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My Persian summer
What made me belong in Iran was the intense, unexplainable connection that I felt to every tree, flower, breeze, drop of water, mountain top, and this list could go on forever


March 6, 2007

This is an essay that I wrote a couple of months after coming back from Iran just about two years ago. It was my third trip. I was awe-struck and amazed. I loved everything about Iran. When I came back, I constantly longed to be there and found life here dull and uninteresting. Those after-effects have, thankfully, worn-off since. I no longer share some of the opinions in this essay. Although, I enjoyed myself greatly, I was constantly frustrated by the fact that no one truly understood me. They couldn’t understand my body language, my jokes, my insights, or anything else for that matter. This is simply a quick look into my experience…                        

It was 10 pm. Back at home, I would have been just about to get ready to peacefully end my day, but here in Tehran, the Persian sunset announced the beginning of the outpour of people onto the streets. Namely, the Bazaar e Golestan [1] was the place to be if you were young, hip and among the rebellious oppressed. Sitting in the courtyard of the bazaar, I couldn’t help but notice all the teenagers grouped up in every corner, near every bench, ice cream in hand and checking out the opposite sex. The girls wore wonderfully colored scarves that matched with their outrageously nice form-fitting outfits and were topped off with heavily made-up faces. On the other side, the young men looked like a Tommy Hilfiger advertisement with their overly-gelled hair and excessively tight shirts. Sounds somewhat familiar…and yet it’s another world all together.

Let’s move down south. On the coast of the Persian Gulf, gazing out from upon the northern shore of the Island of Kish, I could make out the dusty contours of what seemed to be mountains of a southern province of Iran. As I kept staring at this mirage-like scene, in front of which large fishing boats slowly glided on the shimmering turquoise water, I couldn’t help but overhear the young women next to me. Lying in the sun with their scandalously inexistent bikinis, one girl, mp3 player by her side, pointed to her glasses and boasted about the expensive price at which she had bought them. She continued by adding, with a somewhat snobbish air, that this had been her second vacation to the island of Kish in less than 3 weeks: the island of Kish being an equivalent of a Cuba getaway for us North-Americans.

I kept thinking to myself how wonderful it must be to be young and living in Iran. Just look at the youth and how they enjoy themselves, so at ease and relaxed about everything. Someone later on noted to me that the Iranian youth has nothing better to do than to hang out. Extremely hard, unfair national entrance exams to universities filter the ordinary students, who would have typically gone to university had they been living in Canada, for example. The few that do get in find themselves jobless when they finish their university studies. Consequently, many drop out and turn to drugs. Confusion and discouragement cloud the cities of Iran.

There is a city in the northeast of Iran, a city that receives thousands of pilgrims each year, a city whose foundations are built around a holy shrine: this is the city of Mashad. The holy shrine is that of Imam Reza, a forefather of Shia Islam. Iranians of all backgrounds make way towards this city regardless of their religion. We rode by train twelve hours from Tehran to Mashad. During the whole ride, my face was glued to the window. The scenery mesmerized me. The villages, some further away in the valleys of the dusty mountains and some so close I could see through the dirty windows, specially caught my attention. What would it be like to live there, to have always lived there? The thoughts of walking alongside those boys outside the window, who might have been my brothers, and tending to the herd for that might have been the family business kept me occupied for a good part of the trip.

It is customary to go to Mashad and pray in the Haram e Imam Reza [2] for guidance, help and anything else ones heart desires. The monumental mosque has two courtyards that lead to each other and to the haram. Huge Persian carpets are laid down on the marble-like floor in the courtyard under the stars. While my fellow travelers, who consisted of family and friends, paid their respects and prayed in the mosque, I sat beside them and let the grandeur and beauty of the architecture slowly seep in. What a wonderful place to meditate. I guess that’s what we were all doing in the mosque, meditating. We just had different ways of doing it. As Rudolfo Anaya so wisely concluded, a tourist must also be a pilgrim. I had no other choice. If I wanted to experience the city, I had to experience its essence, its mosque.

