Sunday in the Park

There were Iranians for as far as the eye could see, if those eyes were those of 13-year-old Bahman Sohrabi, and the first thing he felt when he arrived at the park was that he was a blank piece of paper, and in this place he could be what he showed himself to be, nobody had any expectations of him except for the expectations they had of themselves – to be a speaker of the language, an appreciator of the food and the music and of nature, and a general participator in the whole thing. At school he found the spaces for a guy who did not want to be a participator in the whole thing right away. He found them in himself and in the school. But at the park he did not even see those spaces. It was a park, for heaven’s sake, so even if he saw them, they would still be beautiful.

It was something about the way Iranians looked in a park. It was a place everybody agreed on. They didn’t have any of the awkwardness they had in the daily transactions of life. The men looked able and the women looked sure and the children looked easy and happy. Bahman felt glad for all of it. He knew that they deserved it. He knew it from watching his own mother and father, seeing who they were at home and seeing how they had to adjust out in the world. The trees and the grass and the park were a different story. Those things welcomed them back like the whole business of coming to America was a short trip, and they greeted each other like they had only been gone for a few days. It was part of the wonder of being among the first people to come to a place – they were mystified by the presence of a community, and yet they wanted to treat it like an everyday thing. At least in a park they were surrounded by evidence that mystification and everyday went together.

Bahman carried the pot of rice to one of the picnic tables. His father carried the basket of fruit and the thermos of hot water for tea. Bahman liked the way his father and the other men did not become informal in their manner and appearance. They just changed the nature of their formality. A day at the park was still serious. An appreciation of the blue sky still required a reliance on tradition and custom. There was something about their people that seemed like they were always working, they were always attuned to the best way to do a thing. He had a respect for it and he felt lost among it as well, because he almost never knew the best way to do a thing.

Right away he looked for a game. That was one place where he did know the best way to do a thing. He looked for a volleyball net, and once he found it, he looked to see who was playing to see how competitive it was. He did not want to act like the grass and the trees and the lake weren’t important in themselves, but it was just the clarity of a game. He told the grass and the trees and the lake that he would come back to see them later, and he walked over to the game.

His cousin Maryam’s husband Houshang was there in the middle of it, as always. He was playing barefoot and calling his friend Ghaffari ‘Professor’ whenever he missed a shot.

“What happened, Professor? That was a good opportunity, Professor…Bahman!” he said. “You are on our team.”

There was a brief argument and Bahman smiled because he knew it was a joke, they were going to let him play. He jumped in the back corner and looked around to see who he could set it to. The first time he hit it, he hit it out, and there was a moment of teasing, but it was just a way to bring him into the game, and he needed to get a feel for things first. He looked at the team across the net from him as they got ready to serve. It was Ghaffari and two young women and two men close to his father’s age. He knew them. He could look at them and know that he was seeing who they were, and he could listen to them and know that he was hearing who they were. It was not a way he always felt. It seemed like the closest he could come among people to the honesty of the sun coming through the trees.

What he liked about Iranians was the way they could care about the game and care about everything else too. He did not have to wonder if he was the only one thinking of the sun coming through the trees. It was what they had woken up with. It was what they had all known about back when they had all decided to come here on a Sunday in the spring. The knowledge ran deep, and it meant that the expectation was high for a singular beauty inside of all that.

I like those expectations, he thought. And he didn’t know how he would live up to them except that for now he could live up to them in his movements on a volleyball court. He had a couple of plays like that, saves where nobody thought he could reach the ball, but he and the ball and the sun had their own understanding, and even his countrymen didn’t know it until they saw it displayed.

After the game he walked back by himself. By himself was not by himself among Iranians. He could move among them easily, like a fish swimming in the sea. Walking by himself was a growing, opening-up thing, not a closing-down of anything. He passed by a family speaking in Farsi of passing around the salad, and it went past them to make the park a growing, opening-up place, and maybe even past that. What he should do, he thought, was remember this place all the time, especially at school, and bring its spirit with him because maybe they just didn’t know. Maybe they didn’t know that people could do this, that they could go to the park on a Sunday afternoon and let the world come to them. Maybe they could learn from people whose own country was far away. It wasn’t such a crazy thought. Everything had a little sadness to it when your own country was far away, and he didn’t see anything wrong with everything having a little sadness to it, because everything did have a little sadness to it. It didn’t matter to him what helped people to see it. It just happened that Iranians all had at least one thing.

He sat down at their table and ate of the loobya polo with yogurt. His father was talking with some other men under a tree. He did not have to hear them to know what they were saying: What was going to happen to the world? It was a question of what was going to happen to Iran in particular, but each of them was a man whose world and whose country had been tied together for as long as they knew how to think. The men crossed their arms and looked at the ground and came in close to each others’ faces to emphasize their points. Nobody thought of saying, it is a picnic, it is not the place for this kind of talk. Everybody knew it was exactly the place for it. There was nothing about a tree that looked like it wasn’t the place for it. There was nothing about the sun and the grass that looked like that. And their formality made sense, because a man had to always be prepared for the most serious discussion he had inside him. He never knew when it was going to show up. And when men who were always prepared like that came together, it showed up as soon as they did.

