Iman Rappetti

Iman Rappetti is an award-winning journalist who has been involved in print, radio and television. She worked as a young journalist in South Africa and then abandoned it (along with all her worldly possessions) when she became Muslim. She lived in the Islamic Republic of Iran for two years, where she also worked on a current affairs TV show for the state broadcaster before returning to South Africa and resuming her life here. In this moving and entertaining memoir, Iman shares stories and what she has learned from her colourful journey through life. This is an extract from her book, Becoming Iman.

I stared at Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and asked loudly, ‘What should I do?! I’m dying!’

The serious, dark eyes of the Father of the Iranian Revolution stared back at me, almost disapprovingly, through his trademark bushy eyebrows but his mouth was firm and silent.

‘A giant poster on a wall can’t answer you, Iman,’ my inner voice admonished.

I felt stupid, but desperate. I paced the tiny area at the front of our main street apartment in Iran’s holy city of Qom. A lone cockroach also appeared not to care and lazily went about its business scavenging escaped grains of basmati rice under the tiny sink. I was in too much pain to go after him. The cheap, grey carpet squares bore the brunt of my anxiety. Up and down I paced in a shuffle of heavy, muffled steps. I fearfully gripped my sides as my swollen belly became the epicentre of lightning rods of fresh, intense jolts of the most extreme pain I had ever felt. Minutes earlier the sky had prepared for a wardrobe change by shaking off its ebony and magenta nightgown and slipping into a sunrise sheath bursting with yellows and oranges. The call to prayer had gently tapped on the window, carried by the amplified voice of the Muaddhin from the mosque nearby.

‘Hurry to prayer, hurry to success,’ it exhorted. I had done my ritual wash and the prayer mat was unfurled and ready at my feet. I made it through the first prostration but my swollen belly wouldn’t let me go any further. Bulging with slurry amniotic fluid, it prevented me from connecting my head to the floor. Then the pain came. Then the fear. My mother, Maureen, who’d flown out especially for the birth of my first child had already made her way back to South Africa because I had stupidly misunderstood the delivery date the gynaecologist had given me. Anyway, she’d had enough of the city, and Iran in general, repeatedly asking me if my head was right. It didn’t help that when she had arrived at Mehrabad International Airport she’d forgotten she wasn’t in Dubai, but Tehran, and had neglected to put on her headscarf. Mistake. Big mistake, as she soon discovered. Immediately after exiting the plane, hostile guards shouted at her and marched her to the bathroom; she was bewildered and frightened and I think the old lady genuinely expected to be shot! She didn’t speak Farsi, of course, and as she tearfully pulled on a scarf she was almost ready to go straight back home. ‘You’d swear my hair was a bomb and could do terrible things! Hair! Hair! What are they afraid of?’ she complained miserably. I chuckled privately as I pictured how it must have looked.

The plane ride between Dubai and Iran is hilarious. It’s like the women on board have taken their hair for a picnic, an outing, which has now come to an end and must be packed away. Petulant coifs and curls must be tucked back and the scramble for headgear is a whirl of clips and slides till it’s fixed in place. And ticks the box of what’s acceptable.

I genuinely felt sorry for Mum as this was the first big trip she had ever taken. I soothed her and distracted her with that most delicious of Iranian sweets, ‘gaz’. So while she was undoubtedly munching on its sweet, nutty and gooey insides, here I was about to have my firstborn in a strange country, in a hospital thousands of kilometres from home and in a language I did not yet speak nor understand properly. I was about to become a mother without familiar faces and hands to help with my initiation. I wanted to cry like a child. My copy of the infamous What to Expect When You’re Expecting lay uselessly on the floor next to me. It was a lie. I looked at it in the same way a woman looks at a lover who has betrayed her. My water didn’t break, nothing was going according to plan and who could remember how to measure the bladdy contractions! I knew I would have to call someone. Ah, I remembered the mother of a friend. The only trouble was that I had only the most basic ability to communicate in Farsi. I was the butt of many jokes at the market, asking for watermelons when I wanted butter, or chillies when I meant meat and confusing the money. I called her anyway but the poor woman was so confused so my husband and I piled into a taxi and headed for the hospital in the breath suppressing heat of an Iranian summer. It was a Tuesday in July and we were about to become parents. I had entertained no fantasies of a beautiful birth in plush surroundings so I was prepared for the bleakness and basic provision that was the Shahid Beheshti Hospital but I thought that hospitals in Muslim countries would at least be religious about privacy and modesty. It was not so. Well, certainly not in this hospital.

