Arriving at Imam Khomeini International Airport near Tehran, the capital of Iran, my body ached, but my heart skipped.
I felt confused yet comfortable, out of place yet belonging. With a deep green sequined headscarf in place, I looked like one of them and I even sort of spoke their language. Sort of, but I didn’t. I didn’t know half of the things people who spoke to me from the moment I sat on the plane assumed I did, but I wanted to ask. I wanted to dissect the lives of each person I came within a foot of. I wanted to let my headscarf drop, just a little, just to see that it wouldn’t cause such a stir—or would it?
Iran is, without exaggeration, near the complete opposite of America, although it felt familiar—the language, the traditions, the big eyes and dark brows—as well as frustrating. I had nothing to show or offer of myself other than my bare hands and the oval of my face. I felt suffocated. Throw in the jet lag and the eagerness and I was near insane and seconds away from making an offensive exhibition of my inability to accept the rules that governed the country. As I hurriedly scurried towards the exits, I had already managed to disturb the rifle-toting police who lifted their brows and exchanged telling glances as I dragged my suitcases along, self-consciously adjusting my headscarf to keep my long, curly hair out of sight.
“Time for bazaar!” My grandmother woke me at sunrise as the first of three daily prayers reverberated throughout the city. The echo was haunting, a reminder of the looming imposition of Islam by the government. I was sweaty and tried to fight off the impending realization that I had committed myself to this for two months. As I began my usual morning routine, my grandmother interrupted repeatedly to remind me to tie my hair back, wear no makeup and let her wrap a headscarf around my head so that it would stay in place. At the door, she checked my coat length and my demeanor (avoid eye contact with men and always remain reserved, like a proper woman should).
My grandmother and I hailed a taxi on the corner of her rubble-filled street, the result of a constant cycle of construction and deconstruction, which is located on the hills towards the higher mountains in northern Tehran. Standing on the top of that hill, with the entire city stretched out in front of me, I drew invisible lines with my index finger. Those in the highest parts of the city were the wealthiest, those around the center were mixed and the further south you went, down into the flat lands, it is easy to say that those people were poor. Of course, by American standards, the majority of Iran is poor.
As we navigated through traffic resembling a massive collision, our ancient taxi huffed and puffed along. We passed lines in which people who lived in a world without Albertsons, including women cloaked in black, would wait up to 30 minutes in dry heat for their fresh daily bread. We passed popular fast food spots, one named Superstar, modeled after McDonalds, that sold pizza, hamburgers and hotdogs to the younger generation. Two-thirds of Iran is under 25 years old. This demographic yearns for a taste of something “Western.”
Later during my visit, I thought, “Maybe they like foods from other cultures, too, like Mexican food, Chinese food, Japanese food, or Indian food,” but when I asked my relatives, the only thing that they knew was that they had one Chinese and one Japanese restaurant. I got excited and asked if they liked sushi. They looked at me horrified and amused. “Raw fish?” they asked with a giggle. I didn’t bother trying to explain to them what their beloved hotdog was made of.
Clearly disturbed by the behavior of others on the road, our taxi driver, Ferydoon, began to recite his poetry to my grandmother and I, blending the tradition of rhythm, rhyme and repetition of Iranian poetry with a voice that had the command of today’s spoken word poets. He ranted about the price of gasoline, the smell of it, the traffic, the regime and his own poverty. This both surprised and moved me. I don’t expect much more than a “Where to?” and an empty outstretched hand from taxi drivers back home, but there was a feeling of family and community among strangers in Iran.
We finally arrived at the bazaar, which was swarming with thousands of people. My ears filled with the chatter and shouts of people buying and trading, haggling, begging, or just buying their day’s produce. It smelled of fresh fish, raw meat and exhaustion. I was already overwhelmed and my first day in Tehran had just begun. During those two months, my freedom was gone, but my experiences were innumerable and invaluable.
With this column, I hope to show many of you, who will likely never step foot into that country, what that side of the world wakes up to after we shut our eyes to dream.