Iftar with Reza
It’s the last day of Ramadan. The lights are on all around the mausoleum, even though it’s not dark yet. The volunteers just started unrolling the carpets in the yard and there are already ten or twelve lines of hungry people whose breath smells like rotten tomatoes and whose stomachs have been grumbling all day long, sitting on the carpets, waiting for the group prayer to start so they can eat the dates the kids just passed out in the lines. I’m not fasting, but I wrapped the date in a napkin and ate it in the restroom. I didn’t want the whole crowd to stare at me as if I’d killed someone. More volunteers come out, holding rolls of carpets on their shoulders. They’re all wearing the same green knee-high uniform with the large pointed collar.
I’m one of the few men who is not wearing black pants here. I thought it would be easier to run in khakis when I head for the shrine to tie the green wristband there. But I still wore the white collared-shirt my wife put in my backpack for me. Taybeh cares about these things more than I do. Much more than I do.
I pick up my backpack and start wandering around, not sure where I want to go. There are some people sitting on the ground, murmuring as they stretch their hands toward the sky and weep: women in colorful hijabs with their babies on their laps, men with dark beards, and kids who seem as confused as me, playing with their fingers as they scan the people around them. It’s hard to walk in a straight line, without being jostled or kicked. Some people in the crowd smell like green sour apples, some people’s body odor makes me want to throw up.
I find my way out of the crowd and stand next to the mosaic wall. Blue, green and white are the only colors used, but the small mirrors that are spread out in the spiral motifs make the design look more colorful. The mirrors surrounding make me feel like I’m in an endless light maze.
A group of women in black chadors rush toward the gold doors. Soon I have to be running too, so that I can tie the wristband Taybeh gave me to the shrine. She says if you do this three Ramadans in a row, you’ll be granted a wish. We need that wish. But I would rather stand here and watch these people run for their wishes than be like this obese woman who’s so excited running that she doesn’t notice her chador slide down her shoulders and fall on the ground. Her jeans are barely zipped up and her huge breasts bounce in her floral shirt as she runs.
She slows down, then stops, puts her hands on her fake blonde hair and looks back, searching for her chador. Her red eyeshadow reminds me of the witches in a play we took Taybeh’s students to. She glances at her group which is now a foot or two far behind her, then she looks back again, fumbling with her leather purse. There are so many people here that I’m sure she doesn’t notice me chuckling at her as I lean on the cold granite wall. I watch her waddle to pick up her chador. She’s walking barefoot, like most of the people here, and her polished, pink toe nails tell me her feet have never touched anything but overrated Persian carpets. She picks up her chador and crams it in her purse, then heads for the door again. One of the volunteers stops her.
“Sister! Sister!” he yells, waving his hands in frustration as if he is trying to protect her from something as dangerous as a bomb that’s just exploded. She ties her chador around her waist and clamps the front with her teeth. That’s how Taybeh does it too.
I see two little girls by the fountains point at her and laugh. They’re feeding the pigeons, both wearing a purple dress and a yellow bow in their dark brown hair. One of them holds her open palm toward the pigeons and they circle around her, fighting for the seeds in her hand. The other one starts walking on the edge of the pool and some of the pigeons follow her. I start walking toward them. It’s better than standing here, aimless.
The men in the minaret have already started playing their bagpipes. Now there must be a whole bunch of women inside, crawling up the golden walls and kicking everyone else on their way to the tomb. Taybeh would be already inside if she was here.
The birds spread out when I get close to the fountains. The girls stomp their feet and cross their arms, frowning at me.
“You have to be gentle around them,” the one who was feeding them says. She dumps the seeds in the water and sits in a pile of muddy white feathers on the ground. “Gentle. See? Now they’re gone.”
Some of them are still fluttering around us, some of them have already landed on the golden dome. They smell like the dead frogs that show up in my balcony every rainy morning, and it’s usually me cleaning the mess, even though Taybeh insists on doing it. Two years ago we fought over whose turn it was to do the chores, but now she’s not in a situation that I would want to see her working. I don’t know why she hates it when I don’t let her work. I only want to help.
