Earthscape artwork by Andres Amador
A little before 2:00 PM, Mr. Edalati enters the municipality's central building. A 43-year-old geophysicist who lives in a condominium in the Saadat Abad district in Tehran, he has been tasked to perform the necessary soil studies as part of a contract with Tehran Municipality for the southbound metro expansion project.
From a distance, Mr. Edalati appears very dignified in his perfectly fitting navy suit, his sparklingly white shirt worthy of display in a laundry detergent commercial. Well-tailored garments make him feel as if the world is clean and in order, as if problems are nothing more than removable blemishes on an otherwise orderly slate. He is tan, slender, and very tall with sharp facial features: a narrow nose, well-defined jawline, prominent forehead, and black, soulful eyes. Although he appears somewhat ungainly, as if his body's center of gravity is higher than it should be, his physique and facial features theoretically render him an attractive man. Unfortunately, however, Mr. Edalati detests washing his hair. Moreover, he believes combing expedites oil production. Consequently, his often oily, wavy, and disheveled hair negates almost all the potential appeal produced by his smart attire and physical attributes.
Under his arms, he carries a pile of printed papers full of small tables, each containing even smaller numbers. He holds the papers firmly, gets onto an old clanking elevator, and arriving at the fourth floor, looks for Ms. Shojooni's office number. The hallways are narrow and smell musky. The fluorescent lamp lighting during daylight makes him feel despondent. He finds his destination after walking almost the whole length of the hallway. It is a relatively small room but at least has two large windows inviting in the feeble winter sunlight.
There are two desks on one side of the office, one desk on the other side, and one at the entrance of the room by the left side of the door. Mr. Edalati rightly assumes the desk by the entrance belongs to a secretary. He approaches the young lady there who seems busy messaging on her phone, and asks her if and where he could find Ms. Shojooni. Ms. Daliri lifts her head, irritably gestures, says, "Over there," and resumes texting.
Mr. Edalati approaches, clears his throat, and asks hesitantly, "Ms. Shojooni?"
A petite and pale woman, about 38 years old, peels her gaze from out the window and stares blankly at Mr. Edalati. "Yes?" she responds. Her eyes look big and anxious. There is a scrupulousness, taking-life-too-seriously quality in her face that frightens Mr. Edalati and at the same time urges him to find something funny to say.
"I am Mahmoud Edalati. I am here regarding the southbound metro project... to discuss the soil studies report... according to our prior agreement..." he explains in increments while looking expectantly.
"I'm sorry. Prior agreement?" Ms. Shojooni replies, surprised.
"Yes! Prior agreement! Tuesday, 2:00 PM, November 15th!"
"It's 2:10 PM though," she replies and looks back out the window again.
Mr. Edalati opens his mouth to utter something, but thinks better of it, and simply stands where he is.
A few seconds later, irritated by Mr. Edalati's persisting presence, Ms. Shojooni feels urged to wake from her reveries. She turns toward him.
"How are you doing? Please take a seat." She gestures toward the gray office chair across her desk.
"You should have emailed the report files before bringing a hard copy."
As he sits, Mr. Edalati takes a look out the window. It is coated with a thin layer of smoke, its old metal frame painted white and chipped in many places.
Ms. Shojooni takes his papers. She picks up a handful of highlighters in different colors from a metal penholder and goes to work. She highlights some figures in phosphorous yellow, some in orange, and some in pink. In other places, in addition to highlighting a figure, she underlines it with a red ballpoint pen.
Mr. Edalati listens to the squeaking noise of the highlighters and follows this rigorous procedure anxiously, like a grade school student whose exam paper is being graded in his presence. Finally, he breaks his uneasy silence to ask her, in a feeble voice, "Does the use of different highlighters bear a special meaning?"
"Yellow signifies the most importance," she replies curtly.
Two minutes later, Mr. Edalati, uncertain of ever getting a more informative response to his insignificant question, asks, "How about the other colors?"
"After yellow, pink signifies the most importance."
Finally, after almost 90 minutes of constant highlighting and underlining, Ms. Shojooni lifts her head and attempts a smile. Unfortunately, her large and anxious eyes, which after such extensive examination of figures have grown even larger and more anxious, make her smile seem confusing.
At this moment, Ms. Shojooni simultaneously notices Mr. Edalati's smart apparel, handsome appearance, and his greasy and slovenly hair. She finds the combination incomprehensible. The reflection of this added sentiment on her face makes her smile even more confusing.
