Translated from the Persian by Faridoun Farrokh
Who could imagine that the Shah, defeated and despondent, would leave his throne and his kingdom in the hands of some weird creatures (weird from my point of view) in beards, turbans, and black mantles? Who could foresee that aunt Badri’s house would be confiscated and that my father would die and be buried in Canada, of all places? We knew nothing about the cheats and tricks of the history. We couldn’t think that someday the impossible would become a fact of life.
We had a good life and believed that everything was in its right place. Apparently it wasn’t, and we weren’t aware. I was a senior in high school counting the days till I would enter the university. I would never have guessed that before long Tehran University would be closed and my dreams would fade away. Customarily, I spent the weekends at my aunt Badri’s. She had no children of her own, and her husband, Karim Pasha, lavished all his affection on the children in the family, especially on me—the favorite. He would even take me along with aunt Badri when he traveled abroad. Usually aunt Badri would wait for me at the school gate in her car, with a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth. Her bangs extended to eye-level, forcing her to tilt her head up to be able to see. She had an adolescent boy’s figure, lean and winsome, with long eyelashes, giving her an ingénue look. Sometimes she went out in the street wearing a tie, or her husband’s long, oversized coat.
After the installation of the Islamic regime, she refused to submit to the statute requiring women to wear the hijab. Instead, she would go out wearing her husband’s wide-brimmed hat. Naturally, she would be arrested by the agents of the Islamic Guidance Committee who would confiscate her hat and warn her of dire consequences for insubordination. But she was incorrigible. She would go out the same way, perhaps in a more conspicuous hat, the next day and go through the routine again and again.
I loved my aunt Badri and preferred spending time with her and her husband to living in our own house with my parents and grandmother. My father, a government employee, frequently was away on assignment. My uncle Homayoun occupied the upper floor of the house where he lived with his dog Jimmy and his old manservant Haji in self-imposed isolation from the rest of the family, reading foreign-language books and supposedly writing his memoirs. Aunt Badri’s house, on the other hand, was a beehive of activity and incessant noise. All kinds of interesting people would stop by throughout the day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Karim Pasha was born in Istanbul but had grown up mostly in Moscow and the Caucuses region. He loved gambling, lavish parties, music, and dance. He was also an inveterate hunter of ducks, quails, and other small birds, which he would expertly dress and grill to finger-licking delicacy. Every month or so during the hunting season, he would organize a hunting party involving all members of the family. We would gather early in the morning at his house, load up in three or four cars, and take off for the foothills outside of Tehran. Upon arrival at the location, the elders of the family would stretch out on carpets and rugs in the shade of the trees and doze off. Aunt Badrie, dressed in men’s clothing, would tend to food and refreshments while Karim Pasha would load his big shotgun and take off after his quarry. We, the children, functioned as hunting dogs, running helter-skelter in search of birds brought down by Karim Pasha. In the evening we would gather in aunt Badri’s house and Karim Pasha would pick up his accordion and accompany himself singing Turkish folk songs.
Physically, Karim Pasha was imposing. He was tall and big-boned and sported a handlebar mustache that balanced his thick, black eyebrows. Evidently these were the features aunt Badri found irresistible in him. In full view of the family, she would sit on his lap pulling the corner of his moustache and place small kisses on his face—all this to the consternation of the family elders who would avert their eyes in embarrassment.
Spending so much time with aunt Badri, I could witness her infatuation with this tall, corpulent, blustery man. I was sure if I ran into him in the dark of the night I would be scared to death by his large black eyes and handlebar mustache. In the mornings aunt Badri would follow him barefoot to the garage, ardently kissing him on his cheeks and mustache. She would then wait until he drove off in his maroon Cadillac. Afterward, she’d return to bed to sleep or read well into the day, and in the evening she would get dressed, put on her makeup, and sit at the bedroom window overlooking the street anxiously watching the traffic waiting for her husband’s return. Karim Pasha often arrived accompanied by two or three guests, with bags of groceries in his arms.
In the summer everyone would jump in the pool, except aunt Badri, who had a strange dislike of being in the water. She would sit by the side of the pool, soaking her feet in it. Karim Pasha would swim to her and kiss her small pink toes one by one. After dinner, card tables were set up in the garden, and the guests played cards until the wee hours of the morning and left only after the last bottle of wine and pack of cigarettes were exhausted.
But life beyond the walls of aunt Badri’s compound was changing. There were street demonstrations and anti-Shah slogans. In the evening hours the chants of “God Is Great” could be heard from neighboring rooftops, occasionally accompanied by small-arms fire. My mother suffered fits of anxiety and complained about my father’s frequent absence. Karim Pasha, too, expressed some apprehension, though not openly.
