Persian Tea for Two

By Philippa Hadlow

The province of Zanjan is the happiest place in Iran (Happiness of the Iranian people and the factors affecting it, 2021). And no wonder, because if tea is the ultimate 'hug in a mug', and a tisane: ‘nature in a pot’, well, right then and there, you have a blissful blend echoed by the partnership that Ehsan Mobini and Farideh Jalali have enjoyed since their marriage in 2009.

Ehsan’s hometown is Zanjan, but drinking tea is the cornerstone of all Iranian culture. There’s tea for everyone, every minute of the day, for every occasion, in fact, anytime is teatime. Farideh says that tea is a concept, a tradition; sitting, having time, socialising, talking, and so the samovar (a metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water) goes on first thing in the morning and is topped up throughout the day until nightfall.

By Philippa Hadlow

The province of Zanjan is the happiest place in Iran (Happiness of the Iranian people and the factors affecting it, 2021). And no wonder, because if tea is the ultimate ‘hug in a mug’, and a tisane: ‘nature in a pot’, well, right then and there, you have a blissful blend echoed by the partnership that Ehsan Mobini and Farideh Jalali have enjoyed since their marriage in 2009.

Ehsan’s hometown is Zanjan, but drinking tea is the cornerstone of all Iranian culture. There’s tea for everyone, every minute of the day, for every occasion, in fact, anytime is teatime. Farideh says that tea is a concept, a tradition; sitting, having time, socialising, talking, and so the samovar (a metal container traditionally used to heat and boil water) goes on first thing in the morning and is topped up throughout the day until nightfall.

Why, then, did this couple leave their Persian paradise and start travelling in search of an even happier place?

Already holding bachelor’s degrees in IT and business, Ehsan and Farideh decided they needed to upskill to achieve post-graduate levels. They chose Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and lived there for three years: “Nice place, nice people, and good food, even though the tea wasn’t great!” reckons Farideh.

“Well, actually, the iced lemon tea was okay, but the hot Iranian tea? Very black, very strong, and extraordinarily sweet. You’d ask for the low sugar version to make it taste more like Iranian tea – tart but smooth,” comments Ehsan.

After three years’ studying and working in Malaysia, they went back to Iran to start their own enterprise. Pharmacy being Ehsan’s family business for 30 years, the couple decided to work on consumable medical products. It was a hard – but fast success. After seeing their small start-up flourish, Ehsan’s father praised Ehsan by saying: “I can see something in you. Would you like to take on the management of my pharmacy?”

Yes, of course! The couple also began a hugely successful online pharmaceutical product business to complement the existing. On the same day, they applied for immigration to New Zealand. As Ehsan says: “We were big fish in a little pond. Educated, entrepreneurial professionals. We needed a big sea to flourish!” Farideh adds: “We were ambitious, and we wanted to live in this peaceful society (New Zealand).”

They began sending out CV’s, hoping to have jobs upon arrival in New Zealand to fulfil their ‘skilled migrant’ visa conditions. All went unacknowledged. They applied for everything, from project management positions to shopkeeper yet, nothing – not one reply – not even after setting feet in Auckland’s busy CBD.

Staying in an Airbnb there was fine once they had struck an accommodation deal with owner Stephen. Over the next 18 months, they travelled back and forth to Iran and tried to find work in New Zealand on each return visit.

Adapting to the New Zealand diet was almost as challenging as the job hunt: “We were struggling to change our food lifestyle from Iranian to Kiwi. Everything was different: the meat, the rice, the coffee, everything. And the tea – nothing is good!” says Ehsan. In despair, they ordered some tea online from the South Island. It was full of additives and tasted “terrible”.

At that moment, Farideh said: “I think that we need to start our own tea company.”

With work prospects scanty, she travelled to Iran again to study Persian herbal tea blending skills and learn about herbs while Ehsan looked for suppliers of the product.

Then, US president of the day, Donald Trump, decided to impose massive sanctions upon Iran. Those sanctions, alongside the corruption and mismanagement of the Iranian government, led to an Iranian currency fallout. Ehsan and Farideh’s savings were decimated, and they were in trouble: “In one night and every night from then, it dropped 10 to 20%. It dropped 100% of its own value in a week!” said Ehsan. Farideh said at the time: “We have no choice – we have to find a job, any job.”

They noticed a backpacker website advertising horticultural nursery positions in New Plymouth. Ringing the number, Ehsan was greeted with a “big warm voice, who said: ‘It doesn’t matter that you have no nursery experience, just get on down here – be here tomorrow!’” It was the first positive employer response they’d received since arriving in New Zealand, and they had about 24 hours to pack and ‘get on down there’.

Working in the nursery was like an amusement park. They had no idea of what to expect, how hard the work would be – or what to wear. When they turned up on the first morning, the boss’s words were on the side of good-humoured mocking: “Those clothes are pretty fancy dress for this job!” But he gave them some gumboots and said: “I’ve never had any Iranians working for me, so this will be fun!”

Farideh and Ehsan relaxing at home

The couple found a place to stay and found good friends. “We are very good at making friends and we soon met with the owners of an Airbnb: Karin from Costa Rica, and Brendan from South Africa. Minimal accommodation cost. We put together $20,000 from nursery work in nine or ten months,” says Ehsan.

A good financial outcome for a pretty big effort, and if they’d chosen to return to Iran right then, they could’ve bought a house within two years. They decided to put their earnings towards making a good brew of tea instead.

