Pictures in Our Heads

Persian art

Imagining The Other

We moved to Iran when I was 10.

One evening the six of us sat around the dinner table and peppered by mom and stepdad with questions about life in the Middle East. Mother had bought tubs of plain yogurt at Safeway and insisted that we eat it. “Yogurt,” she said, “is what they eat there.”

My mother had never been to Iran, either.

All four of us kids thought yogurt was pretty awful. Sour and slimy. My sister Becky discovered that if she emptied a packet of jello mix in the yogurt container it tasted sweeter.

My mother bought extra shoes for us—that we never tried on–because she’d heard you couldn’t get American-made goods there, unless you were US military. To our horror, she bought saddle shoes and oxfords and other lace-up shoes that would draw rude comments from fellow fifth graders. She shipped about 2 dozen shoes in all sizes to Teheran.

We refused to wear them.

Before we left Southern California for Iran, each Friday for weeks and weeks we would get shots: cholera, typhoid, tetanus, malaria, and on and on. Some of the shots made us ill, and because we spent the weekends with my father he’d have to manage four sick kids. Once we took a cab home after eating Chinese food and all of us threw up in the taxi. After that, my father just took two kids at a time. And then, one at a time.

We asked my mother what school would be like, whether we would live in a tent and whether we’d ride camels. I imagined life in the desert, riding camels in oxford shoes and eating yogurt. I created my reality, what Walter Lippmann called the “pictures in our heads.” It turned out Teheran was a modern city with highways and high-rises, and we took a bus to school and wore regular clothing. And we didn’t have to eat yogurt.

But the smells were not Southern California beach smells. The smell of Teheran for my 10-year-old nose was a blend of diesel and dirt, mixed with sewage and streets animals—working goats and stray dogs—and baked bread and blood. Vendors would sell wares on the streets, from fresh yogurt to flat bread we called “noon.” Gutted animals would hang from the butcher’s shops, and I learned that the smell of animal blood was the smell of the city.

So, years later, when I returned to the states, my mother wanted to take me to the reservation in Oklahoma. My mind’s eye pictured reservations shown in movies, full of sadness and squalor. Like my imaginings of Teheran, I pictured the Osage reservation much differently than reality. I created pictures in my head that were far from real.

The Osage reservation is an invisible line drawn around towns north of Oklahoma where Osages, other Indians, and whites live. Some houses are wood, some are brick, and some are trailers. There are schools and grocery stores and pawn shops and museums. And most of the folks you meet are welcoming, especially if you tell them you’re Osage and that you’ve come for a visit. “I’m glad you’ve come to learn about your heritage,” they say.

During my last trip, in August, I brought home some of my mother’s jewelry from Teheran and Indian Country, which I’ve laid out on my dresser so it greets me each day. And I have an Osage language CD that I listen to in the car. I’m still on Part One, learning words for mother and father, tea and milk, and the days of the week. And I can say my name.

Zha zhey weeta Cynthia Coleman ah Pahsolee.

I am Cynthia Coleman of the Greyhorse district.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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