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The Best of Both Worlds
My bicultural upbringing in the upper-middle-class northern Tehran community of Yousefabad was evident in our home's décor. Silk Persian carpets and traditional khatam handicraft inlaid-mosaic picture frames sat amid oil paintings of the English countryside and blue Wedgwood porcelain.
Both of my parents' cultures placed great emphasis on tea. A large, silver-toned samovar sat on the kitchen counter next to a china pot of fragrant English breakfast tea and was left simmering on a low setting for hours. My dad elevated the preparation of tea to an art form. Just as if he were in one of his chemistry labs at the university, he would carefully measure a spoonful of loose tea into the mesh infuser of the teapot. When the water was almost boiling, he would fill the ceramic teapot halfway, cover it, and let the tea (chai) steep for about five minutes on top of the samovar's lid. As is the Iranian custom, my father drank his chai from a glass (estekan) to better assess its quality and consistency of color. Our traditional Isfahan tea set included a hammered silver tray and six estekans. A three-legged, lidded bowl with a handle contained the lump sugar and thin, transparent yellow disks — Isfahani candies known as poolaki.
For Mom, the rules changed. Whereas Dad was precise, Mom was delicate. Dad would pour her tea into a fine English bone china cup with a saucer, leaving space at the top to add milk. Mom never drank her tea black and told me that the extra milk is "the English way, Jacqueline."
Mom and Dad loved to take their tea in the grand living room, seated on the navy-and-cream sofa, with the sun streaming in through the floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows. The windows overlooked the balcony and our private garden. Among the many fruit trees, including mulberry, sour cherry, and apple, Dad's favorite was the persimmon tree. Its graceful branches reached over and partly covered the pond; and from its prodigious harvest, we made gift baskets for our friends and neighbors. There were red, white, and yellow roses, and at the other end of the garden, in front of the watermelon bushes, lay a few rows of chrysanthemums and violets.
We also had a view of the snowcapped Alborz Mountains. In springtime, when the snow melted and after it rained, the joobs (water channels) on the side streets of Tehran filled with water that had traveled downstream from the slopes to the north. When we opened the windows, we could hear the melody of the trickling stream. My siblings, Raymond and Victoria, and I would throw pebbles into the channels and chase them as they flowed away.
The most prominent of the few religious artifacts in our home was a mezuzah affixed to the frame of our front door. The stunning transparent cylinder was decorated with gold crowns and the Hebrew letter shin, which is the first letter of the Shema prayer that is written on parchment and contained in the case. The prayer is an affirmation of the Jewish people's faith in God.
Every room in our four-bedroom house had tiled marble floors partly covered with colorful handwoven Persian rugs. Each was a work of art, with a center medallion and an intricate pattern or an overall curvilinear design of birds and flowers. Dad said that our Persian rugs were made in Isfahan and, thus, were "top tier." He would carefully remove his shoes before walking on them. His favorite was the blue-and-cream carpet in the living room that complemented the sofa. Beaming with pride, Dad would show off its "eighty knots per centimeter" to visitors, turning back a corner.
In the family room, a crystal chandelier hung from the tall ceiling, and a Seiko wall clock chimed on the hour. Raymond, Victoria, and I listened to records by Bob Dylan, Tom Jones, and Santana on the large oak music console. Nestled on the burgundy leather couches and matching ottoman, we would all watch the Schaub Lorenz television, our window to the world.
* * *
My parents met in September of 1947, at a social dance for University of Birmingham students. My father, Rahmat, was a foreign student in the chemical engineering department. He, along with five other students from the Petroleum University of Technology in the southern city of Abadan, Iran, had been awarded an all-expenses-paid scholarship to pursue their education in England. My mother, Stella, was pursuing a degree in journalism and also took shorthand courses.
