OF ALL THE STORIES I will tell about my mother, this is the one I cherish most. I like to see her at the point of inception, the moment that would set the course for all our lives and all the stories that followed. And though I always know the end even before I have said the first word, I like the possibility, the promise inherent in each new telling, of a different finish.
THE GIRL ON THE STREET–her name is Bahar–would not stand out in any crowd. She’s not particularly beautiful, or smart, or endowed with exceptional wit, but she has a zest for life, a wild and irrational optimism that is alarming because it is so out of sync with the reality that surrounds her. Her father–my grandfather–is a former cantor’s apprentice who has not managed to rise to the ranks to which he had aspired, and who now sings at weddings and funerals instead. Her mother works in the house as a seamstress. She takes orders from rich Jewish and Muslim women, who send their maids to bring her fabric and thread and to pick up the work when it’s done. The women hardly know the seamstress’s name, don’t trust her with anything more expensive than plain cotton or wool. They have her sew sheets and tablecloths, their children’s school uniforms, their husband’s caftan pajamas, and they’re always complaining that she can’t make a pattern to save her life, can’t even cut a straight line, but still, she’s honest and doesn’t steal fabric, and she has mouths to feed; it’s just a form of charity, this, and besides, no one charges as little as she does.
There’s a son who has never worked a day in his life, who goes around in a secondhand suit and a borrowed tie. He pretends to be rich when everyone knows he wants for his next meal, lives off his parents instead of helping support the family. His one asset in the world is a deep baritone voice, and this alone has got him convinced that he should be an opera singer. He has never seen a real opera and wouldn’t know where to go to see one, but he loves the idea of being allowed onstage so he can showcase his talents, earn the adoration of fans, become famous. As it is, he doesn’t sing anywhere but at the homes of friends and relatives, and he only knows the lines to one song–a littleknown and quite possibly mangled number he calls “Granada,” which he sings in his sixth-grade English-as-a-second-language accent. The rest of the time, he sits on the roof of the Sorrento Café, on top of Pahlavi Avenue, sipping iced coffee that he gets for free from the waiters who humor him in the slower hours, reading government propaganda in yesterday’s paper, and bragging to the handful of other patrons about a life they all know he does not lead and a future they know he will not reach. But what’s the difference, really? It’s all illusion if you think about it and who’s to say what is or isn’t likely. Wasn’t Reza Shah an illiterate soldier one night and king of the country the next?
Real life, The Opera Singer likes to say, does not always rise to the occasion.
There’s another son who died when he was only ten years old but who keeps coming back, dropping in on the family without any warning or invitation and staying for as long as he wants before he takes off and breaks his mother’s heart as if for the first time. And a third one still–the youngest of the three boys and probably the smartest too. He realized early in life that there is no great advantage to being either poor or Jewish, and so he converted to Islam and married the daughter of a rich mullah who has promised him a great deal of money in this world and seventy-two virgins in the next. He’s changed his name from Moshe to Muhammad, printed his picture in every newspaper in the city under the heading “Jadid-al-Islam”–new Muslim–and he’s doing a fine job of convincing everyone he’s worthy of his new station and newly acquired wealth.
Jadid-al-Islam’s parents don’t dislike him for converting as much as feel contempt for him: he couldn’t tough it out as a Jew, they say; he chose the easy way out. Still, they can’t shake the embarrassment his conversion has caused the family and so they go around pretending he’s still a Jew, invite him to funerals but not weddings, ask if he could please leave the wife at home when he shows up on Cyrus Street where they live, if he could take off the Muslim aba when he comes around, think about his unmarried sisters whose chances at a good union have forever been spoiled by his selfishness.
The sisters’ chances, in truth, had been less than stellar even before Jadid-al-Islam’s conversion. The oldest one has already passed the age at which young girls become old maids. She stays at home plucking chickens and washing rice, waiting for the suitors who didn’t call when she was fifteen and eighteen and who certainly won’t call now that she’s nearing thirty. She looks for them in the black lines cast by coffee grinds at the bottom of the fortune-teller’s cup and in between the lines of Omar Khayyam’s poetry, listens to her parents chastise her for not managing to find a husband, as if a man is something you buy at the fish market–put on your best smile and someone is bound to follow you home. But even they know there is more to her ate than meets the eye, that she’s neither beautiful enough nor rich enough to be able to overcome her parents’ circumstances or the damage her brothers have done to her desirability, and yet they blame her anyway, blame her and their own destiny, because, of course, they can’t blame God–that would make them ungrateful and make Him angry; it could always be worse, you know, and besides, other girls they know have managed to find a husband in spite of their enormous flaws. Even Tamar, the cousin who’s so dark everyone thinks she’s Arab, eventually got married, and you know that’s no small feat, given how fiercely Iranians hate Arabs, call them “rat-eaters” because that’s what those savages do–they conquered half the world only to burn the books and tear the tongues out of the heads of any poets or philosophers a nation had produced and where are they now, oil money and all? Still wandering the desert with their camels and many wives, watching the world leave them behind.
The second sister, thank heavens, is married and has two kids, and she’d be just fine, really, she could have herself a good old time, if she didn’t raise her husband’s ire so often.
