I hung up the phone absently, echoes of enthusiasm slowly fading into suspicion. Malek Khanoum was coming to California to visit me? Happy news, but fishy. She had been in New York a week now, but she had not summoned me in proper fashion to her daughter’s house for an audience. Why at her age was she sparing me, a generation younger, the aggravations of the pilgrimage? I knew Malek Khanoum hid a streak of earthiness, but this role reversal? Of course in keeping with her status, it had not been her on the phone. Her daughter, Nahid, notified me of the honor.
I looked forward to greeting them at the airport, but cousin Nahid said she and her mother didn’t wish to impose on me and would rent a car. Was the insult intended? I was not so out of touch with Iranian ways of pampering the guest that I would put convenience ahead of custom. I thought my years in America had unburdened me of my Iranian paranoia. Here we take folks at face value, barring contrary evidence. Yet there was evidence. Malek Khanoum was a diplomat of formidable sophistication. If I felt a whiff of an insult, she must have known this would be the effect.
The white minivan rolled into my driveway earlier than I expected. Malek Khanoum and cousin Nahid were only two hours late instead of the Iranian half a day behind schedule. But I had been ready days in advance. My yard looked so manicured, neighbors dropped by to ask if I was selling the house.
From the bay window of the living room I watched mother and daughter come out of the car. Taking my time getting used to Malek Khanoum’s changed look, I forgot to rush to the door. It had been thirty years!
Malek Khanoum walked several steps from the minivan and took in a lungful of air. “The jasmines must be in bloom,” she smiled. Her voice was the same, confident and declarative. She had aged less than I imagined, but she dressed differently now. Brown headscarf, dark shoes like two eggplants, covered from neck to ankle in drab gray. Only her face showed. She had never worn makeup. Never needed it, even when she used to wear strikingly modern dresses and flashy high heels. I wondered how gray she had turned beneath her scarf. Her hair was once, as the American poet puts it, “one warrior innocent of defeat.”
Cousin Nahid rang the doorbell and stood tall, obscuring her bundled mother. I opened the door to a sensation as fresh as the jasmine scent from the garden. Even though we often talked on the phone, for the last few years Nahid and I hadn’t made the time to visit. Throwing our arms open to each other was symbolic, for it was disrespectful for Nahid and I to actually hug in front of Malek Khanoum. No hugs, no pats on the back, no tweaking the cheeks. A handshake would have been such a frustrating token. Nahid hated holding back; it made her crabby. So we made a lot of noise, bobbed heads, and looked each other over. This was permitted for cousins as long as we did not look each other over for too long—impossible because Nahid is every bit as gorgeous as her mother was thirty years ago. After a warm greeting with Malek Khanoum, I led the way to the living room and offered her a prominent seat framed by the sunlit window. While I inquired about the family’s health, Nahid made her way to the kitchen to badmouth the flavor of my Persian tea.
“How is your genius son these days?” I asked Malek Khanoum. “I sent him an e-mail last year congratulating him on his new appointment. He must be the youngest chair in the university’s history.”
“Thank you,” Malek Khanoum said, though not as proudly as I had expected. She had demanded something unreasonable and they had another falling out, I guessed. “Bahram was pleased to receive your e-mail. It means a lot to him that you follow his career.” Then she lowered her voice so Nahid would not hear. “The country loves talent, you know. If Nahid would come back, they would kiss her feet, just like her brother. You don’t know what she’s been turning down.”
“I heard about the film score offer,” I said.
“World famous director, he begged her. What does she want? To teach piano to kids all her life? With her gift? Talk sense into her.”
I had brought it up with Nahid months earlier on the telephone. It did not go well.
“Screw that,” she spat. “I’m not holding a baton dressed as a turd.”
“You turned him down for fashion?”
“So hire women musicians. Show up naked if you want.”
“No point being naked if there are no men.”
“Seriously, have you heard Iranian film music lately?”
“You mean has anyone crapped in my ear lately?”
“Nahid, that’s just gross.”
“What you’re doing is gross. I’m tired of everybody twisting my arm about this stupid offer. Take my side and I’ll read you The Rose Garden.
“ I’m just saying you can help the people.”
