Saturday, April 20, 2013

Short Story: The Taste of Memory - Chapter Three

Up until the last minute Daryush was trying to pressure her not to go. He was sometimes unpredictable like that – so there, right there, when she needed him most. Other times, like this time, his demands on her made her feel small and helpless. It took all her resolve to defy him, and she rarely did. She spooned Sumatra in to the coffee maker as he hovered near her, his voice unwavering.

“Look, why don’t you just wait till next weekend, so we can go together.” He was in sweatpants, with his headset already on, about ready to disappear in to his office to work when he had come upon her in the kitchen. She was ready to go. There was just Dary’s coffee to make, and the pot of soup to carry to the car.

“It’s been two weeks. I just can’t wait any longer. I have to see him.” To her own ear her voice sounded small and meek. She’d called home every day since she’d heard the news about her father, speaking superficially with her mother about work, her father’s prescriptions and doctor’s appointments. Sometimes her mother was able to coax him to the phone, with a palm rubbing against the receiver. “Come on, speak to her.” The muffled voices would set the stage for what would only be a brief conversation with her father about the weather.  There was so much unsaid, and yet neither of them could bring themselves to bridge the distance between them.

“I can’t sleep when you’re not here.”

A few minutes later, she was slamming the door of the minivan, turning the key, and watching his boy-like face in the window as she pulled away.

Niyoosha drove in silence as she watched the monotony of road signs fly by. She remembered the many trips to the local variety store to buy penny candy with her father, and his patience as she fondled each wrapper until the nickel was sweaty in her palm. She remembered the time she fell off her parent’s bed (after two warnings to stop jumping) and had to get stitches. The way her father held her hand and spoke gently to her each time the doctor brought the needle to her skin.

At a tollbooth, waiting for her turn to hand over bills, she recalled summers in the rumpus room of their house in Baltimore, its air always cold and dry from the air conditioner. Her favorite game with her Baba was when, lying on his back on the floor, he would hold her hands and lift her on to the soles of his bare feet. She would squeal when he tickled her belly with his toes. Years later they developed an obsession for sci fi movies and popcorn. From the couch they would point out favorite scenes with fingers buttery and tasting of salt. He never talked about it, but it must have hurt him a great deal when she stopped wanting to spend time with him as a teenager. She would avoid his eyes as she moved like a ghost around the house. Her mother complained noisily about Niyoosha’s clothes or her hair. Her mother represented everything she didn’t want to become: ignorant, petty, provincial, meek – yet it was her father she pushed away. She hid in her room – and her father protested with his silence. Once, when she returned home after her 10:00 curfew, she discovered him sitting in the living room waiting for her in the dark. She could just make out his silhouette on the sofa, with the streetlight filtering in through the gauzy curtains behind him.

“Baba. I’m sorry.” She’d said, and she had meant it. He just got up and walked past her to the stairs, her eyes following him as he stopped on the third step. As he looked at her, his eyes read… disappointment, sadness, not anger. She wanted more than anything for him to shout at her, shake her. But his stare just lingered for a few seconds and he resumed his march to the bedroom where her mother was long since asleep. She’d cried herself to sleep that night. Why remember this now? Her father would soon forget it.

She pulled the minivan in to the driveway of her parents’ tract home in Bridgeport, a bland ranch style house they had moved to while she was at Stanford. Her heart was pounding hard in her chest. She had spent the morning prepping a soup for him, and the pot sat on the passenger seat of her car with dishtowels wedged around it. The idea of leaving it there on the seat undisturbed crossed her mind. Steeling herself against her own self-doubt, she relaxed her grip on the steering wheel and let the blood return to her knuckles.

It took two trips to carry the pot and bags in to the house. Her mother came out to help with house slippers still on her feet. The house was quiet as they assembled everything on the tile counter.

“He hasn’t said much.” Niyoosha’s mother said, watching her put the heavy pot on the stove and turn on the burner. “You really didn’t have to come.”

 “Of course I did!” She knew she’d said it too loudly but couldn’t help herself. It was not just her mother she was yelling at, but Daryush too. Doesn’t anyone understand?

“Calm down dear. How is Dary? Oh! Did you hear that the gym down the street is closing down?”

The small talk grated on her nerves as she turned on the stove and tried her best to tune her mother out.

“...it’s just he hardly comes with me anymore. He hasn’t been himself for a while. He just sits in the living room. He doesn’t move much from that chair.” Had Daryush come along he would have said what her mother needed to hear. I’m sure he’ll be fine. The doctors might be wrong. She couldn’t bring herself to say it so she kept her eyes on the kettle as it began to scream.

“Well, are you spending time with him? Have you even let Uncle Navid know?”

“Wo’ there. How about not blaming all this on me, okay? Geez.”

“Sorry.”

“And yes, of course I’ve told Uncle Navid. He made me promise not to talk to your Daddy about the diagnosis. He’s convinced that it’ll upset him too much.”

Her mother rested her chin in her hands, and said nothing more. After a few minutes she disappeared back in to the den to her crossword puzzle.

