Shirine: a thousand and one nights. (short story)
Shirine's English has only a trace of an accent. What gives her away is an occasional hesitation, as if she is sifting through a pile of words until the right one appears. And her sentences have a peculiar rhythm; practically every sentence is punctuated with an exclamation: "I swear to God!" "I promise you!" Sometimes these expressions are pronounced with great emphasis, other times merely in passing, like a cough.
It's not surprising that her English is nearly natural. She was sent to school in England when she was thirteen, so that she could learn the language. Her father, an influential politician under the Shah, wanted her to grow up to be the Indira Gandhi of Iran. To do that, she needed to speak at least five languages fluently. Unfortunately, when it came to math she was hopeless, and that infuriated her father. He had no patience with her. He wanted her to do everything flawlessly, as he did. When she was young, she had to study calligraphy with a bamboo pen for two hours each week, so that her handwriting would be impeccable. Now she writes with an extraordinarily beautiful hand. She still feels that people will judge her by the marks she makes on a piece of paper.
In Teheran she played the piano with a Russian teacher, and she continued to study when she went to England. She loved to play the piano because it was something that belonged only to her, and because it was not useful. But forty years later, the piano playing is lost. When she thinks of the music of her childhood, she thinks of the setar, the reed flute, the tambourine, of a voice that is played like an instrument. When she hears that music, she weeps for hours. She's weeping over memories. She is also weeping from joy. The people sitting with her are always uncomfortable when she weeps. They think something must be the matter. They don't understand that sorrow is the companion of joy. Shirine is only mourning the loss of Eden, her exile.
She feels obliged to recite the stories of her life to others, to anticipate their doubts, to explain to them why she never fulfilled her father's expectations, although they wouldn't even think to ask. She tells the stories compulsively, but not in the way of women who are always exposing themselves and the things it would be better to keep hidden. None of these confessions is humiliating. The stories are strangely separate from her, as if they were legends, like the tragic story of King Khosrow's love for the Armenian princess Shirine. She is a story teller. That fate she can't escape. It's impossible to get her to start at the beginning of her life and relate it in one continuous thread to the present. It's a series of unresolved tales that overlap, shuttling back and forth in time. Certain details change: her grandmother had seven boys and two girls, or six boys and two girls. "My stories are all fabrications anyway," she says. "If you check with my father or mother or sister, you'll find that they have different versions of every story."
Recently, she dreamed about a waterfall. She was walking into the water, abandoning herself to its coolness, to the secret space behind it. Her grandmother caught hold of her skin and pulled her back. When she turned around, she saw her grandmother reaching into her breast and taking out a white dove. Shirine awoke in tears. She needed to know what lay beyond the waterfall. All day, she could think of nothing but the image of her grandmother holding the white dove, which upset her deeply, but she was unable to tell anyone about it. Finally, she couldn't stand it any longer, and she went to a spiritualist. She' d much rather consult a fortune teller than a therapist. The woman rambled on with vague predictions for the future. Shirine didn't pay much attention. Then at the end, almost as an afterthought, she added: "Your grandmother was the guiding light in your life. She is holding a white dove." Shirine remembers what she learned as a child, that the meaning of a woman's dream is the exact opposite of what it appears to be.
Until she left for England, Shirine saw her grandmother every day of her life. She went to her house for lunch and then again after school. Her grandmother, Khanom Shahrezad, died six months after Shirine left for England, as if she understood that there was no reason left for her body to remain alive. After all, her body was just an overnight lodging for an eternal spirit. By then, she was in her late eighties and had outlived several of her children. The first child to die was her daughter, at twenty-one, from a bacterial infection just two weeks before antibiotics were brought to Iran. That death devastated her, to lose her beautiful child when she could have been saved so easily. It was worse for her than her husband's death. After her husband died, she had been too busy taking care of her children and running his huge estates in Esfahan to think about him being gone. Eventually she sold the land and moved her entire family to the city.
Shirine has made her grandmother repeat many times the story of how she married her husband at age nine. She arrived at the house of her husband, Abu Ali Khan, with her dolls in her arms. He was twenty-seven at the time and naturally didn't know how to approach his wife-child. But she was very religious, and she performed her wifely duties. She bore her first child just a few years later.
Despite her piousness, her sons were all loud and free in their conversation. In the afternoons, after lunch, the servants set out striped mats and floral cushions on the carpets and brought braziers full of burning charcoal, opium bowls, and pipes. Shirine loved to listen to their conversation, to be around her affectionate, jolly, obscene uncles. "If you fuck a woman the night before," they would joke, "she'll bring you tea and toast in the morning. If not, you better watch out. She' ll wake up in a bad mood and throw something at you." She sat to the side, trying not to attract attention, listening to the sound of the water rushing from the fountain and her uncles' laughter. She was absolutely content, but inevitably one of the women would notice her, scold her, and send her back to school for the afternoon.
