By high school senior, Amir Tamimi
The Pakro family lived on Nejat Street, among a small community of veterans from the Iran-Iraq War. The father, Omid Pakro, had lost both of his legs under a tank in Khoramshahr, near the border. That was not the worst part. The tank belonged to the Islamic Republic, his own side. Tragic blunder.
Simin was Mr. Pakro’s wife. An indefatigable woman, she cared for her husband and son daily and kept the house tidy. Her guests always complimented her on how everything in the house sparkled with cleanliness. If only she heard most of those generous words spoken about her. Mrs. Pakro could never relax and enjoy someone’s company because she was always occupied in the kitchen, the yard, or Iman Pakro’s “messy” room.
“Iman! Iman! Pesaram, put the stack of books in your bookshelf!” she yelled from downstairs with a wooden spoon in her right hand.
“Okay, chashm,” the frail reply would arrive.
Half awake, Iman sluggishly turned in his bed and stared at the pile of books on the floor across the room. He sat upright, scratched his stubble, and looked at the ticking clock. It was half past five. His afternoon naps usually took an hour; this time his nap had consumed an extra hour. Perfectly understandable for a studious young man. He had inherited his mother’s tirelessness, but that didn’t mean a Friday’s rest should be taken for granted.
“Besmellah,” he mumbled and started sorting the ragged books assigned by the madrasa on the shelf. Brave New Muslim. Check. Crime and Punishment in Islam. Check. The Great Prophet. Check. The Baha’i in Disguise. Check. There was also a brief history book about the last and the greatest of all religions, an Arabic-Persian dictionary, and the book of all books itself, the Holy Quran.
His father had argued against the madrasa. “Why won’t you show interest in medicine instead? People die every second! Go help them out,” he had shouted when Iman’s future intentions were revealed.
“Baba, kare khoda chi? What about God’s work?”
“Let your Arabic teacher do God’s work. I don’t approve of your plans.”
“God does. And so does Moth…”
“I am the head of the house!” Mr. Pakro had yelled across the room. “If I say you sleep, you sleep! If I say you eat, you eat! If I say you die, you die! Gomsho! Get lost!”
Now, two weeks later, the memory of the dispute still made Iman anxious. Standing idly by his bookshelf, Iman’s heart sank when, from downstairs, Mr. Pakro called his name. A name that neither of his parents had intended at first. “Nima” was the name Mr. and Mrs. Pakro had culled from the numerous suggestions by the relatives. But the name on the birth certificate read “Iman” because the government was full of “illiterate morons” (as Mr. Pakro had remarked). Mrs. Pakro would not have it changed afterwards.
“Iman!” Mr. Pakro called again.
Iman rushed down the stairs thinking there were minutes left to his life on earth.
He saw his father adjusting his wheelchair. Mr. Pakro said, “Salam. Have some sholezard.”
Mrs. Pakro put silver spoons into the cold bowls of sholezard as Iman took a seat. She turned on the water to wash the dishes while Mr. Pakro carefully fished for the right words to say to his son. “Not very sweet, na?” he commented.
Iman shrugged and thought, why does the first thing he utters have to be a complaint?
“Things shouldn’t be kept in the refrigerator too long. They lose taste, don’t they?” Mr. Pakro went on.
“Why do you nod that big head of yours? How come people nod their heads when you ask them something?” Mr. Pakro assumed a moment of sophistication. “Is it easier to move a two-kilo head or to reply with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’? Ask your mullah friends sometime.”
Mrs. Pakro’s lips quivered.. “Iman, we’re invited to Mr. Parvin’s house for tomorrow night.”
The statement turned Iman’s thoughts away from his father. “Really? How come?”
“I made him a meal last week after his wife left for Mashhad. Poor lonely man. Now that his sister’s family is coming to Qom, he’s repaying us with a dinner.”
Iman remembered how sometimes Mr. Parvin joined him in the line at the bakery, always arriving later than him. All eyes in the line turned when they saw the ectomorphic man of fifty years power-walk towards them, shining a wide radiant smile.
Mr. Pakro turned to his son. “Why haven’t you shaved? You’re beginning to look like a basiji. Or maybe you want to join Hezbollah.”
