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SHIRAZ, IRAN • MARCH 1982
It started the morning Mother said she’d be proud to have me die.
I woke with her hand hard over my mouth, her black eyes unblinking, and her long finger at her lips signaling me to be quiet. Like a lion protecting cubs, I fumbled to shove my tape player and earphones under my pillow.
For a stupid second, I saw Dad behind her in the doorway. What was I thinking? It took a heartbeat to remember: Next week would be a year since he’d been killed.
But it was Uncle Habib! He stood behind Mother, waving his hands and making goofy faces she couldn’t see.
I grinned, and Mother loosened her grip just enough for me to call out, “Unc—” but I only managed the first syllable before her hand flew back to silence me.
“No talking by the open window,” she hissed. “Remember, your uncle can’t travel freely.” She glared at her brother, then back at me. “Get dressed and come to the kitchen.”
She whirled and ushered Uncle out the door. Tap-tap-tap. Her heels receded down the hall. The soft slap-slap of his loafers followed behind. The best sound I’d heard in weeks.
Out of habit, I reached for the tape player. Every morning, first thing, I listened to at least a song or two, or sometimes three. With Uncle here, I should have jumped into my clothes, but I needed one song to face the day. One song, then I’d get up.
My hair was just the right length to cover the black headphone band that stretched from ear to ear, and it was the right color, too. If it weren’t for the big gray circles over each ear, I could have worn them on the street and no one would have known. When Uncle secretly gave me the tape player for my birthday last year, he told me that in America they were making earphones so small that the listening part went right into your ear. I tried not to think about it. I knew it was wrong to want a thing so much it made your stomach ache.
Last night I’d stopped the machine at “Master Blaster (Jammin’).” Stevie Wonder wrote this song about Bob Marley. Genius. In America this album was almost two years old, but I’d only had it since Uncle Habib’s last visit. I’d listened to it every night for the last three weeks.
My head back on the pillow, I listened and watched the smudge of first light make the shadow of the sycamore tree dance across the ceiling. My fingers played the melody over my blanket, storing the notes in my head for later. At the chorus, the door cracked open and I stuffed the tape player and headphones behind me, ready to face Mother’s fury. But it was Uncle, laughing at me.
“Find a better hiding place, Cub.”
“I was going to put them in my jacket pocket.”
“Too big. Too obvious. It’d be a shame to have them confiscated. Those things don’t grow on trees.”
“I know. I’m careful. I promise.” I stood, pulling up the mattress to return the player to its normal hiding place.
“Are you really in some kind of trouble, or is Mother just being Mother?” I tried to imitate her voice. “‘No talking by the open window.’ What does she mean? We’re on the second floor. No one can hear us down there.”
“I’m fine, Cub. You know she loves the drama.” He tugged my shirt. “See you dressed and pressed in a minute, yes?” Over his shoulder he added, “Hurry up. She’s sending you out to get breakfast, and I’m starving.”
* * *
“When did you get here?” I asked three minutes later as I skidded into the kitchen. Mother was at the sink, the early sun lighting the jagged angles of her profile. Uncle Habib leaned against the wall.
“Reza,” she said, not turning around. “We do not run in this house, and is that how you greet your mother?”
I stood straight, my fists clenched behind my back. “Good morning, Mother. Are you well?”
Uncle walked over and hugged me like a bear, then held me at arm’s length. “I stay away a few weeks, and you grow five centimeters. You’ll be a man the next time I come.”
“Not unless you stay away a few years,” Mother said as she checked the tea in the big copper urn on the counter. “He’s twelve.”
“Almost thirteen,” I said.
“You have over three months to be twelve.” She dismissed my words with a wave. “If you’re such a man, when are you going to learn to tuck in your shirt?”
I should have said, “When I feel like it,” but today wasn’t a day for argument. I retucked and stared as she turned back to the sink.
Her tight gray bun was a hand grenade at the nape of her neck. Her straight brown dress, clean and wrinkle-free. When she went out, no one would see her dress under her heavy black chador, but it still had to be perfect. With Mother, everything had to be perfect.
Steam, heavy with orange and cardamom, filled the room as she opened the spigot on the urn, filling her mug. “Your uncle arrived thirty minutes ago. We never know—government agents may have followed him. We’ll go about our routine as if nothing is different. You’ll go to the market.”
Uncle Habib rolled his eyes.
“Can I buy sangak?” My mouth watered at the thought of the tangy bread fresh from the stone ovens in the market stalls.
