My temporary marriage in Tehran

Date

Jennifer Klinec

"For all its magic, Iran has pushed us into exile."

"For all its magic, Iran has pushed us into exile." Photo: Getty Images

In the Middle East, I was what is considered an "open woman", the kind seen on Western, satellite TV. I attracted a mix of curiosity and revulsion because I was happily single and childless, running a cooking school from my London apartment and travelling all over the world in search of ancient recipes. In Iran, there are women for fun and women for marriage. I was not in the latter category.

Then I met 25-year-old Vahid. His marriage was to be a carefully planned operation. His mother had started gathering photos of eligible cousins, in case he didn't spot anyone he liked at university. She was eager to begin the required networking, inquiring into reputations, ensuring any prospective girls were untouched. To this she would add the factors of money, beauty and youth.

I didn't like Vahid at all when he approached me. His first hello was gruff, more like a bark. He possessed none of the ease in speaking to girls I associated with men who approached tourists in the Middle East. There was no self-assured script, no lead-on to a tryst without consequence. But he told me his mother was the best cook in his extended family. That was all I needed to hear.

Jennifer Klinec.

Jennifer Klinec.

Each morning, I took a taxi to their apartment on the outskirts of Yazd and his mother and I spent hours preparing the meals. Over cups of cinnamon tea, we'd plan the day's menu: chicken in pomegranate and walnut sauce or a fish stew fragrant with fenugreek and tamarind. In the evenings, Vahid was tasked with seeing me home safely.

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I liked that he did nothing to treat me delicately. Instead, he took me to places I could never have gone alone. Basement tabakhi where men ate turmeric-stained sheep-head soup at 5am. Sporting clubs where a rough crowd ate tongue sandwiches slathered in tomato sauce. I felt intoxicated at being admitted to these all-male preserves, pulling my scarf carefully forward but taking it all in.

Vahid started brushing his fingers against my hand. I began to sit close to him in taxis. One afternoon, alone at home, he kissed me. The next day he asked to spend the night together.

"I want you to be my first love," he said. "I know it's a big risk but I want to take it." What he was suggesting was illegal, but we had fallen in love and I felt invincible. I smuggled him into my hotel room via a back stairwell and he went before morning.

In the streets people interrogated him as if he were their son or a family member, and I felt my face flush hot when I saw them gesturing at me. "Who is that girl? Is she your guest?" In the teahouse where we sipped iced milk with rosewater, on the bus as we leant on the barrier that separated the men from women, people asked questions for which we had no answers. For in Iran there was no term for what we were to one another. The word "girlfriend" simply didn't exist.

Vahid suggested the Islamic custom of temporary marriage, for which we'd just need to obtain a simple piece of paper to be given instant standing and credibility. I agreed and he twisted a piece of tin around my finger to measure it, and bought a cheap ring for me at the bazaar. For as much as it was serious, it also meant almost nothing, just a ritual we were being forced into, the only thing that made sense in a place where there was no other way forward. This magical piece of paper would allow me to spend time, openly, with him, sharing the same benches, sleeping in the same hotel rooms, without fear.

We'd been given the address of a mullah on the city outskirts. He asked me to repeat phrases in Arabic, words that were incomprehensible to me. No explanation was given. Vahid translated nothing. Then it was over, the document folded and tucked away, the ceremony ending as abruptly as it had begun.

When Vahid told his parents, his father first patted him on the back as if I were a conquest. Then, seeing it was serious, he told him he'd never be at peace knowing I hadn't been a virgin when we met. His mother screamed, "Damn me for letting that girl into my house!"

They told him they would disown him, that I'd used him. That if he continued with me he'd ruin his chances of a good marriage and be forced to marry a widow. Relatives phoned from rural villages warning him that having children with me would be "diluting his race".

Eventually, Vahid moved to Tehran - where he'd found a job - and we lived there together for short periods in a small apartment. I prepared documentation to obtain a fiancé visa for him to come back with me to London, sending a mountain of paperwork and bank statements to the embassy in Tehran.

One Thursday evening back in London, just over a year after we met, I went to Heathrow to pick up Vahid and bring him home. I had imagined him closing the door to the apartment we'd shared and taking a taxi alone to the airport because no relative would drive him.

For all its magic, Iran has pushed us into exile. But the arc of our history is a wonder to us: the powerful trajectory that has brought us to this place in our lives regularly makes us stop - to smile, to reach across the table to one another and to shake our heads in unison at the journey we have taken so far. 

The Temporary Bride: A Memoir Of Love And Food In Iran by Jennifer Klinec is published by Hachette.