 Baba was sitting in his favorite chair, with a blanket across his lap. He had been looking out at the backyard through the large living room window, but looked up and smiled at his daughter when she came in to the room. “Hello my Shoosha. How are you my sweety?” She tried not to let her surprise show when she heard him use the nickname he had given her when she was very small. Shoosha. How long had it been since she’d heard that name?

“Hello Baba.” She carried over the tray with the steaming bowl of soup and rested it on the floor.

“Your Mommy said you were coming. Don’t you work? You have better things to do than drive out here.”

“Better things to do than see you? Not even close Baba. How are you feeling? Are you hungry?”

“Hungry...?” He returned his gaze to the yard and sighed. She wanted to wrap her arms around him, but stopped herself. She couldn’t bear to feel him stiffen in response.

“I made you some soup. Do you want some?” she asked, kneeling down in front of him. He didn’t seem to be paying attention to what she’d said.

 “This morning, I was looking for my car key,” he began, his eyes never leaving the magnolia tree.  “I wanted to go to the market, you know, in case your mother needed something. She needs milk for her coffee… but… I don’t… I can’t….” His long eyebrow hairs drooped low over his glassy eyes like an awning. She’d never seen him cry before, even when the Shah of Iran died so many years ago, and it seemed as if his heart would break.

“Let me go later, Baba. Don’t worry about that.” She rested her hand on the arm of his chair. It struck her that there were wrinkles on his face she had never seen before. “Baba?”

“Hm? Yes my dear.”

“Can I talk to you about something?”

He turned to look at her. “You are not happy, are you Shoosha?”

The question hung heavily in the air, unexpected.

“Baba, I…. Of course I’m…. “

“Do not lie to me, my daughter. You are my life. Do you think your Baba doesn’t see things? Doesn’t know these things?”

She struggled for a moment, letting her eyes linger on his long, hooked nose, the same Persian nose she saw on her own face every morning. She was going to ask about his trips to Iran, but this? His question pushed everything else away and she was left feeling like that 15-year-old on the stairs. Tell me what to do, Baba. I can’t find my way back to you.

“He’s a good man, a good husband. I don’t blame him for what’s happened. It’s just that things didn’t turn out the way I expected them to.”

“Do they ever?” His voiced trailed off as he looked away.

“You knew. You warned me, but I didn’t listen.”

His attention had drifted again. That precious moment of his warm gaze on her face had passed.

 “It’s hot now, the soup. Wouldn’t you like some?” She held out the bowl for him. The browned onions, whey and dried mint leaves were swirled at the surface and gave off a warm scent.  “Baba, eat some, won’t you?”

“This is a Persian soup. Where did you get it?”

“I made it Baba. For you. It’s Osh-Reshteh.” He reached out and took the bowl from her.

She settled herself next to him, her knees up close, and wrapped her arms around her legs. When she looked back at him, she realized that he was staring at her.

“What is it, Baba?”

He shook his head slowly and looked down again. “Nothing, sweety. Nothing is wrong.” He made a loud slurp as he drew the noodles in to his mouth. There were small birds flying around the yard, and she saw her mother’s cat Doodles watching them sweep in circles with the patience of a monk.

After a long minute, the sound of the spoon hitting the side of the bowl subsided.

“I remember her… Mama.”

“Grandmama?”

He nodded. “I miss her so much.”

Niyoosha could picture the table in her grandmother’s courtyard in Iran, spread with dishes and a steaming pot at its center. Her father had lifted her into his arms so that she could see inside the pot– her grandmother’s Osh. His arms encircling her, she had leaned far over and felt the steam reach her face, the smell of garlic….

He slowly put the spoon down and reached out his open hand to linger on Niyoosha’s cheek.
“Your Grandmama. She made this soup for me when I was a little boy. Yours, my dear, it tastes like memories.”

“What do you remember, Baba?” she asked him, rising to her knees.

“I remember, that you are the most precious gift that God ever gave this humble man. This is something I will never forget.”
-The End

