“Salam” I said over Telegram.
Daughters of Tehran: A Story of Friendship, Loss & Discovery
“Aleyke Salam” the next voice followed suit.
“Salam be rooye mahetoon“, said the third melodic voice.
It’s the familiar voice of our dear friend, Shima, greeting us back from 7000 miles away.
Our birthplace- the sweet soil that has suffered so much and was left bereft of us, her daughters who resentfully fled to far away lands seeking safety, security and autonomy.
Neither rose nor nightingale are spared the pain of love and separation. One rends its garment, the other crying yearns.
My Iran, known for its delicious epicurean gastronomical delights, beautiful handwoven carpets, detailed miniature paintings, collections of Poetry handwritten in calligraphy, breathtaking architecture decorated with exquisite mosaic tile work, haunting chant of the muezzin calls, Sufism alongside Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and The Baha’i faith.
It’s of ancient Iranian instruments, the Donbak, Sitar, and Kamancheh playing soothing, almost hypnotic melodies of classical Persian music meant to help listeners escape their thoughts and emotions and feel closer to their spirituality.
It’s from a bygone time in our childhood where dreams and hopes have been replaced with unforgettable memories. Memories engraved into the hard drive of our mind’s data base. Can we even remotely and coherently articulate nostalgia?
Honestly, conjuring memories to language seems too linear and flat. It’s a relentless challenge similar to trying to write a novel with half the alphabet.
Shima is visiting her family for the next six weeks in Tehran. The mere thought of her back home makes me longingly ache, yearn and hopelessly crave to be there with her.
Shima makes us an offer we can’t refuse. She asks us to join her. Sure, why not?
Indeed, Azita and I decide to travel along with her. Well much to our dismay, we are not exactly physically traveling with her to Iran. But we will be going on a virtual trip and exploring the next six weeks vicariously through her and visiting all the sites, smells and tastes of our childhood motherland.
Join us on this dreamy tale as we tour and implore the Iran of our youth as we knew her and as we get to know her all over again.
“OMG, describe what you ate…every bite, including the faloodeh. Tomorrow I want you to have kabob with rice and the egg yolk mixed in and then Pashmak for dessert, then the grilled balal. After that go and have the gerdoo khees,” Azita breathlessly demands. Her excitement exceeding her usual calm demeanor.
My brain completely turns into mush as I’m transported back to when I was five.
What seems a simple salutation amongst three friends has in actuality far more profound implications.
It’s of fond vivid, if also selective, memories of my distant past being a carefree child, playing and enjoying life in a fluid, flexible manner.
From time to time, we tend to drift back and reminisce our precious childhood memories and it hypnotically engulfs us. It reminds us of the simple joyous things when we were buoyant, elated and full of life.
Our mind, like a video, begins with recollections of the most innocent phase of our life and we sporadically get these flashbacks of the past and suddenly we’re in the middle of our old school conversing with our best friend.
My oldest memory is of my best friend Roshanak. It’s the first day of school filled with magic and wonder as eight year old Roshanak and I jubilantly giggle and hug each other. I still lucidly remember as we would show each other our newly bought school briefcases filled with school supplies and smell the multi arrays of new fruity erasers we had discovered.
Unfortunately, Roshanak joonam, you’ve also taken residence in my memories as I lost track of your whereabouts back in 1980. I heard you emigrated to France. I terribly miss you #Roshanak. Do you remember as we used to trick the Lycee Francais security guards to pass and go across the street and eat the most delicious pizza at Shahram’s Pizzeria? How about the Maltese with her puppies under the temporary built classes?
Shima snaps me out of my reverie by sending us a picture of her lunch “Kaleh Pache” (a Persian delicacy similar to Menudo only with beef) and captions it “ Don’t judge me! I only had the Zaboon (tongue)”. I pour myself three fingers of of 18 year old Macallan, give them a virtual cheers, gulp down the dignified smoky spirit and reply back “Don’t judge me as I take this shot with my virtual Kaleh Pacheh!!!”
Meanwhile, Azita altogether and might I add, exhaustively negates the entire “Kaleh Pache” and has her heart and soul well-endowed that Shima will deliver us with a better menu. I’m guessing she doesn’t care much for that delicacy!!!!
At this point, Shima sends us a photo of organic green olives marinated in olive tapenade and pomegranate molasses. As I’m salivating and thinking how I can possibly replicate the recipe, Azita, clearly agitated by not seeing the menu she desires, responds in farsi, “maan zeytoon doost nadaram (I dislike olives)…this picture does nothing for me…why are you not eating the stuff Nora and I talked about with you…..I never mentioned olives…..tou een hameh cheez rafti zeytoon mikhoree (In all that you could eat, you found olives to eat)?? ey vay, boro baba”
At this point, I’m dying of laughter, rib-tickleling-rolling on the floor-belly-ache laughter, thinking along the same thoughts as Azita but still excited about the new and improved Iran. Shima has other ideas…..she cooly responds “those things don’t exist any longer.”
