My Return to Tehran: On Family, Restlessness, and Revolution
Azareen Van Der Vliet Oloomi and the Women Who Shaped Her Life
Summer, 1990: that was the year my mother, brother and I moved to Tehran, Iran. My parents had separated by then. In the years leading up to their split we had lived in the United States, Scotland, Spain, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates. After the divorce, we moved again, only in the opposite direction, until we landed in Tehran, where my parents had originally met. Since I am always being asked the same tiresome question: No! I am the child of diplomats; my parents were not in the military. Then what were we doing moving around the globe with such feverish passion? We were busy reversing the flow of time.
The truth, the vertiginous truth, is that my parents’ nomadic inclination, their restless personalities, robust temperaments, firm will, magnetic attraction to disorder, appetite for entropy (I could go on!) were reinforced on my father’s side by the fact that he spent the first few decades of his life on a ship crisscrossing the Atlantic and Indian Oceans; he comes from a long line of disappeared fathers whose lust for living at sea had no rival. On my mother’s side is the digressive force of the Iranian Revolution, which erupted in 1979 with the violent intensity of a long dormant volcano, swallowing lives, structures, systems of belief in its charring waves.
My parents met and married in the midst of that morbid upheaval. They survived each other’s heedlessness for nearly a decade. I was born more or less at the halfway mark of their relationship. I don’t have many memories of my father. He was absent for long stretches of time, months during which he was away getting fired and chasing down new jobs, but the memories I do have are wonderful: full of mischief and unbuckled laughter. My father, in his seventies now, is a child at heart, committed to rebelling against the rules of conduct that commandeer life on dry land. I share his appetite for freedom and adventure, but I’m far less sympathetic to his elaborated escapism, his cold eschewing of responsibility toward loved ones.
There’s one thing his unsentimental style of child rearing has left me grateful for: the fact that I learned early on to view my parents as people. I developed a detached demeanor; I studied their candor, their forthrightness, their unapologetic natures with a scrutinizing gaze. I was an introverted but discerning child, fiercely independent and unafraid to speak my mind. If there were consequences to be paid for the things I felt I needed to say, I was happy to suffer them. I remember repeatedly being told to cut my habit of unmasking people’s hidden motivations. My impulse to expose others’ secret deceptions was met with the flaming eyes of teachers, my parents, relatives, all of whom I greeted with cool determination. This rebellious edge in my character was sharpened on the rocky shores of my parents’ adversarial divorce. Any blunt edges that may have been left were sheared off during the years we spent living in Iran and the violent months that followed in Reno, Nevada.
After the divorce, my mother, unmoored and alone, was persuaded to raise my brother and I in the company of her own mother. My grandmother Azardokht had a grandiose, powerful personality, and she had sent out a seductive siren call requesting that her daughters return home. By winter of that year, my aunt, Mahtab, had followed suit. She left her husband, Ron, in Los Angeles to return to Iran, torn between the idea of recovering a life from which she had abruptly been cut off as a teenager during the revolution and the life she had built for herself by the skin of her teeth in California. A few months later, Ron was shot in the head while driving on the 405. He was on his way to see his parents. He died not long after, and his death, so sudden and unaccounted for, lit the flames of grief beneath our feet.“The Iranian Revolution. . . erupted in 1979 with the violent intensity of a long dormant volcano, swallowing lives, structures, systems of belief in its charring waves. My parents met and married in the midst of that morbid upheaval.”
There we were, three generations of women severed from husbands and fathers, our lives on the verge of being irrevocably braided together. Back then, I could not have suspected the impact of those absences: my grandfather’s, my father’s, Ron’s. My immovable will, my delirious self-reliance would not have made room for any such recognition, for the vulnerability required to express grief. I did not feel I had a choice. A burdensome wall, that stubborn determination was the only way to lead the haphazard life that had been fashioned for my brother and I out of that most explosive of cocktails that blended the personal characters of my parents and their parents with the cruelties of history.
It would take me even longer to recognize the influence the women I was raised with in Tehran had on me, before I could bring myself to admit that the self-reliant, feisty, at times equally unyielding personality of those three women had provided me with a road map to my future self. I was bonded to them, deeply attached—of that I was and remain well aware—but my passion for books, my intellectual curiosity, and my left-leaning politics, which differed starkly from theirs, caused me to exclusively perceive the discontinuities in our characters. It is only now, looking back, aided by the candor that the deaths of my grandmother and my aunt have afforded me, that I can see how truly strange, fascinating, complex each of them was in their own way, and that together with my mom they were a force to be reckoned with, a mysterious, bombastic presence that would come to hover over me.
