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Comment | "Bi Khial": An Iranian State of Mind


06 Nov 2012 10:32Comments
Kamin Mohammadi is the author of The Cypress Tree. She is a journalist, travel writer, and broadcaster currently living in Italy.
Three months after returning to Tehran, I started showing symptoms of the Iranian condition of bi khial: without making a conscious decision to stay on, I simply allowed the return date on my ticket to expire.

Translated literally, bi khial means "without intention." In practice it means not committing to anything or worrying about consequences, a sort of existential limbo that might have delighted Sartre or the Buddha, but which is maddening for anyone used to keeping appointments.

Even my friend M, who was brought up in the United States but had been back in Iran for just six months, displayed advanced signs of bi khial when I arrived. Keen to catch up on the gossip, I called her. The following day, she called me back. "I am dying to see you," she exclaimed above the roar of traffic. "What are you doing for supper? I am just off to a meeting, I'll call you when I am done at around 5 p.m.?"

I waited. The hours passed. The next day, she rang. "So sorry about last night," she said, her footsteps clattering. "My meeting ran late and then stuff happened and then I was in the mountains for dinner and there was no reception."

This sort of exchange, I noticed, characterized by varying degrees all my social interactions. At first, I was frustrated: How was I supposed to meet up with anyone when it was impossible to make plans? I put this question to one of my cousins, who laughed. "Listen," he said. "This is Iran. Don't take life so seriously. Everything will come right, inshallah. You know Kamin-jan, bi khial."

So I learned to relax and take things as they came, the kind of living-in-the-moment espoused by yogis and self-help gurus. And it was surprisingly easy to let go of schedules and expectations when it meant that I, too, was absolved of responsibility. Instead I learned to be unfazed when my cousin, a notoriously fickle character, said, "Hey, shall we go to Dubai this weekend?" I replied, "Sure," safe in the knowledge that the trip would never happen.

Just as important, I had finally found the perfect way to deflect the sometimes-unbearable pressure of family relations; having always taken seriously the implied duty of visiting all the family elders and accepting invites from all the family's youngsters, my previous trips home to Iran had been packed from beginning to end with family parties. At these gatherings, barely-known members of my extended family would sit around examining me from head to toe, commenting loudly on my weight (too heavy), the shape of my eyebrows (too bushy), and my defiant disregard of the importance of finding a husband "before it's too late" (too unnatural). I would sit politely and smile compliantly, eating all the delicious food on offer instead and so return to London after a few weeks in Iran fatter and paler from having never managed to escape the clutches of my family to take to the mountains that towered so enticingly outside the window.

I now promised my legion of aunts that I would visit them in Shiraz "any day now" and then failed to show up, distracted by a party or a hiking trip in the mountains. The Alborz mountain range, whose skirts the city is busy climbing, has some lovely trails through mountain villages such as Darband and Darakeh. As a child I went hiking with my family there every weekend. In the lower reaches of both villages, restaurants now proliferate, overlooking -- and sometimes straddling -- the mountain pathways and streams that trickle down from the peaks. Daybeds are set on the tinkling waters themselves and, after a day of sweating in Tehran's polluted streets, I spent long warm evenings lolling there, enjoying the fresh mountain breezes, the city laid out beneath us.

For me being bi khial meant the pleasure of pure laziness and the seduction of a complete lack of responsibility. But for those who live in Iran and who don't have the reassurance of a flat in London and a British passport and bank account, it is a visceral reaction to living under an authoritarian regime, in a world of sanctions and threats of war. In Iran, being bi khial is sometimes the only way to survive.

This article first appeared in Conde Nast Traveller's UK edition last month. Photos courtesy of Sevil Soltani.

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