I arrive in Iran sometimes in February. As soon as the word spreads that Parisa is back, I get phone calls from people who want to see me or have me over for lunch. No body is willing to come visit me at my apartment since my mother died there two years ago and it is too much difficult memories for most of her relatives to remember.
Less than a week since I am back, I get a call from a relative that she is sending people over to my house to get me. The door bell rings and I rush down the stairs. I open the door. My officially fifth cousin stretches her hand to shake mine, but I jump into her arms. It’s awkward, and she patiently waits for me to step back.
When I leave her embrace, she shakes my hand and kisses me three times on the cheeks–the Iranian way. Her nephew comes out of the car and says hello to me.
I am developing an obsession with the lives of “Iranian youths” Such irony! I no longer consider myself one of them. I am suddenly a stranger who can study and judge her own people. So, I take a good look at him and wonder about his life, his friends, does he have any girlfriends, what music he listens too, how good his English is…
A proper Iranian silence is between us. It is when two unmarried young Iranians are supposed to be shy and don’t exchange words or looks. I break the silence and tease him.
Are you Mr. Doctor or Mr. Mohandes—engineer? In Iran, most doctors and engineers are called by their work titles.
His face turns red. He says “Engineer” with a wide smile.
We get in the car heading toward his house where his mother had gathered some other sixth and seventh cousins for an afternoon of Aash Reshteh, a thick herbal soup that takes half a day to prepare and is often served in large gatherings.
Mr. Engineer tells me that he is getting his masters degree in Mechanical engineering.
I know his university. My first friend is studying social work there and I visited some of her classes. They wouldn’t let me in and she had to talk to the principle to get a permission.
Iranian universities are guarded by tall, heavy metal fences. Entrance doors are gender segregated and a guard who knows every single student by face stands at the door to monitor the traffic.
“Weren’t you wearing a chador?” He asks looking at me from the rear view mirror.
“I was, but the lady at the door knows everyone and could tell that I am not a student.” I sigh, but he laughs. “This is Iran!” he says and races through the unfamiliar freeways.
Later in the afternoon when the old nosy women are gone and no one is going to question his motives of talking to a young, unmarried woman, he invites me to his room. It’s messy. A mattress is on the floor for when his study buddy sleeps over. There are trophies and certificates hanged on the walls. Empty whiskey bottles of different sizes are carefully located on top of the closet. A cheap poster of movie Titanic hangs opposite of Zarathushtra–an Iranian prophet predating 6th Century.
“I came first in country’s college taekwondo games.” “My article won prize in the International Khwrazmi Festival.” “The car our team made came fourth and …”
As he’s explaining, I listen, but I don’t hear anything. I am lost again in the thoughts of Iranian youths. Most of them are like him. Full of energy and creativity.
“Will you help me apply for PhD at MIT? Will you?”
Why do you want to leave Iran? I ask him.
He asks me if I know Prof. Hessabi, a prominent Iranian scientist and quotes him that living in the West as a scientist is like serving the world, while living in Iran is just serving a country.
I protest that he is justifying his leaving, but he doesn’t even give me a chance to complete my sentence and defends his argument right away. “Look, do we have NASA is Iran? No, that’s why I want to leave, cause it’s my dream to work for NASA and if we had NASA in Iran, I would never wanted to leave.”
But would he? If NASA was in Iran, wouldn’t he still want to leave for the west, for the great America?
West is a fantasy for Iranians. America is the land of democracy for them. America is where LA-based artists who were forced to leave Iran upon the 1979 revolution give concerts. America is where UCLA with so many Iranian students and graduates is. America is where–once I was told by a young Iranian man–people walk down the streets with their beers in their hands. America is where McDonald is and you can buy real Gucci bags or own a BMW even if you can’t afford it.
On the other side of the fantasies, there are satellite TVs and Internet which despite the government banning and usual crackdowns are the normal part of daily lives in Iran. The idea of the west portrayed by the mainstream western media and the Western-based Iranian channels is the sole image constantly given to Iranians.
Many Iranians want to come to the US because the more government is shouting down with the US, the more they are finding America an attractive place to live in. Others have been tired of lack of basic freedoms such as freedom of speech and expression. Some are betrayed and frustrated by the unexpected result of June 2009 presidential election. Some are highly educated and they are over qualified at their jobs. But I wonder why Mr. Engineer wants to live his perfectly happy family, distinguished education, his friends, his girlfriends, the trips he takes with his friends or the fun parties they throw in remote gardens on the weekends.
“Come on man!” he says in English, “A little fun,” “breathing,” “living” and “of course education.”
And that mixture of fun and a better life with higher education or any other opportunity possible is the reason I heard over and over for the next six months from almost every single person I came across.