By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
I make rounds as a visiting physician at the hospital where I was born. My specialty is in pulmonary and critical care, but critical care, a relatively new field in many countries, doesn’t yet formally exist in Iran. The hospital director promises to find me a nice Iranian husband if I’ll only agree to come back and start a formal ICU service. The doctors and nurses are excited to learn there is an American-trained physician in-house — some want to chat, ask for a consult. Khanom Doktor (Lady Doctor), they call me. It is endearing. They ask how things are different at our hospitals. We discuss everything from the cafeteria food (succulent skewers of kebab or classic Iranian stews like khoresteh gaymeh and ghormeh sabzy vs. Grade D overcooked burgers), to weekend days (Thursdays and Fridays in Iran), to the use of Swan-Ganz catheters and preferred choices of vasopressor agents in septic shock.
My sister is excited about an upcoming wedding to which I am invited. She e-mails from Los Angeles, asking what I plan to wear: “You never know what handsome men you might meet at a wedding.” I soon learn that, at this wedding, there will be no handsome men. Nor any ugly men, for that matter. Just no men, period. Upon arrival, we are separated into rooms by gender. There’s no alcohol. And, out of respect for a recent death in the groom’s family, there’s no dancing or music. So the evening consists of a group of beautiful, decked-out ladies sitting and sipping their Seven-Ups, telling stories about what this same hotel was like before the revolution: fun parties, stylish outfits, glamorous women. Dinner is served, eaten quickly and followed by a mass exodus. As the groom’s mother kisses me goodbye, she whispers, “This is the most boring wedding I’ve been to in my life. I wish I could leave with you!”
During my four-week visit, I take several trips out of the capital, Tehran, with my family. The first is to Abyaneh, a village on the edge of the desert in central Iran, now an official UNESCO site. Here, we step back in time — there are no cars, an occasional donkey wanders through the ancient village streets, and the locals sit peacefully outside their mud-brick and clay homes wearing colorful clothes. As we are leaving, a woman with a partially toothless smile grabs my arm, plants a big kiss on my cheek, and tells me her lavashak is the best in the world. It is as I remember. She invites us for chayee (tea) and asks about life in Aamreeka (America). She knows her neighboring town is Natanz, but is not aware that it has a nuclear enrichment facility and has been in the news. I am glad the villagers here don’t have television or radio.
We drive to Shomal (“North” — the area near the Caspian Sea). I remember bits of the drive — one of my favorite pictures is of myself when I was little, sitting on these beaches. But there are few families with children here now, as swimming in a hijab is sort of tough. We stay with our 92-year-old cousin. A chieftain of one of Iran’s major tribes, he has traveled the world, lived through several wars and been arrested and detained by previous regimes in Iran and other countries. His storytelling reminds me of my patients at VA hospitals where I’ve worked over the years — their stark analyses of present political events framed by their experiences in their nation’s conflicts. I’m so reminded of my life back in the U.S. that I keep thinking my pager will beep, that I will have to rush out. But we’re only interrupted once. The lights flicker, buzz and turn off. A power outage. He pauses in his account of the CIA’s coup against Dr. Mossadegh, “This country, where the lights go out every other night, this country wants to build a nuclear weapon?”
My father practiced architecture in Iran prior to the revolution, and his firm designed the master plan for the city of Mashad. When we arrive at the airport there, one of his former colleagues and an admiring group of young architects come to meet us. As we drive around, I notice the city’s logical design, with little of the chaos that marks Tehran’s traffic. I go to the bazaar with Maryam, a family friend. She is in her early 20s, studying woodworking at the university, a very polite and quiet girl who’s never left Iran. It is a hot day, so I unbutton the top button of my manteau — it would have gone unnoticed in Tehran, but Mashad (“place of martyrdom”) is the holiest and most religious city in Iran, where Imam Reza, the direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad, died.
Two chadoris, with facial hair bordering on mustaches, approach: “Khanom! Mardetoon kojast?” (“Miss! Where’s your man?”) I wonder if they are joking. Then I see the subtle green stripe under their chadors — they are baseej (Iran’s volunteer militia). I ponder spending the rest of my life in Evin (Iran’s notorious prison), and it’s not so funny. Maryam steps in and politely asks them if they want Khanom Doktor to return to Aamreeka and confirm their opinion of how educated women are treated here. I wipe beads of sweat away from under my roosari (head scarf). It is really hot. “Khanom Doktor,” they say, “maro bebakhsheen” (“forgive us”). And they leave.