Great Satan Meets the Axis of Evil

Elaine Barnard

It’s slow season in Tehran, cold and rainy, freezing my bones even though I’m dressed in a thick blue roo-poosh that covers my butt and my favorite pink roosari crocheted by my mother in hope that the hot pink head scarf will attract a future husband. So much for that.

Most tourists go to some tropical paradise. I’d rather be in some bikini clime as well. But my job is to guide Great Satan around Tehran. I’m a government guide, one of the few authorized to guide Americans, the only woman, and at twenty-seven, the youngest. I take pride in my knowledge of our former glory. Ask me anything about our World Heritage sites and I will answer truthfully, not like some other guides who fabricate answers to entertain the tourists. But if you ask me political questions, I will only smile, feigning ignorance.

Great Satan is here on the cheap. My tour costs double in high season, April or May. The flowers bloom in Tehran then. It is pleasantly warm, not burning hot like July and August when I long to tear the scarf off my head but dare not for fear of the religious police.

I call Etihad Airways to make certain Great Satan’s plane has arrived and my Americans are waiting at the Parasto Hotel. The Parasto is a two-star in the electronics section of Tehran. Every other store here sells either LG or Samsung. Their room is small and dark, facing a concrete wall. The showerhead is hand-held, but the toilet is Western, which pleases most Americans who hate squatting over an Eastern hole.

I’m supposed to pick them up at 9:00 a.m. Some of my hair is peeking from my scarf, which I think is rather sexy. My hair is sort of auburn. My parents tell me it’s beautiful. I’m waiting for some guy to tell me that too. Not that I want to get married. I prefer being independent, having a career, my own money. But I must admit I love babies. If I could have a baby without being married, it would be divine. But then I would be a disgrace to my family. My father sent me to a private university at great expense to become a geneticist, not a tour guide. However, I enjoy talking to people. Being imprisoned in a lab all day would suffocate me. This is a great disappointment to my mother and father.

When I arrive at the Parasto, my Americans are eating breakfast. It’s not a bad breakfast, but not good either, boiled eggs rather than omelets, cheap sangak (one of my country’s many flatbreads), olives, cucumbers, feta cheese, and dates. I pop into the dining room for some halwa (I’ve always had a sweet tooth) before I greet my clients. It’s difficult to tour Americans. They have no embassy here to help them should they get into trouble.

I’d been hoping for some handsome Italians, but then I’d have to spend the whole morning finding espresso for them. “Hotel coffee is shitty,” they say. “Why don’t you smoke, Nadia? It’s relaxing.” I tried it once to please my Italians by lighting up in the midst of Tehran’s wild traffic. I nearly choked to death.

I observe my clients before I greet them. The man is rather attractive in a Western way, pale and blue-eyed, but older than my father. Nevertheless, I apply more rose lipstick to look my best, thinking he might have a young friend back in America that I could Skype with. His mother is small and quiet. She keeps her eyes down like a modest Iranian matron.

I’m hoping the Parasto has a room for me this time, instead of a closet. We’ll be in Tehran two days, before we fly to Shiraz. I could sleep at home, but that has become difficult since my twin sisters were born. My parents have a two-bedroom apartment in a decent part of Tehran, but I have four siblings there. Mother and Father occupy one bedroom with the twins, and my two younger sisters live in the other. There is no longer a place for me. I’m homeless, so I stay in hotels when I guide and with friends when I don’t. At one time, my family had a big apartment. My sisters and I went to private schools with swimming, calligraphy, English, and French lessons. When the sanctions started, however, my dad lost his job in the oil fields, and all that was over. Now he sits at home hoping the economy will improve, sanctions will be lifted, and he might find work again. I try to help out when I can, when the tourist season is booming. But, currently, it’s all I can do to feed myself. Recently, I toured two French guys, really hot. My ship had come in. But, just as soon, it went out. They were gay.

“Good morning, did you sleep well?” I always say this knowing they probably didn’t. The Parasto’s beds are not famous for comfort.

“So-so,” Mother answers, deep circles beneath her watery eyes.

“Not bad,” her son perks up.” When you’re tired, you sleep.”

“You snore,” the old lady grumbles.

“So do you,” the son jokes, offering me some coffee.

“No thanks, I’m wired for the day. I’ll go over the top with coffee.”

This isn’t true. I long for a cup of coffee, but in Iran it is not polite to accept the first time something’s offered. It is Iranian t’aarof to wait until something is offered three times before you accept. But he doesn’t offer again. The American way.

“Are you ready for an amazing day? The National Museum is first on our list.”

“Nadia,” the old lady reads my name tag, “I’d like to brush my teeth before we start out.”

What is this teeth brushing obsession? Did she make a twenty-hour plane flight at great expense just to brush her teeth? She should forget her teeth, live in anticipation of the wonders that await her.

“Of course,” I smile, snagging another chunk of halwa. “Take your time.”

She trots up the stairs to their room. We wait and wait for her to return.

“Do you think she’s all right?”

