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Naz Riahi | Longreads | March 2020 | 29 minutes (7,251 words)
A few months after I was born, just a year after The Islamic Revolution, Shee Shee and Baba bought a house and moved, with my 12-year-old brother and me, to Karaj, a suburb of Tehran.
They moved to the suburb, in part, for the same reasons many young couples with children everywhere in the world, do — for space and a quiet place to raise their family. They moved also to get away from the chaos of Tehran, a city that was changing rapidly, seemingly overnight, after The Revolution — becoming overbearing with rules, regulations and unexpected dangers.
They found refuge in a private development called Dehkadeh. Built a few years before our move, in the mid ‘70s, Dehkadeh had a guarded entrance and a town square. Its streets, named after flowers, were lined with white birch — regal, gentle. Over the years, the birch grew tall, bending towards each other, creating a canopy. In the hot summers, they shaded us, letting just enough light stream through their leaves. In autumn those same leaves changed color and fell to the ground, turning our streets into rivers of reds and yellows. In the winters, their bare branches were covered in snow and icicles.
The town square had a sandwich shop, a grocery store and bakery. There was a fountain in the middle and a sit-down restaurant — which, shortly after we moved, was taken over by the government and turned into a mosque. All of the businesses, including the local bus line, were owned by people who lived in the community, comprising 700 or so houses. My pediatrician was a family friend who lived a few doors down from us, the elementary school I would eventually attend was at the end of our cul-de-sac and all of the teachers lived in Dehkadeh.
That was home. An hour’s drive to the city, but a different world, less hectic, safer (for a time) like a secret that protected us from all the bad, scary things happening in Iran — the war with Iraq, the new government that brutally enforced theocracy, the people whose allegiances weren’t known and who therefore couldn’t be trusted.
We lived on Niloufar Gharby (Water Lily West). Our tiny, single-story ranch-style house had a white metal gate that creaked open and shut and was surrounded by hedges thick with honeysuckle whose fragrance and nectar I’d lose myself in, daydreaming about all the happy lives I’d live someday. I’d become a writer like my grandfather, Baba Moeini, revered as he was. I’d travel the world like Shee Shee and Baba had done before The Revolution, before I was born. I’d be the hero of a real life story like my favorite superheroes, the ones I’d learned about on bootleg videos procured by my aunt’s husband on the post-Revoution black market, where everything from Corn Flakes to Michael Jackson tapes could still be found.
Our backyard was large and filled with fruit trees — peaches, nectarines, sour cherries, apples, and plums. A trellis ran down the middle, covered in grape leaves, and a white swing sat under an enormous weeping willow. There were rows and rows of strawberries in the field, and rose bushes beneath the windows.
Between the time I was a toddler and a child, my parents tore apart the back of our house to expand the living room and give me my own bedroom adjacent to theirs. I remember the excitement of getting a room of my own, but when construction ended and a big-girl bed arrived, I was horribly afraid to be alone at night. Though my parents’ room was just on the other side of my door, I felt abandoned. I remember Baba putting me to bed, tucking me in, and telling me to be brave.
For Baba, a helicopter pilot and soldier who was often away fighting in an actual war, bravery was a person’s greatest asset. His bedtime stories were rich with heroes fighting dangerous forces. I tried hard to be brave for him, but fell asleep each night a coward, hiding beneath my comforter from the night and its invisible dangers.
I took my first steps in the hallway in front of my older brother’s room. Shee Shee insists there is no way I could remember. But I do. I remember falling into an uncle’s arms. After that, the memories rush in.
Five years after we moved in, my brother, who was 17 by then, left for the States. Shee Shee was devastated to send her son away, but I was ecstatic to have his room, which was bigger and not attached to my parents’. I inherited his puzzles, pencils and Tin Tin books — all the things he’d had to leave behind, all the things I’d wanted since learning to want, all the things he wouldn’t let me touch when he was a brother who lived at home. Shee Shee replaced his sheets with a set covered in colorful hearts and moved in my Barbies and doll house. My bed was near the window at first. But we were at war, and the bombings were bad. Shee Shee and Baba feared that Karaj might be hit, so they moved my bed to the center of the room and Shee Shee put tape in the shape of an X across my windows. She made it fun for me and called it “redecorating.” When I asked what the tape was for she explained that it would keep the glass from shattering across the room in an explosion.
