The National Book Award finalist, Oprah Book Club pick, #1 New York Times bestseller and basis for the Oscar-nominated motion picture.
About the Author
Date of Birth:1959
Place of Birth:California
Education:University of Texas at Austin
Read an Excerpt
The fat one, the radish Torez, he calls me camel because I am Persian and because I can bear this August sun longer than the Chinese and the Panamanians and even the little Vietnamese Tran. He works very quickly without rest, but when Torez stops the orange highway truck in front of the crew, Tran hurries for his paper cup of water with the rest of them. This heat is no good for work. All morning we have walked this highway between Sausalito and the Golden Gate Park. We carry our small trash harpoons and we drag our burlap bags and we are dressed in vests the same color as the highway truck. Some of the Panamanians remove their shirts and leave them hanging from their back pockets like oil rags, but Torez says something to them in their mother language and he makes them wear the vests over their bare backs. We are upon a small hill. Between the trees I can see out over Sausalito to the bay where there are clouds so thick I cannot see the other side where I live with my family in Berkeley, my wife and son. But here there is no fog, only sun on your head and back, and the smell of everything under the nose: the dry grass and dirt; the cigarette smoke of the Chinese; the hot metal and exhaust of the passing automobiles. I am sweating under my shirt and vest. I have fifty-six years and no hair. I must buy a hat.
When I reach the truck, the crew has finished their water and the two Chinese light new cigarettes as they go back to the grass. The Panamanians have dropped their cups upon the ground around their feet and Tran is shaking his head, and saying something in his language as he stoops to pick them up with his hands. Mendez laughs. He is almost as big as the radish and there is a long burn scar the color of sand upon one of his fat arms. He sees me looking at it as I drink my ice water and he stops his laughing, no longer does he even smile, and he to me says: "What you looking at, viejo?"
I drink from my cup and let him look at my eyes. His brothers have started to go back to work but now they stop to watch.
"Old maricon," says Mendez. He takes up his trash spear from the orange tailgate, but my eyes look at the burn again long enough for him to see. His face becomes more ugly than it already is and he yells something at me in his language and his teeth are very bad, like an old dog's. I don't give him rest from my eyes and so now he steps to me, yelling more, and I smell him, last night's wine and today's sweating of it, and now Torez is yelling louder than Mendez. Again it is in their mother tongue and it is over quickly because Mendez knows this crew can manage very fine without him, and he needs money for his sharob, his wine. He is goh, the shit of life. They are all goh.
"Vamonos, Camello." Torez moves by me and closes the tailgate. Tran is already working ahead of the truck while the smoking Chinese and the lazy Panamanians walk to the shade of the trees, pretending there is trash there.
I pull my sack over my shoulder and to Mr. Torez I say: "In my country I could have ordered him beaten."
"Si, Camello? In Mendez's country he would have beaten you himself."
"I was colonel, Mr. Torez. I was colonel in the Imperial Air Force. Do you know this, Mr. Torez? I was a colonel."
He hands to me my garbage spear and looks me in my eyes. His are gavehee, brown as coffee, like all his people, like my people also. But I see he has made up his mind about me.
He says to me, to Genob Sarhang Massoud Amir Behrani: "Okay, Colonel, but today I'm Senor General. Comprende?"
At the lunch hour, Torez drives the highway truck down to the trees and we all remove our paper sacks from where we left them in the tool chest this morning. We eat in the shade. Many times Tran eats with me and I do not mind this because the little Vietnamese speaks no English and I am able to do my work in the classified pages of the newspaper. In my country, I was not only a desk officer; I bought F-16 jets from Israel and the United States, and when I was a captain in Tehran, a genob sarvan, I worked on the engines with my own hands. Of course, all the best aerocompanies are here in California but in four years I have spent hundreds of dollars copying my credentials; I have worn my French suits and my Italian shoes to hand-deliver my qualifications; I have waited and then called back after the correct waiting time; but there is nothing. I have had only one interview and that was with a young girl in college who I believe the company was simply giving personnel experience. That was over two years past.
But today and all week, I do not even attempt to look for a position. My daughter Soraya was married on Saturday and I feel already there is a hole in my chest with her gone. There is also a hole in our home, but now we are free to leave that place that has cost me three thousand dollars per month for four years. And I turn straight to this area called Legal Notices/Auctions. This is a part of the paper I have never before investigated. I have been speaking and reading English for over twenty-five years but the language of law in both our countries seems designed to confuse. Of course I know what is an auction, and this morning, when the air was still cool and we garbage soldiers sat upon the metal floor of the highway truck as it drove under the tall span of the golden bridge, the smell of the ocean behind us, I held the newspaper tight in my lap so no wind would touch it and that is when I saw the short notice of Seized Property for Sale, a three-bedroom home. Though of course this has not been my plan. My plan has been highly simple: stop spending money from home so we may use it to start some sort of business. I have been looking into many possibilities; a small restaurant, or a laundry, a video store perhaps. Though I know these American papers, I know what they say of this economy, still I see small shops going out of business on both sides of the bay. And of course we have no money for to buy a house as well, but there are many auctions in my country. There it is known as the legal way to rob.
