everything in tehran used to be something else. vali asr street was pahlavi street, named after the monarch before he was dethroned. esteghlal was the hilton before sanctions meant US businesses could no longer operate here. and the land upon which i’m standing was the dream house that my grandfather worked night and day for years to build but never got to enjoy.
my grandmother is by my side and she tries with fervor to make sure i visualize it. she points to the side of the land that the main entrance was, and to where the garden would have been. i’ve seen only one picture in the past, and my memory is blending in with images of houses from movie sets. i feel a sort of awkward guilt for not seeing what she does.
the guilt is more pronounced because i know what my grandfather felt when he stood here nearly four decades ago. he wanted to build the perfect home, even if it meant only spending one night in it, he used to say. but by the time it was almost done, they had to leave it all behind.
what i find harder to imagine than the stone structure that stood here, is the pain of having to abandon his home. years later, that pain was magnified when the house was demolished, and today the piece of land is nothing but a construction site for an apartment complex – an empty hole of destroyed dreams and unrealized ambition.
my grandmother mumbles something and then vows to continue working to regain the title of their land. she reveals very little emotion as she makes this promise. she’s much stronger than i am – she who had so many ties to this place. perhaps because she has lived the feelings for so long already, she knows how to manage them. but i feel myself overwhelmed yet again. i bite the inside of my cheek to distract myself from the energy that is stirring inside. i turn away from her and quickly put on my sunglasses hoping that i can hide my own emotions.
this is something i’ve done many times since i’ve arrived. i still can’t identify what the emotion has been, all i know is that every family member that i have met for the first time, every home of theirs that i have entered, has stirred something inside me that leaves me feeling happy and heartbroken at the same time.
but as i turn back to face her, i see a sort of contentment reflected back. she’s happy that i’m here, that i’m beginning to understand. and i know that this is only an introduction to so much about my family’s past and their country’s history that i have yet to learn. and suddenly i feel the confusion subside as it is replaced by a childish excitement, a thirst to take in more.