This summer, I found myself in Iran in the midst of an escalating international conflict, admittedly not the most pragmatic of decisions. After a four-hour drive from the Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran, I arrive at my grandmother’s house on the Caspian Sea. My last visit was in 2008 and, although I’ve been anticipating this reunion with my relatives, I’m anxious to see the land. After a requisite breakfast with my family, Uncle Massoud and I sneak out during a spirited debate over the latest episode of a popular Turkish soap opera. We navigate through a labyrinth of back alleyways to avoid the traffic caused by southern tourists, mostly Tehranis trying to evade the capital city’s intense summer heat. Leaving behind the noisy seaside and bloated streets, we drive until we only see green. The expansive rice fields and citrus trees are a welcome respite.
When I first received my Iranian passport shortly after my twenty first birthday, I looked up our last name in the dictionary. The first definition for Ranjbar is proletariat. The second meaning is toiler.
Uncle Massoud, a renowned sports champion and successful business owner, is the only Ranjbar who physically toils. Massoud has recently developed a passion for organic farming and works daily on our family’s rice fields. Given our family history of khans and wealthy land owners, and the stringent classism that remains a normative part of Persian culture, it is a strange sight for most.
I am only visiting Iran for one month and, although social convention demand that I spend my time visiting relatives and attending frivolous parties, my uncle and I are unseparable. Every morning we eat a modest breakfast of bread and feta with basil, drink tea from the samovar, and set off at sunrise, leaving the other Ranjbars in the house to gossip amongst themselves.
We begin each morning tending to our small organic plot. It is not difficult to find; the growing sprigs are half the size of the surrounding fields. My uncle hands me a plastic bag and points out the weeds. I diligently follow him as he weaves through rows of green sprouting rice seedlings. I try to avoid stepping on the frogs and small water snakes that swim through the flooded paddies.
Every so often, a farmer approaches to greet us. This particular morning, three farmers call out to us from the nearest canal. I know instantly from their use of the vernacular that they are from the neighboring village. Massoud is their boss and, as a sign of respect, they begin the conversation in coarse Farsi, thick northern accents that are barely decipherable to anyone outside of the region. After obligatory greetings, the formality melts away, and we speak casually and warmly in patois. The three farmers invite us for tea. We choose an idyllic spot by a lily pond. Using burning embers from under the metal teapot, we light up a humble water pipe and pass around sugar cubes for the tea.
The latest round of economic sanctions is the first topic of conversation. Inflation is rising, and there are rumors of factory workers who haven’t received wages in months. The price of bread doubled this past week, and we wonder aloud how people will cope. Everyone speaks in the third person, but the worry on their brows is noticeable.
The talk then turns to the legal battle over our fields. One of the older farmers, Mr. Reza, comments on the irony of the situation. One Ranjbar seeks solace from working the land, while another family member tries to exploit it for personal gain. He is referring to my cousin Shideh, a lawyer who stole several hundred acres of our family’s land by convincing my illiterate grandmother to validate a property document with her fingerprint.
As the men become more animated in their discussion, I wonder to myself if these farmers themselves are exploited. Their wage is fair by Iranian standards. As sharecroppers, they are entitled to half of the rice harvested on this land. In a time of steep economic downturn – in large part due to the oppressive sanctions driven by the U.S. government – I wonder if selling the rice when it is harvested in late summer will be enough to cover the inflated cost of basic necessities. Times are hard and these farmers have relied heavily on credit to tide them over until the harvest. Their debts force them to sell their crops at the height of harvest season, when rice prices are at their lowest. My grandmother’s capital allows her to wait until winter, when the value of rice doubles. As the matriarch of the family, she too is worried about the impact of sanctions. With the exception of Iran’s elite, the punitive sanctions are having dire effects on the entire population. Even if she wanted to, I’m not sure my grandmother would be able to offer the sharecroppers more. If the value of the land collapses, she will be left with nothing.
The conversation continues and I excuse myself to collect my thoughts. As I walk through the fields that my family oversees in northern Iran, I hope that my love for this land doesn’t reveal a darker side of my nature, the need to control and dominate. I try not to refer to this land in the possessive tense because it cheapens my connection to it. To do so would also be fundamentally untruthful.
These rice fields are the site of ongoing legal battles spanning generations; this episode with Shideh is only the most recent. This land first came into my grandmother Batul’s possession during the White Revolution, a land reform initiative implemented by the Shah of Iran in the 1960s to check the power of the aristocracy and woo support from the peasantry.
