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Monday, 22 February 2010

Third and last instalment (for now)

Last bit (for now) of my first day in Iran in February 1989.
After a long day of struggling to communicate using a vocabulary of about twenty words, meeting new relatives and processing many new impressions I was ready for bed, so to speak. Sister opened the double fitted wardrobe and pulled out everybody’s bedding: thick mattresses made of cotton and covered in colourful, flowery fabric, heavy duck-down pillows and blankets with sheeting sewn on, which reminded me of my childhood and how my mother used to do the same with my blanket. Normally sister slept downstairs in the same room with her parents and her younger brother, but that night she intended to come upstairs. I told her that I didn’t want to get her out of her habitual sleeping place and assured her that I could sleep upstairs on my own.
Both Maman-jun and sister would hear none of it. What if I needed something during the night? Brother carried two mattresses and a tray with a water jug and two glasses upstairs to the reception room. “Whatever you need, any time of the night, just wake me up,” sister said. For the first time in the year and a half after I left home for university in England, I had the warm feeling you get when you return home and your mother cooks your favourite dish. Only this was hundreds of miles away from home, among people I had just met, who were kind not because I was their bride, but because this is who they were.
When I woke up at 3 am to ‘go to the yard’ (i.e. toilet), I was too embarrassed to wake sister up. I groped for the corridor light switch and started down the stairs. She must have sensed the movement and followed quickly, overtaking me by the front door.
“You’ll freeze outside. Put on a jacket,” she said, handing me a thick, hand-knitted jacket from the hanger behind the door. “I’ll come with you if you’re scared.” I told her I was fine and also wanted to tell her that back in my Greek native island my younger sister woke me up to go to the yard with her, so no, I wasn’t scared. But I was too sleepy and couldn’t muster all the words I needed.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Still Looking Back

My blog posts are like buses: you wait ages for one and then two come at once.

As I said in the blog before last, February is a month of memories of my first visit to Iran. I can’t help looking back at a time when Maman-jun and Aqa-jun were still with us.
On that very first visit, Hossein’s mother led me to sit ‘high up’, i.e. by the ornamental fireplace, farthest from the door, a position accorded to elders and foreigners as a sign of respect because they are less likely to be disturbed by others. Sister removed her black chador, black scarf and overcoat, revealing denim trousers and a red jumper, much like any other young woman back home, and went off to the kitchen.
We sat in the sitting room talking about my family, England, Hossein, my job with Iran Air. My knowledge of Persian at the time was rudimentary: I struggled with words and gestures to make myself understood, but the linguist in me found it enjoyable, if hard going. Aqa Jun cracked a joke that later became a family classic:
“Hossein went abroad to study and got married instead; I want to go abroad to study too!”
“You graduated years ago with five certificates, [their children],”Haj Khanum retorted.
Soon after tea, Haj Khanum asked me to call her “Maman jun” (mummy) and to feel at home. But when I offered to help sister with washing up and laying the lunch spread, she insisted that I remain seated because I was a “guest” and consequently it was their duty to look after me and ensure my comfort. When I pointed out the discrepancy, Aqa Jun laughed with good humour and said I was too clever for my boots.
Last bit to follow tomorrow.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Last weekend

Because of a combination of holidays the previous weekend was an extended mini-holiday of five days: Thursday 11 February was the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Friday is always a day off, Saturday was the anniversary of the Holy Prophet’s passing and Imam Hassan’s martyrdom and Monday was the anniversary of Imam Reza’s martyrdom. Technically Sunday was a working day, but schools were off and many people went on mini-breaks to the Caspian littoral and to other cities, and many visited Mashhad, where Imam Reza is buried.

On the Friday we visited my brother-in-law’s in-laws (NOT a typing mistake), who had paid us a New Year visit last spring and which we had not got round to paying back. They live in a village bear Qazvin, down from the Alamut Castle in the famous Valley of the Assasins. After a sumptuous lunch (chicken in red sauce and rice with barberries (zereshk polow), yellow lentils stew with fried aubergines (khoresh gheimeh)) we went for a walk round the land to the south of the village. Apparently what now is arable land was a cemetery about tow centuries ago. Some gravestones were visible here and there: a man’s gravestone engraved with his name and a string of prayer beads; a woman’s bearing the engraving of a comb.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Yesterday, the first of February or the twelfth of Bahman in the Iranian calendar, marked the thirty-first anniversary of Imam Khoneini’s return to Iran and the beginning of the Ten Days of Dawn (Dahe ye Fajr), which culminated with the victory of the Islamic Revolution on 11 February 1979.

