Movies with My Aunt
"Movies with My Aunt"
Published in Love and Pomegranates: Artists and Wayfarers on Iran
The year my aunt Manzar landed a job at a prestigious engineering firm in Tehran was the year we started going to movies together. The year was 1962 and Tehran was in the midst of rapid growth and modernization. The city was expanding in almost all directions: newly built apartment buildings and townhouses in East and West provided housing for the emerging middle class, while modern villas on the northern part of town were the place of choice for the rich. Private cars, taxis, motor bikes and bicycles shared the wide avenues crisscrossing these new parts of the city with the latest mode of transportation: the Double Decker. Nothing symbolized the desire for modernity more than the new movie houses springing up in Northern Tehran. These gleaming movie houses featured wide screens, stereo sound systems, and stylish red velvety chairs. They showed dubbed first run, mostly American movies, relegating Persian and Indian movies to the depleted old movie houses on Lale-Zar Ave, the former entertainment center in central Tehran. Stylishly dressed young Iranians in short skirts and Jeans waiting patiently in long line to secure tickets to the latest feature was a common sight outside these movie houses.
Invitation to go to movies came as a delightful surprise. I was not particularly close to Manzar, but I loved movies. As a young child, I looked forward to the annual showing of Jerry Lewis and Norman Wisdom comedy and the occasional Disney film or Musical. Later, I became an avid fan of historical movies, mostly with Roman or Christian themes. As a pre-teen, I now craved something with glamour, romance and drama, maybe with a touch of action. I wanted something to give me a new horizon, a glimpse of a world I yearned to see and explore. Since I was too young to go to movies with my friends, Manzar’s invitation was a godsend key to a magical world. So we established our ritual; of going to matinees on Thursdays, the start of weekend in Iran.
Growing up I had spent little time alone with Manzar, my mother’s younger sister aside from when she babysat for me. She had finished high school not long after I was born. Like many Iranian girls of the time, she kept busy helping my grandmother around the house, waiting to be married. However, unlike most girls of her age, she was not particularly fond of make up or gossip. She was quiet and shy, and at least on the surface, seemed ambivalent about the prospect of marriage, expressing little interest in meeting the suitors who would show up regularly at the house or were introduced by friends and relatives. By this time, she was close to 30, and my grandmother had lost all hope of her ever getting married. So inspite of her misgivings about women working outside the house, she welcomed the opportunity for Manzar to work at the company. Working with young professionals at the office changed Manzar radically, at least in the appearance: Within months she had her hair cut short, started putting make up on, and wore the trendy clothing my mother and I made for her, pairing them with matching pumps and handbags.
Once we started going to movies regularly, movies became our world, the object of our fascination, the subject of our conversation, and a marker of life. American movies were our favorites. We were awed by the desert in Lawrence of Arabia and mesmerized by the elegance and beauty of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. We laughed at The Pink Panther and cried at the end of West Side Story. After the movies, we would walk back home, sometimes stopping for ice cream or pastry, and talk about the movie we had just seen. In those conversations, the normally quiet Manzar would become articulate and animated, and the age difference between us would disappear; and we would become buddies. Thursday afternoon movies quickly became the highlight of my week. Despite becoming close, our conversations was generally limited to movies and fashion. One fall Thursday as we were walking home after seeing Charade, Manzar told me about a new engineer at work, Ali Majdi. I still remember the sound of our steps on the carpet of colorful leaves covering the sidewalk, as she told me that he was shy and worked alongside her at the next worktable. I had never heard her to talk about a man other than her father and brothers before. I sensed something different happening. I saw a budding romance, and thought we are in movies.
A few months later in line to get tickets to From Russia with love, she told me more about Ali. The first snow of winter was falling on Tehran by then and we were trying to stay warm. Manzar said that Ali wasn’t handsome like Sean Connery, but was good looking in his own way. They were now speaking while working. She said that mostly they talked about the movies she and I had seen the week before. I suggested that she invite him to join us for the next week’s movie. But Manzar wouldn’t hear of it. “No, what if someone sees us? Thursdays are just for us, anyways” she said.
