By Reza Jalali
Maine Sunday Telegram
Sundays Jan. 27 & Feb. 3, 2002
The gentle shake of the plane wakes me as my watch, still ticking in East Coast time, shows 5 p.m. Thursday. Yesterday we boarded a plane at the Portland Jetport, starting our journey to Iran. Already Friday, early morning in local time, we are in Iran’s airspace and soon will be landing in Tehran. Looking at the other passengers in the semi-darkness, I wonder if they share my sense of apprehension and excitement about going back to a country that has been inturmoil for the past few decades. After 25 years of being away, and many years of planning this trip, soon I will be back in my country of birth, Iran, for a visit and to see our families. A country that, due to events of the past 30 years, may not resemble the place I called home. Soon our children, now innocently lost in the wonder world of deep sleep, will meet relatives for the first time. Meanwhile, my wife and a few other female passengers crowd the plane’s bathrooms to change, hastily, into traditional outfits that are more in line with Iran’s fundamentalist, rigid interpretation of Islam that calls for women to cover their hair and torso in public. My wife returns wearing a scarf and a loose, long dark coat, looking like a stranger to me. The lights of Tehran shimmer outside as our plane, the magic carpet of modern times, is landing. My stomach is in knots out of fear for what might lie ahead, yet I try to offer a reassuring smile to my wife. Shortly, my dream to go back to Iran to see my family will be a reality. It’s a dream that I delayed for many years, as I did not feel safe going back. Nowadays, with a more moderate government headed by President Mohammad Khatami, and his genuine desire for a more open and tolerant system, the opportunity to visit was too good to pass up. It’s too late, I tell myself as the plane descends, to let last-minute fear kill the joy of a visit that I put off for so long.
Two worlds meld into one
Iran, site of the ancient Persian Empire, with a civilization 3,000 years old, remains a land suspended in time – with one foot in the modern world, another stuck in the traditional world of Shi’a Islam and a distant past. With a population of 63 million, the oil-rich, non-Arab, Muslim country that was once a close ally of the United States is now ruled by Muslim fundamentalists. Before and during the Cold War, Iran’s location between the former Soviet Union and the oil-rich Persian Gulf had vital importance to the United States. Then came the political upheavals of the 1970s, which changed the political landscape of the Middle East for good. The changes, sudden as they were, began in 1979, when the government of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was overthrown by Muslim fundamentalists. The revolution that brought the mullahs to power was initially supported by most Iranians, including the nationalists, leftists and Muslim radicals, who were united in their dislike of the shah’s dictatorship and America’s unconditional support for his government. With the Iranian revolution, images of angry crowds burning American flags during anti-American protests became part of world news coverage. Soon a group of radical “students” stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking American diplomats as hostages. Then, Saddam Hussein, president of neighboring Iraq, fearing the spread of Islamic fundamentalism to his country, started a bloody war with Iran that lasted eight years. Many believe the Iran-Iraq war, with the United States supporting Iraq, planted the seeds for the start of the Gulf War years later, involving the United States and others, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991. During those years, I, like other Iranians, watched helplessly as internal fighting between factions in Iran discouraged private investment and destroyed some of the best minds in Iran, a country that already had seen more than its share of human suffering. The Iran-Iraq war and the isolation that followed the American hostage crisis only compounded the problems of my homeland. I was done with my studies in India, and lived here in Portland as a refugee. A decade earlier, I had left Iran as a young man with a head filled with dreams and a heart filled with hope for a better future. I watched from thousands of miles away as my beloved homeland was being destroyed in the Iran-Iraq War, fought by two governments that not only were murdering innocent civilians across the borders, but were destroying the future of their own nations. That was then.
Is Iran really ‘home’ after all?
