For a few years during my early childhood, we lived in a large house in the desert suburbs of Tehran. It was a desolate neighborhood with a planned shopping center, several planned streets, our house, and a real estate office. It puzzled me to watch my father and the real estate man run their fingers across the big map on the wall and talk about “the boulevard,” “the bathhouse,” “the fountain square.”
“Where is the fountain square?” I would ask on the way back from tea at the real estate office.
“You are walking on it,” my father would say. I looked down and saw dust, pebbles, and thorny desert weed that even the roaming goat herds left alone. My father was right though. One day I was able to see the fountain square, and as I grew older, I saw more and more of what had been invisible before.
Even though the settlement was growing, my mother was uncomfortable living in such an isolated place. The police station close by was no consolation; the desert was too large to watch. My father tipped the patrolmen now and then to keep them interested in our safety, but he was away too much and the tips weren’t enough.
The nights when my father was away until late, my mother and I kept away the chill of fear by roasting pumpkin seeds in the kitchen. But after a while even pumpkin seeds weren’t enough protection. I wasn’t sure what it was we were scared of.
“Burglars,” my mother had said. Burglars were humanoids whose faces were shiny bubbles of tar; they slithered underground like earthworms and crept over walls like lizards. The only weapon useful against them was the heavy pick handle my father kept under his pillow. My great-uncle Khandaii, a retired officer of the famous Cossack Brigade, had offered his Colt pistol. But side arms were illegal and we would rather be robbed than deal with the secret police.
The solution came knocking on our door one starlit evening. Two teenage boys stood outside the gate holding a gunnysack that wriggled and growled.
“What is it?” my mother asked.
“Khanoum, your husband is away a lot and this area is not safe. You need a good guard dog.” My mother stepped back slightly. Dogs are najes (unclean) to many Iranians. Undaunted, the boys said they would like to come in and close the gate so the dog could be shown. My mother was reluctant but curious, and she knew I would pester her.
“Let the poor beast out so it can breathe a minute,” my mother said. The boys had been clever to put the dog in the sack. They upended the sack over the garden sod. With a yelp and a growl the puppy fell out. A few seconds to recover from the tumble and he was on his feet assessing his surroundings. He did not wish to run away; it was too dark and scary, but he kept growling just the same in case he had misjudged our characters.
“Where did you get him?” my mother asked.
“In the jube (irrigation duct). The water master was about to run water through and he would have drowned.” The puppy had stopped growling. He had just finished nibbling on himself and had settled comfortably with is chin on the ground, eyeing the conversation.
“Only eight rials,” one of the boys said.
My mother hadn’t mentioned anything about buying the dog, but she countered with, “Two rials, I am short on shopping money.”
“But Mom, you said you had saved…,” I started to say.
“Go sit inside,” she ordered. I did not obey, but stayed quiet from then on.
“It will grow to be a very big dog. You can tell by the size of the ears,” one boy said. After all, elephants have big ears.
“Three rials. If you want you can want, if you don’t want you don’t have to want (take it or leave it).”
“Five rials and we won’t have to put it back in the jube.”
The puppy was scratching himself behind the ear and grunting in syncopated rhythm.
“Go get my money,” my mother told me, but I was already halfway back with her coin purse. She took out three rials and extended them to the boys. They stepped back, offended.
“We said five rials,” they sniffed.
“I said three rials,” my mother said.
The boys conferred. Finally one of them said, “We have twenty rials to go to the movies, but we need two bus tickets to get there. We need at least four rials.” My mother sighed and pulled out a ten-rial piece.
“Do you have change?” She was testing them. The boys searched themselves, but all they had was the twenty-rial bill. They looked up crestfallen.
“Keep the change. Buy yourselves some pumpkin seeds at the movies,” she said. The boys leaped in joy and vanished. I would see them again in a year.
