A theater in Westwood, Los Angeles.
A new destiny
"I was the real exile ... the traveler who would never find
March 9, 1999
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
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
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)
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