Naz Riahi | Longreads | November 2018 | 20 minutes (5,095 words)
The last meal I ate in Iran was a stew of cow tongue on white rice, its grains elongated by steam and enclosed in a perfect crispy tadig (crust), stained golden with saffron.
“What are you cooking?” I asked Shee Shee, my mom.
“Beef stew,” she lied, knowing I hated tongue.
It was May 19, 1990. The Iran-Iraq War had ended less than two years before, but the remnants of war — lack of provisions, jarred nerves from years of bombings — remained. Khomeini had died less than a year before. We’d thought his death would usher in a freer era, but not much had changed. I was 9 years old and we were at my aunt’s two-bedroom apartment in Tehran. My maternal grandparents were there, as well as my uncle, his wife and my four younger cousins. They’d all come for one last meal together, to say goodbye and to see me and Shee Shee off to our new life.
A few days before, we’d left my childhood home in Karaj (a suburb of Tehran) for the last time. I’d packed a couple of my favorite toys — a Barbie, a Cabbage Patch Kid — but had to leave most everything else behind — Mini Mouse, books, a dollhouse, my beloved Disney cartoons. Most of my toys and clothes, along with Shee Shee’s things, had been sold to friends and neighbors. What was left, my aunt promised to safeguard for me. Shee Shee had packed her favorite hair rollers — which 30 years later she still travels with — all of our photos, and Baba’s uniform, two pairs of his pajamas, his dog tag, his wings and his papers.
That afternoon, as our car pulled away from the only home I’d ever known, I turned around and waved goodbye. Pushing the lump of tears back down my throat, I made a silent promise to the house that I would come back as soon as I could and live there again.
Six months earlier, Baba, an esteemed navy captain and for nine months a political prisoner, had been executed. Shee Shee would later say we moved to America because she didn’t want me to grow up in the shadow of that tragedy, of my father’s death. But at the moment it didn’t feel like a choice. It felt like if we didn’t leave, we wouldn’t survive. She picked the U.S. because we already had family here and she picked May 19 for our departure, because it’s my older brother, Shabab’s birthday (he, too, was living in the States).
On that last night, at my aunt’s house, the mood was somber. Our escape was not the beginning of an adventure, but an abandoning of everything known, everyone loved. When the stew was nearly done, its aroma moved from the kitchen through the living room and into the master bedroom, where I was lying on the bed, listening to a Googoosh tape. Cow tongue smells like rot when it’s cooked. I’d been duped.
“Dinner’s ready,” Shee Shee called. I walked out of the room to join everyone I’d been avoiding for fear that I would cry in front of them, or worse, that they would cry in front of me.
Shee Shee carried the rice, already flipped over on the platter, out to meet the stew on the dining room table. Cooking the perfect Iranian rice takes practice, but making the perfect tadig is a combination of luck and instincts — one never knows if the crust will hold, if it will be thick and crispy or if it will burn or fall apart.
After dinner my uncle drove us to the airport. Our suitcases smelled of pistachios, salted and soaked in lime juice, and saffron — the best saffron in the world is Iranian — which we’d taken as gifts and to stock our new kitchen. As the airplane took off, I looked down at the lights of Tehran, wondering if my house was somewhere down below looking up at the sky for us.
After a few days in Istanbul — where we ate steak frites, exclusively, at the restaurant in the Ramada, which with its grand staircase and glass elevator seemed to me a very posh, European hotel — and a few weeks in Vienna — where the soot on the ancient buildings resembled the feeling inside me, and where I overindulged in pink marshmallows and tiny cartons of jam at the Inn’s dining room — Shee Shee and I arrived in America.
Within a few days into our new life in the U.S., I knew I would trade all that was bright, delicious and abundant in America to go back home.
First we spent a night in a dingy airport hotel in New York City, where all the sadness of the world seemed to live. My paternal grandmother and uncle came to see us. They embraced me and cried for us, for the son and brother they’d lost, whose face they saw in mine. I was jet-lagged and exhausted. Dinner was a pack of chips and a soda from the vending machine, already a treat since authentic Coke and Lays were hard to come by in wartime and post-war Tehran. I tried to stay awake and listen to the conversation for clues of what was to come of our life, but fell asleep on my grandmother’s lap, as the adults talked late into the night.
