“Gourmet” Food vs. Normal Food

Most children love lunch time. No class, no reading, just time to take out that brown, paper bag lunch, and enjoy a classic PB&J sandwich, juice box, and a bag of chips. That’s what cool kids eat, at least. But our homemade lunches were always….different, mysterious. It didn’t matter how much we begged our maman for a normal meal. She always wanted to treat us to the gourmet. 

 

The full-length descriptions of our food didn’t matter, however. The gourmet was never gourmet when it wasn’t processed and boxed the way Stephanie’s lunch was. 

Fast forward years. We’re adults now. We sit at our desks, and all we wish for is maman’s stew with rice or spread in bread. Instead, we have sad, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. And when we occasionally do bring leftovers, and our coworkers ask us what we’re eating, we go through the whole ingredient list, recipe, and description in full detail. Because…..it’s nice to watch their mouths water and their eyes pine for just a bite of our pomegranate stew, mashed eggplant with mint sauce, or tomato lentil rosewater stew with saffron basmati rice. 

It’s Hard to Say Goodbye.

 

Short. Simple. Direct. Purposeful. Clear.

If only Persian goodbyes were as predictable, straightforward, and reliable as that. But no. Persian goodbyes are known to last for hours. In fact, the sentence, “Ok, we really should get going” really means, “Why don’t we stand by the door with our shoes on, our coats on, and our bags on our shoulders and continue this conversation and maybe start a couple more.” 

Say, you’re a little, Persian girl at your family friend’s dinner party. You’re in the living room, watching a movie with your friends. Your parents are having dinner with the other adults, talking about boring, adult-y things. Now, the movie is almost over. It’s getting really good. It’s at the point when the Quidditch match is most intense. There’s only fifteen minutes left, and then your maman yells from the dining room: 

I complain to myself, “I’m really bummed we have to go in the middle of the movie. Why does maman have to sleep so early all the time?”

Now, I’m thinking, “Oh no…they do this every time. How long will it last this time? Can I just go finish my movie?” 

And now I’m wondering, “Why didn’t you just talk about all of this at the table when you were sipping tea? Please don’t talk about the stock market or politics. So boring! Also, this coat is uncomfortable. Why do we have our coats on if we’re not leaving? I’m just going to interrupt them. Maman hates it when I interrupt them, but I’m just going to do it. Ok, here I go!” 

 

And now I’m yelling in my head, “MAMAN YOU SAID THAT 30 MINUTES AGO. WHY DO THE ADULTS ALWAYS GET TO TALK WHILE THE KIDS STAND AROUND?! AND IT’S COLD AND YOU LEFT THE DOOR OPEN……THE GARDEN!?!?!? YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT THE GARDEN NOW!?”

*clock ticks*

“HOW MANY MORE TIMES WILL YOU SAY THANK YOU? YOU ALREADY SAID IT 3,423 TIMES IN 268 WAYS. DEAR GOD, PLEASE MAKE THEM STOP. OK WE’RE GOING……..WAIT WHAT, THE HOUSING MARKET….NOW? SERIOUSLY LET’S JUST TAKE OFF OUR SHOES AND GO BACK INSIDE.”

But of course not…because in Persian culture it’s rude to take your shoes off and go back inside and sit down and talk. It’s not rude to keep everyone standing by the door. 

*clock ticks*

Saying goodbye is hard for everyone. It’s even harder for Persians. But it’s hardest for the children of Persian parents. 

 

The American Flag We Couldn’t Remove

This story is a difficult one to retell. We found ourselves tearing up as we drafted and illustrated it. We took breaks and talked about growing up and what we have taken for granted. Despite the challenges of immigration– islamophobia, racial profiling, alienation, harassment, the risk of deportation– we have always had our parents. As children, we knew they would protect us and always assure us that we belonged. As we’ve grown up, we’ve realized how drastically different our experiences of immigration must have been from our parents’. We moved in our spaces as if they were our own, because our parents made sure that we had our own spaces. Whenever we were afraid, and had to turn around and look back, we knew they were there watching us, waiting for us. We realize now that they had been threatened with deportation so often, that they had been told they “were guests here” so often, that they were told that “any minute we can change your status” so often, that they never had the privilege of moving in spaces, or even moving things in those spaces, like they were their own– even those spaces and things they had worked so hard to earn. We only realize now, that, in all of that time, whenever they were afraid, whenever they had to turn around and look back, they saw nothing but a vast ocean of space between themselves and the people who they once thought would be there to protect and support them.

