c. 2006 Religion News Service
SHIRAZ, Iran _ Smoothing her almond-brown hair and smiling so his eyes tightened at the corners, Amir Ghaffarian lifted his 6-year-old niece, Melika, and called her ziba, the Farsi word for beautiful.
The little girl smiled back as the man adjusted her blue plastic headband and asked a question.
“Did you grab these pictures from downstairs?” he wanted to know.
“Yes, yes uncle,” she said, her face bursting with excitement and energy. “Look! As a baby I was the size of an ant!”
The exchange on a recent evening was one of many between Ghaffarian and his niece that offer a private window into how Iranian families live and interact. Here, many families live communally, either under the same roof or in tight clusters in the same neighborhood.
Grandsons watch TV with grandfathers. Nephews are disciplined by uncles. Cousins blow-dry each other’s hair. And there is an intense respect for elders.
“There’s nothing more important in my life than the success and well-being of my children and grandchildren,” said Shadoqd Ghaffarian, Amir’s 70-year-old mother and the family matriarch who raised her two sons as a single parent after her husband died of a heart attack 34 years ago. “The boys grew up in the folds of my skirt and now my three grandchildren are doing the same.”
The family’s dusty, three-story brown building in the northwest corner of this city was built in the late 1990s after Amir, and his brother Shahram, both doctors, were married. The house was designed so everyone could live under one roof.
On the ground floor, Shadoqd lives by herself in a modestly decorated suite. A black-and-white photograph of her late husband hangs in the bedroom.
On the middle floor, Amir and his wife, Laaya, live with their son Arshia, a rambunctious 8-year-old with an inquisitive nature and gray-green eyes.
And on the top level, Shahram lives with his wife, Zohreh, and two daughters, Mahtah, 8, and Melika, 6, who couldn’t look less like sisters. Melika is bone thin, has heart-shaped lips and a fair complexion. Mahtah’s baby fat still hasn’t shed and her skin looks suntanned.
On a recent evening, the families tore like vultures, family-style, at dinner on Shadoqd’s level.
Over basmati rice with pistachios and steamed vegetables in chicken broth, the kids sat picnic-style on the floor_ on a cloth called a sofreh _ in the traditional Iranian way. Everyone seemed to laugh from the gut.
Zohreh teased her husband for stuffing his face. Amir sprinted upstairs to his family’s level to get what looked like thousand island dressing. Laaya stopped between bites to look under the table for her evasive son.
“Doesn’t food taste so much better when we’re around each other?” Shadoqd asked Mahtah, who had her hands propped on her chubby belly.
“Not at all,” Mahtah replied with just a hint of attitude, grabbing a buttery potato off the side of her grandmother’s plate.
Shadoqd giggled and shrugged, whispering, “They’re my life, but they make me so tired.”
After dinner, it was soap opera time.
Shiraz becomes a ghost town around 10:30 every night, when most families in this city of nearly 4 million watch a 70-episode series that runs in 45-minute blocks.
On this night, it is the 50th show. Nargesse, a 25-year-old devout Muslim, is trying to save her husband, who has been wrongly accused of murder, from a life in jail.
The Ghaffarians all watch intently. Laaya and Zohreh, who married into the family after Shadoqd helped choose them as brides for her sons, seem just as content and happy with the living arrangement as those born into the family.
Both said they are still attached to their own birth families. And, yes, both have heard horror stories about monsters-in-law who reorganize kitchen drawers or control their sons’ lives. But overall, both brides said they mesh well and respect each other’s space. What’s more, they say they are lucky to have a second mother in Shadoqd.
“Because their mother has a stock in wanting our kids to be raised properly, I feel more comfortable leaving them with her than with baby sitters,” said Zohreh, who’s been married to Shahram for 12 years and is finishing her residency. “She’s undoubtedly more sympathetic than strangers and in this crazy world, you never know what baby sitters do.”
Laaya, a 33-year-old medical student also finishing her residency, said living with Amir’s family was the only option she ever knew.
“When I became Amir’s wife eight years ago, this house was almost done being built,” she said. “It was either live with them or not marry him.”
Laaya then pushed her glasses up on her nose, pulled her hair to one side and explained there’s a connection in the family that is priceless. Hopefully, she said, that connection will be passed to Arshia, who now spends his days chasing his cousins up and down the stairs, climbing furniture to show off and pretending to be the king in imaginary games the three of them play.
On this evening, Arshia doesn’t make it to the end of the soap opera on television.
Amir, who works long days, yawned and offered a final thought as he prepared to carry his sleeping 8-year-old up the stairs to bed.
“In Iran, we find peace through our families. It’s not just during happy times, either,” Amir said. “Sure, there are different cases, as in any country. Living together is wonderful if you’re all created from the same color. But if you aren’t, you’re better off living 1,000 kilometers away.”
(Nawal Qarooni writes for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.)
KRE/JL END QAROONI