Crows in the nightingale's tree
Excerpt from a novel
November 22, 2004
Excerpt from Crows in the Nightingale's
Tree; a mother-daughter story set against the backdrop of the
Zarah's grandmother was beautiful, even in death. Her hennaed
hair framed a face that, while matted with mortician's makeup,
still managed to look smoother and fresher than a sixty-nine-year-old
woman's had a right to be. Zarah wished she had remembered to wear
lipstick to the wake, if only as a small tribute to the feminine
qualities her grandmother had tried so hard to instill in her.
The early-evening sun slipped sideways through the venetian blinds
of the funeral parlor, marking orange stripes across Zarah's ankles
where she sat with her grandfather. She noticed that he wore one
blue and one brown sock. Beyond hoping that no one else would notice,
she worried that this was not merely the oversight of a distracted
man, but the beginning of a long decline into absent-minded solitude.
Having arrived in the United States more than three decades ago,
with two daughters, five suitcases, and a carton of cooking pots,
Parviz and Shaheen Afsari were supposed to be enjoying their golden
years together. But two days earlier, just as Shaheen was about
to shave the back of her husband's neck, she had suffered a massive
stroke and fallen into the empty bathtub still holding the electric
razor. Now here was Parviz, alone despite the influx of family
and friends, with a shaggy collar and puffs of hair coming out
of his ears.
Zarah wanted to make him think of something good, so she showed
him the gold pendant she was wearing specially for today.
"You know, Grandpa, I've always liked knowing that Grandma
brought this necklace from Iran, that it's something from your
The small medallion's surface sparkled in the focused beams of
the track lighting. Parviz fingered the etchings. "This was
made in Iran, but I don't think Shaheen gave it to you," he
"Mom said Grandma gave it to me when I was little, and
that you gave it to her when you got married. It has the family
name on the back." Zarah had never learned to decipher the
intricate Arabic script.
Parviz turned over the pendant, inclining his monk-like pate
to read the finely raised letters. "The front says Allah,
but the name on the back is Fatehi. Your other grandmother must
have given it to you."
Zarah didn't know her father's family. Darius had died in a car
accident eighteen years earlier, just after her third birthday,
and she could remember virtually nothing about him beyond the echo
of his voice. "Do you think she sent it when I was born?"
"Zarah-jon," Parviz took her clammy palms in his cool
shriveled ones. His sharp eyes wavered. "I believe Mrs. Fatehi
gave it to you when you and your mother left Tehran."
Zarah clenched his hands in dismay. Her grandfather knew as well
as she did that she had never been to Tehran. Before she could
remind him, a family of mourners descended en masse and enveloped
them in dramatically sympathetic kisses.
When Zarah stood up, Mr. Akbarian, whose head came to her chin,
pinched her cheeks as he had done since she was little. She hated
it then, she hated it now. "So, the college girl, graduating
next month. With honors?"
"I think so, yes."
When she was particularly bored or annoyed with a conversation,
Zarah liked to imagine the person talking as an animal. It wasn't
just a question of figuring out what sort of animal he or she would
be, although that was a challenge in itself. The real fun came
in designing the animal, how long its tail would be or the color
of its eyes, the size of its paws. Mr. Akbarian had the quality
of an overly affectionate monkey, always reaching out to touch
or examine whatever was in front of him.
While the Akbarians droned on, Zarah sought her mother's eye
across the room. Wearing trousers, and with the gray roots of her
brunette bob showing, Minoo looked plain in this well heeled crowd.
She stood dry-eyed, calmly greeting each of her parents' friends.
Minoo never cried, Zarah knew, but there were many nights when
she couldn't sleep. Zarah had seen the light flick on and off under
her mother's closed bedroom door, heard her in the kitchen, watched
her out the back window as she stood in the moonlit yard in her
Zarah wondered if her mother knew that Parviz's memory was getting
fuzzy. She hadn't realized her grandparents were that old yet --
old enough to become senile, old enough to die.
As soon as the Akbarians moved on, Parviz ushered Zarah into
the hall. He stopped behind the screen outside the bathrooms.