Even though we were fortunate enough to have a generator, which we used during the many blackouts, we also stocked the house with flashlights and oil burning lamps. When the electricity went out and the generator wasn’t working we made an adventure of it, lighting the lamps and sitting together, telling stories.
After I moved into the bigger bedroom, Baba turned my old room into his office. It’s where he hung his uniforms and looked over his papers. It’s where he asked to be left alone sometimes, and where at other times he invited me to help him make illicit beer — the long copper tubes through which the liquid moved spread on the floor where I had once played with my toys. I didn’t know that our game was a dangerous transgression that could have severe consequences, since in post-Revolution Iran, alcohol was illegal.
“Don’t tell your friends at school,” he’d say. “Don’t tell anyone what we do here.”
The beginning of secrets.
I was a child, like so many others under that political system, who lived a double life.
After The Revolution nothing was safe, no one could be trusted. The world inside our house was strictly hidden — parties, dancing, music, cards, wine, moonshine, beer, men and women comingling, teenage boys and girls alone in rooms together, American music and American films, no hijab, no praying, no fasting during Ramadan, the names and locations of family members abroad — all of this was concealed. Our true selves, invisible. By 5 years old, I knew the rules:
No one can know where your Barbies come from.
Don’t let anyone know your brother is in the U.S.
Don’t tell anyone we’re going to visit him.
Don’t say anything about what we do, or what we talk about.
Don’t say you disagree with the government.
Say you pray five times a day.
Say you fast during Ramadan.
Don’t argue if the Revolutionary Guard stops you.
Tuck your hair beneath a scarf, every strand.
Say as little as you can.
I ran Niloufar Gharbee, our street, like a tyrannical drill sergeant, commanding a group of boys, most younger than me — my cousins Sardar and Salar, my friends, Sina and Ila’s little brothers Aidin and Armin. I ordered them the way I imagined Baba, the navy captain, ordered his underlings, though I’ve come to learn that he was kinder. I ordered them to swim in the filthy streams that ran along the street in front of our houses, told them to be my horses, my dogs. I was Superman, Batman and He-Man and after a trip to the U.S., where I discovered and fell in love with Thundercats, I was Lion-O, the boys my sidekicks. I was the teacher and they were the pupils I chastised (with a stick). I was the doctor and they were the patients I examined, hitting them on the knee, hard, with my instruments and delivering grave news.
But I was also good at hiding this version of me. At 6 and 7 years old I was always ready to cover it up with a lie, smiling, or crying, whichever the occasion called for. The double-life that was required, penetrating every aspect of me.
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My clothes were European and so was Shee Shee, as far as she was concerned. Though, of course, she was actually the daughter of Kurdish parents, and born in Kermanshah. She dressed me in a navy overcoat with red trim and big buttons, a matching dress and hat. I had strappy, shiny Mary Janes and woolen tights in white, navy blue and black. I had a polka dot bikini that I loved the most.
Shee Shee had spent her teenage years away from the countryside, the farm and the horses. Raised in the metropolis of Tehran, the eldest daughter of the famous poet, she’d attended the most glamourous parties, before The Revolution, and knew all the famous singers (for whom my grandfather wrote many songs). Before I was born, she’d also spent some years abroad. Traveling with my Baba for his work and on holidays, she’d gambled in Monte Carlo, and driven through Italy. There is a photo of her in the Piazza della Signoria in Venice, her hair windswept, looking romantically away from David and toward Baba who is taking the picture. The photo hangs in my living room and sometimes friends ask, “Is that you?” And I am flattered.
I have a dress of hers that Baba bought after a night of winning at the casinos. Christian Dior, she said, though the label was torn out years ago. I imagine her wearing it, the tiny star attraction at all the parties and the discotheques. She was vivacious and burst into laughter easily. She swung her hips seductively and sang at parties, mesmerizing. Even though her voice is mediocre, her confidence soars. She was the favorite daughter of the favorite poet, Baba Moeini. He is a legend, idolized and respected. She was the wife of a high ranking navy captain, handsome and regal and light-skinned — all of which mattered. She was the mother of a son studying in America — which also mattered — and of a daughter who was her doll, and who took the stage and performed, charming the adults — which mattered.