His sister was sitting nearby, and he motioned towards the little girl in the family he’d passed by.

“Hey,” he said. “Why don’t you go and become friends with her?”

“I don’t want to,” she said.

“Why not?” he said. “Look at her.” He didn’t understand why his sister didn’t want to become friends with her. It seemed like the best part of being seven, the ease of making friends.

“I heard her say she likes horses,” he said.

“No you didn’t.”

“I was walking by and she said, you know what I like more than anything? Horses.”

“No you didn’t.”

“It’s okay. It’s okay to be shy.”

“I’m not shy!”


“Okay, sorry,” he said. It was a fool’s game trying to increase the amount of friendship in the world among seven-year-old girls. He stared philosophically at the men under the tree.

There was a soccer game starting up among some of the older boys. Bahman watched and wished it was basketball. The only thing he loved about soccer was the way it looked Iranian. He especially liked to watch the boys who had only recently come to America. They looked so comfortable when a soccer ball was on the grass, like all the trouble of having just come here was off of them. He thought he had it rough, but those boys were only just learning English, they were starting at new schools, and at a time when American kids their age were applying to college. They knew how to look happy though, and they let that happiness come out to each other in a way that he was not used to seeing boys do. He liked to think that some of that was in him, even though he seemed a long way from finding the place for it. He liked to think it was there.

“Do you see that tall boy with the glasses?” his mother said. “He has been here for a month. His brother was killed in the war.”

He had known there was something important about their presence in the park. A boy whose brother had been killed in the war with Iraq. That’s what it was, Bahman thought. He felt relieved. It hadn’t been just his imagination.

He knew that it came from somewhere. The sad music in the people, the way he could see them trying to turn it into a music that was gladder, into laughter, into a serious discussion. And then sometimes they let it be as sad as it wanted to be, which was usually too sad for him, but he still felt proud of them for being willing to do it. He couldn’t admit that to anybody, including himself, but he could admit that it came from somewhere.

He watched the boy and tried to see the war and he couldn’t do it. He felt like he’d have to hate somebody to do it, either Iraqis for fighting it or Iranians for fighting back and letting the boy’s brother get killed, and he couldn’t do either one. He felt bad for not being able to see the war that his own country was fighting, but it didn’t mean he didn’t want things to turn out all right for the boy playing soccer.

His father came back and joined them. He poured himself a cup of tea. “I should learn my lesson,” he said. “Talking about Iran with those men. Whenever I do it, they speak wistfully of Iran before the revolution. As if it was some kind of paradise back then.”

“It was a paradise if you had money,” his mother said.

“Yes. And they had money.”

Bahman listened and felt something very far from the disgust his father felt for the other men. If his father could look so worldly and dignified when he was talking with men he was disgusted with, how would it be when he was talking with men he liked? He had to hand it to Iranians. They had something very old about them, but then so did the trees they stood under to talk, which was why they could look like they belonged there. They could look like they belonged on the grass playing soccer when they had only been in America for a month.

He could look like he belonged here too. He could feel that way at least when they gathered in the park. There was a common language, beyond just that of Farsi. It was a pace and a rhythm. It was a slowness, though sometimes it was a quickness too. He felt sure that he would some day be able to take it out to the world with him. It seemed like a long way off, but he didn’t think it was only ever going to be for Sunday afternoons in the park.

Bahman watched the game and past the field up over the hill he saw a family walking down towards everybody. They were fat. The father and the mother and the little boy were all fat. Bahman had never seen them before. He asked his father if he knew them.

“His name is Garousi,” his father said. “He is a mechanic. I have heard he is a good mechanic.”

Bahman watched them walk down the hill carrying their food and blanket. They were looking for a place to sit, for somebody they knew. If his father had heard that the man was a good mechanic, then some of the men must have taken their cars to him. He hoped to hell that somebody would call out, “Hey, come on over here!”, and he thought of asking his father to do it, but he didn’t do it. He tried to watch the game and didn’t watch as the father and the mother and the little boy circled the field and came back around in their direction. The father didn’t look embarrassed, just a little curious that his friends hadn’t shown up, though Bahman felt sure that he had seen some customers. He knew damn well that the man had seen some customers, and he watched the family lay out their blanket all the way over by the hill where they had started and he thought furiously, knowing that he had just seen the one thing about the afternoon that was going to stay with him past anything else – Us too, we do this too. In our language and all of that, slowness and rhythm and all of that, among the grass and the trees and the lake, we do this too.

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