When my father came home, I was already asleep. Usually my mother let me stay up to keep her company, but that night she put me to bed early so I wouldn’t botch her little trick on my father. She let him go through the nightly security inspection of the house without telling him about the puppy. I woke up to my father’s yelp and a crash. He ran back panting and stumbling, one stuck foot still dragging my tricycle. “Get the pick handle,” he stammered. “There’s someone in the coal bin.”
The dog lived in the coal bin at the far end of the yard. There, he was protected from the elements and wasn’t close enough to the house to make our residence unclean. He grew to be very big. I wonder if he didn’t look big because I was so little, but witness the following dialog between my Aunt Tooran and her husband Farabi:
Tooran: “Jafar’s dog is monstrous. I have never seen one so big.”
Farabi: “When I was a boy in the village, Hashem Khan kept a guard dog that was perhaps bigger. It may have been as big as a small mule.”
Tooran: “Then it was not bigger, because Jafar’s dog is as big as a large mule.”
It would be an insult to humanity and to Islam to honor a dog with a name. The dog was referred to as “The Dog” in conversation. But it was hard to get the animal’s attention with this word, so whenever the dog’s presence became necessary, he was summoned by a mnemonic I often used: “Hapoo,” kidspeak for “one who barks.”
Each morning, Hapoo emerged from the coal bin and agitated his fur into giving up a giant cloud of coal dust. When the air cleared, there remained a yawning stretch of black and white dog. By the time we finished breakfast, the yawn would be completed and Hapoo would walk up to the gate and wait to be let out. He would return at midmorning and stay home until midafternoon, when my father came back for lunch. The agreement was that the dog would always be home after sundown.
Hapoo was an excellent watchdog. He kept away the burglars, the mailman, the garbage man, the waterman, the meter reader, the newspaperman, the census taker, and all the vendors. He was also very successful at keeping away friends and relatives. Whenever friends came to see us, they would call from Agha Ali’s store down the street to remind us to chain the dog. It wasn’t enough to assure them that the dog did not bite, because he did bite. He bit me regularly whenever I tried to ride him.
What the friends feared more than dog bite, though, was dog hair. Repeated ablutions are necessary to cleanse the effects of contact with a dog. Clothes may have to be thrown away. Give a parched Iranian the choice between a glass of water sniffed by a dog and a glass of radioactive waste, and he will have to think about it.
My father used to amaze his audience with how Americans live with their dogs. He told us dogs are routinely given names in America and that in their grocery stores there is always a section that has dog food and dog toys in it. The relatives were much aghast with surprise. How could anyone make money selling dog food? What a waste of human labor to make food for dogs?
Aunt Tooran asked if dogs were allowed in stores and bathhouses. My father explained about special dogs like police dogs and seeing-eye dogs having special privileges. This drew great admiration from the relatives. He said bathhouses were not common in America, but that dogs were given baths with special dog soaps. This drew guffaws from his audience. He also mentioned a dog named Lassie who was so well trained she acted in movies. This had to be a movie trick; surely there was a human inside a dog costume. But my father explained about King Kong and how obvious it was that the beast was not real. He could tell the difference between real beasts and costumes; Lassie was a real dog.
“Do they have dog universities in America?” Aunt Monavar quipped. An older cousin had just returned with a US degree, and Aunt Monavar was having difficulty adjusting to the new order.
My father said, “No, I saw something even stranger. I saw a woman kiss a dog on the mouth.”
Aunt Monavar spat her tea back in the glass and ran out to vomit.
Our dog was sterilized weekly with a can of DDT. This was the wonder powder with the miraculous cleansing effect. I was told that the powder was extremely deadly and never to go near the can. My mother often wondered out loud if DDT did not hurt the dog. “No, dogs are much tougher than humans,” my father said. What kept the dog alive was his mighty shake. Immediately after the dusting, he sent powerful waves down his body, scattering all the DDT dust for his masters to breathe. I know he shook off most of the poison because his fleas never left him.