As the plane touched down in Tehran, I remember being flooded with exhilaration. I was just about seven years old. My grandmother had lived with us periodically, and each time she left I missed the theater of her personality dearly. I was named after her, and this fact bonded us. Though our temperaments were always different, we were utterly delighted and charmed with one another. She had come to greet us at the airport: chic in her embroidered black scarf and manteaux, wearing a gamine smile that barely exposed the gap in her front teeth. She had intense, almond-shaped blue eyes, ivory skin, full lips, thick arched eyebrows. I adored her dramatic, larger-than-life personality. She was, I thought, the complete opposite of me.
As we drove away from the airport, I tried to eye the city through the dark of night but saw little other than the Azadi Tower (Freedom Tower), its impressive white marble blocks ablaze with multi-colored lights. I was quickly reminded by my grandmother that when my mother had last lived in Tehran, the year she had met my father, the iconic monument was still called Shahyad Tower (King’s Memorial); it was renamed after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. She never missed a chance to wistfully recall what she felt were the glamorous days of the monarchy, a time when she regularly hosted decadent parties in her designer home and showed off her lush, elegant clothes. But so much had changed. It was a new era, one that taxed women harshly, that required discipline and defiance in equal measure, tact and diplomacy cautiously counterbalanced with fearless perseverance and a penchant for secrecy. My grandmother, in possession of a discerning, commanding character, was more than capable of shrewdly navigating the changing political landscape.
My mother, on the other hand, was introverted, moody, tender-hearted, brooding. The ice that ran through my grandmother’s blood thawed by the time it got to her. Though she too had a keen eye for design and wore stylized, imaginative clothing, she preferred not to be in the limelight. Like my aunt, she was more quietly defiant, transgressive in ways that were less immediately apparent. In fact, one of her greatest (and most visible) acts of rebellion, had been to marry my father who, according to my grandmother was, “The child of a poor sailor!” I always resented her for holding my father in such low esteem, and that resentment turned into an acerbic bitterness about her feckless aristocratic tendencies, a hostility that hardened during my teenage years in America, years I spent working tirelessly at various restaurants in order to make my way through college. But that is another story, a divergent stream I need not pursue here.
My father, who went off to sea at 14 and made a living as a mariner well into his thirties, grew up in almost abject poverty on the east side of London during WWII. Long before I was born, he served as a sea captain, until he caught Tuberculosis in India while working for the British-India Steam Navigation Company. In order to avoid a relapse, he had to find a way to make a living on dry land. He worked on a maggot farm, flipped houses in Holland and the U.K., worked for an American company selling bleach. Eventually he found his way back to the docks, working for various off-shore drilling companies. That’s more or less how he ended up in Tehran, where he met my mother.
The country was already on the brink of revolution then, and my father was renting a small cottage (previously the servants’ quarters) tucked behind my grandmother’s home. My grandfather, a judge with a passion for landscaping and architecture, had designed the domed villa with a light, white exterior and lush gardens. Before the revolution, my grandmother had proudly hosted diplomats and socialites there. My father moved onto the property not long after my grandfather passed away and found the family in mourning—especially my mother. It was during that period, in the long year leading up to the fall of the monarchy, that my father saw my mother walking along the tiered pool in the garden and fell “head over heels.” They were married a few months later.
By the time we moved back to Tehran in 1990, the revolution was over, the Islamic Republic had been formed, my parents’ marriage was in total disrepair, and the family property had been confiscated by government officials but then, after years of court battles, returned. It was being rented out to German expats now, so it was we who lived in the servants’ quarters. I still remember the taxi pulling up to the property that first evening in Tehran and how, like thieves in the night, we quietly opened the gates guarding the ornate home and gardens and shuffled up the driveway to the dependence.
