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 fading into the white. Everyone sang along as loudly as possible, the anthem’s gripping crescendos marred by the dissonance of our voices. A few students from third or fourth grade played with the lyrics and turned it into a doggerel, murmuring an undercurrent of gibberish words to subvert the anthem’s righteous aura. Near the end, the pulley malfunctioned, and the flag stopped halfway, giving rise to a stifled chuckle from the students.
“Today is Student Day,” Mr. Namazi spoke into the microphone. “Seventeen years ago today, Iranian students were killed at the brutish Shah’s behest at Tehran University,” he said. “Today also marks the sixteenth anniversary of the day a group of Iranian students bravely occupied the US Embassy back in 1979. Today, we are going to have a rally against the Great Satan that is America,” Mr. Namazi pointed over the horizon.
As soon as hearing the word “America,” my mind wandered back to the day my mom’s younger sister, upon arriving home, had unzipped her backpack and removed a cloth-wrapped VHS tape like a thief, impatiently slipping it into the VCR. A curly-haired man wearing a sparkling jacket and a shining white glove on one hand appeared on the screen, singing and dancing on the stage as though he were possessed. He moved like a cat, if only cats could sing and dance. I sat on the floor next to my aunt and all but rubbed my eyes when the curly-haired man glided backwards.
“Is he wearing something under his shoes, auntie?” I asked.
“No, that’s his famous move,” she said. “This here is Michael Jackson, and he’s from America.”
Mr. Namazi peppered his speech with pompous words that day: “evil incarnate,” “the den of espionage,” “global arrogance.” They all meant to bedevil the United States but somehow made this mysterious America more fascinating to me. Mr. Namazi told us that America was a “cancer,” leaving me wrongfooted with his word choice because I had always associated cancer with my dad’s older sister who sat on her kitchen floor for hours on end, smoking like she was playing catch-up.
When Mr. Namazi was done with his Great Satan speech, he told us to stow our backpacks in our classrooms and return to the schoolyard immediately. We were scheduled to have elementary Persian and basic calculation that day, both taught by Mrs. Farahani, who always untied her chador and hung it on a peg upon entering the classroom much the same way my mom did when returning from work. I loved my mom’s chador because it had once protected me against a stern salesclerk at a grocery store who yelled at her for picking ripe oranges from a lot. In Kindergarten, when I told my friend Ashkan about what a great shelter my mom’s chador was, he told me his mom didn’t wear one. “My dad will kill anyone yelling at my mom,” he said.
Mrs. Farahani was all I ever loved about school. The first day, as everyone was chattering, some boys throwing chalk and others already grappling, the sound of her high heels preceded her into the classroom, her unblemished face wearing a smile. Dressed in a black manteau that covered her slim figure, she stood in front of the blackboard and spoke in an affectionate tone, welcoming us to the new school year. “My husband, too, died as a shahid in the war,” she said. “I see each and every one of you as my very own son; you’ll forever be my dear sons.” Mrs. Farahani reminded us to say “In the Name of God” before introducing ourselves. We then turned to the first page of our elementary Persian language books and took turns reading the text that would teach us the rudiments of spelling: Baba amad—Dad arrived. Baba aab dawd—Dad gave us water. Baba naan dawd—Dad gave us bread.
In class, I checked my backpack to see what kind of food my mom had put in for the day: a pack of six small chocolate wafers, which I always shared with Amin; a big red apple; and a cucumber; all of them wrapped multiple times in a nylon bag. I ripped open the pack of wafers and gave three to Amin. Walking out the door after everyone else had already left, we devoured the wafers, straggling along in the corridor with bulging cheeks, half worried that Entezamat would catch us eating outside recess and report the incident to Mr. Namazi. On the second day of school, two of them, brawny and intimidating, had seized my bag of potato chips as soon as I opened it in the yard. They grabbed me by the arm and led me to our sanitation teacher, Mrs. Khakpour, a dwarfish, chubby, chador-clad, bespectacled woman. I leaned back against the wall like a criminal inside her claustrophobic office, which had all kinds of health advisory notices on the wall: tooth brushing, daily exercise, sleep. She told me that students weren’t allowed to bring any potato chips or crunchies to the school. But at the end of that day, I found my bag of chips in the schoolyard’s trash can, and it was empty.
Before heading out, Mr. Namazi told one of the senior students to go inside the building and see if anyone was hiding in the classrooms.
“Attending this event is a must for every single student,” he said. He stood ahead of the students and checked his black megaphone before a few of the Entezamat herded us out of the school. A few fifth graders were holding an effigy of a man, whom I later learned was Bill Clinton. I loved the way his name rolled off my tongue every time I said it.
We trotted down the slope in front of our school and arrived at the small roundabout surrounded by the neighborhood’s tall, uniform buildings and their drab, sooty exteriors. We grouped together like an ant colony, then spread out like a swarm of bees. My eyes darted across the roundabout and landed on the small shopping mall, where Amin and I would go play Mortal Kombat at the arcade after school. For a moment, I entertained the idea of running from the march and sneaking off to the mall. But fear always beat fortitude when Mr. Namazi was around.
