The first time my mother did not speak and introduce herself to another Iranian woman at Marshall’s, it felt like something significant had shifted in our lives. We went to Marshall’s at the end of every summer for back-to-school shopping. It seemed like there would always be another Iranian woman there. Sometimes she would be talking in Farsi to someone, but sometimes just from her appearance my mother would recognize her as Iranian, and say to her in Farsi, “Hello, are you Iranian?” It was an exciting moment for me. I would remember that we had something that could allow us to approach strangers with ease and joy. Whether or not I would ever be able to do it myself, I recognized it as a power.
The first time my mother didn’t introduce herself to another Iranian woman at Marshall’s, we both saw her. She was with her daughter, and they were discussing shoes. There was no way my mother could have missed her.
I waited until we got in the car to ask her about it. She had a wistful look, like she was remembering all those other times.
There are enough of us here now,” she said. “I am afraid she will say, ‘Okay, you are Iranian and I am Iranian. So what? There are many of us.’”
I didn’t know why she had suddenly decided that there were enough of us now that she couldn’t introduce herself, and I asked her.
“I saw something in the Qasedak yesterday.” The Qasedak was the local Iranian newsletter that my father helped put together. I used to look at it to see whose name I recognized in the ads. There would be Iranian dentists and real estate agents and auto mechanics in there. In their pictures they never smiled the way people did in American ads, and I always thought that was interesting and important.
“Mrs. Khajenouri’s nephew had an ad in there,” my mother said. “The lawyer. It said that he specializes in divorce law.”
I was surprised too, though I didn’t know why.
“I didn’t know that there were enough of us here now that we were starting to get divorces. But he had an ad in there. He wouldn’t have put an ad in if he didn’t think he had an audience for it. There must be Iranians here now who are looking for divorce attorneys. I didn’t know we had gotten there.”
I wondered if Mrs. Khajenouri’s nephew had smiled in his photo. That would have been as much of a surprise to me.
My parents always spoke of divorce like it was an American thing. Which was funny because at the same time they would also talk about how wrong it was that women in Iran didn’t have the same rights toward divorce that men did.
“Maybe he is advertising to Americans,” I said.
“Why would he put it in the Qasedak?” my mother said. “No, it means that there are enough of us now that some of us are divorcing. I didn’t think we had gotten there yet, but I guess we have.”
“What about Mr. and Mrs. Ganji?”
“How do you know about them?”
“They did not divorce. They spoke to some people in the community and Mrs. Ganji decided she could make peace with what he did.”
“Aren’t you always saying that women in Iran should have equal rights for divorce?”
“Of course,” my mother said. “But something happens when you see it in your own newsletter. When you see it advertised. Now it is something that anybody can look at in the Qasedak and think, hmm, should I consider that? I remember when our community was too small for something like that.”
I didn’t think that Mrs. Khajenouri’s nephew’s ad marked a big change in the number of Iranians in Seattle. I still expected to be the only Iranian kid in my class again this year. Which was okay. Sometimes you go so long being the only one that you don’t know what you would do if there was another one like you.
At home I asked my father for the latest issue of the Qasedak. I saw the ad with Mrs. Khajenouri’s nephew and he wasn’t smiling. It seemed like Iranians were always trying to show how capable they were in their business photos, and Americans how friendly.
It was a funny feeling looking at the ads. You see so many ads when you grow up in America that you end up thinking of ads as an American thing. There was something in the photos that was saying, Okay, we don’t know exactly what it is to be here in America, but we know this: We know you may need to get your teeth cleaned, you may need to buy a house, you may need to get your car fixed. Let us start from there. Let us begin from the premise that any one of those things is a practical thing to do on your part, and perhaps enough practical and sensible acts strung together, day after day, can give you some kind of working understanding of what it is to live in America.
My father asked what I was looking at. I told him about my mother not introducing herself at Marshall’s because of Mrs. Khajenouri’s nephew’s ad.
“Divorce is like anything else,” my father said. “It is a thing people need to get sometimes. Isn’t it better to have an Iranian attorney in that case, for the sake of cultural understanding?”
