One year ago, my parents and I returned to Iran. We visited in December so that we could travel to Southern Iran, an area so hot in summer that tourism is unpleasant.
But many things did not happen as we expected.
We arrived in Tehran, a huge metropolis of about 15 million people, and stayed in my late grandmother’s apartment, which had stood empty since her death several years earlier. Most of the Tehran I knew growing up has long since vanished. What remains the same is the mountains—a majestic six-mile ridge of snowcaps rising to 13,000 feet and peaking at Mt. Tochal. The new Tehran stretches westward along these foothills of the Alborz Mountains.
Upon arrival in Tehran, my 79-year-old father, David, grew tired and ill, and he did not recover the next day. My father has had prostate problems, and as it turned out, during the flight his prostate had swelled and blocked his urinary tract. Although American doctors had told him that he was in good shape to travel, by the time we got him to the emergency room in Tehran, his kidneys were shutting down.
The hospital we took my father to was not a government or provincial hospital—which have poor reputations among Iranians—but it was also not the best hospital expatriate Western money could buy. In fact, we chose it because it was on my father’s Iranian government pension plan.
In the emergency ward, I was immediately thrown into the melting pot of contemporary multicultural Iran, as other families milled about me speaking Turkish. I got up to give my seat to a woman and her son, and she said in Farsi, “No Hadjagha, please sit, my son, he gets underfoot and follows me around.” (Hadjagha means “He who has gone to Mecca on pilgrimage,” and is the standard post-revolutionary honorific.) The woman then disappeared down the hall, and I—a perfect stranger in a city of 15 million people—was left to watch her eight-year-old son. Thankfully, she returned just as I was called in to see my father.
In the emergency ward, I found a virtual family reunion. Several generations were there. My uncle had spread out the daily paper on my father’s legs and was reading the sports pages. The emergency intern entered and casually held up six bags of urine for us all to see. “See what a gift your father has brought for me from abroad,” he said jovially.
After hours of waiting, my aunts secured a private room for my father. The orderly who moved him upstairs seemed hesitant to leave, repeatedly asking if the room was acceptable. My mother finally realized he was waiting for his tip. “A green one or a red one?” my mother asked, referring to the Iranian 1,000 and 500 toman bills (worth approximately $1 and $.50, respectively). “A green one,” my aunt replied.
You may think that having gotten my father safely to the hospital, we could relax, but that was not the case. Our maintenance job was just beginning. First, we had an enormous amount of shopping to do. We had to get ready for visiting hours, and that meant stocking the fridge with juice, cookies, and cutlery for dozens of people. “Why don’t we bring a samovar?” I asked sarcastically as we prepared my father’s hospital room. “Before the revolution, we did,” my mother replied, “as well as full-service china, not disposables. Expectations have fallen.”
After several days, my father’s condition stabilized. The doctor finally told us what we had only guessed, that my father had been in danger of dying. He told us a prostate operation was an absolute necessity. And then he sent us all home. “In our experience,” he said, “patients get depressed and lethargic when we keep them in the hospital waiting for an operation. Since you have come such a long way and have not spent any time with your family, I am releasing you. Go, be with your family and enjoy yourself.”
So we took my father home, where the social visits continued unabated. My aunts came regularly, cooking vast amounts of food. One night, the entire extended family descended en masse with a Christmas tree and a huge festive meal.
While I was growing up in Tehran, my mother had always celebrated Christmas, and my father’s extended family (all of whom are Moslem) recreated the event for us. After presents were handed out, one of my aunts led us all in singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. My father was ecstatic, dancing around with his catheter in hand.
A week later, we returned to the hospital.
When they rolled my father back into the room following his surgery, my aunt stood outside the door armed with dozens of red and green bills. She undertook the delicate and socially sensitive process of expressing “appreciation.” One must not only express it in the proper amount; one must also know whose social status precludes tipping and who expects to be tipped. Doctors are not tipped, nor are head nurses; beyond that, it’s a zone of endless ambiguity.
Shortly after my father was settled, the medical staff brought in two jars—the first contained his prostate, which was placed on a shelf and sat there for hours like a half-eaten frosted doughnut. In the second vial were the stones taken from my father’s bladder. The doctor asked my father what he thought of his prostate; a nurse then removed it. She left the stones behind as a keepsake.
In the four days that followed, my extended family took turns monitoring my father’s IVs 24 hours a day. We also had to monitor the bags of serum that were flushing his bladder; these had to be changed every two hours.
One day I walked in for my shift and found the janitor who cleaned the room sitting next to the bed, reciting poems. “Come, take a picture of me with Mr. Ramazani!” my father said enthusiastically. “He recites to me all his love poetry.” Mr. Ramazani looked apologetic. “What can we do?” he asked. “Our heart sings with such pain.”
Those who study Iran often remark on the strikingly open multiculturalism of the post-revolutionary period, and the little microcosm of our hospital staff illustrated it quite well. Mr. Ramazani had the accent of the northern province of Gilan, and no doubt he spoke Gilaki. My father’s physiotherapist, Mr. Gharadaghi, was a big affable Azeri Turk from Baku; my father and he exchanged words in Turkish. The surgeon had the unusual name of KhaajehMoogehi. “He’s Kurdish,” said my father. “I trust this man more than I would any American doctor; he does dozens of these operations a month.”