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Crows in the nightingale's tree
Excerpt from a novel

Sharene Azimi
November 22, 2004

Excerpt from Crows in the Nightingale's Tree; a mother-daughter story set against the backdrop of the revolution.

Zarah's grandmother was beautiful, even in death. Her hennaed hair framed a face that, while matted with mortician's makeup, still managed to look smoother and fresher than a sixty-nine-year-old woman's had a right to be. Zarah wished she had remembered to wear lipstick to the wake, if only as a small tribute to the feminine qualities her grandmother had tried so hard to instill in her.

The early-evening sun slipped sideways through the venetian blinds of the funeral parlor, marking orange stripes across Zarah's ankles where she sat with her grandfather. She noticed that he wore one blue and one brown sock. Beyond hoping that no one else would notice, she worried that this was not merely the oversight of a distracted man, but the beginning of a long decline into absent-minded solitude.

Having arrived in the United States more than three decades ago, with two daughters, five suitcases, and a carton of cooking pots, Parviz and Shaheen Afsari were supposed to be enjoying their golden years together. But two days earlier, just as Shaheen was about to shave the back of her husband's neck, she had suffered a massive stroke and fallen into the empty bathtub still holding the electric razor. Now here was Parviz, alone despite the influx of family and friends, with a shaggy collar and puffs of hair coming out of his ears.

Zarah wanted to make him think of something good, so she showed him the gold pendant she was wearing specially for today.

"You know, Grandpa, I've always liked knowing that Grandma brought this necklace from Iran, that it's something from your country."

The small medallion's surface sparkled in the focused beams of the track lighting. Parviz fingered the etchings. "This was made in Iran, but I don't think Shaheen gave it to you," he said.

"Mom said Grandma gave it to me when I was little, and that you gave it to her when you got married. It has the family name on the back." Zarah had never learned to decipher the intricate Arabic script.

Parviz turned over the pendant, inclining his monk-like pate to read the finely raised letters. "The front says Allah, but the name on the back is Fatehi. Your other grandmother must have given it to you."

Zarah didn't know her father's family. Darius had died in a car accident eighteen years earlier, just after her third birthday, and she could remember virtually nothing about him beyond the echo of his voice. "Do you think she sent it when I was born?"

"Zarah-jon," Parviz took her clammy palms in his cool shriveled ones. His sharp eyes wavered. "I believe Mrs. Fatehi gave it to you when you and your mother left Tehran."

Zarah clenched his hands in dismay. Her grandfather knew as well as she did that she had never been to Tehran. Before she could remind him, a family of mourners descended en masse and enveloped them in dramatically sympathetic kisses.

When Zarah stood up, Mr. Akbarian, whose head came to her chin, pinched her cheeks as he had done since she was little. She hated it then, she hated it now. "So, the college girl, graduating next month. With honors?"

"I think so, yes."

When she was particularly bored or annoyed with a conversation, Zarah liked to imagine the person talking as an animal. It wasn't just a question of figuring out what sort of animal he or she would be, although that was a challenge in itself. The real fun came in designing the animal, how long its tail would be or the color of its eyes, the size of its paws. Mr. Akbarian had the quality of an overly affectionate monkey, always reaching out to touch or examine whatever was in front of him.

While the Akbarians droned on, Zarah sought her mother's eye across the room. Wearing trousers, and with the gray roots of her brunette bob showing, Minoo looked plain in this well heeled crowd. She stood dry-eyed, calmly greeting each of her parents' friends. Minoo never cried, Zarah knew, but there were many nights when she couldn't sleep. Zarah had seen the light flick on and off under her mother's closed bedroom door, heard her in the kitchen, watched her out the back window as she stood in the moonlit yard in her nightgown.

Zarah wondered if her mother knew that Parviz's memory was getting fuzzy. She hadn't realized her grandparents were that old yet -- old enough to become senile, old enough to die.