At the end of the school term, my father returned to his homeland of Iran, and a long-distance courtship ensued. For two years, Rahmat and Stella exchanged love letters and photographs by post. I had read some of these letters, dating to the late 1940s. I found the intimate correspondence to be a testament to their love and commitment to each other. The fact that my parents had chosen each other added to the rarity of their courtship, because at that time, most marriages in Iran, for Jews and Muslims alike, were arranged. Finally, in May 1950, their engagement was announced in Birmingham's Jewish Chronicle, despite their physical separation and the long distance between them. The news of my father's engagement spread throughout the community, and soon after Stella received a letter of congratulation.
Tehran, Iran, 6th June, 1949 Miss Stella Averley, 239 Lichfield Rd., Aston Birmingham, England
I am Ben. R. Mayeri, a native of Isfahan, and an old friend to Mr. R. Lavi.
I heard the good news of your engagement to Mr. Lavi through himself. I hope you will not think it out of place in me to write you this short note of congratulation on your good fortune. All Isfahan Jewry have heard the good news. Your fiancé has showed me your nice photo. I wish you every happiness and good luck and Mazel tov (congratulations, written in Hebrew).
Yours Very Sincerely, Ben. R. Mayeri
My mother, Stella, made the difficult decision to leave her family and her native country of England and to resettle in Iran and marry Rahmat. In late December 1950, Stella boarded a plane at Heathrow Airport and flew to Tehran. At Mehrabad Airport, she was introduced to Rahmat's family. His parents, Jacob (Yaghoub) and Shoshana, showered Stella with kisses and welcomed her with an elegant gold bracelet and other gifts. Rahmat's older sister, Pouran, and her husband and children, along with his younger brother, Darius, were also present. Many more members of the community had also made the drive to the airport to witness the unusual phenomenon of the arrival of Rahmat's foreign fiancée.
Two days later, Rabbi Yedidia Shofet, the chief rabbi of Tehran's Jewish community, officiated at my parents' wedding ceremony. Since Stella didn't understand Farsi, Rabbi Shofet explained the service to her through a translator. During the ceremony, Stella was presented with a beautiful naqdeh (custom and handmade shawl), made from delicate sheer fabric in white, and embellished with gold-thread embroidery. The bride and groom, along with witnesses, signed the ketubah (Jewish marriage agreement) and then the sanad-e ezdevaj (the official Iranian marriage license). Rabbi Shofet praised the bride for her courage and her devotion. He blessed the unconventional couple, wishing them a long married life, filled with happiness and many children.
* * *
My brother, Raymond, who had the same initials as my dad, was born in 1952. My sister, Victoria, who was named after the British Queen Victoria, was born in 1956. Every year on October 26 we teased Victoria that the strings of twinkling red and green lights and flashing neon models of royal crowns that hung throughout the city were in her honor. That is because she shared a birthday with the sovereign, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. The Shah's birthday was a national holiday and was celebrated with enthusiasm and jubilation.
One year my family lined up on the side of Pahlavi Avenue just north of Crown Prince Square and joined the crowds of people who patiently waited for the arrival of the royal family's motorcade. As a five-year-old, I sat on my dad's broad shoulders and cheered and waved my paper flag as the king and queen's ensemble passed by.
I was born in 1961, and was the youngest member of our family. I was often compared to my counterpart, the crown prince, as we were only four months apart in age. The prince was the firstborn son of the Shah and his third wife, Queen Farah. His birth ensured the continuation of the monarchy and the Pahlavi regime. Prince Reza was named after his grandfather, the first Pahlavi dynasty king, Reza Shah, and was one day to be known as Reza Shah II.
When my mother was pregnant with me, my parents decided that if the baby were a son, they would name him after my Iranian grandfather, Jacob, who had passed away in 1958. But if they were to have a daughter, Mom would surprise everyone with a name of her choosing.
Soon after my birth at Varjavand Hospital in Tehran, surrounded by extended family and friends, my mother announced that I was to be named after England's Princess Anne. Her decision was immediately repudiated by the visitors, who told her that she couldn't have chosen a worse name for an Iranian girl. That is because Anne, in Farsi, is slang for a four-letter word beginning with s and ending in t.