The weekly dustings helped keep the relatives from banishing us altogether, but during the four years Hapoo lived with us, their visits to our house were limited. The dog showed his resentment of their snobbery by breaking his chain and attacking them. This was mostly for show. He never broke his chains unless one of his masters was around to beat him back. The relatives were never satisfied, however, and always entered our house backs and palms to the wall, muttering prayers.
Soon Hapoo’s legend spread across the settlement. He not only guarded our house but also took on the task of patrolling the entire district. As a regional power of sorts, he struck fear in the hearts of neighbors, but as long as they remained honest, worked hard for a living, and treated each other fairly, Hapoo did not bite them. He became a civilizing influence in the area. With his black and white markings and great bulk, he could easily be mistaken for a police motorcycle, although no motorcycle engine, however unmuffled, could duplicate his gut-shaking barks.
Hapoo’s ears were his radio dispatchers. No disturbance however distant went uninvestigated. He bounded to the scene, arriving within minutes. When he appeared, street fights were hastily abandoned, and quarrelling couples quickly made up. With Hapoo on the beat, burglars found honest employment, kids no longer stoned passing cars, and bribing the police was no longer necessary.
As part of Hapoo’s inner circle, my mother and I gained status in the settlement. Shopping crowds parted whenever my mother entered the marketplace, and older kids with fancy bicycles recognized the virtue of humility in my squeaky tricycle. They marveled at how a single word from me could command a force of nature to stand down.
One day the two teenage businessmen came to our door to give us our money back and reclaim the dog. This celebrity behemoth was worth much more than ten rials. Maybe they had heard the Lassie story and were eyeing the movie business. My mom told them that the dog was attached to us and we would not give him up. The boys complained that she had misled them in the bargain, and threatened to make a fuss in the neighborhood. My mother countered that we had spent at least ten tomans (one hundred rials) on meat scraps in the last year. The dog was worth at least eleven tomans by her estimate. That should have gotten rid of them; eleven tomans was a large sum for a teenager. Nevertheless, the boys returned with eleven tomans the next day.
Her ploy having failed, my mother finally took the money and said with great resignation, “All right, he is chained up in the backyard. You can go get him.”
The boys exchanged puzzled looks. How did they win so easily? They marched off to the back. My mother kept the gate open and waited. Suddenly, we heard Hapoo’s explosive roar. But the boys did not run out the front gate as my mother had expected. Worried, we rushed to the backyard.
There was only the dog, his hackles receding. The boys had vanished! My mother said they scrambled over the wall. I say the dog ate them up, clothes and all. When my father came home for lunch, we showed him the eleven tomans. He said he was sure they would be back for their money. But they never came back, confirming my belief that Hapoo had devoured the boys that had saved him from drowning. This was the very antithesis of the Lassie theme-which is why Hapoo never made a movie.
Hapoo was never friendly nor really hostile to anyone: he was too important to take sides. The one exception was quite dramatic. The dog wagged his tail, whimpered affectionately, and rattled his chains longingly whenever Aunt Tooran’s husband, Farabi, came to visit. Farabi was a dapper young man. He wore expensively tailored suits over Italian shirts and ties. The crease in his trousers ended in shoes shined to an obsidian luster. The only traces of his uncosmopolitan background were his slight out-of-town accent and the array of expensive fountain pens displayed across his chest. To match the shoes, he waxed his thick shag of black hair with generous helpings of hair cream.
Farabi did not come to our house often, but after each visit, Hapoo would howl wistfully for hours, until his keen sense of smell ceased reminding him of Farabi. Farabi was quite flattered that such a VIP would lose all dignity over him. He credited it to his rural background. People of the land have a way with animals that city people have forgotten. Aunt Tooran would never let her husband enjoy his superior rural airs. She always mocked him for being adored by a dog. Farabi retorted that in all his life only two creatures had hankered after him: the dog and Tooran.
