June 2007. Tehran.
A few days in this mad city of my childhood.
I have bobbed in a luxurious underground Jacuzzi with my protector and friend who, in the crazy way things work in Iran, once arrested my family—in fact that is how we first met.
I have visited my old Jewish high school, now partitioned into two—a Muslim school in the front and one for Jews in the back.
I have failed to notice an entire earthquake—complete with people running out of the building—while sitting at the fancy Café Pardis (with a retrospectively apt menu card in English tagged “Motion—Sound—Coffee”).
I have eaten at the McBurger sandwich shop—the one with the large logo of a scantily covered black African fighter holding a shield and a giant speared burger.
Most importantly, I have located the closest supply of homemade whiskey. It happens to be at the corner convenience store belonging to Mr. Engineer—an actual engineer who, unable to find work in his field, runs the store with his wife, Mrs. Engineer. The esophagus-nailing whiskey is in a plastic milk gallon jug hidden on the back refrigerator shelf, behind a picture of the late Imam Khomeini that has been taped on the refrigerator’s glass door. The bearded, unsmiling visage of the late spiritual leader of the Islamic Republic is just large enough to obscure the contraband. There is a sign in beautiful nasta’aligh calligraphy above the photograph. It reads: “By the order of the Honorable Department of Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, we respectfully refuse service to sisters with improper hijab. Signed: Management.”
So let us say that I am fairly well-immersed in the dusty surrealism that is today’s Tehran.
One morning, I go to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art for a whiff of the West, if not a bit of normalcy. It is not far from my childhood home and a couple of blocks south of a fun fast-food shop with a smiling Viking logo (complete with a horned, green helmet). The museum is somewhat embedded in the park that was named after the queen during the last monarchy and now is, thankfully and uncharacteristically, not renamed after a martyr but is simply called Tulip Park.1 Built with oil money during the 1970s boom years, the museum is beautiful with several underground levels and a spiral center going down to various exhibitions. Think an upside-down Guggenheim, just as cement-y though not as white nor brightly lit.
The museum entrance has the quality of a bunker door: contracted, rectangular, and long. The first thing I notice after going through security and paying the fee is the absence of any kind of a directory—either on the wall, or as a handout—nor any information about the art in the museum. A map freak and self-styled explorer, I decide that this does not do and, bumping from employee to employee (while noting that there does not seem to be much art there save for a few abstracts and an Islamic poster exhibit), I find myself in the museum management office at the lowest level, perhaps four or five stories below ground, where they explain to me that there are no directories at all—“for security reasons.”
“And do you have all the art out for viewing?” I ask.
“No sir,” the museum official smiles patiently. “There is a lot more, but in the vaults—for security reasons.”
“Do you ever bring the Western art out?” I ask, as if I plan to fly back to Tehran next month.
“No sir,” he stops smiling and, using the international bureaucrat’s signal that this interview is over, begins shuffling some paper on his desk, “for security reasons.”
I had read, in old travel guides, about works acquired during the monarchy—Duchamp and Miró and Max Ernst and Dalí and others. Looking through the hallways, however, there are only the posters and a few large abstract pieces by Iranian artists. I meander a bit through the space and try to enjoy the artistry in the Islamic poster exhibit but find that it includes too much martyr worship and, for some inexplicable reason, too much of the color orange.
On my way out, I notice a display case by a wall doubling as a small gift shop. There are a few yellowing postcards of paintings by Picasso and Warhol and Pissarro and the like for sale. I quiz the sales clerk about the art. He is an old man, dusty with age as though left over from the museum’s pre-revolutionary glory days.
I feel pleased with myself and want to share some of my witticisms about the weird museum visit with my audience back home in the U.S.
“Yes, sir. These are all here,” he says and, seeing my interest, pulls out a large, glossy exhibit book with page after page of great works by the European masters.
“And all these?” I ask.
I look at the credits page and notice the 1970s publication date.
“But are they ever shown?”
“They are in storage, sir. Security reasons.” He looks up at the ceiling as though thinking of military planes and air strikes. “Have you seen the sculptures, sir?” he asks, showing me a few pages of the book and then pointing to a pair of French glass doors opening to a very large outdoor sculpture garden. I notice that the handles are tied to each other using a heavy steel chain.
“Of course it is locked, sir,” he says.
“Security reasons?” I joke.
“Yes sir,” he says, seriously.
