In the last twenty years or so of Iran's Pahlavi regime, Goli Taraghi emerged as a member of a relatively small group of women in Iran who were active in writing fiction and were able to achieve recognition in this endeavor. Aside from Simin Daneshvar and the widespread popularity of her novel Savushun, few other women writers surpassed Taraghi's success and reputation, despite the fact that she was never a prolific writer. Taraghi was born and raised in Tehran, the daughter of the noted publisher and editor Lotfollah Taraghi. She received a baccalaureate in philosophy from Drake University in Iowa and a master's degree in sociology from the University of Tehran. The collection of her short stories, Man ham Che Guevara hastam (A Che Guevara in My Own Right), and a loosely structured novel, Khab-e Zemestani (Winter Sleep), published respectively in 1969 and 1973, were fairly popular and elicited favorable commentary from the critical establishment in Iran.
Taraghi writes in a style that is unique and entirely her own. She avoids sensational experimentation and wild departures from the mainstream techniques of story-telling, and yet she gives freshness and vigor to her artistic vision by creating characters who ring true because they are realistically and sensitively conceived. It is true, however, that Taraghi's characters do not exhibit much social range and psychological variety. In the stories Taraghi wrote before 1980, there is a marked absence of women and, for that matter, romantic interest. A typical character in her early fiction is the male urban dweller, more specifically, a resident of Tehran, who is almost always literate and in a few cases even erudite with a touch of pedantry. In terms of social standing, these characters are predominantly from the lower scales of the middle class. They are very much the products of contemporary Iran: although they experience the joys and sorrows universal to humanity, they cannot be imagined in any dimension other than the Iranian framework constructed for them by Taraghi. Surprisingly, few if any of them are fashioned after the members of her immediate circle of acquaintance or the vast coterie of very interesting, even intriguing, individuals she associated with during the years she lived in Iran.
Though technically male, the characters in Taraghi's pre-revolution fiction seem to have been emasculated by the environment in which they exist. As such, the question of gender becomes subordinate to the message implanted in the subtext of her stories, which is, more often than not, a tacit condemnation of the parvenu culture and value system promulgated by the dominant social and political order. In the emotional dilapidation and defective masculinity of her characters, Taraghi appears to imply the cultural entropy and moral drift of the status quo. To some extent, Taraghi's ambivalence about her artistic identity may be due to her desire to put an aesthetic distance between herself and the characters that populate her fiction. This is not to say, however, that she is hesitant to assert the potency of her imagination or to exercise her prerogative to write as a woman. For all the years she lived in Tehran and within the family compound, in a milieu unquestionably patriarchal and male-dominated, it is remarkable that Taraghi succeeded in sustaining her creativity by conjuring up male characters whose masculinity is a mere biological detail and of no consequence in the development of the narrative.
In the absence of gender as an impetus to drive the plot, Taraghi uses irony to create dramatic tension and sustain reader interest. Irony in Taraghi's fiction is generally effected through the distortions intrinsic to the parallax view she gives of her characters. The nominal maleness of the men in her stories is an example of such distortion. These men are basically parodies of themselves and, to be understood by the reader, they have to be "reconstructed," a term Wayne C. Booth uses in connection with the "slight distortion" of parody and identifies as the mechanism by which parody communicates "some kind of argument or message." The reason, according to Booth, is that "ironic reconstruction never yields only a single, literal message, because the action of choosing irony and all of its consequences remains part of what is communicated" (137). That is why the pathetic nature of Taraghi's characters is not merely a caricaturing of their archetype, but also a ridiculing of the society that has engendered them. As readers, we find ourselves implicated in the social environment that envelopes the characters. We share vicariously their experiences, although we are exempt from actually identifying with them.
To maintain the focus on the emotional state of the characters, Taraghi avoids melodrama and keeps external action to a minimum. The action in Winter Sleep, for example, is entirely internal. It depicts the interactive relationship among a handful of men who associate with one another for no apparent reason other than perhaps the fact that they are all minor officials of a company or government agency. They are just used to one another, and none has the initiative to break out and seek more meaningful liaisons outside the peer group. They all seem to resent one another in some degree and, most of all, the person or persons who have arrogated to themselves the leadership position in the relationship. Still, out of sheer emotional lethargy they remain submissive to the perceived leader. In Winter Sleep nothing dramatic or consequential happens. There is no friction, conflict, or outward violence to punctuate the stream of the narrator's consciousness. In the introduction to her translation of the novel, Francine Mahak notes that the picture [Taraghi] presents in Winter Sleep is "deceptively simple, and yet we see the tragedy of the individual's stagnation within the empty shell of his uprooted culture" (Taraqqi vii). In addition to this "stagnation" running as a thread through Taraghi's stories, the narratives are also held together by an ominous sense of an impending doom, an expectation of internal collapse, an implosion to decimate the group and leave its members ravaged and disoriented. That event in Winter Sleep is the sudden and unexpected death of the novel's central character and with it the failure of a real-estate investment deal he was negotiating on behalf of the group.
