Mojgan Ghazirad| Longreads | March 2019 | 17 minutes (4,133 words)
In a cul-de-sac, I hear the purring of a gas stove and the popping of boiling tomato juice bubbles on the surface of a cauldron. The tomato paste aroma saturates the air. It’s August and it’s high time for making pastes and jams in Tehran. My grandmother kept us busy this time of the year. “Let’s put those little feet into work,” she used to say to my sister and me as she emptied buckets of Vine tomatoes into deep basins. We removed our socks, rubbed the bathing brush on our feet, and rinsed until the last cluster of soap bubbles vanished into the drain. She watched our brushing ceremony and inspected our feet for any specks of dirt. When she was satisfied with the whiteness of our soles, she hoisted us into the basins. We jumped up and down and stamped the tomatoes to extract the juice. Vine tomatoes squished and screamed under our feet. Their plum, tender and succulent, painted our legs. She boiled the juice and the ambrosial aroma of the boiling tomatoes wafted in the garden. The thickening tomato juice boiled over the sides of the hot cauldron, smearing the tiles of the terrace. When my grandmother removed the gas stove, a striking corona of fiery red drops of paste remained on the tiles. I thought those red coronas were the reason they named my grandparents’ street “the Sun Street”
How I wish I could enter that garden one more time to see those fiery rings. In 2018 I plan a return trip. But my mother tells me — before I go back — that the Sun Street is closed to the public. Nobody knows what has happened to that house since the Islamic government took it from us.
* * *
The Imam Airport
I hurry down the zigzag path that leads to the gate. I proceed to the passport check point. Only one flight has landed at Imam Khomeini Airport tonight and that flight is the Lufthansa 600. There is hardly a que in front of me. I have never seen the airport this empty before. The border patrol officer asks for my documentation and I slide my Iranian passport under the bullet-proof glass of the border inspection kiosk. I try to adjust the scarf I’ve thrown on my head in the plane. The fear of getting arrested for not observing the obligatory hijab still nests in me. It strikes again as I land in Iran. The young officer has beard stubble and wears an olive shirt that bears the golden thread insignia of the word Allah on his right chest. His eyes are surrounded by heliotrope hollows. He looks tired and disengaged, and doesn’t bother to raise his eyes to look at the one who claims to be the holder of the passport. He doesn’t say welcome to Iran.
How I wish I could enter that garden one more time to see those fiery rings. But my mother tells me — before I go back in 2018 — that the Sun Street is closed to the public. Nobody knows what has happened to that house since the Islamic government took it from us.
Baggage claim is located on the ground level, below the arrivals. Escalators carry the passengers between the two levels. I step on the emerging steps and peek at the scant, welcoming crowd that stands behind a tall, glass wall that separates the baggage carousels from the rest of the waiting area. People are waiting for their loved ones to appear from the sky and descend on to the ground. There are at most 50 people, unlike many years ago, when I was a young teenager who stood behind the glass wall, impatiently waiting for my aunt to arrive from America. I could hardly reach the glass wall back then, since it was covered, inch by inch, with bodies of the individuals who carried bouquets of flowers and waved their hands in the air with the sight of their passengers. No one is waiting for me tonight. It is more than two decades since my parents and my siblings left Iran for different parts of the world.
I park a baggage cart beside the only carousel that is wheeling around with a screech. Luggage on the belt appears dirty and soiled. Someone stoops to look more closely at a suitcase, another person pulls a large black bag from the rotating surface. Everyone looks old — mostly parents of Iranian students who live abroad. No one seems to be a tourist on this flight.
As soon as I walk out of the arrivals sliding door, a gush of soot-filled, dry air blows into my face. I smell the half-burnt gasoline in the air, the familiar, welcoming scent of gray, polluted Tehran. The drivers rush toward me. They offer the cost of transportation in Tomans, every one trying to beat the other driver. A young van driver nears my luggage and offers the cheapest price. I go with him. When I convert Iranian Tomans to American Dollars, the cost is negligible.
