Chapter One from “The Little Man“a novel by by Abbas Kazerooni (2005, Tate Publishing). This is the first half of a story of a seven year old boy who was forced into leaving his homeland at that tender age. It is set in the mid 1980s amidst the peak of the Iran-Iraq War. See TheLittleManOnline.com.
It was a typically hot day in Tehran as I finished my homework in my somewhat spacious bedroom. It was almost too big, but with very few contents. I just had my small bed in one corner, next to the radiator. I loved it there for the winters, where I could squeeze my toes in between the rails. Above my bed was a huge window, which looked out onto our back garden, if you could call it that. It was more like a garden attached to an orchard. I loved looking out of it on hot summer days when the sun was too strong to play outside. In the opposite corner was my little desk with its matching stool.
Thinking back on it, I know that it was only a cheap little thing. It had a top that flipped open and shut, enabling me to keep my books inside. The best part of it was a secret draw where I kept all my little treasures. I wasn’t really into toys; I preferred playing football and trying to make extra pocket money by any means possible. Even if I did like toys, I think I would have been disappointed, as it was wartime and my parents were not amazingly rich.
Our financial status was highly ironic as I lived in what was once a mansion. However, the lavish furnishings that I was told once existed were no longer there. In my huge room, I have already listed all its contents, apart from my plastic 100 Ryal football. I liked an empty room—to my mother’s agitation, I would play football against the bare wall. It created hours of amusement for me.
My father used to tell me of the days how he used to be one of the richest men in Iran and how he used to mingle with royalty. That was until the Ayatollahs came in 1979 and took it all away. I could imagine it though, as I had seen all the pictures of our house with all the antiques, the paintings, and the gold that once decorated it. Our family was so famous that producers even made a 24-part series about us. My great-grandfather had started the Kazerooni dynasty. He was a self-made millionaire and had a monopoly on nearly all the businesses in the south of Iran. When the British invaded Persia, the government would not fight them, but my great-grandfather funded guerrillas to put up an opposition to them.
By the time my father was in charge of the family, we were mingling with royalty and government officials on a regular basis. This was of great importance to me, as it was the thing I boasted most about at school. If one knows anything about Persian societies, then they would know that the art of boasting is drummed into you from a very early age, not that I really needed any drumming. I never had or experienced any of this luxurious past, but that never stopped me from strutting around thinking that I did.
This day, however, was very different to all the others. I felt it from the moment I came back from school. I walked through the huge, black wooden door to my grandmother’s delight. In her usual manner, she pinched my face to my disgust and planted two wet kisses on both cheeks with the usual, “I’m so happy you’re home, my darling. Are you hungry?”
Usually, I would have answered with something like, “No thank you, Mamanjoon. I have to do my homework.”
Even though I was a little monkey, I was, by my own recognition, a closet geek. I always had to do my homework before I could relax or eat. However, on this particular day, I had big problems. I had once again dominated the playground at lunchtime with my footballing prowess and torn the knee section of my trousers. The number of trousers my poor mother had repaired through my antics was beyond me. I knew I was in trouble, and it was on my entry that I decided to consult my biggest ally, Mamanjoon. As she opened the door in our usual routine, I sulked with my big, brown puppy dog eyes and had my head down. When Mamanjoon asked what the matter was, I merely looked at my knees and pointed to the trousers.
To this she merely replied, “It’s okay, my darling. Go and take them off, and I’ll mend them for you. It’ll be our little secret.”
Like a ferret, I was off to my room trying to dodge any attention coming from my mum or my dad. As I ran across the spacious living room floor, I noticed my parents were in heavy discussion on the lonesome sofa opposite our television. Their failure to acknowledge me was a sign that something serious was being discussed, but at this point, the situation suited my purposes.
So there I was in my room with nothing to do. I had finished my homework, and I couldn’t play football in my room as both my parents were next door in the lounge. I sat there on my knees looking out of the window to begin with, but that was not satisfying my overly exuberant and energetic body. Therefore, I decided to find out what all the fuss was about. There was a long hallway that connected all the bedrooms and the family bathroom to the lounge. I lay there as quietly as I could, peering my cheeky, little head round the corner so that I could see what was going on. The lounge was as empty as my room. In the distant corner was an old white sofa facing a television, which was standing on a stall. In front of the sofa lay a colorful rug and a tiny coffee table. Above the television, there were still three family portraits of my father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather. The rest of the walls were bare with stains of old paintings that once used to hang there. Most of the surfaces were collecting dust, as they lay bare. Only a few baby pictures of me lay about on the odd shelf, the rest was barren space. There were no objects between my parents and me. I had to be careful, as I could easily have been caught. My father’s face looked worried and desperate. If there was something that I had learned about my father over the years, it was that he was neither of the above.
