Under way, we turned from broad, congested Kashani Street to even more congested, narrow Molavi Street. The warmth of the summer afternoon came through the car window, which Alaz had opened to discard his cigarette butt. In the back I felt car-sick. The blaring horns around us, the petrol fumes, the hawkers yelling, the crickets strangely still audible and the smell of chlorine from a nearby public swimming pool all meshed, making it hard for me to distinguish smell or sound.
A man in a dirty shirt of psychedelic yellow was dancing on the sidewalk, attracting little attention. I tapped on Tara’s shoulder and asked if this man was a regular at this corner.
“What man?” she asked. Didn’t she see him? Looking at the man in motion made me even more nauseous. Taking my eyes from him, struggling to see more than two or three cars ahead of us, I mumbled, “People can go mad in this dry heat.”
Not even an hour before, I had almost sleepwalked to the custom officer at the Tehran airport.
“What city have you come in from today? Hey! Are you asleep?” He looked back and forth from my face to my passport in his hands.
I opened my mouth to answer, but yawned a huge, long yawn. Covering my mouth, I pointed vaguely at the end of the queue, as if to say, “I have flown in from the toilet at the end of the hall.”
As the yawn went on for longer than his patience, he said, “The Berlin flight?”
“Yes.” I closed my mouth.
After being away for more than seven years from my hometown I expected to be more emotional, or at least less sleepy.
The custom officer, still looking at my passport, said, “So you live in the United States. Do you have a U.S. passport?”
“No,” I lied, and covered my mouth for a fake yawn, since it seemed to be helping me skip the questions. I continued the yawn until he passed my passport to me.
The arrival hall was busy. Many flights had landed about the same time but it only took a glance through the glass partition to see Alaz and Tara, my hosts for the next two weeks and my last remaining friends in the city.
With his usual sweet smile, Alaz, who must have been 40, was calmly looking in the wrong direction for my arrival. He was wearing a light blue linen coat, tall and slim as always, but now slightly heavier set than the last time I saw him. Next to him his alluring wife Tara, in a long beige mantoux, was talking on her cell phone.
I slowly walked towards them pushing my luggage on a squeaky cart. I could hear Tara saying that they will be a bit late since they have to pick up a friend at the airport, and will bring her with them to the meeting.
“What meeting do you want to drag my jetlagged body to?” I tapped on Tara’s shoulder.
“Oh, my dear! You haven’t changed a bit!” The shameless sweet liar screamed both to my face and the phone in her hand.
My hosts were excited to introduce me to members of the group they were going to attend. Alaz said this meeting was unique in Iran and that nobody here was this advanced. Then asked me if I knew about focus groups.
“Yes, I guess.” Although I hadn’t found anything advanced in them. Their focus group, however, was advanced. It got together to talk about the ideas nobody either in the East or West (Alaz emphasized ’West’) thought about. Then they would sell these ideas to resourceful Western companies.
When I asked Alaz if he was serious, he didn’t hear my question.
Though this interesting meeting was supposed to start at 3 p.m., at 3:30 we were still caught in traffic. Neither Alaz nor Tara seemed concerned. We finally hit the Bozorgi highway, headway in our journey to north Tehran. I saw three cars in a row reversing to the exit they had missed. I said, “You never see this in America.”
Their silence made me worry that my remark seemed condescending. I lay back in the back seat and examined the elegant profile of the 35-year-old Tara. Her long neck and long, wavy hair with silver streaks were partly covered by a bright green scarf. I wondered how she looked in her bridal dress several years ago. I asked, this time louder, “When do you think we will get there?” Hugging my knees to my chest like a baby.
Alaz said, not taking his eyes from the road, “Impatient by nature! I have known this about her since she was a child.” How unfair! He met me for the first time when I was a 13-year-old teenager desperate to look older.
Some 18 years ago my uncle was supervising Alaz’s doctoral thesis on visual arts at the University of Tehran. My uncle in a sense adopted him. Alaz was a promising student from Borujerd. It was my uncle who named him ’Alaz’, short for Ali Reza. I have a distinct memory of him, young and energetic, coming up the stairs to my uncle’s house carrying his new painting under his arm. With his tall figure, his fine, Lori face and the long black and grey scarf brought to him from Paris by my aunt. I thought of myself as an adult. Commenting on his paintings, I would toss big words around I had learned the night before by skimming through books on Islamic art. It was only later that I learned that his style of painting was called ’abstract’ and had nothing to do with Islamic art.
