It was a week after the U.S. embassy was seized and a few days after a huge anti-Iranian demonstration had been held in Texas. In the back of my mind I still could see one of the cowboys on Ted Koppel's nightly news program. He was carrying a big poster of John Wayne and saying, “Give me two hundred Texas Rangers and I will bring our hostages home in no time.”
A few days later, on a cold November afternoon I was still trying to grasp the connection between the hostages and John Wayne. The wind blowing over the early snow cut into my bones as I left the engineering building. This Midwestern chill is going to be hard to get used to, I thought, walking into the school cafeteria. The kitchen heat warmed me as I put on an apron, wrapping its strings around my waist. I punched my time card and walked to the Big Red dining room, an exclusive cafeteria for Nebraska Cornhusker athletes. A group of football players were at their three-inch steak dinners. I cautiously walked through the dining room, feeling the gaze of one of the star football players at my back. It took only a few seconds before he shouted at me, his mouth full.
“Hey, what did you do to your beard, Ayatollah?” Then he turned to his friends, “Look at him,” he said pointing at me. “Now he's trying to look like Stalin.”
Laughter filled the small dinning room. I smiled at him nervously from under my bushy mustache, walked to one of the dirty tables, and started to pick up the half-empty glasses of milk and soda, placing them in a buspan. Why doesn't he just eat and get lost, this empty headed football star? These football players, the more muscles they put on, the smaller their brains seem to get, I thought to myself, looking at them out of the corner of my eye.
(I should admit right here that I'm not a football fan, at least not the type of football played here in the U.S. I've been trying to figure out the game, but all I see is a bunch of fat men running after each other like mad camels. This isn't football. Real football is the one played back home, and why it is called soccer here, I still have no idea. )
I disliked working at the Big Red from the very first day. The athletes acted as if they were too proud to talk to anybody. The only person who would say anything to me was a Black basketball player as tall as a palm tree. Every time he saw me he would say, “Salaam Alakam,” a Moslem greeting meaning “peace be with you.” I would smile and repeat the same words, wondering if he was a Moslem.
On Day Sixteen, I came to work as usual at 5 o'clock in the afternoon. I was preoccupied with a strength-of-materials exam I had just taken before coming to work when I was startled by a shout. “Ayatollah, why don't you go back where you belong?”
Oh, not him again, I thought. I had shaved off my beard, hoping the star football player would stop calling me Ayatollah. I smiled at him and didn't go near the table where the loudmouth and his buddies were sitting. I wanted to avoid anything that might jeopardize my studies at the university.
When they finished eating and got up to leave, the momentary relief I felt was shattered by a shrieking voice. The whole dining room watched as the star player pushed his blond hair to one side and rushed toward me.
I just stood there clenching the buspan tight in my hands. I started to say that I didn't have anything to do with the hostages, but only the first two words came out in English. The rest of the sentence poured out of my mouth in Persian. His eyes widened and his body rushed closer to me like a huge boulder.
“Don't you swear at me in your stupid eye-ran language, you dog-faced son-of-a-bitch,” he shouted.
As he stepped closer, I could imagine his huge fingers clenched around my head as if it were a football to be thrown down the field.
“Hey, man, leave him alone,” the basketball player said. “Don't you know they freed some of the hostages today?”
“Yeah – Blacks and women!” he yelled.
He was right in front of me now; I could hear him breathing loudly through his nose like a mad bull. I unwittingly let the buspan drop in front of me, and drawing closer, he stepped right into the buspan. As he pulled his foot out, covered with chocolate milk and ketchup up to his ankle, I panicked and shouted as loud as I could, my fist above my head, “Go-Big-Red, Go-Big-Red” and, amidst the laughter of the athletes, ran into the manager's office.
I went home early that evening. Walking back to my apartment cold and scared, I looked behind me in the dark every few steps. I was mad at myself. Why did I let that clown push me around? And why wasn't I brave enough to kick him right in the balls, where his stupid brain was? I was furious that after more than a year in the U.S., I still mixed English with Persian. I was tired of trying to be cautious all the time, thinking that this wasn't my home and I needed to be careful who I talked to, and what I said.
When I got to my basement apartment, I found my roommate dressed in nice clothes and ready to leave. I said, “The stupid football player gave me a hard time again tonight.” He glanced at me while looking himself over in the mirror. “I suggested to you the first day that you call the police. I'm in a hurry now – tell me about it later.” At the door he turned around and said, “We have to really be careful these days.” I was sure that he was going to see his new girlfriend.
After a few minutes, I got ready to go to bed, trying to remember the advice the university police chief had given the Iranian students a few days after the hostages were taken: “You are all guests here at the university. We have a safe campus and are going to make sure it stays safe. My advice to you is to stay in close contact with your friends and not to hang around bars at night. If somebody says something insulting to you, try to ignore it, but let us or the International Student Office know about it.”
