I was late. Only by ten minutes, though. I wore a sleeveless brown dress with a light sweater as cover, just in case sleeveless was not appropriate. In my hand was a card to congratulate a married couple I had never met.
“Is there a wedding reception here?” I asked the hotel clerk at the Howard Johnson.
“Yes, you follow the hallway, take a right, then a left, then a right and the room will be on your left.”
I followed paper posted signs with arrows and what I suspected was the hyphenated name of the married couple. I passed several other parties on the way, dismissed them for not being the one I wanted, and neared a rather small room with thumping music sung in a language I didn’t understand. Red, green, and blue disco lights swirled about the darkened room with a bride and groom at the front. Standing beside them was my student, the mother of the groom, the only person I knew.
I recalled how I had met my student five months previously while teaching an adult English class for speakers of other languages, or ESOL, as it is more commonly known.
“And where are you from?” I had asked one of my new students who was several decades my senior.
“Elon.” she replied.
“Elon?” I had never heard of a country called Elon before. I racked my brain trying to think of where it could possibly be, but came up with nothing.
“Where is that?” I asked, finally, at a loss.
“Ah, Persia. I’m from Persia.”
Persia I did know, and I realized that I wasn’t familiar with the pronunciation she used for her country, since many English speakers, including myself, pronounced it: I-ran.
I stood at the doorway, rather timid, watching a photographer take photos of the couple. Even being smack-dab in the middle of America, I knew beyond that doorway was another place entirely. My student had asked if I was doing anything over the weekend and invited me to her son’s wedding reception. Knowing she really wanted me to go, I had said I would and asked what I should bring and wear. She had said a card would be fine and to wear whatever one usually wears to a wedding reception. What does one wear to a Persian wedding reception? I went with what I would wear to an American one.
A woman in a golden gown near the door spotted me immediately, gave a big smile and came toward me.
“You must be my mother’s teacher. Welcome! Come in. She was worried about you. She waited out front for a while because she thought you might get lost.”
The woman beckoned me into the room as we waited for the photos to be finished, which did not take long. Once they were done, my student came over to me, gave me a hug and said, “You made it. I was worried since the name was not the same as mine that you wouldn’t be able to find it.”
I smiled, apologized for being late and reassured her that I had asked the way and had no trouble finding it. She introduced me to her son and eldest daughter and invited me to take a seat at one of the five tables that were set up in the room. My student had to greet new arrivals and left me to my own devices.
Thus began my foray into an unfamiliar Persian culture where everyone spoke Farsi. Fortunately for me, they also spoke English. I took an empty seat next to a couple and introduced myself to the woman. She was very friendly and offered me coffee. She never seemed troubled as I spoke with her. Everyone was still in the arrival and settling down stage; a few guests passed around little wedding cookies and baklava snacks while everyone waited. The bride and groom were greeting their guests. I took the time to look around. The crowd was mostly of an older generation than I. At the front of the room were things one might expect to see: to the left was a place for a DJ, speakers, and a disco ball, but to the right, beside the first table, was an unfamiliar scene.
Two chairs covered in cloth faced a picnic-type spread. Silver dishes and trays holding an assortment of sweets were placed on the floor cloth. From where I sat, I could see strawberries, chocolates, baklava, and other pastries. Beyond those dishes was a frame. I didn’t know what was in the frame nor what the spread meant, so I asked the woman beside me.
“Excuse me, what is that up there by the dishes on the floor? Is it a picture of the couple?”
“Oh, no,” the woman said, “it is a mirror.”
“A mirror? Is it tradition? What does it mean?”
“It is tradition,” the woman said, “The married couple sits on the chairs and sees themselves in front of the sweets. I’m not really sure about where it came from, but it is supposed to mean wishes that the marriage is as sweet as the sweets they see in front of them, and reflected back to them.”
I thought it a very nice tradition. As we all awaited permission to eat, I spoke with the woman about her family and heard many conversations going on around me in Farsi. I asked if we were having traditional food, and was told that, though it was not ‘American’, it was not traditional either. The couple went first for food. It was buffet style, and table by table we went. There was a wide variety of food, including: rolls, salad, a cucumber dip, a type of saffron chicken, saffron-orange-peanut jasmine rice, plain jasmine rice, chicken coated in a white sauce (which was so tender and delicious, with a familiar flavor nobody could name for me), as well as pasta alfredo.
