by Mehdi Tavana Okasi, Guernica
In the late fall of 1979, a fortune-teller moved into our house, seeking shelter from an abusive daughter, distraught over the whereabouts of her only son. Her name was Mrs. Azam and she came from a small town along the Caspian shore. That year, at her daughter’s behest, Mrs. Azam had locked up her house in Sari and left Iran for Boston to care for her colicky grandson—her very first. Two months later, sixty-six Americans were taken hostage in Tehran. Once the students overran the embassy, Mrs. Azam could not return, as she had planned, at the end of November. Her son, a student at the University of Tehran, went missing and despite calls to friends in the capital, no one could reach him. Her husband was long deceased and Mrs. Azam had no other blood relatives. That Mrs. Azam could no longer abide in America, my mother said, opened a gulf between mother and daughter. Unreasonably, Sheila claimed that Mrs. Azam had always loved her brother more. She was indignant that Mrs. Azam could so readily leave her only grandson. Their arguments quickly escalated; Sheila turned violent. It was then that Mrs. Azam called my mother in tears; there were the greatest lakes, she said, of blue and purple on her back, and arms, and legs.
I first saw Mrs. Azam at one of my parents’ weekend parties when our apartment was filled with Iranians, the men in suit jackets, the women in dresses, heavily perfumed and coiffed, the children in khakis and Polos, their hair brushed into obedience. She was the first Iranian I remember meeting who was old, the same age as my maternal grandmother, the one I was forced to speak to on the phone every Persian New Year with my mother beside me, dictating my utterances of love and longing for family I did not know or miss. People Mrs. Azam’s age rarely visited from Iran back then. Their children weren’t yet established to finance their parents’ travel. Unlike so many of their friends, my parents had moved to Boston in the late sixties, and were settled long before tides of Iranians arrived in the initial years of the Revolution, disoriented to an uncertain future. Like my parents, Sheila had moved to the United States a decade earlier; she’d married an American musician and had a blond-haired blue-eyed child, which was a great mystery. As a U.S. citizen, Sheila was able to secure the proper visa and pay for Mrs. Azam’s travel, however reluctant Mrs. Azam had been to leave Iran in the first place.
The way my parents tell it, this was a time when their generation shared a common longing for the homes they’d abandoned…
As a nine year old, I didn’t think that Mrs. Azam looked much like a fortune-teller; she didn’t wear an elaborate headdress or carry around a crystal ball. Her wrists were bare of any bracelets, her fingers free of rings. At the party, she was dressed rather plainly in a beige blouse and ankle-length skirt that hid her figure. She covered her head with a brown headscarf and wore no makeup. For most of the night, she sat on the couch with a blanket draped over her lap, cradling her grandchild and sipping tea. When my mother’s friends discovered Mrs. Azam read fortunes, many of them solicited her on the spot, but Mrs. Azam declined, refusing because there were men in the house. In Iran, women often made appointments to see her weeks in advance, she said; she only read for those whom her established clients could vouch for. She wasn’t a street fortune-teller. When I asked about the difference, Mrs. Azam patted my cheek and smiled. “Desperation, Dari-jan, is what drives a person to the streets.”
The way my parents tell it, this was a time when their generation shared a common longing for the homes they’d abandoned, the siblings that were not so lucky and still endured in Iran, the mothers and fathers they were uncertain of ever seeing again. That year, my father was a successful car salesman in Framingham, and my mother was an office assistant to a chiropractor in Cambridge. Our house wasn’t grand, but it boasted large colonial windows, hardwood floors, and a patch of backyard where my mother willed tomatoes and cucumbers from the ground. “We’re fellow countrymen,” my mother would say whenever I protested cleaning my room on Friday nights in preparation for the parties they hosted nearly every weekend. As such, it was our duty to lighten the misfortunes of others. To that end, I was constantly dragged on car trips running errands with Iranians who did not yet own a car, forced to entertain their young children in my own room, with my own toys. “They look up to you,” my mother would chide me. Even then, I understood the power of having been born in the United States, the authority it lent me, and I was sure to wield it against those children. Like cheap perfume, my mother’s words were intense and overpowering at first, but would eventually wane, and then disappear altogether. “It is our privilege to be of help,” she would say to those same fresh-off-the-boat friends. And perhaps they didn’t hear it as such, but I knew my mother meant privilege in that we were advantaged in ways they were not. It made her feel superior to help others and because of that fact, I eventually understood that her generosity wasn’t genuine. If confronted, she’d never admit to lording her power over those newly arrived. She’d claim the thought had never even crossed her mind. A part of me still wonders whether my mother wasn’t secretly glad to see Mrs. Azam suffer as she did at the hands of her own daughter.
