Seema Bazleh Pejman
Seema's Fairy Tale
By Shirin Bazleh
January 15, 1997 -- On a British Airways flight to Tehran. Flashbacking to Five years ago. My first trip to Iran in twenty years: I reposition the seat as I anxiously prepare the notebook to write my first "feelings". What an exciting moment: having the luxury to record nostalgia being "fulfilled". As the gleam of city lights surface through the clouds, my heart starts pounding faster, my hand gripping the pen harder awaiting the sentiments that would trigger profound thoughts that I am about to document.
The white landmark of Shahyad Square (now called Azadi) emerges majestically from the dark, indicating we are near Mehrabad airport. And then a stunning realization. I am feeling nothing. Nothing at all. I stare at the empty page until the plane lands, then looking out the window, I search aimlessly for any sign that would evoke a reaction. As the plane taxies to its stop, we pass walls that are decorated with revolutionary slogans. We also pass an endless row of 747 Iran Air planes, lined impressively into the dark. I observe. I feel nothing. I have no expectations, and I have nothing to say.
Now five years later, I am returning again, this time with my three-year-old daughter, Seema. And this time, its not my feelings I am concerned with, but hers. How will SHE react to this new experience? How is her three-year-old Los Angelesian mind, perceiving the fact that suddenly I'm wearing a roo-sari (scarf)? She seems perfectly at ease with the idea. Pointing to the other women on the plane who are now wearing roo-saris "just like mama". She only wants assurance that she doesn't need to wear one. "No" I tell her, "children don't have to wear it." Convinced, she accepts the new fact.
January 20 -- One of the main reasons for this trip is for my mother-in-law to see her new grandchild. Seema has been very polite, addressing her "shoma", impressing everyone with her fluent Farsi. We've hardly been here a week and she has met a handful of new people almost every day. It is the month of Ramazan, so everyone comes after Eftar (after dusk meal) to see Seema. It is impolite to have her asleep then, and she has, in astonishingly good behavior, stayed up to see her new relatives. She has quickly gotten used to the idea of getting gold bracelets, coins or earrings instead of toys.
We are told however, that we have to go and pay our respects to Mr. Ehsani, the 94-year-old relative who lives on the top floor of our building. Dutifully we go to see him. I am warned that he is sick. Very sick. And a bit strange behaved. His 88-year-old ashen-faced wife receives us. We walk through their antique filled, dungeon smelling, hallways. We hear an agonizing moan echoing at a distant. Seema is scared. Mrs. Ehsani's younger sister (85-year-old) who also lives in the building is visiting.
Originally Mr. Ehsani had been in love with her and had proposed for her hand over
half a century ago, but was rejected. He then married the eldest sister, but remained in love with the younger one. The visiting sister has colors that are intended to be make up on her face. Her lipstick has followed a wrinkle line instead of the lip line. The mascara has somehow ended up as fork marks on her cheeks, and she has forgotten to finish lining the left eyebrow. The right eyebrow however is perfectly paralleled by a thick line above it. Seema is extremely worried, clinging to my legs refusing to say "Salam".
Finally we are shown to Mr. Ehsani's room who hasn't spoken for days. He looks like an expensive Halloween decoration. Some skin and bones, Einstein hair, an empty eye socket (the artificial eye has been removed) and an obscure groan. He is told that I have come from America to visit him. He magically half lifts his body and gazes at my direction. He then moves his lips and a strange voice came out saying, "I love you". Everyone is excited that he has spoken, but can't really understand what he said. "What?", "what did you say?" He repeats louder and clearer "I LOVE YOU!!" I look behind me. The younger sister stands at the doorway with a knowing grin.
January 23 -- I went to the university today to meet some of my old colleagues from the brief period I taught there in 1992. I ask about Hemmati. The amiable French-educated Film Criticism teacher who had a great desire to travel to Canada. "I don't know how to tell you this" the Animation professor tells me. And then adds, "I hope you don't mind me telling you this, but Mr. Hemmati died two months ago." "What?" "He was well, then he had stomach aches, and three weeks later he died... I think it was cancer." He was only 42.
I ran into another professor who had just returned from Ahvaz (a city in Southern Iran), to give a lecture on Alfred Hitchcock and his style. He was supposed to screen and discuss "Psycho" . This professor is extremely well informed on Hitchcock, has read every book published on his films and in particular on "Psycho" and knows things that I'm sure Mr. Hitchcock himself didn't know. So before screening the film, he gives some detailed information on the master's editing technique and is supposed to analyze the famous shower scene afterwards. To his horror, during the screening he
discovers the entire shower scene has been censored -- cut out completely. The audience doesn't think much of the film or the professor's lecture.
February 2 -- In Iran people actually fix things. Our car is 20-years old and has been maintained to run perfectly. My mother-in-law's old shortwave radio was broken five years ago, but she has had it fixed since. The blood pressure monitoring device my husband had sent her ten years ago still works (has been repaired at least twice). It is only natural that when my husband's old computer failed to work properly he called his regular "computer repair man." He was supposed to arrive at 9 a.m., but it is three in the afternoon now and he hasn't showed up yet. He called around midnight last night to confirm his early morning appointment. He has not called and his wife says he left at 8:30 this morning to come here.
February 3 -- The computer repair guy showed up this morning around 8. He was smoking as he walked in, very apologetic about his "delay." He calmly explained that he had been arrested on his way to our meeting yesterday. His crime: he was smoking a cigarette in his car. Eating, drinking and smoking are prohibited in public before Eftar during the month of Ramazan.
