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City of two hundred roses
"This is where you sleep"

By Farnoosh Moshiri
August 22, 2000
The Iranian

Secons excerpt from At the Wall of the Almighty (1999, Interlink Publishing Group, Northampton, MA). Moshiri grew up in a literary family in Tehran. She worked as a playwright and fiction writer in Iran, before fleeing the country in 1983 after her play was banned and its director and cast arrested. Winner of the Barthelme Memorial Fellowship at the University of Houston, she now teaches creative writing and literature. This is her first novel. Also see first excerpt.

The bus reached the blue mosaic arch -- the gate of Raz. I saw the numerous shades of turquoise and the inscription on top: "Welcome to to the city of two hundred roses." And the lines of the sufi poet: "Hail to Raz and it's unique beauty! O' Lord protect her from decay!"

I stood at the Rose-Clock and wept. The burden was heavy on my back. The weight of the sights and sounds. I stood there, looking at the moving roses, showing the passage of time. I wished I hadn't come. I stood there until it became dark. I looked up and saw the orange sky. I looked at my right --hundreds of torches burned on top of metal pillars, at my left, the Rose Boulevard stretched into the city. I took a deep breath, inhaled the scent of roses mixed with the odor of gas. I turned left and stepped onto the boulevard.


The house was dark. This was Khan-Baba's house. The old man was paralyzed from waist down. His wife's name was Gol-Agha. She was old, too. But she colored her hair with henna. Her hair was orange. She had long orange braids hanging from either side of her wrinkled face. Her legs were bent like two bows, two parentheses, with nothing in between. She was almost crippled with a disease which was chewing up her bones. Their son was called Karim. He was forty years old, but acted ten.

Khan-Baba had let one of his rooms to this high school girl -- a girl whose face I never saw. She was alone by her own in the city of Raz. The old couple said she was from the capital, where I was from. She had lost her virginity there. She had taken a lover, as young as she was. Her parents banished her, sent her to Raz to die, to become a prostitute, or to survive. So far she had survived, they said. Good people hoped she would survive the rest. Mean people hoped she would end up on the dirt road of the gas city, the alley of the prostitutes. She used the back door of the house. She went to school until four o'clock and sang the rest of the time.

"Come! Look! I say, come! Hey you!" Karim whispered to me. "Look into this hole!" He laughed.

I looked through the hole of the wall and I saw the girl. She undressed. Took her grey school uniform off. Her body was olive colored, her breasts were limes. She put a black and white checkered summer dress on. I couldn't see her face. All I could see was her slender body, as slender as a young willow. She was a faceless girl for me and stayed faceless until the end. Now Karim pushed me away and peeked through the hole.

"She is combing her hair," he reported. "She is singing. She is lying down, she is --"

Gol-Agha and Khan-Baba sat on the porch, faced their little yard, smoking opium. At dusk, they turned the water jet on and the water spilled and splashed in the fountain. The crickets sang and the girl sang in the remotest room of the house. The sweet burnt smell of opium, the scent of orange blossoms hanging on the walls, the smell of roses blooming all year round, made me dizzy and sick. An urge grew in me to get up, walk to the kitchen and cut my veins with Gol-Agha's sharp kitchen knife. But I remembered and repeated Uncle Yahya's advice: "It's easy to get lost forever or die soon in the city of Raz. Stay alive and live in both parts of the city."

I went to the gas city. I walked along the dirt road, the Gas Street. I saw the prostitutes' two story clay huts, the oil workers' hovels, the beggars' tin houses and cardboard shelters on the right, and a forest of derricks, catcrackers, and oil pipes on the left. Each crooked window of a clay hut framed a woman's face. The last window framed hers.

This was a girl whose face I saw every day. But I never saw her body. This was the bodyless girl. So I went to the Gas Street every day to see her. Who did she resemble? Oh, yes, the beautiful Tatyana, Sister Tatyana, the bald nun.


At the sufi's tomb, I sat inside the monument -- the white gazebo. I sat at the poet's grave, rested my left hand on the white marble, and closed my eyes. The marble was ice cold.

A large rectangular pool was outside in the garden. I was aware of its fresh water and of the hundreds of fish wriggling under the green mirror of the surface. I was aware of the sweeping twigs of the weeping willows sipping the water. Don't drink the whole pool of water, you thirsty willows, leave some for me. Now I'm paying respect to the poet, the bard. I'll be out in a second to plunge my head in the smooth water.

"Do you want the sufi to tell your fortune, son?" A voice said. I looked up and saw a dervish. Long white robe, long white hair, long white beard.

"Which sufi do you mean? The poet, or you?"

"Wise youth!" He laughed. "Both. Both of us. Do you want me to read the poet's verse for you? I open the book, the ghazal on the right page is yours."

I didn't say "yes," but he whispered something to the book and opened it anyway. He glanced at the page, frowned, and shut the book with a bang.

"Too bad, huh?" I laughed. "An evil fortune? Dark?"

The dervish shook his head, "No. Nothing is dark if you have faith."

"Faith in what?"

"In Hagh," he said.

"Is he God?" I asked.

"Yes and no, " he said. "Mine is in me, theirs is not in them, that's why they look for him up in the sky."

"So you're in love with yourself."

"I am." He smiled. "Because Hagh is me. I'm in love with you too. And with all living things. Do you want to hear the story of Mansour the Quiltmaker?"

I didn't say "yes," but the dervish began to tell me the whole tale.

