Skiing in Iran

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:50

    When the caravan comes for Azi at 3 in the morning, she is too excited to be tired. Decked out in skiwear, her hair wrapped in a bandanna, she run-walks out into the dark morning to the van without her required Islamic windbreaker. The Islamic police, or Komiteh, have given special permission to women to wear windbreakers, which cover the crotch area, instead of the usual longer Islamic covering, "for skiing flexibility." When Azi returns in the early evenings she is sunburned, exhausted and in a bad mood when faced with homework.

    "Arggghh, I have a pimple," Azi says, looking in the mirror while poking at her face. "I can't go skiing," she declares with finality. "Everyone will see!"

    "Who's everyone?" I ask.

    "All of Tehran." All of Azi's Tehran is what she means. Ski season has spurred a whole new bratty attitude in Azi. I don't tell her; she might be complimented. Poru, to be full of oneself, is a compliment in Azi's crowd. It's comparable to my aunts' zerangi, cleverness: an imperative for female survival in Iran.

    Zerangi is one thing I didn't inherit from my Iranian father, or learn from my American mother. Azi is teaching me how to be zerang in Tehran. When my uncle guarded my every move and practically confined me to the house, I was convinced it was because I am a woman, until I noticed that my younger cousin does what she wants to, where and when she wants to. As my uncle explained, "She knows how to live here, you don't." Azi knows the rules of revolution. She knows when to slide her headscarf back and when to pull it up. She knows which Komiteh to tease and which ones will arrest her. She knows how to play the proper, pious Muslim girl at school and operate the hidden satellite dish to receive American MTV at home.

    Nights, Azi hits me up for my green Converse lowtops, oversize flannel shirts, wire-rim sunglasses and hair ties before we head out to the local hangout to eat pizza and snub boys.

    Ski season puts an end to spending nights prowling Tehran and dodging the morality police. It begins with frequent trips to the ski shop, begging for money and whining. Despite the fact that the actual city has not had a decent snowfall all winter, the mountains are full and fluffy and every ski shop in Tehran has a "caravan" trip?a three-hour ride to Dizin or the one-hour ride to Shemshak that includes lift tickets and breakfast.

    Azi's life, like that of every upper-middle-class Tehran teen, is about getting her name on a caravan list and avoiding too many pimples.

    "How will they possibly notice that pimple under your scarf?" I ask.

    "You think we ski in full Islamic dress, Roksana?" she laughs, making me suddenly feel very unhip.

    After watching Azi dress in sleek black skiwear, neon spandex and a bandanna, I feel inadequate in my mother's 1970s blue polyester bellbottom ski pants and fire-engine-red boots. I found my outfit among the things left behind when my family left Iran at the beginning of the revolution. Azi laughs at my outfit and tells me I look silly wearing a veil.

    "Don't you have a bandanna, Roksana? No one wears their veils."

    Her American cousin is proving to be a fashion liability. Azi slathers tanning lotion on her pale skin while we wait for our ride.

    The car shakes to techno music as we crawl up the mountain toward Dizin. The girls ask me to translate the American music, stopping the tape at two-second intervals.

    "It's gibberish," I say.

    They give me a look of disgust and continue with their own concerns. They wonder whether the restaurant will be open for lunch.

    "It has to be. Skiing is like traveling." It is the month of Ramadan, when, by Islamic law, the entire country must observe the fast in public. Islam makes allowance for travelers, who are exempt from fasting. They're expected to make up the missed day.

    At the slopes, a group of German tourists is walking around with Cokes in hand. The restaurant is open. Azi is relieved.

    "God, this is cool!" says Azi, her eyes devouring the miles of fluffy white snow.

    My baby blue ski pants and red boots clash horribly. The rest of the skiers look sleek and fashionable in the latest European outfits. The women have bandannas wrapped around their heads, in place of Islamic veils, and baseball caps that hide little walkman earpieces. The Ray-Bans and tanned faces make this look like Vail, not Tehran. I feel silly and out of place, especially in my new Islamic windbreaker that covers my thighs and is supposed to hang out of my ski jacket; most women have skipped this formality. Azi says to ignore the Komiteh. "What are they going to do, ski down after me? We can ski down with boys all the way until the first lift before the Komiteh come after us."

    At the peak, which few Komiteh are trained well enough to ski, groups of boys and girls freely socialize; some girls even pull off their headscarves. Judging by Azi's outfit, it won't take too much to send her bandanna flying.

    "Roksana, we'll get you an instructor," she tells me.

    "That's okay, I'll come with you. Azi, you promised to ski with me."

    "Later, Roksi. Haleh and I want to go to the peak and back. Later, okay?" Azi says, depositing me at the "Ski Wee." "I'll meet you for lunch at 12, in front of the chairlifts."

    Azi leaves me in the care of Hussein Agha, a nice, muscular and tanned middle-aged Dizin villager who learned to ski when he was two.

    "Salaam Roksana, I'm sorry. I don't speak English, but Azi says that you're a fast learner and that you can speak some Farsi."

    "I guess."

    "Dig the tip of your boots into the snow. Come on." He encourages me.

    When we reach the top where we are to ski down to the chairlift line, I notice a large rope dividing the line.

    "Roksana, listen. I am a man, and not allowed to instruct you on the slopes, only the bunny slopes, which are chaperoned. So if anyone asks, you don't know me."

    "I'm going alone?"

