Thursday, February 8, 2018

#256: "Far-Away Love" by Nahid Rachlin

~This story was previously published in Virginia Quarterly Review (1980).
~Selected by Kenneth Fleming, Assistant Editor, Fiction

                                    I am standing at this street corner,
                                    Where we used to meet
                                    But is it the same street?
                                    -- a Persian song

            Soosan sat in the Gelato Lab, eating her plum sorbet while her son, having finished his, stood by the fish tank in a corner of the cafe watching the fish tumbling in the water. They both needed rest. For hours, they had been going from shop to shop in the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar in the center of Tehran, with her doing some the last minute shopping for the party she was giving for Darien’s tenth birthday.
            The cafĂ© with the bright display of fruit and Cola bottles on a counter, green lights from tiny bulbs in the ceiling beaming, and its air fragrant with floral scents used in sorbets and gelatos was serene. But Soosan was far from relaxed. The closer it got to Darien’s birthday, the more she missed Bill, the American father of her child. How could she forget Bill, the stormy love between them that had come to an abrupt end ten years ago when he had to leave Iran, practically escaping, going back to America? Darien, looking so much like him, a son he had no idea existed, was a constant reminder of him. When the Revolution raged through Iran, with the Shah overthrown and a new Islamic regime about to take over, there was a wave of anti-American feeling that led to 52 Americans being taken hostage. Then the State Department had ordered all Americans residing in Iran to evacuate-- special planes had been sent for them. So she didn’t have a chance to even say good-bye to Bill. The Revolution and then the war with Iraq, which ended just a year ago, brought communication between Iran and other countries to zero. Phone lines were mostly disabled; post office didn’t deliver to other countries or received mail from them. The soap factory where she and Bill had both been working had closed soon after the American employees were forced to leave.
            She had kept hoping the relationship between Iran and America would resume and Bill would return. But everything got only worse. The hostages were held much longer than expected, over a year; the American embassy never opened, and a war, with Iraq attacking Iran kept going, making communication between Iran and other countries nearly impossible.
            She tried and tried to find a way to go to America and search for Bill but it became clear it was impossible for an Iranian to get a visa to go there.  Even if she could, how would she track him down in the vast country? She had no idea even what city he was living in.
            Her thoughts went to when she just met Bill. A young American man stopped by her at a bookstore where she was buying a novel in English. He began to talk switching back and forth from English to Farsi. They realized they both worked at the office of Parsa Soap Factory; she was a receptionist there, and he was an engineer consultant.     
             “I’m taking an English course in an evening class,” she had said to him.  “I see all the American movies shown in cinemas. I want to understand them in the original language.”
            “Maybe we can go to one of the movies together,” he said.
            She shook her head. He seemed to understand that she couldn’t accept the invitation, knew that it was forbidden in this culture for men and women to interact freely before they were married. They would have to see each other secretly.
            “Let’s go to dinner then, I know a good place outside of town.”
            She hesitated but then she agreed to that.

            It became a pattern that she went out with him one evening a week instead of going to her English class. That way she didn’t have to explain to her parents why she came home late from work. After a while instead of going out they spent the evening in his apartment.  She went in by the back door which was on an empty lane so that no one would see her entering.  She sat with him on a terrace overlooking a flower-filled courtyard and ate the food he ordered from the chelo kebab restaurant nearby. He introduced her to wine. When he kissed her she thought of the way American actors and actresses kissed in the movies. As they became more intimate, exploring each other’s bodies, again she thought she was doing what those figures on the screen, who represented freedom to her, did.
            “Let’s get married,” he said, one evening in his apartment.
            “My parents wouldn’t approve.  They’re old-fashioned, devout Muslims.”
            “Then you have to choose between them and me.”
            After a pause she said, “I choose you.”
            They planned to get married in two months, just before his job as an engineer consultant at the factory would end. They would marry by a Muslim priest and a Christian priest at the Armenian church so that their marriage would be legal both in Iran and America. They would then leave together for America. Only when they were in the airport about to get on the plane would she call her parents and tell them what she was doing.
