By Julie Ershadi
Iranian heritage is rich in romantic tales involving legendary couples: Khosrow and Shirin, Leili and Majnun, Tahmineh and Rostam. A new memoir set in Iran and published by Twelve Books has almost as much drama and desire as its illustrious precedents.
“The Temporary Bride” tells the story of Jennifer Klinec, a globetrotting professional chef, and Vahid, the man she meets on a culinary expedition to Iran. With Vahid as her guide, Klinec explores the traditional dishes of the cities of Yazd, Shiraz, Kashan and Tehran. Even as city dwellers and the morality police track their every move, Klinec and Vahid somehow become a couple, falling in love over such traditional dishes as halim, Persian cotton candy, and even kalleh pacheh (sheep’s head and foot soup).
Worn down by the social pressure of being an unwed couple in a society that frowns upon it, Klinec becomes a sigheh to Vahid – meaning the two sign a contract agreeing to be temporarily married under Islamic law. This doesn’t make things much easier for them. “The Temporary Bride” quickly becomes a study in the paradoxes of modern Iranian society.
Part travelogue and part romance, Klinec’s memoir paints an affectionate and bittersweet picture of Iran from the perspective of a Western woman. Klinec, who now lives in London and is still married to Vahid more than five years later, recalls her experiences in a conversation with Kayhan London.
Who did you write this book for? What do you hope your readers will get out of it?
I didn’t have any particular audience in mind – I simply wanted to write my book and recount the story in the most honest and genuine way. If anything, I hoped it might open a few minds and hearts to Iran, a country I love so much.
Have any Iranians who’ve read your book approached you about it? What is their response?
A few have. So few foreigners have ever written about Iran in a way that is positive or non-political that Iranians tend to expect any book written by a foreign women to be another variation of “Not Without My Daughter” [by Betty Mahmoody]. I think many were surprised at how well I got to know their country, and that I came to appreciate so many aspects about how they live – the beauty in everyday life there.
In the book, you write about your encounters with the Iranian cultural phenomenon of public versus private life. Was it stressful to navigate this particular facet of Iranian culture?
To some extent, I was expecting it. Such a thing exists in many Asian cultures, where “privacy” and personal boundaries are entirely different. I actually find some aspects of it rather lovely – the idea that a person holds things back, that intimacy has a weight and value. I sometimes feel we give ourselves away so easily in the West – we’re not very strong on discretion or subtlety.
The tragic irony of modern Iranian society may be the contrast of the country’s romantic qualities with its deeply repressive views on sexuality. How did it affect you to receive such scorn, simply for being in love in public, and in such beautiful places as the ones you describe in the book?
The disdain I experienced was more cultural, dare I even say a kind of xenophobic and sexist disdain. The idea that an Iranian man could find a foreign woman – and one who wasn’t a fragile, innocent virginal girl, but a grown, confident woman – attractive was so unthinkable for some sections of society in Iran. It’s very hard to realize that all the things that make you who you are, all the positive qualities, are seen as deficits to many people there. Age, experience, wisdom, confidence – they are all detractors rather than qualities to admire.
How are things getting on with you and Vahid now? Has he adjusted comfortably to life in London? Are you two at all active in the Iranian community there?
All I’ll say here is that we’re both very happy. He loves London, but of course misses many aspects of Iran, as do I. We try and take the best of both worlds. And of course it’s helpful to speak Persian – we often speak it on trains when we don’t want to be understood!