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Part 9: For April Fools

I knew there and then that I would never again be the same Sarvenaz

April 1, 2002
The Iranian

The next day I woke up to the sound of the azaan from the little Gholhak mosque around the corner and had to run to the bathroom to throw up.

The night before, I had drunk, once again, too much. My head was throbbing to the stubborn rhythm of a pain that seemed to be a divine punishment inflicted to the tune of the azaan. My hands shook and my throat was dry. I was so dehydrated that when I went to throw up the second and third time that morning nothing but mucous came out of my mouth. The dry heaving of my stomach made me shake each time I put my head in the toilet to try to purge my body of the poison that had come to nest in it. I looked in the mirror of the bathroom and saw an old woman... no worse: I saw a wrinkled, tired, not so old woman. I opened the cabinet and took two swigs of the Pepto Bismal that I had brought from the States just for such an occasion. I looked in the mirror again. The sound of the azaan and my tired, oh so tired face, made tears roll down my face. I popped two Advils and went to bed and surrendered to the slowing cadence of my headache and fell asleep.

In my dream I was a woman in a desert. Naked, crawling on the fine dust, with cracked lips and sun burnt skin. I was thirsty and lost and too tired to walk. Everywhere I looked, all around, there was only the finest, the most golden, sand. The piercing rays of mid-day sun made my eyes squint and tear. After a while, I finally saw what seemed to be a well and made my way to it feeling the burning grains of sand roll under my flesh. Once there I looked down and saw a shallow well that was all dried up. I started to cry out loud. Then, from the well, a deep voice called out.

"Sarvenaz you have forsaken me and now you have no water to live by."

I bent over the well to see who was the owner of this voice. Again the voice boomed from inside the well.

"You have been a sinner, and a philanderer, and a teller of lies, a seducer of the young, a manipulator of men. You deserve to die of thirst ... Burn from the inside!"

I answered in tears. "Oh, please give me some water..."

"Repent!" said the voice. "Tobeh kon, or you will die the most terrible death. If you think the heat of this desert is bad wait till you see the eternal flames of Hell."

"I will repent ayy khodaa, goh khordam khodaa joonam" (Oh sweet God! I fucked up!) I wept, pleading to God in desperation.

At that moment the empty well filled up with the clearest water that rose to meet my cracked lips. The simple pure wetness of that water felt more divine than all the kisses of a lifetime put together. Such was the beauty of the simple necessities of life. Not the perversions and decadence of the shallow and the perpetually bored, the hard to arouse -- but the simple touch of water on the cracked dry lips of a thirsty seeker.

I felt the tears on my cheeks and woke up. My headache was gone and my stomach felt better. I went once again to the sink and washed my face and drank some water. Tehran water is legendary for its good taste. I drank and let the simple purity of the liquid replenish my dehydrated body. I went downstairs and had breakfast with my father who was at the table.

"You look tired Sarvenaz, too many mehmoonis (parties)?"

"Yes Tehran is more socially happening than New York!"

"I don't understand you Sarvenaz you are so bright, and have so much depth but all you seem to want to do is to have fun. You cannot have all play you know?"

"I know, but back in school in New York I work hard.""

He smiled knowingly and said, "I have a feeling you don't have to work hard."

I knew he was right. My professor at NYU had also made a comment like this once. He told me, "You know Sarvenaz I can't understand the depth of your intellect on the one hand and the superficiality of your hedonism on the other."

"You are right, babaa jan, maybe I am a good for nothing shaazdeh (princess)!"

"You know in our family Sarvenaz jan, there have been a lot of divooneh (crazy) women. Your aunt was very smart and learned but she fell in love and became divooneh."

"Yes, but she had a husband who beat her and she lived in Mashad seventy years ago. I think I have a few more options," I said, knowing that I was not right. That what my father was warning about, a genetic proclivity to surrender to emotions and the senses was not altogether wrong. I had tried to fight that side of me ever since I fell in love for the first time in elementary

"Just be careful azize deleman (my sweetheart), I don't want you to get hurt. You can do great things if you stop having so much fun all the time."

