When Hatefi came to get me at the boarding school, he was beaming with joy.
“Put on your best clothes and your best shoes. We are going to an embassy party,” he said excitedly.
“What’s the occasion?” I asked, rushing to get ready.
“What is the occasion? What is the occasion? A few months in England and the boy forgets everything. It is Norooz!” he shouted. “You remember what that is, don’t you?”
“Really!” I squealed with delight. “It is Norooz already?”
“Happy New Year,” he said and gave me the ceremonial kisses on the cheek. This was the coldest Norooz I had ever seen. It was the first day of spring, but London was still in winter.
“Never mind the weather. We’ll do the best we can,” he said, as he drove crazily to the embassy. “Do you know the ambassador? He is the Shah’s son-in-law, a very nice man, no pretensions, one of us. You will meet him. When you do, be very polite, but don’t be shy. He hates shy kids.”
Hatefi was an assistant to a friend of the family stationed in the London embassy. He had been told to look after me, and he did so with great kindness. He also enjoyed taking time off from the office to take me and himself sightseeing. He liked to talk, and teaching me the ways of the world gave him a good excuse.
We arrived at the embassy and walked up to the reception hall, the rumble of party chatter all around us. The ambassador was at the entrance, greeting the guests. I had seen his picture in the newspapers and thought he had charisma: seeing him in person confirmed my impressions. I felt at home just looking at him.
“The Shah’s son-in-law,” Hatefi reminded me. We walked up; the ambassador noticed Hatefi.
“Happy New Year, Hatefi,” he said cordially.
“Happy New Year, sir,” Hatefi answered.
“Your son?” queried the ambassador, scruffing my hair.
“No, sir, I am just looking after him.”
“Good man to look after anybody,” the ambassador assured me. Then he reached into the huge silver bowl on the pedestal next to him and pulled out a fistful of noghl mixed with newly minted Persian coins and stuffed it in my pocket. “Welcome. Go inside and enjoy yourselves,” he said as he noticed some other guests in need of attention. He gave Hatefi a pat on the back and reached out to greet the new guest.
“Nice man,” Hatefi said, craning his neck around, looking for something. Suddenly he found it and whisked me in its direction.
“Caviar. Have you ever had caviar?” he asked as he pushed me through the crowd like an upright vacuum cleaner.
“Fish eggs?” I asked.
“No fish eggs are something else entirely. Caviar is fish eggs, too, but see if you can tell the difference.” There was a giant crystal vat that contained what looked like an oil spill. Emerging from this swamp and rising prominently above it were muddy mounds of black magma. Hatefi scooped up some of the contents with the silver spoon and slathered it on a wafer. “Here, eat this,” he said as he helped himself to the mound.
“Thank you,” I said politely and started nibbling on the salted fish eggs. It was good so I threw the whole wafer in my mouth.
“You like it?” Hatefi smiled. “Smart boy! The best caviar in the world comes from the Iranian Caspian. Here, let me make you a sandwich.” He selected two pieces of toast and mortared them together with an inch of caviar and offered it to me proudly. “If anyone tells you the Russians have the best caviar, send them to me. The best sturgeon swim to our side of the sea, too much industrial pollution on their side. Actually, there is no ‘their side’: the Caspian is all ours. The bastard Russians bullied us out of most of it?”
“Mmmmph?” I mmmphed.
“Really good stuff. It is beluga caviar. More?” I wanted to say I had had enough but I need to swallow before I could talk. By then he had stuffed another in my mouth. “You will never see this much caviar again, I promise you . . . unless you work in the factory!” He laughed, looking around. The guests were busy chatting and eating. Hatefi pointed out the other food tables.
“All that dried fruit, wonderful stuff. Iran is a big exporter of dried fruits and nuts. Peaches, apricots. mulberries, pistachios, raisins. Look at this wealth. Do you know how many different kinds of grapes we grow?” He waited for an answer. I counted four.
“Two hundred. Can you believe that?”
“No, that is too many,” I said.
“And that is just the grapes.” We walked over to the platters of dried fruits and nuts. “Dried cherries, almonds, walnuts. We should try them all with caviar, don’t you think?” I told him I thought walnuts might agree with caviar, but dried cherries are best eaten without fish eggs.
“Go ahead, make fun, but Iran has the best agriculture in the world. This new agriculture that they do here--it makes a cherry as big as a watermelon, but it tastes like sawdust. If you want fruit that tastes like the real thing, eat Iranian fruit.”
“I wasn’t making fun. I just think caviar tastes better by itself,” I said.
“You have to try it with butter. I will prove you wrong.” We hiked back to the caviar swamp, where he paved a piece of toast with butter, only to bury it under a mudslide of caviar. “Try this if you think caviar is good by itself.”
“Please, no more caviar,” I protested, but he looked boyishly disappointed. He so wanted to prove me wrong.
“All right,” I said. “Let me try it.” He was right. I admitted my mistake.
“You know Americans eat peanut butter with jelly,” he said with a nauseated expression.
“So do the English. It is worse than caviar and dried cherries.”
“Much worse. The English learned it from the Americans. The ambassador used to be ambassador to America, did you know that?”
