Vanak

“Your father could never keep 200 pounds in his pocket. How could he have any money now?” the Old Man says.

I had provoked this outburst by responding to his daughter’s self-satisfied and unsolicited declaration that she loved money, “Man aasheghe poolam.” I had retorted innocently, but provocatively, knowing exactly which fantasy line I was crossing, “Oh, interesting, so does my father.”

“Let me tell you,” the Old Man continues. “Before I left him in Tehran, a buyer wanted your family house in Vanak for 60,000,000 tomans. Even at the debased currency rate in 1982, that was over one million dollars. The buyer offered to deposit the money in your mother’s account in the U.S., even before your father signed the deed. But your father refused.” He adds disparagingly: “He didn’t agree with the exchange rate! He stayed, and I left. And now he has nothing.”

The old man is recounting events that took place 33 years ago.

Why is this man telling me this now? “Why are you telling me these stories? Mr. Old Man, I do not want to hear stories that disrespect my father.”

But he can’t stop: “Towfigh was a gambler, and a loser. We feel bad when we see dep. He was good in math, but didn’t know how to put it to good use. So his children suffered.”

“Towfigh was good in math” I had heard all my life in the States, in his absence, each time my father’s name was mentioned.

“Mr. Old Man. My father was not ‘good’ in Math” I push back. “You were ‘good’ in math, Mr. Old Man, you got to teach the subject in a school. My father, Mr. Old Man, my father designed the power plant for the Oil refineries of the Persian Gulf. One of the first Iranians to take over the job from the Brits.”

But why is this man telling me this story at a dinner in his daughter’s posh North London house, where I am invited to dinner every Friday night and no other night?  My response that my father not only loved money, but had also saved money, had just proved too provocative.  I had uttered an impossible. The Old Man had lived for decades with the thought of my father as a loser. How can he have money? He kept asking. Where did the money come from?

Why is this man who has not seen my father for 30 years insisting? There is something more in this insistence. Something which exceeds the base and perhaps senile need to believe you have won.

Something telling in the precision with which he remembers and recounts the minute details of the buyer’s offer for our Vanak house. The family house that my father lost, together with other houses, and his wife, children and community.

And in the middle of the night, I wake up, eyes wide open. Nooooooooooooo. The Old Man is confessing. It is guilt speaking.

***

My mother used to tell another story that I did not want to hear. One of many irrelevant stories of a world left behind. Mad words about a world that no longer exists.   Village square gossip.   If only they would use their reason and raise themselves above their immaturity, as Immanuel Kant would say.

The vague outlines of the story which I had barely heard,  which now I recalled with precision was this: In a dispute between my father and our tenant about money, rent,  or a faulty air-conditioner, the tenant, Mr. Doo — whom my mother always described as a lowly figure— had denounced my father publicly as a cuckold.   This happened while my mother had left Tehran and was waiting for my father to sell homes and join the family abroad. My father had demanded an apology. But then Mr. Doo had brought witnesses to testify that my mother had indeed had lovers. Mr. Old Man had appeared as such a witness, sworn on a Torah that he knew this been the case.

Why Mr. Old Man, married to my mother’s older sister, and a self-proclaimed pious man would do such a thing I had never asked. I never thought much of this silly story of old world accusations . Anytime I would hear someone had to put a hand on a bible to swear something, I would tune out.

But now, on this night in North London, the image of his testimony 33 years ago comes back as vividly as though I had been the presiding judge. Why would the Old Man insist that my father should be poor? Why would he, 33 years ago, testify that my mother had betrayed my father? Mr. Old Man, who had stayed behind with my father to gather as much of their property as they could and then leave together to join the women and children?

“Why did your father not come?” That question I have been asked for most of my life.

And why does this Old Man, feels compelled to tell me the details of the transaction of the buyer’s offer for our House in Vanak “the buyer was even going to deposit the money in your mothers’ account in the US.”

Did my father realize what he was giving up in his decision about my mother’s fidelity?

The Envy the old man must have felt. He had calculated, one million dollars, he told me. The money, your father didnt send, didnt save, and didnt come.  Of course he is poor, he WAS good in math. The sabateur’s guilt for 33 years and now looking for absolution from me.

Did he put his hand on the Tora to protect my father?  Or did he tell himself that at least to be able to do so?

I called my mother in NYC that night.

“It is not true. They lied. I did not do it” She says.

“It matters not, if it is true or not. The sin is elsewhere. For too long you have carried this this blackmail. for too long  Set yourself free.“

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