He asks where I’m heading and I give my parents’ address. He combs his hair with his fingers and ignites the engine. He stares at me in the rearview mirror as soon as I tell him I’m coming from America. “What has brought you from heaven to this hell, beautiful lady?” I wonder what sort of beauty he traces in my exhausted, puffy face. Maybe he assumes I am an angel descending from heavens of America. Maybe he finds the vivid scarf I am wearing liberating from the lead-color load of this city. On the stereo he plays an old song from Mahasti, a famous pre-revolutionary singer, stored on his flash drive. I have listened to this song many times before. I am surprised — with so many younger generation artists to choose from, he is still listening to a pre-revolutionary singer in his car. Is he, like many Iranians, trying to cling to the glory of the past? We pass the golden dome of the mausoleum housing the late Ayatollah Khomeini — founder and spiritual leader of the Islamic Republic. With its four illuminating minarets, the structure shines like a jewel in the desert at night. “They’ve named this area the sun city,” the driver says and points to the urban structure facing my right. “They’ve built five-star hotels, guest suites, a children’s amusement park, a book fair, and even a university.” I remember the parched land that used to be here, when I last traveled from the airport to Tehran. The driver laments the broken economy of the land, the depreciation of the Iranian currency and the sense of insecurity people feel every day. He asks if I enjoy living in America in the Trump era. I realize this is going to be the main question people will ask me during my stay in Tehran. I just smile and don’t elaborate. The flight has been too long and I am too tired for a serious discussion with a stranger.
We reach my parents’ apartment in the high mountains of Alborz. I pull off the sheets covering the furniture, draw back the lacy curtains that blind the guest bedroom, and open the window facing the backyard. The cold breeze of the August night embraces my cheeks. Here, in northern Tehran, the chillness of the night is still awakening. The honeysuckles have pawed and clung to the neighbors’ wall. The bone-white cement on the wall is now brushed with vivid green. A scant number of yellow flowers still hang from the vines. I remember the days I impatiently waited for the young, white flowers to ripen and change color, becoming golden yellow, in my grandfather’s garden. He had revealed their secret to me. If I pinched the yellow flower and pulled out the thin, inner string, a pearl-drop of honey nectar awaited me at the end. I thought I was the only girl in the world who knew the secret of the honeysuckle flowers.
* * *
The Abdul Azim Shrine – The Parrot Garden
I hire a Snapp, the Iranian version of an Uber, to take me to Abdul Azim Shrine, where my grandfather is buried. A mature woman drives the car. This is the first time I have a female driver in Tehran. She is wearing a light hijab, most of her hair peeking out from beneath her cherry red shawl. I notice her painted, curved nails as she touches her mobile screen, which is facing her on a stand. She knows the roads well and uses the Waze App to avoid Tehran’s heavy traffic. It is so entertaining to observe the app’s voice speaking the long-forgotten words in formal Farsi. We descend from the high mountains of Alborz and drive to Rey prairie, where the cemetery is located. As we get close, the tar-filled, compressed buildings of Tehran give way to vegetable farms. The young workers shade their faces with straw hats as they pluck mint leaves or uproot basil. Scattered Elm and Poplar trees stand at the corners, remnants of crowded rows of trees that flanked the farms.
The hymns from the minarets of the Abdul Azim shrine are music to my ears. It is Friday and soon there will be noon prayers there. I enter from the eastern gate and rush to get to the Parrot Garden, where my grandfather is buried. Inside the chambers, the shrine keepers are spreading the fine Persian carpets on the marbled floor, for the prayer. A little girl with a cute floral chador bumps into me while chasing after her sister. She looks at me and smiles as an apology. Her blushed cheeks are budding out of her chador. I remember the time I came to the shrine with my grandfather and my sister, roughly at her age, a nearly identical floral chador engulfing me. I tugged the rubber band sewn into the chador’s sides around my ears, so that it wouldn’t slip from my head. It was fun to wear those colorful chadors, a ritual for visiting the shrine, and a reminder of the time before the Iranian Revolution when hijab-wearing was not a rigid, compulsory obligation forced on women by the Islamic government. I wore it then ceremonially, with childhood gaiety as we ran and played in the chambers of Abdul Azim.
