It’s raining in New York today, and Iran is all over the news. The Cold War’s legacy is strong, even overpowering. So many experts, so many opinions. But where — can anyone tell me — do they get all the inside knowledge? I don’t know whether Iran is evil, contentious, pragmatic, or delusional. But I do remember better times — Cold War times. And while I’m being more than a little nostalgic and self-indulgent, I’d like to share my personal memories with anyone who cares to read further.
I arrived in Iran on a bright spring day in late April 1976, and left in the gray of cold December two and a half years later. In that short period of time, I watched Isfahan, the city I called home, become a chameleon. First, the Pearl of Persia, battered by an influx of foreign workers, domestic technicians, and military personnel became (what I call) a Cold War City, unintentionally shaped and molded by Cold War inputs and influences. Later, before I left, it was well on its way to becoming a revolutionary bastion.
Today, in the spring of 2010, the Cold War remains a phantom presence. Cold War residuals continue to influence not only Isfahan and Iran, but the international politics of the United States of America. Especially in this Congressional election year, it is hard to deny that the past determines and shapes the present. It is also hard to deny that the past shapes my present, especially when I remember my life and the tours I led all over Iran.
Giant snowflakes on Abbasabad Avenue near the Anglican church and English bookstore. Wiener schnitzel and curried chicken at the Iran Tour hotel nearby. Afternoon tea in the rose garden at the Shah Abbas. Shopping for copper in the old bazaar. My memories are as opaque as drizzly, fog-filled October nights in New York’s West Village.
I wish I had kept a diary, a journal, but I didn’t. Only later, when my dreams fell flat and I lost my inner compass, did I begin to write.
I thought it would be easy to reconstruct the most meaningful events of my past, that the sights and smells and noises of my life would be at my beck and call. Now I spend hours looking at faded photographs, piecing the years together like some kind of crazy quilt, teasing my memories from their hiding places in the same way that a quilter patiently wriggles her needle and thread through resistant fabrics.
I tug at the fragments, willing images of remembering to skit across my consciousness like fluffy cirrus clouds on the loveliest of spring days.
I spend a lot of time recalling my long walks through the neighborhoods of Isfahan, reconstructing the trips and tours I led all over Iran.
Did I really ride a camel backward to liven up a lackluster group? Did I really barge into a tentful of Qashgais and ask if they would mind if our group took a look, saw how they lived? Did I really experience Natanz in spring?
The trips that I planned and led in Iran formed the core of my life there, at least for the first eighteen months or so, before the nation’s internal political situation became so troubling. These were the good times, the magical times.
After, there were other trips. More somber. To Qom, to Sanandaj. But, mainly, there were long, long stays close to home.
Now, I spend my time resurrecting memories: Shah Reza, Kashan, Soh, Najafabad, Shiraz, Susa, and so many others.
But more and more – because it’s in the news, I guess – I dwell on Natanz. Beautiful, beautiful Natanz. Oh how I long for Natanz in spring.
Were they cherry or were they apricot? It doesn’t matter. What I remember are blossoms floating from the sky like pale pink snowflakes, picnics of chelo kebab and chai, and visits to the aging potter Ustad Abady. Because I was the group leader, I was always the first to enter the narrow hallway leading to the workshop. I lusted after his pottery, refused to have anything less than first dibbs. The piece I liked best was an oval vase, white with rabbits outlined in black, punctuated by sprigs of rose, blue, and green. When we left the country, I had to entrust the piece to a friend for safekeeping. I never saw it again. And I will never have another.
It sounds as if the Natanz trips were only for me and maybe they were. I know that my last trip was. It was in fall, rather than spring, and revolutionary fires were raging. Some friends and I hired a car and driver and had one last picnic.
I have pictures of that crisp, sunny day, and I vividly remember asking God for one more spring. Perhaps it is yet to be. But much has changed since that visit.
Today Natanz is not noted for its history, its beauty, or its hundred year old Chinese pottery tradition. Instead, it is central to Iran’s nuclear debate, and home to a purported underground facility identified by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security as a probable gas centrifuge uranium-enrichment facility.
The Iranians argue that Natanz will process natural uranium to produce fuel for Iran’s civilian nuclear power program. In fact, an IISS report on Iran’s nuclear ambitions states that “depending on the configuration and operation of the facility, Natanz could produce either low-enriched uranium for light water nuclear power fuel or highly-enriched uranium for several nuclear weapons a year.”
In any event, Natanz has lost its innocence, even though my memories of times past have not. Every spring they become vibrant again, and I pay homage to places loved and friends misplaced.
It’s really not very hard because there’s a cherry tree in Central Park, near my home, that reminds me so much of Natanz in springtime. I guide my springer spaniel Berkeley to a spot under the pale pink blossoms and we let them rain down on us. Then I take long, deep breaths and savor the memories, pretending that I am safe, that nothing can hurt us. I am in Natanz and it is spring.