“Every blade of grass is a study; and to produce two, where there was but one, is both a profit and a pleasure.” Abraham Lincoln – September 30, 1859 – Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society
I am partial to this pretty tradition of growing sabzeh – it is such an innocent yet profoundly charming thrill. Alas, no partaking in the charm of growing sabzeh for yours truly this year though, as I’m shortly off to have my excellent adventure in Iran.
But if you want to grow your green sprouts for Norooz or Easter or perhaps in honor of Earth Day, fear not fret not, I have 2 archive posts — each a detailed and complete step by step tutorial pictorial guide of how to grow your own sabzeh (wheat grass or lentil grass) without soil. So tiptoe over and check them out:
It’s easy! Mostly requiring water, sunshine, and a shiny and patient disposition.
Mind you, to grow sabzeh in time for Norooz (which is March 20th – or check out this site for the Norooz countdown) you should get started no later than this weekend, by March 9th at the latest, as it generally takes 10-11 days from the time you get started till you have a nicely grown tiny field of green sprouts.
Go to it and profit and pleasure from producing delightful blades of sprouting grass! With the tacit blessings of both President Lincoln and the ancient Persians.
You can take a girl out of Iran but … you can’t take Iran out of the girl.
After 35 years I’m returning for a visit to Iran. The country where I was born; where my grandparents are laid to rest; where I’ve left my heart since the very moment I was away.
I’m leaving NY in less than two weeks, arriving in Tehran just before Norooz, the Iranian new year. I’m excited to be back at such a special and festive time. I can’t wait to set foot on the soil of Tehran; I can’t wait to peek at the snowy peaks of Damavand mountain; I can’t wait to take a bite out of noneh sangak; and I can’t wait to see family, and old and new friends.
There are so many things I want to do and see and smell and taste and experience and feel. I want to travel a bit to a few cities — the fabled ones and also some that are a bit off the beaten path. I want to go and have a good cry at the graves of my grandparents. I want to see the children of those who where children when I left. I want to jump over a chanshanbeh suri bonfire and tell the fire: your red is mine, my yellow is yours. I want to see everyone’s sofreh ye haft seen. I want to go for a sizdah bedar Persian picnic by a stream. I want to see a shopkeeper’s rows of Norooz goldfish swimming in bowls, I want to feast my eyes on the sight of all the spring flowers and shirini, I want to live dangerously and eat a roasted corn dipped in salty water off a side cart; I want to go skiing in Dizin. I want to talk to people, go to the parks, take the metro, go mountain climbing, go to the coffee shops, go to all the museums, check out the art galleries in Tehran, and go to the holy shrines. I want to eat chaghaleh badoom and gojeh sabz, I want to taste the sour-cherry lavashak, I want to sit on a good Persian rug and take dainty sips from a hot estakan ‘eh chai with yek habeh ghand. I want to go to a public bath and get a good dal ‘luck rubdown. I do! And if circumstances permit, I want to climb a mulberry tree and eat mulberries, white and red, as many as I can grab off the branches, to my heart’s content. I want to say hello hello hello because I never ever wanted to say goodbye.
Of course, I’m also already homesick for this home right here, too. The quandary of hyphenated people. I’ll miss my family, friends, neighborhood, neighbors, and my beloved Brooklyn. And I already miss all of you! I’m thankful to be able to share this with you.
It will be an emotional journey, a sentimental journey, and God willing, an epic, adventurous and wonderful journey. I’ve already drawn buckets of feelings from the deepest wells in my being and I’ve shed cleansing tears of a mixture of joy and nostalgia and all sorts of smorgasbord of emotions when I made the decision to embark on this trip; when I bought my ticket; and whenever I manage to sit quietly and contemplate the by now inevitable fact that in less than 14 days I’ll be stepping on the soil of a place that sometimes feels like it was only the landscape of a dream. I’d be lying if I said I don’t have the butterflies as well. Because I do. I do.
But ultimately, this is a journey that I’m driven with every fiber of my being to make. It’s love. You see. It’s love. And I’ve been away for far too long.
All the beautiful photos taken by and courtesy of my wonderful uncle John Thompson.
A Persian Dinner Party of Dreams … except that it was real!