Friday, March 29, 2013

Short Story: The Taste of Memory-Chapter Two

Daryush smiled widely and suggested a toast.
“To the cook,” he said, as he leaned over and planted a kiss on her lips. He tasted like the Merlot and she felt a flush rise up in her cheeks. His love was real, palpable, and yet she still waited for his judgment to be handed out. The Persians in the room, he included, would be able to taste her foreignness. The lack of enough salt on her rice would surely give her away.
“Let’s eat,” Niyoosha said, not feeling hungry at all. “Pass the salad please.”
After the customary compliments to the cook, which Niyoosha customarily dismissed, the discussion returned to Shaheen’s car and Jack’s new job (which Jack didn’t seem to want to talk much about). Niyoosha kept an eye on the salt shaker which she’d placed strategically near Shaheen, and felt an ounce of relief when it remained undisturbed. Eventually, she poked at a few bites of stew and rice and let the wine take effect as it brought a hazy softness to the candlelit room. She let herself relax into Daryush, and felt warmth emanating from him through his light button-up shirt as he debated with Jack about the stock market.  
When the phone rang later in the evening, Niyoosha was in the kitchen dishing the leftover rice in to a plastic container. Her husband had just walked their guests to the door and was in the dining room gathering up dishes. She reached for the receiver, wedging it between her ear and her shoulder so she could get the last few spoonfuls of rice while she dealt with what would probably be another telemarketer.
 “Hello?”
“How are you hon’.”
It was out of the ordinary for Niyoosha’s mother to be calling this late in the evening since it was already after nine and her mother was normally glued to the TV. Niyoosha could picture the older woman leaning on the kitchen counter in her bathrobe. Her hair gray at the roots, it would be pulled back in a blond ponytail, in need of a wash. 
This is going to take awhile, Niyoosha thought, commercial break or not. Her mother’s calls were usually to unload some long monologue about something that happened at work, or some drama with a friend that would take at least 20 minutes to explain before Niyoosha could get a word in edgewise. Trying to be the obedient daughter, she would try to listen with occasional “uh-huhs” and “really?” but inevitably the call would end with her mother being annoyed at her.  Her parents had reached a comfortable state of mutual isolation, and neither of them had many friends. She wondered whether this is what had inspired her father’s trips back to Iran over the past couple of years. Three trips in 24 months, “to reconnect,” he’d called it.
“What are you up to?” her mother asked.
“Well, we had guests over actually, and I’m just getting to the dishes...”
“That’s nice. Listen Dear, I’ve got to talk fast because your father doesn’t know that I’m calling. He just doesn’t think that there is any reason for you to know. You know how he can be.” Daryush pushed his way in to the kitchen with his hands full of dirty dishes. The counters were crowded and he noisily began shifting things to make room.
“He hasn’t really been feeling well.”
“Mom, this really isn’t a good time….”
 “He got lost on his way home from the store the other day and…”
“Mom.”
“…and then he couldn’t find his way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. In this tiny house, can you imagine?”
“Mom.”
“…and I thought he was sleepwalking, and it turned out he wasn’t and…”
“Mom!”
“Yes.”
“Mom, what are you saying?” Something on Niyoosha’s face must have shown her alarm because Daryush stopped fussing with dishes and was watching her closely.
“Well… so the doctor did a test and thinks he may be losing his memory.”
“Losing his memory? What do you mean?”
“Not just losing his memory. The doctor thinks he may have Alzheimer’s or something honey.” Her voice cracked, just a tiny break, but Niyoosha caught it.  
“Oh my god,” she said, more to herself. She took a deep breath and stared in to the sink. “Is he there, Mom? Is Baba there with you? I want to talk to him.”
“Honey, he’d be so upset if he even knew I was calling you. You’re going to have to give him some time. He still seems to think that he can make it go away with magical thinking or something. Imagine that! Anyway, I already sent him to bed. With all this wandering around the house neither one of us is sleeping much lately. I’ll see if I can get him to call you in a couple of days, okay? You go now and don’t think anymore about it. I’m sorry I bothered you. Go on. I’m sorry I worried you. Ba’ bye dear.”
“Bye Mom.”
The aluminum spoon was dropping rice kernals on to the kitchen floor. She stood motionless and listened to the click of her mother putting down the receiver.
“What is it? What’s happened?” Daryush took the phone from her hand and replaced it on the hook. “Niyoosha, what is it?”
“It’s my Dad… It’s Alzheimer’s.”  
“Wow.” Daryush wrapped his arms around her and over his shoulder she watched as the spoon dropped more puffy kernels one by one on to the floor.
Over their last dinner at her parents’ house, her father had told the story of his most recent trip to the covered bazaar. And there, in the kitchen, folded into Daryush’s arms, the details replayed in her mind. She saw the image of the old metal worker with deep creases in his face and a wide toothless smile. The shadowy stall, with spoons of all sizes hung all around his head and one lone light bulb hung from its cord. She imagined that her father delayed picking which one to buy so that he could engage the seller in a bit of gossip, perhaps sitting first to enjoy a glass of tea with him. She was transported to him, at his hip, a child’s gaze, safely protected by the grasp of his hand, feeling the sting of cigarette smoke in her eyes. It was as if she was listening to the gravelly voice of the salesman through her own ears. Studying his brown eyes, she caught single words that she could understand, letting the ones she could not wash over her, while the slotted spoons swayed in the shadows.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Short Story: The Taste of Memory-Chapter One

Dear Reader,
Happy New Year! I hope you enjoy my new short story. I'll publish a new chapter each week. If you like it, please comment.


