Torsheedeh: The Significance of Being a Sour Iranian Woman

15 April, 2022
“Tor­sheedeh” and “Queer as a pick­le” illus­tra­tions by artist Parisa Parn­ian (images cour­tesy Sav­age Muse).

 

Parisa Parnian/Savage Muse

 

It’s fun­ny being a 40-some­thing queer Iran­ian-Amer­i­can woman in LA. My work as a visu­al artist and culi­nary cre­ative cen­ters so much around help­ing peo­ple tap into their desires, to find a sense of belong­ing, and in build­ing inter­sec­tion­al com­mu­ni­ties, yet I myself have man­aged to stay solid­ly sin­gle for the major­i­ty of my adult life.

I had the dis­tinct hon­or of being called “tor­sheedeh” quite ear­ly in my life, while stand­ing in the pick­led veg­etable and jam aisle at a tiny Iran­ian mar­ket in Arizona.

Tor­sheedeh comes from the Per­sian word torsh, which in Far­si means “sour,” as in “the milk has soured” but also tor­shi, which means “pick­led.” It is a term used in the Iran­ian com­mu­ni­ty to describe sin­gle women who were con­sid­ered past their prime and could be viewed with both pity and dis­taste. Once a woman was giv­en that title, she was no longer desir­able or con­sid­ered poten­tial wife material. 

Around the time I was in high school, in the late ’80’s, there was a sud­den influx of Ira­ni­ans pour­ing into the desert town of Scotts­dale, AZ. — a sub­urb full of cook­ie-cut­ter Span­ish-tiled McMan­sions, retired “snow­birds” and Waspy golf resorts. 

My immi­grant Iran­ian fam­i­ly had called Scotts­dale home since we land­ed there in 1976, when I was just four years old. Why my high­ly edu­cat­ed and sophis­ti­cat­ed par­ents, who were both archi­tects, chose to set­tle in a city where the locals were pre­dom­i­nant­ly white, con­ser­v­a­tive and igno­rant­ly hos­tile towards for­eign­ers is anoth­er sto­ry. Suf­fice it to say that I was elat­ed when oth­er Ira­ni­ans final­ly began set­tling in my hometown. 

By 1988, I start­ed hear­ing Far­si being spo­ken in the hall­ways of my high school — that is, before one of our math teach­ers, who always wore a cow­boy hat and bolo tie, yelled at us for speak­ing the Per­sian lan­guage. He for­bade us from speak­ing any­thing but Eng­lish in the hall­ways from then on. 

Still, I felt a tremen­dous sense of relief that I didn’t have to car­ry the bur­den of being the only one called an  “Irayneeyun Ter­ror­ist” by bul­lies, and a sense of com­radery know­ing I would have oth­er kids to eat lunch with who also brought left­over, pun­gent smelling Per­sian khore­sht stews and rice to school in emp­ty Moun­tain View yogurt containers. 

Moun­tain View, an Amer­i­can brand of yogurt, appeared in super­mar­kets at some point in the ’80’s and I remem­ber how excit­ed my par­ents were when they dis­cov­ered it had the same tangy, sour taste that Ira­ni­ans enjoy in their yogurt back home. Unlike Amer­i­cans, who pre­ferred their yogurt sweet and even with fruit fill­ings in it, Ira­ni­ans love their yogurt very tart and sour, to be served on top of steam­ing moun­tains of bas­mati rice or drunk as the beloved sour and salty car­bon­at­ed yogurt drink called doogh

As the Iran­ian com­mu­ni­ty grew, so did the need for cul­tur­al resources. Slow­ly but sure­ly, the Per­sian spe­cial­ty food mar­kets and kabob restau­rants start­ed sprout­ing, as well as the month­ly Per­sian “dis­cos” that I began fre­quent­ing at the local Hilton ballroom. 

There were of course, also the lav­ish week­end din­ner par­ties, where the men had a chance to have heat­ed polit­i­cal and reli­gious debates about the Aya­tol­lah and Bush and all the con­spir­a­cies of The West, while the women, dressed in their glam­orous sequined evening attire, clutch­ing their design­er hand­bags, shared their lat­est bar­gain fash­ion shop­ping tri­umphs and food mar­ket discoveries. 

Clue­less as I was at 17, both about my queer­ness and the social tra­di­tions of my Per­sian ances­tors, I did not real­ize these din­ner par­ties were also an occa­sion for the elders to scope out mar­riage prospects for their chil­dren. It turned out that the pierc­ing feline gazes old­er Per­sian women were giv­ing me at these din­ner par­ties were actu­al­ly the eyes of scruti­ny to assess whether I was wor­thy of their sons, who were off at uni­ver­si­ty becom­ing doc­tors and engineers. 

Parisa with her Pérx­i­can blend of spices and herbs used in both Per­sian and Mex­i­can cook­ing (pho­to cour­tesy Parisa Parnian).

By the time I was 20, it was clear to me that I was not des­tined for the tra­di­tion­al route of a semi-arranged mar­riage to a nice thir­ty-some­thing engi­neer who came from a “good fam­i­ly.” Still liv­ing at home and get­ting my prac­ti­cal busi­ness degree from the local uni­ver­si­ty, I was pin­ing, not for a hus­band, but for the day I could escape to New York City and become an avant-garde fash­ion design­er like Jean Paul Gaulti­er or Vivi­enne Westwood. 