Now, in the summer of 2001, I am going home to find traces of a life lost in a fog of memories. I am fearful of what I might see. Understandably, I imagine, my homeland has changed, just as I have. I wonder whether it will feel like “home” after all. Will I fit in or be a stranger in my country of birth? Is it really “home” anyway? Or is Maine my home, the state where I work, dream and where my children were born? The warm air of Mehrabad Airport greets us outside as I try to push away the thought of the fearful possibilities awaiting me. Inside the terminal, under the stern eyes of a large picture of Ayatollah Khomeini – the late founder of the Iranian revolution – we stand in passport lines. The officer behind the counter looks at my passport with curiosity while punching hard on his computer. After a long silence, he asks me a number of questions. Among them: Is this my first trip back home since the revolution? Why am I returning now? My answers must not satisfy him: He locks my passport in a drawer and pushes forward a form that says I will need some official permission to leave Iran. (I eventualy got that permission.) Welcome to Iran, the voice in my head says, an ill-timed attempt at humor. Hoping to look dignified, I tell my wife in rushed sentences that everything should be fine as I stubbornly fuss with my wristwatch to adjust it to local time. My hands shake and I miss the numbers. Then we follow the crowd in a daze, pushing our luggage and sleepy kids through the large terminal to loud crowds of people waiting outside. Hearing our names in Farsi, the Iranian language, we look up to see a large group of people, holding flowers, waving wildly in our direction. Under the yellow lights of the airport parking, the scene looks surreal. Looking for my older sisters and nieces, I realize most of the women covered in long coats and wearing scarves look alike!
I squint my tired eyes to search for faces that may still look familiar. I follow my wife blindly to a crowd of men and women, hoping for a familiar hug. The men, who laugh madly with happiness, look like older versions of the brothers I remember, but they’ve shrunk with time. I realize I have missed so much. As the youngest in a family of nine, I have nephews and nieces who are the same age or older than I. During my years in exile, most have married and had children. More nephews and nieces were born. Back in Maine, with help from home movies and pictures, I had practiced matching names with faces. The youth of my nephews and nieces, who have grown to adulthood to resemble my brothers and sisters when they themselves were young, stands in contrast with the aged look of their parents, my siblings. I hug an older sister and cry into the loose strands of her soft hair. During so many years of being away, the dream of going home one day was uplifting, as important as air itself. During these years, I would dream the same dream: Going home alone to find no one I know to receive me at the airport. I would not remember anyone’s telephone number and address. I would search for my people for many awful days before giving up and leaving reluctantly, having seen no one. I would wake up from such dreams with tears and a fresh sadness that I may never get to see my people ever again. In yet another dream, my mother, still alive and filled with laughter, would be at the airport but would show no joy to see me. I would hang onto her like a small child, but she would continue ignoring me. Now that she’s gone, my real-life return is painful as I look for her kind face, and the face of others who passed away during the past 25 years. I wish she were here to see her youngest son’s return. Maybe she watches from the heavens above, proud of her children’s bond and love for one another. The silent sobs of my twin teen-age nieces, who were born after I left, remind me of their personal sorrow in losing their mother to cancer a few years ago. I join them in crying with little shame, to mourn my loss, too. Our children, oblivious to such sorrow on an otherwise peaceful summer night, are happy with the attention they receive. My wife, busy showing off our daughter to her own mother, laughs as her mother tries to adjust her scarf, mindful of armed guards who look bored with yet another family reunion at the airport. The car radio is playing a sad tune with a man singing a love song whose words were written centuries ago: “The day you return to me, I will sweep the dust off your pathway with my eyelashes, for life away from you is dying in torture . . . for life without you is dying gradually!”
