In the Midst of Tehran, By Aileen Arasteh
In the Midst of Tehran
By Aileen Arasteh
My parents are from Tehran, a crowded, chaotic city hugging the lower slopes of the snow-capped Alborz Mountains, just south of the Caspian Sea. She is an alluring city enriched with Iranian culture and extensive history, from the Neolithic period to the notorious empires and monarchies into what we know of her today. Tehran is home to eight million residents, making for a chaotic jumble of concrete and crazy traffic blanketed by a miasma of air pollution. Nevertheless, she is the nation's dynamic beating heart.
I was seven years old when I took my first steps in Iran. We had made plans to go as a family over the summer to visit a family that I had never even met before. A week before our trip, my mother and I made our way through the mob of women in Macy’s until we found ourselves in the scarves section. I bought three headscarves: a solid black one for my passport picture, a pink one that matched just about all my grandma bait clothing, and a deep blue with floral accents. The blue one was my favorite. Being seven meant that the Islamic regime would now demand of me to cover my hair in the public vicinity.
Seven days passed with restless anticipation and my parents’ frantic exasperation as they attempted to obtain the endless list of items my family members had asked them to bring with them from the United States. Of course, they were happy to do so as they, unlike myself at the time, were mindful of the fact that many things that we take for granted here are unavailable or overpriced over there. I remember thinking, “Why even go through the trouble if it’s such a hassle?”
I woke up to the red flashing of the numbers “5:00” on my Hannah Montana alarm clock, followed by the blaring of the show’s theme song, “The Best of Both Worlds.” I was all packed, and my father did the liberty of shoveling all of our possessions into the car the night before. We were finally on our way. I slept well through the first half of it, but the coming ten hours would be brimming with complete and utter boredom. We were in business class, so we had the luxury of television. I flipped from channel to channel until I eventually happened upon a cartoon, SpongeBob SquarePants. It was in German. Bothered and ignorant to the concept of subtitles, I simply shut it off, watching the screen fade to black. I turned to my next device of entertainment, my Nintendo. I played Super Mario Kart, Cooking Mama, and my favorite of all, Nintendogs. My parents never allowed dogs in the house due to my father’s lousy allergies, so virtual puppies resembled the next best thing to this twenty-first century child. I played and played until my battery gave out. I peered at my mother’s watch. Four more hours to go. Four more abominable, mind-numbing, life-sucking hours to go. My parents, siblings, and just about every other being on the flight were all fast asleep, sound and peaceful; I was suffused with envy.
I stared blankly at the ceiling for ten minutes until deciding I needed to use the restroom. I climbed over my sister’s reclined seat that was blocking me from the aisle. I walked slowly to the rear of the plane, trying to make the least bit of noise possible, apprehensive about waking my parents and the other passengers. As I tiptoed down what felt like a ceaseless aisle, my eyes flickered across each person, and I began to notice the diversity of the other passengers. Every face of different origin, background, ethnicity. Yet, somehow, we have all been congregated together on the same journey. It was a funny concept to me, coming from a predominantly white town sparse of diversity. I quickly shook the thought and sprung to my next one, “Where does the urine go once you flush it?” Does it disperse into the air? Is someone on Earth feeling droplets of urine land on their shoulder and reasoning that it’s going to rain soon? These thoughts made me giggle as I exited the restroom; they also caught me the attention of a flight attendant who appeared wildly distressed.
“Oh, thank God, your parents were worried sick,” she said in her thick, soft accent which I suspected to be Irish. As she escorted me back to my seat, I was no longer noticing the faces of the other passengers but analyzing the faces of my parents. I do not think I have ever seen them so perturbed in my life. I climbed back over my sister and somehow managed to sleep the rest of the way there, only waking once we arrived in Frankfurt to change flights.
I woke up to the abrupt turbulence. Puzzled. Frightened. I turned towards my mother. By the comforting look on her face, I know she must have noticed my alarm. I forced air in and out of my lungs, taking deep, long breaths while gripping my sister’s hand so tight it faded white. Just a few minutes later, we were on land. After retrieving our baggage, we were met by a herd of family members. I was astonished by how many of them there were. I turned to my mother and asked, “Is this our entire family?” “No, just your dad’s side,” she replied nonchalantly.
After what felt like a century of hugs and kisses and the routine of Salam’s and Azizam’s and Cheghad Bozorg Shodi’s1gradually came to a halt, we finally managed to veer our party out of the airport and into our apartment. Everyone joined us, and we were met with even more family. My eyes were heavy as if there were weights hanging off my lashes, and it became difficult to keep up with everybody. I went through the routine one last time, then, excused myself and slept till morning.
