Bijan woke to the voice of the muezzin calling people to prayers, fell asleep again, and then woke to his mother’s quiet voice in the living room. So often he had heard her in his dreams. But this was real. He was in Tehran, in his mother’s house, with her just a room away. It had taken so many years and so much searching to track down his mother whom he had not seen since he was eight years old.
He pushed off the multicolored patchwork quilt and got out of bed. Out of the window he could see the Alborz Mountains at a distance and the fruit trees in the courtyard. On the mantle stood a photograph of his mother holding him. He must have been about six or seven years old, not long before his parents were divorced. She was looking at him with an expression of longing as if anticipating that she might be losing him. His father, taking advantage of unfair family laws and corruption in the legal profession, had gained full custody of him. He made sure Bijan never spent time with his mother. Moving his mosquito repellent company to Tabriz, far away from Tehran, made it easier to keep them separated. Then, when Bijan was fourteen years old, he sent him to boarding school in America. He had remarried, but Bijan never warmed up to his stepmother. Bijan knew that his mother had married too, but he had no knowledge of her new last name or her whereabouts. Finally, the mother of an Iranian friend he’d met in Palo Alto led him to his own mother.
He dressed and went into the living room. His mother took him into her arms and kissed him, and they exchanged the same words they had so many times already since he’d arrived the day before.
“Bijan, I’ve been so deprived of you.”
“Mother, it’s a miracle that I’m with you.”
She served them breakfastt—tea, sangak bread, cheese, sarshir, jam, fruit. Ahmad, her husband, had left early for his work and would not return until the evening. Bijan was happy to have this time alone with her.
“You’ve grown up, all on your own, apart from me,” she said as they began to eat.
“Oh, Mother, you were always in my heart.”
“I had a period of happiness with your father when you were born,” she said. “Our mutual love for you brought us close. But that didn’t last.”
From a dark recess a scene came forward in Bijan’s mind. Her mother had bruises on her arms and one on the side of her face. Mommy, you’re bleeding. What followed was wiped out from his memory.
“I never believed that your father would be able to totally cut me off from you,” she said, bringing him back to the present.
As Bijan listened to the details of his mother’s feelings of loss, her efforts to get him back, and her hopes that she would one day be united with him, he thought how similar his own state of mind had been to hers. He told her about how fragmented his existence had become because of being cut off from her, how eventually he began to see his father for who he really was—selfish, volatile, cruel. “Do you still dream of acting?” he asked.
“That desire was beaten out of me. I teach at an elementary school. Ahmad has a carpet shop. He goes to villages and buys them and resells them. We’re different. But he’s kind to me.”
Bijan’s mind kept drifting to the past. When he was in first grade, before his father took him to Tabriz, his mother had approached him in the school’s courtyard during one recess. She’d picked him up and held him in her arms. He had stiffened. His father had told him many times, Your mother may one day come to your school. Don’t ever talk to her or go anywhere with her. She’s a bad woman. Do you understand? Bijan had struggled to break away from her. She had put him down and started to cry. He’d just walked away from her, though he could feel pain in his heart. His father was not a big man. He was thin and short. Still he gave the impression of being very strong; he frightened and silenced him, forced him into obedience.
Once when he was visiting from boarding school, his father took him to Tehran for two days to attend to some business matters. On a walk together, his father pointed to a photo of an actress on a cinema billboard and said, Your mother wanted to be an actress… a whore. They entered Laleh Zar, once a red light district and then dismantled by the new regime. Still a few brothels remained, operating illegally. Bijan was shaken by the atmosphere of the place. It was lined by peeling, grim buildings and houses. Women in garish clothes and heavy make-up lurked in doorways or hung their heads out of windows, none of them wearing the mandatory cover. A few of them beckoned to him and his father. In one spot a group of men had gathered around a woman who was lying on the ground, her body jumping up and down with spasms, her eyes sunken. An epileptic fit, his father said. From a venereal disease, the destiny of prostitutes. I saved your mother from that destiny. His father seemed very complicated, menacing. On that visit his father often came home long after midnight, drunk, and told his new wife, Manijeh, that she was no longer attractive, that he was better off with a whore than with her. This was said behind the shut doors of their bedroom, but Bijan could hear them.