What follows are a series of images and narrative account of what appears to be a transcendental Persian dinner party of dreams … except that it was real! I did not attend this party (oh cruel destiny) but was made privy to it by Bojana, an intriguing woman I became acquainted with at a party in Brooklyn, who had hosted this gorgeous dinner and made the beautiful Persian-inspired orange blossom frozen yogurt dessert (see photo above and the recipe below.) I beseeched to document the dinner party and Bojana and her partners in artful decadence agreed and sent the pix and the story. What ensues is a beautiful visual and culinary feast we can vicariously enjoy. Before getting on with it though, let’s meet our tasteful, gracious hosts:
Bojana, who hosted the dinner and made the Persian inspired gorgeous dessert (the featured recipe) is an architect by day, baker by night. She loves nothing more than having an excuse for a house full of people eating, drinking and celebrating the simple pleasures in life. (Let me just say that if I had a genie granting three wishes, I would happily use one to attend a dinner party of hers.)
Shukri wrote the copy that follows – narrating the story of how the dinner party came to be and poetically detailing the dishes, several of which he made himself: rice; Medjool dates stuffed with walntus and Roguefort; and doogh, a most excellent and unique salted yogurt drink. Shukri was born in Kurdistan and has lived in Brooklyn for many years. When he’s not working, he either fiddles with bicycles or cameras, or he rides his bicycle, sometimes with a camera. If he’s forced to ride the subway because of endless winters, he likes to take his sketchbook on the train.
Pericle took all the photographs featured in this post. Pericle is an architect and amateur photographer. Amateur is defined as a person who engages in an activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit or professional reasons. The root of the word being the latin amātor (lover) equivalent to amā- (stem of amāre) which is: to love. Words are not required to explain that the love shines through the stunningly beautiful photographs.
OK, then, now that we’ve met our hosts (so to speak) let’s proceed to get intoxicated in the heady delight of an ample amount of sensual gorgeousness!
The Story of the Persian Themed Dinner Party – written by Shukri:
While waiting for my friend to dine and catch up at the wonderful Cafe Nadery in Greenwich Village, I happened upon a copy of The New Persian Kitchen by Louisa Shafiat in their little library. Noticing they had two copies, I convinced the manager to sell me one. Upon arrival, my baker friend extraordinaire Bojana, immediately volunteered a Persian themed potluck dinner at her place. The date was set and guests were asked to contribute a dish inspired by the Persian cuisine.
Having grown up in the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, the ingredients in the book’s recepies were somewhat familiar to me. As the Persian Empire once stretched from Libya to India, Kurdish cuisine shares many of the same ingredients and dishes, although naturally varying from region to region.
I choose three recipes from the book:
I made rice the Kurdish way, the way my mother taught me. Neither Kurdish nor Persian, Medjool dates stuffed with walnuts and Roquefort were a personal touch and therefore legitimate Hors d’oeuvre. Finally, I made the ubiquitous-in-the-Middle-East drink of salted yogurt, called Doogh in Farsi, Dao in Kurdish, and Ayran in Turkish. This too I made the way I knew.
Although rigidly themed as you can tell, some guests proved unruly and insubordinate.
One guest had misheard the invitation and instead of Persian inspired dishes, he made two Syrian salads. Another guest baked a Dorada fish Mediterranean style.The venison, hunted by a personal friend, was entrusted to a guest who had never before tasted game. With a self described cookbook of intuition and feeling, the honorable deer was roasted to perfection.
And while spirits are not (publicly) part of an Iranian meal, the assembled Diaspora enjoyed the homemade Romanian pear and apricot brandy procured by our friend Pericle, whose beautifully ethereal photographs communicate the atmosphere of our dinner.
For desert, our gracious hostess and recently anointed architect of deliciousness, thought up a delicately layered Persian inspired Orange blossom frozen yogurt.
The ensemble looked like a mountain, snowcapped with a sweet nest of halva, where two lovers (pistachios) are surrounded by a field of red roses (pomegranate seeds). Our photo shows one pistachio on the peak and one in the crevasse, but so it goes. Moans and groans were heard (for either pistachio) upon the tasting of the first spoonful.
A truly amazing dessert, A worthy ending for the best of Persian feasts.
Here’s Bojana’s recipe and instructions, in her own words:
“I set out to create a desert that was easy and quick to make, subtle in flavor and very light. Knowing that Shukri’s dinner will be bountiful, I wanted our guests to have a palate cleanser at the end of the meal, that has a tart punch and clean finish.”
