Originally published in Travel + Leisure, July 2005
**Some names and identifying details have been changed
I FELL FOR IRAN BY PROXY, from afar, long before arriving there myself. My wife, Leila, was born in Tehran in 1971. Just after Leila’s ninth birthday she and her family boarded an oversold flight to New York, taking along nine Louis Vuitton suitcases. They didn’t return to Iran for 15 years.
The Mahmoudis left before staying became intolerable. In early 1980 Leila’s international school had closed. At her parents’ dinner parties, the customary dancing after dessert had turned to somber talk of war with Iraq. Rumors suggested a draft. Eighteen months in, the chaos of Khomeini’s revolution—riots, demonstrations, groups of gun-wielding pasdar in the streets—was replaced by dread over what might come next.
Spending her formative years in New York, Leila became outwardly Americanized; unlike that of her older siblings, her English has no trace of inflection, and her demeanor is more Manhattan than, well, mine. Yet Leila proudly identifies herself as Iranian—even if the homeland she claims as her own no longer exists.
Or does it? In 1995, encouraged by reports from relatives back home, Leila’s parents returned to Tehran, first dipping their toes in with a brief foray, then paying more frequent visits. During this time many fellow émigrés were repatriating, with the tacit approval of a regime hoping to reverse the brain drain and investment shortfalls of the eighties. By the time I met Leila, her parents were living half the year in Tehran.
For the other six months they were back in New York, in a house filled with Esfahani carpets and Persian tapestries. I came to know them inside this microcosmic Iran they’d re-created, and I became fascinated by all things Persian: the languorous cadences of Farsi, which the Mahmoudis still spoke at the kitchen table. The bewitching poetry of Hafez, which Leila and I wove into our marriage vows. The sinuous Persian music we danced to at our wedding—arms raised high, fingertips stirring the air. I learned to accept their insistent generosity (I once complimented my brother-in-law on his tie; three days later an identical one arrived in the mail). I joined in their dramatic affirmations (“Chash’m,” one expression goes, or “on my eyes”) and flourishes of affection (Iranians append the endearment jahn to a loved one’s name, so I became “Peter Jon–jahn”). I grew accustomed to double-cheek kissing, the scratch of my father-in-law’s whiskers, the smell of his Armani cologne. And I fell hard for Persian cooking, great silver platters of which greeted us on every visit: the saffron rice with its sunset-orange crust, or tahdig; the fall-apart eggplant in my mother-in-law’s khoresh bademjan; the bowls of melon spritzed with rose water; the feta and cucumbers laid out for a family breakfast.
None of these things had I associated with Iranians back in 1980, when, as fifth-graders, my friends and I sang along to the hostage-era radio hit “Bomb Iran,” set to the tune of “Barbara Ann.” (“Bomb Iraa-a-aan! Let’s take a staa-a-aand!”) Our local station played the song every afternoon for months.
My in-laws’ Iran was nothing like the one I’d grown up with. (Even the name: Americans insist on “eye-ran,” Persians call it “ee-rahn.”) Still, I was perplexed by the Mahmoudis’ decision to return. How enjoyable could life there be? Western music and movies, satellite television, alcohol, and dancing are officially banned. Even in private, one endures a constant buzz of anxiety. When my in-laws call from Tehran, we never discuss current events, since we never know who might be listening.
And yet, and yet. Three years ago, Leila’s brother and sister moved back to Iran as well, trading careers in New York finance and medicine for similar work in their lost-and-newfound homeland. They were, by all accounts, happier there. Farhad and Maryam’s vivid descriptions convinced me: I had to see Iran for myself. My wife had visited six years earlier and was eager to return. So last November, Leila and I landed in Tehran.
Our timing is unusually canny: we have arrived just after the 25th anniversary of the hostage taking. Driving into town, we pass by the former U.S. embassy, whose crumbling walls are now emblazoned with government-sanctioned graffiti reading MARG BAR AMRIKA (“Death to America”). Today a modest crowd is commemorating the “triumph” of 1979. Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s saber-rattling has set the international media to speculating over U.S. intentions in Iran, which may range from covert infiltration to outright invasion. The rhetoric and rumors have clearly fueled the demonstrators’ ire. But besides the defiant remarks in state-run papers, this is the only anti-American sentiment we encounter on our trip.
