Thursday, April 30, 2009

Photo-Journal: A Day in the Life

Today, I decided to document anything in my quotidien routine that was distinctly Iranian or identified me as Iranian. Here is what I noticed:

The dress I wore today (with pockets for easy camera access) was hanging in my closet next to the pink sheepskin leather coat my aunt sent me after a trip to Mashad, a city in Iran famous for its leather products. I've only worn it once, to a visual arts club meeting at the College of Charleston; even there it seeed like too bold a statement.

Although not everyone can tell I'm Middle Eastern when they first see me, I decided to include appearance because other Iranians can generally recognize my background this way (probably my big nose).

The final touch on my outfit: an antique ring borrowed from my mother. When I was younger, I used to spend rainy afternoons in my mother's closet, secretly sifting through my her gold (collected as an investment by many Iranian women) and trying everything on piece by piece. I'm proud and surprised that my mother actually lets me wear her jewelry now.

I found this old photograph of my dad's relatives in the family orchard while cleaning my room yesterday, and left it on my dresser until I could figure out which album to return it to. My father's mother, in the center with her arms folded, is the namesake for my middle name and the source of my curly hair. She could neither read nor write, as with my grandfather.

Also while cleaning my room yesterday, I left the headscarf worn in my profile picture and my past two Iranian passport pictures near a pile of clothes to be donated.

What I saw when I finally headed down for breakfast: the beautiful Persian rugs we have all over the house. Here are the three you can see from the front door. They were a great hassle to bring, but worth the high price and mild illegality.

A samavar for making tea--it never leaves our stove. Iranians drink tea with breakfast, during the afternoon break, after dinner, and basically any gathering or meeting in between. If you travel to Iran, be prepared to be offered tea (with sugar cubes) everywhere you go. If you don't want the tea, be prepared to say "No, thanks," at least three times before your host will let you skip it. This repeated offering is a part of the traditional tarof (also tarouf), a systematic over-politeness.

Here is my Iranian mommy, Parvaneh (Pary) Mousavi Arjomand. I had to drop something off for her while she was at work, and we spoke Farsi so the patients wouldn't be able to eavesdrop. I think she was a bit embarassed to have her picture taken, but she was a good sport. Like most Iranian women, my mom is beautiful.

I was trying to sneak a picture of my file at the eye doctor's but instead got the names of the rest of my family. Ali, Parvaneh, and Kayvon (my little brother's name) are common Iranian names; Sevda (my little sister's name) is Turkish for love.

Aha! My file was left unattended just long enough for me to sneak a proper picture. They pronounced my name "Sinaaz" both at the eye doctor's and the Verizon store (not pictured).

Back in the car, I found an Iranian tape. The woman pictured is drawn in traditional style, with the unibrow that in some cases continues to be considered a beauty norm.

When I was done with my errands, I went back home, making sure to take my shoes off before entering.

Next, I went down to the basement to continue my drawn-out unpacking after D.C. I found my dad's sitar book in Farsi on the couch. His sitar is in the black case in the background. His twanging really upsets my mother, explaining why he has been banished underground to practice.

Dinner time! Lobiyah polo (rice with green beans) is typical of Iranian cooking, which usually features one meat, one vegetable, and rice (although the more common khoresht features the meat and vegetable cooked separately from the rice). This is probably as close as Iranian cooking gets to being seasoned. To top it off, an extra briny Sadaf-brand pickle.

After dinner, my family and I went into the living room. These high shelves feature several Iranian artifacts, including the books and vase on the bottom right and the "genie lamp" on the tallest right-hand shelf. My mother used to have an old hookah (or ghalyoon in Farsi) up there, but after enough people asked what a bong was doing in our living room she moved it.

There were a few more pictures, but it's generally more of the same. All of this picture-taking was cumbersome and unnatural--it's not normal for me to consider my heritage at every moment. Although my routine is affected by my parents' being from Iran (appearance, dwelling, hygeine habits and diet), it's not totally consumed by it. I don't keep the traditional unibrow, we live in a pretty normal metro-Atlanta home, and I had leftover spaghetti for lunch. What's more, here in Johns Creek at least, it doesn't feel so weird to keep parts of being Iranian as a first- or second-generation immigrant. My mother works for a Chinese doctor, and my name was after a Hispanic name on the sign-in sheet that I'm sure also got mispronounced by the eye doctor's receptionist; other peole are doing it too in American melting-pot style. Being Iranian is generally an enhancement--I benefit from elements of a beautiful ancient culture--and only occaisionally a mild inconvenience. More importantly, being Iranian-American gives me a wide enough world view that I can notice and appreciate my inheritance.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Prose: Tehran International Airport


The smell of cigarette smoke slapped me in the face as soon as I set foot in the airport. I coughed involuntarily and adjusted my unfamiliar headscarf, sullenly following my father to stand in line at customs. Typical of the ubiquitous ineptitude of Iran, one of the customs officers at the Tehran International Airport left without an explanation to those waiting in the line that included my family. Several minutes of self-conscious scarf adjusting and coughing later, my family and I were finally allowed to move to the baggage claim.