Mr. Pakro’s sardonic tone angered Iman. Why couldn’t he be treated like an adult? He could no longer withstand the pain his father’s comments had caused him for so long. Iman landed his fist on the table. The spoons jumped in the bowls. “Areh!
“Yes, I do!”
Mrs. Pakro turned pale and remained speechless. The running water kept the kitchen from total silence.
Iman’s father quickly moved his head from side to side, as if looking for something to hurl at Iman.
Iman shouted once again. This time, his words carried a mocking tone. “You’re faithless and godless!”
“Iman!” Mrs. Pakro shouted.
“There you have it! Dashte bash!” Mr. Pakro exclaimed to his wife. He then locked his eyes with his son’s. “Bebeen, you’re still too young to tell me what I am or what I’m not. Come back when you see the things I’ve seen, when you see hopes shattered and prayers unanswered.”
As Iman was aware, he could not say much in response to Mr. Pakro’s acerbic words. But it ailed him that Mr. Pakro could not understand his religious commitment. Many people his age, Iman knew, did not concern themselves with religious matters. Yet here he was, in Iran’s holiest city, at the heart of the clergy, with a dream. The Dream of all Dreams, he often reminded himself.
“Let me tell you again,” Mr. Pakro continued. “If you want to become one of those lying clerics who stole this country’s seat of power, by all means do so. But don’t delude yourself into thinking that I’ll be proud of you. Mifahmi? And if I could, I would smack you in the head for your insolence.” He sighed. “You’re inexperienced. Inexperienced.”
Iman lowered his head, biting his lips and playing with his nails. He thanked his mother for breakfast, walked into his room, and hopped into bed.
“Khosh amadin! Welcome! Welcome! The flowers are for me? Merci! Merci!” Mr. Parvin seemed delighted.
One by one they took off their shoes and entered. Iman and his father shook hands with Mr. Parvin, who kindly took control of the wheelchair and led his guests to the living room.
Mrs. Pakro wore her chador, fixed in place under her left arm and tightly held at her teeth. Prior to leaving the house, she had asked her husband about her looks. His candid response: “Like a crow!”
Mr. Pakro was clad in a maroon coat, pants, glistening shoes, and his old bow tie, giving him a prim appearance on his silver wheelchair.
Holding a bouquet of roses, Iman stood in his scruffy shoes, black pants and white shirt. Even rags wouldn’t change his looks. He looked handsome regardless.
Mr. Parvin’s house seemed a bit peculiar to Iman. The door opened to a small dining room, which led to a wide hallway, which in turn led to the living room on the left and one of the bedrooms on the right. The walls were a kaleidoscope of paintings and calligraphies, like those at the museums of Isfahan and Shiraz. Among others, a quatrain from the poet Omar Khayyam was framed next to a water-colored image of a woman wearing a pink robe and playing a small harp on her lap. Her head was uncovered. Iman glanced away at other artworks until he noticed the dazzling light of the living room projecting unto the wall ahead. There are other guests present, he thought. A silhouette appeared on the wall. The voluptuous figure was putting on a scarf. She grew bigger, bigger, and bigger until Iman saw Parastoo Samadi peeping from the living room.
“My sister Farah and her family are here tonight,” said Mr. Parvin “Befarmain, please go in. There you are.” Mr. Parvintook the flowers from Iman and handed them to Parastoo. She greeted the Pakros warmly and turned away.
A little time went by. In the living room, Mr. Pakro, Mr. Parvin and Mr. Samadi (Parastoo’s father, a muscular man with a thick black mustache) guffawed tirelessly, mouths stuffed with fruits and biscuits. The three women were preparing the meal, but Parastoo soon returned to the living room.
Parastoo sank into a sofa. Iman’s heart pounded faster.
Mr. Pakro had been speaking. “I remember back during the Shah’s reign, our passport, the Iranian passport, had international respect. I once read about a student who travelled to America.” His eyes widened. “Except he showed them the modern passport at the airport. They chucked it at him without delay!”
Mr. Parvin concurred. “Baleh, baleh, that’s how it is nowadays. Thirty-six years ago, one of my friends decided to apply for an American visa. So he shows up at the embassy in his flip-flops and pajamas. They stamped the passport before he could tell them why he wanted to leave. Now they won’t even look at you even if you change your name to Jack and sing their national anthem.”
