On the subject of the travel ban, much of the rhetoric coming out of Trump’s administration has focused on the dangers posed by immigrants. This devastating but ultimately heartwarming story by Iranian writer Mohammed Tolouei, told from the point of view of a four-year-old, conveys to us what it is like from the other side, that may not be so readily apparent to those who’ve never been forced to flee their countries. To be reckoned with, above all, in any decision to migrate, is the pain of uprooting from one’s homeland.
This short story marks the first of many in an extensive showcase we hope to bring you, spotlighting new writing—and new translations—from the seven countries Trump intends to ban. If you’d like to see more of this showcase, there’s still a week left to pitch in to our fundraiser here. If you are an author who identifies as being from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen (or someone who translates such authors)—and would like to submit work for consideration, please get in touch at email@example.com.
We lived in a house of closed doors. The door to the veranda was closed. The third room’s door was closed. The bifolding doors to the hall were closed–we had placed an American sofa in front of them. The door of the big bathroom was closed. The basement’s door was closed. The door of the toilet in the yard was closed. The door opening to the ridge roof was closed. And so was the door of the large hall all over the springs and falls and winters because we never had enough oil to heat up the whole place. Only in summers the doors opened and I could play ping pong with my mother with the ping pong table in there. She put a bedstead below my feet so that I could reach up the table and then she tried not to strike hard returns. My mother was Iranian Girls’ Schools Champion and fond of penhold grip of the racket, while I favored shakehand. We lived in a world in which people followed certain ideologies even for how to grip a racket, and from the very beginning I sided with the Western party.
Our styles were totally different. My mother used to hit short, tight topspins while my hits were rather long and loose. I was more at ease with sidespins while my mother made better topspins. Yet in spite of all the trophy cups Mother had received, I won because of my playing style—the victorious western style. Mother still followed Eastern methods, yet Father wanted to take us to Denmark, a place in the West that ironically paid living subsidies, unemployment compensation and allowance for the children like most socialist countries. And in order to convince my mother to leave, each day he locked up more and more doors of our house.
Like many other frivolities, my father’s wish to go to Denmark seemed a whimsical dream. Nights when my father bragged about his new discoveries of Danish government subsidies for gypsies and dissidents, as well as for the displaced and the unsupervised, Mother just kept silent, and agreed to come along with us to the Metropol Photographer’s to take a pass photo. In that photo Mother wears a small scarf and a long gown similar to a manteau–the term, however, was a new concept for ordinary women in the year 1983, women who were neither partisans nor did they belong to kamikaze Fadais or militant Hezbollah. She wears a crocheted shawl with large knitted flowers on her shoulders holding one angle in her fist. The three-year-old Sarah wears a babushka, a muffler and a bloated anorak. Pressing his arm against my mother’s, my father wears a closefitting turtleneck under his leather coat. I wear a woolen pullover marked by well-knitted shapes of a boat and two V-shaped birds flying in its sky. We were a family preparing for icebound Denmark.
My father’s plan was to raise us somewhere far from the dangers of war, and when we came of age we could decide whether to stay in Denmark or return home. My mother’s plan was to kill time. She wanted to postpone it as much as possible until my father changed his mind about going to Denmark, the way he did with a thousand other plans that had been left undone, such as launching a chicken farm, a silkworm farm, or a diaper factory; making an analog burglar alarm for automobiles or a 250-ampere three-phase box; raising caviar fish in a cage; starting a chocolate packaging factory; producing synthetic resin; or grinding a 120-mm artillery bullet.
Mother wanted to add the Denmark plan to Father’s list of unfulfilled dreams, and that is why she said nothing either in agreement or disagreement. But why Denmark, was her only objection made in the first days of the suggestion as if all that mattered to her was the destination and not the unavoidable decision to leave.