The fear of an encroaching cataclysm soon penetrated the coterie of high-living, fun-loving friends, and political discussion was slowly replacing the card games and bouts of merry-making. Karim Pasha was the first among them to acknowledge the inexorable worsening of the situation and announce plans to take his wife and leave the country before it was too late. Aunt Badri, however, had a hard time disengaging emotionally from her house and family and denied the dark cloud that hung above our heads. She preferred to remain oblivious to the new direction of things. When finally she submitted to the will of her husband and agreed to go along with his plans, she consoled herself with the thought that, in time, revolutionary fervor would subside, and everything would return to normal.
Karim Pasha left for Istanbul, where he would arrange accommodations before aunt Badri could join him. Aunt Badri wanted to take me with her, despite my mother’s vehement objections. My father was abroad when the new regime took power, and he found it unsafe to return. With her husband stuck in another country, my mother was especially unwilling to let me go. For the first time in her life, aunt Badri was confronted with the need to make momentous decisions. What to do with the house? How to pay the household staff, the chef, the valet, the chauffeur, the gardener, the housekeeper? And of course no less significant was the question of what items of clothing to take and what to leave behind. My poor aunt Badri was struggling valiantly with this vortex of insignificant problems when the fatal news arrived.
Karim Pasha had been killed in a car crash. That kind, magnanimous man with his imposing physique and bristling mustache was no more. As simple as that.
• • •
How could death occur in such proximity to me? I always thought it happened to others, those I never knew, those whose obituaries I occasionally would see in newspapers. Young as I was, I thought it was so unfair, so dastardly, of fate to involve me in it.
For aunt Badri, needless to say, it was much more than that. She let out a heart-wrenching scream at the news and started running wildly around the house, from room to room. She was driven to the verge of insanity and in time succumbed to fits of delusion, refusing to believe that Karim Pasha was dead. She would not dress in black, and she would cover her ears when friends and relatives tried to console her. She declined to receive visitors and callers. Only my mother and uncle Homayoun were allowed in the house.
By that point the war with Iraq had broken out, and it was not possible for aunt Badri to go to Istanbul for the rituals of burial and leave-taking. She would stand at the foot of Karim Pasha’s bed and call him to wake up and talk to her, or she would report to him the news of arrests and executions plastered all over the newspapers. Sometimes she would read from a piece of paper, telling us that it was a letter from Karim Pasha. She slept poorly and was awakened frequently by bad dreams. She refused to take the sleeping pills my mother had brought her. They would distract her from thinking or dreaming about Karim Pasha, she said. It broke my heart to watch her in such agony.
Aunt Badri kept her husband’s shotgun at the foot of her bed. With the slightest noise she would pick it up and tiptoe along the hall, looking for intruders.
Aunt Badri’s house was gloomy and depressing. All windows were closed and curtains drawn with the furniture in slip-covers. The portraits of Karim Pasha’s ancestors still hung on the walls. They seemed to come to life at night, smiling with a savage gleam in their eyes.
To make things worse, crimes of all sorts had reached epidemic proportions in the city, and there were frequent reports of break-ins, burglaries, and murders. With only two women—my aunt and an ancient housekeeper—on the premises, we always felt insecure and threatened, especially since the house, full of antiques, rugs, and jewelry, would be a treasure trove for burglars. Aunt Badri kept her husband’s shotgun at the foot of her bed. With the slightest noise she would pick it up and, holding it at the ready, tiptoe along the hall and down the staircase all the way to the basement looking for intruders, while I hid under the bedcovers trembling with fear.
At uncle Homayoun’s suggestion, we decided to move the valuables to the relative safety of my parents’ house. For obvious reasons, this had to be done with considerable discretion. Items would be brought out of the house surreptitiously, unobtrusively, and placed either in the trunk of the car, or carried away in gym bags and shopping sacs. There was one harrowing mishap though, when my mother, who had lost a lot of weight and suffered from bouts of disorientation due to overuse of sedatives and antidepressant drugs, lost her way while carrying a bagful of rare antiques. We found her slumped semiconscious on a stoop on a neighboring street. Fortunately, the situation was resolved without any loss.
Once the transfer was completed, the items were piled in the living room to be hidden, or inconspicuously positioned in various parts of the house. However, my grandmother, fully alert and in control despite her advanced age, demanded that the most valuable relics be stored in the living room where she could keep an eye on them.
The only thing aunt Badri did not want to part with was an ivory figurine of the White Tara to which she was inordinately attached. She always kept it on the bedside table, and every morning she would spread flower petals around it. She had explained to me that the White Tara was the goddess of universal compassion. The goddess who enabled beings to cross the Ocean of Existence. My aunt believed that her beloved Tara would protect Karim Pasha as he crossed the river of suffering.
Events overtook us with such speed that we didn’t have time to adjust. I kept thinking it was just a nightmare from which I would awake to find the Shah on the throne and Karim Pasha and my father back among us. I would imagine aunt Badri stretched out on a hammock in the arboretum, with her spectacles perched at the tip of her nose, reading a book while puffing on a cigarette. But reality would soon intrude, and I would find myself in the chaos of our home, with my mother lying in bed under sedation and my grandmother, bossy and blustery, always shouting orders to anyone nearby, always on the phone, making insulting remarks about some grand ayatollah or the Revolutionary Guards or the Islamic Guidance Committee.
