I arrived in Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport in June of 2001. It was my first time returning to Iran since my family’s escape. The last time I was in that airport, it had had a different name, eighteen years back, when I was six years old. Then, my parents had carried a single suitcase each. My mother had taken my hand firmly. She whispered something to my father before he separated from us. He got into the security checkpoint line for men. My mother walked with me to the checkpoint for women, where the Sisters stood behind folding tables. Women ahead of us had their luggage opened, gutted. The Sisters threw the contents onto the tables and the floor. They opened bottles, dug into the pockets of coats, tore linings. Some women were led into curtained rooms for further inspections. There were loud arguments. Crying. Whispered bribes. Women pled to be allowed to keep their rings, their necklaces. Everything of value was confiscated. The law was that you couldn’t take any gold or currency out of the country. Guards stood nearby, young men holding big guns. My mother’s turn came.
“Where are you going?”
“Europe. For vacation.”
“When will you return?”
“Are you taking any jewelry or cash out of the country?”
“What’s in your suitcase?”
“Clothes. A pot or two for cooking, a hot plate.”
“You need pots for cooking on vacation?”
“I cook my family’s meals. I don’t trust foreign food to be halal.”
The Sister in my recollection of that day in the airport looks like any other Sister. Faceless. Draped in black cloth. Floating through the streets, in the parks, in the corridors of my primary school. They hid razors beneath their chadors, wiped lipstick off young girls by slashing their lips. They arrested women for wearing a color too close to the shade of lecherous intent. They looked for a lock of revealed hair, listened for a laugh too loud. They called over the Brothers in fatigues. Bearded, armed, the Brothers broke down the doors of homes. Tore through rooms with cyclonic fury, searching for bottles of wine, records and tapes, films, books, musical instruments. Weddings were hushed. Classrooms were monitored. Everything hidden.
My father stood in the line manned by the Brothers. We waited for him by the gate until we finally boarded the plane together. I don’t remember much about the rest of that journey. We lived in various rooms in different European countries for a while. I remember nights where adults I didn’t know sat around a table talking with my parents while I played quietly in a corner. They, like my parents, were waiting for their interviews at the American embassy. They shared notes, advice, stories about other refugees who had been denied visas and forced to return, and worse stories, still, about those who tried to cross borders in other ways. The interim between that last moment in Tehran’s airport and the first time I arrived at Los Angeles International Airport is the hazy dreamscape of childhood. Loneliness. Uncertainty. An endless afternoon of looking out of an unfamiliar window at an unfamiliar street. Fear. But I remember clearly the last day I had been in this airport.
Now, I got out of my seat and checked one more time to make sure my hijab was complete. My scarf tight and safety pinned beneath my chin, my manteau buttoned. Then, I walked off the airplane, terrified that I had made some error in my dress. A man stood at the gate, holding a placard with my last name written in English. The rest of the passengers lined up for customs.
I had listened to the stories back in Los Angeles from the relatives and friends of my parents who decided to return to Iran to visit family or take care of their abandoned homes, properties, shuttered businesses, to find the photographs of their children, their ancestors, their heirlooms, to dig up the jewels of their deceased grandmothers, to inquire about bank accounts, lost friends, to tend to the grave of their dead fathers.
“The customs officials look for any reason to extract a bribe,” they said.
“There is so much corruption,” they said.
“It is better now than it was, they have relaxed a bit,” they said.
“There is so much poverty, so much suffering.”
“It is fine.”
“It is dangerous.”
“They’ve destroyed the country.”
The customs officials were said to tear apart books. To hold up personal belongings to the light and criticize the traveler for indecency. Sometimes, people were identified, their names matched to family members on the Blacklist. Their passports were confiscated, and they found themselves imprisoned in Iran until the officials decided if and when they could leave. So, when I found out that there existed an option to purchase a special pass that allowed travelers to skip the customs line for an expedited and more lenient search, I paid the surcharge.
The man with the placard greeted me with a bow of his head, took my carry-on from me and asked me to follow him. We walked down a long hallway to a door. He opened it, then stepped aside, implying that I should enter first. I walked in prepared for a dark cell, a single lightbulb dangling over a table, a few metal folding chairs. But instead, that door opened to an expansive room with high ceilings, outfitted like the receiving rooms of rich Iranians, all tufted antique French chairs and sparkling chandeliers and silk Tabriz rugs and gold-gilded coffee tables bearing crystals bowls brimming with fruits and nuts and marzipan. I could have been at an old aunt’s luncheon in Beverly Hills. Save for the portraits of the dead Ayatollah on the walls. Oil paintings of him in ornate golden frames. Here, the Ayatollah smiling, his hand raised, blessing a crowd. There, the Ayatollah, serious, with a woman covered completely in a black chador in the background, a faceless entity, an unidentifiable presence, just a woman, any woman, in black hijab, perhaps the Ayatollah’s wife. Portrait after portrait of the dead supreme leader’s countenance, hanging from any wall you looked at.