“If you get there in time.” Mother passed me a handful of rials. “Bring home eggs and cheese as well.”
“I’ll go with him,” said Uncle.
Mother swiveled to face him, tea spilling unnoticed at her feet. “Are you out of your mind? You could have been followed, and then you go dancing on the street minutes later? Why not simply ask them to take you away—and us with you?”
“Come on, enough drama, Sameera. I told you I wasn’t followed. Even in Tehran I haven’t been trailed for a while. I’m not that high up in the organization. If they don’t follow me in Tehran, they aren’t going to come after me in sleepy Shiraz.”
Shiraz had over a million people, but I kept my mouth shut. Mother didn’t need any more ammunition in this fight she was picking.
Uncle reached into his bag on the table. “If it makes you feel better, Sameera, I’ll wear my hat and dark glasses. Do you still have one of Babak’s jackets?”
Even though she’d sold Dad’s piano and guitar two weeks after he died, I knew she hadn’t touched his jackets since he’d left for the front. The thought of Uncle Habib wearing one seemed right and wrong, all jumbled together in my heart.
She slammed her mug on the table, spilling more tea. “You take idiotic chances and think they affect only you. Your involvement with the mujahideen is senseless. Your mutinous group only causes trouble. It’s barely been three years since the revolution. You can’t expect a new government to be perfect so soon.”
I slumped into a kitchen chair. This argument happened every time Uncle visited. If you listened to Mother, the regime could do no wrong, but Uncle Habib thought they’d brought us halfway to ruin. I just wanted to get to the market and buy sangak.
Mother’s voice rose an octave. “How can I convince you? The ayatollah has a plan. Iran will be returned to greatness.”
“Greatness?” barked Uncle. “Not for me, and not for you, either. Before the revolution women were finally starting to have rights, Sister. Now you fear for your life if someone sees your head uncovered.”
“Wearing the veil is pious,” snapped Mother. “I wear my veil to show my love for God.”
She turned to me. “Reza, stop that constant tapping.”
I wasn’t tapping. I was playing the imaginary keyboard I carry around on my thigh. I tried not to do it in front of her, but sometimes, when I was nervous, the notes just left my fingers on their own. I shot Uncle Habib a quick smile.
Uncle’s voice softened and he shook his head. “You’re so bright, Sameera. Think how much better your life would have been if you had gone to … if Father had allowed you to go to college.”
That was interesting. I’d never heard college and Mother’s name in the same sentence before. Her face clouded.
“Father was right,” she said. “It was time for women, for all of us, to return to our traditions.”
“I don’t want to fight with you.” Uncle crossed the room and stood near her, reaching out and touching her arm. “I don’t want to fight with my government, either, but this war is wrong and I need to make my voice heard.”
“This is your own country you fight against.” Mother turned away and faced the window. “We should leave things to God. God will make it right.”
I couldn’t believe she’d said that. She knew the leaving-things-to-God talk always made Uncle angry.
“Sameera.” He put a hand on either side of his face and started pacing. “You’ve already lost Babak. Reza is all you have, and soon he’ll be called to fight—at twelve years old.”
I started to say, “Almost thirteen,” but stopped when I saw the pain in Uncle’s eyes.
“Our children aren’t coming back from this war, Sister.”
Mother turned from the window. She put a sugar cube on her tongue and sipped hot tea through it. Looking first at me, she then turned to her brother. “It would sadden me to lose my only son, Habib. But if God chooses to call him to his kingdom, as he did his father, I’d be proud to have my son die a martyr. It would be an honor for this house.”
All the air was sucked from the room, and I gasped to get the last gulp. Had I heard her right?
“Sameera?” Uncle’s word was like a sword—a question and an accusation.
She glanced at me and back at Uncle. “If he died in a senseless way, I’d be heartbroken, but if my son dies in this sacred defense, I will be happy knowing he has gone to sit with God.”
There’s a silence you hear the second after a vase crashes to the floor or a car backfires. That silence filled the room. I looked around, expecting pictures on the wall to be crooked and dishes broken on the floor, but the earthquake was all in my head.
Uncle pulled his hat over his dark curls, opened the closet, and grabbed Dad’s soft brown jacket. Without stopping to put it on, he steered me to the door. “Come on, Rez, let’s go.”
I stumbled down the stairs after him.
The minute we stepped into the street, Uncle stopped and looked at me for a long minute. He shrugged into Dad’s jacket and put his hands on my shoulders. “You know she loves you, don’t you?”