The other girl holds a feather in her palm and blows it toward me. “Gentle,” she repeats and sits next to her twin. I don’t like kids. Kids are mean. They make fun of Taybeh in her wheelchair and she still says she loves kids. I’m glad we can’t have kids anymore. I hate them. They all look cute first, but when you get closer, they make you want to spank every one of them.
Taybeh used to tutor a girl before her inflammation got worse. A while ago we ran into that girl in the mall and all she did was point at Taybeh sitting in the wheelchair and mumbled something to her mom who didn’t even try to walk over to say hi. After that Taybeh started being weird the whole evening. Later she said she didn’t want to eat out, but she had to stay because her hands were too sore to push the wheelchair on her own and I wouldn’t do it for her.
Finally she gave up, sat in the restaurant and started complaining non-stop about the color of the soup or the nuts in the salad, then, as always, she nagged me about the smoke when I lit my cigarette. I ignored her all night and later all week. It’s not easy to ignore her. She keeps talking to you especially when you try to walk away. “Do you like this new shirt I got?” or “Do you think it’s okay if I drink some soda? I mean, I’m not gonna get any better,”
The last time she said, “I want to cut my hair short. What do you think? Short short, like yours.”
But I walked out when she said it and the next day I woke up to find her with the new haircut that made her face look thinner and that’s when I could see her cheekbones were sticking out. I walked away, and she kept yelling, and I ignored her, and she broke down crying. She started yelling that all she wanted to know was what I thought of her new haircut. I went to the balcony to avoid the fight, and I stepped right on one of those goddamn slimy frogs and that’s when I yelled, “Disgusting! You look disgusting!” but I didn’t really mean it. I heard her crying hysterically and I didn’t know what to do. I just lit a cigarette again. She smelled it down in the living room and she began screaming loud. The shrill of her voice was eating me deep in my bones. For a second I thought “Thank God she’s in that wheelchair or she would start breaking everything.” And I lost it, just for one second. All I said was, “Just shut up! For God’s sake just shut up once in your life.” And she did. All of a sudden she shut up and didn’t talk at all for the whole week. I don’t think I tried to talk either. I don’t remember. Now I think all of it happened because of that little brat she used to tutor and I feel like I want to spank that kid until she can’t move anymore.
It’s been three years since Taybeh was diagnosed with lupus, but it was only when the doctors said pregnancy was a risk that she got desperate. “Boring! Life would be boring without children,” she says. Sometimes I feel tempted to tell her life is boring with you anyways. Kids would just make it worse. I don’t know what it is about these little monsters that she likes.
“Gentle?...like this?” I say, kicking the pile of feathers. The kids gasp and watch the feathers spread out and fly up in the breeze. I walk away.
I hear the girls mumble “jerk!” so I stop and glare at them. They stare back at me, covering their mouths. But I know there’s still a winning smirk on their faces, so I stamp my foot on the ground as if I’m about to run after them. It works. They start running away.
“Allaho Akbar!” the muezzin in the minaret sings. I start wandering around again and let the crowd lead me. Some of the people on the carpets are now drinking the warm milk that’s being passed around in the lines. Some of them put the paper cups down, so they can drink it after the prayer. The men in the minaret blow into their bagpipes again.
The salmon sky, the bagpipes, and Friday evening. Fridays are always depressing. Every Friday evening Taybeh starts listening to the CD she bought last year when she came to Imam Reza’s mausoleum alone. The one in which people recite the Quran like a ballad that makes you want to cry to death and I hate it when Taybeh sobs for another two hours after the song is over. Three years ago she didn’t even own a Quran.
When the cleric comes out, the crowd stands up. His brown robe is too tight for him and his belly is so big that you would think he was pregnant if he didn’t have a gray beard reaching his chest. He waves at the crowd and they all sit down again. Two of the volunteers take his sandals and he sits at his spot in front of the crowd.
When they start the prayer, everything feels settled. If Taybeh was here she would be inside now, trying to win that crazy battle to touch the tomb, so that she could tie that green wristband to the shrine as she had “vowed.” I promised to do it for her this year, but I know it’s no secret to her that it’s not going to change anything and that’s what’s stopping me. This foolish obsession has been her only relief in the past two years and I’m tired of it. I’m tired of her silence, tired of her pretending she’s okay when she can’t even walk without my help. I’m tired of this woman I no longer know. She keeps believing and I hate it.