As soon as the Akbarians moved on, Parviz ushered Zarah into the hall. He stopped behind the screen outside the bathrooms.

" Listen, Zarah, you took me by surprise, with that necklace." His voice was uncharacteristically tremulous. "A long time ago we all promised your mother that we wouldn't say anything to you about that time in Iran. But the truth is, you were born there."

" What?!" Zarah's voice shot through the wooden screen, and they could hear the talk in the vestibule quiet. In hushing herself, Zarah forgot to breathe for as long as it took to wonder why ten times over, long enough to feel that this moment was unreal and then, more disturbingly, that it was more real than any moment that had come before. She forgot to breathe until after the curious had resumed their conversations, and then, lightheaded, she whispered harshly, "Why would you -"

Parviz held up his hand. "It doesn't matter why. What matters is that we just lost your grandma. And I... " He fought hard against the tremble in his voice. "I was thinking that maybe Darius's mother is still alive." He pinched her cheek, but in the loving, gentle way that she didn't mind.

Zarah expected him to say something else, to either apologize for keeping such a secret or to offer some suggestion for what she should do with this information. She no longer thought he was senile. But Parviz's eyes turned cloudy, and he slipped into the men's bathroom before she had a chance to respond.

Whipping around, Zarah was tempted to march up to her mother and demand an explanation for the necklace, for the lie. She wanted to crack through Minoo's enamel to the soft clay she knew must be underneath. But it would have to wait, so instead she pushed past the throng of perfumed women and men, through a gauntlet of attempted kisses, mumbling excuse-me's until she was outside in the Los Angeles evening, inhaling hibiscus and car exhaust.

The setting sun burned the side of Zarah's face. Rush-hour traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard was at a virtual standstill. She didn't understand how people could live like this. She would rather bicycle thirty miles than be stuck in that kind of traffic. A blonde woman in a white convertible started honking at the sports-utility vehicle angled between two lanes in front of her, setting off a spurt of horn-blowing.

Zarah shifted her focus from the street into the near distance, where palm trees lined the circular drive. She was pretty sure they were real trees, not plastic, although they were uncannily uniform in appearance.

A tall, lean, fair-haired man walked out from the parking lot and up through the rows of palms. "Hey kiddo."

Zarah squinted against the sun. She recognized his loping stride before his face was distinct. "You came." She flung herself at Christian's broad chest and began crying right away. Christian was Zarah's godfather, in the purely secular way, and the closest thing to an actual father she could remember growing up. For many years her greatest hope had been that Christian and her mother would become a couple and get married, but since the night ten years earlier when they had exploded at each other, he hadn't set foot in their house.

"I wasn't sure I could get here in time," Christian said with his nose in her dark hair. "I was in Cuba."

Zarah stepped back and, slightly embarrassed at her effusiveness, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She wanted to ask Christian if he had known about her being born in Iran, and how she managed to get Los Angeles marked as the birthplace on her passport, but she didn't want to bombard him with problems the first five minutes she'd seen him in nearly a year.

"I didn't know you covered Cuba."

Christian grinned. "I was covering the beaches. And a certain Cuban señora who runs a bed and breakfast outside Havana."

Zarah giggled for the first time in days. Face to face with Christian, she could see that time was finally softening the chiseled Nordic visage of his youth. "Aren't you ever going to settle down?"

Christian slung an arm over her shoulder and began leading her inside. Before they reached the door, it swung open and Minoo stepped out in a cloud of air-conditioning. The three of them faced each other while the honking started up again down on the avenue.

Christian found his composure first. "I'm very sorry about your mother."

Minoo nodded, visibly relieved that he had broken the ice. "It was good of you to come."

After another period of ringing silence, they spoke at the same time.

"My father -"

"I should go -"


"Excuse me."

He started for the door at the same time that Minoo stepped aside, so they ended up nearly bumping into each other. They did a little dance from left to right until she finally stood still and turned sideways so he could pass.