She had long, red nails, filed to a sharp point, and she’d elegantly pull cigarette after cigarette out of a slim gold case like she was a film star. For a while, it was fashionable to use long filters and she did so with deliberate grace.
She had an ocean of black hair, shiny and thick. The waves fell around her face, down to her waist. She had shoulder pads a mile high and boots, knee high, big belts and soft curves, and she danced at every party until long after I was asleep.
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My brother attended the French school in Tehran before The Revolution, before I was born. He spent childhood summers in Paris and the French countryside with his school. I imagine Shee Shee, still in her 20s, relishing her freedom in his absence, garrulously at cards with friends, at discotheques with Baba, attending parties, away at friends’ vacation homes. Seventies Iran comes to me through family albums. As a child of war, of post-Revolution Iran, I wouldn’t have believed or even been able to imagine the kind of freedom my parents enjoyed, if the pictures didn’t exist. I devoured them, still do, filling in the gaps in narrative with stories I’ve heard about that life.
I look at pictures of Shee Shee in short shorts and bikini tops on boats, in party gowns with her hair in chignons, posing like she might steal a husband, but only just for a moment until something else, shinier still, captures her attention.
Outside of our tiny house in Dehkadeh sat the Chevrolet, big and brown with two long, black and white checkered seats. I sat up front, in between Baba, who always drove, and Shee Shee, who had always wanted a driver, looking from one to the other as they talked, feeling a part of them. Our ordinary outings, to shop for new furniture, to visit relatives, to pick up bread, felt extraordinary. Everything was an adventure. With my brother gone, it was just the three of us, which, though I missed him, I preferred.
Some afternoons, when Baba drove to work instead of taking the bus, I’d pull myself up on the radiator cover beneath our dining room window and keep an eye out, waiting for him. The car would pull up and I’d watch him emerge, a giant, and walk with his briefcase, in his uniform, with his captain’s stripes, to the door. I’d run and pull out his slippers, put them before his feet as he stepped through the door. He’d put down his briefcase and pull me up into his arms and kiss me. Then he’d take off his shoes, put on the slippers, kiss Shee Shee hello, and change out of his uniform. While he did that, I’d run to the kitchen and get him a beer, one that we’d made together. We’d meet in the living room, where he’d ask about my day, and I’d recount everything I’d done or learned, as Shee Shee prepared dinner.
It wasn’t until later, much later, after he’d been killed and I’d grown, that I realized how small he was. Five-foot-seven. It wasn’t until I stole his pajamas and wore them, night after night, grew into them, went from being a child to a teen and wore them and washed them enough that they lost his smell, until I was tall enough that they nearly fit me, that I realized he was human.
Dehkadeh had a community pool that sat empty. It was at the entrance of at the our street, surrounded by a fence and off limits to the community. I’d never seen it filled, but could easily imagine its glory, before The Revolution. I wished so much that the new regime would let us fill it once again, let us swim. It was at that pool that a decade after Baba was killed and Shee Shee and I immigrated to the U.S. that my 16-year-old cousin was chased by the Pasdar (Revolutionary Guard). He was with his friends lighting firecrackers for the Chaharshanbe Suri holiday (the Zorastrian new year’s fire festival).
Fearing riots inspired by recent pro-democracy protests, the celebration had been banned for the first time. My cousin nearly escaped the Pasdar. Nearly. As he jumped over the fence and over the creeks on our street, making his getaway, the fireworks in his pocket exploded, killing him.
Further down from that pool, past other streets with flower names, was the village square where the song of the morning and evening prayer was broadcast and echoed through the streets. On special occasions, when he babysat, before he moved to the U.S., my brother would take my hand and walk me to the deli in the square. There, he would buy us KitKat bars. I’d beg for him to give me mine.
“Not yet,” he would say.
Back home, he’d toss the KitKats into the freezer and I’d do my best to be good and, wait until he said it was the right time, when they were extra crispy and cold and tastier than if I’d inhaled them, as I surely would have if he’d let me, on the walk home from the store. He’d give me mine and disappear into his room with his. In the kitchen, I’d sit at the table and break off one piece at a time, being careful not to melt the others by squeezing the package too hard in my hand. I’d lick and bite and chew slowly, savoring the sweetness as it came back to life and disintegrated into a melting, gooey mess in my mouth.
