Identity Card

Identity Card

by F. M. Esfandiary


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In a narrative where tragedy begs to be masked by comedy, F.M. Esfandiary conveys the consequences and realities of Iranian life. In an attempt to flee the underdeveloped, bureaucratic country, a Middle Easterner searches for every possible way to obtain an identity card that will allow him to leave Iran. In this comic masterpiece we follow this alienated man on a journey to freedom against the backdrop of a society dominated by ceremonious formalities, politeness, responsibility and confusion. Iranian-born Esfandiary further develops the themes and ideas of his first two novels, one of which has been required reading for the American Foreign Service, as he sheds light on a culture and a lifestyle that are a mystery to many.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780759239852
Publication date: 12/28/1999
Pages: 140
Product dimensions: 5.56(w) x 8.58(h) x 0.39(d)

Read an Excerpt


I am a confused man. I am a restless man. I don't know what I want. Sometimes I tell myself, I say, look, I will live here in my own country, accept it the way it is, accept it once and for all, and forget about going abroad. Then there are times when I tell myself, I say, you know, you are a stupid fool, why did you come back here, you don't belong here, you should go and live abroad -- anywhere, away from here.

Daryoush Aryana stretched out on his bed again and stared at the rain that poured torrentially outside his window. Today is a holiday, he said aloud, and was startled by his own voice, which was hoarse and heavy, because it was the first time that day he had spoken aloud. He had recently lapsed into the habit of talking aloud to himself, and although hearing his own quiet voice was reassuring to him, sometimes, as on this forenoon, his own voice startled him, as if he were not sure what he had just heard was his own voice.

Today is a holiday, he repeated quietly. It is the birthday of the third Imam, or is it the birthday of the fourth Imam? I know it is the birthday of one of the Imams. Yesterday was the occasion of the death of another Imam. All the shops and offices and government agencies were closed, the radio had no music, and the people sat in their homes, or in the mosques, dressed in black, weeping and tearing out their hair. But today is a happy holiday, and everyone is celebrating. Downstairs, Mr. Barzeen and his family are celebrating too.

It was a dark, rainy day, the sort of day that filled him with gloom and made him want to sleep all day and night, to sleep and forget and not have to look at the rain and the melancholy sky.It was the sort of day he dreaded, particularly in his present plight. Since early morning when the rain had jostled him out of a deep, merciful sleep, he had remained in his room, reading, resting, looking out of the window, thinking of faraway places, of sunny days, blue skies, the quiet sea, a stroll by the quiet sea. A sudden outburst of dance music in the adjacent room dragged his mind back from its happy wanderings and made him sit up in bed and listen.

He got up quietly, went to the door to listen more closely to the music and the voices of the landlord's relatives and friends who were celebrating the holiday together. Many of the relatives were downstairs in the rooms and in the arcaded courtyard, playing cards and backgammon, exchanging family gossip, helping Mrs. Barzeen prepare the elaborate meal. Other guests had repaired to the room next door to take advantage of the gramophone, which, although old and no longer in fashion, was still usable, faithfully playing and replaying the old tangos and foxtrots.

Daryoush Aryana sat on the floor resting his head against the door, absorbing the merry voices and sounds that came through the wood. He sat there a long time.

The smell of kebab and rich sauces from the kitchen below made him suddenly remember that he was hungry. He also became aware, all at once, that the excitement in the next room was rapidly diminishing, and the guests were gathering downstairs for the feast. Children were being summoned to eat, people were running back and forth fetching chairs and cushions, carrying the food to the table.

He put on his clothes and raincoat, then quietly, almost on tiptoe, went downstairs into the street, through the back entrance. He began to walk away briskly when the door of the courtyard opened and the landlord's son, holding an umbrella over his head, came into the street. "Mr. Aryana, my father begs you to come and have lunch with us."

Aryana, moved by the invitation, smiled and walked back to the young man. "Mr. Barzeen is very kind; please tell him merci , tell him I am grateful."

Mr. Barzeen's daughter also appeared, full of the seriousness of adolescence. She sought the protection of her brother's umbrella and said, "Mr. Aryana, my parents beg you to come and have lunch with us. They said they are very, very sorry they didn't invite you sooner for today's lunch, but they were afraid that because this is a family gathering, you would be bored."