Alaz squeeze-parked his old green Peugeot under a plane tree between two cars of the exact same model. Pulling the hand brake, he said, “You’ll be surprised we have such meetings in Iran.”
Tara whispered, “Though things went wrong in almost all the other meetings.” She waited for her words to sink in. I didn’t pay much attention, thinking that finding such a perfect parking spot at such a time in this city was nigh on miraculous.
I came out of the car dizzy. Tara and Alaz ran to the building. I yelled, “Give me two seconds to catch my breath,” hid my head behind the plane tree and threw up.
An hour later, leaning back in an off-centre modern chair in the sanitized, soul-less waiting room of the architectural office, fighting to keep my heavy eyelids open, I was still waiting for the meeting to begin.
There were five of us expecting the sixth to arrive. Tara looked comfortable, sharing a round spacecraft-like sofa with Alaz, half leaning on his arm while he read a book, and text-messaged on her cell-phone non-stop. If she were writing War and Peace, I thought, by now she would have reached the part where Prince André reproaches Natasha for getting engaged to Anatole Kuragin.
I was sitting close to the owner of the office, a grey-haired man who called himself ’Dr. Engineer’, because he had a doctorate in engineering, I supposed. I could sense his desperate attempt to look the most patient in waiting for his assistant to show up. Only his hysterical laugh whenever the idea of starting the meeting came up gave away his stress. He wasn’t willing to open the meeting room door before his assistant arrived, just to teach him a lesson not to be late next time: a trick taught to him in America by his Dianetics mentor.
A man with a thick Esfahani accent came 10 minutes later and sat next to me. Apart from a neutral little greeting we didn’t talk but he kept throwing me antagonistic glances.
A young Afghan boy called Ali kept bringing Sharbat drinks, one after another. When he came out of his kitchen to bring the fifth servings of Sharbat, Dr. Engineer frowned while maintaining the upright sitting posture of a yogi and said, “Maybe give us a little break from your tasty Sharbats.”
I kept nodding off. It was then that I thought I saw an ostrich with a large green folder under his wing pass in the meeting room. When the Afghan boy blocked my view for a second to offer me a Sharbat, I no longer bothered to look for the ostrich. The door was so narrowly ajar that even if there were an ostrich, it had disappeared.
Ali put a Sharbat on a glass table next to me. His fair-skinned hands were not the hands of a laborer. He had slender, elegant, and well-formed fingers. My eyes followed him back to the kitchen, where he opened the collar of the shirt that he always closed before entering the room.
A scene came into my mind: I stand and follow Ali to the kitchen without anyone noticing me. I find him at the sink washing up. He doesn’t notice that I am in the room. I touch his shoulder, setting my breasts against his back. He is gentle and slow; I know it. But he will not have time to rinse the foam off his fingers. He will reach his left arm around my neck, pulling me into his sight. Maybe he will notice that I locked the kitchen door. Do I mind his foamy fingers on my neck touching my ear and hair? No, not even when he puts his other hand around my back to pull me even closer to his firm body. He puts his other hand first on my back and then on my left breast. By the time he opens the three buttons and reaches my bra there would be no foam left on his hand. His parted lips touch mine. I don’t want to think of the Esfahani man yelling from the other side of the door, “Ms. Shahpuri, I hope you’re not in the kitchen with the door locked. I can’t open it. If you are there, don’t worry. I’ve sent for the janitor.”
It could be worse: I enter the kitchen and lock the door, grabbing the boy. Freaking him out, he jumps in horror of this woman’s breasts on his back. He screams, and wipes his face on an impulse. The foam on his hand gets in his eyes. I suppose that I am a stupid sort who always surprises men and regrets it. Just to calm him down, I grab his shoulder and push my mouth against his screaming mouth. I can hear half his scream echoing around my palate and reverberating in my ears from a strange angle. They all run to the kitchen, trying to separate us. They ask me if I am all right.