He leaned toward my mother, desperately trying to get his point of view across. “You know they won’t give me a passport, don’t you?”
This was obviously a rhetorical question, as even I knew that my father’s passport had been confiscated at the turn of the decade by the new regime. He had told me that the Ayatollahs didn’t want him to leave the country. I used to love it when he told me things like that. Afterwards, he always made me promise not to mention any of it in public, as it was really dangerous for the family. It made me feel like a man. My father had trusted me with this vital information.
My mother looked at my father inquisitively and questioningly replied, “Yes.”
“Well, you have to leave with Abbas,” was the immediate reply. As soon as this was mentioned, my ears were on full alert. What was he talking about? Where were we going? Passport? Are we going abroad? At first, I was excited, as it was a thing my friends and I used to boast about—who would go abroad first. Only rich, posh people ever traveled outside of Iran, and I was delighted that I might beat my friends to it. I remember seeing my mother’s reaction. It was certainly not the same thing as I was feeling. I couldn’t decide if she was sad or angry or possibly even both; I just knew it didn’t look good. I was always closer to my mother, and seeing her like that immediately changed my mood. I just remember the light coming in from the window and shining off her smooth red hair. Her eyes were swelling up, and I wanted to be near her. I hated seeing her like that. It felt like Dad was pushing her a little. My father was a short man and much older than my mother. His hair was receding, and he had a beard. He always seemed to be calm, and yet he seemed to carry such authority with him. My mother, however, lost her temper much more quickly and yet always seemed so vulnerable.
All that Mum could say was “What are you talking about?” It was clearly above her comprehension. I certainly didn’t understand.
“We have to get Abbas out of the country, my darling,” he said with his deep, resonant voice.
“He’s seven, for God’s sake,” she whimpered back, “just seven.”
“That’s exactly why we have to get him out now.”
“How will he cope? He too young to understand … he needs stability, Karim.” She was pleading with him.
Too young? I thought, Just you try me. My father stopped to look at her. Even he couldn’t bear her tears. It must have melted his heart seeing her like that.
He wiped away her tears with his checked shirtsleeve and continued gently, “They’ve reduced the recruitment age to eight, Marzieh,” he gently went on. “You saw Meenoo yourself the other day. Her son was brought back in a coffin, and for what? How old was he, thirteen?”
“Well, there you go. You’re arguing my point for me.”
I couldn’t believe what he’d just said. Recruitment was a popular topic of conversation, and I knew lots of children being signed up. At school, we were told that we would go to paradise if we died in the war. My father always begged me not to listen to them, and so I didn’t. I knew better than to make fun of the children that went to war. My father had told me that it was a sad thing, but also stupid. If I’d repeated any of this, I would have been caned until I bled, and my father would have been whipped for sure, if not killed. But eight? I was eight in a matter of a few months. I always knew there would be a possibility that I might have to go to war, but never so soon. At that particular moment, I was frozen with fright. I didn’t want to leave my mother, I was scared, and I certainly didn’t want to die.
“Eight?” my mum suddenly said. “Are you sure?”
“Positive,” he said sadly. “Bahman told me, and he gets it straight from the top.” In my life, I had not really seen a lot of emotion from my father. I had seen him lose his temper only once, and that has stayed with me still to this day. However, this was the first time I had seen him get even a little sad.
My mother wanted to say something, but couldn’t get it out. She could not come to grips with the concept of letting children fight at such a tender age. My father edged closer toward my mother. Then as he began to speak to her, he sensitively stroked her cheek with the back of his right hand as he so often did when he wanted to show her affection.
“They’ll pick on people like us first, Marzieh. You know they will.”
“But he’s seven, for God’s sake,” as she broke down. She sobbed in my father’s lap helplessly. Suddenly, Mamanjoon entered the room quite oblivious to what was going on. She was ninety-five, but extremely active for her age and very selective with her disabilities. She wobbled over nearer to the pair of them, with the aid of her walking stick. Her white hair covered her glasses as she crouched in her natural position.
She stared at my father as she said, “Tea anyone?”
