by Showey Yazdanian
It was only after he had endured fifteen days of dusk-light in the daytime, after he had drank in the frail beauty of snow falling on a sleeping city, after he had nearly choked on the shock of twenty degrees below zero, that Bobak understood he was now useless.
In Iran he had been a man of taste, a lover of the old poets, a man who sipped contraband sherry in the evenings. Here in Canada he was one more nothing in a wash of nothingness. Here no one cared for a former professor of Iranian literature; here a million cold people jostled for position in the dirty snow.
Roxana was still sleeping, so Bobak prepared the tea himself, grateful to Massoud for the sugar cubes in the cupboard. He placed a cube of sugar on his tongue, poured hot tea into his throat, and thought of Sohrab, of Sohrab and of little Haleh who slept like a doll with her close black curls. It was for them and only for them that thus had he lowered himself.
Roxana stirred at last, looked sleepily at Bobak, who was sipping tea by the window.
â€œRoxana, my dear,â€ said Bobak, â€œLook at the snow.â€
â€œIt’s beautiful,â€ she said, and began to cry.
At eleven o’clock Bobak locked the apartment and jogged down the eleven floors to wait for Massoud. The parking lot was wet with slush and his feet went ice-numb
in their inadequate tennis shoes. I must find work, he thought to himself, shivering. Massoud is my cousin, but even so I cannot take more of his charity.
It was snowing again when Massoud arrived, expertly insulated in boots and a tuque pulled low over his forehead. Massoud had been young when heâ€™d left Iran and harboured no regrets. He had started with nothing and now owned and operated three gas stations in north Toronto.
â€œGood morning, Bobak azizam,â€ said Massoud, his heart swelling once more at the apparition from his Tehran youth. He gripped Bobak’s head tightly in his hands, kissed him on both cheeks. â€œIs the flat comfortable? Did you sleep well?â€
â€œExtremely well,â€ said Bobak. â€œExtremely well indeed. I cannot thank you enough for all you have done for us.â€
â€œIt is nothing, you mustn’t mention it,â€ said Massoud, with a show of indifference, but secretly he was pleased that Bobak, with all of his degrees and decorations, had turned to him for help and to no one else.
â€œIt is not nothing,â€ said Bobak with great feeling. â€œIt is everything. You have been like a brother, better than a brother. I will find work as quickly as I can, I will repay every penny. You will see.â€
They walked along Finch Avenue to the Iranian quarter on Yonge Street. Passers-by, obvious Iranians with their heavy lidded eyes and scraps of black hair under woollen hats, spoke snatches of Persian into mobile phones.
â€œWe call this strip Tehranto. I chose your apartment so that you could walk here. I thought it would be easier for Roxana khanum, at least in the beginning,â€ said Massoud. â€œThere are fifty thousand Iranians here now,â€ he added proudly.
â€œMaybe more. You can have a different chelo kebab every day for a month.â€
â€œTehranto,â€ said Bobak, with an obliging laugh. â€œMerci, Massoud azizam. I’m sure Roxana will want to gad about here all day. It looks almost like home, eh, old friend?â€
â€Almost like home,â€ agreed Massoud, although Tehran had long ceased to haunt his dreams and now appeared to him only in a vast fog.
He steered them into the Shahrvand bakery, which was already alive with the aromas of new bread, but Bobak held him back. â€œNo, azizam. Let us have Canadian food.â€
â€œCanadian food?â€ said Massoud. â€œNo, Canadian food is everywhere. Today we must eat Iranian food. Itâ€™s a special occasion.â€
â€œI had Iranian food yesterday,â€ said Bobak, smiling stubbornly, â€œAnd the day before that, and the day before that. I have been eating Iranian food without respite for the last forty two years. Today I want to eat like a Canadian.â€
â€œBobak, aziz-e-man, this is the best place in Toronto,â€ urged Massoud. â€œThey make excellent lavash bread, it tastes just like what we used to get at the Shirin Bakery.â€ I do not know this Persian word â€respiteâ€, he thought. He turned the word over in his mind, and somewhere in his memory it produced an echo. Or perhaps I have only forgotten.
â€œThe Shirin Bakery closed ten years ago,â€ said Bobak, and the two men looked at each other. Massoud smiled first.
â€œBobak jan, it is as you wish,â€ he said. â€œFor your first outing in Canada, we will eat like Canadians. McDonaldâ€™s is just around the corner. They have a breakfast.â€
â€œMcDonaldâ€™s is not Canadian. McDonaldâ€™s is for Americans,â€ objected Bobak, skidding a little as he tried to match his cousinâ€™s stride on the slippery wet pavement.
â€œAmericans are your best friends now,â€ joked Massoud. â€œAnyway, if we go any further youâ€™re going to fall and break your head. A pack mule would slip in those flimsy shoes.â€
Bobak laughed and followed his cousin into the restaurant. He gazed at the menu for a very long time. Finally he turned to his cousin and said, â€œI know nothing of this sort of food. You must choose for me.â€
â€Don’t be foolish,â€ said Massoud cheerfully. â€Choose whatever you like.â€
But Bobak didn’t smile, only stared fixedly out the glass doors into the slushy grey parking lot. â€No, please, you order for me.â€ he insisted, and it occurred to Massoud that Bobak was ashamed of his English.
