by:Â Showey Yazdanian
Every cabbie in town will tell you that he used to be a brain surgeon back in Tehran, and often enough heâ€™s telling the truth. Fifteen years in a taxi have probably erased every shred of surgery from his head, but the cabbie cannot bring himself to admit this, and at parties he will still introduce himself as Doktor to the cashiers and delivery boys who were once electrical engineers.
In their old lives, in Tehran, Doktor Morteza Farshi was a pharmacist. His wife Nahid worked as his assistant, and all day long they stood behind the counter at the Pasdaran Pharmacy on Vozara Street dispensing ulcer medicine and cholesterol pills and contraceptives. In the evenings, Nahid would exchange her sterile white headscarf for one in paisley, and together they would return home to a little flat in Ekbatan. After their daughter Farah was born, Nahid stayed with the baby and Morteza worked longer, sometimes well into the night.
Morteza and Nahid left Iran for the same reasons that everyone else did: because they were poor and without prospects, because the regime was suffocating them. They were tired of the basij, the petty Islamic officials who spied on everyone, ready to pounce on a hint of Westoxification: a man in a Red Hot Chilli Peppers T-shirt, a woman in an extraneous coat of lipstick. It was a basiji who had seized their illegal satellite dish, a young boy fresh from the army. Two months later Morteza dragged himself to the black market and recovered it: the very same dish, crack down the back, Korean markings and all.
They were tired as well of the constant guesswork about who was a harmless religious zealot and who was a dangerous religious zealot and who was not a zealot at all, but only pretending. Everyone made a great show of abstinence, but even the genuinely pious Morteza would occasionally have a swallow of alcohol at a party â€“ Absolut if his hosts could afford it, and saghi – medical alcohol mixed with juice â€“ if they could not. Nahid wore a long black manteau in public, and an even longer one after she got married, but she kept a dazzling red cocktail dress hidden away for the parties back home with her fashionable friends. Even the children were infected: little Farah’s cousins inscribed their homework with the compulsory phrase â€œIn the Name of Godâ€, but they all had satellite and worshipped the Power Rangers.
Morteza, Nahid and Farah arrived in Canada with high hopes, patchwork English and a brief, useless smattering of French. Nahid never wanted to return to Iran, not even after they realized, too late, that ten years as middle-class Tehrani professionals amounted to precisely nothing in Toronto. Morteza disagreed; daily, nightly, he was gnawed by regret. He didnâ€™t want Farah to grow up ashamed of her father, who was little more than a coolie in his new country; didnâ€™t want her to bare her legs in micro-mini skirts and speak the strangely accented Persian of other immigrantsâ€™ children, but Nahid was adamant.
– No, she would say, no, Morteza jan, I never want to go back. Go back alone if you wish, but I will never follow you and neither will my daughter. I will never go back to that country. I will never be a hypocrite again.
– Don’t be so dramatic, Nahid. When did I ever force you to do anything? What are we in this country? Every time Farah gets sick my heart falls out because there is no one to care for her. In Tehran our families were fighting each other to put sweets in her mouth.
– It has nothing to do with force. I am not even a believer. I was never a believer.
– Donâ€™t be so dramatic, Nahid. You want another child. We have money saved now. We could go back to the Pasdaran Pharmacy. You can sit behind the counter and be a lady again.
– Youâ€™re a man, you canâ€™t possibly understand.
– In Tehran you had to wear a square of cloth on your head. Must our daughter suffer for the square of cloth on your head? If you can’t wear it for your own modesty, wear it for the sake of our daughter.
Grudgingly, Morteza allowed Nahid to take a part-time job at Saffron Kebab, where the owner Maziar, a great laughing man, irritatingly handsome, claimed the finest chelo kebab in the city. At Saffron Kebab, Nahid wore a black polo shirt that smelled of fat and onions. Whenever Morteza saw it, he remembered the fresh white coats of the Pasdaran Pharmacy and felt ashamed.