Zarah folded her arms across her chest and stared at her feet while twirling the necklace around her index finger. The right toe of her brown clog was scuffed, and she couldn't remember scuffing it.

"How are you feeling?" Minoo asked. "We should get something to eat."

Zarah looked down at her mother. She was tall to Minoo's petite, lanky to her curves. She had inherited her father's rare blue-green eyes, rather than her mother's brown ones. "Can't you two make up already?"

Minoo ran her tongue over her lips in the way she did when she was irritated and trying to pause before saying something testy. "Zarah, now that you're older I think you'd understand better. Sometimes people reach a point in their relationship where they don't want the same thing. Look at you and Jonathan."

Zarah's last boyfriend had found her attentions lacking. Since she wasn't interested in paying more attention to him and less to her athletics, studies, and friends, he stopped trying. "I didn't have a fifteen-year friendship with Jonathan. And we're still civil when we bump into each other on campus."

The sun finally disappeared below the horizon, setting loose a hint of seaweed on the breeze. The tip of Zarah's finger was red where the twisted chain cut off her circulation. When her mother rubbed the thin sleeve of Zarah's sweater, Zarah thought she was finally going to confide in her, now that she was "older," now that she had survived her first death in the family as an adult.

"I hope you brought something heavier than that sweater. It gets chilly at night."

"Mom, I know what the weather is like here." With her mother's concern for the practical things in life, sometimes it seemed to Zarah that she cared for her as a gardener cares for a prized bonsai tree -- nurturing with food, protecting from cold drafts and burning sun, cultivating for strength, beauty, and longevity.

The door opened again, and Nayer, Minoo's older sister, joined them on the front step. Sheathed in a black suit, with a flash of yellow at the neck to avoid appearing morbid, she was the one to inherit Shaheen's sense of the occasion.

"There you two are." She wiped mascara from beneath her eyes. "I think I'm fine and then someone says something nice about Mom and I lose it again."

She sniffed to clear her nose. "It's so nice to see Christian." When neither of them responded, she turned to Minoo. "I think Dad's getting tired. Should we order dinner from that Lebanese place?"

"Sounds good." Minoo combed her fingers through Zarah's newly cropped locks. "C'mon."

"Mom... " Zarah dug the notched edge of the pendant into her chin.

Minoo's eyes flicked over the necklace as she checked her watch. "Yes?"

"I'll tell you later."

Inside, Christian stooped over Parviz, in close conversation. Minoo went to speak with the funeral director about closing up for the night. Nayer's husband, Farid -- the cardiologist and caretaker -- stood with an arm around his wife and thanked each guest for coming.

Zarah pretended not to hear Mr. Akbarian call to her as she took refuge by the side of the open coffin. Here the thick scent of room-temperature lilies was sliced by formaldehyde vapors. Zarah reached her fingertips to Shaheen's brow and found it as cool and smooth as marble. Wearing the heirloom from her other, unfamiliar, grandmother seemed, somehow, irreverent.

"I still want to learn how to make the rice with the potatoes on the bottom," Zarah whispered. How many times had she watched Shaheen drain the rice, rinse it, melt butter in the bottom of the pot, drop in slices of potatoes, spoon in a cone of rice, and cover the pot with a towel-wrapped lid. Yet she knew she didn't understand the timing, the technique. And she didn't want to learn from anyone else.

As long as Zarah stood there, head bent over the coffin, no one disturbed her, even if they stood a few inches behind or to the side to pay their last respects. She waited until she could feel and hear the emptiness in the room behind her. She remained, turning her regret over and over, examining it like a many-faceted box, until Nayer wrapped her arms around her from behind, and eased her away.

On the drive back to the Afsari's house, Minoo took Zarah on a detour along the beach road. They opened the windows to breathe in the salty night air. Living in Bethesda, they were never far from the shore, but the Pacific, with its thunderous surf and icy waters, was, for them, the true ocean.

