From the balcony, I couldn't
see the pavement for the tops of heads. Most were covered with cloth - some white,
some green, many red. Mother said white was for peace, green for Islam, red for
anger. Between the heads, a forest of fists pumped in rhythm to shouts of "Marg
bar Shah!" Death to the King!
Throughout the month of June 1978, I had heard the same shouts almost every day
on our street - angry shouts, frightening me.
That afternoon, a mullah in a
black robe and turban led the mob. He stood on a wooden crate across the
street, every so often flapping his arms like a raven about to fly, urging his
followers to kill the Shah and anyone who opposed Islamic rule.
A soldier in fatigues strolled
among the crowd, a rifle slung over his shoulder. When he was a few paces in
front of the mullah, he stopped, slipped off the rifle, and held it across his
chest, stroking the stock as if it were his cat. He fixed his black eyes on the
mullah - steady, cruel eyes, as those of a hawk. Held under the mullah's spell,
the people seemed oblivious to the menace of the soldier and his weapon.
Mother gripped my hand. "Let's
go inside, Sohrab. I think something terrible is about to happen."
Glued to the unfolding scene, I
The soldier raised his rifle,
and the mob didn't notice. He aimed it at the mullah's skull, and the mob
didn't notice. Mother screamed, and the mob didn't notice.
The soldier fired his weapon.
The mullah's forehead shattered. Blood gushed.
The crowd scattered as the body
crumpled to the ground, eyes frozen wide in surprise and still as a pair of
dead beetles. A yellow dog trotted over and licked the blood. The soldier
I felt dizzy, and everything
went blank until I woke up in bed. Mother stood over me, damping my face with a
cool washcloth. She said I fainted.
* * * *
We lived a kilometer south of
the Shah's palace on Koocheh Kasram,
a street with enormous houses surrounded by twelve foot tall brick walls. Ali,
our housekeeper, said the mullahs often chose our street to hold demonstrations
because many of the homeowners were the Shah's rich and powerful friends. He
said being rich and powerful in Iran during those troubled times was a curse,
which worried me because Father was rich and powerful.
Mother and I didn't watch the
next afternoon's demonstrations. We never wanted to see another one. Sitting on
the double swing chair at the terrace, we sipped watermelon juice as Ali swept
the cement footpath. I loved racing my bicycle along that path, which snaked
around the apple trees, privet hedges, reflecting pool, and under a wooden
trellis covered with grape vines. It ended near the far end of the garden at
Ali's wooden hut, where he and I read comic books and built model airplanes,
and where he mouthed his namaz - prayers - while
kneeling before the Koran.
The noise from the street grew
louder. Ali disappeared inside his hut, came out a moment later, and ran to the
terrace. He carried Father's pistol, black and as big as his forearm. "The
general lent this to me in case of trouble, Khanom
Vessali," he said to Mother.
The demonstrators wailed for
the dead mullah as they smacked chains against their backs - a Moslem ritual of
mourning, which Ali said was foolish because he didn't think Allah wanted
mourners to harm themselves. Soon, the wails turned to shrieks and the mob
wanted revenge. Three men wearing red bandanas scaled our brick wall. Waving a
stiletto, one of them shouted at us. I couldn't hear the words, but he looked
and sounded furious.
A gun blasted. On the wall
below the three men, a puff of dust and debris burst into the air. The men
I looked at Ali. Grimfaced, he
held Father's pistol in a trembling hand, smoke oozing out of the weapon's
nozzle. Mother pulled me into her, smiled, and told me everything would be all
right. Her eyes gaped; her body shook.
Seconds later, a jagged stone
flew out of nowhere and hit Ali in the forehead. He fell to the ground as blood
flowed from the gash. My stomach churned, my mouth filled with a sour fluid,
and I wished the crimson would stop flowing out of Ali's head so he wouldn't
die like the mullah. Mother pushed me down and knelt next to him. She told me to
remove my T-shirt. I quickly did so, and she took it from me. After rolling it
into a tight bundle, she put it over his wound and pressed hard.
"Will he get well, Mama?"
She nodded, and the blood
stopped flowing. Before marrying Father, she was a nurse and could take care of
our various ailments and injuries.
Ali was my best friend, a real friend who also treated me as his
son, praising me, playing children's games with me, scolding me when I needed
scolding. He had curly dark brown hair, and pockmarks covered his face. One
time I made fun of them. Mother heard me, and she told me never to make fun of
people's looks. She said Ali had a serious childhood illness that scarred him
for life. Was that something to joke about?
Ali helped me build stuff, like
the snowman we made two winters before. He stuck a potato in the middle of the
snowman's face, broke two teeth from his black comb, and pierced them partway
into the end of the potato. Grinning, he said, "Moo-eh damagh." Nose
hair. We laughed and laughed until we could hardly breathe.
For NowRuz - New Year - he bought me a model airplane kit, a World War II
Spitfire. It was missing a propeller. He wanted to exchange the kit for
another, but I asked him not to. In our garage, I broke off a piece of wood
from a crate of oil tins. Using his pocketknife, I carved out a propeller. Then
I sandpapered it and painted it with the silver enamel that came with the
airplane kit. When Ali saw what I had done, he put an arm around my shoulders
and told me how clever I was with my hands. He said our hands are wonderful
gifts from Allah. They can make things, and they can mend things. They can also
Outside was dark now, and Koocheh
Kasram was deserted.
Mother tucked me in my rooftop
bed and pulled the mosquito net over it. "Shab bekheir, Sohrab-jan."
Goodnight, dear Sohrab.
Sleep was impossible because of
the earlier excitement and because my trembling just wouldn't stop. Almost
everyone at home was afraid. Mother, Ali, the cook. The gardener hadn't come
that whole month. He said he quit because our neighborhood was no longer safe
and belonged to angry mobs.