I had been surprised by many of the questions put to the police chief that day: “Excuse me sir. I would like to buy a gun. What do I need to do?” “Excuse me, how about practice shooting? Where can we do it?” His answer to a question about self-defense stuck with me. He said that if someone is standing outside your door and you shoot the person, you could be considered a killer, but if the person's foot is inside your door, you would be acting in self-defense. No wonder so many killings are regarded as self-defense, I thought: after the shooting you could simply pull the victim's foot inside the door.
In the meeting, I felt as if a war were going to break out in no time and that we Iranian students would either have to defend ourselves or be massacred. I put the list of phone numbers of the police, my friends, and the international students' adviser by the bed. After making sure that the windows were latched and the door was locked, I piled all my heaviest engineering books against the front door. I was sure the police chief would have been proud of me.
That night lying in bed I felt numb and lonely. Images of blindfolded hostages, confused voices and cries, exam problems, and thoughts of losing my job and not being able to continue school kept circling in my head. What would I do now since the law forbade international students from working off-campus? Thoughts rushed through my mind, and I started to shiver, feeling sick and cold. Wet with sweat, my heart pounding against my chest, I could see fire and smoke from burning pictures and flags hovering over the streets as thousands of people shouted. I ran through the crowd and past dead men, women, and children lying in the streets, their clothes soaked red with blood. Hundreds of fat men with shaven heads and long beards stood high among the crowd. Their eyes glowed as though fire were pouring out of them. They shouted mysterious words nobody could understand. Their beards dragged on the ground as they started to walk, and more and more people began to follow them. After hours of walking, we ended up in an open area with broken-down buildings here and there. Heat flowed from the sky, and the sun was so low I thought I could feel my blood boiling. The crowd became more excited with each mystical word and people began to hit themselves on the chest as in religious rituals. After a few minutes, people moved aside and I could see a group of blindfolded men and women walking down a huge stone staircase, its top invisible in the heat and haze. Suddenly the man with the longest beard pointed at me and shouted, “There he is – get him!” As I kept running and running I heard thousands of people shouting with excitement. “Go-Big-Red! Go-Big-Red!” – I was in the middle of the Nebraska football stadium, packed with people all dressed in red. “There he is – get him, get him!” somebody shouted. I kept running. The snow was up to my knees and blowing right into my face. A group of men ran after me. I recognized the blond star football player in front of them. I froze as he grabbed my arm.
A few days later, an immigration agent with pensive politeness grabbed my wrist and asked me to step closer to the fingerprint table. I couldn't object. Immigration was on campus, despite the protest by the ACLU and some lawyers in Washington, to photograph and fingerprint all the Iranian students. We were advised by the International Student Office to cooperate to avoid any excuse for deportation. In the hallway, waiting to be fingerprinted, I listened to the conversations among my friends.
“Do you know what this is all about?”
“Yes. It's for some kind of statistics to keep track of foreign students.”
“Oh, really! Just some statistics? Then why just Iranians? Where are the other foreign students?”
“What is this fingerprint and picture-taking crap? Do they think we are going to turn into a bunch of terrorists overnight?”
“This is just the first step. Next we will be shipped to a camp in the middle of the Nebraska Sandhills. The same thing they did to thousands of Japanese during World War II. And they were U.S. citizens. Imagine what they'll do to us.”
“You guys. You're taking things to the extreme. They can't do that to us. There are laws in this country. They can't just grab you like this and throw you in a camp.”
“Sure . . . Sure.”
That evening, I felt frustrated with everything – with school, the Ayatollahs, the Revolution, Ted Koppel's counting of the days of Americans-held-hostage, and my roommate who never came home. I walked to my apartment, silent and frightened, and went straight to bed, hoping for a calm sleep.
I closed my eyes and wandered in a vast desert. It was cold and dark. Low clouds covered the horizon. There were hundreds of us. Tired, head bowed, I felt as if I have been walking for days. I kept seeing familiar faces, but everyone pretended not to know each other. Every few minutes I kept hearing a sharp sound in the air that made my hair stand on end.
I saw a group of people coming toward us. They were all blindfolded. Holding onto each other or waving their hands, confused and agitated, they passed us. I watched until they melted into the bright sunlight behind a big iron gate barely visible through thick dust in the distance. Members of our group, their eyes wide open, kept running into each other, blathering, and circling around. Suddenly darkness fell as if all of the sand of all deserts had risen in the air creating a dark wall around the earth. Then I heard horsemen riding as if they were coming from the depth of centuries. The sound of their swords cutting through the cold air lingered above us.
As days passed, the arguments among Iranian student groups went on. The Moslems argued that the Imam Khomeini should be supported without question. The leftists believed that seizing the hostages was part of the anti- imperialist struggle and that it was a Marxist-Leninist's duty to support it. A few lonely voices here and there whispered that the hostage situation was an opportunistic act by the religious rulers to gain control over our society and that after it was over, it would take us many years to rebuild our image around the world.
I kept busy with my studies, listened to the arguments, tried to comprehend the new words – rednecks, Texas Rangers, nest-of-spies, nuke'em – being added to my vocabulary. I never returned to the Big Red cafeteria, and, as the cold winter went on, dreamt of warmer days.