By Rebecca Myers
The Persian Tea House in Atlanta is the opposite of a dead, hollow concert hall—it’s alive with flowers, Persian rugs, and the aroma of tantalizing herbs and spices. Against the crimson walls, the lavish feast looks like a still-life masterpiece. This concert will be like no other I have experienced.
Tonight’s concert features Sattar, one of the pioneers of Persian pop music. He was an icon, the Frank Sinatra of Iran, before the revolution in the late seventies. His music still reigns nearly four decades after the revolution banned him from singing and put him in exile. Now living in America, he performs to an expatriate community who yearns for their country.
To my right are ten “beds”—raised wooden platforms separated by rails. Each bed is richly appointed with a crimson Persian rug and large tapestry pillows; each can host about a dozen people who sit cross-legged and dine picnic style.
My best friend reserved the prime bed with the best view of the room overlooking the dance floor, musicians, and other guests dining at round tables. Her Farsi name, Afsaneh (OFF sah nay), means “fairy tale” in English. For a decade, she has introduced me to the delights of Persian culture and hospitality.
Persian concerts can start one hour late. It’s much more important for the Iranian community to spend time connecting. I witness an overture of hugging and kissing.
Iranian women prepare for such events with great attention to detail. Dark eyeliner sets off their eyes. Crystals sparkle on their dresses cut in the latest American fashion. Gold jewelry adorns their hands, necks, and ears. Stiletto heels boost the figures of the younger women. They are elegant birds gracing the arms of their men, handsome in their suits. Afsaneh is no exception. She welcomes her guests by kissing us on both cheeks.
We sit on the thick rug, drape our bodies against the pillows, and nibble on Kashk-e bademjoon (eggplant and onions), borani (yogurt and spinach), shirazi (cucumber, tomato, and lime salad), and Naan-o-Paneer-o-Sabzi (Iranian thin bread, feta cheese, and herbs). When we’re ready, we can step down from the bed and join the dancers.
All of Afsaneh’s guests are couples, except for me. And alone is not the only way I feel different from the others. I’m overweight. I dressed sensibly in a pantsuit so I can sit cross-legged, although not with any kind of grace or comfort. My knees stick up in a V instead of a flat, yoga style. I’m awkward and out of my element eating while sitting on a rug in front of others. I can’t seem to find a comfortable position as I balance the food on my lap. I feel underdressed next to the exquisite fashion surrounding me.
I’m a duck that has just waddled into a bevy of swans.
To escape my awkwardness, I stand up, perch on the railing of our bed, and close my eyes, absorbing the music into my body, tuned to the key of Middle-Eastern music. The dark, minor chords infused with joyous rhythm resonate with my own dance of life, which has taught me that joy has its roots in sorrow.
My mind shuts off its negative chatter as the music elevates my spirits. I forget myself as I sway and arabesque my hands.
I figure I will probably hand dance the whole night. But Afsaneh breaks my reverie; she calls and invites me to dance with her and her date. I step off the bed and join them.
Encouraged by Afsaneh and feeling anonymous in the crowd, I let the full flow of the music speak through my hips, torso, and arms. My hips create figure eights of infinity; my arms are undulating snakes.
I keep dancing even when Afsaneh and her date leave. A tap on my shoulder interrupts me. I turn. A young Iranian couple wants my attention.
The man asks me with a quizzical look, “You…Iranian?”
I smile and shake my head, no.
They both shake their heads and she blurts out, “Noooooo! You American?”
“Yes, I’m American.” I raise my eyebrows in question.
They look at each other and he says, “You wonder why we ask?” He pauses. “It’s because you dance like an Iranian—a beautiful Iranian dancer!”
I’m stunned and it clearly shows on my face.
“You don’t believe us!” They laugh. He holds up a camera and points at it. “We take a picture of you, we think you dance so beautiful!”
I blush. In a split second I go from anonymity to the spotlight. A duck to a swan. The swift shift is jarring. If they were Americans, I’d chalk it up to alcohol, but no drinks are served at this event. Are they sincere or making fun of me? As if in answer, people sitting near the dance floor meet my eyes, nod, and smile. A waiter passes by; he winks, one arm laden with dishes, his free hand motioning thumbs-up.
I breathe in their good intentions, their smiles. A rush of profound gratitude fills me. Speechless, I put my hand on my heart to acknowledge their kindness.
