We get to Bandar Anzali, a seaport city in the North of Iran, late in a cloudy and humid spring afternoon. An almost non-stop, eleven-hour ride from Isfahan has made me tired and restless. My head wrapped in a head scarf and my body entrapped in an uniform are sticky from the sweat and immobility on the passenger seat. Fifteen people are about to squeeze into a small villa for a week and I need to refresh.
As soon as everything is unloaded from the four cars and taken inside the villa, I take out my towel, shampoo, a soap and some clean clothes. I ask for the bathroom, but a sudden laughter ruptures and in the amidst of commotion someone asks, “why Amrikayiha are so fond of taking showers?”
“Americans?” I protest. I am an Iranian who lives in America. Why do people here like to insist that I am not one of them?
My uncle stops laughing and smiles at me. “Parisa-joon, we just arrived. It takes some times for the water heater to warm up the water,” he says and invites me to be patient.
Somewhat embarrassed for behaviors that brand me as a foreigner, I sit on the couch and watch others unpack, claiming a corner of the small living room for themselves. One of my friends is undoing a knot on an army-green cover bag. Her husband who seems to notice my embarrassment decides to embarrass me further. “If you were a real Iranian, you would be asking for a sleeping bag right now! It’s nap time.” He declares and the group’s laughter follows.
They finish spreading the sleeping bag and trying its zipper and buttons for functionality. He taps it just like a proud parent would pad his child on the shoulder and says with a triumphant tone that the sleeping bag is from “my” country. I don’t want this Iranian, American identity joke/tease go any further, so I tell him that it must be from China cause almost ever thing in the US is made in China.
“Nah khieram!” “Nope, come see for yourself. I bought it in Isfahan’s bazaar for 80 thousand Toomans–something around 90 dollars.” I read the large white tag inside the sleeping bag and pause on the word American Army.
When I was in the US, I had heard rumors that after that Bam earthquake in December 2003 which killed up to 50,000 people, USAID and Red Cross goods such as sleeping bags and tents illegally made their ways to the markets of other Iranian cities and provinces. I was ashamed when I heard the news and hoped that it was untrue. It seemed that the devastated Kermanis never got to sleep in warm and waterproof American sleeping bags which were a part of President Bush’s temporary lift of US sanctions on Iran, allowing supplies and financial aid to the victims of the natural disaster.
Yet, the proof was right in front of my eyes. The exultation in my friend’s smile and words meant that my shame would mean absolutely nothing. My criticism would be insignificant while the quality of almost nothing else in Iran could live up to a much-desired American product.
Hopelessly, I ask him if he thought of the people of Bam when he was paying for the American sleeping bag. He said, “I was thinking about the cheap price of an Amrikayi sleeping bag in Iran.“