the trouble with where we come from
We didn’t speak Farsi. This we always had to explain first, as their brown faces crowded against our mixed up pallor saying moosh bokhoradet and tu besyaar zebah hee, faces that looked in some ways so familiar, the slants of eyebrows and the shape of cheekbones and especially the noses, but in many more ways were incomprehensible. “Aza,” they would say to my mother, who had by now found the tin of mixed nuts or the smoked salmon platter in the fridge or was assembling cucumbers for a salad, “they are so beautiful. And that one,” they would say, of me, “she is a Rostami! She looks just like Khanoum-jan.” We pretended not to hear; we had enough politics between us, like which of us the gray cat that had wandered onto our patio one day belonged to, or who got to sit in the front seat in the car. We didn’t need to address who looked more like our mother’s family, because we knew even then the choice wasn’t about aesthetics, it was about the depth of their love. We would sometimes ask her, our maman, when it was just us, how to say things in Persian, like dooset daaram and the numbers from one to ten, but we never used the words she told us and so they fell out of our minds.
A cedar chest contained the only tangible remnants of our mother’s life in Iran. The chest had been packed and shipped from Iran to a Rocky Mountain city when our mother was seventeen and moving, as they all did in those days, to the American West. This is a fact that surprises people. Denver, Colorado, is the same elevation as Isfahan, and the two cities, the first not yet 200 years old and the latter’s foundations from 3000 BCE, are topographically identical. I know, from a time before I can remember and from before my sister was born, that there were other objects, rugs, in fact one enormous rug that spanned the entire living room of our first house, but it was destroyed in a storm that took the roof first and then everything else underneath, a rug forty or fifty years old before it was shipped to the States in 1978, a rug of incalculable value but too unwieldy to pack up in the car with our invaluable bodies. There had been flatware and dishes of no value but sentimental, but one by one the pieces broke or were lost between the Rocky Mountains and the East Coast and the Mid-Atlantic, to insouciant movers and to small children. There was my mother’s first wedding ring, gold and silver filigree of a craftsmanship foreign to American factory-efficiency. But that was stolen by the young Brazilian woman who picked us up from school and did the laundry and then slept with our father. So we had the cedar chest.
Whenever we were sick, on the days we were too sick to go to school or the days we pretended we were, our mother would open the cedar chest and take out what she called “the fuzzy blanket.” The fuzzy blanket was deep green on one side and golden green on the other, where the velvet was threaded in the opposite direction. It was heavy. It was so heavy and so soft it would trickle off the side of the bed when our bodies thrashed with fever and puddle on the floor, until our mother came in to check on us and tucked it back up around our deliriums. The fuzzy blanket smelled like cedar from the chest, and for years I thought cedar was the smell of Iran, as though the chest had closed one day in Tehran with all the Iranian air inside, and each time our mother opened it here in the United States, a little bit of Iran escaped and could never be reclaimed.
They each left Iran before the Revolution, to New Haven and Wellesley and Cambridge, except the youngest, who ended up in India before Rome. When the Revolution came, much of the family followed, those who weren’t too old or too obstinate, and those who weren’t delayed in Evin prison for owning copies of Capital and performing Brecht in Azadi Square.
“They never gave us any trouble,” Shadi said over the plate of rice. “Really, it’s not so bad at all. The girls have American passports, right. If they have a problem with anyone, it will be you, Aza, and so they ask you questions and you answer them with the truth, which is that you know nothing and you aren’t anyone, and then they let you go on your way.”
We looked at each other, my mother and I. We looked more alike than ever.
“It’s seriously totally fine,” said Yara at my right. We passed the wine. “The only thing they stopped me for, it was when we were going through customs and I had my British passport and the guy looked at it and said, ‘Your name is Yara? Why do you have a boy’s name?’ Which, like, not a teaching moment for gender binaries and the religious patriarchy, right? So I just said I don’t know, that was what I got named, and he waved me through.” We laughed.
“Really, I’m surprised you haven’t been back, Aza,” Shadi said, and we passed the wine.
We had been not-discussing this lately, I asking obliquely during telephone calls about who in the family was going to Iran in the near future, never outright acknowledging my intense desire and her unbearable fear. But just then, she was less afraid, I could feel, and perhaps hopeful on the perfect golden crust of the rice, tadig, and the khoresht-e bademjan, and these cousins and their Western children who nevertheless slipped in and out of English and Farsi with perfect beautiful diction. Iran felt very near. It was hard to reconcile in this house the thought of a country so closed to its own self, a country inspired the Shahnameh and Rumi, the Ardabil carpet, the garden of the Taj Mahal, Hafiz, the Rubaiyat, a country that now will not screen the films of Kiarostami or read “Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season.”
