Those were important days within the two years of my life when aged 9 and 10.
For one I believed I could speak to cats and so I could.
There were about seven young and ugly cats around the house in the garden that would react to everything I said while meaning it (in Iran most cats don’t belong to anyone; they hover around on the walls and gardens and get fed by various neighbours who happen to be in their territories). I can’t remember holding the cats and as for touching, I remember only one or two scenes of having stroked a couple of them who had made it clear that they wanted me to touch them. They were not used to being stroked as house pets do and were usually in the back of the garden.
When I went there they gathered in a radius of about two metres (1 yard= 90 cm/ 1 metre= 100 cm / 10cm= 4 inches/ 1 yard= 3 feet/1 foot= 30cm) around me.
Apparently this had become known to my parents. Because I remember the occasion when my father was sitting with some of his male friends of which most faces were new to me. He was called doostbaaz by my mother and his relatives. I was called this as well when I grew up, but with time the number of friends drop and for good reasons.
My father was also known to have been a ghorbehbaaz (if you don’t know the meaning of this word, then it’s about time to make friends with a few Iranians and ask them to explain the word. And if you find that you are spending a lot more time with them rather than with your family then you will also know what doostbaaz means) as a child, so much so that a cat had chosen his bed as the birth place for her kittens.
I believe it was my paternal grandmother who had told this story to my mother.
My mother in turn told this story to others whenever there was talk about cats.
She always smiled when telling the story while my father’s face turned soft and smiley as if he had returned to a pleasant time in his childhood.
I think the fact that this story was joyfully told over and over again by my mother as a kind of introduction to my father’s childhood, revealed the child part of her as well. Like through this it could become a story of her childhood too.
Back to our garden in Abadan:
They were sitting around a large table under a tree having a drink. The cats were on the tree above their heads. I was around in the garden playing.
My father called me. It looked like he had told his friends about the fact that the cats would come if I called them. The men were a bit tipsy and keenly asked what I would say to the cats to make them come to me. I was reluctant to oblige but they all insisted kindly. I said quietly biaow (which was a mixture of bia meaning come! and miaow).
They all started experimenting with biaow facing the tree and laughing at the same time. But nothing happened.
Then my father kept begging me to do the call while the others were still laughing. Perhaps it was now also very important for him that they would see this really happen. I thought they were being silly but well never mind I said biaow with my cat voice and all of the sudden seven cats jumped down from the tree, some of them on the table which was hard and made them look like they fell rather than jump
The men were almost under the table with laughter imitating me with biaows and got the look from the cats which meant: Don’t you biaow me!
Nevertheless the cats were quite confused about this unusual situation and I thought what was there to laugh about, and got quite annoyed. So we walked away while my dad and his friends were overcome with laughter.
While I was walking towards the house and hearing the sound of their continuous laughter and their rolling about the chairs and the table behind me I felt the surge of energy in my chest and face. This was anger mixed with embarrassment perhaps.
When my mother saw me she must have realized from my face that I was angry. I was heading towards the back of the house where the vegetable (planted by the people living there before us) garden and also the wired shed with the geese and chicken was.
My mother was in a squatting position outside – on the side of house – doing something I cannot recall at all, but definitely housework related. She raised herself fast and concerned asking me what had happened. I complained saying only a few words. She being always a very just person made a disapproving face perhaps because she had been hearing the excessive laughter and didn’t approve that my father made a show of me in order to entertain his new friends.
While she was starting to console me I left with the cats and went to the back of the garden. I avoided my father for the rest of that day.
The next day I was quite nervous about seeing him when coming home after his work.
I stayed in the yard near the kitchen next to a post of the veranda so that I had a view from afar through the open door which opened from the yard to the garden.
I saw him arrive and walk the same path I had walked the day before going straight towards the back garden for checking out the bird’s shed. This was unusual as he would have normally changed before doing so. He was quiet and his head was half bent looking down. He was aware of me but did not look.
I was somehow relieved. Apologising verbally was not what parents were expected to do, but his body language meant he was sorry, very sorry. I felt the release of the stuck energy in my chest. And he never mentioned my relationship with the cats again.
Soon after this incident my father went to Teheran visiting his sisters. The next news we got was that he had requested again for a transfer to Teheran and when refused had resigned on the spot. But before he could find a new job he had an unexpected attack of angina pectoris. He was being looked after at his older sister’s house in Teheran.
My father was born in Tabriz of an Azeri mother and a mixed Persian/Azeri father. He always dreamt of snow and told us how high the snow on the roads of Tabriz was, as he walked to school during his childhood. This always amazed my sister and me. Perhaps he repeated this to see our amazement as well. It helped to put him back in the middle of the snow again. There was always joy in his face when he talked of snow. In Arabic there is proverb which is also used by Iranians: vasf-ol aish, nesf-ol aish which means talking about good times is like half of the good times. In Tabriz they dug paths in the snow for people to walk through, and he remembered the snow walls on the sides being higher than himself.
For over 12 years he had stayed the summers in Abadan. It was a normal practice for the rest of us (my mother, sister and I) to go to Teheran during the school summer holidays – nearly 3 months -, where the rest of the extended family lived. I only remember 2-3 summers that I spent in Abadan.
I am pretty sure that the heat and the pollution of Abadan had effected his heart as he was still under forty.
In late autumn my mother packed everything and we flied to Teheran.
I think this was my first flight when travelling to Teheran and perhaps my first exile as well.
Friday 16th Sep. 05
Just past 2 p.m.
“Where are your people now?…” UB40 is playing.
