The streets still glimmer from the early freezing rain, and the traffic is heavier than usual. Shared taxicabs are packed with passengers, crammed into small cars, and they sweep by her without slowing down. She stands on the corner of the busy avenue, looking at the massive snowcapped mountain that dominates the view in the northern part of the city, and puts her arm out from under her black chador in the hope that a vacant cab, or at least a cab with room for one more body, will materialize. She holds the chador tightly under her chin with one fist and keeps her stare toward the mountain. Eventually a battered orange Paykan taxi, belching thick black soot from its exhaust, stops, and the driver gruffly asks her destination through his half-opened window. The two chador-clad women seated in the back of the cab, their faces barely visible, stare straight ahead, their bodies stiff as mannequins.
“Abbasabad-e-Einedoleh,” she says loudly, turning away from the mountain for a moment and glancing at the women. “Khiaboon-e Iran.” Iran Street. The taxi driver grunts and accelerates without a word, leaving her standing on her corner. She sticks out her arm again, unconsciously waving her hand slowly in an up and down motion, and turns her gaze back to the mountain. Presently another taxi stops and the unkempt driver shouts at her, demanding her destination.
“It’s your lucky day,” he says in response, a little more politely. “I’m going downtown anyway.” She climbs into the back of the car and sits next to another woman, also fully enveloped in a black chador.
“Salaam,” she mutters to her as she closes the door. The woman nods but doesn’t respond. After a short while with only the radio’s martial music breaking the silence, the taxi stops and the first passenger gets out. She hands the driver a few bills through his window, a pre-determined fare, without a word. The taxi driver throws the bills onto the dashboard and takes off, glancing in his rear view mirror. “You don’t live there, khanoom, do you?” he asks, as he turns off the radio.
“Listen, I’m sorry, but maybe you should pull your chador down a bit,” he says. “Your hair is showing, and you don’t want to get into trouble, do you? You’ll get me in trouble too.”
“Sorry,” she says, adjusting the chador over her head. “Merci.”
“You know I’m not a religious fanatic,” says the driver, again glancing in his rearview mirror while he rubs the stubble on his cheeks with one hand. They pass a large mural of Ayatollah Khomeini recently painted on the side of a building, and the driver jerks his chin in its direction. “We asked for him, but we didn’t ask for this.” She doesn’t respond. “Don’t get me wrong, khanoom, I’m glad the Shah is gone, but the Komiteh can go a little too far.” She remains silent, mainly because she has no idea what to say. “I’m sure the Imam wouldn’t approve,” he adds, a little nervously, wondering for a moment if his passenger just might be from the morals squad, or worse, from the intelligence services. He weaves in and out of traffic and runs almost every red light, but it’s another twenty minutes before they reach their destination. He stops the car on the corner of a main street and she fumbles in her purse. “Is this okay?” he asks, turning to face his passenger.
“Yes, thanks,” she says, pulling some bills out from her wallet.
“You know khanoom, this was a chic neighborhood many years ago,” he says, looking at the money she holds out to him. “Ghabel nadareh,” he continues, staring at the bills for a moment and then looking at her. “It’s nothing, you’re my guest.”
“Merci,” she says, “I insist. Thanks very much, and you didn’t pick up any other passengers.” She presses the bills into his hand and gets out of the cab.
“Chic, that is, before everyone decided they had to live in the north,” says the driver, his head poking out of his open window.
“Khoda-hafez.” She turns and walks away from the taxi, her chador flapping at her ankles. She hears the car idling for a few moments before accelerating away, sensing the driver’s stare as she disappears around a corner. She steps over an overflowing joub, the ditch by the side of the road that once carried spring water from the mountains down to the farthest reaches of Tehran, and stops in front of a small grocery store. She looks at the burlap bags just inside, her eyes fixated on the nuts and candies and spices, and then at the window display of household cleaners, brushes, and little plastic toys. She pulls herself away and follows a narrow street, almost an alley, lined with houses on each side, until she comes to a small, ancient door, set into a tall mud wall on the corner. She stops and looks at the door for a while, trying to memorize every crack and crevice, and then turns the worn brass knob to see if it will open. It remains firmly locked. She steps forward and presses her face against the door, closes her eyes and inhales deeply. She moves her head slowly to the mud wall and inhales again, memorizing it in the hope that it can be retrieved at will in the future. Opening her eyes, she looks up to the top of the wall, and then walks, following the house around the corner and to the back, where she knows the garden door once stood. She finds it, pushes the handle down, and gives the rusty metal door a push. It swings open easily.