“No thanks, Maman,” he said horrified. “Maybe later.” My father’s disbelief was almost comical. Mamanjoon’s timing was, as ever, nothing short of impeccable! Karim continued to stroke my mother’s cheek while Mamanjoon was still standing there, looking at them like a lemon. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
Karim then realized that his mother was still in the room when Mamanjoon spoke again, seemingly unaware, “Are you sure you won’t have any tea? It’s fresh!”
My mother raised her teary head with studied politeness as she spoke with her last ounce of patience. “No, thank you, Mamanjoon. Really, we’re fine.”
Mamanjoon sighed heavily, as if she’d been seriously offended and exited while hobbling dramatically. This little distraction had taken my parents’ mind off the topic momentarily, and I could see the pain in their eyes as they looked at each other again. You didn’t have to be a brain surgeon to see who would pick up the conversation again. I was as curious as anyone as I watched with my head in my hands, sprawled out in our hallway. I was watching my future unfold in front of me. I think I had not grasped what was really happening, but I kind of guessed and hoped that Mum would make it all okay. She always did. My father looked at my mother again with uncertain ease and spoke very quietly into her ear. “You have to go ahead with Abbas, and I’ll make my own way …” He paused momentarily to gage a reaction, but continued when he didn’t get one, “Somehow.”
He was speaking quietly, and I was listening hard. I could hear everything. The lack of furniture made his voice echo like an ominous breeze. My mother looked at him with her moistened eyes.
“We can’t leave without you,” she murmered.
I wanted to run across the room and help her. I didn’t know a life without my father. I knew nothing apart from the life that I had lived, and like any child, change scared the life out of me. Nevertheless, my father was relentless with his efforts. You could see he had made his mind up and really believed in what he was doing as he continued. “You have to go Marzieh; it’s for Abbas’ sake.” I was a good twenty feet away when he muttered those words, but to this day, I know that I believed them. I was young and naïve, but I knew my father.
I think this was my mother’s last real effort to stop this course of action as she wept into his lap. “But you are my husband and Abbas’ father.”
Even I had tears in my eyes now. I wish I had gone and given her a kiss. My belly was burning with pain; I was hurting because my mother was hurting. I am sure my father was in pain too, but I couldn’t tell.
He retorted, as a matter of fact, “But Abbas has to come first. If that means we have to be separated for a while then so be it. You have to take him, Marzieh. You have to take him.”
And that was that. My mother suddenly seemed to lose control, and she collapsed into his lap. I just remember my father holding her in his arms as he spoke gently into her ear to comfort her. I can’t remember what he said; I just seem to remember his mouth moving up and down. I even got a glimpse of Mamanjoon standing in the kitchen doorway, wiping away her tears. I couldn’t watch anymore. I went to my room and lay on my bed, and before I knew it, I had cried myself to sleep.
The next morning I automatically woke up before the alarm clock. I was facing the wall next to my bed as I opened my eyes. I knew it was too early for school, but something compelled me to turn round instead of closing my eyes again. As I turned my body over, I saw my father looking at me as he played with his worry beads. I squinted and rubbed my eyes. “Morning, Baba.”
“Good morning,” he muttered back adoringly. There was certain sadness in his voice. I knew something wasn’t right; he had never looked at me like that before. Added to the argument with Mum the previous night, I knew there was something wrong. I sat up in my tight, little cotton pajamas and looked at him silently. He merely looked back at me in silence and carried on playing with his beads. I looked at the clock and then looked at Dad again as I questioned the situation. “What’s wrong, Baba? It’s 5 a.m. I have another hour before I have to go to school.”
“I know,” he replied. But that was it, he was not giving me the explanation that I expected, and so I looked harder at him. Then I got a good view of his eyes. They were blood red from crying and lack of sleep. There was more to it though. There was desperation in his eyes; he was looking for the right words. So I decided to make it easier for him.
“Are we leaving soon Baba?” A little smile crept to the side of his mouth as he stretched out his arms. Then with a knowing nod, he answered my question.
“When?” I asked inquisitively. I wanted to know what the reality of the situation was.
“As soon as possible, Abbas,” he said profoundly, “as soon as possible.” I didn’t know what to say. I just sat on my bed and waited for him to continue.
I think he just decided to go in deep as he really took me by surprise with his next comment. “You’re not going to school,” he said abruptly. “You’re staying home to help me and you mother.”
