September 23, 2019

Meant2Be: From war to wedding day

In late 1987, I sat on the cold steps outside of our home in Tehran and held a transistor radio tightly in my small, 5-year-old hands. My mother begged me to come back inside, but I adamantly refused, as I wanted some notice via radio of the expected time of the next Iraqi air raid against Tehran. 

It was the height of the devastating “War of the Cities” during the Iran-Iraq War, and I had developed such a terrifying aversion to the Iraqi ballistic missiles that pounded my neighborhood that I would sit outside for hours and listen to the latest news of impending attacks. 

There was only one thing that could draw me back inside.

“They’re playing your favorite song,” my mother would solemnly say, and I would rush back into the house and hear the heavenly contralto of the Iranian singer named Hayedeh. Of course, she herself had escaped Iran shortly before the Islamic Revolution and her music, deemed illegal by the regime, was now being recorded in Los Angeles. Like thousands of Iranians, our family was treated to all kinds of illegal music courtesy of the Voice of Israel program on our short-wave radio.

All of life has a soundtrack, even war. For me, the melody of those traumatic Iraqi attacks was trapped in a Hayedeh song called, “Shabe Eshgh,” or “Night of Love,” in which she remembered her beloved and lamented, “This one night of love / We only have this night / Why not leave the tales of despair and pain / Until tomorrow?” 

Besides the haunting vocals and rich instrumentation, the song itself was an emblem of everything the Islamic Revolution and the war against Iraq signaled for Iranians — namely, the loss of love, home, and family bonds. Hayedeh’s sweet voice offered a comforting reminder for us to live with love as she sang, “How good would it be if in the world / One tomorrow belonged to us?”

I listened to “Shabe Eshgh” until I fell asleep in my mother’s arms, and I was almost always awakened by the boom of another Iraqi bomb. 

That same year, in a city 600 miles south of Tehran named Shiraz, a 5-year-old boy spent hours huddled beneath furniture in his home as the Iraqis mercilessly targeted his once-serene neighborhood. His name, Payam, meant a “prophetic message.” I met that boy in 2013 in front of a Starbucks in Beverly Hills.

It was literally a blind date for me; I removed my eyeglasses to appear more sexy as I walked up to him, only to find that he was wearing glasses thicker than mine. As we talked that night, we felt a sense of wonder about each other, almost as if we were thinking: Who are you, and why didn’t I meet you sooner? 

We closed down Starbucks, which was full of Reform Jews. We closed down Urth Caffe, which was full of Persian Jews (and a few Saudis). And when Payam suggested that we grab some kosher schnitzel, I knew I had to play hard to get.

Payam challenged every ridiculous rule I had set up for myself, namely: Never marry a Persian guy. I mostly abided by this rule to protect myself, because Persian men never seemed to like me. Payam also defied my second rule: Never marry someone who understands Persian. I was no fool. I knew the boundaries my mother pushed in her native tongue. 

And yet, my affection for the tall, bespectacled Shirazi grew like the mustache I had tried so desperately to shed since I was 12.

Payam had arrived from Iran to Arizona (of all places) in the late 1990s, and was one of three Iranians in his high school. My alma mater, Beverly Hills High School, closed for Persian New Year. 

He had lived in Seattle for years and, having had no luck finding his soul mate there, had sacrificed evergreen trees and Mount Rainier for Pico-Robertson and a chance to meet a nice Jewish girl in L.A. He was the kindest man who had ever bought me tea. In fact, he was so kind and humble that I was sure that he was not from L.A.

We were married in 2014, exactly nine months after our first date, and exactly 25 years to the day after my family and I had arrived in Los Angeles as protected Iranian-Jewish refugees. Our little (by Persian standards) wedding was held in Yedidia Shofet Hall at Nessah Synagogue, named for the same holy rabbi, z”l, who had married my mother and father in Tehran in the late 1970s. Payam walked down the aisle to “Shah Damad,” a wonderful, classic Persian song about a glorious groom. 

As for me, I entered the hall just as the soft light of the summer day danced into the large synagogue windows and the exquisite melody of “Shabe Eshgh” played in the background, infusing my every step with peace, security and an eternal, wondrous gratitude for our tomorrow.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.

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