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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

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Iran: Where Houses Have No Furniture
April 8, 2000

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It's hard to get work done, but easy to have fun here!
The television is showing some cheesy Iranian adventure show, but no one is actually watching -- they're all staring at me. All day today, I've been trying to write a dispatch, usually with one or more people staring over my shoulder. You'd think they'd get bored, watching me type. They don't.

They come and go, but they patiently and quietly stare. Most don't actually live in this house, but the whole village knows we're here now, and comes over to look at us. I was actually thankful when they turned on the television, thinking it would draw attention away from me. It didn't. Now there is a whole group of adults and kids, whispering and staring at us, completely ignoring the television.

We arrived at the home of our bus driver's family friend, in this small village near Eshfahan, Iran, last night. Suddenly, everyone in the neighborhood was dropping in to meet us. Giggly women, shy kids staring wide-eyed, and curious men, smiling and talking together in the corner.

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Fourteen-year-old Maziye speaks a little English, but her sister Fawezy just giggles!
We're more interesting than the television, even when we don't pull out our digital cameras. Once we revealed our ability to take their pictures and then look at them immediately on the computer screen, any hope of privacy was lost!

They're so sweet. They're so cute. I wish they'd just go away for a few hours! One woman speaks a few words of English, so everyone keeps turning to her as "translator." Occasionally she comes up with one word summaries of the question at hand--"husband?" or "hungry?" or "tea?"

Often, though, they don't even bother with the "translator." They just speak to me loudly in Farsi, and repeat it over and over again, as if I will suddenly understand. The look on their faces says, "This is so easy! You must know what I'm saying!" I used to think that the inclination to speak louder to someone who doesn't understand your language was just an annoying American tourist trait, but now I realize that it's universal to anyone who rarely comes in contact with foreigners!

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Persian rugs are great for lunch, yoga, and sleeping!
The home is a sort of compound, with two large courtyards and several separate housing units and rooms. Although I still haven't figured out all the relationships, it seems to be an extended family, with an older grandmother and grandfather, their married sons and their wives, several unmarried sons and daughters and a few grandkids. It's really hard to tell, though, because people are constantly coming and going. Neighbors are welcomed: they just walk in, sit down, make a cup of tea, answer the phone, whatever.

What's really interesting is that this place has almost no furniture! It's not that the people are poor, because this is obviously a well-to-do household. It's just the traditional style. All the rooms are bright and open, with big windows, gorgeous Persian carpets and embroidered pillow-like backrests around the walls. Everyone just sits on the floor. Even the old grandparents plop down, "Indian-style." You have to stay limber in this culture, I guess. Not only do they eat on the floor, in a circle around a clear plastic tarp which they place over the elegant carpets, but they also use squat toilets, so they have to be able to hunker down to the earth to do their business!

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All my laundry helpers pose with the machine.
None of the rooms have beds, either. Everyone just sleeps on the floors. I think it's great. Every room is a multipurpose room, and we trekkers can entertain, work, sleep and do our exercises in the morning -- a welcome change from the cramped hotel rooms we're used to. The only thing I miss is a desk for my laptop computer, and a little privacy.

Privacy, I think, is not a word in the Persian language. Perhaps it is a result of close families and close communities, but this lack of privacy can be uncomfortable at times for us individualistic Americans. Total strangers from the village just open the door, walk in with a smile, say "salaam" and then sit down to stare over my shoulder at the laptop. It's a little weird, so now I sit with my back to the wall.

It's impossible to be angry, though, because they're all just so kind and cute. The women here are beautiful. Unlike other parts of Iran that we've visited, they wear colorful chadors (long clothes that cover them from head to foot) instead of plain black. But, also unlike the other places we've visited, they keep their chadors on, even in the house. Perhaps because of that, they wear them wrapped all around their bodies, not fluttering around them. It is amazing how agile they are, even though they're completely draped in what seems like a big sheet.

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These neighbors just stopped by to gawk for a while!
This morning, I stayed behind in order to type, rest up and do some laundry. I pantomimed to Naheed, an unmarried daughter about our age, that I wanted to wash some clothes of the many small tasks that can become big productions when traveling in foreign countries.

"Machine?" she asked.

"Bali!" I said, thinking "That was easier than I thought!"

Soon, several women and kids (friends? sisters? neighbors?) were leading me out the door (where I put on a pair of the plastic flip-flops that every home has in abundance) to the second courtyard.

"Machine!" they cried, pointing to a strange metal box under the awning. Hummm. This should be interesting.

The box opened from the top, and looked vaguely like a washing machine inside. It had a green garden hose attached to the side, tied up with a string. The women took turns explaining to me, very patiently, exactly how the whole thing worked. Well, I assume that was what they were explaining, since I just stood there laughing and shaking my head. The word "ab," which means "water," was the only thing I understood. The grandma went inside and came back with a bucket of water, dumped it in, swished it around, and then lowered the hose to let the water drain out. It was clean and ready.

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Hanging out in the courtyard, under their mothers' watchful eyes.
I picked up the power cord and tried to find somewhere to plug it in. Mamasu, who I think is a daughter-in-law with a young child who lives off this courtyard, got an extension cord. Meanwhile, a neighbor ran back and forth six or seven times from the kitchen with a small bucket, filling up the box, and grandma dumped in the soap. We were ready to go. If only I could get this much help with my laundry back home!

I played with the kids, drank sweetened, warmed milk and eventually brought out my camera for limitless entertainment. Then it was time to rinse the clothes, squatting by a faucet in the center of the courtyard. For the rinsing and the hanging-out-to-dry processes, I was a one-woman show. All eyes were on me, except 4-year-olds Moussa and Fawezy, who were chasing each other around the yard. The women stood together, evaluating my technique. Unlike several places I've been in Latin America and Africa, at least, the women didn't berate me for doing it wrong, and then insist on showing me how it's supposed to be done, as if I were a little girl.


inclination - preferring one thing over another
embroider - to stitch a design (into a pillow, say)
individualistic - independent-minded, focused on the self
pantomime - to tell a story by bodily or facial movements without speech
berate - to scold vehemently and at length

Lunch was next on the agenda, and everyone was eager to refill my plate, pour me a drink, or in any other way make absolutely certain that I wanted for nothing. So kind, but so filling--they wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. When I finally got up from the floor, I left a plate full of saffron rice and a tasty spinach and bean dish, and a full cup of orange soda. I felt rude, but it would have been ruder to get sick all over their beautiful Persian rug from eating too much!

The television is off now, and most people have left. Four beautiful women and a few kids enter the room, staring and laughing. I think I've met them all before, but I'm starting to get confused. So many women, and all of them covered in chadors ...I think I'll take a break, maybe play with the camera, and try to be social. What a strange image of Americans they must have, watching me type on a computer for hours!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Monica - Flowers, Words, and Shapes: Islamic Art in Iran
Brian - Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Persian Architecture, And All before Dinnertime
Abeja - In the Name of Allah
Team - Turn Off That Faucet! Water Doesn't Grow on Trees, You Know

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