In March 2000, Shahrokh Nikfar, a US citizen who was born and raised in Tehran, returned to his homeland for the first time in 21 years, having left just prior to the 1979 revolution.
I am dead against it!” Nahid had said. From the moment I had brought up the idea of going to Iran, my sister began to worry. For a month before my trip, she called me nearly every day to discourage me. And there her voice was again, warning me at an altitude of 30,000 feet, on a plane bound for Tehran.
“This is not the same Iran we grew up in. That Iran has been lost and the people have changed. Iran has turned into a dungeon and you will be lucky if you get back alive!”
I tossed and turned in my seat, trying to shut out her voice. But admittedly I had my own reservations and worries to struggle with. I wondered if my relatives in Iran would resent me for moving to America, or call me an anti-revolutionary and turn me over to the authorities.
The temperature in the cabin seemed to drop. I felt cold even after pulling the flimsy blue blanket over me. I leaned against the window and decided to focus on something positive: the event that inspired my trip—the welcome back party I attended for my friend Saeed and his wife Shelly, just after they returned from Iran. I had expected a story of doom and gloom. But when I asked Saeed if the Iranian officials gave them a hard time, he said no.
“In fact, we felt ignored by them.” He told me they were met with hospitality every- where they went. I was surprised by his answer, attributing this warmth to the nature of his Iranian relatives. But then his story changed. “A pick pocket stole my wife’s purse!” he said. “So we went to the police station to report it.”
Uh-oh! I thought to myself; what an idiot. Didn’t he know he should have avoided all contacts with anybody who carried a gun or had any affiliation with the Islamic Republic?
“What did they do to you?” I braced myself for the inevitable story of how they were abused and mistreated once it became known that they were from America.
“Nothing,” he said. “In fact, they were so embarrassed that a guest in their country was robbed, they passed around a hat and got a collection to reimburse my wife for what she had lost.”
“What?” I said, almost yelling. “Are you making this up?”
“No, Shahrokh. That’s what happened!” Saeed spoke about how wonderful every- one was and how much fun they had in Iran. Remembering that night, as I looked into the darkness outside of the airplane window, my sister’s voice faded away as I slowly fell asleep.
When we landed at the airport in Tehran, the cabin filled with movement. In what seemed like an orchestrated effort, the female passengers started covering themselves with headscarves and raincoats to hide their hair and flesh. Once off the plane, I joined a line for customs. It all seemed normal, but I felt the collective anxiety. As I moved up the line, I saw a bearded man wearing a suit but no tie, a look that designates one’s position as an official with the Islamic Republic. I had heard they had the authority to whisk anyone away, never to be heard from again. The official seemed to be inspecting the passengers, as if he were waiting to catch someone making a false move. I tried not to look at him, but felt him watching me. I couldn’t help but feel like something bad was about to happen. Sure enough, he started walking toward me. The other passengers distanced themselves as he approached. With an ominous expression, he asked for my passport and then ordered me to come with him.
With my heart racing and my knees quivering, I followed him to his desk. I recalled my sister’s warnings about going to Iran and began to regret that I didn’t heed her advice. I pictured her waving an index finger at my corpse. “Didn’t I tell you not to go?”
“What is the purpose of your visit?” the official asked.
I took a deep breath. “I have been away for too long.” My hands shook. “It was time for me to come home.”
When he was done entering my passport number into his computer, he locked eyes with mine and handed back my passport. Then, he smiled. “Welcome to Iran.” In a state of shock, I walked out the door and into the reception area, where a dozen of my relatives and old high school friends swarmed around, hugging me, kissing me on both cheeks and telling me how happy they were to see me.
Every day I was greeted by relatives and old friends who came to welcome me back and to express their desire to host me at their homes. Many of them weren’t financially well off, yet they managed to prepare the most scrumptious meals and gave me many generous gifts. I felt guilty, yet out of respect, I couldn’t refuse their generosity.
I really liked everyone I met, but there was one person in particular who left a lasting impression. His name was Mohsen, and at sixteen years old, he was the eldest grandchild of one of my hosts. From the moment I arrived at his family’s house in the late afternoon, Mohsen kept asking me to go for a walk with him. After dinner, I agreed to go. Mohsen was overjoyed. As we left the house, I noticed a small crowd following us everywhere we went, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a gang out to rob us. After a couple of blocks, I asked
Mohsen, “Have you noticed that we’re being followed?”
“They’re the neighbor kids who have been waiting outside to see you,” he said, blushing as he looked down and kicked a pebble. “I’ve been bragging about you and they wanted to meet my cousin from America.”