January of that year, months before the embassy was overrun, the Pahlavis fled Iran, first to Egypt, then eventually to New York, where the King sought treatment for the cancer that was ravishing his body. Ayatollah Khomeini took power as the religious leader of the country, the man who became the face of the first Islamic Revolution of its kind. Schools were closed, those loyal to the Royal family were killed, books were burned, and the country’s curriculum rewritten in light of a newfound Islamic morality. Ayatollah Khomeini’s face was printed inside the pages of every textbook, framed over the chalkboard of every classroom. Teachers were told to lead their students in burning pictures of the Shah and his family, chanting, “death to America.” We saw images of all this from halfway across the world. Because of Khomeini, my mother often said, Iranians lost face to the world, resigned to live as exiles and refuges, shorn of their 2,500 years of culture and history and most important, of their wealth. To prove ourselves to the rest of the world, she believed, we had to get that wealth back.
When Mrs. Azam called, I was trying again to convince my mother to let me stay at home.
While Mrs. Azam wasn’t exactly familiar to me, I was accustomed to her daughter, who’d befriended my own mother years ago at a typing class in Charlestown. Sheila wore oversized tinted glasses, had willowy hair, and a slightly disheveled look about her much like an elementary school teacher at the end of the day. I remember seeing the two of them at our dining room table on weekday afternoons, practicing their typing on respective typewriters. They filled the house with a steady stream of taps and clicks, the table strewn with their workbooks and the letters they dictated to one another, circling the other’s mistakes in red ink.
It was a Saturday afternoon when my mother received the call from Mrs. Azam. We were invited to another party that night in a suburb west of Boston, to a house more spacious than our own belonging to a privileged Iranian family who’d left with their fortune months before the Shah lost his power. I was reluctant to go, but like usual, not given a choice in the matter. This was before I learned to outmaneuver my parents and source lies to keep away, to carve out my own life. When Mrs. Azam called, I was trying again to convince my mother to let me stay at home. Eventually, I learned that Sheila and Mrs. Azam had had another argument earlier that day. They’d spent the better part of the morning scouting yard sales, an activity that Mrs. Azam found peculiar. One comment led to another and Sheila accused Mrs. Azam of despising her husband because he was American, of not loving her son for the same reason. Mrs. Azam denied Sheila’s accusations, told her she was being unreasonable. Sheila claimed that Mrs. Azam didn’t love her as a mother should. That she always preferred her younger brother. Mrs. Azam told her she was talking crazy. Sheila got so angry that, while steering with her left hand, she beat Mrs. Azam with the right, landing punches across the side of her head, arms, and legs. Then she pulled over and forced her mother from the car. Without her jacket, in the middle of the suburbs, Mrs. Azam wandered the near-empty streets for two hours before happening on the town center and locating a payphone. Because she didn’t speak English, Mrs. Azam couldn’t ask for help, or even the name of the town where she stood. Luckily, she had her address book in which she’d recorded our information so that once back in Sari, she could send my mother the famed smoked white fish of the region. On the phone, my mother told Mrs. Azam to hand the phone to a passerby and from a complete stranger, we learned the street corner on which Mrs. Azam waited shivering.
On the way to rescue Mrs. Azam, my mother looked like she wanted to tell me something.
“What is it?” I was determined to know, sensing real drama, quietly building my case to get out of the party that night, even though I knew my chances were slim.
“Nothing. It’s too terrible.”
“Come on, mom,” I said, resorting to English to convey the exasperation in my tone that was otherwise lost in Farsi. My mother looked at me as if to take measure. Then she looked back to the road and fixed her eyes there as we merged onto the Mass Pike, heading towards Weston.
“Promise you won’t repeat this.” I promised.
That night, while Mrs. Azam napped on the spare twin bed in my room, my parents argued in the kitchen.
“Sheila won’t allow her mother to close her bedroom door at night.” I didn’t think that this was such a terrible thing. I, too, left my bedroom door cracked to let in a slice of light from the hallway. “She wants Mrs. Azam to hear her making sex with her husband.” I was scandalized by the word sex coming out of my mother’s mouth. “Can you imagine?” My mother continued, “to be old, alone, and disgraced by your own child in a foreign country? Is there anything more terrible in the world?” While I couldn’t name what I heard in my mother’s voice that afternoon, her anxiety now makes complete sense to me. “If you ever disrespect me Dari, as God is my witness, I will divorce you.” I promised that I would never do such a thing and at that moment, it seemed like the most natural thing to promise my mother. I had no way of knowing then the extreme ways we’d learn to hurt one another.
That night, while Mrs. Azam napped on the spare twin bed in my room, my parents argued in the kitchen. My mother had canceled our plans for the party, which made her especially irritable with my father who objected to my mother’s interference. “She is a stranger in this country,” she said as she strained a pot of rice. My father had just returned from work. He’d rolled up his shirtsleeves and loosened his tie; the nametag with ‘Essi Fallahi’ engraved beneath the Chevrolet emblem sat on the kitchen table. The kitchen smelled sweetly of caramelized onions, the translucent slivers made bright orange with turmeric.
“We shouldn’t get involved in other people’s family troubles,” my father said, already resolved, it seemed to me, to forfeit this argument.
