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Jan/Feb 2013 Fiction

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by Nahid Rachlin


Lily and I arrived in Tehran early this afternoon. At the airport, we were both in the clutch of fear that the security guards would give us trouble, but everything went smoothly, and here we are in Hotel Hafiz in the center of the city. From the window we have a view of cupolas, gables, minarets visible above low houses and buildings across the street. The distant honking of cars, motor scooters, music, a mullah's voice giving a sermon in the nearby mosque, all flow into the room. What a different world Tehran is from Setauket.

After resting for an hour, we put on our scarves and manteaus we bought in preparation for this trip and leave for our aunt Monir's address. We are still hoping to find Mom, who disappeared from our home 14 years ago when we were teenagers. Our last letters to Aunt Monir had returned to us, but we are optimistic that someone in her neighborhood will lead us to her new address. With the help of a map, we enter Vali Asr Avenue that will connect, after 12 blocks, to Monir's old address. Cars are honking, passing each other dangerously. Exhaust fumes fill the air. The smell of diesel oil mixes with that of fried onions and herbs. In one spot people have gathered around a young, bearded man in a black shirt, holding a microphone and lecturing, "Respect your elders, listen to your mullahs, avoid superpowers' propaganda, leading you astray... women who do not observe the hejab will burn in the fires of hell!"

Lily and I understand every word, having brushed up our Farsi in anticipation of the trip. We walk away from the spot rapidly and enter a narrow street, lined by a row of squat, gray, modern buildings alongside old-fashioned houses enclosed in courtyards. Then we are at the mouth of Martyr Ahmadi, Aunt Monir's street. We walk along it, tense with anticipation. Number 17 is in the middle. It is an old, yellow brick house with a small, shuttered-up window. I knock, and a young, bearded man opens the door. "Does Monir Bloorieh still live here?" I ask.

"Monir... no."

"Do you have any idea what her new address is?"

"I don't know the name. She must have moved out a long time ago."

"Sorry to have bothered you."

As we walk away, Lily says, "What do we do now?"

I feel as if a door has been slammed shut on us, but I try to be optimistic. "Let's ask the shopkeepers around here."

We stop at some of the shops in the area and ask the owners if they know Monir Bloorieh. But they all say no.

"Maybe the post office," I say to Lily, noticing one on the other side of the street. We go in, and I give the clerk our aunt's address and ask if he has the new one. He says they have no way of tracing a person that way.

We leave disappointed, our hope already fading. We walk on aimlessly from one street to the next, wondering what to do. Finally we sit in a restaurant. The air is filled with the aroma of turmeric, saffron. Persian music blares out of a radio. Young people, boys in punk haircuts and tee shirts, girls taking a chance and letting their hair show through their scarves, are sitting at separate tables, carrying on lively conversations. A young, attractive waiter comes over to take our order. Lily smiles at him, and he smiles back flirtatiously, lingers a bit, trying to talk to her in English. She is looking striking in her peach head scarf and dark blue manteau.

"Miriam, wasn't he cute?" Lily asks after we leave the restaurant.

I shrug wearily at her constant attempt to meet new men, particularly here where it is risky to be caught flirting.

Back in our hotel room, I say, "Every day we should look to see if we come across them."

Lily laughs. "Twelve million people live in this city!"

We take turns at the shower in the blue tiled bathroom and go to bed. I like being in this room with a colorful klim on its floor, jasmine flowers floating in a rust colored ceramic bowl set on the mantle, the poster of an Isfahan garden on the wall. As I lie in bed, unable to sleep, my mind fills with memories. I think of that one time, when Lily and I were children, Mom taking us to Iran for a visit. We stayed just outside of Tehran in a big house in a village, an oasis at the edge of a desert. In the distance mountains changed color from salmon to a deep blue, to lavender. Wolves and jackals howled. Next to the house was an orchard with a spring. Lily and I and other local children went to the orchard, picked fruit from the trees, or swam in the stream running through it. At night we slept under mosquito nets in the courtyard where the stars and the moon were brighter than I had ever seen. I remember nightingales whistling at dawn. Then there was the voice of the muezzin three times a day calling people to prayers. Many relatives came to the big house and fussed over Lily and me. They gave us presents—jewelry, clay animals, and rag dolls. Mom whispered things to her relatives about her new religion, having converted to Catholicism when marrying our father, concern on their faces, nervousness on her part. Except for that one time, she did not visit her family and they did not visit us. She stayed in contact only with her sister Monir, who was tolerant of the path she had taken. Monir, too, had rebelled; she had divorced her husband who had been arranged for her and never married again. She lived alone and alienated from the rest of the family.