The way these characters behave and enunciate their values and convictions sets them apart from the reader, further deepening the parodic distortion. Thus, as Booth points out, "the most evident purpose of the irony is achieved when unacceptable statements or arguments or judgments have been reconstructed into what the author believes and expects us to believe with him" (137).
Taraghi's motive for such a camouflaging stratagem may be sought in the social conditions under which she lived and wrote. Even as late as the 1960s, most criticism of women's literary endeavors was "rife with misconceptions [and] sexually biased assumptions," writes Farzaneh Milani. "One frequent manifestation of such limiting criticism," she continues, "is excessive attention to sensual and erotic themes. Masculine criticism operating according to masculine conceptions and values concentrates on this one aspect and, by its very superficiality, trivializes the work it examines" (117-118).
Mary DeShazer identifies this circumstance as a "double bind." According to her, the situation in which women writers such as Taraghi find themselves is essentially "a quest for both personal and poetic iden tity within a society and a literary tradition that view `woman' and `poet' as mutually exclusive terms." She concludes that in a tradition that habitually eschews the notion of woman-writer, "this struggle causes fragmentation; the woman-poet asserts `I am,' but follows her statement of identity with a question mark as often as an exclamation" (4).
In her later writing, especially after the fall of the Pahlavi regime and her departure from Iran, Taraghi meticulously and inexorably took down the wall that insulated her from her work. As a result, her post-revolu tionary fiction, of which the present collection is a prime example, has become increasingly autobiographical. In these works she delves into the recesses of her memory for details, which she then reconfigures in intricate patterns of plot and character development, eliciting a much more emotive response form the reader. The change is due not so much to a process of maturing as to the experience of life in exile. In fact, several of Taraghi's new stories deal with the acculturation process and the heartbreak of uprooting and displacement.
In this collection, the first four stories share the common theme of pubescent sexual and emotional awakening. Each story, told from the viewpoint of a young girl (and not necessarily the same one), reflects the agonizing uncertainties, obsessions, and intertwining of new, conflicting feelings and urges characteristic of early adolescence. However, these stories, and the ones that follow on the theme of exile, are not mere reflections of autobiographical experience and expressions of private feelings. The sequencing and foregrounding of episodes in these works underline the ambivalence of the position of women in the social context of the narrative and suggest a strain of feminist protest in the fabric of each story. Similar to her previous work, Taraghi structures her plots within the framework of a patriarchal society. As Marilyn French points out, in a world for the most part patriarchal, "feminist literature necessarily depicts patriarchy." However, as she contends, this tendency "does not underwrite its standards" (68). This is manifestly true ofTaraghi's fiction. To prevent her work from becoming polemical, and thus subjugating its aesthetics to ideology, Taraghi avoids outright condemnations of her maledominated milieu. She eschews an expression of impatience and frustration with the oppressive nature of a patriarchal world in general. Rather, she allows the nuances in the narrative flux to lead the reader to the intended conclusion. In the words of Marilyn French, "[i]n a work with feminist perspective, the narrational point of view, the point of view lying behind the characters and events, penetrates, demystifies, and challenges patriarchal ideologies" (68). For example, in "Grandma's House," we learn through flashbacks that the uncle of the protagonist, having been jilted by his wife, has gone berserk. The picture of the uncle is not the romanticized image of the lover in agony for the loss of the beloved, but that of a man who has had a prized possession taken away from him. The reasons for the wife's desertion are not specified, but some hints suggest undue jealousy and possessiveness on the part of the husband. It is against this background that we learn the woman was justified in leaving her husband. In portraying female experience, as French posits, "feminist art also portrays men, showing them as they impinge upon women or as they appear to women... What men are in themselves or for other men may contradict what they are for women" (71). Accordingly, the portrait of the deserted uncle, depicted by the narrator, a pubescent girl, emerges as pathetic, almost grotesque, and unworthy of compassion.
Among the stories, "The Maid" is an anomaly. Unlike other stories in the collection, this one has a narrator who stays almost totally out of the focus of events and has no role in the unfolding of the plot. The antagonist is a maid, a young woman of the lower classes, who behaves enigmatically when she is hired into the service of an upper-class household. In the course of the story, Taraghi explores class relations and raises questions on the issues of personal conduct and economic determinism.