            Then there came that horrific day, soon after they had discussed the details of their marriage, when Americans were ordered by their government to leave Iran instantly. She could almost hear his voice now from years ago, when he called her and said, “I have to leave, a plane is waiting to take Americans out of Iran. Once I’m in the U.S. we’ll have to find a way to get you there. I’ll call again as soon as I can.” She remembered something else he said in that phone call. “Can you go to my apartment and collect the most important things I left there? I don’t know how long the landlord will keep the place for me.” She had said, “I can do that if the spare key is still on the lintel.” Then they were cut off. When she had gone to his apartment building she found that there was no key on the lintel. Before Parsa Factory closed, Bill’s employer who paid for the apartment must have notified the landlord that he wouldn’t be returning there. The landlord must have kept some items and thrown out others. She had no way of reaching Bill’s boss to get the landlord’s phone number. She remembered another detail. Bill had said the main item he wanted her to rescue from the apartment was the ring which he was keeping there to give to her at their wedding. Who was wearing that ring now, she wondered wistfully. 
            Soon after Bill left the country she had begun to skip her periods. She went to a gynecologist far from her own neighborhood and was told she was pregnant. She hid the pregnancy as long as she could but once she started showing she told her mother, making her promise not to tell her father.  Her mother was shocked, upset, and scolded her but she finally softened. She would have to tell her father but would make sure to make him understand. Other alternatives would have been either a risky illegal abortion or giving the child away to an orphanage. Even if abortion had been legal her mother would never approve, would consider it to be murder. And the thought of giving her grandchild to an orphanage was out of the question. Her father never confronted Soosan. To her relief he didn’t punish her, didn’t threaten to disown her, as she had feared. She had wanted to give the child an American name but her parents were adamantly against it. “That would make him stand out.”
            The scenes of the past that had been rushing before her eyes blurred as Darien came back and said, “Mother, let’s go to the market and buy fish for my tank.”
            “We’ll do that dear, after we’re rested. Go back to the tank and decide which fish is your favorite.”
            Darien wandered back to the tank.  It was sad, Soosan thought, that he had no idea who his real father was. She had told him that his father was killed in the war with Iraq. She told people that he had taken his coloring from his father who had been from the North of Iran where there were intermarriages between Russians and Iranians. She had thought she would deal with the truth if Bill returned. But that hadn’t happened.
            An old man was going from table to table asking the customers, young and old, if they wanted him to tell their fortunes by picking a card from the stack he was holding. Then he stopped by her table and asked her the same question. Why not, she thought, just to give business to the vendor who was dressed in cheap, worn clothes. He spread the cards, with pictures on one side of them and poems by the revered 14th Century Sufi poet, Hafez on the other side. She picked one with a busy picture of birds, trees and flowers. After she paid the man and he walked away she read the poem:
            The breeze summons me back
            When I would seek heart’s ease traveling afar. 
            In our ears, a murmur survives like indecipherable words.
            She tried to let her state of mind go in the direction of what many people believed-- that the poem on the card you pick randomly would give you a message about your future. It is telling me that Bill is far away and out of my reach and I should be content with my husband, she thought, her heart palpitating painfully, recalling her feelings of loss.
            She called Darien and they left. After she ordered flowers and pastries for the birthday party and bought three goldfish for Darien, they walked home. The sky was full of patches of vivid colors as the sun was about to set. The mountains skirting the city had turned lavender. The beauty didn’t disguise the harsh reminders of the war. Though the war had mainly devastated areas far from Tehran, there were damages and reminders of it in Tehran too. Black flags hung above doors to designate that someone from the household had been killed in the war. At the mouths of some of the streets glass cases, lit inside by tiny bulbs, held photographs of young men who had been killed in the war. They were taken from their work or homes and sent directly to fight at the front in Khuzestan. Their families were promised that if their sons returned alive the government would pay for all their education and if they were killed their souls would go directly to heaven.. Women who lost their husbands were given a monthly salary.
            How lonely and difficult my life was before I met Cyrus, Soosan thought, the war going on and raising a child without a husband. 
