THE TEHRAN OF my childhood was cosmopolitan and multicultural, bearing little resemblance to our Western notion of contemporary Iran—that of a fearful nation beneath the glare of clerics and Revolutionary Guards. I was born in a hospital built brick by brick by my father. Fresh out of medical school, he combined a loan with all of his savings to buy land in undeveloped Tehran and open his own hospital. He was a sought-after obstetrician and knew that if he built the hospital, the patients would come. And they did. At all hours of the night, frantic husbands would pound on the iron gate while their pregnant wives howled in the darkness, waiting for Doktorto rush out in his robe and slippers to let them in.
My mother, a registered nurse and midwife schooled in England, had returned home to Tehran in 1952. Some years earlier, in 1945, just as the war ended, my grandparents had sent their eighteen-year-old daughter to England. She flew to London from a one-room airport speaking only two words of English: good and hello. My grandfather had arranged for an escort to meet her upon her arrival. My mother thought the taxi driver who held the car door open and greeted her, Hello, love, need a lift? was her escort. She got the hello part and hopped in the back, expecting him to know where to go. He didn't, so she directed him: Good hotel! The cabby wasn't taking any chances, so he dropped her off at the Grosvenor House.
My mother could not tell this story without throwing her head back to laugh out loud. In her first twenty-four hours away from home, Britain welcomed her in pomp and glory. Imagine her awe when the bellboy opened the door to a room with gilded mirrors and dark wood paneling, the downy duvet and tasseled cushions, the bathtub with gold fixtures. After studying a room-service menu on the bedside table, she pointed to the ice cream from the pictured items. And here she would stop to lick her lips before continuing her story:
My dears, I opened the door to find a young man in a tuxedo and white gloves holding a silver tray upon which sat a tall crystal goblet with three perfect balls of vanilla ice cream, and a ladyfinger perched on top. He said, Good evening, ma'am. I said, Hello. He marched inside, snapped open a starched white place mat, set my ice cream down with a small glass of water, a napkin, and a tall spoon. Then he turned and asked me if I cared for breakfast the next morning. I said, Good. He bowed and left. Oh, that was the best ice cream I've ever had!
The next morning, there was a knock on the door, and a silver trolley was wheeled in. Apparently the war had not depleted the Grosvenor House of their supply of eggs, sausages, butter, toast, and marmalade. Bewildered, she lifted up the silver domes one by one and ate her first English breakfast. Good!
After checking with every hotel in London, her escort tracked her down. She got the call from the desk and was soon counting out a stack of pounds from an envelope her father had carefully pinned inside her coat pocket. After that day, there wouldn't be any more ice cream and marmalade. The boardinghouse where she was to stay at her nursing school rationed their staples; sugar, butter, and eggs were luxuries.
What my mother left out of her stories from this period in her life was the homesickness she must have carried around like a stone in her stomach. After growing up with the affection and endearments that my grandmother wove even into her reproaches, my mother was now met with the stiff upper lip of her British matron overseer. For the first six months, my mother struggled with English, memorizing her nursing textbooks without understanding a word. Matron would rap her knuckles on the door when she saw the band of light in the dim dormitory hallway: Lights out! My mother learned to place a rolled-up towel under the door and read by candlelight. Once a week, she watched her classmates wash their hair in the sink. She had never done this, being used to baths, her mother scrubbing her back and combing out the tangled curls. When Matron gave her a bottle of shampoo, she had no idea what it was—she had always washed her hair with big cakes of soap. So she learned to fill the sink with water that ran cold and shampoo her hair—a task made far more difficult by her thick locks, which never quite dried in the damp air.
Slowly the memorized texts, Matron's commands, and the chatter by the fire in the common room began to make sense. She started stringing words together to make sentences, and English found a way into her speech. And in the meantime she mastered sink baths, learned to make her sugar and tea ration last through the week, figured out how to start a proper fire, and began to knit hats and tea cozies.
The girl from Iran was a quick study. She may not have known it then, but she was predisposed to the British brand of feminism, self-reliant and matter-of-fact, which had taken root in her. In Iran, despite her father's mild protest, she had walked every morning to tennis courts and swimming pools miles from her home. Not wanting the whole town gossiping about his daughter alone in the streets, he required that she be accompanied by one of her brothers. To this day, my uncle complains about how she used to shake him out of sleep at five thirty and stick a toothbrush in his mouth: Wake up! Wake up! Brush your teeth! Wash your face! I'm going to be late! She dragged him half-asleep and whimpering through dark streets for the hour-and-a-half walk across town, cutting off his slightest whine with, Nonsense! A bit of fresh air and a brisk walk never killed anyone!