Aryana nodded by way of gratitude, but declined the invitation, mindful that the presence of a stranger would surely diminish the spontaneity of an intimate family gathering. He nodded again, and submerging part of his head in his raincoat, walked away, grateful to have been remembered and invited, to have been addressed by someone. He had not spoken with anyone since the previous afternoon when, tired and restless after several hours of roaming the streets, he had gone to his room, shut himself up, spent the rest of the day reading and thinking. He would have been grateful if a muleteer had now stopped him in the rain, to address him, ask for directions or for money. He would have made a pretext of the occasion, invited the muleteer to a long conversation, interested himself in the prices of donkeys and the eating habits of mules.

He went into a restaurant and sat at a table. A man peered at him from behind a curtain and waved a hairy arm to indicate that he would come out soon to take orders. Daryoush Aryana looked about him in the empty restaurant and felt conspicuous in the silence. He began to regret having stumbled into an empty restaurant, but then, remembering that it was a holiday, reassured himself that all the restaurants were probably empty. "You are the second customer today," the waiter, who was also the owner, said as he walked to the table with a pitcher of water. "We shouldn't have opened today. The people have stayed home with their families and friends." He set the pitcher of water on the table and waited for the order.

Aryana hesitated, then said, "You wouldn't have a hamburger here, would you?"

"A what, agha?"

"It doesn't matter, it doesn't matter," Aryana said, smiling embarrassedly and waving his hand.

"Look, agha, if it is the toilet you want, you'll find it in the back."

"You have kebab of lamb . . ."

"We have kebab of lamb, we have rice and sauce, we have, let's see, we have kebab of chicken, we have, let's see, we have anything you desire."

He ate the kebab in silence, now and again turning to look out of the window, or at the curtain behind which the proprietor, the only other person in the restaurant, had withdrawn. When he went into the street again, the rain had stopped and the sun, bright and warm and reassuring, burst through the clouds and slowly erased the shadows and the darkness.

Early in the morning he went to the Ministry of the Interior, expecting to obtain his papers and leave forthwith. He walked through the long, dark corridor, reading the signs on the office doors. He knocked and went into an office that dealt with records. A man, sitting behind a large, inelegant desk looked up and nodded.

"I've been told to come here for an identification card."

"Who told you this, agha?"

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs."

The man behind the desk frowned. "Didn't they give it to you?"

"They told me to go to the Ministry of Justice. There they told me to come here. I came here about five days ago and was told to try the Police Department. There they told me to come back here."

"Please sit down, I'll call you."

He sat down and waited. This man is sympathetic, he thought, he will help me get my papers and I'll leave immediately. I'll get my -- the man behind the desk opened a drawer, took out a newspaper, glanced at it, then made a telephone call. "Look dear, I just noticed -- yes, I'm at the office -- I just noticed here in the newspaper that there will be a sale tomorrow night at the Ferdausi store, this will be a good time to buy those chairs. No, I haven't forgotten, you'll just have to call them and explain that something very important has come up and we'll be late. Do you need anything else? . . . Squash is still expensive, I'll see if I can find eggplant and tomatoes -- do you need tomatoes? I won't be late. May I be sacrificed for you." When he put down the telephone receiver, he glanced at the newspaper again, then looking up, said, "What can I do for you?"

"As I told you, I have . . ."

"Oh, yes, I remember, but to tell you the truth, I don't know anything about identification cards, but I can send you to someone here who can help you. Go upstairs to the third floor and ask for Mr. Paknour, tell him Rasheen sent you. I think he will have to write a letter to the Bureau of Civil Registration, requesting that they issue an identification card for you."

Aryana went upstairs to Mr. Paknour and explained what he wanted. Mr. Paknour said that as a rule, they didn't write letters to the Bureau of Civil Registration to make such requests.

"But Mr. Rasheen downstairs said that . . ."

Lowering his voice to a confiding whisper, Mr. Paknour said, "Tell me, agha, are you a friend of Mr. Rasheen? You see, he and I are also close friends and it will be . . ."