This one is dedicated to our baba.There is no written portion to this story. It’s all in the images. So spend time in the faces, the colors, the bodies, the people, the places and every feeling that accompanies them.

 

 

Emergency? Tea in Minutes!

I have a confession. Persians can be very ethnocentric….when it comes to one thing. Their tea. “No one makes tea as good as us!” you may often hear Persians say. “Our tea is Tea. What everyone else drinks….Well, whatever it is, it’s not tea.” 

My mom and dad rate coffee shops based on how well the baristas prepare tea. Wait, not just coffee shops- hotels, wedding receptions, restaurants, banks. “Why banks? you may wonder. Well, banks often have a table with complimentary tea. And where there’s tea, there is judgement to be passed. 

 

 

When we first immigrated to the United States, my father could not comprehend “flavored tea.” Lemon Tea? Orange Spice? Cinnamon Tea? Raspberry Tea? “That’s not quite tea. In Iran, we call that herbal medicine. It’s medicine! Not tea.” 

As you can imagine, only drinking tea prepared at your own house or at the house of the friend-whose-tea-you’ve-approved poses quite an inconvenience. Especially when you must drink at least four cups of tea every day to survive, and even more to thrive. What if you want tea on the road? What if you’re traveling? Well, where there is determination, there is always a solution. 

Solution #1: When spending the whole day outdoors or out of town, find the nearest friend-whose-tea-you-approve to visit. 

 

Solution #2: Keep an Emergency Tea Preparation Kit in your car at all times. Yes, my parents have one and it lives in the trunk of the car. Recently, my sister bought a car, and she also has one. 

In this kit, one will find a life-saving device called a Jetboil. Amazon describes the Jetboil as “a dependable cooking stove and boiler that gives you gourmet even at the summit.” What neither Amazon, nor the Jetboil company knows is that this product would be a best seller in Iran if it were simply advertised as, “Emergency? Tea in minutes!”

Then, when you need a hit, pull over to the curbside, or to the nearest parking lot, and brew tea. Whenever, wherever, Jetboil is here for you. 

 

Solution #3: Keep a Contigo (or another vacuum insulated thermos) in your handbag at all times. Of course, you already have approved Middle Eastern or South Asian tea bags of black tea in the emergency kit, in your dashboard, in your purse, and wallet so no worries there. Then, shamelessly do as my parents did in Italy. Enter an exquisite, Italian cafe, serving delicious cappuccinos and fine hand-pulled espressos and ask, “Excuse me, can I have some very very boiling water in my Contigo. Extra Hot. Like burning hot please.” Then, take a tea bag from the ziplock bag in your purse, put it in your Contigo, find a table, and sip away!!! For this one, no drawing would capture the reality. So here’s a real photo.

Photo taken in Rome’s most famous, most visited, café. Trip Advisor describes it as offering the finest cappuccinos in Europe. The cappuccino is mine. 

Note: When reverting to solution #3, your daughters, sons, friends, relatives (or anyone accompanying you) may choose to sit far away, on the other side of the cafe with their hand-pulled Italian cappuccino, pretending they don’t know you. Please do not take offense. 

When Muslims Try Halloween

When my family immigrated to the United States, no one told them that cities would transform in October– that suddenly round, orange gourds with carved out faces would pop up on neighbors’ doorsteps, and that even the most serious and professional establishments would hang cartoon ghosts over their doorways, and that everything would be washed in shades of orange, red, yellow, and brown. 

When we were in elementary school, we started to ask our parents if we could celebrate Halloween and go trick-or-treating like our friends. My mom would always respond, “Why would I suddenly encourage you to go around knocking on strangers’ doors, asking them for candy?!”

“You just don’t get it, maman! On October 31st, it’s safe!” 