Farideh was able to test her tea blend knowledge and ordered the dry product from India, Turkey, and Iran. Their business blueprint was ready for action. Covid-19 put a halt to that, and it was nine months before any tea found its way to New Zealand. But for Taranakians, it was worth the wait, and come garden festival time in October, the two had personalised tea tastings lined up alongside the wine tastings at Kairau Lodge.

Ehsan and Farideh claim that doing business is simple in Taranaki. As permanent residents from March 1 2019, establishing their tea brand was quick and easy. Manou’s waterfront cafe and restaurant in Port Taranaki named after its Iranian owner, Manouchehr Kia, was the first entity to buy their tea and put it on the menu and is loyal to this day.

The process of registering and certifying the company, gleaning bank support, council approval, credit, finding customers … all came without too much complication. And, of course, during lockdown, the couple had time to focus on getting their ducks in a row.

I ask Ehsan if they ever encountered discrimination: “Oh, come on,” he says dismissively. “This is the lifestyle we like to have. We like to make something of our own. We have never been discriminated against. Most of the time, we are welcomed. New Zealand is the least racist country in the world, I think. Migrants in this country are blended. And because we are Iranians, we are exotic!

“In Taranaki, everyone likes to do something with us, for us – even before they know us. The first question is always: ‘What can I do for you?’ This is like a verse with all Taranaki people. That’s why we came back – the helpful culture – and even though jobs are limited, we are part of a family here. In Auckland, you’re always a stranger, one Iranian amongst thousands and forever a foreigner,” he says.

Almighty Damavand
Photo: Mahdi Kalhor, wikimedia

“I think it’s all about the mountain!” pipes up Farideh. “We love the idea of living beside a huge mountain always looking at us. It keeps us here, gives us kinship, and reminds us of our almost identical mountain in Iran, Mount Damāvand – like Mount Taranaki, a perfect cone.”

Farideh and Ehsan tell me that Damāvand is a significant mountain in Persian mythology, epic poetry, and literature. At 5,609m high (Ehsan should know: he’s climbed it!), it’s the most important geographical icon in Iran.

I do a bit of sleuthing myself about its history and cultural significance. Mt. Damāvand is known as the symbol of Iranian resistance against despotism and foreign rule. According to Iranian legend, the mountain was the location from which mythical archer figure, Arash, shot a magical arrow to mark the border of Iran during the border dispute between Iran and Turan.

In Zoroastrian mythology, the three-headed dragon Aži Dahāka was chained to the mountain to remain until the end of the world. In a later version of the same legend, the tyrant Zahhāk was also chained in a cave somewhere in Mount Damāvand after being defeated by Kāveh and Fereydūn. Persian poet Ferdowsi depicts this event in his masterpiece (and one of the world’s longest epic poems), the Shahnameh:

بیاورد ضحاک را چون نَوَند

به کوه دماوند کردش به‌بند

Pronounced and translated as:

biyâvarad Zahhâk râ čon navand
be kuh-e Damâvand krdš be-band

(He brought Zahhak like a horse to mount Damavand,
And tied him at the peak tight and bound)

 

I understand how mountains create powerful cultural connections and relate to Farideh and Ehsan’s love of this humble yet beautiful province. Now they live with a view not only of Mt. Taranaki but also Paritutu Rock and an equally emotive seascape.

But the landscape has only one part to play in this couple’s immigration journey: attitude is possibly the mainstay directive to their success.

“As a migrant, the worst thing is trying to copy what you used to do in your home country. You get very isolated because you are doing something that local people don’t. It’s wiser to blend into society, keep your old passions but share them, too; keep old connections but make new connections as well. Make it a multicultural lifestyle rather than making radical or conservative changes – none of the extreme ways work,” says Ehsan.

Farideh’s digital art representing Iranian culture

The couple has pursued personal interests and sports. Ehsan is an elite horseman who competes in events and also trains others into horsemanship. Farideh is studying Art and Design at the local Western Institute of Technology (WITT) – it is her art that you see displayed on these pages.

They re-emphasise the importance of making the effort to get out and socialise with the community:

“Live in a new country to make friends! We now have Costa Rican, Indian, American, South African, Kiwi, British, Channel Islands, French, Dutch … it’s like a league of nations! Meet someone, make more connections, make your own family,” says Ehsan.

Farideh reminds Ehsan of a saying his uncle is fond of: “There’s no good and bad happening in your life – it’s just how you want to live with it.”

He says: “You can lose your job or get a lot of rejection (as we did), and that’s terrible; but if it pushes you to start your own company, then it turns out to be a bonus. So, this is how we want to live – see the good side all the time because though today could be a disaster, tomorrow will be better. We take everything as it comes; we don’t celebrate too much and don’t sorrow too much; we’re always low key.

“There’s an old Persian idiom: ‘If they kick us out the door, we just come back in the window.’ My mother has a beautiful ring; on it is carved in Farsi: ‘This will pass as well’,” he adds.

Ehsan and Farideh live their lives practising these kinds of deep philosophies: calmly accepting their situation, making the most of what they have, trying hard, and enjoying each day as it comes.

Sounds like a positive stance we could all learn from. Thank you, Ehsan and Farideh.

 

 

Sources: 1. Iranian Students News Agency Research Service 2. Wikipedia