My grandmother suffered from severe knee bursitis and used a stick to get around. With the stick, she would clobber Jimmy, uncle Homayoun’s dog, to keep it away from her. I would go to aunt Badri’s house as frequently as I could, fearing that alone she might do herself some harm. She would not move to our house, despite repeated pleas from my mother, my uncle, and my grandmother. Aunt Badri was adamant. She did not want to move away from the site of her life with Karim Pasha. She insisted that he would visit her at nights and she could smell the familiar odor of his invisible body.
• • •
Our days, laced with memories of the past and fear of the future, hurried by. Even the ground under our feet felt unstable. “Will there be a respite?” I wondered. Apparently not, as it turned out one afternoon when I was visiting at aunt Badri’s.
Clad in Karim Pasha’s pajamas, with the White Tara close to her face on the pillow, aunt Badri was lounging on the king-size bed thumbing through the pages of a book. There had been a power outage, and the house was morbidly quiet. We were startled by an urgent thumping on the door. Aunt Badri jumped off the bed and picked up the shotgun as she rushed to the bedroom window. There was a man astride the garden wall. Presently, he jumped down, rushed to the garden gate, and opened it, letting in two other men. From the window we could see a few stray passersby on the sidewalk looking in with piqued interest. The three men were dressed in Revolutionary Guard uniforms. Aunt Badri threw open the window.
“What the hell do you want?” she yelled. “What are you doing in my house?” The men looked up and saw her in her strange outfit. “Hey, woman,” one of them shouted, “go cover your head. That’s shameful. We’re not looking. But there are all sorts of strangers around.” They pointed to the crowd gathering outside.
‘This woman is stark raving mad!’ someone blared out. ‘Call the psychiatric ward; call a doctor.’
“This is my house,” aunt Badri declared with a tinge of outrage in her voice. “I dress as I wish.”
“We are agents of the Committee, and we have a warrant to expropriate this house,” announced one of the guards, a short and plump man with a heavy black beard.
“Like hell you do,” retorted aunt Badri. “Get out of here. You’re trespassing.”
“It’s your own fault. We’ve been ringing the bell for an hour,” one of the guards replied.
Aunt Badri leaned away from the window and reached for the shotgun. She lifted it and aimed in the direction of the guards.
“Get out or I will fire,” she threatened.
There was a hubbub from the crowd outside the garden gate. “This woman’s gone crazy with grief,” someone yelled from outside.
“I’m going to fire,” aunt Badri said resolutely. “I’m going to count to three.”
“Look here, sister,” shouted one of the guards, “put that gun down. That is a criminal offense. They’re gonna put you in jail; you’ll be flogged. Close the window and go in.”
One of the spectators, a neighbor who knew the family, worked his way through the crowd. “Badri Khanoum, don’t risk your life. Put that gun down, please” he implored, as he stood under the window, looking up.
“I’m going to count to three,” aunt Badri repeated, unmoved.
“One.” A pause.
“Two.” A pause.
“Three,” she yelled at the top of her voice and pulled the trigger. I couldn’t believe it. She’d actually fired the gun. The guardsmen jumped backward and the neighbor hit the ground behind a tree. There was a momentary, dead silence, which was broken with the dull thud of a black cat falling off the branch of a tree in the direct line of fire. There was an immediate, spontaneous roar from the crowd. “This woman is stark raving mad!” someone blared out. “Call the psychiatric ward; call a doctor.”
The guardsmen seemed disoriented, puzzled. They looked at one another and the crowd, wordlessly.
Aunt Badri, still holding the gun in firing posture, turned to me and said, “They’re not going to bother you. Go down there and see what happened to the cat.”
I threw a chador over my head as fast as I could and rushed downstairs. The cat stretched motionless on the ground, eyes wide open, as if in surprise. A man, whose outfit suggested he was from the sanitation department, came forward, took a look, and threw it by the neck into a garbage can he was carrying.
Suddenly, a paddy wagon bearing official markings drove up almost to the garden gate and came to a screeching halt, raising a cloud of dust. Three Sisters of Zeynab, tasked with the enforcement of women’s-behavior codes, dismounted, entered the garden, and rushed toward me.
“Either you come down immediately or I’ll take your daughter to the committee,” one of them shouted at aunt Badri as she grabbed me by the wrist.
“Let her go or I’ll shoot you,” came the response from aunt Badri. The Sister moved me deftly in front of her and yelled back, “Go ahead and fire now, if you dare.”
Aunt Badri hesitated a moment. “Let her go and I’ll come down,” she said resignedly. Moments later she appeared at the doorways still dressed in pajamas and no head cover. “Let me see an arrest warrant signed by the state attorney,” she said as she approached us. One of the Sisters produced a spare chador from the vehicle and tried to drape it on her. One of the guards showed her a piece of paper.