Tran is eating rice and vegetables with a large plastic spoon from waxy paper in his lap. He is very small and yellow-brown. There are deep lines around his mouth and between his eyes upon his forehead. He smiles and nods at my own food. I eat rice also. Soraya used to save the tadiq for me, the hard cake of rice at the bottom of the pot Americans throw away, but for us, for Persians, it is the jewel. We cook it with very much butter so when the pot is turned upside down all the rice comes out onto the plate, even the brown and burned part we call tadiq. Now, each night, my wife, Nadereh, saves half for my lunch. She also packs for me radishes, bread, one apple, and a small thermos of hot tea. The Panamanians watch me pour the steaming tea into my cup and they shake their heads as if I am a stupid child. They do not know what I know of the heat, that there must be a fire inside you to match the one outdoors. At Mehrabad, my base near Tehran, sometimes the tarmac would become so bright off the sands even we officers, with our European sunglasses, would close our eyes. Of course we spent most of the days inside our air-conditioned offices. Many times there, between appointments or briefings, I would have my attendant phone Nadi at our home in the capital city. She and I would speak of the small events of the day, then she would let the children to the telephone. One morning, when my son Esmail was one and a half years, he said his first word to me, then, over the wire: "Bawbaw-joon," father most dear.
With my fingers I tear out the small notice of the home to be auctioned and place the paper in my front shirt pocket beneath my vest. Today is Wednesday, the only day I do not work my night position at a small convenience store in El Cerrito, a neighborhood where I am not likely to see any Persian people, not the rich ones, the pooldar, those who live alongside us in that high-rise of overpriced apartments on its hill overlooking the bay and San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. In four years, this two-bedroom flat has cost me over one hundred forty thousand dollars in rent. But I will not let myself think of that now. I cannot.
Tran finishes his lunch. With his fingers he brushes off the wax paper and folds it neatly before putting it back into the bag with the plastic spoon. He pulls out a chocolate bar and offers to me a portion, but I shake my head as I sip my tea. I know that he will use that tired paper for his lunch tomorrow, and the spoon will probably last him half the year. I know, like me, he is a father, perhaps even a grandfather. And perhaps I will be a grandfather soon as well.
Of course I argued many times for a more reasonable place to live, but Nadi fought me; we must keep up our appearance. We must act as if we can live as we are accustomed. All because it was the time of hastegar for our Soraya, when young men from good families send roses to her and our family, when their fathers call me to talk, and their mothers call Nadi to introduce. If there is no family match, there can be no match. And naturally, because our daughter is very beautiful, with long straight black hair, a small face, and the eyes of a queen, she had many offers and of course could not make up her mind. Meanwhile, Nadi had to make certain our daughter did not attract any common Persians; she ordered all the best furniture and lamps and carpets. On the walls she has hung French paintings, and the mosaic-frame portrait of the battle of martyrdom in the Karbala. On the silver coffee table are crystal bowls filled with pistachios, dates, and fine chocolates. And near the sliding glass doors to the terrace are fresh green plants as large as small trees.
There are many other Persians living in the building, all rich, all pooldar. Many of them are lawyers and surgeons. One was a judge in Qom, our holy city before it became the headquarters for the mad imam, but the mullah is dead now and we still are on the list of those who will be hanged or shot if we are to return home. He left behind many such lists as that.
I think of these things as I look over at Mendez, sleeping in the shade, his brown stomach visible beneath his peerhan. When we flew from France Nadi, Esmail, and I I carried bank checks worth two hundred eighty thousand dollars. A man like Mendez would drink that money, of this I am quite certain. But many nights my sleep does not come when I think of how unwisely I let that sum be burned up, burned because my dear Nadereh could not and cannot bear to let other families know we have next to nothing left from the manner in which we used to live. If I had been stronger with her, if I had not been so sure I would have work soon with Boeing or Lockheed, making a respectable salary, then I most for certain would have invested in real estate. I would have told Soraya her hastegar must wait for a year or two, I would have rented us a modest apartment under one thousand dollars per month, and I would have purchased a partnership in an office building or perhaps even a residential property in a growing neighborhood of new homes. I would have watched the market like a wolf, then, in short order, I would have sold for an honest profit only to do it again.