Persian (inspired) frozen Orange Blossom Frozen Yogurt
You can make frozen yogurt using your own home-made yogurt. I use Ronnybrook plain full fat yoghurt as a starter and whole milk. Follow any low sugar content frozen yogurt recipe, using an ice cream machine or; You can cheat; I found that plain tart flavor of Yogurtland yogurt is very close to the real thing. It will not be as full body tasting, as they are fat free, but it’s a great alternative.
Bring yogurt to soft serve temperature. Add Orange blossom water and mix in by hand with a silicone spatula. To a 1/2 gallon of yogurt you only need to use a capful of the orange blossom water. Add more to taste, but carefully, the flavor can quickly overpower.
Scoop nicely in a serving dish, sprinkle with pistachios, pomegranate arils and form peaks with your fingers atop of the yogurt with Shredded Halva.
Ta-da! The desert is done. Serve with that sound and smile.
Simply lovely! Thank you Shukri jan, Pericle jan and Bojana jan for a very special feast of a guest post!
The Iranian New Year is called Norooz. It is pronounced as if you’re going to say “no rues” and literally means: “New Day.” Norooz starts at the precise moment when winter ends and spring begins and it is officially celebrated for two whole weeks. It’s a month away but it’ll be here before you know it. (This year: Thursday March 20th.)
Norooz is an ancient fête going back 3000 years to the beginnings of the Persian Empire, and although it has deep Zoroastrian roots, it is a secular national holiday festival that brings together Iranians of all ethnicity and religious affiliations. This unifying aspect of celebrating Norooz is chief among its myriad attractive virtues.
Here’s a pictorial introduction to the preparation and festivities involved with the arrival and greeting of Norooz. Nothing too at depth. Just the basics. Norooz 101!
Khoneh Takooni is spring cleaning on stereoids. One boldly must go where one has lazily avoided going for a year. This means washing windows, rugs, curtains, airing out the house, and scrubbing clean every conceivable item, surface, nook and cranny. It also entails making an inventory of household goods: organizing anything that needs organizing; fixing anything that needs repair; tossing out everything that is worn-out, damaged beyond use, or is simply clutter. Socks with holes? Begone. Anything messy? Organize! Necklace with a broken clasp? Fix or toss. Clutter? Donate to charity.
The idea is to greet spring and a brand new year in a state of mindful organization and purity. Combining feng shui with a purifying ritual of spring cleaning.
One of the most important parts of preparing to greet the new year is to attempt to mend any strained or troubled relationships. It is customary for family, friends and even business associates to reach out to each other around Norooz and attempt to address, remedy, and heal any tension, hurt or bad feelings. This is a time when it’s possible to persuade to reconcile those who are estranged or chagrined with each other. A happy ending is not guaranteed, but the point is to make a good faith attempt to leave all negativity behind and to start the new year with solh va safa (peace and serenity) and on as positive a note as possible. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but this aspect of Norooz sounds similar in intent to the tradition of forgiveness of Yom Kippur, one of the holiest days of judaism.)
I think of it as spring cleaning the heart.
In a very similar spirit to cleaning and organizing the house – in tune with the spring and renewal theme of the fete – the idea of no ‘navari is to start filling the house with pretty new things and delightful aromas. In the weeks leading up to norooz it is customary to fill the house with sweet-smelling and cheerful flowers such as hyacinth and daffodiles, and to start making or purchasing batches of Persian sweets for Norooz.
It is also a time one may indulge in making pleasant and necessary purchases for the household. Such as refurbishing curtains or buying new pots and pants. Things like that. Which I guess may also signify abundance and positive thinking and high hopes for the year ahead.
The house, household and personal relationships are not the only things getting spick and span; a pat on the back; and a new glossy lease on life.
Every member of the household also from the baby to the granny gets a new head-to-toe outfit: everything from socks to shoes and coat and even the unmentionable undies! This is called lebasseh eid (clothes for the fête) and while they may be purchased months in advance, the items are strictly reserved to be worn for the first time only for Norooz and not a day earlier.
