Cook­ing Ira­nian dishes for her new neigh­bours opened all sorts of doors for Atoosa Sepehr

The Observer Magazine - - Self & Wellbeing - Words ANNA MOORE

In De­cem­ber 2007, Atoosa Sepehr ar­rived in the UK from Iran, know­ing no one, her life ahead a clear space, a blank sheet. She was 30 years old, flee­ing a dis­as­trous mar­riage and her es­cape – more of which later – had been an overnight flit. She’d packed in un­der an hour, been driven to Tehran at speed by her mother, bought a ticket and raced through de­par­tures.

She landed in a Lon­don lit up for Christ­mas, the crowds buzzing. “That did give me a boost, it was beau­ti­ful, ev­ery­where was bright, ev­ery­one was cel­e­brat­ing,” says Sepehr. “I felt some hope – like this could be home – but no one was talk­ing to me and that was hard. In Iran, wher­ever you go, peo­ple talk to you as if they’ve known you for years. I was very down, scared and home­sick.”

Alone, in a flat in north Lon­don, Sepehr be­gan to cook. “Un­til that point in my life, I’d just cooked food,” says Sepehr, “but now, I wanted my mum’s food. On Christ­mas Day, I de­cided to make her spe­cial dish – herbed rice with meat­balls. I ate that and spent all day wrapped in a blan­ket and watch­ing TV.

“And af­ter that, I made more of her food, and my grandma’s, my aunt’s. I was killing my­self to get each one right – phon­ing them up and mak­ing one dish 20 times to get ex­actly what I was used to. It’s hard to put into words, but I was miss­ing home and those tastes, when I got them right, were tak­ing me back – like hear­ing mu­sic that you lis­tened to long ago.”

Soon, the neigh­bours from her build­ing started to in­tro­duce them­selves and to ask what she was mak­ing, what cre­ated th­ese de­li­cious smells? Sepehr be­gan knock­ing on their doors and of­fer­ing them dishes. Then she in­vited them around to share it. With­out know­ing it, she was build­ing the foun­da­tions of a brand new fu­ture.

Now, more than 10 years later, th­ese recipes have been writ­ten up in Sepehr’s first book, From a Per­sian Kitchen. She still lives in the same build­ing and still cooks for her neigh­bours, but Lon­don is her home now, a city she loves. A Bri­tish cit­i­zen, she has an English part­ner of five years and hopes this book will be the first of many.

It’s a world away from the life she ex­pected. Born in the south of Iran, but mainly raised in the cen­tral city of Is­fa­han, Sepehr’s fa­ther was an engi­neer whose hopes for his daugh­ter were no dif­fer­ent to those for his son. “My par­ents were re­ally lib­eral, my dad was a fem­i­nist,” she says. “My mum had the same rights as he did and is a strong woman. She didn’t have a ca­reer and loved to look af­ter us, to make life easy for me and my brother. She never let me cook be­cause she wanted me to get on with my school work.”

But Sepehr cer­tainly learned to love food. “My mum was a great cook, a fan­tas­tic cook,” she says. “The love I saw her giv­ing the food was un­be­liev­able.

“As chil­dren, she’d take us to dif­fer­ent places out­side the city just to get the right in­gre­di­ents. I re­mem­ber go­ing to a farm to get yogurt or milk just out of the cow, and then to another to buy beans. At meal time, what­ever we were do­ing, what­ever was hap­pen­ing, we came to the ta­ble. Eat­ing is like that for ev­ery­one in Iran, rich or poor. It’s a so­cial thing, never just func­tional. Every­thing re­volves around food.”

It wasn’t un­til Sepehr left home to study com­puter sci­ence at univer­sity that she cooked for her­self. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, she moved to Tehran where she built a for­mi­da­ble ca­reer in a male world, first work­ing as a com­puter pro­gram­mer, then in the stock mar­ket. Af­ter com­plet­ing an MBA, she be­came a high-earn­ing high flyer, im­port­ing and ex­port­ing steel. “It wasn’t a place for a woman and that’s why I chose it,” she says. “No women were do­ing that job – so I wanted to.”

On the face of it, Sepehr was forg­ing ahead – a role model for the mod­ern Ira­nian woman. At home though, her mar­riage told a dif­fer­ent story.

“I mar­ried when I was 27. My hus­band had been my class mate at univer­sity,” says Sepehr. “He was sweet, pop­u­lar, hand­some, re­ally charm­ing. When peo­ple met him, they’d al­ways say: ‘He’s beau­ti­ful, where did you find him?’ Un­for­tu­nately, he had two faces – and when we mar­ried, he be­came a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­son. I didn’t even know him.”