The truth is that Mom never really became a part of the American culture. She was shy with other mothers, didn't go to open houses at our school or to PTA meetings. At our birthday parties it was our father who took charge, decorating the house with balloons and colorful streamers, arranging games, and preparing party favors for the children to take home. She smiled pleasantly at other mothers but rarely engaged them in conversation. She spent hours alone at home painting flowers. A few of her paintings—a bunch of tulips, a large iris, two roses—still hang on our living-room walls.

In the morning, Lily and I go to the hotel's restaurant. The interior design of white and blue tablecloths and blue cushioned chairs exude a feeling of warmth. But Lily is moody, and we hardly talk. After we finish breakfast, Lily says, "I'm still exhausted. I need to go back to bed and get more sleep."

"I'll go and do a little more searching. I'll try to be back by noon," I say, though I have no idea what I am really going to do to lead me to Mom.

I leave the hotel, wondering if she is using being tired as an excuse to avoid a disappointing search. I think of her as a teenager telling her friends that Mom had died. Sometimes I would wake in the middle of the night and hear her crying in her room.

On the way to Aunt's Monir's address, we had passed a photography shop with family photographs displayed in its window case. I go to that street and find the shop. "Do you have any photographs of the Bloorieh family?" I ask the man behind the counter. "I'm Monir Bloorieh's niece and am trying to find her. I don't have her current address."

The man listens to my explanation with interest and asks, "Are you American?"

"Yes, born there."

"We like Americans, but not your government," he says, then smiles. "No offence."

"I know what you mean," I say.

"You're brave to come here." He turns to a stack of photograph proofs in a drawer, takes one out and puts it on the counter. "Here is one."

The women in the photograph resemble Monir and Mom, and that sends a rush of hope through me. "Do you keep addresses of your clients?"

"Unfortunately, no. "

"My aunt used to live on Martyr Ahmadi Street."

"There are two streets by that name." I tell him which one we went to, and he gives me directions to the other one. "Walk to the right, pass the Mohamadi Square, and you'll find it."

I find Martyr Almadi Alley, but there is no number 12 on it. This street has some more modern houses on it. The numbers must have changed, as new houses have been added.

Exasperated, I go and sit in a café on the wide avenue running perpendicular to the alley. It has rose-colored walls, vaulted ceilings, and a garden filled with trees and flowers. I sit in a quiet corner inside. Half of the tables are occupied by young men and women, separated by sex, poring over newspapers and books. I have tea and leave.

The sunlight that was mild in the morning has turned harsh. I decide to take a bus or a taxi back to the hotel. Buses in colors of powder blue, tea rose, and pink pass by filled to capacity and not stopping. Taxis in red and yellow colors go by full. I see a shadow beside me, and a male voice says, "Can I take you somewhere?" I turn around. I recognize a young man who was sitting alone at a table in the café.

"I drive a taxi. I was on break," he explains. "We all have to work on more than one job to make ends meet." He introduces himself as Parviz and points to a yellow taxi parked at the curb. I follow him to it.

As he begins to drive, he asks, "Are you a tourist? You have an accent." He has an educated way of talking and is dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, an indication that he is somewhat westernized.

"My sister and I are visiting from Long Island."

"Why come to this hell hole when you have America?" he asks and chuckles.

Should I tell this stranger why we are here? In the hope that he might help me I say, "Our mother left us years ago, and we're trying to find her through our aunt's address." I tell him how already our hope of finding her has diminished.

"I'll try to find your aunt. I know a lot of people. Give me a few days." He drives speedily past an immense clock in the shape of a flower that dangles from a lamppost. "Our government claims that's the biggest clock in the world, but I know it isn't true. Isn't there a much larger clock in New Jersey?"