“Bijan, my dear, you’re quiet,” his mother said, again bringing him back to the present.
“I’m sorry, mother. I was just thinking of my father. I haven’t told him I’m visiting you. I don’t want to see him.”
“Do what’s best for you.”
After they finished breakfast, his mother had to go to her school, which would be in session until the end of June. He decided to go out and explore the city that he had not seen for years. It was unusually cool for early June in Tehran, and he could walk comfortably everywhere. Soon he was enveloped in the hectic, contradictory energy of the city, with cars, motor scooters, and bicycles racing by in an unruly way, with people pushing and shoving, arguing, on nearly every street corner. East and West mingled everywhere. Women, going against the rule of hejab, wearing their scarves halfway over their heads, walked side by side with others covered up thoroughly in chadors. Stores carried merchandise illegally imported from western countries alongside traditional Iranian goods. Western music, though banned, still flowed out of some shops, intermingling with the melodic traditional Persian music that poured out of other shops. It was amazing how people kept up their spirits in spite of years of tragedy: revolution, war, government oppression, economic turmoil.
After walking for a while, he took a taxi to his old neighborhood where he had lived with his parents before they separated. He still remembered the name of the street, Martyr Abad, and that it was near a park. At the park’s entrance, a magician—an old graying man—was closing his hands over a bird and then opening them to reveal it was no longer there. Instead it chirped in a box several feet away from him. Children gathered around him and hurled exclamations of amazement.
As he walked along the street, he remembered a childhood friend, Noushin. The two of them had played together freely on the streets; she was not yet nine years old, so she didn’t have to cover up and could play with a boy. He wondered if Noushin still lived on this street. Her family house had been adjacent to his. Both houses had wooden doors and lion-head knockers. He found the houses but a pang of pain at the sight of a house where once he had lived with his parents and all the turmoil and sadness filling it then, made him walk away speedily.
He left the street and did more exploring, stopping at some art galleries. Then he bought a deli meat sandwich and a yogurt soda and sat to eat them on a bench on the sidewalk. A few teenagers in blue jeans were standing in the shade of a tree and singing in a jesting tone, “We have no Lycra! We have no Cola! Death to Amrika!”
When he returned his mother was back too. They sat on a rug she spread by the pool in the courtyard, and they talked. Fish tumbled in the water, sparrows chirped in the trees.
“Remember Noushin Partovi? I used to play with her when we were children. Do you have any idea where she is, what she’s doing?”
“Noushin. Yes, she’s married, has two children. They don’t live in Tehran anymore. Do you have a girlfriend in America?”
“Sort of. Her name is Jill.” He didn’t elaborate, confused as he was about the relationship, which was full of ups and downs, breaking up and getting back together.
His mother was listening intently, seeming eager to hear more, but sounds of footsteps in the hallway interrupted them.
Ahmad came in, holding a loaf of bread and a net shopping bag with yogurt and fruit in it. He put it down on the kitchen counter that extended into the living room. A few moments later, they sat around the dining table to eat. His mother put food on everyone’s plates. The air became filled with the scents of pomegranate-dressed chicken stew and saffron rice.
“Even people in the bazaar now wish we would reconcile with America. The sanctions against us are hurting,” Ahmad said, addressing him directly. It seemed he had gotten used to his presence.
“Yes, I hope things will improve between the two countries.” He had lived in America and Iran each for fourteen years, half and half.
Ahmad’s face became thoughtful and then a smile came into it. “But we shouldn’t talk about sad things. Talat and I have been counting the days for your visit.” He put his hand on hers. “It’s wonderful to have Bijan with us, isn’t it Talat joon?”
His mother nodded, held back tears glistening in her eyes.
After dinner they watched a program on TV about Joseph, revered in Islam as a prophet, along with Jesus. Then they withdrew into their bedrooms. Bijan fell asleep only after he was able to shed the recollection of his childhood anxiety when his mother had gone into the bedroom with his father.