“Because we have to prepare you for the trip. You could leave at any time.” There was a slight pause as I tried to take in this information. Suddenly, my father’s tone changed, and I felt like I was in a business meeting with him. He was talking to me like an adult. He knew me too well; he knew that I would respond well to this, because I liked responsibility. I remember so well looking into my father’s pensive eyes as he stroked his beard with his right hand and played with his worry beads with the other. I had never dreamt that maybe one day my father would be nervous while talking to me, and yet here he was in front of me.
After a brief pause, he tried to gather himself together as he said, “We’ll tell the school you’re ill. We’ll tell them you’re really ill and cannot attend any classes.”
“But my friends will see me,” I quickly retorted. There was a sudden pause. I knew his next sentence would not please me.
He uttered the dreaded words, “I’m sorry, Abbas, but you can’t really leave the house again until the day we leave.”
I couldn’t quite grasp what he had just said. When I was not at school, I might have just as well lived outside. It was my only source of entertainment. I looked at him horrified. “What about my friends?”
“You can’t see them again, Abbas. It’s too dangerous.” His voice wasn’t so professional anymore. It had compassion in it now, as he knew what he was asking me to do. All my entertainment and joy came from playing outside with my friends.
I didn’t know what to do, so I just asked the obvious. “Does that mean when we leave we won’t say good-bye to them?”
“I’ll say good-bye for you,” he said. “If they find out we’re taking you out of school for any other reason than illness, they’ll know we’re up to something.”
I considered his words carefully before I responded. “You’re not coming with us, are you?” I suspected that he wasn’t from his conversation the previous evening, but I wanted to confirm it for myself.
“No,” he said very simply. “I’m not.”
“Is that because they took your passport?” I asked quietly.
“Yes,” he responded. Then he paused as he tried to get his thoughts together. He was finding this very hard and so was I. I really wanted to cry, but I didn’t because I was in front of my father. He stroked my wild hair as he spoke, “But I can’t let them drag you into the army, Abbas. I won’t let it happen.”
“But I might not see you again,” I said in annoyance.
“If you go to war, you definitely won’t see me again.” Those words silenced me momentarily. They really hit home with their simplicity, honesty, and reality. I could not imagine a world where I did not see him again. What he had said was beginning to make sense, but that did not mean that I was happy about it. There was a little pause as we both got our thoughts together. Then Dad was off again. This was by far the hardest thing I had ever had to cope with in my short life. It was probably one of the hardest things my father ever had to do, and he’d lived a long and distinguished life.
Unfortunately, there was more, as my father explained. “It’s going to get hard in the next couple of weeks, Abbas.”
“How do you mean?” I asked. “How much harder could this get?”
“Well, we have to sell a lot of things,” he said, “things that are precious to us.”
“Because we have to buy your tickets and get some money for when you get there,” he replied.
Sitting still, I once again had paused the questioning so that I could come to terms with the information that I had been given. I knew the answer before he had told me. I was hoping that if I kept stalling the conversation I’d wake up; how I wished I were still asleep. I was lost as I looked out of my window to see the sun rising. I just remember my eyes welling up as I stared straight into the peachy orange sun on the horizon above our pine trees at the back of the garden. Thinking back, it must have been a beautiful morning, but it felt so ugly at the time. I was in my own little world as my father tapped me on the shoulder,
“Are you okay?” he asked in a concerned manner.
I turned round and nodded to show that I was. “Where are we going to go to Baba?” I asked.
“You and your mother will leave for Turkey, and there you will apply for a British visa. When you get it, you will go and stay with your cousin, Mehdi, who will help you until your mother finds her feet, and then you will wait for me there.”
I was not sure what to believe, but at the time, honestly, I was more concerned with the logistics of the changes and the extent of them. I felt embarrassed for my father and myself as I asked the next the question.
“What are we going to have to sell, Baba?” I asked quietly. I was not sure how he was going to react and whether he was going to tell me the truth. He was completely taken back by the question though; I saw the surprise in his eyes. He kept calm though as he looked at me with a smile. I think he was quite impressed that I was thinking along those lines rather than thinking about my friends. I was very upset about my friends, but I knew that this course of action was really going to change our lifestyles but I didn’t know how much.
My father laid a hand on my shoulder and stroked his beard as he spoke. “I’ll be honest with you, Abbas,” he said all grown up again. “Our lives will change dramatically in the next few weeks.”
“How do you mean, Baba?”