We have forty-eight thousand dollars remaining, this is all, an amount my fourteen-year-old son will need for the first two years of university alone. It has been my hope to begin a business with this, but I fear now to lose it all, to become bankrupt like so many Americans. Of course, I have always seen the samovar as half full, and Nadi may have been right; Soraya has married a quiet young engineer from Tabriz. He holds two Ph.D.s in engineering and we can rest to know she will be taken care of and I thank our God for that. The young man's father is dead and that is a pity because he is supposed to have been a fine businessman, a possible partner for myself. Perhaps it is the seized property I must begin to view, the used, the broken, the stolen. Perhaps there is where we can get our start.
Because our work is finished at half past three, the sun is still high as Torez drives us through San Francisco down Van Ness Street. I sit with Tran and the Chinese opposite the Panamanians, and I look over the pig's head of Mendez he stares at me with the tanbal eyes, the lazy eyes of a man who wants sleep then more wine and I regard all the mansions of Pacific Heights, the high walls covered with white and yellow flowers, the iron gates that allow in only fine European automobiles: Porsches, Jaguars, even Lamborghinis, the cars of the old Tehran. My driver in the capital city, Bahman, he drove for me a gray Mercedes-Benz limousine. Inside was a television, a telephone, and a bar. Under Shah Pahlavi, we all had them. All the high officers of the Imperial Air Force had them.
The skin of my head is burning. Each morning, Nadi gives to me a sun-blocking lotion I rub there, but now, even with the warm wind in the open truck, my scalp burns and I promise to myself again I will purchase a hat. We continue south through the city past Japantown and its five-acre Japan Center, where one can buy electronics, porcelain, and pearls. Many Persian wives from our building shop there, and so I must sit low in the bed of the truck and stay in this manner until Torez turns onto Market Street, then down to Mission Street, where is the Highway Department's depot. He drives us under a freeway, past a movie theater which shows films only in the Spanish language. On both sidewalks are no pooldar people, only workers, cargars, brown-skinned men and women carrying bags for their shopping. And there are many small food stores, restaurants, laundries, and clothing shops, and they are owned by the Nicaraguan people, the Italians, and Arabs, and Chinese. Last spring, after our thirty-day fast of Ramadan, I from an Arab purchased a shirt in his shop near the overpass bridge. He was an Iraqi, an enemy of my people, and the Americans had recently killed thousands of them in the desert. He was a short man, but he had large arms and legs beneath his clothes. Of course he began speaking to me right away in his mother tongue, in Arabic, and when I to him apologized and said I did not speak his language, he knew I was Persian, and he offered to me tea from his samovar, and we sat on two low wooden stools near his display window and talked of America and how long it had been since we'd last been home. He poured for me more tea, and we played backgammon and did not speak at all.
Torez drives into the dark building that smells of motor oil and dust. It is so large it reminds me of an airplane hangar, which I appreciate. He parks the truck beside the gas pumps opposite the office and we crew of garbage soldiers walk to punch our time cards. But Mendez and one of his friends stay behind. Each day it is different who Torez will choose for tool and truck cleaning duty, and I am certain the pig Mendez holds me responsible for today. I walk through the bright truck yard surrounded by a tall chain fence and I carry nothing but my newspaper and bag and thermos. Every day at this time it is the same; my back and legs are stiff, my head and face are burned by the sun, and I must walk four city blocks to Market Street to the Concourse Hotel where I pay to keep my white Buick Regal in their underground parking facility. Of course it is an added expense, but there is no secure location for my auto so close to the Highway Department. Also, it gives to me opportunity to clean myself and change clothes before returning home.
In the beginning I would enter the hotel through the carpeted lobby. At this time of day there is only one employee at the desk, a man of forty years with very short black hair and a large black mustache. He is dressed in a fine suit, but pinned in one of his ears is a tiny bright diamond. Each day he would regard me in my work clothes dirty from road dust, wet with my sweat, and each time he would ask, "May I help you, sir?" Soon enough I stopped explaining and simply pointed to the elevator I would take to the garage. But one afternoon, when there was a well-dressed lady and gentleman settling their account at the desk, the diamond man, the kunee, the one who gives ass, who in my country would be hanged, he looked over their shoulders and asked very loud of me: "May I help you, sir?" The lady and gentleman turned around, and I could see they were tourists, perhaps Germans, but they viewed me no longer than a man would take for a dead insect upon his windshield while driving. And for the thousandth time in this terrible country I wished to be wearing my uniform, the perfectly tailored uniform of an honorable colonel, a genob sarhang in the King's Air Force, the King of Kings, Shahanshah Reza Pahlavi, who three times in my career his hand I kissed, twice at formal gatherings at Sadabaad Palace, once at the grand home of my dear friend General Pourat. But of course my uniform then, in the lobby of the Concourse Hotel, was damp work clothes with blades of grass on my lower pants, dust on my back. So I did nothing but move quickly away, once again the hot blood of a killer dropping from my heart to my hands.
