The year is 1979. The Iranian Revolution is just around the corner. In the northeastern city of Naishapur, a retired judge and his wife, Bibi-Khanoom, continue to run their ancient family orchard, growing apples, plums, peaches, and sour cherries. The days here are marked by long, elaborate lunches on the terrace where the judge and his wife mediate disputes between aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews that foreshadow the looming national crisis to come. Will the monarchy survive the revolutionary tide gathering across the country? Will the judge’s brother, a powerful cleric, take political control of the town or remain only a religious leader?
And yet, life goes on. Bibi-Khanoom’s grandniece secretly falls in love with the judge’s grandnephew and dreams of a career on the stage. His other grandnephew withers away on opium dreams. A widowed father longs for a life in Europe. A strained marriage slowly unravels. The orchard trees bloom and fruit as the streets in the capital grow violent. And a once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse, set to occur on one of the holiest days of year, finally causes the familyand the countryto break.
Told through a host of unforgettable characters, ranging from servants and young children to intimate friends, To Keep the Sun Alive reveals the personal behind the political, reminding us of the human lives that animate historical events.
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Preparations for lunch were in full swing. Mirza had spread the sofreh on the deck just outside the house. He squatted on the thick cloth and set plates on the edges with a spoon and fork for each. He then brought out a tray with two pitchers of doogh and glasses. He placed each pitcher of the yogurt drink at opposite ends of the sofreh and added a glass for each plate. He stood back and lookedsatisfied everything was in its right place.
Bibi-Khanoom and Nasreen were in the kitchen negotiating with a giant pot of rice while Jafar hovered in the doorway. The scent of saffron and butter wafted through the air. Nasreen held an oblong silver platter over the pot, and on the count of three, the two women flipped the pot over onto the platter and set it down on the counter. Bibi-Khanoom slowly pulled the pot up and revealed a perfectly domed rice fortress, the tahdig crust, slightly burned to a golden brown. The tahdig was the delicacy of the meal. There was never enough, and it was always a tense experience for all involved as it was broken down and dished out.
After Nasreen’s first kiss with Madjid, she had placed her tahdig on his plate. During the siesta that immediately followed that meal, Madjid chastised her for her carelessness as they kissed. “Do you want them to know what is going on?
“Of course not.”
“Then stop giving me your tahdig.”
During the lunch preparation, Bibi-Khanoom philosophized about food to Nasreen. You can tell a lot about a person, she said, by how much and what parts of the tahdig they take.
“Those with quiet personalities with a slimmer build always take pieces of the light golden edges. And those with rousing personalities and gluttonous tendencies take pieces of the burned, browned center.”
Next they dished the khoresht. One was Khoreshteh Ghormeh Sabzi, a lamb-and-kidney-bean stew made with finely chopped parsley, chives, fenugreek, and dried whole lemons. Turmeric softened the bitter scent of the lemon, and the lamb and kidney beans gave the stew its earthy color and depth of flavor. The second khoresht was Khoreshteh Bademjan made with eggplant and lamb in a tomato base with sour grapes and rich, aromatic cinnamon.
Bibi-Khanoom loved to talk to Nasreen during their preparations. She explained how some foodslike cucumbers, watermelon, mint in hot water, eggplant, and radisheshad a cooling effect on the body, slowing down its functions, while otherslike garlic, onions, walnuts, lamb, and cinnamonwarmed the body and stimulated its functions. To know these qualities, she told her, was to know your own body.
Persian cuisine, according to Bibi-Khanoom, was a study in equilibrium, an intense negotiation of opposing flavors that somehow found a way to coexist without being overpowered by each other. The tartness of fruits was tempered by the delicate fragrance of saffron, turmeric, and cinnamona perfect union of masculine and feminine, of prose and poetry, of earthly and mystical.
She let out a sigh and wiped her hands on a dishrag. The food lecture had tired her out more than the preparation. Talking demanded the vitality that doing created. She reached out and stroked the young woman’s cheek. Nasreen turned and looked at her shylythe gesture a tonic to her mother’s criticism.
