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کتاب: عطر سنبل، عطر کاج / فصل 14

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The Ham Amendment

One of my father’s favorite foods is ham. This is not a problem if your name is Bob and you live in Alabama. But when you’re Kazem living in Abadan, satisfying your ham cravings can be a challenge.

During my childhood, Iran was a monarchy led by the Shah. His picture was everywhere. The serious expression on his face made it clear that this was an important person having important thoughts. His beautiful wife, Farah, was usually seen standing beside him in photos, wearing a large, bejeweled crown, which appeared rather uncomfortable but managed to make her, too, look far more important than the average person walking down the street. They had four children, all of whom were envied by the entire Iranian population for leading perfect lives, lives which included French-speaking nannies, skiing lessons, fancy clothes, and the assumption of perpetual happiness. I didn’t really think much about the royal family, except I had noticed that they owned a lot of big jewelry. My parents, however, were huge fans. My father firmly believed that the Shah would educate and modernize Iran. After his graduate years in Texas, my father had returned to Iran full of American optimism. With its vast oil reserves and abundance of smart people, Iran, according to my father, could really go places.

When I was five years old, the Shah was scheduled to come to Abadan for the inauguration of a petrochemical plant. A parade had been arranged and a special float had been built for him. To avoid the large crowds, we decided to skip the parade, knowing that we would not be able to see anything. We were not, however, willing to miss our only opportunity for a brush with royalty. My father, a man whose engineering mind always comes up with a solution, devised a plan. On a scorching hot day, the day before the parade, my mother wore her Jackie Kennedy sleeveless dress, my brothers put on long-sleeved shirts and ties, and the five of us drove to the parade site in my father’s air-conditioned Chevrolet. Granted, there was no parade, no cheering crowd, no music, and, least of all, no royalty. But none of that mattered. We climbed on the beribboned float intended for the Shah, our faces protected by the awning built to shield the royal face from the blazing sun. We smiled. My father’s camera captured our royal moment.

What brought the Shah to Abadan was its seemingly endless oil supply. This natural gift was a mixed blessing, a bit like having a garden that stands out in the entire neighborhood. You know that, eventually, somebody’s going to come and pick your flowers while you’re sleeping. In our case, it was the British who came for the oil.

The British were the first to realize the huge financial potential of the vast Iranian oil reserves. With the sound of cash registers ringing in its executives’ ears, British Petroleum negotiated an agreement with the Iranian government that allowed the British to drill for and sell the oil in exchange for a small sum. In a perfect world, the kindergarten teacher would have stood up before any documents were signed and said, “Time out for Britain. We’ll renegotiate after a nap.” But alas, with no teacher present to remind the participants of the universal concept of fairness, the British applied a different universal concept, greed. The agreement between British Petroleum and the government of Iran was destined for disaster.

Fortunately, exploitation has a limited shelf life, and Iranians eventually woke up. In the early 1950s, the prime minister, Dr. Muhammad Mossadegh, nationalized Iran’s oil. The British were forced to leave Iran. Unwilling to simply walk away from their golden-egg-laying goose, the foreign oil companies banded together and boycotted Iranian oil, resulting in a huge economic downturn. Within two years after the nationalization of its oil, the Iranian economy lay in shambles. Political upheaval ensued. Once again, Iran was ripe for foreign exploitation. This time, with foreign powers working behind the scene, Dr. Mossadegh, the national hero, was ousted. History partly repeated itself, and the foreign oil companies once again took over the operation and exploitation of the Iranian oil industry. This time, however, Iran received a larger portion of the profits and more control over oil operations.

By the time I was born in Abadan in 1965, there was no longer a large British population in town. A few foreigners remained, all employed by the operating companies. Iran was finally reaping most of the profits from its own oil.

In the absence of the British, the residents of Abadan benefited from a city built by thoughtful British planners. We had swimming pools, clubhouses, and very orderly housing developments. My hometown looked different from any other Iranian city.

Catering to the European expatriates, some stores in Abadan carried foreign foods, exotic products such as Ovaltine, Kit Kat candy bars, and ham. Even with the British gone, their canned and boxed foods remained in the stores, serving as a reminder of the exotic world that existed outside our borders.

During his graduate years in America, my father had been deprived of his beloved Persian food—no steaming platters of saffron-infused rice, no tender chicken kebabs, no marinated lamb shanks with eggplant stew. Exhibiting the survival instinct of adaptation, he had developed a taste for cafeteria food, in particular Jell-O and ham. After his return to Iran and subsequent marriage, he had convinced my mother to make Jell-O on a fairly regular basis. I liked the wiggly stuff, but I preferred to eat the powder raw out of the palm of my hand.

My father’s ham cravings, however, were a different story. My mother would not touch the stuff with a ten-meter pole. She cringed at even the word jambon, the French word used in Iran for ham. I had no idea why my mother reacted so strongly. All I knew was that whenever my father wanted to buy ham, I was his chosen partner. And I was honored. The opportunity to spend time alone with my father was so rare that I would have done just about anything to have him all to myself. Had he wanted to rob a bank, I would happily have driven the getaway car.

Unlike the Persian markets, where the fruits and vegetables were openly displayed, the tiny grocery stores that sold ham carried foods veiled in boxes and cans. Pictures hinted at the contents, although there was no rooster in the cornflakes. An air of mystery hung around these exotic foreign products, many of which had pictures of smiling people on the containers. None of the people looked Iranian, which led me to the obvious conclusion that there were a lot of happy people living in other countries.

Once the ham was purchased, my father and I rode home, sharing the excitement felt by cavemen who had successfully hunted the elusive mammoth. My mother and brothers stayed away from the kitchen while my father meticulously prepared his meal with fresh tomatoes, pickles, and onions. He then sat down to savor every mouthful while I watched him. Eating his beloved jambon always put him in a good mood, which then led to stories about America and his exciting graduate years. I never asked to eat the ham and my dad never offered. Having been part of the hunt was satisfying enough for me.

When I started first grade, I began studying Islam in school one hour per week. We studied the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We learned about the Prophet Muhammad and the imams. All the stories were marvelous—until the lecture about forbidden foods. To my complete shock, I discovered that my own father was destined to a very bad place for a very long time. All of a sudden, our ham excursions no longer seemed fun and innocent. I now understood why my mother wouldn’t even look at the stuff. She was trying to save her soul.

I rushed home that day with an assignment far more important than my math homework. I was determined to alter the course of my father’s afterlife.

As soon as my father’s car turned into our driveway, I ran out and told him of the unpleasant future that awaited him, forever. He let out a hearty laugh. I started to cry. Once my father saw my tears, he sat down with me and said, “Firoozeh, when the Prophet Muhammad forbade ham, it was because people did not know how to cook it properly and many people became sick as a result of eating it. The Prophet, who was a kind and gentle man, wanted to protect people from harm, so he did what made sense at the time. But now, people know how to prepare ham safely, so if the Prophet were alive today, he would change that rule.” He continued, “It’s not what we eat or don’t eat that makes us good people; it’s how we treat one another. As you grow older, you’ll find that people of every religion think they’re the best, but that’s not true. There are good and bad people in every religion. Just because someone is Muslim, Jewish, or Christian doesn’t mean a thing. You have to look and see what’s in their hearts. That’s the only thing that matters, and that’s the only detail God cares about.” I was six years old and I knew that I had just been made privy to something very big and important, something far larger than the jewels in the Shah’s crown, something larger than my little life in Abadan. My father’s words felt scandalous, yet utterly and completely true.

In the midst of my thoughtfulness, I heard my father continue, “And when you’re older, Firoozeh, I’ll have you try something really delicious: grilled lobster.”

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