With my plate full of appetizing food, I sat down to eat. For some reason, the shredded carrots on the salad decided they wanted to try my lungs instead of my stomach, and the water I drank to help qualm the arising coughing fit did the same. I tried to cough as little and politely as possible, but it did not stop the woman beside me from noticing.
“Are you all right?” she rushed to ask me, concern apparent in her voice. “It’s okay. If you don’t like the food, you don’t have to eat it. You can leave it and get another plate.”
Oh no. That’s not it at all, I thought to myself. “No, no. The carrots and water just went down the wrong way, that’s all,” I desperately tried to reassure her, hoping she’d understand. I really do enjoy trying new foods and I despaired that they might think I didn’t like the food and was forcing myself to eat it. In fact I liked it very well. It was, all of it, delicious.
I spent my time enjoying the delicious food, feeling very much like I had stepped foot in another country. All around me were conversations and laughter. The man beside me left and an older woman and young woman, who appeared closer in age to me, took his place. I was surprised at this and asked if the man who was there before was not still sitting there. The woman beside me said, no, that he was the DJ.
I spoke with the newcomers, a mother and daughter pair.
“Oh, so you are her teacher,” said the daughter, referring to my student. “You must feel awkward here by yourself.”
“A little,” I admitted, “but not much.”
Though I knew no one there and spoke not a lick of their language, everyone I met treated me as if I belonged and was part of the family. They never seemed bothered by having to speak to me in English or explain anything someone said in Farsi. Since no one gave me cause to feel uncomfortable, I was able to enjoy myself. I spoke to the daughter quite a bit. Her story was interesting. She had been born in Iran, but moved to the States when she was six months old. Since then, she’d been back and forth to Iran. She said that, once, when she moved back, she was even teased because her Farsi had an outsider accent. It seemed to me she enjoyed talking to someone closer to her own age.
The meal finished, the picnic spread cleared away, it was time for dancing. The couple had their first dance, surprisingly, to an old American song. Then the music changed to a language I didn’t understand, and I watched them dance in Persian fashion with fascination. I likened it to the way a belly-dancer moves, but slower. The bride swayed her hips, raised her hands, and made distinctive movements and motions with them like the waves of an ocean tide. The groom danced similarly, and even I, who know nothing about this style of dance, could easily see that his bride was a good dancer. My deduction was confirmed by others sitting at the table. As the song progressed, the bride and groom moved out into the crowd and invited others to dance with them. Then those invited to dance invited others, and still others. Soon, my student came toward me and made a motion for me to join too.
So there I found myself, not a good dancer anyhow, with no clue in the world how to dance the Persian way, being invited insistently by my student to join the others in the front of the room on the dance floor.
I didn’t hesitate. If my years have taught me anything, it’s that at times like these, if you want to have fun, you have to take the chance of making a fool of yourself. I moved past the tables and chairs and stood beside my student. I followed her steps, the motions of her hands, and swayed as she did, as best as I could grasp.
The songs changed and the dancers moved about, gliding across the floor, hips rocking from side to side, arms tracing intricate patterns in the air. I found myself next to the girl at my table.
“I have no clue what I’m doing.” I told her as I danced.
She laughed. “Make sure your arms always move outward, like this, and sway your hips a little more like this.” She demonstrated the movements for me.
“There you go,” she encouraged me as I moved my hands in a slight imitation of her own and began to incorporate my knowledge of hula dancing, moving my hips in my interpretation of a figure eight.
We danced for a short time until the DJ played more modern music to which she wasn’t sure how to dance. I took the time to get water and rest. So much dancing had made it very warm in the room and, thankful that I had seen others in sleeveless dresses, I shed my sweater. I watched the dancers and rested, standing, in a corner by my table. My student’s middle daughter came up beside me as I was trying to imitate some of the way the dancers moved.
“This song is from the North, where my mother’s from. You move your feet like this,” she said. I looked down and watched her feet move forward and back, almost like the cha-cha. I did my best to mimic her footsteps. I had to try a couple of times, but finally got the idea.