My father sat on a stool, washing my little sister in a tub located in the middle of the room. We had no oil, so the water heater could not be used. He scratched his face with the back of his elbow. That was how my father behaved whenever he tried to make an effective speech. He would create a big pause between the question and the answer, perhaps by standing up and leaving to fetch a glass of water, picking up the remote control of the television and turning it off, or simply rubbing his elbow on his face.
“A mother remains the same mother; she always sees her baby in the shape it was born. But a father grows up along with his kid. He grows up with all the things the kid wants. He knows it when the napkins are changed; he knows the time to buy pencils and notebooks for the growing kid, and or the time the grown-up kid wants a car or a wife. You’d have asked me to leave if you had ever realized such things,” my father said.
Mother said nothing and instead followed her own plan; wasting time always worked in the case of my father.
Genetics, Mendel discovered, programs human beings. Darwin also said man is subject to Environment’s whims while Marx remarked that History exerts control over one’s fate. They say even God has plans for man. Then how would one know which of these programs are useful for one’s life? My program in that time was clear-cut; I had planned to listen to my parents, to be polite, not to chew my nails, to place my straight hair behind my ears so that they would not rush down in front of my eyes, to write down words I found in the children’s Oxford Picture Dictionary on yellow cards, and every night my father added the Danish equivalents he found in his English-Danish dictionary on pink cards. I knew that the English word ‘dog’ was ‘hund’ in Danish, and that ‘book’ equalled ‘bog’. Only the word ‘mother’ remained alike; it was ‘mor’ in Danish and resembled its equivalent in my Rashti dialect.
My mother wasted time as long as she could and when she couldn’t, she just refused to climb up the stairs to the airplane. She stayed motionless on the runway and never went up. The Turkish Air Boeing flew to Copenhagen without us and we took the airport bus back to the flight hall. Mother sat on the black cabin briefcase. Zia wanted to pretend that he had flown with Sarah and without us. But then I saw him behind the security gate talking to a guard. Sarah sat beside mother and tossed her pink woolen hat up and down. I was sitting on the seats of Mehrabad Airport of 1983, keeping my hands close to my body—presumably frowning. My feet did not reach the ground but I did not shake them. The police still wore their old dark blue Shahrbani uniforms and the traces of the plucked-out Lion-and-Sun emblem were still visible underneath the substituted Allah sign. My four-year-old mind wondered what the reason could be. Maybe their mothers had patched their caps with the sign the way my mother used to patch holes in the knees of my pants.
Sarah tossed her hat up, revolved on her heel and grabbed the hat. Mother flashed a kindly glance at her gyration and smiled but the corners of her lips did not move. Mother was bitter in spite of her name that was supposed to bring sweetness to her life. Mother made a banquet on the occasion of her engagement with Father and there she changed her name from Batoul to Shirin (meaning sweet) but this sweetness never turned up in her life and remained confined in the name: ‘Zia and Shirin’ was written on invitation cards to their wedding, like the legendary lovers before them: Farhad and Shirin; Khosrow and Shirin.
Now, Zia and Shirin were the latest embodiment of legendary love. But, in my opinion, if legendary love is marked by unfulfillment, only the couple Farhad and Shirin could be said to have truly attained legendary love. After all, Khosrow did in the end satisfy his love toward Shirin; and, despite not being fully satisfied with each other, my mother and father still managed to live together for more than thirty years.
Two trucks carried the luggage to the airplane. We were still sitting in the departure lounge. Their suspicion aroused, one of the guards approached my father–anyone who changes his mind at the last moment and climbs down the stairs must be up to no good. My father removed his glasses and put them away in his overcoat’s pocket. He then took out his passport and handed it to the guard. The guard compared the picture in there with the face in front of him, and then the picture of the four of us in winter clothes with the real us.
Sarah tossed her hat up again but, before she could catch it, Father snatched it mid-air and jammed it into his own pocket. Then he hugged Sarah tightly and came over to me, wondering if he should extend the same embrace to me. He looked hard into my eyes and, ignoring my mother, said, “We’re going to Denmark.”
