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Discovering Iran

I fell for Iran by proxy, from afar, long before arriving there myself. My wife, Leila, was born in Tehran in 1971. Just after Leila's ninth birthday she and her family boarded an oversold flight to New York, taking along nine Louis Vuitton suitcases. They didn't return to Iran for 15 years.

The Mahmoudis left before staying became intolerable. In early 1980 Leila's international school had closed. At her parents' dinner parties, the customary dancing after dessert had turned to somber talk of war with Iraq. Rumors suggested a draft. Eighteen months in, the chaos of Khomeini's revolution—riots, demonstrations, groups of gun-wielding pasdar in the streets—was replaced by dread over what might come next.

Spending her formative years in New York, Leila became outwardly Americanized; unlike that of her older siblings, her English has no trace of inflection, and her demeanor is more Manhattan than, well, mine. Yet Leila proudly identifies herself as Iranian—even if the homeland she claims as her own no longer exists.

Or does it?In 1995, encouraged by reports from relatives back home, Leila's parents returned to Tehran, first dipping their toes in with a brief foray, then paying more frequent visits. During this time many fellow émigrés were repatriating, with the tacit approval of a regime hoping to reverse the brain drain and investment shortfalls of the eighties. By the time I met Leila, her parents were living half the year in Tehran.

For the other six months they were back in New York, in a house filled with Esfahani carpets and Persian tapestries. I came to know them inside this microcosmic Iran they'd re-created, and I became fascinated by all things Persian: the languorous cadences of Farsi, which the Mahmoudis still spoke at the kitchen table. The bewitching poetry of Hafez, which Leila and I wove into our marriage vows. The sinuous Persian music we danced to at our wedding—arms raised high, fingertips stirring the air. I learned to accept their insistent generosity (I once complimented my brother-in-law on his tie; three days later an identical one arrived in the mail). I joined in their dramatic affirmations ("Chash'm," one expression goes, or "on my eyes") and flourishes of affection (Iranians append the endearment jahn to a loved one's name, so I became "Peter Jon–jahn"). I grew accustomed to double-cheek kissing, the scratch of my father-in-law's whiskers, the smell of his Armani cologne. And I fell hard for Persian cooking, great silver platters of which greeted us on every visit: the saffron rice with its sunset-orange crust, or tahdig; the fall-apart eggplant in my mother-in-law's khoresh bademjan; the bowls of melon spritzed with rose water; the feta and cucumbers laid out for a family breakfast.

None of these things had I associated with Iranians back in 1980, when, as fifth-graders, my friends and I sang along to the hostage-era radio hit "Bomb Iran," set to the tune of "Barbara Ann." ("Bomb Iraa-a-aan! Let's take a staa-a-aand!") Our local station played the song every afternoon for months.

My in-laws' Iran was nothing like the one I'd grown up with. (Even the name: Americans insist on "eye-ran," Persians call it "ee-rahn.") Still, I was perplexed by the Mahmoudis' decision to return. How enjoyable could life there be?Western music and movies, satellite television, alcohol, and dancing are officially banned. Even in private, one endures a constant buzz of anxiety. When my in-laws call from Tehran, we never discuss current events, since we never know who might be listening.

And yet, and yet. Three years ago, Leila's brother and sister moved back to Iran as well, trading careers in New York finance and medicine for similar work in their lost-and-newfound homeland. They were, by all accounts, happier there. Farhad and Maryam's vivid descriptions convinced me: I had to see Iran for myself. My wife had visited six years earlier and was eager to return. So last November, Leila and I landed in Tehran.

Our timing is unusually canny: we have arrived just after the 25th anniversary of the hostage taking. Driving into town, we pass by the former U.S. embassy, whose crumbling walls are now emblazoned with government-sanctioned graffiti reading MARG BAR AMRIKA ("Death to America"). Today a modest crowd is commemorating the "triumph" of 1979. Meanwhile, the Bush administration's saber-rattling has set the international media to speculating over U.S. intentions in Iran, which may range from covert infiltration to outright invasion. The rhetoric and rumors have clearly fueled the demonstrators' ire. But besides the defiant remarks in state-run papers, this is the only anti-American sentiment we encounter on our trip.

In a reversal of souvenir-buying protocol, we have carried three extra suitcases stuffed with gifts from New York. To live in Iran is to do without a great many things, some of them consequential, some of them not so much. Trade embargoes and isolation have taken their toll. We bring screwdrivers, steel wool, Kiehl's shaving cream, DVD-R's, Duracell batteries, perforated notebooks, Claritin, magazines, and electric toothbrushes for our extended family. It's as if we're traveling to a space station. We've also brought a leather jacket for Leila's teenage cousin Reza, who spends hours browsing European fashion Web sites even though he can't buy anything. (Credit cards are nonexistent in Iran, and few retailers will ship here anyway.) Reza is dumbstruck. He doesn't take the jacket off for three weeks.

Leila, for her part, has packed a dozen silk scarves to use as head coverings, and a rain jacket to serve as her manteau, the overcoat worn by women who forgo the traditional black cloak, or chador. (Both the head scarf and coat are required in public for all women, including foreigners.) Like the chador—literally, "tent"—the manteau was intended to drape loosely and conceal the feminine form. But daring young women now buy jackets a size too small and lash them taut at the waist, accentuating the very curves a manteau is meant to hide. The head scarf, too, has gradually migrated back from the brow to reveal provocative bouffants and dangling locks. Nervous first-time visitors, by contrast, pull their scarves tight over the forehead, like do-rags.

On a quiet Friday morning—Iran's one-day weekend—Leila and her siblings take me on a nostalgic drive through their old neighborhoods. It is a rare smogless day in Tehran, and to the north, the snowy Elburz peaks glisten in the sun. We pass the dilapidated remains of the Ice Palace, a grand indoor rink where seven-year-old Leila would go skating on Thursday nights. Farhad points out the former site of his beloved Toyland, a five-story shop full of European imports. Maryam recalls the pâtisserie on Seventh Street where her mother stopped every Friday to buy napoleons. As we cross Vanak Square, Leila remembers afternoons spent horseback riding in the nearby meadows.

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