So I turned around and said hello. They greeted me with the sweetest and most innocent smiles I’d ever seen. The younger kids giggled and kept saying in English, “Hello,” as the older ones welcomed me back to Iran. And then came the questions.
“Have you met Sylvester Stallone?” one kid asked. Then, another asked if I knew Arnold Schwarzenegger. The queries were followed by offers of food and invitations to their homes. I thanked them and asked if they would walk with us instead, a request that they met with exuberance.
Strolling near a barber shop lit up with neon signs, Moshen took my hand and pulled me inside. The neighborhood entourage followed. Moshen told the barber, “Haji Ali, this is Mr. Nikfar. He is my cousin from America.” The man had a kind face and offered me a free haircut.
“You are my guest,” he insisted, a refrain I’d hear often in Iran.
Deeper into the neighborhood, I smelled freshly-baked <i>naan</i>. Just as I finished telling the kids that in America I have no access to this kind of bread back home, they turned toward the bakery. I tried to tell them that I was still full from dinner and could not eat another bite, but they were determined to get me the bread. It felt as if I had rubbed a magic lamp and my little genies were trying to fulfill my every wish. But there was a line of about fifteen people in the bakery, so I suggested we turn back. The kids wouldn’t give up so easily.
“Move aside, our guest is from America and he wants some bread!” Mohsen said. And just like the parting of the Red Sea, a path appeared for us to walk through to the front of the line. At first I was horrified of having insulted the people in line, but no one seemed to mind. As if I weren’t amazed and grateful enough, the bakers gathered around me to shake my hand and offer me their best baked bread. After introducing ourselves, I told them about how as a child I always wondered what it would be like to work in a bakery. Then, before I knew it, one of them took me behind the counter and put an apron on me. Another showed me how to knead the dough and stretch it across my knuckles to make a large disc, much like preparing a pizza. The crowd had tripled by this time and I could hear voices saying that I was from America. Everyone was smiling, not minding the delay, and when I proudly pulled my first baked naan out of the oven, the crowd cheered.
Sometime later we finally left the bakery and headed back to Mohsen’s house. But the kids had a hard time letting me go. “Would you come and have dinner with my family tomorrow night?” several asked. One of the older kids invited me to visit him the next time I’m in Iran. “We’ll get you some kabobs to go with the bread,” he said. I told them I would come back soon, and wondered if I was making a false promise. I simply didn’t know how long it would be before I could take this journey again.
On the day of my departure, my flight home was at 3:30 AM, so I decided to take a nap after dinner before having to leave for the airport. But friends and relatives kept dropping by to see me one last time, and they all came baring gifts. My two bags were already full, and so now I had to come up with an extra suitcase. I was overjoyed by their generosity.
The next surprise was that everyone stayed until midnight and then insisted on going to the airport to see me off, even though it was a one-hour drive each way, and they all had to be at work in the morning. But no matter how hard I tried to dissuade them, many of them came. However, that wasn’t the end of the surprises that night.
When we arrived at the airport, I was shocked to see Mohsen and one of the neighborhood kids there with two of the bakers. Like the others, they’d brought gifts, as well as freshly-baked bread, which they’d wrapped in a beautiful cloth. It took all my strength to keep from crying.
Sitting in my window seat staring at the airport lights, all I could think about was my family and friends in Iran. They had helped me reconnect with the place my soul was born. Everyone I had met was warm, beautiful and gentle, and how even going for a walk had become a joyful experience for me. I recalled kids playing on the streets, young couples walking hand-in-hand on the tree-lined sidewalks, and street musicians humbly peddling for a few coins. Contrary to my expectations, nobody resented me or wanted to take me hostage or hurt me. All they wanted was to be friendly and to go about their daily lives as they worked to make ends meet.
As the plane lifted, I started to re-examine my previous feelings for Iran, realizing now what had become lost to me over the past couple of decades: The real Iran was totally different from the images I had formulated in my head with the help of the mainstream media. The events of the past twenty-one years do not represent what Iran and its people are about. Iran is a land of poetry, compassion, love and respect. It’s a place of great generosity.
Catching a whiff of the bread on my lap, I opened the cloth and ripped off a piece. I chewed it slowly, savoring its taste, knowing I would have to go back soon, to feed my soul.
Shahrokh Nikfar led a Friendship Delegation to Iran in the spring of 2009 in which Americans were hosted by families in Iran who shared the same interests and professions. Nikfar hosts a weekly radio show called The Persian Hour on Thin Air Community Radio in Spokane, Washington, since 2004. His program promotes understanding of Iran and the Iranian culture through music, book and movie reviews, the sharing of Persian recipes, and interviews with people who have traveled to or lived in Iran.