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Shahin & Sepehr

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A theater in Westwood, Los Angeles.

A new destiny
"I was the real exile ... the traveler who would never find her destination."

March 9, 1999
The Iranian

Excerpts from "Moonlight on the Avenue of Faith" (Harcourt Brace), Gina B. Nahai's new novel. Her previous novel, "Cry of the Peacock", received high praise in The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. For information on Nahai's book tour, click here.

AFTER sixth grade, I stopped calling my father, stopped writing to him except the few times a year when I had to inform him of my progress at school or ask about his plans for me. I let go of the hope of ever going home, and the conviction that I would see Roxanna again.

"He's doing you a favor, you know," Mercedez told me after my graduation that summer. "I had to cheat and lie and sleep with a dozen men just to get myself out of that ghetto and to America. Your father just handed you this freedom on a platter and let you be whoever you want. If you're smart, you'll thank him and never want to see him again."

I spent that summer at Mercedez's house. She was gone most of the time, on different trips, with different men. I stayed with the maid. We played checkers by the pool, went swimming. I helped her clean. In the afternoons, when she took a nap, I went out for walks.

Often, in those days, I saw Iranians who had come to Los Angeles to escape the riots that would turn into a revolution. They always walked in groups, the men wearing business suits even in the August sun, as if to prove to themselves and to others that they were no exiles, that they had important work to do all their lives, that their jobs and offices were still waiting for them. They walked ahead of their wives, hands clasped behind their backs and heads lowered in conversation with their friends. They spoke of the latest news from Iran -- the banks that had shut down, the companies that had burned to the ground, the exchange rate of the rial.

Behind them, the women walked in high heels and tight skirts, looking tired and pale, talking about the homes they had left behind: "just furnished," "just bought," "just built from the ground up." They sat on the benches in the park across from the Hotel on Sunset, and wondered what they would do with their children who had been out of school for almost a year, worried about how their teenagers were bound to become "rebellious alcoholics" if they stayed in Los Angeles too long, how their daughters had already declared that, revolution or not, they preferred to stay in America for good.

Every time I saw Iranians, I followed them.

I walked behind them, sat on the park benches next to them, watched them from across the street. I kept my head and my ears cocked, but as close as I got, they never suspected that I was one of them. Sometimes they spoke to me in their heavily accented English and their confused grammar. They asked directions, wondered how old I was, what school I went to. I wanted to answer in Farsi, but was afraid that they would not understand me, that after six years of speaking the language only to my father on the phone, I had forgotten how to speak it and they would laugh at me. I wanted also to tell them I was Iranian, ask them if they knew my father, if they had heard of Roxanna.

Instead I watched them -- travelers in a foreign land, exiles waiting to go home. As lost and homesick as they were, they clung together and managed to re-create, every day that they spent away from home, a sense of belonging and community that I had never known. I was the real exile, I thought on those afternoons in the park -- the traveler who would never find her destination.

But on other occasions, watching my compatriots and how they had brought with them not only their sense of home and community but also their pasts loaded with failed hopes and lost expectations -- on these occasions I would remember what Mercedez had told me and think that perhaps she had been right -- that Sohrab might have done me a favor by sending me away. He had taken away my hope and my family. But he had also taken away the fear I had of being haunted by greedy ghosts, the anxiety of having rabid dogs at the window, the anguish of wondering of Roxanna was buried under the concrete in our yard. He took from me the sadness that had tainted my mother's life, and the limitations of a destiny I could not have avoided in Iran.

Perhaps this was what they had done for me -- Roxanna, who left me, Sohrab, who sent me away -- they had sent me off across the ocean and, by so doing, given me a new destiny. (Pages 263-265)


FRAULEIN CLAUDE could smell the fires long before they were set, before, even, the first sparks had ignited. She could smell the blood and the smoke, see the orange reflection of the flames against the gray skyline of Tehran. Months before the first mobs tore through the streets of Tehran for the first time, Fraulein Claude could see the city burning.