Dogs do dream, and Hapoo’s dreams came true one day. During a gathering at Tooran’s house, my mother realized she had lost the keys to our gate. A volunteer had to climb our walls to get the other key from inside the house. But no one was foolish enough to scale walls guarded by Hapoo. My father was away on a trip, and I was too small. I insisted that with help, I could climb over. But if for some reason I was not able to find the key, I would be unable to get out. My mother was out of the question, and everyone else feared being eaten alive.
Tooran demanded that Farabi go over as the dog seemed to like him. Farabi said he did not wish to get his clothes dirty. Tooran quickly fetched his gardening clothes. Farabi also tried various other ploys, but each time Tooran reminded him of all the village stories in which he had tamed the wild bull and brought back the runaway horse. A man has to pay for his bragging someday-Farabi was offering to pay for a locksmith instead. My mother said that locksmiths are useless when there is a growling beast on the other side that could tear a human to pieces. This argument did not persuade Farabi.
Everyone was chuckling at his dilemma, except Tooran and my mom who were suspiciously straight-faced. I was beginning to wonder if my mother had really lost her key. Did Tooran arrange all this to get back at Farabi for his village hero snobbery? Finally, his honor at stake and his rural bravado in question, Farabi agreed to go.
Many of us followed him the few steps to our house to watch. Farabi climbed to the top of the wall. Hapoo could be heard whimpering excitedly on the other side; his tail was thumping against the brick wall.
“He must have smelled us coming,” Farabi said from the top of the wall, his voice wobbling between manliness and panic. Had he really hoped he could sneak in and out under Hapoo’s nose?
“Stop delaying and go get the key!” Tooran ordered. Hapoo could not agree more: his whimperings now and then broke into howls.
“Tooran, are you sure this is wise?” For once Farabi was earnestly seeking his wife’s opinion.
“Just get the key! Why are you just sitting there?”
“I am giving the dog time to adjust. I don’t want to frighten him.”
“Are you going to go or do we have to push you over?”
Farabi muttered a pious fatalism, and went over.
There was a joyous howl of fulfillment. Then we heard Farabi scream, “Back, back, animal, back!”
But Hapoo would not hear it. He was a most enthusiastic host.
“Back! Back, you beast! Get lost! Tooran, help! He is licking me! I am not joking with you!”
“Just go get the key!” Tooran shouted.
“I can’t. He is on top of me. Help me, cruel woman!”
“Yell at him to get off,” my mom said.
But there was only a disgusted “mmmph” from Farabi. I could tell Hapoo was face-licking and Farabi did not wish to open his mouth to the vigorous slurps. There was a great deal of panting, howling, screaming, spitting, retching and name-calling. Suddenly it all stopped.
Tooran looked concerned for the first time. I was propped up over the wall to see. The dog was in front of the coal bin licking his muzzle. Farabi sat sprawled in the garden. He looked quite unharmed, but there was something strange on his head, like a large vegetable brush. Hapoo had licked off all the hair cream but had no use for the rest of him. Farabi was left planted in the garden like a giant thistle. Even his eyebrow hairs spiked sharply upwards.
This “dog lick” hairstyle has only recently been appreciated in the West. For the record, this look was invented many years ago by a talented Iranian dog by the name of Hapoo. Despite all her Hollywood publicity, Lassie never matched Hapoo’s flair and panache.
It was not until after Hapoo’s death that Farabi resumed his village stories. I was beginning to miss them. The newspapers said the city was putting out poison meats to get rid of stray dogs. My father thought this program accidentally poisoned Hapoo. I think the DDT finally got to him. It could have been something else. No one believed my mom’s assassination theories. Anyway, Hapoo’s time was over. The desert where he almost drowned at birth had disappeared. The vast territory he once ruled was now many times busier than the map on the wall of the real estate office.
Some friends still called from Agha Ali’s store to see if the dog was tied up. “The dog passed away a long time ago,” we said.
There would be a solemn pause. Then the receiver would say sadly, “May God show him kindness.”