Food & Drink · Travel

Ro’s Recipes: The Veils of Tehran

“You were the one who left London and me, in the lurch! Why on earth would you think I’d want to travel all the way to Tehran for a date? Of any length!”

That was the first teasing thought. And tease it I did, until it tiptoed its way into intrigue, through fascination and into possibility. Iran. Persia. The Shah. Land of One Thousand and One Nights’ strange seduction and voluminous, gloriously embroidered, richly colored clothing.

Plane ticket in hand and one carry-on bag I headed for Heathrow. First leg of the journey to Damascus via British Airways, then a smaller Iranian Airlines plane to Tehran. I wanted to be rid of the flight-rumpled look and be freshly dressed and elegant when Gerry met me off the plane. So I changed into a bright red, fine linen, sleeveless dress and refreshed my makeup. I didn’t notice it straight away, but when I returned to my seat some of the Iranian women had turned themselves around in their seats, staring directly and hard at me. They were laden with shopping bags and dressed traditionally with their veils. I was bemused. The stares did not look admiring. I kept reading my book.

Off the plane and through immigration. There was Gerry standing behind the barrier with no welcome on his face. As I walked past the barrier, I was expecting a hug and a hello, but instead he held me by the arm and said quickly and quietly,“Do you have a shirt or sweater in your bag?”

“Why would I bring a sweater with me — it’s July!” He led me to a ladies’ bathroom and told me to put on a tee shirt to cover my arms. Now I understood the blatant staring. The women were warning me of the sacrilege of my “nakedness.”

It was the late ‘70s. The Shah was still in power. The Shia Muslims under Ayatollah Khomeini had not yet taken power, but Iran was still a practicing Muslim country.

Gerry’s very small apartment was on the attic floor of a house in a good neighborhood of Tehran, on a quiet street lined with trees, away from the hustle-bustle of any main thoroughfare with a wide turn-of-the head view of the snow-covered Alborz mountains that rim the northern edge of the city. The great benefit of the flat was that it had access to the roof overlooking the streetscape of Tehran, the mosques enthroned in gilded glory.

We happily “roofed it” — slept in the cool of the night and set up a “living area” with a rug and cushions. Gerry taught English as a Second Language at The American School in Tehran to young Iranian professional men. He would work from early in the morning till early afternoon, which left me free to wander around the streets, parks and markets of Tehran. I was educated now and made the effort to be as respectful as possible: covered my arms, refrained from the red dress and tied my long hair neatly. Gerry showed me how to hail a cab and how to greet in Farsi and pronounce where I wanted to go. Frequently there were other riders in the car. For women,  there would be a seat in the back,  while  the men would sit in front with the driver.

I dallied around the little stalls and shops along the streets and the huge Grand Bazaar with mounds of seeds and freshly ground spices enrobing the air with aromas that recalled my grandmother’s cedarwood wardrobe or my father’s aftershave. The silver, bronze and gold metal-crafters’ tables enthralled me and the many beauteous hand woven rugs made me dream of childhood flying carpet tales.

Fortuitously, Emma, an old college friend had married a British businessman who represented his company in Iran. They lived on the outskirts of Tehran in a mansion with grounds all around and a large swimming pool. Their property was surrounded by other suitably positioned foreign diplomats and dignitaries’ homes, the quiet road patrolled by police 24 hours a day. We were invited for lunch with a group of other European and American friends on the terrace around the pool one day. With young women in bathing suits, the guards found good reason to patrol the property methinks.

Before his last teaching day at school, Gerry invited his favorite students, five of them, to join us for dinner on the roof in the last week of our time in Tehran. He had asked each to bring his own cushion for the roof picnic.

Alcohol was sold in Iran then, but drinking in public was done judiciously, so our evening picnic in a Tehran park while listening to music was discreet. But in the privacy of the roof we set up drinks, beer, wine and juices and a buffet table with delicious rice and vegetables, and salad and meat dishes we’d bought from the fascinating vendors in the bazaar. The only instructions Gerry gave me was not to offer to shake hands as they were not allowed to touch women they were not related to. And, of course, “Just be yourself.”

So I was. All bright and cheerful, warmly welcoming when each young man was introduced. Each bowed with eyes to the ground as a socially programmed mark of respect. Gerry initiated topics that they were familiar with: people they knew in common, events at school, the usual smooth way we all gentle ourselves into friendly conversation with new acquaintances and environments. As the topics started becoming more general and open I started chiming in. Now I noticed a communication vacuum: no eye contact. They did not converse with me; my comments were dead lead.

Gerry and Emma had illustrated and exemplified the difference between public and private life in this religiously entramelled society. In the privacy of home, you were free to express yourself within the frames of your own culture; in the public domain, you obeyed the accepted practices of the society in which you were a guest. I thought I understood the design of the cloth.

But I didn’t understand the nuance of the delicate fabric: their eyes on the ground, dressed me in the veil I wasn’t wearing and made me naked in my own eyes. It deprived me of an  opportunity to meet and discover ideas, concepts, understanding, similarities, differences, stories; the weft and weave of another culture, first hand. Though I was in a strange land – I was not allowed to “travel.”

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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen MD February 2, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    Thanks for another great installment in “The Life of Ro: Travel, Romance and Food”.
    I wish I had been you…