“What’s your favorite food?” my Amoo Manu asked. Manu was one of my dad’s best friend’s from college. The collection of Iranian students studying at Murray State (Murray, KY) in the mid-60s had formed a Persian version of Ocean’s 11, or what I liked to call the Iranian Rat Pack.
Many years later, when I asked my dad how they found each other, he replied, “How do flies find manure? We just did.” He laughed about describing it that way, but that’s how my dad rolls. He makes analogies that, on their face, make sense, but have connotations that may rub people the wrong way.
“Well, who were the flies and who was the shit?” I remember asking half laughing, a quarter appalled, and the rest really fucking curious about whether or not my dad actually thought that through.
He just laughed and never answered the question.
Manu had gone back to Iran shortly after my parents married in 1971. He, his wife, and three kids would spend the next decade or more in Iran. In the early 80’s, they moved back to Kentucky—his wife was from Louisville.
Manu was a businessman—he owned a Persian rug store in Louisville (Kentucky’s biggest city). Whenever he found out a customer was from my hometown, he told them he and my father were college buddies. Preying on my dad’s stellar reputation in Bardstown, he normally sealed the deal—only once did dropping my dad’s name not work.
“Manu, I’m expecting some commission from these sales you make to people from Bardstown. Using my name isn’t free,” my father says (and still does), half joking, half serious, whenever they see each other. No money ever changed hands though, so it remains a running joke—or a point of contention, I’m never quite sure.
When Manu had asked me what my favorite food was, I was probably 7 or 8. I remember the NBA Championship between the LA Lakers and Chicago Bulls being on, but I also remember both my dad and Manu wearing sweaters which wouldn’t have happened had it been summer time. And considering I remember being 7 or 8, there’s no way it could have been the summer of ’91—or maybe I’m wrong about my age. Chalk it up to memory loss.
My dad is a master griller—self-proclaimed, but neighborhood certified. Growing up he’d grill at all times of the year. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, he’d grill out–bourbon in one hand, tongues in the other. His grilling became so famous that pretty much every weekend—since my parents divorced he had custody Thursday thru Saturday during the school year—all the neighborhood kids would show up for dinner. Like all good Iranians he had rice and salad with whatever meat he grilled. We’d even put egg in the rice. But, in one of the rare occasions of catering to my friend’s food tastes, he made sure there would be separate plain rice for those too grossed out by raw egg in the rice.
One of my favorites was grilled pork chops. Especially the kind with the bone still in the meat—the same went for steaks. We’d sit on the living room floor eating, as my dad liked to call it, “Viking Style”–using our hands, sitting in a semi-circle with the TV replacing the massive fire we presumed the Vikings had.
Periodically he’d lay down a sofreh (or colorful table cloth). This became a normal routine for me, so much so I just thought that was what everyone else did. To me it wasn’t an Iranian thing, it was normal. And most of my friends went along without comment. Honestly, looking back, I chalked it up to the fact that each family was different—some ate at a table, some sitting on the floor, etc.
Not knowing that there was some sort of prohibition on eating pork in Iran—or the Muslim world for that matter–I responded to Manu’s inquiry by blurting out, “Pork chops!!!”
I knew, almost instantaneously, that I had said something wrong—or at a very minimum, something I wasn’t supposed to say. My dad, while living in Bardstown, was able to insulate himself from the restrictions and judgments of Iranian society. If he wanted to drink, he could drink. If he wanted to eat pork, by all means he’d eat pork. If he wanted to be a teacher, he could be a teacher. If he wanted to supplement his income by working at a restaurant part-time, he could. If he didn’t drive a BMW, it didn’t matter. There wouldn’t be another Iranian there judging him for his supposed transgressions—or being envious for his “zero fucks given” attitude towards arbitrarily designated modes of appropriate behavior Iranians believed in. To a certain extent that attitude has been transferred to me as well. And honestly that’s probably one of the points of tension—internally and externally—I have with the Iranian community (in the US or elsewhere).
Manu, who had been preparing skewers of ground beef destined for the grill—for the non-Iranians this is what we call kubideh--immediately stopped. He looked at me, then my father, then back at me, then back at my father. My father, who was behind me doing something I can’t recall, stopped whatever he was doing. I felt his stare in the back of my 7 or 8 year old head.
“Mah-mad,” Manu started, using the nickname many used for my father, “Pork Chops!!! You let your kids eat pork!” He then said something in Farsi that I don’t remember, so I can’t translate. I’m assuming it was something along the lines of, “Muslims don’t eat pork. It is haram. What kind of Muslim are you, if you allow your kids to eat pork?”
My father responds, in English, because this was always the way he talked with Manu—Manu to him in Farsi, my dad to Manu in English, “No. His mother makes it for them. David is mistaken.”
He was trying to cover his tracks, but being 7 or 8 I couldn’t understand nuance. So, I blurted out, “No, Daddy, you cook it for us!”
This was a time before my dad had his supposed PhD in calmness, which meant that I was likely about to feel his wrath. The signs were clear—his face became tighter, jaws clenched, and his underbite becames more pronounced—think Bill Cowher. “Daaaaaaayyyyyyviiiiiiddddd!!”
That’s all he had to say. I knew I had upset him in some way. It wasn’t until much later that I understood why. He was embarrassed about being exposed as a pork eating Iranian by his son. Even if I was unaware that what I had said peeled away the layers of protection from Iranian judgment he’d accumulated from years of living in Bardstown, it still was my fault. I should have known that Muslims don’t eat pork. I should have known that Iranians judge. I should have known that our life in Bardstown is vastly different than that of pretty much every other Iranian on the planet. I should have known that just because we ate rice with every meal and drank hot chai instead of coffee, it didn’t mean that we’re free from judgment.
I didn’t know.
Luckily, if my memory is correct, the women at the dinner party came to my rescue. “Mahmad, it’s not his fault,” one said. “Lighten up, how’s he supposed to know.”
“Other Iranians eat pork, Manu. Stop being dramatic,” another one said.
I like to think my sister was there, but I’m not sure. If she was, she was probably the first to tell my father that he’s being ridiculous or at a minimum soothe me in the aftermath of one of my dad’s shouting fits.
That day I learned that Muslims don’t eat pork, that some things we do in the privacy of our own home—even it’s something as innocuous as eating pork, which I still do—shouldn’t always be discussed in public. It was many years before I learned exactly what those things were.
Looking back, that was one of my first experiences with aberoo. The very Iranian idea of responsibility to your family, how your actions affect those you’re related to, and how Iranians put on a certain display in public to hide their faults, weaknesses, or vices. This concept manifests itself in many ways. One being the idea that you can only be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. Another is that image is important, even if means going into massive debt to buy a house decked out with the latest fashions or purchasing the most expensive BMW series.
I still have run-ins with aberoo on a regular basis, but I’ve come to begrudgingly accept it.