The husband is a doctor who barely made it into medical school– everyone knows this because the results of the college entrance exams are printed every year in the daily newspaper for the world to see–and who may or may not be a real doctor at all; he may be a hack, really, though he claims he’s a “psychiatrist,” treats crazy people as if a person’s brain is like a bone you can reset or an appendix you can remove. Since when does the soul get cured with a couple of pills? ho died and put him in charge of saving the Lost anyway? Still, it’s nice to have a son-inlaw you can call “Doctor,” even if he does lose his temper once in a while, beat his wife nearly unconscious right before the eyes of their children. After every beating, he takes her onto the roof of their house and locks her up in a room with a broken window through which a hundred pigeons fly in and nest. It’s a drafty, frightening place–too cold in winter and dangerously hot in summer. The Psychiatrist keeps his wife tied to a pole, has a padlock on the door and the key in his pocket. Twice a day, he sends their children–a son and a daughter–to bring food to their mother, but he refuses to allow the neighbors or her family members to visit her while she’s in onfinement, leaves her there for several days until the house is overrun by dirt or he gets tired of the meals his nine-year-old daughter has to make for him in her mother’s absence. Then he sends for his wife’s parents to come to the house, gives them the key to the pigeon room so they can free their daughter. She emerges with her hair matted from dust and bird droppings, and her face and hands scratched from too many pigeons landing on her. She stands before him terrified and trembling, her eyes sewn to the ground because she can’t stand to see her children looking at her in that state, and after a long apology to this healer of the human mind, sets about cleaning the house and cooking a meal before she’s even allowed to take a bath.
Some families, I have learned, are stranger than others.
I used to like this–their strangeness–about my mother’s family. It made them fascinating in the way that fairy-tale characters are fascinating– tragic to the core, but also mesmerizing. It never occurred to me, at first, that I might have inherited this strangeness, that I might have been born into the same weird spell and, with it, the solitude of the charmed.
MY MOTHER–her name, Bahar, means “spring”–has the kind of brains no person with common sense has any use for: she can’t add to save her life, can’t comprehend even the most elementary principles of science. Yet she says she wants to go to university and become a teacher–a high school teacher of poetry and literature and all those subjects that are the domain of unemployed men and loose women. Bahar reads books about people who do not exist and actually thinks of them as real, collects pictures of American movie stars and makes a point of learning every detail of their personal life. She talks about Spencer Tracy as if he were her next-door neighbor, celebrates Grace Kelly’s wedding to the king of Monaco as if there were a one in a hundred million chance, even, that this kind of thing could happen to her or, for that matter, to anyone she’s ever likely to know. But then again, Bahar does actually believe she’s going to marry a “person of substance”–“a rich man, with a celebrated name and social standing, someone of consequence, whom people know and defer to,” she explains, with a straight face, to friends and family. It hasn’t dawned on her that “persons of substance” do not marry girls who live one block away from the old Jewish ghetto of Tehran, or that girls from Cyrus Street do not become “of consequence” to anyone but, if they’re lucky, their children–and maybe this is why she gets along so well with The Opera Singer, why she’s the only one in the world who understands his delusions and treats them as if they were this morning’s truth.
Throughout the school year, Bahar spends her lunch money on chewing gum and tamarind that she buys from orphan boys on the street. She buys lottery tickets as well–though her parents have forbidden her to do so time and again–because of course she’s going to win millions with that one ticket she happens to have bought; just watch the evening paper you’ll read all about it, they’ll even print a picture of her waving the ticket in the air for the world to see: O ye of little faith. She’ll bring the newspaper to school and show it to her friend, Angel, who has shared a desk with Bahar since they were in first grade.
Angel studies day and night, doesn’t think she’s ever going to get married, and certainly not to a prince. Like Bahar, she intends to go to university and become a high school teacher, to leave Cyrus Street and rise above her family’s station, but she knows this will be a great challenge and is prepared to make the necessary sacrifice. Unlike Bahar, she doesn’t waste time by going to the cinema, or by taking the long way home after school so she can walk past the boys’ academy. She is from the kind of Jewish family that does not–as many others have done since Reza Shah opened up the ghettoes in every town and province across the country–downplay their Jewishness because they’re tired of being looked down upon by the world. For these reasons, Bahar’s parents approve of Angel and have allowed their daughter to visit the girl’s house a few times. Other than that, they keep a tight leash on Bahar, worry about her excessive optimism because they know just the kind of disappointment it is bound to cause: they, too, had once been young and able to hope, and look what it did for them–the father’s dreams of becoming a rabbi when he was well aware that a person must be born into that job, you inherit honor and respect from your parents; the mother’s love for the son who died, her trust in Jadid-al-Islam, her faith that The Opera Singer would make something of himself. Look what it all brought them.
Bahar, though, keeps telling them they’re wrong, they don’t know what she knows, and what she knows is that she’s going to do great things with her life, marry a great man and become of great consequence indeed, and that she’s not going to give up, never rest or bend or stray from the path she is born to pursue till she gets what she wants.
Then she meets my father.