The next morning Shee Shee and I flew to Honolulu, where another one of my dad’s brothers and, more importantly, Shabab lived. Shee Shee had business with my uncle and wanted to retrieve my brother, who would come to live with us in Bellevue, Washington.
In the last awful year in Iran, I’d grown even closer to my tight knit family. Baba was mostly imprisoned in Tehran, so Shee Shee and I spent much of our time away from our house in Karaj, living between my grandparents’ and my aunt’s apartments. I’d stopped going to school so that we could make impromptu visits to Evin prison whenever we were called by the authorities to come. While Shee Shee was entirely consumed with Baba, with trying to save his life, I was fed, loved, soothed and cared for by her parents, her siblings and her friends. Within a few days into our new life in the U.S., I knew I would trade all that was bright, delicious and abundant in America to go back home. Back to them. Back to our little house.
“How long are we staying?” I asked Shee Shee.
“Until you’re grown up,” she said.
I had a horrible feeling that what she meant was forever. I feared that, just like my Baba, everyone else I loved was now disappeared, too.
I cried at night. I dreamt of Baba and of home. I wet the bed, though I was too old for that. Shee Shee’s luscious black hair had turned gray. She had dark circles around her eyes and moved through the world with a visible film of despair washed over her.
Shabab, my cool 21-year-old brother, who’d grown a thick black moustache and wore blazers with t-shirts and white jeans with sockless loafers, á la Don Johnson in Miami Vice, tried to make it better.
“I’m going to take you somewhere special,” he said, on my first morning in Honolulu.
We got into his burnt orange convertible MG and, with the top down, sped through the suburban streets, onto the highway and then along the coast. We pulled into the parking lot of a big white building with a tall, yellow double arch before it. Inside was a happy place with happy people. Everything was clean and organized, everything had its place. The smell of salt, fat and grilled meat hit me, warm like the sun. Being there with my older brother, just the two of us, did feel special. Then it got even better…
He ordered: hash browns, Egg McMuffins, orange juice and apple pie.
“This is called apple pie,” he said. “It’s my favorite American dessert. They make the best ones here.”
One bite into the hot, buttery dough and sweet, gooey insides, and it was my favorite, too. Everything was new and delicious. My meal came in a cardboard box, shaped like a replica of the restaurant we were in, and there was even a toy inside! Hash browns were a revelation. Why didn’t everyone cook potatoes like this? The food sat inside me, taking over spaces that had been full of worry just minutes before and making the worry go away. Out back, I eyed a pit of balls, a see-saw and swings.
“You can go play if you want,” Shabab said.
I looked to make sure there were no other kids around, which meant I was safe from having to speak English, a language I didn’t yet know how to speak. Everyone had said I would learn, but they hadn’t told me how, and I was waiting for it to come, as if by magic. I walked toward the play area, turning frequently to make sure Shabab was still there. In those years I was always worried he would leave me or vanish. He waved. Feeling safe enough, I dove into the pit, sinking softly on hundreds of bright balls.
McDonald’s became our regular spot. He introduced me to the Filet-O-Fish sandwich, soft serve sundaes and Chicken McNuggets. Soon, I noticed that everywhere I went, even when he wasn’t with me, there was a McDonald’s, a place I recognized, where I felt safe.
That day, on the drive home, I tried to lock in my happiness by going over every detail of the morning again and again. Shabab played UB40’s Red Red Wine on the stereo and the island’s salty damp air washed over us.
In Bellevue we moved into a two-story, four-bedroom house a few blocks from Shee Shee’s best friends — an Iranian family who had lived down the street from us in Karaj and moved to the States a few years before us. Shabab came to live with us, and so did Shee Shee’s 24-year-old brother, Farhad.
We were an odd foursome, all of us aliens in an unfamiliar place, awkwardly making a home together.
Most nights, Shee Shee cooked Iranian food with a hodgepodge of close-enough ingredients she’d found at the American and Indian grocery stores. It wasn’t the same as back home, but it tasted good and, at first, reminded me of who I was. Shabab and Farhad’s friends, who missed their own Iranian mothers’ cooking, often joined us. At least once a week, we ate out, mostly at various fast food restaurants, each one a wonderful discovery.
