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My Grandmother, a Nomadic Iranian Tribe, and a Dress

All I have left from her time among the Qashqai are a few photographs and her many stories.

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In the dining room of my grandfather’s house in California, one of the walls is covered from floor to ceiling in pictures that span my grandparents’ lives. The wall is mostly chronological: The far left is filled with black-and-white photos from their individual childhoods, and the far right with more recent colored ones of their grandchildren. The middle majority is filled with photos of their six children from the ‘60s through the ‘80s; any remaining wall space between the frames is covered with a photo that is clearly out of order.

On the center left, as the black-and-white images give way to hazy colored ones, is a cluster of photos that have stood out to me for as long as I’ve been going to that house and sitting at the dining room table. They are photos of my grandmother with a nomadic tribe in Iran, the Qashqai, taken in the late 1950s. In one photo, my grandmother is sitting on a donkey and wearing Western clothes typical of the time (mid-length skirt, button-down shirt, and cardigan). She’s surrounded by a group of Qashqai women wearing the traditional costume of a layered skirt, a long tunic, and a headscarf that cinches at the chin and covers the neck and back. In the other two photos, my grandmother is no longer wearing her Western clothes, but an outfit that matches those of the women. In one, she’s posing by herself in a field; in the other, she’s sitting in a tent among carpets and similarly dressed people.

When I look at these photos side-by-side, I wonder what happened in the time they were taken. My grandmother’s visits with the Qashqai are an oft-told family tale, and years after her passing, I realize just how formative they were in shaping her view of the world.

My grandmother, Iran Cassim, was born a first-generation American in Chicago in 1931. Her father came to the States a quarter of a century earlier from Khoy, Azerbaijan, a northwestern part of Persia that borders Turkey, and her mother, a poor and illiterate woman whose marriage was all but arranged to my great-grandfather, joined him in Chicago some years later from the same region. Though her heritage was Iranian, her mother was a devout Muslim, and neither of her parents spoke English, my grandmother grew up in a secular household. Her family lived in a predominately Jewish neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, and my grandmother earned pocket money as a Shabbat goy who turned on the gas and lights for her neighbors during the Sabbath.

The author’s grandmother, surrounded by family.

My grandmother didn’t know any Iranians outside of her family, and either by fate or coincidence, she fell in love with and married an Iranian man. Her father was eccentric but lonely and had a habit of hanging out at the YMCA in search of people to talk to and invite over for dinner. On one such outing, he succeeded in bringing home a group of students traveling through Chicago, one of whom was Nuri Mohsenin, an engineering student from Tehran who was rarely without a camera around his neck. After Nuri came to dinner, he mailed Iran the photos he took that night, and thus began a written correspondence between them. Two years later they married and moved to Michigan, where my grandfather got his PhD and my grandmother got her master’s in education. A few years later, in the mid-1950s, my grandfather got a teaching position at Shiraz University, and they moved to Iran.

Despite her first name suggesting otherwise, my grandmother had never been to Iran, let alone outside of the Midwest. The only language she was fluent in was English, and she didn’t speak the native language, Farsi. My grandparents didn’t know anyone in Shiraz when they first arrived, but they rented a house from a family whose mother essentially knew everyone in town, including the matriarch of the itinerant Qashqai tribe — Khanoom Qashqai — who was looking for someone to teach her son English.

The Qashqai are a nomadic tribe of Turkish origin whose annual migration pattern brings them to the lands surrounding Shiraz. Though their numbers have gradually decreased, the tribe has always been an independent force in Iran, resistant to mainstream culture. They change locations with the seasons, travel with herds of goat and sheep, and live in tents adorned with carpets. They’re known for the woven wool products sold at the Shiraz marketplace, particularly their rugs. (Sigmund Freud’s infamous couch was draped in a Qashqai-made rug.) To me, the most notable thing about the Qashqai are the vivid colors and patterns of their dress. Far from camouflaging with the earthy tones of their environment, the Qashqai women wear fabrics of bright reds, yellows, and blues in paisley and geometric patterns. Of course, it’s all too ironic that the pictures of my grandmother are black and white.

My grandparents only lived in Shiraz for a few years — another university position brought them permanently back to the States in 1960 — but their life there is deeply engraved in our family story, not the least because my mom was born there. Before I even knew who they were, the word “Qashqai” was etched into my memory thanks to tales that travel like a game of telephone, becoming slightly more convoluted and less realistic with each iteration. It’s likely that my grandmother taught English to Khanoom Qashqai’s son; it’s less likely that she accompanied Eleanor Roosevelt to see the tribe — not because Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t come to Shiraz (her daughter lived there in the ‘50s) — but because my grandmother had hepatitis when she came to visit.

The theme that rings true in all the stories is a mutual respect between the Qashqai and my grandmother. My own mother is still in touch with the neighbors who connected my grandmother to the tribe, and according to their family lore, Khanoom Qashqai liked being around my grandmother because, put simply, she was a friendly American. If her 26-year-old self had any similarities to the 76-year-old-version I knew, I can see why. She talked to everyone, was unnervingly selfless, and had an insatiable curiosity for those around her.

The author’s mother in a child-size Qashqai costume.

One of the last conversations I had with my grandma before she passed away in 2009 was after I went to President Obama’s inauguration. She let my high school mouth ramble over every detail of the trip, like how I thought it was “so cool” to take the same Amtrak line to DC that Joe Biden commuted on, and how I got stuck watching the ceremony from behind a tree on the National Mall. She said she was happy to live vicariously through me, and I remember asking her what “vicariously” meant. Less than six months into Obama’s first term, her years of living with diabetes and heart disease reached an inevitable end.

In a recent New Yorker profile of Anthony Bourdain, the “Parts Unknown” host recounts his impression of dining with Obama in Vietnam: “I believe what’s important to him is this notion that otherness isn’t bad, that Americans should aspire to walk in other people’s shoes.” My grandmother lived her life with this eagerness to walk in other people’s shoes. I’ll never know what made her change out of her cardigan and midi-skirt and into that Qashqai dress, but the particular events aren’t as important as her ability to seamlessly embrace a culture so vastly different from her own, even on the off-chance Eleanor Roosevelt was involved.

In my parents’ house in New Jersey, there’s a child-size Qashqai costume that my grandmother’s friend — the woman who put her in touch with Khanoom Qashqai — sewed for my mom when she was little. The dress was a key piece in my mom’s childhood dress-up box, and unsurprisingly, my grandfather took a photo of my mom wearing it. My mom and her siblings wore it down through many games of make-believe, but who can blame them? The story is too good to pass up.

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