Familiar smells, sounds
The next day, I wake up with the familiar sounds and smells of home and a past. The samovar, the traditional urn to boil water for tea, hisses. The aroma of Persian cooking, saffron rice, pomegranate stew with lamb, and the spices that made the fabled Silk Road through ancient Persia (Iran) famous, fills the house. Perhaps, home is the place with the most familiar sounds and smells. Wasn’t it a Homeric hero who, upon his return home, asked for bread and milk and cried in tasting familiar food? The sound of “Azaan,” the daily religious recital coming from the neighborhood mosque, is mixed with the happy laughter of our kids as they watch a children’s television show with familiar characters who, to their delight, speak Farsi. Lunch is served, and I remember the formality of sharing food here. In Iran, hosts expect their guests to politely refuse the offer of food made to them the first few times. Called “Ta’aref,” it’s an ancient tradition that demands patience and humility. A quick acceptance of a kind offer shows lack of proper upbringing, lack of respect for the host. So the game of Ta’aref begins as my mother-in-law unloads enough food for two in my plate, just as my wife and I protest by thanking her profusely and telling her again and again how much burden we have caused her to begin with. She, more skilled at this than we who have lived so long outside Iran, ignores our protests and fills our plates. After a few bites, I waste no time in praising the food and her cooking skills in exaggeration. In response, she bashfully confesses that the food is unworthy of such honor and asks for forgiveness for her failed efforts in being a proper host. This continues, as I know deep in my heart that she has been waiting a long time for an opportunity like this, to prepare the best food for her only daughter and her family. The afternoon nap, the siesta tradition that, to my delight, has remained the same during all these years, is what most guests (mostly the men) plan to do next. As I follow them, sheepishly I make a polite offer to help with the dishes. My offer is rejected at once, accompanied by a few grunts from the men. I fall asleep knowing that I could finally be home. The evening is party time! Iranian-style, of course, which means no alcohol but plenty of food and dancing to very loud Iranian pop music. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has been a dry country where drinking and possession of alcohol are punishable under Islamic law. Equally different is to watch female guests going through a transformation as they arrive. The women, now out of the reach of the government, remove the dark-colored, dull-looking long coats to show designer jeans, T-shirts and evening gowns tailored after well-known European fashion houses. The young Iranian women, despite their natural beauty, try hard to look better with makeup, minor plastic surgery, color lenses and hair dye. They display fantastic creativity in resisting compliance with the government’s expectation that they look like large sacks of potatoes.
Women enjoy rights Traditionally, Iranian women, for the most part,have fared better than their sisters – in other Muslim countries in the Middle East, and elsewhere – in terms of enjoying a decent level of civic and political rights. Since the 1950s, women in Iran have had access to educational and employment opportunities. The right to vote and be elected to public office are privileges that Iranian women have had and continue to have. The practice of reserving a certain number of admissions to professional colleges for women began during the Shah years and continues under the Iranian Islamic Republic. In compliance with Islamic law, women have the rights to receive inheritance, and buy and own properties and businesses. Family courts continue to protect the rights of women when abused by their spouses. Ironically, the 1979 revolution, which was supported by the women, has eliminated some of their rights. Starting with the issue of “hijab,” the requirement that women cover their hair and body in public, Iranian women have gradually lost some social and legal rights. To make matters worse, the feminist movement in Iran is divided over the issue of hijab and the role of women in a modern Islamic society. Islamic feminists, who mostly support government policies on women’s issues, insist hijab protects women from unwanted sexual advances from men who might look at women as objects of desire. Feminists attempt to distinguish between being equal to men and being a slave to society’s expectation to look and act in certain ways, in order to be desirable to men. To back their claim, they point to western societies, where advertisers and the media use images of female bodies to sell goods. Furthermore, they defend the Islamic system by saying women are safer in comparison to western societies, which have a higher rate of sex crimes against women, higher, unintended teen-age pregnancy rates and a higher frequency of sexually transmitted diseases. On the other side, secular feminists disagree with the harsh policies of the Islamic government targeting women. They demand changes in laws and mindsets, saying the government treats women as second-class citizens. This debate, brought into the open as part of recent presidential and general elections in Iran, is lively and meaningful in a society that is increasingly experimenting with democracy.
It’s election time in Iran as I visit, and the TV debates dealing with social issues – particularly those important to the youth of Iran (who comprise 60 percent to 65 percent of the population) – are popular. The charming President Khatami, who for his tireless efforts to bring social and political changes to his society is nicknamed the “Iranian Gorbachev,” is running for a second term. His rise to power and popularity has frightened the more conservative faction of the Iranian government, which fears the changes demanded by the younger generation. Other candidates, unpopular with the youth but supported by the conservative clergy, dislike the president’s pro-western views and his efforts to open Iranian society to outside ideas and values. While the parliament supports the president, the conservatives – with control of the army, the courts and the state-run media – use every opportunity to block his efforts. Although we’re told the public mood and interest for this election is somewhat low compared to four years ago, the public discussion and the level of interest shown by the public tell a different story. In Tehran’s busy intersections, university students, young women included, move between cars to distribute pictures of the smiling president and red carnations. The ease with which young students, male and female, mix is a testimony in itself to the changed atmosphere made possible by Khatemi’s policies. Khatemi is not backward, not even by western standards. A few years ago, to the delight of many, he named a woman vice president, Massumeh Ebtekar. Ebtekar, who was educated in the United States and has a Ph.D, is actively involved in policy- and decision-making. President Khatemi’s popularity, however, wanes among progressive Iranians who are becoming impatient with his failure to put an end to the abuses of the more conservative faction, which still controls the real power in Iran. To cynical Iranians, Khatemi’s presence delays the real change, change that seemingly would end the rule of mullahs for good in Iran.
