The walls around the garden

Tara Bahrampour, author of "To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America," talks about balancing between two cultures and glimpsing the crumbling boundaries and lush center of Iranian life.

Published March 8, 1999 10:51AM (EST)

After months of protests and political
unrest had rocked the Shah of Iran from his throne, 12-year-old Tara Bahrampour
and her family fled their home in the last wave of
evacuations before the Tehran airport closed, for a place they only half
belonged to. "At that moment, Iran in all its shakiness became
more precious to me than any safe country could ever be," she
writes in her memoir, "To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and

Thanks to her parents' improbable marriage, Bahrampour lived the first part of her life sampling from the best of two worlds. Her mother, a rock singer from Los
Angeles, and her father, the son of an Iranian feudal lord, met at UC-Berkeley. During her childhood in Tehran, Bahrampour traveled daily between a
progressive international school and her father's tight-knit,
traditional family, where children were adored and played in
interior gardens. She absorbed her
parents' curiosity about diverse cultures and ideas, as well as
the Islamic traditions and intimacy of her extended family. In
America following the fall of the Shah, Bahrampour found another life amid a more complicated culture
in the suburbs of Northern California and Portland, Ore., where
her parents struggled with the loss of their careers. Even
though the sense of being foreign sometimes alienated her from
her roots, Bahrampour never lost the sense of belonging to Iran.

That sense of belonging took her back to Tehran six years
ago, after she began a career in journalism, despite the danger
of Islamic rule. Since that first trip to the city of her early
childhood, Bahrampour has made several visits to Iran, documenting the
changes that continue to take place in the aftermath of the
revolution. Last month, suspects were arrested for the murder of
five dissidents; a progressive new intelligence minister, Ali
Yunesi, was appointed; and Iranians turned out in record numbers
to vote for supporters of reformist President Mohammed
Khatami. The hard-line rule in Iran is beginning to give way to
a freer, independent country.

In "To See and See Again," Bahrampour views the country and its culture,
as well as the culture of Iranians living in America, through the
filter of personal experience, family stories and sharp
observation. Tied both to the West and the Middle East, her
point of view achieves a balanced view of a culture often
misunderstood as simply repressive, and recovers the
intoxicating, often sensuous details of Iranian life. Bahrampour's book tour recently brought her to San Francisco and Salon's offices.

I was struck by the image of your house, the quintessential image of
Iranian houses, with these high walls around them and
gardens inside.

In Iran, there's this huge separation between public and private. And
so from the outside the houses just look like these bare, dilapidated walls, but
inside it's really another world. The doors are always closed, but if you
can slip inside ... People love their gardens and they grow all kinds of
fruit. They usually have a little pool or a pond with goldfish.

Our childhood was a little different from that of "normal" Iranian children just because our parents were more free with us. You mention the wall as a symbol of the barrier, and my brother and I used to climb the wall and sit on it and
just watch what was going on outside -- which was fine with our parents, but
our uncle, who was more conservative, would come and yell at us and tell us
to get down, because what if people saw us.

Do you feel like you were more free when you lived in America?

It was about the same. I was very sheltered from the restrictiveness of Iran, so I think probably someone who had grown up in a more traditional household would have felt that difference more.

One of my favorite episodes in your book is when you played Barbies, and you and your friend found some black cloth and decided to make a chador for Barbie so she could make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

A lot of little girls were playing Barbies and I think the
government wanted to have a more Iranian role model, so they created dolls that were based on characters in the school book all elementary
school kids read. They were brother and sister instead of being romantic
partners, and they dressed in traditional Islamic clothing. One
was dressed in kind of a chador and the other one was in colorful tribal
clothes. I'd read about the dolls on CNN and when I was there a few
months ago, I went to all these different toy stores and no one
had them. Finally this one guy said they've been outlawed.
Someone told me that there had been all this debate about what
they should look like and what their names should be and there
had been so much argument over it that it had been pulled -- and
yet Barbies were still on the shelves.

- - - - - - - - - -

What do you think it would have been like if you had gone
through your teenage years in Iran? Do you think you would have come up
against more restrictions? In your book, you negotiated with your parents
if a rule seemed unreasonable to you and
you didn't want to follow it.

