A year ago today I traveled to Iran for the first time. It was the realization of a dream I’d had for decades, and it changed my life, as I knew it would.
The trip still feels like a dream. Most of the Farsi words and expressions that I learned are fading from memory. And the deep, loving connections that I made with people, from the cousin who is like a long lost sister to the young woman guide who bought me a book of Sohrab Sepehri‘s poetry as a gift of friendship, don’t square with the impersonal reality of social interactions in New York. But I know the trip changed me.
As any Westerner who travels to Iran will tell you, the people of Iran couldn’t be more different than the scary, hostile radicals that are seen chanting Death to America in the movie Argo (don’t get me started on how silly that film is), or in most media depictions. To quote Anthony Bourdain, who was there at the same time as me, “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.” And Rick Steves, the consummate American traveler who visited Iran in 2009, had this to say on his return: “Most Iranians, like most Americans, simply want a good life and a safe homeland for their loved ones.”
Without exception, everyone I met was delighted to learn that I was American, and thrilled that I had made the trip. They told me to tell people back at home that the Iranian people love—yes, love!—Americans, and that it’s only our governments who are at odds. I feel lucky to have gotten outside of the American echo chamber and into the rare position of making my own assessment of reality in Iran. As they say, you just can’t believe everything you hear.
I got to know all kinds of Iranian people, but I also learned about myself. I visited the graves of the grandparents whom I’d never met, I saw the house where my dad grew up, and I looked through endless photo albums depicting my extended family throughout various eras of fashion in Iran—and was impressed at how hot my cousins looked in ’60’s mini-skirts! Amazingly, there were pictures of my sister and I as kids, and even pictures from my wedding.
While we’d been growing up in Philadelphia pretty much oblivious to our Iranian heritage, there were people here who were thinking about us and holding a place for us in the family, for someday when we might be ready. On this trip I accepted the invitation that had been waiting for me all this time, and wow, I’ve never experienced anything like the love my family showed me for the month I was there.
My cousin who is an ophthalmologist insisted on giving me an eye examination and the most elegant designer eyeglasses I’ve ever owned by a mile. My cousin’s daughter who is a university student trooped around Tehran with me one night as the stores were closing until I found an Iran national soccer team uniform for my husband. An elderly male relative tried to arrange a cooking demo for me of a Caspian Sea-style garlic omelet with a name that sounded like seer-o-bich, but I ran out of steam. It turns out the dish is called sirovij, but it will remain the punch line of endless jokes for years to come. I must have been high on all the attention, because when I got home, regular life was a bit of a letdown, and I spent most of the summer in a depressed slump.
No small part of my enchantment with Iran is owed to the food. I arrived in Iran in May, known as “the month of heaven” because the weather is warm and gentle, and everything is in bloom. At the bustling bazaar where it was hard to get down an aisle without gawking at glistening buckets of olives and pails of thick pomegranate paste that varied in color from pink to ruby according to their degree of sourness, the seasonal produce included rose petals, green herbs, shelling beans, sour green plums, grape leaves (for making dolma, which we did), fresh green almonds in the shell, and mulberries. Processed food is most definitely available in Iran, and though Iranian teens are no slouches when it comes to eating burgers and fries, fresh food is what people eat every day. In the northwestern city of Tabriz, I saw a man pushing a cart of hard-boiled eggs and boiled potatoes to sell to bazaaris who couldn’t leave their stalls. Even 50 years ago in the US, I believe you would have been hard pressed to find such a simple, handmade snack outside of the home. Other street foods include boiled fava beans, roasted beets, and grilled corn, all cooked by the vendor himself.
Oh and the bread. If you want to understand how passionate Iranians are about their fresh bread, look no further than the French, who famously buy fresh bread every day. My one uncle and aunt used to live in a house that is now a bread bakery, and because of this close connection we went there several times and I got to hang out up close to the ovens and take photos. Barbari, sangak, lavash, and nan-e qandi are just some of the flatbreads you can buy at the standard neighborhood bread bakery.
After waiting in line a few yards from the stone ovens where men shovel in dough from a wooden paddle and pull out tender, golden bread dappled with small craters and crispy black blisters, customers receive their piping hot prize. It gets taken to a mesh work table where tiny stones and debris are brushed off and the bread is allowed to cool before being bagged up an taken home. I can taste the toasted barbari smeared with mild white cheese and cherry jam that was my breakfast many mornings in Iran.
I don’t have a plan to go back to Iran just yet. It’s a long trip and if I go I want to be there for at least twice as long as last time, so I can really hunker down with the people, and of course the food. I’m hoping that the next time I visit, there will be a better understanding between our two governments, and that visiting Iran from the US won’t be such a radical concept. My sweet family, and the window I had into a different life while I was with them is never far from my mind. I conjure it every time I grind and steep my Persian saffron and watch it transform into a deep orange elixir, or make orange blossom tea with the perfumed, peach-colored blossoms from Shiraz, or crack open a green cardamom seed from the Farsi covered packet, now growing dusty on my spice shelf.
It’s afternoon and getting quite warm in my apartment, so I may do as I did in Iran and take a little siesta with the shades pulled tight to block out the heat until the sun goes down. Upon waking, I just may fix myself a glass of black tea, and drink it down with some sweet nabat crystallized sugar, while I nibble on fresh fruit and a cookie or two. On this day a year later, I want to feel and remember what it was like to be in the land of my dreams.