Much of the living room’s floor is covered with a beautiful rug, which Tahmineh informs me is really of a cheap quality. On that she has spread a table cloth, over which she arranges food. Wah! I tell myself, dastarkhawan, a pure Mughal tradition!
Butter, honey, yogurt, olive pickle, walnuts and dates. I notice the honey here is not the deep golden liquid that we are used to. It’s light cream in colour, denser and crystallized. The olive pickle is delicious. I haven’t eaten anything like this before. Tahmineh tells me the recipe: Get some pomegranate juice. Boil and condense it. Let it cool. Take a few more pomegranates and separate the pulp from the seeds by rubbing them on a grater. Grind some walnuts. Take some deseeded olives. Mix all the ingredients. Add salt to taste. Refrigerate it.
And your Zaytoon is ready. Plus in a separate plate there is Paneer, which is not the Paneer(1) we eat in India. In Farsi Paneer is cheese. This Lighvan Paneer comes from the Lighvan village in East Azerbaijan province. It’s made of sheep milk and it’s soft, and the cheddar cheese that we usually eat in India can’t just be compared with the delicious Lighvan Paneer.
Tahmineh arranges food on the dastarkhwan, but breakfast is still not announced. Tea is being brewed in a samovar in the kitchen: the famous Iranian Chai! Tea is popular all over our subcontinent. I’ve seen the British turn drinking the regular morning tea into an elaborate ceremony. Americans drink a strange concoction called iced tea, which we have already begun to ape even in Bengal, the land of Darjeeling tea! I am told the Chinese drink a lot of green tea. I have never been to China, but I haven’t seen any other people drink tea non-stop like the Iranians. When a guest visits our home, we offer her or him a cup of tea. If the person stays long, maybe another cup. But in Iran it might be considered rudeness on the part of the host, if the cups are empty at any point of time. Again as a guest if you are ever truly not in a mood for tea, you have to be very tactful over how to break that shocking news to your host. A blunt ‘no, thanks’ can also be interpreted as rude. Even if you are a total stranger, if you have come to my door, it is customary that you have a cup of tea with me. So I experienced in the quiet deserted district, just behind the vast busy historical Isfahan Bazaar.
As I loiter alone in the area, a huge wooden door fascinates me. Is this a mosque? Doesn’t look like one. Then? Let me see. I push one of the planks and it opens into a courtyard with a loud screech.
In one corner I spot an old gentleman basking in the mild November sun and sipping a cup of tea. In front of him is a small stool, and by his side, more tea boiling in a samovar. I realize my mistake, apologise profusely and turn around to leave. Not a chance. “Musafir, Musafir. Come here. Please have a cup of tea.” It’s all in Farsi, which I know just enough to catch the essence, but no more. With folded arms I say sorry again and request leave. That’s just not possible. Soon a young man comes out from the home. Another chair and a cup of tea are quickly arranged. And there I sit, in Isfahan in a totally unknown district, at the home of a complete stranger, sipping tea, looking and smiling at each other like Trappist monks.
It is in the same district, almost within ten minutes of finally taking leave from my stranger host, that I have to drink three more cups of tea with many more strangers.
Soon after leaving my unknown host, I confront another door, even larger. This time I linger. Take a few snaps of the mud-coloured bare walled houses and the completely deserted streets all around. Suddenly a gentleman, very tall and robust, approaches me and speaks in English, “Hello, Sir! Where are you from?”
I tell him.
“You want to come in and take a look?”
“Of course. But what’s inside?”
“Come and see.”
It’s a handicraft workshop. A large square courtyard surrounded by rooms on all four sides. For the next one hour I am lost in the mesmerizing world of Isfahani handicrafts, Sanaye Dasti, which dazzle at shopping malls in very special shops across Europe and the US, with sky-high price tags! Sitting on the floor, two beautiful young ladies are designing breathtakingly intricate meenakari on metal plates with paints and brushes. In the next room a gentleman and his two sons are etching designs on brass. In another, a carpenter.