“There is a place that has amazing pizza,” Farhad declared one night. “Let’s go there for dinner.”
“What’s pizza?” I asked.
“It’s Italian food,” Shee Shee said.
We drove to Pizza Hut, its red roof visible from a distance.
“Pizza Hut,” Shee Shee said to me, in a thick Iranian accent. “Because it’s hot.”
“No. It’s different,” Shabab said. “hut means a house.”
“But it’s hot,” Shee Shee insisted.
“Yeah, but it means two things,” Farhad said. “It’s clever.”
We didn’t understand. But it didn’t matter, because inside there were arcade games! Shabab gave me some quarters and I played as they ordered and sat down at a booth where I could still see them.
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Pizza Hut smelled sour, the kind of sour I wanted to bury my head in. It was dark and cozy. In the booth I looked at all the families — the moms, dads and kids — around us. We were missing a dad, but we were four — there was a daughter, a son, a mom and an uncle, which was close. We almost fit in, as long as no one could hear us speaking Farsi. Embarrassed, I hushed my loud family, pleading with them to speak more quietly.
The pizza came, oozing with cheese and oil, the smells of sour dough and meat permeating our booth.
“What’s on these?” I asked.
“Pineapple and ham on this one,” Shabab said. “It’s called a Hawaiian and it’s the best.”
“This one is pepperoni,” Farhad said. “Pepperoni’s better.”
I decided to like the Hawaiian before I’d tasted either.
The grocery stores of my new country were the Holy City of sweet things and the cereal aisle was my Mecca. In 1980s Iran, a country torn apart by The Revolution, an unfamiliar regime and a devastating war, Corn Flakes were a delicacy sometimes found on the black market. For special occasions Shee Shee would fill a small bowl with them, and if I were the luckiest, there’d be a banana to chop into it, as well. She’d cover it with milk that Baba had bought from the nearby farm, which we pasteurized by boiling and kept in a big pot in the refrigerator. Here, it wasn’t just Corn Flakes, but Lucky Charms, Froot Loops, Cap’n Crunch, Cocoa Puffs and Cookie Crisp. Soon I forgot all about my beloved Corn Flakes and dove my hand into boxes, digging through an armful of colorful pellets for the toys. I’d fill bowl after bowl with carbs, sugar and milk and eat alone in front of the TV — breakfast, lunch and dinner.
On the first day of fourth grade in Bellevue I had butterflies all over my body and felt so sick I thought I would die. I wished we were back in Iran, that I was with my friends and walking to my familiar school, down the street from that little house I’d promised to go back to.
When it came time to leave for school, Shee Shee held a small Quran above my head and whispered a prayer for safe passage as I walked back and forth below it — our ritual upon embarking on a new journey. Then, she picked up her purse and headed toward the door with me.
“Can Shabab take me?” I asked.
“We’ll all go together,” Shee Shee said.
“Can just Shabab take me?”
“You don’t want me to come? It’s your first day,” she said.
“Your hair is white and you look old and sad,” I said. “I don’t want anyone to know you’re my mom.”
“But I’m going to have to meet your teachers,” she insisted.
“Can Khaleh Noushin come to meet them instead?” I asked, referring to Shee Shee’s younger sister who lived in Portland. Khaleh means maternal aunt in Farsi.
Shee Shee obliged, having Shabab drive me to school alone and walk with me to my classroom.
“What do I say?” I asked Shabab in the car.
“Remember what we practiced?” he said.
“No,” I said, on the verge of tears.
“It’s ok! Just say ‘hello’ and ‘no English,’ and they’ll understand,” he said.
I had “hello” down, but practiced “no English,” under my breath a few times.
“But what if I don’t understand something important?”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll tell the teacher. He’ll take care of you.”
“And you’ll come to pick me up? You won’t leave me here?”
“I won’t leave you. I promise.”
“Do you know what time to get me?”
“And you’ll come to the class? I don’t have to find you?”
“I’ll come to the class. Just wait inside for me, ” he reassured me.