I tested my voice to see if it worked. It came out in a croak. “That’s love?” I cleared my throat and tried again. “When I was little I thought she loved me, but since Dad died … and now this … I’m not sure anymore.” I put my head down, closing my eyes so they wouldn’t leak. “I’ve heard people talk like that, but not her.” I swallowed hard. “She never would have said that if Dad were alive.”
Uncle cupped his hand under my chin and brought my head up so I had to look in his eyes. The sunlight crept over the buildings on the far side of the street, warming my face.
“Listen to me well, Reza,” Uncle said. “She doesn’t know what she’s saying. She believes her Great Leader is the right hand of God, so she follows without thinking. Her heart doesn’t want you to go to war, but her head and her heart don’t talk much these days.”
I shrug. “I try to do what she wants me to do, be who she wants me to be, but the things that matter to me … she doesn’t get. It’s gotten so I can’t even hum a tune when she’s around.”
“I know.” He ruffled my hair, took me by the elbow, and started walking down the street. “It was hard for me, too, when we lived in the same house. I felt like she and my father disapproved of every breath I took.”
I forced a small laugh. “I guess you lived through it.”
“Yes, I did, Cub. Now, let’s forget about it for a while, shall we? There is breakfast to be hunted.”
I nodded several times, until it felt like I meant it. Looking up, I noticed two men standing on the corner, one dressed in street clothes like mine, the other in a long black coat. Were they looking at us? At the end of the street, I glanced back. The two men hadn’t moved.
“Did you see those guys?” I asked Uncle Habib. “Are you sure you’re safe? Mother said it was too risky for you to be out in daylight, even here.”
Uncle pulled off his hat and waved it like he was clearing away smoke. “I told you she exaggerates.” He ran his fingers through his hair. For the first time, I noticed a few flecks of gray, and as he brushed his hand across my shoulder, I realized we were almost the same height. “Come on. We’re on a quest for sangak before I die of starvation. That’s the real danger.”
We took the shortcut through Eram Garden. The acres of roses wouldn’t be in full bloom for a few months, but their sweetness wrapped around us, bringing thoughts of shorts and football and no school. The sun was shining; I tried to forget Mother’s words and think about the lazy summer I hoped was on its way.
Before we could even see the stalls, the smell of cumin filled the air, reminding me of Grandmother’s kitchen—close and musty. The first time I’d gone to market by myself for sangak, I was six. Before this crazy war with Iraq. The war that took Dad. The war with no end in sight.
Even though I’d come to the market almost every day since, we hadn’t had sangak in a year and a half. These days Mother said it was a luxury we didn’t need.
Uncle paused. I wondered if he felt the same way I did every time I rounded this corner—the millions of colorful bolts of fabric, the women rubbing material between their fingers and haggling over price—it made you feel like you’d stepped back in time. But I pointed to the crowd of people surrounding the bakery stalls and pulled him along. We’d never get any bread if we didn’t jostle our way into line.
The queue moved quickly as people hurried to get their sangak home before it cooled.
“Sangak, please,” I said to the ancient old man who sat next to a big basket.
The old man spread his big hands. “I just sold my last one.”
“I’m sorry, son. We only get so much flour these days. Maybe tomorrow you’ll have better luck.”
“Thank you.” I tried not to grumble.
“Let’s try that stall,” said Uncle, pointing down the alleyway. Halfway there, I heard my name and felt a soft thunk on the back of my head. Ebi was brandishing a long wrapped loaf of bread like a lightsaber.
My friendship with Ebi was sealed when we took our first steps on the same day in our neighborhood park. Back then our mothers were friends. But when the revolution came, Ebi’s mom hated being told she had to wear a veil in public. Now she and Mother hardly talked at all.
“You didn’t tell me your favorite uncle was in town,” Ebi said, thrusting his hand toward Uncle Habib.
“I didn’t know,” I said. “He just showed up this morning.”
“How’ve you been, Ebi?” asked Uncle, taking Ebi’s hand in his.
“Good. Except I’m trying to buy sangak or barbari, but they’re out of it up there.” He pointed over his shoulder in the direction we’d been heading. “I had to settle for this.” He waved his saber in the air.
“We’ve just been down there,” said Uncle Habib. “He’s closing up shop, too. Rez, I guess we’ll have to get the other stuff we need and go back.”
I groaned, feeling way more disappointed than I should over a lost loaf of bread.
