My son often tells me that I am a typical Iranian because, in his words, “who makes a big deal about everything?” Of course he means his accomplishments, which to him are nothing to boast about. For this reason he often avoids telling me about his projects until the day before, so I won't have time to invite Iranians to come and see.
For the past three weeks I had been dealing with some really new, (and unknown to me at the time), personal matters of the heart, so I was not really paying that much attention other than noticing that he was speaking to himself in a French accent, acting as though he was an old man. He often does voices in different accents while on the phone so I was not surprised.
A few times I noticed he had a book by the French playwright, Moliere, in his hand and he was reading some stuff to himself out loud. I had to pick him up every evening, but because I am so used to his after-school projects (Japanese club or music group) it did not seem strange to me.
Then last Monday he told me, “Mommy, there is a play that I play a role in and you can come on Wednesday night, which is for the press and the parents to see it.”
Tuesday evening I decided to find out what was going on. Rather than wait in the parking lot, I sneaked into the dark auditorium and stayed by the door. The play was in progress.
My jaw dropped when I saw my kid entering the stage with a cane and using an old, trembling voice, talking in a French accent, and walking like a crippled. When they finished I went up to the drama teacher and introduced myself. I was proud to see that my kid had inherited some of my talents.
The next night was not very crowded and I enjoyed seeing my kid with the white curly wig and all padded up. He really looked like an old French merchant! He asked me not to come when the public was there the next night, but to simply pick him up so I wouldn’t make him nervous. The next night I went to pick him up and was impressed at how many people were there. My kid asked me to simply sit and wait while he talked to people who “liked his acting.”
There were many teen-age boys and girls, and as I sat and observed some of the girls coming on to the boys, my mind drifted back to my high school days in Khorramshahr.
I went back to fall of 1969. We had a new classmate. She had milky white skin, auburn hair, and very calm demeanor. Everyone was talking about how pretty she was, but they made sure to make the stupid comment “but she is from a poor family.” I had interjected with my usual, “So what? Who cares whether she is poor or not as long as she is intelligent and not too proud of her looks?”
In one of our classes the teacher and I made our usual rounds about love in Persian Literature, and as usual, my views had made the poor man blush, because “a young lady should not have such outrageous thoughts as slow dancing with her head resting on her lover’s chest on a boat in the middle of the Karoon River, or reading poetry in a paddle boat while her beloved gently paddled.”
During the break, the new girl came up to me and introduced herself as Mahtab (moonlight). She told me that she had known about me since we were 5 years old and she really liked my attitude.
I was curious because I had never seen her and I have always had a good memory.
She told me her dad was the guard at the “club” and he often talked about my mischief when I went to play with my friends in the garden at the Gomrok’s (Customs) club.
She had loved the time I had kicked a little girl from the swing who turned out to be Shah’s niece staying at the Governor’s mansion which had an entry into the garden. Of course, at 5 years old, all I cared was that the little snub insisted to sit in that swing because she was a “princess”, which made me mad enough to slap her and then kick her hard. I could not understand what all the fuss was about with those men in uniform and then finally having me go inside the mansion to talk to a man dressed in very nice suit. He asked me a few questions and offered me candy, which I declined and told him I liked “pretzels” instead. He wanted to know if anyone had asked me to kick her and of course I answered she was too whiny and stupid for anyone other than me to want to kick her.
The man had laughed and said, “You are just like what your dad told me.”
I thought, “He is going to tell my dad” so I said, “What did my dad tell you?”
He smiled and said, “You will not tolerate anyone who bothers you or goes against your wishes.”
I felt better and said, “Specially when a little stupid brat thinks she is better than us.” He asked me if I knew what a princess was and I said yes, I had seen some on TV. “That fat whiny brat is not a princess.”
The man chuckled and told the men in the uniform “she is just a child” and then turned to me and said, “Because I am your dad’s friend and I know you love him very much, may I ask you to please play with my daughter?”
I said, “She can play, but if she starts bragging, I will beat her up this time.” He smiled and said, “I will talk to her,” and then looked at the men in uniform and said, “If she starts being bratty simply take her away from the garden so she won’t disturb this young lady and her friends.”
I liked him calling me “young lady.” The thought made me smile.
Mahtab interrupted my thoughts as she said, “You know, I share many of your interests.”
I was really curious now.
She went on. “I loved your idea about love and romance, especially the slow dancing, lying on a bed of rose petals and reading poetry. I love Hafez and Forogh Farokhzad.”
