In the summer of 1977, my teaching contract in Iran was coming to an end. A year earlier, I'd signed a contract extension, and now I was wondering if I should do it again.
The money was tempting--a single guy in a Third World country earning a thousand dollars a month could live like a maharajah. I'd learned the language and made lots of friends. I'd done some fabulous traveling, visiting the tomb of Cyrus the Great, the great mosque in Isfahan and the ancient capital of Persepolis, conquered by Alexander the Great. And from my Caspian Sea station, I had access to the world's best caviar, at black-market prices.
The job, however, wasn't terribly fulfilling--working at an Iranian military base. My mission: teaching basic "Hello, how are you?" English to fresh-from-the-village naval recruits, to see if any had an aptitude for the language. If one did, he'd be sent to an Air Force base in Texas. There, he'd learn how to operate some of the billion-dollar weaponry the American government was selling to our friend the Shah, to combat Soviet influence in the region.
Maybe one in ten thousand students flashed even the barest hint of linguistic talent. That's because most of the recruits were illiterate in their own language. (They'd joined the Navy to avoid going to school.) During lab hour, the students listened to and repeated English dialogues on cassettes. The tapes were made in Texas, at the prestigious Defense Language Institute.
Unfortunately, our military geniuses used native Texas drawlers to record the conversations. One day a student asked me, "Mister, what mean 'high heels'?" I explained the concept to him, and he nodded doubtfully. Then he brought over his tape for me to listen to:
Speaker One: Ah lee-ive in Texas.
Speaker Two: In Texas, theah are mountains and high heels.
It was scary to think that these were the forces protecting American strategic interests. And there were other signs that the Iranian military wasn't in serious fighting trim. For one thing, the navy had nine ships and 32 admirals. (The Shah had many relatives who needed jobs.) Even to my untrained military mind, this seemed a command blunder. Meanwhile, the bus that took us to our jobs carried two very young, machine-gun-toting soldiers, to discourage terrorist attack. My biggest fear, though, was that in case of an actual attack, they'd forget which way to point their weapons.
With the anti-Shah sentiment growing, I decided that even a thousand dollars a month and cheap caviar wasn't enough to keep me in Iran. My decision was clinched when a passerby stopped me in the street and shouted, "American donkey, go home." My colleagues who decided otherwise spent the next year dodging bullets.
My years in Iran also provided plenty of gastronomic adventure. Persian food is unlike other Middle Eastern cuisines: complexly flavored, highly seasoned but never spicy hot, and built around mounds of perfumed basmati rice. There are only a handful of places in the Valley where you can get it.
One of them is Apadana, a storefront restaurant in a south Scottsdale strip mall, run by refugees from the Khomeini regime. In Iran, you'll find this kind of place--called a chelo kebabi (it's a simple joint serving rice and meat)--on every street. They offer basic native fare, at very basic prices.
Newly remodeled, Apadana doesn't look much like a Persian restaurant. For some reason, the proprietor has played down the ethnic dimensions. The place has a more south-of-the-border style: Mexican-tile floor, colorful tablecloths, wooden beams and Southwestern accents on the booths. Only a couple of tourist-board posters of Persepolis give you an inkling of what kind of food is coming out of the kitchen.
Most of it is tasty and authentic. Iranians haven't embraced the concept of appetizers, and neither has Apadana. Almost all the ones listed here are actually main-dish accompaniments. One genuine article, however, is a dip the all-English-language menu calls Eggplant Delight. It's fried eggplant, fragrantly blended with lentils, mint and kashk, a tangy cream that gives this dish its distinctive bite. Scoop it up with pita.
The menu offers two standard types of Iranian dishes, kebabs and stews. The former features a variety of marinated, skewered and grilled meats--beef, lamb, chicken--teamed with a steaming pile of saffron-accented basmati rice. Chelo kebab barg brings flattened slices of exceptionally tender filet mignon. For $9.99, you'll get a week's worth of animal protein. The chelo kebab koobideh is a heady combination of ground beef and lamb, infused with a spice rack of seasonings. Can't make up your mind? Try the barg-koobideh combo platter. It's called sultani--fit for a sultan--and it is.