I sipped the warm tea and felt ashamed of myself. What had I been thinking taking my pleasure wherever I went feeling empty afterwards, drowning my doubts and guilty feelings with drugs and drink?

The truth was that every time I made love to someone I did not love I felt empty afterwards. The emptiness I felt was almost physical like the churning of an empty stomach soaked in too much of the previous nights booze. I sought pleasure almost as if it was a duty. It became so much a way to define myself to affirm my independence and freedom that it no longer was simply pleasure. It was a political platform -- a philosophy of life that was too difficult to bear sometimes. There was no room in this, looking for "Mr. Good Bar" mode of being, for emotions. I was starved for them. But I avoided them like the plague. Aware of my own vulnerability in matters emotional I had become something I was not. I had become a "she-man" -- a woman pretending to be a man -- never quiet happy with either role.

He said, "What are your plans for today?"

"Today I am going to go do my naamaaz (prayer) and then go with Zahra to Rozehye Arbaeen (religious mourning sermon)."

"That is a departure from your normal plans?" my father pretended like he was shocked.

"All this Tehran fun has made me a bit sick to my stomach I need to be around some real people."

"Well I always had respect for Zahra, even though she turned hezbollahi (religious fanatic)."

I got up kissed my father on his forehead and went upstairs to shower. In the shower I let the water over my head as I said my ghosl (prayer of abulation; cleansing ritual after sex.) By the time I had finished my namaaz, which I said with an open prayer book in front of me because I had forgotten the lines, Zahra was at the door.

We went to a big Shemiran villa. Inside the women were sitting in a huge circle around a very big living room. Every one was in black. They were all nicely decked out for the occasion and busy chatting and sipping on fruit juices. I was not sure how I would react to this rozeh khooni (ritual gathering of women or men to commemorate and mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hossien.) I knew you had to cry at these things but a military gaffe that resulted in so many deaths that took place centuries ago, I did not believe, would make me shed tears. I always was hesitant to go to these things with Zahra because I did not believe in them and I did not want to trivialize it by acting the tourist and going out of mere curiosity.

But today I felt like going because I was longing for the comfort of prayer. Today, I wanted to worship the way my ancestors had done. I needed to feel connected to them. All those nameless Shiite foremothers who together must have shed an ocean of tears. Today, I wanted to be with them. Today, I needed to feel the full brunt of my humility. Today, I badly needed grace for I had decided to change and I could not do it by myself. I had decided to tobeh -- to repent.

When I told Zahra this, she smiled and told me that we are all sinners and that God especially loves those who repent.

"Just pray to him and ask him for forgiveness I will show you the sura of tobeh in the Koran to repeat tonight."

"Thank you khaahar (sister)," I said and smiled at her with new tears in my eyes.

We sat down on the floor in a circle around the woman rozeh khoon (preacher). She began singing the rozeh and from the moment she sang the first verse tears started rolling down my cheeks and by the time she finished I was sobbing with abandon. Zahra told me to keep crying that it was good, that it had savaab. In Shiite Islam tears are a sign of grace. The other ladies were impressed that Zahra's friend from America was crying in such a way. In this society unlike the New York that I was used to crying was not a sign of weakness, but of closeness to God.

After singing, the rozeh khaan started preaching. She talked of the meaning of "intent" in the context of religious obligation. It seemed to me that the single most important factor in Islamic jurisprudence as well as spirituality was the notion of the necessary purity of "intent" in all actions. I thought about my intentions coming to this gathering. I had not really come to mourn Hossien and the victims of Karbala; I had come to bury my past. I had come to repent. And the lightness and sense of serenity that I felt after that beautiful rozeh told me that I had received His Grace.

Sitting there in a room filled with other women all crying together felt so incredibly right. Somehow it seemed as though all my life, everything I had done had culminated in this moment of collective oneness -- this moment of receiving grace. I closed my eyes and thanked God for having received me. I felt clean, reborn. I knew there and then that I would never again be the same Sarvenaz.

"Zahra, I want to change my name."

"Really? Okay. From now on I will call you Zaynab."

To be continued...

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