I liked this girl. She was into books and unlike the other pretty air heads that I often blasted, she was very sweet too. We became friends fast.
I had practice nearly every day. There was a comedy I was in. I sang with the band and performed in a few salons invited by local municipalities; I was a relay runner, and of course, I competed in the “World Literature” competition, which was my favorite. In this competition there would be small passages from a book and you had to name the writer or the book and it included literature from Iran and the world.
I did catch up with Mahtab and when I had a chance, I visited her, but my dad requested that I go with our driver because they lived in a very poor neighborhood and my dad did not want me to spend too much time walking, because I would then come home really upset, cursing the Shah and his family for being so extravagant when there were so many poor people in our land.
I had gone to Ahvaz for a state competition and had a blast imitating the accents of people from Dezful and watching the look on their faces so confused. Nobody remembered to ever have seen me there! I also had a blast portending to have dislocated my ankle so I could be carried to the tent hospital, because there was a young and very handsome medical student from Jondishapour University assigned as the doctor who took care of minor nicks and cuts.
I had to hold myself hard not to burst into laughter as his face kept turning red from being exasperated trying to figure out what was wrong with my ankle. He very cautiously touched my ankle and asked where it hurt and of course I kept saying “ there”, pointing to different spots on my leg. He caught on to the joke and gave me a really sad look as he said, “There is nothing wrong with you, but you are having fun ridiculing me.”
I simply shrugged my shoulders and did not feel rotten. I just smiled and said, “For God’s sake, you are going to be a doctor; you cannot get all embarrassed by touching a girl’s ankle.”
I never forgot the look on his face but have no regret because it was clean fun.
On Saturday when I went to school I noticed Mahtab was beaming and seemed very anxious. The minute the class finished, she grabbed my arm and nearly pulled me outside.
“Guess what, Azam?”
“What, what?” I asked.
“I am in love. I have met the man of my dreams.”
The word “man” caught my attention.
“Okay Mahtab, tell me about this person.”
“Well,” she said, “He had seen me and liked the way I looked and followed me to find out where I lived. He had then gone and talked to my dad and asked his permission to come to our place to meet me. You should have seen the neighbors’ envious looks as he parked his car in our alley. He had a big bouquet of flowers and some boxes of chocolates. He did not look down on our place even though I was worried about him in his expensive suit sitting in our patched up chair.
“He talked to me and asked me about what I liked. Oh Azam, he loves poetry and reads poetry books every night!”
I was dying to know about this man so I said, “Mahtab, you are killing me! Tell me his name.”
“Albert,” she said lovingly.
I gasped. “That is an Armenian name. Wait a minute… I have many Armenian friends and I go to their parties; the only Albert I know among them is about our age and he is not into poetry or books.”
Mahtab smiled as she lowered her voice. “He is 35 years old.”
I was caught by surprise and said, “Oh my god, he is 21 years older than we are.”
“I don’t care,” she said.
“That does he do?” I asked.
“He has a great job and you know who he is.”
“No!” I said. “Albert my single neighbor? Oh my god, my dad once asked me to invite his sister who was visiting to come and eat with us. I thought he was a hermit!”
“Listen Azam, I love this man. He has rocked my world. He comes to our house every night bringing presents for everyone. He sits and asks me to read poems for him and he reads some to me.”
“Mahtab jaan, please be careful. You are from two different worlds. I have many Armenian friends and although they mingle with Moslems they usually marry their own kind. It is their tradition. I don’t want you to be heartbroken. I want you to follow my philosophy and set yourself up for 50% failure so in case he dumps you, then you won’t be devastated.”
Mahtab smiled as she placed her hand on my shoulder. “Listen Azam; there are no such rules for love. You give it your all and in your heart you are convinced it will be forever and that is how I feel about him.”
She had a romantic story to tell every time we spoke. For her birthday he had covered the seats in his car with rose petals and he had even bought them a house in a much better neighborhood and all new furniture.
She was drinking wine with him at his place. She talked about slow dancing in his arms as they listened to music. He read poetry to her, combed her hair, and kissed the comb. All this talk about love made me queasy, especially the fact that she was living my dream, but in my heart I kept feeling something bad was going to happen.
Mahtab had changed. She acted more mysterious and secretive. There was a look in her eyes that I could not describe, but many years later when I became a woman I recognized as the look of being “completely fulfilled.”
She had pretty jewelry to show off which he had bought for her. Then Nowruz 1965 arrived and we were off from school.
