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They know

The wiry and fatigued ajaance driver stops mid-traffic, amidst the cars racing by and the people dashing through them, and as I get out I hear him breath a sigh of relief that his ordeal is over. He wasn't familiar with the area, or rather the entire city, and was asking me (the visitor from America) for directions. I am not sure how we managed to arrive at this approximate location, but I recognize a building and ask to be let out. After freeing myself from the cage of his enraged and disoriented driving, I too breath a sigh of relief. I ask a young boy for directions and walk the distance to the Abgineh Museum.

Every step I take, I feel a new set of eyes on me. These glances that land on me wherever I go, glances that invariably carry the same loaded meaning and the same burning questions, scold me like escaped fireballs from the end of a cigarette. Since my last trip, I have abandoned my long, gray, aging tent for a tailored, shorter coat and jeans. And to bring a bit of color into my pale palette, and look less like an unpainted visitor, I now wear make-up. I am trying to look like the other women but it doesn't work. Everyone looks at me; men, women, young and old. They know better. All of them. They know instinctively that I come from a far away land. They feel it in their core, sense it in the tiniest movements, they can read it in my pupils, my averted eyes.

And they think they know my mind. Do they feel my anxious need to be of the same color and fabric as them? Do they sense my urgency to belong to them, to this land, to walk unnoticed amongst them Do they recognize my attempts - however futile - at blending in by mirroring them? I pinch myself, my hands buried in my pockets, my eyes blank. I am a foreigner in my own land.

Hearing hello

November 11, 2002: TEHRAN
I have become all too familiar with the sounds of the night and the early morning thanks to my insomnia. Just before dawn, a small bird comes to visit. I have never seen her. I only hear her say hello. But once she has finished singing her song, my eyes gladly give up the pointless struggle and we head outside in search of the morning.

How magical this garden is in the early morning, and how awake. The crows feast on the nearly ripe persimmon, the sparrows nibble on bread crumbs and the cats settle their business with a few scratches and meows. Every morning I take inventory as I walk around the garden turning off the lights. I spot a large orange bud on one of the rose bushes. Besides the white Jasmine, this rose bush is the only flower that has yet to pack up its bags for the winter.

Day 7

The seventh day

"Salam azizam." She is all smiles and her frail body wraps itself around mine, as we try to restrain the tears that don't know their time or place. She whispers to me, calmly and rationally, trying to pace my sadness and her own.

When tragedy strikes, amidst the shock and delirium that follows, someone must keep the troops standing and strong. Someone must push the broken soldiers onward. I recognize the signs of the leader of the wounded in her eyes.

We head upstairs, arm in arm, hand-crumbled tissues and all-in hand. There is no need for discourse; we both have our parts memorized. We are the elders, the bearers, the mothers. In the roles we have taken on, there is no room for abandon. We know how to do this well; taking the lump in our throats, clenching it hard within our fists, and screaming from the pain only in our dreams. We know how to pretend with smiles; breezy on the surface, storming inside.

I have missed this staircase, with its framed Monets and pots of heart-shaped Ivy, but no more than the three apartments it links together. I have missed the cappuccino/cigarette breaks every morning at 10 am, where everyone on their way to somewhere drops by. I have missed M. bringing cream puffs the day we arrive, and S. bringing fresh baked barbary bread every morning for breakfast. I have missed watching satellite TV in languages that I don't understand and staying up to chat. But this time, visiting my in-laws is unlike the other merry, care-free times of the past.

Regret comes in many shapes and forms. As I brush against the overflowing bouquets now taking their place on the staircase, I am reminded that it also comes in colors and scents. I break a rose bud and slip it in my pocket while trying to justify "everything happens for a reason" in my mind. Each heavy step brings me closer to the seventh day of mourning, and I hear solemn murmurs from behind the door as we enter the eye of the storm; sister of pain and I, hand in hand.

Day 3

I have insomnia

November 8, 2002: TEHRAN.

I have insomnia. I've taken every pill that I possess; the yellow, blue, and the white. But it's beginning to seem like my colorful collection of pills only help keep me awake. Hours after I've taken two Tylenol pm's, I lie reading in the bed that creeks, against the peeling paint of the window frames, in the room with two windows and their gray satin curtains. In every breath, I smell the dust that mingles and poplulates every crevice of this old house. Dust that is older than I am. I lie awake breathing our history.

I sleep, or attempt to, with the door cracked open so that the wave of warmth from the heater can find its way down to the little room at the end of the hall where I lay pinned under the heavy cotton quilt. From this narrow opening I can see baba’s room, and the yellow light that illuminates from behind the glass of his door. The pain in his broken wrist keeps him awake, and his books keep him company. And I watch for when he drifts off, and I continue my journey into the night alone. It’s my first time sleeping in this dark and cold corner of our home -- in the little room that still remembers the scent of books from being a library, the sounds of baba’s rowing machine from its time as an exercise room, and Ali’s fish tank from when he got his independence and his own room.

I have been here for almost a week. I walk several hours during the day, I don’t take naps and yet I cannot sleep at night. I drift off for a few blissful hours here and there. “Your clock has not set yet”, I am told, “You’re on U.S. time still”. Or could it be that I am anxious? I don’t feel anxious. I feel tired and awake. So very awake. I have finished reading yet another book. Once I lay my pen down, I will again start to wander about this old house like a ghost. I have insomnia.

Day 2

Good morning Iran

November 4, 2002: TEHRAN.

Good morning Iran. I open my eyes to the home of my childhood.

Before I unpack, before I wash my face with the rippling pearls of the Damavand, and before I hear the gurgling sounds of the kettle, I step outside and wrap my arms around the house.

My attachment to this house runs deep like the roots of the plane trees that surround it. Designed by my uncle and built by my grandmother, the home was built over 45 years ago, when Daroos was a barren stretch of land and not uptown Tehran. A two story structure with 2 gas heaters and a furnace that gets troubled if two showers are used as the same time, this house is my mother's childhood home and mine.

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The streets of Darrus beckon me. I wander about them aimlessly. Do they remember me? >>> See 4 street photos of Darrus

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Day 1

Am I really here?

The plane glides across the Tehran night and I unclench my teeth, peek outside and a tiny smile blossoms on my weary face as I touch the oval face of the window. How I love this landing, how I love the tangerine colored lights of the Tehran skyline.

I draw in the musty air as I sway from side to side in the bus that takes me from the plane to the terminal. The terminal that is a few short steps from where eager smiles and loving grips await me in this god forsaken hour of the morning.

I take in the night and this land that I love no matter what. I take Iran without a facelift and dressed as it is, morning, noon and night. Isn't that how we love our mothers? Isn't that how we wish to be loved?

I settle into the car, curl against the glass and prepare for the familiar ride home. The Willow trees in the Bozorgh-rah have grown taller, and fuller. Cars weave in and out. So much dust, so many sounds; people, so many people. My mind is restless, my eyes heavy and tired. I have been awake for 36 hours -- the entire trip over. My travel mate, the hazel eyed Hungarian grandmother with the ready smile and the bag full of snacks, announced seconds after we met that "she likes to talk and never sleeps on plane rides". She was good company for my fatigued nerves and anxious mind.

I crack the window open and touch the still groggy morning air. I can hardly believe it. I am here, at last. I don't know how I arranged everything to be here at this moment. All I know is that, the tomatoes don't need dressing. And the persimmons are winking at me from their high perch upon the tree. I have not been in Iran in the autumn for 18 years. How do I love thee, let me count the ways.

For letters section
To Shadi Bahar

Shadi Bahar



Book of the day

Iranian Nationality and the Persian Language
by Shahrokh Meskoob

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