Passover Persian Style
It is 1980, my first night of Seder in America. I am expecting 50 guests, not a large number by Persian standards. I am, nevertheless, nervous. Mrs. Seidleman, my soon-to-be American friend, is invited tonight, and it’s imperative that the image of us Iranians as a bunch of camel-riding, uncivilized nomads, who parade American hostages in blindfolds around the compound of the American embassy in Tehran, be dispelled once and for all.
Folding tables are set next to each other, one long seemingly endless table that runs the length of the dining room, stretches into the hallway, living room, and into the family room. Tonight, every guest will have a seat. Tables are laden with sumptuous Passover foods — egg matzos, bowls brimming with freshly roasted pistachios, almonds, and hazelnuts. The nuts were prepared weeks before, washed, salted, and left to dry. This morning, I roasted them in the oven — a lengthy, sometimes painstaking process since, sweating from the heat, I faithfully stirred the nuts until they turned an even golden color, and with them my cheeks flared into an angry red. I ran into the bathroom to put a cold compress, mineral mask, and powder my face. Having done that, I gazed at my good-at-forgetting-face in the mirror and went through a mental checklist to make sure that everything was in order for Mrs. Seidleman’s arrival tonight.
We Iranians, you see, are good at forgetting. Perhaps it is this ability to forget that makes us such an optimistic and eternally hopeful people. Perhaps this is why, despite all the unspeakable tragedies of the last months, we remain hopeful, even certain that the Islamic Regime will not last.
Forget about news of executions of the once powerful generals and ministers, photos of lifeless bodies splashed on the front pages of Iranian papers, bullet holes in the head of one or another, broken-necked and crumpled against walls, or hanging from makeshift gallows. Forget about Hoveyda, Mohammad Reza Shah’s prime minister, shot at close range, dark welts disfiguring his face, bottomless sockets for eyes. Forget about anti-American slogans and the Anti-Zionist frenzy in the streets. And now that we are so very good at forgetting, why not forget about the 52 American diplomats and citizens held hostage in the American Embassy in Iran?
Then again, forgetfulness breeds optimism; so we are all certain that this fanatical madness will not and cannot last. Most of us Iranians are way too modern, too educated, and too westernized to bow down to the demands of these religious fundamentalists who want to toss Iran back to the Middle Ages. Every day we remind ourselves that this cannot be the end of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — in the mornings when we take a close look at our good-at-forgetting-optimistic-faces, during the day when we shop in Persian markets around Westwood, and in the evenings when we congregate in our homes to discuss our fate.
Even now, as I check the Seder tables, for the tenth time at least, brush imaginary dust from Mrs. Seidleman’s chair at the head of the table and make sure that her napkin is spotless, well-ironed and crisply folded, I remember 1967 with uncommon clarity. Remember how the Shah had crowned himself King of Kings.
Such extravagant pomp and endless shows of power! A tent city was erected on 160 acres of desert land in the city of Persepolis. The desert was cleared of snakes, scorpions, and other poisonous creatures. Architects, chefs, seamstresses, and all manner of artisans were flown in from Paris. Mature trees, exotic plants, and out-of-season flowers were transported from all around the world to turn the arid desert into a fairyland oasis. Heads of state came bearing gifts and flattering lies. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, was holding what Orson Welles would call “the celebration of 25 centuries.” And the Ayatollah Khomeini would curse as the “Devil’s Festival.”
We were not invited to the “Devil’s Festival,” alas, but how very proud we felt as we watched our Shahanshah, our King of Kings, on our television screens. Surrounded by unimaginable magnificence that masked the bubbling discontent on which he stood, the Shah, royally erect and decked in formal regalia, faced the tomb of Cyrus the Great. His strong, confident voice echoed throughout the desert: “Cyrus, we gather today around the tomb, in which you eternally rest, to tell you: rest in peace, for we are well awake and we will always be alert in order to preserve your proud legacy.”
A mere 13 years later, the Shah, being a true Iranian, forgot his promise to remain “well awake,” packed his bags and abandoned his people. But we are an eternally optimistic bunch, you see, and despite all the arguing, forgetting and remembering, we remain hopeful that America, our staunch ally, has a well-thought-out plan, which must include bringing the Shah back. The way it happened in 1953, we assure ourselves. American and British Intelligence operatives swooped into Iran, organized a coup d’état, and overthrew Mohammad Mossadeqh, the nationalistic prime minister of the time. The triumphant Shah was brought back from Rome to rule for another 26 years. How ironic life can be. Wasn’t it December 1977, when Jimmy Carter toasted the Shah and his Empress in their palace? Didn’t the president of the United States of America declare that “above all others,” Rosalynn wished to spend New Year Eve with the Shah and Empress Farah? That night, hardly three years back, the president announced that Iran was “an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.”
So let’s not banish our suitcases to our cellars and attics, yet. Next year, insh’allah, we’ll celebrate pesach in Iran.
But in America now, in my home in Beverly Hills, all is in order.
China bowls display melt-in-your-mouth chickpea cookies, saffron-rice cookies sprinkled with poppy seeds, and Passover cakes made of every type of roasted nut and dried fruit imaginable. My favorite Passover delicacy is halegh, or Persian charoset, which is supposed to represent the mortar used by our ancestors in Egypt to build those giant monuments, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, we must not forget. Halegh tastes nothing like mud or mortar. Trust me. A blend of ground pistachios, hazelnuts, almonds, dates, raisins, mashed bananas, apples, cinnamon, coriander, and clove mixed with sweet kosher wine, halegh tastes more like heaven with some crunchy manna to boot.