             Her mind traveled to that day when she met Cyrus. She was standing on the dusty Momtaz Street, waiting for a bus so that she could take Darien, three years old, to his pediatrician. The bus was late. Nothing had been running smoothly for years. Soosan noticed a man walking towards her. As he got closer, she recognized him; he lived in an apartment in a two-story building adjacent to her parents’ house. He walked with a crutch. He stood next to her and they greeted each other. They hadn’t exchanged any words, though they frequently passed each other in the street. He only nodded at her and she nodded back. That was all. But she liked his aura-- high cheekbones, a wide forehead, and eyes that projected depth and understanding.
            A bus with no passengers inside passed by without stopping. Its front bumper was loose and a cloud of smoke billowed from the tail pipe. The man said, “Terrible. They have put back the old buses on the streets.” She nodded in agreement. He turned to the baby and tried to talk to him. “What’s your name?” Darien answered him and then Cyrus turned to her, “We haven’t formally met,” he said. “My name is Cyrus.””
            “I am Soosan.”
            Cyrus told her he had been in the war for six months. He was shot at, and they discarched him. That explained his artificial leg.
            A bus wasn’t coming and they both gave up and started walking in different directions for their appointments.
            She encountered him a few more times, when both stood in lines to shop. The shortages due to the war created long lines. Once Soosan found herself standing next to him in a line in front of the general store. She had left Darien with her mother, and he inquired about him After they each bought milk and rice and left the shop, they walked back together. Before they reached home he said, “Soosan, I’m going to come to your house and ask for your hand.” He said that with self-confidence as if sure she would accept the proposal.
            “I have to tell you something,” she said. Pausing in front of her house, she looked up and down the street to make sure no one would be hearing and then in a quiet tone told him about Bill, their child together and how she still hoped he would return to Iran and they will be united.
            He didn’t seem shocked or disapproving. He said, “One thing I learned from the war is to put things in perspective, what is important and what isn’t.” He added in a compassionate tone, “It must be so hard for you… I can wait.”
            Soosan felt her heart beat accelerating at this man’s understanding of the situation. Now, years later, looking back, she thought that was the very moment that a spark of love for Cyrus had ignited in her. Then she just said good bye and went inside the house.       
            Another year went by and war raged and raged and there was no hope of Bill returning to Iran. She encountered Cyrus again at a bus stop and he renewed his proposal. “I’d like to adopt Darien as my own.” This time she said yes; Darien, as he was getting older, had been asking, “Why don’t I have a father?” and there was no hope of Bill returning in the near future. Cyrus sent his mother to her parents’ house to ask for her hand in marriage. 
            She remembered before she and Cyrus were married, passing his apartment, she often heard a song blaring out of its windows.
            Oh, my first love, my only love,
            Where have you gone?”
            Why are you so far away and yet right inside my heart,
            Out of reach and yet living in my blood, drinking it for sustenance?
            Hearing that song had made her wonder if he had a loss in love similar to hers.  Once she asked him and he said, ”No, I lost my own self, the old exuberant, optimistic self. War takes so much from you, beyond your physical wounds.”
            Her parents were delighted that she was getting married, and to a man of their own culture and religion. Soosan took delight in how well Cyrus got along with Darien. Soon after they married he adopted him.  He told Soosan he had no desire for another child. “Why bring another child into this difficult world?”
            Soosan tried to do the best with her life. She developed an interest in painting and spent several hours a day on it when Darien was at school. Many of the paintings were portraits of young women looking at the world with bold eyes. Cyrus owned a store where he sold prints and art work by local living artists or ancient ones. He displayed some of Soosan’s paintings in his shop and was happy that they were appreciated. A few were even sold. His shop was up a hill inside of a cave like space that 800 years ago had housed a poet and now was a tourist spot. From the top of the hill a large expanse of the city was visible and at night the view became a myriad of blinking lights. On some evenings Soosan took Darien and went to meet Cyrus at the shop. After he closed up they ate in the restaurant on the hill and then returned home.
            She liked Cyrus’s easy ways with her and his love for Darien. She could even say she loved him but still there was a lingering yearning in her, not just for Bill but a wider world. .