Once she could speak the language, she didn't hesitate to find ways to do what she wanted to do in England, like learning to drive and acquiring her driver's license, and cycling all over Europe on her school holidays, oblivious to the fleets of men who followed her. She boasted of one suitor who inquired about her favorite flower, then went to Holland to bring her a small, exquisite bouquet of lily of the valley. She dismissed him simply as daft. On a very tight budget, she managed to satisfy her passion for classical music by skipping meals to attend concerts, swaying in the standing room. I doubt she would have sat down even if she'd had orchestra seats. Years later, at the symphony in Tehran, I watched her perched on the very edge of her seat while my father's chin sunk further into his chest. How can you possibly sleep through Beethoven? she chided him.
As a child I used to stare at the black-and-white photos from her years in England: A slim girl in a fitted white nurse's smock, a dark wool cape clasped with a metal brooch at the base of her long neck, and dark curls tucked beneath a white cap. Resting her hands on the bicycle handlebars, she is beaming. In other photos with classmates, turning to the camera, she is the only one smiling, compensating for the joylessness of the others. She would never squander this abundance of liberty.
She returned home seven years later, a stunning woman who spoke the Queen's English, listened to classical music turned up very loud on her little hi-fi, smoked Winston cigarettes, kept a bust of Beethoven on her dresser, and carried a British driver's license in her purse. Soon after her return, she was working in a university hospital when she ran into my father in the elevator. He stood behind her, inches away from the slender curve of her shoulders, her dark hair gathered in a braided bun under her crisp nursing cap. My father was smitten. My mother soon charmed him with her no-nonsense disposition, her rapid one-two step down the hospital corridors, and her cool indifference to men. Within days he was knocking on my grandfather's door, asking for her hand.
The usual custom in Iran requires a suitor to send his parents to make a formal request for marriage, khastegari. My father, however, was never one to abide by custom. He considered himself independent of convention. Besides, if he had confided in his family and friends that he planned to ask for my mother's hand, they would have mocked his rash judgment and discouraged him from pursuing a girl from a family so far out of his league. But my grandfather, wary of another suitor he did not approve of, hovering in the wings, received my father kindly. He was invited to dinner and encouraged to bring his family elders.
Not wanting his family to speak on his behalf, since his father had passed away and his mother lived in northern Iran, he arrived without elders, dapper in a gray tailor-made suit and polished black patent leather shoes, a white satin handkerchief in his breast pocket. His trim mustache and sparkling blue eyes under the awning of thick eyebrows gave the impression of amusement. He charmed my grandmother, who was warm and lovely and an excellent cook. She, in turn, prepared a feast, as she often did for guests, and made one of his favorite dishes, mirza ghasemi, a rich eggplant appetizer she served with yogurt and fresh herbs. My grandparents welcomed his confidence, and my mother's youngest brother quickly fell under his spell, leaving only my mother's heart to conquer.
My mother found him terribly handsome with his bright blue eyes, uncommon for an Iranian, and she admired his mad independence from custom. She had grown impatient with her childhood sweetheart, who was afraid of her father and had postponed a proposal indefinitely. My father's persistence, and the courageous plans he had drawn up for their future to work as a team, disarmed her. I imagine he conjured images of precocious sons with blue eyes, a hospital where they would live and work side by side, and a garden with mulberry trees for his children to climb. Not long after the dinner with my grandparents, he called one afternoon to get her final answer to his proposal. My mother hesitated a moment too long and he took her silence as a yes. Within minutes, the doorbell rang and a young boy he had dispatched carried in a magnificent bouquet of white lilies and roses so large that his knees buckled under its weight. Years later, whenever my mother and father argued, she would always remind him that she had never actually said yes. My grandparents made elaborate wedding plans, booking the Officers' Club, ordering a seven-tiered wedding cake, buying new suits for my uncles. While the guest list soared to over a thousand, my mother found herself caught in a whirlwind with very little say. So when she went for the final fitting of her wedding dress, she insisted on just one thing, to wear her nursing cap under her veil.
By the time the hospital was built in 1960, my parents were teamed up, working feverishly delivering babies, and had two daughters of their own. The Bijan Hospital was a four-story building at the end of a nameless dirt road. When the street was finally paved, the city named it after my father. Years later, a Sheraton was built down the street, and slowly this road that butted up against a barren landscape became a coveted address.
