Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Garden

[Note: from here on I will refer to my aunt as “Ame (Aunt) Pari”]

Today was a day of big adventures. Dad and I had talked last night about going to his “garden”, a small plot that he has outside of town. I wanted Ame Pari and Maman to come of course, and he said of course they would. When I came over for lunch today, Ame Pari said she couldn't because she needed to go grocery shopping. I said I'd come with her, and we could go to the garden after. When dad arrived later in the afternoon, they began the complex negotiations that go with every event. The relative merits of going shopping outside town near the garden or inside town, whether or not to bring Maman, etc. of course all in Farsi. I kept my head down and studied a particularly pernicious Farsi letter (that has 4 iterations, depending on its placement in a word!) and when I came up for air it had all been settled.

Except of course that Maman immediately erupted in loud moans of complaint. “Mordam! Mordam!” (I'm dying!) and even more; “Ofdadam! Ofdadam!” (I'm falling! I'm falling!) as she sat demurely on the coach behind her walker. Further negotiations ensued in Farsi, and eventually I figured I should play my grandaughter card. “Be-ah!” I said (come!) She froze for a moment. And then continued yelling “Ofdadam! Ofdadam!” I asked for the translation of “It's ok, you can fall and still come!” Which, when delivered, was totally ineffective and possibly increased the level of wailing. Eventually between the 4 of us (me, dad, Ame Pari, and Teibah, the woman who they've hired to help out) we managed to bustle her out the door and into the elevator.  It was a bit claustrophobic, with the 5 of us plus walker, but down we went. 

Until. The elevator inexplicably halted near our floor. And wouldn't open. Sensing a great photo opportunity, I whipped out my camera and started snapping pictures while dad yelled our predicament into the intercom.   Maman even perked up for one picture.

Soon, the outer door was pried open by a maintenance guy on the other side, and then the inner door. Which presented another predicament; turns out that the elevator had decided to freeze between floors and about 2 feet above the ground floor. Which wasn't a problem for us able bodied folk, but Maman can barely shuffle to the dinner table with her walker. There ensued more chaotic shouting and gesturing. I (brilliantly) said “We can just lift her down!” I had to repeat it a few times until I was heard over the din, but then Dad immediately saw that this was indeed the thing to do. I jumped down and just in time whipped out the camera again sensing another fabulous photo op. And then oh did the wailing begin in earnest “Ofdadam! Ofdadam!” and I could no longer control the peels of laughter because now it was actually true. The look on Dad's face as the still wailing Maman was loaded onto his back was too much and I had to duck around the corner and just howl for a moment before returning to the scene. We got her down, and all loaded into the car as the wailings subsided. I have been bursting into spontaneous laughter since then just remembering this moment.  The pictures are a little dark but check out those facial expressions....Dad accused me of staging the whole thing just so i could have a good photo op.  

We drove out of town about a half hour and up into the mountains north of town, stopping on the way to get gas. The garden is a small fenced in area with walled terraces and about 40 fruit trees; mostly apple, also walnut, quince, plum... We set maman up at the top and then Ame Pari and I gathered up apples and walnuts from beneath the trees. I must say she is one bad-ass Aunt; she is 73, doesn't look a day over 50, is full of energy, charm, love and compassion AND climbed up one of the apple trees to pick a few out of reach ones in her high heels!! It felt so good to get out of the city and breath fresh, clean(er) air. Dad told me all about the various additions he'd built, walls here and there, and the various trees. He even has a plot where he's growing saffron flowers. Each purple flower that each has 2 stamens. The stamens are the saffron; if you grow 150 flowers you have enough for a gram of saffron. Eventually we all loaded back up to head home; stopping at a bakery on the way.

'And this is the toilet...'

Internet, Visitors, Time

I never thought too much about internet control as a form of cultural/societal oppression. And I didn't really realize the extent to which I rely on it to stay connected and in communication. Now it is an ever-present reality. I knew that Facebook was blocked here, but I promised everyone before leaving that I'd be blogging regularly. A friend had said “your blog is probably banned too” and I had laughed if off incredulously. Well, turns out....