Shahrezad's holiness meant compassion for the poor and acceptance of others. When her oldest son married a "loose" woman, there was an explosion of gossip behind the woman's back. Shahrezad insisted that all her daughters-in-law respect their relative and not gossip about her. Her servants worshipped her, and her house was always full of their relatives, come to receive help. In her last illness, Shahrezad lay in a coma for ten days, without responding to anyone. Her maid kneeled at the side of the bed and prayed, "My beloved mistress, may God give me all your suffering." Shahrezad was not suffering in any way. At the very end, she emerged from her coma, sat up in bed, saw the saints come through the door in a procession, said her prayers, laid her head down on the pillow, and died a serene death.
When Shirine thinks about it, she would give anything to surround herself with her grandmother's holiness, as if she were wrapping herself in a chador. She needs her grandmother's faith in that invisible God, everywhere, all the time: God with her serving tea, God in the garden when she walks. It's impossible for her to believe in a God like that. She doesn't know what she is. She was raised a Muslim but is no longer one. She will chose her own religion in the end. She doesn't even consider herself Iranian, not the way her parents do. That belongs to them; they don't need anything more. She believes only in the details of her childhood, in fresh walnuts piled up in the courtyard, soaked in water until their skins slid off, and served for breakfast. On the streets in the winter, they ate baked beets with yogurt and came away with pink stains on their fingers.
When she was a child, though, she held long and intense conversations with God every night before going to sleep. She related to him the smallest details of her day, so that he would know everything about her and miss nothing. She no longer prays to God, instead she ponders Rumi's words: "To really pray is to be as an angel." She remembers that at one time in her life the angels were real.
Her mother took her on a pilgrimage to Iraq, to visit the most revered Shiite shrines. They went to Karbala and saw the shrine of Imam Hoseyn, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, martyred by the Omayyad caliph, and to the shrine of Ali, the first Shiite imam, at Najaf. In those magnificent and holy spaces she felt in the presense of God. But now she is unsure whether she was in touch with His presence or merely in awe of the glitter of candles reflected in the mirrored walls. Everyone fell silent when they set foot in the shrines, whether or not they were true believers. Her mother was born with faith; she had inherited it from her saintlike mother and never thought to question it. She even went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and each year she gave away one fifth of her wealth to the poor.
When Shirine first took acid, she went into the forests along the Caspian Sea, and surrounded by huge trees draped with moss, she sensed that God was embodied in those immobile giants. She embraced the trees and called them her grandmother. She kissed the earth and called it her mother. Her body was as transparent as the air.
Shirine was sent to England, and she left behind a trunk filled with her grandmother's clothing. In England, she used to sort through the contents of that trunk in her mind. There was the tiny wedding dress of the child bride, of gauze embroidered with gold flowers and with a big collar of shocking pink. The veil was of mauve and gold stripes, embroidered with pink and emerald green flowers. Now Shirine holds up the clothes, whose delicate threads are beginning to disintegrate, and imagines her grandmother as a little girl. She was like a princess, yet terrified of leaving her family, her dolls, and her little sisters. The thought of her sacrifice to marriage and motherhood makes Shirine weep, even though her grandmother never voiced any regret for her childhood, and even though the trunk is full of velvet cloaks, lined with sumptuous silks, striped, floral, of clashing, unbelievable colors. There is a jacket in the trunk with a lace ruffle at the collar. It is a copy of a jacket, a vest, and a blouse that her grandmother had seen on an English woman in Teheran, but the Iranian tailor had sewn it all in one piece. Her grandmother wore it under a veil because she hated to be seen by any man other than her husband. She was distraught when Reza Shah Pahlavi forbade women to wear the veil and encouraged them to be European in appearance. He was copying the Ataturk, she said, who likewise mistakenly believed that the salvation of the East lay in the West.
Shirine never wore a veil; she wore a bikini. Iran was free then. Naturally, her father disapproved; he had a very strict religious upbringing. Shirine hated it when anyone said that she looked like her father's sister, because she wanted to be associated only with her mother's family, with the bon vivants. Her father worked all the time, anyway. He was never around when she was a child. He industrialized Iran. He believed in progress.
As a child, Shirine was always with her favorite uncle, Amir Ali, her mother's oldest brother. After the Shah overthrew Mossadeq's government, he spent the rest of his life either in jail or under house arrest. He had been the speaker of the parliament under Mossadeq, had supported the nationalization of the oil companies, and taught law at the University of Teheran, where he was later turned into a hero by the students. For years, Shirine carried her uncle's lunch to him in jail every day. After he was released, he went to live in a small village outside the city, in a house that he owned with Shirine's father. It seemed to make little difference that the brothers-in-law were on different sides of every political question. They agreed on one fundamental tenet, that it was only an accident that put one inside a jail and the other outside. They were as inseparable as two sides of a coin.
This simple life suited Shirine's uncle, who became more content the less he had. He often quoted the Sufi sages, as if he knew them personally. "Truth is a hard road," he said many times to his wayward neice. He worked in the village and helped build a school. He adopted five orphans. In his apartment there was a sofa, a dining table and chairs, a bed, and lots of books. In the closet hung his three suits. Why would he desire more?
Shirine remembers how when she was very little and used to sleep on a mattress on the roof in the summer, her uncle would tie a rope around her ankle and around his. That way, she would not be able to get up and wander in her sleep, which she often did.