“Oh don’t make me vomit; they’re not my people. And I’m not helping clean up the dog shit they’ve stepped in. Fucking mullahs.” Then she said something unintelligible that sounded French. Farsi must not have been crude enough for the thought.
When Nahid came out of my kitchen with the tea tray, I could tell she was pondering whether she should offer it first to me or to her mother. Her mother was older, but I was her guest, so to speak, as she was the one with the tray. I removed her dilemma. Taking the tray, I served Malek Khanoum first and Nahid second. As we sat sipping tea and nibbling rosewater cookies, Malek Khanoum’s wistful sighs told me that this was going to be a day of reminiscences.
“Of course you wouldn’t remember,” she began, “but when you were only a few months old you gave your mother and me an awful fright. We were all in the front yard and you were in your baby carriage sucking on your bottle when we heard a big crash. One of your cousins had bumped into your carriage with his tricycle and sent it hurtling through the basement window. Do you remember the basement at our house?”
“Yes, I remember it. There was a small fountain pool with blue-green tiles and goldfish. We used to have breakfast there whenever my mother and I spent the night at your house. You had a bin where you stored watermelons for the winter, and you got mad when Nahid and I played hide-and-seek there.”
Malek Khanoum seemed uncomfortable that I remembered her basement in such detail. She knew I was hinting at something else that had happened there. The secret pact she and I made when she was pregnant with Bahram and Nahid and I were toddlers.
One day the doctor told Malek Khanoum to cut in half the cow’s milk she was giving Nahid. Perhaps she was allergic. The next day at breakfast Nahid threw a fit about getting only half a glass while I had a whole one. She wouldn’t shut up. So Malek Khanoum said, “OK, Nahid close your eyes. I will call the Milkman Jinn for more milk.” Nahid closed her eyes and Malek Khanoum called out “Mr. Milkman Jinn, Mr. Milkman Jinn, bring more milk for Nahid.” While she was calling the Milkman Jinn, she filled the rest of Nahid’s glass with warm water from the samovar. Nahid opened her eyes and to her delight her glass was full.
Flustered by Nahid’s tantrum, Malek Khanoum had forgotten to ask me to close my eyes. She caught me glaring at her, bewildered and betrayed. No one needed to tell me there was no Mr. Milkman Jinn—I had seen the deception with my own eyes. If the truth got out, the children would become uncontrollable. A silent exchange of looks between us sealed the Basement Pact. I would keep mum about her milkman sham, and she would never try to con me with imaginary creatures.
Now reunited in my living room in California, Malek Khanoum and I turned guiltily to Nahid, who was still innocent of our Basement Pact. “Well, what happened to the baby carriage after it went plummeting?” Nahid asked. “Did someone catch it?”
“No,” said Malek Khanoum. “It crashed through the glass and fell down through the window. After that we didn’t even hear you cry. Your mother went white as chalk. She just collapsed. I ran to the basement certain that a piece of glass had cut you in half. But when I got there, your carriage was upright and you were still quietly sucking on your bottle. Not a scratch on you.”
While Malek Khanoum was telling the story, I noticed her eyes were often not on me but on the air surrounding me. She seemed to be addressing someone standing near me that I could not see.
It was past lunchtime. Nahid had told me earlier on the phone not to prepare any food. Malek Khanoum had found out I ate pork; my pots and pans were therefore contaminated. I had the same problem whenever Bahram visited, and each time I asked the same question.
“Don’t restaurants also serve pork?”
“Mullahs say if you don’t know about it, it doesn’t count against you,” Nahid had explained. “Maybe the restaurant just bought new pots and pans, and they’ve never had pork in them. So we eat out when Mother is in America.”
I had made a reservation at a seafood restaurant by the ocean, a short drive from my house. Malek Khanoum got curious about a clam dish on the menu. She wondered what clams were and if they were Islamic to eat. Nahid and I did not know the Farsi word for “clam,” so I asked the waitress to bring us an uncooked clam for a brief inquisition. Malek Khanoum ordered the chicken dish just to be safe.
Looking out the window we could see the waves bobbing the fishing boats. Malek Khanoum asked me if I remembered the day I had almost drowned in the Caspian Sea.