            How different her life would have been if she and Bill had married and lived in America.
            Bill’s complaints about America hadn’t dissuaded her.
            “Iran is so rich and interesting. By contrast America can be sterile,” Bill had said to her. “But of course we’ll go there, my work here is almost complete.”
            “You can find anything you want in America,” she had said.
            “Not quite. It is hard for many people there,” he said. He told her about his growing up there. They lived in a suburb of Cleveland in a ranch house on a street lined by other similar houses. They rarely intermingled with their neighbors. There was little to do in the town. They had to go miles to find a restaurant or a movie. He had been forced to live at home through his college years because his parents couldn’t afford to send him away. “My brother is different. He blends right in with that life, never questions it.”
            The following day, celebrating Darien’s birthday with some family members and his friend invited was bitter-sweet for her. Her son was a happy boy, partly because of Cyrus’s and Darien’s love for each other, though her own heart was filled with contradictory feelings. How can I hide from my son that Cyrus’ isn’t his real father. But of course I must.
            On a balmy morning Soosan took Darien to a park. She read Tehran Daily News while he played ball with other children he met there. The park was lively with mothers and children wandering around, buying balloons, cotton candy and ice cream from vendors. Some boys were flying kites and giving out excited cries as they watched them go up and up, some getting tangled in tree branches. Soosan’s hear beats accelerated as she noticed a small article about an international conference, revolving around reconstruction in the aftermath of the war, taking place in Iran. It said that some American and European specialists who had worked in Iran at one time were participating. Her heart gave a leap. Was Bill attending the conference? Had he come to Iran so that he could search for her? Or had he forgotten her? He could be married too for all she knew, have other children.
            The following day, after Cyrus left to visit an old friend, taking Darien with him, Soosan had an impulse to go to the Armenian church in which she and Bill had planned to get married. It was in an alley and had been built in the 17th Century. It had an interesting byzantine structure. The door was open and she went inside. Two women were sitting close to the altar but otherwise the church was empty. The ceiling was decorated with floral patterns and the floor covered by five carpets having the exact designs as the ceiling. Bouquets of flowers were set on wooden side tables.
            She left the church and walked around the streets aimlessly, with one question on her mind, is Bill at the conference?
            “You aren’t yourself, is something wrong?” Cyrus said to her that evening.
            “No, no,” she said. But of course she wasn’t herself. She yearned to go and see if she could find Bill at the conference center but then what would be the consequences of that? It was best to let it go, she kept repeating it every time the question came to her mind.                                                                    ***                                         
            Bill had been in Iran for six days and now the conference was over and he had one day to himself. It had been heart-wrenching to see the war damage as he, along with others participating had been taken by bus and plane from place to place, mainly towns near the border of Iraq where the war damage was the heaviest. The conference on reconstruction of damage after the war had been arranged by an urban planner in Iran; he had managed to get special permission from the government for it, so that they could get the opinion of experts from other counties.
            Bill wished he could stay in Tehran longer; he hoped being there might lead him to Soosan’s whereabouts. but even one day added had been a favor to him as the visa was allowed only for the duration of the conference. Iran and the U.S hadn’t yet reconciled; The American Embassy wasn’t open yet. While waiting for his visa and other documents to be ready, he sometimes fell into a dream state, Soosan coming to the forefront of his mind again. Roberta, his latest girlfriend, with whom he had broken up just a few months ago, had faded for him rapidly but Soosan stayed with him all these years.  None of his relationships with women, since Soosan, had led to anything permanent.  He was still fixated on that lost love.
            After a quick breakfast in the hotel he left. The street names had changed since ten years ago; they were named after the martyrs of the war, Martyred Mohammad, Martyred Hussein but they were as hectic and vibrant as before. Pedestrians and cars raced by and shops were opening up. A breeze blowing had brushed away the smog that he remembered often hung in the air and the sky was a cloudless blue. As he walked he thought how life had diminished after all the excitement of getting closer to Soosan and all the plans they had made for getting married had shattered by the unfortunate turn of history. .