I wished Father were home
because he never seemed afraid. Mother said he was the bravest, strongest, most
fearless person she had ever known.
I crept to the edge of the roof
and squinted below at the neighbors' terrace. Often at night, they sat at a
bamboo table with a lit candle on top. Looking like two flickering ghosts, they
listened to soft western music and sipped tea. Sometimes they stood and held each
other tight and swayed with the music. But that night the terrace was dark,
I tiptoed downstairs into our
living room. Mother lay on one of the four sofas arranged about an old oak
chest. Like a waterfall, her black hair flowed over the edge of the sofa and
touched the floor. She seemed dazed and didn't notice me.
I sat on the floor and stroked
her hair. It was soft and smooth and warmed me all over.
"Aren't you feeling well,
Startled, she sat up and looked
at me through red-rimmed eyes. "I'm fine thank you. Why are you out of bed, my
"Where is Baba?"
"Your father is still at the
"Will they kill him?"
Mother slid off the sofa,
pulled me into her, squeezed me hard. "That was a terrible thing to ask,
Sohrab. You must get rid of such awful thoughts."
"But Ali says the people want
to kill all the Shah's friends."
"Don't worry yourself. Ali
repeats gossip he hears on the streets, and most of the time it proves untrue."
"You promise Baba will be
"He knows how to defend himself."
"I wish he'd come with us."
"He will, if things don't
"But what if they improve?"
"We'll return and join him, of
"I don't want to come back,
"Why not, Sohrab-jan?"
"Ali says Iran is a bad country
"Think of our vacations at the
Caspian Sea. Those will remind you how nice Iran was, and how nice it will be
The Caspian seaside was my
favorite place. When I was four years old, Father bought us a cottage nestled
in a small forest of plane trees along an isolated part of the shore. Ali and
the cook always came with us when we stayed at the cottage. In the evenings,
Father walked me along the beach and talked of brave warriors who had fought
and died defending our land against invaders from across the sea. I was amazed
that he only knew stories about warriors and invaders and death. Nothing like
Mother's stories about princesses and puppies and life.
Ali and I often went on
adventures in the forest. While we roamed about, he told me tales about Tarzan
and the jungle where the apes raised him. Before becoming our housekeeper and
my best friend, he had learned all about Tarzan from a picture book he found in
a trashcan. I wondered what it would be like to grow up as Tarzan did. No
school or homework. No angry mobs. No one telling me that someday I must become
a famous soldier like my father, General Rostam Vessali, which seemed unlikely
since I had never felt brave, strong, or fearless. At school one day, the
biology teacher said a person's traits are inherited from the parents, so I
thought most of my traits must have come from Mother: her hazel eyes, high
cheekbones, slight build, and her anything-but-soldierly disposition. I had
none of Fatherâ€™s fearsome traits: his Frankenstein size, stick-out brow, and
Mother ruffled my hair. "Now
run off to bed, Sohrab-jan."
"But I want to stay with you,
"No, you must rest. Tomorrow our long journey begins."
January 7, 1943:
Fearing the worst of all
possibilities, Paree ran through the pastures and mist-blurred woods, searching
for her son. Little John hadn't slept in his bed - another manifestation of his strange
behavior since he returned from North Africa. She burst into the gray barn,
where a week before, she had found him lying in the hay, staring at nothing.
Maybe he was thinking about life before Tobruk, or maybe he was thinking about
death in Tobruk. "Come back to the cottage and I'll cook you a nice English
breakfast," she had told him, but he kept staring at nothing and muttered, 'Just leave me alone, Mother.'
She called out his name several
times, but he didn't respond. Hearing a rustling sound from above, she climbed
a wobbly ladder to the loft. A pair of slate eyes glowed in the dimness. The
neighbor's cat hissed at her.
After hurrying out of the barn, she
ran past the cows and bales of hay and the rusted tractor that hadn't moved in
years. Pausing at the edge of a field near her cottage, she looked up toward
the crest but couldn't see the chestnut tree for the mist. When Little John was
much younger, he loved to climb that tree, hiding there until she came looking
for him. The mischievous imp would plop chestnuts on her head, and she would
shout, "It's those rascally squirrels again!" He would giggle and shout back, "I was the rascally squirrel, Mummy." It was his ritual for the start of
Saturday mornings, and maybe he was hiding in the tree now, reclaiming his
Trudging through uncut grass,
sidestepping cow dung, Paree hurried up the field until the chestnut tree's
ghostlike silhouette came into view.
She froze in horror.
* * *
Just before dawn, Reza startled
awake on cold ground, fearing something terrible had happened. A woman was
squatting by his side, stroking his head. "Sleep, little boy, sleep. The bad
situation is over."
up and stared toward the shack. It seemed eerie in the moon glow as light rays
danced on the walls like giant blue moths. Parked in front of the shack was a
police car with spinning blue lights on the roof. Three policemen were pulling
Mama to the car. As they were about to push her inside, Reza shouted, "Mama!
Mama! Don't let them take you!" She looked at him over her shoulder and smiled
even though her face was bloodied, her nose bent, her teeth broken. "You are a
wonderful boy, Reza-jan. Don't ever
forget that." He ran to the policemen and tried to pull Mama away from them,
but they shoved him into the dirt and shoved her into the car. One of them bent
over him and fired questions about what had happened in the shack. Despite the
stinging slaps to his face, Reza couldn't remember anything. The officer spat
at him and left.
morning, Reza found himself at a home for kids without homes, and ten days
later, at a home for kids without parents.
I opened a new page on FB for authors, readers, agents, and publishers. Would love to have your input there at: https://www.facebook.com/irajjsarfeh/