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A compelling and intimate exploration of the complexity of a bicultural immigrant experience, To See and See Again traces three generations of an Iranian (and Iranian-American) family undergoing a century of change—from the author's grandfather, a feudal lord with two wives; to her father, a freespirited architect who marries an American pop singer; to Bahrampour herself, who grows up balanced precariously between two cultures and comes of age watching them clash on the nightly news.
JUST BEFORE I TURNED TWELVE, MY FAMILY DROVE TO OREGON to outrun the spring. Every time it looked like we were going to stay in one town, the weather would warm up and my father would pluck us out of the life we were considering and swing us back north on the highway. I think that deep down he believed that acknowledging the change of seasons would mean admitting we were in America to stay. So from January to March the days got shorter instead of longer and the backseat windows grew colder as we slipped off the golden piecrust of California, wound through muddy mountains, and descended into a gorge where evergreens blocked out all but a strip of sky.
We traveled in a red Chevrolet Malibu whose trunk held four sleeping bags, five suitcases, a bag of shirts and jeans from J. C. Penney, and a sack of antique Persian tapestries. Before leaving Iran, my father had told us each to pack our favorite things in a suitcase, and I had put in my new Polaroid camera, my fifth-grade yearbook, and my yellow sweat suit. We'd bought the sleeping bags and jeans when we'd gotten to Los Angeles, and as for the Malibu, my parents had opened up the yellow pages a few days after we arrived and called up the first car dealership listed.
At the dealership, my mother bent toward us and pointed at a dark-haired couple and an older lady being led out to the parking lot. I heard a flash of Farsi, spoken loudly, as if they thought no one could understand. My mother is American, but she can spot Iranians immediately, even at a distance. She said a few days earlier the Department of Motor Vehicles had been packed with them, newly arrived and lining up to get their licenses, none suspecting that this red-haired, freckled woman had also just come out of Iran.
In the parking lot, crisscrossed strings of red, white, and blue triangles flapped under a cloudless sky. A long-haired man named Sonny led us along the rows of gleaming cars, their silver cursive "Malibu" logos giving them a wild, exotic aura. Sonny stopped to stroke a metallic red hood. "Seats five," he said, and looked at us appreciatively, as if to congratulate us on being a family of exactly five. "Come on, Kids, he said. "Get in and show your mom and dad how much space you've got."
Normally, Baba being called "dad" would have made us laugh--it sounded so American. But that day in the car lot we didn't even look at each other. We were all watching Sonny. He pulled at the handle of the back door, it gave with a rich, oily click, and my brother and sister and I obediently climbed in.
"Well? How does it feel?" Sonny's red face filled the window; his voice boomed, bossy and cheerful, through the glass. Beyond him stood Mama and Baba--and at that moment they looked pale, almost translucent, as if the bright light glinting off the tops of the cars had reached something out of them. They seemed small and far away. So, as the plastic new-car smell wafted seductively around us, we smiled and waved and stretched out our legs in all the space we had.
We said goodbye to my grandparents, coasted down to Sunset Boulevard and merged onto the freeway. Three-year-old Sufi climbed over the front seat to sit on Mama's lap. Ali and I lay head to head on the backseat, our bare feet making shadowy prints on the glass as the power lines outside dipped down and up.
"How long does it take?" Ali called up. We liked to time our trips. The Caspian Sea took four hours, Qom took two, Esfahan took seven. We had driven in all directions from home, and we knew how long it took before the desert sloped up into mountains in the south and the tunneled-out rocks opened up onto the lush, rainy coastline in the north. On the way home, too, we knew when to look out for the gray sea of smog that hung over Tehran. But here, looking out the window didn't tell us a thing. It was all neat and identical and unfathomable.
"Well?" Ali said. He was nine, still small enough to stand leaning over the front seat. "How many hours?"
"That depends," Mama said, holding up the Triple-A map. "If we stop in San Luis Obispo it's about four hours, but if Santa Barbara looks nice we might stay there. And we want to see Santa Rosa, up near San Francisco." "This was strange; we had never taken a trip that didn't have a destination.