The placard man told me to make myself comfortable, then asked, “Would you prefer cola, sherbet, or tea?”
I knew I had a role to play, that the costume of my hijab requested a specific female character. My understanding of this identity was a construction of contradictions. A composite of the way the West saw Iranian women, and the actuality of Iranian women. It borrowed from the front pages of newspapers and the covers of magazines the photographs of women in black hijab, crowds of them beneath bold headlines, caught with their mouths open, their fists raised in the air. It included stock characters in movies, the extras caricatured by Hollywood as fanatical, vicious, ignorant. Newsreels of a woman screaming in a language the viewer wouldn’t understand. My idea of Iranian femininity incorporated the prejudices of my teachers and the parents of my American friends. And then, in stark contrast, there was the other part of that portrait pieced together from the actual women in my family and community, who were not fanatical, or vicious, or ignorant, who did not wave their fists or rage in tongues. It also took from their stories, about the way women in Iran were before the Islamic theocracy and the way women were forced to be after. Women who agreed to the hijab willingly, and everybody else.
And still another element. Aside from the Islamic laws mandated by the government, which most of the people I knew abominated, there were still the cultural expectations of proper female behavior. Modesty was the most obvious attribute of an upstanding Iranian girl, but there was a whole spectrum of what that modesty meant to each family. The Islamic State’s interpretation was on the far right of that scale, my family’s interpretation closer to the left. To my parents, hijab was a social travesty. But short shorts, midriff tops and makeup belonged to the American girls. Sexual segregation in the public sphere was backwards. But boyfriends were strictly forbidden. So my construction of a feminine self was a bit Frankenstein. I had this idea of what I needed to be as a young woman in order to meet the gender expectations of my Iranian community in Los Angeles, but that idea was compounded by another identity, still. My American self, created outside the home and, perhaps, in protest of the parameters of self within that home, was only revealed when I was certain there were no witnesses who might report back to my family about whom I had been in the public sphere.
Now, standing in Mehrabad International Airport, returning to Iran by myself as a young woman after eighteen years of living in the United States as an immigrant, I needed to present a persuasive third self, the Iranian woman who seemingly accepted the State’s dictates of female dress and decorum. The man with the placard asked me again what I would like to drink. I took my ramshackle idea of Iranian woman, pieced together from the news stories, and the personal stories, the soundbites, the lectures and all the other unspoken ways girls are told how to be, and I had to answer this man, now, about what I wanted to drink. My throat parched, my heart in my mouth, I replied, “A cup of water, please.”
“Sparkling or flat?”
“Flat.” In case sparkling suggested daring sophistication, or something.
He bowed his head and left to fetch the water. Another man entered the room wearing a dark suit, white shirt beneath, buttoned all the way up, no necktie. Because to wear a necktie in Iran meant that you aligned yourself with the West. So the authorities, the custodians of the republic, never wore them. But they did wear beards. Because beards indicated that you were conservative. This guy, with his buttoned shirt and dark suit and beard and tieless neck carried himself with an air of authority. I looked up at him, quivering, like a mouse cornered in the kitchen beneath the ominous shadow of a frying pan. He smiled down upon me and politely requested my passport. I reached into my backpack and gave it to him with a trembling hand. My Iranian passport. With a photo of me in it wearing a headscarf and a look of utmost piety. My American passport, and my American photo with my hair all wild and my eyes all wild and my lips glistening, lay hidden in the lining of my backpack. Because an American passport indicated disloyalty to Iran. I held out my Iranian passport and the tieless bearded man took it, smiled once more, then said he’d return as soon as they checked my records and located my luggage.
A family was escorted in. There were a whole lot of other gilded coffee tables and cushioned settees in that large room where the family could have sat, but the matriarch of the family came to the little section where I was, followed by her entourage of female relatives. They made themselves comfortable, asked the waiter for a round of tea, then greeted me. I responded in my best Farsi, with a shy hello. The matriarch asked what brought me to Iran.
