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The culture of emshee
And afternoon naps

By Farrokh A. Ashtiani
August 9, 2002
The Iranian

There were some friends whose parents did not force them to take a nap on hot summer afternoons in Tehran. But in our family, and perhaps many others, kids were exposed to a unilateral martial law imposed by dad, grandmother, the maid, or whoever happened to be the adult in the house.

When you are 8-years old, the last thing you want to do on your precious summer vacation is taking a nap. I always had enough agendas to take care of: setting fire to a bunch of newspapers in the corner of the yard with a magnifier, going inside the hoze (pond) bathe and cool off among the stinky fish, or just climb a tree and sit on a branch.

But the dreaded nap...

First they would pull down the haseer straw blinds to shut out the light. Then the doors and windows would get shut. Next, dad or grandma would show up like a general holding what resembled a submachine gun called emshee -- an Arabic word (what else is new?) for an insecticide-dispensing pump.

It came in a yellow, green, or just plain tin. It had a long handle, a reservoir at one end and a manual pump on the other. Inside they poured this stinky petroleum by-product. Then they pumped the insecticide all over the room! Puff, puff, puff and all of a sudden the entire room would be filled with the smell of emshee.

When I look back, the best I can describe it was like standing in the middle of a room to demonstrate power and resolve against flies and any other insects, great or small -- like watching an American B-52 dropping Agent Orange on helpless Vietnamese. We would just watch dad with awe and admired him for his accuracy on hitting flies in the air, making them drop like a rock, mid flight!

The only thing we had to do as children was pulling the sheets over our head to protect our eyes against the burning effect of the emshee. Somehow emshee became part of our childhood. We developed a symbiotic coexistent and at the same time it was somewhat addictive. Indeed from time to time it induced drowsiness and made us succumb to those damn naps.

If I could somewhat resist and fight the potent effect of emshee just long enough until my dad fell asleep, then I could tip-toe my way into the backyard, but sometimes I would get caught and ordered back to get back to sleep.

I did however create other forms of entertainment while wasting those two long hours. For example I would lay down and look at the ceiling or watch flies mate on the edge of the window for the last time in their lives. I watched them lay eggs while their bodies were vibrating to death. I always wondered why we were immune to emshee and allowed the vapor settle over our face like morning dew?

The culture of emshee reminds me of that Country-Western song "She got the gold mine and I got the shaft." Well, our parents didn't know the hazards. They only thought if the British were taking our oil out of Iran, at least we were getting cheap emshee in return. Emshee was our way towards industrialization and also helped us fall asleep easier! That was our story - they got our oil wells and we got the shaft!

Other than watching flies mate in those long summer afternoons, I would disassemble my dad's wristwatch. My dad used to put his nice old Lusina watch behind his pillow. This was a nice square shaped watch and had hour, minute and seconds handles. So as soon as he would finish reading his magazine and put his glasses on the bedside, it was time for me to get into action.

I used to reach and grab his watch, lay down on my belly and use the pillow as a work bench. With my nails I would remove the back of his watch and just gaze at it working. I would put my fingers gently on top of the wheels and force them to stop, and then shake the watch to start working again.

This ritual was pretty risky. I was caught a couple of times and -- believe me -- a slap in the face when you are semi-conscious from the smell of emshee can hurt! But experience taught me how to time his snores and wake-up habits. It was a calculated risk I had to take. His expensive watch was "21 Sang" and I wanted to know why. Did it mean it had 21 precious jewels? I could only see some of the wheels were resting on one or two very tiny rubies, but never saw 21.

Then I would pull the handle on his watch to change the time at random and then, like a gambler, guessed the time and reset the handles back using my best estimate of the time lapsed -- the time spent having fun. The entire operation gave me a similar feeling of a bank robber at work, listening to the tic tic of the safe lock, watching seconds go by and aware of the alarm and... the huge probability of getting caught.

During those summer afternoons I envied the street vendors with their donkeys passing by our house and shouting "taalebi-eh Vaaraameen daareem!, hendevaaneh beborro bebar, baademjooneh bee-tokhm" They did not have to take a nap. A neighbor would open a window and cuss the hell out of the poor peddlers and their tired donkeys and tell them to shut up: "Don't you understand people are asleep?"

It was 2:30 in the afternoon and an entire nation was asleep! Peddlers would disappear at the end of the alley. Things would fall back into silence. I could hear my dad's watch tic. I could see flies reciting their death wish on the edge of the window, copulating as if there was no tomorrow, or laying dead. I could hear the peddler's donkey from the far distance: "Arr, arr, arr!" It was time to get up quietly and eat some emshee-laced watermelon.

I do miss some of those summer afternoons.

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Nap time
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By C.S.


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