MY MOTHER WAS 21 WHEN SHE PUT ON A CHADOR for the first time. It was during a trip through northeastern Iran, and my father had suggested they stop in the holy city of Mashhad to see the famous shrine of Emam Reza. After a visit to a local tailor, my mother found herself covered in the tentlike shroud required of all women entering the holy place. But even with only her eyes, nose, and mouth exposed, she was stopped at the shrine's entrance. "No foreigners!" barked the men guarding the brick archway. "Only good Muslims are allowed."
"This is my wife," my father barked back. "How dare you say she is not a good Muslim?"
The men reluctantly let her through.
It was 1966, and my mother had just arrived in Iran. A native of Los Angeles, she spoke no Farsi. Her formal study of Persian culture was limited to a cookbook she had bought when she met my father, an Iranian architecture student at Berkeley. In Tehran, my parents moved into an apartment above his parents. When his father learned that my mother was expecting her first child, he asked her to convert so that her children would be born pure according to Islam. She obliged; a short time later came the visit to the shrine.
Once she passed through the entrance, my mother was separated from my father and directed toward the women's section. Slipping off her shoes with everyone else, she walked tentatively over the pale-green marble floor. As she looked up at the twinkling mirrors and glass chandeliers, a sea of black-clad women closed in, screaming and moaning in religious ecstasy, pushing her toward the silver cage that enclosed their martyr. Trapped in a crush of women crying out prayers for sick husbands and crippled children, my mother prayed her chador would not slip off and reveal her red hair, her pale skin, her obvious foreignness. A foreigner had recently been killed after sneaking into a shrine elsewhere in Iran, and my mother imagined these women ripping off her covering and jumping on her in righteous wrath before my father had a chance to find her.
THIRTY-TWO YEARS LATER, I AM SITTING IN A BUS full of jet-lagged American tourists headed toward that very shrine. Mashhad, Iran's largest city after Tehran, houses the country's most important pilgrimage site, a massive complex of mosques and theological schools that was begun in the early 14th century and has been added onto regularly since then. The city grew up around this shrine, and every street leads toward its large blue dome, its smaller gold one, and the smattering of minarets that shimmer above the hazy, low-slung skyline.
Sidewalks bustle with shrine-related activity—mullahs in turbans and long cloaks walk together in earnest conference; an old blind man holds out his hand for donations in return for blessings; shops display dark red prayer rugs, Khomeini key chains, and wooden-handled scourges for self-flagellation at Shiite mourning rituals.
Amid all this, our bus pulls to a stop. Sixteen Americans file off. Our tour leader hands the women folded chadors and calls out mystifying instructions that involve draping the straight part over the head and letting the round part hang over the body.
"But how do you make it stay on?" agonizes a Californian as the voluminous half-circle of cloth slips off her blond head once again. Beside her, the other women go through a similar struggle, as their husbands look on helplessly. I've done this a few times, so after securing my own chador I step in to assist them. And yet even after each American woman has pulled the top down over her forehead and gathered up the extra cloth so the edges won't drag in the dust, the final result resembles not so much a group of modest Islamic women as a band of oversize Halloween trick-or-treaters sweating under black ghost costumes. "Please stay together and follow me," says Reza, our local Mashhad guide named after the Mashhad holy man. We troop behind him, a few women still wriggling under their chadors, as a line of Iranian pilgrims stand transfixed, staring at the outsiders at their gate.
We are separated from the men. In a small room, black-clad women use Kleenex to wipe away any trace of our lipstick, and tap giant rainbow-colored feather dusters to point out any hair falling forward from our chadors. Only then are we allowed to enter the outer courtyard where, beneath a row of 500-year-old tiled archways, we hear about Emam Reza, a charismatic Shiite holy man who is believed to have been poisoned here by an Arab rival in a.d. 817, giving rise to a cult of martyrdom (Mashhad literally means "place of martyrdom").
As our Reza tells the story, women in black chadors gather around, whispering and pointing and shaking their heads. Worried that we are doing something wrong, I ask one of them if it is okay for us to be here. She draws in her breath. "You speak Farsi?" she says incredulously. I explain that I am half-Iranian and that I lived in Iran until I was 11, the year of the revolution. "Well, then you can answer our question," she says. "Where are these people from?"
I pause, wondering how they will take the news that their most sacred shrine has been invaded by emissaries from the place Iranian clerics call "the Great Satan." Lowering my voice I say, "America."
Another gasp. "Truly, these are Americans?" I nod. "And they are going inside the shrine?" I start to assure her that we are not, but she pushes past me to reach Jane, a hazel-eyed history teacher from Baltimore.
"Welcome to Iran!" she says in joyful Farsi, grabbing the surprised Jane's hand and pumping it vigorously up and down. "We are very, very happy to see you! We hope you enjoy your visit."
IRAN IS NOT WHAT YOU WOULD EXPECT, EVEN FOR SOMEONE who's been here before. I arrived in May for my third visit in five years, this time to join one of the first groups of Americans to travel through the country since the taking of the American embassy in 1979. Flying in early to visit family and friends, I barely listened to the Lufthansa announcement that all women—including foreigners—must don scarves and long coats in accordance with postrevolutionary Iranian law. I was used to seeing the transformation of fashionable, well-coiffed women into bulky, swaddled figures whenever the pinprick lights of Tehran came into view. Remembering the female airport employees who prod you if a lock of hair shows, I cinched my scarf around my throat and braced for the descent.
After the revolution, a large segment of Iran's educated, Westernized classes fled to Europe or the United States. Many who stayed embarked upon a double life—miniskirts and cocktail parties at home, Islamic dress and behavior in public. What I hadn't anticipated on this trip was the sight of people starting to bridge that gap—at times with trepidation, at other times with unmasked exuberance. On my first day in Tehran, one newspaper carried a startling headline: central advisory committee states that nobody has the right to Question a boy and girl for walking down the street together. "Let's go for a walk to celebrate," said Jalal, an engineering student and friend of my family. We took a taxi to the northern edge of Tehran and set off into the rocky Elburz Mountains, where locals hike on weekends, letting the roar and spray of the icy river wash away the city's noise and grime. Two years ago on this same trail, Jalal and I had been stopped repeatedly by revolutionary guards demanding to know our relationship to each other (we said we were cousins) and ordering me to pull my scarf forward. Now women hiked with loosened scarves and tucked-up coats, young couples nuzzled in teahouses, and not a single policeman materialized.