I buy some postcards, go to the glass doors and push at the handles in frustration. The handles and hinges make a dry sound and the chains jangle. The sound loudly bounces off the walls. The two or three people in the area look up for a moment. One of them is a young European-looking tourist—complete with backpack and the Lonely Planet Iran guidebook and socked Birkenstocks. Something about the backpacker makes me sad, as if the two of us, in our searching liberal zeal, have pushed hard and found the end of some lonely road and, now, there is nowhere to go but back where reason rules. I turn, dejectedly, to leave.
“But, sir,” the old gift-stall attendant waves me back and, once I’m close, says in a whisper, “you can see many of the sculptures from the street.”
He is right. Out the main door I go, turn right into the crowded North Worker Avenue, and, to my utter surprise, there is the sculpture garden—or at least, most of it—protected only by an ornamental wrought-iron fence. I see bronze sculptures: massive, interesting ones including two that appear to show couples having sex2. I take my camera out and start to click away—zoom and flash, zoom and flash— while trying to avoid the loaded yellow wheelbarrows which, I am fairly sure, are not art. It occurs to me to shoot a video with a report of sorts. I feel pleased with myself and want to share some of my witticisms about the weird museum visit with my audience back home in the U.S. I change the settings, think about what to say, focus on one of the sculptures, and start.
“Today,” I go all Walter Cronkite, “I had my first truly Orwellian experience in the Islamic Republic—”
Suddenly, a thirtysomething bearded man wearing all black jumps in front of my viewfinder and starts shouting and reciting Qur’an verses in Arabic. From the TV footage I have seen, he is clearly of the Basiji Blackshirts—the informal, baton-wielding government thugs—and all I can do is lower the camera and turn it off and, heart jumping out of my throat and eyes blurry with fear, thank heavens for my inhumanly steely digestive system.
He grabs my hand and keeps on reciting. I am quiet but scream at myself, inside.
Blackshirt now tightly holds my shoulders and I remember that, in Evin, one of the ways they break prisoners is through rape.
You stupid Jewish fuck, I think to myself. An entire country tries to escape any way they can, through tunnels, on horseback, in checked suitcases, hidden in wheelhouses of airplanes, even wearing sheep skin—as sheep!—and you hand-deliver yourself back after all these years. So you have to come to Iran and as if that’s not enough, have to get a camera going and yak into it like you’re a damn Associated Press reporter. Now look. You’re going to end up in some hole in the Evin prison, chasing cockroaches for dinner and nobody will hear from you again. Starving into bones.
I come from a long line of optimists and, at the thought of starving, remember the before-and-after pictures of some mullah who had spent a few weeks in the notorious Evin prison3, how before he looked like he needed to be lubed through doorjambs and, when released, seemed ready for a barefoot chase through the Tanzanian Serengeti.
Hmmm, I will lose weight, I think and imagine my mother, whose every happiness and care, in full, seems wrapped around my fluctuating waistline. I see us in her Los Angeles apartment, after my release. We are surrounded by the usual squadron of Kashsan rugs and Isfahan khaatam craft boxes and picture frames that you find in every Los Angeles Iranian home. She sits me on a plastic-covered, fake Louis XIV chair and holds my hand between hers.
What did you do? she asks with no hint of the usual, fine-tuned blend of suffering, accusation, and tolerance in her voice. Tell me, how did you lose all this weight?
I screw up my eyes. Mother, I say, get off my back, and wearily eye the dust-covered box of sweet Qom sohaan candy on the dining room table that has been getting re-gifted through the entire Iranian population of Los Angeles for the past decade and wonder if there is, really, any candy left in it after all—or do we have on our hands one giant, cannibal maggot, all accordioned up and ready to jump out as a (fairly pissed-off) jack-in-the-box if someone is silly enough, one day, to actually open the thing.
Blackshirt now tightly holds my shoulders and I remember that, in Evin, one of the ways they break prisoners is through rape. At this, my sphincter clamps shut4 and I put a hand on the Star of David under my shirt. (You asshole, I think, you had to wear your Star of David, too? Why didn’t you just wear a blue Israeli flag T-shirt and march through the streets of Tehran rejoicing and singing the “Hava Nagila”?)
