The other day we visited my boyfriend’s Iranian-born aunt – Khaleh Maryam, as her Iranian nieces and nephews call her.
Try pronouncing the “kh”, which is supposed to be neither “k” nor “h”, but something in between. I still haven’t mastered it – but my Iranian boyfriend Ali gives me credit for trying because he cannot pronounce a single thing in my native Bulgarian.
Khaleh Maryam immigrated to Toronto from the Iranian city of Esfahan 10 years ago and since I moved to Canada only about three weeks ago, it was my first time meeting her.
I liked her before I even saw her. A couple of days before our visit, she was on the phone with Ali to find out what kind of foods I like. She then asked him if I like coffee.
“Sure,” Ali said. “Ok, then I’m going to buy a coffee maker,” Khaleh Maryam told him.
That’s Persian hospitality for you! The guest is king and you go out of your way to make them happy.
Luckily, Ali persuaded her not to buy a coffee maker. She served us black tea in dainty hourglass-shaped cups with dates and pastries.
Lunch too was amazing – a real Iranian feast. I don’t eat meat, so I stuck to the rice and the kookoo sabzi, one of my most favourite Persian meals ever. Interestingly, I didn’t discover it while I was in Iran. I first tried it at an Iranian snack place in Brussels.
So yeah, the food was amazing, but more than that, I loved the attitude of Khaleh Maryam and her husband. They were both so genuine, so eager to please, they made me feel like I’ve known them for years, like they are my family, too.
And I give them so much credit for graciously enduring all my questions, the kind of questions I ask ever single Iranian that I meet: do you think the Iranian government is really developing nuclear weapons? what do you think it will take to topple this regime? why do so many Iranian women have nose jobs?
While we were in the middle of discussing these questions (no wonder our visit lasted five hours), Khaleh Maryam’s seven-year-old son, Shervin, came up to me, tapped me on the shoulder and in the most polite of voices asked me:
“Excuse me, but if you were not born in Canada, how come you speak English?”
Shervin was born in Canada and in so many respects, his story is the story of every Canadian or Western kid born to immigrant parents.
He speaks both English and Farsi and sometimes translates for his mom. His room is filled with Spiderman toys – there must have been at least 100 toys in that room, I swear!
He loves Oreos and separates them like a professional – and, of course, he loves McDonald’s. But at home he eats elaborate meals, prepared from scratch by his mom, with romantic names like ghormeh sabzi (herb stew with lamb) and khoresht-e bamieh-o-bademjan (eggplant and okra stew).
The story of Khaleh Maryam is also the typical immigrant story in some respects. She moved here in her early 30s without speaking any English and learned it here.
Back home she was a librarian, but she couldn’t transfer those qualifications here, so she started from scratch, volunteering and taking classes in a different field so she can take a job. Despite all that, her employment situation is still precarious – like that of many immigrants here.
She spent her first year utterly depressed and home sick, crying every day, wishing she could go back to Iran – even though she knew it’s one of the most difficult countries to live in.
By now she’s used to Toronto and knows that this is her home. Yet, something is missing – the feeling that she doesn’t belong completely. But she knows that at this point, she can’t get that feeling in Iran either.
And that’s what fascinates me about immigrants: they’re different people, with different experiences and different reasons for leaving home; yet, it seems that all of them, including the author of this blog, struggle with feelings of nostalgia, belonging and rootlessness even years after they make the move.