Nahid no longer speaks to him, but Morteza keeps her clothing slung over a chair: one slim white coat, starched; one black polo shirt, stained in red.
Morteza has kept a corner shop in the Iranian area for ten years now. In Toronto, as in Tehran, he spends his days passing drugs over a counter, but the shop is called Macâ€™s Convenience and not Pasdaran Pharmacy, and the drugs are cigarettes.
The Canadians who waft in and out of Macâ€™s call him Mort. Morteza doesnâ€™t mind. Mort, Blort, itâ€™s all one to him so long as they buy his milk. He likes Canadians well enough. They talk about the weather, they buy potato chips and chocolate bars and horrible sandwiches that Morteza gets wholesale from a Korean butcher on the Danforth; they never haggle for small change. The darker faces of the city â€“ the Russian and Guyanese and African immigrants â€“ disdain these luxuries. No flash cash for the likes of those who still think in rials and rupees: they buy only milk (for their children) and long-distance telephone cards (for phoning home, for the long vigils at strange hours).
Iranian customers instantly know Morteza as one of their own: the shiny dark olive skin, the porous nose, the black shadows under the eyes like twin marks of Cain, but they are cautious nonetheless. â€œAre you Iranian?â€ theyâ€™ll ask, in English. â€œYes, I am Iranian,â€ Morteza will reply in Persian, and his interlocutor is briefly ecstatic: another shard of home. â€œYou must come and visit some time,â€ says the Iranian, with something like sincerity, and Morteza only smiles. He no longer enjoys the Iranian quarter; there is too much commerce in too many neon colours, there are too many kebab houses at indiscreet intervals, there are too many godless Iranians.
Morteza is tired of Canada: of the â€œHiâ€™s!â€ and â€œHow-are-yaâ€™s?â€, of the hesitating, unconfident man he becomes when he speaks English, tired of the cold weather and the cold people, tired of being poor. All day long he stays in the shop; at night he skulks home like a criminal to watch the nature channel on television. His heart aches for home.
– Why did we come here, Nahid? he whispers to himself, half-mad with the melancholy of winter. This isnâ€™t our home. We work here like beggars when we could be kings back in our country. Weâ€™ll go back to the Pasdaran Pharmacy. We have enough money now for a good apartment. Youâ€™ll never have to degrade yourself in Maziarâ€™s disgusting Saffron Kebab again.
Nahid is far away from Macâ€™s Convenience, but Morteza knows her rebuttals too well: no, Morteza jan, no, I never want to go back. Canada is our home now.
Morteza jumps up with a start. He is hurled back into reality, into the neon hush of Macâ€™s convenience.
â€œStartled ya, eh? Didntcha hear the bell when I came in?â€ says the voice, and Morteza blinks it into focus â€“ a man wearing a blue lumberjack jacket and a baseball cap: Jeff, the truck driver.
â€œHello, Jeff,â€ says Morteza.
Jeff plunks a half-litre of chocolate milk and a reed of dried meat onto the counter. â€œAnd a pack of Players, will ya?â€
Morteza shuffles over to the library of cigarettes. Jeff says: â€œHowâ€™s the wife?â€
â€œGood,â€ says Morteza tonelessly. He takes the money, exerts himself to speak. â€œHow is your wife? How is your family?â€
â€œCanâ€™t complain,â€ says Jeff. â€œMy little daughterâ€™s getting over a cold. Sheâ€™s had it two, three days now.â€
Morteza shakes his head from side to side. â€œBad, bad,â€ he says.
â€œIâ€™ll be seeing you, Mort,â€ says Jeff.
The bell rings again, the big yellow door opens and another flock of customers troop into Macâ€™s. Morteza winces; one of them is Abbas, the travelling Iranian atheist. Abbas works at the used car dealership on Steeles and likes to roam around eating ajeel during his interminable lunch hours.
â€œHowâ€™s business, Morteza khan? Howâ€™s the wife?â€ says Abbas, in Persian.
â€œGood,â€ says Morteza.