A famous TV personality, known for his adventurous spirit and boyish insouciance, went, on his TV show, to Tehran. Over the internet he told America, “Never would have guessed that of all the countries in world, my crew and I would be treated so well everywhere, by total strangers in Iran.” 34,000 people shared their opinions of an accompanying photograph of the TV personality, seated in a Tehran teahouse at a table next to a Persian man who is looking solemnly at this TV personality. Many people with names like Arghavan, Farshad, Pegah, Khorshid thanked this personality for exposing something more about Iran than the depictions on Western and Iranian media sources alike. A man named Bill wrote, “That poor guy is trying to figure out how he can sneak out of Iran as part of the TV personality’s entourage.”
In our family there is the story of Layla’s chador. Layla, our mother’s great-aunt, when she left Iran packed in her luggage a certain chador. After she had left from Mehrabad Airport on her Pan Am flight to New York City, her sister Azadeh discovered this chador was missing from her closet. This chador was their mother’s, and their stoic mother had worn it all through the Westernized years of Reza Shah, when women could be arrested in the streets for wearing the veil and the police could forcibly remove such covering from their bodies. Azadeh demanded its return and when Layla refused, the sisters did not speak to each other until Layla’s death some years later.
We met at a beautiful liberal arts college in New York state. Time seems to have stopped at this college, the kind of place a Fitzgerald protagonist would attend, or the alma-mater of a woman who would grow into an icon of unconventional beauty and fierce intelligence in a golden age of sex-kitten-obsessed Hollywood. In the new century, though, most of the undergraduates were pierced and playing with gender identity, they were coming from expensive high schools fixated on the white male literary canon, where the social strata had crushed their selves and now, exposed to French post-structuralists, had discovered how everything works for the first time and were preparing their vows of championing social justice. It was a terribly inspiring place. There were not many graduate students, so those precious few were given rooms in enormous old stone mansions, the dark wood exposed-ceiling beams bedrooms built from old New York money. It was loudly American, every cool stone nostalgic for a time when America was in all ways bigger and better than Europe. Everyone, students and faculty alike, was white, no matter how many syllabi included Franz Fanon. Jason’s course appeared in the school’s listings for my second graduate semester. It was an undergraduate course, as most of the graduate work was independent with an advisor, but I contacted him, beginning with what little I could remember, (Salam, halet chetore…) and he invited me to sit in. His doctorate from Columbia was in Philosophy and Iranian Cinema. His English was beautifully softened by Persian syllable structure, and he went often to visit his parents in Yazd. He was the most Iranian thing I had ever touched, and he lay over me too-warm and too-heavy like the fuzzy blanket. When he opened me, I thought, perhaps he can put some of Iranian back into myself before it is gone forever.
When she died, my sister and I saw each other for the first time in years. She was living in Los Angeles working at a marketing agency. Her husband didn’t make the trip back with her because he was closing a deal on a four-million dollar house in Laguna. Jason didn’t come because I hadn’t asked him to, and when he had offered I had said, this is something I should do alone. She and I sat alone together at our mother’s old scuffed dining table and sorted through the paperwork, and we picked rooms to box up her things, and each of us had a list from her lawyer of her bequeathed items. Her jewelry was divided equally, the house was left to us both, and for the unspecified items there was only her plea, remember you are sisters and these things are just things—do not fight over them. The chest was one of these unassigned items. I marked it without asking.
“Why do you think you get that?” she asked when she noticed. The decision had seemed obvious, and I had no rational answer prepared.
Finally, as a compromise, we opened the chest to divide what was inside. The fuzzy blanket, enormous and soft and green and knotted as tightly still as the day it was first woven. My sister rested a hand on it and she sat down on the floor and pulled it out and held it to her face and began to cry. I sat with her and put my arms around her shoulders and said nothing.
“You know about her,” she said when she could speak finally. “You have all the family stories, you have the history inside you. You look like her. You even have the name. Please, can I have this blanket?”
We didn’t go to Iran before she died. Every year she would say, plan for it, save your money and let’s work on getting visas. And every year a new terrible event would occur, a woman there would be raped by her cousins for fleeing her husband, or American troops would hunt fugitives with remote technology that couldn’t differentiate between a terrorist and a civilian, and the troops didn’t care either way. And on the news in America there would be only the fear of, and the government there would release only propaganda, and the artists would struggle to say something true about the country from which they had come and which lived inside them and haunted them no matter where they went, because they couldn’t go back. Some of them make the journey to visit relatives, some of them still reside in Iran, but the heart of the place is missing, bombed, mangled in positivist Supreme Leader-sanctioned rhetoric and beaten behind closed doors. The heart of the place is on the run, diasporic with no promised land, and keeps beating only within the artists who remember it and try to say something true about it with their art, no matter how impossible truth is to show, those who have it inside of them will recognize it in a mosaic or a weaving, will recognize it in themselves and fight to keep it inside themselves and bless the artists who remind themselves and who get even a lightning flash of it something like true.