Wednesday, November 30, 2005

More Food Fun

Wednesday, November 30th, 2005

Okay, so after last night’s discovery that the lemon juice wasn’t helping add tartness to my daal or to my onion-green chilli-cilantro chutney, I took the rest of them today and turned them into juice. I left it undiluted and unsweetened for Irfan Ali to drink. I’m sure it’s probably good for his health. The juice has sweet overtones and a very bitter bite to it, but no sourness or tartness or whatever that taste is called. Here is a picture of my first ever hand squeezed lemon juice:

I also took a picture of the loaves of bread called Noon-e-Fantazy that we bought in Tehran. I’m not excited by their texture…but maybe I can make breadcrumbs out of them or a dessert, or Paki French toast.

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:

Way too Early for Sara (part 1)

Monday, November 28th, 2005

Okay. Today was a *long* day. But overall it was very interesting and fun. There are 2 parts so I’ll break it up that way.

Today was a national holiday as it is the martyrdom date of the Imam Jaafer Al Saadiq. He is the 6th Imam of Shia Islam and actually is important to Sunni Islam as he was the teacher of 2 of the 4 men who would eventually form their own subsects in Sunni Islam, Imam Abu Hanifa (most Pakis and Muslims around the world follow his teachings and are called Hanafis) and Imam Malik (a smaller sect, mostly Arab).

Though there have always been hundreds of different sects historically in Islam, these are the 4 that remain and comprise the majority of Sunni Islam today. And then there are those wayward Shias. ;)

Imam Saadiq also might be my ancestor (maybe) because he is a descendant of the 1st Caliph of Islam after Prophet Muhammad’s death, Hazrat Abu Bakr Al Siddiq. From what I’ve been told, we Siddiqis are also descendants of Hazrat Abu Bakr. Who knows if it’s true, but it sounds cool, eh? Anyway, all Muslims are busy trying to find lineages and trace themselves back to these early Muslims or to the family of the Prophet because it makes us feel special. Whatever, it doesn’t really matter to me.

Anyway, the morning started at 6-something, grr (yes, I’m lame). At least we were up for prayer, I suppose. We had a quick breakfast, showered and dressed and were ready and waiting outside our apartment at 7am. Mr. Mir Mohammadi (ayatollah garb alert!) came and got Bobert while I waited for Khanume Elahi and Fatemeh. Turns out the Mir Mohammadis only live 2 buildings over (the buildings are all attached).

Here’s my hubby bubby bright eyed, bushy tailed and freshly scrubbed in front of our apartment building.

We all went and sat in one room and just talked for a while. We were served a round of tea and this is where I finally learned how to drink the cup of tea while holding the sugar cube in my mouth. Apparently, so did AliBob over on the men’s side. We’re so cute and in tune!
The trick is to wedge it between cheek and teeth and to drink the tea rather quickly, unlike in brown people culture, where we sip and nurse the tea and make it last like it’s our last cup ever.

Anyway, the ceremony or “majliss”, started and I basically didn’t understand anything. Though the women were sitting in the family room and the men were in the formal living room, they had set up speakers for us to hear everything. So at first there was some Quranic recitation, and then someone talked or lectured and then someone sang-recited something. It was mournful and emotional and his voice was cracking and shaking from his sobs. Later AliBob told me that there the lecture was the historical account, and the sing-songy part, for whom they usually hire special people with this skill, was the elegy.

The women were weeping, some *quite* loudly and lots of tissues were passed around. Here is something interesting. Though the women were sitting together and crying loudly, they mourned in private. Over time, as emotions soared, they pulled their chadors far down over their faces and let it hang and you could just see the air from their sniffles and sobs fluttering it about in front of them. An added advantage is that you can also blow your nose in total privacy. Nice.

I, having no chador, felt quite exposed. It was odd for me for several reasons. Since I’m not Shia, at first I was worried that I wouldn’t cry and they would find it rude. I know that’s irrational since I don’t even understand the language, but, being supposedly Shia (yes, I’m not really advertising to anyone that I’m Sunni), I should at least know the subject matter and be moved by the knowledge of it.

But his voice was so sad and heartbreaking and I understood names here and there and then he mentioned Kerbala, something all Muslims (should) know about and then that depressed me and I ended up crying anyway. Then that was embarrassing in a whole new way because I didn’t want to be snotty faced and puffy eyed and sobby without the privacy of a chador in front of all these people I didn’t know.

Then there was more Quran and du’a (prayer) and he wound it down. The women dabbed tissues under their chadors and slowly emerged composed, if a bit red-eyed, and started the social part of the morning.

The weird thing is, they started chatting and smiling and going on about their normal conversations and I was still upset about Kerbala and bummed out and I just wanted to go home and have a good cry. I talked to Fatemeh and she was so sweet and said it’s *so* good and special that you cried even though you didn’t understand what he said and that it means a lot to God. She’s so cute. I’m really such a heathen. Anyway I cried discreetly a little while longer and finally had some more tea.

They served us breakfast. For breakfast, we had a special dish called haleem, which is similar to the Pakistani haleem but not the same thing. It is made of meat and wheat and cooked over a long time so that the meat breaks down and it becomes a viscous paste. There is a lot of cinnamon in it and many people add sugar to theirs to eat it. See, Pakistani haleem, though also made with meat and wheat, additionally has lentils and pulses, spices and is definitely savory and spicy and eaten with ginger and green chilies and crisp fried golden onions and cilantro as garnishes on top.

We ate the haleem with sangak, but this sangak had sesame seeds on it, which was also tasty. They also served dates “khormeh” and walnuts “girduh” and the white cheese “paneer safeed”. I learned how to eat the bread with cheese on it and a walnut in the center. *Very* interesting.

The whole time, ever since we had arrived, the hostess had been in and out of the kitchen, along with 2 or 3 other women who had remained in the kitchen, helping her with the rounds of tea, heating the breads and haleems and serving etc. There were a lot of people.

Iranian hospitality is beyond compare… well, maybe like Pakistani hospitality, but different because it is so formal, whereas at least in my family the hospitality and generosity are there but it’s much more informal and casual too.

After eating there was more talking, especially among the women. I met Ms. N, who is an English teacher in a local high school and would like to practice her conversational skills.

Mrs. Elahi also announced that I would start teaching English lessons as of this coming Wednesday and we decided on a time.

Then we went home. I’m actually glad I went, despite my initial issues with morning wakefulness and Shia devotional stuff that Sunnis tend to avoid and frequently denounce as blasphemous/cultish.
Ali and I thought we might take a nap and then get on the loads of laundry we have accumulating since after my first attempt at laundry I haven’t really gone back to it, but the Elahis called and invited us to go to Tehran for the day so we could catch the sights and sounds. At first we said no thinking a. we had a lot to do and were kind of tired and b. it would be weird to intrude on his family ceremony but then Khanum insisted and we said, sure why not.
I washed a few items and a couple of hours later we were on our way to Tehran.


Sunday, November 27, 2005

Mofid and Ayatollah Garb Alert

Sunday, November 27th, 2005

AliBob and I had a lunch date today at Mofid. We wanted to eat in the cafeteria together, but it’s segregated and I don’t feel comfortable sitting with a bunch of girls I don’t know while my hubby eats lunch with the higher ups of the university on the other side. I must say things like this are quite annoying. Women and men sit thigh to thigh in taxicabs but they can’t eat lunch together? Not even a married couple? Whatever.