            A display in a photography shop’s window caught his attention. They were all pictures of weddings. In one, the bride wearing a veil that covered her hair and a long-sleeved and long-skirted wedding dress, stood next to a man in a black suit. The bride reminded Bill a little of Soosan. He went inside. “I like your photographs,” he said to the young man behind the counter. “I’m looking for a friend, Soosan Safavi. Do you by chance have a photograph of her?”                               The man, wearing trendy, American-imitation clothes, said, “I wish I could help you, but no, I don’t recall that name.”  
                Bill left and turned to the direction of Tehran University hoping to find the bookstore next to it, where he had first met Soosan. She was buying a copy of A Farewell to Arms, in English, rather than a translation that stood side by side it on a table. He walked slowly, looking at every spot but there was no sign of the bookstore.  The building he had lived in was near the bookstore, but as he looked around, there was no sign of that either.                                                   He entered a cluster of maze-like lanes and came to Martyred Mohsen Alley. In spite of the different name, he thought it might be the one, where Soosan had lived with her parents-- because of the women’s public bath that stood at its mouth. A teenage boy was sweeping the sidewalk. Bill stopped by him.  “Excuse me; do you know if this is the alley that was called Hundred Stones?”   
             The boy looked at him with intense curiosity, puzzled by an American speaking Farsi. “Yes, that was its name.” 
            Bill continued on into the alley, and came across a restored house with a lion-head knocker and an unusually wide wooden door that seemed familiar. The door was open and he looked inside. He recalled vividly Soosan picking a flower from a bush, then running up the steep stone steps to her bedroom on the second floor where he was waiting for her. Her parents were away for a night and she had invited him to stay in her room. In the morning, each of them went to their offices separately, leaving at different times. He had loved sleeping on her bed with its ironed linen sheets and a faint scent of rose water soap and the view of a tamarisk tree with bright red berries in the courtyard. Soosan left the window facing the courtyard open that night, and the room was filled with moonlight.
                  He knocked but no one came to the door. He could hear nothing from the inside. He continued into the courtyard and looked around. There was no sign of life. The doors to rooms standing in rows on two sides were open; they had either no furniture or only a few items were set haphazardly in them. He left and knocked on the adjacent house’s door. A woman came to the door. “Do you by chance know Soosan Safavi? She used to live in the house next door.” 
               The woman stared at him, obviously puzzled by this foreign stranger. “We moved here just a month ago,” she said. After a pause she said, “The couple living there are deceased. I’m sorry.”                                                                                                                                         “Mother, Mother,” a boy called from the inside. “Sorry,” the woman said to Bill and shut the door gently.                                                                                                                                     He left the alley and walked on. The turbulent, traumatic November in 1979, when he was told by the State Department that he, along with other Americans working in Iran, had to leave immediately rushed back to him. He had just arrived at work when he received the phone call from an American colonel, ordering him to leave Iran. He was given only one hour to get to the airport by taxi-- there was no time to go back to his apartment. “I want to stay here,” he told the colonel.                                                                                                                              “You’ll either be killed by anti-American mobs or thrown into jail,” the colonel said roughly. “Anyway, you have no choice. This is an order from the State Department.” At the airport, Bill had managed to call Soosan, who had just arrived at the office. “Soosan, I have to leave,” he said breathlessly. No time to see you. I miss you already… I’ll call as soon as I’m by a phone again.”
            The last words reaching him from Soosan were, “Parsa won’t be open, this is its last hour, we were just informed.” Then they were disconnected.
            Back in America, as he struggled to find a way to connect to Soosan, the political engines were going against his hope.
            He thought again of his frantic search for her; he had tried everything. He had no phone to reach her at and he only had an approximate mailing address for her. He wrote to her; but in a few weeks, while he was waiting eagerly for a response, his letter was returned, not from Iran but from Turkey. It was stamped on it, “Not able to deliver.” He tried the same with her parents-- putting their name and the name of their street but that, too, was returned. He knew Soosan must be trying to connect to him too, but she had no phone number or address for him in Buffalo, since he had given up both his job and apartment before he had gone to Iran then.