Did va Bazdid | Visiting and hosting family and friends
The two weeks of celebrating Norooz are spent in a dizzying round of did va bazdid (literally “visiting and returning visits”) of all of one’s extended family and friends. One also opens one’s house and in turn receives family and friends. In the Iranian culture, the elderly are treated with utmost deference and formal respect, so the protocol is that the elders of the family sit tight and hold court and receive the younger family members who come to call on them. During these visits, best wishes and pleasantries and gifts to the children (usually crisp bills or maybe shiny gold coins) are exchanged; much sweets and tea and fruit and ajeel are consumed, chit chat takes place, and then one ups and leaves to make yet another round to another house on the list.
This is what happened when I was growing up in Iran. A new custom though I’ve heard is that people take off and run for the hills, I mean, fun holiday destinations, and dispense with this entire aspect! Whether this is good or bad, I have my personal opinion, but ultimately, change is inevitable and part of life and what is new today becomes an ancient custom in the span of the next thousand years. So that in the year 5000 it is conceivable that a blogger may wax poetic about the delightful ancient Persian custom of Iranians going on lovely family holidays for the two weeks of Norooz!
Remember the Norooz custom of purchasing a new year outfit that I mentioned earlier? Lebass ‘eh eid is what people wear to make their did va bazdid – these ritualized rounds of visits.
On the last Wednesday (chaharshanbeh) of the year, every neighborhood makes a few dainty bonfires, lined up in a row. Kids and grownups alike line up and jump over the fire. While jumping, one is supposed to address the fire and chant: Your red for me and my yellow for you.(سرخی تو از من زردی من از تو) Symbolism: releasing one’s yellow weakness into the burning fire and in turn soliciting robust vigor and energy from the flaming red fire! Again, this is what I recall but I’ve heard this tradition has morphed more into a rather boisterous display of neighborhood fireworks.
The zoroastrian roots of the charshanbeh suri tradition are fairly evident. As a kid, this was my one of my favorite, most exciting things about Norooz. I have not experienced it since we left because … well, because fire marshalls would be called if replicating chaharshanbeh suri here in the U.S! I’ve heard – if not seen with mine own eyes – tales of huge bonfires on the beach in Los Angeles aka Tehrangeles.
For Norooz a table is set with 7 things the names of which start with the letter “S” in Persian. (Check this earlier post for itemized listing of what’s in a haft seen spread and their symbolic significance.) This spread is called Haft Seen — literally Seven S’s – and it is the primary symbol, icon and cornerstone of the Persian New Year, much like the Christmas tree and the menorah are symbols, respectively, of Christmas and Hannukah.
I like to call Haft Seen the Persian New Year’s “still life tableau” because when all is said and done and all the 7 “S” sounding items and the other traditional items are gathered, what you have is a charming little spread that pleases the eyes and delights the soul. I LOVE everything about haft seen! From coloring eggs, to making sabzeh by sprouting seeds, to the goldfish swimming in a bowl, to the glint of gold of the coins, to the delicious sweets on the table. I will admit, however; that while I like looking at hyacinths, I find their smell overbearing. They are certainly pretty to look at though.
In every household, it is around the Haft Seen spread that the family gathers waiting for winter to end and to celebrate the moment spring begins with hugs and kisses; exchange of best wishes, and the gifting of presents to the younger members of household; and eating sweets to ensure having a sweet year ahead. And it is around the haft seen as well that everyone gathers when visitors, paying their did va bazdid, arrive to offer their best wishes and respects.
It is a beautiful tradition!
And finally, on the 13th day of Norooz, all good things must come to an end.
This day is called sizdah behdar and literally means “getting away from 13″, with the number 13 having the same “bad luck” rep in the Persian culture as it suffers from in the West. On this day, one is supposed to go on a picnic, somewhere scenic, ideally near a river or stream. There, one is supposed to eat and play and have fun and make merry and at some point to take the sabzeh that one spent weeks coddling and coaxing into sprouting for Norooz and take it and throw it away, ideally in a body of water.
The act of dispensing with the green sprout in this manner is supposed to symbolize ridding oneself of all bad omens and bad vibes. There is also a quaint custom that a young girl wishing to marry may tie and make knots with the blades of grass, while making a chant to be married by next year’s sizdah bedar!
The 14th day of the new year: it’s back to normal life. The holiday is over. Bummer! Two weeks isn’t enough? Let me tell you, when I was a kid, two weeks was NOT enough. Not at all.