My parents forbid us from going out. Instead, they would set up trick-or-treating in our apartment. We had two bedroom doors and one bathroom door to knock on. My mom would rotate hiding in each of the rooms and the bathroom. We would knock on the door, and either receive a “trick” (water sprayed at us) or a “treat” (healthy and not-very-tasty candy). 

It’s not so cool when your mom is having more fun than you. 

In 2004, we tried again:

With only a couple days left to Halloween, and all the chatter about sexy Halloween costumes at school, it would be extremely difficult to find something that would meet maman’s requirements. 

Of course, the inspiration for all things creative in the early 2000s was Nelly (not Nelly Furtado, but band-aid Nelly). If you didn’t listen to Nelly growing up, we definitely wouldn’t have been friends…unless, you were listening to Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, or Tupac instead. 

That night, we went out with our two Iranian friends and said we’d go “trick-or-treating”….but, we actually snuck over to our first ever Halloween block party. With an enormous amount of pride. We. Looked. Baller.

Well, it didn’t go exactly as planned. We were a little too successful at looking like a male rapper. And we didn’t want that kind of popularity. 

So we went home.

Maman was upset that we took all of their clothes without permission. She was also upset at the implications. We wouldn’t do it again, but we’re still proud of how well we pulled it off. 

 

Friends Fight Over Money, Right?

Middle Eastern parents love their friends…..until it comes time to pay the bill. At that point, they will yell at them, argue with them, threaten them (“I’ll never come out with you again”), push them, hold them back, compete with them. If they don’t succeed, they will sometimes stop talking to their friends for the rest of the night (“I’m really upset with you. What you did was incredibly rude”).

What they did was pay the bill.

If you were raised in this (dys)functional, friendship environment, then you likely wanted to do the same for your friends as soon as you were old enough to carry around cash and go hang out at the hottest place in your suburb— the mall.

“Let me pay the bill,” you probably said and then took a deep breath in, ready to start arguing. And then your friends who had their hands on their wallets said, “Oh, Ok! Thanks!” You’ve seen your parents generous with money (even when they didn’t have it), so you don’t really mind paying, but you are also offended that your friends didn’t even try.

Confused, you probably told your mom about it when she picked you up. She likely said, “Oh, that’s such a nice thing you did, but next time you don’t need to. Americans don’t do that kind of thing.” You later realize what she wanted to say was, “If you do that, you’ll end up paying for them every time you go out.”

As you got older, you learned that not only is it not an American custom to pay for your friends’ food, a lot of time it is custom to charge your friends for EVERY. LAST. DIME of the food they’ve eaten.

This brings us to Venmo— the application that has made charging and payment easy. Venmo needs to be a little more inclusive in the design of their application. Here is some feedback we have for the application:

  1. Middle Easterners won’t use the “charge” option.
  2. There needs to be a “reject” option.
  3. There needs to be an “outright reject, don’t try again” or “block payment from this friend for 48 hours” option.
  4. Venmo needs more emojis that show money fights. Just brainstorming here: Person A is shoving away Person B who has a credit card in his hand. Person A and Person B are both extending their arms as far out as possible into the cashier’s face. Person A yells at Person B over money, then they hug each other as they leave the restaurant.

For now, none of these are options. So, here are two screenshots of my Venmo. This should help you understand why changes to Venmo are necessary.

Note to Venmo newbies: You have to read Venmo history from the bottom-up. Last post first.

Venmo Screenshot 1: In which I exchange money with my American friends: 

Venmo Screenshot 2: In which I try to exchange $$ with my Persian friends. 

There are four more screenshots of this that didn’t fit in the frame. Let’s just say, it goes on for a while….

My Burkini Body

This is us, ready to swim.

No, my dad is not secretly spying on us to make sure we’re covered.

No, my husband is not forcing me to wear my burkini. 

This is my swimsuit because I want it to be. Simple as that!  

Lifeguards at public pools will often ask me to change into a “normal swimsuit” or to “not wear outdoor clothes in the pool.” I always answer, “ummm…this is my normal swimsuit.” Then, they usually gesture to other swimmers and say, “We can’t allow you to wear clothes you’d wear outdoors in the pool.” But really, they’re saying, “See those girls in bikinis and one-pieces, they’re wearing normal swimsuits.”  Then, I respond, “I’m Muslim.” I never understand why I need to share that information. No one else is going around talking about their beliefs. Usually at that point, they get nervous and awkwardly walk away. And now, everyone at the pool is looking at me (but pretending like they’re not), and I just secretly want Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. I have stopped going to public pools. 