When the holidays were over and we went back to school, Mahtab did not show up.
I was worried, so I stopped by at the gate of the club, which was only a few hundred feet away from the entrance to the area I lived. I asked Mahtab’s dad, who seemed even older and more tired than usual, what had happened. His eyes were filled with tears as he said, “Mahtab is in the hospital.”
I went home and told my mom I was going to see Mahtab. As I walked into the hospital I became really angry. I was told that there were only certain visiting hours and besides, I had to be accompanied by an adult. I told them that the owner of the hospital was a good family friend and I would make a scene unless I was allowed to see her.
A young man in white coat came up to me and introduced himself as Dr. Farshid.
“Please come to my office,” he said.
I was nervous and somehow he must have felt it. He said, “Do you know what a nervous breakdown is?”
I was insulted and said, “You don’t have to be a doctor to know that, but I guess as a typical doctor you have no brain for common sense.”
He smiled and said, “I am sorry. I did not mean it as an insult, but her condition is very critical. She is in a very fragile state and should not be excited.”
I mumbled, “That son of a bitch did it and I am going to kill him.”
He looked alarmed and shocked. I figured it was because of my cursing, but he said, “Whom are you talking about?”
“I am talking about Albert, the love of her life who promised her the world. I bet he is responsible for this.”
“Do you know Albert?” he asked.
“Yes, he is my neighbor,” I said.
“All right, Ms. Nemati, please try to remain calm. You want her to get better not worse.”
I looked at him and said, “Listen doctor, I want her to get better so she can destroy the son of the bitch for deceiving her.”
I was let into the room. I hated the smell of medicine and death in the hospital. She looked like an angel lying there, so fragile. I held back my tears and tried to seem cheerful as I reached for her hand. She opened her eyes and a faint smile appeared.
I tried to sound playful so I said, “What are you doing here, scaring us all to death?”
“I wish I were dead, Azam, it would be less painful.”
I swallowed my anger and tried to sound calm. “What happened?”
She closed her eyes for a few seconds and took in a deep breath.
“I have lived in heaven since Albert came into my life. I never wanted it to end but it did. The last time I saw him was the evening of Nowruz. He brought presents for everyone and took me back to his apartment. He poured wine and as we danced he kissed me more intensely than before and when we made love he cried as he kissed me.”
I was shocked at my realization that she had been making love to this man the way grown-ups do, but tried to hide my surprise.
Mahtab continued in her barely audible voice. “He kissed me from head to toe and told me he worshiped me, but his mother wants him to marry an Armenian girl or she would disown him.
“He loves his mother and he worships me but he had to go on with the charade. He told me he would love me to the end of time and then brought me back to our house. The next thing I knew I was here.”
“Have you heard from Albert?” I said.
“No, he is away.”
I tried to change the subject as she talked about ending her life. I made sure to tell the doctor afterwards, so they could keep an eye on her. The doctor thanked me. When I got home, I was fuming. I told my dad that I was going to hide in the bushes and jump at Albert and stab him with a knife. My dad seemed alarmed but tried to remain calm.
“Come on sweetheart; you cannot kill people for having to follow their traditions.”
I was mad even at my dad, and I yelled “Oh yes, then how come the son of the bitch did not care about stupid traditions when he chased her and promised her the world?”
My dad tried hard to calm me. “Beautiful lady,” he said. “The world is not fair often but one must be careful and see the end of the road. Mahtab knew that her chances of being with him were so remote. Besides, my dear, not everyone has the heart to break with traditions.”
I disliked my dad at that moment. He was not on my side.
I visited Mahtab every day and she seemed to get better except that she was given Valium to relax her, and it was obvious she was addicted. She asked me if I had run into Albert and I said no. I had found out that he had another apartment facing the beautiful Karoon River and that is where they had met and had those love-filled moments.
I ran into Albert and realized he avoided my eyes. But one evening I blocked his way, but continued to walk. I called him a coward and a “naa-mard”, a not so honorable man. Mahtab was moved to their house and continued to recover. I visited her, read poems to her, and she kept talking about Albert returning to her.
Then one Friday I saw Albert’s wife. She looked old and not very friendly. She was walking with Albert but they seemed worlds apart. He simply said hello and I nodded. Mrs. Biglary, our other neighbor, had made Albert’s wife’s acquaintance and came to share the information. “Her name is Annette. She is from Jolfa in Isfahan and she is 29-years old. She has a college degree and her uncle introduced her to Albert’s family.”
