Cheshmeh Village (Gilan Province), Iran Summer 1981
This is the sum of all that Saba Hafezi remembers from the day her mother and twin sister flew away forever, maybe to America, maybe to somewhere even farther out of reach. If you asked her to recall it, she would cobble all the pieces together as muddled memories within memories, two balmy Gilan days torn out of sequence, floating somewhere in her eleventh summer, and glued back together like this:
“Where is Mahtab?” Saba asks again, and fidgets in the backseat of the car. Her father drives, while in the passenger seat her mother searches her purse for passports and plane tickets and all the papers needed to get out of Iran. Saba is dizzy. Her head hasn’t stopped hurting since that night at the beach, but she doesn’t remember much. She knows just this one thing: that her twin sister, Mahtab, is not here. Where is she? Why isn’t she in the car when they are about to fly away and never come back?
“Do you have the birth certificates?” her father asks. His voice is sharp and quick and it makes Saba feel short of breath. What is happening? She has never been away from Mahtab for this long—for eleven years the Hafezi twins have been one entity. No Saba without Mahtab. But now days have passed— or is it weeks? Saba has been sick in bed and she can’t remem- ber. She hasn’t been allowed to speak to her sister, and now the family is in a car headed to the airport without Mahtab. What is happening?
“When you get to California,” her father says to her mother, “go straight to Behrooz’s house. Then call me. I’ll send money.”
“Where is Mahtab?” Saba asks again. “Why is Mahtab not here?”
“She’ll meet us there,” says her mother. “Khanom Basir will drive her.”
“Why?” Saba asks. She presses stop on her Walkman. This is all so confusing.
“Saba! Stop it!” her mother snaps, and turns back to her father. Is she wearing a green scarf? There is a spot of black over this part of the memory, but Saba remembers a green scarf. Her mother goes on. “What about security? What do I say to the pasdars?”
The mention of the moral police frightens Saba. For the past two years it has been a crime to be a converted Christian in Iran—or an ex-Muslim of any kind—as the Hafezis are. And it is terrifying to be a criminal in the world of brutal pasdars in stark uniforms, and mullahs in turbans and robes.
“There will be pasdars there?” she asks, her voice quivering.
“Hush,” says her mother. “Go back to your music. We can’t take it with us.”
Saba sings an American tune that she and Mahtab learned from an illegally imported music tape, and goes over English word lists in her mind. She will be brave. She will perfect her English and not be afraid. Abalone. Abattoir. Abbreviate.
Her father wipes his brow. “Are you sure this is necessary?”
“We’ve been through this, Ehsan!” her mother snaps. “I won’t have her raised in this place . . . wasting her days with village kids, stuck under a scarf, memorizing Arabic and waiting to be arrested. No, thank you.”
“I know it’s important”—her father’s voice is pleading—“but do we have to make a show of it? Is it so bad if we just say . . . I mean . . . it can be hidden easily.”
“If you’re a coward,” her mother whispers. She begins to cry. “What about what happened . . . ?” she says. “They will arrest me.” Saba wonders what she means.
“What is abalone?” She tries to distract her mother, who doesn’t answer. The fighting frightens Saba, but there are more important things to worry about now. She taps her father on the shoulder. “Why is Khanom Basir bringing Mahtab? There’s room in this car.” It is odd that Reza’s mother would drive at all. But maybe this means that Reza will come too, and Saba loves him almost as much as she loves Mahtab. In fact, if anyone asks, she is happy to claim that she will marry Reza one day.
“In a few years you’ll be glad for today, Saba jan,” her mother says, deciding to answer some unspoken question. “I know the neighbors call me a bad mother, risking your safety for nothing. But it’s not nothing! It’s more than any of them give to their children.”
Soon they are in the busy Tehran airport. Her father walks ahead, taking quick, angry steps. “Look at this mess you’ve made of our family,” he snaps. “My daughters—” He stops, clears his throat, and changes tack. Yes, this is the best way, the safest way. Yes, yes. He continues walking with the luggage. Saba feels her mother’s hand squeezing hers.