Now I simply eliminate the lobby and every day walk down the concrete auto ramp into the shadowed belly of the building, where I unlock my automobile and retrieve the clothes I wore early this morning. I am never certain if there will be Persians in the elevator of our apartment building or not. In the cooler months I wear a suit, but now, in summer, I wear a short-sleeve dress shirt and tie, dress pants, and polished shoes with socks and belt. I leave these in a zipped garment bag laid out quite neatly in the trunk. The hotel elevator is carpeted and air-conditioned. I breathe the cool air into my lungs and soon I am in the second-floor lavatory opposite the ice machine, where I remove the auction notice from my front pocket, pull off my shirt, and wash my hands and bare arms and face. I shave for the second time today. I dry myself with the hotel's clean paper towels, and I use cologne on my cheeks and deodorant under my arms. Today I change into brown slacks, a white pressed shirt, and a tan silk tie. I fold the auction notice into my wallet, wrap my work clothes and shoes in paper, then put them in the garment bag. When I step into the hallway and walk to the elevator, my covered clothes over my arm, my tie knotted correctly and straight, and my face shaved clean, I pass a Filipino maid pushing her cart and I take notice that she smiles. And even bows her head.
The gentleman from the San Mateo County Tax Office gave to me a map for finding this home to be auctioned. He informed me to arrive by nine o'clock in the morning and be prepared to offer a ten-thousand-dollar deposit should I have a wish to purchase the property. He also to me said it was located upon a hill in Corona and if there were a widow's walk on the roof, you would see over the neighbors' homes to the Pacific Ocean below. I had not heard before this term "widow's walk," and so after traveling to the bank for a certified check of ten thousand dollars, I drove home to the high-rise and eventually last evening, after a dinner with Esmail and Nadereh where I revealed nothing, a dinner of obgoosht and rice and yogurt with cucumber followed by tea, I dismissed my son from the sofreh upon the floor where we eat barefoot and I searched for "widow's walk" in our Persian-English dictionary. I found only "widow," a word in Farsi I know quite well enough, and I felt a sadness come to me because this did not seem a good sign for the purchase of a home.
But this morning, that feeling had every bit disappeared from my body. Many summer evenings, instead of sleeping upon the sofa in my office, I rest on the carpet near the sliding door of the terrace with my head on a pillow beneath the leaves of the tree plants my Nadi cares for like her own children. Last evening the sky was clear, and sleep came for me as I watched the stars through the screen.
I rise with the first light from the east, and, after a shower and shave and a breakfast of toast and tea, I wake Esmail for his newspaper route. Then I dial the Highway depot and inform them of the summer flu I am suffering. I prepare tea for Nadi and bring it to the bedroom on a tray. The room is of course dark, with the shades drawn and the drapes closed, and I know she is awake because a cassette tape of Daryoosh's sentimental music is playing softly beside her bed. I rest the tray on the bureau and open the drapes and both shades.
"Eh, Behrani. Nakon. Chee kar mekonee?"
My wife's voice is still hoarse from sleep, and I know she again has not slept well. She says to me, "Don't." And, "What are you doing?" But this morning, for the first time since perhaps France, I know what I am doing; Colonel Massoud Amir Behrani knows what he is doing.
She sits up and I put carefully the tray upon her legs. I bend to kiss her cheek, but she turns her face from me and I sit down in the chair near her bed. My wife's hair is thick and short, an area of gray near her face that she dyes black. Sometimes she applies too much and that part of her hair appears the color of a plum. Nadi has always worried about all that is not as it should be, and the overthrow of our society has aged her more than myself. But even still, her face is small and beautiful and many times when I am allowed to stand or sit in this shadowed room where she spends so much of her days, I hear the domback drum behind Daryoosh's singing, and I see her and she has no longer fifty years, but twenty-five, and again, I desire to be with her in the fashion a man is supposed to be with his wife.
"What do you think you are looking at, Behrani?" she says in our mother language as she reaches for another sugar cube. She does not take her eyes from me. Her hair is tousled in the rear. I think of our children, and I smile at her and the cassette tape ends and the machine clicks off at once.
"Nadi-joon, today there may be a big opportunity for us." I of course say this in English, but it is never any use for if she answers at all it is only in Farsi.
She says nothing. She turns over the Daryoosh cassette and she does not wait for me to proceed about this opportunity. She reaches to turn up the volume, and I rise and leave the room and dress into a summer's weight gray suit.
It is not one of my finer sets of clothes, for I do not wish to appear pooldar, nor however do I wish to seem like a beggar in the marketplace. Before leaving, I kiss my son on the top of his head as he eats his cold cereal at the small breakfast table in the kitchen. His hair smells of sleep and needs washing. He is dressed in a loose T-shirt and shorts, and beside him on the floor is his skateboard and bag of newspapers. He has only fourteen years, but he is already my height 175 centimeters and he has his mother's face. Both my children have Nadi's small, beautiful face.