Oh that irked Azita as she responds, “ ehem, what?? what do you mean, it doesn’t exist anymore….get with the program girl…where’s my toot, my corn, my kabob and my gerdoo khees? Of course, it exists. oh my god, I feel ill! Nora, looks like I’ve got to get up right away and go to Iran myself!!!!”
She half-jokingly says, “what have they done to my country?”
As if on queue, I’m once again regressed back to long ago. Now, I see in my mind’s eye, a wistful movie of family pool parties. They were an immense source of pleasure to me. The AC is broken. It’s too hot and humid to stay indoors so we all decide to jump in the pool. Sitting on “Dayee’s” (Maternal uncle) shoulder as he flips me backward into the pool was probably one of the most diverting, entertaining buffoonery of my childhood.
Innocent mischief clear in my movement as I cunningly steal a succulent piece of chicken kabob marinated in lemon juice and saffron, right off of the skewer on the grill. Afterwards, as the heat of the glistening sun scorches, we take refuge under the shade of the Senjed tree while enjoying mouthfuls of sweet and refreshing Faloodeh and Akbar Mashti Ice cream. The savory delectable cream disolving and melting on my taste buds. While I’m enjoying the soft lingering taste of ice cream heaven, my sister Terry is grabbing a piece of cold, crunchy watermelon, (famously to be eaten on during the feast of Yalda, the longest night of the year). I hear the cracking noise as she tears into a piece of the melon and the aroma hits my nostrils. To this day, every time I bite into a watermelon, I’m reminded of those tender amiable days…..those childhood days, when we felt fully alive. When we felt the unconditional pure love of our family. Sweet are the recollections of childhood, filling our minds with joy, passing its days in the midst of affection of grandparents, aunts and uncles, where anxieties did not trouble our innocent minds.
I snap back to the present and realize I have 34 missed texts on telegram. As I update myself to the current text, I see the fast and furious inquiry from Azita dictating to our friend Shima, that she should absolutely and without a doubt, bring us Sohan (honey saffon brittle) and fresh Lavashak (fruit rolls) but only the most sour type and the real ones, not the “ashghalee” pseudo-distasteful one we expatriates buy here in US.
We realize we have a lot to cover. We reminisce visiting Shemroon at night while munching on Gerdoo Khees ( fresh walnuts) and white toot (mulberries) or better yet let’s go down the third alley off the main drag in Tajrish, and visit a traditional teahouse adorned with Shirazi themed paintings. I can see in my mind’s eye as we recline, sip tea and eat a traditional Persian omlette. I’m suddenly transported back in time to 1940’s cafe Naderi, the infamous intellectual hangout for the A-list literati exchanging fresh ideas. I inhale a deep breath and think to myself “I was born in the wrong era”. I realize I forgot to exhale.
I snap myself back to the present and ask Shima if she’s had a chance to visit kasba and Chatanoga restaurants where our favorite pastime culinary dish was chicken Keeveeskee and Cafe Glasse for dessert.
Azita adds, “ Don’t forget to visit Bazarreh Safavieh and please please take a picture of our schools and Yousef Abad street”.
I excitedly add “ and Parke Shahanshaheee (king of kings park circa 1979)”. Shima informs us that Parke Shahanshahee, the beautiful acre upon acre of lush green land and aviaries at the foot of the Alborz mountain; my childhood playground, where I spent my friday afternoons absentmindedly rollerskating and scratching my knees from falls, is now called Parke Melat (literally, the Nation’s Park). And now includes a cineplex with four grand theaters called “cinema Pardeesan”, and “Bashka Shahanshahee is now Bashka Varzeshee Enghelab”, and “Khiyaboon Pahlavi is now Khiyaboon Vali-Asr”.
Shima continues on “also, They (meaning the new theocratic non-secular Islamic ideology) destroyed “Shahr-e Bazi” (The City of Games- the largest amusement park in northern Tehran) and built “Niyayesh Highway” in its place and renamed it “Rafsanjani Highway” in honor of the late president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani”.
Dejectedly, we realize the Iran of our childhood is just that…..a beautiful sealed chapter of our past….a remote distant cousin of present day Iran. Our memories are replaced with images of new highways and old streets named in honor of Ayatollahs. Albeit, amid the media portrayal and the news of the Trump administration setting to sign sanctions against Iran and it’s nuclear missile that is reportedly capable of carrying multiple warheads, Iran is one of the oldest civilizations and Iranians remain the most friendly, considerate, generous, hospitable people in the world.
I once heard, the only thing that is constant is change.
This couldn’t be more true of Iran.
For many Iranians, shopping has become an obsessive ritual. Marketplaces have been replaced with mega modern shopping malls 150,000 sq meters with over 200 shops, restaurants, Hyper markets, an Atheletic center and movie theaters to complete it. Some malls cater to the elite and carry only luxury designer brands such as Lalique, YSL, Chanel and more. Street vendors of the past in Hassan Abad next to the Bazaars, have been replaced with food truck straight out of Abbot Kinney in Venice Beach, California.