Outside the window, huge swoops of roller coaster made us sit up. "Please, please, can we go?" we begged. A few years before, when Mama was making her first record album and we were staying in Hollywood, Baba and I had spent an afternoon riding that roller coaster. Now, for one mute, hopeful moment I watched the back of his head and willed his fingers to tighten around the wheel and swerve us into the exit lane.
"No, we're already late." He said it loudly and deeply--the stern-father voice he rarely used.
Mama turned and gave us a sympathetic smile, her eyes lost behind big round sunglasses. "There'll be other roller coasters," she said.
L.A. disappeared behind us.
Simply by coming to America, it was clear we had fallen behind. So we drove and drove, always trying to make it to the next town before it got too dark to look around. Whatever I wrote down in my new "Happy Days Diary" always turned out to be wrong. "Tonight we will stay in San Luis Obispo," I wrote--but we ended up in a Howard Johnson's in San Jose. "Tomorrow we are visiting Mama's friend in Berkeley"--but we detoured into San Francisco. So I began to take note of smaller details--the flavors of ice cream we'd had that day, the TV shows we'd watched in the motels, the Jack-in-the-Box drive-through SuperTacos that we'd eaten in the car, cranking down the windows and letting the taste of the salty beans and soggy lettuce mingle with the sweet, dry tree smell seeping down from the hills.
Each week in Iran, when the international Time and Newsweek had come out, Mama would drive us to the Hilton Hotel and send me in with a handful of toumans. I would come back out, deliver the magazines to the car, and then, sitting in traffic, watch Mama read about America. Now, in America, Baba became similarly addicted to TV, but he was more obsessed. As the waitress at a roadside diner set our plates down in front of us, Baba would suddenly look at his watch and cry, "Wrap it up!" and we'd hold our food-filled napkins closed as we raced down the freeway.
"The news, the news!" Baba clicked the buttons on the motel TV, frowning at the lag time before the picture bloomed over the screen. All at once, Peter Jennings's face appeared and his voice blasted painfully down onto our beds.
"We're not deaf," I said, peeling the tissue off my grilled cheese sandwich, feigning indifference.
"Shhhhh!" Baba answered.
We watched the whole broadcast turned up high. During the ads, Baba frantically flipped through the other channels, trying to find Tehran, as if any second the revolution might be over and we could go back home, if only we didn't miss the news segment that told us so.
We stopped in every town Mama had heard was nice--Palo Alto, Petaluma, Santa Rosa, and back down to Sausalito. In the motels we watched Roots. The show probably lasted no longer than four or five days, but it seemed to run endlessly, being--apart from the news--the only scheduled event in our lives. Every night at eight o'clock it began with the recap of the previous day's scenes and we snuggled down under our blankets--Mama and Baba in one double bed, Ali and I in the other one, and Sufi switching between us. In Iran, Baba had never paid much attention to TV. But now he talked about Roots all the time. His favorite part was when the African prince of the jungle is captured, put in chains, and taken to America, where he is forced to change his name. At different times of the day Baba would stand up and throw back his shoulders, his round nose flaring, his eyes wild. "Kunta Kinte," he'd bellow, thumping himself on his smooth bare chest. "My name is Kunta Kinte!"
On the news, the Shah and the Queen were also in transit. After spending a few weeks in Egypt they flew to Morocco, where they sat on a hotel patio in flare-leg pants, looking exhausted, as the newscasters speculated about where they might go next. Meanwhile, the Ayatollah Khomeini was on his way from Paris to Iran. I recognized his black-turbaned, white-bearded face from the placards that I'd seen carried down the street during demonstrations in Tehran, and I remembered his voice from contraband tapes at my cousin's house. Now, as we watched him step off his plane in Iran and be greeted by an exultant crowd, Baba said his arrival might end the confusion that had followed the Shah's departure. So we did not cash in the return half of our Swissair tickets and Baba did not talk about looking for a job. Instead, we settled into a motel run by an Iranian and his German wife on the edge of Highway 101, just below the turnoff to the San Quentin prison.