It was the loss of my father that brought me here. Because I don’t think I ever came to know him. He remained to me that mythical entity of childhood called father. He was strong. He had power. He could lift me up. He could terrify me with a look. He knew secrets about the world, the way things worked, like how to drive mountainous roads in the fog, how to find the ocean, how to whistle while riding a bike. I was utterly in love with him, in awe of him. Until he became sick. And grew weak. Until I heard him crying, secretly, in his room, and came to understand that he wasn’t a mythical entity, but a man. He died before I had a chance to know that man. He remained a stranger to me. So I told her about my father and how I hoped to learn something of him here, in Iran. She told me they were returning from a shopping trip to Europe. Then, the matriarch began an onslaught of questions. Who I was, my age, where I grew up, my late father’s full name, my mother’s maiden name, where they grew up, what I studied and the level of my degree, if I worked, where I worked, did I have a fiancé?
I answered her questions as best as I could in my broken Farsi, without really asking myself why she took such interest in me. I answered her the way I imagined she wanted me to answer. When she asked if I came back to Iran searching for a husband, I told her that if an honest and good man came along, I was certainly not opposed to meeting him, but it wasn’t something I sought. Then she asked if he had to be rich. I told her that purity of spirit was enough wealth in a man.
That’s when it happened.
She leaned in, breathless, took both my hands in hers, looked deep into my eyes and said, “You must meet my eldest son. You are a perfect match for him.”
I didn’t see that coming. I knew the customs of khastegari. My mother and the other women in the family spoke of how they dated back in the old country, but I had never experienced it firsthand. I knew the stories, though. The mothers and grandmothers of young men searching high and low for eligible young women. The undercover exposés of reputations, not just of the young people involved in the relationship, but of their aunts, uncles, ancestors four generations back. Uncovering of genetic deficiencies or gambling addictions or debts or indiscretions, all before the formal introduction, the granting of permission, the chaperoned dates.
My mother had suitors. Formal ones. But she fell in love with my father, and their marriage was a rare one, a love match between a Jewish girl and a Muslim boy, the West Side Story of the Middle East. But relatives, particularly my mother’s second cousin, had epic khastegari stories. This one aunt was so beautiful and so wealthy, suitors used to line up outside the door and wait their turn to sit with her in the parlor of their mansion in Tehran. Every day, lines of boys outside the door waited to be in her presence for a few minutes. And she’d come down the grand staircase, looking like a young Elizabeth Taylor, in the latest fashion from London, miniskirts and disco boots, Emilio Pucci dresses in silk or bell bottom jeans. She was the It Girl, and the boy she finally chose from the eager mass of suitors looked like he could have been one of the Beatles, handsome, with lamb chop sideburns, from an equally distinguished family of considerable wealth.
And here I was, not ten minutes back in Iran, where I had managed to stumble right into the rituals of an age-old tradition and a potential suitor. I was beside myself. It felt almost staged, too perfect a comedy. This woman, the matriarch of a traditional and upper-class family in Iran, deemed me suitable for her son? I had worried that my Americanness would seep out of me, that I wouldn’t be able to present myself as a wholesome Iranian girl here, in Iran, where the most discerning would certainly see right through my act. The matriarch returned, followed by her son. If the initial interview was a comedy improvised by the universe, this boy was the punchline. I’m not a cruel person, but this kid, my age, couldn’t have been better cast. Tall, ugly, awkward, lanky, collared shirt buttoned up and tucked into pressed jeans, and all nose. He walked in behind his mother, took one look at me, then sat down with such bored entitlement, you’d think he was the shah’n shah.
I had to turn my face and hold my breath and pinch my thigh very hard underneath my manteau to keep from laughing out loud. The matriarch read my behavior as a sign of my modesty, poor girl, so shy, she couldn’t even look directly at her boy, which made me even more desirable of a candidate in her eyes. Meanwhile, she attempted to start a conversation between me and her prince, to which I could only respond in monosyllabic words, since I was choking on the tongue I kept biting to keep from laughing. Luckily, before I exploded, the waiter came back with a fresh pot of brewed tea, another pot of hot water, and glass teacups on a fine silver tray.
When I was a girl, whenever my parents had guests, my father would ask me to serve the tea. The serving of tea carried heavy social implications. It spoke volumes to those present about the type of girl I was. There was a whole ceremony to each step, from the way a glass was poured, to the level and the shade of the tea, to the arrangement on the tray, the way in which it was carried, to whom it was served first, the direction of the gaze and the correct intonation of the voice as it was offered. My father critiqued my etiquette after. If I carried out the presentation with mastery, he bestowed upon me the ultimate word of approval, that I had been a khanoom, a lady.
