Once when I went with my good friend to pick up her daughter at day care, I saw a little girl dressed in a lacy, pink, communion-type dress. "What kind of parents would dress their daughter this way," I asked my friend?
My friend laughed and said, "No parent of a five-year old dresses their daughter. Trust me, she chose that outfit herself."
Which made me realize that just because I always wanted to be dressed in jeans and a t-shirt did not mean that every little girl wanted to be dressed that way. Which is why it is wrong to think that the little girls in headscarves you see in Iran are forced to wear them. Many of them are playing dress-up: trying to look a little bit like their moms. Kamran's 4-year old niece, for instance, likes to wear her aunt's chador (what little girl wouldn't?), his 12-year old niece is proud of her chic manteau and sheer, white scarf. In fact, the little girls may be among the few who have no problems wearing a headscarf.
Iran is a kind of paradise for children. You get to stay up late. Your cousins are often around. Your house is often filled with visitors. Adults let you in on their conversations. It is great fun for kids. People pay tons of attention to you.
Many of our friends in exile (and many of their cohorts here) went straight from the paradise of childhood to the excitement of revolution with no transition. When people return to Iran after years and years away (people like K), they are struck by the difficulties of adult life and tend to blame it on the regime. Adult life here is really difficult. All of things that make it wonderful for children make it difficult for adults: children are always underfoot, guests arrive unannounced and unexpectedly, and you are always expected to be ready to entertain. The regime has added to the stress, of course, by forcing people indoors and giving them few options for socializing.
The parks are always full. For me as an American, there is nothing better than a park filled with people at all hours of the day and night. We Americans have given our parks away. We don't walk in them at night. We are afraid of them. In my travels, I am always struck by a park filled with people at 2 am on a warm summer night. I love it. Tehran and other cities in Iran are filled with parks. (Oh, you didn't guess that did you?) There are two parks within close walking distance of where we are staying. I walk there almost every day. They are always filled. In the afternoons, older people are in the park playing cards and talking to each other. Groups of women meet in the center of the park to gab and share food. Old, Jewish-looking men sit on benches in front of the fountain. (When I see them, I sometimes think that I am visiting a park in Brooklyn.)
At night, the parks are filled with young people and families. There are teen-agers and children zipping through on rollerblades. There are groups of young girls wearing – gasp! – capris and sheer scarves! Young men lean on the stairs and catcall the young women. Children play on the swings while their parents watch. Families spread blankets for elaborate picnics. Stews and rice cook on gas stoves, tea is served, sweets get passed around. Because…
…Iranians love picnics
You will see picnickers everywhere: in parks, in parking lots, on the side of the road, along a stream, in the meridian of the highway, in the mountains, and any other place where there is enough room to spread out a picnic blanket.
When I think of a picnic, I think of a few sandwiches and a coke or something like that. I don't think of stew, gas stoves, or a samovar: all standard equipment for the Iranian picnic. How do they do it? "We're used to it," people tell me.