“The Fruit of Persian Hospitality” by James Opie

James Opie spent years traveling in the Middle East for his Oriental carpet business. He visited Iran over a dozen times, during the “Shah’s time” and after the Islamic Revolution. This essay describes his first trip there.
[spacer size=”20″] We met Banafsheh not long after we arrived at the bazaar in Tabriz. My wife Patricia and I had been meandering through the crowds, moving from shop to shop, soaking in a sense of the real Persia when the young woman approached and asked
us if we knew English.
I turned away, hesitant to answer, having previously traveled to other Middle
Eastern countries where locals invite unsuspecting tourists to their relative’s shops to sell them something. It often begins with them walking up with a seemingly friendly smile and saying they would like to practice their English. I was wise to them; however, Patricia was not.
“Yes, we speak English,” she said.
I held my tongue and wandered away, too tired to deal with the situation, the stress of the long day having caught up with me. Patricia and I had spent the morning crossing by land from Turkey into Iran. Although it was exhilarating, making the nearly 200- mile trek from the Turkish border to Tabriz in over 100-degree heat was also exhausting. Thirsty, tired from driving, jangled a bit from “border-crossing nerves,” Patricia and I inevitably grew cranky. At some point we had agreed not to speak for a while.
But soon the pungent smells of the spice shops, the tightly woven Tabriz carpets, and the intricately decorated mosaic boxes that filled several shops helped lift our cloud of irritability and soon we were speaking cheerfully to one another again.
And so, as Patricia continued talking with the young woman, I looked at rugs in a nearby shop. Glancing back now and then, I saw that Patricia still had not managed to get free. Eventually I gave up on avoiding the situation and joined them. It was then that I realized that this attractive young woman—dressed in modest Western clothing—was genuine in her eagerness to practice her English, which was already quite good.
“You are from United States?!” she said. Her joy was sincere. Her sparking eyes and bubbly tone made it feel truly important to be living, breathing Americans here in the Tabriz bazaar. She opened up to us as if she had been waiting there only for our arrival. It was then that she told us her name was Banafsheh.

The three of us walked together for an hour in the bazaar, where Banafsheh cau- tioned us against buying from the shadier merchants. Later she surprised us with an invitation to visit a garden in her neighborhood and dinner in her family home. Patricia smiled and answered for us both, saying that we would be delighted.
Admittedly I was still uncertain about just what we were getting into. But driving to the garden, walking among its fragrant roses, and then entering Banafsheh’s home, my resistance gradually evaporated as I saw that this young woman represented a side of her country that Americans too rarely see: open, cheerful, inquisitive and respectful. She asked us so many questions—about parents and siblings, nephews and nieces, where we lived and what we did—that we had to keep bending the topic back her way in order to learn anything about her. She told us that she graduated from the University of Tehran recently and would return there soon for more schooling to receive a degree in medicine. She also told us that when she wasn’t in school she spent all her free time with her parents, helping her mother. Then she spoke of how sorry she was that her parents could not be there to join us.


Continue reading on page 17 of Love and Pomegranates

About the Writer

James Opie is author of two books on tribal rugs, the most recent one is Tribal Rugs:Nomadic and Village Weaving of the Near East and Central Asia, which was published simultaneously in England and the United States in 1992. His current essays have appeared in Parabola magazine. He and his wife Catherine reside in Portland, Oregon. Visit him at: www.jamesopie.com.