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Loving a farangi
He holds me up to the air and the winds and the sunshine

June 5, 2001
The Iranian

But I forgot that your hands fed the roots,
watering the tangled roses,
till your fingerprints bloomed
full, in a natural peace.

Like pets, your hoe and your sprinkling can
follow you around, biting and licking the earth.
The work is how you let this richness loose,
the carnations' fiery freshness.

I wish the love and dignity of bees for your hands,
mixing and spreading their transparent brood
in the earth: they cultivate even my heart,

so that I am like a scorched rock
that suddenly sings when you are near, because it drinks
the water you carry from the forest in your voice.
-- Pablo Neruda

Last week, in an orange grove in Cordoba, I was overwhelmed with the sense-memory of Jahrom and my grandfather's house. The scent of citrus leaves, the warm twilight air, and the layout of the courtyard with small streams connecting the central fountain to each of the trees were viscerally familiar to me from so long ago, all those years before ghorbat.

And my Beloved was no stranger to my sense of ghorbat, no stranger to my memories of oranges and warm nights. He and I wandered around the dark and thankfully-empty-from-tourists shabestan of the Cordoba mosque among the forest of columns together, both of us awed by the beauty of the place. He likes the un-restored columns, he likes the sense of decay, of time passing her gnarled hand upon the skin of this architecture and searing the stones with her fingerprints. He is an historian at heart and by profession. My Beloved lingers upon what is touched by Time.

My Beloved also loves what is touched by beauty without paying much heed to aesthetic theory. He loves it when I read him Forugh Farrokhzad's late melancholy poems. He likes the sound of my voice weaving tapestries of ecstatic rhythms when I read some of Hafez or Rumi's frenetic poems of rapture. He has painted our small place in bright colors and covered the floors in hand-woven kilims.

He covets the blue-and-white tiles used to name streets in Cairo and waxes rhapsodic about the clean lines of North African mosques so subtly adorned with delicate stucco-work and stone-carvings. My Beloved is a man of whimsy. He has nicknames for everyone. He plays flamenco guitar and likes the songs of blackbirds. He rescues fallen bumblebees. He wears purple trousers. He loves me in my red dress and red lipstick, but finds me beautiful when I have a cold and no makeup and look like death warmed-over. He cares little about material "things", and lives his life unencumbered by the obscenities of consumerism. He likes to be silly, and when he laughs, he squeaks and the tops of his cheeks shine. Children and baby animals adore him. He lowers himself to his knees, lies down on his back and wrestles with his little nieces and nephews easily.

He has a broad brow and a kind face and beautiful long fingers. He cries when I read the last lines of Molly Bloom's soliloquy; he cries during "Buena Vista Social Club;" he cries when he sees me weeping at the poetry of Forugh (and I am a great and frequent weeper). He has a ritual of rolling and smoking one cigarette a day, in the semi-darkness of a room in late evening, listening to some quiet piece of music in silence. He often brings me into the silence borders of this rite by touching me quietly while he smokes. He wears my engagement rings as I wear his: he wants to be claimed by me. He washes the dishes when I cook and cooks when I don't much feel like it. He argues with me about post-modernism, the viability of a "two-state" or "one-state" solution for Palestine, about globalization, about poverty, about human dignity, about mobilization, about the quality of films and music. He likes to talk about films we have watched together. He is neither ashamed of intellectual discussions nor of the simpler joys of laughing at the ridiculously ordinary things.

He is passionate about all that is important, about love, about the dignity of humanity, about those who suffer. He is deeply honest and true to what he believes. He lives as he preaches. He has a gentle way of criticizing the world, and he never patronizes. He is unapologetic about loving his family, but has woven a cocoon around our little private relationship. He laughs easily and he dances late into the night. On long walks in the night streets, he is the best companion. I am fortunate, as well, because his family likes me because I love him with such utter abandon. They tease me gently about my adoration of him, but they also take me in and make me feel welcome. He is well beloved by all our friends, my mother thinks him infinitely generous, my father smokes his after-dinner cigarette with him, sharing with him the quiet secrets of being an old man in exile in ways he can't share with me or with any other Iranian. Because my Beloved is *not* Iranian. He doesn't speak Persian -- yet, though he tries. He doesn't carry an Iranian passport either and probably never will. He is a "foreign man," a farangi, and an Englishman to boot.

