On becoming Iranian

Originally published on World of Lola on 2 January, 2016 (part I) and 14 January, 2016 (part II) 

part i

Most of what I remember is in images. I wonder if I became a photographer because I have a tendency to remember things that way, or if my stores of memory were slowly converted into simple visual elements over time.

My earliest memory is a series of three images, distinct scenes, narrated by one sentence. It takes place inside the house I grew up in, a duplex on Dunnell road in Maplewood, New Jersey, numbers 46 and 48. A creek ran through the backyard that swelled in heavy rain and once even overflowed all the way to the back porch. Across the street up a steep embankment ran the New Jersey Transit Morris and Essex line, east to Hoboken and west to Gladstone. A large front porch painted white and chipping heavily lead popped off the blue shingles of the house.

The first scene takes place in the living room which was long and narrow and probably small, but didn’t seem that way in my child’s eye. The viewer looks in from the kitchen doorway. Large windows run the length of the left edge of the image and glow winter blue. My father’s aunt is sitting hunched over slightly in an arm chair. She wears black which wasn’t unusual. To her left are her two daughters and behind them more characters, too dark and blurry to make out. They recede into the background which ends at the front door. My father sits by himself on the opposite side of the image motionless and solitary like Rodin’s Thinker only his face is buried in his hands. His presence, alone on the far right of the frame outweighs all the other characters combined.

The second scene is more painterly than photographic. It is my mother in portrait against a black background. Tungsten light from the overhead kitchen lamp illuminate her in a sort of Rembrandt hue. She’s sitting in a chair and the viewer looks up to her almost from the floor and I remind myself that I’m seeing all of this from a child’s perspective. In the image she doesn’t move or speak, but I can hear her voice. “Go kiss your father, he’s very sad.”

Finally from the same spot at the kitchen doorway where the first scene takes place is the last. Now my father is centered. He is still motionless, devoid even of breath while my brothers and I climb and crawl on him and wrap our arms up and over his shoulders.

Very few elements of these images ever change in my memory. Each of the scenes run equally in length and always in the same order. Sometimes I see my father as he is now, an older man, heavyset and elongated by age, his hair thinning. But he’s always in the same place like a stone resting on the chair.

It was the day my grandfather died.

I never met him or even heard his voice on the crackling end of a transatlantic telephone line. I had only ever seen one image of him, a bushy eyed black and white portrait that lived on window sills until it disappeared one day.

My childhood was punctuated by events like these, half experienced and half imagined. My father was born and raised in Iran and over time the divide between my life in suburban America and is life on the east end of Tehran grew wider. When he spoke in Farsi with family I would pick out names and places and they became characters and scenes in my imagination. If one of them died I could experience their death, but I could only imagine them in life.

Following the death of my grandfather my father couldn’t immediately travel to Iran to pay his respects. It was only a few years later that he became ineligible for the mandatory military service in Iran. Again I remember the event in images; two massive black suitcases filled with a strange assortment of goods, Tylenol, Hershey’s chocolate bars, vitamins, disposable razors and more, all in bulk sized packages. I remember the look on his face when he left and the same look when he came back. There was sadness on both ends, leaving his boys in one direction and leaving his childhood in the other.

The suitcases came back with him, refilled with a new assortment of souvenirs. There were outfits for my brothers and me, bracelets for my mom, smoked white fish from the Caspian Sea and thin strips of sour candy pressed from pomegranate paste. We realized the candies were wrapped in cellophane only after we’d eaten half of them. My most prized possession from the lot was an Iranian national soccer jersey with the name Mahdavika screen printed across the shoulders.

I wore that jersey to school during the opening rounds of the 1998 World Cup. A teacher stopped me in the hallway between classes and asked why I wore it. Before I could answer he cut me off saying “I thought you were American.” Though I couldn’t verbalize it at the time I knew that if I had been wearing a UK, Italy or Ireland jersey nobody would have questioned my nationality.

Throughout adolescence I grew used to new teachers and substitutes mispronouncing my name. It didn’t bother me. I grew up with most of my friends since kindergarten and they could pronounce it just fine. Mispronunciation though often lead to question like where are you from?. Which invariably lead to more questions about Iran. My answers never satisfied myself or the questioner. I was from Maplewood, New Jersey, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I had never been to Iran and couldn’t even speak Farsi, yet I was identified as Iranian-American.

During the first week of my sophomore year in high school two planes flew into the World Trade Center. The smoke of the collapsed towers was visible from my home town. Whatever divide existed in me before 9/11 it was increased exponentially afterward. Within a year Iran was added to the Axis of Evil. By the time I graduated we were at war in Afghanistan and Iraq and a day didn’t go by without Iran in the headlines. And for all the articles and front page images nothing reconciled with the imagined place I dreamt up as a young boy.

The desire to travel to Iran wasn’t born from the experiences of my adolescence or early adulthood. That drive began in childhood. Iran was the place where my father was from and where my grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins still lived. Geopolitics took the back seat to culture and cuisine. My brothers and I grew up on Iranian food and the near mythical reputation of my our grandmother’s cooking.