I leave the shrine and pace into the garden. I wonder why they have named the cemetery adjacent to the shrine, “The Parrot Garden.” Maybe the garden, before being turned into a cemetery, was full of green parrots living on the elm trees, like the heaven’s garden described in old Persian texts. Parrots are silent to the aliens according to those texts, but if they’re tamed, they can reveal secrets of the universe to their companions. Maybe the parrots were telling the secrets of the dead in the original garden. But now, with the scant elm trees remaining in the corners, and the burning sun scorching the gravestones, the Parrot Garden is nothing but a wistful name.
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I find my grandfather’s grave, a flat granite stone at the eastern corner of the cemetery where many respectful businessmen from Tehran’s Bazaar are buried. He owned a glaziery in the bazaar, and made many mirror artworks in his workshop. I fetch some water from the ablution pool and wash the hot stone with my hand. The epitaph emerges letter by letter: Here, the resting place of a respectful Hajj pilgrim, a beloved father and husband. I lost this man 20 years ago. The man who shaped my childhood imagination with his stories, and all these 20 years that have passed, I have visited him only a couple of times. His stories — the tales he’d kept in his heart to unveil for my sister and me on the hot summer nights, when we all slept under the canopy in the front terrace of his house, gazing at the bright, shining stars of Tehran.
The Rey Traditional Bazaar beside the shrine in southern Tehran, brims with people. They go to restaurants after the Friday Prayer, where two skewers of kebab are served with fresh batches of mint on oven-baked, whole wheat naans. The mouth-watering smell of grilled kebabs fills the bazaar at noon. My mother never trusted those restaurants, and every time we came here with my grandfather, he only bought naans with two bowls of yogurt for us. My sister and I loved the Reyhan Restaurant, for it lacked the luxurious ambiance of the places we normally dined, and the servers liked us and treated us like little princesses coming from another world. Men wore chapeau hats and tied red, checkered handkerchiefs around their necks, made morsels of wrapped kebabs in small pieces of naan and ate them with their hands, quite an unusual scene in a house of kebab in northern Tehran.
In Rey Bazaar I search for the Jewelry shops. Rows of rings with flowers, butterflies or hearts are on display in the vitrines of the shops. Golden bangles glitter on models’ hands, their nails long. They are perfect for little girls, dangling on their soft wrists as they dance. We used to treasure the bangles like trophies we’d found on a victorious journey to a faraway, unfamiliar land. I step into one of the jewelry shops. The guy at the counter asks me if I need help and I ask for the tray of rings on display. “Those are for little girls, khanoom,” he says. I nod and pick a blue butterfly with golden dots. I roll it onto my pinky, the only finger it fits. I recall being here with my grandfather. I’d asked, “Agha Joon, will you buy this for me?” He smiled and patted my floral chador, which covered my curly hair. “Of course,” he said, “You can buy two. Let them be pairs.”
* * *
The Sun Street
I take the metro to Monirieh Square to get to central Tehran, where I spent most of my childhood in my grandparents’ neighborhood. Even though my mother told me the area is now closed to the public, I need to see it for myself. As soon as the escalator reaches the ground level, a shallow pool appears at the center of the square. A plaster statue of a young boy sits on a wooden deck, wishfully staring at the pool and waiting for fish to come and take the bait. I have never seen this statue before. It is far from the photograph I’ve carried in my mind from years ago and certainly, this tender young boy longing for a little fish is different from the bloody symbols of martyrs that used to be in every square in Tehran after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
It’s midmorning and the heat of an August day is not yet in full effect. I walk toward the North on Vali-Asr Street. The Chenar
trees flank the wide street and their broad leaves offer a pleasant, cool shade to pedestrians. One of the oldest streets in Tehran, Vali-Asr starts in the South, at Tehran’s railway station, and stretches all the way to the mountainous North. The railway station was built in 1927 by Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi Dynasty, the last monarchy before the Revolution. The street connects the important squares of Tehran and many historical events have occurred on its pavement. Based on the calculation on Google Maps, there is a 15-minute walk from Monirieh Square to the Sun Street. I pass the sport shops that are abundant at this part of the street. The shops are not busy, due to the economic crisis that happened a month ago, the value of the Iranian Toman falling to one-fifth of its previous value in its exchange rate with the American Dollar. Where a dollar once bought 3,000 Tomans, it can now buy 15,000. Very few customers enter the shops. People gaze at the astronomical prices attached to the Sketchers and Nikes, and pass. I am surprised to see the sport shops still presenting the American brands in the stores.