Every now and then, cars honked at the throng of students as we spilled out into the narrow road, but Mr. Namazi advanced nonetheless, carrying the megaphone as though he were the leader of a civil rights protest.
“Death to America,” he shouted into the megaphone, his grating voice reverberating in the air. Two taller students were holding a huge banner that read Marg bar Amreeka; the white cloth fluttered in the wind like a sail.
With every slogan, Mr. Namazi surveyed the students to make sure everyone was following his lead. The students parroted the chants, though none of us probably even knew where on earth America was located. There was a rhythm to the slogan, marg bar am-reeka—1, 2, 3, 4—marg bar am-reeka, that rendered it hypnotic. With every repetition, fists were raised alongside voices, like one would expect in protests, except in our case there were no police to drive us back. This was a demonstration by the government, not against it, using us students to amplify its message.
Amin joined in the chanting, shouting with a gruff voice that sounded nothing like him. He elbowed his way through the crowd to reach the front, disappearing into the army of navy blue. Mr. Namazi switched to “Death to England,” repeated by the students in impeccable chorus. Then Israel. It seemed to me he had a list of countries to wish death on, as if death were so easy a thing to wish. We had already had so much of it; our generation was born out of death. And now, we were being taught to celebrate it.
A group of senior students set the Clinton effigy aflame, fire engulfing its helpless face, singeing the handsome salt-and-pepper hair. They threw the effigy to the asphalt and kicked it while trying to avoid burning themselves. The chanting continued, constant like an unrelenting tide, as we swirled onward. A rumpled imitation flag, with its dimmed stars and frayed stripes, was dragged by two students alongside. Before long, Mr. Namazi used a lighter to set the flag on fire, and the students took turns trampling it as if killing cockroaches. I had occasionally watched scenes from the 1979 Islamic Revolution on TV, though my grandfather would immediately change the channel while clicking his tongue in frustration; there in the middle of this mad crowd, I was in one of those scenes, though my role was unclear to me. Mr. Namazi, however, looked like he knew exactly what he was doing. He was teaching us to feel the same loathing he had felt in his younger years. He told us during his speech that he was among those occupying the US Embassy back in 1979: “Most of you weren’t even alive at the time.” With every slogan, a brazen grin landed on his forty-some-year-old face, but this time it fell into a scowl as he breasted the wave of students and prowled in my direction, all the while clinging to his megaphone like a gun.
“Why aren’t you repeating the slogans like everyone else, Saadlou?” he asked me.
My eyes dropped to the ground. Like watching that salesclerk from under my mom’s chador, I didn’t know what to say or do when confronted by Mr. Namazi, this roaring man who insisted we wish death upon nation after nation, upon people I had never met, and places I had never been.
“I’m talking to you,” Mr. Namazi said. “Why aren’t you repeating the slogans?”
Standing my opposite, the sickening smell of rosewater exuding from his clothes and mixing with the reek of smoke wafting in the air, Mr. Namazi reminded me of how my mom used to sprinkle a full bottle of rosewater over my dad’s gravestone during our Behesht-e-Zahra visits. For a time, we used to go to Behesht-e-Zahra in the fall for my dad’s birthday, or in Nowruz for New Year’s celebration, or every summer for his anniversary—it was the place I’d come to call “The Cry Park” because it was verdant and always teeming with tearful crowds. My grandmother would sit down next to my dad’s tomb with crossed legs, laying out on the floor boxes of dates and halvah, as though we were picnicking. It was a ritual that set the scene for the tears gushing down her craggy cheeks. I would hide under my mom’s chador while she joined in the crying.
“Because death is—”
“Death is what?”
“Because death,” I mumbled, “because death is bad.”
Mr. Namazi scoffed. “But America is the Great Satan. Do you know what that means?”
“No, but I do know that death is bad.”
“Who told you that?”
“My mom told me.” I avoided Mr. Namazi’s eyes.
“Let me ask you this: what was your father’s name?”
“Mahmoud, sir,” I stammered out, as though the name belonged to a complete stranger.
“Now, why do you think Mahmoud Saadlou went to war?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Because he had to sacrifice his life. You know what for?”
I shook my head.
“For Islam to prevail, and for the rest of us to live in peace. You understand?”
“Now, tell me: don’t you want to make your dad proud?”
“I do, sir. I do.” I choked up.
“Well, you can follow in his footprints by chanting the slogans,” Mr. Namazi towered over me, like one of Khomeini’s photographs.
“Come on. Say it,” he snapped.
I looked away, pretending not to hear Mr. Namazi.
“You’re not going to do it?”
I shook my head, making momentary eye contact with Mr. Namazi before fixing my eyes on the asphalt ground once again.
“You’re defying me?” Mr. Namazi said, pulling on my earlobe, as if tearing a slab of naan. “Say it. Say ‘death to America.’ ”
I let out a cry of pain, but my groaning was muffled by the surrounding hubbub of death wishes. Mr. Namazi lifted his right hand and slapped me across my left cheek.