My teacher was a kind man in his 40s, with almost the exact same round face, mustache and thinning gray hair of my Baba. As Shabab explained my situation — that I didn’t speak English, that I had just moved here from Iran — I looked up in amazement, wondering if this WAS my Baba in disguise. It was still less than a year since his death, but for many years to come — possibly a little bit even now — I believed that Baba was alive. That he’d escaped and that one day he would reveal himself to me.
“This is Mr. Cook,” Shabab said. “He’s your teacher.”
“He looks like Baba,” I whispered.
“No he doesn’t,” Shabab said. “Have fun.”
Mr. Cook led me to a table where three other kids were already seated. He said something to them, gesturing toward me, and then to me, gesturing toward them.
“Hello no English,” I said.
The kids looked at me in disgust.
On that day and the many long horrible days that followed, I watched that teacher astutely for glimpses of Baba, hoping he would save me. In class the kids tore me apart — writing bitch on my Valentine’s day cards, locking me in closets, putting gum in my hair, stealing my things, laughing at me in choir when I didn’t know how to sing the words to a song I’d never heard in a language I didn’t speak.
We pulled into the parking lot of a big white building with a tall, yellow double arch before it. Inside was a happy place with happy people.
Lunch was even worse because there was no assigned seating and I didn’t dare intrude on any of the packs of friends. I hovered on the edge of one table or another, carrying a tray with a slice of doughy, square, pepperoni pizza, a carton of chocolate milk and applesauce — a strange but comforting meal that eventually became a familiar staple. I didn’t interject in my schoolmates’ conversations, but I listened closely to what they were saying, trying to decipher words, hoping to learn how to be like them.
A few months into the year, the school had a potluck for parents and students. Shee Shee had colored her hair and although she was still gloomy and wearing only black, she tried to show her once legendary beauty for my sake. At the potluck, each family unveiled a different dish they’d cooked at home. It became clear that we were supposed to bring a dish as well, but I’d neglected to tell Shee Shee. Embarrassed and angry, she turned to me and said in Farsi, “Why didn’t you tell me we were supposed to bring something? Now we look so bad. I’m ashamed.”
I was devastated by my mistake, embarrassed that she’d spoken Farsi, that she was angry with me, that we looked bad. Though I was learning English rapidly, potluck and most other words were not yet in my vocabulary.
Two years later, on the first day of middle school, I sat next to a girl named Jessica. She had long straight blonde hair, porcelain skin and big blue eyes — she looked like the definition of an American girl. By then, I was fairly fluent in English, but still didn’t have many friends. Jessica and I bonded and grew close quickly, calling each other best friend within weeks. Still, it took me almost the whole school year and dozens of invitations from Jessica before I was brave enough to go to her house. This country, its people, its customs were still unfamiliar and scary. I was always afraid of making a mistake, saying the wrong thing, being ostracized. Being left. But, that May, I gathered every ounce of courage and finally accepted her invitation.
We took the school bus together and arrived at an empty house. Her parents and younger brother weren’t home yet. We left our backpacks by the door and she led me to the vast, bright open kitchen, adjacent to the family room.
Her dog, a Siberian Husky named Kenai, came over to greet Jessica and sniff me.
“First, let’s have some mud pie and then I’ll show you my room,” she said. “It’s really yummy. I could eat the whole thing.”
“Is it made out of mud?” I asked.
“No!” she laughed, but not in a mean way. “It’s chocolate. My mom made it for my brother’s birthday yesterday.”
“Why is it called mud pie?”
She took the half-eaten cake out of the fridge and I had my answer. It was a rich, velvety, delicious mess to eat. The cake, splattered all over our faces, threw us into fits of laughter.
“You should stay for dinner,” she said.
I’d never stayed for dinner before. I didn’t know what would happen and the thought of doing something wrong mortified me.
“I don’t think I can,” I said.
“C’mon! You never come over. Just stay. Please?”
I called Shee Shee, who gave her permission. I wished I could ask her what I should do, how I should behave, what to call Jessica’s parents. But I’d come to learn Shee Shee knew even less than I did. She translated our strict Iranian formality into English, which was not the casual American way. She earned the graces of my teachers by bestowing them with designer accessories they’d complimented her on. And, her clothes were fancy, her hair was big and she wore too much perfume for our Pacific Northwest suburb.
