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For the love of toot
Sketches from a Boyhood in Golhak

By Guive Mirfendereski
July 26, 2002
The Iranian

It was the spring of 1963 and we, after one temporary quarter after another, for almost a decade on the road, had come home to root. We moved from a dark and tight two-bedroom half-way rental in a mosquito-ridden lane near Boulevard Elizabeth to an airy two-bedroom rental, single story house with a yard and a tiny shallow tank on Yakhchal Street in Golhak. The school year, my first at Shahryar Primary School, was going great: I had managed to squeeze a tight second place behind the number one student in all of 4th grade, Ladan. It was the best of times.

Among the many friendships I experienced in 4th grade two have survived the ravages of time and distance, even though they were late in the blooming. One was with the techno-nerd of the grade below, who supplied the school with almicher, a small battery-operated motor used for building contraptions for craft class. Farhad charged a good sum for the coveted machines, but never denied the curious a glimpse or touch of the mighty almicher. The other friendship that survived intact was with a classmate, brainy and completely un-athletic, with whom I was paired up to create a bulletin-newspaper for the school. Eventually, in fifth grade we would represent the school in the all-Shemiranat, or all-Tehran, I do not recall, general information competition: Najib came in first. He was also the first to get his doctorate, to get married, to get a real job, and to become a father.

In the spring of '63, in the crowd that congregated in the school's tiny yard every morning before the first bell, I now see through the haze of time a few well-defined characters. There was Saeed M., the greatest footballer of all time: it was simply a privilege to be picked by him, even last, for a pick-up game; to receive a pass from him during the game was heaven's munificence on earth. He also owned the ball. There was Hassan M., of the M. brothers, sons of an aalem, Moslem clergy, and Hassan eventually went to Egypt and studied at the Al-Azhar. There was Mammad Q., the goalie, the son of a prominent local butcher; he played goalie and also defended the little fish.

The divisions among us, if there were any, had to do with partisanship over football clubs, and the answer to one burning question: Who was the strongest man in the whole world? A group maintained that it was the Shah, because nobody could beat him; another group believed that it was the Iranian wrestler Takhti, although it was not clear if Takhti could actually beat the Shah; and some believed that the honor went to a Russian weight-lifter. Mr. Faris, the vice-principal, who in the Iranian practice was also the "disciplinarian," believed that the one with the best mind was the strongest.

But the memory of the erstwhile friendships that I savor and cherish the most at this time of the year, every year, is the one that I had forged with Fereydoun, a classmate, petit with curly hair, but capable of great boyish feat. He lived on a side-street near the head of Yakhchal, right off the Old Shemiran Road. While as established as a perennial plant, my friendship with Fereydoun would behave more like an annual: every summer, it would blossom with the last bell of the school year, and would die on the first day of autumn. It was a friendship born out of roaming the back alleys and lanes of our neighborhood looking for mulberries.

To the most of the world, the mulberry is a fruit-bearing tree of the Morus genus, native to Asia and North America, whose fruit develops from an entire flower cluster. The red variety, Morus rubra, is native to the eastern North America; the black variety, Morus nigra, native to western Asia, has large, juicy black fruits; and the Morus alba, native to Asia, bears white fruits. 'Mulberry' to the rest of the world, toot was more than a fruit to us -- it was a chapter in life.

My love of toot, ironically, was born not out of an out-door summer escapade but rather a wintertime encounter in Istanbul with a bowl in our hospitality room in which mother presented assorted dried nuts, seeds, and such. After a skillful fishing of the sweet toot from its salty environment, hardly any would be left for the guest, who in my opinion seemed to have too many rights as it was.

In the early part of spring of '63, Fereydoun came to school with what looked like a shoe box. A few tiny air holes in the lid suggested that the content was alive. Suddenly and for a moment, the entire school yard shrank around Fereydoun and his box of silkworms. A few kids were lucky enough to touch the furry little vermin. I puffed like a peacock when he only allowed me to pick one up and let it crawl around in the palm of my hand. As I gently placed the critter back on the green leaves that lined the bottom of the box, I wished for one.

In the bus going home that afternoon, Fereydoun explained patiently about his silkworm fetish and how he got some every spring and grew them as pets until they cocooned and metamorphosed. I knew next to nothing about silkworms.

After much discussion and back-and-forth, accusations and counter-accusations, Fereydoun and I agreed that he would give me a pair of silkworms -- one should have them in pairs -- in return for one small-sized almicher. Time was of the essence, as these worms would be cocooning soon. The problem however was that almichers cost money and I had none with which to buy one from Farhad. I opened negotiations with Farhad, the "almicher god," and after much haggle, and swearing on the grave of every living relative and some dead ones, Farhad agreed to give up an almicher for the good-sized magnet that I had managed to salvage from a burning transistor radio.

My destitute circumstance at the time was the direct result of a foolish game that my sister and I had come up with for busying ourselves. I would hide my small transistor radio, which father had brought for me from Kuwait, and then Lili was supposed to find it by listening for its faint sound. Having run out of places to hide the radio, I decided one day that I should hide the radio in the stout back-draft flue of the water-heater in the bathroom. The radio slid off the flue and fell right into the burner, leaving behind nothing except the magnet from the speaker. The accident resulted in my first grown-up form of punishment: an embargo. There was to be had for one full year no money or toys, purchased or gifted.