“Is there ever any other kind? What would you have me do? Send her back?” The questions had their desired affect on my father, who poured himself a glass of tea and took a seat at the kitchen table. My mother wouldn’t relent. “I saw the bruises with my own eyes, Essi. She’s torturing the poor woman.” Whenever they argued, she always got in the last word. I wanted to tell my father about Sheila’s abnormal sex acts, but knew my mother would get angry if I uttered a word. Instead, I picked up my father’s nametag and pinned it to my T-shirt.
“We should call the police,” I volunteered. My parents both looked at me as if I’d materialized out of thin air. I had the habit of slinking around the house and my ability to sneak into a room unnoticed was evidence—or so I deemed—of a future career in espionage.
“That won’t be necessary,” my father said, taking a sip from his glass. My parents, despite the decade they’d spent in America, were apprehensive about the police. In Iran, my father told me, the Shah’s secret police were everywhere. Once, in a taxi in Tehran, the driver had tried to solicit critical comments against the King, and my father would have been only too happy to comment were it not for friends of his, who, in similar circumstances, had disappeared. He’d played ignorant and let the driver rant, eventually changing the topic to soccer. My mother always said that story was just another of my father’s many exaggerations. “Does Sheila know her mother is here?” My father asked.
“I stopped by her house and picked up some of Mrs. Azam’s things. I convinced her she needed a break.” My father finished his first glass of tea, and I took his cup to the stove to pour the second, as was our ritual. He noticed his nametag pinned to my shirt. He held me by the waist. “I don’t want you to become the sort of man who wears his name on his chest,” he said, and removed the nametag that clung from my T-shirt, stretching my collar with its slight weight.
The day we first heard about the hostages, my father had stilled me by the shoulders and asked whether I’d told anyone at school where we were from. “I thought I was from here,” I’d said.
My classmates appeared each day with yellow ribbons tied to their backpacks or pinned on their shirts or flapping from the antennas of their parent’s cars, something my own mother forbade me to do.
“Yes,” he’d paused. “I meant your mother and I.” In fact, I had broadcast that my parents were from Iran at the beginning of the school year during show-and-tell, holding up the Iranian flag that had sat on my desk at home for as long as I could remember as evidence, pointing to the lion wielding the sword. But the way my father’s eyebrows pinched into mounds, I knew to lie. “Should anyone ask where we are from, say that we are from Turkey.” That night, I looked for Turkey on the globe in my room. It was situated below the Black Sea, which made me think that the country was a dark place filled with goblins and caves even though on the globe, it was colored a shade of cerulean.
At school, news of the hostages charged our otherwise mundane routine. Teachers truncated lesson plans in order to speak about the vagaries of human nature, about the importance of international law and human decency. We asked few questions precisely because we didn’t understand their elevated talk. But we knew something important was happening and I wanted to be a part of it. My classmates appeared each day with yellow ribbons tied to their backpacks or pinned on their shirts or flapping from the antennas of their parent’s cars, something my own mother forbade me to do. On the playground, games of dodge ball gave way to games of freeze tag with teams unimaginatively divided into two sides: hostages and hostage takers.
During arts and crafts, we traced our own hands in order to make Thanksgiving cards shaped like turkeys, which we then decorated with feathers and glue-on googly eyes. In marker, we wished the hostages a safe return and drew pies in miniature, squiggling three lines above each one to convey warmth. As I placed my card atop the pile on Mrs. Nevil’s desk, I asked how the hostages would receive them. Mrs. Nevil looked at my card on which I’d attempted to recreate the American flag. “The flag of the United States of America has thirteen strips. Not ten,” Mrs. Nevil said, her gaze already returned to the stack of vocabulary quizzes she was busy grading.
In the lunchroom, other kids claimed that their uncle or cousin or father’s best friend were among the hostages. They told one another stories about torture: How one hostage had the space between his toes slit and doused with lemon juice. How another had his tongue stapled to his bottom lip. And yet another was forced to lie on a bed of coals until his skin blistered. My classmates would look to me to corroborate these stories. But I heeded my father’s advice and claimed ignorance. “I’ve never even been to Iran,” I reminded them. “My uncle says be careful,” Tuan, my best friend at the time, told me on the bus one day. “He says Iran is the new Vietnam. If you want, he will teach you how to fight.”
By the time Mrs. Azam woke from her nap, I’d helped my father set the table, and the two of us were sitting in front of the television watching the nightly news, as had become our habit each night since the hostages were first taken. In the kitchen, my mother had prepared the sort of meal typical of their usual Saturday night parties: a stew of chicken, spinach, and plums, a plate of beef cutlets fried golden brown, a platter of rice jeweled with saffron, tomato soup with fresh herbs and kidney beans, a plate of crispy tadik glistening with oil.