" Listen, Zarah, you took me by surprise, with that necklace." His
voice was uncharacteristically tremulous. "A long time ago
we all promised your mother that we wouldn't say anything to you
about that time in Iran. But the truth is, you were born there."
" What?!" Zarah's voice shot through the wooden screen,
and they could hear the talk in the vestibule quiet. In hushing
herself, Zarah forgot to breathe for as long as it took to wonder
why ten times over, long enough to feel that this moment was unreal
and then, more disturbingly, that it was more real than any moment
that had come before. She forgot to breathe until after the curious
had resumed their conversations, and then, lightheaded, she whispered
harshly, "Why would you -"
Parviz held up his hand. "It doesn't matter why. What matters
is that we just lost your grandma. And I... " He fought hard
against the tremble in his voice. "I was thinking that maybe
Darius's mother is still alive." He pinched her cheek, but
in the loving, gentle way that she didn't mind.
Zarah expected him to say something else, to either apologize
for keeping such a secret or to offer some suggestion for what
she should do with this information. She no longer thought he was
senile. But Parviz's eyes turned cloudy, and he slipped into the
men's bathroom before she had a chance to respond.
Whipping around, Zarah was tempted to march up to her mother
and demand an explanation for the necklace, for the lie. She wanted
to crack through Minoo's enamel to the soft clay she knew must
be underneath. But it would have to wait, so instead she pushed
past the throng of perfumed women and men, through a gauntlet of
attempted kisses, mumbling excuse-me's until she was outside in
the Los Angeles evening, inhaling hibiscus and car exhaust.
The setting sun burned the side of Zarah's face. Rush-hour traffic
on Santa Monica Boulevard was at a virtual standstill. She didn't
understand how people could live like this. She would rather bicycle
thirty miles than be stuck in that kind of traffic. A blonde woman
in a white convertible started honking at the sports-utility vehicle
angled between two lanes in front of her, setting off a spurt of
Zarah shifted her focus from the street into the near distance,
where palm trees lined the circular drive. She was pretty sure
they were real trees, not plastic, although they were uncannily
uniform in appearance.
A tall, lean, fair-haired man walked out from the parking lot
and up through the rows of palms. "Hey kiddo."
Zarah squinted against the sun. She recognized his loping stride
before his face was distinct. "You came." She flung herself
at Christian's broad chest and began crying right away. Christian
was Zarah's godfather, in the purely secular way, and the closest
thing to an actual father she could remember growing up. For many
years her greatest hope had been that Christian and her mother
would become a couple and get married, but since the night ten
years earlier when they had exploded at each other, he hadn't set
foot in their house.
"I wasn't sure I could get here in time," Christian
said with his nose in her dark hair. "I was in Cuba."
Zarah stepped back and, slightly embarrassed at her effusiveness,
wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. She wanted to ask Christian
if he had known about her being born in Iran, and how she managed
to get Los Angeles marked as the birthplace on her passport, but
she didn't want to bombard him with problems the first five minutes
she'd seen him in nearly a year.
"I didn't know you covered Cuba."
Christian grinned. "I was covering the beaches. And a certain
Cuban señora who runs a bed and breakfast outside Havana."
Zarah giggled for the first time in days. Face to face with Christian,
she could see that time was finally softening the chiseled Nordic
visage of his youth. "Aren't you ever going to settle down?"
Christian slung an arm over her shoulder and began leading her
inside. Before they reached the door, it swung open and Minoo stepped
out in a cloud of air-conditioning. The three of them faced each
other while the honking started up again down on the avenue.
Christian found his composure first. "I'm very sorry about
Minoo nodded, visibly relieved that he had broken the ice. "It
was good of you to come."
After another period of ringing silence, they spoke at the same
"My father -"
"I should go -"
He started for the door at the same time that Minoo stepped aside,
so they ended up nearly bumping into each other. They did a little
dance from left to right until she finally stood still and turned
sideways so he could pass.