One day in the market place, I noticed that this boy was following me. I remember him perfectly. He was around my age, had greasy brown hair and wore a messy blue flannel shirt. Behind the greasy meshes that fell in his face were these amazing green eyes. I couldn’t help but look at them a couple of times. He took my admiration for his eyes as an invite, I suppose. We walked from the market to the mosque, which is about a thirty-minute walk. From time to time when I would look back, there he was in close proximity. I was terrified and intrigued at the same time. As we entered the mosque, we made way towards the carpets in the courtyard. My eyes unconsciously started to look for him; he was nowhere to be found. I later spotted him fifty meters away, simply leaning on a wall and fixing me with his eyes. To me, he seemed harmless. It was as if though he was looking from inside a dirty window and wondering what would it be like to live there, where she lives?

A getaway tradition of the inhabitants of Tehran is to drive up north to the coast of the Caspian Sea. The treacherous mountainside road that leads to this northern province has barely enough space for one car to pass; yet obstinately, drivers cut in front of each other and drive recklessly. Six passengers and one small car, yet we were determined to get there in one piece. My grandparents’ villa is amidst rice fields on the bottom of an enormous mountain with lush vegetation in the region of Namak Abroud. The mountaintop was always surrounded by mist. We went to the top a couple of times via the telecabin lifts of the regional park. The youth has a set a custom regarding the trip upwards on the lifts. Each time your telecabin passes by another, and especially if the girls or boys in it appeal to you, you scream off the top of your lungs. They reply by doing the same. In a world where the desperate words of the youth aren’t heard, a world in which the sexes are divided and kept isolated from each other, the only modes of communication left are those screams. Let us not judge them and, if we can, scream along with them, for that is what I did.

One night, we decided to enjoy the entertainments of a nearby hotel by the sea. Motorboats were available and the driver would take you out to sea for a ride. I couldn’t get enough of it. As the motorboat started, I could only see endless water; it was only the Caspian Sea and I. My cousin and I kept begging the driver to go faster and cut waves. He did just that and for split seconds we were flying across the Caspian Sea. Unfortunately, cutting waves is as much painful as it is fun. We were very soar afterwards since as gravity would have it: whatever goes up must come down. On our way back to Tehran a week later, we got stuck in major traffic. Drivers were persistently honking to the point of madness. Everybody was tired and on edge. As luck would have it, it was the night of the presidential elections and the polls were closing. No one in my immediate family intended to vote since as was later evident, the people’s vote had nothing to do with the outcome of the elections. For that reason we were not in any hurry. It simply seemed as if though we were stuck in circumstances beyond our control, forever delayed from the rest of the world.

Everybody in Tehran was impressed by how flawlessly this khareji girl spoke their language. No one could imagine that I was born and brought up outside of Iran. I had the signature eyes, I used the proper expressions with perfect timing and I had the Persian dance down to every move. I was completely like them. Also, I quickly understood the importance of superficiality: either you’re rich or nothing, a doctor or a nothing… Integrating all these attributes, I became like them. Yet, my mind was still my own. My life had been such that my mentality was a mosaic of Western and Middle Eastern ideas and beliefs. I was a mix of eastern mysticism and western liberalism. This always did make me somewhat off, no matter where I was: here or there.

What made me belong in Iran was the intense, unexplainable connection that I felt to every tree, flower, breeze, drop of water, mountain top, and this list could go on forever. There is an underlining theory in science that affirms that nothing is ever lost, it is only transformed. Whether it’s the molecules that make up my physical being that are the very same that once made up the atmosphere of Iran or if it is my soul that feels intertwined with the energy and rhythm of that country, I don’t know. All I know is when my trip was over; I was aching to stay there. Was I insane? How could I compare the social security of my country and the many possibilities it offered with this absurd sense of belonging? Who cares about belonging, I care about surviving. Did I forget how difficult life is for the young Iranians here, how their opinions and desires are the last of the government’s priorities?

The truth is I was aware of all these unfortunate realities. My unexplainable attachment is understandable if I take into account the wonderful trips and adventures I experienced while there. I was always on the go, from one beautiful destination to another. The second I stayed someplace to long, I would realize the eventuality of living there was very unlikely. I had not seen the ugly truth because I was kept from it. I was only allowed to see the beauty, not the beast. Comment

[1] A bazaar named Golestan.
[2] Area inside the monumental mosque of Mashad, where Imam Reza is buried.

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