While my parents escaped Iran specifically so that their daughter could grow up free of the laws mandated by the Islamic theocracy to police women, they carried with them, from the old country, a clear sense of what a girl ought to be. She ought to be obedient. Modest in dress, in voice, in thought, in action. Intelligent, but not so much as to scare away a man. Soft spoken. She should dance well, with delicate wrist gestures and tosses of the hair and undulations of the hip. Play the piano. Blush at the applause of her parents’ friends and relatives after the performance on the piano. She must be shy. Reserved. Dignified. And, of course, innocent of all things relating to sex. Until the night of her wedding, an Iranian girl, and the adults responsible for her, protected her honor like vigilantes. That word, honor. A girl’s honor meant a mind and a body untouched, unsullied by even the knowledge of sex. Lewd girls, a rather expansive category, not only shamed their families, but rarely managed to land themselves worthy husbands and marred the reputations of the other girls in that family. And it didn’t matter that my parents were university-educated or grew up in Tehran during the reign of the Shah and went to discos and listened to rock and roll and drank and smoked and now railed at the barbaric treatment of women by the Islamic Regime. The idea of proper femininity sank its roots deep, deep into the psychic humus of the people, so that neither the love songs of the Beatles nor gyrations of Elvis’s hips nor the dreamy-eyed American actors with their brazen brand of sexuality on the silver screen managed to really shift the limitations of Iranian female sexual expression. And when this generation of Iranians emigrated to the West, they packed this idea alongside their underwear, and brought it with them, and demanded, beyond all else, that the girls in the family continue to adhere to the old ways in their new country.
I used to leave the house with a change of clothes and lip gloss hidden in my backpack. I overachieved in school to hide my deviance. Sexual longings, whenever repressed, amplify and leave in their wake tremendous guilt. Because I broke a commandment, of the stone tablet variety, my identity was forged through the fire of that transgression, and I lived with a lot of guilt. When I left Los Angeles to return to Iran, it felt like climbing back up Mount Zion after the night of debauchery at the foothills. I thought I reeked of it. Yet that matriarch had held my hands and had come in real close, and she didn’t notice the scent, but rather, identified me as a suitable marriage candidate for her son. And now, the waiter had brought in the tea, set it on the gilded coffee table, and here sat the matriarch, and here sat my future husband, and here I was, percolating with joy for this opportunity to play out such a fantastic scene.
A young woman’s wooing of a potential suitor is not so much of the boy in question, as it is of the boy’s mama. The matriarch reached for the teapot. I insisted on serving. She sat back. Eyes narrowed, waiting. The rest of the women waited, watched, calculated. I stood up, gracefully. I turned my face away from the boy. I poured that first glass with precision, from the pot of brewed tea, then diluted it with the pot of hot water until I reached the right shade of amber, the right level in the cup, and I held that tea glass out to the matriarch with doe-like humility. Then, I served the other waiting women, in order of age, the eldest first. Finally, I poured the boy a glass of tea. I extended it to him, looking down at the floor like a demure maiden. He took it from me. I paused a moment before retracting my hand. Then I held out the silver bowl of rock sugar with a slight glance in his direction, waiting for him to select one to put in his mouth or drop in his tea, whatever way he liked it. After he took a piece of rock sugar, I took one, too, just a small piece, not too much. I looked up at him and put that piece of sugar in my mouth to suck. Slowly. Such innuendos, such subtleties of courtship are necessary in a highly sexually repressive state. This seduction of her son, acted out without the slightest hint of immodesty, just floored the mama of my future husband. Such a wholesome girl, so shy, so reserved, so respectful, and so well versed in the customs, despite being raised in the United States? And on top of all that, the visa to America that came with the package!
“All that is left,” she said, “is to request your uncle’s permission.”
In the meantime, I had forgotten completely about the tieless bearded guy who held my passport. Until he cleared his throat behind me, apologized for interrupting our dialogue, handed my passport back with a smile, and said that my luggage awaited me downstairs in baggage claim.