â€œOf course, as you wish,â€ said Massoud politely, and ordered a hamburger, French fries, two Cokes and a carton of Chicken McNuggets. He would not allow Bobak to pay. â€œYou are my guest today,â€ he said.
Before they ate, Massoud raised his paper cup in salute.
â€œNousheh jan,â€ said Bobak, grinning back. Bon appetit. â€œWhat are we eating?â€
â€It is called a Chicken McNugget,â€ replied Massoud. â€What do you think?â€
Bobak bit into his McNugget. It was dreadful. It was like a salty wet sponge, it was an affront to chicken. Chicken was meant to be gently roasted, seasoned with saffron, blackened a little bit, served juicy and dripping over steaming rice. His eyes drifted over to the uniformed workers at the counter. Such labour, he thought, such an expenditure of effort to turn a tender bird into this soggy rubbish.
â€œMassoud, azizam,â€ he said heartily, â€œIt’s delicious.â€
Massoud tore into his hamburger and chewed happily for a few moments.
Massoud, thought Bobak affectionately. Even after all these years you still have not learned to eat properly.
â€œHow is Roxana khanum?â€ asked Massoud.
â€œShe is very well,â€ said Bobak.
â€œAnd Sohrab and Haleh?â€
â€œMy wife longs for them with every breath.â€
â€œWhen will you send for them?â€
â€œWhen I find work,â€ said Bobak wearily.
â€œI thought your pal Sezgin at Istanbul University had a brother here who could help you. Friends in high places, hey, cousin? How is Sezgin these days?â€
â€œHe is alright.â€
â€œItâ€™s good of his brother to get you a job.â€
Bobak shook his head. â€œSezginâ€™s brother is a professor at the university here. He said he could arrange something for me with the University of Toronto. He was supposed to call me a week after our arrival, but so far nothing.â€
â€œSoon. It will happen soon. Why are you in such a rush to find work?â€ admonished Massoud. â€First settle in, get some rest, get used to the people, get used to the weather.â€
â€œNo, it will not do,â€ replied Bobak. â€œI must find work as soon as possible.â€ I must find work immediately, or our money will evaporate like water, he thought. The costs of immigration have crippled us. You are a rich man indeed, Massoud, if you have forgotten these things.
Massoud hesitated. â€œOf course, I can offer you temporary work in the gas station while you search for something more fitting,â€ he said uncertainly. â€œOf course you are meant for much higher things, but perhaps it would be alright for the time being.â€
â€œBut what would I do?â€
â€œRun the till, stock the shelves.â€
Stock the shelves! Run the till! Bobak had never done a day of manual labour in his life. He had spent his days teaching and his nights reading or writing, a crystal glass of sherry by his side. Life had been a long coronation of academic prizes at the best universities in Iran. He had not forsaken everything to do the bidding of a common labourer like his cousin.
â€œYes,â€ said Bobak stiffly. â€œYes, working at your gas station is something I could do for a short time. Thank you, my friend, for your kind offer.â€
But Bobak was strange and silent for the rest of the meal and Massoud knew that he had been deeply offended.
It was evening. Bobak and Roxana were entangled on a battered old loveseat, drowsy in the dim light of winter.
â€œHe wants you to work at his gas station? You must be joking! Your little Massoud has big ideas,â€ said Roxana, half-amused, half-spiteful. Massoud had failed the university konkur examinations in Iran and despite his new prosperity was still considered a failure by the extended family.
â€œMassoud has been very kind to us,â€ murmured Bobak. He considered a more impassioned defence of his cousin, but instead succumbed to the pleasures of Roxanaâ€™s fingertips, which were gently massaging his temples. â€œToday he took me to McDonald’s and we had a dish called Chicken MacNooget.â€
Roxana laughed. â€œNever mind MacNooget,â€ she said. â€What about your professorship? Did you visit Sezginâ€™s brother?â€
â€œThe university is very far from us, my dear. I did not have a chance to go today.â€
â€œWhen will you be going, then?â€ said Roxana, her bright, black, clever eyes trained on her husband’s face. Bobak closed his eyes, sank back into the loveseat. â€œHow can I turn up without an invitation? That brother was supposed to call a week ago. Sezgin told him we were coming.â€
â€œThousands of people make their way in this city,â€ said Roxana, moving away from him. She removed her hair from its fastener and began to style it. â€œIn Iran, an illiterate like Massoud would have been begging on the streets, but here in Toronto he has a house, a job, a car. He has even been to the Caribbean Sea. You are ten times the man Massoud is. Sezginâ€™s brother is a good man, Bobak joon. He will keep his word and find you a job.â€
If only jobs were assigned in order of literacy, thought Bobak. What have you seen of life, my beauty? Instead he changed the subject. â€œDid you speak to your parents? To Sohrab and Haleh?â€
The mention of the children instantly distracted her. â€œNo, I spoke only to Fereshteh.â€ Fereshteh was the servant. â€œMy parents took Sohrab and Haleh to Mellat Park. Yesterday Father took them for ice-cream.â€
Bobak controlled his jealousy. â€œVery good, excellent,â€ he forced himself to say.
