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Discovering Iran

Reza strides into the food court like Tony Manero—I swear there's a disco sound track inside that jacket—pops open a Red Bull, and exchanges high fives with a tableful of buddies. A flock of girls nearby shoot coy looks at the boys. Unless you're married or otherwise related, it's forbidden to consort with the opposite sex; to discourage this, two sullen guards patrol the area like fifties schoolmarms, armed not with rulers but with truncheons. No matter: the kids have cell phones. The boys simply beam the girls their numbers, and all commence to flirt telephonically while sitting 15 regulation feet apart.

We never made it to Hamadan. The bagh would have to wait.

Leila has spoken rapturously of her family's ancestral home, in the western city of Hamadan. She spent childhood summers at her grandfather's orchard, which the Mahmoudis refer to simply as the bagh, or garden. It was an idyllic time. Leila and Maryam would perch themselves in a sour-cherry tree and eat the fruit straight off the dewy branches; when they'd had their fill, they would fashion sour-cherry earrings to match their crimson-stained lips. On the grass below, their parents laid out Persian carpets and a bountiful picnic, chilling drinks in the stream that snaked through the orchard. (As in Tehran, an ingenious network of subterranean wells steered water down from the mountains.)

You could walk for hours across the bagh and never leave its confines. The air was rich with the humic tang of the soil. "It smelled like life," Farhad recalls. Water flowed magically from underground, replenishing peaches and persimmons, and apricots. On late-summer nights the skies would fill with thunderclouds, pouring nourishment down from above.

We'd hoped to visit the bagh ourselves, but time got away from us. Instead, on our final night in Tehran, we gather at Farhad's apartment, open a leather-bound album, and pore over the yellowing images within: Leila laughing in her tree, her parents lounging on a carpet below, Maryam filling teacups from a samovar by the brook. Most of the photos were taken in the spring of 1980.

It strikes me that in the spring of 1980, nightly newscasts in America led off with "Day 109," "Day 110," "Day 111," counting the days since the hostages had been taken. In small-town New Hampshire, a boy who didn't know better sang along to "Bomb Iran." In the spring of 1980 Tehran was a madhouse of street thugs and burning flags. And in a stone-walled orchard 250 miles away, a girl sat in a cherry tree—shielded, for the moment, from the chaos unfolding beyond the bagh.

Gazing over the skyline of Tehran, we reflect on what has changed—and what has not. We peer into the windows of a high-rise across the street. A party is under way on the 15th floor. Inside, the women can take off their scarves and breathe. An ingenious network of underground channels—black-market boys, friends of friends—has brought liquor, wine, caviar, and other nourishment, all flowing in magically from who knows where. The night above Tehran is cloudless, but the skies are surely filled with satellite signals, pouring the world down from above.

Leila flips through more old photos: the horse carts used to gather fruit, the pond at the center of the orchard, her father's favorite walnut tree. "Next time," she promises.

Maryam raises her teacup. "To Hamadan," she says.

"To Hamadan, to Hamadan," we reply, hoisting our cups to the west, toward the bagh, back to the garden.

Editor's note: some names in this story have been changed.

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