A Dinner Invitation

by Mohammad Yadegari

As Iranians living in Iraq, every summer, when school was out, and occasionally in between, our family would take a long trip to Iran.

Our long-distance relatives outdid themselves trying to make us feel welcome by hosting lavish meals. They argued with one other, vying to be the first to invite us to their homes. After much back and forth discussion, they would finally agree who would host and on what day. The food at these gatherings was plentiful and delicious and the presentation was elaborate. The host would graciously entreat us to eat, and it was understood that it was our duty to eat.

We were instructed by our parents to be polite, but we were not quite prepared for the scenes that unfolded. Outside the house, we were asked again and again “How are you? How have you been?” The host feigned subservience by saying, “Welcome, my dearest. Welcome to my humble home. I am your servant and at your disposal. I kiss your feet and the ground upon which you walk.”

As a teenager, I was amused and would chuckle quietly. Of course, my parents were aware of their parts in this charade. They reciprocated with elaborate routines of their own.

“After you, my dear master,” said the host.

“Absolutely not, you go first, great scholar and best friend,” my father replied.

“No, no, no. I am here to serve you and fulfill all your wishes. You are our most revered and honored guest.” The host and my father patted each other’s backs, each applying a light pressure trying to get the other to move in, and yet each resisted.

Inside, a long tablecloth called a sofreh was laid out on the floor over a large Persian rug. Cushions were placed as seating around the sofreh, and bowls of fruit were artfully arranged on the sofreh. There were watermelon and honeydew melons cut from the rind into small cubes, as well as apples, cherries, all kinds of berries, and oranges. After we had eaten our fill of fruit, the sofreh was cleared and removed. Another sofreh was laid out. Four main dishes were brought out: eggplant with stewed lamb, lamb and parsley stew, duck cooked in pomegranate-walnut sauce, and okra with tomato and stewed chicken. These were accompanied by three kinds of rice dishes: rice with greens, rice with lima beans, and a crispy orange rice.

The main sofreh was cleared again, and an elaborate dessert sofreh was laid out offering baklava, halva, various pastries, and several kinds of cookies.

“Eat, Mohammad, eat,” our host urged me again and again. I was too full to eat more than one piece of baklava but was “forced” with kindness to eat more. Cup after cup of tea was served.

As I ate, I glanced across the sofreh and saw the host slouched across his cushion snoring. Apparently, the great scholar and best friend was exhausted by the meal and his duties as host.

""Mohammad Yadegari, an Iranian born in Iraq, moved to the United States in 1964. He studied at SUNY-Albany and NYU and then taught mathematics and history in both high school and college. This piece is from his recently completed cultural memoir, A TALE OF THREE CITIES.

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