So there's this code that appears in the URL box when you enter facebook, youtube, my blog's address....and I imagine many other websites that connect you to the world beyond Iran. It is this: F1-IPM. At home, Dad has an internet card that uses a dial-up connection. It often simply won't connect, and when it does, it frequently drops the connection and/or simply won't load a page. When a page does miraculoulsy load, it takes 45-60 seconds, sometimes more. Dad has a hard line as well as a filter blocker on his computer at work—tunrs out that's how you access facebook here. I went down to his office today for the supposed fast and easy internet access. Facebook tried to work, but then asked for verification via a code it sent to my cell phone which of course doesn't work here. It also offered the option of identifying friends but when I selected this option it said that I'd tried this option too many times for the hour. I also cockily imagining that I'd just throw up the many blogposts that I have been writing offline since I arrived. After discovering that my blog is also blocked, I tried it again on his computer with the filter blocker, switching the hardline back and forth between the two computers. I finally got the blog loaded, but every time each page loaded it was in a different language. Including cyrillic. I managed to make enough guesses to get signed in, but the computer wouldn't read any of my text or pic files. SO, I'll be sending the text and pics to my remote agent who will post on the blog. I'll also continue sending out the text and some pics via email when I have access to a hard line.

This all reinforces the cultural norm here—the main context for life are the immediate concerns of family and relationships. Meals are lengthy, visits common and do not require calling or even necessarily giving a specific time. For instance, on Saturday Pari told me that her friend was coming over the next day to meet me. “I don't know when she'll come, so I can't walk you to Dad's office” she told me. Today some random friend of Dad's wanted to talk to me on the phone. “Welcome to Iran! Welcome home!” he exclaimed over the phone. “I want to invite you to my house for dinner! And breakfast! And lunch!” “Good thing I'm very hungry” I told him. 

Another crazy thing is that I have not yet been able to determine what time it is here! And this is totally emblematic of life here. There is a certain fuzzyness to reality outside of the most immediate concerns. As far as I can tell, we are 7.5 hours ahead of Eastern time. But all clocks are different. In Pari's apartment, the clock is a half hour faster than that. When I try re-setting the time on my computer, there is no option for 7.5 hours. So it is possible that I am consistantly a half hour early or late; and it matters not at all. Time is measured in days, or chunks of the day; morning, afternoon. My friend is coming to visit “tomorrow”. I can't walk you to the office because she's coming in the “afternoon”.

Coming soon: portraits of Iranians. I am going to do a series of portraits, talking the people that I meet and asking them a series of questions, then taking their picture and posting. 

More Family

I sat with Pari on the floor of her bedroom after dinner tonight and chatted with her as she fixed the buttons on my manteau. The feeling was welcome, familiar, yet novel. It's this elusive, undefinable feeling of family. Something I've mostly felt the absence of, or witnessed from the outside. Like in Mexico with my friend Tanya's extended family, or various Thanksgivings over the years. I'm not sure where I came by this personal definition that I carry; it comes out something like, family is just there. No matter what, whatever the circumstance, you put aside whatever is in the way and be there. Its not necessarily a deeply intimate relationship in the way that I generally seek, but it is profoundly satisfying in a different way. And here, I'm seeing that this definition is mirrored in this culture. Of course, it helps that I adore Pari; she is sweet, loving, generous. She just came back from six years in San Diego, taking care of he daughter's child for the past 6 years until she can start school, and now cares for her mother full-time. Helps me understand how actually utterly normal it was that my Iranian grandparents uprooted completely and transplanted themselves to a totally foreign country, language and culture for two years to care for my sister and I.   

Pari says we should have a family reunion; and I can't help agreeing. I adore my “French” uncle Saeid and rarely see him. He and his family were exiled to France during the revolution as he was against the Shah but on the wrong side of Khomeini. When Sky and I got slightly stranded in Europe four years ago and basically showed up on his doorstep, he and his wife took us in unquestioningly, fed us amazing food, and took us all around town to the sites. His look and manner are nearly identical to Dad's, except....he's emotionally present, sweet, caring, and engaging. It is cathartic interacting with him. The reunion should be in Europe, Pari said, because the boys will have problems in Iran. There is a two year required military service for all men; 20-22 and the boys come back they may have to serve.

