I hand the cashier the check, “Wow, what kind of name is that?”
I know, I know, my full name is a long and strange combination of letters, including a sequence of letters which make sounds that don’t exist in English, unless, of course, you have the flu coupled with a bad cough.
I flashback to 1979, to sitting at a small desk on the first day of school. The teacher pauses . . . looks at the roll sheet . . . looks around . . . looks at the sheet again and smiles nervously. Silence. I wonder if I should put her out of her misery and just say my name out loud? It depends. If it’s Sister Maryann who has a sweet smile and an inviting posture, then, yes, I’ll help her out. If it’s Sister Maria, (or was it Sister Kathleen?) who looks like she sucks on lemons for lunch, then, no, I’ll wait. Probably because I’m scared to death of her.
“It’s Iranian, I’m half Iranian.” The conversation always continues with the well-meaning questioner informing me that I look so American. Really? What does “American” look like? I’ll tell you: I have reddish brown hair, burn easily, and when I was young I used to get a mean patch of freckles. I know what the questioner means, but really?
I was born in Iran. My father is Iranian and my mother was American (Irish, German, English, . . . ) . I spent my formative years in Iran not as a missionary-kid or a military-kid but as one who belonged.
I wasn’t raised with any kind of official religion. My mom, who was the spiritual influence in our home, had been raised in a Christian household (by name at least) but had been pretty badly burned by the church of her youth, therefore she found it easy to leave the church altogether. She loved God with her whole heart, but had a pretty tough time with organized religion.
My religious upbringing was unconventional. My early impressions were formed by my mother and her Christian background and my grandmother and her Muslim background. My mom talked about God and about living in a way that pleased God, but I never attended church as a child. A great springboard for conversation was our weekly viewing of Little House on the Prairie. Little House was broadcast on the Iranian TV station in Persian. Even though my mom and I spoke Persian fluently it was too weird to have Laura Ingalls speaking Persian, so we’d hook up our translator box, grab our Kleenex box, and go to “church.”
My mother taught me to be concerned with what was on the inside of a person, not what was on the outside. My first kiss (very innocent) happened in the third grade. I had a crush on a boy named Kumba. He was from Africa, had brown eyes, dark mahogany skin, and he was the funniest and nicest boy in the third grade. I guess I took my mom’s lessons about people seriously.
When I lived in Iran it wasn’t mandatory to adhere to Islam. It was, however, the majority religion. Devout women would wear a chador (veil) outside and a headscarf inside. I think I only saw my grandmother’s hair without covering twice! My grandmother never pressured us to convert to Islam. We celebrated Christmas at home.
My Muslim grandmother would also display a Christmas tree with decorations at her house. Looking back, I realize that she did this for my mom and me, as no one else in the family celebrated Christmas. My aunt even made me a stocking to hang. Hearing about the stocking tradition from my mom, she surprised me one Christmas with a wonderful handmade bright orange stocking with a little girl sewn on the front.
My favorite place in the world was my grandmother’s home. The whole family, all the cousins, aunts, and uncles would gather at her home every Friday (which is equivalent to our Sunday). My grandmother’s amazing cooking combined with her sweet love made a sort of heaven for her grandchildren. I loved her garden filled with colorful snapdragons. I loved sitting in the cherry tree and picking ripe cherries with my cousins. I loved her prayer rug; I’d close my eyes while I was curled up on it in that cool dark room and I’d inhale the rosewater and saffron. I loved watching her hands as she sat at the large loom weaving a beautiful Persian carpet that would end up being a gift for my baby brother. The skin on her hands was so thin and so soft, yet her hands were so strong. So loving.
The world is full of horrible, awful, and terrible. It just is. School children kill other school children. Mothers drown their own children. Postal workers kill fellow employees. Trusted coaches, priests, and teachers do unthinkable things to children. Planes are flown into buildings. I don’t fear school children. I don’t want to be associated with the homeschool mother who drown her children. I have no fear of entering our local post office. My children have great coaches, and I respect and admire the leaders of my church. And to this day when I think of a Muslim person I feel love. My personal experiences with real people, with everyday folks is stronger than horrible images of planes crashing into buildings, and for this I am thankful!
Most of my memories from Iran are beautiful, but what if they weren’t? What if I’d experienced the only Iran that Americans see: the Iran on the nightly news? When I consider this, I think about Kathryn Koob who was held hostage for 444 days in the country that holds those beautiful memories I just shared. I can’t imagine what she endured. However, Kathryn holds no resentment or fear. If anyone has a right to resent Muslims and Iran, it would be Kathryn – but she doesn’t. She saw enough of the real Iran, and she lives her faith, a faith I share with her, a faith that is to the outsider very thin and soft, yet in reality is strong and loving – kind of like my grandmother’s hands.
To be continued . . .