Monday, November 28, 2005

More of Lala's Long Day (part 2)


I got horribly carsick. I tried and tried to ignore it. At first the Khanum and Fatemeh were reading their English books and were consulting with me, as I had promised to help Fatemeh with an article in her book. I can’t tell which came first, the carsickness or the migraine, but I had a raging headache and nausea soon followed and the headache turned into a migraine. Khanum kept thinking I was very tired because my eyes were so red from the headache and the strain of not throwing up, but eventually I couldn’t keep up the charade and begged off explaining my extreme nausea when I read or even look down in a moving vehicle. An added problem was that it was warm in the car and I was wearing lots of layers because it can get so cold so I felt suffocated. They were so gracious and understanding and I felt bad to be such a dull party pooper.

The drive on the highway was bearable, but as we got into Tehran and the traffic started up again, the sun was hotter than ever and I rolled down the window only to inhale strong diesel fumes. I tried taking deep breaths and told myself it wasn’t much longer, but then my stomach turned and I told AliBob that I was going to throw up and I just concentrated on trying not to faint or vomit.

We pulled over and there was a huge open gutter canal and if AliBob hadn’t held on to me and made me step over, I would have fallen in. I remember sitting in some dirt near some plants with Ali asking if I was okay and tears all over my face. I am so proud that I managed to keep my vomit down. I think it was the thought of having vomit breath for the rest of the afternoon and in the car that motivated me to not let it past my throat. The Elahis drove on and turned into a side street so they could come back to park and get me.

Luckily, Fatemeh had packed a bunch of sweets for everyone and they gave me a butterscotch candy to suck on. It was delicious.

Mortified (maybe that’s also why there were tears) that this had happened now, I apologized to them and they offered to let me sit in the front seat and the Khanum could drive instead and they even exchanged the carkeys but I insisted that after this I was fine and I’m so sorry and please I’m good for another 2 hours before I get sick again.

So we continued on our merry way. Thank God we weren’t in the car much longer because the nausea came back double quick this time.
We picked up one of the Elahi’s 4 sons from his University. At 21, he is their oldest, named Muhammad, and is studying mathematics and physics. He is brilliant and wants to go to MIT. If anyone can, it will be he.
They apologized profusely for adding him to the car and I said I don’t care, I’m Pakistani and we always pack tightly into cars, it's part of the family fun package. AliBob was master of his own domain in the front seat.

Then we went to a very old part of Tehran which is actually an old village that predates Tehran and the city just grew around it. We parked there and walked up a steep hill to a shrine/mosque. I can’t remember whose shrine it is but it’s someone relatively important. I had already prayed but the Khanum had to, so we both went in and I wandered around and look at it. I wasn’t sure what to do (the Khanum had said “I’ll pray, and you can do ziarat” and I had said “okay” but I really don’t know what ziarat is or how to do it) so I just copied other people. I know, I’m such a fake. I’m too comfortable to expose my Sunnihood.

The décor is interesting. It is all basically cut mirrors mortared into different calligraphy and designs. This was worth photographing, but I think I stood out a little because this was a small place and I wasn’t sure if it would be allowed. The effect is just thousands of glittering mirrored surfaces everywhere you turn (including the walls and pillars) and is almost too gaudy for my taste, but it’s still fun to see all these shiny objects and what can be done with them.

There is a cemetery attached to the shrine so we walked over to where the graves are and we saw people gathered around a grave and sitting on other gravestones and I heard a beautiful recitation of Quran on tape. A few people were crying and everyone was somber. Interestingly enough, very few women were wearing chador. Only the Khanum, Fatemeh, and perhaps 2 other ladies. Khanum and Fatemeh had warned me teasingly that “ohh.. Dr. Elahi’s family does not wear chador and they barely wear hijab” and he had laughed in agreement, but it's odd to see it after becoming accustomed to seeing chador everywhere.

So these are the modern Tehranians with lots of makeup and supergroomed eyebrows and blond hair and fitted manteaus and expensive designer clothing. I greeted them and they were all very nice and all spoke perfect English because, as I later learned, they go back and forth to America and Europe fairly frequently and in fact, this deceased uncle has 4 children who are physicians abroad and 3 children in Tehran, or something like that.