Anyway, so Mr. Islami, the kind and helpful clerk that he is, brought us lunch in AliBob’s office. He also gave us food and really nice dishes and silverware to eat off of.

The food was sabzi ghormeh, which is basically stewed meat cubes with kidney beans in a green (spinach and other greens) sauce. It was *really* good, and if the meat was lamb, we couldn’t really tell. There was lots of rice and mine was leftover, so Mr. Islami cleared our dishes and put my leftover rice in a plastic bag for me.

Then we were about to have tea when Dr. Elahi came to visit us. So we all had tea together and talked for a while. He said he has to go to Tehran tomorrow for his uncle’s “chehlum”, which means the fortieth, marking 40 days after someone’s death. I think it’s done in Pakistan too, but my family doesn’t really do it. But he also said that one of our neighbors, Agha Mir Mohammadi, was having a ceremony that day to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Jaafer Al Saadiq and wanted to invite us. It’s at 7am. Irfan Ali said yes immediately so I managed to also say yes in a normal and convincing tone. 7am. I can’t remember waking up that early even in the US. Except for during Ramadan, which was special.

Okay… so we had already discovered that Dr. Elahi is also a cleric, a “taleb”, as many people here are. But I’ve never seen him in his “ayatollah garb”, so I was only too excited about this. I had my camera on hand and behold, Ayatollah Elahi (N.B. He's not *really* an Ayatollah! Sara thinks everyone who wears the clergyman's garb is an "Ayatollah"!):

I took the liberty of touching his clothing and discovered that it is quite heavy. The over cloak is of a heavy cotton, made in Syria. The suit-like garment underneath is actually a wool-poly blend, quite thick, and is in fact suit material. You can’t see it in the picture, but the suit undergarment had a cool and very subtle design on it of a light yellow and blue stripe/plaid on a sand-colored base.

Just in case you all were wondering, because I certainly was and asked, yes, the turban does come apart. No, he does not have to wrap it in place every day. Only when it is washed, one unravels it, washes it, dries it and wraps it back up. Yes, there is a specific way to wrap it and they are taught this along with all their other studies. Now I can die in peace. And yes, he took it off and let me touch it! It just feels like thick white cotton wrapped up. Now I know. But I still find the ayatollah garb cool. It’s so Qom.

Then AliBob went to a lecture by Grand Ayatollah Ardebili (the founder of Mofid, remember?) who is 80 years old and still lucid and speaking.

I spent a few hours checking email and surfing the web. When AliBob returned, he told me that Ayatollah Ardebili is actually a dead-ringer for Santa Clause. He’s a blue-eyed Turk with a white beard and he’s from Ardebil in Turkey (hence Ardebili), so that was interesting. He also mentioned that this lecture was harder to understand because of the Ayatollah’s sophisticated and intellectual Farsi.

After the the lecture, random people wanted to meet the Grand Ayatollah and so he did that but apparently they all cleared the way as Irfan Ali was summoned by the Ayatollah’s and Mofid’s people as the guest of honor here in Iran and in Qom and at Mofid. Also, the lecture had been filmed and AliBob noticed that he tended to feature prominently in several of the different shots from all different angles from all the cameras.

He’s SO cute and funny and special, my hubby. He’s not exactly thrilled with all this attention, but what’s he gonna do when we go back to the US and are just two regular unimportant dorks again? Or maybe potential “terrorists”?

The sun started setting and AliBob has a gorgeous view out of his office overlooking the treetops to the mountains so we got a few sunset pictures. Maybe during the day, he’ll take a few good ones of the actual view.

And towards the right a little bit:


Saturday, November 26, 2005

X Marks the Spot

Saturday, November 26th, 2005

Okay, I want to illustrate to you where we are located in Qom, so you understand the nature of our outskirts-ness. I think it was also good for Ali and me so we could orient ourselves and figure out our location in relation to the city center. So, here is a picture of the map of Qom. It’s an older map, but it was definitely made after 1989, because Mofid is on there. For cartophiles like my husband, maps are particularly entertaining.The red dot shows you where we are, and that light blue circle shows you where the city center is.

Friday, November 25, 2005


Okay, today was fantastic. We had amazing food and got to visit a carpet-weaving factory that employs women weavers and went to an interesting but sad and poorly kept zoo. My batteries died at the zoo so no pics there, but I did take pics of everything else.

We ended up not going to the park because Dr. Elahi thought it might be too chilly and windy to eat outside, and so they had us over for lunch instead. It was an elaborate affair and we arrived around 12:30 and they brought out snacks and sweets and candy followed by tea and after tea it was more fruit and candy and snacks.

What was interesting was that the whole time, it was Dr. Elahi and Fatemeh who sat with us and chatted, while their other son Sadra was the one serving us and bringing us tea as the Khanum worked in the kitchen. She also came and sat with us but I just thought it was really cool that at least in this family, there is no shame in having the boy do housework and serve people.

Everything was fantastic and I got a picture of the coffee table after we had ravaged its contents for the better part of almost 2 hours. We had to move some stuff off to make room for more stuff and there was just so much that even after we all had some, it all seemed full.
One of the pastries, the one behind the fruit and the pistachios, is called “Sarq e Aroos”, which means bride’s leg. Actually, it means leg of the bride, literally, interesting name for a culture that doesn’t want to draw attention to womanly attributes. Anyway, it’s delicious.

So we sat and chatted for a while longer and finally, lunch was ready. We wanted to help them set the table and get the food out, and I got a quick picture of the table before they all came back out of the kitchen:

There were two kinds of salads, fried potatoes (which aren’t on the table yet), the black cumin rice, and the dish of honor, fesenjaan. There is nothing I can say to do this dish justice. Even AliBob, not so much a meat eater, loved it. It is something that won’t be found in restaurants, and according to our guidebook, is served to guests of honor... yay that's us!
It takes about 10 hours to make and requires a lot of prep and a lot of cooking, but not a lot of action in between. It consists of walnuts, pomegranate paste and chicken, at the most basic level. The Khanum, being a fantastic cook, has made it unique by adding pistachios, garlic, quince paste (for the sweet content) and maybe some lemon juice. You roughly crush and chop all that up and then let it cook on very very low heat for several hours until the walnuts release their oil.

The taste is sweet and sour, which is the trademark flavor of this dish, but it’s also reminiscent of barbecue sauce but nothing like what we’ve ever tasted before. The rice was fluffy and perfect.

I could eat fesenjaan everyday. It’s up there on my list of favorite foods, right up there with biryani and pulao and all of my mom’s/aunts’/great aunt's/grandmother’s cookings. Needless to say, the women in my family are amazing cooks. I think it’s a generation skipping gene because at 25, I’m still waiting to blossom into my amazing cooking skills.

Anyway. We had a fun lunch and AliBob and I ate our food more like Pakistanis maybe, because we ate our yogurt with our food, whereas they all saved most of their yogurt for after the meal. Interesting. The salad was very good and the dressing was made of mayonnaise (called "sauce-e-mayonnaise").

