The sun is beating down and the streets of Tehran are hot and dusty. All around I see men standing outside businesses smoking cigarettes and women, many with their faces covered by veil-like chadors, bustling from shop to shop on their daily errands. The only language I hear is Farsi, reminding me how far from home I am. I realize that I am by myself on this strange, disconcerting street and I feel my anxiety level increasing. Thirsty and wanting to get out of the sun and the noise, I head toward the German restaurant that my husband and I and our friends enjoy so much.
I feel sticky from the heat and the dust, but what I feel most are the eyes upon me. As a young Western woman in a fairly conservative Muslim country, I’m used to being stared at. But this is different. The looks I’m getting are more than just curious — they are shocked, severe, sharply critical, almost hostile. I can’t imagine what I’m wearing that could be so offensive until I look down and find, to my horror, that I’m stark naked.
I try to cover myself but have nothing to do it with. I have to find somewhere to duck in. There! A building I can slip into! But I can’t get in. A man — I can’t see his face — clearly does not want me inside his establishment. Desperate, I step off the sidewalk, only to find myself in the middle of a wide boulevard with a crowd forming around me and traffic honking. My panic increases as the crowd moves in closer and closer. I can’t get my breath and I’m afraid I’m going to pass out.
* * * *
Instead, I wake up with the usual start. That vivid dream of walking naked in Tehran haunted me for many years and seemed so real because I did actually walk those dusty frightening streets. My naked nightmare isn’t difficult to understand when you consider the circumstances. I got married at nineteen and two days later moved to Tehran, Iran where I lived for a year and a half. That’s pretty much my story in a nutshell. It’s my coming-of-age, fish-out-of-water, lifedefining story. It’s also my “walking-on-the-moon” story. There’s a comedian who does a bit about wishing he could walk on the moon just because it would give him the best story in the room. When you’re at a cocktail party and some braggart is trying to impress you with how he was promoted to CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or that pesky neighbor with the PhD announces that he has isolated the cell that causes cancer, you whip out your walking on the moon story and it pretty much shuts everybody else down. To this day, whether I’m talking travel, world affairs, life experiences or just about anything that I want to stop somebody dead in their tracks, I reach down deep and lay my “I lived in Iran” line on them and step back to watch their reaction. It usually elicits some sort of verbal display of “wow” or for those not easily impressed more of a begrudging grunt of recognition that it’s not exactly like having lived in Peoria. It’s often followed by not-so in-depth probing questions such as “did you have to wear a veil?” No, I did not have to wear a veil, or chador, but I’d say half or more of Iranian women in Tehran did not back then.
That was 1975 and 1976 when the Shah of Iran was in power and was just a couple of years before the Islamic Revolution and his overthrow. At nineteen, I had no political world view. I was, quite frankly, completely ignorant of the entire background of the CIA supposedly installing the shah and pissing off a whole lot of volatile people. Furthermore, the much bigger picture of the turmoil in the Middle East was not on my radar at all. Had I known and understood, maybe I wouldn’t have gone. (Young and ignorant is sometimes the best way to be if you ever want to live with a certain amount of abandon.) Today, those sure seem like simpler times before terrorism dominated the world stage.
My year and a half in Tehran passed very slowly and I really disliked living there. I wish I could say otherwise; that it was a wonderful, educational experience that exposed me to exciting new cultures and people and that I loved every minute of it. But, unfortunately that is not the case. I couldn’t wait to get home and put it behind me. It was very difficult living in a completely foreign culture, especially one that isn’t particularly kind to women and I was so young and inexperienced that I couldn’t figure out a way to learn from and enjoy the ride. It didn’t help that I had no common appliances that might have made my everyday life a little easier. I had no car, no washer or dryer, no dishwasher, no movie theaters; very little English TV, and no cable TV (not even basic!). The VCR hadn’t been invented yet (let alone DVDs), and personal computers were still the stuff of science fiction, so there also was no Internet and no cell phones. Kind of like Gilligan, I was stranded on my own little island with not a single luxury.
In fact, I would say that living in Iran was the hardest, scariest thing I’ve ever done and my memories of being there are not particularly pleasant. But memories are funny things. Sometimes the bad ones are the ones that have the most influence on you. Or perhaps you discover the memories weren’t bad after all. Why do we relive any experience? I believe it’s either to remind us of how great it was — or how bad it was. Either way, the challenge lies in seeing where it all fits in your life. When I left Iran in 1976 I sure didn’t expect to want to go back again…ever. In fact the word “never” rings a bell. I didn’t expect to want to relive all my experiences there either. But here I am.