Here Irfan Ali got a pic of me sitting with the deceased gentleman’s aged sister, in chador. I felt bad for her and Fatemeh asked why I was so sad and I told her that I know what it’s like to have a brother and she was shocked and said “your brother also died???”. That was too funny. I reassured her that my brother is alive and well but that I just love him so much that I can’t even imagine what this poor lady is going through. Fatemeh is still at that young age where she finds all her brothers mostly annoying and likes them better when they’re away at school. I told her when she’s a little older she’ll realize that siblings are one of the greatest gifts our parents (with some help from nature, I suppose) can give us. [sigh] I miss my siblings. I got lucky though, because not only do my siblings rock, I have cousins who are like siblings too, and lord do I miss them too.

Anyway, the picture:

As you can see above, they had laid out green turf-like carpets on the other graves. I thought it was for more comfortable sitting, but AliBob guessed it was also out of respect for the privacy of the dead buried around there. Makes sense.
Here is the actual grave of Mr. Sernevesht, Dr. Elahi’s uncle. Interesting point, Sernevesht is a rare last name in Iran and it means “destiny”.

The grave is beautiful, carved in granite and its head has a built-in planter for perennial flowers and there’s a built-in cove for candles at its base. Those were fresh fowers used to decorate it. You can’t see from here, but they also had sweets and snacks behind the marker that they served to everyone after the Quran recitation.

Oh… and a note on the Quran recitation, which was stunning. It was *not* a tape, but a real live “Qari”, a trained reciter of the Quran. He was very young and he had a beautiful young wife.
As Bobert went around to look at the graves around there, he was *so* excited to have found the grave of a real, honest-to-goodness “pahlevan”, or strongman. The Iranians, like Indians and Pakistanis, have an ages old tradition of strongman wrestlers, which IrfanBob can explain further. He was able to recognize it by the engraving of the club bells and chain that they use to train.

I think the dates are in the Iranian form. Iran has its own calendar and date system. There are 12 months that roughly coincide with the Gregorian calendar; they’re about 10 days off. I think we’re in the year xx84. I don’t know what the century is. I know eighty-something because when I opened up my cream during our first days here, I noticed the production date as ‘84 and the expiration date as ‘85 and freaked out that we were having 20-year-old dairy products. (Hey, it can happen, especially in a 3rd world country..right?)

Anyway, after we were done here, people helped fold stuff up and then we left to go meet them at their home. It was actually Mr. Sernevesht’s old house which is now empty because his wife (who is actually Dr. Elahi’s biological aunt, Khaleh Gauhar) died last year, almost exactly a year ago.

They live in an affluent area of Tehran and the house, though not big by Iranian standards, was beautifully furnished with rich furniture and the best decoration pieces from all over the world. He loved to travel and as Fatemeh later told me, he was very rich. He also owned a vacation home right on the Caspian Sea.

At first, when we entered, I thought we might be segregated, because there was a women’s room and a men’s room, but then Dr. Elahi’s cousins ushered us all into the main living room (thank goodness) and I sat next to AliBob and Fatemeh. The hospitality, as usual, was firmly in place as we were promptly served tea and more sweets that we declined because we were hungry and the past few weeks I’ve been a little off sugar. It’s not all that great on an empty stomach anyway.

They had a dvd playing of Mr. Sernevesht’s “sevvum” (which means third and marks the 3rd day after a person’s death) ceremony. People just chatted for a while and Dr. Elahi’s cousin’s hijabs came off. I’m not saying this with any judgment because who am I, the hijabless-barely-Muslim-wonder, to say anything to other women?

After about an hour, they served everyone their own individual plate of fruit with paring knife (that’s why people have lots of fruit knives in their house, it’s one for each person). Each plate had an orange, a tangerine, a banana and a cucumber. I know, the cucumber threw me, but it’s eaten as a fruit would be (often salted also) and commonly for breakfast with cheese and bread. Isn't it technically a fruit anyway?