We were stuffed. Then there was cleanup and we sat and talked for a while longer. Actually… it was well into the afternoon by this point and we figured we should leave. But then we got to talking and watching TV and we were talking about Persian carpets and then the Khanum suggested we could go visit a carpet-weaving factory.

The reason we would be allowed to go is that as a lawyer, she had helped establish this factory with the stipulation that women weavers would be hired, and so the people who owned the factory would be more than willing to let her see how it was progressing.

We got to the factory and though it was closed, the watch man let us in and talked to us about it. It was surprising actually, because it was big and clean and not “factory/sweatshop-y” at all. The looms were all set up on one side, and they were huge. This factory is about to start a new project, which is why the looms were set up with gold thread as the base thread. They are going to weave each page of the Quran as a separate carpet. That should be interesting.

They had worked on a prototype of the border for the pages of the Quran:

They were also in the middle of weaving a huge rug that had been commissioned by some rich Iranian man who fancied himself a samurai, had married an Italian woman and had a picture of his ancestors (deceased) and his family’s image superimposed onto it.
There are several fascinating things about this picture. First, it’s cool to see the weavers weaving the carpet into the carpet (because they were posed sitting on a carpet). Second, the wife is not wearing a head cover in the picture, but in the carpet, they have woven in a head cover.

This loom is a rotating loom with a fixed platform, so they work on the carpet on one side and rotate it around. The looms they’ll be weaving the Quran on are not rotating, so they will have movable platforms (kind of like scaffolding) rested on the ladder-type structures on either side and weavers will work on both sides of the loom. Later on, the rug will be cut in half at the top.

I got a cool picture of the gold and maroon yarns they’ll be using for the Quran too. It was hard to capture the richness and depth of the color:

Anyway, after the factory, we went to a park, Bostan-e-Alawi (Ali’s Park) outside Qom. It was where the Khanum had wanted to have the picnic originally. It was *really* cold, so we did a quick stroll took some pictures and jumped back in the car. Here is the Elahi family and us, thanks to the timer function on my camera, which my cousin Sheherzad and I figured out together. There was some artifact on the lens, and the flash reflected off the stone and that's all that white you see, but there we are.

We took a few more pictures and then we were off on our way to a little zoo type place. It could almost be a petting zoo. They had some interesting animals, including a 3-legged deer and 2 puppies in the same enclosure. The puppies were zoo animals because they don't look like the dogs commonly seen in these parts. They looked like little terriers or bichon frises or something along those lines... little yappy ones.

There were lots of birds and a hawk or a falcon that was beautiful and big but so sad looking in its tiny cage. There wasn’t even a perch for the bird, so it just sat at the edge of its built-in water bowl and stared at us mournfully.

The cages were ill maintained and small and there was no bedding or straw laid down for the animals. There were a bunch of primate cages, and there were a few monkeys that just sat in the corner and stared off into space. There was a horse drawn coach and when they unhitched the horse and put it in its enclosure, we realized how malnourished it was—all ribs and bones jutting out.

The waterfowl (ducks, swans, herons, flamingoes, etc.) were quite beautiful but their ponds were pretty small, freezing cold, and extremely dirty.

We also saw parrots, owls, lovebirds and a couple of ostriches and in Farsi, ostrich is called “shetor-morgh”, which literally means “camel-chicken”. I love it. It makes perfect sense too.

Anyway, we felt bad being too critical since they had brought us here for fun and to take us around to see the sights, but despite the unexpected variety of animals in such a small place in a small town, it was just not a happy place for the animals.

The good thing, though, was that it seemed that the Elahis themselves realized that it wasn’t right to keep the animals this way (Ali-Bob's note: as the extent of the problems of the "zoo" became apparent, I raised the issue of the un-Islamic nature of the treatment of the animals, with which Mrs. Elahi seemed particularly in agreement, and which Dr. Elahi also acknowledged), and as we left, we saw that Mrs. Elahi had stayed behind and when she finally caught up with us at the car, she said she had told the people running the place that they should be ashamed of themselves as people and as Muslims for keeping the animals in such shameful conditions, without even clean water or warm beds or clean cages. Apparently, as Dr. Elahi said affectionately of his wife, she is quite the activist. Very cool.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Happy Thanksgiving...sort of

Today, after doing dishes and cleaning up a bit (I quite like having something of a routine, and even being domestic is fun for a while), Irfan Ali and I decided I would meet him at Mofid at 1:00 so we could go together and change some money.

But then the Khanum called and we were on the phone for a bit (not chit chatting away, but it took a good 15 minutes of talking to even understand a few things on both sides) and so she said she had a meeting and would meet me outside at 1pm so I wouldn’t have to walk alone. I tried calling Irfan Ali to tell him of this change, and I’m so proud of myself because the number I called goes to the main switchboard and I told the operator “please office of my husband Agha Robert Tappan #457” and he put me through!!
Of course, my hubby bubby didn’t answer. (Later he told me it was because he was at prayer.)

So, I met up with the Khanum at 1pm and we walked over together and practiced talking in English. It was a beautiful day today and she was on her way to a meeting in a park and I learned some quite fascinating things.

She is one of four members of the Qom Women’s Jockey Club. The problem is, they don’t have horses to ride, so she, being a lawyer and a women’s rights activist in general, managed to procure 2 horses from the government in Tehran for the women of Qom to be able to ride. She said the men have lots of horses available to them, and there are horses in Qom, but usually privately owned.

So, she finally managed to secure 2 horses from the government for public use by women. The problem was, they still needed to lobby for land and equipment and some funds to house and care for the horses. So her meeting was with her partner Mr. S who is the president of the Jockey Club, and other members. The Khanum is the head of the women’s division of the Jockey Club.

She asked if I could ride horses. I tried to explain that if by ride she means sit on a horse and let it walk or trot, then yes, but not really proper riding or dressage or whatever it’s called. She said that we could go horse riding sometime. I am *quite* thrilled since I’ve only been horse riding twice in 10 years in the US. I love horses. The only thing is, I’d have to do it with just women; Irfan Ali and I couldn’t go together. That’s definitely a bummer since I like doing things with him. We always have such a good time together. Especially here, it would be nice to experience and discover Iran together.

So, once again, waved to the guard as I went past the gates, but unexpectedly, someone came after me with a “Khanum! Khanum!” and so I turned around and told him my husband Robert Tappan American office there 4th floor. And he had no idea what I was talking about. So I tried telling him again that my husband is there and he is the American. I also said yesterday, I here.

He finally asked Dr. Elahi? And I said, yes! So he asked me to step back and tried calling Dr. Elahi’s office but there was no response. So after a good 5 or 6 minutes, he hands me the phone and someone says “Salam” on the other end and I don’t recognize him. I look at the guard and say “Not Dr. Elahi” and he says “yes Dr. Elahi” and I say hello and salaam and don’t recognize the person and then I tell the guard again “Not Dr. Elahi” and he again says “Yes Dr. Elahi”. But then he says “English” and says “Dr. Nouri” and makes a hand gesture showing that Dr. Nouri and Dr. Elahi are the same person.