In those days, her mother was a happy person, a total contrast to her cold father. She laughed all the time, along with her wild brothers, and the loud laughter came from deep down. After the accidents of history put her behind bars, she was never the same again. The revolution took something from her besides her wealth, and she never got it back. Of course, they all lost something in the revolution: their country. But Shirine had already lost that. She thinks that getting a divorce is worse than going through the revolution.
In those days her mother was a happy person, and her children were happy. Every weekend, the entire family, with lots of cousins, uncles, aunts, congregated in the country outside of Teheran. There were four houses and lots of animals. The children made caravans on the donkeys or drove around in old British Jeeps. They ran free from morning to night, only checking in at lunch and dinner. They carried baskets to fill with cherries, peaches, pears, grapes and water to wash the fruit. The baskets always returned empty; they ate everything they picked. When they got hot, they jumped into the huge reservoir that served as a swimming pool. The water was so frigid that it took half an hour to work up the nerve to jump in, and once you were in, you couldn't stand the cold for more than two minutes. Your body ached. After those two minutes, you felt cool for the rest of the day. Her father, of course, swam methodically back and forth in that reservoir for at least an hour each day.
At thirteen, Shirine and her sister, Leila, said good-bye to their mother on the train that would take them to Crofton Grange. As soon as their mother left the compartment, the two girls fell into each other's arms and wept. They were going off to a strange school in a strange country where they knew no one. They barely spoke any English. The taxi let them off in front of the manor house, which looked enormous. It was surrounded by huge copper beeches whose heavy branches swept the ground. The black leaves terrified them. They instinctively grabbed one another's hands. They would have stood there forever, hands clasped, on the gravel turnabout, with their luggage arrayed next to them, if the heavy wooden doors had not swung open.
The sisters, only a year apart, were separated immediately. They saw each other for five minutes each day, when the entire school gathered around the piano in the front entrance hall to receive mail and their morning apple. Shirine practiced the piano for an hour before the mail was handed out, so she always managed to steal an extra apple for her sister.
The food was impossible to get used to. It had a faint musty smell and tasted like wool. The girls lived on apples and chocolate, which they bought with the money their parents had given them. Six months later, the sisters went down to London to see their parents, who had come from Iran to check up on them. When their mother opened the door to their hotel room, she didn't recognize her children. Then she started to cry. They were wearing woolen suits that she had bought in Italy, navy blue pleated skirts with matching sailor tops. The girls had gained at least twenty pounds, and they could barely fit into their outfits, which looked like stuffed sacks. Their cheeks were puffy and their skin pasty-looking. The next day, they went shopping at Harrod's for new clothes in the department for "ample" children.
The girls at school could never get over the fact that Shirine was Iranian: her skin was dark, her hair was black, she spoke bad English with an accent. At first, she could not pronounce "th" and was always confusing words. One night, just before lights out, she asked the matron to wait to turn out the light while she "washed her feet in the sink." For this offense, she was called before the headmistress, who said, "In England, it is considered uncouth to wash one's feet in the same place where one washes one's hands and face. Do you understand?" No amount of stammering could convey that Shirine had wanted to clean her teeth.
In her classes, Shirine was utterly lost. The other girls and the teachers assumed that her only fault was that she was hopelessly stupid. The one person who wanted to help her, other than her piano teacher, whom she adored, was her English teacher. Miss Robinson, a wrinkled spinsterish woman, must have had at least forty twin sets of cashmere sweaters, in every color, which she wore with a plain gray wool skirt and brown oxfords. She had infinite patience with Shirine and devoted hours to teaching her English. Before the year was out, Shirine was reading the Brontes. At last she could talk to her schoolmates. They had many questions for the foreigner: "Do your tents have any doors?" " Do the camels in Persia have red lights?"
Reading Jane Eyre, she discovered that schools just like hers had been around forever, a particular English nightmare. They were up at six every morning to air out their sheets and fold them. If you cheated and folded your sheets and blankets together or were not tidy enough, you had to carry scuttles of coal to the school building from the shed down the road. In the beginning, it seemed as if Shirine would have to do this every day.
By the time she had grown used to this existence, and was finally made prefect so that she, too, could have her turn at torturing the younger girls and forcing them to carry scuttles full of coal, her parents had decided that their daughters were not learning anything. Crofton Grange was not good enough for a future leader of her country, so they sent both girls to another school, Tortington Park, which was really much more pleasant and where there were other Iranian students. Here the lonely Bronte sisters at last had company: Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Browning. How different this poetry was from the writings of the Sufis, which her uncle had been reading to her from the time she could first understand him. When he recited their words, he seemed to spring from the Earth and to look back at it from a great distance, as if he were keeping company with the angels. The English poets, on the other hand, always seemed to be saying to her: "You are here, now, in this world and no other."
When Shirine first arrived in England, she received a letter from her uncle in which he wrote: "So that my little niece does not forget the many happy hours we spent together, reading and talking, I will enclose a lesson from Attar of Nishapur.
Someone went up to a madman who was weeping in the bitterest possible way.
