How to be Friends with an Iranian Girl
Take off your sneakers before you go inside Houri’s house. Set them against the wall next to her mother’s slippers. They are the dainty ones with embroidered tulips and olive-colored sequins, not to be confused with the polished black dress shoes near the foot of the stairs.
When you first enter the living room, admire the pillows with silken covers and ornate tassels, the amber-colored furniture, and the wall-mirror shaped like a crescent moon with jade-colored stones arranged in messy blocks around the edges. Do not touch any of it. Do not make a face when Houri’s mother lights a scented oil lamp, even though the patchouli will make your eyes burn. Help Houri arrange the accent candles and move them away from the smoke detector when Houri tells you, “That stupid thing’s gone off twice this week.”
While Houri’s mother talks about the herbs she’s putting into the Zereshk Polow—turmeric and saffron—try not to stare at her peacock-green eyeliner and the black mascara clumping her eyelashes together. Don’t ask her why she’s not wearing a veil or a hijab like you see Iranian women wear on the television.
Pretend to understand her through the thick accent, even though her voice will have a clumsy cadence and she will put hard emphasis on all the wrong syllables. Don’t get offended when she starts speaking to Houri in Farsi, even when her voice gets louder and you swear you hear your name wedged between a long string of throaty words.
Sit on the living room floor on a rectangular red rug. When you ask Houri’s parents if the rug is Persian, don’t take it personally when they laugh. “It’s a kilim,” Houri will tell you, adding that “the Persian rugs you get in America are nothing like the real thing anyway.” When Houri’s mother brings the Zereshk Polow, wait until Houri nods at you before you reach for a helping. Don’t make a face at the red, raisin-like globs—they’re barberries.
“We’ll eat with our fingers like Maamaan-Bozorg,” Houri will tell you. “That’s Grandmother. This is her recipe.” Keep the food level, push it to your lips but don’t put your fingers directly in your mouth. Use your thumb to pop the food inside. Houri and her parents will have perfected the technique, especially Houri’s father who gobbles through his side of the platter quickly, without spilling so much as a grain of rice.
When Houri changes her name in the 8th grade to something less ethnic because the “white school teachers in Littleton, Colorado, can’t pronounce it,” help her choose another one. She’ll change it back in her mid-twenties after she’s visited Tehran and learned to dance Bandari.
When the towers fall, drive 80 miles an hour to her apartment to make sure she hasn’t been kidnapped by an angry mob. When she opens the door, she won’t collapse into your arms. She will cry, just a little, and hug you firmer than she normally does. Smell the perfumed oils she uses to tame her thick, black hair. Kiss her cheek. Walk her to the grocery store because she’s afraid to go alone. Do this for the next six weeks.
You never know when she might show up on your doorstep with a grocery bag. She will pull out chicken, saffron, turmeric, a bag of jasmine rice and barberries she had to special order from a Persian market across town. Let her into your kitchen. Fish out the pots and pans she needs, then leave her to bake the chicken and boil the rice. She won’t want your help, anyway, because you tend to use too much garlic in your own creations. Instead, make a space on the living room floor. Pull the decorative pillows from the couch and arrange them in a circle.
She will bring the Zereshk Polow out on the silver platter she brought you from her last trip to Iran. Inhale, deeply. Admire the steam that roils up from the yellowed chicken. Make sure you have the votive candles out, the ones sitting in a metal holder with star-shaped holes in the sides. She won’t bring the silverware, so you will have to use your fingers, though your technique (like your understanding of what exactly an Iranian girl is supposed to be), after all these years, will not have gotten any better.