My earliest sense of home was complicated by a ghost of a home elsewhere -- Iran, a place that feels out of reach. The country that I left behind at the age of eleven, as it got embroiled in the Islamic Revolution, no longer exits. As exiles we are left with this romantic idea of what Iran means to us, and our relationship to our homeland is largely shaped by our longing for what is absent.
If I close my eyes and think of a time that I felt most at home, one particular image comes to mind. You would think it would be images of me with my family in my childhood home. At least this is what I would have expected myself to recall in nostalgia. But it is the image of me, at age seven with my mom at a bingo tournament by the Caspian Sea.
It was a hot and muggy evening, and my mom had taken me to the pier to pass the time. I recall how the back of my legs stung as I took my seat in the bingo tournament -- a day's worth of swimming and playing by the sea had left me sunburned, and my skin irritated. I had patiently listened to the numbers being announced and covered my board with red plastic chips. I had only one more space to fill, box number 63. As I was waiting for the announcer to call out the number, I looked up at the bare bulbs that hung on wires above us. They looked like luminescent pearls against the dark sky. They danced with the evening breeze and cast moving shadows on the tables. I closed my eyes and waited for the announcer once again. Persians tend to be a rambunctious and outgoing bunch in social situations, but everyone was quiet at that moment. I could hear the flapping of the canvas cover of a nearby bungalow, and then I heard the baritone voice of the announcer, "Number 63". My mom and I jumped up in excitement and yelled, "Bingo!"
People in the tournament also got up and clapped in excitement. The woman seated next to my mom leaned over and patted my back and said, "You did it!" I remember the whole pier cheering.
I can't pinpoint the exact sensations that went through me that evening, but it was simply magical. Many times, I have found myself at the beach -- by the Adriatic or Mediterranean Sea, or overlooking the Pacific or Atlantic Ocean -- looking up at the starry skies and thinking of those beautiful light bulbs dancing in the darkness. I have wanted to recapture those same feelings that washed over me back then as a seven-year-old. But it has not been the same.
I could not figure out the significance of this image until recently when I was at my first book signing. My memoir, Life as a Visitor, deals with my struggles as a child and as an adult in finding my sense of belonging and community. It also chronicles my experiences and travels to far reaching places in the world and how these experiences have given me a new found perspective on the concept of "home" and identity.
But how does this all relate to my bingo tournament? While I took the stage to talk about Life as a Visitor, I saw a sea of people -- some familiar faces and some whom I had never met. My mom sat in the front row, emotional, tearing, even more excited than me. I looked intently into her eyes. When I first came to the United States as an eleven-year-old, I was separated from her for close to five and a half years. She was stuck in Iran with my father, and I was here in the States with my older siblings. Once again, it was my relation to the absence of things, my longing to be reunited with my parents that shaped my adolescent years. I am sure many of us feel this way, but our mom's presence, her embrace, her smiling face is the first imprint of home and a sense of nurturing. To think that after all these years, with my father's passing, with all the hardships that an immigrant community endures to set up roots in another place, my mom is there beside me, sharing in my accomplishment made me eternally grateful and connected. That evening at the bingo tournament -- it wasn't the place, the sea, the night sky, or my winning at a game that made me feel so alive and happy. It was being with my mom and feeling connected, and celebrating with people I didn't even know, that I felt I was at home to very core.