Aunt Badri took the chador off her head and threw it back at the woman. She then grabbed the paper from the guard and looked it over. “I see no official seal and signature on it,” she observed. “It’s not worth the paper it’s written on.” She crumpled it into a ball and hurled it at one of the Sisters.
“You’ve assaulted government agents with a deadly weapon,” one of the men intoned officiously. “That is a crime punishable by imprisonment.”
Under her breath but quite audibly aunt Badri hissed some obscenities involving the Ayatollah. This was as good as signing her own death warrant.
‘Please stay calm,’ the man said. ‘I have no intention of harming anyone. I’ll just pick up a couple of things and be out of here.’
The contingent forced the chador onto aunt Badri’s head and pushed her into the wagon, leaving me behind in the confusion.
I went inside and hurriedly packed a small suitcase. Back on the street, I hailed a cab for our house. Agitated, I caught myself pressing the White Tara against my chest, pleading with her for aid. I was overcome with a sense of helplessness. We no longer had influence with anyone who could help us. Father was our pillar of security and confidence. Living under his big shadow we felt safe and immune from any external treat. Now, our only protector was in Canada, helpless and desperate, afraid to come back.
Aunt Badri was sentenced to four years in prison and the payment of a heavy fine. She also lost her house, which was placed under lock and key. Initially she was not allowed any visitors, but in time we were permitted short visits to take her fresh clothing and books. During our visits she seemed calm and reconciled to her condition. But she avoided eye contact, staring into empty space vacuously. She only complained of sleeplessness.
Prison guards allowed aunt Badri heart and hypertension medication. In one of the deliveries, my mother mixed a quantity of sleeping pills with the medication and managed to slip it past the guards. “That should remedy the sleeplessness,” she said in a self-congratulatory tone. Two nights later aunt Badri took all pills and never woke up. We were all distraught at the news, but my mother’s grief was exacerbated by guilt. She was inconsolable and unaffected by even the philosophical profundities offered by uncle Homayoun. We managed to keep the news from grandma.
I had come to believe that for some reason we were targeted by fate and that more catastrophes were in store for us. I felt as though in stasis, deprived of any choice. I could not even have my father with me. Without knowing why, I had become attached to the White Tara. The statuette, with its half-closed eyes and exquisite smile was an inexplicable source of consolation and comfort to me. Her image and her memory infused a new life and energy into my body.
• • •
The house we lived in was large by any standard. Uncle Homayoun and his manservant occupied the entire upstairs. My uncle was inseparable from his dog, Jimmy. They seemed to communicate through a nonverbal medium, and they shared their sleeping quarters. I could swear that the animal actually smiled and shook its head knowingly when my uncle looked at it.
My uncle was a contemplative man, unaffected by the world around him. Years of living and studying in India imbued him with Hindu values and a preference for Indian lifestyle. His room smelled of incense, and he exuded the aroma of tropical fruits. He was invariably dressed in Indian garb, a loosely fitting tunic with matching pants and sandals. He spent much of the day squatting on the floor reading, with Jimmy stretched next to him motionlessly. Ever since his return from his travels he had opted for vegetarianism. His lunch often consisted of melons, bread, cheese, walnuts, and raisins, with only a fresh salad for dinner. Even the dog seemed to survive on watermelon rinds and handfuls of pistachios, walnuts, and dried fruits.
Apparently—for the sake of convenience—Haji, the manservant, had also adopted his master’s diet. By now Haji was on the verge of senility, hard of hearing and suffering from arthritic joints. Although he always carried a dusting rag with him, he hardly ever used it. He would just move from room to room mumbling to himself, oblivious to, or ignoring, the visible coat of dust that covered everything. So I took it upon myself, mostly as a diversion, to dust the antique items.
It was well past nightfall one evening when we heard the doorbell ring. Mother had already taken her pill and passed out in her bedroom. Uncle Homayoun and Haji had retired to their quarters upstairs and were most likely out of earshot. Grandma, a nocturnal person, and I were in the living room. We looked at each other in puzzlement.
“Don’t open it,” Grandma ordered as I got up to open the door. “Ask who it is.”
There was no response when I repeatedly called from the living room. I climbed the stair to the landing where there was a window overlooking the pavement. In the semi-darkness I saw the silhouette of a man of average height wearing a fedora. I considered yelling at him to go away but thought better of it in case that would alarm Grandma. So I went back down again, through the hall leading to the entrance, and stopped in front of the opaque glass of the door. The man removed his hat. “Good evening,” he said courteously. There was something in his voice that calmed my nerves somewhat, enough to crack the door. But before I could ask any questions, he pushed his way through.
Grandma heard the commotion and looked down the hall. “Who is it?” she called.
“Please stay calm,” the man said. “I have no intention of harming anyone. I’ll just pick up a couple of things and be out of here.”
“What did you say?” Grandma asked, as though unable to believe her ears. “Speak up.”
The man blushed and repeated what he had said, wiping the sweat off his forehead with a handkerchief. “I am sorry,” he went on, “with your permission I will take this china bowl and the clock and be gone.”