So I say “Do you speak English?” and mercifully, the man spoke perfect English. He is the head of the language lab, I think. I explain to him my husband is Robert Tappan and I came with him before but it’s not the same guard and he says ah yes yes, this guard is new and then explains the situation to the guard. They stay on the phone a good 3 or 4 more minutes and finally the guard, who is a nice man, says bebakhsheed (excuse me) and khodahafez (goodbye).

So it took me a good 45 minutes to get to Irfan Ali’s office. I was late and while he wrapped up I had a quick tea (he always has tea and snacks in his office!) and we were off on our way to catch a cab and change money. We had to hurry because the bank was closing at 3:30 so luckily, we got a cab right at the building’s curbside and he took us to the bank. The cabbie was friendly and talkative and got us there at 2:30.

The bank was closed. Well actually, the iron grating was drawn about, but I saw the front door behind the grating slightly ajar, so I tested my luck and slipped through. People were still there and coming in, and so we asked about changing currency. The guy spoke fluent English and explained to us that they were in fact closed and that their hours were 7:30am-1:30pm on weekdays, and they closed at 12:30 on Thursdays because of the weekend (everything closes early on Thursdays). Grouchy and hungry and tired, we just caught a cab back home.

Then, in the evening, my sister called from VA and I talked to her and it was so good to hear her voice and I asked them what they were doing and they were getting turkey ready for Thanksgiving and were having some family over. I feel lame for saying this, but I started crying. This is my first real cry in Iran. I’m just not a good cook and no matter what I cook it doesn’t seem to be substantial enough. I feel totally inept and out of my element and I’m a horrible wife to AliBob. I serve absolutely no purpose here. I also miss my family and Thanksgiving and Turkey (or Tofurkey, or Unturkey) dinners with mashed potatoes and gravy and fixins. [Sigh] I’m such an American.

So we talked and I told them not to worry because I was just in a grumpy mood and they ran out of minutes and we got cut off and then I had my second cry, and that was that.

Later on, the Khanum called and asked what we thought of having a picnic on Friday in a park and that she would cook Iranian food. We said sure why not and she said she’d make us Fesenjaan. I am excited and nervous because I don’t want it to be like what we’ve eaten so far.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

How do killer traffic and gorgeous scenery coexist peacefully?

Today I went to Mofid to check email in AliBob’s office and to check email for the first time (because frankly the internet at home connected and then didn’t open a single one of my pages, email or otherwise) and it was quite a walk. I can’t believe he does this walk every day. Or maybe I'm just a wuss. It took 35 minutes of brisk walking to get to the building. It’s 20-30 minutes to get to the University gates, but then it’s a 10-minute walk from the gates down the meandering drive to the building. The drive last time with the Khanum hadn’t seemed that long. I was sweaty and my feet were hurting by the time I got to the building. So much for bundling up in the desert cold.

Anyway, after I risked my life trying to cross the road just to get to Mofid’s grand gates (no really, I almost got hit by a pickup truck, then a motorcycle, then a car, consecutively because as usual there were 6 cars trying to drive side by side in 2 lanes and when I started the walk across, they appeared around the bend at high speeds and honking at me like their inability to drive properly was my fault), I walked on through and waved at the guards like I saw other people ahead of me do. But then, as I walked past, I heard a “Khanum, Khanum!” and of course I knew what was coming. I was stopped at the gates because the guards didn’t recognize me. I tried explaining that my husband is the American and his office is in there. I can’t speak Farsi though so all I managed to say was “my husband office there” and “my husband Robert Tappan, American.”
The two men conferred and figured out that I was the American’s wife. One said, “Mr. Robert?” and I said “yes!” and with a bebakhsheed (excuse me) and a salaam from them, I was on my way.

Email checking was not so fantastic because his connection was slow as molasses and I had lots and lots of emails and so I think I may have sent an email but I didn’t accomplish much more than that.

We decided it was time to go home and eat. I took a few quick pictures of the view from the 4th floor, the campus, and the driveway.

This is the picture from the corridor outside AliBob’s office.

I zoomed in on the hill and land to get a better view:

Here is the view from the 4th floor window facing straight out onto the campus and long driveway. That first mountain peak in the foreground (in the series of mountain peaks back there) is where our apartment is:

Along our walk back to the university, on the driveway, I took these two pictures. The second one shows how the trees are lined up so they can be watered easily.

Here is the view of the driveway facing towards the campus:

And here is a picture looking back at the Mofid gates:

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Laundry, the Old Fashioned Way

Today I attempted my first load of laundry. I think I was feeling inspired and energized because I finally had real food. It took 3 hours to wash just a few things and I was sore and my muscles were fatigued but hand washing is a good thing to learn. It’s also good to do this and appreciate things like washers and dryers and all the other automatic conveniences, whether they actually save time or not.

I didn’t have anywhere to hang them, so I found the 2nd warmest spot in the apartment (the 1st is actually in our living room and being as people drop by unexpectedly, we can’t have our under things dripping dry in the sun by the heater in plain sight), which is in the bedroom in the sun and near the gas heater. I improvised a line using dental floss (yes, I was quite proud of myself for that one) and managed to hang a few things up. Eventually I hung one thing too many and the line snapped. It all fell back into the puddles that had formed in the plastic bags I had spread out to catch the water. Ah, c’est la vie.

I definitely got pictures of this for two reasons: 1. Watch me in rare moments of domesticity and 2. Check out my dental floss line.

Here is some of our stuff toasting on the heater.

The aforementioned dental floss.

Bags on the floor and table and new garbage can being used to catch water. There was *a lot* of water because I just can’t get the same results as a spin cycle.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Comfort food

Bread and cheese and jam and cream for breakfast, along with a bowl of turnips for me!! I’m not sick of them yet, although I can’t have huge quantities of them. I am a little worried because I’m not sure how I will eat a kilo of them on my own since AliBob is of no help here.

A good news update! The Khanum (Mrs. Elahi) took me to buy spices this afternoon. YAY! First we went to the University (my first time, even though Irfan Ali has been going for a few days now) and it’s beautiful! The view is, anyway. The campus is packed with trees and they’re working on cultivating gardens. From the 4th floor, where Dr. Elahi and Irfan Ali’s offices are, the view is amazing because of the stark contrast of the trees against the desert. In fact, there’s a craggy peaked hill right in the middle of the campus and the trees have been planted around it. I didn’t take any pictures today, but I will next time I go. I also didn’t visit Ali because we just wanted to get shopping. Dr. Elahi did come out of a meeting to greet me though, as did Mr. Ebrahimi, the administrator who took care of our apartment stuff and my “bridal” kitchenware stuff. I felt so honored.

It was also my first time venturing out to the Holy Shrine area. It’s amazing! I didn’t go to the shrine itself, but right around it is the “bazaar” with all kinds of stores and pilgrims from all over. I stick out a lot though because I seem to be the only woman not wearing chador. Even the foreigners wear chador.

There was a martyr’s courtyard (martyrs mostly from the Iran-Iraq war, but also many from the Shah’s time) with marble markers set flush against the ground, creating a whole marble floor. People walk on them as though it were just a regular floor. At first I tried to step on the cracks or the spaces between the markers out of respect for the dead buried underneath my feet, but it looked weird and was not sustainable for more than a few steps.