The next story, "A Mansion in the Sky," is typical of Taraghi's recent fiction which reflects her experience in exile within the context of a feminist perspective. The story revolves around an Iranian dowager who is caught in the cataclysm of sweeping change brought about by her children and their selfish pursuits. Her son auctions off her house and belongings so he can live abroad on the proceeds, far from the turbulence of post-revolutionary Tehran in the grips of the Iran-Iraq war. Thereafter, the old woman is passed back and forth between her son and daughter, who gradually come to regard her as a mere nuisance. In its basic simplicity, "The Mansion" has a complex infrastructure. It reveals the intricate web of Iranian cultural norms that render the woman impotent, both emotionally and legally, in the exertion of her will or Preferences.
The final story in this volume, "The Bizarre Comportment of Mr. Alpha in Exile" may be considered the reflection of Taraghi's earliest experience as an emigrée. She wrote it during the first few months of her residence in Paris. Very much like Taraghi's other work, the story features a man as the main character. Mr. Alpha, a former history teacher in a girls' secondary school in Tehran, appears to have had no contact with the world outside his professional associations before his removal to Paris. He appears socially limited and inept. Consequently, his experience of living in Paris and the concomitant cultural shock is excruciating for him. We discover that he came to Paris in the early days of the revolution after a rock-throwing incident in which he received a severe blow to his head and a more severe one to his ego. To add insult to injury, some unidentified students singled him out as an object of their anti-establishment fury by serving him a mock death warrant. Mr. Alpha, who considers himself a dedicated teacher and a man of refined sensibility, took these events very much to heart and in a tantrum-like fit of anger decided to leave the country, despite the fact that he was deeply and, for all intents and purposes, platonically, involved in a liaison with a physical education teacher who happened to be the wife of a childhood friend. Painstakingly, in depicting the character of Mr. Alpha, Taraghi delineates the stereotype of the Iranian middle-class intellectual: passive, detached, self-absorbed, and genuinely baffled by the turn of events that have caused him inconvenience and distress. He is clearly vapid and ineffectual, suggesting that the suffering he has received at the hands of others, including a harsh, martinet father, is generally the result of his own inanity and lack of moral resolve. He is the kind of person that can be victimized and exploited but never martyred.
These stories indicate novel aspects of Taraghi's development as a writer and deserve closer and more extensive scrutiny. As a whole, Goli Taraghi's recent work demonstrates a trend in which she views her cre ative self unflinchingly as feminine and is more willing to focus her work on her gender-related experiences. Arguably, Taraghi's work has become richer and more poignant as a result of this transformation, and perhaps more polemical and intellectually contentious.
Number 70 bus pulls away from the curb before we get to it. My little girl runs a little ways after it, but before getting to the corner loses hope and stops. We wait for the next bus.
An unexpected snow is falling. The air is full of a translucent mist, and a pleasant silence has replaced the usual hubbub of the city. Everywhere is white and calm. Passers-by disappear in the mist like appari tions, and only outlines of trees and houses are distinguishable. In the eight years we have been here in Paris, this is the first really heavy snow we have seen.
"Angels are house cleaning," I hear the voice of my grandmother at the back of my head. "They're dusting the clouds and sweeping the carpets of the sky."
I am put in mind of Tehran in winter, dominated by the tall, snow-clad Alborz peak underneath the turquoise-blue skies, the bare, sleeping trees in the far end of our garden, dreaming of the return of migrating birds.
In my childhood, snowy days had no end... Saturday, Sunday, Monday. I counted the days... Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and the snow continued to fall. Ten centimeters, twenty centimeters, half a meter, to the point that snow would block doors and the schools would close for a whole week.
What a joy! What an unbelievable good fortune! A whole week of staying in bed in the mornings and playing with all those girls and boys, my cousins all, in the alley. A week without the bother of having to face the assistant principal or encountering that sourpuss of a math teacher, not having to read from the Holy Precepts book or the Koran, or do writing exercises. A week of not having to memorize those interminable, stupid poems or do calligraphy practice with reed pens and black ink. Free from the clutches of lessons and school. Seven glorious days of fun and games!
It was such a treat for us kids when we had company and the snow closed the streets. The guests stayed over, two, three nights at a time. Frequent guests in our house included:
—My scrawny, tenderhearted grandmother who was always at prayer, asking God to give us happiness, health and wealth.
—Bibi Jan, my mother's old aunt, hard of hearing and senile, who confused me with my brother, my brother with my cousin, my cousin with the neighbor's kid and the neighbor's kid with me.
—My favorite, Aunt Azar, whose brats noisily played leap-frog in the hallway and climbed on everything in sight and screamed like a bunch of wild monkeys as they slid down the banister.
—My Uncle Ahmad Khan, the gentlest and the most tenderhearted dentist in the world, who could not bring himself to extract a tooth, and his eyes misted every time he saw one of the kids crying.