This scheme worried my great-grandfather, a khan whose family had controlled vast swathes of fertile land throughout the Caspian Sea region. Once an infamous figure in the region, by the time of the White Revolution, he was only a semblance of his former self. In his younger years, at six foot ten, when he rode his massive black stallion, the ground literally shook. He had a penchant for bacchanalian celebrations and beautiful women. Those days of aristocratic power were over and, in an attempt to retain ownership of the land, my great-grandfather divided up his property deeds amongst his three wives and twenty-two children.
He did not anticipate that the value my grandmother’s land would triple a few years later. An important component of the White Revolution was developing new infrastructure, including highways to allow farmers to sell their goods to larger markets. Urbanization in the north soon followed, and the value of property skyrocketed as rich Tehranis scrambled to build expensive villas on the pristine Caspian seaside. Seeing an opportunity to add to his already considerable riches, my great-grandfather quietly and illegally forged my illiterate grandmother’s signature, claiming that she had sold the land back to him.
My grandfather, who was already wealthy in his own right, was furious when he discovered what the khan had done. Enraged, he gave my grandmother Batul an ultimatum and she was forced to choose between a relationship with her husband or her father. With eight children and enormous social pressure from the extended family, divorce was not an option. A lengthy lawsuit ensued and, although she won the case, it burdened her already strained marriage.
My grandfather was both a successful capitalist and a champion of various social justice causes, which resulted in intermittent imprisonment throughout his life under both the Shah and Khomeini’s regimes. My grandfather was a known philanthropist as well as a philanderer. When he snuck out in the middle of the night, it was usually to drop off a box of food to a neighbor experiencing hard times. It was always delivered anonymously at night so as not to embarrass anyone. It was equally likely that he was visiting one of his many girlfriends. Like my great-grandfather, he left behind an ostentatious reputation and a great deal of property. My grandmother Batul became a very wealthy landowner as a result, but at a great cost to her personal happiness.
Twelve years after my grandfather’s passing, the controversy over ownership of this land continues. Our once cohesive family splintered with greed and, with the most recent dispute involving Shideh, has resulted in even deeper divisions. Shideh’s hope is to sell the seized land and escape to Canada, leaving everything behind and never looking back. My family often blames these betrayals on the shifting economic and political happenings in the country, but I can’t help wonder if these transgressions are inherent to our family.
Following the long conversation with the farmers in the fields, I return home to find my cousins visiting from a neighboring province. We walk down to the Caspian seaside and look for a restaurant on the beach. They ask me about my favorite Persian dish and I reply anything but abgoosht, a traditional dish of smashed up beans and meat. They reply that it is a calorie-rich meal that farmers use to maintain energy throughout the day. After a few moments, my younger cousin Kayvan remarks that farmers today are probably even too poor to afford that, so they probably just eat rice three times a day. I think back to my afternoon with Mr. Reza and the other farmers and know, without a doubt, they can’t afford to sell most of the rice they take home.
The rest of the walk is markedly silent. We don’t know who is listening and everything is political these days, even bread. With the influx of tourists to the Caspian Sea, the area is filled with basij monitoring the area for moral transgressions. I shift my attention to our surroundings and, in an attempt to change the subject, comment on the rows of tents along the sea shore. My cousin replies that no one can afford the price of hotels. We all sigh despondently until he quotes a line from my favorite Iranian poet, Sohrab Sepehri. As long as there are poppies, we must live.
Every morning, I throw myself into my little plot, weeding, flooding, measuring the growing stalks. I find myself nostalgic for a past that I’ve never experienced and, as I hear more about the history of this contentious land, I’m gradually realizing that this utopian ideal has never existed. At the same time, this land is my escape and it gives me freedom from the impasse I’ve seen in every direction during my visit, which only seems to worsen as time progresses. It is a way to elude the excessive gossip and infighting that is the one constant in my family. It allows me to evade the state’s watchful eye. Miles from the city, there are no basij skulking in the fields, although I still involuntarily lower my voice when politics is the topic of conversation. After only a week, this Orwellian state is already driving me mad. I feel ashamed that it has already impacted me so strongly. Everyone I know here must cope with this reality daily. I pretend not to notice the looks of resentment in some of the eyes around our dinner table. That is how they control us – we turn against each other and then ourselves.
A few days later, Massoud and I head back to the fields. As we wind through the plots, synchronized in our work, I ask my uncle what the family thinks of his new passion for farming. “Everyone thinks I’m crazy. A respected Ranjbar tending the land? They joke that I’ve become a villager.” After a pause, he says that their opinions aren’t important. “This is how I cope with the world and where I find my peace.”
After a few hours of working under the bright sun, we return to the pond with our lunch basket. I unpack dates and he lays out a spread of yogurt and bread, and then we quietly read Sepehri.
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Rumpus original art by Rob Kimmel.