Homa Zaryouni

I miss Tehran before the Green Revolution succeeded. Before boys and girls could walk hand-in-hand wearing sunglasses and lipstick. You needed to be tough to survive on the street then. The religious police changed names every year, to gasht which meant the search crew, Komiteh, which meant the committee (of keeping appearances intact). Sometime before the election, the name was reverted to gasht again.

I missed the time you had to know where the party was to actually party. Where there were no signs for cabarets, and places you could buy your way into having fun.

I lived in America for thirteen years. I came over when I was twenty-one years old and started my bachelor’s degree from scratch, even though I had one from the University of Tehran. My diploma was useless for applying to medical or law school here in the U.S. The administration professional told me I could fight that and make them accept my diploma. But I didn’t care. My grades were bad enough that I wouldn’t get into school if they were ever translated.

Like many Iranian expatriates, I supported the Green Revolution from afar, without knowing it would mean gentrification and losing my neighborhood. I wanted the real Greens to show up on the street, not a bunch of half-baked sissies who thought green was the label on grass-fed burgers. Not knowing how much things had changed, I decided to leave my life in the U.S. in 2015 to go back to Iran and reap the fruits of my labor. Actually, to be fair, the labor of those who protested in the country of concern, with guns pointed to their heads.

I knew things had changed when the shop around the corner that served burgers between puffy breads with pink sauce oozing out, shut down. In its place Chaman opened up. Chaman means grass, and true to its name, the place served everything grass-fed, from burgers to oysters. Everything was local except for the oysters, which came wrapped up in ice from the Atlantic Ocean.

Normally, a place like Chaman would cause a fight, or several. Religious fanatics would demand a shut down of “westernized nonsense”. Oysters would be declared the food of the devil, and a debate would rise among the religious clerics about whether they were halal to eat or not. I expected a midnight arrest of all involved. But Chaman opened and flourished without a peep. To add insult to injury, they started serving organ meat.

Let’s get to the history of organ meat. In 1980, organ meat was one of those dishes that belonged to the people, the public. The shops were greasy. Women wouldn’t enter, even though they were technically allowed to. If they had the balls, they would stand outside the door while their to-go order cooked. In the new version of Chaman’s organ meat, the waitresses hovered over us in costumes of the Qajar Kingdom while explaining the different types of ground tongue and liver and heart. The favorite item on the menu became “#18 A Tender Heart”. They also served heart soup. The waitresses wore t-shirts that said A heart for the tender-hearted? I didn’t know the meaning of the question mark at the end.

With that came the mayonnaise shop. Mayonnaise became more expensive, and doctors warned against obesity in the upper echelon of society. The mayo shop bothered me the most, because it tried to make common ground with people. It called itself Jaffar and Sons Mayo Factory, like there was something cute or funny about the name Jaffar, or a family business, or naming something after your sons. I would have much rather have it been Princess Mayo, or Mayonara.

Unfortunately for me, I fell in love. I saw a woman, or rather a woman who dressed like a young girl: bangs, big glasses, red lipstick. Matilda. Matilda looked like she just raided her mother’s makeup drawer and closet. Her clothes looked too big, and her skirt went a few inches past her knees. Her face lacked expression, and we connected when she told me that she hated it all.

“I hate it,” she said when I asked her how she liked the coffee shop I invited her to. I liked that she made no effort to mask her contempt at the world. “I know, it looks like I belong here, but I really don’t.” She gestured toward her skirt and eyeglasses. “I didn’t have to dress like this before the revolution. I could wear that long coat and headscarf and blend in.”

“There are people who do that.” I said.

She shrugged. “I know, but you have to move with the times.”

Four months into our courtship, she took me to a prohibition-style bar, the style of the moment. The places were decorated like someone’s apartment, with a couch, dim lights, and a hodgepodge of candles. The bartenders were dressed like members of the religious police from the previous regime. I heard little girlish screams all over: “So retro!” and “Pretty realistic!” I looked over at Matilda while she brought two vodka-pomegranates. “They don’t do beer,” she said. We sat down on the edge of a couch and started to nuzzle. Because that’s what everyone was doing.

She broke the news to me there. She was about to leave Tehran and go to a small village in the northern province of Rasht to breed bees. I was surprised because she was an engineer. She told me that engineering was of no use. She did not want to make highways that contributed to environmental damage. I told her that she would have to use one of those routes to get to her beekeeping site. She stared at the ground, and told me there were no jobs for engineers. She was right, most of the engineers who had left the country for Canada were back to experience freedom in their hometown. “Freedom doesn’t feed you,” she said. “Beekeeping does?” I said. “Actually, it does,” she said. “There’s honey, and you can trade some of that with bread.” She was right. I had insulted her because I was pretty sure she was leaving me to have an affair with the beekeeper, or her apprenticeship supervisor, Samad. “How is Samad paying you?” I asked. “With honey,” she said. Was there an innuendo in that sentence that I missed, I asked. She smiled serenely and said no, it was just a master-apprentice relationship. I realized it was her first genuine smile since the day we met.

When she left, my attention turned to the stagnancy of my life. Those months with Matilda flew by so quickly that I hadn’t realized that I was unemployed for over half a year. It was easy to forget because I lived in my parents’ house and had a savings account that covered most of my day-to-day expenses. I sped up my search for a position at a hospital or medical office, but it was no use. Like the engineers, all American-educated doctors had come back home. “We’re too full,” a hospital receptionist told me. “Every day seven people of the likes of you come here.” She muttered to herself about putting a sign saying no employment inquiries from doctors.

I got a wedding invitation from Matilda and Samad in the mail. They were handmade, tied with string. I was invited to a celebration of love that coincided with the summer solstice. All food was organic and made from the local mountains where they lived.

I didn’t want to travel so far for an engagement party, but I wrote to Matilda that I would be there for her wedding if she wanted me to be. She wrote that I was the best friend she ever had, which, to be honest, made me wonder about the quality of her other friends. Of course, I didn’t go. In one of her last letters she told me she was going to crochet and start a bakery in the small town. I responded that she should try doing something with her education, even if it is as simple as teaching the children of the village math. She wrote back that I was an elitist and she did not want to associate with my negativity anymore.

I started to hear shouts of protests outside saying “bring Tehran back” and “down with newbies”. I looked out of my window and read their signs. The best one was “Foreign students: Go to your other home.” I started following a blog called SaveTehran.org that ranted about new restaurant openings and the return of western traditions to Iran. They wanted the same things I wanted: A shut-down of grass-fed eateries, the dropping of the words “local” and “organic” adjacent to the names of produce, and a return to the old-times. We were the same, but I wasn’t willing to go to board meetings or shout on the street.

The protestors made me think, was it possible to reverse things and make it as if they never happened? Was it possible to go back to that era without bringing the oppression? Or were we by nature meant to oppress or be oppressed? I started reading books on philosophy.

I Skyped a college friend. The California sun peeped through the slanted shades of his apartment and backlit his face. “How is it over there?” he asked.

I told him I was ready for more danger in my life. It was getting tiring, all the different options for food and fun. I missed when things were simple, the stressful existence of the US that left you with no option but to keep your eye on the prize and your head in the trenches.

A month later, I was back in the Los Angeles sun. I missed the closeness of people walking side by side, bumping into each other. I missed making my own things and buying bread.

 
 
 


Homa Zaryouni is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Her fiction has appeared in The Adirondack Review, Houston Literary Journal and Quarter After Eight. She recently finished a master’s program at New York University with a thesis about time and narrative in three Persian novels.