(Note: the photos in this post do not necessarily follow the narrative and give impressions of feelings I felt at different points during the trip.)
Majestic mountain ranges give way to drier and drier orange fields as we approach Tehran from Istanbul. It is almost five years since I’ve visited my birthplace, and as the plane starts to descend, I feel my heartbeat fasten. The feelings are strong but it’s hard to pinpoint what they are. Joy, guilt, fear, hope, sadness, a whole spectrum of human emotion. Strangely, the random memory of a children’s audiobook, The Golden Rooster with Feather Shirt, comes to mind, with it’s songs playing in my head and I decide to look for a CD version when I arrive.
I have spent the last couple of days in Istanbul, a poetic city full of dreamy mosques and evocative tastes and smells. And yet the tensions were present, our taxi driver was an Armenian, our hotel attendant a Kurd and most other people Turks. Everybody was friendly and courteous but I could tell beliefs and prejudices ran deep here, like invisible tattoos etched by the hand of history; a necessity for survival. If anything happens, you know who your tribe are and everyone else is an enemy. I brought up Turkey’s controversial literary nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, twice; one person loved him and one hated him. It seemed hard to find a middle ground. And Turkey, and especially Istanbul, is moderate and tolerant, compared to Iran. Jet lagged, I listen to the latest album of Mercan Dede at night. It’s beautiful and melancholic, the song “Garipe” (Stranger) resonates.
I’ve always had a complex relationship with my birthplace, Iran, and immigration hasn’t make that easier. I once thought of it as similar to one’s relationship with an abusive mother. The same hatred and love, anger and guilt. The reasons for the intensity of my feelings are many; let’s just say the combination of the hard years of the conservative aftermath of the revolution, the mortal fearful atmosphere of an 8-year brutal war and teenage rebellious feelings is a potent mix! When I left as an angry frustrated teenager, somehow I felt rejected but empowered to finally get out of reach. Now, the sense of empowerment has grown to the point where I sometimes feel guilty of giving up.
Everything at the airport is efficient and fast. Before we know it we are on a taxi bound for the centre of town. My father strikes up a conversation with the driver, I listen and laugh at their jokes and stories and look out the window. As I look at the thorny bushes by the side of the road, they look experientially familiar, it seems my finger tips remember their texture, their imperceptible smell, their physicality. The first time my fingers met a flower, the first time my eyes met a tree, the first time my feet conquered a hill and my lips touched the water of a stream, it was all here. And now I am back, after thousands and thousands of miles, “these little eyes of mine have seen such great things”, my great grandmother used to say. I remember the title of one of my favourite child hood books “Report to the Land of Greece”, by Nikos Kazantzakis. This will perhaps be my “Report to the Land of Iran”!
As the taxi gets closer and closer to the centre of town, I get more excited. I’m happy but everything does look grey, even orange with a coat of dust on them, and imperfect, practical: crooked walls, protruding wires and pipes, old cars. But everything is familiar and somehow frugal and modest. And suddenly we are in my grandmother’s neighbourhood. This is where I was born, we pass the actual house I was born in. It’s an apartment complex in the middle of the city which surprisingly has survived many waves of demolitions and new buildings. And then we have arrived. As I enter my grandmother’s building, I can feel the excitement built up in my throat.
My grandmother is waiting at the door. She is happy and dancing with moist eyes. I feel so much love for her I want to cry, she is wearing a beautiful blue sweater she has knit herself, she has grown smaller or I have grown taller. My aunt is also here, She is kind and beautiful and happy. Suddenly everything makes sense, why would I want to go anywhere else in the world, when I haven’t seen these lovely people for such a long time? It is true that in the villages of Bhutan and Mexico, in the big cities of China and Germany, I had missed them a little each time I saw a kind grandmother or auntie, and wished I could see them. And now all those small apparently forgotten wishes are revived and satisfied. Their house is like a little personal museum for me, everything has a history that can not be told but can only be felt by me. Each time I look at the stove, the sugar container, the paintings on the wall, waves of emotion surge up. This is going to be a special trip.
A few days later Tehran is white with snow. My impressions of the city has been a mix of nostalgia, sadness and occasional joy. A young man passes out in the bus, many hands reach out to help him. The bad air quality of Tehran is world famous and over the last few days I have felt its intense choking presence. In the people, I can see a general lack of trust in the world. Obligations (and secret resentment towards them) are strong. People seem vulnerable, paranoid. And yet behind a thin veil of fear and insecurity, you can find generosity and genuine kindness. Even in “this day and age”…
It took me a week to remember or forget my past and reconnect to the beauty and energy of my birthplace. I still get confused by the many many zeros on bills and can’t count money as well, I still get freaked out by the traffic and am still surprised by the amazing selection of translated novels on display in the intellectual heart of Tehran, in front of the Tehran university where I spent most of my youth, hunting for answers. Yet, I feel I am finding my place, I am the eccentric, independent but fully engaged, mad lover of being! I feel glimpses of forgiveness in my heart. It feels the abusive mother I was once afraid of, has become helpless and fearful of her own viciousness: she is now my estranged daughter, hurt by my absence but hoping I would still love her!
Leaving Canada, I was looking at an Iran guidebook and making plans to travel extensively in the country but once I saw my family and friends in Tehran, I saw the absurdity of my desire to see more external things and spent all my days with the people I had known so well in the past, hearing their stories, telling them mine, dreaming up ways to stay connected, remembering who I was and am through them, not getting angry or frustrated but tender and warmhearted. Touching my roots in this way, with no nostalgia to hold on to them harder, helped me see where I should be going. With feet are firm on the ground and eyes fixed on the sky: I know my roots nourished me when I was a blossom and, now, it is my turn to put energy into my hands and hold them up to the sun so that beautiful flowers can grow out of my fingers!