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