“You’ve embarrassed me,” I overheard Mrs. Azam. “Why go to all this trouble?” My mom vowed that it was no trouble at all, even though I knew that was a lie. Once I’d asked my father why my mother said things that weren’t true, especially to her friends. My father had only laughed. “I’ve been wondering the same thing for years,” he’d said. My mother ushered Mrs. Azam into the living room, carrying a tray of tea and chickpea cookies shaped like little yellow stars. My father rose from his seat and I took the cue to do the same. I was surprised to see that Mrs. Azam was wearing a navy headscarf knotted below her chin, given that she’d removed it in front of me earlier that very afternoon. She’d changed into a silk blouse the color of an orange Creamsicle, and a green skirt that fell in clean pleats to her ankles. Standing in front of my father, she was almost as tall as he was. They did not touch, but bowed their greetings at one another. Mrs. Azam opened her arms to me and my mother told me to give her a hug. With my face in her blouse, I noticed that Mrs. Azam smelled of the spices that my mother cooked with, but that I could not name. “What a prince,” Mrs. Azam said, and patted my cheeks. To my father, she said, “It is kind of you to give an old woman refuge.”
“No mention of it, please. Maryam has informed me. I would have hoped for happier circumstances for your visit.” While I understood Farsi, I was always bewildered by how easily my parents could slip into formal speech, pronouncing words that I could only guess at from context, reminding me of my marginality to any adult conversation.
“Happiness is the gap between two miseries, Essi Agha,” Mrs. Azam said, addressing my father in the formal. My father was silent, looking solemn and somewhat uncomfortable standing in the living room, as if he were the houseguest. My mother asked everyone to sit, and I went straight for one of the cookies before either of them had a chance to stop me. My father turned up the volume on the television and we all turned to face it. Mike Wallace boomed that thirteen hostages—women and African Americans—were being released. We watched the pixilated images broadcast to us in Watertown, Massachusetts of scenes that had grown familiar. Tides of demonstrators filled the streets, halting traffic and waving pictures of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Circles formed around burning American flags, and once smothered, another was set on fire elsewhere in the crowd. Chants decrying America broke in waves, men and women and even children fisting the air to measure their chants. My father pointed to a building that appeared momentarily in the camera’s frame. “There—that’s where I applied for my student visa to come to America in the first place.” His tone conveyed an excitement usually reserved for soccer matches.
I looked to where he pointed but all I could see was a brown blockish building indistinguishable from the others. The severity of what my parents felt in those years—first with the Revolution, then the hostage crisis, and then the eight years of war with Iraq—wasn’t clear to me then. Everything they knew and loved was changing and they, from thousands of miles away, were apart from it, forced by necessity to hold their tongues as Americans around them decried the savagery of those people, their proclivity for violence. In public, we rarely spoke Farsi and frequented Arab and Armenian groceries for ingredients we couldn’t find elsewhere. Whenever the phone rang at night, my parents panicked, anxious that the caller was delivering terrible news from Iran. Years later, when they moved me to Iran against my will, I would recall those nights in our living room following the plight of the hostages. How my parents gazed on those familiar streets, on the city that nourished their first and most urgent curiosities, and been pained by that awesome distance from their homeland just as I was pained at being forced to leave the United States. While neither of my parents had been raised in the capital—and perhaps because of this—they spoke about Tehran with verve, how the promise of the city saved them from the anesthetic slumber of the villages in which they were raised. My upbringing was cast by their recollections of the wide tree-lined avenues uptown, how the mountain air cascaded from great heights into that neighborhood, scenting the air much like a woman’s hair—freshly washed and free of bands or pins—perfumes a room. They would recall the cramped alleyways of the bazaar, spiced and hot and teeming. The grand gates of the University of Tehran, at which neither of them matriculated, but that still promised of the world beyond. To them, Tehran held a wonder that no American city ever would, only because it was dusted by the tall tales of their childhood. That fall, I alighted on the fact that my parents had lived a life before me, in a country unlike the one I claimed, unrecognizable to my classmates or their parents. I realized that life could be lived elsewhere, in an adopted motherland. That such a choice imposed an unforgiving distance on blood and duty would be something I would one day experience for myself, but back then, I only witnessed that loss swell against the shores of my parents’ lives as their country changed irrevocably, and as one by one, their loved ones passed away.
Whenever my father called my mother his dearest in any political debate, I knew to distract them from the conversation any way that I could, lest it turn into a full-blown battle
Images of the released hostages briefly grained across the screen and Mike Wallace informed us—pointedly reading from the paper before him—that the students claimed Islam did not punish the persecuted. It was a noble religion. That African Americans and women had suffered enough at the hands of the West and were continuing to suffer still.
“They should just return the Shah and end all this,” my father said. My mother, a self-proclaimed Royalist, gasped at this statement.
“Just like that? That easy you would give up our King and Queen?”
“Perhaps you’ve grown deaf in one ear, aziz-eh-mahn, but there is no more royalty. It’s an empty title now.” Whenever my father called my mother his dearest in any political debate, I knew to distract them from the conversation any way that I could, lest it turn into a full-blown battle. I ate two more cookies, but neither of them noticed, so I reached for another. My mother was convinced that the Revolution would blow over in a few years time, and the royal family would be returned. After all, she liked to point out, hadn’t the Shah been forced out once before, in 1953? “Anyway,” my father said, “he’s a very sick man now. He won’t be alive in two years.”