    "You have to, I can't go with a woman. Don't worry. Follow me, but when we get to the line, you have to ski under the rope and join the women."

    I have to grab hold of the rope to stop myself as I slide out of control toward the line. Clutching the rope like a safety device, afraid to move, I spot Azi, who is motioning me to turn my foot and release my grasp. Realizing I look ridiculous, I try to turn, to no avail. I know that if I point my boots down for even a second I'll go flying. A Komiteh agent in a green uniform and combat boots comes marching up to me.

    "Turn around," he grunts.

    "I'm sorry I can't," I say earnestly.

    "It's haram?forbidden?for you to be facing the men, now turn."

    "I don't know how, I can't ski." I sound like Azi when she teases and taunts the morality police.

    "Turn now," he says, stepping in front of me, convinced that I'm mocking him.

    "I'm afraid that you'll have to accept the fact that I can't. I'll close my eyes until my turn," I suggest.

    His face turns the forbidden color of red and the vein in his neck bulges. I watch his vein grow and think that perhaps the prospects of being stuck in a Komiteh prison with him is less enticing than a broken neck. I turn my feet slowly toward him. As I do, I lose control and plow him over, practically falling on top of him. The disgust of being soiled by the touch of a woman registers purple on his face.


    At noon, there is no sign of Azi. The call to prayer is blasted from the loudspeakers, and the ski lifts are temporarily turned off. My body turns to ice as I sit through the entire prayer, watching the Germans leisurely eat their picnic lunch in front of my fellow fasters. The Komiteh ignore them; they wouldn't dare reprimand a foreigner. I wait and wait. It's 3 o'clock before I spot Azi in line at the lift.

    "Azi, Azi!" I yell, staggering in my heavy boots up the hill like a crazy woman.

    "Roksana, hi, quick, get in line," she says, motioning to the space next to her. The large red ski gondolas look like cherry bubbles winging on a rope.

    "I was worried. Something could have happened to you," I say. Azi rolls her eyes and tells me to stop being so unhip.

    At the peak, Azi, who has promised to help her unpracticed cousin down the slope, instead takes off, screaming and laughing all the way down. I scream after her, demanding that she come back. She stops midway down a steep slope and tries coaxing me down. I am scared to turn my skis. It's hard to believe that I skied down this slope as a child. The ski patrol whizzes by with broken-legged skiers. Azi notices my expression as I watch them go by, and tells me to ignore them, "Those were reckless skiers, Roksana. Just turn, let's go," she says.

    A man sneaks under the dividing rope that separates men from women and makes his way over to offer a hand. I politely decline and remain standing in my precarious position. Azi, assuming that the presence of this man clears her of her responsibility, takes off. The man stays and chats for a few minutes before asking for my phone number. His request is just the incentive I need to free myself of my fear and fly down the mountain.

    Azi is unapologetic. She can't even fathom why I would be upset.

    "Azi, you should have been more concerned. What if something had happened?"

    "Like what, Roksana? Oh, don't be so square," she says, rolling her eyes and giggling.


    My hello echoes in Azi's silent room as I pass by. Since our ski trip we have had little to say to each other. I peek in to see her sitting pensively on her bed. The stereo is turned off, and the phone is neither attached to her face nor ringing.

    "Is something wrong?" I ask, stepping inside her open door.

    "Something very bad has happened," she says, staring at the floor. She is wearing her denim shirt and brown bellbottom jeans; her black men's oxford shoes are still on her feet, which are folded under her legs on her bed. Azi never wears her shoes in her bedroom.

    "What happened?" I ask solemnly.

    "A group of my friends went to Dizin of the weekend... They got a hotel room." She stares out the garden window, avoiding my eyes.

    Azi must be upset; her mother clamped down on her skiing because she wasn't studying enough.

    "And?" I ask.

    Azi looks down at her bed and continues slowly. "One of the guys in our group was snowboarding and fell off a cliff behind a frozen waterfall. No one noticed that he was missing. From 10 in the morning until 9 at night everyone just assumed he was somewhere on the slopes skiing. One person thought that he was with the other. At 9, when everyone regrouped, they realized that no one had seen him all day. They had to call his father in Tehran. He drove up the mountain like a madman. They searched for an hour with a bulldozer and a floodlight; they found him shortly after midnight. Frozen. A small avalanche covered and killed him. His father was crazy with grief."

    Azi sniffles. She stares hard at the hem of her jeans, pulling at loose threads.

    "He wouldn't have frozen to death if they had found him on time," she says, looking up at me. A tear is forming in the corner of her eye.

    "Have you told your mom?" I ask.

    "No. I didn't want to talk to anyone about it."

    I sit on her bed silently. Azi suddenly seems older to me and yet at the same time more vulnerable.

    "Roksana, you were right about skiing. They should have kept track of one another. The fall didn't kill him. He froze, suffered, waiting for his friends," Azi says, a tear rolls down her cheek.

    As I watch Azi try to stifle her tears, it occurs to me that there are rules that we both must learn the hard way, rules that have nothing to do with Iran or the revolution, but with life. Sometimes we don't have ready guides; sometimes we have to learn the rules the hard way.

    I think of how well she usually hides her feelings. Every ski trip, every activity at home, somehow contradicts what she is taught at school. When faced with these unwritten rules, it seems so much easier to be told what to do. I look at my cousin and think for the first time that even Azi's world is susceptible to outside revolutions. No one really knows all the rules.