Please come back
If I understood where she started, maybe things could change
By Kendal Sheets
November 21, 2000
As I stepped towards the airplane door, my heart began beating in my
ears. I could hear the blood rushing through my body, feeling a hint of
adrenaline, stomach began to tingle with anticipation. What was an American
boy from the Midwest doing on the other side of the world in a small city
blown off the tourist map by Iraqi bombs?
The pull that led me here was a feeling I could never describe, yet
it was in me, a need to be here, a vision I had only seen in my mind from
her stories of date trees and burning sunshine and happiness.
I stepped through the doorway and the bright sun gently soaked into
my skin. A palm tree waved at me in the distance. I closed my eyes, tilted
my head, and took a deep breath. The air was crisp on this January day.
What day is was exactly, I wasn't sure. I had been in Iran for three
weeks and lost track of time, but then so had most of the country for the
past 20 years.
The familiar scent of oil refineries rolled through my senses. I had
been around refineries most of my life. I remembered when my father would
take me to his office when I was a child. I would play on the floor while
he worked at designing the giant pipes and towers that looked imposing
and impossible to understand.
My father had taken these same steps 35 years ago, before I was born,
when he came to help build refineries for the Shah. Now, I walked down
the stairs and took my first steps onto the pavement. I looked up and read
the English sign "Ahwaz Air Port."
We drove near the Karoon River and checked into what used to be the
Astoria and is now the Fajr Hotel. Everything in Iran is now and then.
Now, after the war, and then, before the revolution. Now, in the modern
age and then in the empire befallen by Alexander. I felt it, too. My life
was now, and then before I left home.
I received the usual looks of curious confusion from the staff. Since
it was Ramazan, the hotel was deserted. Not even the lights in the lobby
were on. The interior was laden with beautiful, polished hardwood and the
hotel had a heavy feeling to it, dark, empty, sad.
The doorman broke the malaise, "Hello how are you I'm fine,"
he said all in one sentence with a thick accent. It was all the English
he knew, so he said it a few more times. He was an older gentleman dressed
in a hotel uniform with a wide smile displaying some missing teeth.
"Haaleh shomaa aghaa?" I replied to a surprised look. I tipped
him 500 tomans for nothing, just because he was there. My guide, Mahmood,
was checking us in. Why can't we get going, I thought? Everything here
takes so long to do.
After endless talking Mahmood came over to with a grin and exclaimed
that everyone in the hotel was very excited because there was another American
checked in and they put us in the room next to him. "What in the world
was he doing here?" I mumbled to myself.
The clerk was very proud of this. He could now go and brag to all his
disbelieving friends tonight that he had not one, but two crazy Americans
vacationing in his hotel.
The three doormen each carried one small bag for us to our rooms. I
guessed the tips were probably slim to none lately. I tipped each one a
few thousand tomans. They wouldn't stop thanking me so I gave them some
more just to go away. This came back to haunt me later when the three got
in a loud argument over who would carry my bags when I checked out.
We headed out later and approached a venerable Peykan taxi. I sighed
and held the moment, staring at the Karoon while Mahmood negotiated a price.
Finally, I was on my way, my journey of thousands of miles from American's
heartland was about to be fulfilled in the next few minutes.
Before I climbed in, my eyes locked onto an old man across the road
from my hotel. He was very thin, dressed in loose black clothes and a worn
velvet cap on top of a weathered face filled by a wiry white beard. He
was bent over while dragging a tree limb piled high with smaller, broken
branches. I wanted to help him, to help him drag that heavy branch. I wanted
to walk over and say, here, you don't need to worry about feeding your
family and gathering firewood from the streets because I will give you
a thousand dollars.
But how could I lift up every person I had seen on my trip that I wished
I could help, without going back first to the children without shoes begging
in Tehran, or the old lady sitting with her face covered by her chador
with a wrinkled outstretched palm on the street corner in Esfahan, or the
young mother in Shiraz who was crying while holding her baby, counting
her rials outside a grocery store?
What a country, so rich in resources and so much oil under my feet.
Right across the Persian Gulf, are other oil countries with wealth beyond
wealth. I was angry, but I let it go and sat down. I didn't come here to
change a nation, I came to change something else. With map in hand, we
sped down the road, anxious to find what my heart was searching for.
The next few minutes felt like waiting in line for my first roller coaster
- dying from anticipation of what it would feel like to rush down that
track. Please let me out of this damn cramped Peykan. We started walking
around the streets looking for a street sign, or anyone to give us directions.
We had already driven by this same intersection three or four times.
Great, we have the only taxi driver in Ahvaz that can get lost. I told
Mahmood, "Nice choice for a taxi... ask that man over there if he
knows where the house is at."
The innocent bystander was not under 75-years old, white haired, walking
with a cane, minding his own business. With the look on his face, we brought
back some memories from another time when he probably had had a much quicker
step, danced and drank, and thought this charmed life in his beautiful
corner of the world would never end.
From the pointing, I knew we were in luck. Everyone back then knew that
house. I was looking for the most famous family in Ahvaz. But that was
the old Iran. After fleeing the Iraqi bombs, the family never went back,
and sometime between then and now sold the house and that was that.
This particular doctor who built the house was loved and adored by his
patients, his students at the medical school, and his family. His greatest
accomplishment, though, was his youngest daughter. I thought if I could
understand where she started, where she grew into her strength and fiery
spirit, things could change.
I was here on faith, and faith hopes for all things. I needed to feel
the dirt under my feet, to walk her steps, to see her city and her country,
to know all that made her. This was her home, her dream from the old Iran,
the perfect life.
We drove a minute, and parked. The street was lined on one side with
homes, all similar two-story style with date trees, flowers, shrubs, and
small walls enclosing the yards. They were all in various states of disrepair,
only dim reflections of their former beauty. I have only my mental pictures
to guide me, but I knew exactly which one it was.
The big second story porch next to the date tree, exactly how she described
it. It was on a corner lot, having a five foot wall enclosing the front
yard. We entered through the front gate and knocked on the front door.
While looking out into the yard, I tried to imagine a child with long
dark hair playing with her friends, coming home from school through that
same front gate I just passed through, picking a flower for her mother,
running up these steps through this door, carefree, safe, home. She was
born in that house. This was hallowed ground to me. Her mother's rose bushes
were still there, amazing, after twenty years.
The current tenant was very happy to show us around, but he was embarrassed
with the home's condition. This is the now, after the war, and my mind
is in the then, so it didn't matter to me. My personal pilgrimage was not
finished. I climbed the outdoor stairs leading to the second story balcony.
It overlooked the front yard and the street, the perfect vantage point
to shout to neighbors walking by and invite them in for chai.
The perfect point for a young mischievous girl to get her mother's broom
handle and knock the dates off of the tree while her friends picked them
up on the ground below, without mom catching them, of course. The long
leaves of the tree bounced lazily in the breeze before me. I closed my
eyes, and my spirit whispered to her, "please come back, for I have
Kendal Sheets, 32, is a patent attorney, athelete, and sometimes
writer, currently residing in Gaithersburg, Maryland.