The house is one-story but in a good state of repair. It is painted white and appears quite bright in this early sun that is already hot on my head that still carries no hat. There are hedge bushes beneath the windows and a small lawn of grasses in front that is in need of trimming. The street is called Bisgrove, and it is on a hill with houses built closely together on one side, a woodland on the other. But the county tax gentleman was correct; the street is not so steep one can see the water, only the pale morning sky so high and wide over the rooftops. Opposite the road are evergreen woods and brush and farther up are even more homes, all small, many with bushes and fences separating the lawns. I look once more at the woodland, at the fashion in which the sunlight drops through the branches, and I am thinking of our summer home in the mountains near the Caspian Sea, of how the light was the same in those trees along the winding earth road to our bungalow, and for a moment, I feel a sense of sarnehvesht, of destiny, and as soon as I do, I stand erect and look back at the property with as cool an eye as I am able, for I do not wish my judgment to be weakened at the point of sale.
Within thirty minutes we are all assembled, the county tax gentleman, the auctioneer, and only two prospective buyers: a young couple, a boy and his wife, who has not as many years as my daughter Soraya and is dressed in blue jean pants and white basketball shoes; and a gentleman close to my years, though very fat, as large as Torez, and he is dressed in a fine pair of suit pants but no jacket, simply a loose tie and white dress shirt that is stretched over his belly, and he is sweating on the forehead and above the lip. It is him I view as my main opponent, and all of his sweating makes me straighten my shoulders and I feel quite calm.
First, the county tax gentleman takes us for a walking tour through the bungalow. There is no air-conditioning, but the rooms are cool and I note every floor except for kitchen and bathroom is carpeted. The living room is large enough, and the dining area is a counter with stools where the kitchen begins. In the rear are three rooms, and as we step out in the backyard, I pat my breast pocket and touch the certified check from the Bank of America.
The young wife is very fond of the rear lawn, which is small and surrounded by evergreen hedges taller than a man. They shade us from the morning sun, and she begins to tell to her husband of the privacy they might have here, but it is the sweating gentleman, the radish, I am regarding. He stays close to the county tax officer and the auctioneer, who has as many years as me, carries a notepad and pen, and wears a department-store necktie and shirt. He has upon his face a confused expression, and he pulls the county tax gentleman aside for a quiet word.
Then we continue around the side yard to the front, and the sale begins with the auctioneer's suggested starting price of thirty thousand dollars. I am at once so astonished at this low figure that I do not respond and the young wife raises her hand and the auctioneer acknowledges her and the radish nods his head and the price is thirty-five thousand. The wife lifts her hand again, but the young husband forces it down and begins whispering loudly to her that they do not have that much saved, reminding her they are expected to pay all at once. My hand raises slightly from my side and the auctioneer points to me and the price is now forty thousand. The radish regards me with his wide wet face and his eyes become small, as if he is at once assessing me and my intentions as well as the numerous numbers in his head, and now it is clear to me he is a professional, a speculator, and he most possibly buys and sells dozens of these bungalows. I turn my face towards his and smile a most relaxed smile, one that is meant to invite him to bid all afternoon for I am prepared to do the same, sir, though of course I am not; I can barely go further than this, and I am not so certain any of this is wise.
"Forty-two fifty," says the radish, his eyes still upon me.
"Forty-five," my voice answers.
"Will there be a fifty-thousand-dollar bid for the property? Do I hear fifty, ladies and gentleman? Fifty thousand?" The auctioneer regards all our faces, our hands and fingers. The county tax officer consults his watch, and I feel the fat man's eyes upon me, and I make my own look to the house as if I am prepared to bid and bid. The sun is hot upon my head.
"Forty-five thousand, going once, going twice "
The radish turns and walks to his car, and now the auctioneer cries, "Sold," and the county tax gentleman steps forward to shake my hand and receive the deposit which I hand to him from my jacket pocket. I sign his papers, and I hear the young couple drive back down the road, but already I am calculating what this house on this street might bring me in the open market, and I am certain I will surely be able to double my money. Yes, yes, I will put it up for sale as soon as we move in.
Nadi notices the new hat upon my head before she says anything of the flowers I have brought her, tiger lilies, the flower gentleman in Ghirardelli Square named them. My wife still wears her sleeping gown, and she is polishing the silver tea table. On the carpet around her she has rested the crystal bowls of nuts, dates, and chocolates, each covered with plastic wrapping to protect them from the fumes of the silver polish. In Farsi she says: "You should have a brown colah on your head, Behrani, not blue."
I know of course she is correct. The new hat I wear is of an artificial material, with a short visor like taxi drivers wear, and it is the color of a swimming pool. But I purchased it because in the shop's mirror it gave me the appearance of a man with a sense of humor about living, a man who is capable to live life for the living of it. And when I bought the flowers, I naturally hoped my Nadi might also for a moment see things in this way. But as I put the tigers in a water vase and set them upon the floor, I find myself preparing a proposition of numbers in my head. This must be handled quite delicately.