She steps into the garden, barren in winter and covered in places by a thin dusting of snow, and walks to the center, where the drained and cracked blue-tiled pond looks different in its forlorn state than how she remembered it. She stares at the house itself, then at the sagging wooden balcony on the second floor overlooking the garden, and smiles. That was then, she thinks, shaking her head imperceptibly. Walking slowly along the path on the edge of the garden, past the abandoned chicken coop near the big shed and past the ancient wooden outhouse, she stops in front of a mulberry tree near the doors that lead to the main hallway of the house. She lets her chador slip off her head and onto her shoulders and she pulls it down, knotting it tightly across her waist. Leaning forward, she runs her hand up and down the narrow trunk, smiling again when she finds the carving. She squats and holds her chin in her hands, elbows resting on her knees, and stares at the tiny script of the child-like writing: hamy-ye mazloom: protector of the oppressed.
She is asleep in the back of a bus—the women’s section—heading uptown. Dreams come and go, seemingly interrupted by something, but she’s not sure what. She is still in high school—it’s the day of final exams. She stands outside a classroom with her childhood friend Maryam, the only girl in school who wears a headscarf to class and who has never experimented with makeup. The bell rings loudly, but in the dream it sounds like a car horn. She’s puzzled about the bell—yes, that’s right, she thinks; of course, a car—and places her books on the floor along with the others’ and goes into the classroom. She sits at her desk, turns the exam sheet over, and begins to write furiously. Maryam is next to her and does the same. After a few minutes, though, Maryam raises her hand and asks to be excused. She looks at Maryam quizzically, but she goes back to her writing. The bell rings—again, is it a car horn? She goes outside to find Maryam and picks up her books from the hallway floor. A piece of paper floats out of her notebook, descending to the floor, back and forth in slow motion. She bends down to retrieve it, her face turning white as she stands back up, holding it tightly with both hands. A green sheet with three words on it: “Marg Bar Shah.” She’s sweating now, finding it difficult to breathe, but unable to move. She doesn’t know what to do, and other girls are now staring at her.
Who would dare write such a thing, she wonders, let alone put it in her notebook?
“What do you have?”
“Was that your cheat-sheet?”
“Where’d you get the green paper?”
“What does it say?”
“Why are you so white?”
She’s petrified. She tears her eyes away from the paper and looks at her classmates blankly. There’s tap on her shoulder, which feels like a hard nudge, hard enough for her head to jerk sideways, and she stiffens.
“What are you holding?” It’s the voice of her teacher. “Give it to me.” The teacher takes the paper from her hands and looks at it. “Come with me,” he says. She follows him to the principal’s office, wondering all the time what’s become of Maryam. She sits down outside the office and waits to be called in by the principal. Who would dare write such a thing, she wonders, let alone put it in her notebook? Other girls from her class begin to show up at the office, each holding a green piece of paper.
“We all have them in our notebooks.”
“Mine was stuck between the pages of my textbook.”
“Mine was folded.”
Two men in dark suits march down the corridor and walk straight into the principal’s office without knocking. The teacher comes out and calls her name. She stands up and enters the office.
“These men are from the Amniat,” says the principal. “They want to ask you about the green paper.”
“All the other girls had them too!” she protests. Suddenly she’s in the back of car, a white Paykan, speeding through the streets of an unrecognizable Tehran. Maryam is sitting next to her, but her scarf is missing. Tears are rolling down her cheeks. “Where are we going, Maryam?” she asks.
“To hell,” replies her friend.
“Madam! Madam!” She hears the cries in the background. She can’t tell where this new voice is coming from. “Khanoom!” She jerks her head forward and opens her eyes. Her face and neck are wet with perspiration. “Madam, end of the line!” says the bus driver, his head twisted to face her from way up front. “I’m not going any further.”
“Where’s Maryam?” she asks, in Farsi.
“I’m sorry,” she says in English, shaking her head as she realizes where she is. “I fell asleep and was dreaming,” she says in Farsi. “Gosh, it was so vivid!”
“Are you okay?” asks the driver, a little nervously.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine.” She steps out of the back doors of the short Fiat bus and watches it pull away. She walks across a plaza and down a small side street to the front door of a garish modern apartment building, She looks at the buzzers embedded into the richly veined marble façade, finds a name, and presses a button. She turns around and leans against the door, dropping her purse to the ground. Iran, she says under her breath. She begins to sob.
She rubbed her eyes and stared straight ahead at the video screen in the seat back in front of her. A map showed a tiny airplane, a jagged line trailing it, seemingly hovering over a dot named “Teheran.” It was the old European spelling. She’d been asleep for over three hours, cramped into the middle seat of a wide-body aircraft, but it was the first time she hadn’t had a dream in years. Or so she thought. Tehran. It had been almost thirty years. She turned and looked around, watching people drink a last drop of wine or beer, and women adjusting their silk headscarves while checking pocket mirrors for imperfections in their appearance. She reached into her bag by her feet and took out a scarf, adjusting it carefully on her head while looking at her reflection in the video screen. Jackie O, she thought—we’re now all Jackie Os. She stifled a laugh. Who’s wearing green, she wondered, looking around the cabin. No one. Not one thread of fabric in any shade of the color of the prophet, the color of Islam itself. The plane touched down gently, and taxied slowly to a gate at Imam Khomeini International Airport, IKA on the luggage tags, the supreme Shia honorific Imam now internationally, and perhaps unintentionally, recognized. IranAir jets dominated the sparse landscape of the new airport that had been dropped down in Robat Karim, a farming town, or village really, almost half way between Tehran and Qom that she didn’t know existed until now. Walking through the jetway to the modern terminal, fellow Iranians shoving and pushing by her as if in some terrific rush to make it to the front of the immigration queue, she felt butterflies flapping their wings furiously in her stomach. How could Khomeini have not felt anything when he returned to Iran from exile, she wondered? Nothing? Is that how it is when you have a god? I don’t know what I feel, she thought, but it’s not nothing. She took her time, walking slowly until she came to passport control, a long line of impatient Iranians lined up in three queues for nationals, the lane for foreigners bereft of a single soul. When her turn came, the immigration officer took her passport and flipped through the pages, looking for some sign that it had been used for international travel, including on the journey from which she had just alighted. The officer, a woman a little younger than her and wearing a full hijab, one that covered every hair and her neck, too, looked up. “Pass-e Amreeka-ee daree?” Do you have an American passport?
“Yes,” she replied, fishing in her bag to retrieve it.
“It’s not necessary,” said the officer, holding up her hand, as if confirmation of what was technically illegal would somehow indict her as well. She returned to examining the passport, flipping through the pages again and finally resting on a stamp that indicated the last time she had left Iran.
“When was the last time you were in Iran?” she asked.
“Umm, I think around thirty years ago?”
“Ajab!” The officer stared at her. “How did you manage to stay away so long, and not miss home?”
“Oh, I missed it!” she said with a laugh. The immigration officer smiled for half a second, stamped the passport, and handed it back to Azar.
“Welcome home,” she said, pleasantly, albeit without even a hint of expression.
“Merci.” She walked away clutching her passport, a smile frozen on her face. I should hate that woman, she thought to herself, but I don’t.
Tehran smells more like diesel, or cheap gasoline fumes than anything else, but that smell, my smell, has to be there.
She made her way to baggage claim, down an escalator and into a cavernous hall with a tall, bulletproof and soundproof glass barrier allowing visitors and family members, their faces stuck to the glass, to get a glimpse of but not speak to loved ones before they exit customs. She looked at the waiting crowd, wondering if she might be the only person who had no one to meet her. Would anyone feel sorry for her, a lonely passenger with no family left, nor even friends? No, she decided; that was the past, this is the future. After picking up her suitcases, she joined a queue of passengers patiently awaiting their turn at the X-ray machine by the exit, the setup that allowed customs officials to see what citizens and visitors were bringing into the country without having to bother themselves with questioning them. The man in front of her put his suitcase and hand luggage onto the conveyor belt and picked up them up on the other side of the machine.
“Wait!” said the customs official, as the man started to walk away. “Open the small bag.”
“Okay,” said the man, turning back and putting his bag on a fold-up table. “What is it?”
“Just something I didn’t recognize,” said the official. He rummaged through the bag and picked out a large green leather notebook, turning it over in his hands. Satisfied, he threw it back in the bag. “So,” he said with a sneer, as the man picked it up, “where’s your green wristband?”
“It’s in my other bag,” retorted the man with a smile. The customs official looked at him sternly, and then grinned, too. “Borro,” he said. “Boro, agha.” Go. He turned to her. “Befarma-eed,” he said, waving his hand, and turned his attention to the next person in line.
I search out the smell. Tehran smells more like diesel, or cheap gasoline fumes than anything else, but that smell, my smell, has to be there. I wander the old neighborhood, unrecognizable and re-named multiple times, asking store clerks if they can remember what has become of my street. But my street, once lined with houses, has seemingly vanished, along with the smell. It has, I know, simply turned into one named for a martyr of the war—probably a boy from the neighborhood—and apartment blocks have replaced the walled gardens that hid the hundred-year old houses from prying eyes. Like mine. But streets do not just disappear, do they? They just become different streets. Houses, and the memories they hold, do; as do the smells associated with those houses. The smell of their walls, their gardens, and the food that they hold, or once held. Gone. The women of the street, with their colorful chadors—prints, always with flowers—flapping as they hurried along outside their houses, they’re gone too, replaced with black fabric, everywhere. Were they a part of that scent, too? Does black have its own scent?