In Santa Rosa a man named Fat Morrie led us past wooden houses and lawns and oak trees with swings, past two girls my age with barrettes clipped to the left side of their hair, walking along the sidewalk. I had known American girls at my international school in Tehran--cool blondes who told dirty jokes and showed off their butt-hugging Dittos, which, they pointed out, could only be bought in the United States. Those girls had mostly bothered each other. The non-American majority had diluted them. But I was alone now, and I shrank down, hoping the girls wouldn't see me. I was suddenly embarrassed to be driving around with my family instead of out walking with a friend.
"This might be your junior high next year," Mama said brightly, looking back from the front seat. She pointed at a high chain-link fence surrounding a flat beige building with a "Home of the Cougars" sign over the entrance. I stared blankly at the vista of wire and concrete. Compared to my school in Iran, with its tall, shady trees and graceful brick buildings, this looked like a jail. I did not want it to be my school. It was not fair that I should be singled out just because I was the oldest, while Sufi and Ali got to look blissfully out the other window, her preschool and his elementary school still only existing in dream bubbles.
"If we're not staying in America, then why do we have to buy a house?" I asked.
Mama sighed. "We've got to live somewhere while we decide what to do, don't we? We can't stay in motels forever. And you know, you guys and I might stay in America a little longer when Baba goes back. Don't you want to go to school in the meantime?"
I supposed so. Every other time we'd visited America I had attended school. But we had never tried to buy a house just so we could go to school here for a couple of months. I waited for Mama to say something like, "This time it's different," or "We're here to stay now." But when she spoke again her voice drifted. "Who knows? Even if we all go back to Iran we could still buy a house here. It could be waiting for us, just in case."
We got out of the car and stared up at a big old brown-shingled house with a peaked roof.
"This place is practically a mansion," Fat Morrie said, coaxing the key into the lock. The middle of his button-up shirt gaped open over his hairy stomach. "Seven bedrooms at a hundred and ninety thousand--unbelievable."
Ali and Sufi and I ran in ahead. We rocked on the owners' chairs, stroked the colored soaps in their bathroom, and stared at the framed pictures of their children. In a room that smelled of flowers and wood, I found twin beds with cream-colored comforters and a little built-in bench by the window. I sat down to wait for my parents.
"So, are you going to be working in this area?" Fat Morrie's voice echoing down the hall sounded like a friendly American uncle's.
A short pause, then Mama's voice. "We're not sure yet. We're just looking around."
"Oh, Santa Rosa's great for families," Fat Morrie said. "What line of work are you in, anyway?"
Another pause, in which I almost jumped up and ran out to answer. He's an architect and she's a singer. She makes albums in Los Angeles, and she works at CBS Records in Tehran. He used to teach at the university but now he's opened his own office, and he's just built us a big house of our own that's almost ready to move into.
But these things weren't exactly true right now, so I didn't come out and say them.
"Architecture," Baba finally said. "I'm a professor at Tehran University."
Now Fat Morrie paused. "Well, you know, if you don't have jobs here you might need more than that ten percent down you were talking about."
I stuck my head out the door. "Can I have this room?" I waved them in and flung myself onto one of the white beds. "See, when I have a friend spend the night she can sleep on that bed." Baba nodded, squinting around the sunny room.
We ended up putting an offer on an A-frame house in Corte Madera. We still lived at our motel, but every day we drove by the house and Mama and Baba pointed up and told us how they were going to remodel the attic into a master bedroom. As soon as we moved in, Grandma would send us Yip, our dog, whom we had brought over from Iran and left for her to take care of. In the meantime, Baba bought me an old blue Schwinn for thirty dollars and Mama signed us up for school.
I'd been out of school almost four months, but the year was not over. I was still in sixth grade. A freckled girl named Tami was assigned to show me around, and my teacher, a hoarse-voiced lady with thick glasses, gave me multiple-choice tests and told me that I seemed to have kept up just fine.