It was at that very square where my brother, aged 13, my uncle, aged 16, and another friend witnessed a tent filled with Muslim text fall over in the wind. It was in this square where they laughed and in this square where Pasdar saw them laugh. A few days later, a letter arrived at our home, summoning them to the Revolutionary court.
Baba, who received the letter and conveyed the news, teased the children about what grave crime they could have possibly committed.
“Maybe they’ll teach you a lesson,” he said, jokingly.
On the appointed day, he accompanied the boys to the court, in his formal uniform, with his stripes and metals indicating his rank, and sat outside as my brother and then my uncle were questioned.
In the room, a Revolutionary Court district attorney, interrogated them about knocking the tent with the religious texts over. They both said they hadn’t done it, but they were arrested nonetheless. My Baba never thought this was a real possibility and believed his rank carried some influence. But it was to no avail. Once they were taken, he wasn’t even allowed to visit them. He and my grandfather, Baba Moeini, went to every office, called every attorney they knew, asked for every favor, to no avail.
The boys were imprisoned for 5 days, kept in a cell with 30 or more adult men.
“With one toilet,” in the cell, my uncle recounted.
“Your brother didn’t go to the bathroom the whole time,” Shee Shee told me. He doesn’t like to talk about it.
Once they asked the boys which one of them would like to go home and see their family. My brother, the youngest was chosen. He was blindfolded and driven back to Dehkadeh, back to the town square. A pistol was put on his temple, his blindfold was removed and he was told this was the last time he would see his mother, that they planned to shoot him that night. Shee Shee, had been called to see him. She’d run out as fast as she could, barely covering herself in hijab in her haste.
During their time in prison, my brother, uncle and their friend were ruthlessly interrogated, asked to turn on one another. My brother, the youngest and bravest and most stubborn, refused to admit a crime he hadn’t committed.
“We’ll sentence you to death,” their interrogator told him.
“I won’t say I’ve done something I didn’t do,” my brother said.
Eventually they were released, my uncle jaundiced, my brother filthy. My Baba, realizing, truly for the first time, what dangers awaited his family in our country. The false veil of protection his rank and position offered, lifted.
The meals of my childhood were French and American, at home. Shee Shee cooked hamburgers and thin, crisp fries, beef stroganoff, and potato gratin. We ate lunch at 4pm with Baba, when he came home from work. He would say, “Slow down,” to Shee Shee, who inhaled her food, and she would say “With your mouth closed,” to me, and I would eat my least favorite things first — peas, spinach, beef — saving the best, French fries, for last.
At Khaleh Maryam’s house (Shee Shee’s younger sister) or my grandparents’, lunches were traditional Iranian stews with salad Shirazi. Madar Joon cooked fesenjoon (pomegranate stew) sweet and meaty over rice, and tahchin, rice with a crust of yogurt, eggs and saffron, and every other Iranian dish to perfection, like no meal I’ve ever had since. At her apartment in Tehran, with French doors and ornate paisley wallpaper, I began my days with a sandwich of cheese and herbs and sweet tea, and then promptly lost myself in books and drawings and dolls. Baba Moeini, worked at his desk, writing poetry all day, and Madar Joon did her exercises and cleaned this or that — slapping dust out of rugs in the courtyard, watering plants.
Their house was a treasure trove. I snooped in every drawer of her bedroom for tiny jewels, ornate pins, fancy combs and little mirrors that I could turn in my hand admiringly, and discreetly stash in my pocket.
While I always felt a distance from Baba’s parents and dreaded staying alone with them, I adored Shee Shee’s parents and begged to see them all the time. At 5’6”, Madar Joon was tall for an Iranian woman. She was a striking blonde with green eyes and a love of leopard print and the color red. She’d had a nose job in her 30s, but one that preserved its aquiline shape — a shape I’ve always loved. Madar Joon adhered to a strict Slim Fast diet and morning exercises, to maintain her slender figure. She carried a pharmacy of sleeping pills, valium, pills for headaches, colds and allergies, and antidepressants in her bag, diagnosing family, friends and neighbors, and dosing out pills as she saw fit to whoever complained of a physical or nervous ailment.
On mornings together, I’d join Madar Joon in the kitchen and ask for chai-doh-rangeh, a two-color Persian tea, which I thought only she knew how to make. She’d tell me to sit at the table and would bring over a little tea glass, pouring into it from the tea kettle she’d lifted off the samovar, in such a way that the clear water and sugar mixture sank to the bottom, separated from the rusty red tea above. I marveled at the magic she performed.