It was on the penthouse floor of the Bijan Hospital that my sisters and I grew up. I was born three stories below, in the same operating room where many of my cousins and friends were delivered—a room my father urged us to visit. He had great hopes that we would be inspired to follow his path, but I was terrified by the wailing of women in labor.
In the penthouse, our bedrooms were side by side along a white corridor with bleached terrazzo floors and fluorescent lights. At the far end of the corridor was our living and dining room. We didn't find it odd that muffled moans and the smell of formaldehyde would drift through the vents, but my friends who came to play would gawk at the patients walking the grounds of our home in their hospital gowns. At the urging of my mother, the patients even joined us for cake at our birthday parties. One friend was eventually forbidden to come to our house because his mother worried he might catch something.
The nurses doubled as our babysitters. Nurse Aghdas was our favorite, a quasi Mary Poppins with a chipped front tooth. She organized relay races in the corridors, dressed us up as doctors and nurses, taught us first aid, and dispensed bandages and cough lozenges with abandon. And when, at thirteen, I decided to pluck my eyebrows without my mother's consent, she supplied me with the pair of tweezers that I still use today, although she bore my mother's wrath for the gift.
All the bedrooms opened to a long, narrow balcony that faced the hospital gardens. The first day of summer, we moved our beds to the balcony and slept there until the first day of fall. We hauled out the dining room table as well, allowing us to eat summer meals outside. I loved sleeping outdoors, where the sheets on my sunburned shoulders were cool from the night air, where we woke to the sound of Baba the gardener's hacking cough and the spray of his garden hose. I loved the hospital grounds, where I learned to swim in a shallow green pool by tiptoeing farther and farther along its kidney-shaped rim. In the winter when the pool froze, I begged my mother to allow me to go ice-skating, to no avail. Nevertheless, I sat on the edge to let my feet shuffle and glide, gathering the shaved ice with mittened hands for pretend ice cream cones. In spring I scooped up tadpoles in jam jars from its green, murky mush. In early summer, when the pool was drained to be cleaned, Baba hopped in, wearing tall rubber boots. I watched and counted the strokes of his deck brush, listening to the back-and-forth scrape, scrape. It would take him all day to scrub the walls, and by early evening he would climb out, throw a hose over the side, and turn it on full blast. The slow rise and sound of the water continued through my bedtime. I would wake up and lean over the balcony to be the first to see it in the morning light, longing to go for a swim, annoyed by the one or two leaves that already marred its sparkling surface. When my father took the training wheels off my bike, it was around that pool that I rode, with him running alongside.
My father managed to balance his work and family life. The hospital grounds provided us with endless hours of exploration and entertainment. Coming home one day from visiting a patient, he had seen a peddler beating his donkey with a stick. He stopped to reason with the man, but offering to buy the donkey seemed to be the only way to stop the man from abusing it. So he gave him directions to the hospital and drove away, pleased with himself for rescuing the animal and providing his children with a pet that they could ride and feed and whose mane they could braid with their mother's knitting yarn. That afternoon, Baba opened the gate to find the peddler and his battered donkey asking for my father. Baba explained that Doktor was not a veterinarian, but agreed to call him. By then my father had laid the groundwork for introducing my mother to our new pet: I couldn't very well stand by and watch an innocent beast beaten, could I? After paying the peddler, Baba pulled the donkey by the rope around its neck to the garden, where my father lined us up for our surprise. No sooner had Baba shut the gate than the donkey jerked back on the makeshift bridle and snapped at his arm, then turned and bucked, knocking Baba, a lean, six-foot-three man, to the ground. Those two never got along after that. In fact, none of us could go near the ornery animal. My father had rescued him too late. Can I have a horse instead? I asked my mother that night. Thus he became my father's pet and was simply named Khar, which means "donkey" in Farsi. For weeks, my father stopped at the greengrocer for wilted heads of lettuce for Khar, prompting satire on social inequality in the local paper by a columnist who had overheard their exchange. The article began, Ah, to be the pampered ass of Dr. Bijan, with a daily menu of butter lettuce hearts and sugar beet tops, hand-selected by the good doctor himself, and so on. My mother had had enough. She donated Khar to a park, where the groundskeeper managed to put a saddle on him and offer rides to children for a nickel. A few weeks later, we got a tamer pet: a big black poodle named Sasha. And in winter, my mother knitted him a red turtleneck.