He said: 'Why do you cry?' The madman answered: 'I am crying to attract the pity of His heart.' The other told him: 'Your words are nonsense, for He has no physical heart.' The madman answered: 'It is you who are wrong, for He is the owner of all the hearts which exist. Through the heart you can make your connection with God.'"Shirine thinks of this letter and wishes she could ask her uncle, "Who owns my heart?" Even then, she no longer talked to God fervently before she went to sleep. Each night, she fell into bed, exhausted, anxious, sometimes despairing. Each morning, after preparing her bed, she was ushered with the other girls into the chapel for morning prayers before an inedible breakfast of porridge. She stood in the dim, cool chapel, a worn blue prayer book open before her, and mouthed the words to the hymns. She did not dare to keep her mouth closed. She studied the image of Jesus Christ on the cross and marveled at how pale, how tormented he appeared. This god was not a happy god. Each morning she wondered why something that had once come as naturally to her as breathing now could not be summoned even with the most strenuous effort.
At twenty, Shirine announced to her father that she wanted to marry her boyfriend, a sweet Englishman who was studying at the London School of Economics. "Over my dead body," was her father's response, and it was not rhetorical. He still had hopes of seeing her in the prime minister's seat. She was living in London with her sister and her cousin, studying with a tutor and trying to pass her 0 levels, so she could go to Oxford. At twenty-one, with one exam left to pass, she returned to Teheran, as she did every summer. At a dinner at the American Embassy, she sat next to an Embassy official, who managed to convince her in the space of two hours that she was crazy to return to England for school.
"Oxford," he said, "is not for you, Shirine. England is a cold, damp place where everyone cloaks their feelings, cloaks their words. Someday five, ten, fifteen years from now you'll be walking down the street. You will have forgotten the particulars of their bland and unregenerate racism, or maybe chalked it up to ignorance. Those comments like, 'Well, Shirine, it must be interesting to be in a country where everyone wears shoes,' always expressed with such tact and delicacy, they were jokes, you think. You'll be walking down the street and suddenly you' ll remember something someone said to you at Oxford, a remark you hardly noticed at the time, and you'll realize that it was an insult, meant just for you. I'm sure you already have a storehouse of those remarks."
The next morning, Shirine went straight back to the American Embassy and asked for information on colleges in the United States. She took applications to Radcliffe, Wellesley, Smith, and Mt. Holyoke. They were vaguely familiar names, or perhaps she liked their sound. The woman behind the desk watched her stuff the papers into her bag and finally suggested that she might want to have another choice, as a "backup," since it was very difficult to gain admission to those schools. She would be glad to give Shirine some advice. She herself had attended a small college in Ohio. It was a "friendly" place.
Three months later, Shirine found herself at the College of Wooster, a place that seemed even stranger to her than rural England. The United States was a huge place, and each new name sounded more exotic than the last. She imagined Wooster as a place of many enchantments, with deep forests and glittering streams. Ohio was a place of flat, colorless fields, farmers who scarcely spoke, and highways. The other students sprang from this landscape. They had trouble understanding Shirine when she spoke, and she had trouble understanding them. She filled the air around them with words, and they looked at her with blank faces. She missed the English sarcasm immediately. This was the first time in her life that Shirine had made a decision on her own, and she realized at once that she had made a disastrous mistake. She became convinced the woman at the American Embassy had played a trick on her.
During Christmas break, she came to New York for a weekend to visit a cousin and stayed. Her cousin took her to clubs every night, to Ungano's, the Filmore East, the Cafe Wha, and introduced her to his Iranian friends, who were wild and free like her uncles. Each day she put off returning to Ohio. After three weeks, the college reported her missing to the Iranian consulate. Shirine talked a doctor into writing a letter claiming that she was having trouble "adjusting to college life." A week later she was back in Wooster. Somehow she managed to complete most of her courses. Her bags were packed before her last exam.
By the end of her first year at Columbia, Shirine had not completed a single course. Every night she met her friends for dinner and went to parties or dancing at clubs. She rarely went to sleep before six and never made it to any classes that met before noon. When she got out of bed in the morning, the first thing she did was light up a joint.
After a few months, the dean of foreign students called Shirine into her office. She explained to Shirine that attending classes was required for graduation and that some of her professors claimed they had never set eyes on her. Shirine talked about her anxiety over school, her insecurity, and complained about her peptic ulcers. She knew that the woman didn't believe her for an instant. Still, the dean wasn' t ready to give up on her entirely. Shirine wasn't as bad as most of her Iranian friends, who saw their time at college as an extended vacation in New York. They were being prepared for exile, and they might as well have fun while they were at it. They never went to class and paid people to write their papers for them. Shirine had not sunk that low. She felt it was more honorable not to pretend. Besides, she never really recovered from Crofton Grange, where she discovered that it is dangerous to take other people seriously. It is better to be punished than laughed at. The woman sensed that; she wanted to save her.
Shirine loved her film course, went to all the lectures, and spent entire days at Fellini and Bergman festivals. Her professor of Islamic literature had given her glowing reports. Luckily that class met in the afternoon, and Shirine attended religiously and did all the work. She studied with that professor for two years. If she actually learned something at school - and she wonders now how anyone can teach another person anything - it was with this man. Her other teachers wanted her to read, when she already understood that words were inadequate. Only experience teaches. Error teaches. What was the first lesson her uncle had given her? She couldn't have been more than ten years old when he recited Rumi on the inablity of language to express true feelings: "When it was time to write about Love, the pen was split in half and the paper torn."