"I'm not sure."

"The one in New Jersey isn't a flower one, but so what, it's still bigger," he says. "The government tries to pump us up."

In front of the hotel, as I reach to my purse to pay him, he says, "You can pay me in a different way."

I wait tensely for his explanation. "Will you try to find out for me what's the best way I might get a visa to come to America?"

"I'm sorry to say things won't be easy until our countries become friends again."

"I pray for that."

"My sister and I have dual citizenship and came to Iran on our Iranian passports. That made it easier. But I'll try to find out more when I get back."

"I'll call you at the hotel as soon as I track down your aunt's whereabouts."

I thank him and go inside. In the room Lily is coming out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her, water glistening on her skin, dripping down her hair. I notice the bruise on her arm, which she has told me is from Jared, her last boyfriend, when she told him she wanted out of the relationship. I tell her about what Parviz promised.

"I hope he isn't just using you."

"How can he use me?"

Instead of answering she says, "I went to the lobby after you left. I was too restless to lie in bed. I met a nice man, Philip. We just started talking. He's been here for almost three months. He's English. He wants to renew his visa and stay on longer. He's a writer, finishing up a novel. He's gorgeous." She says all that in an excited tone as she gets dressed.

"How does he get the money to stay for so long in this hotel, if he's a struggling writer? It isn't one of the cheapest." In fact Dad is paying for this hotel, otherwise Lily and I could not afford it, either.

"It's much cheaper when you stay for a long time. Anyway, maybe he isn't struggling. He invited me out tonight. He has a friend who's single; he wants you to meet him."

"You know in Iran we can get arrested for dating men."

"We could stay in the hotel. He said the government rules aren't enforced by the hotel staff. We can even have alcohol. They pay off the police."

"I'm not in the mood." I wish she were more focused on our mother, the reason we have come all the way here.

"Are you sure?" she asks.

"I don't mind being alone tonight."

We go out to have lunch and spend the afternoon exploring, mainly walking through the Grand Bazaar with its labyrinthine lanes, lined with hundreds of small shops. The display windows and walls are crammed with all sorts of merchandise, from American imitation clothing to glimmering jewelry, perfume bottles, rugs in rich colors and patterns. We stop in one jewelry store and pause by its display case. We go inside, and I buy a necklace of thin gold leaves and she a pair of filigreed gold earrings.

Finally when it grows dark, we return to the hotel. She leaves for Philip's room, and I go to sleep early.

As I get out of bed in the morning, I see my name written in large letters on a piece of hotel stationery on the side table. A note from Lily.

Miriam, I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to spend the day with Philip. I love you.

How could she spend this, of all days, with a man she will probably not see again once we leave Tehran?

I decide to visit important spots, almost superstitiously thinking something would lead me to my aunt. I go to the Carpet Museum, with exquisite antique carpets on the wall, some looking like forests with busy flora and fauna, others shimmering like the surface of a lake. Then I go to a gallery that displays miniature paintings. After that I go to a hair salon to get a haircut. Photographs of modern Iranian actresses, all wearing head scarves and manteaus, hang on the walls. There are several customers being attended to. A young woman approaches me, introduces herself as Guity, and leads me to a chair to wash my hair, and then to another chair to cut and style. She begins to talk to me as if we have known each other for a long time. She asks me question after question, her curiosity aroused by the fact that I live in America. Then she tells me she is engaged to a man arranged for her by her parents. "In America they talk about love, but there are more divorces there than here."

I am not in the mood for a philosophical discussion, my mind having become focused on my relationship with Peter, my boyfriend for four years, which ended not long ago—how we had become strangers to each other. I describe my aunt and Mom to her and ask if they ever came to her salon. She shakes her head no. I begin to confide in her about Mom having abandoned us.

She listens with intense curiosity and says, "Must have been hard for her to live away from home. It's easier to accept the faults of your own country than a foreign one." Before I leave, she also offers to call me if she finds out anything about Monir's whereabouts.

One afternoon as I sit in the hotel room, while Lily is with Philip, the phone rings.

