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Middle East Monica Dispatch

We are Family! Come on Everybody and Sing!
March 25, 2000

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Take some time with me to think about "family." What does the word mean to you? To me, the word family means my mother, father, and two sisters. My extended family includes four grandparents (Hello Lola, Lolo, Papalo and Mamalette!) and eleven aunts and uncles. Twenty-four first cousins and hundreds of other relatives of all shapes, sizes, and colors round out the picture. There's also an assortment of pets in there somewhere.

However, I grew up in a different country than most of my kin, so my main experience of "family" was through my parents and sisters. Nowadays, the "family" experience has grown to be with Odyssey teammates as well as an extended network of people back home and friends with whom I've become close. I consider "my people" to be those actively searching and striving for meaning and beauty in life.


kin - one's relatives; family; kinfolk.
interrelated - to place in or come into mutual relationship.
embargo - a prohibition by a government on certain or all trade with a foreign nation.
chador - a loose, usually black robe worn by Muslim women that covers the body from head to toe and most of the face.
inclination - a tendency toward a certain condition or character.
malleable - capable of being shaped or formed.

What about you? Who are you growing up with? Who is your family? Who do you consider to be "your" people? Grandparents, stepparents, blood brothers, soul sisters, close friends from school, boyfriends, girlfriends, people who share the same values and beliefs as you? Coworkers, classmates, acquaintances with similar goals, people from a youth group, club, or activity? Hold those people close to you in your mind and then think about the relationships you have with them. You're interrelated by caring, respect, and looking out for one another. When there are difficulties and you feel very isolated, to whom or what do you turn?

These questions are relevant all over the world. We had heard that the best experience of Iran is in the context of family. We trekkers are fortunate to experience this easy-going attitude, with attention to family and community gathering, as we stay in the small town of Khoy, after crossing the border from Turkey. "In Iran, we like to take things easy," says Hadi, our guide. "Not like in other countries, where people are always working or thinking about money."

First of all, let me mention that Persian hospitality is legendary, and we were excited to visit Iran and learn about this culture firsthand. What images come to your mind when you think about modern Iran or ancient Persia? What have you heard? "What matters is what individuals think about each other," explains Amir, our host in Khoy. "Not what the governments think." He's referring to the trade embargo that the United States places on Iran and the difficulties that visitors, particularly Americans, have in obtaining tourist visas. We finally received our visas thanks to Hadi's help (and later heard of other Americans who were denied visas; we were fortunate). During our stay here, we'll share with you our insights into Iranian culture, hospitality, food and family. We want to get beyond images of Iranian students burning US flags, Jimmy Carter and the hostage crisis, Oliver North and the Iran contra scandal, the Shah, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Shi'ites in Islam, and women in chadors.

Secondly, Persian hospitality DESERVES its legendary status: we experience it each day, starting with our first night in the country. In Khoy, after watching boys jump over fires in the streets and set off firecrackers for the festivities inside a house for a big gathering of family and friends. Maryam Baradaran, 16, makes the introductions in very good English. "This is Mona, my sister, and Mitra, my younger sister. And my friend, Maral, and her brothers Reza and Mohammad Ali. Here are my parents, and there are Maral's mother and father." After playing with the digital camera, going over maps of Iran and the Middle East, and practicing each others' languages, we sit down in a big circle for dinner.

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We all really click. Is it the food, the visitors, or the cross-cultural dialogue? I don't know, but it's fun for everybody. There's baked chicken, and rice with crunchy potato crust broken over the top, and mounds of salad, and pickled veggies. I have two helpings, and people are constantly passing plates over and laughing. Our translator, who we call Louie, tells us, in the midst of the talking, "They didn't think Americans would be so friendly." Cross-cultural awareness goes both ways! There are different generations represented: young people and old people, men and women, enjoying each other's company and being happy and even silly together, like when the patriarch teases Jasmine or when the toddler gets kissed by everyone he talks to.

Thirdly, I have to emphasize that you can't really know a culture without being invited into it. As trekkers, we often show you the "tourist trail" or the historical landmarks, with less insight into day-to-day life. In Iran, there seems to be a real difference between the warm and friendly private life, happening inside the home behind closed doors, and the more formally conducted public life. We were dancing to the beat of Ricky Martin our first night, something I thought we wouldn't do at all during our entire visit! If you have questions, you need to ask them quickly while we're here: we have 30 days left on our visas, so e-mail any of us with specific ideas or comments.

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Finally, I encourage you to relate what we're talking about in the dispatches to your own life. This is not something happening so far away. Iran is not some scary weird place "out there." It's a neighbor to Turkey and Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iraq, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. It borders the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. We trekkers are here now, having visited a bunch of other countries in this region, and hope you'll join us in this exploration of family and community in Iranian culture.

Bitter, yet Sweet...Tea, the National Drink of Iran

Chay? Would you care for some tea? Befarmed, chay (Please have a cup of tea). I estimate that within each 24-hour period I consume at least six cups of tea. Strong black stuff, it is-- and hot! Hot enough to warm up your fingers through the glass. You have to sweeten it up, and I like my sweetener, at least 3 lumps please. Sweet like my personality, is what I think. ;-)

Chay and the natural inclination to drink it is a part of Persian culture. We've had chay everywhere: in homes, in restaurants, on the minibus, in lobbies. It's sociable. And since we trekkers are such sociable individuals, we find ourselves drinking it often.

In the bazaar in Khoy, Maryam, a young friend, shows me down a side alley to the ghand store where her friend works. Ghand is the sugar lump that people drink with their tea; usually, we find sugar cubes that dissolve very quickly, but ghand is more like rock candy. I had always wanted to see how they make it, and Maryam gives me that chance.

Inside it's slightly hot: a fire burns and inside a big pot Maryam's friend and a helper are heating up water and sugar together. They pour it out into rectangular pans, where it starts to harden into sheets about a quarter-inch thick.

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Then, they cut it up into squares, while it's still malleable. They fold over each square a few times, so it's like layers of sugar, and then run the sheet through a tool that cuts each sheet into sugar lumps, kind of football-shaped, the size of regular sugar cubes.

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Finally, they break off the ghand into pieces and sell it in bulk.

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The chay comes in leaves, or in packets. You slip a few leaves into hot water and let them steep, then pour it into the glass and serve it. As a tip for when you visit Iran, you must drink a cup of tea before getting down to any kind of business. You may also take the sugar lump and, instead of dissolving it into the tea, just hold it in your mouth and drink the tea normally: delicious!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Abeja - Fire Jumping in Modern Persia
Brian - Of Sheep and Sacrifice
Jasmine - 'Cause you gotta have faith'...A Visit to the Black Church
Kavitha - Mission Impossible? Crossing the Border into Iran
Team - Amnesty International fights for Human Rights in the United States

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