—Big Uncle, the artillery officer, who was deathly scared of horses and guns and upon arrival would get out of his uniform, put on an apron, and get busy in the kitchen making delicious fruit preserves or knitting colorful woolen pullovers.
—And, last but not least, the fat and easy-going Tooba Khanum, who knew a wealth of bizarre stories and was into cultism and witchcraft and sometimes played magic tricks for us.
All these people stayed in our house until the snow melted and streets became passable. I cherished those crowded rooms spread wall to wall with blankets and bedding. There were tables everywhere, covered with all kinds of snacks, tankards of refreshments, bowls full of pomegranate seed, dishes of candy, and the delicious baklava, my mother's specialty.
It felt so good when all the rooms, hallways, and parlors were redolent with a thousand aromas arising from every corner of the house: the pungent smell of tobacco from my grandmother's water pipe, Bibi Jan's herbal tea, the fragrance of saffron being spread over the rice along with rose water and caraway seeds and cinnamon, the smell of onions frying in the pan and strips of lamb grilled to a crisp on hot coals.
I loved to be lulled to sleep by the drone of adult sounds coming from other rooms—Little Uncle strumming on the stringed tar and Aunt Azar sweetly humming, my mother's slippers clacking on the staircase. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and feel the big folks still up and about, lights on and the kitchen in full swing. I would drift off again in a sleep as light and airy as the whimsical flight of a balloon.
This evening the fall of the snow has evoked a similar childish thrill in me. My little girl is also excited. She dances round and round and hurls snowballs at no targets in particular. She ambles along the street, anxiously waiting for another bus to arrive. Her restlessness reminds me of my own little palpitating heart when every day after school I waited at the bus stop counting seconds in anticipation of seeing my friend, Aziz Agha.
I lift my face up to the sky and open my mouth to catch the drifting flakes of snow. To me, they have a delicious taste and a pleasant smell. It is as if countless petals of jasmine are falling from heaven. I feel as if I am levitating and floating in the air, as if I am in a glass bubble and a hidden breath sucks me back to the past.
I see myself when I was ten, waiting for the Shemiran bus at an intersection near school. Our new house is way out of town behind the hills and in the middle of an empty subdivision. There are no houses around ours. Sometimes at night, we could hear the coyotes. My mother gets scared. So does Hassan Agha, the cook, who spreads his bedding next to my father's bedroom door for protection. I like the desolate locations of our house. I am not scared of the water reservoir and the pool that are full of frogs and tadpoles in the summer, or the dark, malevolent-looking shadows cast by the trees. At the end of the garden I have erected a makeshift tent with a discarded bed sheet. No one can find me there. I hide my snacks under a brick and bury the assignment on which I have made failing grades so my mother won't see them. The poplars are my companions and each has a name of its own. The taller ones are boys. When I get back from school, I throw down my satchel and run to the end of the garden. I report my daily activities to the trees, showing them my schoolwork and reading to them from the textbook. Some of them are dumb and start yawning with boredom. Some are jealous and mean and purposely ignore my performance. I kiss the ones that are friendly and stick small pieces of gum behind their leaves. Those who have said nasty things behind my back are punished and their branches are tied together with rope.
On the bus, it takes more than an hour to get to Firoozkuhi School. My older brother can go by himself, but I have to be escorted to school by Hassan Agha. However, he gives me free rein on the way, because if he says a word to my mother I can get him in serious trouble. I know that he keeps a copy of the key to the pantry inside the lining of his coat, and I have seen him more often than not pilfering small quantities of supplies in my mother's absence and hiding them in a box behind the outhouse to take with him when he goes on his weekly furloughs. Because we have equal power over each other, we have a truce.
When the school lets out at four, Hassan Agha is waiting at the bus stop to take me home. Today it is snowing hard and flakes are as big as saucers. Everything is already covered in white. In the falling snow, Hassan Agha looks like a faint silhouette against the wall. His face reminds me of pieces of fluffy clouds, the ones I see in the sky and know they are people of thousands of years ago. Some of them have crowns and long beards and ride horses across the night sky. If you look carefully into the moon, you will see a little girl squatting, with her head on her knees, crying. I keep pointing her out to my stupid brother, who says he can see nothing of the sort.
My mother has an unnatural fear of the full moon and tells me not to stare at the stars, but I do and sometimes see a dragon glide out of the deep blue of the sky and disappear into the Milky Way. When I tell Hassan Agha about it, he screams and pulls the blanket over his head and falls into a fit of loud praying.