Her neigh­bours heard the scenes (“He would throw things and threaten to jump from the build­ing to put me un­der pres­sure”) and urged her to leave him. But Sepehr kept grant­ing “sec­ond chances”.

“I wanted to make it work,” she says. “He was the per­son I once loved and I could see that he loved me – although that’s some­thing my mum al­ways ques­tions. Now, look­ing back, was it love or con­trol? At the time, I didn’t want any­body to know un­less there was no hope. I never give up on any­thing eas­ily.”

The cou­ple sought coun­selling with a psy­chol­o­gist, but when Sepehr was able to see the ther­a­pist alone, he took the same line as her neigh­bour. “He told me not to go back,” she says. “He said: ‘If you were my daugh­ter, I’d want you to di­vorce.’”

‘I made each dish 20 times to get ex­actly what I was used to’

But in Iran, di­vorce wasn’t easy with­out the hus­band’s d’s agree­ment, which Sepehr knew her hus­band would never give. He also holds the power to ban his wife from leav­ing the coun­try. “I felt that would be the first t thing he’d do if I tried to end the mar­riage,” says Sepehr. hr. In­stead, she made a plan of her own – qui­etly ar­rang­ing ng a trans­fer to work in her com­pany’s Lon­don of­fice, and d ap­ply­ing in se­cret for a five-year visa. “It was the hardest est choice I’ve ever made,” she says. “Carry on in this life - or give up every­thing and start again.” Only when the pa­per­work was in place did her par­ents make the sev­e­nen­hour drive to Tehran to talk to her hus­band (who quickly kly be­came abu­sive), then take their daugh­ter back to the fam­ily home.

“My hus­band didn’t know about the job in Eng­land, , and I thought I’d re­con­nect with my fam­ily, then maybe be in a month, move to Lon­don,” she says. But that same evening, within hours of f ar­riv­ing in Is­fa­han, her hus­band called, beg­ging g her to re­turn. When Sepehr ehr re­fused, he told her that to­mor­row, her pass­port would be re­voked. “My mum said: ‘Pack your bag. You must leave tonight.’”

Sepehr had no air ticket and at this time in Iran, pay­ments were in cash, not credit cards. “The cash ma­chines weren’t open at night so my brother called his friends ask­ing them to quickly bring any money they had.” Soon Sepehr was back in the car with her mother driv­ing her to Tehran air­port. “She al­ways fol­lows all the rules, but on this night, she broke ev­ery speed limit.” Some­how, they made it. “It was a mir­a­cle – every­thing worked. There was a plane. There was a ticket. I got the flight. The next morn­ing, my dad re­ceived a phone call to con­firm I’d been banned from leav­ing the coun­try. It was too late – I’d al­ready left.”

The di­vorce took four and a half years, by which time, Sepehr’s ex had ac­cepted that she wasn’t com­ing back. For that pe­riod, Sepehr couldn’t risk go­ing home, even to visit, so threw her­self into a new life. First, in the steel com­pany, then slowly, the cook­ing took over. She be­gan a blog, then edited an on­line mag­a­zine. Though she’d never imag­ined a ca­reer in food, it be­came her com­fort, her short­cut home.

Her book is a love let­ter to the Iran she left. For three years, with no agent, no pub­lisher, Sepehr worked alone, per­fect­ing fam­ily recipes, styling the dishes and tak­ing all the photos her­self. (She bought a cam­era and taught t her­self through YouTube, even though her part­ner said d they’d never be pro­fes­sional enough for a book.) In some me ways, says Sepehr, she was a woman possessed.

“If you’d seen me, you’d have thought I was mad. Ev­ery ery morn­ing at seven, I’d get up, go to the kitchen to cook, then I’d spend the af­ter­noon in my liv­ing room, which I’d turned into a stu­dio, tak­ing pho­to­graphs. Ev­ery dish has as so much emo­tion and prac­tice be­hind it.”

The book is also a trib­ute to her fam­ily, ded­i­cated to her par­ents, her grand­mother and her aunt, though she is able to visit them now. They’re proud of her rein­ven­tion and, of course, re­lieved. “When I held the first copy in my hands, I called my dad and said: ‘Would d you ever have thought I’d write a cook­ery book?’ He an­swered: ‘With you, Atoosa, noth­ing sur­prises me.’” ■ From a Per­sian Kitchen by Atoosa Sepehr is pub­lished by Robin­son at £26. To or­der one for £22.10, go to guardian­book­shop.com

‘Her book is a love let­ter to the Iran she left, and a trib­ute to her fam­ily’

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