We weren’t living in the grand villa, but the parties and the long nights of wine and poetry continued behind closed doors. The illicit nature of my family’s comings and goings only increased the aura of mystery that enveloped them. I was old enough to realize that my mother, aunt, and grandmother belonged to a different order of women. They had an old-world elegance delicately counterbalanced by a cutting-edge sense of style. They were the kind of women who turned heads, who knew how to accessorize, and who designed and often sewed their own clothes. They had high cheek-bones, bright eyes, gorgeous lips and each and every one of them had an unforgettable, resounding laugh. They were remote, inscrutable, with a radical sensuality and finely-tuned minds. And my grandmother, whose laugh rung louder than her daughters’, ran the show with an unapologetic air of pomp and glamour. I swore to myself that I would never become like them; but, secretly, a covert operation I guarded from my own conscience, I marveled at the architecture of their clothes, their mannerisms, at the way they knew how to harvest the power of a gaze.
One bright fall day, while the tenants were away on a trip, we were allowed to take a tour of the house. I was shocked. The doorknobs were ornate, finished in gold leaf, and the walls of the foyer painted with a mural of 19th-century Persian women lounging under a canopy of pomegranate trees. In the living room, a large circular table had been raised onto a platform of smooth lacquered wood. In the master bathroom, I sat in the deep blue tub adorned with intricate tile-work.
It all stood in such stark contrast with the somber climate I was accustomed to in Tehran. The Islamic Republic had eradicated all signs of pleasure and sensuality. We toured the house for about a half an hour, but time expanded as I walked from room to room. I had been given the privilege of looking into the past, a past that had been waylaid by revolution and violence and war, that no longer belonged to us. I was both horrified and mesmerized by the notion of leading such a stylized existence. I was utterly hypnotized, simultaneously disturbed and seduced by the extravagance.
The next year we moved to an apartment on the opposite side of the city and started to spend the summers on the Caspian shore, where my grandfather had built a home during the 60s. The house was large and rugged, its façade overlaid with stones he had culled from the sea. The veranda opened up onto rectangular plots enclosed by pruned hedges. At the end of the garden, a set of stone steps led down to a wild forest of eucalyptus growing in white sand. Beyond the dense rows of trees, the gunmetal waters of the Caspian Sea lapped at the pebbled coast. The walls of the house were always damp, and the sheets smelled moldy and wet—a smell I feel nostalgic for to this day.
It was in the Caspian that I learned to embrace my solitude like a prize. By the time I was ten, I had acquired a habit of going on long contemplative walks. I thought about the ancestral lineages that ran through my blood, which seemed to repel one another: my father’s rugged, direct, resourceful nature and my mother’s world, so refined, elegant, and proud.
What I can see now is that these peripatetic walks marked the beginning of my writing life. It was also during those long, lazy summers, of living at the end of the earth with a group of intelligent, independent women—women who had, by choice or by fate, eschewed men and who were providing me with the necessary tools to chart my own life—that I learned to become a more articulate person. They taught me how to dress, how to speak, how to sit and stand and cook because, vapid and tiresome as such skills may be, their very ability to survive in a patriarchal culture had for so long depended on their performance of precisely this kind of feminine mystique. But beneath these superficial lessons, ran a deeper, more nuanced message of living one’s authentic life by subterfuge. It took me years to realize that they had taught me to shape my life with conviction, to know how to stay true to my own nature, and to remain entirely self-reliant even when social, political, and historical structures are working to actively forbid my freedom.
At times our national reality thrust these lessons into the fore. One day when I was 12, my mother and I went to the village fish market and were stopped by the morality police, questioned, and promptly taken to the local police station. There were other women there; I remember their brightly painted faces pressing against the jail bars. My mother wasn’t wearing make-up, but her scarf had slipped off her head, leaving her blond hair exposed. That was her crime. Given the petty nature of her offenses, she was offered an out. All she had to do for us to be set free was sign a document that said she had been trying to attract negative attention. In other words, that she was a wanting woman. She refused to sign.
Morning turned to afternoon. At one point, in a fit of terrible anger, she got up and removed her scarf and manteaux entirely. She walked up to one of the soldiers, yanked at his gun, and pointed it at herself. She ordered him to shoot her. She said, “You have taken everything away from us, but you will not take away my dignity.” The soldier stared at her, stunned. I could see tears pooling in his eyes. It was one of those rare moments in life that will forever remain beyond articulation. In the unfolding horror of that day, my mother had forgotten entirely that I was there, watching her. Or perhaps, it was precisely because I was there that she had allowed herself to unravel, to protest irrespective of the consequences. In that moment, as she held the barrel of the gun against her chest, I saw her for the first time as a woman against whom the world had acted with brazen injustice. Decades of internalized oppression had suddenly erupted.