“How long are you in town?” asked Ebi.
“A few days. Long enough to show you both a thing or two about kicking a ball.” Uncle laughed.
“You could totally teach Rez—major music geek—but I might surprise you, sir.”
“You wish,” I said. “The season hasn’t even started yet.”
“Yeah, but when we played that pickup game last week, who scored two goals?”
“And who set up those shots and two others?” I grabbed his bread and cuffed his head with it. This was the stuff we fought about all the time, the definition of our friendship. Still, somehow it worked for us; we’d rather hang out with each other than with any of our other friends.
“You had a lucky day. You’d be lost without me.” Ebi punched my arm.
“Shut up,” I said and punched him back.
“Enough, boys. I’ll die from lack of sustenance.” Uncle held his belly with both hands. “Ebi, we’ll see you tomorrow for a game. Rez, we are buying eggs and cheese this minute.”
As Ebi headed toward home, he turned and gave us his customary salute—he stood at attention, pointed his finger like a gun, and shot.
“He’s a wild one,” said Uncle.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Is there unrest in the great duo of Reza and Ebi?” he asked.
“No. I was just thinking he and I should switch mothers. All Ebi wants to do is to join up and fight. Every time the holy men take to the streets with their megaphones—you know, the call to arms—he and his mom fight about it for days.” I shook my head. “I don’t know what I’d do if he left. I’ve hung out with him every day of my life.” I jammed my hands into my pockets, feeling the coins that wouldn’t be spent on sangak. “He says it’s our duty. I love my country and all, but…” I trailed off, not sure how to end the sentence.
“Some boys think war’s like the movies.”
“That’s it! He thinks he’s Clint Eastwood or Kojak.” I snorted. “Back when those shows used to be on TV he watched them all the time. I bet he can’t even tell you why we’re fighting, but he wants to go more than anything.”
We passed the pot makers, the aluminum bowls of all shapes and sizes stacked higher than my head. Two men sat pounding intricate patterns into the metal. When the banging was behind us I said, “I shouldn’t talk. I try to follow the war, to know what’s going on, but I really don’t understand it, either.”
We crossed the street to walk on the sunny side. Uncle unzipped Dad’s jacket. He waited until the father and young son in front of us had moved out of hearing distance. Then in a low voice he said, “Don’t blame yourself for not understanding. It’s complicated, and a lot of the information is propaganda for one side or the other.”
I waited as a mother and her baby passed by. “I know the basics. We’re fighting over land, right? And also because we’re Shiite and they’re Sunni, but if you made me write an essay on that part, I’d totally fail. It just seems like it’s been this way for as long as I’ve been alive.”
“Absolutely. It’s been this way as long as you’ve been alive and I’ve been alive and our fathers and grandfathers and generations back before that.”
We’d reached the shop where Mother liked to get our eggs, so we bought a dozen and some fresh feta. I wanted to hear more from Uncle about the war, but I wasn’t sure Uncle wanted to talk about it. We walked another block toward the apartment without saying a word. Then he started talking again, picking up his last thought as if the five minutes of silence had never happened.
“In theory it goes back to who should lead us. Back in the year 630-something, when the Prophet died, there were big arguments over who should take over. It’s obviously not as simple as all that, but both sides have been shaped by the fight for so long, I’m not sure anyone can really explain it.”
“It’s strange,” I said after a few quiet steps. “It seems like it would make the Prophet so sad to have caused such a mess. I mean, we’re all Muslim, right? It just doesn’t seem right.”
“No, it doesn’t, Cub. It absolutely doesn’t.” He put his arm around my shoulder. I wondered what it would be like to go back with him to Tehran. “Your mom really believes if we trust this new leader, stay with the old ways, the strict religious ways, he’ll lead us out of this mess. She’d like you to believe that, too.”
I glanced at Uncle, then looked down as I said, “I know it’s sort of selfish, but it’s hard for me to trust a guy who took away my music.”
Uncle squeezed my shoulder. “It’s not selfish. And it wasn’t just your music that got banned. There are a lot of people—musicians, artists—who feel the same way you do.”
“Is that why you joined the mujahideen?”
“That’s part of it. There are—” Before he could finish, Uncle grabbed my arm lightning fast and pulled me into a sweets shop.
Fear shot through me, fast as a jackal. We were alone in the shop. Uncle peered out the window and quickly stepped back. He pushed his dark glasses up on his head.
“There are two men out there.” He swore quietly. “Maybe your mother’s making me paranoid, but I think I saw them in Tehran the other day.”