â€œWhat else did Fereshteh say?â€ Did they ask after me? he meant. Do they miss me at all, or have other men’s parks and ice creams robbed me of the privileges of fatherhood?
â€œNot much. She said that they are very well, and that Haleh is ecstatic to have her own room.â€ She paused, wrinkling her forehead with concern. â€œBut Bobak joon, perhaps it would be better if you telephoned Sezginâ€™s brother. Any number of things might have distracted him. You donâ€™t value yourself, my dear. You donâ€™t push yourself forward. Who can match you in Arabic? In Urdu? Did Sezgin tell his brother about your prize from Istanbul University?â€
His wifeâ€™s confidence lit a warm fire in Bobakâ€™s belly. It was true. No one could fault the fineness of his calligraphy, the purity of his Arabic. He knew Sa’adi’s Golestan almost by heart.
â€œI don’t remember, actually,â€ he said slowly. â€I may have been so busy with the permanent residency papers for Canada that I forgot to mention it.â€
â€œCrazy man,â€ exclaimed Roxana, â€œHow could you forget such an important thing?â€
â€œPerhaps you are right,â€ said Bobak with renewed enthusiasm. â€œI will telephone him tomorrow.â€
â€œThat is a very good idea,â€ said Roxana, as if the idea had been Bobak’s and not her own. She smiled a little with her aristocratic lips, and the sun rose in Bobak’s heart.
â€œCome, my dear,â€ he said warmly, â€œIt is not good for you to be shut indoors all the time. I will take you out to an Iranian bakery.â€
Roxana shook her head, returned to what lay before her. â€œNo, Bobak, look at all these boxes. We have to get a new loveseat, this one Massoud gave us is disgraceful. And I haven’t finished unpacking Sohrab and Haleh’s room yet.â€
â€œDon’t worry about that now,â€ urged Bobak, lifting her coat and hat from the chair where she had laid them. â€œThe bakery is very good, it is the best place in Toronto.â€
She was amused by this. â€œAnd who told you that? Your cousin Massoud, the epicure?â€
Bobak thought about Massoud’s generosity and felt a pang of shame at Roxana’s sarcasm, but he did have the heart to reproach her.
â€œHurry,â€ he said uneasily, â€œLet’s go before it starts to snow again.â€
Bobak called Sezginâ€™s brother the next day. The man was deeply apologetic. Heâ€™d
meant to call, he said, but his children had been sick with the flu. He himself was in the Faculty of Engineering, he said, but one of his good friends was a professor of Persian language in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies. He gave Bobak the friend’s name and telephone number and said that he would talk to his wife about Bobak’s kind invitation to dinner next week.
â€œYou see?â€ said Roxana triumphantly. â€œYou donâ€™t think highly enough of yourself. You always devalue your own talents. Now it is all in your hands.â€
Bobak couldnâ€™t bear Roxanaâ€™s habit of hovering by the telephone, so he waited until she had gone to fetch the washing from the laundry room in the basement. He picked up the telephone and dialled the number with blood pounding in his ears.
â€œDepartment of Near Eastern Studies, University of Toronto, how may I help you?â€
The rapid-fire, jumbly mumbly English caught Bobak by surprise. He honestly did not know if he was speaking to a woman or a robot.
â€œPlease,â€ he faltered in English, but he couldn’t remember what else to say.
The woman hung up. Bobak was left holding a moaning telephone, pouring with sweat. Don’t be a donkey, he told himself fiercely. He wrote the words down, carefully sounding out the English in his elegant Persian script: Please — madam â€“ can â€“ I â€“ speak â€“ with â€“ Professor â€“ Vaso — Bagasvili.
He dialled the number again.
â€œDepartment of Near Eastern Studies, University of Toronto, how may I help you?â€
Bobak expelled the words: â€œPleasemadamcanIspeakwithProfessorVasoBagasvili.â€
â€œOne moment please.â€
He waited, immensely relieved that she had not hung up on him again.
â€œVaso Bagasvili speaking.â€
English again. Bobak sweated even more profusely, but remembered that this Bagasvili, though his name was obviously Georgian and not Iranian, was a professor of Persian literature.
â€œHello? Vaso Bagasvili speaking.â€ The voice sounded impatient.
Bobak spoke rapidly in Persian.
â€œProfessor Bagasvili, this is Professor Bobak Esfandiari from Tehran University. I am happy to speak with you at last â€“ â€
â€œFrom, Tehran, you say?â€ said Vaso Bagasvili, switching deftly from English to Persian. â€It must be very late for you over there! What can I do for you today, sir?â€
â€œNo, no,â€ said Bobak, his heart sinking. â€œI’m no longer in Tehran. I’m in Toronto. Professor Sezgin gave me your telephone number. Didnâ€™t he speak to you?â€
There was a pause.
