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AROUND ME WAS AN ANT COLONY of black motorcars. In my jacket pocket, hidden inside a mint candy box, were the ashes of my father—Sadegh Mozaffarian—dead for two weeks and estranged from me for thirty-eight years. And next to me, in the back seat of our sedan, was my boss, the minister of foreign affairs. The Iranian delegation—among them the Minister, myself, a couple of translators, and a half dozen security men—was confined to a few designated New York blocks, beyond which we were not permitted to go. “It’s like a goddamn prison,” I said to the Minister on the first day of the United Nations General Assembly, when I realized the constraints of the phantom barbed wire fencing us in, and he said, “Hardly. You of all people should know.”
His optimism had been tested throughout the trip. Once again American promises had been made to us and broken, the most recent excuse being a tiff between our respective navy ships in the Persian Gulf. The Americans pointed their fingers eastward, at our sphinxlike ayatollahs, who in turn stood at their Friday prayer pulpits and disclaimed involvement. Accusations and denials pinged back and forth, and made any notions of guilt or innocence mere afterthoughts.
“The sons of bitches are screwing us again,” I said to the Minister that morning during a well-earned piss break from the procession of speeches. As the Saudi crown prince and the Pakistani prime minister had been hogging the bathroom stalls for over fifteen minutes, the Minister and I, despite the edicts of our religion, had no choice but to resort to the urinals. We stood with the others, a row of dark-suited men with passports from opposing nations tucked in our pockets, but all of us facing the wall like a firing squad, and sighing with relief in unison. “Resolute but open,” the Minister said. “That’s the only way to achieve anything.”
“You know what else is resolute but open?” I said, zipping my pants.
He gave me an amused look in the mirror as he washed his hands. How I envied the Minister his forbearance. His presentation to the assembly had been so well received that for two days his face had been on the front pages of the newspapers. He had a good face, the kind that elicited trust because it suggested familiarity with the Western canon—Homer to Hemingway, Socrates to Žižek. His speech and diction, as contemplative as his face, were measured, thoughtful, and just evasive enough to suggest ambiguity bordering on mysticism. The press had parsed his every word, as if he were the holy pope himself.
The Russian ambassador was stooped over a washbasin next to us, leaning into the mirror to inspect a dark spot on his Cossack nose. Must have gotten too much sun while on holiday in Crimea. I nearly said as much but reconsidered. Leave the poor bastard alone, I thought. He probably doesn’t want to be here any more than we do. This annual gathering of the world’s kingpins was like a cross between high school and the Day of Judgment. We all showed up to bullshit our way out of the reckoning awaiting us, as clear as a lighthouse illuminating a black sea.
“Talking with the Americans,” I said to the Minister, “is like getting butter from water. Az ab kareh gereftan.”
“Patience, Hamid,” the Minister said as he combed his Van Dyke beard. “We’ve talked about this. When will you stop being a hothead?”
“My father used to call me khorous jangi—fighting cock,” I said.
“Your father is a wise man,” said the Minister.
“Was,” I said.
* * *
I SPLASHED COLD WATER ON MY FACE, my father’s ashes heavy in my breast pocket. I shut my eyes and saw him drinking tea by our kitchen window and reading the paper, cover to cover, as he used to do each morning. My father was always impeccably dressed—a necktie and a suit, even on the hottest days. He had an old-world air about him—he knew how deep to bow, how often to smile, when to engage and when to retreat. Doctor of art history, professor for a time at Tehran University, he was affable to all and an intimate of none. A constant melancholy, so thick it could have been rehearsed, made him seem at once fragile and impervious. The man, as I remembered him, was always alone.
Later, even as he accepted a top position at the Ministry of Culture and the scaffolding of his existence shifted, his aloneness remained unbroken. His days and nights, filled now with meetings and dinners, remained a hall of mirrors he never wished to fully enter. When he came home in the evenings he glided from the chandeliered world of ministers and artists to his hushed room, removing only his shoes and socks. At his desk, in his suit, tie, and slippers, he worked on his magnum opus, a compendium of Iranian art—preconquest, postconquest, premodern, modern, postmodern—and whatever else there had ever been or would ever be. At dinnertime, from the head of the table, he would interrogate the family on Sasanian glass, Samarkand pottery, Tahmasp miniatures, coffeehouse paintings. My mother disregarded him. My brother, Omid, and I tried to both appease and even conquer him. But as the right answer earned us no praise, the wrong answer earned us no reprimand.
* * *
SIDEWALK DEMONSTRATORS were slowing down traffic. Syrians. Some obscure Chinese sect. Liberal Americans singing their swan song for democracy. And most perplexing of all, Orthodox Jews calling for the destruction of the Holy Land. “What’s their grievance?” I asked the Minister. “They’re waiting for the Messiah to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem,” he said with his knowing smile, indicating acceptance of the world as the carnival that it was. I would have prolonged the discussion but sensed his stiffness as he resumed texting with his old friend, the former American secretary of state. How we all missed the man, the Minister more than anyone. “A minyan of decent Americans appeared in our lifetime,” I joked, “and they came and went like Halley’s Comet.” The Minister nodded but didn’t laugh. “How does a man like you know about minyans?” he asked. “A man like me has been through many lifetimes,” I said, taking no offense. He resumed typing, with the fretful gaze of a teenager trying to resurrect a first love.