“More reason for you to stand behind him,” my mother said, tearing up. “It was his policies that allowed you to study in the United States in the first place.” My mother turned to Mrs. Azam, looking for an ally. “I swear, Azam Ghanoom, just ten years ago you could just walk into Mehr-Abad and buy a ticket to anywhere in the world, no visa necessary. Now?” My mother huffed as if that was explanation enough.
“My son is there,” Mrs. Azam wiped at fresh tears with her fingers, never turning from the TV. “Somewhere.” My mother retrieved a box of tissues, shooting my father a dirty look as if he’d caused the reaction. I made to reach for another cookie, but my mother stopped me. My father kept his gaze on the TV as Mrs. Azam cried quietly and my mother droned reassurances: it was only a matter of time; she was bound to hear from him at any moment. Situated between the two large street-facing windows of our living room, sporadically set aglow by passing headlights, I felt as if the television was watching us as much as we were watching it. Here were people with whom I supposedly shared a culture, a history, and however diluted, DNA, and to whom I felt little or no affinity. When I saw their faces, I was not reminded of my own, or even of my parents. That Mrs. Azam worried after her son, lost amidst that loud and violent city, did not feel a real threat to me. I did not imagine that he was dead, or imprisoned, or escaped from the country, or perhaps even a hostage taker himself. The camera panned a group of bearded young men shouting in a crowd. Some of them had covered their faces with bandanas to protect their identities while others were exposed, proud that the world was seeing them, convinced that the Shah would never return. They answered the reporter’s questions, talking over one another, searching for words in English to explain what was happening in their country. “Now everything will be better,” one man said. “Now we will be free.” As the program went to commercial, my mother turned off the television and ushered us all from the living room and to the dinner table.
By the second week of Mrs. Azam’s stay, my entire fourth grade class knew about the fortune-teller. Despite my better intentions, she’d grown into a caricature, resembling in every way a real soothsayer with headdress and crystal ball and bracelets that clinked every time she moved her wrists. Before my sudden growth spurt, I was a small kid, underweight and short for my grade and occasionally picked on in the lunch line or on the bus. I learned quickly that a reputation mattered more than size and so I did what was required to assure that I was liked and included. I exaggerated. When my classmates wondered whether being a fortune-teller was something that could be taught, I told them that I was apprenticing with Mrs. Azam; when they wondered whether like witches, fortune-tellers too could cast spells, I said sure they could. In truth, Mrs. Azam hadn’t yet read my fortune and while I was tempted to ask, my mother had warned me against it. You never ask for something that isn’t offered to you first, went her dictum. So when my mother’s friends would visit in the early evenings while my father was still at work, I assumed that Mrs. Azam had offered. I could make out her breathy voice from the hallway, pronouncing fortunes from the overturned dredges of espresso cups or a stack of cards, reassuring them about financial prospects, about the health of their families back in Iran and whether they would ever see them again. Tuan, who grew slightly jealous at the attention my fortune-teller and I were getting, informed everyone that his uncle was teaching him Kali. Martial arts and the mystical unknown weren’t even in the same ballpark, I’d informed him. I mean come on.
“What is your son like?” I asked Mrs. Azam once, after she’d returned the phone to its cradle. Mrs. Azam thought a moment before answering.
Soon, Mrs. Azam became a fixture in our house and I grew accustomed to seeing her on the living room couch every afternoon. On the coffee table, Mrs. Azam would set out a plate of orange wedges and a bowl of pistachios for my afternoon snack. While I ate, Mrs. Azam would sip her black tea and study the television as if looking for her own name to appear there. After I finished eating, Mrs. Azam would bring out her address book in which she kept the calling cards she used to reach Iran. Together, we would dial the series of numbers and listen for the tone that sounded like a wet trumpet, signaling we’d made the connection. Sometimes no one would be home, and other times, Mrs. Azam would shout into the phone so loudly that I backed a few paces to give her voice the room it commanded. While she made the rounds of both friends and acquaintances for any news of her son, I studied her feathery handwriting, marveling at how she wrote from right to left, opening books at the opposite end, her entire world inverted to my own.
“What is your son like?” I asked Mrs. Azam once, after she’d returned the phone to its cradle. Mrs. Azam thought a moment before answering.
“Well, he is strong and very smart. He is also very kind and takes care of anyone around him. He is a student, like you, but older of course, at university studying to become an engineer. That is why I am worried.”
“Because he’s going to become an engineer?”
“No,” Mrs. Azam smiled. “Because he will try to help people. I am worried they are not the right people.” I wondered who was right and who was wrong and how you could know the difference. “This is something life teaches you,” Mrs. Azam said.
Although I feared getting in trouble for asking Mrs. Azam about Sheila, I took the risk, curious to know whether she was the wrong type of person.
“Do you miss Sheila?” I fingered Mrs. Azam’s address book, avoiding her eyes.
“A mother always misses her children when they are grown, even when they are only in the next room.” When I didn’t say anything more, Mrs. Azam continued. “Sheila was not given to me naturally. Maybe you did not know this. Back then, everyone told me to lie and tell her she was my own blood. So I listened because I thought this best. But then she discovered the truth. She is angry at me still and sometimes anger runs every other emotion out of the house.” I wondered whether my mother knew this about Sheila and that night I discovered she did, although she wouldn’t talk to me about it.