“Our national anthem was better too,” Mr. Samadi giggled.
“Shahanshahe ma zendeh ba . . .” Mr. Pakro broke out loudly, but he was stopped by a gesture from Mr. Parvin.
“The next door neighbor plans on running for majlis,” Mr. Parvin whispered, pointing to the right with his thumb.
Parastoo started laughing. She and Iman exchanged a glance. Beautiful eyes, Iman thought.
Dinner was served.
Afterwards, Mr. Parvin led the other two men around the house and began explaining the artistic significance of his paintings. And since their mothers were washing the dishes, Parastoo and Iman sat alone in the living room. The cracking pistachios in Iman’s hands filled the void between the two until they heard awkwardly loud laughter from the men, causing Iman to flush and chew faster.
“Bebakhshid.” Parastoo cleared her throat. “Your dad, pedeare shoma, did he fight in the War?”
He admired the question. After considering how to word it appropriately, he looked up and explained. “Y-yes. My father fought for our nation and religion.”
She bit her lip and carefully asked her next question, “Vali . . . but . . . he doesn’t seem to be honored by his service. Chera?”
Iman began to feel as frightened as a person whose unutterable secret had just been revealed. He did not want his appearance marred by Mr. Pakro’s demeanor. Sitting upright, moving his eyes, he searched for words. “He . . . is . . . ”
“My father is the same. At one point in the War, he discovered how vain it all really was. Tells me about that moment of realization every time we talk seriously about life. He felt like ‘everything around and within him turned to stone and then crumbled.’”
Since Iman remained speechless, Parastoo continued. “Sometimes I feel the same, especially now that I cannot continue my studies.”
“How is that so?” Iman hoped to change the direction of the conversation. Away from his father.
“Mage nashnidi? You haven’t heard?” Her tone turned a bit aggressive. “Aghayoon in Majlis don’t see females fit to choose their own field of interest. And now they’re also processing another bill, which would require single women to obtain permission from their parents if they want a passport. Permission!”
As she moved her head and barked the last word, her green scarf receded. Iman noticed her glossy black hair. He bit his lips and started playing with his fingernails.
Parastoo smirked and responded, “Why are you looking down?”
“Your . . . scarf is . . . ” He felt his face getting warmer and warmer after uttering each word.
Parastoo’s smirk grew even bigger. She reached up with her right hand and pulled her scarf off, a decision that made Iman jump up to his feet. “This,” she said clasping it before Iman, “is a symbol. Did you know? It’s not fashion. It’s not to keep us warm during winter. It’s not to protect us from summer’s blazing sun.”
He interrupted her, “Bebakhshid khanoom, I have to go.”
Somebody might walk in and draw the wrong conclusions, Iman feared. He and Parastoo were not mahram, meaning he could not legally look upon most of her body.
“Koja? Where? Here, hold my scarf first.”
He hesitantly walked to her chair and robotically obeyed.
“You take one step out of this room, be khoda, I swear, I’ll scream and tell them you snatched away my head covering!”
Startled and irritated, Iman stepped back and opened his mouth in indignation. “Eh! Who would the court believe? A woman? Or a seminarian, the son of a veteran?”
Parastoo’s smirk returned triumphantly. She gently took back the cloth and placed it loosely over her head. “Precisely.”
“Khodavanda. My God . . . ” Iman sighed, turned back, and dropped into his seat.
Parastoo’s little comedic act was over. “So. Based on what I heard, you’re studying theology?”
“Yes,” Iman replied with a frown. “Under a very revered and refulgent mullah,” he added.
Another embarrassing roar of laughter from the three men disrupted the conversation for a couple seconds.
“How interesting . . . huh, che jaleb. There’s a question that’s been lingering in my mind for a while. Could you resolve it?”
She rested her chin on her palm. “Suppose there is a wounded man, a dying soldier to make it more identifiable, alone in the middle of a desolate region near the border. He is thirsty. He is famished. The sun is blazing down on him. A young woman passes by. Seeing that there is no one around who would rescue the man, she hauls him home, puts him on her bed, and washes with her soft hands the cuts on his face, chest, abdomen, and thighs.” Parastoo paused to think for a few second as Iman raised his eyebrows. She continued, “After regaining consciousness, she takes care of the soldier’s other needs and allows him to stay for several days. Now, my question to you is this: is her action considered sin in God’s eyes? Keep in mind that the two were total strangers. Gonahe ya na?”