He said it as if he were divulging a secret. Up to then, no one had ever asked my opinion of anything. I waited for my father to finish his sentence but he stood up, seated Sarah on a chair beside my mother and came to hug me up. I was heavy then and hugging me up was difficult. When I tell people that I weighed four kilos and a half when I was born they expect a two-meter tall and 110-kilo heavy person who is not me. I gave up the weight along with my childhood. Perhaps that flab would have come in handy for life in Denmark’s climate, for growing up with the Vikings but when we changed our minds, it was useless then and therefore I became what I am now: a person with a height of 1.72 meters and a weight of 65 kilograms. My father grabbed his baby Viking and went over to my mother.
“They’ll arrest us if we don’t catch the next plane out.”
“Why should they?”
“They won’t tell. The police never say why they arrest people.”
Mother did not panic. After years of marital life and giving birth to Sarah and me, she knew when my father bluffed.
“Let them come then. I’ll tell them it’s all my fault. I don’t wanna leave.”
My father became serious and stared at my eyes again: “Are you coming, Mohammad?”
It was the first time someone asked my opinion on anything and it was not easy for a four-year-old in that situation. What was my father thinking when he asked that question of me? And what weight would my reply–whatever it was–carry at that age? As I thought, perhaps I started to frown. I was born from a lentil sack, Sarah was born from a sugar sack, Mother from a potato sack and Father from a pumpkin sack. That was how we had imagined our births. Potato and lentil go well with each other, and people add sugar to pumpkins for sweeter taste. I was on Mother’s side and Sarah Father’s. Yet, in the photo, despite this domestic collusion, Sarah is sitting beside Mother and I am sitting next to Father. Unthinkably perhaps, I am trying to look serious in my four years of age. Suffering from dysphasia, I cannot pronounce ‘z’ or ‘s’ sounds correctly. I cover this defect by avoiding words with ‘z’ or ‘s’ letters and with hyperactivity. In kindergarten, I give the boy a thrashing who hit Sarah on the hand. I go to taekwondo classes and imitate my opponent’s yellow belt techniques. Noticing this, my master says, “I saw you cheating, but it’s good that you can copy the techniques so fast!”
Aunt Soheila migrated to Tehran upon marriage; I am not Aunt Soosan’s favorite anymore after Sarah’s birth. I remember Aunt Soosan and her friend Aunt Azam in red skirts as they played the ‘Co-traveler’ song in a Sony tape recorder/player set and tried to imitate the singer Googoosh. Aunt Azam played the role of Behrooz and rode the motorcycle on swirling roads of Chalous by moving herself to and fro while Aunt Soosan sat behind her and grasped her hands round Aunt Azam’s belly with her curly coily hair flying in the wind.
I am frowning in the photo because I know that my hair is straight and black and I have heard in Aunt Soosan and Aunt Azam’s conversations that all the Danes are citrine-headed. So why doesn’t she dye her hair, I asked my aunt. Aunt Soosan laughed and answered that only women can dye their hair.
“But you are a woman, too!”
Aunt giggled again and said: “I am still a girl.”
“The Danes are women?”
“They have men too, but their men aren’t good.”
“So how do they make their hair citrine if they are men?”
I could pretend. As a four-year-old kid I could imitate the manners of someone born in Copenhagen. I would dye my hair, but how could I mess with God’s plans? That was why I frowned. I was afraid there might be too many ‘z’ and ‘s’ sounds in the Danish language.
“What’s ‘citrine’ in Danish?” I asked my father.
Father was tired that night and did not bother to look it up in his dictionary: “Citrine.”
“And what is ‘destitute’ in Danish?”
“They’ve got no destitute.”
Everything related to the Danes was difficult. The men’s way of dying their hair, their words full of ‘z’ and ‘s’ sounds. I frowned knowing that the photo was to carry us to a difficult place. Why should I have suffered for four years to become what I was, I asked myself, if I had to go somewhere different and more difficult?