“Can I have another one?”
“You haven’t even drunk that.”
“But when I drink this one, can I have another?”
“Just one more,” she’d say. “Too much sugar.”
Baba Moeini, worked from home all day, slumped over his desk for so many hours and days and weeks and months and years that eventually it became his permanent shape. I was the only grandchild allowed in his office and while he worked I’d spend hours running my fingers along the hundreds of books that lined the room’s walls, taking them out to peruse — Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Leo Tolstoy in Farsi, and all the important Iranian books, too.
I couldn’t wait to learn to read and picked it up quickly, advanced fast, writing poetry and filling out crossword puzzles by first grade. I admired Baba Moeini and wanted to be just like him. I loved his curly hair and the way he posed on his book jacket, with his hand beneath his chin, his index and middle fingers extended to his cheeks. He wrote dozens of books and hundreds of songs, many sung by the most famous musicians of his time and mine. His crowning achievement is 1200 years of Iranian history, after the Arab invasion, in verse. Meticulously researched and labored over for decades — a series of books called Shahkar (“masterpiece”), its name an homage to the epic Persian poem, “Shahnamen” (The Book of Kings), which is the story of the Persian empire in verse.
Poetry is an integral part of Iranian cultural identity. As such, Baba Moeini was a celebrity. His house was filled with writers and poets, filmmakers and actors, singers and painters. They’d sit in the formal room, behind the French doors, drinking tea and listening to him recite his newest poems — moved by the power of its deeper meaning, of the symbolism, of the beauty. They’d call him Master, or Professor, and ask for his opinion on life, love, art, and country. Sometimes they’d share their work, eager for his always gentle and kind response.
When we stayed with my grandparents in Tehran, I would often join the salons and recite one of his poems for the group, reveling in the performance, in being watched, and adored.
Once, Baba Moeini came back from Kermanshah with a gift for me, his favorite grandchild — a gold bracelet with a bow on it and a matching gold ring, delicate and beautiful.
“Your grandfather has never gotten a gift for anyone,” Shee Shee said. “Not even me. Not even Madar Joon.”
It was true. Not out of inconsideration, but because he was always in his own world and it had never occurred to him, until then, to buy anyone a gift.
All those years ago, in our small community, there were teenage boys with their motorcycles — my brother was one of the group, though he merely sat on the back of his friends’ bikes because he wasn’t allowed his own — and teenage girls huddled, laughing and gossiping. They couldn’t be seen together; it was against the law, un-Islamic. So they escaped into houses and back yards to socialize, to throw parties and to be young and free. Us little kids were not yet limited by Muslim doctrine and could mingle and play and even take swim lessons at Amoo Mortezah’z pool. Ila, her younger brothers, and I would take breaks from our dog paddles to lay in the sun and eat gummy bears, an exotic and delightful German treat that one of their aunts had sent from abroad.
Our street was quiet most of the day, except for when children walked to the elementary school at the end of our block. While we were allowed to play together, boys and girls were not allowed to attend school together, so, one week, girls attended in the morning and boys in the afternoon, and the next week, the schedule switched. When I was 5 and not yet old enough to go to school, I sat by our white metal gate every day and watched the parade of girls walk by. I admired their navy and gray uniforms, their roosarees (headscarves). I thought them to be old and sophisticated.
One day, I dug up a white pillowcase and ran to the bathroom mirror. I wrapped it around my face and tucked the sides in as I’d seen Shee Shee do, making sure to cover every strand of hair. Then I rushed out to the fence and casually leaned against it, pretending I was someone else, someone older, who would also be joining the older girls on their walk. I made sure they could see me and imagined they would whisper to each other about me, the new girl, and how old and interesting I looked.
When the girls finally walked by, they did notice me.
“Look at her!” one of them said, pointing at me. “Isn’t she adorable? She’s trying to dress like us.”
“She looks like a tiny nun,” another one said, laughing.
They all ahhed and oohed and giggled. They weren’t being unkind, but I was mortified. I ran into the house and into Shee Shee’s arms, sobbing.
“Look at how great you look,” she said. “Like you’re old enough to go to school!”
“Really?” I said. “The girls made fun of me.”