Half-blood! Niyoosha chided herself. Persian women customarily greet guests at the door with faces perfectly painted and nails long and glamorous, while dinner waits hot and ready in the other room. Guests expect to find an elaborate spread of multiple dishes perfectly orchestrated for color, flavor and fragrance. And here was Niyoosha, still in the kitchen, standing at the stove with a steaming pot in her hands. The steam was dissipating in spirally tendrils above her head, loosening strands of auburn hair, leaving them sticking to her flushed cheeks. She could hear her Persian husband conversing with his guests over wine as she wiped the hair from her face with a sigh. Better hurry up. Grasping the pot with her red oven mitt, she lifted and sprinkled the delicate fingers of rice across the platter with a shallow slotted spoon. This simple spoon was a gift from her father from his last trip to Iran and it held special importance to her. It was made out of cheap aluminum and the holes in its flat face were unevenly spaced, as if punched out with a nail and hammer. With a firm grip she wedged the spoon under the edge of the crispy layer of rice stuck to the bottom of the pot until it lifted out easily. The crispy pieces arranged around the mountain of rice, Niyoosha stood back to admire the tableau. It was beautiful – she could admit that much to herself.

That her father thought to bring his married daughter a cooking tool as a memento of his trip had been unexpected. As a child, food was never discussed in her family, and was rarely enjoyed. She had never witnessed her Persian father cook, and her American mother cooked what was easiest, if at all. They ate Rice-a-Roni and Hamburger Helper and for special treats her father would pick up Kentucky Fried Chicken in a cardboard bucket. Before 1979, no one knew where Iran was, or was remotely curious about her father’s foreign accent. Niyoosha had been able to be half-Persian in relative obscurity. But for those 444 anxious days beginning in early November 1979, her family ate their dinner on folding trays in front of the television and waited for the collective nightmare of the Iranian hostage crisis to come to a close. Her father spoke very little about it, but he carried the weight of the world on sloped shoulders and in an odd twitch that developed in his left eye. It was about that time that people started asking “what kind of name is Niyoosha?”

She became Nicki at school. Her friends began calling her by her new name and never looked back, as if Niyoosha had died and been buried – no funeral needed. Children of Iranian refugees began showing up at her school with names like Ardeshir and Shirindokht, names that were difficult for American mouths to chew. They stood on the sidelines of four-square games in huddled pairs wearing ill-fitting clothes. Fifth graders looking for simple definitions of “us” and “them” taunted the new kids with “hostage-taker!” and “terrorist!” as Niyoosha looked on silently.

She returned to the stove and ladled the dark stew in to a matching serving bowl, watching as the chunks of beef and dried limes bobbed at the surface. A mixture of voices, the deep bass of her husband Daryush, and the tittering response of Shaheen, drifted in through the crack in the swinging door. Niyoosha took a deep breath and collected herself. Wiping her hands on her apron, she lifted the rice platter with two hands and pushed her way through the swinging door.

The gazes of her husband and their two guests lifted to meet her face. The room smelled like Shaheen’s perfume.

“Eh! Bah bah! Here she is, the cook herself! How beeyutiful my dear!” Shaheen declared, her voice echoing off the dining room walls. Shaheen’s husband Jack, slouched in the stiff wooden chair with a glass of red wine in his hand, looked like he was just waking up.

“Wow,it is beautiful!” Daryush rose from his seat to take the platter from Niyoosha and waited until Shaheen had moved some wine glasses over before resting it at the center of the table. Niyoosha headed back in to the kitchen to toss the salad.

They were so much alike, Baba and Daryush. Even if only in how much they both adored her. As a newcomer to her office, Daryush had been outgoing, popular and there was something so deeply familiar about him. It had taken her months to build up the nerve to ask him to lunch. Sitting across from him at the fish and chip place, with menus still in their hands, she had shared with him that her real name was Niyoosha and watched as the recognition washed over him.
“You’re Persian?” he’d asked, incredulous, and his gaze on her fell heavy and hard. He seemed to search for something in her face that he had not seen before. The smile he rewarded her with left her shivering and smiling like an idiot. Wearing his coat loosely over her shoulders, they walked back to the office together. She had felt reborn.

Over long lunches that followed, Daryush recounted early childhood memories of Iran where he had lived until he was 8 years old. She began weaving his memories in to an imaginary childhood for herself in the alleyways of Tehran. With his help, she devoured the Persian language like it was comfort food long denied her. The language came to her easily, and a confidence began growing in her that fueled her attachment to him. Baba had never spoken Farsi to her as a child, and she probably would not have liked it if he had. But now, despite all the sacrifices Baba had made to raise her as an American, Niyoosha found herself longing for the lullabies that her father had chosen not to sing to her.

And then there had been her father’s disappointment when she announced that Daryush had proposed. Had she really been so na├»ve to think that marrying an Iranian man would bring her closer to her father? Instead, the marriage left a wedge between them. Baba became remote, and no prodding from Niyoosha’s mother would draw him out. It was as if she had trespassed against her father, and he could not forgive her for it. The two years since the wedding had passed quickly, marked by promotions at the office, birthdays, and the occasional dinner party with her husband’s friends. She faced each one like some test of her identity – so hungry she was to belong. Once a month she called her mother on the phone. Occasionally she visited. As close as they’d been when she was a child, her father rarely spoke to her. So this simple spoon, handed to her by her father without a word, without even a smile during her last visit, it had meant something. Yes, it had meant something.