But I didn’t dare to tell her “no” when she asked me to tie the last wristband for her. It was only a week after that last breakdown. I came home to find her lying on the couch, red-nosed and swollen-eyed. Before I could walk away she called me and it was only for her brittle voice that I stopped, and I knew the tears were no longer because of the Quran recitations. “Behdad,” she called me, but I didn’t say anything.
“This weekend is the last day of Ramadan. You know I have one wristband left to tie to the shrine.” I didn’t say I thought it was ridiculous. I stayed quiet and watched her squirm in pain like a newborn baby, rubbing her sweaty neck, even though all she was wearing was a gray tanktop. I didn’t tell her that she couldn’t go this year, that it’s a whole crowd of wild people running around, but she started her sentence with a forced “but” as if she knew what I was thinking about. “But you can do it, can’t you?” I walked to the balcony. “Please, if you care about me,” she said. I didn’t know if I did. I didn’t say anything. I just lit a cigarette.
Thinking of it makes me crave nicotine, but I don’t want to get in trouble for smoking here. I keep walking alone, staring at the reflection of the golden dome in the pool. Now I think I understand why she and all these other people find escaping to this place relaxing. It’s much calmer now and except for me there’s no one else walking around. I sit down on the edge of the pool and listen to the crowd whispering their prayers as they all bent down to touch their foreheads to the clay tablets in front of them.
That’s when I hear him, twisting in his wheelchair. I can feel he’s watching me, but I don’t turn back until he talks. “Son!” he says.
He has a bald patch in the back of his head and the little hair he has looks silver in the light. He struggles to turn back to look at me, but his wheelchair doesn’t move. When he starts talking, the wrinkles at the corner of his thin lips spread up to his cheeks. “It’s stuck,” he says.
I pull the handle on the small front wheel and turn his wheelchair around, so he can face the onion dome. “That always happens when I try to take a turn,” he says. He’s wearing the same white t-shirt I have on, with a houndstooth scarf that’s tightly wrapped around his neck and chin. He smiles and I see his bare toes twitch on the footrest.
“I know. My wife has one of these toys too,” I say.
He doesn’t say anything. We just watch the group prayer together in silence. It gets windy and cold at nights in the fall. Taybeh warned me about it. She told me to bring a coat. Now I wish I had listened to her this time. The man in the wheelchair smiles at me when I blow at my fingertips.
“It’s crazy. How it gets cold all of a sudden. Earlier I was sweating,” he says. His gray, bushy eyebrows make him seem as if he’s constantly frowning.
“Yeah.” That’s all I say, bothered by his attempt to start a conversation. For some reason I enjoy watching the golden dome in the night sky in silence.
“I don’t need a wheelchair. I can walk. But my knees, you know. It’s too much in this crowd. My wife asked one of those volunteers to bring me a wheelchair. Now I have to wait for her. She wanted to say her prayers with the group.”
“Uh huh,” I say, thinking about Taybeh. She must be watching this on TV now. She’s probably wearing a white chador, one of those with the small red roses all over it. She must be whispering the words along with the crowd. It’s at times like this that I feel we’ve been estranged from the beginning, that I never knew her. And it scares me, that we both know she has started her countdown and we both act like we don’t realize how close the end is. The doctors said she’s lucky that it’s mostly affecting her bones and not the major organs. They said it isn’t fatal, that it’s only the pain and the inflammations. But even the neighbor kids can tell something is wrong, that her face looks too pale, that her lips are dark and cracked and her eyes look like two empty, shallow pits haunting you. I know she knows the kids stare at her. That’s why she stopped sitting in the balcony with me, when we shared a cigarette every evening and she would tell me how she daydreamed about having our first child and I wouldn’t say a word. I wouldn’t tell her I hate all of them, that they were loud and cruel. I would just watch her hug her bare knees and I would hand her the cigarette as I listened to her rant about how she wanted the baby to look. She wanted her to have my hair, thick and wavy. She wanted him to be as tall as me. She would talk and talk until we’d both fall asleep in the balcony and in the morning we were soaked in the rain, tiptoeing carefully so that we wouldn’t step on the dead frogs, whose heads were smashed on the floor, their big eyes staring at us as if they were laughing, and we would laugh too. I would laugh so hard that my stomach ached. Then we would sit on the couch and snuggle under the warm fuzzy blankets she would take out of the dryer.
