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My Uncle's Wife


10 Oct 2009 01:534 Comments

[ passport ] I spent my first couple of evenings in Iran two years ago watching TV news with my uncle's orange-haired wife at their house in a Karaj gated community a little ways outside Tehran. When news came on about Israel dumping nuclear waste in Palestinian lands or the US giving Iraqi oil revenue to Israel, she would make sympathetic sounds, and make louder sympathetic sounds, if I ignored them. On occasion she would turn down the TV volume to explain in English the hypocrisy of Americans and Europeans talking about Iranian women being oppressed, but using naked women to sell cars and toothbrushes. Having to act in a chador necessitated Iranian women being better actresses; in the Shah's time, they were all just thinking about makeup and looking pretty instead of studying at school and becoming doctors. At Columbia University, Ahmadinejad had only meant that there isn't a culture of homosexuality in Iran, as there is in the United States and Europe. And he could have taken revenge on Lee Bollinger, but he didn't, and when he didn't, it made her heart ahh.

Every so often, my cousin, studying in the adjacent room to retake her med school entrance exam, would SMS me in incomprehensible Fenglish. The first message: Torke mire kharej. Migan esmet chiye? Mige SUN GOD BETWEEN TWO WATERS GOLD SHIT DEAR WIFE. Migan Farsi begu. [Turkish guy goes abroad. They ask him his name. He says, SUN GOD BETWEEN TWO WATERS GOLD SHIT DEAR WIFE. They say, 'in Farsi.']

The second night, there was a documentary on TV about women in England being all alone and divorced and frittering away their lonely days feeding pigeons or befriending -- horror of horrors -- dogs. As single middle-aged women were interviewed in parks, the camera would pan over their little weiner dogs with something like "O Fortuna" playing on the soundtrack. My uncle's wife cackled from her faux-baroque armchair and said, "Yes, the dogs are their boyfriends now," and mimicked a kissy face.

The third night after dinner, my uncle's wife started trying to convert me to her Ahl-e Haqq Sufi order. She began innocuously enough, telling me that it had come to her as an epiphany that I was studying politics to try to substitute that for spirituality. Then she asked me if I believed in reincarnation. She was a (South Asian) Indian in her past life and had for years felt a strange pull to go to India, where man lives as a noble savage. But then she had discovered Ostad Elahi and he had made her realize that it was her memories from her past life that were pulling her. But, she could find spiritual peace with his faith group--for a trifling expense--instead. I was a Kurd in my last life. Occasionally she would pause and ask my thoughts and I would tell her I thought what she was saying was very interesting and she would continue. This went on until bedtime.

She wanted me to forget about politics and school in the United States and stay in my own country, my father's country, and become an avocado farmer on my grandfather's land. She gave me a book of maxims to read and told me she hoped she could help me become... and here her English failed her and she just gestured upward.

On the fifth day I moved into the empty central Tehran apartment of my other uncle, now a German.

. . .

I wanted to arrange a trip to Kermanshah for a research project about Kurdish nationalism and Mr. Mehdi, an old friend of my dad's, owned a vacation house near the city. Mr. Mehdi lived in the same gated community as my relatives, so a visit to the latter was in order to avoid any scandal of filial impiety. I called up my uncle's wife and she said, "Ooo Nuh! Come for lunch and I will call a nice boy your age to be your friend and in the afternoon you can go do your business with Mr. Mehdi." My uncle was in California at the time with my cousin Reza. Reza was in his mid-20s and lived in LA and chatted with his mother online everyday, sending her links to silly animal photos and animated Chinese fables about the importance of being oneself.

My uncle's wife answered the door and said, "Ooo Nuh! Welcome!" and told me to go around back to the patio. My cousin Sara met me there, in a tank top with her hair a big poofy reddish thing, and took me on a little tour of the garden while my uncle's wife cooked lunch. They had perfect grass, an empty swimming pool, grape vines, plums and cherries and nuts and mulberries.

