Where exactly is the line between interesting and uncomfortable?
I was first introduced to Iranian culture when I lived in the rural burg of Kelseyville, California and made the mistake of speaking Spanish to a small woman being dragged to the parking lot from my son’s preschool by a small boy.
Lily and I became fast friends once I figured out that Farsi, not Spanish, was her native language. Her son, who we’ll call “Nathan” is between the ages of my children. My kids were 5 and 3 at the time.
Lily was a princess, according to her husband, Tom, who as a blue-eyed, blond guy looks more like me than my brother does.
Lily and her sister had fled Iran as young teens when the Shah of Iran was overthrown, because they had been members of the Shah family, cousins. Lily did not know where or if her father lived, for three years. She lived and studied as best she could at a boarding school in Switzerland.
How she made it to the United States, met and fell in love with Tom, moved to our rural northern California burg, remains irrelevant to this story. For this story is about another pair of Iranians I have come to know and love, Dariush and Yalda.
Dariush and my husband met at a gas station, at least that’s what I remember, where one was waiting for the other to fill a bicycle tube with air—the cheater way. Both later claimed to have met at REI in the bicycle section where they both wanted to try out the same bike.
Regardless, Dariush and my husband, Lars, have become bicycling pals.
They have pedaled the C&O Canal, the Alleghany Trail, the W, O & D trail … and this summer we camped out in Shenandoah National Park midway through their 100+ mile tour of the long green dream.
Also, we have shared many a meal of Persian lentils and rice and eggplant and chicken in complex dishes I fail to remember the names of. Dariush and Yalda have come to our home for enough Thanksgivings now to know what to accept in Tupperware containers as take-home leftovers and what to say “Oh, it was delicious but no thank you very much.”
Dariush is a friendly, smart, honest, funny man with sharp eyebrows, but little hair above them. Yalda’s large brown eyes bely her innocence. She has perfect skin and a rosebud smile that questioned, when I first met her, in halting English, how to change gears on the bike. Now, several years later, she expresses delight and pity and sheer hilarious joy in the language that has become her own.
The two of them asked me to speak at their wedding this fall, an event Lars and I had predicted before, I suspect, it had occurred to either of them. I could see that Dariush loved Yalda far more than Yalda dared imagine. And I could see that Yalda, despite her misgivings about certain attitudes regarding potential in-laws, was interested only in Dariush. Yes, it was meant to be. I was honored to share my observations with their wedding guests, some of whom had flown around the world to be there and could not understand anything I said.
The other wedding speaker, a take-your-breath-away-good-looking guy who spoke in Farsi had the small gathering laughing by, I guessed, conducting a game show style “guess the fun fact about the couple.” I figured it out when he listed several things, three of which I recognized as food items, the last being “Pizza.” The crowd all yelled “PIZZA!”
The dancing at her wedding would not be permitted in Iran, one of her wedding friends had mentioned to me, nor would the gathering itself.
Fast forward past beautiful wedding with dizzying mid-eastern dancing and heart-wrenching Zoroastrian ceremony to the first dinner party in the couple’s new home. Last night Dariush greeted us in t-shirt and painter pants; he’d been working in the garage.
Yalda, busy in the kitchen but unable to tell me what smelled so good, wanted to know whether I liked her choice of colors for the bedroom. I would never have thought how to make wine-purple go with orange. But Yalda had pulled it off.
We dipped shrimp in red sauce, pulled orange segments from their rinds and eventually put our wineglasses on the table and sat down to dinner. Dish after dish of steaming unpronouncable exotic foods filled the table.
These people, my own dear Dariush and Yalda, had fled a country that forbade their religion. Here they are, right here, entering my hearts as fellow Americans. My own ancestors, I found myself telling them, had fled England for the very same reason just a couple hundred years ago.
My cheeks burned as I looked at Yalda, finishing her degree at our own George Mason University, and felt an enormous gratitude for this country.
As we finished dinner Yalda brought out six containers of ice cream, bowls and spoons.
I had emailed Yalda midafternoon, asking what we could bring for dinner besides wine. I knew Dariush was a sucker for ice cream, so I offered. “That would be great,” Yalda allowed.
I picked up three flavors of Håagen-Dazs on my way home from errands. I chose chocolate, Coconut with Pineapple, and Rum Raisin. Then I spotted a tub labeled “Tirimasu.”
Hadn’t Yalda said she loved tirimasu? I wasn’t sure, but somewhere in the depths of my brain, a tiramisu remark from Yalda prompted me to forgo the Rum Raisin for the Tirimasu Gelato.
Always listen to that little voice.
An engineer in Iran, Dariush found a niche fixing and installing heating and air-conditioning systems in his new land. On his way home to Chantilly, Virginia from Baltimore, Maryland, he’d called his new wife. “Guess where I am now?” he’d asked. Yalda couldn’t guess.
He had stopped for ice cream.
So when he showed up with three tubs of ice cream, she said only, “Maile and Lars are bringing ice cream too.” Dariush had chosen Mango, Coconut and Rum Raisin.
I was thrilled to see Yalda eyeballing the Tirimasu Gelato.
I went for the Mango, dropping a comment about smuggling mangos from Maui to Montana when I was a child … the conversation inevitably turned to airport security with a subtext of what it is like to be a middle-easterner right now.
Yalda jumped right in with her story about bringing a remote-controlled helicopter into the states from Dubai.
“It’s a present for my boyfriend,” she told the TSA people.
Dariush clutched his forehead, Lars roared with laughter.
“What?” Yalda asked innocently. “It is just a toy, and I wanted to carry it on the plane so, you know, it wouldn’t get hurt.”
The man made me wait while he went to get the supervisor, Yalda answered when I asked if they let her on the plane. But finally they let me take it.
Then she talked about bringing some food along on the plane.
“Did you just say, ‘this is plastic explosives?’” I asked, helping myself to yet more of her ماست و خیار (yogurt-with-cucumber)
“Oh,” Yalda said, “when they asked if I had fruits or vegetables, I said, “yes, of course.”
Lars and I laughed. What middle-easterner travels without fruits and vegetables?
Yalda recounted showing the TSA people her lunch and asking if they would like to try the dish. “How to make it came to me from my grandmother,” Yalda stated, “it is quite good.”
Dariush interrupted to add that this was when she only had a green card. The risks!
Yalda told story after story about having to wear the Hijab to school, how her sister didn’t want to wear it and got in plenty trouble.
About that line? The one between uncomfortable/awkward and interesting? I could see that Dariush, Yalda and especially Lily, walked a different line, one between uncomfortable and dead.