            He hadn’t been able to seek help from the State Department because of the severing of the relationship with Iran. During those first months being back from Iran, he had been riveted on the news, waiting, hoping for things to get better between the two countries, at least long enough for him to be able to go to Iran and bring Soosan back. But things only got tenser. In the U.S., the news coverage-- yellow ribbons, footage of chanting Iranian mobs-- provided a dispiriting backdrop to the Iranian-American relationship. TV programs displayed the number of days Americans were held hostages. It was as if nothing else mattered, other than this crisis. Hatred of Iranians was reflected in caricatures painted on walls all over America. They were portrayed as barbarians. Some Iranians were evicted from their apartments by landlords. American high school students beat Iranian classmates-- one was reported to have died. In turn, Iranians labeled America as “The Great Satan,” and would not allow any visas to Americans to enter Iran. Then any grain of hope to somehow reach Soosan was blown away when, soon after Khomeini came to power, Saddam Hussein attacked. He had one small snapshot of Soosan in his wallet. Another, which he had kept in his apartment in Tehran, hiding it inside of a book so that the maid wouldn’t find it, was left behind with the rest of his belongings. He often took out the photograph from his wallet and looked at it. In the photograph she was standing on the balcony of his apartment and she had one hand on the side of her face, holding down her hair that was blowing in the breeze. Looking at the photo always brought back the light-heartedness she managed in spite of the sensitivity of their situation. He remembered her casual humor, merry rather than ironic, the feel of her skin, the way she pressed her breasts against his chest as her hand went gently up and down his back. He thought of her whispering man toro chegadr doost daram, I love you so much. Besides the tiny photo, the only memento Bill had from Soosan was a ring with an amber stone on it, which she had given to him as a present. He wore it on his right index finger, never taking it off.  The ring looked a little odd in the U.S., among the people he mingled with, but he continued wearing it, so that it was almost a part of him. Then he had lost it, or perhaps it was stolen when he was staying in a hotel and had taken it off before he went to bed, and the photo had finally gotten cracked and faded. 
                    As weeks, months, years went by and he had no access to her, the whole experience in Iran and Soosan with it, began to seem surreal. Then memories became deeply buried. What remained was a lack, an absence. But when he was invited to the conference, all that had faded took on color.                                                                                                                                    
            He came back to the present as he noticed an art gallery, with an exhibition featuring the work of local artists, men and women. He went inside. The paintings hung side by side, a deviation from the segregation of men and women in daily life. A painting named Vacuum, by a male artist, depicted an abandoned, broken-down house with windows that revealed nothing of life inside, standing on a dead-end street. The sky above it was a gloomy gray. A painting, Afternoon Daydream, by a woman showed a girl leaning on a windowsill and looking at a long, winding, empty street. It reminded him of Hopper. The girl’s eyes seemed blind; it was as if she hoped to see again if she kept her head turned to that street. Bill remembered that Soosan used to paint during her free time; her paintings were similar in tone to this, often with a woman alone in a vast colorless space, a dreamy expression on her face. He looked at the artist’s name on that painting; it was signed Negar. Before leaving, Bill went over the young man, his hair pulled back in a ponytail and wearing a saffron color shirt, sitting behind a desk.
                “May I help you?” the man asked, looking up from the brochures piled in front of him.
           “Have you ever had an exhibition by Soosan Safavi?"
            The man shook his head. “I don’t recall an artist by that name.” 
      Bill felt a twinge of pain as if the man had slammed a door shut on him. How can I expect to find Soosan in one day, when I was unable to for years, he admonished himself.
            A vendor standing on the sidewalk was roasting corn on a brazier and calling to people to buy from him. “The best corn in the city,” he said. Bill stopped and bought a corn on the cob. The vendor took one off the brazier and dipped it in the pail of salt water. As he handed Bill the corn he said, “Khosh Amadid be mamlekate ma”: you’re welcome in our country.  A young man asked Bill, “Are you American?”
            Bill nodded.
            “Welcome,” the man said.
            Another man turned to Bill. “We like Americans,” he said. 
            “I like Iranians,” Bill said, managing a smile in the midst of his dark mood.