She brought out the stew and salad to the table, the candles were relit and the wine glasses refilled. This was the best part, really, when she could enjoy her accomplishment. If she could have insisted that everyone simply sit and look at the meal, instead of tasting it to discover its shortcomings, it would have suited her perfectly. It was inevitable though, this “eating of the meal.” There seemed no way to avoid it.

Stay tuned for chapter 2....

Sunday, March 10, 2013

        My memories of Iran had already faded by the time I was seven years old so when the trunk arrived one fall day in October I was awestruck. It arrived on our doorstep like a long forgotten relative, encased in metal and lacquered wood, shredded rope wrapped around its belly and our address plastered to its top in my father’s careful script. The heavy iron handles lay flat along its sides like tiny round arms, worn and smooth in my hand. This was the lost trunk that my parents had sent ahead before our return. They had considered it lost, gone forever, and yet here it stood after having had travels of its own.

        It must have taken both my parents to lift that trunk. I imagined them holding those heavy handles, surprised by the weight of them, and then a noisy heave as they brought the trunk over the threshold. They would have carried it slowly through the dark hallway and down the carpeted stairs to our rumpus room, calling out to each other when they turned the corners. But I wasn’t there to see any of that. It was already enthroned in the deep shag of our rumpus room floor by the time I got home from school, and I found it there, waiting for me.

     The things that usually littered our rumpus room: my father’s massive canvases leaning against one wall with only the blond wood frames and frayed canvas edges exposed, the black upright piano with its bench settled underneath, and the old zenith TV on its rolling cart, they stood at attention around the trunk as if eyeing it, challenging it. Who goes there and what right have you here, you unexpected and uninvited stranger?

      Iran had become an “other”, foreign, strange, the half of me that was oddly-colored and smelled of celery stew and rose water; the half of me that I tried to ignore. My year there when I was three and four was like a closed chapter of one of my father’s library books full of black and white pictures of artifacts and statues. All that was left were flashes of memory: paper schoolbooks that I couldn’t read, pots of steaming rice and the bright orange of a glass of fresh carrot juice. Iran had become the sound of my mother’s shouts in to our kitchen princess phone on New Years Day each year; her voice desperately reaching through the phone, her loud voice shouting in the language that was familiar yet incomprehensible to me now. Iran was the phone inevitably handed to me to hear a tinny distant voice calling my name in answer to my small hello. The awkward silence when I didn’t know what else to say.

     And when this trunk was finally opened it brought forth all these things in a flood that made me breathless. Its heavy rope was cut with our kitchen knife and fell away to expose the heavy padlock that had been hidden underneath. Within minutes my father produced the small key and the top was lifted. Stale air mixed with the smell of sweet moth balls lingered in my nose as I stretched my neck to peer inside. Its dark gut was still and full. My mother, chatty, exuberant, welcomed each item from its depth as she gingerly removed them– small folded rugs with bright patterns, tiny sheep skin hats that I could hardly believe I had ever worn, a tin samovar with small matching tea cups, clothes, wraps, shawls and stiff beaded shoes of gaudy colors. I stood away and poked at these things with outstretched fingers. Everything was scratchy against my skin and the old, weighted smell was so strong it assaulted me and filled the room. I gladly disappeared into the kitchen to make my mother a cup of strong black tea and leave her with these smelly and unexpected relatives. Mother surrounded by memories

     Satisfied that she had unfolded each item, caressed each with nostalgia and longing and then refolded them with the same creases, Mother began returning them back to their waiting vault. The trunk which witnessed this whole scene was eventually closed with a slam and my mother sprang up from her squat with a light step. Both of my parents seemed to welcome this trunk home. As for me, I was wash with relief when it was all over: the foreigness of these things only served to remind me of my own unexplainable foreigness. The trunk finally took its rightful place amongst the old boxes in our garage and I felt more at ease with its place there, hidden and unseen. Its contents would remain the assemblage of an unknown people. Artifacts of a culture, of a part of myself, that I would never truly know.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Iran, Freedom of Expression Series: Let my Voice Speak for You

June 13, 2009


The scent of her mother’s cream lingers at her nose as the girl brushes the back of her hand against her lips. Her throat is dry: she has not had any water to drink since her morning tea. She knows she should not be here. Her mother, were she to find out, would surely collapse in fear. Escape from the house without permission would normally mean a sharp slap from Baba. But the severity of the punishment she would receive, were she to linger too long, made her teeth chatter and her fingers clench more tightly around the ten thousand Rials in her sweaty hand.

She has never seen Valiasr Street so full of strangers. Normally crowded with cars, it is now crowded with people, a sea of colorful headscarves and dark heads, and spotted with the bright green of the resistance movement. Their common breath, the deep inhalation and then the release of their chants comes in waves, pulling her in closer. Her ears ring with their voices in her ears. At 12, she had acquired enough height to see eye to eye with these people, so open-mouthed and insistent, but she cannot understand what they are saying.

The week before, she and her mother were picking through the cilantro, pulling off tasty leaves from stems with green-stained hands. “I want to grow up to be a doctor, Mama,” she had said. “A doctor, Azar?” her mother had replied, her forehead furrowed. The resulting silence confirmed that it was all the girl would say about the matter. She had planted the seed, hoping it would grow and bloom in her mother’s mind.