This article ran in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram on January 27, 2002.
Read Part Two, published in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram on February 3, 2002 where Reza writes about his visit to the royal palace of the former king, the Shah of Iran. He explains reasons behind the anti-American sentiment in Iran and visits the Kurdish region in his native country. People of Iran and U.S. have distorted views of each other By Reza Jalali
Tehran, sprawling and smoky with smog, lies below us as we hike to a popular destination for young Iranians to the north during the early hours of a steamy morning. Below us, the high-rise buildings and the skyscrapers covered in gleaming glass fade in size to the glory of Alburz Mountain, with its snow-capped summit that can be seen from everywhere in the city. Tehran, the largest city in Iran with 6 million residents, has terrible traffic jams and smog that covers the city like a dark blanket. Just like Iran, it too, is suspended between times, with no identity of its own. To me, the city today resembles a prostitute whose professional makeup does little to hide the wrinkles and aged looks, and whose sense of fashion is tasteless and cheap. North Tehran’s tree-lined boulevards with villas that display wealth, with their marble walls and satellite dishes, stand in contrast to the improvised, crowded neighborhoods of South Tehran, where large families share tiny apartments. On the hiking trails, once in the safety of the mountain paths, the female hikers take their long coats off to sport jeans and T-shirts. They listen to Destiny’s Child on portable CD players.
These days in Iran, the former king’s numerous palaces, now turned into public museums, get many visitors. We visit a few built on the slopes of Alburz Mountain. The Shah of Iran, arrogant and rich with petrodollars, had the palaces built at a time when Iran needed more and better schools and hospitals. It’s with a bittersweet sense that I stand inside the Shah’s summer palace, looking hungrily at the rare carpets, hand-painted and jeweled doors, and antique, French-period furniture. I try to imagine a recent past when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, feared by many, hated by others and admired by every U.S. administration, would conduct business, receive foreign dignitaries and rule a country that stands as a gateway between East and West. It’s not that often that a common man like myself stands in a palace of a Middle Eastern dictator. Decades earlier, as a young person, I too, joined the ranks of those who opposed the Shah’s tyranny. Now with the Shah gone, it is creepy for me to be standing here in his private royal quarters, admiring the original European paintings and other works of art collected by the royal family and gifted to them by the heads of other nations. We visit the palace quarters that supposedly housed former U.S. Presidents Carter and Nixon when they visited Iran decades earlier. The guides, on the Islamic government payroll, waste little time in describing the Shah’s extravagant way of life and his dinner parties for the powerful American politicians and oil company executives. He did this, they say, while remaining indifferent to the plight of the poor in villages across Iran.
Negative slant on U.S.
Just as most Americans know little about Iran and Iranians – and their views about the region and its people are biased – most Iranians have distorted pictures of Americans and of life in America. The Iranian view is from recent years of hearing official propaganda that highlights the most negative aspects of life in the United States, as well as from other factors that include genuine grievances of the past. For example, Iranians, like others in the Muslim and non-Western world, resent the unconditional support of the United States for the Israeli government’s policies of dealing with Palestinians. The daily images of the wounded and killed civilians in the occupied territory is a reminder of why and how U.S. foreign policy is viewed with disdain in the Middle East. Similarly, many in the region dislike U.S. support of corrupt and undemocratic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt. Iran’s conservative propaganda machinery in Tehran blames the United States for the absence of democratic institutions in the region, lack of economic opportunities and the resulting poverty, and a sense of despair that millions share. At airports and other public places, government posters advocate democracy and political rights for the people of Palestine and the outnumbered Muslim minorities in other countries. This unorthodox push for democracy and political rights on the part of the Islamic Republic – which hardly practices what it preaches – is a source of wonder for many in Iran. This Iranian contradiction, and the U.S. support for dictators in the region, make for provocative discussions highlighting the double standard that governments practice to control public opinion. As one local political analyst complained: “Here is the difference: While the U.S. government wants democracy only for Americans and not others, the Iranian government demands democracy for everyone else but Iranians!”