She was disheartened by this new knowledge, but, with my father at her bedside in the maternity ward, her gaze fell on a Life magazine that her mother, Miriam, had recently mailed from England. The photo spread was titled "Jacqueline Kennedy, America's Newest Star, in Beauty and Fashion." The first lady of the United States, the president's elegant and glamorous wife, wore an ivory silk chiffon blouse with a fuchsia Chanel jacket and an A-line skirt by Dior, a pearl necklace, black pumps, and a pillbox hat, which had become the latest international fashion accessory.
Mom had always had a flair for fashion. Before she met Dad, she had worked part time as a sales consultant at one of Birmingham's largest department stores and had become a trusted advisor to customers. She admired the first lady for her elegance and intelligence, and suggested that they name me Jacqueline. My father liked the idea and was thrilled because Jacqueline is the feminine version of Jacque or my grandfather's name, Jacob. Thus, I was named in his memory and after the first lady of the United States.CHAPTER 2
My Iranian Mothers
My privileged upbringing as the daughter of a university professor and his foreign wife, in the northern Tehran neighborhood of Yousefabad, was comfortable — and unusual. Growing up in Iran, my siblings and I were considered to be doeragehs. The Farsi term refers to a person whose parents are from two distinct nationalities.
A desired trait in the Persian culture, such children were perceived to be a blend of the best characteristics of the East and the West. Their families were part of the educated elite who had had the opportunity to travel overseas and be exposed to Westerners. In the royal family, there were two doeragehs; the Shah's firstborn, Princess Shahnaz, from his first wife, Egyptian Queen Fawzia, and the Shah's second wife, Queen Soraya, who had Iranian and German roots.
But my family was also a rarity within our community. In a predominantly Shia Muslim nation, the small Jewish community of around one hundred thousand made up about one-third of one percent (that is, 0.29 percent) of the population of thirty-five million of that time. In my father's generation, marrying across continents among the Jewish community was a practice that was unheard of and simply not done. Therefore, as a Jewish doerageh in a Muslim society, I was a minority within a minority.
Every weekday morning, Dad dressed meticulously in a suit and tie before he left home for work. In a Middle Eastern country where education was highly regarded, my father was respected as a professor at two prestigious universities. He taught metallurgy (a branch of science that studies the nature of metallic elements) at the Elm-o-San'at University (Iran University of Science and Technology) and at Tehran Polytechnic, which was the first established technical university in Iran. Both were regarded as prestigious engineering establishments of higher education. In Persian culture, holding an advanced degree was highly prized, and, therefore, my father, who had two advanced degrees in chemical engineering and meteorology, was shown respect wherever we went. Strangers would lower their heads and call him ostad (professor).
In addition to teaching, Dad worked part time for Habib Elghanian, the prominent Iranian Jewish businessman. Dad oversaw quality control of the metal items under production, among other duties. Twice a week, Dad put his second degree to use and worked at the meteorology office at Mehrabad International Airport. He drew charts, analyzed weather patterns, and prepared reports for the flight dispatcher and the pilots so that they were able to take off, fly, and land safely. Fluent in English, Dad could communicate directly with pilots of international airlines. Victoria and I once went to his office and stared in awe as he spoke to foreign pilots on the receiver.
My paternal family was originally from Isfahan, in central Iran, where my dad and his two siblings were born. My father's family had relocated to the capital city of Tehran years before my birth and had families of their own. The city's Jewish community was assimilated into society as a whole, and, therefore, my generation did not use the Judeo-Persian dialect of the tight-knit Jewish community of Isfahan and the few others like it across Iran, and so it has been lost.
My maternal family was originally from London, where my mom and her older brother were born. Because of the London Blitz during World War II, my mother's family relocated to Birmingham when she was a child. Mom's parents and Uncle Philip and his family lived on another continent, whereas my friends lived near their extended maternal families, visited back and forth, and celebrated holidays together.