Jafar slipped into the kitchen unseen. His favorite part of lunch, the loghmeh, happened before the meal. He stood in the doorway staring at his mother until she noticed. Bibi-Khanoom took a spoonful of the Ghormeh Sabzi and used her hand to mix it with leftover crumbs of tahdig in the bottom of the pot. Jafar hummed as he waited, rubbing his stomach in anticipation of the loghmeh. Bibi-Khanoom bent down and pushed a large, savory dollop into his mouth with her fingers. Then she prepared a plate with rice, stew, a piece of tahdig, and pickled eggplants, which she covered with a cloth and handed it to Jafar. “Take this to the midwife and come straight back for your lunch.”
The family gathered around the sofreh and waited in silence for the judge. As soon as he sat down, silverware clanked against plates, dishes were passed. The mullah couldn’t keep the frustration off his face. Only moments earlier, when he had sat down, no one made a move to begin the meal. His presence was barely acknowledged. And he was the elder.
Ghamar sank into her chador with a pouty look on her face as her husband piled the rice onto her plate. She then chastised him for overserving her, even though she had asked for it. “You are always trying to fatten me up.”
Nasreen served herself only the tiniest of portions, which didn’t get past her mother. “Why don’t you eat something? You eat like a cow at home.”
Nasreen shot a look at her mother that would make a bull wither and drifted away into the recesses of her mind. She had spent a great deal of time there. She played out scenarios of ways to kill her mother at the hammam. She could hold her mother’s head in the basin of water and drown her; during the afternoon siesta, she could swat the beehive in the tree and let the bees devour her. At last, Nasreen would be liberated. She would stay up past midnight and blast her music and sleep in her own bed with Madjid. This final thought brought a smile to her face as she served herself another portion of rice.
Shazdehpoor fidgeted, trying to find a comfortable position. He hated sitting on the ground. He selected one piece of meat from the stew at a time, then added a few vegetables, then rounded the plate with a scoop of rice and some herbs he diced on the corner of his plate. Ghamar whispered to her husband, “Fokoli is dining on bifteck with the Queen of England.”
Madjid always sat next to the judge and used it as an opportunity to speak about his newest books, but today he was unusually quiet. The judge studied his face. “What have you been reading?”
“We just read Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard in our literature class.”
“What did you think of it?”
“The discussion we had about it in Mr. Moeni’s class was very intense. So much of what is happening around us here is in that play.” Madjid looked down at his food and pushed it around with his fork.
“What is troubling you?”
Madjid leaned into the judge and whispered, “Yesterday when we got to class, Mr. Moeni wasn’t there. He had been taken away by the secret police. They said he was spreading communist propaganda. What does Chekhov have to do with Soviet communists?”
“He was Russian. And that’s about as much thought as they’ve given the matter.”
“What are they afraid of?”
“People in power are always afraid of losing it, Madjid. But the play is a revelation. I saw it performed in the capital many years ago.”
“Yes. I was very surprised by it. People can be so frustrating. The choices they make. The things they don’t do. As if their privilege breeds inertia.”
A smile of pure delight crossed the judge’s face as he listened to him. For a man barely eighteen years of age, Madjid thought with gravity and nuance. It gave his presence a melancholic quality that was strangely comforting.
Madjid stopped speaking and half closed his eyes. He could hear the clanking of silverware and the voices around him and the wind moving through the trees. He thought of the play in which an orchard is chopped up into little pieces for maximum profit. He turned to the judge. “I can’t imagine this place not being here.”
The only person missing from lunch was Madjid’s brother, Jamsheed, who was older than him by two years. Like Madjid, he was tall, but with a stocky quality to his frame and an outsized personality. He was charming and witty with a loud voice always on the verge of laughter. But he had been banished from family gatherings due to his addiction to opium. The addiction had caused a rift in the family, which everyone felt and no one mentioned. On many occasions, the judge attempted to intervene on Jamsheed’s behalf. He tried to help him overcome his dependency, but it was to no avail. For Shazdehpoor, his son’s very public demise coupled with what he saw as a crass personality left him unable to feel anything but shame and contempt for Jamsheed. Pretending that he did not exist seemed like the most civilized solution.
As the meal was coming to an end, Shazdehpoor watched the judge motion Mirza over and whisper to him. He knew exactly what was happening because it happened every Friday. The judge quietly instructed Mirza to prepare a dish of food for Jamsheed, which Madjid would take to him.
Jamsheed was sitting against the wall outside the orchard. He had nodded off, waiting for his brother. He had no desire for food, or family, for that matter. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he wanted anything. He simply showed up out of habit. “That is the beauty of opium,” he once told his brother. “It takes away everything.”