After a few more dances by myself, I feel another tap. I turn and see a handsome Iranian man with salt-and-pepper hair and a younger woman. “You are a wonderful dancer,” the woman says.
The man nods eagerly. “You dance with me!” he exclaims.
I look at the young woman.
She smiles. “This is my Uncle Ali. I’m his niece.” She waves us on. “Go dance!”
Ali and I swirl around each other. When the music changes, he pushes through the crowd to make sure I get a close view of the star singer. Sattar’s gray, cropped beard and darker mustache frames his songs, while his handsome face and dark eyes emote the song’s joy and passion.
Time for a break, I think. I’m about done in.
But a tall, big-boned woman with flowing bronze curls parts the crowd as she strides up to me with a powerful presence. Ali steps back, watching. “You dance with me,” she demands with a smile.
We dance around each other as Iranian women do, and as Afsaneh and I have often done. We mirror each other’s movements and send our arms back and forth under our eyes toward each other while our eyes lock. The surrounding dancers encourage us by clapping to the beat.
At the end of our dance, she turns and looks at Ali. “Sooo—are you with her?”
I fully expect him to say no. Any American guy who has just danced with you a few times would say no. “With” could have complicated meanings, and we certainly didn’t arrive together.
Instead, Ali leaps up and proclaims, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” with much enthusiasm.
“You’re a very lucky man,” she declares to Ali.
I suddenly feel hot and shake my head in wonder, caught somewhere between crazy reality and magic. My hand on my heart silently thanks Ali for his exuberant yes. I observe this scene like a reader of my own story, as if I’m floating outside my body. This moment shimmers in suspension.
She then turns to me and intimates with a sweep of her hand, “You know, I know all these people here for many years. The Atlanta Iranian community is close, but they come from different religions. I myself am Christian. There are Jews here as well as Muslims. But you…” She pauses and cocks her head. “…I think you are Sufi!”
I am honored. I love the illuminating poetry of the Sufi mystics, Rumi and Hafiz. Six to seven centuries later, their poems are still beloved around the world today for their spiritual beauty and wisdom, their weaving of natural wonders with profound insights.
We part for dinner and rejoin our own groups.
The Persian feast is sumptuous. Iranians show their generosity and love through food, and this event is no exception. Pyramids of apples, oranges, dates, figs, and pomegranates. Festoons of grapes. Dishes of eggplant, onion, and garlic. Fresh greens and mint. Skewered lamb, beef, and chicken with tomatoes and green peppers. And fragrant rice sprinkled with dill or saturated with rose water. A feast to feed your soul!
After dinner, the lights dim. The darkness reflects the mood shift from gaiety to seriousness. People hush, anticipating. I sit on the edge of our bed as everyone returns to their seats. Sattar changes from singing upbeat pop music to a traditional song full of ancient, guttural tones.
I close my eyes and feel the pain of a people separated from their beloved homeland and families; their longing to be reunited; their love for their mountains, deserts, ancient civilization; their cities and culture. They have their freedom, but not their home. I find myself weeping at their heartbreak.
Sattar ends his song. The silence speaks the audience’s profound respect and emotion. I need a tissue for my eyes and nose. I’m a mess. I open my eyes; sitting next to me is a petite, chic woman with ebony hair. She reminds me of Audrey Hepburn. She stares at me with gorgeous green eyes swimming in tears.
She huskily asks me, “You…you…understand Farsi?”
“No,” I apologize, “just a few words of greeting.”
I gingerly venture forth. “But I think the song was very sad—about missing your homeland, about all you’ve sacrificed…yes?”
Her eyes widen with surprise. Her voice trembles, part anguish, part anger, when she says, “I raised two children in America, but they don’t understand!”
We hug each other for a long time. In this moment, we’re no longer two women from two different cultures, but simply mothers connecting through the universal love of children and home.
I walk toward the door, and everyone waves goodbye to me. “Merci—Khodaa haafez!” We’re no longer strangers. As I step out under the stars and breathe in the gift of this night, I remember Rumi’s words: “There is a community of spirit. Join it, and feel the delight … Close both eyes and see with the other eye.”
REBECCA MYERS writes about transformation through travel, nature, work, culture, and relationships. She currently translates complex science into language our grandmothers can understand for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. She also teaches creative writing to her colleagues and is writing a memoir and a children’s book series about the spirituality of nature.