The enormous face of a mullah I did not recognize glared at me from the wall. After we laboriously pulled all ten pieces of our baggage through the pushing and shoving crowd around the baggage claim, a harried airport worker told my family he was too busy to help us and strode off. My father left my mother, my seven-year-old sister, my two-year-old brother, and fifteen-year-old me to guard the luggage while he went in search of someone who could tell him where the dollies were. I sat on one of the belts that was out of service and dried my eyes on my manteau sleeve. All I could think of was a nagging internal echo: home, home, home. I was so desperate to leave. The mullah eyed me as if daring me to continue disrespecting his country. I pieced myself back together and helped my father load our luggage onto the carts.

Since my mother had to watch the two younger children, I was forced to guide the overloaded dollies. I quickly learned that the rules of crowd interaction, of polite passing, that I had grown up with in the United States did not apply here. When I stopped to let one person through, at least five other people quickly took advantage of my inexperience and jostled past me. A man rudely asked if I knew how to pick up my feet and egged me to move faster. I nearly crashed into frenzied travelers innumerable times, missing only by stopping the cart with all of my might. In exasperation, the dolly tipped over. Tears welled in my eyes. An English-speaking lady generously came and helped me reload. The sound of my native language, albeit heavily accented, was a balm for my irritated nerves. My father, who had picked up the pass-or-die mentality of his homeland quickly, doubled back to tell me to hurry up.

We finally made it to the room where the arrivals meet their rides home, but every step I took in my long coat reminded me that my ride home was not for another four weeks. My extended family was ecstatic despite barely even knowing me; it had been five years since we had seen each other last. Quite a few relatives had traveled from Maragheh, once a city of knowledge in which the powerful Mongols based their astronomical studies but now a town that smells of gasoline and dust, to meet us in Tehran. They hugged me hard and squeezed tears up one again. I could tell they were happy to see me, and I was so consumed by guilt when I saw their joy compared to my despair, so torn between an inconsolable need to be home, home, home, and between the reality of four more weeks surrounded by this place, that I could do little else but cry. They playfully mocked my démodé, conservative hejab, and my dislike of their country, and asked each other why I was crying as if I couldn't understand Farsi anymore. "Nemydoonam," I replied shakily. "I don't know."

On the ride to my aunt's house I cherished anything in English, every number on every sign. I clung to the flowers my relations had brought us and though only of home, home, home.


I fix my headscarf, smiling inwardly. In a few hours I'll be able to hear everything normally again; I won't have to decipher it through the barrier of an awkward imitation silk fabric or the barriers of Farsi and Turkish. My manteau is shorter now and worn over jeans, much more fashionable than my previous floor-length, hunter green monstrosity of one, and my dislike for my country is steadily dissolving. So nobody teases me, possibly as much for lack of reason as for lack of cheerfulness.

We all smile bravely, and my eyes well up. We say our goodbyes. My aunts, one by one, hug me hard and squeeze tears up once again. In soft, shushing, tear-soaked Turkish they tell me that they are going to miss me. I hug them back without saying a word. My reserved uncle holds out his hand, but instead of a handshake I give him as big a hug as I possible can. My hug and my little brother's cries for his amou Reza to come along with him are too much for the shy man. He fades into the background with a tissue. I hug my cousins one by one. No one has to ask why I'm crying this time. They know. I'm crying with them.

Nestled in the newly found safety of an extended family and a new home, home, home, the echoes in my head had grown dimmer. So much of the summer reminded me of stories of all-American family reunions: I spent time on the beach at my aunt's vacation house and swam in the Caspian Sea, I played spoons with my cousins and uncle, and I gained a true family. I re-met all of the people I already knew on a deep, organic level, people who, for genetic reasons unbeknownst to me only four short weeks ago, love me or who I am. I can already feel the beginnings of their echoes in me.

As I walk through the gate, I jovially point out to my father the incorrect spelling on the English translation of a sign. "Well," he replies, "this is Iran."

Published in Pegasus in 2006

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Poetry: on being who i am

because i am the lovechild of stagnation
and progress

because rich, guilt-black oil gushes from me
and squanderously smolders in me

because my thoughts are hidden from the public
and my hair is uncovered

because my lungs are polluted with desert dust
and industrial smog

because i am trapped in a cycle between a ring of terror
and the war on terror

because allah
and jesus both tempt this soul they just can’t reach

because when you ask who i am
i have to check the box labeled ‘other’

i’m the uncomfortable splint for the break between old and new.

Published in The Muse in spring 2006