I sprawled across the stone bench, naked, with only a damp towel between
me and the warm slab. Steam filled the room and lulled me into a deep
A timid knock at the door broke my thoughts. "Ba-lee," I
called, wrapping the towel around my body, "Yes?"
An old woman, wearing a long black chador, the cotton cover worn by
devout Iranian women, stuck her head throught the door. "Pepsi,
Madame?" she asked, motioning to the tray in her hands.
"Why not? You only live once," I answered in English, blinking
my eyes in a Persian gesture meaning "Yes."
"Do you love the shah?" the woman asked warily as she poured
"Whats to love?" I replied, in the Persian manner
of answering a question with a question.
She smiled and handed me the glass.
So there I sat in Chalousnaked, drinking Pepsi in a public bathhouse,
and talking politics with a chadori, as the Iranian women who wore chadors
It was 1979 and my husband, Hashem, and I had spent the night before
on the rooftop of our mountain home in Tehran watching the army fire
into chanting mobs in the city below. Hospitals in Tehran were running
out of blood and bandages, a general strike was in effect in the city,
and thousands of armed soldiers were joining the revolution every day.
We had gone to Chalous, a resort town on the Caspian Sea, to escape
the revolution in Tehran, but it had followed us.
In the square outside the bathhouse, two Moslem priests were addressing
a large crowd of people. I pulled the tattered drape aside, wiped the
steam off the tiny window, and peeked into the street. The mullahs stood
in the back of a pickup truck, wailing through a loud speaker to a gathering
There were women in the group, some dressed in tight jeans and rhinestone-studded
sweatshirts, others in high heels and still others in chadors. It was
another political rally in a land where such activity was strictly forbidden,
where speaking ones mind about politics could lead to disappearance
in the night, to torture, and to bloody, violent death.
These were the last days of the revolution. The country stood on the
threshold of modernity, while a messianic ayatollah lured it back toward
medieval fanatacism. An anxious nation held its breath. Iranian women,
whose quest for freedom had just begun, were especially concerned. They
watched the country totter between a hated monarchy and an undefined
Islaminc fundamentalism, and wondered what their role would be in the
In the dressing room, I dried my blonde hair, put on make-up, and went
to the foyer to join Hashem. His curly, blue-black hair gleamed in the
sun-light and the wrinkles around his eyes crinkled into a smile when
he saw me, although he had been waiting over half an hour. He, like
most Iranians, was infinitely patient.
"Come on," he said. "I want to buy a fish."
At the market, Hashem haggled good-naturedly over a fat, shimmering
sturgeon. "Whos going to clean this fish?" I asked.
"Dont worry, not you," Hashem grinned.
We took it back to the cottage we had rented. Zara, the landlords
eighteen-year-old daughter, grabbed it. "I must cook this for you,"
"No, I will do it myself," Hashem insisted
"Let me have that pleasure," Zara replied. But it was all
a game. Iran is, in many ways, still a feudal society and class lines
are strictly drawn. Zara would clean the fish, cook it, and serve it
to us. And we all knew it. Much of life in Iran is games and make believe.
But they are pleasant and gracious and make life sweet.
"Well be back for lunch at 2:00," Hashem said. This
meant that we might come back sometime that afternoon.
We strolled across the street to my father-in-laws villa, our
one-year-old son, Michael, perched on Hashems shoulders.
The family, the heart of Iranian life, was gathered. A samovar bubbled
in the corner, and the red Persian carpets were littered with tiny,
steaming glasses of fragrant tea. Brass trays laden with fruit lay in
the center of the rugs.
Everyone stood when we entered and the ritual of handshaking and kissing
began. Michael was passed from person to persontickled, hugged,
and waltzed across the room.
"Betty," Hashems aunts and uncles cried, "Michael
is a very beautiful boy." Iranians are shameless flatterers.
We settled down on the carpet, our bare feet tucked under. My mother
in law called for a towel which she draped decorously over my knees
in case I moved awkwardly. None of the women in Hashems family
wore the chador, but they all had these "modesty" towels.
The pride of an Iranian family lies largely in the purity of its women.
"Have you been to California?" Reza, a sixty-year-old family
friend asked me after fresh tea had been poured.
"Many times," I lied. What good is an American who has never
been to California?
"Last summer I was in California," Reza said. "I am
going to live there next year when I retire, in Beverly Hills."
I doubted that, but it was probably Rezas dream, and dreams and
reality often mingle in Iran.
"But they say California will fall into the ocean in the next
one hundred years," said Hashems father.
"So, then I will stay only ninety-nine years," replied Reza
with a flip of his hand.
One of Zaras sisters appeared from the kitchen with a tray of
pastries scented with rosewater. Her hair, unusually long and luxuriant,
was covered with a black scarf.
"Why do you wear that scarf?" Hashem asked,
"The mullah says that every uncovered hair on our heads will turn
into a serpent," she replied sheepishly.
"And do you believe him?" Hashem asked.
"Doesnt he know more than I?" she replied, scurrying
back to the kitchen. The family sat clicking their tongues and shaking
their heads at such fanatacism.
Iran is a land of mystery, superstition, and deeply-rooted religious
beliefs. It is a land where peasant women still believe that a prayer,
written on their inner thigh, can capture the heart of their beloved,
and the evil eye is feared.
"Forget about religion and politics," Reza cried. "We
are here to get away from that."