Zarah folded her arms across her chest and stared at her feet
while twirling the necklace around her index finger. The right
toe of her brown clog was scuffed, and she couldn't remember scuffing
"How are you feeling?" Minoo asked. "We should
get something to eat."
Zarah looked down at her mother. She was tall to Minoo's petite,
lanky to her curves. She had inherited her father's rare blue-green
eyes, rather than her mother's brown ones. "Can't you two
make up already?"
Minoo ran her tongue over her lips in the way she did when she
was irritated and trying to pause before saying something testy. "Zarah,
now that you're older I think you'd understand better. Sometimes
people reach a point in their relationship where they don't want
the same thing. Look at you and Jonathan."
Zarah's last boyfriend had found her attentions lacking. Since
she wasn't interested in paying more attention to him and less
to her athletics, studies, and friends, he stopped trying. "I
didn't have a fifteen-year friendship with Jonathan. And we're
still civil when we bump into each other on campus."
The sun finally disappeared below the horizon, setting loose
a hint of seaweed on the breeze. The tip of Zarah's finger was
red where the twisted chain cut off her circulation. When her mother
rubbed the thin sleeve of Zarah's sweater, Zarah thought she was
finally going to confide in her, now that she was "older," now
that she had survived her first death in the family as an adult.
"I hope you brought something heavier than that sweater.
It gets chilly at night."
"Mom, I know what the weather is like here." With
her mother's concern for the practical things in life, sometimes
it seemed to Zarah that she cared for her as a gardener cares for
a prized bonsai tree -- nurturing with food, protecting from cold
drafts and burning sun, cultivating for strength, beauty, and longevity.
The door opened again, and Nayer, Minoo's older sister, joined
them on the front step. Sheathed in a black suit, with a flash
of yellow at the neck to avoid appearing morbid, she was the one
to inherit Shaheen's sense of the occasion.
"There you two are." She wiped mascara from beneath
her eyes. "I think I'm fine and then someone says something
nice about Mom and I lose it again."
She sniffed to clear her nose. "It's so nice to see Christian." When
neither of them responded, she turned to Minoo. "I think Dad's
getting tired. Should we order dinner from that Lebanese place?"
"Sounds good." Minoo combed her fingers through Zarah's
newly cropped locks. "C'mon."
"Mom... " Zarah dug the notched edge of the pendant
into her chin.
Minoo's eyes flicked over the necklace as she checked her watch. "Yes?"
"I'll tell you later."
Inside, Christian stooped over Parviz, in close conversation.
Minoo went to speak with the funeral director about closing up
for the night. Nayer's husband, Farid -- the cardiologist and caretaker
-- stood with an arm around his wife and thanked each guest for
Zarah pretended not to hear Mr. Akbarian call to her as she took
refuge by the side of the open coffin. Here the thick scent of
room-temperature lilies was sliced by formaldehyde vapors. Zarah
reached her fingertips to Shaheen's brow and found it as cool and
smooth as marble. Wearing the heirloom from her other, unfamiliar,
grandmother seemed, somehow, irreverent.
"I still want to learn how to make the rice with the potatoes
on the bottom," Zarah whispered. How many times had she watched
Shaheen drain the rice, rinse it, melt butter in the bottom of
the pot, drop in slices of potatoes, spoon in a cone of rice, and
cover the pot with a towel-wrapped lid. Yet she knew she didn't
understand the timing, the technique. And she didn't want to learn
from anyone else.
As long as Zarah stood there, head bent over the coffin, no one
disturbed her, even if they stood a few inches behind or to the
side to pay their last respects. She waited until she could feel
and hear the emptiness in the room behind her. She remained, turning
her regret over and over, examining it like a many-faceted box,
until Nayer wrapped her arms around her from behind, and eased
On the drive back to the Afsari's house, Minoo took Zarah on
a detour along the beach road. They opened the windows to breathe
in the salty night air. Living in Bethesda, they were never far
from the shore, but the Pacific, with its thunderous surf and icy
waters, was, for them, the true ocean.
