November 22, 2002
Woody Allen is gazing lovingly at Mariel Hemingway, a weary smile on his face.
The screen goes black, making way for the credits of "Manhattan." I reach
out for a kleenex to wipe my tears and blow my nose. Maybe sitting through a marathon
of Woody Allen films wasn't the best way to cheer myself up. Usually, it has been
the sure cure for all emotional crisis of mine. But this time, it's different.
I am so far away from home and I miss it. Looking at Woody's romantic and nostalgic
take on my native city only deepens that feeling. I know, rationally, Manhattan
has never looked as good in real life as it does through Allen's misty eyes. But
just as he says in "Radio Days", another favorite of mine: Although my
neighborhood never looked so windswept, rainy and romantic, that's the way I like
to remember it.
And the music... If heaven existed, the elevator ride to the divine heights would
play Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. That melody doesn't just serve as background for
those amazing tableaux of the City displayed in the first and last few moments of
"Manhattan". It translates their visual beauty into a musical narrative.
Woody's lovingly orchestrated shots of New York make the actual plot of "Manhattan"
almost trivial. The real love story here is between the director and his town. God,
was it just a horrible mistake to leave home? These days, it seems more and more
I get up from the couch, where I have been buried under a blanket for almost 12 hours
and walk out to the balcony to light up my gazillionth cigarette. There are two
ashtrays out here filled to the brim with all the butts of my previous cigarettes.
Gro-oss! Really must quit this nasty habit. Was doing so well, too, until... well...
until New Year's of course.
The first moment I caught sight of Ali and ... Oh I can't bring myself to say her
name... that WOMAN... I knew immediately something was amiss. But I didn't want
to believe it. Not my Ali... He couldn't be mistrusted. He was different from
all other men, from those smiling Romeos with their Casanova hearts.
So I walked up to them resolutely, despite my passive-aggressive instincts screaming
at me to turn in the other direction. I replay that New Year's Eve scene in my head
over and over again. It is stuck there like an annoying 80's tune. Except in my
memory, I am viewing the three of us from a distance, as if my spirit had left my
body and was floating above us, eavesdropping on our little third-rate melodrama.
"I am Ali's wife" She said. With such chilling calm. She struck me as
smoothly as a serpent slithering in the grass for hours, then finally springing on
its prey for the fatal sting. As she looked at me with those gleeful, hypnotic green
eyes, I abruptly felt the first stomach pangs that soon had me running into a crowded
public restroom. I spent the next hour bent over a ceramic bowl, trying to purge
myself from her poisonous words. (Though I am sure the dirty martinis I had ingested
so carelessly throughout the night had a "little" part in my demise!)
It was horrible. Ali had rushed after me into the ladies' room. Fortunately, everyone
was too drunk to object. He kept wanting to help me and I kept pushing him away.
Finally, when I felt that I was about to faint, I let him pull me up to him. He
half carried me out of the ship and towards our car. What a scene! The last thing
I remember from that night was seeing the beautiful tiger lily he had given me floating
inside the toilet bowl. It had fallen from my hair while I was bent in two, welcoming
the New Year in my own special way. Ali didn't notice it. So he couldn't understand
why I started laughing hysterically and continued to do so all the way back to our
I don't even remember how I walked the steps up to our apartment, or got into bed.
The next morning, my head felt as if it had been crushed by a raging bull in the
middle of his frenzied escape down the streets of a dusty Spanish village.
Then little by little, my memories came back. Along with very unpleasant feelings:
Outrage, anger, then sadness and misery.
Ali was nowhere in sight. The only sign that he had even spent the night here was
a crumpled blanket on the couch. I pulled the blanket up and suddenly I started
crying. The first night Ali and I had spent apart ever since we fell in love.
What was happening to me? To us? I couldn't believe that the nightmare of New Year's
Eve could be true. It had to be a lie. Oh, how I wished it to be!
Just then, I felt two arms around me. Ali had magically reappeared.
-- "Naz, I'm so sorry... I thought I would have time to go grab us some coffee
and breakfast before you woke up."
I quickly dried my tears. I opened my mouth to say something but I couldn't find
the words. Ali gently led me to our kitchen table, where he set our breakfast.
After alternating sips of coffee and orange juice, I started to feel better. Physically
at least. It wasn't a bull stomping on my brains in an arid ghost town anymore.
Merely a gentle cow lazily strolling across the remains of my brains scattered across
a humid English meadow.
Before I could mention anything, Ali said:
-- "We have a lot to talk about."
I felt the timid beginning of something close to joy in my heart. This was the explanation
I had been waiting for. The words that would make all the hurt go away.
Ali's next words seemed to confirm my newfound optimism.
-- "First of all, I want you to know, Shohreh is not my wife."
Already, I felt a lightness in my heart and the corners of my mouth even tentatively
moved upwards, almost forming a smile.
Then Ali added:
-- "Actually, she was my wife. We were married... but it was a long
BAAAMMMMMMMM!!!! The bull returned with fury, and this time, it was going to have
the rest of me for lunch. Its heavy legs were digging into my heart, its hot, angry
breath on my face, suffocating me. I couldn't breathe. I wanted to get up and run
out of here. But instead, I was pinned helplessly to my chair. The bull wasn't
letting me go.
For an eternity, Ali talked and I listened. He told me all about Sh... Shohreh...
(There, I can say it!).
He started long ago, back to his teen-age years, when he was studying at Le Rosay.