Every weekday morning, a chauffeur in a company car with the airport logo arrived at our home to take Mom to her job with British Airways at Mehrabad International Airport. As always, she looked elegant and stylish in her uniform, which included an identification badge and a matching tote. Mom held a high-powered position as the assistant to the airport manager. Because of Mom's job, our family received discounts on air travel. Therefore, we spent every summer vacation in England. Mom was committed to having us know her side of the family and experience life in England.
I referred to my mother as "Mom," while my friends referred to their mothers as "Maman." Their Mamans were competent homemakers, made elaborate Persian dishes, read Persian poetry, and had dark hair. My mom was not a homemaker, rarely cooked, did not know the Farsi alphabet (and thus, could not read anything in the language), and dyed her hair blonde (to match my own). Sometimes, Mom confused Farsi words, for example, intending "sinie" (tray) but saying "sineh" (a woman's breast). As a bilingual child, I constantly helped Mom by translating words and explaining cultural nuances. Despite her literary gaffes and limited fluency, Mom was well liked by everyone and treated with respect.
As my mother flourished in her Anglicized milieu at work, I relied on our household help to show me the Persian rules of engagement. In recent years, people from the poorer districts and rural areas on the outskirts of Tehran had flocked to the city in search of jobs and a better quality of life. Typically, they were less educated and less traveled, more traditional and more religious, and had larger families. They became our maids, gardeners, trash collectors, and the small-time vendors who pushed wheeled food carts through the city. On street corners, they peddled cooked red beets and hot fava beans in the winter, and walnuts soaked in salt water and grilled corn on the cob in the summer.
My family's four consecutive live-in maids showered me with love and affection, and because my mother was a career woman I spent a lot of time with them. Since I was sensitive and open by nature, I felt intimately connected to our maids, who were members of the tradition-bound underclass of Tehran. I listened to stories of their childhoods and large families. I considered each one to be my second mother. They were the ones who were fluent in all things Persian: the language, customs, history, and legends.
For example, before I learned it in school, Mahbobeh, our dynamic and imaginative live-in maid, would recite to me from the Shahnameh, the epic work of the Persian kings, written by eleventh-century Persian poet Ferdowsi. She told me about the great King Jamshid and how his arrogance was the cause of his downfall, and about Rostam, the son of Zal, and Rudabeh, a legendary warrior known for his fierce battles. In the more fanciful realm, Mahbobeh often repeated the story about a genie stuck in a bottle for thousands of years, who, upon gaining his freedom, granted a wish to his master.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "From Miniskirt to Hijab"
Copyright © 2018 Jacqueline Saper.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Acknowledgments Historical Note Part 1. Hope, 1961–1978 1. The Best of Both Worlds 2. My Iranian Mothers 3. The Shah’s Spectacular Parties 4. Cracks along the Avenue 5. England Part 2. Fear, 1978–1979 6. Homecoming 7. When Jacqueline Met Ebi 8. Nightly Calls of “Allahu-akbar” 9. The Man in the Moon 10. The King Is Crying 11. Utopia? Part 3. Adapt, 1979–1980 12. My First Referendum 13. Executions 14. My Jewish Wedding in the Islamic Republic 15. “Death to America” 16. Invasion 17. The Sacred Defense Part 4. Veil, 1981–1985 18. “Sister, Guard Your Hijab” 19. The Downhill 20. The Second-Class Citizen 21. Public Life, Private Self 22. Half of the World’s Beauty 23. Front of the War, Front of the Plane 24. “The Martyr” Part 5. Resolve, 1986–1987 25. Welcome to First Grade 26. Why Is This Night Different? 27. The View from the Rooftop 28. Flight Epilogue Glossary of Persian, Arabic, and Hebrew Terms Notes Bibliography Reading Group Discussion Guide