I encourage Manzar in her pursuit of love. Unbeknownst to her, I made the skirt of her new dress an inch shorter, its cleavage slightly deeper. The week after, on our way to the movie house, I suggested that we stop at the newly opened Iran department store, where we bought her a colorful scarf to go with the new dress, as well as a matching shade of lipstick. Manzar looked beautiful in the new dress.
By the time Gold Finger made it to Tehran in the spring, Manzar and Ali were eating lunch together in the park near the office. He would bring sweets for tea and would sometimes walk her to the bus after work. I was secretly collecting pictures of wedding gowns from fashion magazines. I imagined her dressed in the most elaborate and glamorous one, arms locked in with the man of her dreams.
Almost a year and a half after she first talked about Ali, Manzar told me that Ali was going to send his mother to see my grandmother to ask for Manzar’s hand. We were walking home after seeing My Fair Lady. I could see the red on my aunt’s cheeks even in the fading light of late afternoon spring sun. The weather was unusually warm and the shades from the tall Poplar trees felt cool. There was excitement in her voice. Perhaps for the first time in her life, she was looking forward to the prospect of marriage. She said he would be going to the United States to continue his studies in the fall and wanted to be sure that Manzar would wait for him to come back. My mother was excited about the news; but my grandmother was skeptical and insisted the engagement to be kept secret until Ali’s return from the US.
The day after he left Tehran, Manzar and I saw Dr. Zhivago. We both cried for the doomed lovers, and the choices they had to make. But the warmth of early fall in Tehran was a far cry from the cold of the Siberian steps of the movie, and neither of us took the movies as an omen of doom. Ali wrote letters every week. Manzar shared his letters with me after the movies as we sat in our favorite pastry shop. To my teenaged ears, the letters were a bit drab—no mention of sleepless nights, burning desires or promises of being together forever. His letters were a simple account of his life in the US: a new apartment, his roommates, sudden cold weather in Boston, bland food, exams and his attempt at mastering the subway. But Manzar would read each letter over and over with a smile.
By the time we saw How to Steel a Million Dollars almost a year after Ali left, the letters had become less frequent. On that winter day, we went for pastry after the movie. I was babbling about the beauty of Peter O’Tool’s blue eyes, but Manzar was quiet, not even commenting on the appearance or acting of Audrey Hepburn, her favorite star. Finally she told me that she hadn’t heard anything from Ali for three weeks now. I told her that he was probably busy with exams and would write soon. A few weeks later, however, a final letter arrived. He wrote that he has decided to stay in the United States indefinitely and that didn’t want her to wait for him and lose her opportunities. Manzar was subdued. We continued going to movies, but she had stopped commenting on them. We still chatted after the movies, but we never mentioned Ali again.
Years passed. Manzar lost her job and spent her days at home quibbling with my grandmother. She stopped wearing fashionable clothing and getting nice haircuts. By the late 60’s, I had started to see European movies with subtitle with friends from Cine-club—discovering Felini, Antonioni, Godard and Truffaut. By this time, I wanted something edgy and different. Something dark and realistic.I spent Thursday afternoons to prepare for parties with friends, where we talked politics, smoked and slow danced. Manzar and I stopped going to movies together.
I left Iran in 1974, followed by my younger uncle a year later, my parents left just before revolution in 1979, my aunt and cousins followed just after. The first year I was in Cambridge, Manzar came to visit me. We didn’t go to movies, understanding the language was difficult for her, but we went to the East Cambridge address on a yellowing envelope she had kept all these years. It was a sad crumbling triple Decker occupied by a Brazilian family in one floor and 6 students in the others two, no one knew Ali. We silently walked back to Harvard square. Manzar never mentioned Ali again.
The last time I saw Manzar was just before the Iranian revolution. By then both my grandparents had died, and Manzar was living by herself in their apartment. We sat in the living room by the table covered with a large collection of family pictures she had started to collect. She looked much older than her age and was already growing into the stereotype of the perfect spinster auntie most of our family would come to remember her as: Kind, quiet and slightly obsessive, the kind who can be counted on as a last minute baby sitter; and always remembers every birthday or anniversary and has a gift ready for. As we were sipping tea, she looked at me with a smile and said: “It was fun going to movies, wasn’t it?” I looked at her, and for a fleeting moment, I saw the young woman I knew so many years ago: happy, confident, and innocently in love.