“At The Center Of It All”
“I would like it,” Baba said at breakfast, as they ate fresh naan with feta cheese and homemade sour cherry jam, “for you girls to be the next Madame Curies of this world. I would like that. Or even writers,” he smiled at Roya. “Like that American woman: Helen? Keller?”
“I’m not deaf, Baba,” Roya said.
“She’s not blind, Baba,” Zari said.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Maman motioned for both her daughters to eat faster.
“You have to be deaf and blind to be Helen Keller,” Zari beamed, proud of her knowledge of American heroines.
“And mute. Don’t forget mute.” Roya mumbled.
“I didn’t mean that part,” Baba put down his tea glass. “I meant the genius part. I meant the writing eleven books part. That’s the part I meant!
As high school students, Roya and Zari were on track to get the best education a girl could get in 1953 Iran. The country was rapidly changing, opening up. They had a democratically elected Prime Minister: Mohammad Mossadegh. They also had a king, the Shah, who continued his father’s advocacy for the rights of women. “He’s certainly a servant to the damn British when it comes to giving away our oil!” Baba always said. “But yes, he did help with women. I’ll give you that.”
Maman and Baba sent their two daughters to the best girls’ high school in Tehran. Every morning, as Maman brewed the tea, Roya buttoned her long-sleeved cotton blouse, slipped on her uniform of ormak fabric, and pulled up the dreaded knee socks. All Roya wanted to do was to wear ankle socks. “American” socks as the girls called them, but the Headmistress punished girls who wore short socks. Roya hadn’t worked up the courage to walk into school, head held high, with tiny socks on her feet.
“He’s our hope!” Baba stuffed his mouth with bread and feta cheese. “Prime Minister Mossadegh will nationalize our oil so we can be rid of the chokehold of AIOC.” AIOC, the Anglo-Iranian oil company, was Baba’s nemesis. “The Prime Minister is the only one who can stand up to the foreign powers, you’ll see. We’ll be a full democracy in no time. Now, if you girls study history and chemistry and mathematics, you can join the best professional class this great nation has ever known. What can I do as a government clerk? Push papers around? Sit around and drink tea?” He took another long chug of his breakfast tea. “But you, my daughters! You will go further than your mother and I ever dreamed! Isn’t that right, Manijeh?”
Maman said yes that’s right but that if they sat around and talked politics all morning, the girls would be late to school and what good would that do for the next generation of the professional class. “One morning! Can’t we have one morning of no lectures? Just breakfast?”
Baba looked slightly wounded but did not stop entirely. “My Marie Curie!” he nodded at Zari. “My Helen Keller!” he winked at Roya.
The girls chewed quietly.
Maman cleared away the dishes as Baba quickly added, “Without the deaf and blind and mute part, of course. “ Maman glared. “Just the smart part!” Baba said. “Just the smart part!”
The girls knew all too well about their father’s puffed-up hopes. Roya wanted to live up to Baba’s wishes but she couldn’t help a gnawing feeling that she was doomed to disappoint him. Fate had given Maman and Baba only two children and girls at that. Baba was remarkably, exceptionally enlightened for his time: he wanted his girls to be educated and to succeed. Education was his religion and democracy his dream. But all Roya wanted to do was read translated novels of writers named Hemingway and Dostoyevsky. Or poems of their own Persian greats like Rumi or Hafez or Saadi. Roya also loved to cook, standing next to Maman following the recipes for the best khoresh stews.
And her younger sister was far from becoming a future Madame Curie. Zari was in love with a boy named Ali. She wanted to marry rich, to dance the tango and the waltz. She wanted to pay five tomans for a ticket at one of the popular kids’ parties, to jump into a Sumba with Ali and impress everyone with their moves. Zari had expressed her daydreams in detail for Roya.
Scorn and judgment from more traditional family members followed Baba and Maman’s enlightened views. How could they, aunts in the kitchen whisper-shouted at Maman, allow their teenage girls to walk everywhere without chaperones? Maman became expert at laughing it off. She had dropped the veil as soon as Reza Shah enforced a no-veil policy for women back in the 1920’s. She had welcomed Reza Shah’s reforms for the emancipation of women even as her more religious relatives had cringed at his farangi foreign-embracing ways.