"Let me make the long story short for you, son." The old dervish leaned his boney back against the marble pillar, drew his kneels close to his chest, and stared at the glow of the green pool. "A long time ago, at the time of the Arab Caliphs, Mansour the Quiltmaker, who was a poet, too, claimed to be Hagh. At first people heard him chanting something while beating the cotton balls for his quilts. The chant went like this :'Ya Hagh! Ya Hagh!' Then they saw him walking the alleyways, screaming, 'I am Hagh! I am Hagh!" They took the news of this blasphemy to the caliph, who ordered Mansour's arrest.

"The Caliph's guards chained Mansour while he was rotating around himself and circling a tree, chanting 'I am Hagh!' They took him to the dungeon. The Caliph told him that if he repents, he will be free, if not he will be tortured to death. Then he asked Mansour, 'Now, where is Hagh?' Mansour answered, 'In me.'

"They brought him to the city's main square so that all the people could see him and learn a lesson. The Caliph ordered his torturer to chop one of Mansour's limbs and repeat the same question.

"They chopped one arm and asked, 'Where is Hagh?' Mansour said, 'In me.' They chopped the second arm and asked, 'Where is Hagh?' The quiltmaker's answer was the same. Then they chopped his legs too. Now he was a head on a torso. They asked him, 'Where is Hagh, you bastard blasphemer?' He said, 'It's here, in me!' They chopped his head off. The torso died, but the head rolled on the ground and landed at the foot of the caliph, smiling and saying, 'I am Hagh!'"


One afternoon, on the way to work, I stopped at the clay hut of Gas Street and looked up at her window. A woman with a thickly painted face took me in. She pulled me through a dark corridor then pushed me into an empty room. A bamboo spread was on the floor, the walls were dried mud and mortar without even one layer of paint on them. In a corner, a brazier sat, cold charcoal in it. The smell of stale opium hung in the air.

"Who do you want to see?" the woman asked.

"The girl in the window frame," I answered.

"She laughed. Many women laughed. I looked around and saw more than ten women, young and middle aged, some even quite old, piled on each other in the door frame. They all laughed hysterically.

"All the girls here are in the window frames, sugar!" the first woman said. "Which one? Which window?"

"That one!" I mumbled and pointed to the direction of her window. "The girl with golden hair!"

They all laughed again. Some beat their bare thighs, some slapped each other on bare shoulders.

"Her?" The woman asked. "She is just for display, not for fuck!" And she laughed more and they all laughed. "Her name is Naroo. She can not fuck."

"I just want to see her," I said.

"What do you mean 'just to see!' Do you know where you are?"

"I do."

"What are we?"

"Women," I said.

She laughed, they all laughed. Some almost fainted of laughter and one, an older one, neighed like an old horse. The woman dried her tears and wiped the paints off and said, " You must be joking! Are we women? What do we do here?"

They all waited for me to answer and make them laugh. I had made their day. I was the happiest moment they'd had all day.

"You live here," I said.

"Live here and what? How do we make our living?"

"You make -- love --," I mumbled. They laughed at me again. Some repeated, 'Make love!' as if they'd never heard the phrase before. At last she said, "Okay, how much money do you have? You know that seeing the girls costs here. Do you know that?"

"I know."

"You are not an oil worker, or are you? You sound like a young man out of school. Are you an engineer or something?"

I shook my head.

"A plain worker?"

I nodded.

"Okay. Give me your money and go upstairs to the room on the left. She is there. But she can't fuck! " she screamed after me. "You understand?" And the women all laughed.

It was as if Naroo knew that I was going to see her. She had seen me walking into the house. She was sitting with her back to the window now, facing the door. She sat on a wheel chair, an old grey blanket covering her legs. She smiled. I smiled too and looked around to see if there was a chair. There was not. A mattress was on the floor on the bamboo spread. I stood there.

"Sit down!" she said.

"Where?" I asked.

"On the mattress."

"This is where you sleep."

"Haven't you come to sleep with me?" she asked.


"She stopped smiling. Moved her chair toward the window.

"Naroo!" I called.


"Don't turn your back to me. I want to see you."

"Did you pay just to see me?"


"You can take my blouse off. But don't remove the blanket," she said.

"I want to see your face, Naroo. Just your face."


"Because I dream of you and you're real in my dreams and I want to see if you're real outside my dreams too. And I'm alone. I need a friend. I had a friend all my life. But much different than you. She was dark. Her hair was not smooth and wouldn't flow down like yours. Her hair was thick and wild, we played together, grew up together. We talked a lot and often dreamed the same dreams. We even flew on a carpet." I laughed like a silly boy.

"What happened to her?"

"One day she left. She crossed the ocean. Went some place that I could never walk to."

"You could become a sailor and follow her with a ship."

"I am a sailor now. But on the ocean of oil."

She sighed. "Ocean of oil won't take you to her, won't take you anywhere."

The woman called me from behind the door. She knocked and said, "Your time is over, sir. Unless you have more money!"

I didn't. I rolled Naroo's wheel chair to her window so that she could see out and kissed her forehead. I bent and looked through the crooked porthole to see what she sees all day and night, gazing outside. Her view was the refinery: the farm of pipes, the forest of derricks, the jungle of catcrackers. Towers and the flaming torches, burning day and night. Down on the dirt road, the oil workers' path, their children were rolling in the open sewers, sliding on the mud, splashing the murky water at each other .

"Look!" I told Naroo. "Look at the top of the tallest tank, this is where I walk all night. I'm a gauger. I feel the oil running under my feet. I turn the wheels and let the oil flow. Then I turn them again and stop the flow. I have the beating heart in my hand, the beating heart of this land. I'll come more. Naroo. What kind of name is Naroo?"

"It's a Razian name. It means pomegranate."

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