Grandma tried to stand up as she cried, with a mixture of outrage and disbelief, “I thought I’d seen everything! But a gentleman thief?” She imitated his voice, “With your permission! Now get out of here before I yell for help.” And she started to yell.
Until then, I thought the man was a neighbor or acquaintance here to borrow a utensil, but the exchange made me realize we were in the middle of a home invasion. I froze in my tracks.
‘May you die of thirst,’ Grandma screamed. ‘Stay here. I have to watch you.’
We returned with two glasses and a bottle of water from the refrigerator.
“Please be quiet, and let’s not waste time with this kind of talk. I’m in a hurry,” the man said, trying to sound reasonable and eyeing some of the valuables on the mantelpiece.
Grandma noticed that he was reaching for one. “You touch it, and I’ll break your legs,” she threatened. “This is my daughter’s property, and it is here for safekeeping.” Turning to me, she said, “What are you standing around for? Do something. Call the police, call Haji, or the neighbors.”
The man took a step forward. “Please don’t make so much noise. You should be more afraid of the committee agents than me.
“Please calm the old lady down,” he said to me in a conciliatory tone. “I’ll take this lamp and this bowl and leave.”
“Not on your life,” Grandma yelled, “you worthless piece of shit!”
The man blushed furiously. “Now, behave yourself,” he said. “Watch your language, mother.”
With the initial shock worn off and my fear subsided somewhat, I knew that I had to intervene. “Look here, sir,” I said, trying to sound authoritative and in control. “These items have been entrusted to our care. Why don’t you just take this rug?”
This was just too much for Grandma. “Wait a minute,” she addressed me reprovingly, “this is not yours to give. Now, you have a pair of young and strong feet. Why don’t you kick his butt out of here?”
The man flared up with indignation. “Let me make one thing clear,” he said, addressing no one in particular. “I am not a thief. I am a teacher of mathematics and I’ll not tolerate any more insults.”
Grandma was about to come up with some sarcastic remark, but I held up my hand, turning to the man. “Very well Mr. Teacher, take the rug and go.”
“If you are a teacher,” Grandma asked, incredulity dripping from her voice, “how come you take other people’s property?”
“I am a temporary thief,” the man said, with a pained expression. “I was laid off two years ago and have not been able to find any other employment. My family is starving, and I have pawned everything I have. Some day, I will make it up to you.”
“We had heard of temporary marriage but not of temporary thieves,” Grandma said dismissively. “And judging by the way you look, you’re just an opium addict.”
The man was hurt. “I have not even smoked a cigarette all my life,” he replied. “I have never touched alcohol. I will not stand such accusations.” He picked up an antique Russian oil lamp with a gilded base and moved toward the door. But before he reached it, Mother walked in, her hair frizzled and eyes half shut, in a stupor induced by the sleeping pills. She looked at the thief, and then at me, confused.
“Get me a glass of water,” she told the thief. She looked like she was about to lose her balance and fall when I caught her and led her to the sofa to lay down. “I’ll get it,” I said.
The man gently put the lamp on the table and followed me. “I’ll have some, too,” he said.
“May you die of thirst,” Grandma screamed. “Stay here. I have to watch you.”
We returned with two glasses and a bottle of water from the refrigerator. Mother downed almost the whole glass without taking a breath. The cold water revived her. She looked around with renewed interest and saw the thief, as if for the first time. “Who are you?” she asked.
“He is a thief,” Grandma said, enunciating every word. Perhaps thinking that was meant as a joke, Mother smiled broadly. But then, grasping the severity of the situation, she gave a moan and passed out. With an air of genuine concern, the man rushed to her, dipped his fingers in the glass, and sprinkled some water on her face.
We were trying to rouse her when Haji walked in from the garden entrance. “Good evening,” he said formally, assuming that the stranger was a guest. He heard not a word when Grandma yelled, “Who do you think you are greeting, you idiot? He’s a thief.”
“You are welcome,” Haji said, bowing his head, “most welcome.”
As if on cue, Jimmy burst onto the scene, wagging his tail excitedly. At the sight of the dog, the thief gave a high-pitched shriek and jumped behind the sofa. The move was so unexpected that it made Grandma laugh. “Jimmy, you worthless son of a bitch,” she screamed, “that’s a thief. Catch him. For once in your life make yourself useful.”
“Would you care for some tea?” Haji asked the thief politely.
“Hey man, please help,” pleaded the thief in response to Haji. “I’m scared of dogs. I was mauled by one as a kid. Please get him away from me.”
‘Your neighbors have reported seeing a man jumping out of a window in your house. We’re here to investigate.’
Meanwhile, Jimmy had interpreted the thief’s vault over the sofa as an invitation to play and was straining over the sofa to reach him. The man, almost apoplectic with fear, raised his hands before him in an effort to ward off the dog. “Very well, very well, I don’t want any of your stuff,” he said petulantly, as he inched his way toward the door hoping not to attract Jimmy’s attention. “But mind my words,” he continued. “Keep your things safe from those committee people. They are ruthless, not like me.” As soon as he reached the door he disappeared down the hall.