There is no sign of the Shemiran bus. Joyfully, I slip and slide on the snow in the middle of the street and kick the trees to shake the snow off their branches. Hassan Agha, shivering furiously, is carrying my satchel and lunch box. His breath condenses faintly in the freezing air. He is wearing my father's old shoes, which are several sizes too big for him, and flakes of snow fall in the gap behind his heel. Because his hands are so small, he is wearing my mother's gloves, except that they are not a matching pair. One is leather and the other fishnet. For New Year's Day, my father orders new suits, socks, shirts, and underwear for the household staff. But Hassan Agha does not wear his new clothes. Instead, he saves them in a suitcase to take them to his village when he goes on leave in the summer. Or he sells them and keeps the money in the stovepipe in his room. I am the only person that knows where he keeps his money. But I swear I never touch it.
I can hear the groan of the approaching bus. Hassan Agha jumps up, but I am not sure if we will board this bus. "If the bus flicks its lights," I tell myself, "we'll get on it. Otherwise we'll wait for the next one, even if Hassan Agha freezes to death and my mother is worried sick by our delay." This is a secret that no one else knows about. It is just between me and Aziz Agha. Even Hassan Agha does not understand why I board some buses and not others. (A bus that does not flick its light is not driven by Aziz Agha.) Hassan Agha yells at me to get on, but I refuse. He has threatened to report me to my mother, but I faintly point to the pantry key in the lining of his coat and he gives up. Before I go to bed at night, instead of the prayer my mother has taught me, I repeat three times, "I will not board any bus not driven by Aziz Agha!" This is a vow between us in effect till Resurrection Day. Of course this vow is unspoken. Because I dare not exchange words with my gigantic friend, who is taller than my father, and his frightful face scares even the policemen.
The oncoming bus flashes its headlights and my heart jumps. When the bus stops, we get on, with Hassan Agha leading the way. Aziz Agha looks at me with his puffy, bloodshot eyes and acknowledges my greeting. His hair is curly and drips with hair oil. Hassan Agha is convinced he gets a perm regularly. He has thick black eyebrows and a bushy mustache that almost covers his mouth. I take the seat directly behind him, and Hassan Agha goes to the back of the bus where there is more warmth and proceeds to fall asleep. There are only a few passengers on the bus, all of them dozing off. It is a long journey from school to our house, especially on snowy days, when some cars that have no chains lose traction in the middle of the road and hold up the traffic. On some days Aziz Agha is more tired than others and yawns massively. His breath, sharper than the smell of the iodine tincture my mother applies to my cuts and bruises, makes my head spin and my belly churn. He looks at me in the mirror and makes faces, blowing up his cheeks, twitching his nose, crossing his eyes. I cover my mouth so that passengers will not hear the sound of my hearty laughter. My friend has the look of a giant, scary enough to frighten small children. His hands and upper chest are covered with tattoos. There is a thick, bluish scar from one ear to the other side of his neck, as if somebody had tried to cut his head off.
My mother never rides the bus. She has her own car and driver because she knows there are monsters like Aziz Agha roaming the world. She is unhappy about my riding the bus to school. But this is my father's direct order and cannot be contravened.
Hassan Agha is fast asleep at the end of the bus. A biting, cold wind blows in from the broken window of the bus, and the passengers are clearly feeling the blast. Aziz Agha takes his jacket off and spreads it over my legs. Its smell assails my nostril, but I am hoping that the gesture has not gone unnoticed by the passengers. With a sense of pride I rub my fingers on the greasy collar of the jacket, and they take on an unfamiliar smell, a smell that is not in our house, nor in my aunts' and uncles' houses. It is not the smell of cats, dogs, and cattle, either. It is a smell that exudes from the corners of an unknown world, of naughty things that should be avoided and things that it is too soon for me to know about.
My mother smells different from anything else. Hers is the smell of perfume and powder, of film stars, fashion magazines, Lalehzar Avenue, and the Municipality Dance Hall. Mother smells of future days, of tomorrow, and all the good things that are in store for me.
But with this jacket on my knees, I am reincarnated. I am someone else, someone who does not have to be clean, polite, studious, and at the top of the class. Someone who does not have to wear a ribbon in her hair, curtsey to strangers on social occasions, and sing her half-learned school songs for them. Someone who does not have to play on the piano her first music lesson, which is not anything more than Do, Re, Mi. Fa, Sol, La, Ti, for bored and disinterested relatives, and take part and consistently lose in Beautiful-Child contests. With Aziz Agha's jacket on my legs, I become like him, my body covered with tattoos and my mouth full of gold teeth. I feel I am solitary and unescorted, walking the back alleys of the town, or like the daughters of Fatemeh, the laundress, giggling coquettishly and flirtatiously. I feel as if I am riding pillion on the motorcycle of the best-looking boy in the neighborhood, on the way to see the newest Tarzan movie. When we arrive at Abshar Station, Aziz Agha stops the bus. Some passengers get off to drink hot tea in the café, but I stay put. Before he gets off, Aziz Agha produces a little packet from the glove compartment and drops it in my lap. He winks as he eyes me in the mirror. There is a glow of kindness about him, and his face, creased with soft lines, looks like that of a rag doll. My friend is the gentlest giant in the world. I am entranced by the magical, transparent vapor that arises from the strange smell of his breath, his bloodshot eyes, and greasy old jacket. I feel a state of beatitude and an overpowering desire to remain here in statuesque immobility for many millennia to come, without changing, without growing up.