The sound of people rising and proceeding to the meeting hall brought me back to the room. I think it was a declaration of defeat when I saw Dr. Engineer walk quietly in front of everyone, keeping the doors open for the rest of us. I couldn’t see him giving in. I walked to the room still partly in a dream. Air-conditioning made the meeting room chilly. I shivered. Dr. Engineer, pointing his long finger to the kitchen, asked if I want the boy to make a coffee for me. I told him I didn’t drink coffee.
“What? You live in America and don’t drink coffee?” He made ’America’ sound as if it was spelled ’Ammmmerica’.
I nodded, though he didn’t seem to believe me.
A few minutes ago, when he learned I lived in the States, he didn’t ask me what state I lived in or what I did there but asked which airport I had used. I said I stayed a week in Berlin and can’t remember the name of the airport. He shook his head in disapproval. “I always make my stopover in Amsterdam. And don’t leave the airport.”
“Some of these overseas connecting flights can take up to 24 hours,” I yawned.
“Twenty-four hours in an airport is a breeze for me. Airports are places to be experienced,” he said with a wistful philosophic tone. “Everyone is there to go. No one’s there to stay,”
The others, including Tara, seemed in awe of this profound statement and nodded.
As soon as we sat around the big, dark, oval glass table that took up almost all of the meeting room, the Afghan boy was at the door with Yazdi pastry on a green plate. I wanted to think it wasn’t a coincidence that his elbow brushed my shoulder.
Dr. Engineer asked every one to have a make start by introducing themselves, as if all of us hadn’t been sitting together for the last hour. This, I could see very well, was another trick taught to Dr. Engineer by his mentor.
I tried to be polite. “My name is Manijeh,”
“Say your occupation and your new idea too,” Dr. Engineer said.
“What do you mean ‘my new idea’?” I said and wanted him to be easy on my jetlagged body.
He threw a surprised look at me and then at Alaz. “Are you not informed about our objectives?”
Alaz said he had tried but it hadn’t been easy to explain. To help him, I showed off my knowledge. “Well, I know this is an interesting meeting. Plus unique for somewhere like Iran.”
Dr. Engineer nodded. “True, true.” He started to whisper in his Esfahani friend’s ear. I thought I heard in between his hisses, “These Iranian Americans look down on us.”
Scratching his neck, the Esfahani man asked, “Have you ever attended a serious meeting in America?”
When I said I don’t know whether I had been in a serious meeting or not, a few eyebrows were raised and my friends Alaz and Tara looked a bit embarrassed. I thought that if weekly meetings in a community centre in northwest Chicago about middle-aged disabled men were serious, I have been in and out of serious meetings for the last three years, since I was responsible for putting the newsletter together and overseeing the physical exercise plans. Though I have to admit no one ever told me in those meetings to introduce myself and explain one original idea. I shrugged.
From the way the Esfahani glanced at Dr. Engineer, it was obvious that he meant: “She is nobody.” He wasn’t wrong. Still living in my parents’ basement, unsuccessful at work, relationship, and everything else, I had to agree with him.
About 10 years ago on a mid-summer afternoon just like this one I was lying on my parents’ couch fantasizing about being an Indian empress. I was wearing a long cotton Indian dress with a green and golden pattern, sipping on a sweet quince-lemon drink and calmly watching a man huffing and puffing as he swept up every piece of a crystal jar he had broken. My father was doing his best before my mother came back. When he finished, he raised his head and said, “I have an idea and want to share it with you. It is good for us to immigrate to America.” It was one of the last Iranian ideas I heard.
Dr. Engineer and the Esfahani started to chat but the Esfahani was text-messaging at the same time. After few words, the Esfahani put his cell phone down and with a straight face looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll give you an example. I am writing a book.”
“Oh! Nice,” I said.
Dr. Engineer’s face lit up. “ See! We all are in this creative process.” And smiled as he thought he had made his meaning clear. He turned to his friend. “Tell us what your book is about.”
“It’s about how things catch up with people,” Everybody looked impressed.
Dr. Engineer gave a half-hour talk on the importance of new ideas. He said that Western countries, since he had been there and knew, were advanced in terms of facilities but not that advanced in ideas. Here’s where our little focus group becomes useful.”
“Were do you find your ideas?” I naively asked.