People worked on their chai and their fruit and I didn’t have anything but eventually I got AliBob to peel me a tangerine and we shared it. I wasn’t sure how long we would be there or what the plan was but I was getting really hungry and had to go home and cook dinner and it was already around 7 or 7:30 at this time.

After the fruit came the sholehzard, which was that sweet yellow rice and saffron confection with almonds and pistachios on top. I didn’t have any at first, but then I shared a bowl with Mrs. Elahi. It was good.

All this time we had been chatting and different people, especially those who went to America/Europe a lot, came and talked to us and wanted to know all about AliBob and what we were doing in Iran and in Qom of all places (because many of the Tehranians have never been to Qom. I suppose there’s no need, especially if you’re not religiously inclined.)

And the more religious people wanted to know all about his conversion to Islam (which is *always* a popular story and gets told everywhere) and of course, as always, they also asked if he is Shia Muslim and he said yes and they were even more pleased. I can understand, there are so few Shias anyway and so many are getting killed off that it really is nice for Shias to see converts to Shia Islam instead of the mainstream Sunni conversions that are everywhere. Mr. Sernevesht’s sister was particularly pleased and thought AliBob was just so fantastic and good (who doesn’t?).

Then, what do you know, dinner was served! It was awesome. Simple, but awesome. They had lots of salad and yogurt, big marinated and grilled chicken breasts with a gravy/juice/drippings dish thing to pour over it and delicious dill rice, and tahdeeg, which means literally “under the pot” and is the layer of bread (or potatoes) laid in oil on the bottom of the pot of rice that is cooked on top of it. In this case, it was bread and it fried up beautifully and had a layer of rice and dill stuck to it and was just delish. It gets broken up into pieces and you just take it with your fingers.

Dr. Elahi’s cousins were gracious hosts and actually went around to each person holding the different dishes to make sure they had enough and to take more if they wanted. And for us, they put all the things in bowls for us and set them on the coffee table near which we were eating so we had everything we wanted right there. *Nice*.

I must mention at this point, that from the time we got there (I mean even at the gravesite when all the attendees were served the trays of sweets) at around 4:30 or so, until we left at 9:15 or so, The Elahis’ son Muhammad was the one serving everyone and helping with the hosting. Mrs. Elahi would motion to him to quickly relieve someone of a tray they were carrying and he would do so promptly. For all the different rounds of tea, Muhammad served everyone, as he did with the fruit and sweets and sholehzard. And when he would be done with our room, Mrs. Elahi would remind him to make sure all the ladies had everything in the other room too.

He was amazing, just like his younger brother Sadra at the lunch we had at the Elahi home. They do it graciously and uncomplainingly with a smile on their faces and with no embarrassment or annoyance. The Elahis have done a fantastic job with their children and I suppose the rest is also just plain good fortune. Irfan Ali and I are impressed and we are so so lucky to have met the Elahis and have them become our adoptive family here.

After dinner (I was, as usual, the last person still eating after people were already done with tea), we had tea and then things started winding down. As we digested our food and things were cleared away, they popped in a dvd of family movies which, despite being in Farsi, were so entertaining. I love family photos and videos and their videos reminded me of the ones my own family has, with my grandfather talking and even dancing and all the aunts, uncles and cousins sitting and joking and celebrating weddings and birthdays together or just making a video for the fun of it.

There was one particular one where Mr. Sernevesht was vacationing in the Caspian Sea with his wife and he had secretly taken a video of her without her knowing. They were sitting together in front of a fire and were just peeling fruit and nuts and eating them. It was so sweet. I think he was asking her odd things because when she would say things, people would laugh.

There were clips of him in Holland visiting children, and one of a celebration of Noruz (Persian New Year), and a birthday.

There were more tears as a father and mother were missed, and seeing all the cousins and family sitting around together watching the videos and laughing made me miss my family even more because *we* do that (when we can, anyway). It’s funny, because now that AliBob has spent so much time with my family, he also recognizes the similarities, so when Mr. Sernevesht did a little dance in one video, AliBob said “Hey, that’s just like Abboo jee in his haal at Shameela’s dholki”. Abboo jee was my maternal grandfather and he did indeed do a dance at one of the pre-wedding family functions of my cousin.

Okay, sorry I digressed with my own nostalgic rantings.