             He was finished eating the corn and wandered away, wondering what to do next. He knew Parsa, the factory and its office, where he and Soosan worked had never reopened, judging by the fact that its phone was disconnected, when he had called before coming to Iran, and no message came on to lead to another number. As he walked on aimlessly he noticed a three story building, with a blue tower at its top that used to distinguish Parsa’s building from others around it. He crossed the street and studied the plaques next to it. One said, Adibi Office of Fragrant Soap factory. This must be the replacement, he thought.
            The door was open and he walked into the hallway, with a courtyard stretched beyond it. He remembered how much he had liked helping with the design of soaps, as well as with their production. The atmosphere at the factory had been cheerful with the walls covered by brilliant yellow tiles, the air fragrant with the floral essences they used in the soap-- jasmine, roses, and gardenias. The soaps were oval, round, shell-shaped. Each had a flower etched on it, the one whose fragrance it contained. 
            He walked into the reception area of the office. A middle-aged woman, wearing a black scarf and a long black garment was sitting on a sofa. Bill sat down, waiting for the door to the office open. The woman said to him, “The factory is going to resume functioning.  My son is being interviewed for a position there.”
            “I’m hoping to find out about a friend from years ago, when I worked at the factory,” Bill said.“Soosan Safavi.”
            To his amazement the woman said, “Oh, yes, I know who she is. I live near where her family used to live… They passed away… You are American…”
            “Yes, I’m here for a conference now. Can I have a phone number or address for her. We were good friends.”
            She hesitated but then she wrote down an address on a piece of paper and gave it to him.  “It isn’t far from here. You can walk to it. Go straight until you reach a large fruit and vegetable market, then turn right on Haj Ali Street.”
            He thanked the woman and left quickly. His excitement at the information was countered by doubts-- was the woman talking about the same Soosan? Within a few blocks he came across a store with pomegranates, quinces, persimmons and other fruit heaped on cartons set in front of it. The block after that was the fruit and vegetable market the woman had referred to. Haj Ali was written on a blue tile on the wall of the street.
            He found the house in the middle of the street. It had two stories and its brick walls were painted white. He stood behind a cluster of sumac bushes and waited, hoping for Soosan to come out. He didn’t want to knock on the door. Who knew; she could be married or living with a family member. In a moment the door opened and a little boy came out. He stood on the sidewalk next to the door. The sight of the boy shook Bill. He was blond and blue-eyed. Could he be his child? He looked about ten years old; ten years ago was when he had been forced to leave Iran. Could Soosan have been pregnant then, the pregnancy not showing yet? Through the open door he could see a rocking horse and a small bicycle standing against the wall of a hallway. In the courtyard blue jays and sparrows were twittering in the branches of a plum tree. On a porch on the other side of the courtyard, a cat had curled up in a patch of sunlight. A woman came out onto the porch, put a bowl in front of the cat, and went back inside. Was that Soosan?
            He thought of walking over to the boy and asking him questions. But the boy suddenly started calling, “Baba, Baba.” He was looking in the opposite direction from him. Bill turned that way and saw a man on crutches approaching. The man paused by the house. Putting one crutch against the wall, he leaned over and embraced the boy with one arm. Then two of them kissed each other on the cheeks. The woman Bill had seen on the porch came out and now he could see it definitely was Soosan. Although her hair and part of her face were covered by a head scarf he easily recognized her-- the same large amber eyes, full sensual lips. Her eyes focused on him for a split second and he saw that she visibly gave a start. But she turned away without acknowledging him. How could she really? He was only an intruder. She had built a life with this man, so had the child.
            “Cyrus, you’re finally here,” the woman said to the man.
            “I’m sorry I’m late, I got held up at the shop,” the man said. He kissed Soosan quickly, while he still held the boy in one arm. Then the three of them began to go inside. 