With time the nature of that trip did change. I had picked up the camera, my two way lens to look out at the world and into myself. I’d traveled, lived and worked overseas. I finally had the tools I needed to explore my other half - the imagined side. And in march 2011, after an unsuccessful attempt 5 years earlier to get my Iranian national documents, I had my Shenasnameh (Iranian birth certificate) and passport.

Three and a half months later I was waiting in Newark’s Liberty International Airport to board my flight and begin a 27 hour journey via London and Frankfurt to Tehran.

part ii

My first weeks in Iran were chaotic. I moved in with my grandma, aunt, and cousin Pedram to a two bedroom apartment on 17th Street off Gisha Boulevard in the west of Tehran. Guests stopped in daily to visit the missing grandchild, “my American grandson” my grandma would say. I was jet-lagged for days, if not weeks, and there were endless arguments between my cousin, our aunt, and grandma; when to take a shower, what to eat for breakfast, where to go and with whom. It was all in Farsi. I couldn’t understand any of it. Several weeks later Pedram left for Uzbekistan to apply for a visa to the U.S. to attend a master of engineering program and overnight a sullenness set into the apartment. My grandma and aunt silently sank into their routines of cooking and cleaning.

One morning while my cousin was away and my aunt was out running errands, I stumbled from the living room to the second bedroom to fetch one of my notebooks. All of the rooms in the house were communal, no locks on the doors. My cousin and I shared the second bedroom, but we all shared the closest where among other things the bedding was stored. At the doorway, I was struck to stillness by the image unfolding in front of me. My grandma stood at a bookshelf in diffused midmorning light that came in through an open window and curtain. She held in her hands a photo of my cousin that I recognized immediately because I had seen it myself on the shelf. She stared at it gently, pulled it to her lips, and kissed it before returning it to her gaze and then the shelf. Although I couldn’t understand the arguments that took place in the previous weeks, I understood the language of separation.

Iran is equal parts past and present, dream and memory, and it was only my grandmother, in her late 80s when I arrived, who could live seamlessly in all these realities at the same time. She would drift back and forth from one past, one memory to another. Sometimes she was teleported to different times by a physical object like the picture of my cousin or a small wallet-sized black and white photo of her own children in a silver frame. Other times it was an unseen memory, and flash in her consciousness that propelled her to the past. If I was lucky enough, and we were alone in the house, I could go back with her in the stories she told while she cooked.

My grandparents were the first of our family to move from Langarud, a Caspian Sea village on the opposite side of the Alborz mountains, to Tehran in 1948. Shortly afterward, their new house --her home -- became a launching pad for several generations of young men, friends and family, to the rest of the world.

Uncle Mahmoud, my grandma's younger brother, was one of the first. He was a prolific writer and part of a generation of politically conscious young Iranians that emerged after World War II. He got into trouble in Langarud, and his friend, Mr. Taghii, had to ferry him out of town in the back of a rice truck. They drove overnight via Zanjan to Tehran. My grandma hid him on the roof for weeks until the authorities’ interest died down. She laughed when she told me how the secret police had once shaved his head to embarrass him. She was proud of uncle Ahmad, her youngest sibling, who paced the courtyard of her home in the Pirouzi neighborhood and chain smoked while he listened for his name on the national radio signaling his admittance into medical school at the University of Tehran. He lived with her until he graduated and started an internship at a hospital in Chicago.

In all, 14 young men, not including my father and his brother, passed under her roof. Some stayed for months, others for years, and still others for a decade or more. Her home became a factory that produced doctors, lawyers, engineers, and writers. When they left her small, unpretentious home,  they went, humbly, to all parts of the world. I have relatives in Austria, Australia, Canada, Germany, the US, and elsewhere, and they can all recall, with looks of painful joy, the taste of my grandmother’s cooking.

Pedram was the 13th. He moved in a decade before me when his father, another of my uncles, was diagnosed with colon cancer .And, like the others, Pedram would also leave. I was the 14th – and in all likelihood the last – to have called her tiny house home. Two and a half years after stepping blind into a nation both intensely familiar and foreign I finally left to come back to the U.S. My grandma cried and hugged me and told me in nuanced Farsi that I now understood clearly, that if she died I shouldn’t be sad, but should be happy that she knew me. For me, her house wasn't launching pad to the outside, it was a gateway to the past and the present, to dreams and realities. It was the realization of my childhood and of my dad’s childhood; a way back to the village of now crumbling old homes with sagging terra cotta roofs.

When I think back on my time in Iran, there are the adventures over mountain passes, harrowing climbs, and endless silent car rides. There are ferry rides between islands in the Persian Gulf, arguments, love, and everything else in life. But there is one memory stained in my imagination and it is real. A house on Gisha street. Wide open living room. Midday calm. Uncle Mehdi laying across the carpet as he’d done since he was a child. The whole world asleep in the afternoon siesta and my grandma sitting on the balcony grinding dried lemons with a stone as she’d done for generations in all the iterations of life she might have lived.