Istanbul, winter 1983
“Come back tomorrow,” the police officer at the gate of the US embassy shouted. People grumbled and dispersed, to go back home, to have a rest, so they could return to the visa line the next day.
Sahar pulled my arm. “Let’s go eat,” she said, and walked toward the pizzeria at the corner, The best pizza in Istanbul, as its sign said.
“Sure,” I said, even if I wasn’t hungry, and followed her, thinking about the real significance behind getting a US visa. Happiness, as the hidden aphorism of the Promised Land. Waking up every morning before dawn to rush toward this space of waiting, getting into that privileged area of a potential achievement, to become a number, a position in a queue, immersed in the foreignness of an embassy, hoping to evade the war and anything else that was spoiling the likelihood of living an ordinary life, even the certitude of an ordinary death. I could kill to reach this zone of simple happiness, where a predictable destiny quietly flowed. Something Ramin never got, maybe that’s why he refused to get along. Maybe that’s why he died the way he did, or why I had to escape my home like a criminal. “Happiness is never simple,” he told me the last time we met.
“I just want a few moments of happiness,” I replied.
“But there is a high price to pay,” he said. It was the first month of the war when everyone who could, had already fled the country, and those who couldn’t, were dreaming about it. But in Ramin’s world if I got a visa and left like a deserter, still I had no right to this momentary happiness. “How could it even be possible?” he asked. On that day, I still didn’t know the answer.
We reached the pizzeria. It was crowded. We moved to the end of another line where many Iranians stood. “We have to wake up earlier tomorrow,” Sahar said.
I nodded, knowing the answer to Ramin’s last words: living in exile, when you’re told you’d never be able to come back home. It meant that I’d never be able to see my childhood house again or to recognize the cousins who grew up too fast to disappear on the middle of the last page of a newspaper, at the obituary section. How would it feel, if I could never see my mother getting older and I’d never, never, be able to attend my father’s funeral and I’d always, always, be afraid of the waking up in the morning to learn the dreadful news, afraid of answering the phone, afraid of receiving letters filled with deadliness of a life I had, cowardly, refused to live.
“Our turn,” Sahar said and we walked to the only empty table by the window.
I looked around to recognize any tangible sign of this authentic happiness. The radio broadcasted an angry man’s speech. On my right, a child sucked on his empty bottle and his mother counted the coins spread on the table. The couple sitting behind Sahar argued loudly over something I couldn’t understand. The air withered by grease and noise.
No sign. Nothing. There wasn’t any sign.
A waiter approached our table. I pointed at the basket of old garlic breads and Sahar tried to order a Napolitano without anchovies. His blank gaze came to life for a second with wonder before he nodded and rushed toward the kitchen.
Sahar shrugged. “Had you ever been to Persepolis?” she asked, grabbing a cold piece of bread. “They made the best pizza in Tehran.”
I shook my head, trying to swallow. Something was stuck in my throat. I turned my head and caught the stare of the mother looking at us with suspicion. Someone smoked behind me and the smoke, like a cloud, made a wall between us.
Living in exile, being a foreigner. It meant speaking without being understood. It meant never belonging. It meant abandoning the past. The place I had no more right to own, to hold, to love. As if by leaving it, I had sworn not even to remember it, ever. But what if the news of the war and the sadness in the letters coming from home and the insouciance - this depth of shallowness in the signs of pleasure - resuscitated the ghosts I had attempted to elude, the wounds I had strived to heal? What if I had to picture an ashen Ramin and my own apathy, over and over, every night, each time I dreamed? What if at the silence of his last exhale, I was going to wake at the bottom, where I had always remained?
Which happiness? Who was I kidding?
Sahar ate in silence, gazing at the falling snow. The child was already asleep. The mother looked peaceful, wrapping her son in another layer of blanket. The couple had ended their fight, glancing at each other with fondness. Someone had turned off the radio. The waiter brought us a new basket of garlic bread, scented warm like home.
Happiness – finally -- filled my stomach without an effort.
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