When I first started living in Iran, I was a kind of an illiterate, exotic creature who had to learn the alphabet from scratch and could have meaningful conversations only with toddlers. I was tolerated and coddled in equal measures, which made life easier for me. My mistakes were cute and lovable instead of breaches of protocol that could cause catastrophic rifts in the delicate political balance of the family.
It wasn’t just language that messed with me. I was a fashion disaster, ill-mannered and coarse. I must have seemed an oaf to people who’d practiced good manners for millennia.
Nothing made me feel more oafish than the women surrounding me. Most wouldn’t dream of leaving the house looking less than perfect. Their nails were exactingly manicured, their hair straightened and dyed, their bracelets gold, their eyes carefully outlined. At parties they wore low-cut, form-fitting dresses. They danced with flair as though their hips were unhinged, while my moves had been learned in proto-mosh pits. I could slam with the best of them, but anything more refined required concentration.
On top of that, my eyebrows had never been trimmed and my hair was unruly. I had never quite outgrown my tomboy phase and the longest time I’d spent in heels was about two hours: long enough to dance at a friend’s wedding.
In the cafés in North Tehran, women let the obligatory headscarves slip to their shoulders, making a great show of lifting them up over exquisitely coiffed hair. They balanced on heels high enough to make me dizzy, navigating the uneven pavement with grace.
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