I always wonder that. I always think that there's this other
life I didn't live. And yeah, that the restrictions probably would have
started to come as I got older. I left when I was about 12. Probably the
relatives would have said things. I think I would have gone on to lead a
pretty Westernized life as people in my school did. People had
parties and people had boyfriends and girlfriends. And I think I would have
gone that way. So it would have been interesting to see what my relatives
would have thought of that and how they would have dealt with it.

After the revolution, the rules didn't make sense to a lot of kids and they didn't make sense to the
parents either. Again it's the private vs. the public lives. The parents maybe would still be drinking alcohol in the house and the kids at school would be hearing how they should turn their parents in if they ever see their parents doing anything from this list of bad things. And so the kids would have to, from a really young age, internalize this difference, where they see this at
home, but they can't tell.

Are you glad that you didn't have to go through that?

Well, I'm glad that I didn't have to go through the war. If
we'd stayed my brother probably would have been drafted, and he would have had to escape somehow. But I'm mixed about leaving Iran. I always felt like it was this place that we'd left behind really abruptly. I missed it a
lot, while I was adapting here and trying to be really American. It always
felt like 1979 was this cut-off year in my life. It's funny, when I was
younger, I would see coins and look at the date and if they were before 1979
they always evoked this special sentimental feeling.

Were you ever angry at either of your parents for waiting
until the last moment to leave? Did you ever feel that they had exposed you to unnecessary danger?

No. It was the opposite, in fact. I used to wish we had
stayed. There was this point during the revolution when
they evacuated the Americans who were living in Iran. So all the
Americans were calling each other and asking, "Are you going?" And my mom was like, "Yeah, they should go. But we're not going, because we're not American." There was this unspoken sense that if you were tough enough, you would tough it out in the revolution. Whoever was staying was really die-hard, and the other people were kind of wimpy. So when we left, we kind of became the wimpy ones. I heard later that my school had opened up again, and the kids who went back were the ones who really made it through the revolution.

Despite the political unrest, your childhood sounds really
idyllic because your family was so close. You seem to have this
feeling of belonging to both worlds, and not feeling alienated
from either culture.

Yeah, I did. I think part of it was, my parents when they got
married were both kind of looking for something beyond what they had grown up in. My dad didn't go back into the traditional way he'd been raised. He was really open to a lot of different things. We had a lot of the
good parts of being Iranian, the close family -- and kids are just
worshipped there. People love kids. They spoil them rotten. We had all that
without the restrictions.

Can you talk a little bit more about the way kids are
treated in Iran?

There's always someone home, which is different. There are no
latchkey kids. Even if the mom works, there's a grandmother or an aunt.
It's a lot more communal. And traditionally you grow up really close to your cousins. Our cousins either lived in the same building or
lived in the same neighborhood, so they were kind of like extended
brothers and sisters. Kids don't have any responsibilities like they do
here. They're not made to worry so much. Although school is hard, and they
have rules at school, once they come home, it's a big playground. Here it's
not so separated. Also, kids here watch a lot more TV, and that
probably affects them too, becoming grown-ups faster because of what they watch.

As the revolution became more and more real, it's
remarkable how much your parents were able to shield you and your
brother and sister from the fear that they were feeling. How do you think they managed to do that? You wrote that you didn't feel any real danger, even during the protests and gunfire on your own street. You said that you wanted to see the unrest.

My parents weren't really afraid until the very end when
my dad got a threatening phone call because his office had stayed open during the strikes. And when they had heard that people were coming around
to doors and dragging people off in the middle of the night and we weren't
sure why. But that was all really toward the end, and at first my parents
were similarly interested in the revolution and excited, and kind of
rooting for the people who were protesting.

They actually had to shelter us more when we moved to the
States. And then they did an incredible job. We ended up living in Portland in this kind of nice middle-class neighborhood with good schools. We were living
this double life where we'd go to school and seem normal and we lived in this neighborhood near school, but we had no money. My parents were
having a hard time. We were on food stamps, but my mom would have to hide it from all the neighbors at the supermarket. No one else used food
stamps. My dad was a carpenter at the time, and I was 12 or 13 and I was
really embarrassed by the idea -- he would come home all sweaty and
dirty and muddy. I was so worried about keeping up appearances. If I wanted
the jeans everyone else had, or I went through this ice-skating phase and
wanted expensive ice skates and lessons, they sacrificed a lot to give
us what we wanted and not let us feel that we were being deprived.

