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Essay

Visiting Massih
‘Where are we going?’ we would ask. ‘To the Eternal Garden.’

A.S. Mostafanejad
April 12, 2005
iranian.com

Even now, almost fifty years later, the drive to the Eternal Garden appears as a dream. A recurring walk in some overgrown secluded forest, with poorly defined paths. I am walking those trails now in my mind, dimly aware that I have been here before to visit Massih. Not in happier times, but always in reverence.

Massih, too, remains continually aloof. An abstract duality; one a happy giggling child playing peek-a-boo from behind the crib railings, waiting to grab your nose or hair, if you dared come too close, and laugh out gleefully if you pretended surprise. The other a fawn in distress, motionless, rolled into a fetal position, dewy with perspiration, silently staring at the far wall.

The gravity of her state became apparent to the rest of us children, when her crib was moved to another room. Now we could only sneak sight of her through the crack in the door. Instead of the glee there was more and more silence. As her situation deteriorated she did not even offer the obligatory whimper at yet another treatment in a battery of desperate treatments.

There were futile attempts at both traditional and modern cures. The medications prescribed were interspersed with herbal concoctions as well as chants and prayers. The final diagnosis of meningitis seemed only to confirm that through it all Massih had been fading away into thin air, as the smoke from the burning wild rue outside her window. We did not see her leave or attend her burial but we knew she had left silently long ago.

We visited Massih twice a year. Once on the anniversary of her death, the other on the anniversary of grandfather’s passing. Since Agha Jan had passed away before we were born, we children saw the drive as a visit to Massih.

‘Hurry, you must get ready,’ mother would say. 

‘Where are we going?’ we would ask. 

‘To the Eternal Garden.’

No other explanation was needed.

Breakfast conversation around the sofreh, a sheet on the floor, was limited to passing the salt and pepper or the bread. We knew this implied much solemn preparation. There were the dark blue or black dresses for the girls and mother. A black chador for grandmother, Khanum Jan. My tailor-made navy blue suit and father’s freshly dry-cleaned and pressed uniform. There were of course the special occasion polished shoes for everyone. The maid was already at work chopping the vegetables and sorting the pots for our return lunch from the Eternal Garden.

We would be sent into the courtyard as we were readied. Next to the ornamental pool we waited as quietly as possible. Through the open french windows would come mother’s admonitions to each and all to stay away from the water and out of the flower beds. Once everyone had gathered in the courtyard there was the last minute inspection. A straightening of the collar here, a brush with the comb there and off we would go.

The heavy wooden doors with the ball and claw knocker opened with an aged groan. We would all step into the lane and follow father and grandmother in her black chador to the road where the car was waiting. Before unlocking the car doors, father circled the two-tone black on poppy red ’54 Dodge, touching here and there checking for scratches.

He waited for Khanum Jan to whisper a prayer for a safe journey and blow a breath slowly through her pursed lips to each of us and at each corner of the car. He would then start the car and we would begin rolling out of the avenues through the tunnel of trees, past the palace, heading south seeking the road to Rey. The narrow avenues led to the larger thoroughfares lined with shops and teahouses. Further south the shops became more sporadic, less traffic, fewer artisans on the dusty sidewalks. Following diesel trucks we would pass endless orchard walls interrupted by well tended vegetable patches. Here and there a farmer accompanied a heavily laden mule or donkey toward the city. Eventually as the highway and the dusty horizon began to blend we would take a left turn onto a small dirt road.

We would approach a tall adobe wall and follow it to a heavy wooden gate. Father would honk the horn while we waited in the hot sun. After a seemingly long time the gate would slowly begin to swing open. We could see the caretaker, crippled by the mob in the 1955 attack on the Bahai cemetery; haltingly push the large gate apart. As the view beyond the gate became apparent we could see the endless row of roses and marble branching out in all directions, a remarkable contrast to the sparse dusty world outside the gates.

The car would roll to a stop just inside the gate. We would all alight in silence and again wait for father and Khanum Jan to lead the procession through the well tended walkways lined with the perfumed roses, past the ornate marble headstones and into the heart of the Eternal Garden.

Agha Jan’s headstone was impressive with its black marble and gold lettering. We always stopped here first. Father would read a prayer and then Khanum Jan whispered her own words. Slowly she would place her hands on the tombstone as if feeling Agha Jan’s heartbeat, sighing her remorse through her tear soaked chador. 

I can vaguely picture Massih’s white headstone, a few steps away with its black lettering emerging out of the mists of time. 

‘Lord, accept this tender bud...’

Here we would again gather, Moslem grandmother and Bahai offspring offering prayers and reflecting on our common losses. Father stood stoic in his uniform and mother tenderly brushed the leaves off the headstone, tearfully pleading with God for his eternal care of her precious infant. We, the children, would watch in awe of not just the occasion but also the setting of marble and granite forms arrayed in endless manicured rows of roses and cedars of Lebanon. Here we were with Massih but also with poets, writers, engineers, doctors, artisans, educators and people of many backgrounds who had loved their land and served it with all their heart as they had also served their God.

Years later, after the revolution, in idle conversation with an older Moslem exile, over a map of Iran spread before us, I asked if he had ever been to the Caspian Sea.

‘Oh yes, that is where I first caught fish in Babol Sar,’ he said in a musing tone.

‘Did you use rod and reel?’ I asked.

‘No. A stick, thread from my mother’s sewing box, and a bent pin,’ he said wistfully.

His wife interrupted apologetically. ‘We had Bahai neighbors you know, an older couple. He was a retired doctor. We played backgammon and shared meals.

‘The committee asked them to recant their Faith or lose their possessions. They refused to recant. I pleaded with them to do it. They said it would be a lie and that would be unseemly in the eyes of God. The next day committee men came and took all their possessions. We pleaded with the mullah but he could not see that their refusal was ample proof of their honesty. He seemed preoccupied by the confiscated property.’

‘We are not barbarians, my son, we are just afraid,’ her husband added. He slowly laid his hand upon the map and spread his fingers as if searching for a heartbeat.

In July 1993, the Islamic Republic of Iran bulldozed the Eternal Garden and unearthed the Bahai remains in order to build a ‘cultural’ center on that site. In a society that imprisons and murders men, women and children for simply exercising their God given right by following their conscience, such a ‘cultural’ center would make sense. In a topsy-turvy world of hate and bigotry, such heinous acts are possible ‘in the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful’.

Even now, almost fifty years later, I am dreaming the dream while I walk those obscured paths. I am visiting Massih yet once again where she will rest forever. The Eternal Garden of the spirit will never fade.

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