In a reversal of souvenir-buying protocol, we have carried three extra suitcases stuffed with gifts from New York. To live in Iran is to do without a great many things, some of them consequential, some of them not so much. Trade embargoes and isolation have taken their toll. We bring screwdrivers, steel wool, Kiehl’s shaving cream, DVD-R’s, Duracell batteries, perforated notebooks, Claritin, magazines, and electric toothbrushes for our extended family. It’s as if we’re traveling to a space station. We’ve also brought a leather jacket for Leila’s teenage cousin Reza, who spends hours browsing European fashion Web sites even though he can’t buy anything. (Credit cards are nonexistent in Iran, and few retailers will ship here anyway.) Reza is dumbstruck. He doesn’t take the jacket off for three weeks.
Leila, for her part, has packed a dozen silk scarves to use as head coverings, and a rain jacket to serve as her manteau, the overcoat worn by women who forgo the traditional black cloak, or chador. (Both the head scarf and coat are required in public for all women, including foreigners.) Like the chador—literally, “tent”—the manteau was intended to drape loosely and conceal the feminine form. But daring young women now buy jackets a size too small and lash them taut at the waist, accentuating the very curves a manteau is meant to hide. The head scarf, too, has gradually migrated back from the brow to reveal provocative bouffants and dangling locks. Nervous first-time visitors, by contrast, pull their scarves tight over the forehead, like do-rags.
On a quiet Friday morning—Iran’s one-day weekend—Leila and her siblings take me on a nostalgic drive through their old neighborhoods. It is a rare smogless day in Tehran, and to the north, the snowy Elburz peaks glisten in the sun. We pass the dilapidated remains of the Ice Palace, a grand indoor rink where seven-year-old Leila would go skating on Thursday nights. Farhad points out the former site of his beloved Toyland, a five-story shop full of European imports. Maryam recalls the pâtisserie on Seventh Street where her mother stopped every Friday to buy napoleons. As we cross Vanak Square, Leila remembers afternoons spent horseback riding in the nearby meadows.
Children today experience a Tehran that’s different in every respect, a soot-gray sea of concrete and asphalt punctuated by idle cranes. Rows of dispirited housing blocks stretch to the horizon. The bridle paths of Vanak have given way to traffic-choked roundabouts. Tehran’s population has quadrupled to 16 million since the revolution, overwhelming the city’s infrastructure to a shocking degree: during the evening rush it can take hours to drive two miles across town. On bad days, the pollution stings the lungs; after a rainfall, sidewalks are coated with sticky residue from the oil in the air.
But Tehran does hold pockets of tranquillity. Leila and I spend a morning in Darakeh, in the foothills of north Tehran, where a rushing brook cuts through a ravine crisscrossed by hiking trails. Along the path we’re joined by dozens of young couples holding hands—up here there are no authorities to keep watch, and several women have even removed their head scarves. We spot one couple pitching a tent in the woods while tea brews on a Coleman stove and a portable stereo quietly plays Dylan. An old man and his donkey appear on the path, hauling a snack cart of dried fruit. As the sun crests the ridge we stop at a trailside chaykhuneh (teahouse) for wood oven–baked eggs and lavash bread.
From Darakeh’s hills the grime of Tehran seems light-years away. The brook runs clear as a Colorado stream. In fact, this same water is funneled into the city by a series of underground channels. (The manipulation of water, one of Iran’s most precious resources, is a testament to Persian ingenuity.) The streams reemerge as canals, or jub, that run beside major boulevards. The water produces a cooling effect in summer and nourishes the plane trees alongside it. On muddy days the canals turn the color of chocolate milk, like a Willy Wonka fantasy. But when the water runs clear, the jub and rows of trees bestow a grace on the avenues of north Tehran.
Despite the exodus of so many wealthy Tehranis after 1979, there is still a visible upper class here, and a palpable divide between the moneyed and the working poor. The latter—deeply religious and reliably pro-regime—dominate Tehran’s south side. The more affluent and secular north side might as well be a separate nation. Here one sees traces of the sophisticated, Europeanized city that was envisioned in the thirties by Shah Reza Pahlavi. The northern reaches of Val-ye-Asr Avenue are lined with jewelry shops and clothing stores. At the popular north Tehran restaurant Nayeb, customers are greeted by a white-gloved doorman and serenaded by a pianist. One evening, Farhad and Maryam take us to a California-style shopping plaza, replete with (counterfeit) Esprit and Levi’s boutiques, a mahogany-walled “pub” serving smoothies in lieu of beer, and a trendy sushi bar. Over spicy tuna rolls, Leila and I survey the room and count seven women with plastered noses—in Tehran, rhinoplasty bandages are proudly exhibited as status symbols.