Today, Aziz Agha has given me dried sour cherries. I ignore Hassan Agha, who wants to know what I am doing, and hurriedly count the cherries. The passengers are drinking tea as they stand outside the bus and Aziz Agha takes a swig or two of vodka from his flask. He then goes behind a tree to urinate. I turn my head away and pop the cherries in my mouth in rapid succession. But in my head, I have a vision of him behind the tree and my ears feel hot.
We get back on the road again and wend our way slowly to Vanak Square. Sometimes, the bus slides backward. Other cars lose control and stop in front of us, bringing us to a halt. It is now getting dark and the whiteness of the snow is pervasive. Hassan Agha is rapidly losing heart and keeps calling me from the back of the bus. I know that in a matter of minutes he will start to cry. He is very facile with his tears, and several times a days they flow without any apparent provocation. My mother says that his tears, like the clacking of mother hens, are for no reason at all. My father calls him a pure, unadulterated jackass, which, strangely enough, pleases Hassan Agha. He laughs as he removes the dishes from the table, content that my father is happy with his cooking.
The window next to my seat is broken and the cold wind blows on one side of my face. My neck is stiff and my back feels like a block of ice. Aziz Agha look at me with concern, stops the bus, and stuffs the hole with newspaper and old rags before he resumes his seat behind the wheel. I know his silent language. I know he is concerned and wants me to change my seat. "Get up, you little stubborn girl," his eyes tell me. "You're going to catch your death of cold. Move to the back of the bus. It's warmer there. I am afraid you're going to get sick."
"No way I'm going to move from my special seat," I project as I look at him churlishly.
I am gratified by his concern. It shows the depth of his friendship. I close my eyes and am transported into the fantasy world of bygone ages, when heroes walked on beds of hot coals and defied death by taking on seven-headed dragons to demonstrate their allegiance to their king.
The bus is now completely immobilized and the cold has permeated everything. The right side of my body is numb and my toes tingle furiously. I have no sensation in my shins and my head feels heavy and fluctuating in size. Through the slits in my eyelids, I see shadowy figures moving around in the snow. My nose is dripping and my eyes burn. I have hot flashes followed by violent fits of shivering and chattering of my teeth. I sob uncontrollably. With the soft tips of his fingers, Aziz Agha wipes the tears off my cheeks.
Some of the schoolchildren who know him say that all Aziz Agha's teeth are gold. I don't believe this and I ask my mother about it. She does not know. She does not even know what I am talking about. I can tell she does not like my asking and angrily forbids me to look at or talk to bus drivers and such, or she will have me skinned alive. In her view people with gold teeth are thugs and murderers who will hurt little girls if they get a chance. I can't seem to agree with her. It bothers me to see my mother sometimes say things that are openly spiteful and malicious; for example, when she says that Aunt Azar is fat and ugly. I am also saddened by my mother's ignorance: she does not know the capitals of many countries and is stumped by simple mathematical computations.
Nevertheless, in my view she is the best and prettiest mother in the world, and before I go to sleep at night I feign some kind of ailment so she will sit by my bed. Sometimes I want to confess that I have entertained bad thoughts about her. But she is always in a hurry and has no time for my gibberish. She would punish me severely if she found out that I have eavesdropped when she has been talking to my father.
Aziz Agha is flustered to the extreme by the bogged-down traffic. He tries desperately to untangle the bus and move it forward, but it is no use. It seems like we are lost in a white, trackless desert. From the back of the bus, I can hear Hassan Agha's moans and loud, fear-induced hiccups. I feel queasy and I know it is because of the onslaught of a serious illness. The cherries are bloated in my tummy and I am nauseous. I am holding Aziz Agha's old jacket close around me and feel dizzy. I try to get up but have no sensation in my legs. I open my mouth but cannot make any sound. The snow has covered everything, the bus, the city, and I am frozen in this white space. I have been preserved in this state for years. It is only my eyes that glow like windows of a furnace. Tears roll down my cheeks, and I have a bitter dry taste in my mouth thirsting for water, water, water.