After several minutes of considering how to begin, Zarah simply began. She lifted the necklace out from beneath her T-shirt. "So, Mom?"

Minoo sipped soda from a can and kept her attention on the road. "Z."

" Grandpa told me that my other grandmother gave this to me, Baba's mother. At first I thought he was losing it -"

Minoo glanced over.

" - but then he said that I was born in Tehran... . "

Minoo slapped the steering wheel with the open palm of her non-soda-holding hand, causing the car to swerve slightly. "Son of a bitch."

Zarah shifted under the seatbelt to halfway face her mother. She knew that the month she was born, December 1979, coincided with the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran. It didn't seem to have been a good time for visiting the old country. "What were you doing there?"

Minoo squeezed the can between her legs, grabbed a pack of cigarettes from her purse, and shook the pack upside down until three fell in her lap.

"I thought you quit!"

"I only smoke when I'm stressed." Minoo's hand shook as she held the lighter.

"That's just great. You're all I have left in the world and you're trying to kill yourself."

"Don't be so dramatic." Minoo took two long drags before answering Zarah's question. "Your grandparents didn't approve of me marrying your father. They didn't like his politics, he didn't have any money... so we got married in Iran."

"But you told me that Baba had a falling out with his family because they were Muslim and he wasn't."

Minoo juggled the soda up to her mouth while trying to keep the burning cigarette tip out of her blowing hair. "Well, yes, sort of, but that was later, after we'd spent some time there."

"So you knew my grandmother. And you didn't think that maybe I'd like to know her, too?"

Minoo caught Zarah's eye for the first time since the conversation began. She tilted her head to the side, weighing this possibility. "I knew you might be curious. But I figured that as long as you were this American kid and she was this foreign person who never contacted us, that it wouldn't matter much to you."

In front of them, traffic was merging into one lane and slowing to a crawl. Zarah waved the smoke away from her face with both hands. "Why didn't you just tell me the truth and let me decide?"

"Because the truth is a mess. I put it behind me. Behind us."

They were hemmed in by orange cones as, in the now-empty lane, a construction crew repaved the blacktop. Two bumper stickers on the old sedan in front of them read Jesus is the Way and Stop All Immigration Now.

"I'm thinking that I'm going to find out if Baba's mother is still alive. And if she is, I might go meet her." Zarah didn't know she was seriously considering this until she said it out loud.

"Oh no you won't. You are not going to that place."

"Why shouldn't I? Aunt Nayer and Uncle Farid had a great time when they took the boys last summer." Upon returning from her first visit to Iran since long before the Islamic revolution, Nayer had pronounced it "fascinating."

Minoo braked suddenly, having lost track of how close to the religious patriot's car they had crept. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly before speaking. "For one thing, I don't think Iran is giving out many visas to Americans, especially young single women."

This was true, Zarah knew. Unless you were traveling as part of a tour group or a member of the press, and even then, you needed permission to enter the country. It had taken her aunt and uncle several months to renew their outdated Iranian passports -- the ones they had been carrying when they left Iran as adolescents in the 1960s -- and, through an application process, to get passports for their sons.

"What about those papers in the box?" Zarah asked. "The one you keep in the closet?"

The lines around Minoo's eyes sharpened, little rays threatening to strike. "What were you doing rummaging in my closet?"

"I didn't rummage. I happened to see you looking at it one time."

Minoo didn't answer. When the second lane opened up again, she concentrated on navigating back into it through the orange cones. As they left the construction area, traffic picked up and the space between the cars expanded. They left the bumper stickers behind. Wind blew in from the Pacific, pulling Minoo's bob from behind her ears.

"Zarah, I'm sorry I had to lie to you." She spoke loudly while trying to clear the hair from her face. The empty aluminum can bopped around the floor beneath her legs. "I know you're grieving for Grandma. But please, for me, forget about this idea. Iran can be very dangerous. You are completely unprepared."