Pari is pretty tied to Maman-care right now, and its pretty full time. Maman is in extreme discomfort, spending most of her time moaning and complaining about various pains. I can't understand most of it but they've started translating. Today she was muttering from the kitchen “Mordam! Mordam!” Which means “I'm dying!” Its clearly difficult and wearing on Pari. Maman doesn't understand why she's in so much pain and discomfort, and doesn't know what to do about it. In one of the questions-as-distraction-sessions, I learned that she was married off to her husband when she was 13 years old. He was 29 (though his ID card may have been wrong and he actually may have been only 25). She was not excited about it, though he moved in with her family so she escaped the often terrible reign of the dreaded mother-in-law. But I still can't think of this arrangement as anything other than legally sanctioned rape.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Shopping and More

There are fashion demands here, and I don't currently meet them. So off we went to the mall to find a manteau (long but fitted coat that is the new chador) and other proper coverage for me. This experience was such a bizarre juxtaposition of the ostensible conservative repression of women's bodies here. The first store had totally adorable young guys working the counter, and as I tried on a manteau (fashionable, fitted coat that is the acceptable outer wear) I found myself in the odd position of having these two men peer closely at me to estimate my size. The dressing room door didn't close all the way, and I kept forgetting to re-don my headscarf between rounds. Also Pari just popped the door open at one point to check on me! So weird and ironic that this is all in the pursuit of covering up my body, but to get there I find myself more exposed than I ever would be in an American store. The fashion is exact and fascinating; as tight as possible wherever possible while maintaining the illusion of looseness. Pari had fun picking things out for me, and I think the two of us will go again. I managed to get a coat that fits the bill.

Before coming home we stopped for ice cream; I got one scoop of saffron, one scoop of pomegranate w/chocolate. As with the clothing store clerks, as we sat eating Dad engaged the two fellows behind the counter and before long had them laughing. Such a lovely difference from American culture; the assumption of relatedness.

The woman that helps out with Maman (above) has told Pari she will leave at the end of the month. Pari was sitting with me teaching me the alphabet today when she came over and they started talking. It got more and more heated—the woman was on the verge of tears, then shouting. I scrupulously studied my alphabet. The interaction stopped abruptly when Dad came in, as she had to get up to put her headscarf back on. Dad sat down with Pari and started speaking quietly in English, Dad saying something about talking to this person at work about some woman, but some other woman may be better because she is known to the family but she is in the north and doesn't want to come without a commitment because she has to sell her cow. At this point, I couldn't keep a straight face any longer and their ensued a series of jokes about me caring for the cow since I know how to milk, or the cow moving into one of the spare bedrooms in Dad's apartment or staying on one of his balconies.

Shopping part 2

Dad dropped Pari and I in the Tajlis district this afternoon, where there were just as many fashionable Manteaus as chadors walking around.  We went into a few shops that were more on the chador side than the fashionable side, and Pari dismissed them quickly with a wave of her hand. Then he dropped us at the bazaar and we checked out a few stores before finding one with something more like what I was looking for; loose enough to be legal, but fashionable enough to where after leaving Iran. And enjoy while I'm here. I found one I liked which met the approval of the salesman, Pari, and another woman and her daughter who were also shopping there. I love how everyone just assumes connection; when this girl came out of the changing room with her garment, she asked us all including me if we liked it. I asked Pari how much it was and she muttered quietly, “40, but i'll pay 35”. (That's toumans; comes out to about $13). Then the 3 of them engaged in an INTENSE bout of high quality bargaining with the salesmen, complete with the full range of emotions: shock, horror, dismissiveness, reassurance, gestures and glances, side conversations amongst the three ladies, attempts to leave the store, and finally acquiescently reaching for wallets. The dialogue escalated to mild shouting and then we left. Later she said she'd ended up paying $38, which she felt was a rip off. 

We went back outside to meet Dad and the car; on the way we passed a bevy of cops giving out tickets. When we found Dad double parked a half block up, he jumped out of the car to go check on the price of transcribing some video tapes in a nearby shop. Pari told him the cops were close, but he said he would hurry. Of course, 2 minutes later, there they were; foot on the bumper making out a ticket. Pari shouted and leaped of of the car, then put it in neutral and coasted forward still shouting (she doesn't drive). The cop chased us down and she kept on rolling; finally Dad appeared and we shouted at him to get in and DRIVE! laughing and recounting what had just happened. 

khomeini and khameni mural on the side of a building; their paired pictures are everywhere!
On the way home Pari out of nowhere asked me if I was interested in Lasik eye surgery, and then asked if I wanted to get a nose job!! Apparently “there is no-one in Iran who doesn't have one”. They told me, what if you are interested in someone and they didn't like you because of your nose....and after attempting to explain that I have no problem with the way I look, finally I had to just explain straight out that I've never been seriously interested in someone who was not interested in me. That stopped things cold and Pari said, “Of course, it's only if you want it.” 

I'm starting to get into the swing of Persian conversation; lively, with lots of interrupting and talking over each other, lots of emotional expressiveness and a mix of pushiness and acquiescence. Feels pretty natural actually.

