by Angelina Hart
The day before Thanksgiving, we, along with thousands of other Americans, were packing our suitcases for a trip.Â When we arrived at the crowded airport the ticket agent smiles at us and says, “Going home for the holidays, huh?”
“Nope.”Â I reply.Â “We’re going on a trip.”
She glances down at our tickets and gasps, “Tehran?Â Why?Â Are you military?”
On so many levels the comment is so absurd I try my best to remain friendly and not hopelessly condescending. But the thing is, I am a woman andÂ I’m not traveling alone.Â I have my seven and nine year old daughters with me.Â And Iran, well, does not exactly have a U.S. military base anywhere near their soil.Â We don’t even have an embassy for God’s sake!Â Nor is Iran allowed to have one in the U.S. I had to get my visa through the Pakistani office.
But, yes I am headed to Iran with my two daughters for tourism.Â On our second day there we meet a new guide.Â She is in her early 20’s and delightful. Her hejab is orange with gold metallic threads running through.Â The girls are mesmerized by her and take to her immediately.Â She is instantly one of the best role models I’ve found for them.Â Yes, here in Iran a ‘positive female role model’.
I use that term facetiously because this thing we seem to be searching for in the west–providing role models for our girls is an overt quest.Â I have found these two young Iranian women to be everything I would love my girls to grow into.Â They are extremely intelligent, educated, poised, confident, well-spoken, and yet have a real lightness and easiness to themselves.Â They are quick to laugh and have a sense of humor in contrast to their European counterparts who will often have the intelligence and poise of these women but tend to take themselves SO seriously as they come from a long line of intellectuals who seems to somehow be above humor.
We first head to Persepolis to view ruins over 2500 years old.Â One of things I find so interesting about this area is that Persia more than once has been what we consider the US to be now- the center of the universe.Â They have ruled and fallen as a civilization more than once and I’m sure there are lessons to be learned here.
Then we were treated to one of the most giving and generous events of my life.Â The woman from the tour agency that planned our trip relayed an invitation from her mother to her house when we were in town.Â She would not be there as she needed to be in university at that time but asked if we would be the guests of honor at a party at her home.Â We arrived around 1pm for lunch and were fed continuously for the next 7 hours!Â In total about 30 people were at this party for us.Â Complete strangers.Â Today is Friday, their Sunday, which they gave up to entertain visitors to their country.Â As we were waited upon hand and foot I couldn’t help to think about all those at home who told me I was being selfish and stupid to endanger my children by taking them to ‘that God forsaken country’ and were at this moment worried about our safety.Â They were afraid of these people who were so incredibly generous and giving, not only in food but in spirit.Â They were genuinely happy to meet us and talk to us and share their culture with us for an entire day.Â I’m trying to imagine and American family who would give up an entire Sunday to entertain strangers.Â The social network here of the people is so much stronger than ours.Â Yes, of course there are always exceptions but the way the women work together here to prepare meals and clean up is like a well-oiled machine.
Upon arrival I notice the matriarch of the house without a hejab, but the younger girls wearing theirs.Â I ask about it right away to see if I can take mine off since I’m really not used to it and it’s constantly slipping off and kind of drives me nuts.Â She says in the home of course I may take it off.Â I whip the thing off in what I fear must have been the move of a stripper with a huge smile and sigh of relief instead of simply slipping it gently off the back of my head and folding it nicely into my bag.Â Oops.Â Some of the younger girls have theirs off as well but the married daughter in her mid 20’s keeps hers on as does our guide.Â I ask her why and she says it would be too strange for her to remove hers because she does not know this family – although you would never know they were strangers by their interactions.Â They appear as though they’ve been friends forever.Â So, since she kept hers on the other 20-something year old kept hers on out of respect for our guide.Â The elderly grandmother has had hers on since she was 3 and said even her family and children have never seen her without it.Â She takes it off to sleep and bathe.Â But soon the mood is becoming more friendly and people are feeling more relaxed and the 25-year-old daughter unties hers from under her chin.Â Soon the grandmother does as well and lets the ends simply hang down.Â When the meal is served I ask if I may video it.Â Â They agree and next thing I know every woman in the house goes for their hejab – even the teenagers.Â Now I’m the only woman in the house not wearing one and feel guilty for making this imposition on them.Â I start apologizing to the guide and telling her that I did not know it meant everyone would need to cover themselves.Â They all assure me it’s no inconvenience at all.Â The dishes are plentiful and the food is delicious.