I crept to the window. Two men stood looking up and down the street. As I watched, one went into the repair shop.
“One really tall and skinny?” I asked. “The other short with a black shirt?”
“That’s them.” Uncle Habib ran his hand roughly through his hair.
I moved back from the window. My breathing was shallow, and I felt sweat right where I’d so carefully tucked in my shirt. “I thought you said … What do we do? You think they know where we live?”
“No.” Uncle chewed on his thumbnail, his eyes on the window. “They wouldn’t be out looking if they knew where I was staying. I need to think.”
I looked around for an escape route. This couldn’t be happening. Uncle Habib had said he was safe. Just then the shopkeeper came from the back of the store. He wiped his hands on his apron and shot us a dark look.
“Can I help you, gentlemen?”
Uncle’s glance went from me to the big man. “Uh … no … sorry … I … I’m trying to avoid an old girlfriend.”
The storekeeper’s face brightened as he let out a low, guttural laugh. “Not another word. I’ve been in your shoes. I’ll be in back if you decide you want to buy something.”
Uncle turned to me, his eyes blinking fast. He was thinking, which was better by half than the flitting fear I’d seen in his eyes before.
“Rez, I was an idiot. I can’t believe they followed me here, but I’m more and more certain they did. I hate it when your mother’s right.” He bit his bottom lip and walked toward the back of the store.
“You head home.” His eyes scanned the room. “I’ll wait here for a bit, then head out. I can lose them.”
I went to the window again. They were closer. The short guy pulled a picture from his pocket and walked into the hotel three doors down. I was surprised to hear myself say, “I’ve got a better idea. Were you wearing that shirt on the train?”
“I bet they saw you coming into town but lost you before you got to our apartment. If they saw you even once, they’re bound to remember this thing.” I pulled at his green-and-red-striped jersey, talking fast so I wouldn’t back out of the plan forming in my head. “We’ll trade shirts. I’ll go out. They’ll think I’m you.”
“No,” said Uncle, shaking his head. “I know we’re almost the same height now, but we don’t look that much alike. I won’t put you in danger.”
“What danger?” I asked, bolder by the second. “You’re in danger. If they catch me, all that’ll happen is they’ll realize I’m not you. If I move fast, I can take them off your trail.”
Adrenaline sped me up, like a movie in fast-forward. I yanked at Dad’s old jacket.
“Come on, Uncle. Our hair’s close to the same.” I unbuttoned my shirt. “We trade. You go out the back way and I’ll go here. I’ll make sure they see me, then lead them into town a few blocks. I’ll move fast and lose them while you run back to the apartment.”
Uncle stammered, “Rez … I … This is not … If anything happened to you I’d…”
I glanced out the window. “Nothing’s going to happen. Come on. They’re getting closer.”
“Okay.” He took off the jacket and pulled his shirt over his head. “But you have to promise to stay around plenty of people.”
“Promise.” I couldn’t believe I was doing this. It was something Ebi would have done, not me.
“Here,” he said as he buttoned my shirt. “Take the hat, too.”
I shoved it on and pushed him toward the back of the store.
“See you in the apartment lobby,” Uncle said as he went around the counter. “Your mother can’t know what’s up. If you’re not back in half an hour, I’m coming to find you.”
“I’ll be there.”
When I stepped into the street, the men were fifty feet away, showing someone the photo. Now what? Beyond trading shirts, I had nothing. Well, nothing except for the eggs and cheese. I should have given those to Uncle Habib. My heart beat hard against his shirt.
I ducked into an alley where I could watch. And panic a little.
The men headed for the sweets shop. The guy behind the counter had bought Uncle’s story, but if these two guys asked, he might talk like an eight-year-old girl.
I had to distract them. I left my hiding place and, in a stroke of unintentional genius, immediately tripped off the curb, kicking a trash can as I stumbled.
I didn’t look back. I kept walking, listening. Hoping they’d seen me. I breathed in the smell of Uncle’s shirt and tried to walk like him.
“Hey, wait,” said one of the men behind me.
“What?” said the other.
That’s all I needed to hear. Uncle wasn’t paranoid—these guys were after him. And now they were after me! I moved down the street, pretending to shake off the fall. An old Beatles song filled my head. The lyrics were some of the first English words I’d learned as a kid. You better run for your life if you can, little girl.
Lennon’s words had never made so much sense.
Copyright © 2017 by Darcey Rosenblatt