The imam says the last words of the prayer and the crowd repeats after him, all sitting straight, with their chins up and their hands on their laps. They remind me of little schoolboys waiting for the teacher to tell them it’s time for the break. “Peace be upon him,” they shout together and the guy next to me repeats.
Then the noise starts again, people slurping the warm milk, socializing with others in the line, some yelling for the volunteers that they want more dates, some getting up to put their shoes on. Some of the kids start chasing the pigeons, but soon they stop when one of the moms slaps her son in the back of his head.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” the man says. Yes, it is. The golden dome surrounded by stars is beautiful, the men in the green uniform playing the bagpipes, the strangers offering each other food, the pigeons flying around us, the endless mirrors on the walls, the reflection of the lights shining in the pool and the babbling fountains. It’s all beautiful and yet something about this place bothers me. The hope it gives to Taybeh and people like her bothers me, that we all know it’s not more than a temporary salve. Her obsession with these green wristbands bothers me, that I didn’t dare to tell her “no.” That I think this is useless, that I didn’t want to be on that twelve-hour bumpy bus ride with the driver blasting his Turkish dance songs and the obnoxious crying baby. There is always one of them when you’re not in the right mood.
I was too scared to say “no” to her. I took the wristband and promised that I would go in there and tie it to that goddamn tomb, even though we both know it won’t change a thing, just like it didn’t in the last two years. I don’t know who told her that if she ties one of these green wristbands to the tomb for three Ramadans in a row, then she would be “healed by the holy spirit,” but I know I’m ready to hurt whoever that liar is.
The first year she did it as a joke. That’s when she could still run and had only a couple of minor inflammations. The second year, when she couldn’t do anything without the painkillers, when she had to quit her job, when the doctors said pregnancy is a risk, she did it religiously. She came here alone and fasted every single day of the month, despite her doctor’s disapproval. Now, I’m the one who’s supposed to complete this idiotic game. And I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t know if this is going to change anything.
“Yeah, I guess it is beautiful,” I say, as I bring the wristband out of the front pocket of my blue backpack and hold it in my sweaty hands. The volunteers start taking the carpets in. There are crowds of people hustling each other out of the gold doors. It looks like a troupe of lost people again. People are spreading out, everyone walking in a different direction, and they all look the same: women in black chadors, men in black pants. The tomb shouldn’t be as crowded as it was before azan. Maybe this can be a good chance for me to go inside.
“She should be here now,” the man in the wheelchair says, rubbing his hands together, “where is she now? My wife. She should be here now.” His brown eyes tremble. “It’s not safe when it’s busy here.”
I put the wristband in my pocket and take a step back. I need to go, but there’s something about his hollow eyes that makes me want to stay with him. Many people get lost in this place every day and he’s no exception. An old man waiting for his wife who has probably forgotten about him. She’s lost in her prayers and has left out her husband lost in this crowd. He’s just like me. I look at his hands shaking as he fixes his scarf.
“I’ll wait until your wife comes. Okay?” I say, relieved that I have a reason to stay. An excuse for delaying what I’m here for. A chance to settle my mind before I decide whether or not I should do this. I sit on the edge of the pool and listen to him thank me non-stop for the entire hour.
First he just says, “Thank you, son!” and I nod.
When a guy jolts him forward and runs away, he puckers his lips, “People are unbelievable. But you’re a nice man,” and I just sigh.
“Thanks son, for staying here with me,” later he says as his eyes search the crowd, “she should be here now.” And I don’t answer him again.
He tries one more time when I glance at my watch to see almost half an hour has passed. “It’s hard to trust people today. Son, you have a kind soul.”
It’s when he introduces himself that he finally accepts I’m not in the mood to talk. “By the way, I’m Hashem!” he says.