The real nexus of Tehran’s wealth, however, is not in the north but in the sprawling Tehran Bazaar, on the south side. Billions of rials pass through the bazaar’s humble stalls, representing a third of all commercial and retail trade in Iran. (The conservative bazari hold great political power, and were a driving force behind the Islamic revolution.) On a busy Saturday we plunge head-long into the bazaar, led by my mother-in-law, who seems to have every nook hardwired into her brain. It’s like watching a kid dominate a Nintendo game. Expertly dodging mule carts and speeding wheelbarrows, Monir guides us to her favorite spice dealers, haberdashers, and goldsmiths. Leila ogles a necklace.
“That’s Italian,” the jeweler says in Farsi. “Funny, it doesn’t look Italian,” Leila says. “No, not from Italy,” he explains. “Italian means ‘best quality.’“ Monir, unblinking, wangles a 50 percent discount. (It’s then that I realize how fortunate I am to be shopping with my in-laws; without such help, an outsider could be hopelessly fleeced.)
A chaii vendor trudges past, carrying two buckets roped to a stick, one containing a samovar, the other full of cups and sugar cubes. (Iranians like to hold a cube between their teeth while sipping tea.) At the rear of the bazaar is the famous carpet showroom, where a fine cloud of dust is kicked up by the clap of unfurling rugs. Most patterns are traditional and stunningly beautiful. Alongside those are woven illustrations—designed for European tourists—depicting the Last Supper, Napoleon on his horse, and Kate and Leo on the prow of the Titanic.
Westerners are conditioned to imagine Iran as a joyless place. “Isn’t it illegal to laugh in public there?” an acquaintance in New York had asked. Before Leila corrected him—”No, you idiot”—I caught myself wondering if it were true. How could we know better? News reports paint a grim picture: stern-faced women in mourning-black chadors, wild-eyed men howling for their martyr Hossein. From that distance, one would believe Iranians are a gloomy and severe lot.
How reaffirming, then, to visit the tomb of the 14th-century poet Hafez, in Shiraz, Iran’s most soulful city. The tomb is surrounded by rose gardens and pomegranate groves; on this moonlit evening a jubilant crowd has gathered to hear recitations of Hafez’s lusty verse about wine, dancing, and nightingales. And if two of those three are currently against the law, that hardly diminishes the mood. The audience hoots at the bawdiest double entendres, and joins in unison at the most exuberant lines. As preschoolers dart among the rosebushes and old men laugh over a backgammon game, I watch one couple exchange a swoonworthy kiss.
Leila and I get delightfully lost in the jumble of Old Shiraz. Along dusty back lanes we come upon a dilapidated mansion, its timbered roof caved in, century-old frescoes peeling off the walls. Several families of Afghani refugees have taken up residence on the sagging upper floors. Above us, the women wash clothes in a vast, cracked iron cauldron while their children play soccer in the courtyard.
On a sweltering morning we drive across the red-clay desert outside Shiraz to the ruins of Persepolis, the magnificent palace complex conceived by Darius the Great in 518 b.c. Persepolis is renowned not just for its grandeur—sweeping staircases, towering sculptures of winged lions and bulls—but for its graceful synthesis of foreign elements. The Achaemenids of ancient Persia were a remarkably catholic people, noted for their tolerance of other cultures. An endless stream of foreign guests were received at Persepolis, including Egyptians, Syrians, Babylonians, Ethiopians, and Cappadocians. These and other peoples were respectfully depicted in evocative bas-reliefs—clad in their native dress, astride camels, goats, and stallions, bearing gifts of elephant tusks, honeycombs, and lion skins from their distant homelands. The tableau is a stirring reminder of an age when Iran was literally at the center of the world.
In 1971, the shah staged an extravagant celebration at Persepolis in honor of its 2,500th “anniversary.” He invited scores of world leaders to pay tribute, just as Darius had done in his day. Untold millions were spent on the party, at which (in accordance with the shah’s tastes) guests ate food flown in from Paris and sipped champagne in Baccarat flutes. As a bid to shore up the Pahlavis’ legitimacy and to rally “Persian pride,” the party was a bust and only further alienated the people from the monarchy. Within a decade the shah would be deposed, and the glories of imperial Persia would be rejected by many as symbols of corruption. The more ardent revolutionaries hoped to purge Iran not only of Western influences but of its Persian (i.e., pre-Islamic) past; hard-liners even proposed bulldozing the ruins at Persepolis.
As we travel through Iran, I find myself recognizing quirks I’d thought were unique to my in-laws. Their preference for using tissues instead of napkins at the dinner table. (Turns out every restaurant in Iran sets out boxes of them.) Their habit of sheathing leftovers in plastic wrap pulled tighter than a drum. And, especially, the curious etiquette of ta’arof.