There were lots of people and this area truly looks like a crowded city center, unlike the quiet isolated suburbs where we live. There are huge vaulted barrel ceilings and bright lights displaying jewelry and pots and pans and shiny objects tourists will buy and knick-knacks and foods and snacks. Again, no pictures but I don’t feel comfortable yet and it was hard enough work trying to avoid getting run over (both by people and cars).

Most of the stalls did not have Indo-Pak spices but rather carried lots of Arab stuff (or one generic “curry spices” mix that they make themselves in layers and it looks like that sand art made of different colored layers of sand stuffed into glass bottles), but still I managed to find most of the basic spices I needed and even a few extras, though not all. It was from an Afghan vendor who spoke a little Urdu, enough to tell me the names of the spices in Urdu. I also bought (all dried) red lentils, garbanzos, kidney beans channa daal (which is split pea? it’s the legume that looks like half of a garbanzo), 2 big cans of tomato paste, and the Khanum recommended a good brand of pasta, so I picked up two packets of spaghetti.

The total was $10 and she made sure he gave me good prices, especially on the spices since she didn’t recognize and/or use most of them. I heard her arguing and telling him (I guessed from some of the words and tones and body language) that he’d better not screw me because I am a foreigner. He protested and swore he was a God-fearing man and wouldn’t do such a thing. He seemed nice, actually, and she seemed satisfied. She bought some nice wafers for us and insisted on carrying the heaviest groceries though I argued all the way back to the car. She is, incidentally, an excellent driver and maneuvers beautifully in the death trap they call traffic here.

Then, she also took me to where she buys her produce at excellent prices but deemed the vegetables not looking so fresh. We moved on to another store that sells mostly just herbs and that’s where I got my much-needed hot green chilies and cilantro. She also got me a handful of a bunch of other herbs that I vaguely recognized because she wanted me to try them.

We finally went to a meat store for me to buy chicken, and I realized then that they sell everything whole. I don’t know what to do with a whole chicken. I never cooked meat on my own because Irfan Ali’s a vegetarian, and in my mother’s house, I cook the meat that comes pre-cut and pre-cleaned. I asked for boneless chicken and he showed me a tiny frozen filet that was almost 4 dollars; too much even by American standards. She showed me fish, but again, it was whole (head, tail, scales and guts in tact) and I told her Irfan Ali doesn’t like fish and I don’t know how to prepare it looking like that.

Finally, embarrassed that we spent time in there but didn’t get anything, she bowed out very graciously and apologetically and I followed. She said she will show me how to prepare the chicken and the fish.

It was a productive day!! We came home later and even though I was so tired, I cooked the rest of the turnips into a salan with potatoes and browned onions (vegetable curry type thing), and I made good old khatti daal (a tart lentil curry that we’re hooked on, with lemon juice and tamarind). We used the rice that we’d had left over from our trips eating out. I’m not one to usually enjoy eating what I cook, but oh my God, tonight we were both in Paki food heaven… and I’m not even that great a cook! I think this is a good time for IrfanAliBob to appreciate all the brown food he had available in our house and all the things that my mom made that he sometimes didn’t even eat because he was dieting. At least now he knows he’s a food Paki. Actually, to be fair, for us, home food is good, but I’m a big fan of all the other Asian fare too. I crave Japanese and Chinese and Thai and Vietnamese on a near daily basis, even in the US.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Domestic haze

Breakfast of champions today, with bread and cheese and jam and cream and tea… and turnips. Got different house ‘items’ today. I feel quite like the new bride. In fact, my pots said “Aroos Teflon”. “Aroos” means bride in Farsi. I got grain containers, vegetable baskets, two glass pedestal bowls (small and big), plates (3 different types), bowls (2 different sizes), a big bowl to match the plates/bowls, 6 salt and pepper shakers (not sure what the other 4 would be used for), an iron and ironing board, and a trash can. Observe my goods and share in my joy:

Here’s the ironing board. I love the picture. The lady is so stylish in her manteau and heels. Doesn’t she look like Rachael Ray (of 30-minute meals) in half hijab? That’s how I look too when I iron. Our iron is quite nice, one by Panasonic.

Ooooh, and today, IrfanAliBob brought home the famous “sangak”, which is cooked in a huge brick oven thingie (floor to ceiling) on hundreds of thousands of little stones and pebbles that are heated by an open fire. Then they whip it out of the oven and slam it onto a big mesh wire table to get the stones out. We pick whatever stone bit that hasn’t come off ourselves. So our dinner was a little more interesting. We had the sangak with our bread and cheese instead of the lavash. Much more filling.

This bread tastes fabulous and now I know why people love it so much. It makes the cheese taste so much better. The only problem is that it seems to dry out too quickly. It is made 3 times a day; 5-7 am, 11am-1pm, and 5-7pm. I guess we have to buy it fresh when we want it. Here’s a pic of a couple of pieces of fresh sangak, folded in half because it is quite long:

So tonight for his dinner it was *this* bread and cheese and jam and cream. I had the last of the tuna for dinner with the sangak, and then I had some jam and cream on bread for dessert. I also tried snacking on turnips throughout the day. Still yummy. Not filling enough for a meal though.

As you can also see above, AliBob had apple-banana juice. When we got here, they also provided us with a lot of juices and nectars. I’m not a huge fan of nectars and too much sugary fruity stuff, so he has been drinking those to help fill him up the past few days. My poor baby is starving.

[Sigh] I still don’t have Internet. I’m missing my family and I’m really missing Internet connectivity. At least we could be in touch that way. I’m also hungry for real substantial home food. Not snacks and a meal culled together from bits and pieces of different food items. Okay. I’m done whining.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Turnip Love 2

We began our day today with bread, cheese, jam and cream, and tea. Also, fearing there is lots of turnip to eat and it will start molding if I don’t get started now, I ended up caving in and eating the turnip because I finally realize my body is starving and I came from overeating calorie-packed American food to having snacks for my meals. Having the flu isn’t helping either, although it has helped keep the appetite somewhat at bay.

Good news, the turnip is actually delicious! Apparently, after boiling, it takes on a sweet taste and its consistency is similar to that of mandioca, a food I remember having in Paraguay. Mandioca is a big sweet root with a brown hairy skin and white flesh that is poisonous unless cooked. I think it’s also known as cassava and it comes from the yucca family. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

Anyway, it was nice and sweet, and when salted, the sweet-salty flavor is delightful on the tastebuds. I was pleasantly surprised and am looking forward to adding it to our food repertoire. Ali Bob thinks it isn’t bad, but he doesn’t seem all that thrilled.

Lunch for AliBob was the last of the egg salad and then we went back to the bread, cheese, cream and jam. I actually also remembered today (yes, it took that long to remember) that my mom and dad (so far-sighted they are) had sent us with a few small prepackaged foods (salmon, tuna and pre-grilled lemon herb tuna fillets) just in case we didn’t have food so I made I used the tuna chunks to make a tuna salad for lunch. This one needs no draining and is ready to use. I made a mix with the mayo, salt and pepper. It was delicious, but the fantasy bread was ever harder and more stale tasting. AliBob hates fish (unless it’s super breaded and deep fried) so he was unable to partake. So now our menu includes boiled turnips, tuna mix and lavash, cheese, cream and jam.