Politics aside, most Iranians see American society as out of control. They offer examples of how schoolchildren kill their classmates and teen mothers leave their babies in bathrooms and trash containers. I find the distortion painful, because the argument, though valid in some ways, hides the many wonderful things that we take pride in about life in the United States. This view challenges my personal love for my adopted home in America, and tears at my sense of loyalty to the two places I call home. The unbalanced and one-sided view of life in America reaches most Iranians and others in the region via satellite dishes, which offer TV programs such as “Baywatch,” “Jerry Springer” and the like. To most, what the TV screens show is a glorification of sex, violence and families breaking up. While most of us who live in the United States have the ability to separate facts from junk, and refuse to accept Hollywood’s definition of our society, others who live outside could mistake us for a nation that is low on morality and spirituality, but obsessed with violence and money. Now and then, my wife and I would find ourselves defending American society and its people. That’s a reverse of our roles in the United States where, on a regular basis, we have to explain the Islamic, Middle Eastern and Iranian way of life to our friends, neighbors and co-workers, to help them understand. Now we are in Iran and, while we have no quarrel about some of the most obvious ills of American society, we try to paint a more accurate picture of life back in Maine. Then there are the genuine grievances that Iranians have in regard to the past and present policies of the United States. Iranians, just as others do in Asia, carry their grievances for generations. In Iran, people still discuss the events of the 1950s, when a CIA-supported coup overthrew a popular, nationalist Iranian prime minister to replace him with the Shah. The discussions feel as if the Shah came to power just a few years ago. The 1988 shooting down of an Iranian commercial jetliner by the U.S. Navy – which mistook the airliner for a fighter jet in the Persian Gulf – is mentioned as if it happened months ago. All 290 people aboard that flight were killed. In making a case for America, I realize the U.S. government has made no effort to show Iranians a positive side of the American story. Without a diplomatic relationship and without much cultural exchange between both countries, we run the risk of having generations of Iranians disliking us for our indifference to them. But a common resentment for the militant fundamentalists’ actions – shared by most Iranians and Americans – could be a common ground, a way to begin an era of mutual respect and friendship between the people of both countries.
Returning to mourn
We fly from Tehran to the western city of Kermanshah, which is where I come from, and where most of my family lives. During the flight, our 6-year-old son, sitting next to a window, complains of not seeing white clouds. The land below us is brown and the sky, a stretch of cloudless blue, offers no relief. Iran, like other countries in the region, has seen little rain for the past few years. The winter snowfalls, usually high in the northwestern and northeastern regions, have been low, too. As we approach Kermanshah, we fly over the Zagros mountains which, in the distance, rise up like the fractured walls of a ruined home. The mountain chain, 620 miles long, is home to centuries-old caves and some of the most amazing and rare rock carvings going back to the sixth century B.C. The female flight attendant makes announcements in Farsi and English. It makes little sense, as few Iranians speak English and most of the passengers are Kurdish-speaking Kurds. But, alas, the subtle omission of the Kurdish language is a sign that the government continues to feel uncomfortable permitting Kurds to speak their language, even in their part of the country. During the flight, we are told the new governor of the province is flying with us to his post in Kermanshah. Later, this becomes embarrassing, as he mistakes the large crowd of people with flowers who are waiting for my family and me to be his welcoming party! As we hug and kiss our relatives, I see the governor, accompanied by a few local dignitaries, rushing to a line of government vehicles, including ones with armed soldiers.