That was it? The inquisition I had prepared for came from a rather unlikely source for a rather unexpected reason. Didn’t this man want to know about my religious background? Or my political ideologies? Or my familial connection to several names on the Blacklist? Or my disloyalty to my country of birth, and why I chose to become a citizen of America? He smiled. He handed me my passport. He told me where to find my luggage and mentioned that it remained untouched. Then, bearded, tieless man, custodian of the regime, said, rather sincerely, “Welcome back. I hope you find what you have come seeking.” He bowed, humbly, and left.
I turned to find the matriarch beaming, and the boy slouched in his chair, a bit of spittle on the corner of his lip, with a bit more interest in me, now that he knew I liked to suck my rock sugar. “Well, let’s go and find your uncle,” the matriarch said.
We took the escalator down from the lounge. And there stood Behrooz. A giant of a man. Tall, with mirth in his eyes, straight of back and proud and so happy to see me. I ran to him, into his open arms, into the safety of his embrace.
“Everything went well?” he asked.
“I have a little problem,” I said.
He noticed the matriarch standing behind me, and behind her, the entourage of women and the nose boy. She took no time to introduce herself, list my merits, congratulate him on our reunion, praise him on what a gem of a girl I appeared to be. “My son and your niece have taken an interest in one another. Would you be open to the two of them seeing each other?”
And Behrooz said, “Certainly. I’ll give you my phone number.”
The blood drained from my face. Cold sweat. Maybe this wasn’t some universal jest, played out for my entertainment. Maybe this was how young, unsuspecting girls were forced into marriages by well-meaning relatives. My uncle wrote down his phone number for her, along with the family name. She then turned to me and bade me farewell until, of course, my first date with her son, where she, too, would be in attendance, along with a couple of aunts and maybe an elderly grandmother. After a rather forward kiss on both my cheeks, she walked off to where servants and a chauffeur waited for her and her family, leaving me bewildered in her wake.
Just then, a group of girls walked by. They wore their headscarves loosely, revealing their hair. They had red painted lips, wore high heels, tight jeans and tailored manteaus that hugged their curves. They looked like models. They stood nearby, and one took out a pack of cigarettes and offered it to her friends. They turned to a stationed guard and asked him for a light. He smiled obligingly and lit their cigarettes. The girls thanked him, turned to one another, talking out loud. They openly looked at the single men who walked by, whispered their assessments, and laughed.
“You haven’t been in Iran an hour and you managed to snag the most eligible bachelor in Tehran?” Behrooz said. I turned to look at him. I didn’t know how long I had been staring at those girls. Behrooz put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Did you know that family has a monopoly on the manufacturing of screws and nails in all of Iran?” He took hold of my luggage and started walking toward the exit. “All those buildings out there, held together by that family alone. Your suitor is the heir of a tremendous fortune. Congratulations. You’ll be very well taken care of.” I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t trust the earth beneath my feet. The laws I had expected to govern the universe here didn’t seem to apply. Where were the angry Sisters? Why had that bearded, tieless Brother spoken kindly to me? Why didn’t this stationed guard harass these girls for indecency? And if not for the restrictions imposed by the State, weren’t these girls worried that somebody who knew one of them might see them and make them the subject of rumors and gossip that would inevitably lead to the shame of their whole family? I noticed Behrooz still watching me, with concern now.
“I don’t think that boy is right for me,” I said to him.
“Of course not.” He laughed and patted me on the back. “I was joking. When your future mother-in-law calls, I’ll just mention that we are Jewish and that will bring an abrupt end to this love story.”
It was June, and the heat came in gusts through the automatic doors each time they slid open to where taxi cabs honked, while people loaded and unloaded suitcases and embraced madly, or wept, or stood vacant-eyed, waving goodbye.
“I don’t recognize anything here,” I said.
I didn’t know how to step forward, how to enter the world that waited outside that exit. How to be. Who to be. My last memory of the country beyond those automatic doors was the morning of our escape. I lay in the backseat of my parents’ car on our way to this airport. I looked up at the stretch of sky, interrupted by the passing buildings and telephone lines, and I understood that I was losing something. I tried to memorize the shade of blue, the gold outline of the gray concrete highrises as the sun rose behind them, reflected in the glass of their windows. Beyond that last memory, I knew nothing about this place, this vatan that both belonged and did not belong to me. I spoke the language in fragments. I knew the culture in pieces. The narrative of Iran was a disjointed story for me, told by a hundred contending voices, each claiming authority. And here I stood, a young woman, returned . . . home?
Behrooz held out his hand. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Just observe, quietly, for a while. Soon, you’ll come to know it as your own.” I nodded, took his hand and we walked toward that exit, the doors that opened and shut, opened and shut.