We went for a little walk to the University together. Actually, we didn’t go through the gates, we just walked as far as the roundabout but didn’t cross. Quite a walk. Then we walked back. It’s fun, walking up and down these streets to explore. There isn’t that much, but it’s still interesting to see.
We saw a cyber-café, a few meat stores (no chicken or beef in sight it seems) and several restaurants. We are trying to keep track of the restaurants to see where we’d like to eat.

I also noticed lots of cute little gardens along the street. They have playground sets and benches and are quite well maintained. Very green, with pretty flowers and large trees. The street is also lined with young eucalyptus trees on either side.
Maybe the Qomis were inspired by the Ayatollah. Agha Katebi told us during our drive to Qom from the airport that the Grand Ayatollah Ardebili founded Mofid University in 1989 and he *loved* trees and nature, so he had lots and lots of trees planted all over the campus.

As we drove around with Dr. Elahi when he had taken us out, we noticed the outer walls of the university formed the dividing line between dense forest on one side (inside the university’s walls) and stark mountainous dusty desert on the other. It’s always so fun to see the two side by side. The Ayatollah was a smart man.

Anyway, I haven’t taken any pictures of the sights around our neighborhood, but I will at some point, when I feel a little less foreign.

On a funnier note, people have *really* been checking IrfanAli out. He’s this tall alabaster glow-in-the-dark hero and people stare and swoon. And then they look and me and it doesn’t seem to click for them. Why would this tall, handsome (?) foreigner be with a fat brown prune??? I don’t have the requisite porcelain skin or doe eyes needed in Persian culture (or brown or arab cultures for that matter), but that’s just the way of things. It annoys him to no end and I'm really enjoying his discomfort. mua. ha. [insert more maniacal laughter here]

We tried eating out again tonight because we still don’t have any food (except garlic and onions) to cook or Paki spices with which to cook. And yes, I know most people could probably whip up something amazing with all that stuff around, but I’m just not that amazing. I need lots of help.

Tonight we went to a pizza place a few blocks away and got takeout. We had high hopes and it smelled amazing. We were unable to finish the pizzas. The dough was quite good, as was the cheese. The problem was, there was no tomato sauce (which AliBob had warned me of) and it was STUFFED full of meat. There was lamb and chicken and sausage. The sausage was white in color and spongy in texture. They had topped the pizza with good veggies, and we tried just eating the veggies and cheese and the bread but there was actually so much meat that we weren’t able to successfully pick it out of the cheese and the bread tasted of sausage and lamb juice. It was another night of jam and cream and cheese and bread and tea for us, and the some more of the tuna mix for me. I also had some turnips throughout the day.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Rana and Barf

It’s our first Friday here!! I’m not sure what that means, but it seems milestoney. Dr. Elahi and his wife Batool Khanum, and his two children Mahdi and Fatemeh came over to visit with us today. The Khanum showed me how to make Iranian style tea. Good thing too, because I would have made it way too strong for them. It’s so funny, I used 2 teabags for 6 cups of tea. And when she poured out the tea into the cups, it was still too dark, so she diluted it with the hot water from the samovar. So really, it was more like 2 teabags for a potential 12 cups. To be fair, the cups are pretty tiny.
Pakistanis would be horrified at the thought of such weak tea. It’s still good though, especially with 4 or 5 cubes of sugar. Then it's like a beautiful amber-crimson sugar water.

We talked for a while and it was nice. The Khanum (Khanum means Ms./Mrs.) said they make spaghetti, called “makaron”, so that’s something familiar I can get and make at some point.

She was very eager to know about the level of education of most people, particularly women, in America, and the status of education in general. Education is a huge deal in Iran, and in fact, ~70% of Iranian women are college educated. It quite outdoes the American statistic, whatever it may be. She seemed a little surprised. I guess when you see America on the news and hear about all these Americans doing big, important things and see that the US is the superpower, you assume its women must be inordinately educated too.

She and her daughter were both wearing chadors. While helping me with the tea, the Khanum was still able to keep her chador wrapped about her using her elbows as her hands filled the cups. Her daughter had a different one that seemed a little easier. It had sort of built-in arm holes which seems interesting and probably a little easier.

Then they left because the Khanum had to make lunch and Dr. Elahi said he’d come get us later to go for a drive around town.

In the interim, I boiled a few eggs and made a basic egg salad to eat in the fantasy bread roll or with the lavash for a little lunch to tide us over. Also, feeling bad about not having done anything with the turnip and reminded by the Khanum that it is indeed good for me during the flu, I finally chopped up and boiled the kilo (2.2 lbs) of turnip that Agha Katebi bought me. He did it out of his own generosity and thoughtfulness, and I didn’t want them to spoil. Up until then, they had been literally still sitting on the counter in the plastic grocery bag. I also made sure to inhale the steam as they cooked. I am dreading eating this turnip absolutely unflavored. So after boiling it, I stuck it in the fridge.

Dr. Elahi said he would come get us at 4:30, but he was a little late. Why? Because for his guests, he went and got his car washed and cleaned. He’s such a good man. It paid off, because the car was shiny as a new penny and spotless on the inside as well. We felt so special, though having this much of a big deal made of our presence is also kind of awkward and weird. We’re just two normal dorks who happen to be in Iran but people keep treating us like guests of honor.

Anyway, he took us to see Ayatollah Khomeini’s house. They call him Imam Khomeini, and I know it’s just a term of respect but he’s not really an Imam to me. The closest to being my Imam would be Imam Maged of ADAMS center in No. Va. He’s great, so I’ll keep him as my Imam.
Anyway, according to Lonely Planet Iran, “Surprisingly little fanfare surrounds the simple brick former residence of Ayatollah Khomeini… It was here that Khomeini lived – before being forced into exile – and built his power base among conservative clerics. ….there’s little to distinguish this house. It is not open to visitors and is of purely historic appeal.”

Dr. Elahi just walked in through the gates of the house and we just followed, so I suppose visitors can come. It was interesting, because, as the book said, it’s quite unremarkable. No swarms of people, no lines of tourists. No crowding inside. It’s not very big either. It has a small central courtyard with an 8-pointed star pool and some landscaping around here and there. We just saw the main rooms, most likely where guests would have sat. There were a couple of mullahs and people just praying and reading the Quran. Someone was giving a lecture or sermon and a 2 or 3 people were listening.

We saw Khomeini’s library area, which was small but filled with tomes of fancy sounding stuff. Then, we saw a little corridor that displayed all the stuff he’s written. There is lots and lots of it. He wrote everything from Quranic interpretations and explications of other religious texts to children’s books.

There was a call to prayer for Maghrib (sunset prayer) and they kicked us out because that’s when it closes.

Then we went for ice cream, “bastani”. The “regular traditional” flavor of ice cream is not vanilla (as I arrogantly thought all basic flavored ice creams of the world are and should be), it was a bright yellow gooey saffron flavored confection. It was actually good, though perhaps too sweet for me (yes, even for me) because I hadn’t eaten much except for cream and a sugary jam on top of it for the past 3 days.