After several minutes of considering how to begin, Zarah simply
began. She lifted the necklace out from beneath her T-shirt. "So,
Minoo sipped soda from a can and kept her attention on the road. "Z."
" Grandpa told me that my other grandmother gave this to
me, Baba's mother. At first I thought he was losing it -"
Minoo glanced over.
" - but then he said that I was born in Tehran... . "
Minoo slapped the steering wheel with the open palm of her non-soda-holding
hand, causing the car to swerve slightly. "Son of a bitch."
Zarah shifted under the seatbelt to halfway face her mother.
She knew that the month she was born, December 1979, coincided
with the takeover of the American Embassy in Tehran. It didn't
seem to have been a good time for visiting the old country. "What
were you doing there?"
Minoo squeezed the can between her legs, grabbed a pack of cigarettes
from her purse, and shook the pack upside down until three fell
in her lap.
"I thought you quit!"
"I only smoke when I'm stressed." Minoo's hand shook
as she held the lighter.
"That's just great. You're all I have left in the world
and you're trying to kill yourself."
"Don't be so dramatic." Minoo took two long drags
before answering Zarah's question. "Your grandparents didn't
approve of me marrying your father. They didn't like his politics,
he didn't have any money... so we got married in Iran."
"But you told me that Baba had a falling out with his family
because they were Muslim and he wasn't."
Minoo juggled the soda up to her mouth while trying to keep the
burning cigarette tip out of her blowing hair. "Well, yes,
sort of, but that was later, after we'd spent some time there."
"So you knew my grandmother. And you didn't think that
maybe I'd like to know her, too?"
Minoo caught Zarah's eye for the first time since the conversation
began. She tilted her head to the side, weighing this possibility. "I
knew you might be curious. But I figured that as long as you were
this American kid and she was this foreign person who never contacted
us, that it wouldn't matter much to you."
In front of them, traffic was merging into one lane and slowing
to a crawl. Zarah waved the smoke away from her face with both
hands. "Why didn't you just tell me the truth and let me decide?"
"Because the truth is a mess. I put it behind me. Behind
They were hemmed in by orange cones as, in the now-empty lane,
a construction crew repaved the blacktop. Two bumper stickers on
the old sedan in front of them read Jesus is the Way and Stop All
"I'm thinking that I'm going to find out if Baba's mother
is still alive. And if she is, I might go meet her." Zarah
didn't know she was seriously considering this until she said it
"Oh no you won't. You are not going to that place."
"Why shouldn't I? Aunt Nayer and Uncle Farid had a great
time when they took the boys last summer." Upon returning
from her first visit to Iran since long before the Islamic revolution,
Nayer had pronounced it "fascinating."
Minoo braked suddenly, having lost track of how close to the
religious patriot's car they had crept. She took a deep breath
and let it out slowly before speaking. "For one thing, I don't
think Iran is giving out many visas to Americans, especially young
This was true, Zarah knew. Unless you were traveling as part
of a tour group or a member of the press, and even then, you needed
permission to enter the country. It had taken her aunt and uncle
several months to renew their outdated Iranian passports -- the
ones they had been carrying when they left Iran as adolescents
in the 1960s -- and, through an application process, to get passports
for their sons.
"What about those papers in the box?" Zarah asked. "The
one you keep in the closet?"
The lines around Minoo's eyes sharpened, little rays threatening
to strike. "What were you doing rummaging in my closet?"
"I didn't rummage. I happened to see you looking at it
Minoo didn't answer. When the second lane opened up again, she
concentrated on navigating back into it through the orange cones.
As they left the construction area, traffic picked up and the space
between the cars expanded. They left the bumper stickers behind.
Wind blew in from the Pacific, pulling Minoo's bob from behind
"Zarah, I'm sorry I had to lie to you." She spoke
loudly while trying to clear the hair from her face. The empty
aluminum can bopped around the floor beneath her legs. "I
know you're grieving for Grandma. But please, for me, forget about
this idea. Iran can be very dangerous. You are completely unprepared."
"The bonsai leaves the pot," Zarah murmured.
"What did you say?"