Madjid had learned many things from Jamsheed. Jamsheed was the one who had taught him how to read. In fact, all the books in Madjid’s bedroom had once belonged to his brother. But Jamsheed was able to let himself go in a way that Madjid wasn’t. He had spent his entire youth in trouble with his father, his elders, the authorities, and women. Madjid admired this ability to be reckless and wished to emulate it, but he was plagued by thought and consequence.
Jamsheed drove fast, drank hard, and had a charisma that drew people in. Before their mother’s death, his boisterous demeanor would make the most mundane activities seem exciting. He could dissipate any tense situation with a wry remark and distill any argument to its most ridiculous ingredient, thereby ending it. Nothing was sacred to him. He took nothing seriously and therefore, he couldn’t be touched.
His descent into an opium haze was the final disconnect. He began to disappear for days. When he returned, he brought armloads of gifts for the family, draping beautiful fabrics over his mother and holding up shiny gold earrings to her ears. He tossed contraband books into Madjid’s lap, whispering to him, “This one will really give you a few sleepless nights,” and handed his father fine cognacs, which Shazdehpoor accepted but never drank. He told bawdy jokes and outlandish stories of his adventures, one more unbelievable than the next.
One night, during the month of Muharram, on his way to a friend’s home for a gathering, he had been caught in an Ashura eve procession, commemorating the death of Imam Hussein in the desert plains of Karbala. He couldn’t get across the street, so he began to march with people, beating his chest and chanting with them, even though he had a bottle of vodka hidden inside his coat. The fear of being caught with alcohol drove him to chant and march more fervently than the most devout believer. The moment he saw a chance to slip out of the procession, he swiftly stepped into an alley and made his way to his friend’s house, rejuvenated by the unexpected trancelike experience. His mother was always taken in by his stories. Shazdehpoor was embarrassed by them. Madjid was delighted by them.
One evening, Jamsheed came barreling into the house, out of breath, a wild look in his eyes. By that point, his mother’s illness had broken her spirits, and she was lying on the sofa, frail and despondent. Shazdehpoor and Madjid sat next to her in silence. Jamsheed walked straight over to her and swept her up into his arms. Much to his father’s protests, he took her outside. “You see that, maman? It’s a motorbike.”
It was a Suzuki GT750 with royal blue paneling and a black leather seat dusty from the road. She leaned against him and mustered a faint smile. He propped her up in front, then took off before his father could stop them. They rode through dirt roads and across the town square. People stopped and stared at his sickly, chadored mother. He cut over toward the sand dunes of Old Naishapur, abandoned since the time of Genghis Khan’s invasion. They sped along the stretch of the old city as the sun set. His mother pulled her chador down off her head, leaned back into Jamsheed, and let the wind blow through her hair.
She died two days later, cradled in her husband’s arms, her two boys holding on to her hands. As the water filled her lungs, forcing her to expel one final breath, the three men knew that whatever had held them together was broken. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Madjid sat against the wall next to his brother. He laid the plate of food in front of him, and Jamsheed pushed the food around on the plate with a fork but did not take a bite. “How’s Monsieur Shazdehpoor?”
“He changed his cologne from Ravel to Aramis.”
“Is he still bathing in it?”
“I can smell him from my room.”
The two brothers laughed together, their shoulders bumping. Then the moment tapered off. They fell silent again. Madjid watched Jamsheed push his food around some more. Whenever he saw his brother, he felt rejuvenated and restless. As though there was something he was missing out on. The idyllic torpor of his life at home kept him from things that were of real importance. He nudged Jamsheed, “Have you been to the capital?”
“It’s coming to a head. You can feel it in the streets. In the dormitories. You should see the students huddled around in earnestness.” Jamsheed spent several weeks out of the month in the capital selling opium to the students. It was his way of keeping his own habit afloat. Once the money and drugs were quietly exchanged, he was invited to take tea, and as he faded into the background, the boys forgot him and resumed their discussions about the coming unrest. He found their passions quaint and utterly futile. He smiled as they spoke about injustice, poverty, political repression, and forced progress. He nodded as they spoke about illiteracy, lost lands, rampant corruption, and a government that had dragged its bewildered children into the Western century, a country that stood with a dead empire on its back.
Table of Contents
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