“I’ll come–only if mother comes,” I replied.
My father did not take his glance away from my face. He picked up his glasses and let some time pass. “One day your mother dies and then you will have to decide for yourself,” he said.
I was happy with my mother. Sarah used to take cushions and veils and dolls under the tennis table and play the housewives’ game. At times when he was at home, Father joined her under the ping pong table. They played under and we played over the table. Their games were often more prolonged than ours. Sometimes I wanted to join them and stretch my legs in their toy house; Sarah would then act in the role of the hostess and serve me tea and fruit in tiny plastic dishes. But I didn’t; I stayed with Mother in the kitchen and she put lemon-flavored effervescent tablets in a glass of water and poured sugar powder on her Nan Panjari cookies. We did not weep, but Sarah and Father laughed out loud. We were not happy and they pretended to be very happy to make us envy their happiness.
I’d always defeated the champion from the Iranian School for Girls. Why did I have to think about the death of my defeated mother? I might have thought about her death if she had ever won—if she looped her balls or crouched over the table in backhands like when she played with her sister-in-law and no one could see how she hit the ball with that nasty backhand. Yes, I might have thought of her death then, but she never made a loop spin for me—never. So I decided to side with Mother.
“I’ll stay with Mother. You can go with Sarah if you want,” I replied.
Lentil and potato could be boiled together but you can never add sugar to them. Pumpkin and sugar go well together but one should never add potato or lentils to them. My father hugged Sarah and went over to the gate. On his way to the gate, he looked back over his shoulder at Mother and me, with his heavy, sad eyes. Mother’s fingers locked up in mine and then she said: “I won’t be sad if you go.”
I pressed my mother’s fingers the way I always did in Bazaar; she locked her fingers in mine and pressed them every now and then asking me to pay attention to her, and I replied by pressing her fingers back, meaning I am. And it was the decision born of this split-second that made me the 1.72 meter tall person I am today.
Mother’s plan was hale and sound. Migration to Denmark—that plan now joined the end of a long row of Father’s pooped out plans. Following this, the veranda’s door opened. The big bathroom’s door opened. The third room’s door opened, and the door to the ridge roof opened. The bifolding doors opened as my mother could not sweep under the American sofa and so she threw it out. The door to the great guest hall opened and Father pulled the ping pong table back to the attic where water dropped from the tin roof on the wooden board, causing it to swell up badly. I could not play ping pong with my mother anymore and the School Girls Champion lost no more to me. Only one door remained closed. Father had opened a door when he looked back at us; he looked through the half-opened door and, seeing my mother and me sitting there, closed the door.
Translated from the Persian by Farzaneh Doosti
Mohammad Tolouei was born in the throes of 1979 Revolution in Rasht, Iran. His debut novel Fair Wind’s Prey (Ofoq, 2007) won some national awards and his 2011 short story collection I’m Not Janette brought him the notable 12th Golshiri Literary Awards. His Lessons by Father (2014), a collection of interdependent short stories themed on father-son relationship, is an experimentation with the genre of mockumentary. Tolouei is considered one of the emerging New Generation of Iranian writers: an urban middle class voice with a good command of history and spatial consciousness. His stories are translated to English, French and Italian some of which are published in international magazines including Internazionale and Parsagon.
Farzaneh Doosti was born in 1981 in Tehran where she is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature, university lecturer and literary translator. In 2013 she founded Parsagon, a Persian Literature Review magazine in English as an aperture to contemporary Iranian literary arena. She has authored Image/Text Semiotics and translated a wide range of literary texts including poems by Constantin P. Cavafy, Hossein Panahi and Ali-Akbar Sadeghi, Joseph Conrad’s Freya of the Seven Isles, John Cheever’s short stories, Jonathan Swift’s nonfiction works, and Mohammad Tolouei’s novel Anatomy of Depression.
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