“All the little luxuries that we take for granted will have to go,” he said very seriously. “For example, the television will have to be sold.”
“They only play religious stuff anyway,” I said cheerfully. I could see that he appreciated my enthusiasm to help. I really was trying to make this easy for him, because his struggle to speak about the subject was blatant.
“All your mother’s jewelry,” he continued, “all of Mamanjoon’s jewelry, the stove, pots, pans and … ”
“And what, Baba?” I asked inquisitively.
“And your desk perhaps,” he said, waiting for a reaction. He didn’t get one though. I wasn’t happy about it, but once again, I was doing it for the cause. I certainly wasn’t as enthusiastic as I was about the television being sold, but there are limits to the patience of a seven-year-old sometimes.
He knew I was beginning to gradually lose my cool, and so he cleverly went on to justify it. “You’ll need all the money we can get in Turkey,” he said, as I quickly interrupted him.
“Turkey? Why are we going to Turkey?”
“You’re going to Turkey because that’s the only place you guys can go for now. From there you will try and get a visa for England, where your cousin Mehdi lives.”
He was suddenly going too fast for me, and to his credit, he realized it quite quickly. He stopped speaking and looked at my gaze of confusion and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“What a visa, Baba?” I asked quietly. I felt stupid, as I wasn’t sure if I should have known the answer the question. He was very good with me, thinking about it now, as his answer was simple, patient, and understandable.
“It’s a permit that gives you permission to visit other countries, but I’ll tell you more about visas another time,” he answered slowly. “Money,” he went on, “will be very short from now on, Abbas. We have to cut out on treats, on expensive foods, or anything that isn’t necessary.” All I could do was look at him as he talked. Perhaps he thought he wasn’t making himself clear. “Do you understand me?” I just nodded back at him and waited for him to continue.
“You’re going to need all the money you can get in Istanbul, Abbas, because you’ll be looking after Mum for me. I won’t be the head of the family anymore, you will.” I usually loved to hear that I am the head of the family and the man of the house, but this time round it didn’t feel as good as tears rolled down my cheeks. Dad saw this as he stroked me on my head. “You can do that for me can’t you, Buddy?”
I just nodded my head because if I had spoken I think I would have become hysteric. Dad could tell how vulnerable I was, and he let me calm down in my own time as he continued to stroke my hair lovingly. Eventually, I got hold of my emotions and took a long breath as my father had previously taught me and then just asked, “If I’m not allowed to leave the house, Baba, then what will I do during the day?” It was a fair question and he had a fair reply.
“There will be things that you and your mother will need to know about Istanbul. I will be trying to teach you as much as I can.”
I just looked at him, and in all my arrogance, I asked him, “And how do you know, Baba?”
I had never questioned my father like this before, and he was as surprised as I was. I think he thought about shouting at me, but I had asked a good question in a situation that could excuse my insubordination.
He merely replied, “I have friends everywhere.” That I couldn’t argue with. I had seen more than my fair share of evidence that backed this theory up. People all over Iran knew of my father. I traveled with him on several trips, and I don’t exaggerate when I say that sometimes people worshipped him. This was especially true in the south of Iran, as it was where he employed thousands of people at one time. Thus his last comment had put me back in my place. He could see I was going red, and since I’d helped him with his morning task he also helped me by moving the conversation on.
“When we’re not talking about life in Istanbul, you can help me pack things so that I can go out and sell them.” That brought a smile to my face because once again he had asked for my help. I had only dreamt of a day when my father would ask for my help. He could see my satisfaction and knew that it was good place to bring the conversation to an end. He was tired, and I had taken in far too much to digest in one sitting.
“Come on, Abbas, get back in bed. Go back to sleep. You can sleep in late today.”
“And tomorrow!” I replied cheekily.
“We’ll see!” he said with a smile as he tucked me in. He kissed me on the forehead and left the room. As he left, I could see that he was leaving a much happier man. He definitely got something off his chest, and it pleased me that I helped him do that.
I am not sure why Dad was telling me all this at such a time in the morning. There are many questions about my father that I am unsure of, and this is one. I have always wondered if he wanted to speak to me at this time so that he could talk to me about the trip before my mother could. This would have meant that he could have put it in his words rather than Mum’s. I just hope it wasn’t. Either way, his execution of the talk came as close to perfect as he knew how; I would respond to the concept of being a grown up and handling responsibility. I certainly took his bait.