Every month her friends' parents sent them money, as did hers, and they all did what they liked with it, which was mostly buying clothes and drugs. They got high and wandered through Bendel's, leaving fitting rooms littered with clothing and reeking from hashish and strong cigarettes. She was also into Quaaludes and mushrooms. The first time one of her friends died from an overdose of heroin, she understood that somewhere along the way she had become a different person. She had lost the lightness of childhood, when she had been absolutely free and her uncle had to bind her to the Earth with a cord around her ankle. Still, she wasn't ready to give up drugs, no matter what they did to her and her friends. She needed them to escape the lodging where she was trapped. In the end, seven of her friends overdosed.
By the spring semester of her second year, rather than throw her out of school, the dean of foreign students insisted that she see a psychiatrist. He was a short, rotund man with only a few wisps of reddish hair left over his ears and above his collar, like something forgotten. He chain smoked throughout their sessions and wheezed loudly from his emphysema. After two months, he had a heart attack and ended up in the hospital. Missing their weekly session, during which they mostly smoked cigarettes together, Shirine arrived at the hospital with a huge basket of fruit. It was hard to talk to him without a cigarette in her hand. After her visit, the psychiatrist called her every day to ask when she was coming to see him again. Shirine thought it best to skip the doctor.
Somehow - the word has attached itself to Shirine's life - somehow, she managed to graduate. She moved her life downtown to the Village, where she shared a house with more Iranian friends. It wasn't really a crash pad, because the rent was so high and the house was so big. When Shirine says she was a hippie, she knows that she just likes the idea of total freedom that the word implies. There was no school to get in the way now. In the house there were always people moving in and moving on, sleeping on the couch, passing through and passing out. Everyone was temporary. One was a man named Paul Somebody, who was in New York, editing a film about something or other. Shirine' s friend had put up the money to finance the film. Paul lived there for six months before he was called back to Texas by his mother. He returned home in time to witness his father's death and never finished the film.
This Paul struck her as not a person but an impenetrable wall. They never talked. He liked silence and manipulated it, very much like her father, who was still capable of reducing her to tears simply by looking at her sternly. Her father got angry at her when she cried, as if it were a personal offense, a sign of her weakness and failure, and she cried every time she saw him.
Once she drove upstate with Paul and several friends. On the ride up, she asked Paul to stop so that she could go to the bathroom, and he replied, "I don't want to stop now. You'll have to wait."
She cursed him all the way to Woodstock.
Six years later, this was the first thing she thought of when she ran into him at the Norton-Ali fight. She started a relationship with him immediately. On the surface, he had mellowed a bit. He had taken over the family's oil business and forgotten his ambition to be a film maker. But he had not given up drugs. They shared that. Still, that doesn't explain why she fell in love with him, or imagined she had. She has had plenty of time to puzzle over this, and by now she has to call it fate. How else to explain something which in Persian is not an excuse for wrong decisions but a force, a stream that cannot be diverted? Who knows where it will lead in the end? Not necessarily to happiness. There may be another purpose. And who can know true happiness when it is upon us? No one is happy until the moment he dies content and without pain, her father often admonished her.
When Farhad, Shirine's closest friend since childhood, was killed in a car crash in the middle of the desert, a crash that was like an explosion of light, Shirine knew that she, too, should have died in that car. Just a few weeks earlier, she had gone with Farhad to the twin Seljuq tomb towers on the Kharraqan Plain. The two tombs stood by themselves on the immense plain, their tan stone fading into the earth, the rubble, the mountains. When Shirine came close to the octagonal buildings, she saw their surface was constructed of raised bricks that formed complex geometrical patterns. These patterns changed constantly with the shifting light. Farhad, who was an accomplished photographer, had brought Shirine to the Kharraqan Plain to instruct her. He stood her before the tombs and said, "Look carefully. The light of the sun is melting away the materiality of these structures. It is removing the heaviness of matter, of the solid bricks."
Shirine had dropped a tab of acid in the car. As she stared at the towers, they disappeared and were replaced by luminous, translucent angels, floating just above the surface of the ground. She felt herself growing lighter and lighter, preparing to float. Shirine developed the photographs she took that afternoon, and as the images began to materialize on the surface of the paper, she saw at once that they were washed out. The paper was nearly blank.
Shirine was in Teheran at her parents' house, where she still spent every summer. When she called Paul in Texas to tell him that she was planning to go back to the desert with Farhad to try once more to photograph the towers, he became furious and insisted that she not go. Shirine was taken aback by this sudden, inexplicable jealously. >From the first, they had agreed to lead independent lives and not to be tied down by one another. They were free.
After Farhad's death she didn't know whether Paul had urged her to remain in Teheran in order to protect her or simply to control her. She couldn't help feeling that she owed her life to this person. Perhaps he knew things, or was the agent of an obscure destiny. On the other hand, should she have died in that crash? Was it her time to experience a painless death? What if that visit had been her only chance to be in the presence of the Divine, to witness the angels' descent into the material world? To capture the immateriality of light on a piece of film is as difficult as seeing the Invisible. What happens to those who resist their fate? She thinks she has an answer to that question.
