Smoking water pipes is a popular pass-time in Iran
When I get out of my Spanish class, my friend calls and asks to meet me at the Hakim-Nezami intersection in Julfa–Isfahan’s Christian quarter home to some of the most trendy shopping malls, cafe and restaurants.
As I am waiting for him to show up, I pretend to be looking down at my Spanish photocopied book. I don’t want to see any one familiar. I am at the neighborhood where lovers, boyfriends and girlfriends meet. Singles hang out here in hope of making small talks or meeting a potential partner.
Even though I am considered a western woman now, I cannot bear to be seen waiting for a boy. I am still so caught up in my Iranian upbringings that forbade the mingling of the sexes without the supervision of the elders or before marriage. Even though the friendship of the sexes is very common in Iran, I cannot seem to be able to act like any normal Iranian youth. I am, sadly one might say, still bound to my upbringings before leaving for America.
While the small boutiques are crowded by costumers shopping for the latest clothing, shoes and accessories, side walks are frequented by couples holding hands or window-shoppers enthusiastically biting onto a grilled cheese sandwich loaded with sausage and salami known in Farsi as Es-nah-k–snack.
Though I always love watching my rapidly changing Iran, this time I try to not get distracted and keep my head down on the Spanish book.
I hear my name. Lost in the sound of the loud music coming from the newspaper stand and the overwhelming traffic, I assume I am mistaken.
A white, Peh-Ride–an Iranian built Kia Pride–maneuvering like a maniac between the row of parked yellow taxis, moving cars and numerous pedestrians stops half a meter from where I am waiting. I hear my name again. It angers me. Doesn’t he know it is not proper for a woman’s name to be shouted out load?
I quickly hop inside and I say “salam every one.” My friend introduces me to the driver and a beautiful woman sitting in the back seat. Before I tell them to please speed away before I am seen, the driver madly races through the streets of Isfahan.
I can’t quiet figure out why I am so worried about being seen. There is no relationship between me and the boys in the car. I am actually kind of abusing their friendship. My mere reason for hanging out is my curiosity about the Iranian life. When I left Iran at the age of eighteen, none of such friendships and relationships between boys and girls were appropriate. Less than a decade later, Iranian youth are racing time to defy every thing they were once told not to do.
The driver and the beautiful girl are meeting for the first time through my friend. I, myself know him through someone else’s husband. “A clique of strangers,” I think. They ask me questions about living in America and I ask them what they do for living. No one is interested in telling me what they do. They brush off the question by saying we are all bi-kaar (unemployed.) Instead, they want to know about ways to get Green Card.
We are heading to a Chai Khaneh or a traditional tea house. They ask if I’ve been to a tea house before. I am embarrassed to say I have never been to a tea house. My father, a western educated doctor looked down upon traditional tea houses. He had taught us that tea houses are often unventilated, filled with smoke and frequented by what he called “low class bi-kaar” people who had nothing better to do except exposing themselves to cancer.
My father wasn’t entirely wrong either. For a long time before Mohammed Khatami’s presidency, my father’s description of tea houses was relevant. By late 90s, when he was elected to office, there began a new area of cultural reform. Tea houses, for instance, became fashionable places for the young to mingle. Smoking hookah which was previously reserved for the elders, now became the most stylish thing ever. Boys dressed in Western clothing and girls with heavy make up and loose hijab sat in tea houses for hours, laughed out loud and had a good time. The fruit flavored tobaccos that were imported from neighboring Arab countries or Turkey replaced the “nasty” Iranian tobacco, thus making it suitable for the younger generation to use.
No matter how fashionable tea houses became around the time I lived in Iran, I can’t confess anything to the people in the car about my ignorance. “Could they think that I didn’t believe in Khatami’s reforms?” “What if I project the false idea that I am too good for a tea house?” Such thoughts cross my mind and at last I say “I have never been to this particular one!”
We arrive at the tea house. The place is owned by the head of Tea House Owners Union. It feels like I am in a time tunnel heading toward the past. The tea house is located in the back allies of Isfahan’s main bazaar. A long wide corridor that is decorated by hundreds of antique objects guides the costumers to the court-yard. Rusted iron battle hoods, shields and swords are hanged from the walls of the corridor. Tall wine-jars, human-size barrels and gigantic cooking pots are resting against the walls. More than twenty old transistor radios are carelessly wrapped in plastic bags and are stacked on a rack that is covered by glass.
At the end of the corridor, there is a sudden change of scenery. The court-yard is dark, dirty and not maintained. Stacks of crushed boxes and garbage are everywhere. A green tall cage is visible at the far end of the yard. Hamid, the driver, calls me over and starts reciting something in a news-anchor tone. “Slow down,” I demand and wonder where he’s learned to talk like a tape recorder. My friend who is in a rush to get to the tea house, passes by saying that Hamid is a part-time tour guide.
There are myths about what lays under the cage. Some say, an Imam-zadeh (offspring of a holy Imam) is buried there and others claim that there is a dry well underneath. Whatever is there, it has clearly lost its value today.
Immediately after the court-yard, a slight turn to the left takes us to the tea house. The decorations matches the tunnel outside. It’s like a time tunnel here too. A rather narrow hall with tables and chairs in two perfect rows against the walls makes the tea house. There is a thick cloud of smoke smelling like a mixture of imported fruit tobacco and cigarets. The walls and the ceilings are covered by pictures of people from centuries ago. Photographs of Iran in Qajar Dynasty are scattered between the rows of silver pitchers or hand painted China plates. It is brought to my attention that all the antiques belong to the owner’s private collection. Some even have ridiculously high prices on them.
We sit on the only table available across a group of Europeans with their Iranian guides. Two hookahs, two glasses of doogh, and a plate of Goosh fil–a pastry that is literally called Elephant’s ears due to its shape are ordered and arrive right away.
I am lost in the antiques and the pictures of ancient women on the walls. It is suffocating and I cannot help but think of cancer. My head against the wall keeps hitting a silver set of Kashkool–the begging bowl and axe of Sufi dervish.
I cannot wait to leave. But I am enjoying myself too. I stare at the girls in their short, tight clothes smoking a thin cigaret between their fingers. Their fingers with manicured nails are holding the hookah pipe.
I enjoy being a part of the Iranian life.
Hamid explains the history behind any object I point to. My friend pulls out my pencil-case from my bag. He can’t quite grasp why I have glued pictures of Leonard Cohen inside the pencil-case. The beautiful woman asks if I write poetry. The commotion is loud. The sound of water bubbling inside the water jar is somewhat soothing. Costumers, some gently and some inattentively, put down their small crystal tea cups on the saucer and make a familiar noise. Hamid stops explaining and says–rather asking himself–if marriage is an easy way for getting Green Card.
Display of a private collection of Iranian anitques
I look at the Europeans. One of the Iranian guides is holding a piece of rock candy in front of his face. With his heavy Iranian accent, he shouts the word “rope.” It is really loud in the tea house and his voice is hardly reaching the end of the table. One of the European women looks puzzled. “Is there a piece of rope inside it?!” she asks in disbelief.
Iranian rock candies are made the same exact way that any other rock candy stick is made. The only difference is that the sugar crystals are grown around another piece of hard candy hanged by a piece of thread. So when the sugar is crystalized the only visible thing inside the often white or yellow hard candy is a piece of thread.
I want to shout “thread,” I want to tell him that he should say “a piece of thread is inside the hard candy,” but I know that my voice won’t reach them.