“A storm was picking up fast. They had raised the black flag, warning swimmers to stay out of the water. But you could never tell the difference between black and white. One minute you were there building sand castles with my Bahram, and the next minute you had disappeared. This was the same summer your mother, God show her mercy, passed away. I don’t know what your father would have done if he had lost both of you in such a short time.”
I did remember being washed away and trying to hang on to the rope that kept boats out of the swimming area. I had naively thought I could slowly pull myself to safety. But the relentless waves agitated the coarse rope against me, cutting gashes across my chest and neck. My choices were drowning or decapitation. I was starting to prefer drowning, when a tanned giant surfaced next to me and pulled me into the safety of his muscular chest.
“We don’t know where he came from,” Malek Khanoum said.
“He was the lifeguard,” said Nahid.
“No, the lifeguard was wearing a red swimsuit.”
“Your husband’s nephew is drowning and you’re watching this hunk’s swimsuit?” Nahid said.
“Oh hush. I just know he wasn’t wearing a red one.”
“So what color was it?”
“How should I remember?”
“Your mind probably wished the swimsuit off. Do you at least remember what size it was?”
“By the greatness of the Creator!” Malek Khanoum almost leaped out of her chair.
“I meant the size of the swimsuit, Mother. Nothing to scream about.”
Malek Khanoum kept patting her chest in grief. “Where did I go wrong? Where did I go wrong?” she muttered woefully.
Malek Khanoum was on target though. The waters were tossing me about like frenzied dogs made savage by hunger. A lifeguard would have had to fight them off. But whoever rescued me held power over the wild. From the moment he engulfed me in his arms to the moment he dropped me on dry sand, I felt the sea had been silenced.
“He just walked away,” Malek Khanoum said. “Didn’t even wag a finger and say we should be more careful with our kids.” Again her eyes were looking beyond me as she spoke. The sense was so strong I turned around to see who was standing there. No one.
After lunch we went for a walk on the beach. Nahid and I caught a few moments alone as Malek Khanoum stopped to investigate a tide pool. I took the opportunity to ask why her mother kept bringing up incidents where I almost died. Did she have premonitions about something happening to me?
“No, it’s something else,” Nahid said. “Do you remember one day you showed up at our house to take Bahram to the American technology expo?”
“Now don’t you start,” I said. “As I recall I didn’t almost expire that day.”
“No, thank God, for once you didn’t. You just had a cold. Bahram caught it the next day. Remember how sick he got for just one day?”
“Yes, and your mother was furious because Bahram was supposed to be at the national math contest that day. I remember her yelling at my mother for not keeping me home. I almost ruined your brother’s destiny.”
Nahid nodded, “But now she thinks your cold may have saved Bahram.”
“The fender bender?” I said. “No one was hurt.”
“That doesn’t mean Bahram wouldn’t have been injured if he’d been in the bus with the other contestants. Mother has gotten superstitious in her old age.”
“Is that why she’s always talking to “Mr. Invisible” standing right here behind me?” I asked.
Nahid drew a circle in the sand with her toes. “She’s looking for the shadow she saw hovering by your baby carriage in the basement. Don’t laugh, but she thinks whatever guards you has also protected Bahram in the past.”
A gripping sensation in the throat made my voice go hollow, “Is Bahram all right?”
“Not to worry. He’s fine, ” she said, wiping away the circle she had been toeing, and checking to see that her mother was still out of earshot. “Really, it’s nothing. Bahram spent one night in jail in Tehran.”
“Bahram in jail?” I couldn’t believe it. He was too civic-minded to break the law, and pro-regime enough not to be jailed for politics.
“It happens,” she said shrugging.
“But what did he do?”
“We don’t really know. They say he did something inappropriate in public and came to blows with the woman’s husband.”
“Impossible. Nahid, his college roommates used to laugh when he wouldn’t take women’s phone calls without a shirt on. That jerk husband probably overreacted. It was an accidental brushing.”
Nahid checked her mother again. “It may have been worse than that,” she said, her smiles and hand gestures inappropriate to the serious content. She did not want her mother to read what we were talking about.
“But you said you really didn’t know,” I persisted. “What reason is there to think it may have been worse? What charges have been pressed?”
“They couldn’t press charges.”