A few days later, Bijan stood by a crowd of people protesting the arrest of an outspoken professor at Tehran University. Spontaneously he combined his voice with theirs, shouting, “Free Mehdi Arjomanadi.” The Revolutionary Guards were not in sight yet. He noticed a young woman wearing a colorful scarf, only covering her hair halfway. His heartbeat accelerated—her large hazel eyes and curly brown hair reminded him of Noushin. He turned to the woman and asked, while aware of the absurdity of it, “I’m sorry to bother you, but is your name Noushin?”
The woman smiled. “No, Farideh.”
He introduced himself and added, “I’m visiting from America. I had a childhood friend, Noushin. Interesting coincidence, she had a sister, Farideh. Her last name is Partovi.”
Farideh smiled. “No, I don’t have any sisters and my last name is Kargaris.”
Sirens sounded and then Revolutionary Guards holding water hoses and rifles appeared on the scene. The crowd began to disperse, everyone running away frantically. Bijan did the same and soon lost sight of Farideh.
When he returned home he told his mother about Farideh resembling Noushin. “I wish I could get to know her.”
“I’ll try to track her down for you. There aren’t that many Kargaris in Tehran. But you know, if you meet her, it means you’re committing yourself to marriage.”
“She didn’t seem very traditional.”
“Still it’s a risk for her. And her family, no matter how open-minded, will want to protect her and their name.”
Bijan sank into himself, thinking how in the hotel in Istanbul, where he had stopped overnight on the way to Tehran, a wedding was taking place in the suite next to his room. On the way downstairs to the lobby, he had paused and looked inside the suite. The bride and the groom stood in the middle of the room, looking into each other’s eyes with loving expressions. He had felt wistful for a real relationship. It struck him, as it did with frequency, that there was something missing between him and Jill, a real intimacy. She seemed to view him as a foreigner with some cues to his character missing, as he felt about her.
“If I talk to her, get to know her even a little, I could consider a serious relationship.” “I guess you and Jill are breaking up,” his mother said in a quiet voice, as if talking to herself.
“We were on and off. I think she sees other men too. We aren’t that open with each other; that’s one of our problems, lack of intimacy.”
“I’ll do my best to find Farideh.”
It was amazing to Bijan, but his mother tracked down Farideh’s family in a week, in a city of twelve million people. She said she had asked all her friends, and one of them knew a couple by that last name who had only one daughter, and her name was Farideh. “Everything is lined up to make it easy,” she said, in an upbeat manner.
She arranged with Farideh’s family that she and Bijan would go to their house and they would talk.
On that day, she put on a head scarf and rupush, and he his blue and beige striped shirt and beige pants. He parted his hair in the middle, which he thought was flattering. In the mirror he could see the strong resemblance between himself and his mother. He had her oval face, large brown eyes, and high cheekbones. They were both thin. He liked the resemblance; it made him feel like an extension of her. On the way they stopped at a florist and bought a bouquet of asters. It was like when he was a child and she took him places. His heart beat wildly with happiness.
They soon arrived at a house with a latticed wooden door, in the middle of a cobble-stoned street with water gurgling in its narrow joob. She knocked and a woman opened the door with an expectant smile. “This is my son, Bijan. And this, Bijan, is Tooran-khanoom.”
“Come in, come in,” Tooran said.
They followed her through a courtyard, with four flowerbeds and a pool, to the living room. Farideh, now wearing her head scarf fully to cover all her hair and a darker rupush, was waiting there. Bijan’s mother gave the flowers to Tooran. Tooran and Farideh left and came back in a moment with Farideh carrying the flowers in a vase and her mother holding a tray with tea, pastries, and fruit on it. Farideh put the vase on a mantle, Tooran arranged the food on the table, and they all sat on chairs around it, Farideh next to Bijan and the mothers across from them. As the mothers talked mainly about friends they had in common, he and Farideh engaged each other in a conversation, first a little hesitantly and then opening up.
“Do you like living in America?” she asked him.
“Yes, except for missing home.”
“I want to talk my father into sending me to graduate school there. I’ve been working at the airport since I graduated from college a year ago and I know English. I have a travel thirst; that’s why I took that job.” She smiled. Her smile was dreamy, like his mother’s years ago when she talked about her aspiration to become an actress.