"Why are you not working today, Behrani?" She does not look up from her work. I want tea, but I feel the moment is now to be taken. I sit upon the sofa, close to the silver table and my wife.
"Nadereh, do you remember our bungalow near Damavand? Do you remember I ordered the trees cut down on the north side so we may view the Caspian?"
"Saket-bosh, Behrani. Please, be quiet." My wife's voice is weary and there is fear in it as well, but I must continue.
"Do you remember when Pourat brought his family there for our New Year's and we celebrated spring on our terrace? And his khonoum, your dear friend, said what a gift from God to have the sea spread before us?"
"Hafesho, Behrani! What is the matter for you? Please." She stops polishing and closes her eyes, and when she does this I see water gather beneath one eye, and I feel the moment has come.
"Nadi, I today bought for us another bungalow."
She opens her eyes slowly, as if perhaps what I said is something she did not hear. "Do not joke. Why are you not working?" Her eyes are wet and dark and I think how in our country she would never let me see her like this: no cosmetics upon her face, her hair untended, still wearing what she slept in beneath a robe, doing what before only soldiers or women from the capital city did for us. But we have not looked at one another this directly in many months, and I want to hold her tired old face and kiss her eyes.
"I am not joking, Nadi." I begin to tell her of the auction and the price no one would believe I paid for the home, and how of course the open market will pay us three times that, which is the point, Nadereh; this is the way for us to make significant money now, not Boeing or Lockheed, but real estate; we will live in the home for a short time and perhaps we will build a widow's walk to increase further the value of the property and we will take our tea there where we can view the ocean and you will be very comfortable there, Nadi; you will enjoy to invite Soraya and our new son-in-law there until we sell it and find an even better home and perhaps
It is now that she stands and throws down the polish rag and yells at me in Farsi she did not come to America to live like a dirty Arab! So kaseef! Some family roaming the streets like gypsies! All their possessions being damaged and ruined along the way! She stops and closes her eyes, raises her hand to the side of her head, her fingers trembling at the knowledge she has invited one of her migraine headaches. I watch her walk back to her room and close the door behind her. Soon I hear Daryoosh's music on the cassette player in her room, the domback drum sounding as steady behind him as a march to bury the dead.
I lie back upon the sofa, no longer wanting tea, only rest. My wife has always been afraid. Both our fathers were lawyers in Isfahan, colleagues, good friends, and our marriage was their design since we were children. But I believe when I came of age I would have sent Nadi the flowers of hastegar anyway. She was always such a quiet girl, forever standing or sitting out away from the center of things, and her large brown eyes, so gavehee, looked often to me shiny with feeling.
Her confidence grew as an officer's wife, and she began to speak back to me, but she always was so fair and kind with our children, and with the soldiers who served in our home. The night we fled, she trembled like a wet bird, and she let me direct everything while she held the children and repeated to them whatever it was I had already said when, at three o'clock in the morning, one week to the day after Shahanshah flew to Cairo and the imams and ayatollahs were making massive crowds in the streets, I and two captains stole a large transport plane and flew our families across the Persian Gulf to Bahrain. Nadereh and our driver, Bahman, and I loaded five suitcases of all we could carry into the trunk of the limousine. Nadi was afraid to drive through the streets in it; she was afraid a mob would attack us for being pooldar, and only six blocks west one of our finest hotels was burning. University students with beards were breaking open cases of Dom Perignon champagne and pouring the contents of each bottle into the street drains. I assured my wife a dark car was best in the night, one with bulletproof windows.
On the flight over the black water, our wives and children sat in the middle of the wide cargo floor wrapped in blankets and the women sang songs to the youngest children who were so afraid because they had heard what had happened to our dear friends, the Pourats. They had heard how my rafeegh, General Pourat, and his family were stopped at the airport the previous day, accused of taking what was not theirs; the children had heard how the entire family was put on trial there in an empty baggage room, how they were made to stand in front of a wall with a large cloth banner which read in our language: MUSLIMS DO NOT STEAL FROM THEIR MUSLIM BROTHERS. MUSLIMS DO NOT TORTURE AND KILL THEIR MUSLIM BROTHERS. It was under this banner my friend's wife and three young sons were one at a time shot to death. They were first forced to read aloud from the Koran. Then they were killed. My friend, an officer admired by even the lowest of soldiers for his generosity and strength, was saved for last. They shot him numerous times in the head and chest. They then dressed his body in full uniform, and from the observation tower, hung him by the feet.
