When I married my Tehran-born husband many years ago, it never occurred to me that I wasn’t just marrying the love of my life. I was joining an enormous extended Iranian family (100 people attended our belated wedding reception in Tehran—and that was only the “close” relatives). When my in-laws came to visit several years later, and stayed for six months, I’d learned enough about this family-centered culture to work myself into total panic. What would they think of me, an American woman who’d married their only son? A daughter-in-law who didn’t speak their language or share their religion?
As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry. We got along famously from the start. It helped that I was eager to learn everything they could teach me about their world. I learned how to cook a proper chelo (steamed rice) without burning the crusty layer on the bottom of the pot. To tell the difference between an Isfahani carpet and a Tabrizi. I practiced Farsi until I could converse comfortably with family members so they wouldn’t feel bad about leaving me out. By the time my in-laws went back to Iran, we all cried at the airport.
“You are our arooz,” they told me. Our son’s bride.
It wasn’t until my first trip to Iran five years later that I understood what that word really meant. Determined to figure out what responsibilities were expected of me, I watched my sister-in-law every time we went to visit her husband’s family. From the moment we walked in the door, she was busy organizing everything: heaping rice onto platters and dishing stew into bowls. And late at night when we were ready to leave, tired and bursting with too much good food, she’d stay behind to help with the cleaning up.
Fine, I thought. I can do that. So I set about trying to make myself useful around the house. At least I tried to.
The thing was, no one would let me lift a finger. Sure, I was allowed to clear the table after meals. Everyone pitched in on that task, men and women alike. But after carrying the platters of leftover rice and kebabs from table to kitchen, I’d reach for an apron and join my mother-in-law at the sink for washing up.
“You look tired,” she’d say. “Why don’t you go watch CNN?”
When I tried to help my sister-in-law prepare chicken for the noon meal, she gave me a pitying look. “Have you ever cleaned a chicken with the beak and feet still attached?”
I had to admit that I hadn’t, but how hard could it be? At least the feathers had already been plucked.
“You’re our arooz,” my in-laws would repeat. “There is no difference between you and our natural daughters.” And yet they still treated me more like an honored guest than a member of the family.
“Don’t listen to them,” my husband advised. “Just do what you want.”
So when relatives dropped by one evening for a visit, I left my in-laws to their elaborate Persian greeting ritual, slipped into the kitchen, and set about making the tea. There is an art to this, but I’d been watching carefully for days. First you pour just the right amount of strong brew into sparkling glasses then dilute it with hot water from the samovar to achieve the proper color. For good Iranian tea should not be either too por rang (dark) or too kam rang (light).
The reaction when I appeared with the tray was explosive. One uncle leaped to his feet and tried to take the tray from me, a look of consternation on his face. The foreign guest serving the tea? What was my mother-in-law thinking? The lady herself simply sat in her chair and nodded her approval. The ice was broken.
Now, whenever I’m in Tehran, everyone accepts that making and serving tea is my special job. After all, as Iranians like to say: chai-ye arooz—tea served by the arooz—always tastes best.