â€œYes, yes, of course!â€ said Vaso Bagasvili in a different tone. â€œI do remember you now, you must forgive me, my students have an exam tomorrow.â€
Bobak pressed him. â€œI can offer you my services as a lecturer in Persian language, in Arabic, even in history if necessary. As you surely are aware, I received a special commendation from Istanbul University last year for my work…â€
Bagasvili did not wait for him to finish. â€Yes, yes. But you see, Mr. Esfandiari, there is no opening in the department right now for an instructor of Persian language. We ran a trial course for the first time last year, I taught it myself. The trial continues next academic year, and then the department will re-evaluate.â€
â€œProfessor Esfandiari,â€ corrected Bobak with desperation in his tone.
â€œProfessor Esfandiari,â€ agreed Bagasvili carelessly.
Bobak went on doggedly. â€œI have been told that many Canadian students have a great interest in learning Arabic. Professor Sezgin in Turkey assured me that there would be a position for me here. My master’s degree was completed in Arabic literature, and I assure you that I am absolutely…â€
But Bagasvili cut him off again.
â€œProfessor Sezgin does not have hiring authority at this university, Iâ€™m afraid. We simply do not have the resources at the present. Middle Eastern languages are not a priority at this university.â€ He paused and chuckled. â€œOr at any university, for that matter. This department is severely underfunded. Only this year I was required to teach an additional course at no extra pay.â€
Bobak did not persist any longer. â€œI understand completely,â€ he said, at some cost to his dignity. â€œYou do not have any use for a man like me.â€
â€œAs I said, Professor Esfandiari, it is simply not possible at the moment. Perhaps next year things will be different.â€ He hung up.
And that is that, thought Bobak. I have been dismissed. One prick, and my dreams are burst like a balloon. The front door banged open and shut. It was Roxana, with a white heap of clean sheets in her arms.
â€œWell?â€ she demanded eagerly. â€œDid you call them?â€
Bobak looked at his wife. Her cheeks were flushed with the heat of newly pressed laundry.
â€œYes. Yes, I called them, and I am to visit for an interview next week.â€
Roxana dropped the sheets with a cry of joy and ran to cover him in kisses.
Bobak tore his hair out for three days.
He fled to coffee shops and pored all day long over the â€œHelp Wantedâ€ listings in Pars, the Iranian-Canadian newspaper. He struggled over the employment section in the Toronto Star and wished he could ask Roxana to read to him. Roxana, the daughter of a high-ranking Iranian diplomat, spoke both English and French, and Bobak nursed an almost paternal pride in her fluency, felt the urge to stroke her like a cat every time he heard her tongue roll over the foreign vowels. But his wifeâ€™s world did not include classified ads; it was a world of ceremonial teas in rich pleasure gardens, where English was a mere party trick and favours fell gracefully from the sky. It was impossible that he should truckle to her for help.
Ass, he told himself again and again, pacing furiously up and down the Tehranto strip in the chilly wind on Yonge Street.
Why did you put the whole future of your family into the hands of that Turk, that liar Sezgin? You let yourself be sweet-talked into embarrassing yourself. What a donkey! You went to this Bagasvili, this Georgian of a Bagasvili who cannot even speak proper Persian, with your hands spread like a beggarâ€™s. Nobody wants a beggar. Nobody wants you.
Oh God, he thought. Oh God, what have I done? Why have I brought us here?
The answer came to him immediately. It was the immigrantsâ€™ creed, the silent song on the lips of the bewildered foreigners that colonized every corner of Toronto: we are here for our children. Our children will have a better life in Canada. We shall dwell here with them in the snow and the cold, but our hearts have never left home.
Bobak thought back to his last meeting at the Department of Persian literature in Tehran, when heâ€™d finally tendered his resignation.
– Come back any time, the department head, Mehranzadeh, had insisted. He sat across from Bobak at a heavy oaken desk.
– Thank you, sir.
– This country is bleeding its intellectuals, Mehranzadeh added sternly. I
thought that you of all people would never leave. I thought you had more regard for your country.
– I love my children more than I love Iran, Bobak had said, too confidently. It will be kinder to them if we leave now, whilst they are young.
Mehranzadeh found this in bad taste.
– We all love our children, he said dismissively. Why go now, why go at all? You have a good future here. He leaned forward a little. I am an old man, he said softly, pinching at his white hairs for emphasis. I cannot promise anything, but if you play your cards right, I would happily recommend you as my replacement.
Bobak nodded respectfully.
– Thank you, sir. But I have already filed the papers for permanent residency in Canada.
Mehranzadeh wrinkled his forehead. – But what will you do?
– My colleague at Istanbul has a contact at the University of Toronto, said Bobak without thinking. He is going to help me.
Mehranzadeh smiled coldly. – There are greener pastures then. You should have told me earlier. He did not encourage Bobak to return.