I close my eyes. I have grown accustomed to these images in my head, and it is not long before sleep begins to take me and I dream once again of a large cave full of naked children. They are dirty, their thin arms and legs streaked with dust. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them. And yet they are quiet, their faces raised to the darkness as if they are awaiting bread and water. Then Shah Reza Pahlavi and Empress Farah float through the crowd in a convertible limousine. They are dressed in long red robes covered with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and pearls. Some of the children move from the path of the auto, but others are too small or weak and they are crushed beneath the wheels. Shahanshah and his queen wave to them, their wrists stiff and their smiles fixed. I sit in a pilot's chair behind a large rock. My hands are on the controls, but I can do nothing but watch. I watch them all.
Wednesday evenings are not so busy at this convenience store/ gasoline station near San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito; it is on Thursdays and Fridays when I am forced to hurry behind the counter like the young man with whom I work on those nights, and of course my legs are already very heavy from the long day working for Mr. Torez on the highway crew. This evening that is not the case, however, and for this I am grateful.
After my sleep this afternoon I made for myself tea, and I ignored the sound of more melancholy Persian music coming from Nadereh's room. I gathered the telephone book and telephone upon the floor, and I dialed six Realtors in the Corona-San Bruno-Daly City area. I described to each the home I owned, and I inquired as to a fair selling price. Each of them reminded me of the recession in which we live, Mr. Behrani; this is a buyer's market, and still, unfortunately, hardly anyone is buying. Yes, I said, but are there many good three-bedroom homes selling for under one hundred thousand dollars? Each Realtor four women and two gentlemen said no, not usually, and they of course then asked me if I had anyone representing my interests in this matter. I had just terminated my final conversation when my son Esmail returned home from practicing skateboarding with his friends. Both his knees were skinned to the start of blood, and I told to him he must wash them before he thought of having a snack.
"Mohamneest, Bawbaw-jahn." No problem, Daddy, he said, and I followed him into the bathroom and I sat upon the toilet seat while he removed his Nike basketball shoes and stepped into the tub to run water over his knees. I remained silent as he washed himself, and I noticed once again the black hair he is growing on his legs like a man. In front of his ears is the shadow of hair that in only a year or so will become reesh, a beard. And for the very first time, I felt the difficult position I was in with him as well.
"Yeah?" My son turned off the water and looked at me quickly in the face. I handed to him a towel and he began drying himself.
In English I said: "I did not work today. Do you know why?"
He shook his head, then stepped out of the bathtub and folded the towel.
"I bought for us a house, Esmail. There is a beautiful hill for your skateboarding, and your friends can take the BART train to see you."
"In Corona. You remember that beach village we have before driven through on Sundays?"
My son of fourteen years looked at me then with Nadi's beautiful face that becomes so ugly so easily with bad feeling, and he walked past me and said in our language: "I don't want to move."
It is my practice halfway through this nightwork to purchase a Coca-Cola and drink it while I eat a package of peanut butter crackers. By nine-thirty or ten o'clock, the majority of my customers come only for gasoline or cigarettes, though many times a young husband or wife will arrive to buy milk and bread, ice cream perhaps. I sit upon the stool behind the counter and have my snack, and I am thankful of the long cigarettes display rack over me for keeping the bright fluorescent light from my eyes. Today has been a day of many decisions. After my son left the bathroom I stood quickly and felt the hot blood fill my hands and fingers, and I kicked my bare foot through Nadi's clothes hamper basket, then rushed into Esmail's room where he had turned on his television and I switched it off and stood over the bed where my son lay. I pointed at him, yelling in full voice, and I do not remember all I said except I know Esmail became hurt, perhaps frightened; I saw it in his eyes though he lay there very relaxed-looking, his hands loose at his sides, and he would not show any of this to his father. I told to him he would do as I said without question, and then I heard the music stop in Nadereh's room, the bedsprings squeak as though she were sitting up to listen, and I pushed her door open and I went directly for the cassette player and pulled it free of the wall and threw it to the other side of the room where it knocked over the bureau lamp and the lightbulb shattered and Nadi began screaming, but I shouted back and soon she became quiet, but I did not lower my voice; I yelled in our language that, yes, perhaps she did not come to America to live like a gypsy, but I did not come here to work like an Arab! To be treated like an Arab! And then I did lower my voice because even my son does not know the manner of jobs I have been working here. He has seen me leave dressed in a suit and he knows I work at two jobs, but that is all he knows, and many nights at this convenience store, even though it is situated two towns to the north of us, I have worried about his older schoolmates with driver's licenses making this discovery. So I lowered my voice to almost a whisper, and I told to my wife that beginning tomorrow she will begin packing and there is no more to discuss, Mrs. Behrani. Do not open your lips.
Once, before dinner at our home in the capital city, while Nadereh and Pourat's wife were in another room and after I had just raised my voice at our daughter of seven years for something I do not now recall, Pourat said to me softly: "Behrani, every night you must leave your work behind you."