Rezas thirty-year-old wife sat by his side. Down the street,
in a house surrounded by a rose garden, his older wife spent her holiday
with the children she had borne with Reza, including their daughter,
Suza, a woman in her early twenties who was visiting from London where
"I hate this country," Suza told me later that day. "For
you is fun because you are foreign. But you dont know what my
mother suffered when my father married Mahin," Suza continued as
she looked down the table at Reza and his young wife. "Many women
in my mothers generation were humiliated when their husbands took
a second wife. Now, it is not a common practive, thank God," she
said, spreading her hands palms up and looking into the heavens.
We never ate our fish that day, but Zara and her family said it was
delicious. We dined on fessengun instead, an exotic stew of pomegranate
juice, ground walnuts, and chicken eaten over steamed rice.
After dinner, Hashems twenty-three-year-old sister, Soroya, danced
for us. Iranian dance is like Greek belly dancing but more refined and
sensual. The virgin Soroya danced late into the night, a scarf tied
low around her hips. Her hands swayed to the discordant Persian music,
her eyebrows rose and fell, her hips undulated rhythmically, in that
land of veiled sexuality.
The next day we left Chalous and drove back through the rain forest
of northern Iran into the Elburz mountains wihth their bleak brown vistas,
thin trickling streams, and meager flocks of sheep.
In a mountain villager we bought kabobs which the villagers had grilled
over charcoal. Sitting under olive trees, we watched women draw water
from a communal well and carry it home on their heads, as their mothers
had done before them. A young woman of about sixteen, anxious and eager
to please, served our lunch. She stood behind a tree, her one-year-old
baby on her back, and watched our every move as we ate. "It was
my honor," she said, when we thanked her for the food. She stared
at her dusty shoes and said, "It was my duty."
At the car, she presented me with a red plastic dish containing two
duck eggs. "Madame," she smiled shyly, "welcome to our
village." Then in rapid Farsi, the language of Iran, she asked
Hashem if she could tough my hair. "I have never touched hair of
gold," she said.
She ran her slim brown hand over my hair and then took her babys
tiny hand and placed it on my head. "She also has not touched English
hair," she said.
We drove into Tehran through the wealthy suburb of Shimiran, where
chauffeurs lounged outside the gates, and nannies walked their charges
up and down the sidewalks.
Even there the walls were covered with dancing Persian graffiti declaring,
"Death to the Shah." At night soldiers washed the walls, leaving
big smears, and the next night demonstrators wrote, "You cannot
wash away shame."
We stopped at the American Supermarket around the corner from the Niavaran
Palace where the shah lived. Here, among the rows of imported cheeses,
frozen Sara Lee pies, and Australian lamb, the wealthy women of Iran
shopped, their Charles Jourdan shoes clicking down the aisles, followed
by the shuffling feet of servants who grabbed whatever the diamond and
emerald studded hands motioned toward.
On the outside wall of the super-market a bold red painting read, "Thieves
of the people, beware."
This warning became prophecy the following week when the shah, king
of kings, shadow of god, went into his palace garden, filled a mosaic
box with Iranian earth, packed his bags, and quit Iran. Iranians, from
all walks of life, were jubilant. They envisioned a more open society,
a less corrupt government. Their joy overflowed into the streets, where
much of life in Iran is lived. We drove slowly up Pahlavi Avenue, the
main street in Tehran, that night. The carnation-strewn streets were
filled with people dancing to Arabic music blaring from transistor radios.
Women in tight jeans danced with abandon, their red nails flashing through
the air. Children formed circles around their mothers and imitated their
But the joy of Irans women was short-lived.
The next week, female newscasters began wearing black scarves around
their elegantly coiffed heads. Day care centers closed, and female judges
were replaced by males.
My friend and neighbor, Negar, an architect, who had always dressed
in chic French or Italian clothes, began to wear the chador. "Its
a kind of protection," she said, "like when American ladies
"But they only use karate if they are attacked," I said.
"I know, but my husband wants me to do it anyway," she admitted.
Several days later an Armenian friend, Aida, came over to tell us about
a womens rights march she had attended at Tehran University. "The
Islamic guards were everywhere," she said sarcastically, "protecting
our morals and guarding our purity, with their shirts unbuttoned down
to their navels."
Aida was a Christian and the only member of her family to support the
revolution. "They are against it not because they love the shah,"
she said, "but because it is a religious movement. But for me it
is a new beginning. I love the revolution."
Many Iranian women loved the revolution. The poorer ones had walked
the front lines against the shahs elite guards, thinking that
his soldiers would not fire at women. Zara and Aida and Soroya loved
the revolution because they thought it would lead to a more just society
Our housekeeper, Fateh, a divorced woman with two children, loved the
revolution, too. She saw it as an opening, a chance for a better life
for her children.
She came to us one day and asked us to driver her to her ancestral
village to visit her sick mother. In the village square a group of women
had gatherd around the local mullah to discuss the shortage of soap
which had occurred since the revolution.
"Did Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed, beg for soap?" the
mullah asked the women indignantly.
"And did Mohammed ride around in a bullet-proof Mercedes?"
Hashem muttered as we walked through the village, past the mullahs
armored limousine. Groups of women, draped in black with only their
dark eyes exposed, scurried down the dusty road.
These were the women of Iran who had loved the revolution. But it had
not loved them back.
One by one, the rights of Iranian women were taken away. Women could
no longer sue for divorce, they could not rent apartments, or wear make-up.
Their faces disappeared behind obligatory Islamic dress, symbolizing
their removal from society.