“Off you go then!” Maman kissed the girls’ cheeks and took their tea estekans.
Zari saluted Baba in a mock expression of her devotion to his ideals. Instead of laughing, Baba saluted slowly and seriously back.
Zari glanced at Roya with a quick eye-roll only perceptible between sisters.
The girls walked down the steps of the house, into the garden and past the turquoise-tiled koi pond. Roya envied the fish in the rectangular pond. All they did was swim in cool blue water. They weren’t supposed to become successful members of the best professional class the nation had ever known.
Roya closed the gate and they entered the short alleyway that led into the main street, sticking together, hugging their books to their chests.
“We’re lucky he believes in us, you know,” Roya said as they walked.
“I mean Ashraf’s dad thinks she should just stay home and not even study.”
“He’s the future,” Roya said.
“He’s the best,” Zari agreed.
“He’s a pain.”
They walked for a few minutes in silence. The girls were eighteen months apart in age, one grade apart in school and almost complete opposites in personality. As the first-born, everyone expected Roya to be the responsible, sensible one especially compared to her impulsive, slightly vain, overly dramatic younger sister. Zari used her good looks to her advantage, easily charmed men, and was greedy for all the finer material things in life. At eighteen, Roya already felt like an old schoolmarm next to her glamorous younger sister. She was much more reserved and felt overshadowed by Zari’s forceful but bubbly personality.
When they reached their school, Abbas, the doorman, stood guard at the iron gates, looking stern. It was his job to make sure that no unauthorized person entered the grounds, to protect the sanctity of the institution and the safety of the girls. It was not part of his job description to open the slit in the crotch of his pants and flash his penis tied up in a neat pink ribbon. But he was known for occasionally doing just that.
Zari stiffened as Abbas opened the gate. “Ugh,” she groaned when he was out of earshot. “He showed me his doodool again last week. So disgusting.”
“Was it tied up in a ribbon?”
“As ever. I almost vomited. I mean, what is that thing? How do men even walk with that hanging there?”
“It has to hurt. Has to chafe quite a bit I would think.”
“It’s so big, I’m surprised they don’t all have permanent rashes down there!”
“Well, you’ve only seen the doorman’s.”
“Yes.” Zari seemed to reflect on this for a minute.
“Did you tell the headmistress?”
“She said it was very ugly of a girl like me to lie. That Abbas has been here for years, that he was here for years before I was even born, and that I should be ashamed of myself for making up such vulgar stories.”
“I see. Her usual response, then.”
“Yup,” Zari sighed.
The girls walked into the school.
It would have been easier to fulfill Baba’s dreams and study hard and morph into Successes if school was all about academics. But politics had seeped from outside the school walls into every classroom. The students had become divided, much like the country, into three political groups: Pro-King, Pro-Prime Minister, and Pro-Communist.
Pro-King: these were students devoted to the Shah. In 1953 the king had the support of much of the clergy and the villagers too, quite a feat especially as traditionally the religious clerics had not been in the Shah’s camp.
Pro-Communist: With the Soviet Union sharing Iran’s northern border, a communist movement had grown in the country. Most of Roya’s friends, especially those whose families came from the north, were fans of Iran’s Communist party – the Tudeh party.
Pro-Prime Minister Mossadegh: A lawyer who had studied in Switzerland and had formerly been foreign minister, Mossadegh had gone to the United Nations in America to testify that the British Anglo-Iranian oil company needed to give Iran ownership of its own oil. Nationalists like Baba loved Mossadegh’s promise of democracy. Baba even loved the Prime Minister’s pajamas (which Mossadegh was sometimes photographed wearing).
Against the backdrop of these political divides, the girls navigated school. They memorized poems and arithmetic tables. If asked, Roya would say she was “Pro-Prime Minister Mossadegh,” only because she knew Baba would be mortified if she ever said otherwise. But she was sick of the polarizations, tired of the constant rallies in the streets. Zari was uninterested in politics and much more interested in Ali.
