Those Who Stayed
As Iranians rejoice over the end to the sanctions, and the world gets ready to embrace the new generation of Iranian youth who comprise the majority of the country’s populations, an older generation that came of age during Mossadegh era, built the modern infrastructure of Iran during the 60’s and 70s, and stayed behind to witness life after the Revolution, leaves home. The private nursing home industry in Tehran is booming: those who sent their children abroad to get a Western education after the ’79 Revolution, are left to face old age alone.
When I arrived at my father’s door in Tehran in May 2014, I was the first visitor to enter his apartment in decades. At some point he had no longer wanted guests. I had told him about my visit when two months after an impetuous in-person application at the Iran Interest Section in Washington DC, my Iranian passport arrived in mail (the one I had used 32 years ago to get out of the country was long lost). Disembarking at Imam Khomeini international airport in the middle of the night, dressed more modestly than any woman in sight so as to remain invisible, I spotted the driver I had ordered through an online VIP service while proctoring my students final exam a few days before. It was still dark when we arrived at my father’s apartment. The knock at the door woke him up. Even as he struggled for comprehension, -out of habitual civility he invited me and the driver who was carrying my bags to enter: “befarmaeed”. The driver dropped his face in respect and headed out.
The first thing I noticed stepping in the apartment was the dark brown wall to wall carpeting, and the British-made light oak furniture sold to those personnel of the Iranian National Oil Company who had agreed to transfer to the Persian Gulf cities in the 1970s. Even buried under dust, the solid modernist furniture remained unmistakable. There was no sign of the silken rugs of our old house.
In the next few days, my work was to restore dignity to my father and to his place, so I thought. I did a lot, and made a few mistakes, as when I gave away his 30-year old vaccum-cleaner to buy a new one. The new made-in-china ones available in post-sanction Iran were completely useless. And I could never get the dust out, at the end. But, more gravely, I had not realized, how proud he was that he had managed to live alone and take care of himself using the old appliances for all those years. Hiring Afghani workers to help me clean and bring some order to what I found to be an apocalyptic scene, I failed to see the violence of my own enterprise.
He hid the phone, so that I wouldn’t report back to NYC. Life had more than just survived in 30 years of isolation.
Once, in an effort to find something I would agree to eat (this project, also civility’s labor, had started the moment I arrived with the offer of a popsicle) he had the idea that I would probably eat tuna, because it came in a can. Then, he showed me how he used a faulty can-opener and a hammer to open the can.(Everything in the house worked with his made-up apparatus.) But then, he needed help to open the can, and showed me how to do it. As I tried to follow his instruction, I cut my finger with the sharp edge of the lid and blood poured. He was mortified, and tried to find a Band-Aid, as I held my finger under cold water. I need to just rest, I said, and took refuge in my room. (A knock at the door– “kill me please” I hear.)
It took a few days for my father to become fully aware that I am there, and staying there for a while. I was sensitive to that and tried not to “disturb the air,” remembering what my yoga teacher used to tell me: “Mahnaz, don’t disturb the air as you walk.” After a few days, though, – we established a routine, now that the cleaning work was done. Then I realized he is getting very quickly used to my being there; I began to prepare him for my departure, reminding him that I was only visiting, and on the morning of the 7th I would leave for London. Each time, he would take his calendar out, and process that information. He must have done that at least ten times. He didn’t want to sleep and he did not want me to sleep. “Do not be unkind” he would say when I needed a break from the daily and nightly poetry marathons; and towards the end, when I bought a set of backgammon, he would never want to finish playing.
Two days before my departure, I knew that he understood very well that I was leaving: he called me, and said: write down this poem:.
This girl who is gone, where is she now?/ So that I can feed her some cheese or yogurt/ she says she only eats chicken Kebab,/ But then, she does not speak the truth.
What assured me that my father retained his dignity all along the realization that he never stopped mourning the loss of his family. He never gave up the vision of our house in Vanak (northern Tehran) with his wife and children around him. He told me, “I had it built myself, and it is still there. It will always be there, because we brought in H4 beams from Germany to build it. I should have never sold it.” But, already fond of his apartment, his room, and the corner room I claimed as my own, I said “But isn’t this better for you, Dad? Smaller, more manageable, with shops and parks around?” He said: “But I wouldn’t be alone there, I would be with a nice wife, and my children around me.” My father never became indifferent, or cynical.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I went to see our house in Vanak. They had flattened it in a wave of real estate speculation that has transformed the city, to build a 9-story luxury high-rise. It is in the making and very contemporary.
On a visit I made a few months later, after I had moved him from the hospital to a nursing home, I used the keys to his apartment and let myself in. I found a sense of peaceful rootedness there; precious, considering my own peripatetic lifestyle. I liked the place and being there allowed me to imagine how much at home he had been there for so many years. Taking care of this place had given him a sense of purpose. It was heartbreaking to have to separate him from this.
When we arrived at the nursing home for the first time, Dante had come to the rescue in my desperate search for a response to his plea to go back home. Standing in the middle of the lobby I said, ‘Who doesn’t miss his home? Think of Dante,” I told my father, “who was exiled from his beloved Florence for life. Join the homeless crowd-! You are in good company.” He felt better then. And remembering it while dwelling in his apartment- made me feel better.
On subsequent trips I would bring my father back to his home for short visits. He always knew his way, even afterhe’d had a stroke. He knew to press the button for the elevator, 9th floor, and move to his own door. But now he carried no keys, and looked to me to open the door. I would let him enter first, threading lightly I would follow. In the kitchen we would make some coffee with milk, and drink together at the kitchen table. Doing work in the kitchen made him feel at home – something he had looked for in vain – at the nursing home. He told me to leave the groceries we had purchased there and not bring them back to the nursing home. A home should have food stocked, “always.” he said, clearly and audibly despite the post-stroke dysphasia.
“Ba’ad-e man, heech.” “After me, here, nothing,” he said coming out of the kitchen. elegantly and urgently.
“I will come here. I like it here.”