The most painful part of this trip to Kermanshah is visiting the graves of people who died during my years away. With one hand holding flowers and another holding a small bottle of rose water to wash the tombstones, we walk in silence from one grave to another. My mother, who passed away a few years ago, is buried close to my older sister, who died of cancer, and a brother who died of sorrow when he lost everything to the Iran-Iraq war. I wash the slabs of marble meticulously with rose water as it gets mixed with my tears. This is my atonement, a closure in my personal mourning. I claim my role as son and brother, something I could not do before, as I was absent during the mourning that our extended family observed. This brings back memories of a distant past, when my father died. I still lived in Iran back then, and now I remember the traditional mourning period, where everyone had to be in black and mourn for 40 days in houses that were free of music and laughter but smelled of rose water and incense. Now, as we walk in the cemetery, visiting graves of distant relatives, neighbors, old teachers and family friends, we see row after row of graves of young people. Some are victims of the Iran-Iraq war, while others were killed by government firing squads. Buried tightly next to each other, they seem to need each other’s company in their afterlife journey, too. There are missing graves, too, graves of those who died outside Iran or died too far away to be brought here for burial. I look for others whose graves I don’t expect to find: Our Jewish neighbors who immigrated to Israel after the 1979 revolution; our family’s Jewish doctor, whose office smelled of alcohol and disinfectants. He, being a published poet, and I, struggling to write any poetry, became good friends despite our age difference. I imagine he must have died somewhere outside of Iran. As we read the tombstones, searching for familiar names, my niece, the law student, tries to cheer me up. Curious about her life as a young woman in a rigid society, I ask how she feels about covering her head and the rest of her body in public. Naturally, as young as she is, she has no memory of life before the fundamentalists’ revolution, when women were not required to do so. She says with confidence that she hardly thinks about it. Yet moments later, a fresh sadness in her voice tells me otherwise. She explains that, while vacationing outside Iran a few summers ago, for the first time in her life she walked down a crowded street with her hair uncovered. The wind in her hair made her happy. With our long shadows following us over the headstones, she whispers, with typical shyness, that sometimes she misses that feeling of being free and happy. Lost for words, we both look closely at the grave of a young girl killed by the Iraqis when her school was bombed during the Iran-Iraq war.
Horror of war
It’s hard to miss the ugly footprints of the Iran-Iraq war. It’s in people’s faces when they talk about the missiles, the bombs and the invading army. It’s in the crowded neighborhoods in overpopulated Tehran and other big cities, whose population grew because of displaced people moving away from the Iraqi border. It’s in ruins of villages, farms and factories which now only remind people of the violent nature of humans. It’s hard on the eyes and on the hearts. The horror of the war is captured in a statue in Kermanshah. It shows a woman and a child under siege by the Iraqis, and the woman’s heroic effort to save her child and her dignity. The statue, disturbingly large to showcase the horror of a long war, has the woman with fear in her face hiding the child to her side and lifting a lifeless stick to defend against men with guns. The war left a million dead and many more millions injured and disabled on both sides. My birthplace, a dusty Kurdish border town with a few thousand inhabitants, mostly farmers, was the first town to fall into Iraqi hands. During the first few days of the war, our ancestral home and every other building in and around the town were destroyed. My old school, with large cool rooms that smelled of old books and orange flowers in spring, was gone, too. Iraqi soldiers burnt down centuries-old citrus orchards that for generations had produced orange, lime and lemon of such quality that they were mostly exported. Even the noisy river where we all learned to swim went dry, as its natural course was changed to deprive the town’s farms and fruit gardens of life. It seems the only thing remaining near our large, two-story home is a single palm tree, buried to its neck in loose dirt. The town, Qasre-Shirin (the Palace of Shirin) is named after a famous Armenian queen, Shirin, who fell in love with a stonecutter, Farhad. Their love story is as old as Persia (Iran) itself. Qasre-Shirin is a two-hour drive west of Kermanshah, and we plan a day visit. By the roadside, farmers sell figs and roots of a prickly artichoke that grows wild in these mountains and is cooked and served with yogurt. Halfway to Qasre-Shirin, I lose my resolve to come face-to-face with the war that caused my family so much suffering. Maybe it is more comfortable to live with the old images of the town in my head and to save the romanticized pictures rather than replace them with the reality of a destroyed town that once stood as a testimony to a love between a beautiful queen and a poor stonecutter. We turn around, and I think that even the birds seem to have left my birthplace for more peaceful places.