In some respects, you could say that she was entirely out of her mind and in others, that this kind of reckless abandon was exactly what was required of her in order to push back, to claim what those who are more privileged get to take for granted: the right to invent our own narratives, to name ourselves as we see fit. Once calmed, my mother sat in silent protest, determined not to sign the papers. Eventually my grandmother arrived, and then my aunt. Together, they delicately maneuvered the situation. They were victorious. The sun had set by the time we were let out. We left Iran not long after.
We began to retrace our footsteps all over again. We moved to Spain, to a deserted seaside village near Valencia where we had lived before, and waited for my mother’s papers to be processed, so that she could live legally with us in America. My brother and I are both citizens. We were born here. She wanted us to return to the U.S., to be safe and free, unrestricted by oppressive institutions and legacies.
But that wasn’t to be. Once her papers arrived, we moved to Reno, Nevada, a change that altered our lives forever. On his way home from high school one day, my brother was brutally attacked by another student who hated his accent, his foreign-looking clothes, his polite manners. He was attacked from behind and wasn’t given a chance to defend himself. When I arrived at the scene, my mother was already there, holding his bloody head in her lap and wailing into the sky. He survived the attack, but the shy tender-hearted brother I had grown up with vanished from our lives forever. Until then, he had been the last man standing.
Soon after, he went to live with my father in England, and my mother and I briefly returned to that coastal apartment in Spain. We spent a long, brutal winter in that desolate ghost town, my mother in a state of quiet ire. She was deep in the throes of grief, had turned sharply against herself for having been unable to protect him. I, on the other hand, felt forsaken, left alone at the end of the world, listening to the wind shear the palms, to the deep roar of the ocean.
On the worst nights, unable to sleep, my mother would take to the shore. She walked for miles. I would often get out of bed and walk behind her for as long as I could, until the fear of being engulfed by the dark, or swallowed by the sea, would become untenable and I would beg her to return to our apartment. Before acquiescing, she would somberly let out: “I can’t take care of you. Go live with your father.” But I much preferred living with the ghost of my mother than with a father I hadn’t seen in years.
We moved to California a year later, but by then, our relationship was beyond repair. I felt incarcerated by our life together. I did not yet fully understand the cruel ways in which the world had acted on her. In my early twenties, the old unresolved silence of that long terrible year returned again to claim our relationship. I stopped speaking to her. I spent a decade living in New York, Barcelona, Florence. I needed for there to be whole continents and oceans between us.
That period, too, has receded into the distance. We live close to each other now. We talk about the past, about decisions that were made, about how we might preserve the possibility of a future that doesn’t replicate them. We have learned to laugh and to cry together, to walk our dogs and cook and read together. She is teaching me how to become a sister to my brother again, this new person whose life and personality were so irremediably altered by those brief months we spent living in Reno, that infernal valley punctuated by casinos which I will always associate with racial violence.
The honest truth is that I don’t always have the courage to look back on what happened to my brother. I replay that day in my mind over and over, but it is like a still-frame of a violent, graphic film where the reel has gotten stuck. I have not yet acquired the interpretive keys. This is in large part due to the fact that his story is not mine to tell, not mine to interpret. It is also due to the fact that the silence that opened up between us as a result of the incident is one we are still negotiating. I was left watching our mother, taking care of her; while he, bitterly wounded, disappeared into that same parallel universe into which all of the men in my life had gone, a place to which I had no access, a land in which they lived in relative peace and quiet, either because they were dead, or because they had chosen to go deaf to our demands for accountability and mutual respect. For now, what exists is the burgeoning knowledge that it is precisely the impossible chasms that have come between us all that bond us forever.
To return for a moment to that other brand of violence, the management of women’s bodies in Iran and in America and the whole world around, I’m not blocked off from the memories of that day I spent at the police station in Iran with my mother, or from the lessons that experience imparted on me. Together with the exuberant, powerful and yet disciplined women who raised me, that triumphant, terrible event ushered me into adult life. I didn’t falter or cry or scream. I stood there beside my mother, and later my aunt and grandmother, a mute observer surrounded by a charged, dead air, unaware that that electrifying void, that unbearable silence which would dizzyingly double and redouble itself in the years to come, would turn out to be a lifeline: I am still writing into it.