On Becoming Iranian Part II

Bijan Roghanchi is a photographer and writer. He was born and raised in the United States by an American mother and an Iranian father. In June, 2011 he left for Iran to spend a year asking of himself what it means for him to be Iranian. His book, “Becoming Iranian” (due early this year), is the distillation of two and a half years in Iran and nearly 30,000 photographs. We asked him to write about his experiences and what compelled him to travel to Iran. In part one we read about Bijan’s  childhood as an Iranian-American growing up in Maplewood New Jersey- and the questions that lead to a strong desire to leave for Iran, to discover what it means to be Iranian.  This is part of two (and final) of Bijan’s incredible story of identity and an Iran unseen.  

My first weeks in Iran were chaotic. I moved in with my grandma, aunt, and cousin Pedram to a two bedroom apartment on 17th Street off Gisha Boulevard in the west of Tehran. Guests stopped in daily to visit the missing grandchild, “my American grandson” my grandma would say. I was jet-lagged for days, if not weeks, and there were endless arguments between my cousin, our aunt, and grandma; when to take a shower, what to eat for breakfast, where to go and with whom. It was all in Farsi. I couldn’t understand any of it. Several weeks later Pedram left for Uzbekistan to apply for a visa to the U.S. to attend a master of engineering program and overnight a sullenness set into the apartment. My grandma and aunt silently sank into their routines of cooking and cleaning.

“Iran is equal parts past and present, dream and memory, and it was only my grandmother, in her late 80s when I arrived, who could live seamlessly in all these realities at the same time.”

One morning while my cousin was away and my aunt was out running errands, I stumbled from the living room to the second bedroom to fetch one of my notebooks. All of the rooms in the house were communal, no locks on the doors. My cousin and I shared the second bedroom, but we all shared the closest where among other things the bedding was stored. At the doorway, I was struck to stillness by the image unfolding in front of me. My grandma stood at a bookshelf in diffused midmorning light that came in through an open window and curtain. She held in her hands a photo of my cousin that I recognized immediately because I had seen it myself on the shelf. She stared at it gently, pulled it to her lips, and kissed it before returning it to her gaze and then the shelf. Although I couldn’t understand the arguments that took place in the previous weeks, I understood the language of separation.

Iran is equal parts past and present, dream and memory, and it was only my grandmother, in her late 80s when I arrived, who could live seamlessly in all these realities at the same time. She would drift back and forth from one past, one memory to another. Sometimes she was teleported to different times by a physical object like the picture of my cousin or a small wallet-sized black and white photo of her own children in a silver frame. Other times it was an unseen memory, and flash in her consciousness that propelled her to the past. If I was lucky enough, and we were alone in the house, I could go back with her in the stories she told while she cooked.

My grandparents were the first of our family to move from Langarud, a Caspian Sea village on the opposite side of the Alborz mountains, to Tehran in 1948. Shortly afterward, their new house –her home — became a launching pad for several generations of young men, friends and family, to the rest of the world.

“My grandma hid him on the roof for weeks until the authorities’ interest died down. She laughed when she told me how the secret police had once shaved his head to embarrass him.”

Uncle Mahmoud, my grandma’s younger brother, was one of the first. He was a prolific writer and part of a generation of politically conscious young Iranians that emerged after World War II. He got into trouble in Langarud, and his friend, Mr. Taghii, had to ferry him out of town in the back of a rice truck. They drove overnight via Zanjan to Tehran. My grandma hid him on the roof for weeks until the authorities’ interest died down. She laughed when she told me how the secret police had once shaved his head to embarrass him. She was proud of uncle Ahmad, her youngest sibling, who paced the courtyard of her home in the Pirouzi neighborhood and chain smoked while he listened for his name on the national radio signaling his admittance into medical school at the University of Tehran. He lived with her until he graduated and started an internship at a hospital in Chicago.

In all, 14 young men, not including my father and his brother, passed under her roof. Some stayed for months, others for years, and still others for a decade or more. Her home became a factory that produced doctors, lawyers, engineers, and writers. When they left her small, unpretentious home, they went, humbly, to all parts of the world. I have relatives in Austria, Australia, Canada, Germany, the US, and elsewhere, and they can all recall, with looks of painful joy, the taste of my grandmother’s cooking.

Pedram was the 13th. He moved in a decade before me when his father, another of my uncles, was diagnosed with colon cancer. And, like the others, Pedram would also leave. I was the 14th – and in all likelihood the last – to have called her tiny house home. Two and a half years after stepping blind into a nation both intensely familiar and foreign I finally left to come back to the U.S. My grandma cried and hugged me and told me in nuanced Farsi that I now understood clearly, that if she died I shouldn’t be sad, but should be happy that she knew me. For me, her house wasn’t a launching pad to the outside, it was a gateway to the past and the present, to dreams and realities. It was the realization of my childhood and of my dad’s childhood; a way back to the village of now crumbling old homes with sagging terra cotta roofs.

When I think back on my time in Iran, there are the adventures over mountain passes, harrowing climbs, and endless silent car rides. There are ferry rides between islands in the Persian Gulf, arguments, love, and everything else in life. But there is one memory stained in my imagination and it is real. A house on Gisha street. Wide open living room. Midday calm. Uncle Mehdi laying across the carpet as he’d done since he was a child. The whole world asleep in the afternoon siesta and my grandma sitting on the balcony grinding dried lemons with a stone as she’d done for generations in all the iterations of life she might have lived.

Bijan Roghanchi’s  ‘Becoming Iranian’ is due to launch on January 20 2016. Find out more about Bijan, his stories and art- or how to get your hands on the book here.