“I’m sorry,” said the voice on the telephone, “but we can’t see you today after all.”
I was talking to her from my hotel room in Tehran. Tourang, one of my Iranian students, had given me her number before my trip to Iran. She was Tourang’s aunt.
“You see,” she continued, “my mother–Tourang’s grandmother–has become gravely ill. I must take her to the hospital.”
We had spoken twice on the phone already. The first time I called to introduce myself and tell her what I knew about Tourang and her other relations in America. This was when she invited me to dinner. During our second conversation, she gave me detailed instructions about how to get to her home by taxi.
But now it was off. I told her how sad I was to hear about her mother’s illness. I was also sorry that I was not going to get a chance to meet her since I was leaving the next day. “When I get back home,” I said, “I’ll tell your relatives the news about your mother.”
“No!” she practically shouted. “Don’t tell them!”
“But why not?” I asked. “They will want to know.”
“It is better that they don’t,” she responded. “If you tell them, they will only worry and feel bad that they are not here. There’s no need for them to go through that, especially since they cannot do anything about the situation anyway.”
I thought that this was very strange logic. I concluded that the whole story about her mother being ill was just an excuse to cancel our meeting. But her real reason for caceling it, I thought, was legitimate enough: after the initial surprise of hearing from an American who knew her relatives, she became fearful that there might be negative repercussions for her if the Iranian authorities discovered that we had met.
If this was her reason, she obviously could not say so over the phone for fear that the line was being tapped. Thus, she thought up the story about her mother being ill. Her insistence that I not tell her relatives about this led me to think that this story was not true.
“Your niece is going to ask me if we met,” I said. “What should I tell her.”
“Tell her anything,” said the aunt a little impatiently. “Tell her that the people who sponsored your trip decided to take you to Isfahan today and that there was no time for us to meet.”
My suspicions were confirmed.
* * *
When I got back home, I worried about how I was going to explain to Tourang about why I had not met her aunt. I would tell her I thought the aunt was fearful about meeting an American, but Tourang would know that the aunt would never have said this on the telephone and would demand to know what she actually said. I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to tell the whole truth either–especially since I wasn’t sure what the truth was.
But when I saw Tourang, I didn’t get a chance to say anything. When I ran into her unexpectedly on campus, she said, “What an absent-minded professor! My aunt called from Tehran to tell us that you couldn’t meet her because you had to go to Isfahan. Couldn’t you have planned things a little more carefully? Silly Dr. Katz!” I left her and her two girl friends laughing loudly at my obvious lack of social grace as I slunk off to my next lecture.
I was shocked that the aunt had telephoned to say that I had canceled our meeting when it had been her. Why had she done so?
I told the whole story to a friend of mine, an Iranian woman who is a professor at another university, and asked her to explain the aunt’s behavior. My friend told me that she thought my initial conclusion was accurate: the aunt was too afraid to see me, and so had made up the story about her mother. But she obviously had not thought of the possibility that I would repeat the story. Fearing that I would tell her relatives about her mother being ill, she had telephoned to say that I had canceled the meeting. The aunt had done this knowing that Tourang would repeat this to me. This was the aunt’s way of warning me not to say anything about her mother. The aunt obviously feared that I would tell the story, thus causing the family in America to worry needlessly until the aunt explained to them that it wasn’t true.
The aunt believed I would have told them, my friend continued, because she saw me as a simple, naive American who thought he would be doing good. But she anticipated that I would say nothing if she preempted me by calling first. For, she calculated, I would not tell her relatives about the mother after hearing from Tourang since I would essentially have to call the aunt a liar by doing so. The aunt judged that I would not want to do that.
I shook my head in amazement. “You may not believe me,” said my friend, “but that is probably what happened. We Iranians think in far more complicated, convoluted ways than you Americans do. That’s because life for us is more complicated and convoluted than it is for you.”
“So what should I do?” I asked.
“Say nothing,” she advised.
* * *
Several months later, at the end of the summer, Tourang called me for advice about what courses she should take. She told me that earlier in the summer, her mother had gone to Iran to visit her relatives there. “And I am so angry!” Tourang told me. “It wasn’t until several weeks after she got back that my mother finally told me that my grandmother was extremely ill.
“This is how Iranians are!” she continued. “They won’t tell you bad news. They think you are happier not knowing the truth. But when you do learn the truth, it’s worse. You not only get the bad news, but learn that your relatives lied to you. And you wonder what else they aren’t telling you. Now I know I can’t trust either my mother or my aunt! How could they not tell me that my grandmother was so sick as soon as they knew it?”
I felt terrible. I confessed that I too had known about her grandmother but had not told her.
Tourang was incredulous. “What?” she cried. “You knew too?”
I told her the whole story, including what my professor friend had said. When I finished, Tourang laughed. “Poor Dr. Katz!” she said mockingly. “The innocent American caught in a web of Iranian intrigue!
“The sad thing is,” she added after she had finished laughing, “you were the one person to whom my aunt told the truth. And you didn’t believe her.”
Revised version published as “A Tale of Iranian Intrigue,” Middle East Times (metimes.com), December 19, 2007.