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Under the shade
Why was it so hard for me, this loss of my father?

May 30, 2001
The Iranian

Father died a year ago tomorrow. I still feel the vast empty expanse of the loss. Only now, where there used to be pain, there is just another scar -- all dried up and permanent. I do not know how I survived the first months.

The good days were few and far between. My father having died at the age of ninety-eight or so -- no one seems to be sure of his date of birth -- did not surprise us with his death. He lived a long and, by all measures, full life. With a sixty-year age gap between us, I always expected, and was prepared for, his death.

I remember as a child waking up in the middle of the night and walking the long corridor to their bedroom just to see if the blanket covering him was going up and down with that exactness of the rhythm of a heart beat that assures life. Later on, when I had my own children, I realized many mothers engage in this nocturnal checking of the breathing of their baby.

I never thought my father would live to see my children. But he did. I was very glad and proud that he lasted so long and so well despite the ordeal and disappointment of the Iranian Revolution and his consequent exile. I was happy that he was lucid and prolific in his old age, writing some eight thousand verses of poetry and many essays and entertaining many with his wit and eloquence up until his very last months.

It seemed like a gift of nature or God to have a ninety-eight-year-old father with whom I could have long discussions over scotch. A father who quoted from the Koran and the Shahnameh and Count of Monte Cristo with equal ease. I knew even then before his death that every moment with this larger-than-life man, who was full of life and pride until the end, was precious. I never overly idealized him. He was a patriarch through and through. Hot tempered and feared by all in the household.

It didn't take my first reading of deBouvoir or Marx to know that there was something inherently unjust about my father's position in life. I was his beloved only daughter, and so I helped others in the household to cope with him and get from him what they wanted. I considered it my mission -- my way of balancing injustices. In this rather big role for a little girl, I actually thrived like some double-agent trying to bring down the big authority figure from within.

It helped greatly that our own household Shah actually gave in and was, despite the huffing and puffing, deeply enlightened and fair. Anyway, I lived to see the forces of history bring down all our Shahs. My father survived the loss of his wealth and authority after the revolution because underneath the role of patriarch, he was still a man with a creative gift. As long as he wrote and read, he thrived. In words and poetry he found his real strength.

His contentment in exile and in the face of calamity was largely due to the fact that, unlike most of us, he never experienced an identity crisis. He knew who he was and where he came from. He knew what he believed and liked. He knew that he was an Iranian, secular in thinking, and in awe of the West because of the its embrace and respect for laws. Pure and simple. No amount of psychoanalysis or historical deconstructing could change his mind. Rule of the law, the respect for it by all citizens, was to him the most awe inspiring advantage of the West.

But for the heart and for the nurturing of the soul he looked to, and lived with, Iranian poetry, literature, music and culture. To him what we needed as a people and as a nation was a simple but total respect for the law. He was a man of poetry and reason and it pained him deeply that his motherland could not reconcile the two and that she had drifted into religious intolerance.

Despite his constant yearning for Iran, he lived a long full life and for that I am forever grateful. So why does it still feel so bad, so heavy, so burdensome to have lost him? Why was it so hard for me, this loss? I have thought long and hard about my grief and the answer is something like this. With him I lost the part of me which was the complete, undiluted Iran. My direct "link" if you will, with something ancient and precious and untouched. The part of me which was the Shahnameh and Hafez and Sa'di and Mohammad and Ali and Fatemeh all wrapped into one.

Living in exile and burying him here has magnified the impact of this loss. He, or what remains of him, lays in a beautiful cemetery in Nice, France. By all standards one should be happy to bury anyone there in that cedar-lined cemetery on the hills of that old resort town on the Mediterranean, where many an exile before has lived his last days. But I longed to bury him in the dusty flatlands of our old farm, Sefid Sang, just off the Sento Road which stretches from Mashad to Herat.

There, between Mashad and Torbat-e-Jam is where he grew up, cast off the turban, fell in love, and composed his first poems. There, where he lived his dreams and made his name. There, where he planted trees knowing that they would outlast him. There, where the people came by the tens asking him for advice and solace. There, where he wanted to be buried under those trees, whose shade like a true son of the desert, he cherished.

I remember our trips to the farm which had been handed down to us by my grandfather, who lived so long ago I know him more as some character in an epic. It had been a large farm, Sefid Sang, but with very little water coming from some old Qanats. My father expanded the estate and turned it into a mechanized farm with ten deep wells which helped multiply its main production of sugar beats. It was the first such farm in Khorasan and perhaps even the entire nation.

But for me it was a place I went to often with my father, living my American School and TV-induced dreams of a cowgirl in the Arizona desert! Imagine there, in the vast stretches of Khorasan against the back drop of purple mountains, I rode my horse side by side my father pretending, when we were not talking, that I was an American cowgirl!

There, is where I wish I could be today kneeling at my father's grave. Under the Sepidar trees of Well Number Ten. My father used to say that the newly planted trees would show their full beauty only when they reached the age of at least twenty. They have reached that age. With them, under their loving shade is where I want to be today remembering my father.

So the tears that I shed on my little Toshiba Compact PC today, are for my father and that place. And the loss of both of them. This is to all those who have buried loved ones thousands of miles away from where their heart is. This is in loving memory of that man and that place -- in loving memory of Agha, my father and Sefid Sang, his true home. Tonight I will toast them both with a glass of scotch and a Fateheh and one of his beautiful poems.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Setareh Sabety


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