The runway at the old Tehran airport did not run parallel to the visitors’ viewing area. After the passengers boarded, the plane, whistling quietly, trundled out of sight off to the side of the building. Visitors went back to their chatter while they waited for the metamorphosis to occur. The conversation was full of travel: “Don’t cry, he’ll be back before your tears are dry.” “On my last trip to Amsterdam...” “The best restaurant in Cairo...” “You know, she’s been back from Paris for a month now and she hasn’t even called on me once. I guess she’s too good for us now that she’s seen Paris--she expects me, ten years her elder, to call on her.” “Do those life jackets on airplanes really help in a crash? I’d ask for a parachute instead.”
The sound of shivering windowpanes alerted the crowd. Conversations were quickly suspended as a vague tremor swallowed the building. A faint rumble quickly became an explosive roar as the jet aircraft reemerged--a screaming behemoth pummeling the ground and shaking the air. With a speed unnatural for its bulk, it charged up the runway and leaped into the air, tucking its talons gracefully into its belly. The sun glittering off the bald surface, the air shimmering under the wings, the bird carried away your loved one to a strange land--in its wake a turbulence of astonishment.
The crowd never asked, “How do they do that?” But wondered mystically, “Now that we have wings, how closer are we to God?” As though in response, the monster quickly became a dot in the sky. This dot-making aspect of God’s humor is lost on me. Just once, I would like to be amazed by something that is not a tiny dot compared to something else.
Cousin Daryoosh’s rational mind always got in the way of his mysticism. He believed that the universe is explained starting with one plus one makes two. The ever-shrinking dot in the sky meant no more to him than the fact that distant objects appear smaller than the same objects up close. So it was particularly out of character for him to ask me to say “Haile Selassie” when he found out my father was sending me to England on a jet plane.
“Remember,” he said, “at exactly six thirty, half an hour into the flight, you must say ‘Haile Selassie.’”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because at exactly the same moment I will be saying ‘Haile Selassie’ too.”
“Do you understand?”
“I think so, but what does the emperor of Ethiopia have to do with anything?”
“Because ‘Haile Selassie’ is not a common name and it is unlikely that you would want to say it for any other reason.”
I understood his purpose and made my promise to him. Several times, I too had felt the same left-on-the-ground feeling after the plane carrying my father had soared into the sky. If I had been as clever as Daryoosh, I would have thought of asking Father to say “Haile Selassie” at exactly the same time I was thinking the word: it makes the pain of being left behind more bearable.
At four in the morning the Koran was held over the doorjamb and I was passed under it. My aunts and uncles muttered prayers that protect the traveler. Aunt Monavar stuffed a tiny Koran into my coat pocket. I climbed into the lead car with cousins Daryoosh and Iraj, my kid brother, and our driver, Seifpour. Father was already in the passenger seat brooding. A long caravan of cars loaded with well-wishers bearing pistachios followed us to the airport. It was customary to give pistachios as a going-away present to Europe-bound travelers, since it was widely known that pistachios of such high quality would be hard to find outside of Iran.
The road to the airport was paved to impress the foreigner. The shrubbery was maintained American-style with the hedges machined at close tolerances into box shapes. The crickets inhabiting these structures chirped their wistful late summer chorus, somewhat resentful of the fact that they were now apartment dwellers. Casting circles of light onto the pre-dawn darkness, fluorescent street lamps arched above our heads like ruminating dinosaurs.
In the quiet of the car, I was thinking only of flying. Daryoosh was also thinking only of the plane ride. Iraj was jealous; he wanted my plane ticket. Seifpoor kept checking the rearview mirror to make sure that the motorcade was not breaking up. My 3-year-old brother had gone to sleep on Father’s lap. Father was deep in melancholy thought. For the last few months he had been lost in the tempest of anger and guilt that follows a suicide. Is this why I was being sent to England? Ostensibly, there was no one to take care of me after my mother’s death, and the English have good boarding schools. But I had overheard Aunt Monavar plead with my father, “Why don’t you let him stay with his brother at my house until you pull yourself together? It is not good to separate them, especially when their mother has just died.”
It was my mother who was to go to England that summer. My brother and I were to stay with Aunt Monavar while Mother proudly accompanied Father to London, where he was to attend an important conference. The British were preparing to pull out of the Persian Gulf islands, and what role Iran would play after the British left was a topic of dispute.
At first Father anesthetized the guilt by blaming it all on the British. “If they hadn’t been such sons of bitches and not toyed with us, the conference wouldn’t have been canceled.”
“What do the British have to do with it?” I asked.
“You do not understand these things.”
“Tell me anyway.”
Later he would be able to tell me. The British, knowing full well that Iran had a claim to the Bahrain islands, had invited a Bahrain representative to the conference. The Iranian representatives, refusing to tacitly acknowledge Bahrain’s existence as an independent entity, had pulled out. Did the British think Iranians were that stupid? But I too was Iranian. Did Father think I was so stupid as to believe Mother would take her own life over a canceled trip to London? Yet that morning in the car it seemed everyone had accepted that ridiculous story, for there I was as her substitute on my way to London to alleviate guilt based on a convenient misrepresentation of my mother’s character.
The airport seemed less like an embarkation point than a warehouse of pistachio gift boxes. Hugs, “farewell,” perfume, cloth, "passport, boarding pass,” more hugs, pistachios, “careful,” “write,” Koran, more pistachios, “shillings,” “airsick,” more hugs, more pistachios. “Don’t forget ‘Haile Selassie.’” There was so much fuss and hurry that I did not get a chance to reply to my little brother constantly asking if I was going to go see Mother. He had been told our mother was away on a trip.
Why couldn’t I have just said yes?
Continued on Part 2
From the Mullah With No Legs and Other Stories.
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