Nahid kept swallowing her grief so it would not come streaming down her eyes. But her mother was heading our way, so she composed herself. Malek Khanoum was holding out a pretty seashell she wanted to share with the children. Why after all this time was the old woman here on the California coast looking for a ghost to protect her son? What sort of trouble was he really in that needed the intercession of the supernatural?
After dragging us back to the tide pool to share the marvels she had found, Malek Khanoum said it was getting late for her afternoon prayer, so we headed back to my house for tea and devotion. I led her to my study and showed her the direction of Mecca. This was the first time anyone had performed the namaz at my house. I had forgotten how the Universe pauses for prayer. Time, like a desert camel, takes a break from its plodding and lies down. Westerners wonder how Muslims find time for five prayers a day. When we learn the practice as children, the namaz separates itself mentally from the press of our responsibilities. While other events, feelings, and duties elbow each other in the queue of time, prayer does not wait in line. It has its own private entrance into our consciousness.
I closed the door quietly behind me, leaving Malek Khanoum to her devotion, while I, summoned by emotion, went back to find out what had happened to Nahid’s kid brother.
“Sorry if she’s been her troublesome self again,” Nahid said of her mother.
“It’s very good to see her,” I said. “How are you handling her visit?”
“Dressed like this,” she laughed, modeling her conservative outfit, her maestro fingers fanned out in a gesture of display.
Actually she had done very well. The dark outfit covered all flesh but did little to discourage speculation.
“Very chic,” I said, “You have deniability written all over you.”
“She’s seen my real wardrobe. First thing she did was check my closet. She thinks I dress like a whore.” Then she turned suddenly serious and said, “Speaking of whore, you must have heard?”
“It’s OK, I can take it.”
“Yes, I heard.” She meant the reason for her divorce.
“I didn’t want to get into it on the phone, but just so you know, I didn’t start it. He fooled around first.”
“You wouldn’t have to apologize even if you did start it.”
“Don’t do that with me,” she said testily.
“Act like I’m a fucking feminist for getting even. Tit as in tat, not tit as in sisterhood. He burned me, OK? And I got him back where it hurts, the two-timing, bean-for-a-pecker, piece of shit.”
I put up my palms in surrender. “On the other hand, maybe it’s good you didn’t take that job in Iran. We don’t need another war.” Our squabbling over Iranian malehood lasted until Malek Khanoum emerged from her meditations to separate the children.
After a quick tea, Malek Khanoum apologized that they had to leave. Nearby relatives would be offended if they didn’t get a visit. On their way out I opened my arms to Malek Khanoum. She hesitated then accepted my California hug, declaring mostly to Allah but partly to Nahid, “He is like my own son.” The precedent having been set, Nahid and I embraced. She held on for a long time, pressing her head onto my shoulder. After the minivan drove away, I felt Nahid’s tears seeping through my shirt.
The peace of Malek Khanoum’s prayer lingered in my study as I sank into the armchair and reviewed my questions for the day. Since when had Malek Khanoum become such a devout Muslim? While other relatives named their children after the Prophet and the twelve Imams to keep away the evil eye, she had named her children after pre-Islamic mythological figures. Bahram, the fire bringer. Nahid, Mother Protector of ancient Iran and virgin goddess of fertility.
More importantly, why had Nahid distracted me with the story of her controversial divorce when she knew I would be probing her about her kid brother? She must have felt it was my right to know that Bahram had something to do with their visit, but it seems she did not wish to speak of it further. Instead of a blunt “I don’t want to talk about it,” she had satisfied me with something equally personal to let me know I was still in her confidence. Distraction had always been her gentle way of refusing me. Once as an adolescent I asked her how long the goddess of Fertility planned on staying a virgin. There too she distracted me with the tenderness of her namesake’s Mother Protector aspect. Whatever pained her, she clearly couldn’t share yet.
But Nahid had said, “They couldn’t press charges.” She had not said, “They wouldn’t press charges.” Back when we were both in Iran and the Shah still ruled the land, that meant the family had used its connections and favors-owed to thwart the law. But these days, with the mullahs in charge, the family had no such pull. On the other hand, I had long suspected that Bahram was no ordinary citizen of the Islamic Republic. He had visited me in California, once when he was a student in the United States, and several times as a professor of physics when he had been asked to give talks at various symposia. He had been an extremely precocious child, and his star rose so quickly in Iranian academia that I imagined he would top the list of scientists consulted on matters of national security.