â€œGood, good,â€ says Abbas. â€œNasimâ€™s on vacation this week. What a vacation. All she does is drive the kids around.â€
Abbas glances over his shoulder, lowers his voice and grins. â€œDo I ever have a laugh for you. That parasite Jamshid hired a Chinese nanny to teach his son Mandarin. â€˜Mark my words, Abbas,â€ the parasite says. â€˜China is the next big thing.â€™ You should see the hell he and his shrew wife give that poor girl if she talks to their brat in English. Well guess what,â€ â€“ he moves his head gleefully from side to side â€“ â€œTheir Chinese nanny is Cambodian. That kharcaleh Jamshid is too stupid to know the difference.â€
Abbas guffaws mightily. Morteza twists his lips upwards, but his eyes are dim as the wilted November sun.
â€œExcuse me, Abbas khan,â€ he says, expressionless. â€œI must go and pray now.â€
â€œI see,â€ says Abbas with a wolfish smile. Men of faith amuse Abbas; he considers them stupid, womanish. â€œOf course you must pray. Morteza my friend, give me a lottery ticket and Iâ€™ll be on my way. Give my best to God.â€
Morteza retreats to the back room to perform his ablutions. He prays fervently, urgently, banging his head to the floor with every repetition. He has prayed the same prayer every night for eleven months. The bell in the shop rings impatiently and then angrily, but Morteza doesnâ€™t care. Only when he has completed his two rakâ€™as, recited the Tashahhud and pronounced â€œPeace be on you and Godâ€™s blessingsâ€ does he resume his station at the front of the shop. The female customer is furious.
â€œDo you know how long Iâ€™ve been standing here?â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry,â€ says Morteza.
â€œI have to get home to my kids. You made me miss my bus.â€
â€œIâ€™m sorry,â€ says Morteza again.
â€œDonâ€™t leave the counter unattended. Are you crazy? Someone could rob you and you would never even know it. Get your wife or someone to fill in for you next time.â€
Morteza takes the money. The woman rushes away to her children and her buses.
â€œIâ€™m sorry,â€ says Morteza, when she is gone.
Then he freezes. The next customer in line is a familiar face: she is an old friend of Nahidâ€™s, and every inch the elegant Tehrani lady. She is wearing lovely white linen clothing, sleek black sunglasses and high, high heels. Around her neck is a golden pendant of a lion.
â€œSalam Morteza agha,â€ she says, in Persian.
She holds his gaze. â€œMorteza agha. How are you?â€
Two hundred and fifty times repetitions a day, six days a week for ten years: Mortezaâ€™s response drops from his mouth in English like an algorithm. â€œGood, how are you?â€
â€œYou donâ€™t answer your telephone anymore, so I have to come to see you myself. Howâ€™s your wife?â€ says the fine lipsticked mouth.
All day long Morteza has cultivated his composure like a single white flower in a garden of thorns, but it withers in an instant. His heart begins to race, his chest aches with every breath, and in a moment he will begin to hyperventilate. Desperately he recites his prayers. Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar. Subhana rabbiyal adheem.
â€œMorteza, please. For the sake of your daughter, you have to stop this. You have to rejoin reality.â€
Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar. Subhana Rabbiyal A’ala .
â€œMorteza, whatever happened, happened. You cannot erase the past by turning yourself into a mullah. You were not to blame, azizam. How many years have we known each other? Do you think I donâ€™t understand how you feel? Nahid joon was like my own sister. She still is. Morteza. Morteza agha. How is your wife Nahid joon?â€
Morteza can only stare. He blinks and blinks, but water pours from his eyes. The woman with the golden lion dangling from her neck takes his trembling hand and counts to sixty.
