Back at Ollie’s house his mother was brushing her long, silky black hair after having taken her evening shower.Sitting at her vanity mirror in her house robe and slippers, she looked intently at the fine lines which in the past few years had begun to form around her eyes.Even now at forty-nine, she was a fine-looking woman by anyone’s standards.
Every night, she meticulously went through the same routine of applying an assortment of expensive creams and lotions to her striking face and gorgeous neck.No one could ever accuse her of not trying her very best to hold back the toll that the hands of time inevitably inflict upon every once young and once beautiful woman.She wasn’t entirely convinced that her regimen of beauty products was having the desired effect, but at least she wasn’t giving up without a fight. Not only did she spend considerable time and money trying to maintain the appearance of her facial aesthetics, but she also spent an hour or two a day on the treadmill that she kept in her exercise room in hopes of maintaining her slender, petite figure.
While many women her age suffered psychologically from years of constantly struggling against the battle of the bulge, she was fortunate to weigh less now than she had twenty years earlier.She was a vain woman, but she had much to be vain about and that’s why she worked so hard to maintain her appearance. She was determined to avoid, for as long as possible, the emotional devastation that many of her Iranian girlfriends endured as a result of the unstoppable steep-slide into middle age that all women must eventually face. Far too many of them, it seemed, were too easily surrendering in the battle against age and the unwelcome tripartite ravages it inflicted on women’s bodies: lines on the face, ballooning buttocks and gravitational pull in all of the wrong places.
When Ollie opened the door, it was almost half-past eight; he was late. He knew that his mother did not like him being out so late on a school night, but what could he do.The old woman that smelled like socks just took too much time with her hocus-pocus.“What a complete waste of time,” he thought.As he walked toward the back of the house, he heard Googoosh playing on the stereo.He wasn’t a big Googoosh fan.She didn’t sing to his generation; she sang to generation of once young Iranians that were now successful middle-aged doctors, scientists, businessmen and engineers across America; in short, she sang to his mother’s generation.
Like a few western entertainers both dead and alive, such as Elvis, Madonna, Cher and Pink, Googoosh was known by only one name, but strangely a lot of Iranian singers were known by only one name. Googoosh wasn’t her real name; she was born in 1950, Faegheh Atashin, in a run-down part of Tehran. As a child, she initially gained fame acting in movies and later, in adulthood, as a pop singer in pre-revolutionary Iran.Although Googoosh was not Persian, she had endeared herself to the Persian majority in Iran who grew to love her like no other performer before or since.Following the revolution, Googoosh was one of very few Iranian entertainers that did not emigrate west.For more than twenty years, she remained in her country living as a near-recluse since officials of the government of God no longer permitted her to sing; her voice just like nearly everything else of grace and beauty in Iran suddenly became un-Islamic. A black cloud of despair, apathy and hopelessness descended upon Iranian society with the ascendance of the nation’s new Islamic masters, and Googoosh was trapped under that cloud just as millions of her compatriots were and, in many cases, still are. Finally, in 2000, she was allowed to leave Iran and settle in Canada.“Perhaps, the old saying, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ applied to Googoosh,” thought Ollie, “for during the twenty years that she was gagged from singing in Iran, her popularity exploded to mind-boggling heights among her compatriots both inside and outside the country.”By the time she finally landed in Canada, she was truly an iconic figure of unparalleled fame.
Even though his mother wasn’t very enthusiastic about the diva’s new music, she continued to be a devoted fan, just in case the singer ever decided to sing the kind of songs which years earlier had endeared her to her people and captured her nation’s heart with her long string of very popular hits.Ollie would never use the words “boring” or “has been” when speaking of Googoosh in his mother’s presence, but those words surely swirled around in his “metal-head” head. He liked his music loud, and he liked it hard, two things the Persian music played inside his home were not.Of course, he’d never tell his mother this; she was fiercely proud of her country, her culture and her heritage. It would break her heart if he admitted to loving any kind of music other than Persian music, but in his mind, the fact remained, Iranians weren’t rockers!
When he got to the back of the house, his mother’s bedroom door was open.Ollie, in a slightly raised voice said, “Maman, I’m home.”“Bia inja,” she answered back.“What mom?I couldn’t hear you,” he replied.“I said, come here,” she shouted.Ollie walked in and sat on the foot of her bed.His mother was still sitting in front of her mirror, continuing to put on her collection of face creams.Although she wasn’t angry with him, she tried to act perturbed. She knew where he’d been and she would never get angry with him for visiting Mr. and Mrs. Tabatabai and their son Reza.They were the only other Iranian family living in the neighborhood and she wanted Ollie to remain friends with their son. She had learned in thirty years of living in the United States that American friends sometimes turn on you if they see something on TV that they don’t like…even if it is something that is completely out of your control.
She remembered back to her days as a young student at Missouri State University.She had many friends and was well liked, or so she thought.All of that changed over night when a group of vigilante university students overran the American Embassy in Tehran and took a number of U.S. diplomats hostage. Then, with the blessing of the revolutionary government, they held them captive for 444 days sparking intense anger on the part of the general public in the United States.In the blink of an eye, and for an event that took place half-way round the world, she and every other Iranian student in America suddenly became “the enemy.”Of course, some people were kind and did not allow their passions to become inflamed toward innocent students whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but far too many did.