The boys from Ali’s school had no trouble finding their way to the girls’ school at dismissal time. They lingered outside as the young women streamed out. They mostly ignored Abbas’s shouts to get the hell out of there and leave the girls alone.
Sometimes boys followed them home. Roya and Zari got used to boys the way one gets used to annoying mosquitoes that continually buzz in one’s space. Roya ignored them, but Zari made sure that the good-looking ones saw her push back her thick dark waves. When Ali was in the mix, she looked flushed and couldn’t talk properly. Some days, the boys appeared at every street corner, round every bend. Slick, sly, clever boys who winked and whistled and flirted. Good looking, smart boys with charming smiles. Quiet, shy boys who snuck an occasional glance at them, then reddened when caught.
That winter, Roya’s favorite place in all of Tehran was The Stationary Shop. It was on the corner of Churchill and Hafez Streets, opposite the Russian embassy and right across the street from her school. Years later, when she’d married Walter in America and told him about the shop – he’d been puzzled that streets in Tehran were named after Churchill and Roosevelt. “Of course, Walter,” Roya would say. “What did you think? Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt all met in Iran during World War II. They had one of their most important meetings in Tehran. We were the center of it all!”
The Stationary Shop held all that a girl like Roya could want. Unlike Zari, she wasn’t as interested in clothes (save the ankle socks – that was different) and she wasn’t interested in getting a husband or preparing for a future of motherhood. She was interested in books and cooking. The latter she could get her fill of at home – Maman was always game for a lesson on how to make the crunchiest bottom-of-the-pot rice, tahdig, or how to add just the right amount of pomegranate paste to a chicken and walnut stew. But for books and stationary, Roya’s haven was the shop owned by a certain Mr. Fakhri. She loved running her fingers over tablets of smooth pages. She loved the boxes of pencils that smelled like lead and knowledge. She could spend an afternoon just looking at fountain pens and inkbottles or flipping through books that spoke of poetry and love and loss. The heated debates and hotheaded people in the streets disappeared once she stepped into the shop’s sanctuary of calm and quiet. Mr. Fakhri’s shop was never over lit, never loud. It was the perfect retreat of quiet and learning.
One particularly windy day in January, when Roya wanted to escape the communist demonstration gathering momentum in the street, she slipped into the shop. She just wanted to read some poetry.
“Rumi today?” Mr. Fakhri asked from behind the counter. He was a calm, kind man in his early forties. He had salt and pepper hair, a bushy moustache and round wire spectacles. Mr. Fakhri’s shoes were always freshly polished.
“Yes, please.” Roya had come here so often that Mr. Fakhri knew her reading tastes well. Tuesdays were her day with the least amount of other responsibilities, so she chose that day to linger and browse. Mr. Fakhri was well aware of her routine and was often ready with new books that he thought she’d like. He knew that Roya loved ancient Persian poetry but couldn’t stand some of the modern short stories. He knew that she would spend the very last of her allowance on a brand new tablet of paper and that her favorite stationary products were those imported from Germany. Knew that she not only read every word of the ancient poets but that in silence, every now and then, scribbled words of her own on the tablets she bought from him. Roya knew that Mr. Fakhri knew all these things and it was his non-judgmental calm that led her into his Stationary Shop as much as the piles of brand new books and pencils and paper tablets.
“Here you go.” The Rumi selection he handed her was printed on shiny new paper and had a cover that was dark green with gold lettering. “Some of his best between these covers. Make sure you find yourself a quiet spot and don’t let anyone disturb you. He takes some concentrating if you really want to get to the truth of him.”
Roya nodded and was reaching into her purse when the door burst open letting in shouts from the streets and a huge gust of wind. The pages of Rumi ruffled in her hand. A boy her age entered the store. He had on a white collared shirt and dark pants, his hair was combed to the side, his cheeks were red from the wind, and he was in a hurry. Yet he whistled.