I prefer the beach, anyway. Nothing is as calming or serene as the sound of waves flapping and fluttering on the beach.  

Oh wait. Until someone decides to chime in and ruin it for you.

[Note: Hijabi Ninjas are a thing. And they’re incredible. Check these parkour women out.]

Growing up in California, my family loved going to the beach. We may not be real ninjas in training, but we mastered the art of Halal Public Burkini Changing. That is, when dad would park the car in a less crowded area, the car doors would be open, we would hide behind the car taking turns, holding up towels while my father circled the circumference of the car distracting passersby with small talk when necessary. Two minutes later:  Mission Accomplished.

But…..the big bag of wet clothes that follows? Not so fun.

 

The truth is, we know that whenever we go out in our burkini, someone is thinking, Is she forced to do that? How does she shower? That poor girl. Is she sad?

But, judging a woman based on her appearance isn’t something new. Is it?

 

 

(Please comment below and let us know your thoughts!) 

Patriotism Soaked in Blood

Dedicated to the victims of the terrorist attack in Las Vegas on October 2, 2017. And all those who’ve lost their lives or lost a loved one to war. May they rest in peace.

I only enjoyed fireworks until I was nine-years-old.

Growing up in California, we rarely watched the sky light up on Independence Day with our family. One year, we begged our parents for fireworks. So, my dad bought little fireworks and poppers. He took us to the park, we lit them, and watched them fizzle and roll in color at our feet. But most years, we would do what we always did– pray and then watch a movie together. Reyhaneh and I would try to catch glimpses of the lights from our bedroom windows but usually gave up. Sitting on the sofa, maman would say, “We woke up to these sounds in the middle of the night during the Iraq-Iran war.” And then my dad would tell us stories about going to the frontlines. My mom was pregnant with Shokoofeh during the war.

“Weren’t you afraid?” we’d ask her.

“No, when I was at home, I was never afraid. I figured if the whistling is followed by a bomb striking our house at least we’d all die together. I didn’t want to be alive and lose my family. But when I left the house for university during the day….I couldn’t bear it. They were home and I was somewhere else.”

On Fourth of July, when the sky whistled and cracked and we saw the occasional flare in the sky, we whispered extra prayers in our nighttime Isha prayer. We would pray for all of those who had lost their lives to war and acts of violence at home and abroad.

And when we were older and went out with friends to watch the fireworks…Well,

Untitled_Artwork (4)

Everyone would cheer. I never could.

 

On Muslim Metamorphosis— Studying the Rajabzadeh Sisters

The Rajabzadeh sisters watched the following TV shows and cartoons while growing up: Sailor Moon, Pokémon, Batman, Power Rangers, Arthur. These shows all have one element in common— elaborate scenes of metamorphosis accompanied by dramatic music. Footnote: You recall that scene where Arthur morphs into….well, nevermind, maybe not.

You can credit their deft ability to transform themselves to the extensive research they’ve done watching these cartoons every.single.day after school. In fact, the ability to metamorphosize to almost-American or almost-Iranian is a crucial survival skill. It is necessary in order to reduce the number of times one is flagged at “random” security checks. Footnote: Please take notes while reading this. Images are available for download for further study.

Let us consider the following: You’ve seen normal Shokoofeh in the “About Us” of the website…. or quickly scroll up and see the graphic at the top of the page (she’s the one on the left). Now, say, Shokoofeh was on holiday and is now boarding a flight to head back home to the United States. Assuming she is in an imaginary country where she can just be herself, she would look like this:

She would spend a significant portion of her flight to the United States in this way:

And would enter US Security looking like this:

Security cleared.

Now say, she is leaving the United States back home to Iran. Well, she would make sure she went through US airport security looking exactly like the image above. However, she would have to use a lot of spit as makeup remover, and the corners of her hijab as face cloth, and restart the power transformation. Thankfully, the flight to Iran is 12.5 hours long. Sorry fellow passengers, this lavatory may be occupied for a while.

