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The tree
Short story

September 28, 2004

I knew that we were Iranian, and I knew that it was as good as being anything else, American or Guatemalan or Vietnamese or anything else that my friends were, but a boy who leaves his country at age two wants to know the world that is right in front of him. I didn't want to miss anything, so I had to learn what everything was. The language was English. We spoke Farsi at home, but even at home, the world was happening in English. A tree in our yard was a tree, and a dog barking next door was a dog. They were all connected somehow to the people who spoke the language. I wanted to be part of that too.

We could look at things and know them by their Farsi name, and that made for a beautiful world. I loved the sound of it in our house. It didn't matter that it was the only house on our block where it was being spoken. It still explained everything that needed explaining. But there was a language happening inside me too. It came from the idea that I had something to say about everything happening around me. I had to use the language of the people around me, because that was whom I was trying to tell.

Things began to take on the quality of the language they seemed to come in. A mother and father were two things that were still in Farsi, along with everything that came through them, and they still rang out like a bell as when my mother would call out to the street for me to come inside, but the street itself was taking on the quality of the language spoken there, as was everything in it. I didn't know it at the time, but I was making a decision: to live in that language. I didn't know it because to a kid the decision was an obvious one. I knew that there were streets that were just as alive that were living in Farsi. I could hear it when my parents talked. But they were too far away to get inside me.

I only saw those streets on television when there was some kind of problem, when we would be chanting angrily and burning American flags. I already knew about that stuff. I knew that we were mad at America and I knew we had some reasons to be. My interest in watching it was in hearing even just a single word in Farsi. And the world would go back to English soon enough, but for a moment, I'd be thinking: I knew it. I knew there was more to us than just us.

When I was ten years old, we went to Iran for the first time since I was old enough to understand what was going on. I had not guessed that it would be as wonderful as it turned out to be. It was wonderful to see everybody, and it was wonderful to see all the things that I hadn't known were Iranian. I remember looking at a tree and thinking, this tree is Iranian. It had something that went with what was inside us. I felt it in the way it carried its Farsi name with it, derakht. I could think of it as a tree, but I would somehow be being truer to it to think of it as a derakht. I would be being truer to it and to everything around me. I would be being truer the way a poet tried to be true.  

All this time, a tree had been an American thing to me, whether it had been something that a boy climbed or hung from or hid behind. And seeing the tree, I felt like I finally understood what my parents had been talking about. I had always known what they had been talking about, but now I understood that they had been talking about whatever they had been talking about in the language of a place that had this tree. It all made sense.

The thing that really did it though was that I felt like I finally understood what I had been talking about. I had been talking about this tree all this time that I had been talking at home. I had been talking about trees and the sun there and the people. I had been talking in the voice of our house, but also in the voice of the street. It just happened to be a faraway street. But it had gotten inside me more than I knew.

There had been an Iran that had been to my mother and father what America was to me: a place where they woke up in the morning and dreamed. It was a place where they had a mother and father, where they looked at what was around them and wondered what it was to be alive. It was a place where they felt the things in their first ten years of life that I had felt in mine. That was the Iran that they were telling me about when they spoke to me in Farsi. It was a country on the map, but it was also a place where anything was possible because I knew its language, and there was nothing that language couldn't reach.

I would never know it was well as I knew English. That was okay, because we lived in America, and I had the reading and writing that I wanted to do in the language of where I was. I was beginning to see that there was a lot that a poet could do. I wanted to hurry up and get to that, and the fastest way was through the language that I lived in each day. It was not out of any disrespect for Farsi. I still loved it, and I learned that sometimes it didn't take a whole country for your heart to move in the language of its people. It was easiest when you were in the country, but sometimes all it took was one family, and even sometimes just one person. It would always be there, because I didn't have a mother and father without it.

I set out to become a poet in English. I could include Iran and Iranians in it, but the language happened to be English. The funny thing about it was that I set out to write in a way that was sincere, and along the way, I saw how much sincerity was in Farsi for me. I was still a kid in it, because I couldn't speak it much better than a kid, and part of how I was trying to write in English was with the straightforwardness of a kid. I liked who I was in Farsi, because I didn't know it well enough to be sarcastic in it, to the point that it almost seemed like the language didn't lend itself well to sarcasm. It lent itself well to poetry itself, because I heard a love in it, even when the conversation had a disagreement. I would hear that love in English later, but I heard it in Farsi first.

Everything I've written has had Farsi in it, even though the language has been English. It has been in me, and it has come out in ways that I may not know myself. It's not the kind of thing that I could put aside even if I wanted to. Once you know that a tree is not just a tree, when you know with all your heart that it is something else somewhere else, and it fits into the rhythm of people's lives with a language and melody that is different, then you know that there are limits to where you are, but that they can be exceeded as well, by saying, okay, let me do my best wherever that happens to be.

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