* * *
MY DAUGHTER, GOLNAZ, had that same look the last time I had seen her. Three years had passed since that accursed night, when she went to live with her mother, Noushin. And I didn’t even try to stop her. Letting my daughter go was an act of pure benevolence. I didn’t know I was capable of behaving this way.
With Noushin, who left me five years before my daughter did, I had been far more strident. In the farewell letter she left on the breakfast table, Noushin wrote that life with me was like going deaf in increments, until you realize one day that the morning’s birdcalls sound like children crying from a distance. “Your simile is tortured,” I said, holding the letter and following her to the bedroom, where I saw her tossing shirts and skirts and shoes into a valise. “I mean, the morning’s birdcalls sound like crying children? That’s ridiculous…” When she pulled the pale blue dress with the moonstone buttons from the hanger—the one she had worn to Golnaz’s second birthday party, when together we had baked a Pink Panther cake and believed ourselves happy— I felt our future snap inside my chest. “You can’t just renounce your husband like that,” I told her as she put on her black velvet combat boots and shut the green suitcase, the same one she had brought on our first and only family trip—a visit to Isfahan.
A memory of the three of us eating ice cream under the columns of Chehel Sotoun stung my heart with the loss that lay ahead of me, the way my reflection in the old Safavid palace pool had done, that summer afternoon. I ran to the front door and blocked it with my large frame. “You’re no husband,” she said, her black eyes hard as ice picks. “You’re just a warden with a wedding ring.” She pushed me aside and I let her. As I heard her scrambling down the stairs—she hadn’t even waited for the elevator—I regained my senses and yelled, “Go back to whichever hell you came from, but understand that you just saw your daughter for the last time.” From the stairs came a strange, aborted scream. She knew the law was on my side.
* * *
WHEN NOUSHIN LEFT, Golnaz was nine years old, on the edge of eviction from childhood. I vowed to give her a good life. I cooked dinner for her, took her shopping or to the movies, and dropped her off at school in the morning. I even sang to her from time to time. I had often been told that I had a soulful voice, and more than once I gave her my best impersonation of Dariush, which she found hilarious. There was a time when I would sing my Dariush renditions to seduce women, but that was a lifetime before. Going from seduction to hilarity didn’t bother me—it was just the nature of time, passing. Often, after we would wash and put away the dishes, we would sit together at the kitchen table as she would finish her homework, and I, staring at her heart-shaped face, would be seized by the thought of losing her. When she wished me good night I would kiss the top of her head, reminding myself, each time as though it were the first, of the possibility for goodness on this earth. She smelled of powder and honey, vanilla and salt. It was her scent and it had been Noushin’s scent. On nights when I couldn’t sleep I would tiptoe into her room and stand over her bed, sniffing her head like a bandit before returning to the cold crispness of my own laundered sheets. I was addicted to laundry in those days and asked the housekeeper to leave the dirty wash to me. But instead of using the washing machine, I would fill the tub and soak the clothes and sheets in lye, scrubbing and beating the soiled cloth like some ancient washerwoman by the riverside, rubbing out memories with suds and ash.
* * *
SIRENS BLARED AS Forty-Second Street finally opened up, and we crossed, sedan after sedan, back to our hotels. From the tinted, bulletproof windows of the jet-black Mercedes I watched pedestrians struggling to make their way through their occupied city. Serves them right, I thought. Let them squirm for a couple of days like the rest of the world. In truth my favorite part of the entire trip was being in this mighty car. I called it our machin-e-zanbour assal—the honeybee car, because it reminded me of a toy I played with as a boy. Back in the day, my brother and I had a collection of toy cars. Among them was a sleek, black Chrysler Imperial, modeled after the car in the Green Hornet TV series, with a majestic bee on its roof, green-tinted windows, a radiator grille that would open to reveal a red missile, and a boot that, once unlocked, would allow a radar scanner to fly upward. In the back seat was a figurine of the Green Hornet aiming a gun, and behind the wheel sat Kato, his assistant. It was a prodigious car, loved equally by my brother and me, but for different reasons. I was obsessed with the flapping grille and the missile underneath, while Omid adored the hornet set against the black sheen of the chassis. “The bee leads to the honeycomb,” Omid would say as he’d maneuver the car within the arabesques of the century-old silk Kashani carpet of our bedroom, a hand-me-down from one of our rich maternal relatives. Poor Omid. He believed in improvement. Maybe he couldn’t help it, with a name like that. Omid. It means hope.
* * *
THE MINISTER AND I arrived at our hotel. The concierge—a young man in a smart navy suit, doubtless a graduate of a Swiss hospitality school—alerted us that about a dozen people had left us a handful of miniature flags engraved with messages. As the Minister questioned him about these visitors I noticed the young concierge’s cuff links emblazoned with a Warhol-style image of Mao—a wink of irony in his otherwise stern outfit.
He handed us the flags. They were of the old variety with a golden lion and sun in the middle, and carried such messages as “Down with the devil” and “One day the prince shall return,” and other such nonsense. Of all the splintered groups of our nation, the royalists were the most pathetic.
Copyright © 2020 by Dalia Sofer
Copyright © 1992 by David Ferry