Essence: Finding Iran in the most unlikely of places


by tissa

I looked out at the Grand Canal and St. Mark's Square, at the gondolier dressed in black pants and a horizontally striped black and white shirt as he beckoned to passersby.  A ride in his gondola was tempting, but it was lunchtime and we were hungry so it would have to wait.  We walked on - my parents, sister, and I - past the patriots carrying red, white, and blue flags, past the torii gate and the bonsai trees, and arrived in Morocco, where my parents had decided that we would have lunch at Restaurant Marrakech.  I had voted for Chinese and six-year-old Melody had voted for Mexican, but our parents, who had decided that Moroccan food was the closest thing to Iranian food that they would find at Epcot Center, had outvoted us.  The idea of belly dancers and couscous didn't appeal to me, and I waited outside the restaurant with my mother and sister as my father went in to check on our reservation.

As we waited there, admiring the World Showcase around us, I became aware of a familiar scent in the air, something sweet and fragrant that I didn't recognize but instinctively knew.  I took in a deeper breath and said out loud, "I smell Iran."  My mother turned to me and looked around the area where I was standing.  Her eyes stopped when she spotted what was hanging directly over my head.

"It's the orange tree," she said, motioning upwards.  I looked up to see a small tree hovering only a few inches above my 5-foot-2 frame.  It was covered in delicate white blossoms, and from its narrow branches hung little green orbs, the tiny promises of oranges.  It was an unfamiliar sight to a sixteen-year-old girl who had grown up in frosty New England, but the smell of it was unmistakably familiar, unmistakably Iran.

"You're remembering my father's house," my mother said.  She always called her parents' house her father's house.  "He planted orange trees in the yard when I was a little girl, God rest his soul, and those are the trees you grew up around."

I didn't remember anything about my grandparents' yard.  I barely remembered anything about my grandparents.  Yet somehow, in this artificial world with the Eiffel Tower to my left and a Japanese pagoda to my right, I had found a little piece of home, a true world that I remembered somewhere in my memory, though I had left it behind eleven years earlier.

I followed my sister and mother to see what was keeping my father, past the fake minaret and the mock bazaar, to the right of the mosaic-tiled fountain and through the archway to the turbaned maitre-d', who led us into an enchanted land lined with lavish carpets, where fez-wearing waiters carried exotic lamb dishes and poured tea into small glass cups while belly dancers swayed their hips to eastern melodies.  And looking around we knew - we knew to savor this make-believe world, not for its own richness but for what it reminded us of.  This was the closest we would get to what we inherently knew, to what was familiar to us, and though the outfits were garish and the tea was too weak, the rice smelled of saffron and the scent of mint wafted through the air and the message the aromas whispered was clear - this, this is close enough.



Tissa Hami is a stand-up comic.  Visit her website at


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Nazy joon

by tissa on

You are so kind and so sweet.  We are all very lucky to have you here on, not only as a talented and thought-provoking writer but also as a loyal and supportive reader.

Btw, will you adopt me?  Ahahahahahaha.   :o)

Nazy Kaviani

Dear Tissa

by Nazy Kaviani on

It's great to read you again! What a sweet tale of nostalgia. I have long held that our sense of smell is really underrated for its significance in tying us to our memories. A few weeks ago, we had gathered at a family reunion around a wedding in Orange County. We were sitting around talking about our trips to Isfahan as very young children, where we stayed at my aunt's and uncle's house. I told my cousins and my siblings that I remember that big old house on Char-Bagh, and a very distinctive smelling food in that house. All of them at once said "that was the smell of Beryooni!" (Beryooni is a dish local to Isfahan cuisine).

I remember another uncle's house in Shiraz intertwined with the smell of Narenj, a citrus fruit used for food seasoning. My American friend once told me that she associates the smell of burnt butter with love! I asked her how that worked and she explained that her grandmother who had loved her very much and whose house she loved to visit would bake her cookies as a child and the smell of burnt butter from her grandmother's oven had stayed in her memory sweetly all through her life.

Iranians also have an important place and respect for aromas and smells. I know when we were kids, whenever there was a pregnant woman in our vicinity, my mother would have us take a plate of whatever food she had made for lunch to the pregnant woman's house, lest she had smelled our food and had craved it!

I love reading your stories, Tissa. I also love your work as a standup comic. I am amazed at the extremes of comedy and serious reflection which you present in your performances and in your writings. That fascinates me to no end!