‘Breaking bread’, I was taught in a gruelling copy-editing training many many years ago, is a dated Biblical expression for sharing a meal with someone. But I will insist on calling the sharing of my first meal with my Tehran hosts, Sayad and his wife Tahmineh, breaking bread, even at the cost of sounding antiquated. Because out of the many things that astounded me in Iran, the first one was bread. And that bread was called Noon Barberi!
After a quick hot shower I am invited to breakfast. It’s a tiny apartment of two small bedrooms and a living room, a strip out of which is cut out as an open kitchen where Tahmineh is busy arranging breakfast. She is in her late 20s. She is beautiful. Her tight blue trousers and red full-sleeve tee-shirt doesn’t hide her bodily youth, which she carries with a disarming ease. My “male gaze” watches her closely enough to freeze, even if for a fleeting moment, on the thin strip of the bare olive skin of her lower back, exposed between the low waistline of her trousers and the tee-shirt as she bends down to put some plates and bowls on the floor. I am sure she caught my gaze, although she had her back to me. They all do. They can feel it on their body, every single woman: the lurid jeers that these moments of gaze we, men, scream. “Kash ankhe awaz hote”. Only if eyes were voices. Sara. Sara Shaguftah. They still hate her there in Karachi, most of them at any rate. Because she left behind a whole book-full of eyes. Ankhen, Eyes, her only collection of poetry that she could see published before she decided to stand in front of a train, which raced over her in full speed. Look what our eyes reduced her to: pulp. 1984. She was 30. My Karachi trip was half wasted. I couldn’t steal enough time from our laudatory programme schedule, designed to promote Pakistan-India friendship, to walk the alleys of her eyes.
Trapped in the SRY gene, I curse the tyranny of fate and quickly shift my eyes. Tahmineh has large brown eyes which smile when she smiles. She flashes one at me as I come and sit in one of the sofas in the living room, and continues to lay the food on the floor. That’s because the couple doesn’t have a dining table at their home. Nor do they have a bed.
This is something with which I quickly became familiar as I spent more time in Iran. In many of the homes I visited, food was served on the floor. Not only in homes, but in many restaurants too.
In Yazd, central Iran, my friend Shahram took me to a rather large restaurant that had several raised platforms, like daises, covered with carpets. On these people ate, sitting cross-legged, something that we Bangalis have banished from our culture once we became ‘modern’. (Of course we Bangalis also had the unique and bizarre tradition of eating our meals sitting on a wooden stool, which we call Pinri, couple of inches raised from the floor, while the plates and bowls were kept on the floor! Just the opposite, conceptually, of a table. I have never been able to figure out the reason behind this.)
The Yazd restaurant reminded me of Karachi’s Boat Basin food street, which floats in the heavenly aromatic smoke of myriad kebabs and steam emanating from huge brass handis in front of joints lined up along the road as far as one can see. There too I had seen whole families, sitting in circles, gorging on naan (oriental hand-rolled bread) and gosht nehari (a spicy beef or lamb stew) well past midnight, on large bedsteads all along the road. But there were rows of tables and chairs as well beside the bedsteads.
In Khoy, the small capital-town of West Azerbaijan province, November evenings are shivering cold. My friend there, Mortaza, and I went to a restaurant one evening, where I found small thatched roofed cubicles, covered on three sides with plastic sheets. These cubicles were scattered inside a large garden. After we sat down on the rug-covered floor in one of them, a waiter brought two blankets along with the menu-card!
In Iran I also found that in many homes people slept on the floor. This is something that hadn’t occurred to me at all before my trip. It was very painful for my rather bad spondylosis. Sayad and Tahmineh had no bed in their home. So there was no choice really. But when I told of my difficulties to Somayeh, in whose home I stayed in Shiraz, she immediately asked me to use the bed in her room. “But how can that be? Won’t you and your daughter need it?” I asked embarrassed.
“Oh! Don’t you bother about that,” she said, “we don’t sleep on the bed.”
“That’s a childhood habit.”
The other habit of most of the Iranians which surprised me was the predominance of what is known as the ‘squat latrine’. From public facilities to most Iranian homes, even in those of affluent families, I found this! At homes where there were both commodes and squat latrines, family members, I found, preferred the latter for themselves.
Mr. Anadaleeb is visibly a very rich man. He is Somayeh’s family-friend. She takes me to his home one evening. A bizarre character about whom I shall tell you more in time, he lovingly forces us to drink endless cups of tea over the couple of hours we spend at his home. I saw Somayeh excuse herself for a few minutes. After she returns we have this fascinating piece of conversation, even as Mr. Anadaleeb continues to shake the whole house with his staccato laughter (something like this: ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha, ha-ha, ha) at his own jokes.
I whisper to her, “Where’s the toilet?”
“Why do you think a person wants to find out a toilet?”
“You can’t use it. Is it very urgent?”
“A little. Why can’t I use it?”
“I am telling you, you can’t. Do you want to… er… do you need to go for long? Or just a little while?”
“A little while. But why…?”
At this point Mr. Andaleeb realizes we are not quite with him. He intervenes to find out what’s the matter. Somayeh tells him something in Farsi.
Mr. Andaleeb thunders again, “O, no problem. I have arrangements even for foreigners to relieve themselves. Ha-ha-ha…”
He takes me to a small restroom, which has a commode. I realize, Somayeh is under the impression that I don’t know how to use the other system. Clearly the average Iranian isn’t aware that the cultural proximity between the two ancient civilizations included this important aspect as well until as recently as the late 1970s, I guess, when modernity began to catch up with us Indians, and we parted ways!
Many cities in Iran are quite advanced. Indeed many of the Iranian cities can very well be compared to many European cities. Tabriz, for example, reminded me of Vienna, although never in Vienna did any shopkeeper, on seeing me, come forward with broad welcoming smiles, ask where I was from and then a thousand questions about India, and finally request me to take his snap standing beside me, something that I faced in all the bazaars of Iran. Yet the common use of squat latrine in Iran so surprised me that I realized we in our minds had made modernity and commodes synonymous!
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra