Pairidaeza: In Old Persian (Avestan), a wall enclosing a garden or orchard; from which the word ‘paradise’ is derived.
Photograph via Flickr by petalouda62
I remember the garden well. The physical layout changes in my mind depending on when I’m thinking of it, but the smell is always the same. How is that? How the hell do I remember an odor from sixty-five years ago? I haven’t smelled it since, and am almost certain I never will again, but I could swear it’s right there in my nostrils. I can’t quite describe it except to say that as with other odors you may know them well but somehow words don’t quite describe them. I mean, describe an onion and you might use words like pungent, burning, sweet, sour, or whatever, but those words only describe it because we already know what an onion smells like. Use the same words to describe X, and someone might think X smells like an onion, when nothing could be further from the truth. Do you want me to describe the smell of a ripe Persian plum? You will never imagine it. Believe me.
The garden I’m talking about was actually the small backyard of the house I lived in as a child. We only lived in the house for a few of my years—it was apartments after that—but I loved that garden because it was my playground and because my mother had changed it from a yard into a garden. I never understood why we moved from this little plot of paradise, but I suppose we, like so many others in the capital at the time, believed that sophisticated city dwellers lived in sophisticated apartments, just like in the Hollywood movies that slowly made their way to Tehran.
It seemed easy, what my mother did with the garden, but I realize now how much time and care went into nurturing the rose bushes and the trees and the saplings and the little flower beds that made my playground so interesting and provided me with the many landing fields and obstacles for my armies and aircraft. My navy—and my country barely even had one then—had its own ocean: a ridiculously small pond in the middle of the square of grass in which my little hands would create huge waves, waves that I thought could sink a toy wooden battleship but somehow never did. The mulberry tree (or is it bush?)—it looked like a big tree to me—in the corner of the garden against the mud and brick wall, its branches extending over the wall and shading the alley on the other side, provided me with hours of delight and deeply stained shirts, but let me tell you: there is no berry in the world that tastes like a big fat red toot1. No. I can taste it now, and how many years has it been since I last tasted one? Was it in Tajrish? Or was it up in Darbandsar? I don’t remember. But let me tell you about the peaches, those flat discs that look like peaches that are somehow elastic and have been sat on, but that taste like heaven, especially when you eat them on a summer’s afternoon in your garden, right after the dust and dryness of the air have been washed away with buckets of water and a twig broom. At the end of a hot summer day, after playing in the garden and getting mud on my hands and knees, having consumed the last of the toot before the tree went barren, I would go back into the house, finally, after my mother’s repeated beckoning and then pleading, with the smell of the garden firmly entrenched in my nose. What a delight!
I venture into my own little garden now, the 65-year-old odor swimming not through my nostrils but through my brain. The air in America is humid and heavy, like at the shore in shomal2, and it somehow makes the odor ever more present, even though it is memory and nothing else. This garden is all I care about now, nothing in the world is important to me. See that short brick, mud, and straw wall on my side of the fence? That’s so that when it gets wet the smell might be as it was at home. You see, when I re-create the smell of my mother’s Persian garden, when the odor floating in my head is the same as the odor beneath my nostrils, then I can happily die my long-deserved death. And god will take me and I’m sure judge me, but I will have no fear as I have already visited hell, had a glimpse of perdition, but will have twice—yes, twice—tasted paradise. What else could a man want?
* * *
The Colonel got out of the back seat of the white Paykan and crossed the sidewalk to a nondescript two-story building. There was no sign in front and the shades on the windows were drawn, but the residents of the South Tehran neighborhood, south of ra-ahan, the railroad, all knew exactly what the building housed. Two men walking past abruptly stopped and let the Colonel pass, another man approaching crossed to the other side of the street and scampered away. A woman in a black chador held her head down, the cloth around her head firmly clenched between her teeth and the body of the garment billowing wide, and hurried by as the Colonel paused at the entrance, surveying the scene. He frowned and squinched his face, a light breeze having carried the mephitic odor of sheep’s heads and feet lined up outside the butcher shop down the block. He took off his sunglasses, turned, and still frowning walked through the ornamental white metal door that had suddenly opened for him.
“Where are they?” he barked at the officer holding the door for him.
“Interrogation Room Five, sir,” replied the uniformed guard.
The Colonel walked past him and up a narrow staircase, unconsciously squeezing his nose with his thumb and finger. A plainclothes agent in an ill-fitting and stained suit hurriedly followed in his footsteps.
“University students, sir,” he said. “I have the girl in Room Five and the man in a cell downstairs. I think we should work on the girl first. Her friend will no doubt be more cooperative after an hour or so.”
“I’ll handle this,” said the Colonel, as they reached the third floor. He stopped at the landing and turned to the plainclothes agent. “Only two? You only picked up two?”
“We picked up the boy at his parents’ house this morning, sir, and the girl was at a bookstore. He put up a fight on the front lawn, right there in view of the public. But we’ll find out who their friends are.”
“I’ll question her alone,” said the Colonel, walking away. “Tell the boy he has one hour to talk before he meets me.”
“And who the fuck is that?” yelled the Colonel. He walked up to her and ripped the navy blue scarf off her head. “Where do you think you are? A mosque?”
“Yes sir!” The man in the dirty suit scampered back down the stairs. The Colonel raised his hand in acknowledgement and continued down the hall. Without breaking his stride, he swung open the door to Interrogation Room Five, walked in, and slammed the door shut with all his force. A young girl seated on a chair in the middle of the room gave a start.
“And who are you?” shouted the Colonel. “Answer me! Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“Sadeghi,” the girl replied softly.
“And who the fuck is that?” yelled the Colonel. He walked up to her and ripped the navy blue scarf off her head. “Where do you think you are? A mosque?”
“No,” she said, looking straight at him. “In a mosque I would be treated with respect.” The Colonel stared at her for few seconds. He began to pace.
“Respect, huh? At a mosque?” The girl looked down in silence, staring at her shoes. “And why do you deserve to be treated with respect?” the Colonel continued. “Because you want to destroy your country?”
“Then why?” asked the Colonel.
“I’m not afraid. If you’re going rape me, get it over with.” Sadeghi bit the inside of her lip, hoping the quivering would stop.
“Rape? What do you think I am, an animal?” asked the Colonel, stepping back. “No, I’m not going to rape you—I’m going to ask you some questions which you will answer. If you don’t, I’m going to have you hurt until you beg to be raped instead. Is that clear?”
“I have nothing to say,” said the girl. “I’ve done nothing, except to think for myself.”
“You have plenty to say, my dear,” said the Colonel. “So much, in fact, that you’ll need to write it all down on that pad over there on the table. And after you’ve written it all down, you will sign your name, and you will write—in your own words—that you apologize to your country for endangering its security, you will apologize to the Shah, and you will swear allegiance to him and to the country. Write down the names and addresses of every person in your group. Write down where and how you got the cassette, and write down the address of where you have hidden your arms. I’ll be back in one hour.” The Colonel turned and walked out of the room.
* * *
Pruning the rose bushes is always the most difficult job in the garden. It’s not because of the thorns. Those I can deal with quite easily, and if I get scratched, so be it. They’re just scratches, after all, and nothing compared to the pain I inflict on the bushes. You see, I can hear them scream. Not the blood-curdling scream of a human in torment, no, far worse. It’s the scream of fear, a fear of not existing. A human being fears that—death—too, probably on a daily basis, but when confronted with pain, extreme pain of the kind I administer to my roses, it doesn’t fear death, it prefers it. Not so with my plants. The bushes deal with pain all the time, but they also know how to regenerate limbs, sprout new flowers, and grow even deadlier thorns. But when I prune, they don’t know if I’ll stop. And they scream. If only I could tell them, I would. I’d never destroy any of my plants or my trees, but I can’t speak their language. I try to soothe them, I speak to them the only way I know how to, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference. They scream and cry all the time, from the moment I step into the garden with my shears. It never used to be like this. When I was a child my mother’s garden made no noise at all, except for the leaves with their little rustles of pleasure whenever there was the softest breeze. And my mother often attacked her flowers and plants with a vengeance that makes my efforts seem, well, childish. It appeared that she was unduly rough with them but in the end her insistence on discipline and order resulted in beauty. Real beauty. You have to be firm sometimes, you have to be willing to inflict some pain in order to achieve harmony. That’s our way, us Persians. And isn’t that what god teaches us? And surely he is only malefic when the need arises. And yet, my mother’s garden took the pain without complaining while my garden cries all the time. Perhaps the Persian plants understand pain but American plant life is, well, American. You know what I mean. I mean, my mulberry bush (and it’s a bush in my garden) is from a Persian seed, it was born there for god’s sake, but it grew up here, so it’s spoiled. Like all the rest of them. It cries like the roses do, but at least it doesn’t scream.
* * *
The girl, he had already decided, was going to be of no use. She wasn’t going to break easily, and there was no point in completely destroying her.
The Colonel sipped his hot tea carefully. Holding the little glass by its faded gold painted rim, pinkie finger daintily pointing to the ceiling, he took a tiny sip and let the tea soak the roughly cut sugar cube firmly lodged in his cheek. He set the glass down, looked at his watch, and stared at the clock on the wall of the small office. Another ten minutes, he thought, and he’d tackle the boy. The girl, he had already decided, was going to be of no use. She wasn’t going to break easily, and there was no point in completely destroying her. No, what you wanted, which few of these pigs who worked for him ever understood, he thought, was for people like her to leave this building not in pain but in fear. Fear of what could happen the next time, fear of the unknown. Once you embarked on the pain path, you had to be willing to go all the way, and killing a girl like her would do nothing. She had to go back to her parents, back to her life, in a state of fear. Her family and friends would assume she’d been at least raped, and when she’d swear she wasn’t, they’d be even more fearful of her getting picked up again. God protected you this time, they’d say, but you can’t expect to tempt fate twice! Ha! A few more hours in the interrogation room, and she’d be ready to be sent home. In absolute terror, in absolute fear—a fear that would more consume everyone she ever knew, or would know, for the rest of her life.
The Colonel looked at his watch again, took one more sip of tea, and stood up. He tugged his trousers at the waist, looked down at his shoes, and then walked out of the office. He casually walked down the hallway to the stairs, taking them one slow step at a time. When he reached the basement, he nodded at the uniformed guards and looked around. “Where’s Rezaie?” he demanded.
“I think he’s in with the prisoner, sir,” one of the guards replied.
“Number Three. The door is unlocked.”
The Colonel walked down the narrow corridor and stopped outside the heavy metal door. He paused for a moment and then leaned forward to listen. Hearing nothing, he pushed the door open and walked inside. Rezaie was standing over a crumpled figure lying on the floor. “What’s going on?” demanded the Colonel.
“Nothing,” said Rezaie. “He’s okay.”
“Pull him up on to the chair. Is he unconscious?”
“He’s fine,” said Rezaie, bending down and putting his hands under the prisoner’s arms. He struggled to lift him up but managed, clumsily, to get him on to the lone metal chair in the room and then slap his face. “Hey!” he said, “look up!”
“Leave him,” said the Colonel. “And leave us alone.”
“Yes, sir,” said Rezaie. He self-consciously brushed the sleeves and lapels of his jacket with his hands and then walked out of the cell, closing the door behind him with a loud clang.
“Name?” asked the Colonel.
“Sadeghi,” the prisoner said in a low voice.
“You’re related to the girl?”
“She’s my cousin.”
“Do you fuck her?” the Colonel said, eyebrows raised.
“Shut up, hamal3!” said Sadeghi.
The Colonel laughed. “Hamal? Is that an insult or a compliment? I thought you Communists were all for the ‘workers’.
“I’m not a Communist. What do you want?”
“What’s your name?”
“Sadeghi; I told you.”
“Your first name.”
“And you want to be martyr, like your namesake?” asked the Colonel.
“What do you want?” shouted Hossein.
“ I try to stop them, but these men don’t always listen.”
“I want you to tell me the names of your associates, and where you’ve hidden your arms,” said the Colonel quietly. “It’s that simple.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ said Hossein, shaking his head and looking down at his bare feet.
“NOW!” shouted the Colonel at the top of his lungs. Hossein jumped in his seat and looked up. “I WANT THOSE NAMES NOW!”
“You don’t frighten me,” said Hossein. “If you’re going to torture me more just go ahead.”
“Torture?” The Colonel took out a pack of Winstons and shook out a cigarette, offering it to Hossein who turned away. The Colonel shrugged and lit it for himself, slowly exhaling the smoke. “You know, I told him to leave her a virgin,” he said calmly.
“What?” Hossein stared at the Colonel, squinting his eyes against the light from the naked bulb above his head.
“Your cousin. You see, Rezaie, whose acquaintance you’ve made, is a bit of a pervert I’m afraid. I try to stop them, but these men don’t always listen. Maybe because they’re all older than me. But the funny thing is, their victims never file complaints, even when I’ve asked them to. So, I can’t stop them but I think he’ll listen this time, and probably just put it in her ass. She’ll still be a virgin, if that’s what she was when we brought her in.”
“You disgusting piece of shit!” cried Hossein. “Leave her alone! It’s me you want anyway.”
“Oh, don’t worry. She’ll be released, certainly, but Rezaie is probably fucking her right now. In the ass, of course. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked him to leave us—what do you think?” The Colonel took a long drag of his cigarette. “When I go back upstairs, I’ll make sure she’s let go.”
“What do you want?” pleaded Hossein. “I don’t know anything about what you want.”
“I told you,” said the Colonel, flicking his cigarette to the floor by his prisoner’s foot and not bothering to crush it out. “I want the names of your associates and every traitor you’ve ever come across.”
* * *
There was one, there was no one: yeki-bood; yeki-nabood. All our little stories begin like that, but don’t ask me why. I was one, and now I’m no one. I don’t really exist: not in my wife’s mind, not in my daughter’s mind, not in my country’s mind, and certainly not in exile. I exist only to my garden: to my plants and trees, to my bushes and my flowers. And to the mud-and-straw wall that I water every day. Isn’t that ironic? The garden, that Persian invention that kept families together for hundred of years, who gathered in it to celebrate life and to mourn death away from the peering and prying of kings’ and despots’ spies, is a thing of the past. Without the garden, we are no longer Persians. Without the garden, there’s even nothing to keep families in Iran, is there? Now, my garden is for me and me only, or is it the other way around? But it’s okay with me either way, and I think I’m still Persian. I will inflict some pain, sure, but my garden will grow and prosper and be safe, just as it is meant to. You think I myself haven’t felt pain? Let me tell you a story. Yeki-bood, yeki-nabood.
* * *
The Colonel opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. It had been a month now, and still no one would talk to him. Why don’t they just shoot me or hang me, he wondered? He had heard the executions on the rooftop and knew what was happening. He’d even been dragged up there a few times, blindfolded, made to think that he’d be shot, and then unceremoniously taken back to his cell without an explanation. Another day in hell, the Colonel thought, as the door to his cell swung open.
“Get up.” A tall bearded man stood at the door.
“Are you going to shoot me this time or are you wasting my time again?” said the Colonel.
“You don’t recognize me, do you?”
“Should I?” replied the Colonel.
“Perhaps not,” said the bearded man. “You probably interrogated thousands of people like me, but I wouldn’t forget you.”
“Yes, I did interrogate thousands. It was my job. And you know that already.”
The man walked over to the Colonel and slammed his fist into his jaw. “This was your job?” he asked. “And what kind of job is that?”
The Colonel, who had fallen back on his cot, slowly sat up, massaging his cheek. “What do you want from me?” he said. “You already know everything about me, so if you want to kill me just go ahead.”
“I do want to kill you, yes,” said the bearded man. “But I won’t, because we didn’t start a revolution to get revenge.”
“Who are you?” asked the Colonel, fingers still on his own bearded cheek.
“I’m the new warden,” said the bearded man with a sneer. “In our Islamic republic, all prison wardens have to have been in prison themselves. That is why I know you.”
“I didn’t think your revolution was about revenge,” said the Colonel.
“Only your corrupt thinking would lead you to say something like that,” said the warden. “You can’t understand the reason I was appointed warden, can you?”
“Because you know what it’s like to be a prisoner?”
“Ah, maybe you do see!” said the warden.
“Yes,” said the Colonel. “But all prisoners want revenge, and particularly those imprisoned for their beliefs, no? Humans don’t change because of a revolution.”
“Islam changes everyone,” said the warden, turning to leave, “and you will survive. I’ll be back to see you again, and I’ll want a full written confession from you—just like your man Rezaie gave us to sign.”
“Rezaie? He’s alive?” The Colonel squinted and leaned forward.
“No” said the warden, turning back to face the Colonel. “He was not human for most of his life, was he? But he confessed in the end, and perhaps Allah will forgive him. My cousin, by the way, survived you and your goons.”
“Allah will not forgive me because I sign something like a confession,” said the Colonel, leaning back. “And neither will you. But I’m glad your cousin, whoever he is, survived whatever you think I did.”
“You have it all wrong,” said the warden, smiling. “I told you: we’re not going to kill you, and we don’t need to forgive you. You will confess, and then you will go back to work.”
“Work?” asked the Colonel. “What kind of work can I do now?”
“The work you know,” said the warden. “So you will repent before god, and then go back to your work and serve your country and the revolution. And perhaps in the service of something even greater, you will become a human.”
“Tell me something, warden,” said the Colonel. “When do you think this will stop? Five years? Ten years?”
“What will stop? What are you talking about?”
“This. You and me. The thousands that came before us, and the thousands who will follow. What you want me to do.”
“It will never stop, and it will always be necessary. What I did to you was necessary, and what you do to me is necessary.”
The warden snorted.
“No really,” continued the Colonel. I’d like to know your thoughts now that you’re in charge of the country.”
“It will stop when it’s no longer necessary.”
“I thought so,” said the Colonel. “It will never stop, and it will always be necessary. What I did to you was necessary, and what you do to me is necessary. I pruned my garden, you prune yours. And what comes after us will be necessary too, and so on, and so on, and so on. Isn’t that our destiny?”
“You’re talking nonsense,” said the warden. “Get some rest and think about how you’ll serve the revolution. And my cousin is a she, by the way, but that doesn’t matter.”
* * *
Ghayr-az-khoda heech-key nabood. Isn’t that the truth? Other than god, there was no one! That comes right after yeki-bood, yeki-nabood. One, no one, god: in that order. My warden (did I tell you about him?) didn’t stay warden very long. Saddam—I shit on his head—made sure of that. But he was god while he was there, and I was no one. God. Did I lie to him too? I don’t think lies can be forgiven, can they? They say we’ve turned into a nation of liars. Shame. Everything can be forgiven, forgotten even, except lies. And without lies, there can be no other sins, can there? Does a murderer tell the truth? What about a rapist? Or a thief? Ha. You see what I mean. Every now and then I see a face in a flower I am about to cut. A flower in my little garden in my little world, where I am no one. No one, except to my flower, who I never lie to. You don’t need to hear the rest of the story, do you? Who wants to hear a story by no one? I need only tell it to my flowers, plants and trees: just at the moment they scream. I tell them the truth. Other than god, there was no one, they’ll hear, and they’ll understand. But one day soon, I hope, the scent from my garden will be just as the one in my mind. And I will be one, and no one, and my garden will be left to no one but god.
2. North, when referring to a place and in this case, the Caspian shore.
3. laborer (pejorative)
Hooman Majd is an author and journalist based in New York. He has written for Newsweek, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Times, The Financial Times, and GQ, among others. Majd is the author of the New York Times best seller The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, and The Ayatollahs’ Democracy: An Iranian Challenge. His books have been translated into a number of other languages.