An Italian-Iranian Finds Belonging in His Grandmother’s First Hello

Colorful ceramic tile in the traditional Persian style on the wall

As a man of Iranian and Italian ethnic roots, I have experienced two things: mixed-race romanticism and the physical dispersion of my family around the world.

The latter has always been a challenge, made more noticeable by hard border closures during the peak of the Coronavirus pandemic and the brutality of Iran’s oppressive regime.

This was less troublesome on my mother’s side, who is Italian.

I grew up surrounded by my Italian relatives. Long Sunday lunches brimming with pasta al forno and lemon granita, card games like Scopa and harvesting tomatoes for future passata sauces, and generously topping up red wine with Coca-Cola, a secret family “invention.”

Adam Abbasi-Sacca. Photo Courtesy of Adam Abbasi-Sacca.

But when my father (Baba) came from Iran more than 40 years ago, he was alone.

The Iranian Revolution commenced while he was studying abroad. Fearing what he would be returning to back home, Baba opted to charter a new path. He settled in an unfamiliar landscape without his brothers, sisters and parents.

A difficult decision when you’re the youngest of eight, and the uncle to 50 nieces and nephews.


I was raised without a deep Iranian cultural heritage, connecting only with my Italian roots.

Many times, I was corrected in my quest for full cultural authenticity.

Proudly boasting my Persian heritage was often met with comments like: “What country is Persia? I didn’t know you could be an empire…” Or, “So, you’re Lebanese, right?”

This encouraged me to find other ways to explore my culture.

I would visit Persian grocery stores in the suburbs known for being “little Iran.” I hoarded dates, marinated olives and spices. Any money spent made me feel like I was making up for lost time.

Proudly boasting my Persian heritage was often met with comments like: ‘What country is Persia? I didn’t know you could be an empire…’ Or, ‘So, you’re Lebanese, right?’

During these visits, I would observe the shop owner and how he interacted with other customers in the Iranian language Farsi:

“Salam, chetori? Khoobi?”

“Hello, how are you? Good?”

While paying, I longed to be recognized as one of his own (rather than as an ethnically ambiguous creep holding eye contact for far too long). But that never happened. Instead it was: “Thanks mate, have a good day.”

Moments like these reinforced the racial imposter syndrome I have often felt growing up, disconnected from my father’s homeland. These feelings manifest when your internal sense of racial connection differs from the perception of those around you.

It can make you question, arguably, the most significant, grounding aspect of you: your identity.

I recognize it comes with the territory of being a byproduct of a parent that moved, seeking a new beginning and greater opportunity. The minority who escaped became an ethnic minority in their new home.


To unpack this struggle, I recently traveled to Iran for the first (and only) time.

Like any maverick, I proceeded to the beating pulse of my Iranian roots: my grandmother’s house.

Grandma’s name was Shahrbanoo, Baba called her Shirley. She was a 92-year-old warrior.

I announced my arrival at her house with three large bangs on her rusted, corrugated iron door.

Mamani slid it open, crying. Armed with a bouquet of plastic pink roses and the warmest smile I had seen during my travels, she grabbed my face. She held my hands and never let them go. I did not speak her language; our connection ran deeper than words.

Meeting Mamani. Photo courtesy of Adam Abbasi-Sacca.

I know we didn’t have a traditional mamani-grandson relationship. How could we after only spending 48 hours together?

Our time was spent on the pressing matters requiring our immediate attention: eating, and listening as she proudly recounted her pilgrimages to Mecca (in that order).

I imagined her every day from my home. Her style, her smell, her voice.

Imagination made up for the limitations of digital communication in these parts of Iran. My mind was kept alive with vignettes; glimpses of a life lived with my Iranian bloodline in my father’s birth country spun around like the gentle cycle inside a washing machine.

Baba often told stories about what it was like growing up in their hometown of Varzaneh – it wasn’t easy.

Varzaneh is a largely agricultural, working-class Iranian town with 12,000 residents. Its small size and remote location makes it easy to disregard. Tehran, the country’s capital, and Isfahan, the cultural capital, are best known.

I recognize it comes with the territory of being a byproduct of a parent that moved, seeking a new beginning and greater opportunity. The minority who escaped became an ethnic minority in their new home.

At 4 a.m. every morning, he walked to the local river with his mother and their cattle to wash the clothes. Mamani wore no gloves, her hands numbed by the unmistakeable sting of freezing cold rapids.

She would scrub and scrub the dirt away. The stains of toiling unprotected in cotton fields, and weaving carpets, would be forcefully removed from the family’s humble garments.

When I visited Varzaneh, the rivers my father spoke of had dried up. Replacing them was a salty, arid landscape. I saw no cattle.

Photo courtesy of Mohammadjavad Ebrahimi

Silent, mountainous sand dunes were certainly one of Varzaneh’s drawing cards.  But so too were its traditions; they are unique to this ancient town in central Iran. Water, one of its sacred resources, was collected by cows. These cows would only push and pull the well’s windlass if an elderly man sang to them.

No song, no work, no water. (I like a cow that knows what it wants and goes for it).


Adam Abbasi-Sacca and his Mamani. Photo by Adam Abbasi-Sacca.

One thing I noticed about the locals was a strong sense of belonging. Neighbors befriended their neighbors. Store owners knew their customers. Taarof, the Iranian form of extreme hospitality, was in full force.

Unlike my previous encounters back home, I was embraced by this town; protected by the strength of my family.

Mamani was chair-bound, so 4 a.m. laundry sessions were off the cards. But her love was no less agile and transcendent. Her first words to me echoed this: “You are my blood, my love. I dreamt of this day. I will now die at peace.”

And I hope you did.

I discovered that Mamani recently passed away, and I did not get to say goodbye.

Possibly more important, for me, was that I had the opportunity to be hugged and accepted in the warmth of her hello, to have my roots firmly planted in the ground as an Iranian-Italian.

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