Iman put one foot over the other. “Khob, there’s obviously a big problem in her conduct.”
“But is that a sin?”
“Certainly. She would have had to wear gloves.”
“Gloves? She should worry about wearing gloves before rescuing his life?” Parastoo spoke the last words behind a snarl.
Then Iman said, “Khanoom, I see you hold no regards for faith.”
“I held the highest regards for faith,” she interrupted. “Until it didn’t work anymore, if that makes any sense. I’m like a person who’s no longer fooled by mundane magic tricks, Iman. Look at our miserable country: the population is up, poverty is high, illiteracy is rampant. And we can’t do anything, you see. Offending the government is considered an insult not only to the clerics, but also to God. If the idea of a God was compelling, offending him might be unwise. But if he’s an illusion, we are slowly committing suicide with our apathy. That’s why we must search. We must read. Except, we aren’t fond of books. Soothsayers are our best friends. Gossiping is our hobby. First we have to wake up, the sooner the better. Only then can we till the ground.”
Iman was at a loss. He did not expect Parastoo to say anything his father might say. “What do you mean ‘if the idea of a God was compelling?!’”
“You know what I mean.”
“Sister, you have to repent. Tobeh! That’s blasphemy,” Iman ran his hands through his hair.
“Let blasphemers blaspheme and worshippers worship.”
He sighed, “That would be like leaving a black stain on a white shirt.”
“Which white shirt? Its bloodstains are far more conspicuous.”
Frustration. Frustration. Frustration.
Why is she so obdurate?
Dangerous things to say.
He was at first reluctant to leave for home when Mr. Pakro shouted his name. More things had to be discussed and explained. The Pakros, the Samadis, and Mr. Parvin crowded at the door. Mr. Parvin patted Mr. Pakro’s back and said, “Bazam tashrif biyarin. Wonderful night. And remember, Omid khan, to never trust a Turk as a business partner. Ha ha ha!”
Mr. Pakro chortled and added, “Or as a teacher!”
The dissonant sound of everyone saying goodbye turned the heads of the passersby.
Iman stepped out last, glanced at Parastoo’s smiling eyes, and then caught up to his father’s shaking wheelchair on the uneven asphalt.
Rushhhhhhhhhh . . . A river from paradise sang. Rushhhhhhhhhh . . .
He stood and watched. Watched and enjoyed. Enjoyed the flowers roundabout the white, white river. The wind blew from all sides at once. The flowers bowed, adored, worshipped the river. Suddenly, they sank and became one with the ground. Two-dimensional. In the blink of an eye, the whole landscape turned into a rug. A smooth, beautifully patterned Persian rug beneath his feet. But . . .
Rushhhhhhhhhh . . . Rushhhhhhhhhh . . . The river still sang.
He rambled around, until a piercing scream trapped his attention. The woman stood nearby, it seemed. But he was mistaken. Down the river, he spotted her hands flapping against the current. “Ko-mak! Kom-ak! Help!” Her uniquely black garment was luminescent, radiating a black halo, almost like a crown. He ran, ran, ran and dove. “Hold my shoulder!” She refused. She resisted. She argued. He clutched her arm and pulled. She felt lighter . . . lighter . . . lighter . . . as he pulled . . . pulled . . . pulled, until she was nothing but clothes. Gone. Vanished. She is not here, for she is not here, he thought. Rose petals started floating past him. One petal here . . . three there . . . then twenty . . . until the white river could be renamed. He tried swimming towards the land. Epochs passed. Exhausted, he could not swim anymore. The patient waterfall pulled . . . pulled . . . pulled . . . until he fell and was no more.
He awoke with a sudden jerk, his collar drenched in sweat. At that sleepy point, if anybody told Iman that he’d been fished out of a river, he’d readily believe, because the dream felt real, and he shivered. He sat up and thought about the two skewers of kabob he’d devoured at Mr. Parvin’s house. Then he remembered the woman in the dream. Next, the conversation with Parastoo came to mind. She had expressed herself with great temerity. He had felt challenged. The defense of his God had been incomplete. He could not, however, deny that he liked Parastoo’s character, no matter how misguided he believed her to be.
