Christopher de Bellaigue
I’m wearing tails and waistcoat for my wedding, but this isn’t the Home Counties. I’m getting married in Tehran to Bita Ghezelayagh, an Iranian architect who studied in Paris, and I’m determined to express my ‘cultural identity’. What has my identity got to do with Four Weddings and a Funeral? Not much, but the Iranians will get the point. Better to be mistaken for Hugh Grant than a cultural doormat. As we walk to the Ghezelayagh house in the centre of Tehran where a bus will pick us up, I feel a mild sensation of dread. My people – my father, Nicholas (brother), Rory (oldest friend), Christina (cousin) and Camilla (relieved ex-girlfriend) – are undeniably different from the Ghezelayagh family and appendages.
It would be foolish to expect the two families to bond instantly when the son of a retired City stockbroker marries the daughter of a Tehran architect, but that’s not the point. It’s important that my people like these Iranian surroundings and the Iranian people who inhabit them – that they approve of what I’m getting myself into. If they don’t, I run the risk of feeling I have made a mistake.
‘Hello, Mr Ghezelayagh.’
Bita’s father is standing outside the house he built twenty years ago. It’s the first time I’ve seen him wearing a tie. He kisses me on both cheeks.
‘Now, son-in-law,’ he menaces, ‘no running away.’ This is a reference to the case of Miss Ebrahimi, one of his former tenants. Miss Ebrahimi married an Englishman, who abandoned her as soon as she got pregnant. My people smile, not because they understand what Mr Ghezelayagh is saying, but because they feel they should participate in whatever jollity there is to be had. They’re standing close to one another in this narrow Tehran street, a phalanx of grinning English people. Until they arrived in Tehran yesterday, their Iran was made up of footage of the crowd that rushed like lava around Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral cortège, the Rushdie fatwa, carpets.
Mrs Ghezelayagh comes out of the front door, down the steps and into the street. She’s accomplished what the mothers of brides are meant to accomplish: an illusion of serenity after a week of sleeplessness. I have told my people not to shake hands with members of the opposite sex in public, for the Islamic Republic frowns on physical ambiguities of this sort. When I introduce Mrs Ghezelayagh, my father loiters obediently, his right arm behind his back, where it can do no mischief. But Mrs Ghezelayagh is in extravagant mood: ‘Bonjour, Monsieur de Bellaigue!’ Vous êtes tous les bienvenus à Téheran!’ she exclaims, and holds out her hand. My father takes it gratefully. Mrs Ghezelayagh’s French, learned thirty years ago when she was a student in Paris, returns elegantly. My father was English enough when he married my mother in 1962. Now, 16 years after her death, he is even more English. But he was born in Paris. He knows Mrs Gezelayagh’s quartier well.