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The return
The sun beats down on a rocky plot of land bare of tokens of love and remembrance

November 16, 1999
The Iranian

From "Saffrom Sky: A Life Between Iran and America" by Gelareh Asayesh (Beacon Press, November 1999). Asayesh grew up in Tehran. Her family moved to the United States in 1977, shortly before the Islamic Revolution transformed Iran. In 1990, after fourteen years of absence, she returned to Iran for a visit. Since then, she has returned almost every year, most recently for three months this past spring and summer. "Saffron Sky" chronicles both her trips and the emotional landscape of the immigrant, describing her struggle to bridge two irreconcilable worlds.

Asayesh is a longtime journalist who has worked as a staff writer for The Miami Herald and The Baltimore Sun. She has also written for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The St. Petersburg Times and other publications. She lives with her American husband and two young children in St. Petersburg, Fl. In the next few months she will be traveling to promote "Saffron Sky". For information on her speaking schedule, to order the book, or to read reviews and excerpts accompanied by photos, visit on the web.

November 1990

I am attending a dinner party in a house near the former United States Embassy. The daughter of the house offers the guests tea and fruit, then comes to sit beside me on the couch. Before long we are talking about mutual acquaintances, many of them former classmates of mine from Iran-Suisse Academy, a Tehran private school. Most are abroad, she tells me. A few live in Tehran still, married, with families.

Reza K. lives in London. He visited a couple of years ago.

Elham spent four and a half years in prison. A wholehearted convert to the Islamic regime, she is now in medical school.

Kourosh disappeared. "We think he was smuggled out."

Shahriyar's trial was televised. He was a hostage for his father, who was suspected of participating in an attempted coup. "He kept on saying, 'I didn't know anything.'" my friend tells me. I imagine his bold face, grainy and fear-washed on a television screen.

He was nineteen when they executed him.

When Shahriyar was thirteen, our classrooms were on the second floor in Iran-Suisse's old wing, overlooking Kakh Avenue. He liked to sit in the back. I sat up front, next to the windows, where I could stare out at the trees and sky. In spring, the leaves were new green, infused with light against a blue backdrop. In winter, the bare white bark of the branches was limned against a sky pale and heavy with the promise of snow. The sounds of traffic below drifted up, muted, to my window. Those sounds belonged to the outside world, while my classmates and I were sheltered within the walls that encircled our school.

Even more than these brick barriers, our sanguine confidence sheltered us. We knew beyond a doubt that it was what happened among us ­ dodgeball in the afternoons, the annual Christmas party in English class, dancing daringly cheek to cheek at birthday parties where the boys dimmed the lights ­ that really mattered. It never occurred to us to think of ourselves as children or of the outside world as one shaped by forces beyond our ken.

When the school year ended, our headmistress decided to make Iran-Suisse a primary school. She closed the upper grades, and our small universe shattered. My friends and I scattered. Even so, when I left Iran, it was my classmates from Iran-Suisse to whom I wrote. At first I would start the letter with a date from the Iranian calender: First of Esfand, 1356. Soon I lost track of the Iranian days, then the months, then the years. Swept up in a world bigger than any I had imagined, the life I had known became first remote, then irrelevant. The names of my old friends became relics from another age. I heard that Ali was in Canada, Shahrzad in England, Azadeh in Switzerland. I kept in touch with Steve in California, discovered Babak by accident in North Carolina, and Bahram in Delaware.

For years I received regular letters with a Tehran postmark from Kourosh. In his tiny, even script, my friend would describe the city of my birth under a blackout, reduced to a ghost town by the threat of Iraqi missiles. But I did not know how to respond. By the time I figured it out, the letters had stopped. Kourosh was gone.

When my friend Elham was jailed for her membership in the People's Mujahedeen, an Islamo-Marxist group responsible for much of the violence against Iran's clerical leaders, I could not fathom the dimensions of her fate.

When I heard that Shahriyar was dead, I went to a secluded spot on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to mourn. But my thoughts kept returning to how I would tell my American classmates, to the special, tragic cachet of knowing someone who has been executed. My tears were horribly tainted.

I felt my own shallowness yet was helpless to change it, for just beneath lurked a great void, empty of all feeling.

I brave the torrent of city traffic one day to visit the vast cemetery in South Tehran, Behesht-e-Zahra, or Zahra's Heaven. At the entrance, a giant pair of hands holds aloft a red tulip. Through the haze of gasoline fumes, the dome and minarets of the hastily erected tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini glint a dull gold.

In the newer section of the cemetery, I walk among a forest of aluminum spires adorned with the red, green, and white Iranian flag, plastic flower bunches, wilting gladiolas. Each set of spires frames a metal cabinet. Inside, the faces of young men killed in the war with Iraq are locked away behind glass, along with fragments of lives now stilled: photographs, childhood mementos, figurines from a wedding cake. On marble headstones, flowery verse hails these martyrs. "From the battlefront comes the chant of 'Our lord," reads one. "'Open the gates of heaven.'"

Not far from the forest of spires, the sun beats down on a rocky plot of land bare of tombstones or tokens of love and remembrance. "This is where the ma'doomin are buried," my friend Hassan tells me in a low voice. He ducks his head in a strangely furtive gesture and turns away. "Best not to linger here."

The ma'doomin.

The executed.

I wonder if one of our number lies here, one of the thirteen-year-olds who saw the future stretching out before him as an endlessly bright horizon.

I stand there for a long moment after Hassan moves on, just in case.

One night, years after my visit to the plot where he might be buried, I lie in bed thinking of Shahriyar. In my mind's eye, I conjure him up as he was before he left the magic circle of our schoolyard. I see his arrogance, his habitual smirk. I see his eyes, dark and knowing under the too-long fringe of straight bronze hair. His hair flapped behind him when he walked, each step surging with restless energy, the steps of a boy hurrying toward manhood.

His name, Shariyar-e-Noor, meant King of Light. He was the king of a band of semirenegade boys who lounged in a shady corner of the schoolyard, ogling the girls and pushing the narrow boundaries of what we considered propriety.

He rode motorcycles on the weekends. His wealthy father ran a club where glamorous and cynical men and women gambled. He once got a windbreaker from England and wore it constantly, insisting that it was so well made he could be comfortable in all temperatures.

Once, a weeping girl went to him with the story of how another boy had kissed her without permission ("He kissed her!" the rest of us whispered in shock tinged with envy.) Shahriyar placed his British windbreaker protectively around her shoulders, then went to confront the culprit.

How worldly he seemed to me then. And yet he was innocent, oblivious of his own mortality.

The sound of rain fills the darkness outside my window. I imagine it falling on the pines, sinking into the green grasses, soaking the sandy Florida soil. My mind is filled with the image of a merciless sun beating down on a barren plot of earth. Tears flow.

I do not deserve the rain.

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