At around 9:15, we wrapped things up and took our leave and Dr. Elahi’s cousin gave a whole big untouched 9x13 dish of sholehzard to Khanume Elahi to take home.

Muhammad stayed and would go straight to University from there the next day. We all said khodahafez (goodbye) and were on our merry way.

About an hour into our drive, the Khanum heard something weird and told Dr. Elahi to pull over. Sure enough, we had a flat tire. Bad timing because Fatemeh was tired (well we all were) and had school early (starts at 7:15am) the next day.

So the Agha got down on his hands and knees and changed the tire himself. It was a challenge because the wrench used to take the bolts off was bent and the bolts were quite tightly screwed in. Also, it had gotten extremely cold and windy out in the desert. He was just in his shirtsleeves and people drive like crazy on the highway and we were worried that someone might run him over so AliBob stood a little further back close to the road by the reflective triangle that didn’t want to stay up on its own so that, if hit, he’d go first. No worries, about 20 minutes later, we were on our merry way.

As we drove on, I lamented my forgetfulness and wished I had remembered to take a picture. We joked and told the Agha to get another flat tire so I could get a picture of him, the great Ayatollah Ruhollah Dr. Mr. Elahi (as Fatemeh and I have dubbed him) changing a tire.

10 minutes into our drive, we hear and feel something weird happen and again Khanum tells him to pull over. Again, we had another flat tire. At this point it was 10:45 and we had already used our spare tire. This time, Dr. Elahi didn’t pull over very far into the shoulder because we really hadn’t expected to have a second flat. So it was a little more dangerous and cars would flash their lights and honk at us. I took it as a good sign because at least they could see us.

There is a traffic assistance truck that does laps up and down the highway so we waited for one on our side but none came. Dr. Elahi dashed across the highway (while we ladies freaked out) with people honking and talked to the truck on the other side to ask him for help. Then he dashed back and said the truck would call for help.

As Dr. Elahi started taking the tire off, we stood waiting for the tow truck and a car passed us and slowed down and then pulled over. Out came a man (ayatollah garb alert) and talked to Dr. Elahi and promptly went to his own trunk, pulled out his spare, and handed it to Dr. Elahi. I assumed they knew each other (because all ayatollah-garbed men *must* know each other just like all Pakistanis in Northern Va. *must* know each other) and asked the Khanum if they were friends. She said she didn’t know maybe, and we asked Dr. Elahi.
It turns out that they, in fact, did *not* know each other at all and that he had just pulled over because that is what a Muslim should do. He also had he did it for the women because they should not have to stand out in the cold.
If this mullah only knew how grateful we were to him… not even all the Iranian taarof and formalities in the world could have appropriately conveyed how we felt. He brushed away our thanks and hurried back to his car and left.
I guess it goes both ways though, because Dr. Elahi is a good and honest man, so the mullah was able to help a person who would return his tire to him promptly.
While Dr. Elahi again changed the tire, a huge bus pulled over right in front of our car. Less than a minute later, another car pulled over in front of the bus and 2 or 3 minutes after that, another car had pulled over ahead. It seems they *all* also got flat tires. Bad part of the road, it seems. It really sucks for the bus.

We were worried but then they all remembered that I had lamented my lost photo opportunity (I have been deemed, by Fatemeh, opportunistic with a camera, and rightly so) and so I whipped out my camera and managed to take a few pictures. Enjoy them as much as we did and see how cool it is that someone who is a cleric and an important vice chancellor of one of the best humanities universities in Iran and whose wife is a well known lawyer, are still laid back enough to change not one, but 2 tires on an icy cold weeknight, after having driven us around for hours during the day. And what was even cooler is that they never once got upset, angry or frustrated. The Khanum said a little prayer and they both just did it with humor and patience and there was good cheer right up until we got home.

A back view:

A front view, with a smile from the Agha and with AliBob in the background acting as a human shield..”so that at least I’ll get hit first”. What a guy!

A few good men, while two worried women watched on and one young girl slept in the car.

I told the Khanum to pose by her hero’s side:


Blogger huma said...

your story-telling is really coming together --

2:37 AM  

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