“Good question. Mostly from movies.” He smiled, “Oh, by the way, one of my students found Soylent Green. I made copies for each of you. You’ll get them at the end of the meeting.” He talked more about the importance of futuristic and science fiction movies.
I yawned massively, my mouth bigger than the fist I used to conceal it. Behind my half-closed eyes appeared a jubilant middle-aged man of about 6’7”, with long grey hair in pigtails dressed in white from head to toe. If he was a dream, I thought, it was a funny dream. The man was wearing a long, white linen shirt, white linen pants, and Kurdish handmade shoes. How much had he spent to look like a Dervish?
“Fashionably late! As they say!” he chanted, smiling from ear to ear. He raised both hands in the air after he spoke, as if waiting for applause.
Dr. Engineer bit his lips, making clear that he had started the meeting an hour and 10 minutes late waiting for him. The man pulled a chair uncomfortably close to me, and said, ”Somehow my dear friend Dr. Engineer learns a lesson whenever he is about to teach me one. Why is that?” He winked at me and extended his right hand. ‘”This is Heech, and who is this astonishingly beautiful young lady?”
“Heech?” I asked. “Heech, as in ‘nothing’?”
Alaz rolled his eyes.
“I am Heech. Nobody. One of our great heroes referred to himself as ‘Heech, Son of Heech!” Nobody, Son of Nobody,”
Tara was sketching geometric shapes in her journal, waiting for a delayed text message to come in. She acted as if she wasn’t in the room. I thought that if I had a cell phone I could keep in contact with her by text-messaging. The Afghan boy reappeared with a glass of Sharbat before Heech got a chance to sit down. I yawned, expecting somebody else to yawn since yawns are contagious. This yawn didn’t seem to catch on. The ice cubes in Heech’s Sharbat were dancing in his glass, making pleasant music. Maybe my fatigue made everything more musical. The sound brought back childhood memories. I thought of my grandmother’s Sharbats and pieces of ice swimming in the glass like little fish. I would peer at them for a long time until the ice melted. What an attention span I had back then. I remember the Sharbat glass used to perspire and each little drop flowed down on the outside. I wondered if these little ice cubes were sons and daughters of a big chunk of ice in the kitchen and now were tears of longing for their mother.
The meeting went on. Tara was reading a text with lots of statistics from her notebook. Her soft voice was shy and shaky. I heard “sustainable buildings in Iran” and something that had “schools” in it. I tricked myself to close my eyes for a second to fight sleepiness. As soon as I closed my eyes, I dreamt that I was in a meeting with my American colleagues, half of them colleagues from my recent job and half from my previous job at the refugee board. I was tired and sleepy and couldn’t understand what the meeting was about. The phone rang and it was my mother telling me to start packing for Iran. Then the phone rang again and it was my mother again, telling me I had to rush to the airport or I would miss my flight. I said, “I’ll leave right after this meeting.” Then the phone rang again and didn’t stop ringing. “Ali! Pick up the phone and tell them we’re in an important meeting.” I looked around. None of the Americans were there.
When I opened my eyes I saw Alaz was juggling with a broken projector and the Esfahani was throwing dirty looks at my sleepy face. I yawned, sat upright and tried to keep awake. The Esfahani talked about the expense of using solar energy in Iran. Others were taking notes. I thought that taking notes might help me stay awake but I didn’t have a notepad. Sometimes I heard him like an untuned radio’s sounds and music. After a long interlude of music, I heard Dr. Engineer talking about buying solar technology for an office building he would like to design, which was going be the biggest in the Middle East. He kept looking anxiously at Alaz to see if the projector was fixed.
“Let all of us concentrate, put our hands on the table and clench our fists hard and just think about the projector,” Heech commented, “That’ll make it work. I’ve done it with my dryer.”
I was sure they couldn’t continue without the projector. Dr. Engineer wanted the meeting to be like a corporate meeting he attended once in the States or saw in movies. Although he didn’t have more data than he presented last week, it would still be good to get the machine to work.
I rubbed my eyes, messing my eyeliner all over my face, and listened to Dr. Engineer, who looked me in the eye and spoke about the differences between a serious meeting and those we often see in Iran. This meeting was a serious one. Then for no reason he started to tell us that his parents were the most serious people.