It was telltale that he never discussed his opinions on the issue of Iran’s nuclear research; always making me think it was I who changed the subject. Last time I saw him was two years before Nahid and Malek Khanoum’s visit. We were sitting in my backyard tasting the Zinfandel my wine club had made in my garage. It was the first time I had seen him drink. Hoping he was a cheap drunk I asked him if Iran had a nuclear weapons program, never expecting him to reveal anything. He said there was no one smart enough in the country to pull it off.
“What are you talking about?” I said. “You are smarter than Einstein.”
“Einstein was never in the atom bomb project,” he said dryly.
“You know exactly what I mean,” I said, slightly surprised. It wasn’t like him to miss poetic license.
“You don’t need genius scientists for nukes anymore,” he explained, admiring my neighbor’s towering redwood. “The problem you have to solve is information control. It takes more than an Einstein to figure out how to make everyone think you’re making goat cheese.” Now he was sounding like his old self again, analytical but inclined to humorous imagery.
“And how much ‘goat cheese’ did Iran make last year?” I asked.
“Goat cheese?” he asked, puzzled.
“Your jet lag is showing, Bahram. Either that or you’re complimenting my wine. Make sure you get some sleep before your seminar.”
His symptoms were unusually severe for jet lag though. His personality kept fading, and he seemed periodically to go out of phase with the world. I even got the impression he didn’t know it was wine he was sipping.
“Oh, how much goat cheese?” he smiled, finally catching on. “That figure is unavailable.” Then he changed the conversation. Something was missing in him. Talking to him was like watching a cooking show on a black and white television.
“Goat cheese” was a delicious subject even in his father’s time when the Shah was in power. Malek Khanoum’s husband, my mother’s brother, was also a scientist. He used to boast how the Shah wanted to buy twenty-three nuclear reactors with the blessing of the United States. Iran had already spent more than six billion dollars on some initial projects. Which is why whenever my father visited my uncle’s house, the issue of Iran’s nuclear reactors went critical.
“How many villages could have running water for six billion dollars?” my father used to shout, spraying spit. “How many Iranians would no longer have to use their thumbprints for a signature?”
“Put your eyeballs back in their sockets,” my mother used to say.
“Perhaps more iced cantaloupe to soothe your throat,” Malek Khanoum mocked.
My father had picked up his anti-nuke attitude during his trips to the United States. Americans had grown suspicious of their atomic revolution. Flush with civil rights victories and with new awareness of safe habitat for their offspring, they dealt with the nuclear industry like a mother deals with a child molester.
By my father’s paranoid calculation American anti-nuke activism had made Westinghouse fall short of their forecast by exactly twenty-three reactors. The reactor contract, he believed, was one of the ways America reclaimed money spent on Middle East oil. The Shah could buy running water and literacy but only after taking unsold inventory off the ledgers of Western economies.
Malek Khanoum, young and quite European in dress at the time, used to sit thoroughly captivated by my father’s firebrand patriotism. This eloquent hothead with dark wavy hair attracted her perhaps more than the stodgy physicist husband who knew celestial mechanics, but whose obsession with technological baubles would waste the nation’s treasures. Taking her husband’s point of view, she used to challenge my father, demanding proof. My uncle approved of his wife calling out my father, hoping disagreement would distance the two. But often it seemed my father and Malek Khanoum were reluctant to let others join in their quarrel.
The exception was Majid the servant who Malek Khanoum used to recruit as backup to her lead. “This is all pointless,” she would proclaim. “We are not even the real Iranians. Let’s ask the working man what he thinks.”
This time Majid hurried in with more tea. “It’s not tea we want, Majid,” she declared. “Just tell us why you think Iran should have nuclear reactors.”
Majid looked around the room and saw faces eager for an opinion on something he knew nothing about. He had heard of actors, as sometimes Iranians use the same word, but reactors? He finally said, “Whatever my masters wish.”
To which my father replied, “Spoken like a king.”
Everyone, including Malek Khanoum, burst out laughing, leaving Majid with a puzzled smile on his face. It was not like my father to criticize the Shah in front of servants who might talk. He had risked this repartee for her.