"The bonsai leaves the pot," Zarah murmured.

"What did you say?"

Zarah smiled to herself. She knew that the decisions that had seemed so important for the last four years -- which elective to take, who to room with -- would seem elementary compared to committing herself to graduate school, and a job, and what the career counselor called a "life path." She was in no rush to face the next big thing.

"Nothing. Let's go eat."

Minoo looked dubiously at her only child and sighed. They turned inland and drove up into the hills in silence.


The day after graduation, Zarah woke up in her bedroom at home in Bethesda, still worn out from two weeks of partying. A lawn mower growled around the neighbor's yard. Zarah regarded the blue-and-white-checked curtains and wondered if her mother would redecorate the room when she went to graduate school, even turn it into a study or something. That would be odd, coming home to a room that was not hers.

She got up and walked across the hall to the doorway of her mother's room. The chintz comforter was neatly drawn over the double bed. A fly buzzed inside the screen of the open window, trying to get out. The room smelled of sleep.

After retrieving the stepladder from downstairs, she returned to set it up in Minoo's walk-in closet. The pungent scent of mothballs made her nose itch. With the light from one bare bulb to guide her, she stood on the top step and reached for a shoebox on the uppermost shelf that was buried beneath layers of wool sweaters. She tugged. The box was stuck to the wood shelf. Standing on tip-toe, she got a better grip, but just as the box came loose the mothballs made her sneeze so that she, the sweaters, and the box tumbled onto the shoe-lined floor of the closet.

Despite her fear that this fall was but a minor mishap in the series of crises that would ensue if she found what she was seeking in the box, Zarah rubbed her butt and shifted onto her knees to explore its contents. On top sat two official-looking sheets of yellowed paper covered with Arabic script and attached with a rusty paperclip. A clear plastic baggy held a solid gold cufflink. Wedged along the side was a dog-eared burgundy passport with a hole punched through the gold-embossed cover. She opened the passport to a black-and-white photograph of a young Minoo. Lush wavy hair cascaded past her shoulders. Her expression was remarkably open, as if she was expecting something good. Zarah turned the stiff page. Her own baby face smiled back at her, ringed with soft black curls. The photograph had been stapled into the passport and stamped.

"Unbelievable," she whispered. No doubt about it, she was officially Iranian.

Looking back into the box, she found a tiny pouch of filthy cloth, tied with dark strands of human hair. She scratched at the blood-like stains on the blue cotton and raised the pouch to her nose. It had more an air of dryness than any identifiable smell, and the contents crunched softly, like dirt. Zarah was struck with the thought that her mother's thinking might not be entirely healthy. Who would keep a grimy thing like this?

Zarah crawled on all fours out of the closet and over to the bedside table. She dialed her aunt's number. Nayer and Farid lived in a much larger house several miles away, in Chevy Chase. She told Nayer what she had discovered.

Nayer sounded like she had been waiting for this call for the past twenty years. "Finally! Your mother made me promise not to talk about what happened, but I think it's time you knew."

Then Zarah told her that she needed her help to translate the documents, to which Nayer easily agreed, and to find her father's family, which left Nayer fumbling for words.

"Oh, honey, I don't know... "

Zarah hoped that the sad, fatherless-girl sympathy ploy would work, and it did, but it took a couple of days. Eventually Nayer agreed to help her aggrieved niece arrange the visit.

"The only thing is," she cautioned, "I love you and your mother both. I don't want to hurt her. So if you go, whatever they may tell you, you have to give your mother the benefit of the doubt. Do you know what I mean? You have to believe the best of her, and your father."

Zarah agreed to try, not knowing how complicated this simple request would become once her journey began.

A week later, Zarah and Nayer were sitting on Minoo's screened-in back porch, watching the neighbor's sprinkler swish back and forth over the lawn while waiting for Minoo to get home from work.

"Mom, we're back here!" Zarah called when they heard the snap of her keys in the front door.