The next morning, I blinked away the fogginess and rubbed my eyes to rid them of weariness, but the yawn that followed this signified my sustained exhaustion. I later learned this was called jet-lagged. I holstered myself out of bed and proceeded towards the kitchen to find my favorite, simple Persian breakfast served with traditional hot tea. I sat and savored every bite before being informed that we were going to the bazaar2. My fatigue dissolved when I heard this news. Going to the bazaar meant I could get my favorite Persian treat called lavashak. I rarely ever had it; only whenever my parents came back from a trip they would bring me some. I eagerly leapt to my room and got dressed, putting on my adorable, brand-new deep blue headscarf, and later that day we were off to the bazaar.
I could not believe my eyes. There were so many people packed into such a confined space. Massive tents congested with human traffic. The continuous yelling of the words "Ya Allah, Ya Allah3,” as if they were reciting a hymn. Vast foods and knick-knacks across each booth, negotiations flying around. It was catastrophic.
We propelled our way through the mass, my hand gripping my mother’s tighter than I gripped my sister’s on the plane. She told me, “Hold my hand tight, and don’t let go, okay?” She was well aware of the prominence of human trafficking. I complied, reasoning that my mom knew best. After much pushing and jostling, we stumbled across a vendor in possession of the golden fruit, the holy grail. He had the lavashak. Bouncing out of my body like the sugar crazed child I was, the only thing on my mind was the lavashak. Just when I thought I could not obtain more happiness than I felt in that very moment, I did. As I peeked my head into the vendor’s booth scanning the different flavors, my eyes reached the bottom row, where I discovered something more pleasant and rare to our household. A big, gorgeous dog, golden and fluffy, just like the one I owned in Nintendogs. The dog approached me, and the vendor gave me the okay to pet him, I let go of my mother’s hand quickly and plunged to the ground to pet the dog. Not only would I be eating lavashak, but my virtual dog came to life. An enormous smile plastered across my face. While my mother negotiated and bickered over prices, I sat awestruck in my own ethereal world.
Abruptly, distorting my moment and erasing my world, I felt my arm tugged. Although, it was not the light tug I was used to, like when my mother tries to gain my attention when I am day dreaming or captivated by minor things. It was different, forceful. I was tugged so aggressively I was lifted from the ground, so aggressively that I was sure my shoulder would pop out of place. It happened so fast I was unable to fathom what was going on. Was I being kidnapped? The next thing I know, the negotiations were not the only things flying across the bazaar. I was fleeting, stretched and squeezed, floating through the thousands of other consumers who only came to buy their groceries. I was numb. I couldn’t breathe or speak. I just let it happen. And like a cork popped out of a bottle, my ears were pried opened, and I heard the only voice that mattered, my mother’s. Infuriated screeches penetrated the barrier that kept me from reality. I will never forget the image of my mother sprinting, jostling everyone out of her way, generating the most attention possible, and crying. Now, I have seen my mother more perturbed than ever before. This is how my mother looks when she sees her daughter being kidnapped.
Thankfully for a gallant stranger who grabbed hold of me and spared me from abduction, my arm felt relief. I could feel the blood rushing back into my body, the air back into my lungs. It was the day an abhorrent abductor walked away free but not with me as his victim. My mother embraced me and I, a normally unaffectionate child, was never so happy to be in the arms of my mom.
We headed home; my mom did not feel comfortable walking back due to the recent events. We stood side-by-side on the never-ending cracked, concrete sidewalk, fingers intertwined, as my mother raised her free, shaking hand and hailed us a cab. Once we climbed into the pungent, green cab she removed my beloved, blue headscarf and stroked my hair on the whole, traffic-jammed ride home.
As my mother stroked my hair and my nerves calmed down, I watched the city go by through the car window and wondered to myself, “Why hadn’t my opinions ever changed about her? She betrayed me.” But she didn’t. In fact, she saved me. Her selfless people saved me, just as her deranged ones put me in danger. I realized that the good comes with the bad no matter where you go. Whether it be my small, white town or the towns of my fellow passengers.
I thought, “This is Tehran.” My chest raised and lowered with every breath. She was dreadfully polluted, but she felt like a breath of fresh air. She seemed alien but felt like home. She was loud but subtle. Crammed yet cozy. She was bittersweet.
1. Salam: “Hello” in farsi; Azizam: Endearing term used in farsi; Cheghad Bozorg Shodi: “How big you’ve grown” in farsi; all very common exchanges between family members
2. Bazaar: a market in a Middle Eastern country
3. Ya Allah: Literally translates to “Oh dear God” but is used as an expression to say “Hurry up”