“How about now?” he said. “You still won’t chant the slogans?”
I remained silent. Silent like those tombstones at Behesht-e-Zahra. Silent like shahid. Silent like Baba. A flurry of images floated inside my head: the silver identification tag bearing my dad’s full name and blood type; his wartime letters stashed away in my mom’s closet drawer; a framed photo of my dad in his khaki uniform—his hazel eyes, his trimmed tawny beard, his smile brimming with youthful zest.
“I would like to see you in my office after this then,” said Mr. Namazi.
I was still rubbing my savaged earlobe when he returned to the center of the crowd. Tears cascaded down my cheeks. Quietly, I dragged my feet along with the rest of the students as we made our way back to the school. Behind us, smoke was still rising from the remainders of the burnt flag and effigy. Ahead of us, Mr. Namazi shamelessly strode forward without ever looking back. In the middle of our triumphant return, Amin’s chubby face distinguished itself from the crowd.
“You should know better than to make Mr. Namazi angry,” he said.
Standing outside Mr. Namazi’s closed-door office, I peeked into the adjacent room, the teachers’ lounge. An expansive tray of glasses full of tea sat at the center of the large ebony conference table next to the day’s paper. The grinding sound of radio news scythed through the monolithic silence, a male anchor overdramatically enunciating each word: Students across Iran took to the streets today to commemorate those murdered at the hands of the vicious Shah and swore allegiance to Ayatollah Khomeini’s noble cause. The students also firmly expressed their hatred of blood-thirsty America and global arrogance, honoring the 1979 occupation of the den of espionage. I averted my eyes from the framed photo of Khomeini positioned on one side of the wall and instead studied the illustrations of Persian calligraphy on the other. I’d already started practicing calligraphy after the first week of school when Mrs. Farahani had talked to my mom about my penmanship being unusually graceful for a first grader.
“Look who we have here,” said Mr. Namazi as he stormed into the corridor.
He unlocked the door and sat on the swivel chair behind his desk. “What’s your mother’s workplace number?” he said. “Come over here and call her now.”
I asked for permission to enter before walking in. “I don’t want to bother my mom, sir,” I said. “She’s at work right now.”
“This is all your fault, Saadlou. You should have done as you were told.”
“No buts. Come over here and call her. Right now.”
Mr. Namazi jumped out of his seat like a spring and stomped toward me.
I trudged toward the desk and took a frail grip on the handset of the rotary phone, dialing numbers one by one. I knew the number by heart because I used to talk to my mom on the phone every day after arriving home from school. Once she heard my trembling voice, she wondered if I’d been injured or fallen ill. I told her everything was okay, steadying my voice against the tears boiling inside me.
“I’m here with Mr. Namazi,” I said. “He wants to talk to you.”
Mr. Namazi swiped the handset from me. He peered at the vacant schoolyard through the blinds while exchanging pleasantries with my mom in a solemn tone. I returned to my corner and distracted myself by remembering how Mrs. Farahani would hold my hand in hers to help me move the pencil over on the paper and write down the word Baba for the first time.
“Yes, I understand you’re busy,” Mr. Namazi told my mom. “Still, you must come to school today and explain what exactly you’ve been teaching your son at home.”
Later that day, when my mom came home from work in the evening, I scampered toward her to see if she would still hug me like she always did. She enveloped me in her bosom before taking off the black chador, as though it were an extraneous part of her, a skin she had to shed.
“What did Mr. Namazi tell you?” I said. “I didn’t want to cause any trouble, I swear.”
“It doesn’t matter what he said,” my mom smiled. “Let’s go listen to some music.”
My relationship with death, my own and my dad’s, is still as volatile as it was that day. I have outlived my dad by nine years and counting. With every birthday, I am reminded that I have been breathing for as many years as he has been dead. Perhaps that explains why I left Iran on two separate occasions—for the UK and the US no less—and have returned home both times, just to hear everyone, including my mother, calling me a “lunatic,” telling me that I shouldn’t have come back to this “hellhole.” Both times, I told everyone that I had come back because I had to, that there was no way to stay, but who was I kidding? I missed my dad, even though his still headstone is all I’ve known about missing him.
I know I will leave Iran again, possibly without ever coming back this time. Until then, though, I can visit Behesht-e-Zahra as soon as the thought of my dad slithers silently into my head. I can buy wreaths of red rose and gladiola, and gingerly place the petals on his gravestone, one by one; I can bathe my dad’s etched face with my own hands; I can read him a prayer, even though I don’t possess a single religious bone in my body; and I can confidently tell him that I’ll be visiting soon. Every Nowruz, every birthday, every death anniversary.
SIAVASH SAADLOU is a writer and literary translator whose short stories and essays have appeared in The Margins, Plenitude Magazine, and Minor Literature[s], among other journals. His poems have recently been anthologized in Essential Voices: Poetry of Iran and Its Diaspora (Green Linden Press). Saadlou is also the recipient of the 55th Cole Swensen Prize for Translation. He holds an MFA in creative writing from Saint Mary’s College of California.
Photo Credit: Foroogh Hantooshzadeh