March 20, 2017

MORADI | Phony in Farsi

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Bouye eidi, bouye toup, bouye kaghaz rangi.
Bouye tonde mahi doodi, vasate soffre-ye now.
Bouye yas-e ja namaz-e, termeye madar bozorg.

The smell of eid, the smell of toy soccer balls, the smell of colored paper,
The sharp smell of smoked fish in the middle of the table
The smell of jasmine on grandma’s cashmere prayer rug.

When I smell lime-baked pistachios and tokhmeh, I think of maman’s haft seen sparkling in the afternoon sun that peeked through our windows. When I smell spring air and grass I think of running back home from the school bus in my brand-new Eid clothes and sniffing the nectar from the hyacinths my mom had planted in our front garden. I remember coming inside, throwing my backpack off and cracking salty tokhmeh between my teeth while I watched over our annual Nowruz goldfish, the tart odor of fish food still surrounding its much-too-small bowl. Maman would see my backpack and lunchbox sprawled over the floor and scold me for being such a mess. Then, remembering it was Eid (How could she forget?), she would hug me and I would inhale the perfume of dryer sheets and honey off of her.

Little by little, in what is likely Steve Bannon’s worst nightmare, my unabashedly Iranian family has come to the United States. It started with my parents, then my brother and me, then my aunts and uncles and cousins. We came one by one, and slowly but surely crafted our own Irans in awkward places; a young Iran in a one-story house on the corner of a cul-de-sac in Boise, an adolescent Iran in a single neighborhood in semi-rural Virginia, a new Iran in downtown Richmond, Albuquerque and so on. We tucked our Irans into American crevices wherever we went like a trail of breadcrumbs. Our Irans were small maybe, but never vacant. Our Irans were elaborate Persian rugs cautiously shipped from Shiraz and intricate brass dishes that were to be seen and never used. They held the sharp aromas and stinky flavors of ghormeh sabzi, the soft geometries of Iranian handiwork and the deep syncopations of pre-revolutionary Iran’s mononyms: Googoosh, Ebi, Mahasti, Viguen.

I had heard of Third Space Theories before. I had heard of Homi Bhabha and I had read Negin Farsad’s funny and smart TED essay on being an Iranian-American Muslim: not wholly Iranian, not wholly American, but instead a “Third Thing,” a hybrid caught in the midst of a push-and-pull of cultures where you take a Lunchable to school on one day and khoresht karafs the next. I had understood being a Third Thing, identified with it even, but my response to it was oddly clinical. I knew I was trapped in the ugly eye-shaped middle section of a venn diagram, but I also thought that maybe, just maybe by stretching as much as I could, by wholly engaging with our little Irans, I’d be able to have a foot in both circles. I’d be able to be Iranian and American, no hyphen necessary.

Over winter break, for the first time in years, all our little Irans came together in our Virginian Iran. This meant several things: that our house was bursting with people and that there were never enough chairs at the breakfast table, but also that we passed around laughter and dribbled stories back and forth like footballista. It meant that our Iran never stopped smelling like chai and zaferoon and golab. It meant our Iran was full and hearty, but also that it was different. This Iran was more contemporary, more Shiraz- or Tehran-Iran than the Idaho-Iran or Virginia-Iran that had been mine. My Iran had always been peppered with Americanisms: books on the presidents, Fargilisi (grossly synthesized Farsi and English) and clandestinely watching the Disney Channel while my parents had their backs turned.

Esgh-e yek setare sakhtan ba dolak
Tars-e na tamoom gozashtan-e jareemeha-ye eid-e madreseh

Zora Neale Hurston writes, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” I feel most Iranian when I am eating sabzi polo at a majority-white middle school named after a civil-war battle. I feel most American when I mess up the words for maestro (ostad) and engineer (mohandes) when talking about the legendary classical musician Mohammad-Reza Shajarian.

I only recently turned around and noticed the contrast between myself and the Iran I was thrown against. Somehow, when I was younger my legs were longer, or the middle space between the two circles of the venn diagram was smaller, and I managed to barely stretch across the pervasive gap. Now, I struggle to engage intellectually and socially with Iran — the actual one, not my own construction — because I’m left grasping at language and culture from which I’ve fallen behind.

I never quite realized how markedly different my Iran was from that of my cousins, and it hurts to realize it now. I’m so behind. I’m so behind. Growing up, my brother and I always received compliments on our flawless Farsi, but now I struggle to string together a sentence in adult conversation. I know little to no slang and barely any abstract language necessary for argumentation. I still listen to 2000s Googoosh and Ebi in an era where there are too many independent Iranian artists to name in nearly every genre of music. I haven’t watched a Persian TV series since, like, 2010.  I’ve tried making khoresht in my Collegetown apartment to tragic ends, sadly defaulting to Dino Nuggets instead.

I don’t have the same ascetic Iranian background as my Iranian-born cousins. I’ve never done the ghashogh zadan that Farhad sings of in his classic Nowruz anthem “Koodakaneh,” but I used to go trick-or-treating every year. I’ve never played the games Farhad bellows of nostalgically. I’ve never gone to an Iranian school, never been through the shaytooni of universally mischievous Iranian schoolchildren. Some of “Koodakaneh” is so familiar to me, yet so much of it is blatantly foreign. What a bizarre notion, for Iran to be foreign.

I feel pathetic writing this. My Iran was a phony, a fake Iran I created in my head and in my heart to reconcile the dissonance I had been born into. It’s not that I didn’t know I was a Third Thing; I did, and always have, in theory. Now, I am forced to acknowledge its reality in practice. I feel scared and I feel sad and I feel helpless, despite knowing there’s an escape. Practice Farsi instead of screwing around on Facebook or shadow maman as she swiftly skitters across our kitchen, sprinkling turmeric here, adding dill there. Paradoxically, part of me doesn’t find it urgent. Authenticating my Iran isn’t a priority.


Ba yna, zemestoon-o sar mikonam
Ba yna, khastegim-o dar mikonam.

With these, I end winter
With these, I end my fatigue.
“Koodakaneh” is Farsi for childish. Farhad sings through a heavy musk of nostalgia, recounting his childhood Nowruz only in terms of sensory memory. The smell of yas, the feeling of counting and recounting your Eid money until it’s worn. The frenzy of family. The warmth of family. I find it better when I don’t take the lyrics literally, and instead let his rich, tough voice guide me back to my Irans across America, guide me back to memories of listening to the song itself while Maman made ash-e reshteh and let me lick the spoon. These memories get me through the admittedly gloomier spring equinox in Ithaca, wake me up for the 6:28 a.m. saal-tahvil, remind me to drink the tea Baba bought me and ensure me that my Irans were real. They were different, yeah. But they were real.


Pegah Moradi is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]All Jokes Aside appears every other Monday this semester.