“No. What’s he doing here?”
“He is too pro-Republican. While a Democrat is in office, he is in hiding.”
The ambassador was now surrounded by an admiring group of listeners. Suddenly they all started laughing. He raised his hand to indicate he was not finished yet, then he uttered one more sentence. This time the crowd exploded into guffaws. Meanwhile, Hatefi had built me another caviar sculpture, this one fortified with lime juice.
“Hatefi, I really can’t. You don’t want me to throw up in front of the Shah’s son-in-law, do you?” Hatefi retracted the monument but immediately offered it again.
“Don’t throw up,” he ordered. “The best lime in the world. Iranian. Comes from the northern regions.” Then he dipped his head in the direction of the ambassador and whispered, “But if his father-in-law has his way, we are going to end up importing food.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Shhht, tell you later.”
By the time the party wound down, I felt like a pregnant sturgeon. Hatefi’s assurances that sturgeon do not become pregnant was no help.
“Don’t fill up on caviar,” he said. “After the party a few of us are going to the private quarters to have tea and sweets.”
“Hatefi, I just can’t eat any more. You have fed me too much.”
“Eat. Norooz comes once a year.”
When the party ended, a few of the guests went to the private quarters and waited for the ambassador. His young daughter, the Shah’s beloved grandchild, was playing in the curtains, threatening to bring them down. Her nanny looked stressed. She was reluctant to scold the child, but she could be held accountable for anything the little princess destroyed. The girl swam through the curtains and began yanking on the tablecloth. We all held our breaths and prayed she wouldn’t pull the food off the table. Hatefi spotted a small dish with something yellow and gooey in it.
“Royal caviar,” he uttered, awestruck and salivating. “Extremely rare. Reserved for the royal family. We must rescue it before the carpet eats it.”
“If you hadn’t fed me all that black caviar, I would have room for the yellow stuff,” I chided.
“Let’s go have a spoonful anyway.”
“You go, I will watch.”
“You will not find this in stores, even if you could afford it. You will be sorry. You don’t have to swallow it, just taste it.” He fed me some yellow caviar and made me swallow it. It would have been in terrible form to throw up royal caviar. I did not puke out of reverence.
Her highness was now pulling the drawers out of the oaken desk and slamming them shut. She had already tipped some chairs over and the table setting was clearly askew. Finally, the ambassador showed up and, noticing the condition of the room, asked the nanny to take the child to the zoo.
Good, I thought. Throw her in a cage and put a “do not feed” sign on her. It was further decided that the child should choose one of the children present to accompany her in case the animals did not prove sufficiently entertaining.
Me, me, me, I thought. I desperately needed a “do not feed” sign. The princess looked me over and seemed interested, but I lost her to another boy who did not reek as badly of fish eggs.
“Your caviar ruined me, Hatefi,” I whispered.
“That is all right. You shouldn’t get mixed up with royalty anyway. Just think, you might have to eat caviar every day.”
“I would abdicate to avoid the stuff,” I asserted.
The ambassador sat on the ornate oaken desk dangling his legs. He had loosened his tie and collar and was issuing short directives to his aides. One of them handed him a tin box, and the ambassador asked for a can opener. Everyone started a body search for one. I told Hatefi that I was carrying a pocketknife that had a can opener on it.
“Why don’t you offer it?” he asked.
“Because I don’t want to have to eat whatever is in that box. I am getting sick.”
“Don’t get sick now. Wait till after dinner,” he said.
Finally someone came up with a can opener, but the box was too hard to open. The ambassador nicked his finger on the sharp metal. He did not seem particularly concerned, but his aides were rushing about trying to come up with a Band-Aid. While his finger was being bandaged, the ambassador said, “The Turks have found a good way to package their dried fruit. They seal it in a plastic bag and stuff the bag in a cardboard box. Really easy to open. We have been using the same tin-can-and-solder method for years--when is Iran going to become an enterprising country?”
There was a rumble of consensus, but I was confused. I had heard this Iran-bashing a lot but assumed it had to do with people being upset with the higher ups not doing enough for the country. I did not expect to hear it from someone supposedly in charge. Surely if anyone was to feel responsible for fixing the problems everyone bellyached about, it was people like the Shah’s son-in-law.
On the way back to the boarding school I sat bloated in the car. Hatefi had the same reaction to the ambassador’s statement and was giving me a political lecture.
“You see, people are looking for leaders to inspire them, and leaders are looking for inspired people to lead. Deadlock. Like two cats in a stare-down. Meanwhile the world is passing us by. These industrial enterprises we have going are worthless. It looks like technology, but all we do is put together parts made elsewhere. We just tighten the screws. Is that industry?”
“No,” I mumbled, not really listening.
“And all that lovely food on the table--we are losing it fast. Our farms are being destroyed by this so-called land reform. The farmers are all coming to the city to tighten screws. So we will import, you say. But when the oil runs out, what are we going to eat then, huh? What are we going to eat?”
My stomach growled in alarm. “Please, don’t let it be caviar.” I moaned.
From The Mullah With No Legs and Other Stories.
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