Zarah smiled to herself. She knew that the decisions that had
seemed so important for the last four years -- which elective to
take, who to room with -- would seem elementary compared to committing
herself to graduate school, and a job, and what the career counselor
called a "life path." She was in no rush to face the
next big thing.
"Nothing. Let's go eat."
Minoo looked dubiously at her only child and sighed. They turned
inland and drove up into the hills in silence.
The day after graduation, Zarah woke up in her bedroom at home
in Bethesda, still worn out from two weeks of partying. A lawn
mower growled around the neighbor's yard. Zarah regarded the blue-and-white-checked
curtains and wondered if her mother would redecorate the room when
she went to graduate school, even turn it into a study or something.
That would be odd, coming home to a room that was not hers.
She got up and walked across the hall to the doorway of her mother's
room. The chintz comforter was neatly drawn over the double bed.
A fly buzzed inside the screen of the open window, trying to get
out. The room smelled of sleep.
After retrieving the stepladder from downstairs, she returned
to set it up in Minoo's walk-in closet. The pungent scent of mothballs
made her nose itch. With the light from one bare bulb to guide
her, she stood on the top step and reached for a shoebox on the
uppermost shelf that was buried beneath layers of wool sweaters.
She tugged. The box was stuck to the wood shelf. Standing on tip-toe,
she got a better grip, but just as the box came loose the mothballs
made her sneeze so that she, the sweaters, and the box tumbled
onto the shoe-lined floor of the closet.
Despite her fear that this fall was but a minor mishap in the
series of crises that would ensue if she found what she was seeking
in the box, Zarah rubbed her butt and shifted onto her knees to
explore its contents. On top sat two official-looking sheets of
yellowed paper covered with Arabic script and attached with a rusty
paperclip. A clear plastic baggy held a solid gold cufflink. Wedged
along the side was a dog-eared burgundy passport with a hole punched
through the gold-embossed cover. She opened the passport to a black-and-white
photograph of a young Minoo. Lush wavy hair cascaded past her shoulders.
Her expression was remarkably open, as if she was expecting something
good. Zarah turned the stiff page. Her own baby face smiled back
at her, ringed with soft black curls. The photograph had been stapled
into the passport and stamped.
"Unbelievable," she whispered. No doubt about it,
she was officially Iranian.
Looking back into the box, she found a tiny pouch of filthy cloth,
tied with dark strands of human hair. She scratched at the blood-like
stains on the blue cotton and raised the pouch to her nose. It
had more an air of dryness than any identifiable smell, and the
contents crunched softly, like dirt. Zarah was struck with the
thought that her mother's thinking might not be entirely healthy.
Who would keep a grimy thing like this?
Zarah crawled on all fours out of the closet and over to the
bedside table. She dialed her aunt's number. Nayer and Farid lived
in a much larger house several miles away, in Chevy Chase. She
told Nayer what she had discovered.
Nayer sounded like she had been waiting for this call for the
past twenty years. "Finally! Your mother made me promise not
to talk about what happened, but I think it's time you knew."
Then Zarah told her that she needed her help to translate the
documents, to which Nayer easily agreed, and to find her father's
family, which left Nayer fumbling for words.
"Oh, honey, I don't know... "
Zarah hoped that the sad, fatherless-girl sympathy ploy would
work, and it did, but it took a couple of days. Eventually Nayer
agreed to help her aggrieved niece arrange the visit.
"The only thing is," she cautioned, "I love you
and your mother both. I don't want to hurt her. So if you go, whatever
they may tell you, you have to give your mother the benefit of
the doubt. Do you know what I mean? You have to believe the best
of her, and your father."
Zarah agreed to try, not knowing how complicated this simple
request would become once her journey began.
A week later, Zarah and Nayer were sitting on Minoo's screened-in
back porch, watching the neighbor's sprinkler swish back and forth
over the lawn while waiting for Minoo to get home from work.
"Mom, we're back here!" Zarah called when they heard
the snap of her keys in the front door.