During this period when many Iranians weren’t sure nuclear energy was a good idea, an American technology expo visited town to convince them of the benefits of the atom. This was the expo after which Bahram got very sick, provoking Malek Khanoum to yell at my mother for not keeping me home. But I didn’t have a cold. I had pollen allergies. Bahram got sick all on his own after watching, at the expo, the genie in Walt Disney’s cartoon Our Friend the Atom.
In the cartoon, the clever old fisherman from a Thousand and One Arabian Nights tricked the terrible Atomic Genie back into the bottle. Disney had made this film in contract with the United States government in the 1950’s. Despite its menacing appearance, the message went, atomic energy could be made safe. Once enslaved, you could command the Atomic Genie to build palaces, transmute base metals into gold, and conjure magic carpets to fly the king’s happy subjects from one end of the land to the other.
That evening I excitedly related all this to my father. He closed his book. “The Atomic Genie is a Western Jinn who has shape shifted to look like a Jinn from the Thousand and One Nights,” he said, mischief in his wink.
“You don’t really believe in Jinn,” I said, pulling my leg back in.
“Even so,” he continued, “we should be careful not to trust this impostor with our desires. With the Eastern Jinn sometimes you get your wish, but the Western species always makes the master pay a terrible price. In fact if there is one wish you should make of the Eastern Jinn, it is to protect you from the Atomic Genie.”
“So our Jinns are good and theirs are bad?” I asked.
“Maybe it’s not the Jinn, but the master,” he said tapping his book of poetry. “Eastern masters usually wish for a different sort of power.”
“But what’s wrong with the Atomic Genie?” I asked.
“He’s not house broken,” my father replied, going back to his Rumi. “In time all the kingdom will become one magical pile of genie dung.”
But right then, as Bahram and I sat in the small theater inside the expo dome big as a soccer field, the evidence of unlimited wealth overwhelmed all prudence. The palatial structure all around us had been inflated in only a few hours, the walls held up by pressurized air lavishly replenished by electric pumps.
Yet little Bahram did not seem interested in treasure. He was from the unworldly side of the family. A different aspect of the genie had gotten to him. An unforeseen fallout. All the way back home on the bus he kept rubbing his fingers over the chrome coated handrails, because he now knew that the world was not as his senses were telling him. What he had perceived as solid matter was, in a more accurate reality, emptiness permeated by ghostly fields of force. As we had run from exhibit to exhibit, exploring models of the atom and playing with cloud chambers and radiation meters, Disney’s genie was already reconfiguring Bahram’s intellect to experience perceptions beyond his senses. That is why he had looked so sick afterwards. But he was not sick at all. He was a chrysalis whose innards had been liquefied so they could reassemble in a higher form.
The next time my father amused the crowd with his current-events forum, Bahram was not upstairs banging on the piano in the middle of Nahid’s arpeggios, making her scream. He was downstairs with the adults, sitting quietly in the corner beside me, testing his new faculties.
Last week’s atomic expo was still the talk of town. Malek Khanoum was setting up to get my father’s goat by pretending to see things his way. But on her cue, my uncle opined, “If these reactors are being dumped on us, shouldn’t we at least make the most of them?”
While Majid served fruit, my uncle explained to us what he had already told his wife. “If you let natural uranium sit in reactors long enough, it will slowly transmute into plutonium.”
My father’s face dropped in disbelief at the suggestion. “I hope you don’t plan on recommending this anywhere.”
“And what if I did,” my uncle said confrontationally.
“Americans would never let it happen.”
Malek Khanoum sided with her husband. “America is a dealership, not a country. If you’re buying, they’re selling.”
My father snorted. “Nixon may be a peddler, but he’s is no imbecile.”
Of course Nixon was no imbecile. It wasn’t until Gerald Ford’s presidency that the United States agreed to sell Iran the tools to extract bomb grade material from spent nuclear fuel.
Right then however an Iranian bomb was nothing more than conversation to go with chilled cantaloupe. Malek Khanoum, ever eager for the working man’s opinion, asked Majid if Iran should pursue plutonium reprocessing.
Majid turned helplessly to my father. “Polo with what?”
“The mistress is teasing, Majid,” said my father. “Plutonium is a nasty substance invented by Allah so His creation can uncreate itself.”
