My Mom Told Me
Love is a way of returning home—
after work, after war,
after jail time, after traveling…
I think that only love can put
an end to all suffering.
That’s why I’m singing
love songs all the time.
I am that soldier who refuses to forget
his darling in the thick of war.
With Tehran’s November breeze running through the pores of my skin, I took my spot in line alongside other first graders in the school’s cobblestone yard where three-hundred or more boys, attired in navy-blue, turtleneck uniforms, had divided into ten lines. What united us was our dads, all of them more or less dead from the war against Iraq. The school was established exclusively for us, the sons of men who had lost their lives, all or in part, to the eight-year armed conflict.
I stood behind Amin whose gray backpack looked nothing like the polka-dot beauty he had with him on the first day of school. He and I had become friends that morning after he turned to me with a smile as big as his face, introducing himself.
“Was your dad a shahid or is he maimed?” I asked.
“No. He died a shahid,” said Amin. “You?”
“Same. How old were you?”
“I wasn’t born yet.”
“I was three months old,” I said. “How did your dad die?”
“From a bullet. What about your dad?”
“My uncle once told me that shrapnel can travel at 3000 feet per second and cut through the body.”
“How much is 3000 feet?”
“A lot,” said Amin. “A lot.”
It was Mr. Namazi, our principal, who told Amin he couldn’t bring his polka-dot backpack to school and sent him home earlier than other students that first day.
“Your backpack could make other kids jealous, Rezaei,” said Mr. Namazi while inspecting us before we were allowed into the classroom. He addressed Amin with his last name as he did with all of us.
The day began with the usual call and response. Mr. Namazi strutted about the small stage before us, his trademark brown tweed jacket and loose black trousers looking visibly ragged, a set of clothes he wore throughout the school year. He narrowed his dark green eyes at the students in the front rows, while scratching his ginger beard, before reaching the flagpole. There, he picked up the microphone lying on a foldable chair and coiled the wire around its body.
“Ten-hut,” Mr. Namazi bellowed, scattering the sparrows from the eaves of his office building behind him.
Like a picket of soldiers, we raised our right hands in the air, shouting out the phrase “Allah-o-Akbar, Khomeini Rahbar—God is Great, Khomeini is our Leader.” Mr. Namazi always told us that Khomeini was one of the most virtuous people to have ever graced the face of this earth, someone in the same league as prophet Muhammad—infallible and pure. But terror was the only emotion Khomeini’s face inspired in me, and his photographs were everywhere: school, street billboards, convenience stores, even candy shops. His bushy eyebrows looked like daggers, and his disapproving frown suggested he might tear right through the frame and throttle you. His face also reminded me of my grandfather, who wore those same eyebrows and a flinty stare as his default expression. Without Khomeini’s chest-length beard, I could have mistaken the two for the same person.
“Haven’t you boys had any breakfast?” said Mr. Namazi. “Again. Ten-hut.”
Once again, we raised our right hands and then held them up perfectly straight, like an arrow, toward the right shoulder of the person in front of us without making contact. Amid the mass of students, two of the Entezamat wearing their white armbands were skulking around to see if anyone would drop their hand too early, so that they could tattle on them. Everyone stood motionless, like a taxidermied animal until the words “At ease” left Mr. Namazi’s mouth.
“Your fathers went to war, and you can’t even hold your hands hanging for thirty seconds?” he said.
Mr. Namazi stepped back to let a fifth grader come forward. The student stood behind the microphone—his right hand cupped around his mouth—and started reciting verses from the Qur’an in an atonal voice. The words echoed through the air and washed past me unintelligible as I struggled to suppress my yawns. At my maternal grandparents’ house, where we lived, we didn’t own or read the Qur’an. The songs of Julio Iglesias, Demis Roussos, and Abba left no room for holy books. The first melody that entered my consciousness wasn’t of a Qur’an recital but that of Al Bano and Romina Power’s “Felicita.” On Fridays, when my mom didn’t have to go to work at the Iranian National Oil Company, she would play this song in heavy rotation, repeating the word Felicita along with the song while moving her hands to and fro. Before long, the upbeat tempo, the interplay between the male and female vocals, and the alien but emotive Italian, became part of my musical psyche. The Qur’an recital was followed by a loud, polyphonic salawat from the students, saluting prophet Muhammad and his entire lineage. Ever since starting school, I’d begun to miss clapping hands after every task or ritual, something we used to do back in kindergarten.
After retrieving the microphone from the student, Mr. Namazi put a cassette in the old stereo, and placed the microphone in front of one of the speakers. The sound of the Iranian national anthem filled the air while a solitary student started drawing the shabby Iranian flag up the pole, its green and red