Enough, however, of a post that was meant to be a quickie and turned into a longie! I warn you that I’ll be sprinkling a lot of Norooz cheer in the coming weeks.
Have a beautiful and happy weekend! Think: spring!
Last year winter was a weakling. This year, winter is a brutish pahlavan! When it is bitter cold out there, nothing beats coming home to the aroma and flavor of a bowl of hot and delicious abgoosht (also spelled abgusht.) Literal translation of abgoosht is “meat broth” which sounds decidedly … not that appetizing. Proving that a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet. Sorry Shakespear! Less literally, abgoosht may be translated as a hearty lamb soup with marrow, chickpeas and white beans — a wintertime staple across every corner of Iran.
My beloved Kermanshahi paternal grandmother, Shah Bibi (khoda biyamorz, RIP) made my favorite kind, where the color of the broth was almost red. Shah Bibi used a good bit of ghoreh (sour grapes) – my father reminds me – and she topped it with a generous heap of freshly sauteed dried mint so that the whole house turned mouth-wateringly fragrant – I vividly recall myself. One of the best smells you can possibly imagine!
Abgoosht is an informal dish with a customized ritual of eating. One custom is to take a piece of bread, tear it into many small pieces, and drop it in the broth. This is called “noon terid kardan.” My mom cleverly points out this is somewhat reminiscent of using crackers or croutons with soup. So yes – think of it as insta-cracker-croutons — just ancient Persian style!
The other custom is to make goosht ‘eh kubideh (which literally means “mashed meat”) by removing (using a slotted spoon) all the solid bits (the beans, potatoes and meat) of the broth, mashing it all up to a mashed-potato type consistency, seasoning it with salt and pepper to taste, serving it seapartely alongside with the broth, and gobbling it up with bread and torshi (Persian pickles.) Noosheh jan! In my humble opinion, perhaps the best part of eating abgoosht is the goosht kubideh. I could rant and rave, but until you try and taste it for yourself, you’ll have no earthly idea of just how good it is. So. Good. However, a cook must decide which part of abghoost she wants to shine more brightly. If favoring the broth, the cooking time should be longer to release the flavors of the ingredients, which in turn means the goosht kubideh part won’t be as rich and tasty. If opting for the tastiest possible goosht kubideh, however, the cooking time should be shorter so that the meat, chickpeas and beans retain their flavor.
It is not Sophie’s Choice – but it is a choice that a cook must consider when making abgoosht.
Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing via email Ostad Najaf Daryabandari, the researcher and author of an invaluable 2 volume encyclopedic Persian cookbook. Among other things, I posed the following questions to Mr. Daryabanari: 1) What would you consider the masterpiece of Iranian food? 2) What is your favorite Iranian food? 3) If it were possible to only share one Iranian dish with the rest of the world, which would you pick? And to each question, Mr. Daryanbandari’s answer was … wait for it … abgoosht!
Which initially, I confess, perplexed me. After all, we have such show-stopping stunners as jeweled rice, or fesenjoon (pomegranate & walnut Persian stew) in our cuisine. Surely more deserving of the spotlight and admiration. But admittedly, while not at all glamorous, abgoosht has a plain yet profound goodness about it. It is a dish that delivers — solidly, pleasingly, without airs, yet with abundant flavors, sweet fragrance, texture and it is filling and nutritious.
My mom points out to me that when meat is cooked with its bones and donbeh (fat) such as it is traditionally meant to be when preparing an authentic Iranian abghoosht, it releases all its nutrients and good fat. “Good calories!” My mom notes. She further points out that abghoost is a bidardesar recipe (hassle free, easy peazy, made in a dizi) that could be made in one pot, simmering slowly, so that even in the busiest of households, they could start one, leave it on the stove, and get on with other things. An economical way as well for even the poorest of households to make sure that each family member got the nutrients and flavor of even a small piece of meat. No less important historical a figure than Abu Ali Sina (Avicenna) observed that abgoosht is a balanced and important type of Iranian food that could even be eaten daily. So in sum: a convenient food, full of nutrients, economical, and one specifically singled out as special by at least two important figures in the culture of Iran. You couldn’t ask for better P.R.!
