Excerpt from The Age of Orphans. Another excerpt: “Thge Morning Maze“. In Solidarity with Journalists, Authors, Poets, and Filmmakers in Iran: The Association of Iranian American Writers Presents a Literary Reading by Iranian American Writers. Sunday, March 7, 4-6 pm. Maude Fife Room, Wheeler Hall 315, UC Berkeley.



A girl with a basket of onions on my hip.

That is how they find me.

I walk alone beside the field, under the skies of late summer, my shawl slipping to my shoulders. They come, two men on two horses, at full gallop. When they see my skin tanned from the sun and my eyes greener than the onions stalks in my arms, they slow and stop, one to stare and the other to ask.

Are you Agha Barzani’s girl?

I nod. Just as much as these onions are his onions I am the Agha’s girl I want to say.

What is your age?

I shrug.

Are those his fields?

Again, I nod. Just as much as I am his girl.

And this is the path you take home everyday?

It is not my home, I want to tell them, only a tent with a coal fire that blows smoke into our faces when we sleep head to foot to head to foot, three brothers and a sister and Baba Barzani who keeps his knobby knees and chapped feet in my face and the Maman who calls me girl and nothing else. Though they are not my family and this is not my home I must take what they give: a tear of their lavash, a piece of meat, the every-night spill of their sons seed, for I am an orphan and their generosity is a gift, so I am told.

But I am not a speaking girl, so I nod nicely and say nothing. For a moment they look at me with sharp narrow eyes. They stir their horses with shouts of Yallah! and I watch the beasts, a brown and a black, who care nothing for me or my age or my onions, run away in response to some whistle in the faraway wind.

At the well that night Zayideh whispers to me that two men and two horses came today and told her Baba they found me and her Baba said boshee and that tomorrow I will be prepared. I am not a speaking girl, lest I accidentally say something ungrateful, and so I ask no questions of Zayideh at the well and ask no questions the next morning when she and the Maman take me to the river where I am undressed, wet and scrubbed raw with a wool cloth. Zayideh’s hand is smooth and even and she tickles me from time to time but I can’t laugh because every minute her Maman is rough and presses my flesh as if to husk off my shell entirely to leave me more naked than I already am.

Then I am submerged and when the waters rise to my chest and neck and chin and finally over my head, the heart inside me stops and still the Maman holds me under. All I hear is the sound of water crash on stone and water on water. A fish looks at me sidelong and swims on. I think she might kill me so I try for a scream and my mouth fills with the river and I am pulled up and dried and my skin is slathered with sickly sweet rose oil and I am dressed in thick skirts of bright colors and one woolen shift after another to cover my flat chest. Zayideh combs my hair and the knots come out in clumps and she tosses them into the river and onto the ground until I am light of dirt and skin and hair, so light as to be nearly empty; a girl taken from herself and given into the river.

In the afternoon the horses return with the sun in their eyes. Their men ride to where I sit toasting seeds at the fire and look down at me, one with a smile and one without. Baba Barzani takes them into the tent and yells at me to prepare the tea. Zayideh pinches my waist and whispers in my ear.

Make it strong. You might be wed yet.

I am alone with Baba Barzani and the two men in the tent. I heat the coals beneath the samovar, fill the basin with water and drop in the leaves. I watch them spread across the surface of the water like lace and listen to Baba Barzani tell them the story of how my family died. He explains, though he never saw, that my parents had been shot first, the Shah’s work of course, then sliced and put into the fire that ate up our house. I was found in the pen, clinging to sheep.

I was forced to take all of their animals in the pen, you know, save all of their livestock, bring them home with me and the girl came along too. And how she screamed those first nights! Ay Khoda! She hasn’t spoken much since, thank God.

Here the two men nod and sip their tea and crunch on the sugar rocks. Baba makes no mention of the work his sons have done with me, or even of the work he has done, in the tent at night loud enough for the Maman and Zayideh to hear. Instead he tells them again and again.

She is a pure girl. Clean like the river.