“The cake will be coming out soon,” she informed me.
A few songs later, the cake was brought out. My student had come to see how I was doing and talk with me. She clucked her tongue about the cake, since it had a slight lean to it. It was yellow cake, but the frosting was completely whipped cream. There were two kinds of pieces passed around – one had strawberries inside, while the other had shaved chocolate. I delighted in a piece of the strawberry one.
“Is this type of cake a tradition?” I asked the woman at my table who I had been speaking with most of the night.
“Not really. The cake can be any kind, but it is made in the traditional way of Iranian cakes,” she told me. “We don’t have the frosting you have here. We use whipped cream instead of frosting.”
After the cake, it was back to dancing. They played a few American songs including the Electric Slide, the Macarena, and even Billy Jean, to which my student’s grandson even did the moonwalk, after much cajoling. Then the music returned to the more modern Persian songs. Almost everyone danced; very few stayed in their seats. The mother and daughter at my table didn’t really seem into dancing and just watched until I persuaded the daughter to join me. It seemed she really did enjoy it once she was out on the floor.
“Come and dance. You’re my teacher,” I told her. “You have to show me what to do.”
For some songs, the dancers made a circle around the bride and groom. Sometimes different people would move in and out of the center. At other times, those surrounding would sway their hips and clap. There was even a conga line for one song. A time or two, the music had a more modern beat, to which the girl said, “There’s not really a way to dance to this one. I don’t know. Just dance the American way.”
“Okay, though I’m not really a good dancer either – I really don’t know what I’m doing.” We laughed and just danced, really, as if no one was watching, or as, even if they were, we didn’t care.
When the music switched back to Persian, she always told me how to dance to it and I followed her lead. “To this one, you move your shoulders more than your arms.” She swayed one shoulder forward then the other. Sometimes both came forward; sometimes both went back. She told me where the songs came from – which region, whether they were modern, and whether there were certain ways to dance to them.
Thus I danced into the night, incorporating the steps I had been shown, the arm motions I had been taught, and the hip and shoulder movements I continuously attempted to imitate. Though the style was the same, everyone’s motions were always uniquely their own.
The last song of the night was from the southern region.
“This song’s from the South,” my tablemate said, “you just dance like you have, but really fast, and you wave your hands in the air like this.” She held up her hands and rotated them left and right, as one would do if signing applause. All the dancers – tired, sweating from dancing, with strands of hair falling out of place, some barefooted – danced in a fast past to the last song of the night.
The music ended and the dancers dispersed, searching for water, fresh air – or, in my case – the area beside the air conditioning. I stood near the cool air while my tablemate sat down on a nearby chair. My student motioned for me to sit and she took a seat nearby with the bride. They laughed and spoke to one another in Farsi. One of the gentleman, speaking to my tablemate-turned-dancing-teacher in Farsi, motioned to me. She laughed.
“You graduate,” she said with a smile. “He said you get an A. You dance very well.”
The gentleman nodded and repeated, “You dance well.”
“I had a good teacher,” I said, slightly abashed. I had a hard time believing I had done well, considering I began the night unaware of how they dance and knowing how bad of a dancer in general I was.
“By the way, what is your name?” I asked the girl beside me.
“Sahrzad,” she said.
“Ah, that’s close to Scheherazade,” I said, the sound of her name reminding me of one I was familiar with, having read some of The Arabian Nights.
“Yes,” Sahrzad said, “That is the Arabic pronunciation.”
I spoke more with Sahrzad as the night wound down and discovered she taught children with autism. As most of the guests began to depart, I also took my leave and thanked my student for inviting me, assuring her I had a great time.
I had journeyed into a foreign land when I stepped through that doorway. Despite not being able to speak the language and my being clueless about the culture, all gathered welcomed me as one of their own, helped me when I seemed lost, and treated me with the greatest courtesy. I discovered much I did not know, met many friendly people, and learned rahg (Persian dance) – which, apparently, I can do pretty well.
Darla Reed is a science nut who currently volunteers her time teaching and tutoring English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) to adults in Ohio where she has the wonderful opportunity to meet people from other countries and learn about their cultures.