When we arrived in Hamadan Essy was already waiting for us with his mate, Bastan at the bus terminal. They were standing by a big, foreign car. We waved at them as the driver was mustering up all his driving skills to park in a tight spot. They both were wearing their military uniforms. Bastan looked so blond that if it wasn’t of his IIAF outfit our guess was that he most probably was an American.
Mum called him the Viking as soon as he came in full view. Bastan was also as big as a Viking warrior.
Our heavy suitcases flew into the back of Bastan’s car as Essy, also a bronze medalist weightlifter, pulled them out of the bus’ luggage compartment like they were as light as cigarette cartons. “Thanks for coming all the way up here. Things have changed since we talked last.” Essy said to Mum and Grandma with a degree of concern while my brother, Boby and I scanned the width of Bastan’s torso and his big shining car.
“Let’s get in the car. We can talk in the car.” Essy said looking pleased and excited for us to be there.
“This is a big car,” Grandma said. “Where’s the back door?” she asked.
“It has only two doors,” Essy said.
“What! A car as big as this has only two doors,” Mum said with a surprise.
“Yes.” Bastan with an unusually soft voice which we didn’t expect a man his size to have replied.
Essy opened the passenger door and pulled the entire front seat forward so we could get in. “Do you want to sit in the front with us auntie?” Essy asked Mum.
“The front looks big. Yes, okay,” Mum said.
First, Boby got in and then Grandma and me. Boby and I always took the seats by the window. The front seat tilted back to its place and Essy got in and then Mum. Bastan put the car into gear and slowly drove out. The sound of the engine and the movement in the car was hardly anything we could notice.
“What’s the name of your car?” Boby asked.
“Pontiac, Star Chief. American of course.”
“Longish name.” Grandma said.
Named after an Indian warrior. He fought bravely against the British.” Bastan said.
“That’s what happens when you are brave, they name things after you.” Essy said. And we were clearly in a military zone already.
“The name is Pontiac that’s what people call it, but the model is Chief Star,” Bastan said.
“Very comfortable,” Grandma said.
“I bought it from an American engineer. He had it brought over from California when he worked for the IIAF,” Bastan said.
“Are there many Americans in the base?” Mum asked.
“Some. The entire IIAF is based on the American model. But we more or less look after everything now,” Bastan said.
“Did you want me to put the air con on?” Bastan asked us.
“What, the car has air con,” Mum said.
“Yes,” Bastan replied.
“It feels okay,” Mum said.” How about you guys at the back?”
“It’s good,” Grandma said.
“They’re all right. In fact it feels cooler than I expected,” Mum said.
“Well, the mountains. No pollution. And we’re pretty high above sea level,” Bastan said.
“You can say the same thing about Tehran, except the pollution,” Mum said.
“Too many cars auntie,” Essy said.
“Every family is saving money to buy a car. Ten years on it’ll become hard to breathe in that city,” Mum said.
After a short pause, “Are you a pilot?” she asked Bastan.
“Yes. I fly the Phantom, F-4,” he said.
“Do you fly too?” Grandma asked Essy.
“No. I’ll service them and fix them so people can fly them,” Essy replied.
“It must be exciting being in one of those jets up in the sky, looking down on everything, big and small. Travelling at such high speed. Breaking the sound barrier,” Mum said.
“Very. Ever since I was a boy I dreamt of flying,” Bastan replied.
“Auntie Little couldn’t come?” Essy suddenly remembered.
“No. She promised to come to the wedding,” Grandma said.
“Let’s hope there’s going to be a wedding,” Essy said.
“Don’t be silly, I don’t really know what all this fuss is about,” Mum said, challenging Essy’s misgivings.
“Auntie,” uttered Essy like a child. “It’s serious. Other wise I wouldn’t have asked you come all this way,” he said.
“Don’t worry. We’ll sort it all out. We haven’t been to a wedding for a while. It’s about time. It was good to get out of Tehran as well.” Mum said. Bastan smiled.
Mum was a traveller. She didn’t need much convincing to pack her bags and head out of town.
The Pontiac powered into the country road like it was made for. There was hardly any traffic, a sharp contrast to the capital. Mum who was paranoid about being in a car with bad drivers, turned around quietly and whispered, “he’s a good driver.” No one knew how she rated drivers. What system she used or what boxes she ticked. Some drivers turned out to be bad and ‘dangerous’, others trustworthy and ‘excellent’. If she ever were the officer in charge of the driving tests there would have been a lot less cars on the road, for sure.
The seats of the Pontiac were big and comfortable. There was an ashtray built into the side of each door. It felt more like being in a train cabin than a car. Big windows gave Bob and I great vistas of the surrounding landscapes. The air gusted in through the open gaps in the windows. Grandma’s black scarf that sat loosely on her head had slid down. Mum’s hair, her least favorite feature that she referred to as ‘bunch of chives’ flew around her wildly. Mountain ranges looked somber and grand. Still some hours to go before the sunset.