“Oh yes, Mother’s always like this. She brushes after every meal. Even a snack disturbs her until she’s brushed. Her first husband was a dentist. ‘Decay occurs immediately after eating,’ he always said. She divorced him but never forgot his mantra.”

The old lady clops down the stairs in heavy boots, a trench coat, and a black roosari. “I’m ready now,” she smiles, showing off her freshly brushed teeth.

We walk out into the rain. They forgot to bring umbrellas, so we squeeze under mine, the old lady taking up most of the room with her five layers of clothing. The streets are slick with garbage. Wind collapses my umbrella.

The smell of roasting kabobs from street vendors reminds me that I’m still hungry. But a real sit-down breakfast is something I haven’t had in years. Mostly because I prefer to sleep until the last minute, then pick up a bite on the fly. There’s something energizing about this, as if a full meal might cause inertia.

It’s about a thirty-minute walk from the Parasto to Tehran’s National Museum, a monolithic structure established in 1937. I love the arched entrance and always pause before going in so my clients can admire the beauty of the brick walls, the swerve of the ceiling designed by the French architect André Godard in the early twentieth century. The old lady is having some trouble climbing the steps, so we brace her elbows and whisk her up. Inside are three main halls full of archeology, which I do my best to explain, knowing it is too much information in a single morning. So I leave them on their own, but not before I point out my favorite exhibit, the Salt Man from Zajan, a miner who died in the third or fourth century AD but whose white-bearded head, leg in a leather boot, and tools were preserved by the salt in which he was buried. The old lady seems entranced by him, so I disappear into the cafe across the courtyard for a cup of coffee with my friend, Hamid, who manages the cafe. Hamid is always telling me he’ll have to close shop soon if the sanctions aren’t lifted.

“The inflation is killing me.” He wipes down a table with a dirty rag. “I can afford nothing.”

It’s still raining when we rush through Tehran’s pollution to my favorite restaurant for lunch. I should have worn my special Nox facemask, the one with the filters. I feel a cough coming on, but I don’t want to frighten my clients. The restaurant is crowded with Australians who can travel here and get their visa on arrival without the elaborate steps required of Americans. It’s only the Americans, Canadians, and Brits, the three without embassies, who are restricted, who need a government guide or they could be arrested. We sit next to an Australian wedding party. I find it difficult to understand the Aussies, so I let my Americans do all the talking.

I order lamb stew, sweetened with pomegranate syrup, and rice. We always have rice, sometimes three different kinds. Rice keeps us strong. While we wait, they bring us an appetizer of olives, pickles, cucumbers, tomatoes, and feta. I love food, all its textures and flavors. I feel I could live just for food. I dream of opening my own B&B in the style of the old houses of Tehran, with a spacious courtyard filled with flowers, and low tables with soft cushions for eating, and comfortable rooms surrounding the courtyard for sleeping. The courtyard would be canopied, so my guests would be protected from the rain. I would serve ample meals with many courses, and great feasts on holidays, such as our Nowruz, the Iranian New Year that celebrates the spring equinox. Tourists would come from everywhere to visit my inn. I’ll call it The Caspian, like the sea, ever-changing, but always beautiful.

When I finally tear them away from the Australians, we head for the Grand Bazaar. “Wait until we get to Shiraz to shop. The stuff is real there. In Tehran, everything is cheap because everything is made in China.”

The old lady drops a large Prada purse. She’d been examining the price tag. “It’s hard to resist a bargain,” she grumbles.

I pick them up early the next morning for our 8:00 a.m. flight to Shiraz. They were too early for breakfast at the Parasto, so I promise the food on Iran Air will prevent starvation. We squeeze into the battered taxi. I chat with the driver in Farsi to keep myself awake. (I was out last night circling the malls with my good friend Nilofer. All the boys asked for her number. No one asked for mine. I think maybe I’m getting a bit flabby from all that Nutella over ice cream at midnight.)

Sometimes, Nilofer and I go to the cinema. I often go alone. I adore romantic movies in Farsi or old American films with Audrey Hepburn. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is my favorite. I wish I were thinner and had black hair like Nilofer or Audrey. Nilofer will soon be married, I’m sure, and I will be left to babysit her kids in my off-season.

The old lady complains about the food on Iran Air. A cheese sandwich doesn’t cut it. “I was hoping for bacon and eggs,” she whines.

“Mom, Muslims don’t eat pork, remember?”

“I bet I’d get bacon and eggs on British Air.” She spoons yogurt into her parched lips.

“Yogurt’s better for you, Mom.” He pats her hand. “Remember what the doctor said.”

“I’m on vacation. I should have what I want.” She slams down the spoon.

“Look this way, Mom, and smile.” He snaps her photo on his phone. She forgets about the bacon.

When we land in Shiraz, I hire a taxi to drive us to Persepolis.

“We could be in California,” the old lady says, wiping some grime off the window. We pass the arid Zagros mountains, a high desert landscape dotted with piles of cinder block homes and offices reinforced with steel for earthquakes, some coated with aluminum paint to reflect the brutal summer sun.

