Married to a Shi'a by Medina Tenour Whiteman
In my husband’s suitcase there are sixteen different kinds of homemade jams and pickles, mostly made by his five older sisters, some of fruits that do not even grow outside of Iran. One such is the Cedrate citrus: an orange without segments. There is a jar of ‘lité’ chutney, made of aubergine, grated carrot, black cumin seed, parsley, coriander, and several vegetables we don’t even have names for here. There are five kilos of white rice, a lifetime’s supply of tart, ruby-red zereshk (barberries) and fruit leathers made of sour cherries and barberries so tongue-shrivellingly sour you need an Ibuprofen to be able to eat them. There are boxes of kuluché biscuits stuffed with walnuts and pistachios, balls of cotton candy in vanilla and chocolate, and bars of nougat. He even brought back digestives. Apparently they are better from Iran.
Food. Most of what his enormous clan has sent him back with is edible. It is as though this effect on our stomachs is the three thousand mile long embrace of the warm, generous, slightly over-concerned family I think fondly of. Even in my attempts to learn his language I am practising my verb drills on the template of ‘I am cooking pancakes’: man daram pancakes dorost mikonam.
I am not a natural chef. My dinner tonight, sitting at the computer, has consisted of two scraped carrots, a lump of goat’s cheese and a handful of sunflower seeds. It sometimes irritates him that I am thrilled to get in an hour’s reading instead of flustering about the kitchen, preparing the next ingestion. Food is not a language we communicate in well. To make things even more complicated, we don’t speak to each other in English, or Persian, or culinary metaphors, but Spanish. We met in Spain, the only place he’s lived outside of Iran. I was born in Granada, but grew up in Essex, land of my Viking-blooded father. Coming back, I wasn’t sure if I was coming home or going into exile.
There are times when our tired brains don’t make the words translate, or missed allusions create hitches in our hitchedness. But it’s just as well for us there is a language we speak fairly fluently in, one that bypasses neurones and needs no frying pan to bring us together: we’re both Muslims, born and bre(a)d.
My parents became Muslim before I was born, through an array of Sufi groups in the US, UK and Morocco. Even though I grew up in an area of Britain so white one could soak one’s sheets in it and they’d come out like new, this spiritual path has always been the deepest track in me, the groove I fall back into by default whenever the world’s gimmickry disappoints and my ambitions fail to satisfy.
I have tried to make relationships work with men who were not Muslims, to transcend religious boundaries, but I failed every time. It seems there’s something too imaginative about us, too prone to seeing angels in disasters and shipwrecks that makes it hard for others to get why we think the way we do. But what joy it is to find a stranger who reflects back our strangeness, beautified.
I had no idea that Iranians ever came to Spain. I had a vague notion that Iranians only went to places where they’d get jobs, or be able to study medicine or law, like good immigrants did.
The first time I noticed him, he was sitting at a zillij-tiled table on the terrace of the Moroccan tearoom in our town, reading a newspaper and drinking coffee. In the absence of any concrete information, and like most women with too much imagination and not enough discipline to channel it into proper stories, I invented a tale about where he came from. He offered a polite ‘as-salaamu ‘alaykum’ – so he is Muslim. He didn’t look Spanish; according to my myopic geography he had to be North African: let’s say, Tunisian. And (now we’re on a characterisation roll), he must be a journalist, a misty-eyed wanderer seeking the commonality in human beings that I also sought. He would be fleeing a comfortable but stifling Muslim home in search of who he was, what Islam meant if there wasn’t an adhan on every street each day. (By this time I had already planned our children. Not knowing his name was only a small hurdle in the engineering of our future marital bliss.)