To understand Iranians, it is essential to comprehend ta’arof, which mandates self-effacement in social interactions. Stepping aside at a doorway to let your companion through first is ta’arof. Declining an offer of tea is ta’arof, even if the host, per custom, repeats the offer three times. (A fourth try means the offer is probably genuine, and it’s okay to accept.) In Iran, even taxi drivers and shopkeepers practice ta’arof, to the bewilderment of foreign visitors. At a newsstand I try to buy some gum. “Paying is not worthy of you,” the cashier says, pushing my money away. “But I insist,” I say. “Please, agha, no charge,” he replies. This goes on for a full minute—there are customers waiting—before he takes any money. Sometimes ta’arof reaches absurd heights, as when, after dinner at a restaurant in Tehran, our waiter presents the bill. My father-in-law reaches for his wallet, whereupon the waiter launches into florid protest: “Your money is too good for me!...On my eyes, I am your humble servant!”
Manners are everything in Iran. Attending a dinner party, you can’t show up with just a dainty box of pastries; you have to bring a whole kilo of pastries—even if the dinner is for only four people. Anything else would look cheap. At restaurants, if you ask for lemon for your tea, the waiter won’t dish out a few slices; he’ll bring an entire bushel. Visit someone’s apartment at four in the afternoon and you’ll be greeted by a massive Dutch still life of fruit, nuts, and candies—and you’d damn well better eat some. Back in Tehran, Leila and I stagger among countless parties, dinners, and “casual” family get-togethers. (Never trust an Iranian who promises a “casual” get-together; you’ll still be fêted like a king.) By our second week, we have consumed more tea, baklava, kebabs, and rice than seems sensible, and been offered five times that.
Much of Iranian life lies hidden behind closed doors. The reasons for this are partly pragmatic—the regime has essentially forced socializing into the home—but also cultural. For all their effusiveness, Iranians are a very private people. This was true long before Khomeini. There’s a phrase in Farsi that describes this schism between public and private life: posht-e pardeh, or “behind the curtain.”
Step inside one of north Tehran’s concrete housing towers, ride the elevator up 12 floors, and open an apartment door: behind the curtain lies a whole other Iran. Guests are welcomed by the aroma of freshly cut flowers, heaping bowls of pomegranates, whiskey and vodka smuggled in from Turkey, and black-market caviar just a day out of the Caspian. A flurry of cheek kissing begins. The women remove their scarves and overcoats to unveil low-cut blouses, high-cut skirts, and impeccably coiffed hairdos. Soon the apartment fills with swirling Persian dance rhythms. The sofas are pushed aside and guests take to the parlor floor and sway to the sultry music—yes, arms raised, fingertips stirring the air, just as it was at our wedding, just as all Iranians did back when dancing was allowed.
As the music grows louder, I’m pulled onto the floor, and suddenly it dawns on me: I am in Iran. This is where my wife grew up. This is where our children will someday visit their grandparents. And from this spot, as I dance across the candlelit parlor, Iran feels strangely like home.
For all the undeniable challenges, many returned émigrés have carved out an agreeable life in Iran, albeit largely posht-e pardeh. Being surrounded by Farsi-speaking friends and family helps: the majority enjoy far richer social lives here than they had in Europe or America. At one party I meet Mehrdad, a Tehran native who grew up in Wisconsin. Six years ago he returned to Tehran, where he now has a consulting business, a broad circle of friends, and an apartment with a roof deck and a Weber grill. Mehrdad is especially excited because he has just hooked up an illegal satellite-radio dish. So he can get news from Voice of America? No, Mehrdad wants to tune in to A Prairie Home Companion live from St. Paul. “Man, I love Garrison Keillor,” he says. “There are two things I miss about America—Lake Wobegon stories and Brewers games.” A sports fanatic, Mehrdad plays shortstop for a pickup hardball club in Tehran, mostly made up of fellow returnees. Official name: The Imam Khomeini Memorial Baseball Team.
Mehrdad seems remarkably happy in Tehran and has no regrets about moving back home. “Of course, it can be stressful and frustrating,” he admits. “But at the end of the day you can still come home to NPR, a bottle of Maker’s Mark, and a barbecue with your friends. Little victories, but you do what you can, you know?” A baseball league, top-shelf whiskey, a pirated DVD of Ocean’s Twelve, mascaraed girls in miniskirts, Everybody Loves Raymond via satellite from Dubai...those “little victories” can make a half-life somehow feel whole.