Apart from the historical significance of these days for the Iranian nation, these days bring me back to twenty-one years ago, the tenth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, and the very first time I flew to Iran as a guest of Iran Air, London (I was working at their Heathrow Airport station at the time). I was travelling with a colleague from the Iran Air town office in Piccadilly who was married to an Iranian and was able to explain things to a wide-eyed foreigner such as me.

When we arrived at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran, I rang Hossein’s parents to say I had arrived and that I would ring again once I was in the hotel. An Iran Air driver drove us to Hotel Homa but Aqa-jun, my father-in-law, who couldn’t wait to meet me, was at the Hotel Homa along with my sister-in-law and a maternal cousin almost as soon as I was shown into my room, and arranged with my tour guide for me to spend the night in their house.
I opened my suitcase in a hurry and retrieved a black chador I had borrowed from a friend back in London. My friend had explained that Shahrerey, or Shabdolazim, Hossein’s home town in the south of Tehran is a pilgrimage destination because the saint Hazrat Abdol-Azim is buried there, so a black chador was to be worn in the street (This has now changed.) I found the idea of wearing a chador exciting, just like a child dressing up. The trouble was that I was one hand short: overnight bag in one hand, bag with presents in the other and the missing one to hold the chador in place under the chin. I must have been a ridiculous sight as I stumbled out of the lift to meet my father- and sister-in-law (as it turned out later, the chador was too short for me.) Haj Nasser the Blacksmith, as Aqa-jun introduced himself, was shorter and stockier than Hossein and sported a three-day greying stubble, rough and blackened hands and a permanent smile. Sister-in-law, a primary schoolteacher, was the same age as me but still unmarried, so she had eyebrows still unspoilt by the beautician’s hand over hazelnut, almond-shaped eyes.

We drove through the streets in an old bottle green Peugeot, which, as I found out later, had been borrowed from a relative. The cars and pick-up vans on the road were wounded and worn out but patched up, testimony to Iranian inventiveness and resilience, the spirit of ‘making do’ that this brave nation recovering from war had to summon.

I had no idea in which direction we were travelling and could see no landmarks I could use to work out my bearings. Down a long street (Mostafa Khomeini Street, I now know) above the rows of shops the beauty of the old Qajar-period buildings showed through. Fa├žades flanked by ornate columns and topped by lunettes decorated in polychrome tiles struck me like an old, faded beauty on whose face the previous glory lives on.

Eventually we reached Shoush Square (which technically isn’t a square but a circus) with its short clock tower, about the height of Little Ben by Victoria Station in London, and took the road to Shahrerey, straight and dreary, lined with low-rise mud brick workshops and frayed shop signs.

Aqa-jun’s house and blacksmith workshop was on 24 Metri Avenue, Shahrerey (Shabdolazim). This twenty-four metre wide avenue, hence its name, radiates to the east of Shabdolazim square and ends at the ancient fortress of Qal’eh Gabri. When Aqa-jun married my mother-in-law, they moved to Shabdolazim in the mid 50s. After a few years he managed to buy a house plot, where he had the workshop built, with the house at the back.

The entrance to Hossein’s family house was through a narrow ironwork gate that sealed the high wall. Aqa-jun had made the gate himself and shaped “In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful” in iron strips over it. He rang the bell. “Who is it?” a female voice asked through the intercom. “Open the door,” he answered. The door buzzed. He pushed the door. “Is it open?” the voice asked again. (This is a formulaic exchange: it happens every time. Identifying yourself through the intercom or on the telephone is the mark of the foreigner.) Aqa-jun lifted the thick green curtain just behind the gate and said, “After you, ladies.”

We went through a dark, narrow corridor and into a yard with an oblong pool on the left; I recognised the potted geraniums from a photograph Hossein had sent me during the pen-pal days of our acquaintance. Two more members of the family stood by the front door: his mother, slim, with the same hazelnut eyes and benign smile as Hossein, and his youngest brother, shorter and much younger, but quite similar to him. The mother hugged me and kissed me three times on the cheeks and welcomed me into their home. I took off my shoes in the yard, just before the door and was led into a room without furniture but with a hand-knotted carpet with intricate floral patterns on a dark red background (This carpet, the first real Persian carpet I ever sat on, is now in our bedroom. When it became threadbare Aqa-jun wanted to donate it to the local mosque but I asked him to donate it to us because, I joked, at the time we were poorer that the mosque. Now that we are a bit better off I have grown attached to it and can’t bear to give it away).

Trip down memory lane to continue soon.