to their lives and jobs in the U.S.?”
Now I’m worried about my parents being there.
That’s how most wars start. Normal life gets interrupted little by little. Grand kids and grand parents won’t see each other; airports close; food, electricity and water become scarce; then loved ones start to lose their lives.
Not long ago I heard on NPR that Mr Romney actually endorses Israel attacking Iran. Just like that. He encourages war between two nations from the comfort of his insulated campaign. Does he understand the ramification of that statement on ordinary people? Has he seen the effects of war first-hand? The lives that change, the lives that are lost? What happened to communication and diplomacy? Just kill each other? That’s it? Animals do that. Then what’s the point of having a thinking brain?
It frightens me to fathom a man with such a mind-set may actually be in the position to lead this country.
I realize this is a political statement meant to garner the support of certain voters. The irony is: The largest population of Jewish people in the Middle East outside of Israel resides in Iran.
Wouldn’t we rather have children imagining/painting a bright and hopeful world (like the first painting) rather than one of destruction and despair (the second drawing)?
As some of you know I am not a TV watcher, so I only found out the good news about A Separation winning the Oscar for best foreign film, through the congratulatory texts and emails sent by friends. Soon, Facebook was flooded with comments and photos. What’s the big deal? I thought. He’s had better movies. When I finally sat down and watched his acceptance speech, I couldn’t hold back my tears. Not because of the movie. But because through that event the world could see something other than a darkly portrayed Iran.
That’s what all your Iranian Facebook friends, who seem to inundate the pages with clips, are trying to do. It’s to show you, in Dr. Naderi’s words: “Iran’s name on display for the right reasons. “ To say, there’s more to us than a grumpy government. We are so weary of hearing only talks of nuclear power and terrorism. And would love nothing more but to show you a bit of our culture and heritage. That way you can have a more complete picture.
In case you missed Farhadi’s acceptance speech, in his charming accent, he said: people of Iran are happy not because of a movie or award but because “At the time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country is spoken here through her glorious culture, rich and ancient, that’s been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.” He dedicates the award to “the people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.” The last part caused that emotional stir in me.
I know the media paints only pictures of hatred, but anytime I’ve been to Iran, I’ve seen nothing but friendly people, fascinated by the world outside of their country. Intelligent folks who have a strong sense of music, literature, arts and sciences (even politics) and are always ready to entertain a great conversation.
Through art, we look at each other as humans irrespective of the relationship between our governments, or even the behavior of those governments. We share our daily life challenges with others and open channels for communication. I once heard Elif Shafak, a Turkish writer say this: An Israeli reader will read the work of a Palestinian writer and vice versa even if they may not speak to each other face to face.
Some skeptics may see the movie’s recognition as a political move. You mean using art to stop conflicts? What could be better? Let’s do more.
Certainly the reaction of Iran’s government to Farhadi’s success remains to be seen. You just never know.
Before I end this entry, may I recommend one of my favorite movies by Farhadi: “About Elly.” When you come across movies or any other piece of art made in Iran, keep in mind that filmmakers, writers, painters, and photographers have very few topics to work with. Their works are subject to scrutiny and censorship by the government. Look at their works through that lens and you’ll appreciate how artfully they use the subtlest nuances to create wonderful pieces.
Congratulations to Mr. Farhadi and all artists who make a difference in the world through their creativity and creations.
During my trip to Iran this past summer I visited a few cities: one of them was Shiraz, the city of Persian poets: Hafez and Sa’adi. I fell in love with the city’s delicate architecture. The buildings were like flowers, just looking beautiful and you had no choice but to be mesmerized by them. Shiraz is full of sights and stories that I will share with you in time.
One day mom and I had just finished visiting one of the mosques. They let us in for a quick visit before the evening prayers. On the way out, I was taking photos of the doors, which fascinated me because they had two different doorknockers: one for men and one for women. Apparently they were used in the olden days. The difference in sound alerted the person inside to the gender of the visitor. As I took pictures, a little boy (the one with shaved head) looked at me, then looked at my mom and said:
“is she a foreigner?”
“No, honey she’s not.” Answered mom. “She just doesn’t live in Iran anymore.”
“Will you take my picture then, miss?”
“Sure.” And before long, seven kids had lined up, in colorful clothes, ready for their close up. In a hurry to finish the task, and not having enough battery in my regular camera, I took the picture with my phone camera, thinking I might even delete it afterwards. But when I looked at it I fell in love with their faces. I showed them the photo and I asked if it would be ok for me to take the picture with me and show it to my friends.
They looked up and down, smiled and gave me their permission. “Baleh.”(that’s the polite, formal yes in Farsi.)
I thanked them, said goodbye. Then, as I was getting into the cab I heard them giggle and shout: “WE ARE SUPERSTARS!” Now I was in love with their spirits too.
Just the thought of having a picture travel abroad made them elated. Then it occurred to me. Children carry their happiness in their hearts. That’s how “happiness is flowers and candy, learning to whistle, tying your shoe for the very first time, five different crayons, two kinds of ice cream, walking hand in hand. Or happiness is anyone and anything at all that’s loved by you.” When you carry joy inside, you can have it no matter where you go, how hot or cold it is, even if you are forced to cover your hair in 100-degree weather. And the opposite holds true as well. Keep misery inside and it’ll travel to Laguna Beach with you.
