Together Tea is a light, heartwarming story about a relationship between a mother and daughter. The book begins with Darya playing matchmaker for her 25-year-old daughter Mina. Being a bit of a math geek, she works it all out on spreadsheets, assigning points to each potential husband depending on their family background, health, education and so on. The first meeting doesn’t go very well, awkward and uncomfortable is putting it nicely, but it gives Mina an idea – to visit Iran after 15 years away.
Their family fled Tehran in 1982, desperate for a new life.
Life in the US is different, so very different. Parviz, a doctor in Iran, has to work in a pizza place till he gets his US medical licence. Darya works at a drycleaners. They just want the best for their children, and eventually manage that ultimate parents’ dream – their oldest becomes a doctor, the younger son a lawyer, and Mina, their only daughter, is studying for an MBA but has dreams of being an artist. Darya even joins an adult math class, putting her passion to work at long last.
“In the car, Mina turned on the news. ‘Iran’ was mentioned in the same breath as ‘terrorist’ and ‘rogue’. Just once, Mina wanted to hear the name of her old country mentioned in the same breath as ‘joy’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘gentle goodness’.”
So Darya and Mina’s return to Iran brings familiar faces, sights, sounds and smells. Mina catches up with a longlost friend and attends raucous midnight parties that are far too exciting for her. And yes, she catches the eye of an attractive stranger. Can there be a happy ending for these two? Will her mother ever be happy?
Kamali surrounds the reader with the smells, sounds and tastes, culture and history, of life in pre- and post-revolution Iran.
For instance, at Mina’s tenth birthday party in Iran, she has constant worries, not of whether her friends will attend her party, whether they’ll have fun or what to wear, but fears that no almost-10-year-old should have:
“At any minute, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards could barge in, seize the illegal alcohol, arrest her parents for forbidden music and dancing, and detain everyone. Baba would be handcuffed, Darya would faint and fall to the floor, Hooman and Kayvon would get flogged by the guards, and Mina would end up crouched in a corner, a ball of misery. Mina prayed for the guards not to discover her party. She also prayed with her eyes squeezed shut for Saddam not to pick her birthday night to bomb the city.”
In contrast, 15 years later, at a party at her friend Bita’s apartment, the girls wear tube tops and strapless dresses under their roopoosh, alcohol flows freely, and some wild dancing ensues. Which thoroughly overwhelms Mina:
“Dirty dancing took over. Mina tried to keep up. Everyone around her knew the moves. The forces outside the apartment were being exorcised. They were sticking it to the Revolutionary Guards. Freedom was available, in short spurts, indoors. A fugitive dance.”
One can almost smell the kotlets being fried and the saffron rice steaming away. This is not a book to read when you’re hungry.
“Delicate rows of saffron-soaked rice adorned their plates at lunch. The ghormeh sabzi khoresh was a perfect blend of lamb and red kidney beans mixed with the sabzi of parsley, coriander, scallions and fenugreek. Mina bit on a dried Persian lime and a rush of tartness filled her mouth.”
“The relatives spoiled them with fried eggplant and tomato khoresh, rice with fresh sabzi and fish, lasagna with bechamel sauce, fancy salads, and the very best kabobs. For dessert there was saffron rice pudding, rosewater ice cream, all sorts of cakes and pastries, and homemade apple pies. The relatives had spent their toman on the biggest and best fruit for them, kneaded dough and fried meat cutlets, dusted living rooms and beat Persian rugs for their arrival. Darya knew how much they were going out of their way for them and appreciated it. From the looks of it, Mina certainly appreciated it too, or at least the food. Every time Darya looked at her, Mina was eating. Rice dripping with butter, rice holding lima beans tight within it, rice with rice, fragrant hot khoresh.”
A sweet, charming, colourful story with that crazy ability to make the reader salivate and rummage the fridge for anything with a semblance to what is being described, although sadly it is too far from all that deliciousness written within.
Marjan Kamali was born in Turkey to Iranian parents. She spent her childhood in Kenya, Germany, Turkey, Iran, and the U.S. and has spent her adult life in Switzerland, Australia and America. After graduating from U.C. Berkeley, Marjan received her MBA from Columbia University and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. Her short fiction has been a top finalist in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open and the Asian American Short Story contest. Her work has also been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in two anthology collections: Tremors and Let Me Tell You Where I’ve Been.
Together Tea is her debut novel and will be translated into several languages including German, Italian, Norwegian, Czech, and Slovak. Marjan lives with her husband and two children in the Boston area and teaches writing at Boston University.