"Although the study looks comprehensive and acceptable, I think it is necessary to consult with other geophysicists as well before making a decision," Ms. Shojooni declares.
"Please forgive me. But with which particular geophysicist do you deem necessary to consult? What part of this report needs further verification?" asks Mr. Edalati, audibly and visibly vexed.
"There is a geophysicist named Mr. Amin Mortazavi who often collaborates with the Tehran municipality. He is very learned and competent."
"Learned you say? Incidentally, Mr. Mortazavi used to work as my own intern. In my professional view, he is young and inexperienced."
Ms. Shojooni stares at Mr. Edalati sternly. Some seconds pass in awkward silence. "Mr. Mortazavi is quite credible and competent." And after another uncomfortable pause, "I do believe in meritocracy. You can't have social justice without that," she blurts out in a slightly quivering voice, as if to justify her position.
Hearing her declaration, the other occupants of the room lift their heads and stare at her. Ms. Shojooni blushes.
"Meritocracy, you say? Social justice?" asks Mr. Edalati, and bursts into laughter. He then observes the reflection of his reaction in Ms. Shojooni's big, nervous, and now sullen eyes, and stops.
He remembers all the time he has spent on the project, and feels angry, feverish, and weary. His innate Oblomov-like indolence creeps over him and makes his body feel numb and heavy. One's reports cannot be much different from the state of the rest of one's life... Ah, not now! Let it go Edalati, he urges himself. On days like this, he finds solace in addressing himself only by his last name. Never mind, Edalati. Let it go, Edalati. Finish your egg, Edalati. By distancing himself from himself, it's as if he no longer has to root for Mahmoud Edalati.
To shake off his dejection, Mr. Edalati peels himself up from his chair, goes to the old and dusty window, and opens it halfway with a struggle, Ms. Shojooni following his actions reproachfully. He then returns to his chair. Having nothing else to do, he stares at his fingernails, only to remember a friend once called this habit of his feminine. He stops and instead studies Ms. Shojooni, who is busy turning pages of the report, pretending to reassess them. He finds Ms. Shojooni's dark blue and simple attire to resemble that of a schoolgirl. He also feels quite disappointed at the absence of any makeup on her face.
Little does he know Ms. Shojooni has postponed dressing well to a distant time in the future when both her emotional wellbeing and her skin quality will be in a better state, or else others would think this was the best she could do. It would expose her true limits. He has no way of knowing Ms. Shojooni belongs to that group of perfectionists who not only do not strive to reach their goals, but conscious of their shortcomings, give up on having goals in the first place, lest they come face-to-face with the impossibility of achieving them. Neither is he aware that just before he arrived at her office, Ms. Shojooni, who was once as an ardent believer in love and had spent most of her youth in reveries, was staring outside her dirty window at the rock-candy-colored winter sky listlessly, thinking about the day she stopped daydreaming. A significant day she believes: a milestone, after which possibilities relinquish their dominion, and people can rightfully cease to judge her by her potentials, the point where she has turned into whatever she was meant to become.
Mr. Edalati's gaze then falls upon a necklace almost eclipsed by Ms. Shojooni's scarf. It is a simple necklace of silver or white gold. It carries a delicate pendant of a limpid yellow stone set in a delicate thin frame. He finds the necklace charming, and a faint smile appears on his face. It then occurs to him that Ms. Shojooni is, after all, a woman. A woman who wakes up every morning, stares at herself in the mirror, and sometimes wears a delicate necklace with a limpid yellow pendant, maybe as an afterthought.
In the midst of these contemplations, Mr. Edalati's poor head starts itching. Feeling insecure about his appearance, he scolds himself for not having washed his hair the night before. And at this very moment, a loud noise startles both of them. A dove crashes into the half-ajar window and falls down into the office.
Ms. Shojooni and Mr. Edalati rush toward the dove, each competing to be the first to pick up the bird and express concern about its condition. Thanks to his better starting point and longer legs, Mr. Edalati makes it first. He picks up the dove gently and holds it in the palms of his big hands. The dove quivers. Ms. Shojooni looks at the dove with compassion and concern but is uncertain about petting it while it rests in Mr. Edalati's palms. She takes a few tissues from the box on her desk and asks him to lift the bird so she can lay them beneath it.
After a minute of gentle care, she declares, "The bird might be having a concussion. It must immediately see a veterinarian."
"How exactly can the bird see a veterinarian?"