The truth was that a job at the University of Toronto had never existed anywhere but in Bobakâ€™s own imagination. A year before, intoxicated with the praises of the eminent Professor Sezgin at Istanbul, heâ€™d begun to believe that a scholar of his calibre belonged abroad. Roxana had egged him on, in part because her faith in him was absolute and in part because she longed to flash a Western passport at her more affluent friends. Sezgin, all bluff and big moustache, had encouraged him to apply to Canada, had promised to use his connections to secure him a soft landing in academia. Canada was a good place, Bobak had reasoned. Canada was a rich place. Everyone in Canada was rich, even his know-nothing cousin Massoud. In Canada, Sohrab and Haleh would never know hardship or struggle or poverty, would never have to snivel for promotions or play Islam like a game.
And what now? Roxana was not a woman easily mollified. Bobak had infected her with his fantasy and was no longer able to retrieve it. Roxana clung to the idea of Bobakâ€™s professorship like a child clings to one’s leg, and when he could no longer stem her nagging with vague excuses, he told her that the highest authorities at the University of Toronto were reviewing his application. In the meantime, he lied, he was spending his days at the library downtown, improving his English and preparing a research statement.
In Roxana’s mind, the job thus passed from phantom to fact. In the daytime she unpacked boxes and shopped on the Tehranto strip, and in the evenings she praised their excellent good thinking in coming to Canada. The apartment was small, she said, but soon they would find something bigger. The cold was too bad, she said, but the snow was beautiful, artistic, like the Swiss Alps. Immigration was very good, why hadnâ€™t they done it earlier? Perhaps, when Bobak was more established in his job, they would be able to bring her parents over as well.
What job, my love? thought Bobak in desperation. Don’t you see? All those years of work and study have come to nought. Canada has accepted my body, but it has declined my mind, and in all likelihood I must work like a peasant or we will all starve together in this white paradise.
Bobak decided to go and see Massoud. The incident with Bagasvili had distracted him from Massoud’s well-meant but really rather offensive suggestion that Bobak become a servant at one of his gas stations. It is not Massoud’s fault, thought Bobak. I do not know how a family like mine produced a common labourer like Massoud, but a man cannot be other than what he is.
And, thought Bobak with new respect, regardless of his education, regardless of what people said about him, Massoud had successfully navigated these dark waters, and now he kept his flailing friends afloat. He would do something to show Massoud his esteem and gratitude, he would take Massoud to lunch. He thought about the place on the north end of Yonge Street, the red-and-white villa that day and night was a bright circus of people and cars. It had the additional benefit of being easy to pronounce: KFC. Yes, thought Bobak. I will take Massoud to lunch at KFC and tell him everything.
They met at Massoud’s stone white townhouse on Finch Avenue. It was a
long walk from the apartment and Bobak was chilled to the bone in his inadequate jacket. Massoud flung open the door and they embraced in the winter wind, kissing each other on both cheeks.
â€œIt’s ten below zero!â€ cried Massoud, putting a hand to his face, where his cousinâ€™s icy skin had left a patch of cold. â€œThe weather report said weâ€™re due for more snow. Come in and warm up.â€ He stepped back and appraised Bobakâ€™s sagging eyes and pale skin. Bobak looks tired, he thought. That wife of his is probably nagging him to death.
â€œYou must forgive me for not calling you, I have been busy with many things,â€ said Bobak guiltily, stepping into the cozy kitchen where the decidedly un-Islamic remains of a bachelorâ€™s breakfast mouldered: ham, bacon, sausages. â€œI have been settling in as you suggested, I have not had a moment to spare. Come on, I am taking you out to lunch. I have found an excellent place on Yonge Street for us to eat. It is called KFC. Do you know it?â€
â€œKFC is good,â€ said Massoud. Unlike most Iranians, he did not luxuriate in food. â€œIt is very good. But where is Roxana khanum?â€
â€œShe is very sorry that she could not come, but her parents usually call on Saturdays and she did not want to miss them.â€ said Bobak smoothly. This was true, but Bobak and Massoud both knew that if Roxana had lacked this excuse, she would have seized upon another.
â€œI took her to the Shahrvand Bakery a few days ago. She liked it very much indeed.â€
â€œExcellent,â€ said Massoud, more pleased than offended by Roxana’s absence. â€Didn’t I tell you that their lavash bread was excellent?â€
â€œExcellent, top-notch.â€ proclaimed Bobak.
Massoud led Bobak outside to his little Japanese car, which was capped with a thick sheet of snow. â€œIt froze overnight,â€ he complained, and retrieving a brush and a small plastic pick from the trunk of the car, began to chip ice from the windshield.
â€œLet me help,â€ said Bobak, taking up another brush from the trunk. He fell at the snow with huge strokes, his delight as pure as a childâ€™s. It was one of those rare moments of adult life: the sensation of novelty, and the rush of joy that follows it. He gathered an armful of soft snow and buried his face in it until he could see nothing, nothing at all but the shining eyes of Sohrab and Haleh set in a dizzy flurry of white crystal.
â€œFinished,â€ said Massoud, vigorously clapping his gloves together to shake away the snow. He laughed when he saw Bobakâ€™s ecstatic white head. â€œHey! Ice-man! Crazy one! Itâ€™s freezing, letâ€™s go. Get in the car.â€
They climbed in and Massoud revved the engine. â€œGood car?â€ asked Bobak, blowing on his hands to melt the clinging flecks of ice.