Despite our efforts, Mrs. Azam still hadn’t reached her son, and by the end of the second week with us, she started taking up not only my nightly responsibilities, but my mother’s as well. Before long, Mrs. Azam presided over our kitchen, which my mother was only too happy to relinquish, although she would never have said as much. Each night, our home filled with rich smells that I only noticed on holidays or the Saturday night parties that, since Mrs. Azam’s arrival, had waned. Lamb shanks stewed in a walnut and pomegranate sauce. Fried eggplants and chicken served in a tomato and onion pottage. Large meatballs stuffed with fried cilantro, barberries, and walnuts. Veal sautéed with lentils in a garlic sauce garnished with shoestring french-fries that Mrs. Azam cut by hand. We stayed at the table longer, had seconds, and listened to Mrs. Azam’s recollections of her childhood under the first House of Pahlavi, stories that inspired my parents to talk about their own upbringing, of a past that before Mrs. Azam’s arrival they rarely discussed.
Then, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, it happened in the bathroom. I came face-to-face with three sixth graders. I knew them from the bus, from the barefaced way they stood, the cigarette smoke roping dangerously from their hands. They were famous. Slick was the one who leaned against the sink in a black leather jacket. Miller perched atop the radiator and blew smoke up at the window ajar and screened by wire. Youngblood was the third and he stopped swinging from the stall once I was among them.
“Look who just waltzed in,” Miller balked, “the rug boy.” Miller was bulky like a propane tank. He wore a white T-shirt with a faded emblem of what looked to be a beer logo. “You fucking lost rug boy?” He cocked his round face, freckles peppered across his cheeks. I stood still, debating whether I should turn and run. Before I could decide, Youngblood walked over and clamped my head between his arm and chest.
“Can’t you speak no English?” he asked. His lips and tongue were stained red. He was the first black person to hold me so closely and I thought of telling him that the students had released the African Americans, and our peoples really didn’t have any bad blood between them. But this seemed like too many words to string together. My face started to feel hot pressed against Youngblood’s chest, his heart beat loud in my ear.
“No,” I said. I meant to say yes. Of course I spoke English.
“Your mother spreading her brown pussy for the Chinks?” Miller asked, no longer laughing. Then he punched me twice in the stomach and I was on the floor. He brought his burning cigarette within an inch of my cheek. “Should I stick you with this?”
“No?” Miller jumped off the radiator and took his time walking up to me. “Sounds like you understand real good.You burning us rug boy?”
“I don’t know,” Slick said, pushing up the sleeves of his leather jacket so that they bunched comically above his elbows, revealing his skinny hairless white arms. “He kind of looks like a brown Chink. Do they even make those?” They all laughed and then pulled from their cigarettes.
“Your mother spreading her brown pussy for the Chinks?” Miller asked, no longer laughing. Then he punched me twice in the stomach and I was on the floor. He brought his burning cigarette within an inch of my cheek. “Should I stick you with this?” I knew not to speak, but they each kicked me anyway so that I rolled onto my stomach, my hands impressed by the grit trekked in from the playground, slimy against the wet tiles. Miller kicked me again so that I rolled onto my back, then brought down his heel on my groin so that the room went white, then yellow, then key-lime again. I swallowed at whatever hot thing was pushing at the back of my throat and eyes, threatening to jump out. They ground their cigarettes on the floor next to me before walking out.
When I was able to move, I ducked into a stall and flushed the toilet repeatedly to drown myself out. Mrs. Nevil sent me to the nurse and the nurse called my mother who drove me home on her lunch break. “Was it something you ate?” she wanted to know. I said that it was. She left me with Mrs. Azam before returning to the Chiropractor’s office in Cambridge.
Mrs. Azam brought me tea into which she dropped crystals of rock candy that made me think of Kryptonite. “The sweetness settles the stomach,” she said, stirring the crystals until they all but dissolved into syrup that silked through the translucent glass of tea. That afternoon, Mrs. Azam did not bring out her address book and we did not try to find her son. Instead, she went into the kitchen earlier than usual to make me a chicken soup from scratch. I knew that if I ever wanted my fortune read, there wouldn’t be a better time.
After I finished my soup, I gathered the courage to ask Mrs. Azam and she obliged. She returned with a stack of playing cards, which I eyed suspiciously. “With those?” I asked, suddenly skeptical. Mrs. Azam only smiled and began shuffling the playing cards. They fanned through her hands like a gulp of swallows splitting across the sky. She then separated the cards into four piles and arranged them in a circle, pairing and removing them in a studied manner that, though seemingly random, was in fact precise.