And Asian Fusion- yes, you read correctly! Tehran has one of the best super trendy Sushi restaurants with impeccable food presentation and complete with loud, dark ambiance perfect for a night out with friends. Mother, may I?
And let’s not forget the broadway style shows and concerts entertaining people with the likes of “Shahnameh, Rostam-o Sohrab, Ayenehayee Rooberoo, Zal-o Soodabeh” with Shajarian singing in the background.
At this point, we ask if Shima had a chance to see the new and rising stars of Iran, Reza Golzar, Hooman Seyedi, Farzad Farzin, maybe Shahab Hosseini!!
“Nah baba, they are vacationing in Kish” Shima calmly responds.
“Um, does that mean we are going to Kish next to see Reza in concert?..” is my and Azita’s sassy rebuttal.
Tehran seems quite the seductress with its ideals of old and new so beautifully juxtaposed , where you will find Michelin style restaurants and little hole in the walls, both of whom have seen reigns of kings, prime ministers and clerics pass by its windows and dine elegantly inside.
Everywhere in Iran seems to be equally, a place where you go for both a friendly banter or for deep political discussions. One things for sure, with Iranians, don’t forget to bring your social skills and intellectual wit as it will surely be a test in cerebral fitness!!
We get a text from Shima….. “Girls, I’m at the Dubai airport awaiting my flight back to LA”. It’s a text but I know she has bittersweet feelings. She longs to be back in LA and resume her routine and life. And yet, she will crave, yearn and long to be back with her mom, dad, relatives and just the pure aroma of home. Her heart is in her stomach. Separation is miserable. Distance sucks.
Just like my childhood Memories…..
And yet, right behind the wall of pain, of getting our edges bumped, is growth- Both for Shima separating from her parents and her life and also for me, separating from my memories.
In retrospect, I did not always notice or appreciate my happiness as I was happy in the moment. But those bygone days left a deep impression on me. As an adult, I find, in the hometown of memories, the key is to be fully connected in the moment, paying attention to the details of ordinary life, and rejoicing in them.
Shima, Azita and I collectively understood from this journey into our past, that living itself has a deadline. Our lives are strung on moments, making memories and of one discovery after another that one day will become cherished memories.
Life itself is one great metaphor. It’s always a journey. Sometimes, it’s a 3-ring circus, sometimes a roller-coaster, or a puzzle, a dance, a river giving way to the ocean, or a poker game. Most of all, life is like cooking. It’s all about what ingredients you add, how you mix it, follow a recipe or wing it, and be careful not to burn it. And even more important, don’t tell me what you cooked but who you ate it with and what conversations you shared.
All the ordinary seemingly meaningless realizations: working, cooking, playing music, traveling, writing, loving, helping, bonding, friendships, listening with empathy- they all make us feel that the fabric of our lives has purpose and meaning.
Our lives are our novels. We are the authors and every day is a new page. Our memories are the photographs we capture and develop from the negatives. Our stories- yours, mine; it’s what we carry with us on this trip we call life. We owe it to ourselves to respect our stories and learn from them. While we may not always notice and appreciate it, there is always beauty around us. We’re surrounded by natural beauty of the mountains and oceans, magnetic sunrises and sunsets, and good people with good intentions. We owe it to ourselves to discover this connection. There’s certainly something indescribable when we make a connection with someone and the beautiful energy and vibration rooted deep inside their soul.
And as if magically, we realize soul is more important than the physical, and love, faith and authentic relationships are not only a luxury but an absolute necessity.
At the end of Shima’s journey, we three women discover we were actually on a pilgrimmage. A Pilgrimmage to the green heart of Iran. Our itinerary was to revisit the tastes and smells of our childhood. Instead, we traveled back in time only to discover we made a pilgrimage into our souls and hearts and realized with divine grace that the best time to be in is the present.
We realized our memories are our stories of the past….if we’re not careful, these stories can become fences, restricting us…imprisoning us. If we respect them and leave them in the past, they can offer us a serene sense of security and when we want to go further into our future, they won’t block our way. These stories we tell ourselves and call them memories shouldn’t shackle us but give us the space we crave for unlimited expression and growth.
We debunked the myth, made full circle and realized the hardest part of leaving our hometown, wether as a child or an adult, wasn’t leaving our childhood memories behind in a distant land, it was understanding that our hometown was a land from the past. And that the past itself is a foreign country and they do things differently in the past. We will always remember, even though the past is prologue, we don’t belong there. And we’ll try to remember the past only to learn and grow from it so we can enjoy the present and leap happily into the future. A future that is truly only illusion…as there is joon future. Everything is now.
Let’s also remember, in the oh so wise words of LM Montgomery, “Nothing is ever lost to us as long as we remember it”. In the end, we are our choices. And we will build ourselves a great story!
Hopefully, in the not-so-far distant, Shima, Azita and I can visit Iran not via virtual reality but indeed via physical reality!
Honey, that’s just life!
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