Mr. Fakhri jumped to attention when he saw the boy and moved quickly, diving behind the counter, grabbing a pile of papers, bundling them with string, and handing them over as though he had been waiting for this special guest all day. The whistling boy dug into his pockets and brought out some rials. Roya watched the urgent, wordless transaction. The boy was almost out the door when he turned around. She thought he’d say thank you to Mr. Fakhri. It was so unusual to conduct a social interaction without a dozen thank yous and you’re welcomes and niceties and polite phrases. But instead of looking at Mr. Fakhri, he looked right at her. He stopped whistling. His eyes were joyful and filled with hope. “I am fortunate to meet you,” he said and bowed his head. Then he strode out the store and into the wind and the demonstrations.
Mr. Fakhri and Roya stood silently in the store as it settled back to normal after the effect of the boy’s presence – as though they had ridden in a hot air balloon that was only now landing and deflating.
“Who was that?” Roya asked, feeling for no reason at all, charged by the visitor’s energy.
“That, my dear girl,” Mr. Fakhri said. “Is Bahman Aslan.” A look of discomfort crossed his face for a few seconds. He drummed his fingers on the counter. He sighed. “That is the boy who wants to change the world.”
Roya carefully placed her Rumi book into her satchel. She stared at the doorway. She felt slightly infected, as though she had witnessed something of the future, something of the inevitable beat of hope and life and energy. She said goodbye to Mr. Fakhri in a daze.
For days she looked for him on the streets. Snot-nosed Ali followed them to and fro – it annoyed her so much. Bold and loud Cyrus insisted on opening doors for her and Zari whenever they neared one. Ali stole a few glances at Zari as they crossed the street and then pretended that he was actually concentrating on the lamp post. It seemed everywhere they went the students from the boys’ schools filled the streets. But the one boy who had burst into the Stationary Shop and made the world move a little faster, a little nimbler, with a lot more vigor – even if for just a few minutes – was nowhere to be seen.
Roya went to school and back with Zari every day, ate her mother’s home-cooked stews and listened to her father tell them all about Prime Minister Mossadegh’s plans. She studied geometry and scribbled some poetry and smiled when her father told her repeatedly that she’d be the next Madame Curie, by god she would, forget Helen Keller. But nowhere did she see the boy with the joyful eyes – the one who’d made Mr. Fakhri deliver a book with swiftness and importance as though he were delivering a weapon to a noble warrior.
In the stationary shop the following week, Roya picked up a brand new metal pencil sharpener, feeling the tiny ridges of its sides. Again the wind blew pages of the piled books askew as the door exploded open and in he strode.
This time, he stopped whistling as soon as he saw her. He seemed a little less sure of himself and more shy. “Rumi,” he said to Mr. Fakhri but grinned sheepishly at her.
With the same speed and desire to please, Mr. Fakhri retrieved another copy of the very book that he’d given Roya the week before. He cleared his throat and said, “Here you go, Bahman Jan.”
Bahman thanked Mr. Fakhri, bowed slightly at Roya, then quickly strode back into the street.
“What is his rush? Where is he going? What’s so important?” Roya said when she’d gathered her wits. She was determined to show Mr. Fakhri that this boy did not render her speechless.
“I told you, Roya Khanom. The boy wants to save the world. That requires rush.” Mr. Fakhri piled some pencils into a heap and dusted his countertop. “It requires vigilance.” He stopped swirling the surface of the counter with a rag. “It requires,” he looked pointedly at Roya as he spoke. “Severe caution.”
Roya sniffed. She put down the sharpener. She straightened her back. “I don’t know how he intends on saving the world. He walks too fast. He’s not very polite. He whistles for no reason! He barely spoke to you the other time he came in here last Tuesday. He acts like he’s so important. His hair is funny. I’m not quite sure how a boy like that will save the world.”
“Severe,” Mr. Fakhri put both hands on the counter and leaned toward her. “Caution.”
Decades later, Roya would walk the icy streets of New England wondering why she had slipped so briskly, as Fitzgerald aptly put it, into an intimacy from which she’d never recovered.