Ms. Shojooni stares at Mr. Edalati sternly, which makes him feel out of place, a bit too tall, ridiculously clumsy, and a little embarrassed.
"One of my coworkers, Ms. Emami, has a cat. Once I went with her to a veterinarian clinic in Vanak Square. The doctor who treated the cat was thorough and kind," she says.
When Mr. Edalati and Ms. Shojooni leave the office together, Ms. Daliri and the other two occupants giggle, their titters heard but ignored. The two walk down the street hastily, searching for a taxicab to get them to the veterinarian. Mr. Edalati typically saunters, while Ms. Shojooni's gait is fast and purposeful. They coordinate their steps with some difficulty.
After many futile attempts at hailing a cab, Mr. Edalati finds the whole affair ludicrous. "You know, in the survival of the fittest, this dove should pay for its heedlessness," he exclaims.
"It was you who opened the window! In the survival of the fittest, it should not be the dove who pays for your heedlessness," Ms. Shojooni replies angrily. "You know, I find human apathy... male apathy..." she corrects herself, "to animal rights mind-boggling."
"Are you a vegetarian?" asks Mr. Edalati, who considers destroying opponents in arguments one of the last few sources of joy still accessible to him. A short and artfully measured pause later, he adds, "So, in your school of thought, is it conveniently only the inedible animals who enjoy rights, or does your theory also extend to cows and sheep?"
At this moment an old, brown taxicab appears in front of them, and they get in. There is an elderly lady already sitting in the front seat. A man in his 50s occupies the back. He moves over and sits by the left-side window, opening space for the newcomers. Mr. Edalati sits in the middle, allowing Ms. Shojooni the right window, a seating arrangement that makes them both uneasy.
Mr. Edalati does not quite know how he should sit next to Ms. Shojooni. He knows she is not just a random woman he has met out of the context of his life. To the contrary, she is a woman who brutally judges his tables with colorful highlighters, a woman he has to work with through the completion of his project. He also knows she is a woman to whom justice and the wellbeing of animals and humans are major concerns, a woman with large, anxious eyes, who on some days wears a delicate necklace with a glistening yellow pendant. It is not easy to meet the seating requirements necessitated by all of the above concerns simultaneously.
Mr. Edalati decides he should try to prevent his body from touching hers. But he also knows if this effort becomes apparent to Ms. Shojooni, she may rightfully feel disrespected, just as he also realizes any such discernable effort could also be interpreted as disinterest, thus killing any hopes of "unpredictable" moments in a future that might involve her. Alas, his long legs make it practically impossible to find a sitting position in which his body does not come into contact with the person sitting beside him in the back seat of a cab.
The man in his 50s rolls his window halfway down, letting in a chilly breeze mixed with smoke. The smell of Tehran's winter smog always puts Mr. Edalati in a melancholy mood. His head becomes fogged with the complexities of sitting next to Ms. Shojooni. His heart aches from something he finds hard to explain. He feels a rush of overwhelming exasperation, which reminds him why he no longer has the emotional capacity for dealing with women. He thinks that at the age of 43, he really should not have to be put in such a position. But then, it was he who consciously decided to trade the burden of belonging with indeterminism and unpredictability, he brutally reminds himself. He remembers how when he was young, he shuddered at the thought of the heavy burden of belonging—the burden that afflicts adults, binds them, and enslaves them. Belonging starts with love, tightens its grip with family life, and then goes on to prevail in all aspects of one's life, to determine one's path till death... unwaveringly, unequivocally, unyieldingly, unforgivingly, inevitably, irrevocably, stiflingly, and exhaustingly... belonging saps the thrill and unpredictability out of life. The thought of it had terrorized him.
Young Mr. Edalati used to picture himself as a footloose passerby on a dark road lined with luminous houses, to none of which he belonged. Those distant days, that sense of freedom and unencumberedness, appeared sublime and glorious. Present-day Mr. Edalati, though, finds those thoughts raw and immature. He now believes those ideas were rooted in juvenile illusions and misconceptions: an illusion of death as a distant and impertinent concept, a misconception founded upon presuming "to belong or not to belong" was merely a matter of personal choice. Young Mr. Edalati never considered the passerby who knocks on the doors of all the luminous houses, only to see no door open. Neither did he think of the passerby who sits at the doorstep of one luminous house for a lifetime, only to see the lights turn off to indefinite darkness. No, young Mr. Edalati never empathized with this kind of a passerby.