At one point, the two mothers got up, went into the courtyard and sat on a rug spread by the pool, leaving Bijan and Farideh alone in the room. Tooran had shut the door. Farideh took off her head scarf and rupush. Her hair, thick and wavy, the same color as her eyes, tumbled over her shoulders. She was wearing a yellow blouse and a brown skirt, flattering on her. Her figure was full and soft—like a Botticelli painting, he thought. She had an innocent air, and yet was bold in the way she looked into his eyes, with an expression that said she had a wild spirit in spite of her circumscribed life. There was an enchanting scent of rose water about her.
He yearned to pull her to him and kiss her but restrained himself. No matter how wild her spirit, she might take offence.
“You must have had many girlfriends. America is so free,” she said. He contemplated on ‘America is so free.’ Was that an invitation to a kiss or warding off a kiss? Farideh was as hard for him to read as was Jill, but in a more alluring way, making her all the more attractive. “Yes, but nothing serious,” he said.
Footsteps sounded, and their mothers came back into the room. They all lingered there; the mothers, suddenly quiet while Bijan and Farideh kept what had occurred to themselves. After a few moments Bijan and his mother left. Outside his mother said, “Tooran doesn’t feel it’s right for you to see Farideh alone again unless you get engaged. She herself wouldn’t mind it, but her husband is very strict.”
He was quiet, thinking how strange to commit to someone he just met. Yet he felt a yearning for her already.
That night in bed he tossed and turned. If I propose to Farideh, I will need to stay on in Iran much longer than a month to arrange things for marriage and get a visa for her to take her to America as my wife. But then, what is the urgency in going back? He could take time off from driving his taxi for a while. In spite of his tendency to squander money on impromptu trips plus his taste for the expensive—designer clothes, fancy restaurants—he had saved some money. Maybe if he were married he would change his profession again when a job became available. After he had gotten a degree in petroleum engineering, he had a hard time finding a job. As his friend Hassan said, “All good jobs go to WASPs around here. Even Jews and Hispanics have a hard time. But Iranians are at the bottom. They have to be desperate to hire us.” After a year of working at some engineering-related jobs, Bijan, Hassan, and two other Iranian friends—all holding degrees in one field or another—had started a taxi company. Times were tough and, instead of hiring drivers, they drove the taxis themselves. Driving a taxi didn’t make him immune to prejudices. Some passengers asked him disturbing questions like, Do you know how far Iran is from making a nuclear bomb? or Why do you call yourself Persian?
He fell asleep without reaching a solution.
In the morning Farideh’s mother called and talked to his mother.
“They liked you,” his mother told him, “as I expected.”
A little later Farideh herself called, and his mother handed the phone over to him. “I’m not supposed to be calling you,” Farideh said to him.
“I’m so glad you did.”
”I’m not used to calling like this, but my mother told me I could this time. She liked you.”
“This all makes me happy.”
The rest of the conversation was brief and disjointed, but he was moved that she had called him.
As the day wore on, he craved to see her again. He was losing his hesitation about proposing to her.
Farideh’s father, Ali, invited Bijan to a kebab restaurant. The restaurant in the center of Tehran was lively and crowded, mainly with families. Posters of historic gardens and palaces hung on walls. The two of them sat in a corner and talked, with Ali asking Bijan many questions.
Music came on from a radio. Golpar, a female singer, sang a song Bijan remembered from a long time ago: Oh my dear, we have to make up for lost time! We have only one life! Let us make up for lost time! Days rush by and before we know it is the end!
After lunch, Ali patted Bijan on the back and said, “You’re a nice man. I think you’ll treat my daughter well. We have to let the mothers cement out the details.”