He has never stepped into Masjed-e-Shah in awe and silence, can't understand Hafez unless I translate it for him; has never been to Shiraz or Yazd, has never breathed in the polluted air of Tehran. He has never traveled to Iran, has not engaged in the complicated politics of an Iranian family, has to have the notion of taarof explained to him. He knows which Iranian foods he likes, but does not know their Persian names; he cannot stand the taste of qareh-qorut and says it reminds him of soured yak milk he had in Mongolia once (in all fairness I know a whole lot of born-and-bred Iranians who can't stand the taste of qareh-qorut either).

He can't understand the poetry of Nima or Shamlu or Sepehri in the original language, and doesn't know the names of games we played as children in Iran. He hasn't spent his life in the house of mirrors that is exile, and what he know about liminality, about living in between and betwixt two worlds, does not come from a personal experience of being a diasporan. But does he understand me any less fully than an Iranian man would? Why would the color and place of issue of his passport impinge on the way he has invited me into his life, the way he has entered into mine? He loves me more richly than I have ever been loved before. He is infinitely patient with my flaws, sweetly tolerant of my neuroses. He knows me better than I know myself. He knows the contours of my sorrows and insecurities, he is so generous as to spread his heart open like a feast sofreh laden with the abundance of affections.

What he does not know about Iran (and as an historian of the Middle East, he know much) he can (and wants) to learn. If he doesn't know about exile first-hand, he is so full of empathy as to understand this strange love-hate relation we have with the countries of our origin. If he cannot speak this language -- my language -- fluently, he speaks others beautifully. I have to confess that he reads the script, because he speaks Arabic fluently. Perhaps because of having lived in Cairo for several years, he has a sense of gregarious warmth of a Middle Eastern culture that most of his countrymen don't. He can bargain for what he buys from a Middle Eastern salesman in their own language. He likes to smoke hookahs and drink mint tea or strong Arab coffee. He can imitate the sing-song calling of cab-drivers or rag-sellers in Cairo streets.

What I love about him, and what he loves about me, has little to do with the geographies of exile, with the cartographies of nations, and with the accidents of citizenship. I love him because his eyes brim with kindness. He is generous to a fault, and easily compromises over the matters of day-to-day living. I love him because he laughs easily, cries easily, and does not conceal his affections. He cares little about what people may judge, he does not play games, is not consumed by silly pride (macho or otherwise), he doesn't compete with me, considers me a full and complicated human -worthy of the labor that a relationship requires-, and likes to be around me. He looks forward to seeing me when we are apart even if only for the workday. I miss him easily. He is the first person of whom I have never needed a break. He wants to listen to me and respects what I think and what I say even when he disagrees with me. He loves the idea that our children will have his last name and a first name chosen by me from a Persian lexicon of names. He likes this strange mixing and joining of languages, of pasts, of remembered scents and colors and images. If he doesn't speak Persian fluently, in conjugating the disparate verses of our histories, we have created a private language brimming with affection and color and sound, a language that is uniquely ours.

These days, as I grow older (and as the balance of years spent outside Iran begins to approach the number spent inside it), the entirety of my relationship with Iran becomes more and more mediated through the experience of exile: I am only an occasional visitor to the country, and I know that I have made my life outside its borders. While in the cobweb-filled attics of my heart, there is a perpetual packed suitcase, I cannot easily claim anymore that I consider Iran the final destination, the final resting place. This experience of having lived between and betwixt Iran and the U.S. -- and never having been entirely at home in either -- has created something of a wanderer, a liminal, of me. I may settle one day yet in some city on some continent, but I don't belong anywhere. (Anywhere but with my Beloved, perhaps). In having forsaken the experience of being a patriot to any given land, I have acquired the knowledge that being in this slender marginal world has been for me a subtle and sublime gift, endowing me with "the pleasure of being surprised, of never taking anything for granted, of learning to make do in circumstances of shaky instability that would confound and terrify most people" (Edward Said).

I know also of the injustice and indignities inherent in this marginality. And if being in exile means this -- being keenly sensitive to what is faulty with the world around us, and yet not losing a sense of wonder with living; the ability to look upon the world every day with newborn eyes, as if it were all created in the early hours this very day -- then, my beloved is a man who knows exile, and in this knowing, he shares my life more fully than anyone I could have ever imagined. He nourishes me with affection. He holds me up to the air and the winds and the sunshine. He knows what I want, what I need. In these verdant gardens of memory, dreams, and images that I weave around me using the seeds of an Iranian childhood and the scions of a defining exile, my Beloved is the kindest of green-thumbed gardeners.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Laleh Khalili

By Laleh Khalili

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