Silver trays are stacked with extra-large spring onions, shiny, white, plump heads, long, green tails. I pre-ordered the spring onions from Madam, a tiny Armenian lady with a strong accent and a dilapidated produce truck, who appears at the crack of dawn the day before Passover so as to personally deliver these goodies.
Most Iranians are inelegantly late, even on such a night. But not my soon-to-be-friend Mrs. Seidleman. She appears coiffed and perfumed and bearing creamy roses the color of the Armani suit she wears. I should have warned her, I should have. But I forgot, of course, and she is here now. I think of my older daughter, think I can’t let her down. She’s having a hard time in school. No one wants to be the friend of a hostage-taking, camel-riding Persian, whose backward Persian mother believes that the age of 12 is way too early for a girl to date, wear makeup or stilettoes, and even too early to wax unwanted hair. What do I know? I’m just a cud-chewing, hairy Iranian who should go back to where I came from. Anyway, as I was telling you, children can be cruel sometimes. They make fun of my daughter in school. She has no friends. In fact, as you must have guessed by now, I’m having a hard time making friends, myself. But not after tonight, I’m sure. Mrs. Seidleman is an influential figure in Beverly Hills. She is a board member in my daughter’s school. And she is here now. And, she is wearing a white, silk blouse under her Armani suit, brandishing a white Hermes purse, and three chains of luminous pearls around her elegant neck, the like of which I’ve never seen.
Family, friends, and loud children begin to trickle in; delicious waves of gossip swell and spread. Compliments sprinkle around like sugarcoated almonds. “What a sumptuous spread.” “You look more beautiful than the full moon.” “How in the world do you manage?”
I lead the guests to the tables, settle Mrs. Seidleman next to one of my handsome brothers and tell him to take extra good care of my very important guest, or else. She is in good hands.
Having been coached about Mrs. Seidleman’s importance and how she’ll make everything okay in school, my daughter has decided to tuck away her teenage rebellion, which will; no doubt, rear its angry face bright and early tomorrow. For now, appreciative of my efforts to make things right, she offers to shake Mrs. Seidleman’s hand and introduce herself in an impressively mature manner, before taking her assigned seat opposite our honored guest, unfolding her napkin, smoothing it on her lap, and attempting a fetching smile her way. I’m so proud of my daughter. Sit back, sweetheart, and enjoy the evening. Mom has everything under control.
Miniature cups of kosher wine are distributed, the first Kiddush recited, then the next. I am pleased, even if the kids are behaving well: “Ma nishtanah haleila hazeh mikol haleilot…” Before long, it’s time to recite the 10 plagues: blood, frogs, lice… as far as I’m concerned, lice are scarier than locusts. To my great surprise and horror, I received a letter from school, notifying me that lice have found their way into a student’s well-shampooed hair to embark on a blood-fest. Lice in Beverly Hills? How is this possible? I thought lice were the product of filthy Iranian villages. But I digress. It is time for dayenu and as is customary in Iran, I toss large tablecloths over the Passover tables to cover the food.
Trays of spring onions are passed around. Guests inspect the onions as if they’re about to purchase spotless, blue-blanc diamonds. The larger the better. They choose not one, but two or three or four, mostly a thick bunch, carefully selecting the best whip. “Da da eynu, Da da eynu, Da da eynu, Dayenu, Dayenu!”
Mrs. Seidleman shifts closer to my brother, whispers something in his ear. They laugh like two giddy teenagers. He takes his sweet time to selects a chickpea cookie from the tray, as if they aren’t all the same. Having presumably found the best, he offers it to her. She plucks it with two dainty, manicured fingers and drops it in her mouth, shaking her head in approval. She is impressed, I can tell, such a close-knit family, all hugs and kisses, joy and warmth. My heart settles. I was right to seat her next to my brother. It is hard to resist his charm. He gives her forearm an affectionate squeeze. Hands her a single spring onion, gives her an assuring pat on the knee. Blessed laughter. The click of wine glasses. Le’chaim! All is well in Beverly Hills.
Until 47 adults and children burst out of their seats like wild, shrieking cannon balls. Even my brother. The traitor. Just wait until I give him a piece of my mind. Mrs. Seidleman looks around, grabs my brother’s arm, when he is back to tickle the back of her hand with the tail of a green onion. Her hand curls into a fist and I think she’ll box my brother in the face. Her nose twitches in disgust. Her lips smile. Her eyes don’t.
My daughter shoots an accusing arrow of a look right through the main artery of my heart. I attempt an assuring smile as I watch her melt into her chair. I dig one foot into the Persian carpet. But the brakes are defective and no amount of pressure can stop this madness.
Mrs. Seidleman remains paralyzed in her chair as a crowd of seemingly mad, Egyptian slave drivers wields spring onions like whips, hitting, shrieking, and chasing one another from room to room. Tonight wives punish husbands for having strayed; kids whip parents for punishing them, lovers tickle one another with the soft, green tips. The odor of onion and love and hate and all types of jealousies permeate the house. “Da da eynu, Da da eynu, Da da eynu, Dayenu, Dayenu!” Enough! Enough!
Mrs. Seidleman eyes are orbs of fear. She searches for the closest exit. She jumps out of her seat. Grabs her stained Hermes purse by the side of her chair. I watch with horror as her pearls plunge into a glass of wine — deep red Manischewitz and kosher lepesach. A moment of stunned shock as she pulls the chain of rubies, I mean pearls, out of the wine and holds the spoiled goods up to her mournful gaze. Drops of wine spill onto her Armani suit, embellishing the geometrical design of green that reeks of onion and that will forever remind her of her first Persian Passover with a bunch of backward, camel-riding, hostage-taking Persians that should go back to where they came from.
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