Forthcoming from City Lights Publishers: JUMPING OVER FIRE, a novel By Nahid Rachlin. Publication date: March 2006. Readings from the novel by Nahid Rachlin from the novel are listed in her website under events.
Soon after Maman and Baba took Jahan from the orphanage in Shiraz and brought him to our home in Masjid-e-Suleiman, she got pregnant with me. Jahan was only a year older than me and as we were growing up he was always at my side. He was ahead of me in his development and always took the lead. He taught me new words, held my hand and helped me walk. We spent hours playing together in our spacious house in the Iranian American Oil Company compound. We had a courtyard, a swimming pool and a finished basement.
Our parents’ bedroom was on the first floor. Jahan’s and mine was on the second floor and we were able to break rules, indulge in mischief without always being noticed. We stayed up late and made a tent of sheets and blankets spread over chairs and played house inside it. We lay on one of our beds and, through the window, watched fireflies shining on tree branches, the moon sailing across the sky, numerous stars winking. We made up stories about what could be going on inside the moon and the stars, those distant lights. We wondered if the moon was really looking at us. Was there a magical ladder on which we could climb to the stars? We fell asleep on each other’s beds with our clothes still on.
When I woke at dawn I went to the window and looked at the courtyard, damp with dew. There was something nebulous and soft about those early mornings, full of the scent of honeysuckle that grew in abundance in our courtyard. I woke up Jahan and asked him to look out with me. In the early hours of the morning a sweet, languorous feeling came over me, being with him, breathing the same scents, looking at the same sights. He called me Noor, meaning light, a word closest to Nora, the name chosen for me by our American mother with our Iranian father’s consent.
In our childhood photographs we are almost always together, standing or sitting with our arms around each other. In one we are in a carriage, a blanket covering us up to our necks, giving the appearance of two heads, one light, one dark, springing out of one body. I took my coloring from Maman, Jahan from Baba. In another photograph he is wearing pants and a shirt and I a full-skirted dress, but we are embracing so tightly that again we look like two parts of the same person. A girl had little freedom in Masjid-Suleiman (in spite of the Shah’s attempts at Westernization) and as we grew older Jahan became my source of freedom as well as my protector. With him I could explore different neighborhoods, go to cafés and restaurants, come home late. Our interdependency was all-innocent at first.
We had no idea he was adopted until he was fifteen and I fourteen. I clearly remember the afternoon when we were led to that amazing discovery. It started out in an ordinary way, with me waiting by the door of my high school for him to pick me up. His boys’ school was close to my girls’ school and it was easy for him to accompany me home and back. He had started doing that when we were still in elementary school to make sure that the tough boys from other neighborhoods who came to our area wouldn’t harm me. His instinct to protect me was reenforced by a general attitude that a girl needed protection.
Other students, all in the school’s required uniforms, gray with white collars, were also waiting to be picked up or were getting into cars to be driven home. The relentless heat that had seized the town for the last six months hadn’t quite subsided. The air smelled of gas discharged from the refinery and the underground petroleum deposits. Flames coming out of the refinery towers visible from almost every area of the town glowed like an advertisement for the inferno. Trees were withered and dusty.
Jahan was late and I looked up and down the street anxiously. Then I saw him coming, wearing what his school required: gray pants, a white shirt, a navy blue jacket, well-shined shoes.
“Jahan, I was worried.”
“I’m sorry Noor, I was held up talking to Bijan.”
Even though it was hot we decided to walk around for a while before going home. We passed through the square that divided the old town from the new town, where the Americans and Iranians working in the oil business lived. Around the square were teahouses, restaurants, and shops. Some vendors were selling their merchandise from carts -- leather handbags and belts, watches. One vendor had piled chunks of gum that looked like white soap on a cloth spread in front of him on the ground.
We came out of the square onto a narrow, winding street, lined with jewelry shops. Customers, mainly women, were looking in the shop windows at displays of gold rings, earrings, bracelets, and necklaces, studded with sapphires, rubies, and other precious stones. Some were inside haggling with the shopkeepers, trying to bring down prices.
Then we came into the old town’s residential section. The streets in this quarter were winding and narrow, flanked by baked mud-brick houses so close together that they formed high walls along the street. They had flat roofs, small doors, and there were no windows overlooking the streets. Instead, they faced inward, into courtyards and gardens. This was to protect women from the eyes of passersby.