The commotion finally brought uncle Homayoun down. He arrived as Grandma, having lost hope in Haji, was urging Jimmy to catch the thief. “What thief,” he asked, puzzled, taken aback by the chaotic state of the living room. I filled him in and pulled him after me to check the bedrooms, mine and Mother’s, down the hall. Mother’s room was undisturbed, but the window of my room was open, suggesting the man’s escape route. We returned to the living room.
Uncle Homayoun’s response to the situation was typical. “Poor man,” he said. “Can you imagine? A math teacher forced into skullduggery! You should have given him some money and let him go. These worldly goods are nothing but trouble for us. They could have been of use to him.” Then he asked, “Why didn’t anyone call me?”
Grandma was furious. “These are left to our care. We are responsible for their safe-keeping until my darling Badri is out of jail.”
“We should have sold them all and given the proceeds to charity,” my uncle said with a shrug, in a low voice so as not to be heard by Grandma. He suggested that we all call it a night and get ready for bed.
Mother didn’t want to go back to sleep. She was afraid of a return visit from the thief. So we convinced her to sleep in my room, which was closer to the living room. I closed and secured the window and put her in my bed.
I was about to breathe a sigh of relief when I noticed that the White Tara was missing from its usual place on the bedside table. My heart missed a beat. So, the supposedly gentlemanly thief had managed to get away with something. The loss of the statuette was devastating. It was like the loss of a loved one, the loss of aunt Badri.
Uncle Homayoun was halfway up the stairs, closely followed by Haji and Jimmy, when the sound of the doorbell immobilized us. “Goodness gracious,” Grandma shouted jubilantly from the living room. “They’ve caught the bastard!”
When my uncle opened the door, three agents from the local committee walked in unceremoniously. “Your neighbors have reported seeing a man jumping out of a window in your house,” the agent who seemed to be in charge declared. “We’re here to investigate.”
“False alarm,” my uncle said, “we saw nothing.”
“This man is just too kind-hearted,” Grandma called from the living room. “There wasa thief here, but I didn’t let him take anything.”
“We must search the whole house,” the leader said.
“No need. He’s gone, whoever it was,” my uncle replied.
“No problem. Let them search upstairs,” Grandma said. “He may have some accomplices. We did not open the door for him.”
One of the guards noticed the dog. “This filthy dog! Get it out of here,” he cried in disgust. “What kind of Muslims are you?” My uncle hurried Jimmy out the door to the courtyard.
The men climbed the staircase to the second floor and returned almost immediately for the kitchen, where they looked around briefly. In the living room they saw the table covered with antiques and other ornate objects. They looked out of place in otherwise modest surroundings. Grandma became pale and alarmed as the man in charge reached for one of the china bowls. “These are very old and delicate, sir,” she said weakly. “Please don’t touch.”
“Whose are they?” the man wanted to know.
“They’re traveling,” my uncle said, unconvincingly. “They’ll soon be back.”
“These goods must be impounded,” the man replied, “until their owners return.”
“I am their owner,” Grandma blurted. “I told you not to touch them. Are you deaf?”
“Don’t you mind her,” my uncle intervened. “She is mentally ill. Just leave her be. Go ahead and take this stuff.”
We did not notice Grandma as she lifted her walking stick over her head and brought it down hard on the man’s buttocks.
“Ouch! What the hell!” the man squealed. “This is a madhouse.” He wrenched the stick from Grandma’s hand and would have busted her head had it not been for my uncle, who jumped between them and held the man’s wrist in midair.
‘Where am I? Am I dressed properly? What if they confiscate my passport? How am I supposed to talk to a Revolutionary Guard, to Brothers and Sisters?’
“Shame on you,” he shouted. “She’s 90 years old.”
“Damned old bitch,” the man hissed. “She almost broke my back,” he added, as he beckoned to his men to collect the objects.
Grandma, exhausted and breathless, eyed the scene in despair. Uncle Homayoun held her by the shoulders in an attempt to comfort her. “Mother dear,” he said soothingly, “don’t worry. I am going to get it all back. This is not stolen property.”
Mother walked out of the room again. “Is it morning?” she asked, “who are these people?” I pushed her back to the room and this time locked the door. She didn’t make any noise.
The relative calm of the living room was shattered suddenly as Haji and Jimmy burst into the room in tandem. Haji grabbed one of the men by the collar, trying to wrestle him down. The other man reached for his sidearm and aimed it at Jimmy, ready to fire. Uncle Homayoun sprawled himself on the animal, practically rolling it out of the room. By now the other men had overpowered Haji, and one of them slapped him across the face. Haji responded by kicking him in the shin. The man holding the gun pointed it at Haji. “You are under arrest,” he declared. In the next few minutes, the committee men had cleared the table and were gone with Haji in tow.
Like everyone else I was dazed and badly rattled. However, I was comforted to know that the White Tara had not been taken by these men.