Minoo came upon them sitting stiffly on the wicker furniture,
with a full bottle of white wine chilling in a bucket of ice on
the low table between them. "This is nice." She kissed
her sister. "Do you want something to snack on with that wine?"
"We're fine," Nayer patted the loveseat cushion next
to her. "Sit down and relax." She poured a glass of wine
for each of them.
Minoo kicked off her shoes and plopped onto the loveseat. "What
have you two been up to?"
Nayer looked at Zarah, but her niece was afraid to start. "Let
me just say it. Zarah asked me to help her organize a trip to Iran." When
Minoo startled, Nayer held out her arms like a police negotiator
dealing with a ledge-jumper. "I haven't told her anything
about that time, but I did contact the Fatehis. And I helped her
get a passport."
At this Minoo bolted to her feet.
"Minoo, we're not trying to upset you, but Zarah's twenty-one.
I think it should be up to her what kind of relationship she wants
to have with Darius's family, if any."
Minoo's glare bore into her sister. "You have really crossed
the line this time. She is not your child. I don't tell you how
to raise your boys."
"I wouldn't advise Zarah to do anything I wouldn't let
my sons do. The boys had a great time in Iran last summer. And
for Farid and me, it was amazing to be back. Anyway, the government
has relaxed the cultural laws a little bit. And the dress code."
"Oh, so now if your scarf slips back you'll get a warning
instead of a beating?"
"Mom, I'll be careful," Zarah interjected. "I
just want to see the place I was born. It's my heritage."
Minoo shot her glare across the table. "Iran today is not
your heritage. It's some nightmare created twenty years ago, from
which the country still hasn't woken up."
In the quiet they could hear how every several seconds the sprinkler's
gentle swish became a splot-splot-splot as the water hit the azalea
bushes that divided their lawn from the house next door's.
"I bought a ticket. I'm leaving in a couple weeks."
Minoo sank back onto the loveseat, her tongue working madly over
her lips as she struggled to control her anger. "You do realize,
there is no American consulate there. If anything happens... "
Thus began an hour of accusations, explanations, and pleas. Minoo
used scare tactics. Nayer countered with experience. Zarah infused
their rational arguments with emotion. As the light faded slowly
into dusk, they went in circles and on tangents. Their voices rose
to the brink of tantrum and withdrew again. At last their tongues
went dry from wine, no water, and simple heartache. The sprinkler
had turned off and in its place the cicadas made their evening
Minoo pushed herself to her feet, this time using the arm of
the loveseat for support. "It doesn't sound like I have any
influence over your decision. Nayer's right -- you're a big girl,
Zarah. I've asked you not to go, but I can't force you to stay."
Zarah stepped around the table. For a moment she felt sorry for
her little mother. Minoo had been young. Her husband had died suddenly,
his car torn to pieces on the interstate. For some reason she needed
to distance herself from his family. Zarah could almost forgive
her dishonesty. "If it's so important to you that I not go,
why don't you tell me why you lied? Why don't you tell me what
happened to make you so... bitter?"
Minoo gazed through the screened walls into the greenish twilight. "I
just can't, Z. You wouldn't understand the things I did."
She scooped the wine bucket into the crook of her arm and carried
it to the kitchen sink, with Nayer at her heels. "Damn it,
Nayer, her name," Minoo said under cover of running water.
"I asked Christian to check with his contacts," Nayer
said softly. "No one thinks it will be a problem."
Minoo cupped water in her hands and splashed her face, pressing
hard over the eyes.
"Really," Nayer continued. "The name Fatehi won't
matter anymore. She was just a baby."
When Minoo leaned her forearms on the counter and let her head
hang over the sink, Nayer tucked her chin on her younger sister's
shoulder. "You have to forgive yourself, Minoo-jon. You have
to trust that Zarah will forgive you."
With their faces only inches apart, Minoo's eyes were full of
such desolation that Nayer shuddered. Minoo ripped a paper towel
from the wall to blot her face and went upstairs.
Nayer returned to the porch with two glasses of water and sat
on the loveseat, where Zarah joined her.