“You are curious about your future?” She asked me. Of course I was. The future meant freedom from bullies, my own money to buy whatever I wanted, and a world where I could do as I pleased without having to ask for permission or the threat of repercussions from my parents. I wanted to know the details of that life. Mrs. Azam proceeded to tell me that I was strong of heart, that my will was stout and my future bright and filled with adventure. “Although,” she proceeded, “there will be difficult times when God will test you.” That sounded ominous. “I see boys at school making trouble for you. But you must be better than them. You must not fight.” I couldn’t believe she knew. When I looked her in the face, she kept her gaze fixed on the cards between us. She told me about an impending trip, news of a marriage in my family, the signing of some legal document that would bring my family good fortune. She warned me against giving up on hard work, against despairing or lying to myself. Her pronouncements, while vague, illustrated for me what was otherwise beyond my imagination. For the first time in my life, it seemed, I felt uneasy about my future. I thought about everything that could go wrong.
That Thanksgiving, in Mrs. Azam’s honor, my parents decided to host dinner instead of driving north to Burlington, Vermont, as we did each year to celebrate with my father’s college friends. My parents started the preparations early that morning. Mrs. Azam had eyed the turkey suspiciously as my father balanced it onto the rack. “This is a natural bird?” she’d asked. I was surprised to learn that she’d never seen a turkey before. Neither had she seen pumpkins, squash, cranberries, or sweet potatoes. As my mother sorted through these items, setting them aside in the bowls in which they would be served, she spoke their names for Mrs. Azam, who’d pick up each vegetable and bring it to her nose. Suddenly, I felt a particular pang of despair for the hostages in Iran and wondered aloud what they would eat that day. “A very large chicken I suppose,” Mrs. Azam said, which both my parents found hilarious but that I found not funny at all.
“You mean they’re not going to have a Thanksgiving?” I asked, thinking about the cards we’d made at school.
“I’m sure the students will do something,” my mother said. “After all, Iranians are natural hosts.” As she was washing potatoes and dropping each into a large pot of water, she added, “When you think about it, they’re more like guests actually.”
Instead of allowing me to feel that loneliness, she filled up our house with guests. She feared that I would never know family as they knew it, that even though I professed not to feel that sense of loss, I had inherited it nevertheless.
By noon, most of the vegetables were peeled, sliced, mashed, and resting in their respective pots, ready for the fire. My mother nagged me to get dressed, having laid out my outfit the night before. “I won’t have you looking like a dusty village child when our guests arrive,” she said, and pointed me first to the shower, then to my room to change. I did as I was told, and shrugged into my Oxford shirt, tucked it into my dress pants, and even wore a belt. I fought my mother on the tie and won, agreeing to clip it on just for the pictures she was intent on taking. At 12:30 p.m., my father dashed out to pick up a few more pies, a few more bottles of wine. Several perplexed Iranians had called my mother, baffled by the abbreviated hours at the grocery stores, the process of cooking a turkey, and been invited to our house. We would be nearly twenty that night for dinner.
As an adult, when I was estranged from my mother, my father would ask me to recall those holidays where my mother labored in the kitchen for hours. He would ask me to think about why my mother went to such pains and expense. Was it just for her friends, he’d want to know? Of course not. He would tell me that my mother always felt an astute guilt at raising me away from my extended family. For all those holidays absent of grandmothers and aunts and uncles and cousins. Instead of allowing me to feel that loneliness, she filled up our house with guests. She feared that I would never know family as they knew it, that even though I professed not to feel that sense of loss, I had inherited it nevertheless. Her failure to teach me those values, my mother believed, extinguished in this world a way of love.
With my father out and Mrs. Azam helping my mother in the kitchen, I turned on the television to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. As Kermit the Frog floated past, followed by the cast of the Muppets, I called my mother and Mrs. Azam into the living room to watch. They followed my gaze and saw streamers and confetti raining across the sky, fathers with children hoisted on their shoulders or held out in front of them to better see, their faces expressing wonder and joy at the colorful displays. “Here, they are clapping from delight,” Mrs. Azam said to my mother. “In Tehran, they’re shouting for blood. It is amazing, is it not, Maryam, how different the world? What fortunes men seek for their children in this country? How eager they are to delight?” My mother agreed, then they both tsked their way back into the kitchen at the injustice in the world.
With unsteady hands, she guided me inside and poured us each a glass of water. We were quiet, unsure of what we’d just witnessed, that distinct form of violence when something weak and defenseless succumbs to a larger, stronger force.
There was a knock at the door. When I opened it, Sheila looked surprised to see me. She stared at me for some moments as if I were a roadblock, then walked past without a word, following Mrs. Azam’s voice into the kitchen. I trailed behind her, forgetting to close the front door. “You’re not ashamed?” she barked, surprising both my mother and Mrs. Azam, who were busy at the stove, their backs to the entryway. “Have you no shame at all?” My mother was too stunned to speak. Mrs. Azam went pale. “You abandon your own daughter, your own grandson, to spend the holiday with someone else’s family?” My mother moved towards Sheila, removing her apron, but Sheila held up her hand. Mrs. Azam, I noticed, kept opening her mouth as if seeking moisture from the air, but no words came out. “This is Thanksgiving,” Shelia shouted. “And here you are like a gypsy living in other peoples’ homes, spreading lies, selling fortunes.” Somehow, Sheila had learned about Mrs. Azam reading for my mother’s friends at our home. Before Mrs. Azam or my mother could respond, Sheila grabbed Mrs. Azam’s arm and pulled her towards my bedroom.