I cursed Albert secretly. That night there was a garden party and my dad told me he was taking my brother and I to mingle with other teenagers and to have fun. Albert and his wife were there. Her hair was neatly bunched up and she only exchanged a few words with everyone.
I went to say hi to my friend Vartan and his fiancé Aida, and as I sat down, I realized Albert and his wife were coming to that table. He formally introduced me to his wife as Azam, their neighbor’s daughter. I don’t know what possessed me to say, “This is perfect for being in love.”
Vartan laughed and said, “I agree with Azam, the moon is shining, the music and the fragrance of the jasmines and the smell of the Karoon River makes quite a romantic setting for love.”
Annette said very coldly, “Those are romantic notions from books filling people’s minds.”
I snapped and said, “Those are beautiful and very real thoughts given by mother universe to people with beautiful souls to match their beautiful minds.”
Aida came to her rescue and said, “Well, I think some of us are lucky to experience love. Most of us think it is a passing notion.”
Albert caught us all by surprise when he said, “I agree with Azam Khanoom! Love is the most beautiful gift of all granted to those who are lucky to experience the ultimate happiness.”
His wife seemed annoyed and said, “Those are from the Western novels and movies.”
I felt contempt and said, “I do not know where you have been, Annette, but Iranians (I said it deliberately to imply she was not Iranian) have the most beautiful love stories and poetry in the world, but most of us are too big of a coward to follow our hearts and instead opt for convenience and what others determine would make us happy. A man to provide for us financially and a woman to carry children and take care of the house. Not a loving soul mate to share our happiness and sorrows.”
Annette looked at me and said, “Do you read a lot?”
I wanted to slap her face but said, “Yes I do, but my ideas come from my brilliant mind that belongs to me, and unlike some idiots who are women in name only, I do not take my cues from society.”
Vartan grabbed my hand and said, “Let’s dance!” He pulled me to the dance floor because he knew I was getting close to snapping.
The next day I went to see Mahtab. She seemed anxious to see me. “Come on, Azam, I know about the garden party last night. My dad was guarding the gate and you said hello to him. So better not keep any secrets and tell me what went on.”
I told her. She smiled and kissed my cheek. “I love you like my sister, and I am telling you, Albert will break up with her. The love between us is still very strong.” She had a smile on her face.
Then our neighbor, Mrs. Biglary, told us that she had heard the couple arguing often. There were many speculations that they were not getting along. I kept it as a secret and did not let Mahtab know. I did not want to give her false hopes.
Then Annette was gone. Everyone said she simply had left. Mahtab seemed different when I went to see her. She beamed and told me that Albert had called her from his office often and cried while telling her how sorry and miserable he had been. Then he had gone to see her and their tears and kisses had done all the talking. He did not care about traditions and he wanted her “to have and to cherish.”
Finally, one day when I got home Mahtab was waiting for me. She jumped and hugged me with so much excitement.
“Azam, my dearest sister, I am going to be with my love forever.”
I looked at her questioningly.
“Albert is leaving his job in Customs and wants to marry me and take me to America so we can live our lives the way we want. We do not have to put up with the prejudices of the Armenian community considering him a traitor and we don’t have to put up with the Moslem community considering me a traitor. It will be just the two of us, and our poetry books. A life filled with love and passion.”
A month later they left for America. It was sometime in the summer of 1971. I wondered if he is still reading poetry to her and whether they dance to slow music now that he is nearly 69 years old and Mahtab, like me, is about to celebrate her 48th birthday. I will dream about slow dancing in the middle of Karoon River even when I reach the tender age of 100!
I marveled at the profoundness of love in my time and tried to compare these teenagers who were coming up to the boys in front of me. God, how romantic we were! My thoughts were interrupted by a young man’s voice.
“Mom, are you daydreaming about your high school days in Iran again?”
It was my son’s voice. He smiled and said, “Oh yes, I know, the girls in your time did not flirt with the boys and were not half naked as these in my school.”
Well, I am glad he thinks that way. He will never experience innocent love like most of us did, all through the window of our eyes meeting somewhere in time. Not like his generation in America who can easily kiss and do everything else. I secretly am thrilled that although nearly a golden girl, my heart is still filled with idealistic and romantic notions, as it was when I was a teenager.
Perhaps that is why, unlike most people of my generation, I have not become that realistic and calculating, those who are devoid of romanticism, and I do not carry any baggage. I am ever the optimist with a quest for the perfect beloved!
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