Jahan thought the houses were beautiful and liked this part of town more than I did, but he was a boy and could play freely in these streets with his friends, some of whom lived here, while people always stared at me because I looked like an American girl. The majority of women in this neighborhood wore headscarves or chadors, even though covering up was optional at that time, during the Shah’s regime. The ultra-conservative Muslims who lived here resented the presence of Americans and English because they were a constant reminder of the Shah’s embrace of what they considered to be materialistic and immoral.
They thought that these foreigners, farangis, were spreading vice and that the Shah collaborated with them. Soon I became aware of critical glances for not covering my hair. A bearded man wearing a turban approached us. He stared at me and then said to Jahan, “Who is she to you?” Jahan ignored him but the man repeated his question, took my hand “Let’s get out of here,” he said. We took the quickest way home.
Then we entered the wide, palm-lined avenue, where our two-story house stood among other grand Tudor style houses, all set back in courtyards, their only Muslim feature. The compound was a classic colonial enclave. Our house was provided by the oil refinery’s hospital, where our mother had once worked as a nurse and our father was still employed as a radiologist.
Once home, we immediately put on our bathing suits and dove into the large swimming pool to cool off. When we got out, bubbles of water like pearls covered our skin. Then we lay in the hammock, which was suspended between two trees behind some dense bushes. It was shaded and secluded there. Lizards scuttled beneath the bushes. Hawks flew above us, their wings spread. We could hear the loud shriek of the parrot, Sabz (Farsi for green), on the porch. “Salaam, halet chetoreh,” he squawked the greeting Jahan had taught him. Crows that had built a nest on the top of a tall palm tree, excited by Sabz’s voice, flew out, cawed, and wheeled around frantically. Petals from flowering bushes drifted over our faces and into the water, their perfume enveloping us. White-yellow butterflies danced around honeysuckle flowers.
“Jahan do you know how butterflies are born?”
“From caterpillars. They have a thin, yellow string wrapped around them and the string forms cocoons. Butterflies grow inside the cocoons. Then they tear the cocoons open and fly away.”
After a while we dressed and went into the basement to do our homework. It was cool there, well insulated by stone walls. There was a comfortable sofa to sit on. A large filing cabinet and many boxes stood against one of the walls. One box was filled with items left from our early childhood -- rattles, toy cars, dolls. A closet contained splendid, formal clothes that Maman and Baba had worn on special occasions -- parties given for the refinery employees, an elaborate wedding or Norooz party.
After we were finished with homework I took out a shimmering satin dress and put it on. Jahan put on a velvet vest. We took those clothes off and put on others, making up stories, playing different parts. Jahan loved adventure tales, identifying with princes and heroes of the times of Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes. He’d choose a story from Shahnameh, the epic poem by the tenth-century poet, Ferdowsi, and we’d act it out. This afternoon I was Princess Noor, disowned by my family, and Jahan was the prince who comes to my rescue. Then my eyes went to a locked filing cabinet. “Why is that always locked,” I said.
“Let me see if I can open it,” Jahan said.
I hesitated. “Maybe there’s a reason they keep it locked. They wouldn’t like it if they find out we opened it.”
“We won’t tell them,” he said.
He began to pull the drawer in different ways but it didn’t open. He took a wire hanger from the closet, straightened it, and then hesitated before he pushed the wire into the space between the lock and the upper part of the drawer. He pulled the drawer and this time it opened. There were several files in it with labels on them: House, Investments, Travel.
“Look at this one,” he exclaimed, pointing to a file all the way in the back. It was labeled, Jahan. We looked at each other, puzzled. He pulled out the folder and we sat with it on the sofa. We found several sheets of paper with signatures and stamps on them. We read every passage slowly, some several times. The technical language was hard to understand. We were utterly silent as we read:
In the name of Allah. At the Surrogate court, held in Shiraz, the province of Fars. April 18 1960...
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Nahid Rachlin, born in Iran, came to the United States to attend college and stayed on. She has been writing and publishing novels and short stories, in English. Among her publications are three novels, FOREIGNER (W.W. Norton), MARRIED TO A STRANGER (E.P.Dutton), THE HEART'S DESIRE (City Lights), and a collection of short stories, VEILS (City Lights). She has another novel, JUMPING OVER FIRE, in press at City Lights. She also has a memoir, PERSIAN GIRLS, in press at Tarcher/Penguin.