Dr. Elahi also ordered us carrot juice, which turned out to be pure unsweetened carrot juice. It goes with the ice cream. Like a float, except it’s a saffron ice cream and carrot juice float and it actually was really good. The carrot juice (very refreshing) cuts the super sweetness of the ice cream.

Fatemeh (The Elahis' daughter) just got ice cream. I have to tell you about her. She’s delightful. When we first saw her we thought she might be 17 or 18. She’s taller than I am, very slender, lovely, and speaks very good English. She’s also outspoken and witty and opinionated and we love her. She’s also only 15. I can’t believe it. She is brilliant. She’s in high school, in the math and physics track. When I asked if there are any women at Mofid University, she immediately said “Of course! 2 or 3 of them.” Even with the language barrier and our newness around each other she managed to make a funny joke. So indeed, as she said, there are like 2 or 3 female professors, and about 300 female students out of 1000.

We also learned that Khanume Elahi is actually a lawyer. Get this: She got her associate’s degree, then met and married Dr. Elahi, had 5 kids, then went back to school and got her BA in public law and practiced for 10 years. 2 years ago, she got her Master’s in Law. She is actually on a 2-month hiatus while she sets up her private practice. *VERY* cool. She worked in the Women’s Affairs section of the office of the Provincial Governor of Qom.

When we got home, we were hungry for dinner and I tried my best to reconstitute the chelo kabob by frying lots of garlic and onions and putting in salt and pepper and leftover dill that I found in a cupboard and butter and yogurt and frying the rice along with it and turning the kabob into little grounds. It was still inedible so unfortunately, may we be forgiven for the waste, we had to toss it.

It was back to bread and cheese and jam and cream and tea and some more egg salad. Also, to supplement our meal, and because the fantasy rolls are really not that palatable, I cut them into thick round slices and turned two of them into Pakistani style French toast (because we *do* have milk, eggs, and some sugar). I must say they turned out fabulously! Because the bread is kind of hard and stale, it absorbed the wet mix well without collapsing. .

On a funny note, the mayonnaise and ketchup brand is Rana, which is my mom’s name. All our lives, her name meant “frog” in Spanish, but here, it’s considered a beautiful name. Yay for Rana the Beautiful.

Also, notice the name of the laundry detergent. Yes. It’s Barf. And, as it tells you, Barf means snow. Ahh, you gotta love foreign languages. Here are the instructions: Barf will get your clothes amazingly clean. To obtain best results of Barf, particularly for very dirty clothes, proceed as follows: Soak the clothes in a solution of Barf for a few hours of preferably overnight and then wash as usual. Use Barf for washing woolen, polyester cotton and fine fabrics. Barf is safe for all washable fabrics.
The commercial practically writes itself…”So just remember, a Barf solution will work wonders for your laundry. It did for mine. Barf, because cleanliness is Godliness.”

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Turnip Love

I woke up at 5am today, feeling awful. Agha Katebi came by, as promised, to take Ali around (It was an invite for us both but I was just too beat to do anything but take lots of medicine and sleep). They walked around our neighborhood and he showed Ali our grocery store, introduced him to the owner so they know him and know he’s a guest of Mofid and don’t rip him off because he’s a cute nice clueless white guy. He also took him to the neighborhood breadmaker, the noonwallah.

Agha Katebi is so generous and thoughtful. He bought me a kilo of turnips because from what he said, turnips or “shalgham” are very good for colds and flus. He instructed Ali to have me quarter them and boil them, and breathe in the steam as they cook.

Kudos to my Alijooon, for having the mental energy and fortitude to actually wake up and get ready and walk around doing all that stuff. I couldn’t even imagine being conscious, let alone showered and ready to be social.

Later on, Agha Katebi came again and took Ali to the Holy Shrine. Again, I was asleep. (Just remember, Sara=sick with flu.)
Ali said it was great, but he’ll tell you all about that. He did say there were lots of pilgrims, so it would be likely that I would find Pakistani spices in some of the stalls in that bazaar.

Tonight, we made a quick jaunt to our “super market”. Cute term. It’s more like a room, 8ft by 12ft, but it sure packs a wallop in terms of goods. We got some apples, this hoagie/sub roll type bread (4 6-inch rolls in one packet), eggs, salt and pepper, mayonnaise (which they even have in huge vats here), yogurt, rice, a few tomatoes, a few potatoes, garlic and milk. Incidentally, the hoagie/sub roll type bread, referred to as Fantasy Bread or “Noon-e-Fantazi” isn’t all that fantastic.

We also got Iran’s famous chelo kabab at a restaurant here. Chelo kabab is basically ground up spiced meat (beef or lamb) grilled on a skewer served on a bed of rice. I’ve had a Paki version of this (seekh kabab) and it’s absolutely fabulous. We were in for a huge shock when we realized it was awful.

First off, it was lamb meat. I thought I actually like lamb/mutton, because we eat it in my culture and I like all the stuff my mom makes with it. However, this was awful. The meat was smelly and too “flavorful”, and there wasn’t enough spice to cover up the smell of meat. (It’s a South Asian trick, spice the crap out of the meat with garlic, ginger, chili powder, turmeric, salt, etc., until you can’t really taste the meat part of it anymore.)

I had a bite and a half or so. And some of the rice. Bobali was braver and managed to finish all of his kabob. He felt quite ill though.

So we still haven’t eaten too much. Thank goodness they gave us some bread, jam, cream and the cheese. We’ve been using those for all of our meals/snacks, so far. The only problem is they’re not very substantial over several days. I LOVE the unsweetened cream, but it’s 30g of fat in half of a little container. I’m not sure how that will work out. I’m hungry and know I won’t be much of a cook so that will help us both lose weight, but I’ll be supplementing my diet with loads and loads of cream.

Ironically, food was the last thing we expected to be a problem. We’ve both had Iranian food before and it’s pretty awesome, so we thought, no problem, at least we won’t starve.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

We're Here!

We’re here!!!!!!!! Okay. I’m writing this a little after when we got here, but who knows when I’ll post it. No internet yet. But I want to document this before I forget.
I was pretty sick by the time we got in. I think at this point I have something akin to the flu, because of the chills/sweats, the body aches, the nausea, and the head cold thingy. Most of it seems to have gone by in a blur but here are the highlights:
We landed around 7am. Here’s the view out of the plane at 6:50am:

(I tried to get a good picture of the moon still high in the Iranian sky through the airplane window, but those darn life-saving windows aren’t the best for photography. I think the date is a day off on the camera clock, but I think it’s fixed as of the 23rd onward.)

Here is another pic of Tehran. Again, they’re not the clearest, but you can still see the mountains in the city:

Anyway, as expected, we were asked to please step aside and sit down after the airport officials saw our American passports. We sat with another couple, American, of course. They were newlywed Mormons who were taking an extended tour/vacation/honeymoon of Europe, Asia and a final stop in Iran, because the person who introduced them was Iranian. The wife unit of the couple does something public health in developing countries-ish and the husband unit is a lawyer. Both from Utah, living in DC. Very cute.