She clutches the knot of her headscarf under her chin, and watches as a woman in chador wades past on the fringes of the crowd. Her mouth and cheeks are covered by a white surgeon’s mask, leaving only her tired eyes and heavy brow exposed.

“Khanoum,” the girl shouts to her and the sound of her own voice barely reaches her ears over the bullhorn. “Khanoum! Where is everyone going?”

The woman’s head turns and she sees the child. “We are marchng towards our future.” Her voice escapes from behind the mask like the scent of her mother’s stew emerging in lacey clouds from under a pot’s lid.

“Khanoum! But what is everyone saying?”

“They say whatever they feel like saying. Go home, child. Let my voice speak for you.” The woman turned and waded in to the crowd.

At my house, I am silent. I seek out quiet corners to do my studies. I must evade notice by my brothers or else they will taunt me for keeping my head in my school books. Silence and obedience, or shame, these are my choices.

The girl heard the high pitched sound of an electric scooter in the distance. She knows that these scooters carry basij, young men with sticks in their hands. These sticks search out bones to break. Like the way her eldest brother twists her arm behind her until it feels like it will snap off her shoulder. She knows that these sticks, these scooters, these men, seek to silence these streets. She feels a shout erupt from her open mouth. Her teeth are bared.

Screams erupt and the crowd breaks from its procession to disperse in every direction. The girl turns to run, but her right shoe catches at the edge of the sidewalk and falls off her foot. Returning home without her shoe would give her away and mean facing her father and her brothers with an explanation that she cannot give. She hesitates. For just a moment she considers turning against the crowd to find it, but feels herself suddenly folded in to the black cloth of a woman’s chador. She is swept away and barely feels her feet touch the ground. People knock against her; she sees fear in their eyes. Her dry throat barely lets her swallow as struggles to take a breath. An elbow in her side and a sharp stone under her bare foot both remind her of the softness of her pink skin when she steps out of the tub on wash day.

The scooter engines are louder now, and she turns her head to catch a stick swing and hit a man’s head. Screaming and shouts erupt over the buzz. She recognizes the boney back of the basij, his stick red with the man’s blood. She knows that back. She knows the t-shirt that he wears straight off the laundry line because it is his favorite. She knows the seams and the weave of it, because she washed it with her own hand the previous day.

The bullhorn is still shouting. The woman is breathing quickly in her ear. “Go child,” the woman says to her. “Run.”

This piece was written for Iran, freedom of Expression Series. For more information, visit this link.

Photo credit to
Olivier Laban-Mattei of AFG and Getty Images

Monday, March 8, 2010

On June 3rd 1971, my father left Iran for Europe and on July 18th my mother joined him in Rome. For 20 days Lygeia and I were left in the care of our grandparents in Tadjrish.

Over the 10 months we had lived in Iran, I committed to memory the changing landscape of our inner courtyard garden. I watched my Grandfather grow sick and almost die, and then, miraculously, claim a second chance. Ten months was a lifetime and I knew no other life.

August 7, 1971
En route to Zurich Switzerland

At 30,000 feet we had lost all sense of time and place. My sister’s wadded cardigan was pressing marks into my flushed cheek so I shifted my elbow out of the crack between the airplane seats and readjusted my head. The rumble of the jet’s engine interrupted my sleep – I was tired and bored and wanted this in-between world to give way to whatever was coming next. Through the ochre of closed lids I listened for my sister’s voice, but both she and our escort, Uncle Hossein, who wasn’t really our uncle at all, were quiet. Uncle Hossein spoke no English or German, so Lygeia had translated for him when the stewardess came by to offer blankets and pillows. He wasn’t as bold and confident as he had been at Grandpapa’s parties. Instead, he seemed strangely timid in stockinged feet and a black suit, having to ask my sister to get him a glass of water.

Hours later I was back in my parents' arms and dozing off and on through a cab ride. I was placed on my feet and led with half closed lids through a carpeted foyer, and on to an elevator (ding!) to my parents’ hotel room. For once, I did not argue who should push the button - I was far too tired to care. We would stay one night before a train ride to Frankfurt and another long flight across the Atlantic and back to the mythic Home. Home? The word rang flat. I waited for my mother to place the large iron key in the keyhole, and turn the lock in the hotel room door.

“We have a surprise for you,” my mother said, and pushed open the door.


“A surprise?” Lygeia asked and rushed over the threshold as the light was clicked on. I followed her past the large bed where my parents were to sleep, and through another doorway in to a smaller room where two twin beds sat side by side. The curtain was pulled open and the afternoon light poured down on an array of toys, purses and trinkets on each bed, of glorious reds, blues, yellows and greens – dolls with flowing dresses, a plastic purse of bright yellow and red, a Spanish flamenco dancer with a gown so full that her tiny plastic high heels were all but invisible to my eye. I dropped my father’s hand and rushed in with Sissy, wanting to grab it all at once into my arms. “For me? All for me?” I asked.