Sitting with Tami on a picnic bench, I bit into my bologna sandwich and thought back to lunchtime at my school in Tehran. Everyone's mothers would make their lunches, and for a while I had been able to convince my Taiwanese friend Shih-Fang to exchange her stacked metal tins of sticky rice and pork for my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. We ate each other's food gleefully, each sure the other was crazy to switch, until eventually she realized hers really was better and stopped trading. But lunch was still full of wonders: dried strips of mango brought by my Indian friend Malika; empanadas from my Argentine friend Cristina; spring rolls from Bayette, whose American father had met her Vietnamese mother when he'd gone to Vietnam with the Army. Sixth grade in Iran had been the first year of middle school. We'd had electives, and a science class with a real laboratory, and a walrus-mustached social studies teacher named Mr. Pulford, who was all excited about Sir Thomas More and Machiavelli. In Corte Madera, sixth grade was still elementary school, with one teacher for all subjects, hut I hoped that the following year the electives and the Renaissance would resurface, and that once they did I would be back where I was before I'd lost Mr. Pulford.
And then we couldn't have the house.
"The owners are selling it to someone else," Mama explained. We had not been the first bidders. We had put in an offer in the hopes that the first people would back out. "It looked like they were going to," Mama said. "But they changed their minds."
I wondered if this meant that we had not been good enough, Had we been scrutinized and found undeserving? Or had we been too slow--maybe that extra day in Santa Rosa had delayed us just enough to miss this house. Now we drove slowly by it again, gazing up as we passed. I had barely looked at it before, but now I wanted that house more than anything. Let us get it, let us get it, let us get it, I mouthed.
I had tried this silent praying once before, the night we had picked up our new car in Los Angeles. During the ride back to my grandparents' house my chest had gone tight and I had started to bargain: I miss Iran, I wrote in my diary. I miss the cats. I miss the house. I miss school. I miss my friends. I would never tease Sufi or Ali again or ask for another toy if we could only swing back around, reverse the last ten days, and go back to Iran.
"Pack your bags," Baba said the next morning. "We're leaving."
I caught my breath and looked up from my book. "What about school?"
"We'll find you a new school," he said, again in that uncharacteristic father-to-child voice.
"Wherever we go."
"Well, why not here?" I asked. "You said we were staying."
"Someone else got our house." He shrugged, as if it was out of his hands.
"Then why don't we find another one?"
But he didn't answer. So I packed my bag, including among my possessions two Narnia books whose dark blue "Neil Cummins Elementary School" stamps stared accusingly up at me as I zipped my suitcase. Mama said not to worry about it because it was the weekend and there was no way to give them back. But I worried anyway. When everyone went back to school on Monday my desk would be empty. There would be no explanation. The overdue slips would come, my teacher's dry voice would inform the librarian of my disappearance, and the two books, like me, would be marked down as missing.
Leaving Corte Madera so unexpectedly, I felt I had not foreseen something I should have. When we'd first gotten to Los Angeles we had kept driving past a big signboard on Sunset Boulevard that said "Maps to the Stars." I thought it must be a fortune-telling technique, a mapping of my stars, and I had meant to ask my parents to stop for a consultation with the blond woman in the purple tank top and sunglasses who sat by the sign. In the end, though, I had forged ahead without consulting her; and I must have miscalculated, because here we were, moving again. Don't check out books, my stars would have told me; don't start on those math problems, don't make friends. But up here there was no star map to tell us these things, and so, guideless, we slammed the car trunk closed, hitched my bike to the back, and joined the morning traffic.
Posted September 16, 2008
Though this is a memoir, it does entail some background history of Iran and the revolution which is a huge plus for me. There also many small cultural things Bahrampour writes about that is distinctly Iranian--such as 'tarof'. It's a great read for someone who wants to understand the persian culture better, wants a good laugh and an amazing story of love, loss, revolution, and culturecultureculture.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 18, 2006
I read this book in 2003 when I was a junior in high school, and it opened my eyes to a culture that I had never really known before. I resonated immensely with this character, trying to construct your own identity while having external society place one on you.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 2, 2001
As a college student, I was assigned to read this book for a sociology class. It turned out to be a book I didn't want to put down, as it contained a mesmerizing blend of mystery and raw self-discovery. It introduced me to the history and intricacies of Iranian culture as well as those of Ms. Bahrampour herself.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.