When you found out years after you came to America that
your father had been in so much danger, that he had barely made it out of Iran before the airport closed, how did you feel?

I sensed the danger more than I understood it in my head.
Just seeing my dad suddenly being in this vulnerable position, where in Iran he had been this kind of superhero dad, because kids always think that when
they're little, and then suddenly to be both at the age when you don't think of your parents that way and also to see your parents really struggling
and almost falling apart. On one level I was really worried for him. He
had a dangerous job now, as a carpenter, and I worried when he would
leave the house. But on another level I was mad at him for being -- I guess
what I felt was letting us down, which didn't make sense at all -- by
being Iranian, by being the one who made us foreign, by being a
carpenter instead of having a job where he went to work in a suit. It was totally unfair.

- - - - - - - - - -When did you decide to go back to Iran?

I started thinking about going back to Iran while I was at
Berkeley. I got some information about changing passports, because I had to get a new Islamic passport, and I went so far as to get my picture taken
with a scarf on -- it was actually a pillowcase, because I didn't have a
scarf. But I never actually went until after I finished graduate school.

And when you did decide to go back, everyone was worried
about you. They asked you, "Have you seen 'Not Without My Daughter'?" In your book it seems that you had conflicted feelings about going to Iran. Part of you was
annoyed at that image of Iran that you thought was not true, but you still had to
be concerned about realistic dangers, and warning a boyfriend not
to write you romantic letters.

I think as much as I wanted to believe that Iran wasn't this
scary dangerous place, on a certain level, I knew that it was. What
I'd heard was what most Americans had heard, which was that people get
stuck there forever and people get sent to jail for wearing sunglasses. I
was worried that there were little rules that I wouldn't know about, and I
would suddenly go out with the wrong colored scarf on and be sent to
jail. I had heard horror stories like that from people who had been there,
and who knows how true they were? I think some of them were true and
some were exaggerated. But by the time I got there, it was 1993, and it
was more relaxed than it had been a couple of years earlier.

There were little things that I should have known. I ended up
getting in trouble a couple of times just for not knowing that you're not
supposed to talk to foreign men, which has also changed a lot. That was the
first time I went back. I was in a mosque that was this big tourist site
before the revolution, but now of course, there were only about three
tourists there. Two of them were these two young guys who were speaking English and I got all excited because I hadn't spoken English for weeks. So I introduced myself and kind of felt like the cool one
because I could speak Farsi and they were just traveling through for a
week. We decided to go to lunch and they said, "We've just got to pick up
our passports. They're down at the passport office," which turns out
to be the police compound. I blithely walked in and we're joking
around in English with the guys who work there, the military men. I
suddenly realize that I need to call the aunt that I'm staying with to tell her
that I won't be there for lunch, so I borrow the phone and,
completely oblivious, start to speak in Farsi.
I get off and the men are looking at me. They say, "Do you speak Farsi?
Are you Iranian? Are you a Muslim?" And the whole scene just changed.
They kicked out the guys I'd met and interrogated me and said, "What
right do you have to talk to foreigners? Why do you like foreigners so much? Why don't you like Iranians?" And no matter how much I tried to explain that I'm half-American and I've lived in the States for 15 years, they
were really, really angry.

Is there a little bit of truth to the "Not Without My
Daughter" image, even though, as you said, it's exaggerated? Have you ever met anyone who's gone through situations like that, women in Iran who
weren't able to have custody of their kids?

I have heard of situations with custody going to the father.
There's a law there that allows the mother to keep the kids until they're 7 and then they go to the father, which seems really disruptive. I know
[reformists are] trying to change the law and I'm not sure what stage they're in. I've heard stories like that.

I think the problem that Iranians that I've talked to have
with that book is that the portrayal of Iranians is so one-sided. There was
this family of fanatical, unsympathetic people and that was the picture of
Iran and that was the only picture of Iran. Americans and Westerners
didn't hear much else about Iran. A taxi driver I was talking to in Iran said,
"Oh, Americans must think horrible things about us now." And you'd
think it was because of the hostage crisis, but he said, "No, it's not the
hostage crisis. It's this book. 'Not Without My Daughter' has taken
away our honor." Now that there are more journalists going over from
the West and there are more movies coming out, hopefully Iranians will
feel like a better picture is being presented.