“Have you been to Hamadan before?” Bastan asked.
“No.” Mum replied.
“Well, I’ll have to take you all in and show you the historical sights. It’s an ancient place. Avicenna mausoleum and Baba Tahir tomb are there. During World War 1, Hamadan became a battleground, many soldiers fought and died here. We always remember World War Two, but I find World War 1 more interesting.” Bastan said
“Really. Which side were we on?” Boby asked.
“Nobody’s side. The Russians and Turks and the Germans fought each other like crazy and we just watched. It really wasn’t our war. But we’re too powerless to keep them out. But they all wanted to influence us so we’ll take side. The country was full of spies. Some of them were real characters, stuff of legends.”
I wanted to become a spy I thought when I grew up.
“So we just watched from the sidelines,” Essy said. “They can’t do that to us again. Just barge in and fight their wars on our turf. Those days are over.” Essy sounded like he was in charge of the entire country.
“We’d love a tour of the place. Thank you.” Mum said and Essy looked pleased.
“That would be my pleasure,” Bastan said politely as his short, curly blonde hair looked like a wig on his big head.
We reached the air force base. A large barrier next to a kiosk blocked the entrance. The Pontiac stopped. A soldier walked up and greeted Bastan and Essy and glanced at us at the back and raised the barrier. We entered into the Imperial Iranian Air Force base.
“Before we go home drive them round the base quickly. Give them a tour of the place.” Essy told Bastan.
“Sure,” Bastan agreed.
The base looked like a big village except that it was divided by ranks. Town houses and bungalows in different sizes filled the area. Trees were planted everywhere. We could hear fighter jets every so often landing or taking off. It was a holiday season and the base half empty. Bastan drove past the main center and pointed out to the shops. He said there was also a cinema that we could go and Boby shouted, “movies”.
“They have children’s films too. I’ll get the programs for you.” Essy said.
The Pontiac purled around the neighborhood quietly. Bastan drove us on the final round showing us where the runway was. Fighter jets that I had only seen flying high in the sky were meters away from me and I was surprised how small they were.
Essy’s bungalow was modest. He said that it only needed a woman to make it complete. There was a large gramophone in his living room with some LPs scattered around it and some were held in a record holder. It looked different to our red portable gramophone back home. It stood on 4 legs and was big. Essy said, like the Pontiac, it once belonged to an American serviceman. He said it was the best gramophone in the whole base if not in the province. He asked Boby and me not to touch it. He said there were no spare parts for it in the country and he needed to look after it, especially its needle. The U.S. service man also left some of his records behind.
The next morning the first thing Essy did after breakfast was to play a song. It was a song that he played over and over again throughout our ten-day stay, The Patient Stone.
“I like this song. Who sings it?” Grandma said.
“Yassari,” he replied.
“Poor guy is getting a lot off his chest,” Grandma said referring to its lamentable lyrics.
“Yes,” Essy said with a long sigh.
“When’s Azar coming over? Mum asked.
“Tomorrow. With her brother,” he replied.
“Where’re they staying?” Mum asked.
“There’s a villa that is empty in the north side. The owner is a friend of mine and they’re on holidays. I hope we can sort a few things out while they’re here,” Essy said.
“Don’t worry. It’ll be all right. She’s a lovely woman. I’d have done the same thing if I were her parent. They just want to make sure their daughter is going to be looked after,” Mum said.
“Dear auntie I hope you are right. You haven’t met her parents. She’s got a difficult father,” Essy said.
“Well, you’re not going to live with her father. They ‘re in a different town. After you marry her, she’ll be here with you,” Mum said clearly and slowly as if she was talking to a slow pupil.
The Patient Stone was playing in the background. Grandma quietly went to perform her prayers in a different room. You never knew when she prayed. She did it like it was a covert activity. When no one was around. Or picked the time of the day when she was least needed, like after lunch or late at night or the morning before dawn. That morning she had missed her predawn prayer and had to make up for it.
“Her family have a lot of influence on her,” Essy continued. “They’re dictating everything to her. She wasn’t like this at all when we talked about the dowry and the wedding. She said she loved me and didn’t care about anything else. Now before the wedding I have to do this and do that. She has changed. This is not going to work out. I don’t like this at all.” Essy said while holding a cigarette in his hand, a peeled orange, split in half in front of him.
“Why don’t you talk to her alone and ask her what she thinks,” Mum told her.
“I don’t know auntie. I’m not good at this kind of negotiations. We agreed on something,” Essy said.