"I just met Mr. Rasheen."

". . . an honor for me to serve one of his friends." He got up and still whispering, added, "As I told you, we don't usually write such letters to the Bureau of Civil Registration, but any friend of Mr. Rasheen is like my own friend, and I'll be honored to write this letter for you."

"I'm very grateful, Mr. Paknour, but I must explain that I am not a friend of Mr. Rasheen, I just . . ."

"You must be a friend or relative, otherwise he would not have told you to come here and have us write a letter. But you needn't worry, Mr. Aryana, this will stay between us. What is your first name?"


"Very well, wait here please, I'll have a letter ready for you in a few minutes." He went into an adjoining room and was back before long with a typewritten letter. "This is all you need, Mr. Aryana, we will send it directly to the Bureau of Civil Registration."

"When will you send it?"

"Immediately. We will send it today."

"Thank you, thank you, then I'll go there tomorrow."

"What will you do there tomorrow? I suggest you wait till this letter gets there."

"Won't it get there by tomorrow?"

"It will take about two weeks. I suggest you go there in about ten, twenty days and see if . . ."

"Twenty days?" Aryana echoed, getting up. "Why twenty days? I can't wait that long. I must leave the country in a few days."

"It always takes ten, twenty days, sometimes even more."

"But I don't understand, why does it take that long? Isn't the Bureau of Civil Registration here in Teheran?"

"Yes, it is here in the city," Mr. Paknour said, also getting up. "It is on, let me see, it is on Sepah Avenue."

"But that is the next street."

Leaning over, Mr. Paknour whispered, "Well, you know how it is, you can't rush these things."

"But, Mr. Paknour, I must leave the country. I have already spent a week going from one ministry to another."

"You seem to be new to all this, Mr. Aryana. But because you say you are in a hurry to get your identification card, I will tell you, quite confidentially, of course, what you can do. Take this letter, in person, to the Bureau of Civil Registration and ask to see -- what's his name -- I've forgotten his name, he has a nice name -- Engineer Janan -- that's right, Mr. Engineer Janan. He is in charge of all this and can issue the card for you. Of course, you understand, this is strictly between you and me. Don't say that I told you to take this letter there in person, or that I told you to see Mr. Engineer Janan."

Daryoush Aryana took the letter, left the Ministry of the Interior, and walked to the Bureau of Civil Registration. In the long dark corridor he stopped one of the attendants and asked where he could find Mr. Janan. "You mean Mr. Engineer Janan," the attendant corrected.

"Yes, I'm sorry, Mr. Engineer Janan."

"Go upstairs, agha, his room is the second door on the left."

Aryana hurried upstairs, knocked on the second door on the left, and went in. He gave the letter to Mr. Engineer Janan and waited in silence as the latter took the paper out of the envelope and read the few lines. "I beg you to sit down, Mr. Aryana. It says here you wish to apply for identification papers -- what we call an identity card."

"That's right."

"What, may I ask, happened to your identity card?"

"I lost it."

"You lost it," Mr. Engineer Janan repeated, nodding. "Where was it issued, agha?"

"It was issued here in Teheran."

"What type of an identity card was it? I mean, was it the old, notebook kind, or was it the newer form?"

"I don't really know the difference, I just know it was an ordinary identity card, you know, the kind everybody has. It had my full name, my parents' names, my place of birth, my -- how do you say -- my, as they say in English, nationality , and all the rest."

"And you say you lost it."

"Yes, I lost it. When I went abroad years ago, I took my identity card with me, but lost it during my travels. I have searched very carefully for it, tried to think where I might have left it, but I've still not found it."

"Yes, people travel a lot these days, they lose or misplace their records and papers, they come to us and we do our best to help them. It is not as in the old days when people kept their identity cards and other important documents securely locked up in their trunks at home, and never went anywhere, never lost anything. Well, anyway, it says here in this letter that you are in a hurry and . . ."

"Yes, I want to go abroad again but I need an identity card to be able to leave the country."

"That's right, you need your identity card to get a passport and an exit permit. Well, let's see now, what was the number of your identity card?"

"I don't know the number."

"You don't know the number," Mr. Engineer Janan said, frowning. "But you must know the number of your identity card. If you don't know it by heart, look in your passport."

