I push my face up against the airplane window like a little kid. Twenty-eight years older and a couple of feet taller, I am returning to Iran.
It is a long journey. I study Spanish, a pursuit I’ve undertaken to assist me in my career as a physician. My neighbor peeks over my shoulder and asks, in broken English with a thick Iranian accent, if I am Italian. I reply in Farsi. “You don’t look Iranian,” he remarks. “Are you sure you’re not Italian?” The Air France flight attendant has arrived to take our dinner orders. She speaks to me in French. I try to respond, but it’s been too long, and learning a new Latin language has done irreparable damage to what French I knew. What results is Spanish with nasal intonations. We laugh. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I thought you were French. You don’t look American.” “Yes, eez right, eez vaat I say,” my neighbor pipes up, “but no eez Ferench! Eez Eetaly!” He has trouble understanding the menu in English, so I help him order, grateful to move past this familiar discussion.
We enter Iranian airspace, and the captain announces that all women onboard must now dress in compliance with the rules of the Islamic Republic of Iran, donning appropriate hair and body covering. A woman behind me curses up a storm, then shouts, “At least give us another drink — it will be our last for a while!” The ladies all giggle together. I have been growing my hair long, and I run my fingers through it before covering up. I overhear a male flight attendant joke about taking off with a plane full of beauty queens and landing with a plane full of peasants. I put on my manteau. My neighbor, formerly self-conscious about his language skills, turns and looks me directly in the eye, with seemingly newfound confidence.
We arrive at Mehrabad Airport. In the immigration line, a man cuts in front of me and several other passengers. A lady from the back follows suit. I don’t know the culture or street lingo yet — do I say something? Cut in myself? Ten minutes and two line-cutters later, I reach the passport guy. I’d had some anxiety about this first hurdle I would face on entering the country. I’m an American citizen and an American passport holder. But I’m also an Iranian citizen, and the government here requires me to enter using my Iranian passport, bearing a photograph of me wearing a veil. He flips through all the blank pages. “Avaleen baareh be Iran?” (“First time to Iran?”) What a first question.
People ask if I remember anything. It’s hard to know how to answer. I’ve learned, over time, that most people are like the passport guy — they want simple answers. I remember paloodeh (a dessert of noodles in rose water) and lavashak (plum-fruit roll-ups) — because I couldn’t have them again. I remember my best friend Reza and my preschool, where his parents showed up with suitcases. Us crying because he was going to Paareess (Paris). Where the hell Paareess was, we had no idea. But it sounded far away, and it seemed we’d never see each other again. We didn’t. And I remember our own suitcases a few weeks later.
So I say a straightforward “Baaleh” (Yes), and he is satisfied. I clear customs and hear the hubbub just beyond the glass doors. There are, give or take, 15 excited family members for each arriving passenger. Someone’s tapping me on the shoulder — a deep, harsh, crackly voice: “Khanom? Khanom?” (“Miss? Miss?”) Black, black, everything black with a set of white eyes poking out. Oh, dear — it’s Darth Vader? At Mehrabad Airport? No, I realize, it’s a chadori (devout Muslim woman covered from head to toe with a veil). “Khanom, parvazetoon khoob bood? Khoob reseedeen?” (“Miss, was your flight good? Did you arrive all right?”) I relax and nod. She and her family group giggle excitedly while awaiting their own loved one’s appearance. She smiles and squeezes my arm: “Khayly khosh aamadeen” (“A great welcome to you.”)
I spot my father. He and my mother had one of their first dates right here at a swanky airport bar (which was closed after the revolution). Now, women are not allowed to shake hands with or embrace males in public, so I blow fake kisses to our male relatives and family friends. And we’re off. We drive onto Khiyaabaaneh Enghelaab (Revolution Street), previously Khiyaabaaneh Reza Shah, the long thoroughfare that stretches throughout the city. To ensure that references to pre-revolutionary regimes have been eliminated, all the street and monument names have been replaced with the names of mullahs, Islamic scholars, important revolutionary dates or events, or, most of all, names of the hundreds of thousands of shohada (martyrs) — soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War.
The next day, I ride in my first authentic Iranian taxi, a Paykan with orange stripes, a remnant of Western influence. The driver is excited to learn of my return and warmly welcomes me. He points out the now deserted former American embassy and asks whether I think America will be bombing Iran. His voice is resigned. The same when he speaks about driving these streets during the revolution, about the cousin and brother he lost in the Iran-Iraq War. I am starting to understand: This is how it is here. We arrive, and I ask him the fare. “Ghabel nadareh” (“It’s nothing”), he says. We go back and forth, me insisting, him refusing — the custom of taarof — unique to this culture. On the fourth go-round, he asks for 1,500 tomans ($2 U.S. for a ride that would cost $20 in New York City). He thanks me profusely and wishes me luck in my journeys and my career. What a pleasant first cab ride, I think. Over the weeks to come, they will all conclude the same way.
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.
Our final trip is to Esfahan, known as the gem of Iran and the Islamic world. You don’t need to be Iranian or Muslim to fall in love with this city — even Duke Ellington wrote a song about it. Set in the center of the country, at the foothills of the Zagros mountain range, it is a designated UNESCO world-heritage city. Eleven picturesque, fairytale-like bridges cross the scenic Zayandeh River. We stroll repeatedly across them, stopping for chayee at a teahouse on the lower portion of a bridge constructed of 33 arches. At the Baazaar-e Bozorg (Big Bazaar), I speak to a baazaari who tells me he loves Americans but doesn’t care much for their government. As an afterthought, he points out that he feels the same way about Iranians. He goes to the back of his shop and brings me a book in which he has pasted the business cards of all the Americans who have ever visited. We chat for some time, and as I’m about to leave he asks, “Is it true?” He wants to know if America is likely to hamleh (attack) Iran. He is well-read, and he knows Esfahan has a uranium-conversion facility.
Back in Imam Square, surrounded by turquoise-blue architecture, I eat a perfect cup of paloodeh as the delicate dome tile work of Masched-e Sheik Lotfallah changes colors with the rising sun. My trip is almost over. I promised my Spanish teacher I would write a summary of my time here. But will I be able to capture even the smallest bit of my experience? In a language that’s not my own? I must try. I am meticulous, double- and triple-checking for errors. I send the e-mail. Only later do I realize my mistake. I meant to write: I am returning home Thursday. But I have used salir in place of volver. “I am leaving home Thursday.” She’ll understand. We learned those verbs of motion early on, all on the same page. It was a bit confusing.
I am back at Mehrabad Airport. At the check-in line, a man tries to cut ahead of all of us. “Agha!” I ask him. “Cheh khabareh? Befarmayeen, befarmayeen tooyeh saaf.” (“Sir! What’s the story? Welcome, welcome to the line.”) He politely apologizes and moves back behind us. I turn and look fondly at him, the last line-cutter of my trip. I am trying to hold these final moments, but there’s an unnatural speed to air travel. The signs are once again in both English and Farsi. Then they’re only in English. My hair is uncovered. The U.S. passport guy is asking me questions. I think about the quiet room ahead, where passengers are arriving with no one to greet them. He hands me back both passports.