Uncle Homayoun spent several days at the committee trying to retrieve the property, but he left unsuccessful. A canonical judge ruled that the items were the proceeds of corrupt practices and could be confiscated by religious authorities. Haji was released and spared flogging when Uncle Homayoun agreed to buy out his prison term.
Perhaps it was the shock of losing those antique objects and memorabilia that overwhelmed Grandma. She cried often, unresponsive to our ministrations. The sight of the table once covered with relics of our past was depressing to her, to all of us. Even Haji and Jimmy could be seen staring at it mournfully.
A month later Grandma developed an incurable fever that left her incoherent and delirious. She called Badri’s name several times before she died on a cold winter night.
Soon after, my mother and I received our passports and exit visas and left for Istanbul, where my father was waiting to take us to Canada. Uncle Homayoun told me that he had willed the house to me and that the deed of trust would be issued in my name after his death. I could not bear the thought of his death—and other deaths, for that matter. “Don’t worry about me,” he said as I hugged him goodbye. “Haji and I have gotten old together and we will take care of each other. And, by the way, Jimmy will keep us safe,” he chuckled as he slipped the spare house key in my pocket.
The lump in my throat prevented any reply.
• • •
Twenty years have passed with the speed of summer lightening. Life in the cold, sun-starved climate of Toronto has made me distant and apathetic. I am an alien. But what has not reduced in intensity is the recollection of my younger days with my family, my aunt Badri and my Uncle Homayoun and others, even of Jimmy the dog. I have taken refuge in the study of art history, which has taken me to museums and historical sites in Europe and the Americas. As an art historian I feel I have an obligation to delve into the architectural intricacies of the Safavid edifices still remaining in Isfahan, but I find a visit to Tehran, even a short one, exhausting. My parents are elderly and are afraid they may not see me again.
A childhood friend in Tehran insisted that I stay with her, but I don’t want to deal with the constraints of being a house guest. So I asked her to reserve a room for me at the Tehran Sheraton.
It is in April that I arrive with a mixture of fear and excitement. Khomeini Airport. It frightens me. The same feeling of alienation creeps into my heart. “Where am I? Am I dressed properly? What if they confiscate my passport? How am I supposed to talk to a Revolutionary Guard, to Brothers and Sisters?”
Fortunately none of these things happen, I take my suitcase and walk out. Taxi drivers run after me, each one offers a more attractive price and asks where I want to go. I choose a young driver and tell him to take me to the Tehran Sheraton. “To where?” he asks, surprised. I realize that the names of the hotels, like names of the streets have changed, and I feel devastated. He stops the cab, goes out and asks an elderly man standing on the other side of the street. They exchange few words and he rushes back: “Hotel Independence,” he says with an undertone of anger in his voice. It is three in the morning and we are both tired.
I spend a couple of days walking around the city before I can muster the will to visit aunt Badri’s house. I knew already that the authorities had converted it into a museum of antique art objects stocked with works confiscated from people associated with the former regime, including my family.
The cab driver knows where the museum is, but it takes him a long time to work his way through several traffic jams to get there. I am agitated as I get out of the cab. I can barely resist breaking out in tears. Hanging from the branch of a tree and marking the entrance to the house is a poorly constructed sign that reads, “LEARN FROM HISTORY.” The orthography is atrocious. A steady stream of women in chadors; teenage girls in colorful headdresses; schoolchildren; decrepit old men; and out-of-work young men flows in and out.
I cannot stand around any longer. The guard is staring at me as if he thinks I have some criminal intent. I must dry my tears. This is embarrassing. I must go in.
The doorman eyes me. I have been standing there, color drained out of my face and hands, trembling uncontrollably. I have a hard time making myself enter the house. A woman leaving passes by me. “I wonder what poor person used to own this house and the stuff inside,” she says in a voice audible to me, but not to the guard. I am overcome with an urge to tell her all about it, but she walks away before I can utter a word. These strangers have no idea of my happy childhood in this house. They pass by me unaware that I know every tree in the garden, especially the willow by the pool. I am sure it will recognize me as an old friend if I hug it, as I did when I was a child.
I suddenly recall when I carved my name on the bark of a plain tree at the far end of the garden. Aunt Badri didn’t approve. “That will harm the tree,” she admonished. Grandpa noticed that I was a little crestfallen. “All this is going to be yours someday,” he whispered softly in my ear. “Do what you want.” Poor old man! He did not know the irony of fate.
I cannot stand around any longer. The guard is staring at me as if he thinks I have some criminal intent. I must dry my tears. This is embarrassing. I must go in.
No sooner do I walk in the building than I am overcome with memories of aunt Badri and visions of those happy days when her peals of laughter echoed all the way to the end of the garden. She radiated an infectious joy that penetrated every nook and cranny of the house. I find myself in the ground floor hallway next to her sewing room, now securely locked and shuttered, where she kept the beloved sewing machine given to her by Karim Pasha as a souvenir from one of his trips.