Those who were unkind to her seemed to lose sight of the fact that she was still an innocent and tender-hearted teenager at the time, in addition to the undeniable fact that she had not taken part in any of the regrettable events back in her homeland. She and every other Iranian student were condemned by an enraged American public that all too often was hell-bent on making someone pay! At least she was female though.While she endured many verbal assaults, as did just about every Iranian in America at the time, the boys had it much worse.Many of them were attacked physically, and not just once, but repeatedly over the course of the fifteen month ordeal.Even students who were not Iranian sometimes suffered.She recalled an incident where two of her fellow students at the English Language School of her university were severely beaten by a bunch of drunken redneck bullies that took it upon themselves to vindicate and assuage Uncle Sam’s bruised ego. The two young men, who were walking out of a 7-11 convenience store on a Friday evening, were confronted by a group of beer guzzling, pick-up driving yokels who had pulled into the parking lot to have a tail-gate party.As the two boys were making their way across the lot headed back to their dormitory, they were surrounded by the group of shit-kickers, who thought it might be fun to kick a little camel-jockey ass.The only problem was that the two students weren’t Iranian; they were Venezuelan.That inconvenient fact didn’t stop the inebriated rowdies though.When the boys loudly protested they were from South America, the leader of the vicious, drunken mob said that South America was nearly the same as Iran.The two boys received a severe beating and the cowboys were never caught.
Ollie’s mother had lived through and learned lifelong lessons during the period that Americans’ referred to as the “Iranian Hostage Crisis.”Perhaps, the lesson that stuck with her most was that Americans don’t always live up to the lofty ideals that they so proudly hold up in others’ faces.Never again would she believe all that “Land of the free, home of the brave” baloney that she had once believed as a girl growing up in Abadan, Iran.She had seen up close, the ugly and twisted face of racism, and she fully understood now that Americans are just as human and just as fallible as every other people in the world.These were some of the reasons that she wanted Ollie to strengthen his friendship with Reza.She knew that neither Reza nor any other Iranian would ever call her sweet son as sand-nigger while many in America had already proven that they would.These were some of her heart’s hidden scars that no amount of time would ever heal.
Still applying her concoction of creams and before she could start talking to Ollie who was still sitting on the edge of her bed, the telephone rang.Her face smeared with a thick layer of white goo, she told Ollie to run and get it.From her room, she heard him say, “Hello?Salaam…baleh, baleh khanoom...I’ll get her…just a minute.”“Maman, phone for you.It’s Mrs. Tahvosuli.”Ollie knew that his mother did not like Mrs. Tahvosuli much because the woman was such a pessimistic, gossiping busy-body.She was Iranian; however, and that small fact forced his mother to be civil to her.
In a moment, Ollie’s mother was on the telephone, white face and all.Ollie recognized the way his mother spoke, and he hated it. It was tarrof.Having grown up in America, he was not accustomed to engaging in tarrof; he considered it to be a rather over-the-top form of ass-kissing.His mother, on the other hand, considered it to be a mark of culture and a sign of refinement.Being half-Persian, Ollie was uncomfortable with the fact that there were times when Iranians of the older generation expected him to be as proficient in tarrof as they were, but the simple truth was that he wasn’t and probably never would be.
Conceptually tarrof was not easily grasped by those Americans who had even heard of it. It involved a mixture of lots of flowery flattery and flowery false flattery, sincere politeness and insincere politeness.Like most Americans, Ollie considered it to be mendacious at best and deceitful at worst. One reason that Ollie hated tarrof so much was because he was not sufficiently versed in it to be able to discern when someone was being genuinely polite or when they were simply going through the motions.Another reason, one that he never spoke of to anyone, was that he sometimes felt intimidated by a culture that he was part of, but not a full member of; he was only half-Iranian after all, and he was sure that other Iranians regarded him as such.His feeble understanding of the intricacies of how tarrof worked was just one of many areas where he felt deficient as an Iranian.
Throughout the centuries, Iranians, like his mother, had always considered tarrof to be a sign of good manners and of good breeding in their neighbors and compatriots.Although she had tried throughout his life to teach him the etiquette of tarrof, he had found it impossible to master the art. Growing up in the United States deprived him of much opportunity to practice it.What he did understand was very basic.For instance, Ollie’s mother had long ago taught him not to take food that was offered to him whenever they visited the homes of other Iranians.Regardless of the fact that the host would invariably insist that he eat something, his mother had told him in advance not to accept the offer because it would simply be tarrof.Of course no one would say anything if he accepted the host’s offer, but he might not be invited over again, for tarrof not only involved the making of insincere offers, but also the ability to recognize tarrof offers, as such and to politely refuse to accept them.Another example that he saw as a young boy when he visited his grandparents in Iran was when taxi drivers would initially refuse to accept payment and would have to be begged to take the money for fares they had earned. This confused Ollie, so he asked his grandfather what would happen if they just got out and didn’t pay since the driver said he didn’t want any money.Ollie’s grandfather said that the driver would probably get angry and call the police since the refusal to take the money wasn’t genuine, but tarrof. Such examples were the extent of Ollie’s limited understanding of taroff, but tarrof was much more, and he knew it. He just didn’t know for sure how much more.