"They took away my passport at the airport when I arrived. They said they take away everybody's passport at the airport."

"Yes, I forgot. But don't you have a driver's license or some other document that has your identity number on it?"

"My driver's license and the few documents I have at home are all foreign and don't have my identity number on them."

"Very well, then, agha, you'll have to bring your father here, and please tell him to . . ."

"My father is dead."

"Then please bring your mother."

"She passed away too. My parents passed away when I was abroad."

"May God drown them in His compassion. Do you have any brothers and sisters?"

"I had a sister, but I don't know where she is. I had hoped to find her and since my arrival I have looked for her and asked people who might know her, but I've not found her yet."

"If we could only find a record of your identity card, we could issue a new one immediately. This way it is a little difficult. But we will find a way." Mr. Engineer Janan rubbed his chin awhile, then said, "Do you know where you were born?"

"Yes, of course, I was born here in Teheran."

"Do you know what part of the city?"

"Near the south side of Teheran."

"You mean in the poor section?"

"Near that section. My parents were of modest means. They were plain, humble people."

Mr. Engineer Janan stared at him quizzically. "Mr. Aryana, you don't look like a man of ordinary background. There is a refinement about you that bespeaks an altogether different upbringing. Are you sure your information is correct?"

"I am very sure, Mr. Janan, I mean, Mr. Engineer Janan. We lived in one of those narrow alleys near the bazaar. Of course, when I was a boy that section of the city was not as poor and deteriorated as it is today. I lived there with my parents and went to school there until I was fourteen, fifteen years old."

"Do you know when you were born, or better still, do you know when your identity card was issued?"

"It was issued around -- let me think -- it was issued, I think, around 1921."


"Well, you see, I am forty-three years old, and this is now 1964, so it must . . ."

"Agha, this is not 1964," Mr. Engineer Janan interposed with evident displeasure. "I don't know where you have come from, but here in our country the year is 1343."

"I didn't mean to offend you, Mr. Janan, I just . . ."

"Forgive me for interrupting you again, Mr. Aryana, forgive me for speaking bluntly, but you gentlemen go away from your homeland, you go away to other countries and forget all your traditions and customs, forget that you are Iranians and suddenly behave as foreigners."

"I haven't forgotten that I am Iranian."

"Perhaps you are not Iranian, agha. How can we be sure you are Iranian? You say you were born in the Old City, or near the Old City, and were brought up there, yet there is no evidence right now that what you say is correct."

"Of course it is correct . . ."

"But how can we be sure, how can we prove it? To tell you the truth, I can't tell who you are or where you really come from. Besides, you don't have an identity card, you don't know its number, all your documents are foreign, and you say you have no parents, no one to come forward and say, yes this is our son, we know this man, this gentleman, he was born in such and such a place, at such and such a time, he is Iranian, he is Moslem."

"I have been . . ."

"Forgive me, but you don't even know what year we are in, you don't even think in terms of our calendar. Let me tell you, Mr. Aryana, for you the year may be 1964 or 1967 or whatever it is, but for us the year is 1343 and we are proud of our calendar, we are proud of our traditions . . ."

"Well, you see, I have been away . . ."

"Yes, you have been away and now you want to go away again. You arrived here yesterday and want to leave tomorrow."

"I arrived here about three weeks ago."

"You arrived here hardly three weeks ago and already you are in a hurry to leave. I don't mean to be rude, but to tell you the truth, I don't understand why you came back at all."

"I came here to stay three, four weeks or maybe longer. I think I came back to see Iran and to find some relatives or an old schoolmate or two. I don't know, I just wanted to come back. I had to come back. But now I must leave, I must leave immediately."

Shrugging his shoulders, Mr. Engineer Janan said, "I don't understand, I really don't know what to say. Perhaps it's not my business. Anyway, to get your identity card, you must write a letter to this Bureau, the Bureau of Civil Registration, explaining that you have lost your identity card and that you would like to apply for a new one. Mention in your letter that you don't know your identity card number, that it was issued here in Teheran, and give the date you think it was issued."

Copyright © 1966 by F. M. Esfandiary

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