When we were getting ready to move to the U.S. our family doctor and friend said: America is a giant at everything: opportunity, education, food, fun, sex, and drugs. On that day all I wanted was for him to stop talking and for us to leave Iran already. Now here we all are, in the land of giants. Both, those who immigrated and those who were born here.
Take a moment and just think of what we have at our disposal:
Abundant opportunities, food (organic, conventional, oh heck, even processed,) transportation, good weather, fantastic albeit expensive medical care. We wear what we want. Say what we feel. We can choose to go to school. Or work and have our own independence. We can choose to marry or divorce. Plus, our vote actually counts.
I think that qualifies all of us as: SUPERSTARS in our rights. Now let’s stop complaining and make the best of it. Better yet, perhaps we can flash a smile about it too.
I tap on her tombstone and say the four customary prayers. The tap is supposed to call her, let her know I’m here. Here lies one of Iran’s well-known contemporary poetesses, Forough Farrokhzad(1934 -1967). Other artists and singers are buried in this place as well. Her short life of 32 years ended in a car accident. Still in that time she married, divorced (which caused her to lose custody of her son), and adopted a boy when she visited a leper colony for her movie. Forough lived and died for her art. The last eight years of her life she spent in a passionate love affair with a writer/filmmaker: Ebrahim Golestan. A man to whom she dedicated one of her books of poetry.
What was it like for her to love a man she could not have all to herself? Her poems speak of agonizing pain and intoxicating pleasure. Perhaps she was torn between the evanescent moments of a heart emaciated from the lover’s absence, followed by his life-giving presence. In his arms she felt ecstasy, adoration, hurt, and guilt. Emotions that inspire when awakened by true passion. From this passion she created her most beautiful words.
And how could he not be moved by his beloved, his muse, who held his heart and kept it for eight years? With her in his life, he produced award-winning movies. Theirs was a connection that trampled all the rules. Her loss contributed to his leaving all that was his and his country. Their love affair has been called “the most poetically celebrated love affair in the last several centuries of Iranian canon.” From it arose, for us, a glimpse into the perfection of human soul.
Below is one of my favorite poems by her. I am dedicating it to all who dare to experience love to its fullest depth.
My nights are painted bright with your dream, sweet love
And heavy with your fragrance is my breast.
You fill my eyes with your presence, sweet love.
Giving me more happiness than grief.
Like rain washing through the soil
You have washed my life clean.
You are the heartbeat of my burning body,
A fire blazing in the shade of my eyelashes.
You are more bountiful than the wheat fields,
More fruit-laden than the golden boughs.
Against the onslaught of darkening doubts
You are a door thrown open to the suns.
When I am with you, I fear no pain
For my only pain is a pain of happiness.
This sad heart of mine and so much light?
Sounds of life from the bottom of a grave?
Your eyes are my pastures, sweet love
The stamp of your gaze burning deep into my eyes.
If I had you within me before, sweet love
I would not take anybody else for you.
Oh it’s a dark pain, this urge of wanting,
Setting out, belittling oneself fruitlessly,
Laying one’s head on chests hiding a black heart,
Soiling one’s breast with ancient hatred,
Finding a snake in a caressing hand,
Discovering venom behind friendly smiles,
Putting coins into deceitful hands,
Getting lost in the midst of bazaars.
You are my breath of life, sweet love,
You have brought me back to life from the grave.
You have come down from the distant sky,
Like a star on two golden wings
Silencing my loneliness, sweet love,
Imbuing my body with odors of your embrace.
You are water to the dry streams of my breasts,
You are a torrent to the dry bed of my veins.
In a world so cold and as bleak,
In step with your steps, I proceed.
You are hidden under my skin
Flowing through my every cell,
Singeing my hair with your caressing hand,
Leaving my cheeks sunburned with desire.
You are, sweet love, a stranger to my dress
But so familiar with the fields of my nakedness.
O bright and eternal sunrise,
The strong sunshine of southern climes,
You are fresher than early dawn,
Fresher and better-watered than spring-tide.
This is no longer love, it is dazzlement,
A chandelier blazing amidst silence and darkness.
Ever since love was awakened in my heart,
I have become total devotion with desire.
This is no longer me, no longer me,
Oh wasted are the years I lived with “me.”
My lips are the altar of your kisses, sweet love
My eyes watching out for the arrival of your kiss.
You are the convulsions of ecstasy in my body,
Like a garment, the lines of your figure covering me.
Oh I am going to burst open like a bud,
My joy becoming tarnished for a moment with sorrow.
Oh I wish to jump to my feet
And pour down tears like a cloud
This sad heart of mine and burning incense?
Music of harp and lyre in a prayer-hall?
This empty space and such flights?
This silent night and so much song?
Your gaze is like a magic lullaby, sweet love,
A cradle for restless babies.
Your breathing is a breeze half-asleep
Washing down all my tremors of anguish;
It is hidden in the smiles of my tomorrows,
It has sunken deep into the depths of my worlds.
You have touched me with the frenzy of poetry;
Pouring fire into my songs,
kindling my heart with the fever of love,
Thus setting all my poems ablaze, sweet love.