"Here is Parviz."

"Parviz, do you have news for me?"

"I have an address. Your aunt doesn't live in either of Martyr Ahmadi Alleys. She lives on Martyr Hussein Alley now."

"You're sure you have the right address?"

"Yes, I have a friend whose sister knows your aunt." He proceeds to give me the address. Then he gives me his own phone number and address. "I hope you'll send me whatever information that will help me to come to America."

"I promise I'll try," I say excited and skeptical at the same time about the address he has given me for my aunt.

"How long are you staying in Iran?" he asks.

"Just three more days. We have only ten days here altogether."

"I'm leaving to visit an ailing uncle in Khazvin. I postponed it until I found the address for you."

"I'm really grateful." After we hang up, I am surprised at my disappointment that Parviz is leaving. In a few moments I set out for the address he gave me.

I knock on number 15. A young girl opens the door. She is wearing cheap clothes and has the ruddy skin of a village girl.

"I'm here to see Monir Bloorieh."

"She isn't here. She left to visit her sister."

"Her sister Pari?" I ask, not quite believing it.

She nods.

"Do you have Pari's address?"

She hesitates. I take out some money and give it to her. She goes inside and returns in a moment with a piece of paper. "Monir Khanoom left me this address. No phone number."

The address is in Rey, about 100 kilometers from Tehran. In the hotel lobby the clerk tells me the best way to go to Rey is by train. He calls the station for me and finds out that the next train is tomorrow morning.

"I could take a taxi or bus there, can't I?"

"I wouldn't advise it. The roads are in bad shape right now. They've been flooded. Take the train in the morning."

In the morning Lily and I get into an argument when she tells me she will not go to Rey with me. She says, "I don't trust the address."

"We came here to find Mom. We have to try everything."

"You're chasing after the impossible. I'm not spending the time with Philip. He left for England. His time was up here."

"Then what are you going to do?"

"Just stay in and read or go for a walk."

I zoom out and take a taxi to the train station. The train is not crowded, and I easily find a seat by a window. It passes fields covered by wild flowers, small mud and straw houses with chickens and goats grazing on patches of grass around them, then areas of arid land, irrigated in spots, and a mosque.

On that long ago visit to Iran, Mom took Lily and me to a mosque. I was dazzled by the myriad of mirrors covering its interior walls. I wonder if she has gone back to her own religion. I think of the photograph of her and myself I keep in my room in Dad's house, where I moved back to, to save money finish my BA.

In the photograph Mom and I are standing in our backyard, and she has her arm around my waist. Her long, dark hair flows over her shoulders, her hazel eyes look at something in the distance. I resemble her strongly; Lily looks more like our father, with the same color of light brown hair and blue-green eyes. Both Mom and I are dressed up. I am wearing a white dress with a pleated skirt, a red ribbon in my hair, white shoes and socks. She has on a chocolate-colored dress, high heels, and a hat. Could it have been taken that Sunday after church?

As we walked home that day, she looked sad and withdrawn. I asked her what was wrong. I still remember what she said. "This isn't the religion I was raised in." Soon after that Sunday, she left to visit her sister and never returned. Her letters and phone calls stopped after a while. The letters Lily and I wrote to her returned to us. Monir's phone, we discovered when we tried to call, was disconnected. Months and years went by, and we have been unable to contact her.

In an hour and a half, the train stops in Rey. I get off and walk on the main street, passing a naval college, tea houses, shops, horse-drawn carriages transporting people. I come to a little square, its shops carrying the essentials: sugar, rice, matches. A mill, a low clay building with a tower, stands on one side of the square, a dilapidated rooming house on the other side.

Then I come to an intersection. At one corner is a mosque. A group of women wearing black chadors sit on the steps, crying, perhaps moved by a sermon they heard inside. Next to the mosque is an immense poplar tree with a hollow carved in its trunk. An old man is lying on a mat spread in the hollow. Children have collected around him, taunting him, throwing coins to him.