Magnet in hand, on Saturday I went to school and affected the great barter with Farhad, magnet-for-almicher. On Friday next I walked over to Fereydoun's house and came back home in a state of euphoria, but muted. I had two silkworms in a shoe box, which I now placed under my bed in our three-bed sleeping room, fearful of being discovered in possible breach of the embargo. In the morning, as I opened the box to say goodbye to the critters, I noticed that one was missing and the leaves in the box had gone dry. One concern was removed when I realized that the missing worm had attached itself to the inside of the lid. The dry leaves, however, was not a good sign.

Fereydoun proposed that after school we should go hunt for mulberry leaves at his very super secret tree. As it was nearer to my house, he and I got off the school bus near Avanji, the neighborhood convenient store and a landmark of sorts. Mr. Avanji was squarely seated on the stool eyeing the traffic. We paid a hurried respect and crossed the fork in the road and headed in the direction of Hossein Aga Barforoosh, the vegetable seller. We paid him a quick respect too and moved on, but not fast enough for me to hear his advertisement that he would be getting a new consignment of lanky cucumbers, should my father be interested.

We reached the big white metal door, which we knew as such, as did the postman who delivered letters to the home behind the door. Turning left into a dirt lane, the world of Yakhchal Street was no more. A weeping willow bent at the waist, along with a metal pile, which prevented the cars from entering, stood sentry on two banks of a modest brook which ran parallel to the house with the big white metal door. The tall maple-like chenar trees rose to great heights, their foliage leaving very little room for the sky to occupy in the overhead. The cool air was exhilarating.

Fereydoun picked up the pace and took a right onto another lane, much brighter, wider and paved, lined with electric poles. Half-way down this street, Fereydoun stopped in front of a brick wall, many meters away from any door. He jumped higher than anyone could think possible for a tiny, short guy and grabbed hold of a branch that overhung the wall. He stripped it of some leaves and we split the yield and made our way back to my house. This was my first encounter with a real live toot tree.

Long after the silk caterpillars had cocooned and sprung into a couple of miserable moth-looking butterflies, Fereydoun and I would go back to the toot tree on Bank Garden Lane and feast on the mulberry that we could reach from the street. As the summer wore off into the doldrums of mid-July to mid-August, we became known faces to the gardener, his wife and their many children who were occupying the one-room dwelling near the tree. At times, without letting us into the premises, he would take us into his grace by offering a cold water and fruits from the garden. Then, we would go on playing.

Across from the gardener's hut was a tiny and empty lot, surrounded on three sides by other houses and fenced from the street by a shabby wall with a tiny, rickety wooden door. In the summer of '63, that lot, which we called simply zamin, meaning 'land,' became my playground. Fereydoun was a frequent visitor and we enjoyed the mounds of dirt that had been deposited there. A single huge chenar provided the raw materials for a frenzied manufacture of bows and arrows. It was also where Fereydoun and I built our first hoz, a tiny two-feet by two-feet by one-foot in-ground watering hole, lined by blue-colored tiles purchased at the masonry store not far from Fereydoun's.

One evening father returned form his constitutional walk with a dog in tow, and proclaimed a new discovery, a zamin, in one of the nearby streets, where he had come across the dog. He also raved about the huge tree that adorned it. As his interest grew in the land as a possible acquisition, on which he will build his first home after some twenty years of government service, father ordered that Fereydoun and I lay off the tree. When I brought news one afternoon that the tree has been cut down by the owner he became angry and then sad. A year later, he bought the lot and some months later the construction began. By then the stump of the stricken chenar had begun to sprout: father had a stone well-wall constructed around it and the tree became known as the "father's tree." In time, the new saplings grew into full-sized trunks, in a cluster of five, and each reached as high as the roof of the two-story building.

After a six-year absence from home, in the summer of 1972 I returned home and once again we as a family, reunited, slept under the same roof since the days on Yakhchal Street. The room that was designated as mine, but only when I was in residence, had one single window: It was large, and opened onto the Bank Garden Lane, across from the very toot tree, still fruitful, which Fereydoun and I had cherished so. See photos

Fereydoun had moved on, so had I. And we never reunited. If he had come to live in northeastern United States and had a son, no doubt he would teach him about toot, as I have tried to educate mine. On the walks to primary school, he would point out to the young one the trees and some bushes that will bear mulberries later in the season. Later in the season, he would ring the door bell of a neighbor and would ask permission to savor a few of the dark red fruits. Invariably, the homeowner would smile and comment that only birds and Russians eat this stuff.

If Fereydoun and his son were to cross the bridge that spans the Massachusetts at Watertown Square, he would have a tough time explaining the presence of the huge white mulberry tree growing on the left bank of the river, tall enough to reach the roadway above. Easier perhaps would be for Fereydoun to explain to his son what the huge man was doing standing in the tree, unbalanced and on the verge of tumbling out. Acknowledging the rarity of this tree in northeastern United States, the Russian would explain to Fereydoun and his son that the tree stood as a metaphor for the lot who have washed to these shores, with our childhood memories from home freely dancing in the silky mulberry leaves. Every spring and summer. See photos


Mirfendereski is the author of A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea (New York and London: Palgrave, 2001).

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