Also attending lunch was a nice boy my age from the neighborhood named Kafes. He was a friend of Reza and asked me several times, "How is Reza?" and "When was the last time you saw him?" to which I had no answers except to say that America is a really big country. Kafes was a bit taller than me, scary thin, and had a slight goatee lost in a 5 o'clock shadow. He wore a pastel-colored polo shirt and neatly pressed pants and didn't speak any English. While Sara went inside to fetch us some Islamic beer, as she called it, I asked Kafes what he was doing these days. He'd graduated from college the previous year and was going to do his mandatory sixteen-month military service in four months. For now he wasn't working, wasn't doing anything, as far as I could tell. I asked him what he did in his free time and he said television and computer.

We sat at the table on the back patio and my uncle's wife brought out a feast of zereshk polo and chicken and yogurt soup, then spearheaded the pleasant conversation.

Nuh, why is it that in America they don't teach history and geography in school? I have heard on the news that they ask Americans where Iran is and they say next to Vietnam. Why is that? Here all students take geography in middle school. When Kafes was 11 years old, he could tell you the names of the capital of every city in the world. Ask him now, go ahead.

My uncle's wife wanted to know what work Kafes had been doing since graduating and he said he was going into the military in four months. She scolded him for trying to refuse another serving of chicken.

When I got back to her house, having gotten rid of Kafes and visited Mr. Mehdi, my uncle's wife was watching TV news. She turned it off and asked me how things had gone. She was so happy that I was interested in my father's country and in the Kurds. The traditional dress of the Kurds was the healthiest of all nations because the wide stomach sash compressed the kidney and that was good, and the head wrap compressed the head and that was good, and baggy pants were also good for some reason. And she could tell that this interest of mine and this pull I felt to go to Kurdistan meant that I was looking for something more in life.

Up until this point, it had been only Persian, but now it was serious time so she switched to English.

My grandmother had been a believer and it was so unfortunate that my father and now German uncle had chosen to just lead normal lives, unlike my uncle, her husband. She took out a boxed set of CDs of Ostad Elahi's music set to the sound of songbirds and nature by an American doctor. This American doctor--of what, I didn't glean--had discovered old cassettes of Ostad Elahi's music and measured it with a special machine that determined spiritual purity, and Mozart's music was this high, but Ostad Elahi's was THIS high. The boxed set included a bilingual user's manual.

She had me read its back cover out loud in English. I finished the synopsis and then glanced up and her, and she waited for me to read the praise by Sir Yehudi Menuhin. This man was French, she said, and a Jew (here she cleared her throat and waited a moment for the full implications of it to sink in), and he was a musician who also discovered Ostad Elahi's music and realized how great it was. She took the boxed set's cover from me and reread the quote out loud until her English stumbled.

. . .

The concise history of Maragheh that I got from my uncle's wife upon arrival was that it had been the capital of Iran and home to a famous observatory 800 years ago, and that there had been lots of artifacts from 2000 years ago discovered there but the Jew People had stolen them and taken them to Israel. This was her hometown and we were on vacation.

My uncle's wife told me that I should speak Turkish and everyone would understand. When I obliged with my rusty Istanbul Turkish she would usually feign comprehension and then respond in Persian with a non sequitur or, instead of answering, say in her Azeri dialect, "Oh, your Turkish is so good!"

I spent the first day wandering the streets alone with my camera and then we were invited to dinner at a huge house with dried flowers preserved in glass cases everywhere. Through the foyer past a winding staircase with a faux-gold banister, a plump balding man in a tie-less suit, and a tiny withered woman with a pointy face and tight, colorful headscarf who didn't shake hands with men sat us down on living room couches. Against one wall was maybe the largest television I'd ever seen hooked up to a pair of professional-looking speakers.

The pleasant conversation was mostly in Azeri Turkish, leaving my uncle to sit quietly and smile. Even Nuh speaks Turkish and you don't! my uncle's wife told him in Persian, and they all laughed at him and went on in Azeri.

There were two sons. The first was maybe thirty and after saying Salaam, Salaam without approaching for handshakes ignored us and stood in front of a mirror in the foyer adjusting a fur hat that looked silly on him. Once satisfied, he announced in Persian that he was leaving for his meeting, then noticed me for the first time and asked if I was interested in mysticism.