I reach a cluster of narrow lanes and begin to look for the address. I see Rezai Street written on a tile imbedded on the wall of an alley. There it is, I think excitedly, and turn into it. The alley is lined with gardens and orchards and stone and brick houses. In a hallway two children are kneeling and playing with marbles. Then I am in front of number 7. I stand back and look at it. It is an old, seedy, brick house, sagging a little. Weathered, plum-colored tiles flank the dark, heavy door. The shabby appearance of the house is redeemed by small fruit trees standing at its sides and the golden sunlight shining on it.

My heart beats with a strange apprehension as I ring the bell, as if visiting a lover who might reject me. I put my ear to the door and listen for sounds inside. I hear children's voices and then a woman's barely audible voice. I begin to cough. After Mom left us, I developed a cough that wouldn't go away. Dad took me to a doctor and got a prescription. Later, when I was older, he told me the medicine was a placebo and that the doctor had said my cough was from nervousness. I ring the bell again.

"Mother, someone is at the door," I hear a boy saying. Footsteps follow. Could I have the wrong address, the wrong person? The door opens, and a little boy stands before me, staring at me with his dark eyes.

"I'm looking for Pari Bloorieh. Does she live here?"

The boy runs back inside. "Mother, Mother," he yells.

I stand frozen. A moment later I see a woman approaching in the dim hallway. My eyes are glued to her. "I'm Miriam," I say through tightened throat. Could it be really her I am standing face to face with?

"Miriam, my daughter," she says in a near whisper. Then she waves her hand in the air as if about to shut the door on me. But instead she says, "How did you find me... I'm so happy to see you..."

"Mom, do you know how much we all miss you?" I walk into the hallway, and we embrace tightly.

Tears collect in her eyes and in mine, too. Then she leads me into a room. I tell her how I found her. "Your aunt was visiting me. You just missed her."

The room has whitewashed walls and simple furnishings. On the worn, mosaic-covered mantle above the stone fireplace are a few enlarged, framed photographs and clay toys.

A large potted lemon tree filled with blossoms stands in a corner, making the room fragrant. "Let me get you something to eat," she says.

"I'm not hungry."

"Where is my dear Lily? Didn't she come with you?"

I grope for an answer. "She had a stomach ache."

"You don't know how much I've yearned to see the two of you. I'll get you a cool drink. Doogh, sharbat?"

"Doogh is fine." There is a strange formality between us, not surprising of course after years of separation. I go to the kitchen with her. The kitchen is large, also has whitewashed walls, and it smells pleasantly of spices. Baskets heaped with fruit, garlic, onions, and other vegetables lie on a tiled counter; copper pots and pans hang from hooks on the wall. She takes out a jug of doogh from a stumpy ice box, pours some in two glasses, and we go back into the living room. We sit on the rug on the floor and lean against cushions.

"Please don't tell my other children who you are. I'll explain everything, my Miriam, my dear daughter," she whispers. "Oh, how I've missed you and Lily."

Other children. But she is still married to my father, who on the basis of his religion wouldn't give her a divorce. This is too confrontational an issue to bring up at the moment. I'm hoping she herself will offer an explanation. Memories, half-faded, spill over me. Mom sitting under a tree, knitting a sweater for Lily or me. Lily and I asking her for things, competing for her attention. Lily offending her by mimicking her accent.

"Mom, why have you been hiding from us? Why did you leave us?"

She hangs her head and does not reply. So many times I have woken in the middle of the night from dreams about her, so often I have lain in the dark thinking of questions I would ask her if we ever came face-to-face. During those moments I felt that some piece of my own existence would always be missing unless I found her.

She starts asking me questions about my life, about Lily, Dad, but offers nothing about herself. The boy who opened the door to me comes in. He whispers something in her ear, she whispers something back, and he leaves. "He's my son, Hassan, his younger sister is Zobeideh," she tells me. "I have four children now, counting you and Lily."

"Mom, who is their father?"

"Miriam, I'll explain everything, and I hope you'll understand, that you can forgive me."

I look at her eagerly.