â€œIâ€™ve had it seven years now and Iâ€™ve only taken it to the mechanic twice.â€ said Massoud. â€œLet me know when you get a car, my mechanic is like a magician. Heâ€™s Portugese. The most honest people in Toronto. Heâ€™s a very good friend of mine.â€
â€œI must get a car,â€ said Bobak, his mind sinking back into the deep swamp of his troubles. â€œIt is impossible without a car.â€
The traffic crept along warily in the slick white streets. A snowplough flashed its one blue eye, leaving a clean black strip of wet highway in its wake.
Massoud followed the plough into the plaza at Yonge and Jane, where the cousins sighed with pleasure and relief as they entered the warm restaurant and enjoyed the good smell of frying meat. Massoud again ordered for both of them, but Bobak insisted on paying. â€œYou have been too good to us,â€ he said, â€You must allow me.â€
â€œDo you want to make it a combo?â€ said the Vietnamese-looking teen at the till drearily. Bobak blinked, uncomprehending, but the boy was unfazed.
â€œHave a nice day now,â€ he said, and handed over two oozing buckets.
Bobak was astounded. Oh God, he thought desperately, am I dreaming? I have brought my family to a land where men swill from buckets like pigs.
Massoud opened his container with relish, and with despair Bobak saw that it contained something very similar to a MacNooget.
â€œGood, no?â€ said Massoud, his mouth full of partially masticated chicken.
â€œDelicious, Massoud azizam,â€ replied Bobak. What is wrong with this country, why do they torture chickens like this? he thought. His glance drifted to a photograph on the wall, of a smiling man in a suit, clearly the proprietor. Of course heâ€™s smiling, thought Bobak. He is flogging this rubbish at a kingâ€™s ransom.
Massoud followed his gaze. â€œThatâ€™s the owner. Mikhail. A Russian. Heâ€™s a good friend of mine.â€
â€œEveryone is a friend of yours in this city, baba,â€ said Bobak ducking his head humorously, and Massoud grinned. â€œThis friend of yours canâ€™t be too badly off. Look at this place, itâ€™s full. He must be making a fortune.â€
â€œHeâ€™s done well for himself. Heâ€™s got himself an assistant manager, and I swear he only works four days a week now. Heâ€™s a smart man.â€
â€œHe must be a very smart man. He might spend all day at the frying pan, but a man this successful cannot be stupid.â€
â€œNo, no,â€ corrected Massoud, who spent his days in front of a gasoline pump but uttered no word of reproach. â€œMikhail doesnâ€™t do that sort of thing. This restaurant is a franchise. They have hundreds of locations. Mikhail owns this one, but he certainly doesnâ€™t fry the chicken himself. He hires kids to do it for him. Central management takes a percentage of his sales.â€
Bobak clucked his tongue, impressed. â€œIs that so?â€
Massoud nodded. â€œI think so. I donâ€™t know much about it, but I think that is roughly how it works. Why?â€
Bobak flicked his chin in a gesture of dismissal. â€œNothing, it is just all very interesting.â€
â€œTell me,â€ said Massoud with shrewd nonchalance, â€œWhat happened with the job? Has Sezginâ€™s brother at the university sorted it out yet?â€
Bobak looked away. â€œNo.â€
â€œWhat does your wife say to that?â€
â€œShe doesnâ€™t know yet,â€ said Bobak shortly. â€œListen, Massoud. The university business is finished. I am not of any use to them. Sezginâ€™s brother made many assurances that he should not have made, or perhaps it was Sezgin himself, he was jealous of my accolades in Turkey. I donâ€™t know, and it doesnâ€™t matter. I must find work. I must find work now. I thought I would have a salary by now. We canâ€™t afford our apartment, but I havenâ€™t the heart to move Roxana into a smaller one. It would hurt her too much.â€
For a brief, un-gleeful instant Massoud was struck by the reversal in their fortunes. Massoud had never envied Bobak his career or his wife, but he certainly did not envy him now. As far as Massoud was concerned, Roxana was nothing but a fading peacock, but he also knew that Bobak enjoyed keeping her as one enjoys keeping a tropical bird.
â€œBobak,â€ he said, â€œBrother of mine, I will help you in any way I can. In fact, I have a suggestion for you. I will talk to Mikhail. He has a wife and three children, he will understand. Mikhail will tell you how to become a franchise manager. Iâ€™m sure that you could work at his restaurant for a while and learn everything you need to know. I will call him later and set up an appointment for you.â€
Bobak considered this. It would be better to be a manager than a labour-worker in a gas station, he decided. It would have been best to be a professor, but beggars, he reminded himself, cannot be choosers.
â€œCould you really get me a meeting with Mikhail?â€
â€œOf course,â€ said Massoud.
â€œDo you think Iâ€™ll be able to do it?â€ asked Bobak. Can I wake up every morning and crawl to the crippling tedium of a chicken restaurant?, he meant. Will I be able endure the shame of it? And more importantly, will my wife?