But what of the real things? What of President Khatami’s reform efforts, the student protests, the upcoming election? I gently press for answers, yet most Tehranis I talk to—especially the young—are curiously disengaged from politics. Those who do speak openly express disenchantment with the stalled reform movement and hold a cynical view of Khatami. They voted for reform in 1997 and 2001, and will likely do so again this year, but they no longer believe much will come of it. Instead, many have turned inward. Everyone I meet is on a self-improvement kick. One architect is reading Jung and embarking on night journeys; a banker friend is learning Reiki. A female lawyer studies feng shui, and her sister takes courses in homeopathy. Yoga and meditation classes are all the rage. The logic is clear: If you can’t change your reality, at least you can change your outlook.
During our visit, the state-sponsored papers are full of articles about the government’s latest campaign against blasphemy. The crackdown has led to the detainment of several Iranian journalists accused of “disturbing the public mind and insulting sanctities.” The arrests are acknowledged and even celebrated in the official media. Meanwhile, dozens of domestic Web sites are being shut down, and more overseas sites have been blocked. (Try to log on to the New York Times home page from Iran and you’ll get nothing but a message in Farsi saying STOP!) Still, the regime’s efforts are tantamount to sweeping a beach. After 25 years, many Iranians have learned to negotiate the vast gray zone between “unauthorized” and “unlawful.”
Consider the scene at Jaam-e-Jam. I’ve been curious to see how the younger half lives, so one night we accompany Leila’s cousin Reza—and his new leather jacket—to his favorite haunt, the Jaam-e-Jam mall. Upstairs is a food court proffering pizza and burritos. This, it turns out, is north Tehran’s hottest nightspot, drawing huge crowds of 13- to 30-year-olds to socialize in one of the few public spaces available to them.
Reza strides into the food court like Tony Manero—I swear there’s a disco sound track inside that jacket—pops open a Red Bull, and exchanges high fives with a tableful of buddies. A flock of girls nearby shoot coy looks at the boys. Unless you’re married or otherwise related, it’s forbidden to consort with the opposite sex; to discourage this, two sullen guards patrol the area like fifties schoolmarms, armed not with rulers but with truncheons. No matter: the kids have cell phones. The boys simply beam the girls their numbers, and all commence to flirt telephonically while sitting 15 regulation feet apart.
We never made it to Hamadan. The bagh would have to wait.
Leila has spoken rapturously of her family’s ancestral home, in the western city of Hamadan. She spent childhood summers at her grandfather’s orchard, which the Mahmoudis refer to simply as the bagh, or garden. It was an idyllic time. Leila and Maryam would perch themselves in a sour-cherry tree and eat the fruit straight off the dewy branches; when they’d had their fill, they would fashion sour-cherry earrings to match their crimson-stained lips. On the grass below, their parents laid out Persian carpets and a bountiful picnic, chilling drinks in the stream that snaked through the orchard. (As in Tehran, an ingenious network of subterranean wells steered water down from the mountains.)
You could walk for hours across the bagh and never leave its confines. The air was rich with the humic tang of the soil. “It smelled like life,” Farhad recalls. Water flowed magically from underground, replenishing peaches and persimmons, and apricots. On late-summer nights the skies would fill with thunderclouds, pouring nourishment down from above.
We’d hoped to visit the bagh ourselves, but time got away from us. Instead, on our final night in Tehran, we gather at Farhad’s apartment, open a leather-bound album, and pore over the yellowing images within: Leila laughing in her tree, her parents lounging on a carpet below, Maryam filling teacups from a samovar by the brook. Most of the photos were taken in the spring of 1980.
It strikes me that in the spring of 1980, nightly newscasts in America led off with “Day 109,” “Day 110,” “Day 111,” counting the days since the hostages had been taken. In small-town New Hampshire, a boy who didn’t know better sang along to “Bomb Iran.” In the spring of 1980 Tehran was a madhouse of street thugs and burning flags. And in a stone-walled orchard 250 miles away, a girl sat in a cherry tree—shielded, for the moment, from the chaos unfolding beyond the bagh.
Gazing over the skyline of Tehran, we reflect on what has changed—and what has not. We peer into the windows of a high-rise across the street. A party is under way on the 15th floor. Inside, the women can take off their scarves and breathe. An ingenious network of underground channels—black-market boys, friends of friends—has brought liquor, wine, caviar, and other nourishment, all flowing in magically from who knows where. The night above Tehran is cloudless, but the skies are surely filled with satellite signals, pouring the world down from above.
Leila flips through more old photos: the horse carts used to gather fruit, the pond at the center of the orchard, her father’s favorite walnut tree. “Next time,” she promises.
Maryam raises her teacup. “To Hamadan,” she says.
“To Hamadan, to Hamadan,” we reply, hoisting our cups to the west, toward the bagh, back to the garden. •
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