Throughout the day more friends kept arriving.Â The women would go straight to the bedroom to change from their street clothing to private clothing, which included mini skirts, sequins, lots of make up and lots of glitz.Â I am by far the most conservatively dressed.Â Well, aside from granny of course.Â And my hair because now friends of the host and their husbands have arrived so all the women again put on their hejab.Â All day long this hejab dance has kept me truly fascinated.Â Â The food is served on a vinyl tablecloth laid out on the floor.Â After clean up we watched a bit of satellite TV – something technically illegal but unenforced in the larger cities they tell me.Â We watch Iranian music videos and after about 3 of them I am able to distinguish the illegal artists which import from Los Angeles from the legal ones who sing from Iran.Â It’s easy to spot the raunch factor since it is what my culture worships.Â They flip the channel and Gwen Steffani is covered in flowers rolling around on stairs.Â I say, “She’s from the city my sister lives in.” to try to make conversation unrelated to the content of what we’re all witnessing, which is kind of jarring.Â The channel turns to a popular Iranian boys group that are all using hand gestures of rappers at home.Â Gestures that were born in US prisons and stem from gang culture.Â This is one of the world’s true mysteries to me.Â No matter what corner of the world I’ve found myself in, I’ve seen boy bands imitating this style.Â When I tell them the origins they seem confused and don’t seem to understand what I’m getting at.Â They think it looks cool, that’s all.Â But what I cannot for the life of me figure out is why South Central LA prison culture has had a major effect on world wide pop culture.Â The world sees America as the ultimate symbol of freedom – well, Bush administration exempt- but as a generalization – so how is it that the thing that is emulated the most is our prison culture – the ultimate loss of freedom.Â I really don’t get it!Â Or do they understand something about freedom that we do not?
At one point they ask me what American’s think of Iranians.Â I contemplate for a split second as to the most delicate way to relay this information and then I decide on the truth.Â I say, “They think you all live in the desert, hate America, are extremist Muslims and are terrorists.”Â The room roars with laughter.Â I ask them what they think of Americans and they say, “We think very much like Iran – government no good, but people are good.”Â Mm.Â I would be thrilled if the average American could also their perception to this one.Â Everyone in this room aside from the older women and children has been to University.Â Yet, even well educated Americans know so little about the world and often take our government’s economically motivated propaganda of certain countries at face value.Â Why?Â Then someone mentions Obama and room beams.Â They say they like him very much and hope change can happen.Â They really hope that in next year’s election they can elect a new president that will give them hope as well.Â If American could replace Bush with someone like Obama then maybe Iran can replace their crazy president with someone equally as kind and intelligent.
The little sister fell asleep with her head on my lap while I sit on the floor watching TV.Â The grandma comes over with a large piece of fabric and tucks it around her and pats her head and cheek.Â Upon closer examination I realize it’s a chador.Â This piece of fabric that represents so much to my country everything we don’t stand for.Â The sight of it conjures fear and oppression and of course terror.Â And my daughter has just been lovingly wrapped up it.
Suddenly one of the women turns off the TV and on comes some wild techno music and she says, “Let’s dance.”Â She’s motioning all of us to the center of the room.Â One woman asks if the girls enjoy dancing and I tell her that they’ve never danced to this sort of music before and usually this type of dancing is for teenagers.Â They seem shocked and again I am more conservative than they are.Â Since the little sister has fallen asleep, the big sister and I are talked into having a little wiggle.Â We are put into the center of their circle while they dance and clap around us.Â The big sister is mortified and gives me a look of, “I can’t believe you’re making me do this!”Â Of course I have much sympathy for her since I feel exactly the same way only am better at hiding it.Â It is very sweet and an honor to be placed in this center it’s just slightly awkward.
Then it is time for the cake.Â I first get an explanation for how this will go down.
Someone will start dancing with the knife and they will come to me a few times to offer me the knife but then pull away and pass it on to another person to continue the same.Â Both men and women participate in this.Â It strikes me as I’m watching this how many people tried to talk me out of this trip because it is so dangerous here.Â Many Americans believe that all those that follow Islam are extremist/terrorists.Â There is currently a worldwide fear towards middle eastern men and a sort of socially acceptable intolerance of them and here in front of me now are these young men of terrorist age dancing with a knife for me, an American stranger in their home.Â Fear is a nasty creature.Â These men move with such grace and for lack of a better term, what we would consider in the west, femininity.Â Hey sway their hips and twirl their arms.Â Their eyes are extremely gentle.Â And they’re straight.
It takes offering a bit of money – about $1 to a few of the dancers for them to finally give up the knife to me, the guest, to cut the first slice of cake.Â The cake is delicious and immediately following the cake dinner is served.Â Where we were supposed to find even the tiniest corner of our digestive tract that had a bit of vacancy I have no idea, but room we found as the food was again delicious.