The recipe I’m sharing is of a basic abgoosht my mother makes. Picking up after my lovely paternal grandmother, Shah Bibi (khoda biyamorz, RIP) my mom also uses lemon juice (or abeh ghoreh if she can find it) for the broth; and plenty of sauted dried mint as a garnish. The room fills with a heavenly scent, stomachs grumble with happy anticipation, and one, if one is mindful that is, says shokreh khoda (“thank you God”) with each lovely bountiful spoonful.
Nearly 3 years ago I accepted a major on-site graphic design assignment for an NGO in … wait for it … Kabul, Afghanistan! My friend worked at that NGO - that’s how it came about. I embraced this astonishing turn of events impulsively and excitedly. In a matter of weeks, I got my visa, got my shots, flew into Dubai, and took a small plane (filled mostly with some of the biggest hugest Incredible Hulk types of men I’ve ever seen) to Kabul, where all told, I stayed for 5 weeks.
It was an adventure and an interesting experience. It was definitely sobering to see the reality of a place and people I’d only glimpsed through the TV news and media, and I met many great people — local Afghans of various walks in life, and also an eclectic group of expats hailing from all over the globe. But, it was also scary as hell and the LONGEST 30 some odd days of my life. I’m not exaggerating. I actually cried, nearly every night, and I counted days, literally, till it would be time for me to get on a plane back to New York. The harsh reality of being there was … harsh! I’d taken my friend’s word that everything was “totally fine and safe” and as it turned out, our definitions of “fine and safe” were … drastically different!
The surreal reality was that I found myself in a place where being killed by a bomb or getting hit by a missile or being abducted and held for ransom were not idle threats, the stuff of fiction, or a blip on the evening news. They were things that legitimately and plausibly could happen! It was surreal as in so real! Uber real. In retrospect: DUH! I should’ve known all these before heading over there.
I didn’t fully document the trip, alas. I did hint about the impending trip here, and I alluded to my relief at leaving Kabul here, but this is the only somewhat detailed blog post about my trip to Afghanistan. Here are some excerpts from it:
June 11, 2011 | A is for Afghanistan
It’s watermelon season here. The streets are sprinkled with vendors pushing carts topped with pyramids of watermelons. The fruits are smaller here. A plum is smaller than a ping pong ball and a lime is absurdly small – almost cocquestishly delicate in size – a slice of it perhaps larger in diameter than a quarter sized coin! It makes me smile. The watermelon is BIG as it is elsewhere.
Wherever you are, you see the mountains. The city is surrounded by “koh.” It reminds me of the snowy peaks of Damavand and I wax nostalgic at the sight.
We go everywhere with a driver and there are lots of places we are simply not allowed to go to, because: those are the rules. But I WANT to go out and walk in the streets and talk to people and peek inside the stores.
There are guns. Lots of guns. As prevalent as the dust that is everywhere and seeps into the clothes. The city has no pretense of normalcy and yet: life is normal. People shop. Get married. Go out. Work. Live. Get their hair done. Watch TV. Children play in the streets.
Kabul is a city where flowers grow in the shadow of ruins.
There are shacks and hovels and then there are gigantic super ornate mansions that would put any McMansion to shame. My friend calls them “Narcitecture!” Architecture made possible via proceeds of trafficking in narcotics! Shahpour Khan, one of the drivers, said: “Sometimes people get to live their dreams. These houses are like dreams.”
I wish I’d posted more often! Anyhow, sticking to what seems to have become the de-facto theme of Friday blog posts I present you with a pictorial tour of my brief and unforgettable time in the sadly ravaged by wars and power struggles city of Kabul, Afghanistan. Less words, more pix! Berim, berim!
I whiled away the 7 hour layover in Dubai by gawking at everything at the airport.
I don’t recall much about the flight to Kabul. Just that I was tired. Nervous. Hungry.
This was the very first photo I took when in Kabul. It was just as we’d lined up inching our way towards the arrival department of the airport.
I loved seeing the mountains. It reminded me of Tehran and the Alborz mountains. Originally, I had hoped to go visit Iran while I was on this assignment in Afghanistan, but my paperwork was not completed in time and I couldn’t go. Maybe it was the mountains, maybe it was listening to Googoosh on my iPod while I worked, maybe it was because I had gotten my hopes high that I was going to finally return yet it didn’t happen, or maybe it was because geographically I was so close to Iran, closest that I’d been in years, but was yet so far away. Whatever it was, I was nostalgic for Iran with a palpable, tangible heartsickness throughout my stay in Kabul.