His younger sister was visiting him from Iran. She was under his care. His responsibility.
Then one day, he walked in and found her lying on the bed, so still. She had killed
After that, Ali's smooth and easy life came to an end. He left school and abruptly
ceased contact with his family. With nothing more in his backpack than a few beloved
books and some clothes, he started wandering around Europe, the eptiomy of the angry,
misunderstood youth. Rome, Florence, Nice, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, Frankfurt,
and countless obscure little towns and villages in between.
He did odd jobs here and there to survive, and mostly stayed at youth shelters and
churches, sometimes farms. In rare instances, a generous household in one of countless
urban slums would take him in for the night, and shared with him the little they
had, which was already divided among a multitude of family members. The poorer his
companions, the more generous they were usually.
Through it all, he got acquainted with a whole other segment of society that he had
never experienced in his privileged life: Teens who had run away from abusive homes;
Once brilliant and successful careermen who had succumbed to merciless addictions
and were now old, disheveled shadows of their former selves; Countless children born
to mothers who sold their bodies day and night; Hard-working immigrants who would
talk or sing nostalgically of their far off homelands... He met as many artists
as he did drug-dealers, geniuses as simpletons, generous hearts as corrupt souls.
-- "I kind of felt like Candide" Ali explained to me, staring out at the
sea, "Except I had no Pangloss at my side. The only solace I had was to write...
I didn't think anything of it. It was just a journal of my everyday life. It wasn't
meant for an audience. Just sometimes, I felt I would go crazy because I had no
one to share my real thoughts with. This journal kind of became my companion."
In the midst of this bohemian journey, he met Shohreh. She was five years older
than him. Beautiful and sophisticated. And the first Iranian soul he had encountered
He let her read his stories. Before the first line had ended, she had already deciphered
his heart. She told him he had a raw talent. She was the first person to believe
-- "She was everything to me in those days... when I had nothing and no one."
Ali said wistfully, "She was my best friend, my lover, my mentor... Eventually,
she also became my wife."
They were married in Paris, in a quick civil ceremony, and moved into a decrepit
small apartment where a mattress served as bed, and food was scarce. With her help
and connections, he managed to publish some of his articles. And started working
on some more.
He would have been content to make her his entire world. But she was restless.
She had a large circle of friends, and they became part of a clique of emigres artists
and writers, actors and journalists who ate, drank, debated, chain-smoked, danced,
and of course all slept together in a kind of incestuous snake's nest. The new temptations
that floated enticingly around them never affected him. But as for her....
One night, she just didn't come home.
-- "I was so scared that night..." Ali recounted to me, pain still fresh
in his voice. "I had already been through the loss of someone so dear to me.
And she was my life. I wandered the streets of Paris that night, shuddering every
time the sound of an ambulance siren shattered the obscurity..."
In the morning, she finally appeared at their apartment, still laughing from the
gaggle of parties she claimed to have attended. Her reaction to his pain was laugh
-- "That morning, I saw her for who she really was..." Ali explained, taking
long drags from his cigarette, "A beautiful ornament and nothing else. She
was too empty to feel anything... real. I was an amusement... for a while. And
she was done with me."
After a pause, he continued.
-- "After all that happened...well... My life changed a lot you know. I reconciled
with my family. I went back to Iran for a while. Then I started getting serious
about this journalist thing. I went away to the U.S. for school, graduated, worked
for a couple of local newspapers... Then I got my break ... Assignment followed assignment.
I didn't think of her anymore. I mean, I was 19 when we were married!... More than
ten years had passed since then. Our marriage seemed trivial... irrelevant...Like
it had happened to another person, a stranger... It wasn't me."
-- "Then...Why did she say she was your wife Ali?" I cried out, feeling
my eyes moistening again, "Seems she feels differently than you do."
-- "She hurt you a lot. And for that, I am sorry!" Ali murmured, "I
don't know what possessed her to make such a poor joke... All I can say is I'm sorry.
I should have reacted faster. But... I guess I was still in shock from having seen
her after all these years..."
I was struggling hard to hold back my tears. God I hated for him to see me this
weak. I wanted to scream out at him, to beat him with my fists.
-- "Why did you leave me alone Ali? What were you doing with her close to midnight
on New Year's Eve while I was running around like an idiot trying to find you? She
must mean a lot more to you than you are willing to say... Tell me the truth Ali...
Tell me! Do you still love her? You must! Otherwise, why would you hide this from
me? Because you did hide it Ali... I don't believe you... If it was so trivial to
you, you wouldn't have let me find out this way. I hate you, I hate you, I hate
words reverberated from my heart to my head and back again. But they never made
it out of my mouth. I had lost enough of my dignity for one day. I wasn't about
to let him see how hurt I was. My passive-aggressive instincts were in full gear.
I could literally see walls of iron slowly but surely erecting themselves around
me, cutting me off from Ali. Yes, I would never let him see the power he had over
me. I would protect myself. Push all my hurt and pain, all my questions and issues,
deep deep down where Ali would never find them.
Later on that evening, Ali and I took our usual walk on the beach, which I used to
look forward to as my favorite part of the day. But this time, I was only going
through the motions. On the surface, I was holding hands, smiling, even kissing.
Inside, I was frozen. Numb.
-- "We're going to be all right, Naz" Ali kept whispering to me, his arms
tightly around my shoulders, "I promise."
But I couldn't believe in his promises anymore.
TO BE CONTINUED.