There are dozens of these narrow streets, and I walk along them trying to recognize one, or recognize something that would place the old house in the new and alien geography. A whiff or two—it’s fleeting and not exactly as I remember it, but yes, there’s something there. No, this can’t be it: something is wrong about this street, it’s not mine. I walk for a long while—hours, I think, but I don’t want to look at my watch—dipping into impossibly tiny bodegas now and then to ask another question or to buy a bottle of Damavand water. I’m convinced that I’m the only person left alive who still has a memory of that house, let alone the street. When I die, the house will finally die, too. Is it better that my street is now immortalized with the name of a war hero? Probably. There are too many Iran Streets anyway. But he will become just a memory, too, one that will die off with the last person who knew him, or at least who knew the street named after him, and then other martyrs will demand their streets, and there will be none of my history left in my little corner of the earth. My home. The place you were born is like that, even if you hate it, or hate what it has become: it is always home. Ask any American, the most peripatetic of humans. Where’s home? It’s almost always somewhere other than where they are, but it always exists, always there for them. Even if they don’t want it.
I wonder what became of my mulberry tree. I know it’s gone, but did anyone see my carving? Protector of the Oppressed. Yes, that was the most Shia of all Shia things to write, and how I thought it summed up our nobility! Like the promise of the revolution, it long ago vanished. I wonder if the men who cut down my tree, and oppressed they were, surely, laughed when they saw my words. I wonder if they knew that the joke would be on them. How we once thought we were fighting for them—for justice—and for someone to protect the innocent. But where is that protector today? Maybe he will emerge from a crowd, maybe he’ll even be Green. Green, that color that infuriated one oppressor and now infuriates another. But the oppressed will remain oppressed. Do they know that? True protectors die young, or simply cease to be protectors. Is that what happened to Maryam?
I sit in my hotel room. A hotel, in my hometown, a hotel! But no, of course, it’s not my hometown. Not anymore. My memories are dying before I do. Perhaps it’s better that what memories still exist are the memories of a young woman, even of a child. Is this what I secretly felt at the airport, when I set foot in my country again? Didn’t someone once say you can never go back? Yes, yes: I’m glad the house isn’t there, that my tree is gone, that even my street is no longer what it was. I will even try to forget that freezing day I said goodbye to them all; the day I sobbed like a baby. Yes, I’ll forget that day. And I’ll forget Maryam, too. What use is that memory to me? When I wake up tomorrow that day will be gone, and only my childhood will survive inside my head; a childhood without Maryam, without death, and without revolutions. Without pain.
Sleep. It’s coming. How wonderful, that moment I know I’m about to drift off. I am still conscious, but I’m unconscious of pain. In a matter of seconds I won’t be here; there’ll be no anguish. Yes, now I’m almost gone. Again, I’m back in high school, but why? I’m dreaming now, I know, but I’m not yet quite asleep. Maryam is still missing and no one has any idea what has happened to her. I’m confused, what year is this? I’m awake, or am I? I think I’m turning over in my bed. And yes, when I wake up in the morning all these memories will be gone. Now I sit at my desk listening to the teacher’s unintelligible stream and Maryam’s voice whispers in my ear, “I’m sorry.” I turn and see Maryam sitting behind me. “I’m sorry,” Maryam repeats, louder.
“For what?” I ask calmly. “What are you doing, Maryam? I was so worried about you all these years!”
“They did things to me, Azar,” says Maryam. “I’m sorry you got involved.”
“Don’t say you’re sorry! Are you okay?” I ask.
“I’m fine. Don’t worry. But they’re still doing things to people. Bad things. Different people.”
I stare at Maryam, not understanding. I wish I could wake up now.
“I want to talk to you after class,” I say. “Maybe you can come home with me? We’ll have tea under the korsi with maman!”
“Home?” she asks, with a smile. “With your mother? How nice!” She reaches down into her bag and pulls out a large black scarf. She ties it carefully around her head—almost completely covering her forehead—and then wraps the ends around her neck neatly. She reaches down into her bag again and pulls out a dark gray manteau, slips it on, and buttons it to the neck. I turn back to face the teacher, trying to remember where I’ve seen someone dressed like that before. I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn again. “But I don’t exist,” whispers Maryam.
“What do you mean?” I ask her. She’s right there in front of me.
“You’re dreaming,” she says.
“I know. It’s a nice dream, and I get to see you!”
“But this is the past,” says Maryam. “And the future is behind us.”
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 new book, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran, will be published this fall