“Oh, I bet they were jealous. But I don’t want you to leave me yet. I don’t want you to grow up so fast.”
I never wore that white sheet again. I never pretended again. And when it was my turn to go to school and wear hijab, when it was a rule, I hated it. It was suffocating and humiliating and unfair that the boys could be free and unjudged without the burden of some god or prophet telling them what to wear. They could stay children, be themselves. Along with the hijab came rules about how we girls sat, and how we talked — calls to be ladies.
In second grade our teacher, who was also the vice principal — a skinny, hideous woman, with brown jaundiced skin and a witch’s large crooked nose — told us to take off our roosaree.
“We’re all ladies here, so it’s ok,” she said.
We looked at each other confused. She was the most strict, the most observant of our teachers, wearing not just a hijab of roosaree and manteau, but also a chador to symbolize her extreme Muslim devotion. To show us it was ok, she took off her chador, but kept on her roosaree, which is worn beneath the chador. She seemed kind, somehow, for the first time, encouraging us as if we were all on the same team. We did what she asked and pulled off our own hijabs, our roosarees, something we’d never done before in school. For the first time, most of us, who were not friends outside of school, saw each other’s hair — the color, the length, the style. We smiled. A few of us giggled. We felt relieved, unburdened of the invisible weight we always carried.
“Now,” she said, “take one strand of hair and pull on it until it’s taught, but not hard enough to rip it out.”
We did, wondering if this were a game we were about to play.
“Does it hurt?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” we said in unison.
“Now,” she said, “imagine hanging by that single strand of hair, for eternity, in hell.
“If a man who is not your father or your husband sees any strand of your hair, you will hang by that strand forever,” she said. “In hell,” she emphasized.
I did imagine that. It scared me. I didn’t want to be in that much pain. I didn’t want to go to hell. But lots of men had seen my hair. Every strand of it. And Shee Shee’s, too. Every girl must have had the same thought. We looked at each other, terrified.
At home, I told Shee Shee what The Witch had said.
“Is it true?” I asked.
“Of course not!” Shee Shee said. “Don’t believe a word that disgusting woman says. And if she asks, just tell her you wear hijab at home.”
Every day, at school, The Witch, with bony hands and beady eyes, worked to dominate us with fear. She would inspect our nails for flakes of polish or dirt and slap the culprit’s hands with a ruler she carried in the folds of her black chador. Some girls she perceived to misbehave were thrown violently against a chalkboard. She rejoiced in punishing and humiliating 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds.
For a time, I was safe, protected by a sophisticated, beautiful and angry mother, protected by my father’s name and his rank, protected by my grandfather’s fame. But the time for my humiliation by The Witch came, too.
Knowing that I’d missed a lot of school because my Baba was in prison, she pulled me out of our class formation, which was lined up in the barren, cement playground, and marched me into her small office, in front of everyone.
I was terrified at the prospect of what she would do to me, expecting a violent beating that I’d thus far escaped.
“Why were you out of school last week,” she asked?
“I had surgery,” I said. “My appendix.”
Though I had been missing a lot of school because he was in prison in Tehran and we had to go to government offices and try to save his life, this time, I had actually missed school because of an appendectomy.
“You missed school because of your dad, didn’t you,” she accused.
“No,” I said..
“Open your robe and pull up your shirt,” she ordered.
I unbuttoned my manteau, opened it, unbuttoned and unzipped my pants and lifted my shirt enough to show the still inflamed scar on my right lower abdomen. She extended a long finger toward me, pushing on my stomach. I hated her touch, I hated being exposed, I hated the insinuation, the judgment.
Unsatisfied with the truth, she said, “Your dad deserves what he got.”
For a moment I thought I would get in trouble, like he had. that I would be imprisoned, too. I wanted to tell her he was good, that we were all good, but I was too afraid to speak any more.
I tried to hold back tears, but they streamed down my face as I pulled down my shirt, zipped my pants and closed my manteau. She grabbed my arm hard, and pulled me into her, into the dirty smell of her chador, into an icy, cruel embrace, as if to absolve me of his sin.
By then Shee Shee had a lot to worry about, but I told her what had happened because I needed her to know how scared I was. She grabbed my arm and marched me right back to school.
“But it’s the boys’ turn,” I said. “We’re not allowed.”