Within days, Bijan’s mother sat with him in the living room, and they talked about the details of the engagement and wedding, which she had already discussed with Farideh’s mother. They agreed that Bijan would guarantee a $40,000 mehrieh—money that the groom would agree to pay the bride in case he divorced her. In turn, Farideh’s father, the wealthy owner of a chain of hardware stores, would buy them an apartment in Tehran as the dowry; they could live in it any time they visited from the United States. His mother had made them agree that Bijan would pay the mehrieh in installments, as he did not have that much money yet. They were surprised that a man who had lived in America for years was not wealthy. There would be an engagement party at a garden that his mother and Farideh’s mother had agreed on, and his mother would be taking on that expense. “I’m proud to do that,” she told Bijan who wanted to pay for it. They would get legally engaged while they were preparing for the wedding, and that was when Bijan would make the first payment, amounting to $5,000.
As Bijan was going through the steps, Jill kept coming to his mind. He wondered if he should call her and break up with her formally. But that would be so hurtful to her, long distance. Wouldn’t it be even worse to marry Farideh without even having a discussion with Jill? He kept changing his mind in one direction or the other. Caught in a paralyzing state of indecision, he did nothing.
Soon after all the details between his and Farideh’s family were settled, they had an engagement ceremony in Farideh’s parents’ house, as was the custom. After the aghound—who had performed the ceremony—left, her parents allowed Bijan to be alone with her but only for a short time. Her father had whispered to him, “I know you’ve lived in America for many years, but you must be aware of how conservative our society is. We’ll be disgraced if we give her too much freedom.” Bijan had nodded, not having any desire to argue with Ali, a man he felt distant from, as he did from his own father.
As soon as he and his mother returned home the phone rang. His mother picked it up, and uttered few confused questions. Then she turned to him and said, “It’s for you. It’s from America.”
It must be Jill, he thought, the only person to whom he had given his mother’s phone number. “I got your postcard. Why are you staying there so long?” she asked.
“It’s hard to explain on the phone.”
The insincerity must have registered in his voice. “Is something wrong?” she asked.
“No. I’m just disoriented.”
After exchanging a few more awkward sentences they hung up. Just her voice reminded him again of his problems in the U.S. Still, in spite of that, hearing Jill’s voice had thrown him into a state of panic about marrying Farideh, a girl he barely knew.
In the middle of the night he woke with his heart beating rapidly. He would have to get out of marrying Farideh, he thought in the darkness. He rose from the bed and went to the window. The mountains were clearly visible. A breeze was blowing, making the tree leaves rustle. After a while he calmed down enough to go back to sleep. But as soon as he woke in the morning, the doubts were back again.
Alone with his mother, after Ahmad left, he said, “I’m sorry but I can’t go through with it. I’m not ready for marriage, to anyone.”
“Bijan, you’re already engaged, legally.”
“Do you want to think about it?”
“No. I’ve thought about it enough.”
“Then I have to let the family know immediately, if you’re sure.”
“I’ll go there in person to tell them,” his mother said, looking distressed, but trying to sound calm, he could tell. He hated putting her through this, but his own sense of panic was so strong, it made it hard for him to offer at least some kind of solace, or a better explanation to her. He was miserable to be disappointing his mother and hurting Farideh, but he could not bring himself now to go along with the marriage that had seemed so desirable just the day before.
When his mother returned she told him, “Farideh wasn’t there herself, so I spoke to her mother. Farideh will have other suitors, she’s very desirable. You know that you’ll lose the $5,000.”
“I guess that’s a price I have to pay for my indecisiveness. But I must talk to Farideh, I can’t just break off like this.” Farideh had told him, It’s always better if I call you. My father might answer if you call here. He asked his mother to call first and then he would speak to Farideh.
“Salaam,” Farideh said to him in a friendly tone when she came on.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “But my life is so unsettled.”
Farideh immediately understood the meaning of this call. “Don’t worry. You’re used to the American way of life. I don’t hold anything against you.”
Bijan could strongly sense that Farideh was covering up her disappointment and hurt feelings. “I’ll miss you,” he said to console her but meaning it too. Throughout the day he was struck with a barrage of emotions—a sense of loss, guilt, relief.
That evening Ahmad seemed upset as they sat down in the courtyard to have dinner.
“Ali came to see me at my shop,” he said, addressing Bijan. “He was furious. He said the least you could do is to give Farideh the whole $40,000 mehrieh.”