A cool, perfumed hand sweeps across my forehead. Someone whispers a prayer in my ear and blows on my face. Faintly recognizable faces circle my bed, and I identify Aunt Azar's doe eyes under the shining lamp. The smell of Bibi Jan's medicinal tea is in the air. I recognize the soft blanket and clean, crisp sheets of my own bed. My mother is standing there and I feel secure. I go back to sleep, and in my dream Aziz Agha is carrying me on his shoulders as he flies through the air and over the clouds like a flying carpet, taking me to distant, unknown cities. I wish he would open his mouth and let me see his gold teeth. But as always, he smiles with his mouth closed and his lips are sealed like the lid of a treasure chest.
I am gravely ill. Dr. Kosari visits once a week, every Thursday, and finds the whizzing sound of my breathing disturbing. My temperature spikes at night, and he tries a new drug with every visit. But my condition continues to deteriorate. I am thin, sallow, and moribund. I am also losing my hair. I have now a new doctor who coughs harder than I do. He prescribes drugs that aren't available in any pharmacy.
Days and weeks go by with a dizzying speed. Lessons and school are things of the past. Coughing keeps me up all night, and my grandmother stays awake by my bedside to spoonfeed me and entertain me with her stories. Everyday, I look out of the window at the bare branches of the persimmon tree and long for spring. I have visions of the Shemiran bus passing by the school every afternoon at four, with Aziz Agha anxiously looking for me at the bus stop. On the other hand, he may have forgotten me. He may be giving the snacks in the glove compartment to another child. I feel insanely jealous at the thought and fall into a painful fit of coughing. My mother hastily phones the doctor to report the condition, and my father becomes more convinced that I should be taken to Europe for treatment.
I am going to fail school this year and the thought makes me cry. My Aunt Azar tries to console me by insisting that health is more important than anything else. I wish the summer would come sooner and bring a profusion of leaves and fruit to the cherry tree. Our house is even more crowded in the summer. Our family is really a big tribe. I have scores of aunts, uncles, and cousins. My father is generally regarded as the nominal chieftain. In summer time, the entire family dines in our house on Fridays, and my mother keeps half of the guests overnight. We all sleep on the terrace, with the children arranged side-by-side in a row and grown ups scattered under poplars on wooden slats in the mosquito netting. Only my father sleeps by himself in the arboretum, which has a small stream running around it, making lilting sounds through the night. The grandmother sleeps next to the children and keeps an eye on them. She leaves a large glass of iced water next to each bed and a fistful of jasmine petals under each pillow. At bedtime, she takes a head count to make sure every one is present and accounted for.
I simply love the living silence of the summer nights. I can hear the throbbing of ripe fruit and the light breathing of young shoots. Before I drift off, I count the stars and try to find human shapes in the clouds. There is always one that looks like Aziz Agha, calling to me from up there and making funny faces. The boys whisper at each other, and my grandmother strikes their feet with a long switch that she keeps next to her bed. Little Uncle snores mightily, enough to get a response from the stray dogs in the neighboring empty lot. Bibi Jan talks in her sleep and Tooba Khanum scratches herself noisily. Occasionally, one of the children breaks wind and the odor wafts all over the place. My grandmother sits up angrily demanding to know who is responsible. We all pretend to be asleep and not a sound is heard from anybody.
Finally, sleep, accompanied by the buzz of mosquitoes and twinkling of stars, fills every eye. Some nights there is a sprinkling of rain. My grandmother has a large sheet of plastic ready at hand, which she spreads all over us. Under the cover, my cousin and I hug each other and, like ants under the ground, listen to the drops of rain as they hit the thick plastic over our heads.
Since the beginning of my sickness, I have been quarantined in a room. I am scared of everything and I sense the presence of fear everywhere. Sometimes it pokes its head into my room or haunts me in the afternoons when grown-ups are taking their naps. I can see it behind the windowpane or even hiding under my mother's skirt. I swear I saw it in the mirror this morning, sticking out its tongue at me. It is fear that sets off those bouts of coughing.
My mother does not trust the doctors any more, and their prescribed medicines are jettisoned. One of my uncles who is a medical doctor stays overnight on a regular basis. He and my mother alternate in giving my nightly injections. My father is becoming more and more convinced in the genius of European doctors. They cure any disease with one prescription, he says. Aunt Azar eyes me morosely and showers me with kisses as if she'll never see me again. Hassan Agha shows me an old postcard picture of a plump woman with golden hair and in a velvet dress. This is the Queen of Paris, according to him. She is a vicious woman and does not believe in the Holy Koran or the Prophet. He is visibly worried about me and urges my grandmother to say even more prayers for my recovery.