Majid went pale. His lips began to quiver as though in prayer. My father had not considered the effect of such a statement on an innocent mind. Undulled by schooling, Majid cut the rope in this juvenile tug of war. “Why?” he said. I think he was asking God.
“So that Iran can become great again,” replied Malek Khanoum. “Why is it unimaginable for us Iranians to be the most powerful country in the world? Like America.”
“You wish Iran to be like America?” Majid stammered.
I remember feeling a terrible uneasiness.
“Yes, why not?” she said.
“That is your wish?”
“Yes, that is my wish,” Malek Khanoum declared
Suddenly I heard a booming laughter next to me. I turned to Bahram. He wasn’t laughing. He was just nodding “yes” as though making the same wish. Malek Khanoum’s head also turned in the direction of the guffaw, but no one else seemed to have heard it. Then Majid said, “As my mistress wishes.” No, it was not Majid who said that. It was the laughing voice. Majid’s mouth was closed. “As my mistress wishes,” was spoken unmistakably in the voice of Disney’s jinn.
What happened next was too quick for conscious thought. The space Bahram occupied burst into an expanding radiance, engulfing his body in a detonation of light. Sitting closest to him, I too was about to be swallowed by the brightness, when a shadow from behind me leaped to squelch the light before it could reach me. Whatever it was, Bahram got fully bathed in it, and I was spared its touch, thanks to the quick action of the shadow. The Atomic Genie’s magic flash was so powerful that it would have exploded in size to swallow the neighborhood, the city, the country, if it had not been extinguished in an instant. The whole event was briefer than a camera flash. My eyes and Malek Khanoum’s briefly locked puzzled expressions, but by the terms of our Basement Pact we disengaged. There are no jinn. To the rest it was as though nothing had happened. Malek Khanoum asked Bahram to sit next to her, pulling him close. He fell asleep right away.
Now more than thirty years later, Bahram’s mother had come begging. Protecting me from the flash, my Jinn had accidentally rescued all the land from the Atomic Genie except one soul: Bahram. Malek Khanoum hoped my magic benefactor could undo the calamity she had unleashed on her son. She had come no earlier because Bahram’s rocket-like ascent to eminence gave her no motive to regret her wish. Bahram had always been a studious yet uncharismatic child. But it seemed the flash suddenly magnetized his personality. Soon an aura of leadership grew around him, strengthening as he grew older. He began to show a compelling integrity that made fast friends of complete strangers. His smile radiated sincerity. His confident handshake leveled rank and class. Once when still in high school, Bahram confronted a corrupt teacher who routinely failed half the class so they would have to pay for remedial classes. Bahram made a vow to his classmates that no one would fail that year. Thanks to his untiring tutoring, everyone passed with near perfect grades.
But the fine print in Malek Khanoum’s contract with the Atomic Genie must have come to the fore. Otherwise why would she come all the way to California to petition my jinn? I wondered what wheeling and dealing had gone on in my study while she pretended to be praying.
Wheeling and dealing was second nature to Malek Khanoum, starting with onion sellers who came to the door all the way to the Shah and the mullahs. Before the revolution she was staunchly pro-Shah, even though her grandfather had been a ranking mullah and the Shah’s agricultural reform had deprived her clan of dividends from charity lands. Of all her many suitors she had picked my mother’s brother, a bland, unadventurous man, but also a Western educated modernizer with potential to go far in the Shah’s order. She had done much to energize her husband’s zeal for the monarchy. When my father used to launch into diatribes against the Shah, Malek Khanoum summoned the shrewdness of her clerical ancestry and cut him down to size with cynicism centuries older than Machiavelli.
“The Americans don’t want him too popular,” she would say dismissively, as though explaining to a simpleton. “If the Shah had everyone’s heart and soul he could flash his royal buttocks at America.”
When Malek Khanoum patronized someone, it was hard to recover because she really was aristocracy. My father’s worldview came from years of formal education, but Malek Khanoum’s savvy was passed on generation to generation as a matter of class survival. “It is a question of balance sir, and His Majesty is playing it very well,” she said with unarguable finality.