“Yeah!” I say and he stops talking. A little girl with a plastic bag full of feta cheese and vegetable sandwiches walks to him and offers him one. He takes the sandwich and the kid walks away as if she doesn’t even see me here, my hand already stretched, waiting for a bread roll. The smell of the fresh vegetables makes me feel hungry and I remember I haven’t eaten anything except the date since I got here.
The wind surges through the girl’s small chador as she turns around to toss a sandwich to one of the volunteers. She’s passing one to every other person on her way, holding her white chador with her left hand, mocking the women around her.
Taybeh has the same type of white chador. She started wearing it last year, early in the mornings when it was still dark. We had an argument about it. I said she was too loud in the mornings, reading her pointless prayer books out loud, while I had to have the most tedious job so that we could pay the bills for an apartment with dead frogs in its balcony. She yelled that she would go back to work the next day and I said I would want to see who was stupid enough to hire her. That I would be waiting for her call to tell me she got a job, when I’m in the bank dealing with people who are just as boring as her. Then she didn’t talk to me for weeks and I didn’t try to make her do so. She kept saying her prayers at dawn. I hated it, because I knew she never had faith. I knew she only did it because it helped her deal with her fear of death and I knew it never really worked. I knew she was lying not just to herself, but to both of us.
“I think she didn’t see you. Here, let’s share this,” the old guy says and cuts his sandwich in half.
“Look, it’s been almost an hour. I think your wife’s lost you. Do you have a number or something?” I stand up. As soon as I say the word “lost,” he drops the sandwich on his lap and starts tapping on the wheelchair’s armrests, staring at the crowd.
“She said she would be here after the prayer,” he says.
“I know, but she’s not. Do you have a number or something so that I can help you find her? I need to go,” I say, glancing at my phone: six text messages from Taybeh. I put it back in my pocket.
“I don’t have a phone. I don’t have her number. She said she’d be here.”
I put my backpack on his lap and start pushing the wheelchair forward. “Let’s go to the office. I’m sure the volunteers can help you find your wife,” I say.
“But she said she would meet me here.”
I stop the wheelchair and snap at him, “I can just leave you here. Do you want me to?”
“Be careful when you walk. It’s not safe when it’s busy here,” he says. He’s scared to be alone.
The office is where they take all the lost people. It’s just as busy as outside. One of the volunteers writes his information down on a list and guides us to a small, poorly lit room in the back where a bunch of kids are sitting on two long benches across the walls. The younger ones cry louder, wiping the snot running down their noses with their sleeves. The older ones pick their fingers as tears roll down their dry cheeks. The youngest one is a two or three-year-old screaming “Mommy” at the top of his lungs.
They all suddenly shut up when I enter the room, pushing the wheelchair between the two benches. They stare at the man and lick their chapped lips, as if they’re about to eat him once I leave. He just looks down at his toes. I put his wheelchair in the corner. “Good luck!” I say. He doesn’t thank me this time.
“Mona! Your parents are here!” The volunteer steps in right when I head for the door. One of the girls runs out of the room before he finishes his sentence. “Mommy!” We hear her scream outside and the rest of the kids start crying again.
“We’re just about to call for your people, Hashem,” the volunteer says. I guess he’s smiling behind that coal-black beard.
“To parents of Saman Nafisi, five years old. He’s here at the office near the main entrance. To parents of Saman Nafisi. Please show up at the office with your ID. To parents of Saman Na…”
We hear the speakers echo outside. The volunteer pats Hashem on the shoulder and walks out. He’s swinging his legs back and forth like a nervous child and that make me want to protect him from all these little monsters staring at him.
“Did you lose your parents too?” One of the younger boys in a Superman shirt asks, sucking on his thumb. The old man sinks down in his wheelchair. I can’t leave the poor guy here.
“Let’s go back to the fountains,” I say.
“She should be there now.” His face brightens.