It was summer 1978, and every day power went throughout the city at odd hours. It happened without warning, for varying lengths of time. All at once the lights would go off, airconditioning units would hiss dead, refrigerators would go warm. Television sets playing old episodes of The Days of Our Lives and The Six Million Dollar Man suddenly went black, and traffic jams, already miles long, became eternal.

Drivers abandoned their cars on the street and walked home to have dinner by the light of kerosene lamps, came back hours later and found that the street was still packed. They were enraged and exasperated, overcome with a sense of impending doom, of a city bursting at the seems with frustration, an economy gone awry, a government out of control.

Fraulein Claude had heard rumors of strikes in the provinces, talk of the Shah's enemies coming together, joining forces to bring him down. Most of them wanted to replace his dictatorship with another, in their view, more benevolent one. The Shah, they said, had promised his people a return to the "Great Civilization," endless wealth, a political system that would be, in his words, more democratic than that of Sweden. Instead, he ruled by decree, arrested anyone who criticized him, appeared on television wearing his military uniform adorned with dozens of medals he had awarded himself, and told the people he was greater than God, more powerful than the president of the United States, more essential to the survival of his nation than bread or water.

All through June, Fraulein Claude smelled burning flesh. She walked around the house in a transparent summer dress, oblivious to the embarrassment she caused Sohrab and Mashti with her nakedness, and searched with her hands for what her eyes had lost long ago. Trusting no one, not even Jacob the Jello anymore, she spoke less and less, and spent hours at the kitchen sink, splashing herself with water that evaporated the moment it touched her skin. She thought about the news Mashti brought home from the street: Morad the Mercury's oldest daughter had converted to Islam and married a man thirty years her senior. His wife had borrowed three thousand dollars from one of Morad's mistresses, and used the money to send her sons to America. Jacob the Jello's wife and children had gone to Israel, where his youngest son, Mateen, had lost a leg to a sniper's bullet. All the rest of Fraulein Claude's wealthy friends and neighbors, Teymur's old associates, and Sohrab's contemporaries were fleeing the country like rats.

By August, the heat was maddening. The asphalt on the street melted like soft rubber and gave way under pedestrians' shoes. Ants marched in foot-wide columns up and down the exterior walls of Fraulein Claude's house and into her bedroom. Lizards invaded the relative cool of the terrace, where, crazed by the heat and her own restlessness, Fraulein Claude chased them under piles of dust and cut them in half with a butcher knife, only to watch them tremble, then run again.

In the southern part of Tehran, the army drove bulldozers through the shanty towns made of tin and cardboard, holes dug underground, and tens erected on top of trash dumps, where immigrants from other provinces had come to search for the good life.

The evening paper, controlled by the Shah and his secret police, published a letter insulting Ayatollah Khomeini. In protest to the letter, riots broke out in the city of Qom near Tehran. The Shah's soldiers opened fire. News of the shootings reached other cities across Iran, setting off fresh waves of riots, which in turn provoked more killings. The protesters -- opposing the Shah's dictatorship, his family's corruption, the country's un-Islamic ways -- set fire to banks and restaurants, government buildings and private cars, businesses owned by Jews.

In the city of Abadan on the Persian Gulf, temperatures were in the high double digits. Four hundred people, entire families, were sitting in a movie theater one afternoon when fire broke out. Exit doors remained locked. The fire department responded too late. Everyone burned.

The Shah accused his opposition of arson in the Abadan theater. The rebels, in turn, pointed the finger at the Shah. No one would ever know the truth, but the smell of charred flesh -- of rotting, balled-up skin -- rode north in the wind and spread the anger to every city in its path. All over the country, movie theaters went up in flames. (Pages 260-262)

The author


Gina B. Nahai was born in Iran and educated in Switzerland and the United States. She holds a Masters in International Relations from UCLA, and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from USC.

She has taught writing at USC, and has studied the politics of Iran for the United States Department of Defense. She is a frequent lecturer on women's issues and the politics of the Middle East. To Top

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