Anyway, we didn’t wait too long, honestly. Only about 20 minutes or so, before someone came out and handed us our passports and told us welcome to Iran. AliBobba and I are assuming that it was short because the Iranian government probably already knows EVERYTHING it could possibly want to know about us. They’ve probably got our apartment bugged too. Whatever, it’s all good.

The airport wasn’t crowded and the temperature outside was beautiful. My first thought was “I’m home.” I’m not sure why, since I’ve never been to Iran, but something about it reminded me of arriving in Karachi for vacation when I was little. Karachi is full of happy memories. Anyway, this was distinctly third-world-esque. I’m not sure what about it gives it that feel, probably the cars and the flora/fauna and the people and the overpowering smell of diesel in the air. It’s pretty clean though. Cleaner than Delhi, Karachi, and Cairo, but not as clean as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore (hah, I can’t remember the capital of Singapore). It was fun. And nice to have sun on my face after a dreary and ridiculously cold day in London. The one thing that stood out and yet seemed too familiar were the chador-clad women. It’s familiar because in western media, that’s all we see. Women shrouded in their black as death tents scurrying about the country. It’s different to see it in person though. It was interesting to watch, fascinating actually. More on chadors later.

Our suitcases were in tact and easy to find (they were the only ones left on the conveyor belt) and Agha Katebi was waiting for us at the door. He is an administrator at Mofid University and also teaches high school Biology on Saturdays and Sundays. He is such a nice man. Anyway, all our suitcases didn’t fit into the car, so he had someone take 2 of them to Mofid’s Tehran office while we packed the rest in and were on our way. He said they’d get to us in a couple of days, which was fine by us.

The traffic is just mind-boggling. Or maybe it’s the driving. Maybe that’s what gives it the 3rd world feel, because despite the existence of lanes and traffic lights and other important traffic pattern aids, people drive basically wherever there is space, just honking their way through. Pedestrians do not have the right of way, and I am impressed with their ability to dodge cars and trucks and motorcycles. I saw more women in chador, but also quite a few women in manteau and the sliding headcover that shows half the hair, which Tehranians wear around town without the chador.

It was about a 2-hour drive and they took us straight to our apartment.
This is a roadside mosque/rest area for travelers that just tickled me pink… we need more of these in the US:

As we got into Qom, I noticed that women all wore chador. I still caught glimpses of stylish heels and pants as the chador fluttered around their legs, but it’s much more conservative here and as such, more ubiquitously chadory. If I haven’t put up pictures, it’s because I was too ill or there wasn’t a good opportunity to take any.

In the apartment, there was breakfast and a teapot with teabags and a samovar full of water waiting for us. We have 2 satellite dishes and a flat screen TV.

Ohhh.. and, get this, our bed is actually two twin beds. That wouldn’t be such a huge deal, except the mattresses are sunken into wooden frames, so when you have the two beds side by side, there is a wood frame all around each bed. So it’s not really like one bed, but just like two beds adjacent to each other. It’s interesting and I can see it being a problem. Anyway, Agha Katebi said he’d bring us by lunch later and he’d be by the next day to show AliBobba around the neighborhood. We had breakfast and took a nap.
That’s breakfast below. Sour cherry “murabba-e-albaaloo” preserve (delicious), unsweetened cream “khameh”, biscuits, a flatbread called “lavash”, white cheese “paneer safeed”, and water.

I think later on that day, someone delivered our suitcases to us, which was a pleasant surprise. Also, they dropped off lunch for us at some point. It was a lemon-herb grilled chicken on rice with dried barberries (zereshk), with a big fat side of plain yogurt (when I tasted it later on, it was all really good). I didn’t end up eating lunch and slept straight through it all. Bobali took care of everything else, like answering the door and stuff.

Later on that evening, we tried watching some TV, and we have 500 or so channels because of the satellite dishes. The thing is, we’ve only found 3 channels in English. There is BBC World, which doesn’t work too well, there’s CNN International, also not working well, and there’s BBC Prime, which doesn’t seem to have anything interesting on.

There are lots of Arabic channels from all over, several Iranian ones, of course, several music channels (Turkish and Persian music channels), Russian and Eastern European channels, and a Pakistani channel that broadcasts out of the UK. Oh.. and there is also an extraordinary number of porn channels (with ridiculously awful names too). Those are all blocked.

After having slept about 4 hours in 3 days, and not bathing, we felt absolutely yuck. But a nap and our first shower in Iran worked wonders. It was fantastic. It was funny though, because we had not yet adjusted to the salty water, so after we were done, our eyes and mucous membranes felt like we’d spent the day at the beach.

Here are a few pics of our apartment and surrounding areas. Enjoy!

Our back yard. Barren and gorgeous and fascinating. Yes, it’s extremely dusty but how cool is being able to have desert mountains in your backyard? People climb these on Fridays. Picnics, camping and mountain climbing are very popular activities on the weekend.

There are pomegranate trees in the courtyard out back. I’m not quite sure the pomegranates are edible since they look quite picked apart by all the birds that come here to feed. Later I learned that each little plot corresponds to the 4 apartments in each building. So I guess we get our own little gardening plot.

View from our front door into our dining room (from what I’ve seen, other people use this space as their family room, with carpets and cushions and computer etc.). There are lots of doors separating all the different chambers. I suppose this helps with gender segregation and the women can slip around the inner chambers (kitchen, bedrooms, family/dining room) while men can enter and go left to the living room. There is a door that connects this dining room to the living room as well, allowing a direct path from kitchen (on the right) to the living room (on the left).
The two bedrooms and the shower room are at the far end of the dining room, to the left and right of the windows you see ahead. The windows look out into a tiled courtyard type thing with a skylight above. It helps bring natural light into this inner room, as well as in the shower room whose windows you can see outside on the right.

This view looks into our toilet/sink room. As you may be able to tell, this is immediately on the right upon entering the apartment. I am in the foyer/entrance as I take this picture. Again, this allows guests to use the restroom without going into the inner, more private chambers of the house. The shoe rack you see is typically kept outside of the apartment, with all the shoes on it. Whereas in the US, we (we Pakis anyway) take our shoes off inside the house in some designated shoe area or foyer, in Iran they take their shoes off before even entering through the front door.

Our kitchen. It’s huge. Those windows look out to the front of our building. That’s a stove on top of the counter. It has two regular burners and one big burner in the center for big pots of rice. And that’s the big old water heater. I do *love* the dishrack above the sink. What an ingenious and functional way to use vertical space while allowing dishes to drip dry back into the sink without using counter space or having to clean out an unsightly rubber drip tray.

This is our shower room. Kind of icky, but they use flip flops *without* fail in the toilet, the shower, and the kitchen ( a different pair for each room). That blue basin is our washing machine.

Our guest room, which faces the front of the building. Two of our suitcases too.

The view of the front out of our guest room, which is blurry because of the dust on the windows.

Our bedroom. They gave us huge towels which dry us well but are quite heavy when wet and left dye and fuzz all over us. I was red and IrfanAliBob was bluish-purple. Also, notice the two beds joined up. Yes, that wooden frame does indeed run all the way around and sticks up above the mattress when we lie down on the bed. Yes, after much trying to get around it (blankets on the wood, shifting pillows, etc.), we each now sleep in our own bed. (Mine is the pink side!)