My eyes shut before I even noticed it. I see that it is 5 p.m. Dr. Engineer sits in a baby-chair at his parents’ dinner table set for four adults and a kid. An old man with a long grey beard brings a whole roasted lamb in the middle of a huge silver serving dish and puts it on the table. The lamb has an orange in its mouth. Dr. Engineer craves that orange, but he can’t talk yet. He waves his fists and wails. His mother apologizes to the two male guests. Grabbing him from his chair, Dr. Engineer’s mother opens the first three buttons of her white blouse with her left hand and grabs her left breast out of her bra, and pushes it into Dr. Engineer’s face. Dr. Engineer cries louder. He is choking. A guest puts his fork down on the table. I sleep in a corner of the dinner table with my head on my hands. I woke up.
When I looked at Dr. Engineer, he seemed to have rapidly grown up. Recalling my dream, I wanted to know whether I had seen Dr. Engineer as a child or a grey-haired gouty midget, but I couldn’t remember. Pity.
A note slid from Heech’s hands towards me, “Have a snort, Beautiful, if you feel sluggish…”
And to show me he was not joking, he took a snuff box out of his huge leather bag and opened it on the table. He pushed some white powder into his wide nostrils.
“Faramarz! Please!’ Dr. Engineer yelled. “I won’t let you ruin this meeting.”
Heech didn’t react. I decided to wash up and slid off my chair. The room was so cold that it made my drowsiness feel like hypothermia. More that any cocaine, I needed to get my blood circulating again.
After I returned, the Esfahani and Heech were fighting. The Esfahani was angrily pushing his Esfahani-saffron-pastry-belly against the table in anger. Heech was repeatedly scratching his head, setting loose most of his grey hair from his pigtails. I regretted that I’d missed the beginning of the fight. Heech was staring at the table and banging it with one of his hands. He said, “It is impossible to get things done with the ego in the way.”
“Look who’s talking!” Esfahani cackled, “Calling yourself Heech! Look at your outfit!”
Heech kept a finger on his right nostril, maybe just to annoy the Esfahani. He said, loudly, “My balls are smaller than hazelnuts, yours are as big as this.” He tapped the table. “Yours are big as this room. Go and live for five years in Dena mountains, like l did, then come and let me teach you about modesty.”
I said, “Well, em, as for new ideas…” Bad move.
“Shut up,” the Esfahani said, not even looking at me, “Mr. Sandman! You’d better go back to sleep.”
Tara covered her face with her hands.
Dr. Engineer, playing with his broken projector, sighed. “How perfectly ridiculous!” It wasn’t clear what was ridiculous to him. Probably he was just talking about his projector. Alaz and Tara avoided eye contact with me.
The Esfahani turned to Alaz. “ Wasn’t this meeting supposed to be private for our ideas to be safe? How come you bring a stranger to our group? If she was awake she could have stolen our ideas and taken them to America.”
Alaz left the room in protest. Heech seized the opportunity and took another sniff.
“Fuck! Put that down!” the Esfahani shouted and took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it.
Ali showed up with fragrant teas on a tray, and looked into my eyes. My heart stopped. He smiled confidently. Alaz returned and told the Esfahani, “Your father is here to pick you up.”
He put down his cigarette in surprise, and smiled at me for the first time. “My father lives nearby.”
“Don’t be shy, my mommy is on her way too. Go. Go.” Heech grinned and pointed to his snuffbox. “Daddy caught you hanging out with wrong kids!”
The Esfahani stood, huffing and puffing. and walked out. In Zen-like silence, Dr. Engineer still vainly tried to repair his projector. Finally, Tara softly told me, “Maybe it’s time for us to go home. You must be tired.”
Heech said, ”Why don’t we conclude this meeting with a five-minute meditation?”
Dr. Engineer liked the idea.
We meditated for some time. The Esfahani’s voice talking to his father didn’t let me focus. He was explaining why this meeting was unique in Iran, and that we sat down to talk about new ideas and insights. The foreign companies would buy these ideas and realize them since their equipments were much better than ours. His father didn’t sound convinced.
I had started to hear radio tunes in my ear again in the middle of the meditation.
Suddenly among my tunes, the father of the Esfahani shouted, “Did you see that ostrich passing in the corridor?”
I put my head on my hands and dreamt about waking up.