The old lady is nodding off when, several hours later, we finally reach the plains of Persepolis. “I could use a cup of coffee.” She yawns as if we’re about to see a movie instead of one of the world’s greatest architectural sites.

“Coffee it is, Mom.”

Her son is so agreeable. (Mom probably paid for the trip.)

Reinforced with coffee and cookies, we climb the stairs to the first platform of Persepolis only to see another higher platform, which holds the Apadana Palace, where the king held his receptions.

The Gate of All Nations, also known as the Gate of Xerxes, is one of the first things we see. This gate bears inscriptions in three languages. “Be kind to travelers and respect other people’s cultures.”

He takes photos of his mother beside the beheaded limestone columns. Alexander the Great did a super job trashing this palace, ignoring the maxims on the gate.

I amble off to the cafe to chat in Farsi with Reza, the owner. It’s such an effort to speak English all day. When I used to guide the French, they corrected my mistakes, but the Americans never do. I wish they would so I could improve.

When, an hour later, I climb back up to find them, they wave from the highest platform. The old lady actually smiles. Then I discover she is just posing for another photo op.

Our hotel, the Karim Khan, is luxurious compared to the Parasto. Same price, but Tehran is very crowded, so everything costs more than in surrounding cities. “Sleep well,” I tell them. “Tomorrow we bus to Isfahan.”

“I’d like to take a run before we leave,” the son says, carting their luggage upstairs.

“Make sure you carry some ID.” Not that it would do him any good should the police pick him up for wandering the streets without me.

I was relieved to see him all packed in the morning. “Great run,” he grins, sweat brimming his brow.

“You still have time for a shower,” I advise, knowing the bus would be crowded. A sweaty American would not be welcome.

“Mom’s in the shower. She takes a long time. I’ll air dry before we board.”

When the old lady finally appears, I seat us near the back of the bus so her son can air dry. She reclines her chair and immediately starts snoring while her son starts snapping more photos. He’s always so busy taking photos that I think maybe he really doesn’t see anything. The camera’s focus is limited. I don’t own a camera for fear I might miss the whole scene.

Isfahan was once the capital of ancient Persia, larger than London and more cosmopolitan than Paris. Now, it’s home to one of Iran’s nuclear conversion facilities that were the cause of the sanctions. I don’t mention this to my clients. Instead, I take them to the Naqsh-e Jahan Square and Ali Qapu palace, where Shah Abbas watched polo players from his balcony, surrounded by multiple wives and servants. Today, the square sparkles with fountains. The winter sun warms the tourists. We watch the craftsmen hammering copper into elegant blue plates.

“I’ll buy one.” The old lady points to a huge copper dish.

“You can’t fit it into your suitcase, Mom. Buy a smaller one.”

“I want that one.”

“We can ship,” the craftsman smiles.

She changes her mind when he tells her the price for shipping. “I think I’ll just take that smaller one. I can fit it into my purse.”

That night we spend at the Safir Hotel. The old lady loves it. They have an elevator.

In the morning, we visit the Armenian Vank Cathedral. The pastor shows us around. “Not many visitors anymore. I say mass for no one. It seems the whole world is secular.”

When did I last go to the mosque or say my prayers? My grandparents say prayers five times a day.  My parents attend the mosque on holy days, if my dad is home. (Mother still doesn’t drive.)  Religion is for old people, like ancient history. It’s never done anything but get us into wars from Alexander the Great until now.

The next afternoon, we drive back to Tehran. I avoid showing them the defunct American Embassy building, graffiti on all the walls: “Death to America,” “Go Home Satan,” and much worse. Instead, I take them to the Museum of Contemporary Art, which holds both Iran’s modern masters and hundreds of works by some of the giants of Western modernism—Warhol, Giacometti, Oldenburg—not seen outside Iran since they were collected by the Shah’s wife, Farah, in the 1970s. We protect these works, a cultural legacy worth millions. If the economy defaults, we can sell the art.

Tonight, we say farewell in a little cafe near the Parasto. Our waiter is decorated with tattoos, which amaze the old lady, since she heard they were forbidden in Islam. (We imitate the West, despite our isolation.)

We kiss each other three times on the cheek, as is Iranian custom. The old lady has tears in her eyes. I think I might have some in mine as well. Her son presses some money into my hand. I’m about to refuse, Iranian style, but then I recall the American custom. Better to say yes at once. To hell with etiquette. The tip is warm in my fingers. I remember my parents, their hopeless expression on my last visit. This will keep the wolf from their door. At least for a while.


About the Author

Elaine Barnard’s stories have won awards and been published in such journals as Pearl, Southword, Timber Creek Review, Apple Valley Review, Emerge Literary Journal, Anak Sastra, Lowestoft Chronicle, and many others. She has been a finalist for Glimmer Train and Best of the Net and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She received her MFA from the University of California, Irvine.