Arriving in Iran

My flights were all quite pleasant, if crammed. The NY-Istanbul flight was amazing; full of folks going to Turkey, Africa, Russia/Eastern Europe, Iran, seatmates were going to Kenya and Tanzania. On the airbus from plane to airport I was standing between orthodox Jews speaking Hebrew and two Persian women speaking Farsi. Aaah, right at home. The airport in Istanbul was a crush of people and chaos; it was totally unclear where to go for my flight and I peeked over at peoples' passports as they pushed and rushed; Mongolia, Azerbaijan, one point an older Mongolian man said something to me and picked up my violin; I took it as a kindly offer to help me with my copious bags/coats. And then a minute later he almost walked away with it! I grabbed it back (of course I'd had my eyes glued to it the whole time) and spent the next 5 minutes wondering if he was being sweet and forgetful, or if he had more nefarious intentions.

I found a bathroom for the costume change and headed over to the terminal for the Iranian flight. It was quite subdued and mostly consisted of men. The flight was not too packed and included a boisterous sports team. One bad-ass stewardess spoke firmly to one of the sport team guys, “DON'T TOUCH ME!” and then, “I'm sorry. I AM sorry. I'm sorry that I had to tell you four times!!” I gave her a look of “Jeez, can't believe these creeps” and we had an awesome men-can-be-such-pigs moment.

We landed in Tehran and someone told me to go to the foreigner's passport line; the man there was very sweet and after chatting with me, stamped my passport and assured me I'd have no problem exiting the country. Um....yeah. Not that I'd asked. There was a TV playing “news” which mostly consisted of quotes from President Ahmadinejad about peace and prosperity. Dad met me right away, and as he leaned over to help pick up my bags he said a bunch of things in Farsi. I nearly started crying, wondering if it was somehow dangerous to speak English publicly as he was looking at me as though I should obviously understand what he was saying. So I just nodded and followed, and a minute later he realized and laughed, “Oh I'm speaking to you in Farsi! Hahah!” Ha ha ha.

We found the car; he said it'd be an hour from the airport which seemed alright. Then we missed a turn, and went down another road until,

“Oh yeah, they haven't finished this road yet” (back the other way) and “Oh, yeah, they close this road after midnight because they are still working on it” and finally “Oh, this road is closed too.” “Now I don't know how to get home!” At this point I was completely out of juju and just closed my eyes and went to sleep. 2.5 hours later we finally arrived. 

Dad's apartment is huge and weirdly furnished; a cross between ugly german leather couches and weird Louie the 15th chairs. Also ceramic logs in the “fireplace” and random christmas ornaments/plastic flowers for decoration. 

Needless to say I was exhausted but also starving. We ate bread and feta, and he cracked walnuts from his trees and fed me apple juice from his apples, freshly juiced. Yum!!! We shot the shit and ate for a while, then spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to get the internet to work. We failed. Finally I laid down to sleep around 4AM Tehran time. EEK!!!

First Day: Family, Family, Family

Today I woke up and looked out of my balcony at this sprawling city of 12-14 MILLION people. It is ridiculously huge and of course very poorly planned. We went over to Dad's sister Pari's apartment in the building next door. My Aunt greeted me “welcome home!” and kissed me a bunch. I knew my grandmother was not well, and she was indeed lying on the couch looking so tiny and frail. I leaned over the back to hug and kiss her and she grabbed hold of me, kissing and hugging me and not letting me go. Tears welled up and I just couldn't hold it back anymore—Dad translated her “Do you remember me?” and my “Of course!!” Finally I had to excuse myself to the bathroom and just sob for awhile.

We sat down to lunch—a spread of beautiful saffron/currant rice, chicken with sauce, and salad. After lunch, tea and sweets. Then fruit. 

Later Dad handed me the first portion of his memoirs that he has started writing. It is fascinating and comprehensive and clearly written by a Persian with extra flowery language, bizarre poetic metaphors and many illustrative little stories. I read that his father always thought his birth brought bad luck and that his younger brother's birth brought good luck. Somehow that explains so much. Maman is unwell and shuffles unhappily between kitchen and sofa letting out little grunting moans. Dad encouraged me to ask her questions as this helps her forget her discomfort so I asked what she remembered from her time staying with us in the states for 2 years.
“You and Nike would dress up and put on these shows for me!”
“Did you know what we were saying?”
“No I would just watch.” Which answers another question; what was I passionate about as a kid? Dress-up and drama! Again, explains so much.