The northern side of the street is closed to passersby by iron chains, and two police officers are guarding the entrance. I hope I can schmooze my way in just for a quick visit.
I pass the Sepah intersection where the Marble Palace is located. The intersection is busy and cars honk at each other nonstop. The palace was built by Reza Shah and he resided there with his family until he was forced to abdicate the throne in September 1941. After Reza Shah, his son, Mohammad Reza, came into power, and all his three marriage ceremonies took place in this palace. With its delicately tiled dome and white marble walls, the Marble palace once shone like a sublime coral castle in the green sea of surrounding gardens. But now, the pristine white walls have turned gray, after years of soot and lead precipitating on them. The magnificent Lion and Sword emblem of the Pahlavi Dynasty engraved on the arched gate has been replaced by a neon green banner that has turned dirty and dark, reading, “The Museum of the Holy Koran.” There is a narrow, tunnel-like detour beyond the gate to the museum, but the palace is closed to the public. The Guardian Counsel of the Islamic Republic holds its regular meetings inside the edifice.
I walk alongside the barbed-wired, monumental walls of the Marble Palace toward the Sun Street. The northern side of the street is closed to passersby by iron chains, and two police officers are guarding the entrance. I hope I can schmooze my way in just for a quick visit. I approach the older officer and ask him if I can pass.
“Why do you want to go in?” he asks.
“My grandparents’ house used to be here,” I say, “I want to see it after many years.”
“No one can pass unless they are a government official,” he says.
“I don’t live in Iran,” I say, “I’m coming from overseas.” He smiles and shakes his head.
“You can get to the other end of the Sun Street if you walk back to the Marble Palace,” he says, “You may want to keep your good memories.”
I have come all the way from Washington, D.C. to Tehran, after so many years, to see this patch of Earth, and to revisit the past I’ve been writing about for the last two-and-a-half years. In my memories, I roam around the Sun Street, searching every corner of the house where I lived my childhood dreams. I reach the other end of the street, where pedestrians are allowed to walk, to get to their homes. The sidewalks are still narrow like before. The Chenar trees have grown tall and thick, their seaweed green leaves turning yellow in the last days of August. The houses are still attached like 30 years ago, but many new, contemporary homes are plugged in between. I pause beside a wide window that faces the street. It is guarded by wrought iron bars. Tendrils of black ivy climb them, their heart-shape leaves facing the sky. I had passed those iron tendrils hundreds of times on sunny days, when I rode my bicycle up and down this street.
Ripe figs wink at me from above a brick wall opposing the window. I cross the street and search the sidewalk for sticky stains of fallen fruit. Squished figs have polka-dotted the mosaic tiles of the sidewalk. I am reminded of the tree in my grandfather’s garden. He loved gardening and asked my sister and me to help him with the garden work. He slanted the short ladder toward the fig tree and gave each of us a basket to stand under the tree with while he picked the ripened figs and threw them down to us. Sometimes the broad leaves landed on our heads like little doll umbrellas as he pulled the boughs to pluck the fruit. If a fig fell down by mistake, we raced to snatch it from the ground. We played a game to see whose basket filled up first. My grandfather listened to our ravings and tried to distribute them equally. I see my grandfather between the leaves. He whispers the old fable of Man and the Fig Tree in my ears. The Mythical Tree, the one that covers Man and his mate with its leaves. The Oath Tree, the one about which Allah makes a vow, regarding its yield. I wish I could traipse the other end of the street, and enter the heavenly garden that nurtured the fig tree.