"Well, maybe you don't know this, but I always felt foreign in America, always yearned for what I had left behind. Your father had grown unhappy with me, said I was too remote from him, that he really couldn't communicate with me any more. He was right of course. When I came to visit my sister, I kept extending my stay with her. After I had been with her for a few months, one day I was alone in the house. There was a knock on the door. I went to open it, thinking maybe it was a neighbor. But it was a man standing there. He said abruptly, in a familiar tone as if he knew me, 'I finally found you, do you know how long I've been looking.' I couldn't believe it, but it was Nasser, the boy I had known in our neighborhood growing up. His family had asked my parents to let me marry him, and I would have, if I hadn't met your father."

I know she had met my father when he was in Iran under the Shah's regime, working for a pharmaceutical company. They had met at a friend's house and she had married him, against her family's wishes.

She goes on, "Nasser was like a magnet pulling me to the past, what I had given up. My life in America began to seem even more desolate."

"But you're married to my father," I can't stop myself from saying.

"My marriage to your father isn't recognized as legal here because it wasn't performed by a Muslim priest."

I want to tell her how selfish she is towards Dad and towards Lily and me, but I can't bring the words out. "But you loved Dad," I say instead.

"Of course I loved him, but it took every ounce of my will to try to adjust to life with him in America."

"Don't you find it hard to live with all the restrictions here? You were so free in America."

"I was shut out of things there, locked up in a dark box." Her daughter comes into the room. "She's a friend visiting from America," Mom says to her. She turns to me. "This is Zobeideh."

I smile at Zobeideh. She smiles back and then leaves the room.

A radio is turned on with the voice of a woman singer.

...in the dusty alley we chanted our love
it was night and a jagged moon was sitting in the sky watching us
and we were still chanting our love...

"She's a wonderful girl. Perfect," Mom says.

She is a substitute for me and Lily, I think painfully.

Mom looks animated now, and I become aware that the house, in spite of its decaying condition, is filled with happiness and warmth.

"What does he..."

"He's a carpenter, builds cabinets, closets." There is a touch of pride in her tone. "He's a good man. True, he's possessive, jealous, but we can laugh together." She points to one of the photographs on the mantle. "That's him."

He is heavy-set, has a mustache and a lively expression. Not nearly as handsome as my father, with his tall, slender build, high cheeks bone, blue-green eyes.

"I'd better go back," I say, getting up, struck by an unbearable pain.

"Wait," she says. She walks into the adjacent room and comes back, holding something. "Here, I want you to have this, a memento. I'm sorry I don't have two." It is a gold necklace with a locket—a heart with a tiny latch on it—hanging from a chain.

We kiss each other goodbye, with no reference to the future. She does not ask how long I am staying in Iran, or if I would come back here, along with Lily.

Outside, I hear Zobeideh's voice from the house, "Did the American leave already?"

"Yes," I hear my mother say.

I open the locket and find a photograph of Mom. I walk at a brisk pace to the train station. Moving calms me a little.

Lily is in the hotel room when I arrive. "How was your day?" I ask.

"In the lobby I heard about the oddest sex act ever," she says. "I was sitting on a chair behind two women talking in English. They were whispering, but I heard everything they said."

"Do you want to know about Mom?"

"I guess you didn't find her... One of them is having an affair with a Japanese man who knows little English. Do you know what she does? This is the odd part. She has a girlfriend who knows both Japanese and English to sit with them while they make love so that she can translate what they want to say to each other. Can you believe it? What does the friend translate other than put your hand on my..."

What she is telling me sounds particularly vulgar in this Islamic culture and particularly strange since with it she is brushing off any conversation about our mother. At that moment I decide not to tell her about having found Mom and what she told me, at least for the time being. What would Lily's reaction be other than, "I always knew she forgot us."

Lily decides to go back to the lobby, and I remain in the room. A sparrow comes and sits on the tree before the window and begins to chirp, as if beckoning to me. I go to the window and stare outside. The dome and minarets of a mosque are clearly visible. Signs around the square not far from the hotel, advertising a bank, a TV store, a tea house, blink in blue, red, and violet colors. But everything feels opaque and distant to me. With a sudden impulse I take out the necklace from my purse and throw it into the joob that runs along the street. I have a sudden feeling of lightness. Now I can finally begin to focus on my own happiness. That is what Mom has done.

 

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