"She's my mother and I love her, but sometimes I feel like
I don't even know her." Zarah gulped most of the glass. "Was
she always this way?"
Nayer smoothed her linen pants and pinched one corner of her
mouth into a smile. "When we were young, your mother was the
most passionate person I ever met. Next to your father, that is.
They just... shone."
Zarah scrunched down to rest her head against the cushion and
tried to imagine her young parents, shining.
Berkeley, September 1977
Minoo stretched face-down on the bed, feeling the spine of Christian's
grammar book where he used the small of her naked back as a reading
desk. She could tell what time it was by the intensity of the late-afternoon
sunlight filtering through the sheer magenta curtains, filling
the room with a warm purple light. Already the first floor of the
house was shadowed, and soon the sun would slide off the window
of her second-story studio apartment, withdraw from the baking
roof, and leave the entire neighborhood in the cool green of evening.
The autumn sunlight in California often reminded her of Tehran,
where as children she and her sister Nayer would watch the sunset
from the flat roof of their house. Standing amidst the empty clothes
lines, they would bask in the glow that lit up television antennae
and the golden mosque domes, only to scurry inside, unfailingly
surprised at the coolness that followed as the glow evaporated
into the cloudless blue sky.
Christian shut the book with a soft snap of one hand. "Yek,
do, se, chahar," he counted out the numbers in Farsi.
"Chahar," Minoo corrected his emphasis.
"Chahar," Christian mimicked.
At times like these, Minoo couldn't help but wonder if Christian's
fascination with the Middle East was part of what attracted him
to her. The past year marked the fulcrum of her bicontinental existence,
half a lifetime in Iran, half in the United States. She rolled
over onto her back, her breasts shifting toward her sides. The
nipples were dark and textured, like nuts.
"What if I didn't want to help you learn Farsi?"
Christian pressed his lips to her soft belly. "Then I'd
find another tutor."
"Another lover? Maybe a Lebanese girl this time, so you
can practice your Arabic?"
Christian rose up to look at her in exasperation. "Why do
you tease me like that? You know I love you."
Minoo sat up against the pillows, winding her long hair into
a knot. He was her first love, only lover, constant companion.
But in nine months she would get her B.A. and look for a job in
San Francisco. He would finish graduate school, in journalism,
and take the best entry-level position he could find. It was as
difficult to envision them staying together after graduation as
it was to envision a day without him.
"I know you love me, but you're the one who said you've
been dreaming of Iran ever since you saw pictures of Persepolis
in fifth grade."
Christian got off the bed and went to stand by the window, his
long-limbed form startlingly pale against the curtains. "Ja,
you've got me figured out," he adopted an Austrian accent. "I'm
using you for research, so that when I become a foreign correspondent
I'll know all the important things. Like how to undress a not-so-Muslim
Giggling, she rose off the bed and sidled up along the length
of his body, the crown of her head reaching only to his shoulder. "Seriously,
though, sometimes men like you, guys with European backgrounds
and names like Charles, or Christian of all things-"
"Hey -" He tried to withdraw from her embrace.
"Wait. Sometimes those guys get caught up with the idea
of a girl who's different from anyone they grew up with. But I
know you." She stroked his bare buttocks, pulling them apart
gently and pressing them together again.
"After two years, you should." He let her hands pass
over his body. "Besides, I might say the same about you. Black
sheep of the family, sleeping with a foreigner."
She turned her face up to his. "Baa-aa."
"Look." He ran his thumb down her nose. "Would
you rather not help me learn Farsi?"
She sighed. "I should learn more of the grammar myself."
Abruptly, Christian lifted her up, and she straddled his waist.
They tumbled back onto the bed.
After showering, Minoo and Christian headed out to get dinner.
At Telegraph Avenue they turned and entered the freak show, as
Minoo's mother called downtown Berkeley. They passed crowded vegetarian
restaurants, tie-dyed clothing vendors, and incense shops. A stocky
woman holding a violent image from a pornographic magazine called
for passersby to sign her petition against porn. A bearded young
man handed out flyers for a "No Nukes" rally. Christian
gave a quarter to a dirty teenager with wild eyes who looked like
he'd been sleeping on the streets.