In the middle of the night, Shirine called Paul with the news of the accident. She could hardly talk, she was crying so hard. Paul's response was unexpected. He suggested that they get married. Marriage would make her life easier. She would gain her father's approval, if not his affection.
After the incident with her English boyfriend, Shirine had lost interest in the idea of marriage. In fact, she thought of it as a kind of joke, and she had said so to Paul. Her father, on the other hand, had been pressuring her to marry this rich young oil man from Texas. Having finally given up on his dreams of turning his daughter into his political heiress, he thought it best to marry her off well. Given the political situation in Iran, marrying a foreigner was a good idea. It was no different than putting one's money in a bank in Switzerland or buying real estate in Pads. Like all shrewd politicians, he, too, had been hedging his bets.
The families of Shirine and Paul met in Paris for the wedding a month later. Shirine's father had made sure to reserve rooms at the Georges V for his guests, but he had neglected to get a marriage license. The French officials said they would have to wait for months to arrange the papers. The American Embassy said it would take at least two weeks. Shirine's father, sensing that his daughter would change her mind if she had a chance to think, was determined to have them married at once. He arranged with a mullah in Teheran to marry them over the telephone. First Shirine's father, then Paul got on the line with the mullah. She had no idea what the mullah said to them, and she never asked. The next day the documents were delivered in Paris, and Shirine signed them. Alas, she had begun to think. She felt as if these two men had snatched control of her life while she was elsewhere divining her fate. She sought it one place, and it appeared behind her. As Shirine and her new husband said good night to the guests after the wedding dinner, her mother pulled her aside and said, "Remember, my daughter, you greet your husband in your wedding dress and say farewell to him in your shroud."
Shirine hated San Antonio from the start. Everyone there was always saying "My granddaddy did this..." "My granddaddy owned this oil field..." In the living room of the ranch was a magnificent tiger skin, from an animal that her mother-in-law had shot on safari in Africa. When she went to the houses of her husband's business partners, she stumbled over tables made from elephant feet. The walls of the houses were lined with heads of animals. There was a lot of money then; she didn' t have to think. Paul had money. She had money coming in from Iran. In the winter they traveled; they went skiing or to the Caribbean. In the summer she went back to Teheran for months. Fate was only the moment multiplied to infinity. Her uncle was wrong about truth being a hard road.
Shirine's daughter was born in the middle of the night. She talked with her mother in Teheran at four in the morning. They discussed a name for the baby. Her mother suggested the name Tara, a Kurdish name that means star. Shirine's last words to her mother were, "I' ll think about it."
hirine fell ill with pneumonia. When her sister called to tell her that their mother had been arrested and taken to jail, Shirine was so weak that she could barely hold up the telephone.
Her mother was placed in a cell with two other women. She knew one of them slightly, a Bahai woman who had been the headmistress of the school her daughters attended before they left for England. For the time being, Shirine's mother, Avideh, was protected by the reputation of the very brother who had been in jail under the Shah. He had been involved in the opposition National Front until his death. He was a hero now. In the bazaar the merchants always gave her bargains on rugs because of who she was. She was also an incredible bargainer, but it was the spirit of her brother, hovering over her, that sealed every deal. She was proud of that connection, as proud as she was of her own husband. She lived with that contradiction inside her. In jail, as in the market, she was treated with deference. The door to her cell was left open.
When she was questioned about her husband's whereabouts, she answered, "If you kill me, I won't ever give you the pleasure of that information." She meant it, and she was ready to die. This was, after all, the same woman who had sat behind the queen with her legs crossed, in defiance of the royal etiquette. A newspaper photograph had captured her transgression, and she had saved a copy of it. When it first appeared, people called her all day long to congratulate her.
Each evening, however, as the sun set and the light disappeared, Avideh lost hope. Her defiance evaporated. A crushing weight settled on her; it was not lifted until dawn lightened the skies. She lay on her mat, with cotton balls soaked in rose water on her eyelids. Meanwhile, her Bahai cellmate performed her ablutions and prostrated her body on the cold stone. For hours on end, the woman prayed to God and to Her Holiness Fatemeh. "Oh, Fatemeh, save me." Perhaps the hundredth time - or the thousandth - she would finally be heard. Avideh had to keep herself from turning on the distraught woman. The night before the woman's execution, she performed her ritual ablution with dust that she had scraped up from the floor rather than with water. This night her supplications were replaced by questions: "Oh, God, where have you gone? Why have you left me?" At dawn, she was taken away. The next week, the other cellmate was gone. Silence returned to the cell. "May God's will be done," whispered Avideh to the empty cell. Their places were taken by high-class prostitutes dressed in the latest Parisian fashions. Avideh passed her time talking with these women and discovered the preferences of all her husband's friends. At the age of sixty, she received her sexual education in jail. She felt that it was only a matter of time until her turn came and a prostitute slept in her spot.