With him it’s a little easier to walk through the crowd. Some people give way to us as soon as they see him in the wheelchair. He’s holding my backpack tight, warning me about pickpocketing. He keeps talking even though I’m still quiet. He talks about his wife, his sons and his pregnant daughter-in-law. He tells me about his cottage in the north and how they’re planning to go there after Ramadan. He tells me about his retirement and the car he bought for his youngest son. He tells me this is the last Ramadan he can fast, that he came to celebrate it here with Imam Reza. He talks and laughs, but I can’t laugh. I’m thinking about Taybeh. I’m thinking about those six unread text messages and the wristband in my pocket.
“So, what about you? What brought you here?” He says when we get back to the fountain. I put his wheelchair at one side of the pool and sit at the opposite edge. It’s wet and gives me goosebumps, but I stay here, listening to the sound of water pouring down in the pool. I try not to think of the fact that I don’t have the answer to his question. He brings a coin out of his pocket and murmurs something as he holds it close to his lips, then he blows at the coin and throws it in the water.
“She’ll be here soon,” he says. I bring the wristband out of my pocket and start playing with it. Taybeh held the three of them in a silver box on the nightstand. For three years, I’ve been daydreaming about throwing them all in the trash can or flushing them in the toilet. I even thought about making a bow with the last one on the head of one of the dead frogs and telling her I don’t mind if she wants to sweep the floor of the balcony. And now here I am, wrapping the wristband around my frozen fingers, not knowing what to do with it.
“I think I have to go soon,” I whisper and put the wristband back in my pocket.
“You’re a good man. Thanks for waiting for me,” Hashem says and yells for a boy in denim overalls who’s handing people packed bowls of yellow rice pudding. He runs over and hands him one. “Enjoy, sir,” he says and pushes his long hair out of his face. He can’t be more than seven or eight years old, but the way he speaks, pronouncing every word patiently, makes him sound more mature. Hashem starts digging in his rice pudding and the smell of saffron permeates the air.
“Here, do you want one too?” The boy asks me and brings another packet out of his plastic bag. I shake my head no, but he smiles and leaves the bowl next to me. “You will need it, sir,” he says and walks away. He’s the first child who’s ever been nice to me.
“It’s good,” Hashem says, pointing his spoon at me. I wrap my hands around the steaming bowl to wake up my numb fingers. With a deep breath, I let the warm and sweet scent block my nostrils as I hold the bowl close to my face. But I can’t eat. I’m thinking about Taybeh.
She’s probably home sending me another message. She might ask for a picture of the wristband tied to the silver bars. She might be waiting for my call to tell her I did it. Or she might be sleeping, or twisting in pain as she tries to cross her legs, listening to her Quran CD. She might have cried when I left too, when she stood in the balcony and waved at me. But I didn’t wave back. She might have thought I hated her. She might hate me herself.
Hashem puts his bowl on his lap and brings another coin out of his pocket. “What are you doing?” I ask.
“Make a wish,” he grins. A wish. I could make a thousand wishes and it still wouldn’t be enough. Wishes that all need to come true and I know they will never do. I think of every each of them and I think of Taybeh and her white chador, of her prayers at dawn, of her wristband, her shaking hands, her restless eyes and her lifeless smiles.
I’m thinking of all of the wishes and of their impossibility when I feel a tickle on my big toe. It’s a pigeon, rubbing its beak on my foot. There are a couple of narrow brown lines around its neck, but the rest is completely white. It picks the dead skin hanging off my big toe and keeps patting my freezing foot with its soft head. I hold my breath, trying not to move so that I don’t scare it.
Hashem doesn’t say anything either. He just watches the pigeon and I look up at the golden dome. It’s gleaming and a couple of pigeons have settled on top of it.
For once I don’t think of Taybeh. I don’t think of the fights, the inflammations, her bruises. I don’t think of her fake smiles or her cries late at nights. I don’t think of the wristband and I don’t worry about tying it anymore. I have the whole night to think about that. At this moment, I think of nothing and this nothing makes me feel empty, sort of weightless, as if I’m one of those pigeons flying around the fountains.
I nod at Hashem and he throws the coin in the pool. The water splashes and the coin lands on the mosaic bottom with a weak jingle sound.
“Made it,” Hashem says and laughs. The pigeon jerks its head back and flies away. Feathers fall down its wings and float in the air. And I close my eyes, picturing myself joining the birds up there on the golden dome.