mercredi 21 janvier 2009

Family pictures

Like Leila

A British woman in niqab


"In daring cross-cultural leaps, no figure quite matches Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro, Mr. Obama’s mother. As a university student in Honolulu, she hung out at the East-West Center, a cultural exchange organization, meeting two successive husbands there: Barack Obama, an economics student from Kenya, and later, Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian. Decades later, her daughter Maya Soetoro was picking up fliers at the same East-West Center when she noticed Konrad Ng, a Chinese-Canadian student, now her husband."
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/21/us/politics/21family.html?pagewanted=2&em

But if you step back and enlarge the image, you can also include the daughter of Virginia Dunham Goeldner, the niece of Madelyn and Stanley Dunham, first cousin of Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro, Barack Obama's second cousin. Bring her into focus nearly 40 years ago and you see a young woman studying linguistics at university, who gave conversation classes to the international students, among them a young Saudi who she would marry and accompany to Jetta, where she would convert to Islam and they would raise their three daughters, American-Saudi. They wear the niqab like their mother, who is now a grandmother.

It places Ann in a family where cultural and personal transformation, curiosity for the lives and ways of others is a theme, not one woman's personal quirk. I can understand this. In college, I met an Iranian student. He was like so many of us at Columbia -- from somewhere else. The entire soccer team was that, "from somewhere else", including Peru and Ecuador, Belgium and England, Italy and Turkey, Germany and Greece (second generation), and there was Shahin Shayan was from Tehran by way of the Hun School of Princeton, New Jersey. Amazing that I still remember that after all these years. 28 years. He was the most brilliant member of that soccer team, as well as their "spiritual and physical leader", according to the Harvard Crimson back then, and he sat cross-legged on the floor and showed me the old color photos he kept in a box in the closet of his dorm room. His mother and father, sister and cousins against a dry, mountainous landscape. Kicking a soccer ball on a dusty Tehran playing field, smiling at the camera. Joyful and carefree.

Carefree. Up until the summer of 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini, returned from Neauph-le Château to liberate his people from the dictatorial and cruel reign of the Shah, with his underground tunnels and state police, only to impose on them another form, placing his father, a pediatrician, in prison at Evin, along with everyone who might be against his version of freedom.

He laid the photos of the family travels into the mountains bordering Turkey and to the Caspian Sea out before me, and as I looked at his handsome father's face, he told me how he stood in line for hours -- four hours, six hours -- with everyone else who came when allowed to visit their loved one in that nightmarish prison once a week, and wondered as they heard the shots of the executioners' rifles if their father, son, or uncle would still be alive when it was their turn to enter that terrible place.

He pulled out the black and white magazine covers from the days of his mother's public struggle to bring back the deposed Dr. Muhammed Mosadegh, herself regarded as one of Iran's 3 most beautiful women, a daughter of the Qajar Dynasty, Persia's final dynasty, brought down in 1925 by Reza Kahn who would become Shah. A beautiful woman with dark red lipstick and wavy raven hair framing a pale, exquisite face gazed at the camera and out of the black and white photos. She was Confidence. She was Pride.

A serious young man, his father was smitten by her beauty and took to standing outside her window by the street lantern. For hours he would wait there, hoping that she would understand that he would not go away, hoping to show her thus the depth of his love, his passion, his commitment and his terrible patience. For her. He would wait, and she would understand. They married, the young doctor and the princess of the Qajar Dynasty, and they would have Shahin and Labkhand ("smile") before divorcing years later. He would become the pediatrician of the Shah's brother's children, and this would earn him passage to arrest and incarceration at Evin.

His mother sent him out in the car, that summer of 1979, to collect their valuables -- carpets, jewelry, anything that was still in their homes. He stuffed the trunk with what he could find to change to currency and get out of Khomeini's Iran to bring to her in Orange County, California, to which she had escaped with nothing. Her sister and her sister's husband had had the fortune to be able to buy a gas station in Long Beach on a dismal stretch of boulevard and a recently constructed split-level ranch in one of Irvine's newest developments. Later, when I went out to spend a summer, we made baloney sandwiches in the office of that gas station watching through the plate glass windows for cars to pull in off the sun-drenched stretch of pavement and fill up. He feared armed roadblocks and searches. In the end, he got little or nothing out of Iran, but he got his father out of Evin, and into house arrest.

I never saw that father. There was no Internet. I don't recall if he could call him. My memories of that are few, as much as I do remember him talking on the phone with his mother and sister, laughing more than at any other time, laughing, always laughing early on, and thinking "He's not the same when he speaks Farsi." I understood that we are ourselves when we speak the language of our childhood, even when we speak another later language as well. I know that now myself.