â€œOf course you will be able to do it,â€ said Massoud, deliberately misinterpreting him. With all his love for Bobak he felt a pinch of malice. â€œAnyone can cook a piece of chicken. Even a great man like you.â€
Roxana was in excellent spirits. She had ordered a new leather loveseat for the sitting room, and tonight they were invited to a party given by Bobakâ€™s distant cousin Abbas. In Tehran she had always been stepping in and out of parties, bearing gifts and gossip. Of course, she had hosted her own parties as well, and when Bobak was promoted she had even been able to hire a servant to help with the cooking and cleaning. Now she was at the mirror, applying makeup to her big, wet black eyes, confident that she would be the most beautiful matron at the party. Bobak watched her at a discreet distance, enjoying the concentration with which she gazed into the mirror.
â€œIt is strange not to put on a hijab before leaving,â€ laughed Roxana, fastening a long gold earring to her little white ear.
The phone rang. It was her parents, and for forty minutes she chatted animatedly to her mother and father in her lovely full-skirted party dress. The news from Iran was excellent: Haleh had placed first in the half-term school examinations. It was two oâ€™clock in the morning in Tehran, but the children clambered out of bed like bloodhounds on the scent.
Haleh seized the telephone, her voice thick with sleep.
â€œBaba! Baba! I came first!â€
â€œWell done, my little doll!â€ exclaimed Bobak.
â€œYes, well done, sweetheart,â€ said Roxana. â€œWhen you come to Toronto we will have a big party for you.â€
â€œWhat about me?â€ squeaked Sohrab, who had wrested the phone from his sister with the offhand shove of an older brother.
â€œBaba! Momon! I came first!â€ shouted Haleh in the background.
â€œOne at a time,â€ chided Roxana and Bobak in unison, but the grandparents had regained control and the children were packed off back to bed.
They were over an hour late, but in typical Iranian style, so was everyone else. It was a good party. A track of Persian pop music from Los Angeles played at a thunderous volume and the women danced with their arms raised, snapping their fingers and singing along to the music. Within an hour or two Roxana was at the centre of a circle of women, merrily gossiping with a glass of wine in hand.
Bobak, like most of the men, would not dance, but he was too shy to drink beer and talk politics in the clutch of masculine armchairs. Instead he retired to a corner and ate astonishing quantities of rice and lamb. Munching, he dreamed of his children. So! Little Haleh was first in the class, was she? He grinned almost uncontrollably with his rice-stuffed cheeks. Clever girl! Chip off the old block! He was ruminating on the splendid career she would have when his host â€“ a man so dubiously related to him that any Iranian on the planet might have claimed similar kinship â€“ descended.
â€œAbbas, my friend,â€ said Bobak, wiping his mouth and rising to shake hands. â€œHow do you stay so trim if your wife cooks like this every day?â€
â€œMaster Bobak!â€ replied Abbas, grinning back with his big moon face. He raised a glass of wine high over his head. â€œI hear you have much to celebrate!â€
â€œSo Roxana told you,â€ said Bobak proudly. â€œYes. My little Haleh came first in her half-term examinations yesterday. First in the entire school!â€
â€œShe is her fatherâ€™s daughter indeed,â€ said Abbas politely. â€œBut I was referring to your other news. Congratulations on your new job, old friend! Well done!â€
The joy of the evening was snuffed out like a dead candle. Bobak glanced swiftly at Roxana.
â€œIt is not certain yet.â€
â€œYes, yes,â€ said Abbas smoothly. â€œOf course. When it all comes through, youâ€™ll put a good word in for my daughter Sara, wonâ€™t you? Sheâ€™ll be applying to university in a few months from now, and between you and me, she needs all the help she can get. When the time comes, eh?â€
â€œNothing is settled yet,â€ said Bobak, and frantically, angrily, he began to talk politics.
By the time the party ended shortly after one oâ€™clock in the morning, Bobak had been congratulated four times on his new job as a professor of Persian literature at the University of Toronto. Roxana lingered until the end, jotting telephone numbers and addresses into a little gold notebook. Sheâ€™d made half a dozen new friends that evening, and at least three of them were decadently unattractive. Just as sheâ€™d hoped, she was far and away the most beautiful matron at the party.
â€œWell, my dear,â€ she said, huddling up to him as they stepped out of the taxi into the chill wind in the street. â€œMy God! Such cold! Whatâ€™s the matter? Didnâ€™t you enjoy yourself? Such a big house, it must have cost them a fortune!â€
â€œRoxana,â€ began Bobak, but he stopped. She was looking up at him with such tranquility and such tenderness that his tongue could not form a reproach. He took her hand and pressed it to his face as they waited for the elevator.
â€œWasnâ€™t Maryam nice?â€ said Roxana, catching her own eye in the lobby mirror. â€œShe has a son about Sohrabâ€™s age. Bobak joon, Maryam’s husband Jamshid says that China is the next big thing. He and Maryam hired a Chinese nanny for their son. I really think we should do the same for our kids. At the very least, they must take Mandarin lessons.â€
â€œRoxana,â€ he said, almost inaudibly. â€œWhy did you tell people that I am a professor at the university?â€
Roxana smiled at him. â€œWhy should it be a secret?â€
â€œBecause itâ€™s not true.â€
â€œPlease, my dear. Why does everything have to be difficult? Youâ€™re always lowering yourself, youâ€™re always pushing yourself down. In this country you have to speak up if you want to get ahead. Massoud pushed himself forward, and what is he compared to you? What does it matter if your job starts tomorrow or in five days from now?â€
â€œThere is no job,â€ said Bobak.