In some
ways being half-American and half-Iranian gives you more mobility than most Iranians have.

I think it does give me more mobility. Although, there are a
lot of Iranian women that I've met who do all kinds of things and are
very free in Iran. But I think, within my dad's family, which is more
traditional, it was really good for me to have both perspectives. When I get
there, they're very welcoming. They totally consider me Iranian. They
don't see me as a foreigner.

What do they think of your freckles?

You know, they've never really mentioned them. My mom is
really the
freckled one. I used to draw freckles on with a magic marker.
Iranian women usually wear a lot more makeup than I do. And they
fix their hair up a lot. The first time I went they would kind
of cake it on after they got wherever they were going. But now
people wear a lot of makeup in the street.

There are so many things like that, which from an outsider's
point of view seem like contradictions: that you would have to cover yourself in public but you would wear makeup.

Part of it is just, anything forbidden, you're going to want
to do. And another part of it is that Iranian women were always big
shoppers and big dressers. They think about their appearance a lot. So for
me to come, having lived in Berkeley, and being less diligent about the way I
look, they were always asking me, "Why don't you curl your hair? Why
don't you pluck your eyebrows? And why don't you put on more makeup?"
They were really baffled why I didn't do that.

In "Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic
Women," Geraldine Brooks talks about the women she met. They would be, say, activists or student protesters, and then Brooks would go to their homes and they
would take off the chador and suddenly transform. They would wear nice lingerie for their husbands. It reminds me of
the image of the garden behind the walls. These are things that might not
occur to Westerners.

It's really amazing. You think of it as this dour religious
thing, yet even within the very religious groups, the women really do fix
their hair and they're very into their beauty.

What I gathered from Brooks' book is that Iran, in some ways, was
more progressive concerning women's rights than almost any other
country in the Middle East.

That's true in a lot of ways. People here have an impression
of Iran as being like Saudi Arabia. People ask me, "Can women drive there?
Are you allowed to work?" Women do all kinds of things in Iran. Women
drive. There are women lawyers, women journalists, members of
Parliament. So although there are some inequalities in terms of custody rights and inheritance rights, women are very vocal about changing

The most progressive Iranian newspaper that I saw was called Women's
Newspaper, and it's run by a woman who's the daughter of the
former president. When I was there last December, there were
these killers going after dissidents and writers and the paper
was calling openly for the killers to be caught and for
them to be investigated. I went to a couple of
student protests and the students were yelling for the
intelligence minister to resign, and just being very open about
being pro-Khatami [the recently elected reformist president of
Iran]. That kind of protest would have been unthinkable a
couple years ago, and even now it's surprising for me to see.
In fact, the intelligence minister did resign a few

Have you gotten any confrontational questions during this
book tour?

I thought I'd get a lot more. Especially in L.A., because
there are a lot of Iranians there. I thought I'd get a lot of people saying,
"How can you say anything good about this regime. My uncle was killed."
There are so many people who've had so many tragedies. But no one's been like
that. I've actually gotten a lot of positive reactions from
people my age who come up and say, "This is so much like my
life." Which made me happy because I was a little worried
because I'm half-Iranian, so I thought people would say
"She's only half-Iranian, how can she speak for us?" But a lot
of people of different ages too have thanked me for writing it.

There's a line in your last chapter when you write of
being in Brussels right after being in Iran, that you felt shock seeing a man and a woman holding hands in public, and that you knew you would find "no silent bonds of solidarity, nothing of the watchful comforting community" in the
West. What is it about that public display of affection that
struck you in that way?

It wasn't so much the public display of affection as that, if
someone were to be holding hands in the street [in Iran] and
there were a roadblock up ahead and they didn't know about it,
someone would come down and warn them. I'd be walking down the
street and my scarf was a little too far back, which is
OK normally, but if there were morals police around the corner,
there was this woman who came up to me and said, "Look there are some
police around the corner, pull your scarf forward." You really feel like
you're being taken care of on a certain level by people who identify
with you. More than you might in a more diverse society where no one really knows where you're coming from, so they're not going to presume to tell you what to do.

By Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

MORE FROM Fiona Morgan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Iran Islam Middle East Religion