It was five-thirty in the morning. He staggered downstairs to quench his thirst and perform the Morning Prayer when he heard Mrs. Pakro’s murmurs in the dark of the living room. She had already started the namaz. Did Parastoo ever consider the beauty of prayer, he wondered. Did she experience the consolation, the tranquility? Of course not, he concluded, she just blabbered. Iman rushed back to his room to pray. He would take refuge in Allah the Qadir, the able, and offer his supplication to him. He would plead with God to give Parastoo the same spiritual peace he has. He will hear, he will hear, Iman repeated in his mind.
Afterwards, Iman, overcome with ecstasy, overcome with hope, overcome with triumph, ran off to buy fresh bread for breakfast. Back when he was little, his mother never tired of telling him, “Bread is one of the holiest things on earth.” In the early light of the day, the sweet smell of barbari and taftoon usually lured in the taxi drivers and janitors and retired veterans, but mostly taxi drivers; everybody drove a cab nowadays. Surprisingly, the queue at the bakery was small. As if the bread was devoid of magic that day. As if that day was unlike any other.
He noticed Parastoo. Two persons away. I won’t see Mr. Parvin then, he assumed. Beside the same transparent scarf, she wore a tight manteau with rolled- up blue jeans. Should he say hello and ask her to wait since they’ll walk in the same direction? No. He’d wait and keep a distance from her.
By the time the baker handed him the bread, Parastoo was thirty meters or so away. Slowly, he began walking home, but could not resist the beauty in front of him. She was as fresh, as youthful, as comforting as the sunrise. She glowed in the all-embracing rays of life’s star.
Suddenly, a policeman spoke with Parastoo. Iman didn’t know where he’d come from, but he was there, tall, broad-shouldered, unshaven. Policemen frequently patrolled the area. Parastoo did not halt, nor did she look at the officer in the eyes. Iman’s intuition alarmed him, and he wished he’d asked her to wait. Too late. “Scarf . . . jeans . . . short . . . ” The policeman, walking backwards in front of Parastoo, was barely audible, but Iman read his lips. Do what he says, tamana mikonam, I beg you, do it, Iman pleaded in his mind.
She stopped, looked at the policeman, and started wagging her head and talking. Wag wag wag. Word word word. For a minute . . . or a decade. Then she made her way forward, passing the officer. The contortions on the policeman’s face twisted Iman’s bowels. Nausea overtook. The urge to yell sprang up. The words, where were they?
The cop adjusted his sunglasses and turned towards Parastoo. He looked horribly offended.
The cop’s baton rose. The baton fell. Intolerance rose. Innocence fell . . .
The words flew out of Iman’s face as sparrows disperse into the sky after a gunshot: “Parastoo! Parastoo! Parvaz kon! Fly!”
When the officer began kicking, Iman felt responsible to rescue her, to make a move, but hesitated. For now, he trembled at the edge of Belief, at the border between deen and tardid, faith and doubt.
Upon noticing the heads peeking out of the apartment windows, the officer stopped and strode towards his motorcycle.
Plunged into desperation, plunged into helplessness, plunged into Nothingness, Iman held the barbari bread over his head and smashed it down to the ground.
He ran towards her body. Now you move little coward, he scolded himself. The freshly baked cookies she’d bought were scattered around. Her bright green scarf danced away with the wind. Her dark hair covered her face. Iman rested his pale cold hand on her cheek and whispered in-between loud sobs, “Man behet goftam . . . I told you . . . Why? . . . Why didn’t you fly? Ama alan… tanham nazar… Don’t leave now. You…” Moving aside her hair, he stared into her lifeless eyes, picked her up, and staggered forward.
Bloodstains . . . Bloodstains . . . Bloodstains, he repeated under his breath.
Amir Tamimi lived the first 11 years of his life in Tehran, Iran. In 2006, he immigrated to the United States, attended school and continued learning the English language. After a metamorphosis triggered in 2011 by George Orwell’s books and Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, he fell in love with the art of writing.