Minoo came upon them sitting stiffly on the wicker furniture, with a full bottle of white wine chilling in a bucket of ice on the low table between them. "This is nice." She kissed her sister. "Do you want something to snack on with that wine?"

"We're fine," Nayer patted the loveseat cushion next to her. "Sit down and relax." She poured a glass of wine for each of them.

Minoo kicked off her shoes and plopped onto the loveseat. "What have you two been up to?"

Nayer looked at Zarah, but her niece was afraid to start. "Let me just say it. Zarah asked me to help her organize a trip to Iran." When Minoo startled, Nayer held out her arms like a police negotiator dealing with a ledge-jumper. "I haven't told her anything about that time, but I did contact the Fatehis. And I helped her get a passport."

At this Minoo bolted to her feet.

"Minoo, we're not trying to upset you, but Zarah's twenty-one. I think it should be up to her what kind of relationship she wants to have with Darius's family, if any."

Minoo's glare bore into her sister. "You have really crossed the line this time. She is not your child. I don't tell you how to raise your boys."

"I wouldn't advise Zarah to do anything I wouldn't let my sons do. The boys had a great time in Iran last summer. And for Farid and me, it was amazing to be back. Anyway, the government has relaxed the cultural laws a little bit. And the dress code."

"Oh, so now if your scarf slips back you'll get a warning instead of a beating?"

"Mom, I'll be careful," Zarah interjected. "I just want to see the place I was born. It's my heritage."

Minoo shot her glare across the table. "Iran today is not your heritage. It's some nightmare created twenty years ago, from which the country still hasn't woken up."

In the quiet they could hear how every several seconds the sprinkler's gentle swish became a splot-splot-splot as the water hit the azalea bushes that divided their lawn from the house next door's.

"I bought a ticket. I'm leaving in a couple weeks."

Minoo sank back onto the loveseat, her tongue working madly over her lips as she struggled to control her anger. "You do realize, there is no American consulate there. If anything happens... "

Thus began an hour of accusations, explanations, and pleas. Minoo used scare tactics. Nayer countered with experience. Zarah infused their rational arguments with emotion. As the light faded slowly into dusk, they went in circles and on tangents. Their voices rose to the brink of tantrum and withdrew again. At last their tongues went dry from wine, no water, and simple heartache. The sprinkler had turned off and in its place the cicadas made their evening music.

Minoo pushed herself to her feet, this time using the arm of the loveseat for support. "It doesn't sound like I have any influence over your decision. Nayer's right -- you're a big girl, Zarah. I've asked you not to go, but I can't force you to stay."

Zarah stepped around the table. For a moment she felt sorry for her little mother. Minoo had been young. Her husband had died suddenly, his car torn to pieces on the interstate. For some reason she needed to distance herself from his family. Zarah could almost forgive her dishonesty. "If it's so important to you that I not go, why don't you tell me why you lied? Why don't you tell me what happened to make you so... bitter?"

Minoo gazed through the screened walls into the greenish twilight. "I just can't, Z. You wouldn't understand the things I did."

She scooped the wine bucket into the crook of her arm and carried it to the kitchen sink, with Nayer at her heels. "Damn it, Nayer, her name," Minoo said under cover of running water.

"I asked Christian to check with his contacts," Nayer said softly. "No one thinks it will be a problem."

Minoo cupped water in her hands and splashed her face, pressing hard over the eyes.

"Really," Nayer continued. "The name Fatehi won't matter anymore. She was just a baby."

When Minoo leaned her forearms on the counter and let her head hang over the sink, Nayer tucked her chin on her younger sister's shoulder. "You have to forgive yourself, Minoo-jon. You have to trust that Zarah will forgive you."

With their faces only inches apart, Minoo's eyes were full of such desolation that Nayer shuddered. Minoo ripped a paper towel from the wall to blot her face and went upstairs.

Nayer returned to the porch with two glasses of water and sat on the loveseat, where Zarah joined her.