It was with this mentality that Mahmoud Edalati bargained two significant romantic relationships against the theoretical possibility of experiencing an undetermined and unpredictable future, so he could be footloose, free of the affliction of belonging to any luminous house on the road. Instead he turned into someone who longed to belong, but who no longer knew how. A passerby who gradually stopped knocking on doors.
In addition to having concerns similar to those of Mr. Edalati's, Ms. Shojooni also feels uneasy being in such close quarters, particularly in the daylight and by the window. She thinks about all the freckles and blemishes on her face now subject to Mr. Edalati's full scrutiny. She feels as insecure and vulnerable as a turtle on its back.
Both Mr. Edalati and Ms. Shojooni are hopelessly bad at small talk, so they feel relieved to find the other occupants of the cab talkative and friendly, maybe a bit too much so. The cab driver is a young man. He tells them he dropped out of an open-admission college after studying computer engineering for one semester. Yet he criticizes various engineering matters, including the current layout of the telecommunication network infrastructure in the country, as well as his car's combustion mechanism, with full confidence in his expertise. The man in his early 50s talks about his wife and his sister-in-law. He describes his sister-in-law as a blessing who cleanses his soul every time she pays them a visit. Hearing this, Mr. Edalati and Ms. Shojooni giggle, which the man finds offensive. In a sullen tone, he asks whether Mr. Edalati's lady (glancing in reference at Ms. Shojooni) also has a sister.
The implicit remark made by the man only adds to the complexities surrounding Mr. Edalati and Ms. Shojooni's shared situation, sitting as they are next to each other with shaky legs. If Mr. Edalati corrects the man by stating the lady is "only" a coworker, Ms. Shojooni might rightfully be offended. Thus, he remains silent and waits for Ms. Shojooni to deny their marital relationship. With similar concerns, Ms. Shojooni too refrains from making any reply. After 30 seconds pass, they both realize the time to reply has come and gone. The man in his 50s is now not only wounded by their derisive laughter, but also by their lack of courtesy to respond to his question. Casting a contemptuous look at the motionless dove sitting in Mr. Edalati's palms, he shakes his head in disappointment and complains to the old lady in the front seat how despite all the problems people have to face in this country—inflation, poverty, unemployment, you name it—all some people care about are birds.
Fortuitously, the old lady takes this as an opening to list all the aches and pains afflicting her body, all the doctors she visits, and the pills she has to take to address each pain. Thus, Mr. Edalati and Ms. Shojooni remain comfortably silent until they reach Vanak Square, their destination.
They exit the taxicab and walk to a building in search of the aforementioned veterinarian, Mr. Edalati still carrying the bird like an offering. At the front of the building they find heavy, steel double doors, an office directory to the side detailing the suites of different professionals, mostly clinicians. But they see no sign of any veterinarian amongst the names.
"When was the last time you accompanied your coworker to the veterinarian in this building?" asks Mr. Edalati.
"Two years ago," responds Ms. Shojooni with slightly quivering lips. Her eyes are fixed at the tightly shut doors. Her voice is faltering, betraying a lump in her throat. She melodramatically thinks about all the closed doors she has had to face. About the humiliation she felt when at 19, compelled by her family to marry a distant relative, she found out the young man had no interest in women, and that his family had only hoped for him to "come to his senses" after getting married. She would have much preferred to have had an ex-husband who cheated on her, or one who abused drugs or alcohol. She thinks about having graduated from school of architecture at the University of Tehran magna cum laude, how her sketches demanded respect. How her designs were full of potential. How her classmates and professors acknowledged her talent. And how, after all that, she now works at Tehran municipality, where none of her coworkers know about her glorious academic past. Where she is at the bottom of the hierarchy of a big bureaucratic system, suffering under layer upon layer of supervisors, managers, directors, and executives. Where the world has passed her by without casting the slightest look at her merits.
Seeing Ms. Shojooni in tears, Mr. Edalati attempts to console her in an unconvincing tone. "We can take the dove to another veterinarian tomorrow. There even may be a 24-hour clinic or an animal emergency room open somewhere."
"When I was a little girl, I once saw a dove crash into a window and die the next day," Ms. Shojooni replies in a trembling voice. She pauses for a few seconds to collect herself. "Wherever we need to take the dove next, it would not survive the journey unless it drinks water and eats some food first," she adds.
In games of strategy, there is a point past which a player, having already invested too much to turn back, feels compelled to continue even when the chance of victory is slim. Mr. Edalati's situation with respect to Ms. Shojooni and the dove has reached a similar point.
