ARE YOU THERE, GOD(?), IT’S ME…IN A PERSIAN GROCERY STORE - Atosa Babaoff
I arrive in front of Tehran Market and it appears to be closed. My heart sinks. It’s only 2pm, what the fuck? I stand in front of the building, a perfect box. It is industrial and uninviting, a kind of baby Costco. I peek into smoked glass windows, bullet proof thick, attempting to manifest clear seeing and sentient life through sheer will. I start sinking into desperation and defeat when a door opens and a startled elderly man walks out into my squeal of happiness.
Oh joy! It’s open. He looks at me like I am a Martian. I want to tell him I traveled here from San Francisco in order to investigate this very space. ‘Its just a grocery store”, I imagine him saying. Nope. No, it’s not. It is not just a grocery store. It is most likely a life line.
I walk through the wide entrance and smack dab into my feelings. My senses start going haywire. I smell fresh baked barbary bread; the scent of comfort, long hours of artisanal labor and care. The Persian grocery store in San Diego has big burly men with hands of stone and steel kneading and crafting and delivering this gorgeous chewy delight while it still steams straight out of the oven. I see an aisle of SADAF products (our Iranian Kraft or whatever iconic brand you want to compare it to), those curly red (or white) letters that draw forth the image of my Mom and her perfect timing in creating a three course meal. I find aisle after aisle of tea and run my hands along the shiny bags and boxes, bowled over by the beautiful packaging —I smile when I think of my family getting imperious when I’ve committed the sin of serving tea in anything other than tall transparent drinking glasses. You have to be able to SEE the tea, my dad always says. My last memory of drinking tea with my dad pops up, seeing the caramel colored liquid sloshing gently side to side as his mildly shaky hand carried it to the living room. I realize I've been wandering on automatic pilot. I stop. I’ve managed to land in the exact middle of the space. The center point.
The space is deep and grand but barely populated; there’s myself, five customers and three people working there. Those present navigate this realm with expertise and familiarity, moving in a kind of murmuration, projecting a pure no nonsense vibe. It feels theatrical, like dancers or actors syncing up with one another’s nervous systems. Everyone is masked up due to covid, leaving their faces neutral—yet their eyes and body language are bright and agile. They move in a way that my insides recognize. All of a sudden beams of need and nostalgia shoot out of my forehead and I want in on this communal moment. I want my body to automatically move towards purpose and creation. I’d like to ask them what they are going to make with these familiar ingredients. I also feel shy. We can seek closeness in unexpected places. Also, boundaries. I both love and loathe the way we melt into one another in the Persian culture. Everyone is in each other’s business to a suffocating degree. It could be unsolicited advice from your aunt or a mildly misogynistic comment from a friend of your uncle’s. Or just a recipe.
I wander over to the jam aisle. I stand in front of the iconic rose petal variety. I draw it to my nose, looking like some weird commercial, about to receive a would be nirvana. It smells like a glass jar. I am tempted to open the lid, gripped by a sudden desire to break the law. I ache for my mom, to remind me which jam for which recipe(?). Is her almond tart better with fig or raspberry jam? I conjure her teeny bird hands, marvel at how strong they are, how much joy they bring to our mini masses. The paradox of my mother’s hands; they look out of a fairy tale- knotted, gnarled, wizened and yet they are the progenitors of beauty and joy. I want to apologize to her for the countless times I fled from her when she’d insist on teaching me a recipe THAT MOMENT no matter how overwhelmed I was with another task at hand. I’d chastise her for being bossy and intense. I am homesick in familiar surroundings. I bet if I opened this jar and inhaled this jam it would taste more like loneliness than home.
I set down the jar and feel a burning in my forehead. I look up and notice the shopkeeper staring at me with a pronounced curiosity. Our masked faces lock eyes for way longer than necessary. There’s an embarrassing intimacy simmering between us. Jeez, we are an intense people. The part of me that is incidentally midwestern looks away first and I back away from the jam aisle. His face betrays his thoughts: people come here to shop not massage jam jars to fill an ambiguous black hole inside. “AND you should definitely apologize to your Mom” I envision him saying.
This daydream dissolves when I’m body checked by a barrel chested old lady. It seems I am blocking access to the fig jam. Her eyes dart fiery arrows telling me so. She carries that impressive no bullshit intensity that emanates from the matriarchs and Persian Aunties in my world. To this day, I grant them the credit for my confusion between tough and love. My Aunts can adore and demolish me in one breath: “Snap out of it. Get out of the past, move forward, fix your eyebrows, you’re beautiful, stop fussing, stop being so serious, life is hard enough, be grateful.”
I am reminded of that line in the Gus Van Sant film, Drugstore Cowboy: “there is nothing more life affirming than getting the shit kicked out of you.” Matt Dillon’s character meant physically (which I don’t agree with) but what about spiritually? I feel a bit knocked around being here. Isn’t it always that way with expectations? I came here for a kind of deliverance, but instead I find myself trapped in fruitless self interrogation. Bouncing off the walls of my own mind, I’m exhausted by what feels like non linear ancestral time travel. I look at my phone and discover that I’ve only been here for 24 minutes. It is now clear that I’m not going to hear the voice of any of my great grandmothers in a packet of pistachios. I don’t need to force any kind of familial Kumbaya moment. Can it just be ok? To be with the unanswerable questions and unresolved memories?
Atosa Babaoff is a yoga teacher living in San Francisco. She carries an MFA in Classical acting from The American Conservatory Theater and performs from time to time. She enjoys delving into writing as a means of expression, connection, storytelling--and at the moment is very interested in delving deeper into her culture and love of food through creative non fiction/auto fiction.