All this Shirine learned later. At the time, she knew only that her mother, her sister, and her two nephews were in Teheran and couldn' t get out. Her father was in Paris. He had left Teheran with two suitcases the day before the Ayatollah Khomeini's return. He never dreamed that he wouldn't be going back. Shirine's mother had been ready to go with him, but at the last minute she decided to stay with her daughter and her two little grandchildren.
It turned out that Shirine's father had taken the last flight out of Teheran. As the former head of the Pahlavi Foudation and prime minister twice under the Shah, he would certainly have been executed after the revolution. No one could have protected him. The irony was that the Shah, in a desperate attempt to remain in power, had replaced him, the conciliatory prime minister with close ties to the Shia leaders, with a military government. One afternoon after lunch her father was listening to the news on the radio, and in that way he learned that he no longer had a job. Soon thereafter, at New Year's, he went to the Shah's palace to pay his respects with all the other politicians. Her father stood at the head of the line. Even though he had been replaced, he was still considered the most senior official. That afternoon, the Shah apologized to him in person for firing him and, actually, saving his life by allowing him to leave the country.
Avideh was not killed; she was released from prison. What's more, even though her house, her possessions, her money, all were taken away from her, she was allowed back into her house one last time, to take away what she could carry. She was accompanied on this last visit by several mullahs, who spent their time rifling through the clothing in her husband's closet, examining the rows of lifeless suits and dusty shoes, and accusing him of the crime of materialism. "My husband was not a flea-ridden mullah," she retorted. "He was prime minister. He had to attend official functions. And he bathed." In the end, Avideh left the house with two old suitcases, which she had pulled out from under the bed in her husband's study. It was the bed on which he napped every afternoon. The suitcases held her husband' s collection of gold coins, dating back to the first dynasty.
It took Shirine's father years to arrange to have the gold smuggled out of Iran. The first smuggler took his money and then promptly died of cancer. Her father had to begin again, looking for someone new. In the meantime, Avideh and her daughter survived by selling coins, one by one, through family. It was dangerous because she was on a list that prevented her from having financial dealings with anyone.
After five years, her father finally arranged to have his family brought out of Iran. Shirine felt as if she had spent the entire time sitting by the phone, waiting for the call that would tell her they were free. Nothing else happened during those years. And once she learned that her family had left Iran, the country no longer existed for her.
Her mother and sister and two nephews left Teheran at night and drove to the border of Turkey. There they were handed over to the man who was going to smuggle them out and were given filthy Kurdish clothes to wear. They spent the next two days hiding in a barn, avoiding the skirmishes between the Kurds and the Islamic militants. From there they went on horseback, traversing narrow mountain trails that skirted steep precipices. The little boys were six and eight at the time. They were too terrified to utter a word. They sat together on a horse, clutching one another. Every time their horse rounded a bend and disappeared from sight, their grandmother would let out a piercing scream. There was no one to hear it.
They made it across the border, where they boarded a bus for a back- road journey to Ankara. They had no passports. It was critical that they not be stopped by the authorities. In Ankara, they had to wait yet another month for their false papers.
One week after Shirine's family left Ankara, Turkey signed a treaty with Iran agreeing to send back all refugees. Is it any wonder that when people around her are talking about politics, Shirine talks about fate?
Just after Shirine arrived in Texas, her husband's family sold their ranch; four thousand acres were divided into subdivisions. They looked for a new house, but Shirine never found anything she liked as much as the old ranch house. It was not particularly pretty and had been extended haphazardly over the years, but its haphazardness reminded her of her family's estate in the country near Teheran. The new houses in Texas were just dwellings, without any spirit. They were uninhabitable. In the end, she and Paul took the house and thirty acres. So she lives in a little oasis, in the midst of suburban sprawl. The highway passes two miles from the house, and along the highway there is a mailbox and a gate opening directly onto the road that leads to her house. For years, each time they returned from a trip, they would find a new house in the middle of the road. They would just drive around it in their Jeep, making their own road. Now there is a new road that skirts these obstacles. From their house, Shirine cannot see any of the houses that continue to spring up all around her. She refuses to put curtains on the windows, so that she can always look out on the enormous oak trees that surround the house. She can always imagine that she isn't quite where she is.
One day, their locked gate was left open. As Shirine drove home, she came upon four neighborhood boys on bikes, who had Shuck in to explore the mysterious estate. She drove up slowly behind them, rolled down her window, and called out, "What can I do for you fellows?"
The boys were terrified. She could see that they wanted to run, but one of them managed to say, "We just rode in. The gate was open. We only wanted to see the house."
She invited them to follow her. As the boys stood on the grass staring at her house, the same boy turned to Shirine and blurted out, "Can I ask you something?" Without giving her a chance to reply, he went on, "Are you an Arabian princess?"
"No, I'm not an Arabian princess," she answered.
She has discovered that her husband has no heart. But for her parents, escape from the marriage is unthinkable, unless she is prepared to put on her shroud. Besides, she has sunk all her money in her marriage, or lost it in Teheran. There's a little story that Shirine likes to tell about her husband, when she is far away from him, which she contrives to be as frequently as possible. Paul invested a considerable sum of money in an oil well speculation with a partner who was a close friend. His partner put up three quarters of the money. After they drilled four wells and came up dry, his partner decided to cut his losses and pull out. Paul was forced to sell his share at a loss. The buyer drilled a half dozen more wells and, of course, struck oil. Now twenty-one wells are pumping. "That's not his fault," says Shirine each time she tells the story. "I don't blame him for that."