"Do you know what kind of food doves like the most?" she asks.
"Barley," he replies with the same confidence ten-year-old boys employ when talking about the motor engine of a barely visible airplane flying high above their heads.
Without exchanging any more words, Mr. Edalati and Ms. Shojooni walk down the street looking for a store that might possibly sell barley. The sun is almost setting. The city, with all its people and all its cars, rushes around and against them. The cars beep, engines roar, people pass by hastily. There is hardly any room for a broken bird and its concerned caregivers.
They try a few local grocery stores. It turns out barley is not a commonly sought-after commodity. Finally, they reach a dilapidated shop with an old Azari man with thin and fluffy white hair at its counter. With much difficulty, Mr. Edalati, composes a sentence in broken Azari to ask the old man whether he has any barley.
The old man nods and casts a look encompassing Mr. Edalati, Ms. Shojooni, and the dove. In his mind, such scenarios often involve eight or nine-year-old boys and girls who face sickness and death for the first time in a wounded animal. He thinks of this whole dove business, for people of Ms. Shojooni's and Mr. Edalati's age, as silly and childish and a rather contemptible affair. Yet he is a kind family man and does, after all, like doves. He looks at the sick bird with affection. In a thick Azari accent, he asks Ms. Shojooni what happened.
The shopkeeper's mixed attitude does not escape Ms. Shojooni's discerning eyes, but she decides to ignore it. She draws a line between serious matters and trifling ones. Thus, in a rather dramatic tone, she gives an emotional recount of the dove's misfortune to the old man.
Mr. Edalati asks the shopkeeper for a bottle of water and a bowl or cup. The shopkeeper hands Mr. Edalati a plastic bottle of water from the refrigerated display by the wall behind him. He then digs out through the items in a cabinet behind the counter and finds a filthy disposable cup. Mr. Edalati uncaps the water bottle and fills up the cup with water. He then nods to Ms. Shojooni to place the dove's beak by the cup. With difficulty, the dove drinks a minuscule amount, moving its head slowly, probably in agony.
Mr. Edalati then asks the whereabouts of barley from the old man, who directs him to the back of the shop. He and Ms. Shojooni move to where there are different types of grains stacked on top of each other on a shelf. After some searching, Mr. Edalati at last finds a bag of barley, takes a fistful out, and presents it to the dove, now resting lethargically in Ms. Shojooni's hands.
There are magical and breathtakingly beautiful moments in nature when different species make friends: a dog and a monkey, a duckling and a giraffe, an elephant and a kitten, Mr. Edalati and a dove. Moments when love and tenderness, if only for a moment, transcend Darwinian evolution. When the rules of nature as we know them, the relentless, ruthless, inexorable, inevitable, and exhausting battle for the survival of the fittest, give in to the god of the short-necked giraffes, the night-blind mice, the introverted ants, and the albino fish. It is in one of those moments that Mr. Edalati's heart is overwhelmed with unexpected tenderness toward the dove. He feels for the dove's shivering little body, for its soulful, frightened eyes, and for its small, fast-beating, and vulnerable heart.
Opening his palms full of barley, Mr. Edalati exposes the most vulnerable corner of his soul. He feels all the emotions he carried zipped and packed away in his backpack for so many years, those he wanted to keep to himself, for the protection of which he wished to remain a footloose passerby belonging to no luminous house on the road... those emotions are now exposed to this woman with her large, lugubrious eyes.
It is dark outside now. The store itself is lit only with fluorescent lights. From the back, the melancholy Azari song, Sary Galin, "The Yellow Bride," can be heard playing on a stereo. At a secluded corner of the shop, Mr. Edalati and Ms. Shojooni feed their sick dove.
Mr. Edalati takes in Ms. Shojooni's anxious eyes, the glistening of her limpid yellow pendant, and the little sick bird. He remembers distant days of the past, when he was a little boy, five or six years old, when he would walk among the yellow rose bushes under the hot noon sun by the side of his grandfather, a tiny and morose old man who wore small, black shoes. As they walked amongst the bushes, his grandfather would cut some of the branches of his roses, seemingly no different than the other ones, with his red gardening scissors, and sing Sary Galin in a sweet, melancholy voice.
Ms. Shojooni, who believed life passed her by without casting an eye on her merits, now feels to be standing in a different place.
Mr. Edalati wishes his hair was not so itchingly greasy, and that the bird would eat barley from his hands till eternity.