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Her eyes
"Her eyes were so black they seemed to drain the room of all its light"

October 4, 1999
The Iranian

Excerpt from James Buchan's A Good Place to Die, published by The Harvill Press, London. This is the first major British novel to engage with contemporary Iranian society for a generation. It is an epic love story that opens in Isfahan in 1974 and closes in the same city twenty-three years, a revolution and a bloody war later. The author studied Persian literature in Isfahan in the 1970s and was for 12 years a correspondent of the London Financial Times in the Middle East, Central Europe and the US. In recent years, he has made several visits to Iran. His novels have won major British literary awards and been translated into the main European languages and Japanese. He lives in Britain. See reviews (1) -- (2).


[ It is the spring of 1974. John Pitt, an 18-year-old Englishman, leaves his foster-home in Britain and travels overland to Isfahan. Though he does not know it, he is an accident waiting to happen. Short of money, he finds work teaching English to a class of teenaged girls.]

At break, I was led by a servant to the sunny staff-room. It fell silent as I entered. I did not want to disappoint my colleagues.

"I cannot teach them, Mr Jamalzadeh. They are too beautiful."

The room shimmered in delight. Mr Jamalzadeh was beside himself. "Ladies and gentlemen!" He waved his arms for quiet, but could not himself keep quiet:

" 'Je meurs de seuf aupres de la fontaine..'

" 'With water all around, I am dying of thirst'."

And he plunged his dipper into the water jar.

"You must marry, my dear," said Mrs Mohrabba, who took the infants in Persian.

"How can I marry, madame, if you are married already?"

"Oh, for shame," she said, and giggled. "Take a goddam sigheh, man." Mr Parvin had studied in San Diego.

"What's a sigheh?"

"A concubine."

"A chick."

"For love only."

"But not from the class, dear John, or I shall release you."

"Aren't there any boys to teach?"

The room disintegrated. I blushed.

"Enough!" shouted the headmaster, waving his arms. "We have embarrassed our dear friend." The klaxon rattled. He led the way and, as he passed me, I heard him mutter "je meurs, je meurs."

The hilarity disgusted me. This was not the Isfahan I had imagined. I thought the manners of the place were the natural consequence of oppression, of the seclusion of women and an autocratic regime, of all of which I advertised my disapproval. I hated the tourists forever debarking from air-conditioned buses outside the Shah Abbas Hotel and the American officers picking fights at the Irantour on Thursday nights or sobbing for Indochina. I hated the Pahlavi crown picked out in fairy lights on the mountain to the south of the town. I did not know what could bring the place to life for me, disrupt it, give it meaning and motion. Perhaps if I read more, learned more, spoke to more people, learned the slang of the city and four ways of writing it, I would pierce those veils of tourism and industry and military power to an Isfahan of my own. I suppose I knew that I had exchanged the solitude of home for the solitude of Isfahan; but the deduction, that solitude was a condition for life, was not one a boy of eighteen will easily accept. I was glad to be abroad, far from my generation in Britain with their girlfriends and record collections, where my personality and actions might take shape without witnesses; for I thought myself to be special.

Fridays, when the monuments, shops and cinemas were closed, exhausted my ingenuity. I would stand on the rickety old bridges that marched across the river, hungry and light as air, repeating over and over, out loud, some lines from Forough Farrokhzad I'd been reading:

Oh how my life flowed, so calm and proud,
A foreign stream through the heart of those Fridays!

That the poet was a woman, bad and beautiful and dead in a motor accident in Tehran, who I'm sure never giggled and drew in her chador when spoken to, reassured me: if there had been one such person in Iran in my lifetime, there might be another. Already, by April, the river was turning to marsh. I would walk up the shore, turned away from the Pepsi cans, cold picnic fires, twists of newspaper, dried sheep's gore, fruit-skins and shit, or follow paths that ran off between small melon fields or mud walls, where pomegranate trees were in flower and little boys would break from their games and run, puffing, after me to practise their Good-Mornings, while I affected some ulterior purpose. In one such village, there were three walnut trees and, beneath them, the tomb of a saint, shut in by green railings and bleached banners. I asked who he was, but nobody could remember and, though a name was at last mentioned, it was to please me; and I thought I would be glad to sleep through eternity under those immense trees and a succession of fanciful names.

Even on Fridays, I was not bored or lonely, because I did not believe in such sensations; and because I did not always feel alone. At times, say, picking up a letter from my old French teacher at the Poste Restante, and sitting down with it fluttering in the breeze on the bench beside the broken fountain, I was aware of my visibility: that somebody, not the gardener clipping the box-hedges or the postmaster at his transom, was watching me with interest. That was not a religious sensation, for I never thought about God; and the watcher, for whom I made my gestures larger and more complete, was a person, a woman to be precise. At times, say, walking beneath the oriental plane trees of the Hasht Behesht, if I saw a girl carrying a violin, threading the planes, absorbed in herself as completely as in her polka dot chador, then my existence became intolerable to me; and I didn't think I'd be able to endure it, even in this faraway town.