Pourat and I were of the same rank then, both captains, genob sarvans, and I did not at first understand him until he nodded at Soraya, at her brown eyes wet from my yelling, from my orders. My face became warm with embarrassment, and after that moment I have worked hard to discipline myself from viewing my wife only as a junior officer, my children as soldiers.
But I am prepared now to give all the orders necessary until we are out of that pooldar apartment. The rent is paid through the month, two more weeks, but the Behrani family will be discharged this weekend, I promise that. I have a security deposit of three thousand dollars to claim. This leaves a total of six thousand dollars for us after I pay the remaining thirty-five on our new property. Tomorrow, Friday, I will receive my checks from this store and from the Highway Department, and I will leave these jobs with no notice. Torez and Mendez, and even Tran, can watch my backside as I go, as Genob Sarhang Behrani prepares for a new life, a life in the buying and selling of American real estate.
What People are Saying About This
"A page-turner with a beating heart." —The Boston Globe
"A mixture of classical tragedy perfectly imbued with film noir.... House of Sand and Fog is the work of a writer who is the real thing." —The Baltimore Sun
"Elegant and powerful.... An unusual and volatile literary thriller." —The Washington Post Book World
"House of Sand and Fog is one of the best American novels I've ever read." —James Lee Burke
Reading Group Guide
1. Do you sympathize more with Kathy Nicolo or with Colonel Behrani in part one of the novel? How does Dubus's use of alternating first-person narratives affect your response to, and involvement with, the characters?
2. The contested ownership of the house on Bisgrove Street is the fulcrum of the novel's plot. Who, in your opinion, owns the house once Behrani has paid cash for it? What would be a fair solution to the conflict?
3. Early in the novel Behrani buys himself a hat, which he says gives him "the appearance of a man with a sense of humor about living, a man who is capable to live life for the living of it" [p. 28]. Why is this a poignant thing for Behrani to wish for himself? Does he in fact take life too seriously?
4. What does Kathy's response to Nick's desertion reveal about her character? Why does Lester fall in love with Kathy? Is he better for her than Nick was?
5. Lester tells Kathy that he had wanted to become a teacher, but plans changed when Carol became pregnant. Is Lester's job in law enforcement a poor fit for him? Why did he once plant evidence in a domestic violence case?
6. Who, of the three main characters, is most complex? Who is most straightforward?
7. Where does the hostility between Lester and Behrani spring from? How do their memories—Lester's of his teenage girlfriend and her brother, Behrani's of his murdered cousin, Jasmeen—function to reveal the deep emotions that motivate action in this novel?
8. At what point do Kathy's and Lester's actions depart from the path of a simple desire for justice and move into something else? Why can neither of them seem to act rationally? Does Behrani act rationally?
9. Does Lester drink to break free of a sense of deadness, or to anesthetize himself? Why does he risk his family life as well as his professional life for his involvement with Kathy? Is he attempting to reinvigorate his life, or is he unconsciously seeking to destroy himself?
10. Note the epigraph to the novel, from "The Balcony" by Octavio Paz: "Beyond myself/ somewhere/ I wait for my arrival." How does it apply to the problems of self and alienation in each of the three main characters? Who has the clearest sense of his or her identity? What does it mean to have a clear sense of self?
11. Describing the success of her recovery program, Kathy says, "I had already stopped wanting what I'd been craving off and on since I was fifteen, for Death to come take me the way the wind does a dried leaf out on its limb" [p. 46]. How does the novel affect your response to the social and psychological issues of addiction, depression, and suicide? Do you find yourself being understanding or judgmental of Kathy as the stress of the conflict increases? Is she actually more of a survivor than she thinks she is?
12. Is Behrani's wife, Nadereh, an admirable character? Does her feminine role in a very traditional marriage reduce her importance as an actor in this drama? Does she have qualities that are missing in Behrani, Kathy, and Lester?
13. Behrani tells his son, "Remember what I've told you of so many Americans: they are not disciplined and have not the courage to take responsibility for their actions. If these people paid to us the fair price we are asking, we could leave and she could return. It is that simple. But they are like little chidren, son. They want things only their way" [p. 172]. How accurate is his perception of Americans? How well does it apply to Kathy and Lester?
14. How does House of Sand and Fog highlight the conflict between downwardly mobile Americans and upwardly mobile recent immigrants? What role does racism play in the reaction of Americans and foreigners to each other?
15. Why has Kathy avoided telling her mother and brother the truth about her situation? Does their meeting at the end of the novel resolve any of Kathy's difficult feelings about her place in the family?
16. Should Behrani be held responsible, on some level, for the crimes and excesses of the Shah's regime? Is he responsible for Esmail's fate?
17. Why does Behrani put on his military uniform at the climax of the novel?
18. What do you find most disturbing about the novel's denouement? If you find yourself imagining an alternate ending, what would that ending be?