Entering the campus, they approached the Student Union to find
a small crowd listening to someone speaking into a freestanding
Christian squeezed Minoo's hand. "They're talking about
"Between 1972 and 1976," the disembodied voice rang
out, "SAVAK agents imprisoned 3,000 democratic protestors,
tortured at least 500 members of the opposition, and held 143 summary
Minoo was hungry, but Christian led her up onto a bench so they
could see. She recognized the speaker. He was unusually tall and
broad for an Iranian man, with a thick mustache and a nest of black
hair that grew into fashionably long sideburns. "That's my
"Darius Fatehi is your teaching assistant? For what class?"
"The Politics of Displacement." She grimaced. Her
senior seminar was going to be more of a challenge than she'd anticipated.
Fatehi was not easy to impress.
"He's supposed to be brilliant," Christian said. "Here
on full scholarship from the Iranian government. Isn't that ironic?"
Darius's voice was becoming more impassioned. "And do you
know who trained SAVAK?... The CIA and Mossad."
The crowd erupted into supportive boos.
"And why does the U.S. government want a bloodthirsty secret
service in Iran? I'll tell you in one word: oil!"
The boos increased in volume.
Minoo had never heard him speak like this. Although she considered
herself a politically aware person, she had only a surface knowledge
of the divisive situation in her home country. As a teenager she
had protested the Vietnam War, and at Berkeley she'd participated
in a women's Take Back the Night march, but she hadn't yet formed
a strict opinion about Iran because, as her parents said, the Shah
wasn't exactly a humanitarian, but he wasn't Hitler either. Just
because her father had given up trying to make his fortune in what
he called, "a developing country with a superiority complex," didn't
mean that Iran wasn't moving forward, however painfully. The Shah
was dragging the country out of feudalism, opening schools, funding
public works projects and giving women more rights. Meanwhile the
mullahs were arguing amongst themselves and with the king about
the direction the country should take. It was difficult to see
clearly through the dust of change.
"And who benefits from the oil money?" Darius's voice
echoed off the buildings surrounding the plaza. "The people?
The workers? The farmers who have been lured off the land by the
promise of jobs in the city, only to find themselves in dire poverty?
No, the one benefiting from the oil money, my friends, is Shah
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his corporate cronies."
Without realizing it, Minoo dropped Christian's hand. She squinted
over the heads of the gathered students to make out Darius's finger
pointing in the air. He didn't seem to mind that his audience was
thinning out as the light faded. "The Shah sits in his private
German jet, and drinks his French wine, and watches American movies
in the screening room of his palace, and all the while the people
are crying: we don't need weapons, we need bread! We don't need
planes, we need water for our crops!"
Standing there, listening to someone who really cared about what
was going on, Minoo became distinctly aware of how little she knew
of Iran's politics and even history.
" When the people cry out," Darius boomed, "when
they take to the streets to change the status quo, what happens
to them?" He looked up into the darkening sky. "SAVAK
arrests them, imprisons them, tortures them, kills them." He
left a dramatic pause, allowing the last words to reverberate into
the suddenly silent early-evening air.
Then he asked, very quietly, "Are we going to let this happen?" and
stepped away from the microphone.
Applause splattered around the plaza. Christian stepped off the
bench and raised his hand to help Minoo down, but she was still
staring after the place where Darius had been.
" Baby?" Christian's voice floated up.
Minoo accepted Christian's outstretched hand. "Wasn't he
great," she marveled.
" He's quite the agitator."
As they resumed their walk toward the Student Union, Minoo thought
of the all-American fare -- burgers, fries, pizza -- and wanted
none of it. She craved a homemade salad, chopped tomatoes and cucumbers
with lemon-juice-olive-oil dressing. But it was getting late, and
they were hungry, so she followed Christian to the cafeteria.
Sharene Azimi's father was from Tehran and her mother from
Currently she is in the part-time program at Columbia's Graduate
Journalism. Visit her