Meanwhile, my friend, despite my refutations, repeatedly insisted to me that “you must feel so much at home in kabul” and that “this must remind you of Tehran or Iran.” In fact, nothing about the city of Kabul, save for the familiar sight of the fortress companionship of the mountains, reminded me of Tehran. Kabul is, sadly, a city ravaged by war and it is … in a really bad shape. Tehran was and by all accounts remains a beautiful, modern and very sophisticated metropolis. There is: very little comparison. As they say in Persian:
میان ماه من تا ماهگردون تفاوت از زمین تا آسمان است
The main building in the housing compound I stayed. I did not live in this section.
This was my humble abode while in Kabul. Adjacent to the main building. It was awful.
For the record: I’m not a princess. While admittedly I love shiny and pretty things and definitely have a preference for luxury given the choice, I’ve roughed it plenty. Plenty! I like hiking and camping; I solo drove cross country in America twice, making an unofficial tour of the least desirable motels on each trip; and I did my fair share of Eurailpassing through Europe on a $20 a day budget and all that that entails. But this … this accommodation was on an entirely different level. And lest you think I’m biyatching about the decor or such, let’s just mention two things: a nest of scorpions was discovered under my bed and had to be exterminated. Scorpions! And oh yeah, the other thing, the bathroom situation … which was … how do I say this delicately? Actually, there is no way I could describe it accurately and be delicate so let’s just say that it was … horrifyingly deplorable. I got used to it. I had to. So I made do. But it didn’t make it any less horrifying. Thankfully, elsewhere during my stay in Kabul (at the office, hotels, restaurants, other people’s homes) the facilities were decidedly non-horrifying.
Like a fool, I hadn’t even leafed through a guidebook prior to embarking on this trip. But on my second night there, I innocently read the Lonely Planet Guide to Afghanistan that my friend thoughtfully lent me and read the “Dangers While There” section. Big mistake! I was jolted into the reality of the potential consequences of my adventure and I was basically scared to death for the remainder of my stay. It did not help at all that at the orientation I was given the next day, I was extensively and flourishingly warned of the myriad dangers facing us at every corner and turn. It turns out that just a few days prior to my arrival a supermarket used mostly by expats and trendy Afghans had been bombed. My friend said: I didn’t want to tell you before and scare you. Uh … too late! And halfway through my stay, a major hotel was bombed – leaving many casualties. It certainly did not boost my morals either when everyday at work we got a parade of horrifying emails from the NGO’s security Operating Room.
Emails with subjects like:
UPDATE 4: THREAT WARNING – ANSO CENTRAL – SAF ON-GOING (KABUL)
the contents of which contained info like this:
As per the information currently available, a group of at least 6 well-armed attackers equipped with at least 3 BBIED-vests assaulted the hotel from the Gardane Bala park, which stretches on the Karte Parwan side of the hotel compound.
I basically shook in my boots the whole time i was there. And prayed to make it out intact. And pledged that if so, to be forever grateful that I live not under the daily stress of threats to limb, liberty, and life. And I marveled at the constitution of the NGO staff and the people of Afghanistan who managed to endure the situation and this life style with far more grace and courage than I was capable.
My sanity was maintained entirely thanks to Skype! My nightly calls to family kept me going. Before this trip, I’d totally mocked and judged the Survivor TV show contestants who would get all mopey and turn on the waterworks during the family visit segment some 20 days into their reality show island stint. Thinking: PAHLEASE! It’s been 3 weeks! How could you possibly have had time to miss anyone or get so pitifully weepy? And then, I experienced it myself. When placed in a situation that is for whatever reason starkly challenging in comparison to the normalcy of our day to day life, your mind declutters and your priorities become crystal clear and those priorities are the people you love. They become all that matter and you see very clearly how they are the only things that matter. And so you miss them. With an unbelievable intensity. I’ve never more longed to hear the voices of people I love than then – and their voices were the life vests that kept my spirit afloat.
At the NGO office where I worked, everyday we broke for lunch on the premise. In the house and on the house! A most wonderful perk. A lunch cooked fresh and from scratch earlier that day by this lovely lady – let’s call her Nargess Khanoom. This was before my food blogging days and I sigh each time I recall what a golden opportunity I had to record and photograph all the simple yet wonderful and seasonal lunch spreads Nargess Khanoom made every weekday. All that awesome and authentic Afghan recipes I could have collected. Sigh!