I almost want to say a prayer but the only two I know are the ones for lighting the Sabbath candle and for drinking wine—neither particularly useful in my predicament—and, anyway, I always mangle the two and end up with some undecipherable gibberish involving candles and wine and The-Blessed-Lord-Sanctified-King-of-the-World. (The last time I was goaded by my aunt and her family into saying the candle prayer on a Friday night dinner, they laughed so much they nearly fell to the floor.)
Blackshirt has let go of my shoulders and is jumping up and down and flopping his arms and yelling, seemingly doing his daily calisthenics to the rhythm of sung Qur’an verses. I take a deep breath and am immediately overwhelmed by the composite odor of feet and rosewater that have come, in the Islamic Republic, to signal Danger, religious fanatic here about to kick your ass.
I wonder, in fact, if there is any truth to the saying that Jewish tradition has a prayer for every occasion. I see myself sitting in front of my late grandfather Moses. We are in his tiny rooftop bedroom not far from the intersection of the Hidden Imam and Martyr Asadabadi Avenues where he lives in semi-exile from the rest of the family. He sits on his unmade mattress and mumbles something under his breath—I think in Hebrew since there is a lot of spitting and khukh sounds.
Grandpa, I say, taking in the sour grandparent-y musk, Is there a prayer for getting raped in Evin?
You mean the notorious Evin prison? he corrects me.
He sighs. You come to me after so many years, so many years after I’m dead, and this is what you need to know?
Well, the situation is— I start to explain but he cuts me off.
Let me ask you something. Do you read from the Torah every day?
Yes, Grandpa, I lie.
And do you wear the tefillin every morning?
Grandpa? I feel, suddenly, like an inadequate Sonny to Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone in The Godfather.5
Of course I do, Grandpa. And also I perform mitzvahs and give to charity and spend time with my family, I go on, trying to get ahead of that particular line of inquiry and back to the critical question of anal rape.
At this, Rebbe Moses nods thoughtfully, patting the kitten that has, miraculously, appeared on his mattress. Good, then you are a real man.
Grandpa, I plead, worried that Blackshirt will, any minute, stop talking and shove me into some sort of a windowless van. The Evin rape thing?
Ah, yes, he bends and puts the cat down and begins running fingers through his beard—which seems to have grown longer since the last page—and adjusts his skullcap and says, Doesn’t matter, you be healthy, my child. Doesn’t matter. So you want to know about specific prayers. Well, of course there are but it depends.
On what, Grandpa?
Let me ask you some particulars.
Are you getting raped by one person—may his pubic hair be infested by the fleas of a hundred camels!—or are we talking gang-rape?
And the rapist—may his testicles be kicked in by the hooves of a thousand donkeys!—is he Shi’ite or Sunni or some other denomination.
You mean, Grandpa, there are different Jewish prayers for getting raped by groups of Shi’ite versus, say an individual Sunni?
Of course, my son, he tugs at his beard, Tevye-like6. In Jewish law, there is a prayer for everything and then he mumbles something about the notorious Evin prison3 and rapists and their whore mothers who have grocery-scale weight-stones hung from their labia.
One of the things I love the most about Iranians is their creative and occasion-specific curses. Once I was in a taxi that was cut off by a private car—a major affront to any Tehran cabbie’s manhood—and my taxi driver pulled up next to the other car, rolled down his window, motioned the other party to roll down his window too, and then proposed that May God fuck your sister as I don’t have time today.
Grandpa is, of course, right about there being prayers for all occasions in Judaism. I remember dinner parties as a child when he insisted on saying prayers for every individual food ingredient on the large, groaning table—a half hour’s worth of praying. At some point, as we all stood around, shifting from leg to leg, my uncle Parviz would break in. Agha Moses, would you please recite the blessing for this chicken—he pointed to a legs-up-and-tied carcass floating on oil—so we can get started on it while you do the rest?
He kisses the bill—I imagine right where the lips of Imam Khomeini are pursed—and gently touches it to his forehead before shoving it into his breast pocket.
Then he says, “But you, from Amrika, sir. This is only one dollar, one dollar.”
Are you from Amrika? my first taxi driver asks as soon as I give him my directions.
You are one of those Iranians from Amrika, the greengrocer says before I even open my mouth. No?
The second thing is that there seems to be an exchange rate gene in the chromosome of all Iranians—right next to the gene coding for flowery speech and exaggeration.