She was furious. A Leo, she has a lion’s mane and a lion’s rage. She stood me outside the principal’s door and I heard her wrath unleashed upon The Witch and the principal. He apologized, profusely. And so did The Witch, which surprised me.
“They will never do that to you again,” she said.
On the day of my operation, I woke up in excruciating pain. Madar Joon was staying with me and Shee Shee. Baba was in trouble and had been taken for two months by then, imprisoned.
“It’s all the sweet bread she ate last night,” Shee Shee said.
“It’s her appendix,” Madar Joon said.
“I have to go to school,” I said. “I have a test.”
“Well you’re not going to school if you’re in this much pain,” Shee Shee said.
“I have to,” I cried. “I can’t miss my test.”
Though The Witch scared me, I loved school. I loved getting good grades, learning to read and write, memorizing the multiplication table, seeing my friends. I loved the smell of my books and pencils and the way my uniform made me a part of something official, like Baba’s uniform, like a superhero’s. I even loved our frequent descent into the bomb shelter, when Iraq was attacking us and the sirens sounded. The dusty shelter, with unfinished walls, beneath the earth, would have surely collapsed, trapping and killing all the children, me and my friends, if a bomb had been dropped anywhere near us. Yet, there we giggled together, enjoying the adventure of missing class, of being orderly in how we assembled and marched underground in a perfect line, finding our friends in the barrack and huddling together.
At my insistence, Shee Shee and Madar Joon, walked me to school and waited outside the classroom door as I, through excruciating pain, took the test I had that morning,
Back at home, Shee Shee said to Madar Joon that I was fine, doubting my illness.
“If she can go to school to take a test, it’s not her appendix,” Shee Shee said.
With Baba gone, Shee Shee was left to make all the decisions, something she’d never had to do before, and under the pressure she wasn’t always making the right ones.
“She’s running a fever,” Madar Joon said. “We have to get her to Tehran, to a hospital.”
Eventually, the fact that Madar Joon had seen all five of her children through appendicitis won out. But how to get to Tehran was another issue. Our car had been seized along with Baba, and we were beholden to others to get from our home into the city. Shee Shee walked to my paternal grandparents’ house down our street (they’d followed us from Tehran to the suburbs) to ask my grandfather for a ride to the hospital. Since Baba’s troubles had begun, the already fragile relationship between Shee Shee and her in-laws had become even more frail. Though Maman Riahi urged my grandfather to drive us, he refused.
“It’s a stomach ache,” he insisted, without having seen me. “She’ll be fine.”
Shee Shee walked back home and told Madar Joon that my grandfather had refused to drive me to the hospital. I was on the couch, covered in sweat and blankets, trying to breathe through the pain, but I still noticed the anger and panic in their faces. Like most of the families in our neighborhood, we didn’t have a phone line. Desperate, Shee Shee walked around our street to the homes of neighbors with cars. By then, her best friend Badri, had moved to the States. Ila and her parents were gone. My uncle, who lived down the street, was away. Somehow, all the friends my parents had, the ones they vacationed with and partied with and gossiped with, seemed to have vanished. I wished Baba were there and could drive us himself, could save me. But he was the one who needed us now.
Eventually, a neighbor we didn’t know well agreed to drive us to the city. It was nighttime when we arrived and Tehran was having one of its long and frequent wartime blackouts.
Once in her apartment, Madar Joon scrambled for candles and flashlights, then began digging through drawers for her address book. Baba Moeini was away, on a trip, I was told. Later I would learn that he and my uncle had been taken, too, to be questioned about my Baba, by the police.That’s why Dayee Hossein wasn’t home to drive us to the hospital. That’s why Baba Moeini hadn’t come to Karaj with Madar Joon.
Madar Joon found the number she was looking for. She called the famous surgeon who headed up one of the better hospitals. She knew he would do a favor for the wife of The Poet.
The Doctor said he’d meet us at the hospital. We were closer than he and arrived before him. He’d called ahead and ordered tests. Trembling with chills brought on by the fever, scared and in excruciating pain, I wept.
When the doctor arrived, he looked at me, felt my lower abdomen and said there was no time to wait. I was taken into a room where Shee Shee undressed me and gave me a hospital gown to wear. I was still in so much pain, scared and confused. Embarrassed by my nakedness beneath the gown, I pushed a nurse’s hand away when she tried to shave my stomach.