Cleaned by the river I want to say, but it is true, I am not a speaking girl. If I was I would tell the two men I hid behind a pile of blankets when the soldiers came and demanded tithes, taxes for the herds, payment on the land my Baba refused them and said your shah is not my king, this land belongs to the Kurds. I would tell them how the soldiers laughed and one took him by the hair and held his face to the floor and the other three threw down my Maman and said I am sure the shah will be happy with some of the jewels from her purse. From my spot I saw the black feathers on top of their shakos quiver from side to side and watched the toes of their boots carve holes into the smooth dirt floor I swept each day. I listened to my Baba scream horrible words at the men and then scream no words at all and in the end mumble his prayers and pleas with a mouth full with spit tears and dirt. After they each took a turn on my Maman she was a limp thing and the soldier carried them both into the yard and shouted what good is a Kurd who can’t pay? What good is that to the Shah? No good, no good at all. I ran into the pen to hide between the smelly wool of the sheep and ewes and watch all the quick moments of the kill and the long moments of the death and wait for God to turn me into a lamb so that I could disappear from my own flesh.

The two men in the tent drink their tea in silence. Outside I hear horse hooves stomp on the grass and the blustered breath of impatient beasts.


I ask of the men and the men shake their heads. One of them grabs my wrist and inspects the palm of my hand. The other runs the tips of his fingers across my forehead and jaw.

Koshkel-eh they say to one another.

She will do, they tell the Baba Barzani.

The Baba coughs.

She comes with nothing, no dowry; she is an orphan girl, pure, but an orpahn…

I am told to bundle a few things and sent out of the tent and Zayideh helps me and teases and pinches me all the while.

Tomorrow you will have a baby and your flat chest will swell with milk just like the ninny teats do.

The Maman sits crouched at the fire, flipping the bread from side to side and says nothing as I get on the horse and wrap my arms around the strange waist. Baba Barzani says nothing and stands outside the tent with his hands clasped behind his back and we move slowly out and away from this home to the next. Zayideh shouts and claps behind me.

Good-bye goat girl! Khodofez!

I ride with the man who touched my cheeks and jaw and the spine of the horse shifts beneath us with each step of its heavy haunches. The afternoon lasts long, and we move toward a sun that empties itself into the sky and onto the mountains and rocks and covers the land in a thick honey gold and then a dusty bronze and then disappears. I am asleep when we stop and the man lifts me from the horse and takes me to a sturdy house, not of cloth or canvas, but stone and mud, and lies me down on the motaq. I feign a deep sleep as my shawl is unwrapped and my shifts undone and all my skirts taken off until I am cold and shivering. He is on top of me with a body of muscle and hair and it is not a quick or quiet thing like in the tent with the brothers, but a prolonged deed; one movement that lasts through the long night. I feel a heat spread and pulse inside as if I was nothing but heart, no stomach or lungs or head, just a hot fast heart. The man takes me and turns me, now on my stomach, now on my back, and I am rotated in slow revolutions like planets and so I rise out from myself to float above the man and the house, amidst the pock marks of stars in the night sky, to watch and wish for the red slit of dawn to cut open on the horizon so I may again sink into myself, to sleep and dream.

That is when I knew you first, jounam, boy of mine.

That is when I felt, in my bones and blood, that I, orphan girl with no belongings, girl with the basket of onions (not hers) who stood on the ground (not hers) with hard bare feet, was to posses a soul her own; a son (mine) born to me, the mountains and the day.

Now you stand before me to beg for milk and I want to say yes and yes and yes again, and hold your soft haired head to my breast and sing my song to you but you are no longer my boy, but a man, their man. I am bitter and furious that my one possession has been absconded so easily and my garden dies around me and in me and in vengeance I will whisper in your ear: I knew you when you were a nothing. Not a Kurd. Not a boy or a girl. Not even your father’s seed and not the beast in my belly. I knew you when I planted fields that grew greener than god’s eye and the birds flew in ovals above to admire my work. When my mother screamed and my father spit and cried as the Kurds were cursed I knew my simple body would birth a doomed man, just as the green-eyed girl alive as the summer fields would become this woman before you, barren and rotted; we are part of the cycle of land and love, have and have not. Here, I have you jounam, to hold and rock, to suckle and scold, to slip through my fingers in this next year to leave and join the rest. Go. Follow your men from one silly battle to another; claim this pebble-strewn plot or that and know this land grows and dies with little care for the men who try to hold it. Drink my thirsty boy, drink. Take of my teat and your cut skin and your smoking pipe and your silly steel knife and pretend a man marches in you as the earth herself slips out from beneath you. Drink, jounam, drink as your motherland sours and dries.

Copyright Bloomsbury USA 2009 

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