* * *
Tehran’s Grand Bazaar – The Crystal Store
The day I plan to go to Tehran’s Grand Bazaar it’s cloudy. Rain is a rare incident in Iran nowadays, and the country is suffering from years of drought. A few drops fall on my cheeks as I get out of the taxi. The indelible perfume of earth disperses as the drops mix with dust on the ground. It heralds the end of the sweltering summer and enunciates the advent of Mehr, the first month of fall in the Persian calendar. People express joy on the streets, as if pearls are descending from the sky. When was the last time it rained in Tehran?
The vaulted entrance of the bazaar absorbs the buyers like a giant horseshoe magnet. A few porters have parked their trollies beside the entrance to carry people’s merchandise. Colorful shawls twirl around the hangers when the mild current drifts from the roofed bazaar. I don’t remember the last time I came here. Decades have passed since I visited this part of Tehran. With the economic crisis and the United States sanctions, I see fewer buyers. The bazaar is not as busy as always. The dried fruit stores are colorful and full of life. Mounds of spices, dried herbs and ground flower petals are on display in huge buckets. Some of them have a notice beside the price card. The notice tells customers what medicinal benefits each herb possesses. My grandmother loved rose petals. She sprinkled the tiny pink particles over the early harvest of fava beans in the spring. She believed the petals prevented stomachache from the beans. The salesman mixes seven different spices for me. Sumac powder snows on the crushed cumin in the plastic bag. He pours the turmeric on top and hands the layered spice bag to me. He comments that his spice recipe can be added to any stew or curry. “Take it with you to America,” he says, “It will work like magic.”
The beauty of curved shapes draws me to the china stores.The narrow paths of the bazaar in that section shine from the light reflected off the white china on display. There are many young girls accompanying their mothers in this area. It’s a tradition in Iran that a bride’s family provides the chinaware to the newlyweds. In one crystal store, fashionable Czech crystals glitter on mirrored shelves. The parallel mirrors increase the images of the crystals to infinity. A 24-karat gold ring embellishes the new crystals’ rims. The shop boy polishes the golden rim of a fruit bowl with a damp towel and hands it to a young girl whose soft braided hair is showing beneath her white scarf. She has delicately lined her eyes with black kohl, making them look larger in her face. The boat-shaped fruit bowl sails in the air and lands on the girl’s lap. The hull glitters during the sail as if a thousand mirrors are worked on the outer surface. I remember the conversation I had once with my grandfather, when he was working on the edges of a mirror artwork. I’d asked, “Agha Joon, can I cut this mirror in half?” He shook his head.
“No! You’ll cut your hands.”
“But how come you don’t?”
He showed his hands to me. Scars marked his palms and the back of his hands. “I did. But I learned with time not to cut myself.”
The girl smiles and asks for the price. The boat-shaped crystal is expensive, about a month’s salary for a city worker. But she wants the whole set, and her mother haggles over the price.
I buy a small water bowl and exit the crystal store. Will I ever learn not to cut myself? Will I be able to spare my heart while dissecting memories of the past? Can I avoid cutting open the old wound from losing our home? Will I ever stop brooding for the home we were forced to surrender to the Islamic government? With time, my grandfather says, and all the sage in the world. And isn’t it true that — one way or another — we will all lose the home that embeds our childhood memories? That the loss of home is the inevitable fate of us all, as we age and part from the place where we were born? Maybe my agony for the old fig tree originates from my ache for the lost Eden, for the void Garden, the vanished Abode, the forgotten Land. Or for the old fable of the invisible bond between the mythical tree and me. Maybe — like what the guard said at the gate of the Sun Street — I should not pry open the bleeding wounds of the past. Maybe I should just try to keep my good old memories.
* * *
Mojgan Ghazirad is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. She has published three collections of short stories in Farsi in Iran and Europe. Her memoir, The House on Sun Street, depicts her memories of growing in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and the years of war between Iran and Iraq.
Editor: Sari Botton