In the next room a gentleman and his two sons are etching designs on brass. In another, a carpenter. In yet another two men are painting Islamic designs and block printing large sheets of cloth. I keep clicking madly. No one objects. The gentleman, who had brought me in, is glad that I love the place, and he quickly leaves. I realize no one else here speaks English. But in each room there is a samovar. And in each room I am obliged to have tea, that in Iran is brewed differently and drunk differently from the manner in which we do it in India and most people do it around the world.
On the samovar, right at the top in a tea-pot, boils a dense brew. It’s poured in a cup. Into that is added hot water from the samovar’s tap. That tea is Rummy red in colour. That tea tastes bitter. And that tea can be sweetened in five different ways. Chai beh shikar: with plain sugar. Chai beh qand: with sugar cubes, which you don’t pour into the cup and stir but put in your mouth and then sip the tea as the cube rests inside one of your cheeks.
Chai beh sheerin: with any kind of sweet. Again you keep it in your mouth as you sip the tea. Chai beh noql: Noql is also a kind of sweet prepared by dipping walnuts and almonds into rose-water sugar syrup. Finally, chai beh nabot: A nabot is a kind of coarse sugar mixed with saffron, which gives it an orange colour, and then stuck thick around a thin stick, somewhat like a lollypop. You can suck it as you sip your tea. If that’s hard to handle, even dipping it in the cup won’t offend the immaculate Iranian tea drinker. Such is the tea culture of Iran.
Such tea keeps boiling on the samovar in the open kitchen. Having arranged all the food on the Dastarkhwan, Tahmineh sits beside me and starts chatting. Just like her husband, she also has endless queries. So do I. But where’s Sayad? He has gone to fetch bread, and will return shortly. We chat freely. I am a total stranger. Yet she has not an iota of unease in her demeanour. Tahmineh is not from Tehran, but a small village in north Iran. Her father is in dairy business. “You know we had more than a hundred cows,” she tells me, “But not anymore. Dad’s aged, he can’t take care of such a large business any longer.” Tahmineh is the youngest of her parent’s five children. “I was never close to my mother,” she says, and explains, “perhaps after raising so many children she had become tired when it was my turn.” I reflect how the demography of Iran has changed over just one generation. The 1986 census data informs us, at that time the population growth rate in Iran was 3.9 per cent. In 2014 it nose-dived to 1.22 per cent. Not everyone is unhappy about it. David P. Goldman for example. He, I am told, is an expert on the connection between nations’ socio-economic future and demography. Goldman is an important guy. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a Senior Fellow at London Center for Policy Research. But more importantly, the CIA loves this fellow. Herbert E. Meyer, Special Assistant to the CIA Director and Vice Chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council, Reagan Administration, believes that his pieces have “more insight than the CIA, MI6, and the Mossad combined.”(2) Well, in many of such pieces this fellow has assured the Trumps and the Katiyars and the Thackerays of the world that even though in some cases the “Islamic population time bomb is a real threat”(3) there is no need to suffer from “demographobia”, because populations in the Islamic world is dipping fast, which will soon usher in the end of Islamic civilization. I can pretty much imagine the deep satisfaction reflected on his face when he hit upon the perfectly suitable title for his book: How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam is Dying Too), whose very first chapter has an even more suitable name: “The Closing of the Muslim Womb.” Muslim womb? Must we put a label on the most astounding of the nature-god’s creations, from which emanates life itself: mothers’ wombs? Well, in some people’s brains the venom is that deep.
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra
- In India Paneer is a kind of mildly sour spongy condensed cakes made out of acid-set curd-cheese, which is generally used in various kinds of curries, but may also be eaten raw.
- Interview of David P. Goldman by Ruth King. October 26, 2011. http://www.familysecuritymatters.org/publications/detail/how-civilizations-die-and-why-islam-is-dying-too-by-david-p-goldman Accessed 11/12/2016. 4:40 IST