“This bed is for you Roia. That bed is for your sister.”
“Oh!” Lygeia squeeled, and we both rushed in to finger the cloth of the swiss apron we were both given, and the ruffles and the hair of each doll. From headboard to foot, it was a fantastic array, like Christmas, and the presence of these inanimate trinkets soothed me and reminded me of the awesome power of my parents to provide for me – to find me when I am lost. The weight of each doll in my hands was like another anchor to remind me of Home.

I turned over the flamenco dancer and studied her tiny shoes, her underclothes. I felt the plastic of my colorful and shiny purse. My mother and father eventually disappeared in to the next room to put down the suitcases but I hardly noticed.

“Sissy, look at this one!” I said with a grin, holding out the purse for her to see. She looked up briefly and went back to studying the long blond hair of the doll in her hands. She’d made room for herself on her bed, and had sat herself down amongst her prizes, her long legs extending off the end of the mattress.

Later that evening we sat at dinner in a dimly lit hotel restaurant. I had my new purse tucked tightly under my arm as I fell asleep in my chair. I let myself be carried back to our room for a long sleep in between cool sheets.

-end

Friday, February 26, 2010

Join Persianchyld at this event: Sunday, March 7th at 4:00pm


"NOROUZ: CELEBRATING A GREEN YEAR IN IRAN
AND DEFENDING THE VOICES OF FREE SPEECH"
A Literary Reading by Association of Iranian American Writers
Poetry by Farnaz Fatemi, Shideh Etaat
Fiction by Laleh Khadivi (author of The Age of Orphans),
Siamak Vossoughi, Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh
With Musical Guests, Hossein and Sarah of the Persian Fusion Band
"Aleph Null"
Sunday, March 7, 2010, 4-6 pm
Maude Fife Room, Wheeler Hall 315, University of California, Berkeley
Suggested donation: $5 students/$10-20 others
Fundraiser for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

(Berkeley, CA) – The Association of Iranian American Writers will host a literary reading and musical performance in honor of Norouz, the Iranian New Year, and in recognition of the powerful role of writers, artists and journalists in Iran’s "Green Movement." Donations from this event will be made to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international organization that has been working since the June 2009 Iranian elections to free jailed journalists and journalists who have had to flee Iran to avoid persecution.

The afternoon of readings and music will take place from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Maude Fife Room located on the third floor of Wheeler Hall, room number 315 at UC Berkeley. Nazy Kaviani, AIAW member and a representative of CPJ, will report on that status of jailed Iranian journalists. Bay Area Iranian-American writers will read from their work, including poetry and fiction that highlights the intersection between Iranian culture and American life. Aleph Null, a Persian jazz fusion group whose music combines Middle Eastern and Asian influences, will also perform. Books by AIAW writers and CDs by Aleph Null will be available for purchase.

The reading is hosted by AIAW with the co-sponsorship of the UC Berkeley Department of English, Department of Near East Studies, Omid Advocates, United4Iran, the Iranian Student Alliance in America (ISAA). AIAW is a national organization dedicated to promoting the work of fiction and non-fiction writers, poets, journalists, photojournalists, and artists who work with words. More information on AIAW is available at: http://www.iranianamericanwriters.org.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sweet surprise

From the back seat of the taxi, I am barely big enough to see out the dirty windows: squares, rectangles and blocks of concrete reach up in to a grey, muddy sky. Heads turn to follow us as we wind sharply through noisy Tehran streets, honks blast, voices call out, my mother yells directions to the driver. I watch the long ashen tip of her cigarette pulse red, visible from the open passenger window, and feel the smokey breeze, passed back to me, brush against my forehead.

With a force that throws my shoulders forward, we have pulled over and stopped. Brief stillness, and then an eruption of voices, grown-ups, bills counted and passed to the driver, and my father's arm reaches across me to open the door. I hesitate, and then step down to the sidewalk in buckled patent leather shoes, careful to avoid the dirty canal of water directly below my feet.

The smokey air of the taxi has dissipated, but the breeze that blows by me now holds its own smells, both sour and sweet, aged. People stream by as I reach for my father's hand, the scene is black, dusty suit jackets and muted colors broken only by brightly colored headscarves tied under chins. A shrouded figure passes closely, with a hand holding that of a small boy. How can this child know his mother from any other figure, this sea of strangers, with only the one hand to know her? I ask myself.

I am tugged forward towards an open door. I know we are supposed to meet someone - whom, I don't know. I am a follower and subject to the whims and distractions of adults. I have no reason to expect otherwise.

There is darkness inside, as our eyes adjust, which soon gives way to tall chairs, a long bar, and the slight sting of more smoke. I feel my father's hands lift me into his arms, and he sits me on a tall padded stool. My fingers search for edges to cling to. On the other side of the bar is a flurry of activity, people moving quickly, and a machine rumbling very loudly, dripping a vibrant orange liquid in to tall glasses. The smell of sweet carrots. I watch, my head cocked slightly, as the men with dirty aprons work around the machine, sometimes blocking my view. Eventually, one turns and places a glass of orange liquid in front of me. It's of carrots, I know this. Warm saliva begins to pool in my cheeks as I wrap my hands around the cool, tall glass.