I’m sitting in a bar/cafe. This terrace is full of hibiscus in flowers; some are bright red (rosa-sinensis) and others white with a gentle pink at the bottom of their petals, and a stronger pink on their styles and stigmas. The plants are over 2 metres tall and cover the surroundings. There is also a gourd with pepos hanging from it, one of them quite large. It is wondrous how this huge vegetable hangs in the air and does not drop. They are not the same sort I had seen in Lesbos (another Greek island near Turkey), but more circular and the colour of a pale watermelon.
Otherwise many of the green plants here are the sorts which remain tiny as house plants in British homes. Here however they are claiming their rights to a larger space with no resentment faced.
The front of the café has a wooden ceiling, but this side of the terrace the ceiling is a tent like fabric in dirty white – or rather a white which has become dirty – fixed to a solid metal frame structure. In fact some of the dirt has concentrated into distinct lines. Marble softened by the passage of time into fabric – a marble tent.
Overall a trendy place for Lendas, it’s called Internet Café. I don’t see any computers on this side and don’t intend to look if there are any on the other side neither; the freedom to be disconnected to an increasingly one dimensional life.
A German couple sits at the table next to me. That’s about it on this side.
The woman who served the Greek coffee is having a conversation on the other side. Still UB40 and the reggae, which somehow goes well with this café.
The terrace reminds me of my maternal grandfather’s rented house in Darband (in Shemiran):
The house door was on the north side. There were tall trees in front and perhaps a hoze.
A few steps up the ground floor there were rooms on east and west side and a wide gangway open on north and the south side (baadkhan). The gangway had an L shape when one faced the south. The first floor had two rooms on the south side, one large room on the east side for receiving guests ( these were in most houses a wasted space, as having guests was not anymore an everyday event like it was in 19th century Iran. It’s only in the last 25 years that many Iranian middle class have started to use the largest room as the living room for the family’s own use) and two rooms on the west side with the staircase in between.
In the middle there was this large terrace facing north and north west – again L shaped. It had wooden rails and balusters in dark brown.
The garden on the south side had tall trees close to each other with a hoze and a spare room which was used by my teenage uncle (daie) for his hobby working with wood and doing carpentry.
This house was heaven for playing hide and seek, but also you could be in one room and completely separate from all other rooms, a sense of instant privacy if you looked for it.
I remember one day playing on the alley with children when there was a sudden chaos and my older uncle (daie) – a paramedic – was fetched from the house. We heard that the woman of a neighbouring house had an epileptic attack (grand mal). All children including me followed my uncle into her house. Everyone gathered around her and my uncle. She was on the floor in the front yard, a woman in black with a purplish face.
I could see my uncle trying desperately to give her the kiss of life. I was small and could not see the whole process very well so I stood near the hoze (a small to medium size and usually rectangular pond with a fountain- rarely used -, nowadays only to be found in the old houses of Iran) further away from the tight circle.
Not far from me someone was saying that there was usually a girl with this woman (perhaps a maid) in case she got an attack, but that this girl had gone out to the alley (where the playing and the action was) just for a short while when this had happened. No one else had been in the house at the time.
There was talk of a large knife that was usually given to her or taken out by her from a trunk (?). She held the blade between her teeth so that she wouldn’t bite her tongue during the attack.
In my memory this particular part of the story has somehow mixed itself up with a film I saw years later – perhaps when I was a teenager – when Cesar who also suffered from epilepsy walked panic stricken to a trunk and took out a dagger which he then put between his teeth and then went through a grand mal with the shot ending there which was giving the message that he didn’t want others to see him during the attack. This film must have been made in Hollywood and badly researched as in olden days up to even 18th century people with epilepsy were seen as the chosen ones, if not prophets.
The desperate look and the continuous attempt my uncle was making in order to bring her back to life, but most of all the moment he had to finally sit back in despair declaring with a careful gesture that it was too late has remained in my memory.
People walked back and I could now see clearly: The black of her dress combined with her purple grey face in complete stillness and my young uncle’s figure in a white shirt and a face whiter than usual sitting on the floor and looking lost, exhausted and sad. It became clear that she was very dead and he had done what he could.
And so this was the first dead body I was seeing together with many more children from the alley.
Before this incident I had been witness to death but had not seen the bodies. I must have been 3 or 4 years old.
We were picnicking either next to Shat al Arab or Karun River (most likely the first).
There was a moment of chaos which started to carve this incident in my memory. An Armenian baker had jumped into the water to save his brother, who had been attacked by a shark while swimming. He did not return either. People pointed to the river showing what they saw, namely an arm thrown in the air?
There was a doomed atmosphere and people who were first moving and talking rapidly and in panic, talked subsequently very sparingly and saying just the most important things that needed to be said with a certain slowness in movement and time that is particular to grief.
I did not see an arm in the air and nor blood but my imagination had no problem producing the necessary pictures.
I am trying to remember the name of these orange flowers that hang together as terminal clusters (Orange Jubilee /Tecoma alata). They are hanging from the hibiscus. The two plants look totally interwoven.
The ancient original ones can be viewed in the Archaeological Museum of Iraklion.
Iraklion’s ancient name is Heraklion, where according to the Greek mythology Hercules (Herakles or, in Modern Greek, Iraklis) performed the seventh of his 12 labours: slaying the fire-breathing Cretan bull.
This no doubt is the myth that symbolises the defeat of the Minoan (2600-1450 BC) matriarchal society by the Hellenists; the sacred bull having been originally one of the symbols of matriarchy.
In Minoan era there used to be frequent rituals and festivities during which agile adolescent girls and boys performed acrobatics and danced while standing on the back of a bull.
I’ve never seen a bull in Crete. Where are the bull dancers gone?
[Part (3) ]