Under the Tehran sky
Yom Kippur 2010. The part of the synagogue where I sit is full of women talking with one another, and small kids giggling and playing around. It is extremely hot, and the extra layers of manteau (long outerwear) and the scarf covering my hair add to the intolerable heat.
I try to grab a prayer book for Yom Kippur and concentrate on reading the prayers, but to hear the rabbi, who doesn’t use a microphone on Yom Kippur, amid the constant murmurs of the chitchatting women is almost impossible. But everything seems and sounds so familiar. This is what I grew up with. So now, about 10 years after leaving, I am back home, back in Tehran.
When I left Iran on an early-morning flight in 2001, the minute the airplane started to fly under the star-filled sky of Tehran, even as I was trying hard to hold back my tears, I made a pledge that one day I would come back. Living in Iran as Jews obviously was not as easy as it is in the United States. Sometimes we were afraid of revealing ourselves to be Jewish specifically because of a political situation in Israel. We had to separate ourselves from Israel, stating that Jews and Judaism are different from Israel and Zionism. But my family was never persecuted because of being Jewish. I always wanted to return, at least for a visit, so now, on my flight back a decade later, as the plane touched down, my heart pounded so hard that I could hear it in my ears. Was I dreaming? A short while later, the voice of the officer at passport control saying, “Welcome back,” cast away my doubt.
The taxi driver who drove my family to my parents’ home — including my husband, me and our two daughters, ages 4 1/2 and 2 — was speeding so fast that I felt the vehicle was going to fly. My parent are, essentially, my only remaining relatives in my country, and this was the first time my father was going to see my younger daughter.
The streets of Tehran seemed different, with so many new roads. Even the airport was not the one that I had departed from. I felt like one of the “Companions of the Cave”; a story from Persian literature about a group of youths who fall asleep in a cave and wake up after 300 years to see that everything has changed.
The money had changed, too, and some coins are now worthless. The price of a magazine or bread was not even close to what I paid 10 years before. It took me a while to learn to decipher the currency, with so many zeros behind the first number. Sometimes it was easier to read the Arabic numeral on the back of the bill, which gave a clue to its dollar worth. For example 1,000,000 rials was now worth almost $100, and you could read the number 100 in Arabic on the back of that bill. (Iran’s currency has since declined in value to almost one-fourth of what it was when I lived there, much of the loss because of recent sanctions.)
Even the street I grew up on was different. There was no trace of the single-family houses with pools and big backyards anymore. All I could see on my street, and later, to my surprise, throughout the whole city, were tall apartment buildings. But the old, three-story apartment in the west part of Tehran where I lived for my whole life before I left, was almost the same, except for a little remodeling my dad had done.
Taxis offered us the best form of transportation, although the newly constructed underground metro was an option. Driving between lane lines didn’t mean anything here, and drivers honked at each other all the time. I decided I could never drive in a city like this. (To see a car marked “Women’s Taxi” was the last thing I would have imagined, but the sign indicated that the driver was a woman and was allowed to pick up women traveling solo.)
We always tried to speak pure Farsi, although we could hear a lot of new words and slang that we weren’t familiar with, but often, our kids speaking English would reveal our foreignness. It took us a few days to get used to the smog. When we first arrived, I thought something was on fire until I realized it was simply air pollution. As a friend told me sarcastically, “This is one of our improvements. Tehran is one of the top polluted cities in the world.”
Despite all this, my hometown of Tehran is still beautiful. Trees, hundreds of years old, on both sides of one of the main streets stretched their branches toward each other, making a lovely, tall, green tunnel. The streets were full of young faces of men and women, so many that an older person was barely noticeable. Although it was against the law, you could see so many young women wearing heavy makeup, nail polish and colorful, tight manteaus; and young men wore the latest European hairstyles and clothing. Their connections to fashion, and more generally to the outside world, came mostly through the more than 300 European and Asian TV channels available via satellite in almost every home. Although many international Web sites are blocked or filtered, software programs have been secretly invented and sold within the populace, allowing access to the blocked sites.
The price of food at restaurants, or uncooked meat and chicken at the supermarkets, was almost the same as what we pay here in the United States. You could always hear people complaining about the inflation, but, surprisingly enough, the shops and expensive restaurants were packed with people. I also saw expensive and luxurious imported European and Japanese cars on streets; owners must have purchased the vehicles, including an added 100 percent import tax, because there is no such thing as leasing a car in Iran.
Yet it is also clear that sanctions have added to people’s difficulties — one day, when I tried to simply access my PayPal account from an Internet cafe, an alert window popped up reading: “You are trying to access this account from a banned country.” And you could hear those fashionable kids debating and discussing political, philosophical and religious issues on streets, in coffee shops, in Internet cafes and at almost any gathering. Sadly, there were also stories of drugs and addiction. I was surprised to hear that even in the Jewish community, drug addiction has been an issue.
The Jewish community of Iran, estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000, is mostly concentrated in Tehran. A few other big cities are home to Jewish families as well, but compared to the approximately 120,000 Jews who were living there before 1979, it’s a minuscule number. There remain quite a number of synagogues in Tehran, which were filled with people during the High Holy Days when my family visited. Several of my Jewish friends, whom I hadn’t seen for so long, were now married, had kids and, despite the political rumors, were trying to live their lives peacefully in their native country.
Ten years away seemed quite long, and now some of the boys and girls I’d known during my years at Tehran’s Jewish student organization had become top authorities and leaders of the Iranian-Jewish community. My family got a chance to meet with two young Jewish artists, brothers who had moved from their hometown of Isfahan to go to art school in Tehran, and were now residing in a small unit attached to an old synagogue in the north of Tehran. Dana Nehdaran was a painter who had become known for his “Mona Lisa”-
inspired artworks; Dariush, his younger brother, was a photographer.
We also visited an art gallery in a wealthy neighborhood of Tehran, where amazing paintings were priced as high as $20,000; we were told that the gallery was owned by an Iranian Jew in Los Angeles. Visiting my former work colleagues at Ettela’at, Iran’s premier print-media conglomerate, was another dream come true. I had worked there as a journalist for 10 years, from when I was only 16 until I left the country. On my return, I surprised my boss, entering his office with my husband and two kids.
The Jewish day school where I spent almost all of my childhood school years was still the same, located just steps away from the University of Tehran. It still had the same old brick walls, the same old windows opening onto the street that we took any chance to peek at, and the same blue sign that reads: “Etefagh school complex.”
And finally, in the south part of the city, which consists mostly of low-income, traditional and religious citizens of Tehran, a huge building with a blue sign caught my eye. The sign reads: “Love your fellow as yourself,” in Hebrew and Farsi. This sign is on the entrance of the Sapir Hospital, a Jewish-funded hospital and charity center in Tehran founded more than 50 years ago that serves many low-income patients, free of charge, no matter what their religion.
My return to Tehran left me feeling proud, and rooted, as a Persian Jew.
Iranian Jews: The art, culture and history