I love books. I always carry one in my purse because, well, you just never know. And there is nothing I love more than when I find a book that is so engrossing that I don't want it to end. I just want to continue having these characters as part of my life. When the story ends, though, as it inevitably always does, I feel sad that I can't be a part of these people's lives anymore. And I become a little lost that I may not find another book to fill this emptiness.
But then every so often, another one of these kinds of books seems to find me serendipitously, the same way The Shadow of the Wind seemed to find Daniel Sempere in Carlos Ruiz Zafon's book of the same name. This week, Together Tea by Marjan Kamali dropped into my hands in the most roundabout way, and I was smitten.
Together Tea was released a couple of weeks ago, and it is truly a heart-warming, funny, and moving story about an Iranian family who immigrates to the United States. More than that, it's the story of a mother and daughter, Darya and Mina. Darya wants to find a husband for her daughter. Having a knack for math, she evaluates these men in spreadsheets and tries to play match-maker for Mina. We start in Queens, New York in 1996 and then travel back to the Rezayi family's life in Iran in 1978 and witness the events leading up to their emigration. Through the eyes of this family, not only do we get a glimpse of Iran's political atmosphere both pre and post revolution, or Before and After, but we also start to understand the reasons that Darya and Mina often don't see eye-to-eye regarding Mina's suitors or her career path. A mother-daugher trip back to the home country in 1996, however, seems to fuel a greater understanding and bond.
I loved the way Ms. Kamali mixed in descriptions of Iranian history, culture, and cuisine and the way she subtly described very Iranian habits such as sucking on a sugar cube as you sip tea. Her almost literal translations of taarof made me laugh out loud as I could imagine the exact Persian words and how humorous and silly this part of our culture can sound when translated, especially perhaps to outsiders.
This book touched me a great deal as I found Mina's sense of dual identity to be very relatable. She states:
Iranian-American. Neither the first word nor the second really belonged to her. Her place was on the hyphen, and on the hyphen she would stay... On the hyphen she would sit and on the hyphen she would stand and soon, like a seasoned acrobat, she would balance there perfectly, never falling, never choosing either side over the other, content with walking that thin line.
Reading this truly resonated with me, as I'm sure it would with any Iranian-American or anyone who has often found themselves torn between and part of two cultures, unsure of which one they really belong to.
In Mina's parents, I often saw my own: from their reasons for their tough decision to leave Iran, to her mother's will to sacrifice everything for her children and wanting nothing but the best for them, to her father's kind heart, charming optimism and positive affirmations. When the family first moves to the U.S., Mina's brothers say that they should just tell people they are Persian, not Iranian, because "People associate 'Persian' with good stuff- like fancy rugs and fat cats." Hearing this, her father says:
Cats? Kittens? 'Persian' should remind people of the empire that stretched from one side of the East to the other. The empire that set a new global standard, contributed mountainfuls to astronomy, science, mathematics, and literature, and had a leader, Cyrus the Great, who had the gumption to free the Jewish people and declare human rights! THAT empire! You can't be shortsighted when you look at history. History is long!... Cats! What have we been reduced to?
This quote could have come straight out of my own dad's mouth. In fact, I'm sure I've heard him say it at some point, almost verbatim.
My best friend asked me recently to recommend a good novel about Iran. And this is what I'm recommending- to everyone. If you are Iranian-American, I'm sure you will connect with this book on so many levels. If you are not, the themes of mothers and daughters, love and family will surely speak to you, not to mention the insight you will gain into Iran's history and the richness of its culture.
Daste shoma dard nakone, Marjan joon!