“Let me do it,” Shee Shee said.
“She’s a spoiled girl,” the nurse said, handing over the razor.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“You’re going to have another x-ray,” Shee Shee lied.
“You’ll come with me?”
“We can’t come into the room,” Madar Joon said. “But we’ll be right outside.”
I cried, becoming hysterical.
“You’ll be fine.” Shee Shee said
“You have to be brave,” Madar Joon said. “Aren’t you the bravest, toughest girl I know?”
I tried to be as brave as I always pretended to be, and once my stomach was shaved we walked together toward a big room with big doors outside of which the doctor Madar Joon had called pulled down a face mask to reveal a smile. He was wearing green scrubs.
“You have to go with the doctor for your x-ray,” Shee Shee said.
“Please, please come with me,” I pleaded.
“We’ll be right here, waiting,” Madar Joon said.
I took the doctor’s hand and we walked through the doors.
Inside, the room was big and cold. I saw a bed surrounded by people in the same green scrubs as the Doctor with lots of machines around them. There were big fluorescent lights above the bed and the walls were painted a soft mint green. I realized that something awful was going to happen to me.
I started to scream and run for the door, but a pair of arms wrapped themselves around me from behind and picked me up.
“You have to be a good girl,” a man’s voice said. “You’re embarrassing your mother.”
I didn’t want to embarrass her, but I needed her to hear me. I was certain she didn’t know I was in danger.
They placed me on the bed at the center of the room. Someone covered my mouth with his hand. I bit him and began to thrash, kicking and punching in every direction, screaming for Shee Shee and Madar Joon.
“They’re trying to kill me,” I screamed. “Please help me. Please help me.”
Strangers’ hands held me down as a man standing above me, lowered a mask onto my face. I screamed into the mask. And then I was gone.
After the surgery Shee Shee and I went back to Dehkade, to Niloufar Gharbee. Niloufar is a water lily, a beautiful thing, a miracle on murky waters. I finished out the school year and barely started another one before we left for good. I didn’t know the last time we drove away from that single story house, without my Baba, just Shee Shee and I, that it would be forever. Looking back through the windshield I saw the house and the gate get smaller, until they disappeared. In a whisper, I said, “I’ll be back soon, I promise.” I said it to our street and the trees, to my friends inside their houses, to the kids playing ball in the street. And to Baba.
For a few years after we’d left, Dayee Hossein (Shee Shee’s oldest brother) and his family lived in our house. I would look at the pictures they’d send us, whenever someone visited from Iran, and recognize the marble radiator covers, the green chairs, the wall of windows my parents put in when they extended the house. I hated that they were in our home, jealous that we weren’t there, that we weren’t whole. But I was grateful that they cared for it. That it wasn’t empty. That it hadn’t disappeared.
After my cousin’s death from the exploded firecrackers, they couldn’t bear to live there anymore, not in that house or on that street or in that neighborhood. When they moved out, Shee Shee went back to Iran, for the first time in 15 years, and sold our little house. I wasn’t brave enough to go with her. I’ve never been brave enough to face that past. All the beauty and the cruelty of that life and all that was lost.
“What’s the neighborhood like now?” I asked her when she came back, thirsty for details.
“You wouldn’t recognize it. All the little houses have been torn down and replaced by mansions and apartment buildings,” she said. “It’s just like everywhere else.”
How can a place that means so much disappear? It makes me so sad.
“But the trees are still there,” she said. “They’re so big now, they reach all the way across the street. Their branches touch each other. Almost no light gets in.”
We lived in Dehkadeh for eight years. Sometimes it was like the perfect secret — beautiful, safe and full of possibility. Sometimes we were jarred back to the reality of Iran, with destruction and violence all around.
I still remember all the parties we had, all the laughter. I remember our small orchard, and stomping on grapes to make wine with Baba. I remember Shee Shee dancing and my brother forcing me out of his room. I remember all the lives I could have lived and all the lives that were taken away. I remember my Baba leaving for the last time. I remember us saying goodbye.
* * *
Naz Riahi is a writer, living in Brooklyn. This essay was adapted from her forthcoming memoir, Bad at Love. To learn about the book’s release find Naz on Instagram and sign up for her infrequent newsletter.
Editor: Sari Botton