In Iran, children’s friends didn’t come over for dinner. Dinner was for family unless it was a party. At our house, Baba came home from work in the late afternoon and we ate together in the tiny green kitchen. Baba sat at the right, I was in the middle, Shee Shee on the left, Shabab already living in the U.S. The only rules were that I had to clear my plate and that I couldn’t talk with my mouth full.
For the rest of that afternoon, while I waited for Jessica’s family to come home, I imagined various scenarios and tried to decide how to maneuver within them. I wondered how to introduce myself to them. I wondered if I should call her parents Uncle and Auntie as I had called my friends’ parents in Iran. I wondered how to sit at the table, how to eat, how to talk, how to serve myself and how much. I didn’t want to be a burden, I didn’t want to leave and have them make fun of my mistakes and tell Jessica that she should find a more sophisticated friend.
Ultimately, I decided it was best not to say anyone’s name. Not first or last. Uncomfortable with the phrase, “nice to meet you,” I decided not to introduce myself at all and let Jessica do it. I would remain quiet, make little eye contact and copy exactly what Jessica did and said.
The first obstacle at the dinner table was grace. I’d never seen such a thing. I didn’t know what to do with my hands, what words to mimic with my mouth or if I should look down or up. I wasn’t Christian and didn’t know if I was even allowed to say grace. Terrified that I’d be called upon to perform a task I didn’t know how to perform, I looked down, held my breath and wished I were invisible. Clasping my hands together under the table, I peeked through half closed eyes to see when they would look up, so that I wouldn’t be last.
The next obstacle was that, for some reason, the word penis came up. It didn’t just come up. Jim said it. Jessica’s dad! It must have been part of a joke, because the family laughed, but I almost died of humiliation. I didn’t even know the word for penis in Farsi because sex and genitals are so shameful and inappropriate they’re never mentioned, especially in front of children. Genitals are most often referred to as oonja (that place) so, it astounded me that this family could be so casual and open with each other and with me — a virtual stranger, a child!
Finally there was the challenge of the artichoke. What was it and how was I supposed to eat it?
“Would you like an artichoke?” Jessica’s mother, Ruth asked.
Jessica didn’t have one on her plate, so I said, “No, thank you.”
“Have you ever had one?” Jessica asked.
I shook my head.
“Oh, sweetie, it’s delicious. You have to try,” Ruth said. “Jesse, why don’t you show Naz how to eat it.”
“It’s my favorite,” Jessica said. “You just dip the petals into the butter and peel off the soft part with your teeth. You can also use mayo, but I like just butter.”
I copied her, but didn’t see the big deal.
“It gets better when you get to the middle. Just wait. We can split the heart.”
When I got picked up, I was buzzing with excitement. I told Shee Shee, Shabab and Farhad all about grace and about mud pies, artichokes and their amazing hearts, which I insisted we buy the next time we went to the grocery store. I did not mention that the word penis came up for fear that I wouldn’t be allowed to go back.
Like many immigrants, we adopted the holidays of our new country with genuine fervor, filling our house with decorations, inviting friends and family to celebrate with us and attempting a facsimile of what a real American family might do based on pieces of information from what we’d seen on TV, what was for sale at various department and grocery stores and what members of our community who’d been here longer than us, taught us. For Thanksgiving, Shee Shee bought the biggest turkey she could find, but didn’t know how to stuff and cook it. In those first years it was more her instinct and her experience cooking chicken that led the way. Shabab said we needed to have cans of cranberry sauce. My aunt, Khaleh Noushin, insisted we mash sweet potatoes and cover them in marshmallow fluff.
“Are you sure this is right?” Shee Shee asked.
“This isn’t my first Thanksgiving,” Khaleh Noushin said, referring to the fact that she’d been in the States for a decade already. “It’s an essential part of the meal.”
“But it’s disgusting. No one will eat it.”
“It’s tradition,” Khaleh Noushin insisted.