â€œYour heart is exploding,â€ says the woman, whose name is Pari Khorsandi. â€œYou are not well at all. Come to my clinic tomorrow. Iâ€™ll leave you a prescription for anti-anxiety medication, just tell the nurse who you are. You must remember enough of your pharmacy to diagnose yourself, azizam. You must not feel shame. You must do whatever you have to do to reclaim yourself. Life is not easy for us, but we must make it easy for our children.â€
Morteza shows Pari the whites of his eyes. His thoughts form without grammar: if you think you forget, if you think you forget for even a single moment.
â€œMorteza jan,â€ says Pari. â€œTomorrow is the one-year anniversary of Maziarâ€™s death. All of the old crowd from Saffron Kebab will be there. If you are not well today, we can talk tomorrow at the cemetery. I have spoken to you as a friend, but let me advise you as a doctor: itâ€™s been thirteen months. Your wife Nahid khanum is not going to recover. You do not like me to speak on the topic. But that is life, azizam.â€
Morteza can neither see nor speak. There is an enormous clash of bells, and his brain rings like a minaret. The big yellow door opens and customers stream into Macâ€™s, where Morteza the pharmacist dispenses chocolate bars and bags of milk, and all day long Nahid falls from the sky.
The voice sails into Mortezaâ€™s sleeping brain, which is filled with dreams of Nahid in watercolour canvas. His body is slumped forward in a metal chair; his head is buried in Nahidâ€™s hair. He is still wearing his Macâ€™s uniform and cuts a bright figure in the sterile white of the Toronto General Hospital.
â€œFather,â€ says Farah again. She is sitting by a window. Outside, the night lights of the city burn orange and red. â€œYou fell asleep again.â€
Morteza peers at his daughter with groggy eyes. He puts a finger to his lips, points to the bed and says: â€œHush. Donâ€™t wake your mother.â€
Farah says nothing, only purses her lips in the manner that Morteza cannot bear. His heart blackens. â€œNone of your lip, girl,â€ he raps out, and Farahâ€™s face crumples. She moves back to the window to water the hyacinth flower, which is blooming with an aroma that is almost deafening.
â€œWhat do you mean, donâ€™t wake your mother? Sheâ€™s been comatose for thirteen months. Sheâ€™s gone, for Godâ€™s sake,â€ says Farah, to the wall.
Morteza smoothes the sheet under Nahidâ€™s pale chin, kisses the eyes that never open. Her hair is as black as ever, but her skin is finer, whiter than it was before the accident. Nahidâ€™s chest inflates and deflates with mechanical precision: she is attached to a respirator.
â€œWonâ€™t you snap out of it,â€ says Farah, to the wall. â€œIâ€™m tired of coming here every single night. What good does it do? Nothing you say or do is going to make any difference.â€
Morteza thinks: When Nahid wakes up, I will take her back to Tehran. For years I told her that we would be better off back home, and as God is my witness, I was right. Farah will come too, whether she likes it or not. I brought my family to this country to give my family a better life, but I have succeeded only in turning my daughter into a girl without morals. I turned away from God when I left Iran, and Farah is my punishment.
He thinks: Nahid is my punishment too.
The young Filipino resident at the end of the ward comes over to the bed. He has been working for almost twenty hours and is drained to the dregs, but he can scarcely look at the man in the yellow apron who bends nightly over his wife with such sorrow. â€œVisiting hours are over, sir,â€ he says.
Farah springs to her feet, retrieves her school satchel from the foot of the bed without a second glance at the figure that rests upon it. â€œCome on, father.â€
â€œSir, I understand how hard this has been for you, but visiting hours are over. Weâ€™ll see you again tomorrow,â€ says the doctor, appealing to Farah with his eyes.
â€œKiss your mother,â€ says Morteza in Persian, without looking at Farah. â€œWhen I was fourteen, I never needed to be asked to kiss my mother. If it had been my mother sick in hospital, I would never have left her side. My God, I wouldnâ€™t have been able to eat or sleep.â€
â€œLeave me alone,â€ says Farah.
â€œI said kiss your mother!â€ shouts Morteza.
Farah kisses her mother. The doctor watches on.
Â Want to know what happens next? Â Either write to me or buy theÂ book. Â 🙂