            Bill was filled with a wild desire to claim the boy, to simply take him away from the man and run off with him. The he thought of calling out to Soosan, saying, “Come with me. Let’s take our son and go to America.” But no, it isn’t possible. Not now. Maybe never. His heart filled with sadness, he turned around and walked away.                                                                                     The search had exhausted him both physically and emotionally. It was getting dark and he took a taxi back to the hotel. He had no appetite, He plopped himself on bed and began to read the novel he had brought along, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
            He read it slowly, trying to absorb its meaning, which revolved around a philosophical discussion of lightness versus heaviness. Can any meaning or weight be attributed to life, since there is no return? If man only has the opportunity to try one path, to make one decision, he cannot return to take a different path and then compare the two lives. Without the ability to compare lives, the book seemed to say, we cannot find meaning; where meaning should exist we find only an unbearable weightlessness.


            My desire to write goes back to my adolescent years, when I was in high school, in Ahvaz, an oil town in Southwest Iran. I still vividly see the room, where I wrote. It was one of a row of bedrooms, on the second floor of our two-story house with a wrap-around balcony. I had furnished my room sparsely-- a wooden desk and chair, an iron bed covered by a quilt my grandmother made, a rust colored Persian rug on the floor. But the room had a window overlooking Pahlavi Square, full of discordant color. Beyond the tall palm trees redolent with dates, I could see vendors with their carts, displaying all sorts of merchandise from dried whitefish to American imported handbags to dates and coconuts. Within my view were also the bright turquoise and gold minaret of the Friday Mosque, and the canopy of the Sahra Cinema, where American movies were shown. I could hear the muezzin calling people to prayers, Allah o Akbar, as well as the sound track of the movies, combined with the vendors hawking their merchandise.
            The juxtaposition of the mosque and the cinema captured the character of Ahvaz. Iranians, Americans employed in oil refineries, and Iraqi Arab immigrants, all intermingled. Their clashing beliefs and mores, their unequal levels of wealth and education, were a constant source of conflict, eventually leading to the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah.
            My desire to write was embedded in all the tension, not just from that uneasy amalgam outside but also within my home. When I was an infant I was adopted by my aunt and then, when I was nine years old, my father forcefully took me back from her to live with my birth-family. This change was traumatic. I had been totally attached to my aunt and viewed her as my mother. I viewed my parents as distant relatives whom I saw only occasionally. My aunt had no other children and her husband had died. I was the focus of her attention. At my birth-family’s home, I had to share my parents with six other siblings. My aunt, though an orthodox Muslim, was completely lenient with me. My parents, were modernized Muslims but in inconsistent ways. My father ruled with an iron hand.
            I was drawn to books, hoping to find answers to what I could not make sense of. The desire to read led to a desire to write. I found that writing and giving shape to what seemed chaotic and incomprehensible, made me feel peaceful, even happy.



Nahid Rachlin went to Columbia University Writing Program on a Doubleday-Columbia Fellowship and then went on to Stanford University MFA program on a Stegner Fellowship. Her publications include a memoir, PERSIAN GIRLS (Penguin), four novels, JUMPING OVER FIRE (City Lights), FOREIGNER (W.W. Norton), MARRIED TO A STRANGER (E.P.Dutton-Penguin, THE HEART'S DESIRE (City Lights). Her individual short stories have appeared in more than fifty magazines, including The Virginia Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Humanities Review, Redbook, Shenandoah. One of her stories was adopted by Symphony Space, “Selected Shorts,” and was aired on NPR’s around the country; three of the stories were nominated for Pushcart Prize. Her work has received favorable reviews in major magazines and newspapers and translated into Portuguese, Polish, Italian, Dutch, Arabic, and Persian. She has been interviewed in NPR stations such as All Things Considered (Terry Gross), P&W magazine, Writers Chronicle. She has written reviews and essays for New York Times, Newsday, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. Other grants and awards she has received include the Bennet Cerf Award, PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. She has taught creative writing at Barnard College, Yale University and currently at the New School University and at a wide variety of writers conferences, including Paris Writers Conference, Geneva Writers Conference, and Yale Writers Conference. She has been judge for several fiction awards and competitions, among them, Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction 2015, sponsored by AWP, Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award sponsored by Poets & Writers, Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize, University of Maryland, English Dept, Teichmann Fiction Prize, Barnard College, English Dept. website:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.