"Roia," my father says. "Try this."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Care

First my father and then my mother were gone, but I do not remember the leaving. I do remember the absence of them though, the strange calm that settled over me when I believed that my life had irreversibly adapted to new routines, different fingers to sift through the tangles in my hair, different lips to kiss my forehead when the lights were turned off at night. How long would they be gone? I had no way to understand these things. As always, my sister was my rock, and I was calmed by her steadfast confidence, and soon just stopped asking the questions. It had been 8 months since we had arrived in Iran which was a lifetime of days and naps and dinners and breakfasts in the courtyard. The crisis of my grandfather's illness had passed as mysteriously as it had come. Life was constantly redefined.

The phrase “jeesh dahram” earned me a trip out to the toilet room which was across the courtyard outside and not in the house. I never visited that drafty room alone, unable to reach the slender chain that hung from the bare bulb above my head. I had long since adapted to the low crouch over the white porcelain hole in the concrete floor, and the strain to see over my pants wadded at my knees to watch the stream of yellow emerge from my body. I would say “tamom,” when I was through, and then felt warm water being poured over my bare skin from the long arched spout of a plastic water pitcher.

In Iran, just as there were not toilet seats, there were also no bathtubs. I became accustomed to taking showers with my Aunty Mary and baby cousin, clothes shed outside the door and water beginning to fall all around me in a tall tiled room with a drain as big as my hand in the middle of the cool floor. Aunty was thin, and she stood over me, as she held my baby cousin’s slippery body close to her breasts.
“Come on, joonam, you’re not afraid of water are you?” Her voice echoed off the dripping walls of the cavernous water room, and tried to lure me from where I stood. With her arms full of squirming baby skin I knew that, for the moment, I was in charge even though I was fearful of the way that water burned my eyes when it dripped down my face. I did not move my feet as I watched how their silhouette against the high window made their faces dark, and steam swirled around them. I felt the warm water circle around my toes as it moved across the floor. I waited until my turn to be in charge was over, and baby Mariam was handed to the towel and arms that emerged in the doorway. I let myself be picked up and lifted to the soft breasts of this woman, draping my arms over her shoulders and nesting my eyes in to the warm skin of her neck.

“It’s not so bad, is it, my dear,” I knew she was saying to me in her voice that was different from my mother’s, and for the time it took her to wash my back with her scratchy cloth, I was her baby, and I belonged to her. I let her place me back on my feet, and looked past her long dripping lashes into her brown eyes as she picked up each foot, resting it on her crouching thigh, and moved the sudsy cloth between each of my toes.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Prayer

Dear persianchyld readers:
My apologies for not writing for several months. There have been big changes in my life - good ones - and I now plan to start up again. Thanks for hanging in there with me.


Tadjrish,Iran
June 1971

It was thirst that drove me down that dark hallway. As I passed the bedroom doorway I caught her shadowy figure out of the corner of my eye – my grandmother, with her back to me. She stood facing a blank wall, ghostlike, wrapped in her thin cotton chador adorned with a delicate pattern that I knew would be gathered closely under her chin. I cocked my head to one side. Her prayer reached my ears and it made me stop and linger there with my small fingers wrapped around the doorframe. I watched her raise her hands, palms up, as high as she could reach, and then cover her face with the invisible prayer. Then, quiet again, she knelt down and touched her forehead to the gather of beads on the small prayer rug at her feet. This odd ritual was repeated multiple times every day and I found her there often, as if asleep and in a dream state, following some mysterious pattern with half-cast lids. Entering the room and standing in her line of sight would not awaken her – I had tried that already – since she could tune out every person and sound around her and only listen to the sound of her own voice. Her feet were bare, and I could hear the soft crack of her bones as she rose from her prostration and stood tall and still again. There was strength in her stillness that I struggled to understand, a strength that seldom surfaced, but that made me stare at the rounded shoulders and the backs of her heels that poked out from under the light cloth.

Grandmama was a small woman - I could tell because my big sister was almost as big as she was. My grandmother’s voice never echoed off the walls like my mother’s could and she usually moved quietly about the house, shuffling in soft house slippers, tending to my grandfather’s needs, prepping the dinner, or brewing the tea. My Daddy had left Iran the week before, and it seemed my grandmother was putting me to bed as often as my mother now. The pads of her fingers always felt cool and soft on my face when she brushed my hair aside.

The routine began again and she shrank back down to the rug. I took a step to continue on my way to the kitchen, but the floor creaked loudly and I froze there, afraid to move. My eyes fixed on the curve of her back but I did not see her look up, did not see her break her trance to peak at who might be watching her. I did not move in the same world as Grandmama when she prayed, and it would take her another 20 minutes at least to complete the steps, and the prayers and to fold her chador in the prayer rug with the beads and the heavy leather bound book that she read from. My glass of water would have to wait, so I pivoted around to head back to my room, to climb on to my sister’s bed and wait.