The local drycleaner clerk—a young engineer by training—presents a four-page glossy brochure (“VIP Service, Today’s European Standard Dry Cleaning with Natural Ingredients,” and Photoshopped pictures of complex machines) and stresses that Don’t think, sir, you from Amrika, that we do a bad job; we use European machines and methods.
At the pizza restaurant run by several young men, a semicircle forms at my table with the waiter carrying my pizza and Diet Coke, followed by the manager, the chef, the cashier, and a couple of their hanger-on friends and other customers. Since you are from Amrika, the manager says in a bowed whisper, you know what good pizza should taste like and only after I lie my approval—with noisy chewing and fake head movements and bah bah, how wonderful7—do they return to their stations.
The second thing is that there seems to be an exchange rate gene in the chromosome of all Iranians—right next to the gene coding for flowery speech and exaggeration; somewhere on chromosome number 487, I believe—since man, woman, and child, they all seem to know the latest rial-to-dollar to the second decimal. Doesn’t matter where they are. You could be in the house of the retired engineer in Los Angeles who hasn’t been to Iran in thirty years and, at the entrance, he grabs your wrist into his bony hands and, instead of hello, says, with urgency in his voice, Did you hear, dollar has gone up? Or his wife, bending over to serve you tea with sugar cubes will lament: What can I say, Mr. Doctor—that’s what Iranians call me—with these exchange rates on the dollar?
I open the fridge door and reach behind Khomeini for the whiskey.
Any second, you expect their toddler grandson on his tricycle going round and round in the cavernous house, Damian8-like, and at each passage, announcing the latest numbers. Iran Army Bank. Dollar: 9,130 rials. Workers Comfort Bank. Dollar: 9,135 rials.
No, no, his mother corrects. That was two hours ago. It is now 9,150 rials, and then, to soften the blow to the little moneychanger-in-training wheels, she sweeps him up and shoves a baklava the size of a soccer ball into his mouth and follows that with a wet Slurpee of a kiss and calls him her little golden peepee or another one of those uniquely overly-specific terms of endearment Iranian mothers reserve for humiliating their sons in public.9
Sir, for you, from Amrika— he says, reminding me, again, that the 10,000-rial bill I handed him is worth just one dollar and change. So I hand him another couple of bills and he kisses me on the cheeks three times and then on my right shoulder and heads east towards the crossing of the Unknown Martyr and Palestine Avenues. I watch him from the corner of my eye until he disappears into the crowd and all I can see at the distance are the ten-story-high portraits of Imam Khomeini and Ayatollah Khamenei on one building and a group of martyrs behind a field of tulips on the other, all piously standing watch over the demented traffic below.
I shove my camera in its bag and, with weak knees and sweat drops on the small of my back, walk the few blocks to my friend’s convenience store. Once inside, I say a quick hello and head straight to the back fridge. Khomeini’s eyebrows are still laced into a frown. I look at the sign above his head about hijab and forbidden service and think, Thank God at least I don’t have that problem. I open the fridge door and reach behind Khomeini for the whiskey. At this, Mr. and Mrs. Engineer come running, one looking at the shop door, the other holding a glass up high, their faces frozen in that composite expression of fear and hospitality natural to the citizens of the Islamic Republic.
Your Excellency, Mr. Doctor, they plead.
I wave them away, take a few noisy gulps, wipe the stream of whiskey running down my chin with my palm, and put the jar back in its place. Then I close the door, thank them profusely, take a last look at Khomeini—who still seems unhappy—and walk out.
1. Although tulips are flowers associated with martyrs in the Islamic Republic.
2. That, or a woman walking her dog, or a matador taunting a bull. Who knows about these things?
3. I am required by some unwritten reportage law to preface Evin with “notorious” at every reference.
4. Yeah, like that.
5. Note to readers under thirty: Marlon Brando is the old dude with the cat on his lap who dies from a heart attack as he is chased in the garden by his grandson. (And isn’t the kid adorable?)
6. Note to readers under thirty: Tevye is the bearded fellow who sings a modified version of Gwen Stefani’s “If I Were a Rich Girl” in some old movie.
7. As an indication of the quality of pizzas in Tehran, suffice to say that they are often served with bottles of mayonnaise and ketchup on the side.
8. Note to readers under thirty: yeah, sure, that one. The 2006 Julia Stiles movie. Sheesh.
9. For the record, my mother’s favorite roughly translates to “may my eyeballs be placed between your ass-cheeks.”