That night we dressed up and sat down to a strange meal. Our table was decorated and filled with all the components, but none of us understood why we were celebrating Thanksgiving and if we’d gotten it right.
The first time I tried Kraft Mac n’ Cheese with ketchup, I thought it was disgusting. My first tablespoon of peanut butter repulsed me and I couldn’t understand how every single kid in my class was obsessed with something so dry, bland and sticky. Meatloaf was an insult and American cheese tasted like how it looked, artificial. But I ate these things to fit in, and over time, I even came to love them as if I’d been born in the States and raised on its food.
At a time when I didn’t feel safe, when I was a deeply sad little girl, those trips to McDonald’s with Shabab made me happy, igniting my diminished endorphins.
Before I could speak it, I began to dream in English. Then, bit-by-bit, my language improved. I learned to pronounce the impossible “th” sound with perfection by practicing the words “the” “that” and “they” over and over again. Somewhere along the way, without even noticing, I shed my accent, gained friends and learned to straighten my curly, frizzy hair. All the while, just as I shunned Shee Shee speaking Farsi in public and began to distance myself from her and her weird traditions, I shunned the food I’d grown up with, feeling that it was unworthy of this new life — that it wasn’t sophisticated or cool enough for who I’d become.
By high school I was my family’s guide to American traditions, customs and ingredients. I taught them what to eat at Thanksgiving. No, we don’t have to put marshmallows on the sweet potatoes or have canned cranberry. Yes, we should say what we’re thankful for. Meanwhile, without noticing, I began to forget how to read and write in Farsi, and lost my once extensive vocabulary. I forgot where Kermanshah was on the map and even the names of many of the people I’d grown up with. One day, the place I never wanted to be became home more than the place that had once meant everything to me. I admitted to myself I’d never keep the promise I’d made as we drove away from our house in Karaj.
At a time when I didn’t feel safe, when I was a deeply sad little girl, those trips to McDonald’s with Shabab made me happy, igniting my diminished endorphins. I still can taste that special food, sitting across from him with a view of the ocean to my right.
When I wanted to have a family just like everyone else’s I could slide into a booth at Pizza Hut and in the darkly lit restaurant my odd family could almost pass for a mom and a dad and two kids, and maybe even American ones, as long as we whispered. For the years that I was alone, becoming an American daughter — a stranger — to my mother; remaining a foreign friendless alien at school, the sugary magic of the cereal aisle was my salvation. I filled up all the emptiness with every color of the rainbow.
Dinners at Jessica’s house soon became sleepovers, weekends on the boat and even family vacations on which I tagged along. I learned to love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which we made for days out on the water. Ruth taught us how to pack a picnic and Jim taught us how to water-ski. Unbeknownst to them, Jessica’s family became the one I wished I had, and whether they knew it or not, like a good family, they guided me in how to exist and behave in the world in which they were experienced and I was not.
Once, after a trip to the lake, I was helping unpack the car when I found myself alone in the garage with Jim.
“Thanks for taking me, Dad,” I said and was immediately mortified by the slip.
Like Baba and Shabab, Jim was a pilot. Like Baba, he’d been in the military and enforced the same order and discipline on his children that Baba did with us. I’d listened as Jim imparted wisdom on Jessica and her brother. I’d watched him hug and kiss them, always looking away, afraid they’d sense my longing. All the while, I’d pushed my Baba further and further away, refusing even to talk about him — at first angry that he’d died and then afraid of being consumed by the overwhelming sadness of remembering him.
In that moment in the garage, I was embarrassed by what I had said and ashamed that I’d betrayed Baba by saying it. I wished I could take it back or run away, my punishment being that I’d never see any of them again. I wanted to plead with the ghost of Baba, beg his forgiveness.
Instead, I stood frozen, looking at the cement ground, struggling to breathe. Without missing a beat, Jim walked over, put his arms around me, and wrapped me in a tight embrace.
“You’re a part of the family,” he said. “Hope you’re staying for dinner.”
* * *
Naz Riahi is working on a collection of personal essays from which this piece is adapted. She holds an MFA from the New School, lives and writes in Brooklyn and is the founder of Bitten. She can be found online at @nazriahi.
Editor: Sari Botton