This year there seems to be a national public relations dilemma. The mourning month of Ramazan (which is observed by the lunar calendar) has fallen on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution (which is celebrated by the solar calendar in the month of February). They are both visible public events and have therefore created a very odd challenge for shop owners who should observe both occasions.
February 5 -- Getting away from Tehran and going to our new "home" -- the property now called "Seema" -- is a relief from all the city turmoil. The place is in a village about 20 kilometers from Karaj. Leaving the village toward the snow-peaked mountains we have to go through winding dirt roads until we get to the location where we and many of our "artist" friends have recently bought land. Even in winter with dead trees and hardly any greenery, the place is magnificent. Peaceful. Primitive. Fresh. The running water comes from a stone pool. Electricity is the newest luxury. Heating is with kerosene. Phone lines may be available in a few years.
The locals are friendly. The fresh bread from the bakery is divine. The donkeys make donkey noises. The driving hazard is to get the car out of the way of the flock of sheep returning from pasture. There is no computer, no television, no telephone in our little home. The main activity of the day is to gather wood from the outside, get the fireplace going, break the ice from the pool so we can have running water inside, and cook. Seema's toys from Los Angeles are left ignored, while she occupies herself with outdoor activities all day.
February 10 -- Back in Tehran. Mr. Ehsani's health has deteriorated. He is taken to the hospital. His wife calls. My mother-in-law speaks with her in a low tone, looking mysterious. After she hangs ups, she asks if Seema has gone to the toilet yet. "Not yet, why do you ask?" My question is unanswered, but she follows Seema everywhere, asking her repeatedly if she is ready to pee. Finally I ask why she is so interested. A bit embarrassed, she says that Mrs. Ehsani has asked for Seema's urine. "It has to be from an innocent virgin" she tells me, "to purify the house and keep bad luck out."
There is no point in arguing. The man is dying. If Seema's urine gives his wife some comfort, why not. The problem is, Seema is refusing to be escorted to the toilet, let alone have someone hold a jar under her. My idea of giving someone else's urine instead and lie to Mrs. Ehsani is violently rejected. I stay out of it and by the end of the day the project ends successfully. Now I have to answer Seema's repeated questions as to why grandma took her pee-pee in a jar upstairs.
February 15 -- We are visiting relatives in Shiraz. My main goal is to take Seema to Persepolis. I remember the early childhood memories of the joy my sister and I felt every time my parents took us to Persepolis. Five years ago, returning home after a 20-year absence, I was untouched by everything I saw and my mind remained frozen in a state of "observation" for months until I went to Persepolis. There, the emotions finally responded. The majesty and splendor of Persepolis is a timeless wonder.
It is cold and has been raining. Everyone is against the idea of traveling to Persepolis, 60 kilometers from Shiraz. But I have come with a mission, and am not leaving without making a pilgrimage to Apadana Palace. A few kilometers before Persepolis the rain stops. A rainbow points perfectly to the ruins appearing at the end of the tree-lined road. At first it appears that Persepolis is closed! "Oh, no..." but seeing a bus resembling a tour bus parked nearby gives us hope. Yes, it is open.
Persepolis is ours. There is absolutely no one there. At a far distant, the group of Japanese tourists are hiking the mountain to the tomb of Khashayar Shah. I fly up the entrance steps, pulling Seema's hand hard, filling her inquiring mind with stories of real kings and palaces. Her only reference to what I'm saying is the Disney stories of "Cinderella", "Beauty and the Beast" and "Snow White". That's another reason I've brought her on this trip.
February 23 -- Getting from the airport terminal to the plane, we have to get on a trolley bus without any seats. It is difficult to hold my carry-on luggage and Seema at the same time. A middle aged man freely takes charge. He picks Seema up -- "here young lady, let uncle help you" -- and holds her tight until the bus comes to a stop. He continues being Seema's "uncle" as we go up the stairs to the plane, directing her to hold on to the rails, watch her steps, etc. Even when Seema demands to be held by me, Uncle Stranger interferes: "No, mommy will get tired. You are a big girl now. I'm sure you can walk yourself." His behavior is genuine and natural and I accept and appreciate it completely. Could I feel the same if a strange man acted the same way in Los Angeles? I doubt.
February 28 -- I have brought Seema's umbrella stroller with me, but after my last two outings with Seema in a stroller I've decided not to use it anymore. I was stopped by at least a dozen total strangers saying in so many words Seema is too old to be in a stroller. Sometimes directing their remarks to her -- "Strollers are for babies. What are you doing in there little girl?" -- or I'm told "strollers make kids lazy, they need the exercise. You are spoiling your child."
So, today we walk to Mellat Park. I have a good talk with Seema before leaving the house saying that she is going to walk to the park and that I am not going to hold her. To my amazement, she walks all the way to the park and back (less than a mile each way) without complaining.
March 1 -- Mr. Ehsani has been back from the hospital. I go up to pay him a visit. This time, I don't take Seema. He has lost another 10 pounds. It is an unfortunate miracle that he is alive. His hands are tied to the bed so that he won't remove the oxygen mask from his face. His legs are locked in a bent position. If they try to straighten them, the bones will break. He pleads with his face gestures to release his hands. He is covered with sore bed wounds. I stroke his forehead and secretly wish that he dies soon.
March 3-- Mr. Ehsani died a few hours after I left his bed side. There is a feeling of sadness and relief in the building. Everyone except Seema and I went to Behesht-e Zahra cemetery this morning. Seema is playing with Bugsy and Esmeralda. I overhear her making up a story where Bugsy is living in a big palace called Apadana and Esmeralda wants to meet Prince Cyrus.