Women were lined up on beds in rows facing each other with each person’s baby-arrivals portal facing the next. If I sat up on my pillow, I could see right into the sister across from me and of course she had ringside seats to my most private parts. But this was not the time to care about whether things were tidy or how your experience compared with another woman. A stocky nurse with meaty, manly hands injected oxytocin into my IV to speed up contractions (read: hot, liquid, pain) while another pregnant woman feverishly walked past praying, calling for Imam Zaman, the last saviour of Islam, to please help her. It was a way of asking for strength and comfort. I tried in vain to tell the nurse, in the only coherent Persian sentence I knew, that I was close to death, and that I really meant it. But she disrupted the vapour of my dying breath with a wave of her hands and a knowing smile. Minutes later she came back looking worried. The baby was going into distress. His umbilical cord was making an attempt on his life, having snaked its way around his tiny neck. There is a flurry of activity and a doctor from the university is summoned. Thankfully she speaks English and I am whipped into theatre. My last memory before slipping away was of the nurse’s meaty, manly hands pressing down on my tummy with her entire body weight. I mumble, ‘This can’t be right, please…’ and then disappear.

I wake up. Next to me is my boy. I can’t believe it but I am so tired I slip away again. Hours later I wake to the sight of his dad by my side, joyfully staring at the little life in front of him. He teases me, saying, ‘I could hear your screams all the way down in the reception area one floor down!’ Men are generally barred from the maternity wards in Qom, I’m told, so he doesn’t stay long and leaves a few minutes later. We name the life in the bassinet Muhammad Husayn. A name chosen in honour of a young man who volunteered for suicide operations during the Iran–Iraq War. He was just thirteen when he blew himself up in front of an Iraqi tank to stop it from reaching the Iranian border town of Khorramshahr at the beginning of the conflict. I had always planned to name my son Muhammad, in part to force my family to say it. To constantly drive home the message that I was Muslim and to get them to accept it. At last, after months of ritualistic throwing up after eating platters of soft, fried chips drowned in yoghurt, black pepper and vinegar, in that mad craving of pregnancy, I could cradle the subject of my sacrifice. I touched his downy face and tried to imagine his future. His mouth searched for my finger. I looked around anxiously for guidance but aside from dispensing medication, the nurses expected there to be a relative or friend to help new mothers. I had no one. And Muhammad was loud and demanding. His cries scratched the walls and drew sympathetic looks on faces that also seemed to judge my inability to quieten him. I couldn’t even communicate with the other mothers, let alone ask for help. My body seemed to rebel now that it had expelled its charge. My nipples refused to come out and sat there indifferently, almost as if they were watching the ward, seeming to focus more on blowing dry a fresh coat of nail polish than dispensing the royal jelly of colostrum and milk. The boy was hungry and searching and my bladder was tugging. I put him down and took my first, tentative steps off the bed to make my first pee. Before my feet hit the ground, the pain did; I’d almost forgotten that I’d had a C-section. I took a deep breath and shuffled to the toilet. Pain. Pain. Pain. And then I remembered. This is Iran. I’m in a village. Long drop. I stood for a few minutes trying to work out how I was going to hold the drip, lift up my dress, tear down my knickers, squat, support myself and let go. I gathered all the strength I could, crying as I descended, howling in pain as my stomach convulsed and the fresh stitches tugged meanly. Motherhood and Iran were going to be such fun …

IMAN RAPPETTI, originally from Phoenix in KwaZulu-Natal, counts among her career highlights, interviews and encounters with former South African President Thabo Mbeki, President Jacob Zuma, and queen of talk Oprah Winfrey. A senior eNCA anchor for 11 years, Rappetti left the broadcaster in April 2017 to spend more time with her family but continues to be on the airwaves hosting a weekday radio show on Power FM.