At times such as those, I would open the letter or turn for the river and, as it were, withdraw from a position too advanced to be defended, abandon the present and seek a sort of historic future. I sensed that I was a tough guy and the sights and sounds and tastes and smells of Isfahan, that now meant nothing to me, would years from now convey the most intense sensations; and I would taste happiness in the form of regret. I thought that certain formalities of the place, perhaps just a strip of three wall tiles surrounded by unfired bricks, or the blue of the skies and the domes, and a certain wintriness beneath the hottest afternoon, would return to me in the future and give me my fill of sadness and pleasure. Isfahan then had for me the character not of experience but of adventure: that is, it would gain its meaning for me only in its telling, back home, in my house, when I had one, before an audience of imaginary Britishers. One day, for sure, I'd say, Ah that, that is a minute-repeater watch, made in Berlin in the 1890s, don't open the case if you are easily shocked or offended. I got it in Isfahan, in the '70s, from a fellow who had a shop in the upper arcade of the Meidan-e Shah, died of drink, poor man, name of Mo'in.

For such an exisence within parentheses, Mr Mo'in would do. I called at his shop one day after class, intrigued by some Russian china in the dusty window; and I left in time for class the next morning. The shop troubled me. Under its high vault, it was as dirty and chaotic as its master, who was sleeping on a pile of carpets in a drift of saffron filaments and rice, unshaven, drunk as a prince. I longed to organise both shop and shop-owner, to separate the obviously good from the obviously bad, as once, shifting through a pile of modern gelims for a couple from Ulm, I came on a baby's quilt spilling batting from its rotten chintz, whose blues and reds had faded before the 1750s; or amid the dirty objects on the shelves in the thick darkness, the brass jugs, trashy Chinese porcelain of the type called famille rose, chipped pencases and mirrors of painted papier-mache, an ante-bellum Smith & Wesson revolver with two brass bullets nestling in a box of cotton wool. For I saw those objects had to stand for the values I'd abandoned for lost, such as the experience of great event, a war or revolution or a candid audience with the Shah, or the memory of the sight of a girl shaking off her veil.

It occurred to me that Mo'in might be right; that good and bad matter only to the solitary; and the Germans were more content with their rug that I stitched up in sailcloth and took to the Post than I with the quilt, bought for a joke that made Mo'in laugh and a kebab dinner from the cook-shop. The gun I hid in a dish, for I did not want it sold. Mo'in found me comical. He used to talk about me under my nose, for he could not comprehend that a foreigner, pale as a woman, might understand his language or indeed know anything about anything. When one of his "brokers", as he called the numberless little creeps who brought things to him, staggered in under a cast-iron chandelier and I said it was rubbish, I overheard my word ­ "ashghal" in Persian ­ repeated for days in wonder and delight; or when I mended the selvedge of a rug in chain stitch, he laid the piece out on the balcony to gabble over with his friends. He trusted me with the key to the shop, but only because, left to himself, he would forget to lock up. I saw he liked me, not for my pale face and the reassurance it gave to European tourists, but for my novelty. I liked him, because he always had vodka, and dishes of pistachio nuts from Kerman, and lunch cooked by his wife and sent in covered dishes by taxi (though he referred to that kind lady as the Minister of War); because he did not proposition me; because we went on buying jaunts to Kurdistan and Abadeh; because he was so disreputable; because of his chequerboard teeth; and because I did not like to go back to Julfa and Mrs Mohandes during the day. I detected in his drunkenness and utter contempt for town opinion, in his anarchy and scorching blasphemies, the degraded remnants of an old, old cast of mind. Mo'in was a Khayyam, minus the gift and the jug of wine multiplied into a dozen of vodka. While he snored away his lunch, I worked at my Persian on a tottering throne of carpets or tip-toed barefoot between the soft canyons, effeminate, luxurious and insecure.

One afternon, 19 April, 1974, 23 Farvardin 1353, I fell asleep and woke to a shop full of angels. Their voices had the character of light in the dingy shop. I staggered up and saw, leaning against the high doorpost that separated the two rooms, a girl in a black prayer-chador. I thought: She thinks she's too tall, but she's not. Behind her, the bright voices of girls wheeled and swooped like the pigeons in the courtyard of the Shah's Mosque, but the person in the door was still. She had pulled her chador up across her face and where the hem had risen up I saw the edge of a light blue skirt, the uniform of the girls' secondary schools in Isfahan, and white ankle socks. Her eyes when I looked at them were black, so black they seemed to drain the room of all its light: their blackness was not an absence of light, but was itself a light, of a kind I had not up to that moment experienced or known to exist, beneath which the objects of the solar world took on a melancholy futility.

In the main shop, about twenty girls were seated in a circle on the carpet. Mo'in, in a flurry of elbows, thumbs and legs, was rolling out the tobacco from a cigarette into his right palm. My heart stopped; but there was her black chador, kneeling a little back from the circle, rigid with deportment. She's not popular. She's stiff or difficult, poor, or maybe rich, too clever or too dim, not pretty or too pretty, Bahai perhaps, or Christian, and so very tall.

From A Good Place to Die, by James Buchan, published by The Harvill Press, London.

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