One thing he did know for sure was that tarrof permeated Iranian culture at every level and it governed all aspects of interpersonal relationships between strangers and people who know one another intimately.The problem for many Iranians who were born and raised in the west, Ollie surmised, was that they have had to learn it vicariously from older relatives who grew up in Iran or through trial and error, practicing it on one another or on their American friends who neither understood nor appreciated it.As far as tarrof was concerned, Ollie definitely felt far more American than Iranian.
As the two women talked on the phone, Ollie’s stomach started to feel nauseated.For two women that didn’t like one another much, there was just too much tarrof for him!Ollie wondered why Mrs. Tahvosuli had called this time.From being able to overhear his mother’s side of the conversation, he concluded that she had called to talk about her son, Davood.She always called when she wanted to report the latest news and accomplishments of that prick.Ollie had met him a couple of times at gatherings, but he didn’t like him much.Ollie thought that he was a stuck-up, spoiled, mama’s boy who fancied himself as God’s gift to every Persian girl on the planet.Ollie thought he was just a big pussy who liked to throw his baba’s money in others’ faces, so that he could feel better about himself.Ollie had met several boys, like Davood, from St. Louis-area, Iranian families. They hid beneath their mothers’ skirt tails, and threw their dad’s money around acting as if they had earned it themselves. In Ollie’s middle class opinion they were just spoiled little rich mamas’ boys that would one day be dominated by their future wives.Iranians had a name for such men, zan zaleels; Ollie was sure that Davood and his ilk, the rich little momma’s boys of today would be the zan zaleels of tomorrow.
As the conversation dragged on, Ollie was able to discern that Mrs. Tahvosuli had called to report that Davood had been chosen to play on his school’s polo team and that the team would be flying to Dhaka, Bangladesh to participate in an international amateur polo tournament there.He could tell from his mother’s face that Mrs. Tahvosuli wasn’t simply informing her of Davood’s accomplishment; she was rubbing her nose in it. Ollie couldn’t understand why Mrs. Tahvosuli always needed to feel better than and more important than his mother, but this, he was sure, was the purpose behind her all-too-frequent calls.Ollie didn’t know a lot about Bangladesh, but he did know that the country suffered from frequent typhoons that would flood the country and drowned tens of thousands of people. “Maybe, Davood might get caught in one of those typhoons and be found floating face down,” he thought to himself with a wicked smile on his face.
If Ollie didn’t know his mother better, he would have thought that the two women were the best of friends from all the “mahsha’allahs” and “ghorboonet behrams” his mother kept repeating over and over. After three decades of living in America, she could still tarrof with the best of them when she had to. He knew that, roughly translated into English, “mahsha’allah” meant, wonderful.It was an Arabic word that had made its way into the Persian language over a thousand years earlier.“Ghorboonet beram,” on the other hand, was a Persian expression which literally meant, “I would die for you.” He knew well that in modern Persian, the expression was used as a term of endearment for family members and intimate friends; something akin to dear or honey in English.His mother called him ghorboonet beram all the time.
The thing that Ollie didn’t’ like was that his mother, and just about every other Iranian of her generation he had ever met, used ghorboonet beram with almost everybody, even people that they despised and people whom they would never die for. Ollie wished his mother would just tell old bitty on the other end of the phone to go to hell and take her effeminate son with her, but he knew that would never happen because his mother was a dignified Iranian lady.She would rather die a thousand painful deaths than to turn her back on what her Persian upbringing demanded of her, unconditional politeness!
Soon the conversation turned to Norooz, the Persian New Year that was coming soon.Ollie could tell from what his mother was saying that the Tahvosulis would be spending Norooz in Las Vegas where a number of big name Iranian entertainers would be performing.He wished that they could go to Las Vegas. He would love to see some of the metal bands that played there; he was sure that he had read on the Internet that Linkin Park was doing a one-year gig there at one of the big casinos.He didn’t have much interest in seeing Persian singers, but some hard rockers would be fantastic! Ollie was the kind of kid who loved to turn up the volume and rip the knob off; he was a rocker through and through! Maybe, in a few years, they could go, he hoped.
The conversation began to wind down as his mother asked Mrs. Tahvosuli where she could buy sabzi for Norooz.He was unsure of what answer his mother got because all she kept saying was “Baleh, bosheh, bahleh,” which Ollie knew meant, “Yes, ok, yes.”He made a mental note to ask his mom later about the sabzi.In a moment, the conversation was over, and his mother hung up the phone not saying a word.She was staring off into space, deep in thought.Ollie knew that he’d better leave her alone for a little bit, so he turned to leave the room, headed to take a shower.He turned back momentarily, thinking of telling her about his broken glasses, but at the last moment he decided that it could wait until later.Walking toward the bathroom, he wondered what his mother was thinking about, and he wondered about the sabzi. (To be continued)
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