“I’ll send them the money when I return to the U.S,” he said, thinking that’s the least I can do, after what I put Farideh and her family through. He knew his father would bail him out of this if he told him what had happened—if only to win him back. But he had not even told his father he was in Iran. For a long time now they had been alienated. Neither Ahmad nor his mother had much savings.
“Ali threatened to go to court and demand that you be put on the blacklist so that you can’t leave Iran until you’ve paid the mehrieh. He’s going to say you lived in America, and now you came and tainted his daughter’s name. You know we don’t have an American Embassy here to help you.”
They all sank into silence. Goldfish tumbling in the pool, and a stray cat mewing on the street filled the silence. Wisps of clouds raced across the sky, passing over the full moon.
“Are you sure you don’t want to marry Farideh?” Ahmad asked.
“I’m sorry. I’m just not ready for marriage.”
“I want my son to be happy,” his mother said.
Suddenly Ahmad came up with a solution. “There are ways of escaping Iran. It’s fairly common in fact to leave illegally. I can arrange that for you. You have to pay someone who makes all the arrangements but it isn’t $40,000. I can help you out with that. You can pay me back later.”
Bijan, complying with the idea of escape, took the plane from Tehran to Kish, a free port on the Persian Gulf. He paced the wharf as he waited for Abdollah who would take him to the other side of the Gulf and hand him over to another man who would take him across the Dubai border into a city there. He could easily go to America from Dubai. “The worst that can happen is they’ll return you to Iran,” Abdollah had said. Of course Abdollah would try to minimize the risk. He had a lot to gain—$6,000, a great deal when transferred into toomans. He had already received a quarter of that and the rest would be given to him when Bijan was safely across the border.
Then his heart gave a painful beat, thinking of the tearful parting he had with his mother. How disappointing all this must be to her. She had not said anything to make him feel guilty, but that was probably because years of separation made her idealize him, accept anything he did. Or maybe she was afraid she would push him away, lose him if she criticized him in any way. He had felt so close to her, and now he was leaving her in this terrible way.
He wondered if he should turn around and go back, but he was caught in a terrible state of indecisiveness. He looked at his watch again. He had taken an early plane from Tehran to make sure he would not be late, but now Abdollah was late. He sat on a bench facing the Gulf. Before him was endless motion in the water: waves bubbling up and receding and all sorts of boats going by—freighters, oil tankers, and passenger ships.
Another fifteen minutes passed, but there was no sign of Abdollah. Restlessly he got up and began to walk. He passed clusters of palm trees, redolent with dates and coconuts, and then a rose garden as he entered the main square. It was hectic with people swarming around carts and shops. His uncertainty about escaping the marriage was increasing. It wasn’t just his mother now he was worried about. It was Farideh too. Did he really want to hurt the lovely Farideh?
A therapist had told him, You’re indecisive because of what you went through as a child, losing your mother. Yes, he was weak, indecisive, and irresponsible. The therapist had added, Your father made you feel you were abandoned by your mother. That belief that she abandoned you has made you insecure, afraid to commit. She was right, he thought, absolutely right.
After his parents were divorced, for days he had thought his mother was hiding in a room in the new house his father had moved him into. He woke in the middle of the night sometimes and went from room to room looking for her, turning on the lights. Gradually a dark hole, a vacuum opened inside him, which became filled with his father’s condemning words about her. She doesn’t love you, his father had said over and over again.
As he walked in the crowded square, he could not separate his thoughts about his mother from those about Farideh. He was harming the vulnerable girl as his father had wronged his mother.
A moment later he thought, no, this isn’t a moral choice, it is a matter of what I am beginning to sort out in my heart. He had looked into the abyss inside himself and was frightened of the primitive forces that lurked there, he thought. He could not allow them to live inside him. The spark of attraction I feel for Farideh can grow into a steady flame, he was sure now. And the union had the extra benefit of pleasing his mother and bringing him closer to her. As he circled towards the bank, he saw a tall, bearded man approaching the bench where he was supposed to meet Abdollah. Bijan quickly turned around and went in a different direction to avoid being seen by him. He smiled, thinking his American friends in Palo Alto would never understand why he married in this hurried way. It would only confirm their view of him, that he was a man from another planet.
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