Saba hasn’t been to Tehran in months. When the Islamic Republic began making changes, her family moved permanently to their big house in the countryside—in Cheshmeh, a peaceful rice-farming village, where there are no protests, no angry mobs spilling into the streets, and people trust the generous Hafezis because of the family’s deep local roots. Though some villages, with their terrifying mullah justice, are more dangerous for a Christian family than big cities, no one has bothered them in Cheshmeh, because the conservative, hardworking farmers and fishermen of the North don’t attract close attention from the pasdars, and because Saba’s father is smart enough to lie, to oil the bread of curious neighbors by opening the house to mullahs and townspeople. Saba doesn’t understand what they find so fascinating about her family. Reza alone is more interesting than all the Hafezis combined, and he has lived in Cheshmeh for all of his eleven years. He’s taller than the other kids, with big round eyes, a village accent, and warm skin that she has touched twice. When they marry and move into a castle in California with Mahtab and her yellow-haired American husband, she will touch Reza’s face every day. He has olive skin like boys from old Iranian movies, and he loves the Beatles.
At the airport, Saba sees Mahtab in the distance. “There she is!” she yells, and she pulls away from her father and runs toward her sister. “Mahtab, we’re here!”
Now this is the juncture where the memory grows so foggy that it is just a dreamy patchwork of flashes. It is an accepted fact that at some point in this day her mother disappears. But Saba doesn’t remember when in the confusion of security lines and baggage checks and pasdar interrogations this happens. She recalls only that a few minutes later, she sees her twin sister across the room—like the missing reflection in the mirror from a frightening old storybook—holding the hand of an elegant woman in a blue manteau, a heavy outer robe exactly like the one her mother was wearing. Saba waves. Mahtab waves back and turns away as if nothing were happening.
When Saba rushes toward them, her father grabs her. Yells. Stop it! Stop it! What is he hiding? Is he upset that Saba has made this discovery? “Stop, Saba. You’re just tired and confused,” he says. Lately, many people have tried to cover up things by calling her confused.
Memory plays such cruel tricks on the mind—like a movie with its tape pulled out and rolled back in, so that it shows nothing but a few garbled images. This next part feels somehow out of order. At some later point, her mother comes back—even though a minute ago she was holding Mahtab’s hand. She takes Saba’s face between two fingers and promises wonderful days in America. “Please just be quiet now,” she says.
Then a pasdar in a security line asks her parents a string of questions. Where are you going? Why? For how long? Is the whole family traveling? Where do you live?
“My wife and daughter are going alone,” Agha Hafezi says—a shocking lie. “For a short time, on vacation to see relatives. I’ll stay here to wait for them.”
“Mahtab’s going too!” Saba blurts out. Is the pasdar wearing a brown hat? He can’t be. Pasdars don’t wear the kind with a full brim. But in the memory the same brown hat always materializes.
‘‘Who is Mahtab?” the pasdar barks, which is scary no matter how old you are.
Her mother lets out an uncomfortable laugh and says the most awful thing. “That is the name of her doll.” Now Saba understands. Only one daughter is going. Do they plan to take Mahtab instead? Is that why they’ve kept her away all this time?
When she starts to cry, her mother leans down. “Saba jan, do you remember what I told you? About being a giant in the face of suffering? Would a giant cry in front of all these people?” Saba shakes her head. Then her mother cups her face again and says something heroic enough to redeem her. “You are Saba Hafezi, a lucky girl who reads English. Don’t cry like a peasant, because you’re no Match Girl.”
Her mother hates that tale—a helpless street girl wasting matches to conjure up daydreams instead of building a fire to warm herself.
You are no Match Girl. This is Saba’s last memory of that day. In a flash her mother disappears and there is a jumble of other images Saba can’t explain. She remembers someone’s green scarf. A man with a brown hat. Her mother appearing in lines and at gates. Saba running away from her father, chasing Mahtab all the way to the window overlooking the airplanes. Each of these visions is covered by a layer of hazy uncertainty that she has learned to accept. Memory is a tricky thing. But one image is clear and certain, and no argument will convince her otherwise. And it is this: her mother in a blue manteau— after her father claimed to have lost her in the confusion of the security lines—boarding a plane to America, holding the hand of Mahtab, the lucky twin.