“You’re not married yet. There’re a lot of negotiations prior to the wedding. Everyone knows that. Parents have a big say until the daughter is married. They probably want to know you are serious enough,” Mum said.
“I’m serious. I’m just going to put it all on the table. I love her. But the conditions.” Mum interrupted him. “If you like her then accept the conditions and bring her over here,” she said.
“Thanks auntie for coming all this way up here. You are all I got in this world after God.” Essy said.
“You’re grounded, Mum said angrily to me and Boby. “What were you doing in someone else’s garden?” She had found out.
“You happened to be in the garden of the air force General. And they all watched you sneaking into their garden and stealing their vegetables. Now Essy’s reputation is at stake here. We’re his guests. I can’t believe you did that. It’s all your fault Boby. You’re old enough to know. You are twelve years old.”
Boby and I sat quietly while Essy looked at us but didn’t say anything and just smoked his cigarette.
“You’re grounded. You two are not going out for a whole day,” she angrily stated.
“Dear auntie. They’re kids. They didn’t know they were stealing. They just wandered into a vegetable garden and decided to pick a few. The General will understand. There are enough cucumbers in his garden for every household in the base,” he said.
“They have to learn what’s right and what’s wrong Essy. This is not about cucumbers. This is about ‘wandering’ or better say not wandering into other people’s property,” Mum said.
“I know auntie. I’m sure they won’t do it again. Isn’t that right boys?” He asked us and we nodded our heads in compliance.
The next day Boby and I had to stay home while everyone else took a ride to Hamadan in Bastan’s Pontiac to pick Azar and her brother up from the bus terminal. We were upset they didn’t take us. But we’re grounded. We could only go out as far as the front yard.
Saying to Boby not to do anything or touch anything usually produced the opposite result. He slowly approached the gramophone sitting idly in the corner of the room. He pulled out the record collection that the U.S. serviceman had left behind. We scattered them on the floor and began looking at the covers. The first one was of a black woman. We had never seen a black person in flesh, except in American movies.
“Can you read English?” I asked Boby.
“Yes. They’ve been teaching us English. It’s my favorite subject.” He said.
“What does it say?” I asked.
“She’s a singer. This is her name,” he pointed to the top right hand corner on the album cover.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“Nancy Wilson,” he said.
“Would I learn English when I go to school next year?” I asked him.
“Not in the first year. But in the second year you learn the alphabets and some simple words. Then the boring stuff, grammar.”
There was nothing about Nancy Wilson’s appearance that surprised us, except that she was black. There was another album of a black man holding a microphone. He looked like he was angry at something.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Wait, Boby said. And the album opened in half. There were two LPs in that one.
“Sex Machine.” He said.
“Can you play it?” I asked.
He got up and looked at the gramophone. There was already a LP sitting on the platter. “Let me get the Patient Stone out,” he said.
He took the single out and placed the record in.
“Do you know how it works? I asked.
“Yes. I’ve seen Essy using it.”
He turned the gramophone on and placed the head on the record. It started playing in a faster speed. It sounded funny and we started laughing. Then he rotated the speed switch and it sounded okay. We felt a strong dance rhythm in the music, unlike the Patient Stone. Instinctively we stood up and started dancing, waving our hands around and shaking our bodies and laughing. Boby turned it right up. The music was ecstatic. We felt it in our young bones. After playing the song several times we both developed our own dance patterns. I started clapping my hands from behind and bending my knees. Boby jumped up and pointed his finger at something and kept repeating that movement like he was copying someone’s style of dancing. A few times the floor vibration made the needle skit over the record. We kept our distance from the gramophone. We couldn’t hear the jet fighters flying overhead any more.
In the afternoon, everybody came back, including Essy’s fiancé and her brother. Essy looked extra smart in his grey suite. Azar cuddled me and I tried my best to avoid her kisses.
“You don’t want me to kiss you,” she said.
That was exactly what I was trying to do. I hated being kissed by any one except Mum.
Essy glanced at the gramophone and the records. We had carefully put everything back as they were. But had he suspected something? He then looked at Boby. Boby’s poker face never gave anything away.
After some tea and a short rest Bastan took Azar and her brother to the vila they were staying.
“Mum,” I said.
“Yes, darling,” she replied.
“Are we still grounded?”
She looked at me for some seconds. “Come here,” she asked. Then she cuddled me and kissed me.
“You’re going to behave yourself aren’t you? I don’t want you enter other people’s property, even if your brother did.”
Boby was looking at us from across the room.
“Boys! There’s a movie on this evening. Did you want to go and watch it?” Essy enthusiastically asked us.
“What’s on?” Boby asked.
“The Love Bug,” he said.
“Yes, yes. Can we go Mum?” Boby asked with a pleading voice.
“Yes, we’ll take you there and we’ll come back and pick you up,” she said.
