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.