"She's my mother and I love her, but sometimes I feel like I don't even know her." Zarah gulped most of the glass. "Was she always this way?"

Nayer smoothed her linen pants and pinched one corner of her mouth into a smile. "When we were young, your mother was the most passionate person I ever met. Next to your father, that is. They just... shone."

Zarah scrunched down to rest her head against the cushion and tried to imagine her young parents, shining.

Berkeley, September 1977

Minoo stretched face-down on the bed, feeling the spine of Christian's grammar book where he used the small of her naked back as a reading desk. She could tell what time it was by the intensity of the late-afternoon sunlight filtering through the sheer magenta curtains, filling the room with a warm purple light. Already the first floor of the house was shadowed, and soon the sun would slide off the window of her second-story studio apartment, withdraw from the baking roof, and leave the entire neighborhood in the cool green of evening. The autumn sunlight in California often reminded her of Tehran, where as children she and her sister Nayer would watch the sunset from the flat roof of their house. Standing amidst the empty clothes lines, they would bask in the glow that lit up television antennae and the golden mosque domes, only to scurry inside, unfailingly surprised at the coolness that followed as the glow evaporated into the cloudless blue sky.

Christian shut the book with a soft snap of one hand. "Yek, do, se, chahar," he counted out the numbers in Farsi.

"Chahar," Minoo corrected his emphasis.

"Chahar," Christian mimicked.

At times like these, Minoo couldn't help but wonder if Christian's fascination with the Middle East was part of what attracted him to her. The past year marked the fulcrum of her bicontinental existence, half a lifetime in Iran, half in the United States. She rolled over onto her back, her breasts shifting toward her sides. The nipples were dark and textured, like nuts.

"What if I didn't want to help you learn Farsi?"

Christian pressed his lips to her soft belly. "Then I'd find another tutor."

"Another lover? Maybe a Lebanese girl this time, so you can practice your Arabic?"

Christian rose up to look at her in exasperation. "Why do you tease me like that? You know I love you."

Minoo sat up against the pillows, winding her long hair into a knot. He was her first love, only lover, constant companion. But in nine months she would get her B.A. and look for a job in San Francisco. He would finish graduate school, in journalism, and take the best entry-level position he could find. It was as difficult to envision them staying together after graduation as it was to envision a day without him.

"I know you love me, but you're the one who said you've been dreaming of Iran ever since you saw pictures of Persepolis in fifth grade."

Christian got off the bed and went to stand by the window, his long-limbed form startlingly pale against the curtains. "Ja, you've got me figured out," he adopted an Austrian accent. "I'm using you for research, so that when I become a foreign correspondent I'll know all the important things. Like how to undress a not-so-Muslim girl."

Giggling, she rose off the bed and sidled up along the length of his body, the crown of her head reaching only to his shoulder. "Seriously, though, sometimes men like you, guys with European backgrounds and names like Charles, or Christian of all things-"

"Hey -" He tried to withdraw from her embrace.

"Wait. Sometimes those guys get caught up with the idea of a girl who's different from anyone they grew up with. But I know you." She stroked his bare buttocks, pulling them apart gently and pressing them together again.

"After two years, you should." He let her hands pass over his body. "Besides, I might say the same about you. Black sheep of the family, sleeping with a foreigner."

She turned her face up to his. "Baa-aa."

"Look." He ran his thumb down her nose. "Would you rather not help me learn Farsi?"

She sighed. "I should learn more of the grammar myself."

Abruptly, Christian lifted her up, and she straddled his waist. They tumbled back onto the bed.

After showering, Minoo and Christian headed out to get dinner. At Telegraph Avenue they turned and entered the freak show, as Minoo's mother called downtown Berkeley. They passed crowded vegetarian restaurants, tie-dyed clothing vendors, and incense shops. A stocky woman holding a violent image from a pornographic magazine called for passersby to sign her petition against porn. A bearded young man handed out flyers for a "No Nukes" rally. Christian gave a quarter to a dirty teenager with wild eyes who looked like he'd been sleeping on the streets.