Some people in Afghanistan speak a dialect of Persian that I could half understand but Nargess Khanoom conversed in a different one which I could hardly understand. Even so, I learned a few things about her. She said she had lost her husband and son in one war, and then a few other sons since to other wars. It was hard to comprehend that she lived a life where she’d had to endure such things. Even so, she always wore a smile. Always. And she was the kindest woman. And her food was delicious. Knowing her and tasting her lovely homemade meals were the privilege and highlights of the entire trip.
While working on this post I was happily surprised to find this photo in my archives. It is a snapshot of my desk at work – which brings back such vivid memories. I love it. In retrospect, wish had more photos like this one too as keepsake. I sat at this desk, toiling, while having Googoosh songs on repeat in my ears.
While in Kabul, a friend overseas tasked me with the fun assignment of finding fashion designers in Kabul. Reason was that my friend was about to start a fashion commerce where she hoped designers in parts of the globe not accessible to the world at large could offer to sell their clothing. The beauty of accepting this task was that its fulfillment took me to Zardozi – a little but very pretty shopping compound where there were little boutiques selling handmade clothing and other artisanal artifacts. I saw this gorgeous dress there. (I’ve posted a Vine-type video of it fluttering on YouTube if you want to go and have a look-see.)
By the way, I’m happy to report that my friend since went on and started her fashion website which pretty much rocks! It is called Rtister and you should go and check out the cool & gorgeous stuff they carry!
I emailed the fashion designer of that beautiful calligraphy dress so that I could discuss putting her in touch with my friend. It turned out the designer was in New York while I was in Kabul but she emailed me back with an invitation to get a guided tour of her atelier in Kabul where most of the fabric and all the clothing were made.
And that’s how I ended up meeting this dignified and nice woman, the manager of Zarif Design’s atelier, who kindly gave me a tour of the atelier and facilities. Again, I can kick myself that I has this experience prior to becoming a blogger. I saw such pretty and interesting things and can only sigh over the lost opportunity to record it for posterity.
I’m including this photo, because basically this was how I mostly saw Kabul. While being driven from one place to another. For safety purposes, were warned not to mingle. So I pretty much experienced the city by looking out the window while inside a car.
This is one such of those back and forth car ride videos. You can clearly see all the watermelons and fruit carts.
One of my last days in Kabul, however, I requested and got the green-light to visit the bird market at Kabul. Accompanied by a chaperone, I actually got to walk outside and talk to people. I bought “shalvar jaffi” for my father and brother and I actually conversed with some people. It was a sight to see those birds. I love birds but I don’t like to see them caged. This is one of the many videos I took that day. I hope to post a bunch more later when I get a chance.
And finally the day I’d been counting minutes towards arrived. I was going to fly home to New York! I was giddy happy! There was a glitch and I almost didn’t get to leave but God was rahim and I did get on that plane. I’ve never been more grateful nor more relieved than when that plane lifted off the ground – leaving Afghanistan. I sighed a sigh of sweet relief. And I thanked God. I really was most grateful.
I took this photo the day I returned to the U.S. The book, Kabul Disco by Nicolas Wild, is a wonderful graphic novel I bought at Zardozi – that arts & crafts compound mentioned above. I found it to be a wonderful, funny and very accurate depiction of a foreigner’s life in Kabul. I loved it and if you can find a copy, I totally recommend it.
The USA Today’s headline attests that the Anthony Weiner thing was still all the rage in the news. That and a murder trial. All the talk shows and all the papers and what everyone were talking about were the court case and Anthony Weiner’s … errr.
Welcome Home! Ha ha.
You may be thinking to yourself, interesting to share this with us Azita but a) way too long and b) what a weird choice of topic for a post on February 14th, the day of love. Huh? As for a) I have no defense re b) this post is related to love. You will see!
Happy Valentine’s Day & Happy Weekend!
Noosheh jaan (sometimes spelled nusheh jaan) literally means: “may it be sweet for your soul”,”may it be a pleasure to your being”. That sounds quite florid, but in common parlance, the utterance simply signifies: bon appetit, good appetite! It is what we say to everyone at the table before we commence to stuff our faces with delicious, delicious, ridiculously delicious Persian food.