Of course there were others of her sort who were less bedazzled by the Shah. They too were of the bloodline of wily politicians who had made puppets of Iran’s Arab conquerors. Centuries later, they assessed their Ivy League conquerors and knew what to do. Majid, the ink stain on his thumb barely faded, and wary of the Western Jinn that promised a brief heaven at the price of eternal hell, entrusted his country to the religious caste.
We all worried for the family. What would happen to Nahid and Bahram if their parents were jailed or hanged? But after the revolution, Malek Khanoum unframed all the photos of her husband kissing royal hands and burned them. She had no more use for “His Majesty.” Then she polished her rusty credentials as a member of an old clerical family and began indoctrinating her children for advancement in the Islamic hierarchy. Bahram was young enough to be turned in time. But Nahid, who had been as shocked by the deception as I was by Mr. Milkman Jinn, left the country in disgust as soon as she was able. For more than two years mother and daughter did not talk. Their alienation ended only when my uncle died during a heart operation.
Months after Malek Khanoum and Nahid’s visit, Bahram’s university replied to my e-mails informing me he had resigned for health reasons. They did not name the illness. On the chance that this was a cover story for a covert reassignment, I phoned a cousin living in Iran and asked if he had seen Bahram lately. He said Bahram was now living with his mother. Malek Khanoum had sent regrets to the rest of the clan for no longer accepting visitors. Invited to gatherings, she would decline, explaining that Bahram’s condition makes it awkward for him to be in social situations. The cousin said Bahram had been diagnosed with a condition called Pick’s disease. He did not know what that was.
I looked it up. It is a degeneration of the frontal lobes of the brain. One of its early symptoms is loss of inhibition. The assault charge that the authorities had been able to quickly block must have had something to do with this symptom. Early on, the afflicted person becomes insensitive to the effects of his behavior towards others. Later he becomes unpredictably violent. Gradually obesity sets in because of abnormal appetite. As the eating disorder gets worse, the opposite happens and the patient will starve himself. Ultimately the disease lobotomizes him, and he dies a vegetable.
There is no cure.
No one is saying how the old woman deals with the violent episodes of a young man much stronger than she. Or how she accepts the humiliation of sharing her world with someone whose inhibitions have wasted away. When Bahram throws a tantrum, does Mr. Milkman Jinn still work his magic? Or does Bahram lash back with the anger of betrayal? I know his mother would take every blow in stride if she knew there was hope. This was the trade she had come California to make. A heap of endurance for a scrap of hope.
Last time I talked with Nahid on the phone, we mentioned her brother only briefly even though his illness weighed heavy on our minds. Malek Khanoum had been taking care of Bahram at Nahid’s house while they saw American doctors. Nahid said her mother and brother were now back in Iran. She sounded burned out and melancholic, but there was no trace of the irreverent tone she always used to talk about her mother. I sensed she wanted to tell me something, if only she could bring herself to utter it. “I’m selling the house,” she said.
“You took the job?” I asked, flabbergasted.
“There’s a piece I wrote that’s homesick for listeners,” she said, still seeking the right words.
“Nahid. You can’t say 'Iran' without sending other four-letter words after it. It must be a hell of a composition to make you homesick.”
“What’s the piece called?”
“Bruises,” She said.
I couldn’t bring myself to respond.
“These days Mother keeps even her face covered.”
The receiver was quiet for a long time, Nahid’s silence occasionally punctuated by a sniffle. Finally the Mother Goddess found her voice. “Iran is not some bad husband I can just cuckold and divorce.”
“Nahid, listen to me; keep the house. Don’t burn bridges”
“Chicken shit. I thought you wanted me to go help.”
“I meant just the one job. What will you do afterwards?”
“ I’ll kiss Islamic ass for a while, then maybe I’ll whore for Anarchy or suck up to some new Shah. If a black eye is the only thing Iran has left to give, at least there’s still life in that arm.”
That evening I went to the ocean alone and faced the angry waves, threatening a suicidal swim. A state park truck drove up and a young ranger walked up to me, tall in his neatly pressed uniform, “This park is closed after sundown, sir,” he said firmly. “I am going to have to ask you to leave.”
I turned to him and said, “I wish, O Jinn, that a cure will be found for Pick’s disease."
From Contemporary Jinn Stories. The non-historical characters in this story are fictitious, with the exception of Mr. Milkman Jinn, who lives in samovars.
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