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Sunday
Sep162012

Persian Picnic

April, 1972
Ahwaz, Khuzestan Province, Iran
 
I sat between a big bag of freshly baked Barbari bread and my handsome new husband, contemplating which to nibble on first. We travelled in the back seat of my brother-in-law's car, bumpety bump, bumpety bump, over  country roads on the way to my first Iranian picnic. Our destination was a garden somewhere north of the city.
 
Our car caravan snaked its way through rows of  trees and mulberry bushes. There must have been 22 of us in 4 or 5 cars. My husband's oldest brother Ahmad, his wife and four children; Brother Mahmood, his wife and five daughters; Sister Mahin, her husband and three children; Nahid, my husband's unmarried youngest sister and my mother-in-law, a short sweet cherub of a lady who always had smiling eyes and a sweet disposition. This was all of my husband's quite large family that lived in Ahwaz. His sister Gohar lived in Tehran with her husband and large brood of seven children. Another sister, Tooba, lived with her husband in Dezful, about sixty miles north of Ahwaz. She had seven children as well. And the youngest brother, Hooshang, was in the United States studying. At the time of the picnic, though, I still didn't have all of this straight. That would take a while.
 
We were all supposed to bring something. I think I made a salad and my husband bought some fruit for us to take. Iranian women, for the most part, are excellent cooks. When we would visit family for dinner or lunch and I asked to help in the kitchen they would always give me a big bowl with whole unpeeled vegetables and tell me to make salad. They knew I could handle that. I could, but just barely. One time my brother-in-law found a whole peeled cucumber that I had neglected to chop at the bottom of the salad bowl.  Everybody laughed and I was mortified. I never lived that down. 
 
This Iranian picnic was unlike any picnic I had ever seen. Coming from the land of Dixie cups, plasticware and paper plates I was totally unprepared for what followed. There were Persian carpets spread for everyone to sit on, a large oilcloth sofreh (tablecloth) for the meal. Then, the food. Oh, the food! Out of the trunks of cars came large pots of steaming rice, kabobs, and stews. And there were  baskets of sabzi (“greens”, fresh onions, coriander, dill, parsley, chives and fenugreek) and a big bowl of mast khiar, a yoghurt dish with grated cucumber and dill. All the china had been brought from the cupboards, along with the silverware and glassware. I found myself worrying about the clean up. I brought this up to my husband who insisted his sisters and mother just loved doing all of this. Of course, he was a male who was not expected to help in any of it, so I was skeptical. 
 
We dined like royalty in the garden and after the meal was over and all those dirty dishes and pots had been stacked in the trunks again, a small kerosene stove was brought out to heat water for tea, which we drank with cubed sugar in small tea glasses. For dessert there was fruit, dates and pastries. We were stuffed!
 
For all the ways this Iranian picnic differed in form from any picnic I had ever been to in the States, it was strikingly similar in all the meaningful ways. There was joy and laughter. The children ran and played games under the watchful eyes of parents. The teenage girls leaned in and told each other secrets and giggled. The teenage boys stood around trying their best to look older than they were. The adults told stories of days gone by, heatedly discussed politics and then became reflective when discussing loss. The patriarch of this family, my husband's father, Ebrahim, had died only the year before. This was the first family picnic since his passing. 
 
I probably could not have articulated it at the time but I could plainly see that life here, if one disregarded all the props and trappings, was just the same as it was back home. Hunger, food, dirty dishes, sorrows, joys, the love of family, the search for meaning and the deep desire to somehow be at peace with it all. Home could be anywhere and everywhere.

 

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