After a long flight, a wardrobe switch somewhere mid-air, day prayers and night prayers recited, and a final few touch-ups while the plane is taxiing, metamorphosis is complete. Shokoofeh would fearlessly descend the plane, and enter the Islamic Republic of Iran’s airport security ready for a problem-free arrival.

Note to reader:

Should you witness an almost-Iranian or almost-American metamorphosis in your next flight, please read the following disclaimer: The woman in the seat next to you is not a fugitive who must disguise herself. This is not an episode of The Americans (though a Muslim version of the show would be great). Please try to pretend like you’re not afraid when she begins to pray. There is no need to request a seat change. If you do, she will appreciate the extra space.

9/11: From an 11-year-old Hijabi

On September 11th, 2001 I woke up and did the normal: got dressed, wrapped my hijab, packed my rollie backpack (obviously!), had some Nutella on toast, grabbed my homemade lunch of gross-looking-but-yummy-tasting-Iranian-stew wrapped in lavash bread, and gave maman and baba a kiss before being dropped off at school. Little did I know that nothing else would be normal.

This is 11-year-old me, wearing leggings instead of the oh-so fashionable bell bottoms. I guess you could say we started the legging trend.

I didn’t know if I should tell a teacher, or if I should just brush it off. If I were to follow my mom’s advice, then I would have to pretend that the bullies were invisible (because that gets to bullies, she always said) and then I would have to secretly follow them to their next class, go into class, and ask the teacher for the names of the students, then go straight to the office and report them. “Never engage with them yourself,” my mom would often say, “but follow them secret-ops style and report them.” Brush it off, Reyhaneh. It’s not cool to tell on the “cool” kids.

Before moving on, there is something you need to know about my family….we never had television growing up. So while most American families were watching TV in the mornings, my family was sitting around the breakfast table retelling weird dreams, we were begging my mom to pack us a “normal” “cool” lunch (like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich), and trying to convince her to stop asking us questions like, “Do you want semi-hard eggs or just hard eggs? Do you want dark tea or light tea? How toasted do you want your bread?” The result: I was probably the only kid at school who didn’t know what was going on on the morning of September 11, 2001.

Attacks? Terrorism? Twin Towers? Death? I couldn’t keep track. How come no one explained anything? How was I supposed to find out what happened? Is my family in the US OK? Is my family in Iran OK? Should I call them? Why is everyone staring at me weird? What do I have to do with it? I sat in silence.

At recess, my friends asked me questions like, “Aren’t Afghanistan and Iran basically the same country?” “What do your cousins in Iran think?” “Does your family hate America?” I tried to tell them what I knew about Iran, which wasn’t very much because I had left Iran when I was two years old. Someone asked me, “Do you hate Americans?” I said, “What do you mean? Aren’t we all American? Who is an American? I like you. Aren’t we friends?” I told them I needed to go to the bathroom, and sat in the hallway near my math class instead, waiting for class to start.

My favorite part of the day was always snack time at 4pm after school. My sister and I would pray while maman shuffled around the kitchen, opening and closing the fridge. We would come downstairs to our favorite goodies– a bowl of pretzels, a bowl of yogurt seasoned with lemon and salt, chopped carrots, crackers and cheese, dates.

It was a relief to experience a part of the day that still felt familiar. Baba came home early that day, and for the first time someone told us what had happened that morning. They told us that many people had lost their lives, among them were Muslims and Iranians and Afghanis. They told us this is our home, and this was an attack on everyone, including us. They told us we don’t have to feel guilty or responsible. The terrorists have nothing to do with us. “Remember that,” they said, “because everyone will try to convince you otherwise.” They told us that we may not be allowed to go out alone for a while. When we still looked scared and sad, maman played Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” for us and jumped around the living room, dancing, while baba popped us popcorn.

Maman and baba always knew how to make us feel better. But this time, it didn’t quite work. I watched the footage that night, and I cried. I watched the news. They said Muslims were evil. Iranians were evil. They said we should leave. On September 11, 2001 so many people lost so much. I lost Home.