Entering the campus, they approached the Student Union to find a small crowd listening to someone speaking into a freestanding microphone.

Christian squeezed Minoo's hand. "They're talking about Iran."

"Between 1972 and 1976," the disembodied voice rang out, "SAVAK agents imprisoned 3,000 democratic protestors, tortured at least 500 members of the opposition, and held 143 summary executions."

Minoo was hungry, but Christian led her up onto a bench so they could see. She recognized the speaker. He was unusually tall and broad for an Iranian man, with a thick mustache and a nest of black hair that grew into fashionably long sideburns. "That's my T.A."

"Darius Fatehi is your teaching assistant? For what class?"

"The Politics of Displacement." She grimaced. Her senior seminar was going to be more of a challenge than she'd anticipated. Fatehi was not easy to impress.

"He's supposed to be brilliant," Christian said. "Here on full scholarship from the Iranian government. Isn't that ironic?"

Darius's voice was becoming more impassioned. "And do you know who trained SAVAK?... The CIA and Mossad."

The crowd erupted into supportive boos.

"And why does the U.S. government want a bloodthirsty secret service in Iran? I'll tell you in one word: oil!"

The boos increased in volume.

Minoo had never heard him speak like this. Although she considered herself a politically aware person, she had only a surface knowledge of the divisive situation in her home country. As a teenager she had protested the Vietnam War, and at Berkeley she'd participated in a women's Take Back the Night march, but she hadn't yet formed a strict opinion about Iran because, as her parents said, the Shah wasn't exactly a humanitarian, but he wasn't Hitler either. Just because her father had given up trying to make his fortune in what he called, "a developing country with a superiority complex," didn't mean that Iran wasn't moving forward, however painfully. The Shah was dragging the country out of feudalism, opening schools, funding public works projects and giving women more rights. Meanwhile the mullahs were arguing amongst themselves and with the king about the direction the country should take. It was difficult to see clearly through the dust of change.

"And who benefits from the oil money?" Darius's voice echoed off the buildings surrounding the plaza. "The people? The workers? The farmers who have been lured off the land by the promise of jobs in the city, only to find themselves in dire poverty? No, the one benefiting from the oil money, my friends, is Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his corporate cronies."

Without realizing it, Minoo dropped Christian's hand. She squinted over the heads of the gathered students to make out Darius's finger pointing in the air. He didn't seem to mind that his audience was thinning out as the light faded. "The Shah sits in his private German jet, and drinks his French wine, and watches American movies in the screening room of his palace, and all the while the people are crying: we don't need weapons, we need bread! We don't need planes, we need water for our crops!"

Standing there, listening to someone who really cared about what was going on, Minoo became distinctly aware of how little she knew of Iran's politics and even history.

" When the people cry out," Darius boomed, "when they take to the streets to change the status quo, what happens to them?" He looked up into the darkening sky. "SAVAK arrests them, imprisons them, tortures them, kills them." He left a dramatic pause, allowing the last words to reverberate into the suddenly silent early-evening air.

Then he asked, very quietly, "Are we going to let this happen?" and stepped away from the microphone.

Applause splattered around the plaza. Christian stepped off the bench and raised his hand to help Minoo down, but she was still staring after the place where Darius had been.

" Baby?" Christian's voice floated up.

Minoo accepted Christian's outstretched hand. "Wasn't he great," she marveled.

" He's quite the agitator."

As they resumed their walk toward the Student Union, Minoo thought of the all-American fare -- burgers, fries, pizza -- and wanted none of it. She craved a homemade salad, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers with lemon-juice-olive-oil dressing. But it was getting late, and they were hungry, so she followed Christian to the cafeteria.

Sharene Azimi's father was from Tehran and her mother from Long Island. Currently she is in the part-time program at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. Visit her website.

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