Perhaps that is because she has plenty of other things to blame him for. In the last few years, there have been difficulties, financial irregularities. Shirine doesn't know the details exactly, and how would she be able to judge? She has remained loyal to him, but it hasn't been easy. Friends of theirs, whom they invited for dinner several times, turned out to be working undercover for the FBI, collecting information about her husband. The man even slept with her husband' s secretary to get access to important documents. Paul was arrested. His bond was set at one hundred thousand dollars, and then raised to half a million because he was known to use drugs. In the end, the case was thrown out for lack of evidence, but his banking business was destroyed. How could Shirine possibly stay in a place where people even now come up to her at cocktail parties and whisper in her ear, "I know your husband was guilty, even though he wasn't convicted."
Shirine takes her marriage very seriously, even though she wants more than anything for it to end. She was at her husband's side during the trial.
Even at fifty, Shirine still spends the summer with her parents. Only now she comes to New York not Teheran. Shirine is still a child, unable to explain to her parents who she is. She is a child, but with an old person's awareness of life's bitterness and suffering. Whenever she hears stories about the horrors that happen every day - children abused, people slaughtered in war, natural disasters - she feels as if her heart will break. Like Hafez, she thinks: "I was an angel and paradise was my abode, / It is Adam who brought me into this flourishing monastery in ruins."
Her two daughters are growing up. She is getting divorced. She hasn' t slept with her husband for years, ever since he beat her and broke her rib. They continue to live in the same house, but only out of convenience. They can't untangle their lives. She needs money to live by herself. He's ready to let her go, but he doesn't want to give her anything. They don't see one another for more than five minutes a day. When she told her mother than she wanted to divorce her husband because he once beat her, her mother responded, "Well, he doesn't beat you now." Of course, that is not really why she wants a divorce. She no longer loves him, if she ever really could have loved someone so untenanted. She no longer cares about winning the affection of those recalcitrant men, her husband and her father, anyway. She has fallen in love with a Cuban painter, who lives in New York. She comes to visit him for weeks at a time, but she can't tell her parents that she is in New York. She calls them from a few blocks away and pretends that she is still in Texas. This lying is very hard on her. Her sister, who supported her in her divorce but feels uncomfortable knowing about her lover, said that it would kill her mother if she found out. So she leads a double life; she lets her father chastise her when she visits and bursts into tears at the breakfast table each morning.
Her mother never did recover from the revolution, even though her family and many of their friends also came to New York. She is dying of cancer, but they don't have the heart to tell her. She thinks it has just spread under her arm, when in reality it has invaded her entire body. Her arm hangs like a weight by her side, pulling her down. She can't lift it. Shirine has to help her to bathe and to dress. Her arm becomes infected, and in her delirium she shouts at her daughter, "You're the reason all this is happening to me. It's your fault." When Shirine thinks back on her mother as a younger woman, she always sees her laughing with her brothers. Now talking to her is like going on a safari of the human body. It is a strange country where nothing is as it should be. The rules of the body have all been broken. She is terrified that her mother will die before she has figured out how to talk to her. Then she will only be able to communicate with her in her dreams, where she will repeat the same incomprehension over and over.
In New Mexico, she and her lover have gone on a pilgrimage to the monastery of Christ in the Desert. While he meets with a monk, Shirine climbs the cliff behind the monastery. The soft sandstone crumbles under her feet as she climbs. There, on the summit, she comes face to face with a rattlesnake. She learned in Texas that it is impossible to run away from a rattlesnake. When the snake senses the heat of a living body, it strikes and never misses. She imagines herself dying all alone on the mountain. No one will find her. She will disappear from the terrestrial world without a trace. Her body will become insubstantial and float up to paradise. She will abandon her children. They will never know where she has gone.
Shirine's life has become a long and arduous pilgrimage, as the Sufi masters teach. She wants to do something meaningful with this existence, but simply living it has become all she can do, the only meaning she can know. Finally, she understands why her uncle recited so many tales with sad endings. It always upset her when the hero died without fulfilling his quest or, worse yet, caused pain or suffering to another person. She knows this is inevitable if the aim is not absolutely right. On the other hand, does death signify defeat, or freedom and release?
Up on the cliff, the light seems to be teasing her, leading her on and then deserting her in the middle of nowhere. In the thirteenth century, the astronomer Nasir al-Din Tusi wrote: "Just there, where people imagine the world to be stable, just there its reality slips away instant by instant. Think of the shadow of a tree, which the traveler reaches at last, after miles of walking in the blazing sun. He desires only to rest in its shade, which to him seems permanent and immobile (for its motion cannot be perceived by the senses). But no sooner has he fallen asleep than the shadow moves on and passes over him, and he wakes to find himself in the heat of the sun." After seven centuries, Shirine wonders, what more is there to learn?
Klein, Rachel, Shirine: a thousand and one nights. (short story). Vol. 44, Chicago Review, 01-01-1998, pp 58(23).
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