“I’d like to go with them,” Grandma who loved movies said.
“I was thinking of having a meeting with Azar this evening, you know talk about all this stuff.” Mum said.
Grandma and Boby saw many matinees together on Fridays at our local cinema.
The cinema was the smallest theatre we’d ever seen. There was hardly anybody there for the session. We noticed three of the seats in the back row were larger and slightly elevated. We decided to sit there. A man came and said those seats were always reserved for the General and his family. Just as we’re about to change seats, he said we could use it because he wasn’t coming. He just wanted to let us know, since we’re visitors. We couldn’t keep away from the General’s properties even if we wanted to.
It was like private viewing. There were only handful of kids in the theatre.
Everybody was waiting for us outside after the movie. We’re going to town for dinner Mum said. Eight of us fitted into the Pontiac. I sat in Mum’s lap along with Essy in the front while Azar and her brother, Ali and Boby and Grandma sat at the back.
“Is everybody comfortable?” Bastan asked.
“Yes.” Azar said.
“It’s a very spacious car,” Grandma said.
“That’s why I bought it,” Bastan said. “American cars are big and spacious, unlike Europeans’.”
“You’re a big man yourself. You need a car like this. When are you going to get married? This is a family car,” Grandma asked.
“I’m waiting for my best mate to marry first,” Bastan replied.
“The women in Zanjan are beautiful. When you come to our wedding you can see for yourself,” Azar replied.
“I’m not getting married. Who said I was going to marry,” Essy said. And nobody took him seriously.
“Zan is woman and jan means darling,” Bastan said. Azar laughed.
“ I never thought about Zanjan like that. Nice one Bastan,” Grandma said to him.
“I don’t think you can think about Zanjan the same way now that you know its hidden meaning,” Ali, Azar’s brother who hardly said a word uttered like an announcement and everyone went quiet for a minute.
“The night belongs to the young hearted,” Essy broke the silence with his favorite motto every time we’re going out somewhere.
“Where are we going?” Ali asked.
“Dinner, drinks and excursion,” Essy answered.
“I want to see the historic sites,” Mum said.
“I’m free tomorrow. I can take you all to town. There are some great historical places to see,’ Bastan suggested.
“Yes, why not,” Mum said.
“I can’t come. I need to see someone. You guys go,” Essy said.
Bastan slowed down in front the restaurant.
“I can park right there,” Bastan pointed to a spot, while having a look at the empty space, judging if his big car would fit there.
As the car reversed back and forth one of the back wheels fell into the ditch that ran parallel to the road. Bastan tried to drive out but the wheel was stuck.
“Do you want us to get out?” Azar asked.
“Not to worry,” Bastan said.
Without talking to each other Essy and Bastan as if they had rehearsed their plan beforehand got out of the car and the next thing we felt was the Pontiac rolled forward and stopped without a driver.
Boby and I got very excited and laughed and shouted calling Bastan and Essy world’s champions.
“Weight lifters,” Ali said.
“Are you sure you want to marry this man?” Grandma asked Azar.
“He’ll be very handy around the house,” Azar replied and Grandma chuckled.
“Do you think you can make him give up smoking?” Grandma asked her.
“I’ll try,” Azar answered.
“Those white tubes are the lightest thing to pick up but the hardest thing to put down,” Grandma said.
After dinner we all got into the Pontiac and Bastan drove us out of town and then onto a dirt road that wound upward. We had no idea where he was going. He just said ‘a special place.’ After 15 minutes of changing gears, hard steering and taking sharp corners he pulled over where the city lights glittered from the far distance. The moon and the stars were dazzling, like they were freshly painted against a black mural. Windows down, the fresh, cool air poured in. Nobody said anything -hypnotized by the grandeur of it all. The universe seemed like an endless silence, mysterious beyond any human expression or scientific formula.
“It’s all very beautiful isn’t it?” Bastan asked.
“ The moon is so bright. You can almost see if anyone was walking on it. ” Mum said.
Essy pointed to various parts of the city, orienting us where everything was.
All of us except grandma and Azar got out of the car. Ali walked toward a rock and perched on it like a lonely bird separated from his flock. Boby and I detached ourselves from the adult’s conversations and went back to the car and sat behind the wheel.
“Whatever you do don’t play with the hand break.” Bastan massive head filled the window frame to caution us.
Mum, Essy and Bastan stood in front of the car and kept on talking and with the parking lights on, their shadows moved and stretched like ghosts. Grandma and Azar sat at the back talking so intimately as if nothing else was as important. Words, ‘wedding’ and ‘dowry’ were mentioned number of times.
Boby took control of the wheel. I withdrew and sat in the passenger seat staring into the blackness.
“Would you like Star Chief to be the wedding car?” Grandma asked.