I follow a group of visitors to the upper floor. I see that a wooden partition now divides the parlor into two areas. On one side antique art objects are on display in cases. On the other side rugs and other tapestry are spread out on tables. I am surprised to see the large golden-framed mirror still hanging over the mantelpiece. A row of gold picture frames with no pictures in them is arranged on the mantelpiece. Somehow, I see images of aunt Badri and Karim Pasha in each of them. Other visitors pass by with blank, indifferent stares, but I am transported by every sight and sound to the times when this space reverberated to the din of Karim Pasha’s guests.
There are glass cases on tables displaying a mishmash of jewelry, bowls, plates, statues, and other antiques of different centuries thrown together randomly, untagged, unidentified, chaotic. My vision is blurred, as if distorted by a thin membrane of shame. I spot several small, delicately carved silver fish from India. I realize they belong to aunt Badri and avert my eyes reflexively. I don’t want to see them. But I am somewhat relieved that the White Tara is not among them, although I have a burning desire to know where it is and who has it.
Out in the hall I am struck by the sight of a middle-aged man of average height. He is noticeably distraught, an unlit cigarette in his quivering fingers. He moves jerkily from exhibit to exhibit, peering at them intently. Finally, a museum guide approaches him, takes him by the arm, and gently leads him toward the staircase. “Sir,” he addresses the man with a tone indicating familiarity, “please, let’s go downstairs. You will see that your china set is still here safe and secure.” The man does not resist and follows the guide, although he keeps looking back, as if hoping to catch the last glimpse of something.
It is now time for midday prayer, and the building closes for two hours. Hordes of children, unimpressed by the looted ware and the crossroads of history, rush into the garden noisily and playfully. A few of them pick up some pebbles and throw them in the pool. I have to restrain myself from telling them to stop. In fact I have to restrain myself from telling everybody on the premises to leave and never come back. I want to know what happened to aunt Badri’s sewing machine, her piano. I want to know who got her wardrobe.
Across the street from the museum there is a small sidewalk café that serves sandwiches, pizzas, and soft drinks. I am thirsty in the oppressive heat of a midsummer day—something that did not bother me as much in the old days. Some wrought-iron furniture is set under the shade of a tree. I take a chair and order a cold drink. The waiter returns with a soda bottle and glass full of ice and places them on the table. He points to a man sitting inside the café. It is the nervous and distracted man from the museum. “This is his daily routine,” the waiter says. “They have got a bunch of his silverware in the museum and it’s driving him crazy.”
“I understand,” I reply, as I pour the drink in the glass. “I know what he’s going through.”
“To hell with those antique things,” the waiter opines. “Just thank God you have your health and pray for the salvation of your soul.”
I want to tell him he is right but everybody suffers his own way, but I keep mum; I am not in the mood to argue.
I have an eerie feeling that I am being watched. I look around and see the museum guard standing a few steps behind me. I cringe. He comes forward and in a barely audible voice calls me by my name. I am flabbergasted, speechless. But there is something friendly, even benevolent, in his eyes. “I knew you’d come back,” I hear him say in the same soft, timid voice.
“My name is Ali Salehi,” he whispers. “I came to your house once, how can I say. Do you remember? The math teacher? The thief?” he asks, blushing under the thick white beard that covers his face. The events of that night pass in front of my eyes like an old movie on fast-forward—grandma swinging her stick, hitting the committee man; Jimmy running around the room, barking his head off; Haji totally confused, offering to make tea; mother unconscious on the sofa; the gentlemanly thief trying to revive her. And finally I envision the committee men collecting the valuables and hauling them out of the house.
“I must see you,” the man says, with some urgency in his voice.
“I am at the Sheraton,” I tell him and give him my room number. He is called away by a colleague.
I am shaken by this encounter. I cannot bear the sight of the house, or learn a lesson from history. I take a cab back to the hotel. In my room, I stretch on the sofa, dazed by the events of the day, by the physical heft of what I had seen and what I had gone through.
There is a knock on the door. Cautiously I open it a crack. “Don’t be afraid. It is me. Ali Salehi,” says the voice that is now so familiar. I feel an unbearable joy, as if visited by a close and dear friend. I throw the door open.
“Come on in,” I almost squeal. “But I have nothing for you to take!” I say mischievously, to which he responds by looking painfully embarrassed, making me regret my attempt at humor.
“I became very close to your late uncle,” he says. “I used to take care of him after Haji died. We both expected you to come back.” He produces a small cardboard box from his pocket. “I’m supposed to deliver this to you in person. Your uncle said it belonged to you. He instructed me to keep it until you came for it.”
Slowly, ceremoniously, he places the box on the table in front of me, nods his head in farewell, turns around and leaves the room before I can say anything.
It takes me a few moments before I can reach for the box. I pick it up, hands shaking, and open it. The white Tara.
I take it gently in my hands and look at it. There is a humble smile on her lips. “So, miracles are possible,” I whisper to myself, and for a fleeting moment, I can sense aunt Badri’s spectral presence behind me. I do not look back lest she vanish.