The day began like any other day. I woke to the voice of the muezzin calling people to prayers, Allah o Akbar. After Maryam finished praying we had our usual breakfast-- sangag bread still warm from the stone oven it was baked in, jam that Maryam made herself with pears and plums, mint-scented tea.
On the way to Tehrani Elementary School I stopped at my friend Batul’s house, at the mouth of the alley, to pick her up. We passed the public baths and the mosques, sights visible on practically every street in the Khanat Abad neighborhood. It was a crisp, cool autumn day. The red fruit on persimmon trees on the sidewalks were glistening like jewels in sunlight. Water gurgled in joobs running alongside the streets. The tall Alborz Mountains surrounding Tehran were clearly delineated in the distance. We paused at a stall to buy sliced hot beets and ate them as we walked on.
At a class recess, as I stood with Batul and a few other girls under a large maple tree in the courtyard, I noticed a man approaching us. He was thin and short with a pock-marked face and a brush mustache. He was wearing a suit and a tie. Even from a distance, he seemed powerful.
“Don’t you recognize your father?” he asked as he came closer.
In a flash I recognized him, the man I had met only once when he came to Maryam’s house with my birth mother on one of her visits.
I was afraid of my father, a fear I had learned from Maryam. Having adopted me informally, Maryam didn’t have legal right to me; even if she did, my father would be able to claim me. In Iran fathers were given full control of their children, no matter the circumstance. There was no way to fight if he wanted me back. To make matters worse, my father was also a judge.
So often Maryam had said to me, “Be careful, don’t go away with a stranger.” Was Father the stranger she had been warning me against? Our worst fears were coming true.
“Let’s go,” he said. “I'm taking you to Ahvaz.” He took my hand and led me forcefully towards the outside door.
“Nahid, Nahid,” Batul and my other classmates were calling after me. I turned around and saw they were frozen in place, too stunned to do anything but call my name.
“Does my mother know about this?” I asked once we were on the street. My heart beat violently.
“You mean your aunt,” he said. “I just sent a message to her. By the time she knows we'll be on the airplane.”
“I want my mother,” I pleaded.
“We're going to your mother. I spoke to your principal, you aren’t going to this school any more. You’ll be going to a better one, a private school in Ahvaz.”
I tried to free myself but he held my arm firmly and pulled me towards Khanat Abad Avenue. Still holding me with one hand, he hailed a taxi with the other. One stopped and my father lifted me into the back seat and got in next to me, pinning my legs down with his arm.
“Let me go,” “Let me go!” I screamed. Through the window I saw a white chador with polka dot design in the distance. It was Maryam. “Mother, Mother!” As the car approached the woman I realized it wasn’t Maryam.
“Don't put up a fight,” my father said as the cab zigzagged through the hectic Tehran traffic. “It won't do you any good.”
Before I knew it we were in the airport and then on the plane. The stewardess brought trays of food and put them in front of us. I picked up a fork and played with the pieces of rice and stew on my plate, taking reluctant bites. Nausea rose from my stomach in waves.
"I have to go to the bathroom.”
"Go ahead,” my father replied.
"The toilet is in the back,” the stewardess said.
I must hold it until I get to the toilet, I said to myself, but my stomach tightened sharply and I began to throw up in the aisle. The stewardess gave me a bag and I turned toward the bathroom with it pressed against my lips.
When I returned the stewardess had cleaned up the aisle.
"How do you feel?" Father asked me. "Better?"
I didn’t answer.
“You’ll be fine when we get home, your real home,” Father said, caressing my arm. “Your mother, sisters and brothers are all waiting for you. And I’ll look after you.”
Finally I fell asleep; when I awoke we were in the Ahvaz airport. I was groggy and disoriented as we rode in a taxi. Flames erupted from a tall tower, burning excess gas from the Ahvaz petroleum fields. A faint smell of petroleum filled the air.
We passed narrow streets lined by mud and straw houses and tall date and coconut palms. But Pahlavi Avenue was wide and full of glittering luxury shops and modern, two-storied houses and apartment buildings. Most of the women walking about were not wearing chadors and were dressed in fashionable, imported clothes. The modern avenue reminded me of the sections in north Tehran where I had ventured a few times.
“Stop right here,” Father said to the driver as we entered a square.
The taxi came to a halt in front of a large modern, two-story house, with a wrap-around balcony and two entrances.
"We’re home,” Father announced. I felt an urge to bolt, but Father, as if aware of that urge, took hold of my hand, and grasping it firmly, he led me into the house.
A woman was sitting in a shady corner of the courtyard holding a glass of lemonade with ice jingling in it. She wore bright red lipstick and her hair in a permanent wave. She looked so different from Maryam who wore no make-up and let her naturally wavy hair grow long.
“Here is Nahid, Mohtaram joon, we have our daughter back with us,” my father said to her.
Mohtaram, my birth mother.
She nodded vaguely and walked over to where we were standing. She took me in her arms, but her embrace was tentative, hesitant. I missed Maryam’s firm, loving arms around me.
“Ali, show her to her room,” Mohtaram said to the live-in servant, who came out of a room in the corner.
"Go ahead," Father said to me. “You can rest for a while.”
**a few pages later in the same chapter
The next morning, Ali called me down to breakfast with my parents and siblings. My mother spoke of the day ahead: the ceaseless chores, something to be bought for this child, something else for another. I had just arrived, and yet it seemed that I was the one she was complaining about, as if I had somehow tipped the scales and now she had far too many children. I looked to my siblings for solace. But none let their eyes rest on me except for my sister Pari, who stared at me with curiosity, a look that would blossom into love.
“Now all my children are here with us,” Father said, trying to pull me in, his stern face brightening.
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