His mother and her family, though. I fell inlove with them, like I did with their brilliant son. He isn't that man anymore. He already wasn't by the end of three years. I watched him change, and I couldn't go with him where he was heading. I learned Farsi, well enough to converse and laugh, and their culture well enough to make the cake for Hussein's birthday, writing his name in green cake icing in an Irvine kitchen in careful Persian alphabet script. I loved being able to do that. Write our names, and say them. I found a culture I loved more than my own because it was one, with living rooms full of family and friends, laughter and music, Labkhand and the other young women standing to swirl their full hips and then release their body to follow in a dizzyingly sensual pirouette that was nothing like our muscular, emaciated, careful ballet, pulling me to my feet and setting me in motion along with them. The hands clapping the beat, coffee cups covering the tables. Afternoons seated on the floor, tailor-style, around a cloth, cutting the parsley for the Gormeh Sabzi with scissors, and talking and laughing, always laughing, even when life had changed so radically.

His mother had shopped in Paris and London with her children, flying from Tehran as she wished. Sent her son to The Hun School and Columbia, where he studied theoretical physics, met me and took me to see the accelerator under the campus and to hear the astrophysics lectures. Studying late into the night, I would hear, "Listen! This is so beautiful..." and, drawing near, he would read me a sentence from his quantum mechanics text books. He was so beautiful. Later still in the night, we would go to Tom's or to The College Inn for a tuna melt. It was a symbiosis of love, passion, friendship and learning, and it was warm, easy, like a nest.

But he changed, and I didn't.

Did anyone else notice? Did it hurt them, too? Did they miss him?

He started to watch my eyes, not because he found them beautiful but because he needed to know where they were looking. Was I looking at another man? Even in passing, it was intolerable for him now. Inexplicably. Suddenly. He was no longer carefree. He was burdened with cares and himself, and I had become another.

Ordering my sandwich at the deli next to him, I kept my eyes on the ham. "Why doesn't she look at me when she speaks?" they surely wondered. I felt his eyes on me at my side, but not from love.

I cried in the toilet of the Hungarian Pastry Shop, his words on the paper in my hand, "You can be perfect. You were made to be perfect. All you have to do is try a little harder." And the words unsaid, "All you have to do is listen to me, and I will show you the way to your perfection."

He had changed, but I had not. Why? Where was he going and why was he going there? I couldn't follow him.

I studied Middle Eastern Studies and imagined a life as a diplomat, but I feared the Islamic Republic of Iran would make that impossible. Only years later did I read Elaine Sciolino and realize that it would have been possible, perhaps even easier as a woman.

I left him, and I left the Middle Eastern Studies department. I paid my visit to the other world, the etherially disconnected and elegant Persian world on Riverside Drive of Dr. Yarshater, and I told him I would become an architect, and at that moment, before I had ever set foot outside of the United States, I began to search for what I yearned -- a life in a culture older and more beautiful and orderly than my own. The one I had found and lost with Shahin.

He had changed, and so had I through him. I had become more like him, and he, perhaps, became more like his own self, the one he would be from the deeper parts of that culture that had called to me, the parts that one discovers only when marriage and family begin to draw near.

"I marry the for the price of a rose."

We had agreed. He needed for us to be Mut'a al-Nisa, temporarily married until we were married, so that our physical love would be alright. For that, a price is asked. We named a rose. I could go that far. I could, I thought, go farther if asked. I did not, I thought, think that I would be asked to and learn that I could not.

Until his eyes watched mine to see where they looked, and I had to say good-bye.

Today, I live in France, and I enjoy all of the benefits of that Persian culture -- I even say merci, when served my coffee, and je vous en prie, when offering and again when thanked, just like I used to say "befarmaid" in Persian -- and I see the women in the Val Fouré in Niqab, lovely columns of draped cloth just behind their husbands, their hands pushing a stroller across the street, their small children holding the skirts covering their legs. I wonder, are they happy inside their veil and behind the screen across their eyes? I imagine these small children grown. Will they adopt the niqab like their mothers, or ask their wives to?

And after I left Ginger and Cecil, in town like I was to witness the inauguration of their great-nephew, I thought about Debbie turned Leila, and I wondered how she was able to take that step, the one that I could not. That final one that leaves some part of you behind, while taking on a new one. Is she pretending, I asked myself, still living an anthropological experience of transformation, aware of her Western self inside her niqab when she is outdoors, or has she become fully the person culture had made of Shahin, long before I ever met him?

I know this is not possible. We can none of us escape that. We all tell the stories we chose, keeping the others to ourselves. Private and cherished, I have mine still, Shahin. Do you have yours?

He lives in Tehran now, like his father, who has been free since 1986. I learned this today. We are ourselves, as much as anyone can be.
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