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Naz Riahi

All that Was Innocent and Violent: Girlhood in Post-Revolution Iran

Photo courtesy of the author, Mel Yates / Getty, iStock / Getty Images Plus, photo illustration by Longreads

Naz Riahi | Longreads | March 2020 | 29 minutes (7,251 words)

A few months after I was born, just a year after The Islamic Revolution, Shee Shee and Baba bought a house and moved, with my 12-year-old brother and me, to Karaj, a suburb of Tehran.

They moved to the suburb, in part, for the same reasons many young couples with children everywhere in the world, do — for space and a quiet place to raise their family. They moved also to get away from the chaos of Tehran, a city that was changing rapidly, seemingly overnight, after The Revolution — becoming overbearing with rules, regulations and unexpected dangers.

They found refuge in a private development called Dehkadeh. Built a few years before our move, in the mid ‘70s, Dehkadeh had a guarded entrance and a town square. Its streets, named after flowers, were lined with white birch — regal, gentle. Over the years, the birch grew tall, bending towards each other, creating a canopy. In the hot summers, they shaded us, letting just enough light stream through their leaves. In autumn those same leaves changed color and fell to the ground, turning our streets into rivers of reds and yellows. In the winters, their bare branches were covered in snow and icicles.

The town square had a sandwich shop, a grocery store and bakery. There was a fountain in the middle and a sit-down restaurant — which, shortly after we moved, was taken over by the government and turned into a mosque. All of the businesses, including the local bus line, were owned by people who lived in the community, comprising 700 or so houses. My pediatrician was a family friend who lived a few doors down from us, the elementary school I would eventually attend was at the end of our cul-de-sac and all of the teachers lived in Dehkadeh.

That was home. An hour’s drive to the city, but a different world, less hectic, safer (for a time) like a secret that protected us from all the bad, scary things happening in Iran — the war with Iraq, the new government that brutally enforced theocracy, the people whose allegiances weren’t known and who therefore couldn’t be trusted.

We lived on Niloufar Gharby (Water Lily West). Our tiny, single-story ranch-style house had a white metal gate that creaked open and shut and was surrounded by hedges thick with honeysuckle whose fragrance and nectar I’d lose myself in, daydreaming about all the happy lives I’d live someday. I’d become a writer like my grandfather, Baba Moeini, revered as he was. I’d travel the world like Shee Shee and Baba had done before The Revolution, before I was born. I’d be the hero of a real life story like my favorite superheroes, the ones I’d learned about on bootleg videos procured by my aunt’s husband on the post-Revoution black market, where everything from Corn Flakes to Michael Jackson tapes could still be found.

Our backyard was large and filled with fruit trees — peaches, nectarines, sour cherries, apples, and plums. A trellis ran down the middle, covered in grape leaves, and a white swing sat under an enormous weeping willow. There were rows and rows of strawberries in the field, and rose bushes beneath the windows.

Between the time I was a toddler and a child, my parents tore apart the back of our house to expand the living room and give me my own bedroom adjacent to theirs. I remember the excitement of getting a room of my own, but when construction ended and a big-girl bed arrived, I was horribly afraid to be alone at night. Though my parents’ room was just on the other side of my door, I felt abandoned. I remember Baba putting me to bed, tucking me in, and telling me to be brave.

For Baba, a helicopter pilot and soldier who was often away fighting in an actual war, bravery was a person’s greatest asset. His bedtime stories were rich with heroes fighting dangerous forces. I tried hard to be brave for him, but fell asleep each night a coward, hiding beneath my comforter from the night and its invisible dangers.

I took my first steps in the hallway in front of my older brother’s room. Shee Shee insists there is no way I could remember. But I do. I remember falling into an uncle’s arms. After that, the memories rush in.
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Eating to America

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.

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