My mother enthusiastically packs multiple suitcases for the projected trip to Europe. But I know fear will be in Paris, too. Now my grandmother is almost incessantly at prayer. Tooba Khanum forces a large cup of liver extract down my throat every evening and has festooned my neck and ankles with all kinds of talismans. There is a heap of small, folded pieces of paper under my pillow.
Still, every day around four in the afternoon, I visualize the Shemiran bus passing by the school and disappearing in a white cloud of dust like a half-forgotten dream.
Still, before I fall asleep at night, I repeat three times the vow: "I will not board any bus not driven by Aziz Agha." I have sworn an oath of loyalty and I will keep faith till Resurrection Day.
I close my eyes firmly and hold my breath as I repeat the incantation. My heart beats resoundingly in my chest, and I am sure Aziz Agha will hear it and make his response known to me somehow.
Departure date has been set for three days from today. My grandmother is sitting by the window busy stringing jasmine buds to make necklaces and wristbands for me. The gloom is pervasive. Even the usually ebullient Tooba Khanum is pensive and teary-eyed.
There is someone at the door. It must be a new doctor or one of the army of visitors and well-wishers who come to see me daily.
Hassan Agha bursts into the room and stands motionless by the door. He looks confused as he glances at my mother. He wants to say something but cannot phrase it. He is hiccupping with nervousness and
is making vague gestures to indicate the presence of something or someone outside. My mother, flustered and impatient, follows him into the corridor. "Who is it?" I can hear her shout but not Hassan Agha's response. My mother's voice rises as the sound of an alarm and causes apprehension in all.
My grandmother gets up, closes the window and pulls the blanket to my chin. "The bus driver?" My mother's voice booms in the hall. My heart misses a beat and I sit up in my bed. Hassan Aghds response is plaintive, like the bleating of a sheep about to be slaughtered. My mother's voice echoes in my head: "Who? What? Which bus?"
Poor Hassan Agha is now completely incoherent. I can hear my mother's indignant pronouncements about the gall of a common bus driver presuming to pay her daughter a visit and her command to Hassan Agha to tell him that if he is seen in the vicinity once again his shins will be broken.
I push off the blanket and jump out of bed. I run in my nightshirt toward the hall. Tooba Khanum tries to restrain me. I push her aside and bite her wrist. My mother, completely taken aback, shouts at me to re turn to my room. But I ignore her as I throw myself into my father's study at the end of the hall and lock the door behind me. The window looks onto the street. I push the curtain aside and look out. Like a shy little boy, Aziz Agha is standing in the middle of the sidewalk looking very bewildered. He is holding a small packet in his hand. His usually disheveled hair is neatly combed and his shirt buttoned all the way up, perhaps to hide the tattoo on his chest. I open the window and call his name. He looks around and starts walking. I call him again, louder, as I wave at him vigorously. He turns, looks up, and sees me. His face is immediately transformed with the old familiar kindness. Tears stream down my face and I mutter incoherently. He nods at me from where he is standing and a wave of visible happiness rises in his face. He begins to smile, and a strange vision overtakes me as for the first time I see him smiling with parted lips. His open mouth appears like a dark cavern. Somewhere deep inside there is a gold tooth that shines like a magic lamp. Intuitively, I know that all my wishes will be granted by this lamp. I close my eyes and hastily wish that I may be hale and hearty again, that the wracking cough may go away, that fear may leave me forever.
When we arrived in Paris, we checked in at the Vagram. Three days later I was seen by a French physician, who prescribed a long list of drugs. But the process of recovery had started many days before and by then the cough had already gone. No one had any inkling as to my secret magic lamp. My mother, naturally, attributed my improved health to the miracle of European medicine. But I knew what had healed me. Every night, in the darkness of my bedroom I passed my hand over the imaginary magic lamp and intoned my usual prayer.
We stayed in Paris just over six months. When we returned to Tehran, I was matriculated at a new school a block or so from our house and I could walk. But I continued to look for the old Shemiran bus every time I crossed the street.
The years passed rapidly and I grew into a proper miss. The old buses were phased out and, in time, they were replaced by limousines driven by young drivers. However, I remained faithful to my great friend and our secret vow. Whenever I was depressed or had to face a tough situation, there was the sudden flash of the gold tooth across clouds of childhood memories and it always brought me comfort and reassurance.
Another Number 70 bus appears round the corner and slowly moves toward us. In my ear a child's voice says; "I will never board any bus not driven by Aziz Agha."
My daughter goes ahead of me and waves at the driver. Her eyes are brimming with childhood petulance. Perhaps she has a secret of her own that she does not tell me, as I did not tell mine to my mother, or Hassan Agha, or even the poplar trees at the far end of our garden.