Now I understood who our hosts were. You're Ahl-e Haqq? I asked him.

Yes? Do you know the Ahl-e Haqq?

I said I'd read a wonderful book of maxims but had unfortunately never had a chance to go to a meeting. Hint hint.

The son thought this over for a moment, then said goodbye again and left for his gathering without inviting me.

My uncle's wife explained to his parents how my coming to Iran was a sign that I was looking for truth and higher meaning. She pitched me again on avocado farming and I made thoughtful noncommittal noises.

The other son, Vala, was a few years younger and stayed around to entertain me. He had a broad baby face and hair gelled flat and a plaid shirt tucked in and buttoned to the neck. He spoke Istanbul Turkish pretty well. He'd learned it from satellite TV. Before dinner he took me to a reception room beside the foyer with pillows on one end opposite a slightly less impressive TV to show me the 120 channels they got from Turkey. He insisted I control the remote, and I flipped through music videos and melodramas looking for the news. His mother brought us each a juice box and plate of oranges and cucumbers with a peeling knife.

Once content that his mom was out of hearing range, Vala asked me what I thought of Islamic dress. I gave a garbled response about having no problem with it as long as it was voluntary. It's a very dirty thing, he said. And Vala didn't like that Islam seemed to have something against dogs. His friend had a pet dog and it was a noble beast.

After finishing our juice boxes and oranges and cucumbers we returned to the living room. My uncle and Vala's father were playing backgammon on the floor and speaking Persian. When they'd wrapped up, I played a round with Vala and he let me win. Then dinner, at which my uncle's wife told me about Ahmadinejad and freedom and why the hijab wasn't oppression, just tradition here like the sari was in Hindustan. Normally I would have nodded and smiled but I felt I owed Vala some solidarity, so I commented that in Hindustan it's a choice; you don't get arrested for not wearing a sari. She responded that before the revolution there was choice and women were just stupid and spent their time putting on makeup and new clothes. Now two-thirds of medical students in the country were girls.

After dinner we spent 52 minutes (I timed it) watching a video Vala's father had taken of a recent vacation to Russia with an Iranian tour group. The recurring themes were his hand, the coach bus, his thumb over the lens, the tour guide answering questions, slow shaky pans of museum walls, Vala's mother in a colorful headscarf and white pantsuit, and young blonde girls passing on the street.

Our last evening in Maragheh, I sat in my room writing when suddenly the excited voice of my uncle's called into the living room. I entered to find her cranking up the volume of the TV she'd just switched on. Big Lie was the headline and the story was the just-released American National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which the Islamic Republic News Agency was saying had decisively refuted any fabrications that Iran had been pursuing nuclear weapons since 2003. Then a clip of Bush at a press conference saying he'd only received intelligence on the subject earlier that week. The next story was of Ahmadinejad's meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. My uncle's wife was euphoric now. When a shot of Ahmadinejad holding hands with King Abdullah appeared, she jumped up and down and pumped both fists in the air.

This is you, Nuh! You are the reason! You come to Iran and now there is peace!

Noah Arjomand is an undergraduate student at Princeton University. From 2007 to 2008, he took time off to travel, study, and work in Iran, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. His travels are the subject of an online memoir and photo gallery, storiesfromaway.com.

Copyright © Noah Arjomand

Photo: soap for sale at bazaar in Bushehr/Noah Arjomand

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Congratulations on escaping the avocado farm, and your mystic aunt. Personally, I'm glad you chose journalism instead. Many of us may have our eccentric relatives, but few can turn it into an interesting tale. You have. Thanks.

Peg / October 10, 2009 5:21 AM

This is excellent story telling.Great job!

Amin Mir / October 13, 2009 10:49 PM

great stuff! I hope you're doing well

Hosain / October 17, 2009 10:04 PM

It's always interesting to see into other people's living rooms, thanks.

I like Vala for liking dogs, and not islamic dress. Is there a sort of 'New Age' in Iran ? Or were people always mystical ?

pesimist / October 22, 2009 1:39 AM