The main bazaar of Kermanshah is cool and exotic. Shiny colorful Kurdish hats and scarves hang from the arched brick ceilings that have holes to let in the sun’s rays. Men sit cross-legged in stalls selling herbs, dates, pistachios, cotton and silk dresses and prayer rugs. My elder sister, with a smile, leads me to a bakery that sells freshly baked cookies that were my favorite when I was a child. I remember days long gone when my mother would treat me to the same cookies, whenever we happened to be in the bazaar. We get to a carpet showroom where a friend of a friend has made arrangements for us to buy carpets from a trusted merchant. There are many handmade Persian carpets, some local and some brought from other parts of Iran. We begin by going through the usual exchange of pleasantries and accepting endless tiny glasses of tea, served with sugar cubes. Accustomed to quick shopping in the United States, this feels different as, on our knees, we feel and touch the carpets one by one, as if engaged in worshipping beauty and color. My brother-in-law, Hamid, the family expert, bends down and, turning the back of the carpet, counts the number of tiny knots in a square inch. The more knots per inch, the better the carpet, I am told. Meanwhile, as I drink more tea, I try to picture the carpet in our home in Maine. The scene, if not for the ringing cell phones, could pass for a bazaar scene from 18th-century Persia. We decide on a carpet and refuse the merchant’s kind offer to have one of his helpers carry the carpet to our car, parked outside. I pray the carpet was not made by child workers, as supposedly the practice of using children to weave carpets in Iran has ended. Later that night, however, I tremble, waking from a dark dream where the tiny red flowers in the center of our new carpet have turned to tiny drops of blood that are from the fingertips of children and others who sit in dim workshops, weaving threads of silk and wool for endless hours.
The following day, I stand in front of remains of buildings that used to house a cinema, cafes and boutiques, a popular hangout in a different era for Kermanshah. Now the old moviehouse building, neglected for decades, is boarded up. It offers shelter to sidewalk booksellers. Boutiques sell shoes and scarves and the cafes have window signs demanding that customers properly cover their hair. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, the open-air cinema, called Moline Rouge,with a lighted, giant, spinning red windmill, was the place to be seen on summer evenings. The cinema, roofless but classy, was where the latest Hollywood “saucy” movies were screened. As a teen, I saw Elizabeth Taylor shine in “The Cat over the Thin Roof” (Iranian translation), and many movies of that sort. In the fashionable block with cinemas named Rex, Diana and Metropole, all on the same street as Moline Rouge, the small cafes were crowded during summer evenings. Back then, local Christian women, along with many Muslim teens in miniskirts and men who looked like James Dean, drove then-popular, American-made Mustang and Impala cars, and shiny BMWs. They would hang out to flirt, steal a glance and start a romance in an otherwise traditional Islamic city. Under the Shah, in many ways, affluent Iranian youth copied and acted as their counterparts in America. Now, a young man in his 20s, too young to remember the Moline Rouge era, is selling books on Cuba and Khomeini. I long for the innocence of lost times as I cross the noisy street. I guess, despite all the changes, the soul of Iran has remained the same. Children still play noisy soccer games in the streets, sharing the space with passing cars. Old men sit on benches talking politics and smoking cigarettes. Neighbors send dishes of food to each other whenever the food prepared is a delicacy. Families picnic on every scrap of grass, even late at night. Witnessing the life here helps me feel better about leaving and carrying on with my own life, in Maine. Still, after being away for more than half my life, I feel a lump in my throat when hearing “Azan” and seeing shrunken, old women rushing to mosque entrances, hoping to receive some change from the good Muslims responding to the call of daily prayer. Where is home for us, the displaced people of the world? Could Maine be my home, where I feel safe and happy, but sad and homesick whenever a soft rain falls on the paved streets? I live in two different worlds and feel connected to both.
Epilogue After weeks of frustration in dealing with indifferent government bureaucrats, I managed to get my passport back (after it had been confiscated upon my arrival in Iran), along with official permission to leave the country. This, after having to wait in crowded offices for long hours and signing forms and repeating the fact that, while in exile, I have never been engaged in activities designed to overthrow the Islamic Republic of Iran. – Reza Jalali
This article is the second of two parts that ran in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 2002.