I knew there was some­thing “dif­fer­ent” about me, but had yet to dis­cov­er what exact­ly it was. All I knew was that I often made Iran­ian par­ents uneasy when I was around them. Some­thing about the way I car­ried myself and the way I spoke felt threat­en­ing and trans­gres­sive and unla­dy­like, despite my out­ward­ly fem­i­nine appear­ance. Today we would call that “big dick ener­gy,” or just being a queer woman.

I had not yet fall­en in love with my first boy (a Sephardic Jew­ish class­mate from Mex­i­co City who would reject me for not being Jew­ish), or my first girl (an Iran­ian British class­mate who would be the first per­son I would get roman­ti­cal­ly involved with, and who would break my heart).

One day when I was still liv­ing at home, my mom asked me to pick up some dried herbs, bar­ber­ries and pick­led veg­eta­bles aka tor­shi from the local Per­sian mar­ket. I was excit­ed to run that errand for her because as far back as I can remem­ber, I have always loved going to food mar­kets and gro­cery stores. It doesn’t mat­ter if it is a basic Amer­i­can gro­cery store, a Cost­co or a spe­cial­ty inter­na­tion­al food mar­ket, I am always curi­ous to go and explore.

It turned out that I was going to learn more than I expect­ed on my vis­it to the local Per­sian mar­ket. The shop own­er was a tra­di­tion­al Iran­ian man who knew our fam­i­ly and had daugh­ters around the same age as me. I had heard rumors that his eldest daugh­ter was already engaged to an out-of-town doc­tor who drove a Euro­pean sports car.

As is cus­tom­ary, he asked how my fam­i­ly was doing. He then fol­lowed me around as I walked through the nar­row aisles of the tiny shop, crammed with glass jars of fruit pre­serves and pick­led veg­eta­bles, burlap bags of bas­mati rice and plas­tic bags full of dried herbs.

He con­tin­ued to ask me pry­ing ques­tions about my sta­tus as a sin­gle woman: “Khaaste­gaar pay­daa kardee belakhareh?” which basi­cal­ly means, “Have you final­ly found any suit­ors; are you engaged?”

In tra­di­tion­al Iran­ian cul­ture of that era, it was cus­tom­ary to get engaged to a man before you even start­ed dat­ing. Once you were engaged, you could go on dates with him with­out it caus­ing a social scan­dal, although often you were still required to have a chap­er­one to ensure your vir­gin­i­ty would stay intact until the wed­ding night.

I impa­tient­ly and with pride told him “NO!” and that I had big plans for my life and was plan­ning to move to New York and become a famous fash­ion design­er and had no inter­est in a hus­band at the moment.

The lim­its of my impa­tience were being test­ed, because even though I was only 19, Iran­ian elders con­stant­ly asked me if I had any suit­ors. I would tell them all the same things and would usu­al­ly get met with a judg­men­tal glare.

This time, how­ev­er, I did not receive a silent reproach when I smug­ly replied that I was not engaged. Per­haps because for his own daugh­ters, find­ing a finan­cial­ly secure hus­band was the most impor­tant thing they could do with their lives, my response sound­ed fool­ish and arro­gant to him.

So with the dis­tinct­ly Per­sian way of insult­ing some­one while you have the sweet­est smile on your face, he told me that with my atti­tude, I was cer­tain to end up a lone­ly old woman and that I was well on my way to becom­ing tor­sheedeh.

Per­haps I should have been offend­ed or angry that I was already con­sid­ered tor­sheedeh in the eyes of some mem­bers of the Iran­ian com­mu­ni­ty. But instead, when this shop own­er insist­ed I was soon to be sour milk or pick­led like the veg­eta­bles dis­played on the shelf behind me, I felt a bit gid­dy inside.

To me being viewed as pick­led or sour by tra­di­tion­al patri­ar­chal stan­dards meant I was allowed to live my life out­side of the con­fines or expec­ta­tions of a rigid soci­ety. It meant that just like the way a jar full of col­or­ful veg­eta­bles float­ing in a vine­gary brine devel­ops a rich­er and more deli­cious fla­vor as the weeks and months go by, I too was free to devel­op a more rich and lay­ered life with the pass­ing of time.

 


 

Look­ing back to the first time I was called tor­sheedeh almost 30 years ago and assess­ing where my life has tak­en me to date, I can tell you with assur­ance that being called a “sour” woman at such an ear­ly age has only enhanced the sweet­ness and free­dom of the life I have and am living.

Although as of this writ­ing I am still a sin­gle woman in my for­ties, I am now ready to be savored like tor­shi seer, the black pick­led gar­lic of the north­ern regions of Iran, where my moth­er and grand­moth­er are from. This high­ly prized gar­lic becomes dark and sweet and mouth water­ing­ly deli­cious with the pass­ing of time, los­ing all of its bit­ter­ness and bite.

To all of you out there who have been made to feel that you are past your prime, I encour­age you to change the nar­ra­tive and embrace all the sour and pick­led parts of your­selves and reclaim them as some of your most deli­cious bits.

 

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Parisa Parnian is an Iranian American multi-disciplinary visual artist and culinary creative. She uses food, design and performative storytelling to build bridges and connect communities. As a Cultural and Culinary Uplifter, Parisa combines her extensive experience in lifestyle design, event curation, food-related art installations and private dinner parties to delight the senses and warm the spirit. She tells the stories of modern life from the lens of the diaspora and Third Culture Kids, as well as from her lived experience as a part of the QTBIPOC community. Parisa recently launched her own spice blend called PÉRXICAN — a celebration of cultural fluidity and the marriage of Persian + Mexican flavors. Her travels and collaborations with chefs/restaurants in Mexico City have strongly influenced her recent culinary projects. Find her on Instagram at @savage_taste and @savagemuse.

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