It happened so quickly that all I can recall now are frames. First they were in my bedroom, Sheila pushing Mrs. Azam around as she quickly packed her things, then we were out on the front porch, my mother pleading with Sheila to calm down, that Mrs. Azam wasn’t to blame, then Mrs. Azam at the lip of the porch and Sheila still angry, still calling her mother street trash, a gypsy woman, still pushing until Mrs. Azam lost her balance and fell down the front porch stairs. Then everything was still. We all looked down at Mrs. Azam sprawled on the dirty, gray sidewalk. Her headscarf had slipped from her head and was knotted at her throat; her dress bunched above her knees, revealing varicose veins splintering across her pale white skin, the faintest puddles of purple from old bruises that had all but disappeared. “Yah Allah,” she said, her eyes on the overcast sky. Then, she said, “my son, my son,” and for a second, I thought she was calling me. Her pleas seemed to break whatever spell had glued us to the porch. My mother rushed to her, helping her up, righting her headscarf, dusting off her dress. But before she was done, Sheila pulled Mrs. Azam away and forced her into the car, not bothering to look at us as she got behind the wheel, and peeled away.
When they were gone, my mother seemed to notice me for the first time. With unsteady hands, she guided me inside and poured us each a glass of water. We were quiet, unsure of what we’d just witnessed, that distinct form of violence when something weak and defenseless succumbs to a larger, stronger force. “Don’t tell your father,” my mother said. “Promise me.”
That night, long after our guests had departed and the leftovers were wrapped and put away, I stared at Mrs. Azam’s empty bed and imagined what Sheila was doing to her at that very moment. I pictured a dark room. Mrs. Azam crying, her body freshly bruised. Perhaps like the American hostages, she was blindfolded and bound. I thought about her son in Tehran and if he were still alive, what he would do to Sheila. Lying in bed, I replayed the scene from earlier that day and wished that I’d answered Sheila’s blows with punches of my own, wished that I’d defended Mrs. Azam. I pictured Sheila’s face cut and bleeding. I hated her then like I hated Miller and Slick and Youngblood, like I hated anyone with more power than myself.
On Monday, I would return to school where Miller and his crew would be waiting for me in bathrooms, in near-empty hallways, behind the school building. They would smash my head against lockers, throw scraps at me during lunch, and follow me to the bus stop with jeers and threats. At first I would cower, be afraid, and my stomach would squeeze around itself like cheesecloth. But then I would make a decision, recalling how devastated Mrs. Azam had looked on the sidewalk without her headscarf, her face to the sky, her white legs exposed. I would begin lying to my mother about after school activities and instead, follow Tuan to his house, where his uncle would train us how to fight someone larger. When I would return home, my parents would still be at work, and the house would be empty. I would think about Mrs. Azam and renew my resolve to be strong. I would not take her advice the day she read my fortune; I was determined to learn how to fight.
The following July, Reza Shah Pahlavi passed away in Egypt. My mother didn’t come out of her room all day and that night, my father slept on the extra twin bed in my room. Then, on January 20, 1981, as President Reagan completed his inaugural address, the remaining fifty-two hostages were finally released first to Algeria, then to Germany, before arriving in the United States. Ten days after their arrival, a ticker-tape parade was thrown in their honor in New York City. As I watched the flurry of paper and confetti whirl through the air on the nightly news, I thought about Mrs. Azam and how two years earlier, she’d marveled at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, at the disparity of the world. I asked my mother about her then, whether she’d returned to Iran, whether she’d ever found her son. Because my mother and Sheila no longer spoke, what news she had about Mrs. Azam was hearsay. No matter what became of Mrs. Azam, my mother told me, Sheila’s betrayal was unforgivable and whenever Mrs. Azam died—God forbid—so would any chance for Sheila’s redemption. She would be buried with that guilt.
Eventually, I would learn that Mrs. Azam passed from this world. And because I never discovered the fate of her son, or whether she had reconciled with Sheila, I would think of her often and recall that fall of 1979 and see her face again, bruised, full of sorrows she could not translate to me, her young companion. I would think of her when years later, at the age of seventeen, my mother and I moved to Iran against my will because I’d become—in her words—an ungrateful American hoodlum. I would realize how parents and children could never be free of one another, how their kind of love bound them to a scale of sacrifice and duty, of what they’d given up. How naming that balance soured what held them, and turned parent and child hostage to each other, destroying whatever fortunes they’d once imagined.
Mehdi Tavana Okasi‘s fiction and nonfiction have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Glimmer Train, The Iowa Review, and Best New American Voices 2009. He’s been the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Key West Literary Seminars, The National Society of Arts & Letters, and most recently, the Carl Djerassi post-MFA Fiction Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a graduate of the MFA program at Purdue University. He currently lives in Boston where he’s at work on his first novel, May This Be Your Last Sorrow.