“I know,” my mother said, hearing him from the living room. “I know divorce is like anything else. I just didn’t think we were there yet.”
“Where did you think we were?” my father said.
“I thought we were somewhere where the newness of being here together was something that a husband and wife shared together, and that it might be a positive factor in their relationship.”
“If a couple is not getting along, where they are is not going to make them stay together.”
“I didn’t say they should stay together. I said that it would be a factor. It is hard to divorce in a new country.”
“Well,” my father said, “somebody must be doing it.”
I looked at the photo. Mrs. Khajenouri’s nephew had the same expression as was in the other ads: Who knows what it means to be here in America now, but perhaps divorcing yourself from your current husband or wife can help. Perhaps it is exactly the kind of formal separation you need to begin to understand how to make a life here. I had to admit that it was hard to think that divorce was like anything else. My friend Jeff Easly’s parents had divorced and his father was now dating the mother of Leah Albright, a girl in our class. It was hard to think of Iranians like that.
“Anyway,” my father said. “What is the difference between Mrs. Khajenouri’s nephew and Dr. Tavakoli?”
Dr. Tavakoli was a psychologist who had a call-in show on the Iranian television channel. My parents watched him on Sundays sometimes.
“Dr. Tavakoli helps people figure out their problems so that they don’t have to divorce,” my mother said.
“Yes,” my father said, “and Mrs. Khajenouri’s nephew is saying, Okay, in case that doesn’t work, perhaps this is the next step. Go to Dr. Tavakoli, talk to him about what is happening, let him tell you that the whole problem is because you are the third child in a family of eight, but in case that doesn’t work, here is another option.”
“It is not the same at all,” my mother said. “Dr. Tavakoli is building something. He is doing what we all do when we come here. He is trying to build something.”
My father opened up the Qasedak.
“Here it says that if your car is having trouble, go and see Ali Ghaffari on Northeast 80th Avenue. Okay. Now suppose Mr. Ghaffari says, I am sorry, your car cannot be fixed. Take it to a junkyard. Should we tell an Iranian junk dealer that he cannot advertise in the Qasedak because he is not building something?”
“Do you know any Iranian junk dealers?”
“I might. I certainly won’t if they can’t advertise in the Qasedak.”
I liked the thought of an Iranian junk dealer. I couldn’t think of anything that could feel more like being part of a place than a junkyard. To be on the last end of things, the end of the line, to know that everything eventually landed on being broken-down and junked. That felt like really knowing about a place. To look at things and be able to see the life and meaning they once had—it would give you history in a place, your standing would go back in time.
The next time Mrs. Khajenouri was at our house, drinking tea with my mother, she mentioned that her nephew was doing very well in his new practice.
My mother was torn. She did still want any Iranian who became a lawyer or a doctor in America to become successful.
“That is wonderful,” she said sadly.
“He has many clients.”
“I am glad to hear it.”
“He has a theory,” Mrs. Khajenouri said. “He told me that he thinks Americans want to have a foreign-born attorney for divorce because it helps them remove themselves from the process. Psychologically. Divorce is a painful process.”
“Americans?” my mother said.
“Yes. I don’t know if it is true. I told him he shouldn’t minimize his own talents.”
“Of course not.”
“He has always been that way. I told him that nobody becomes a lawyer in America without being very capable.”
“That is true,” my mother said. “I didn’t know that his clients were Americans. I thought that since he put an ad in the Qasedak—”
“I made him do that. I wanted to have something to take with me when I go to Iran next, to show them that my nephew is a lawyer in America.”
After Mrs. Khajenouri left, my mother told my father why her nephew had placed the ad.
“Divorce is like anything else,” my father said. “If somebody did see the ad and hire him for their divorce, we would have to consider that as the Qasedak having done a positive thing for the community.”
I knew he was right, but I was also excited that my mother would start introducing herself to people she saw who were Iranian again, because there was a power in that that I wanted to know, and so I considered the whole thing to be an even split in the end.
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