Roxana lifted her plucked eyebrows. â€œWhat do you mean, there is no job?â€
The tiny elevator arrived with its unusual noises, and they rode up in silence to the eleventh floor. Bobak held open the door to the apartment, and when the lock clicked shut he turned to face her.
â€œThere is no job. I will not be hired by the university, not now, not ever. They could not have made their disdain for me any plainer. What do these Canadians want with our old poets? Of what use to them is a speaker of Urdu or of Arabic? The streets are full of them. I am useless here.â€
Roxanaâ€™s hand went to her throat. â€œBut I told everyone! I told my parents!â€
â€œIt was not for you to say anything. You have embarrassed me, you have embarrassed yourself, you have embarrassed the entire family.â€ He threw his coat and hat onto the floor and sank shut-eyed into the loveseat. â€œThere was a Georgian. They gave the job to a Georgian. He teaches Persian language and literature.â€
â€œThey a hired a Georgian?â€ she said indignantly. â€œTo teach our literature?â€
â€œSezginâ€™s brother is useless.â€
â€œThatâ€™s what you get for trusting a Turk, a lying Turk.â€
â€œWhat would you have me do? Go to the university and beat a job out of them?â€
â€œAre these people mad? Why would they keep a Georgian when they could have you?â€
â€œThese people are ignorant. Do you think they know the difference between an Iranian and a Georgian? What difference does it make to them?â€
â€œWhy didnâ€™t you tell me?â€
â€œI am telling you now.â€ Bobak looked up and searched his wifeâ€™s face for a sign of forgiveness. â€œI am going to manage a restaurant.â€
â€œYouâ€™re going to what?â€ Roxanaâ€™s voice rose by an octave. â€œHave you gone mad? Did we leave everything behind for you to become a short-order cook?â€
â€œMy English is no good, my dear.â€
â€œYou donâ€™t need to be Mr. Shakespeare to teach Persian to a few children! Sezginâ€™s brother promised you a job! Sezgin would not let us down, not after everything you did for him in Iran.â€
â€œSezginâ€™s brother is a liar. He promised the earth and delivered nothing. Donâ€™t you see? Things are not done that way in this country. Not for the likes of us.â€
â€œWhat will I tell my parents? That I turned down the deputy Minister of Agriculture so that I could marry a waiter?â€
â€œI am tired of your parents.â€ returned Bobak sharply.
But Roxana was sobbing now. â€œYou were happy enough to leave your children with my parents, werenâ€™t you? I never should have left them. Why did you bring me here? Are our children to come and beg on the streets? Or will your cousin apprentice them in his gas station?â€ She said the words in English, with an intonation that made them ugly.
â€œMassoud is a good man. He has helped me like a brother. He has been better than a brother.â€
â€œWhat is Massoud, that he should be a man of wealth? In Tehran he was the failure of all failures.â€
â€œMassoud is not a wealthy man,â€ said Bobak, recalling Massoudâ€™s shambling table manners. â€œHe is only a poor man with money. But a harmless man.â€
â€œHe has no education and no class,â€ said Roxana. â€œIn my family, we do not have any such people.â€ She stalked to the kitchen and began banging plates together in the sink.
Bobak was suddenly exhausted. â€œAlright, my dear,â€ he said, leaning back on the loveseat and rubbing his eyes. â€œYouâ€™re right. Youâ€™re right and I was wrong. From the very start, I have been wrong about everything. But listen to me. This is where we live now. Canada is the best place for our children, and that the only thing that matters.â€
â€œWhat about me? Donâ€™t I matter any more?â€
â€œYou matter more than anything, my beauty.â€
Roxana was placated, but she spoke without enthusiasm and only to the window.
â€œWhat will you do?â€
â€œI will manage a chicken restaurant, a franchise called KFC. The manager is the boss. He sits in the office and supervises the workers. Massoud knows such a man and has arranged for me to meet him tomorrow. This man Mikhail works only four days a week, but he is rich. In time perhaps we too shall be rich, and I shall take you to the Caribbean Sea for a holiday.â€ He looked at her with a sort of pathetic eagerness. â€œAnd Roxana. I have many ideas already. I have tried Canadian chicken. It is very, very bad. They do not know how to cook chicken here. We will teach them. We will bring new ideas to this country. We will manage the finest restaurant in Toronto. You are a fine cook, the finest cook. You must help me.â€
Roxana was silent.
â€œIt will be the best place in Toronto. Iâ€™m sure of it.â€ He looked at her hopefully. â€œHey? What do you think, my lovely? Iâ€™ll be the only manager with a double doctorate.â€
Roxanaâ€™s tears had left long trails of mascara on her cheeks. She swallowed the liquid in her throat and said nothing, only stood by the window peering sadly into the sleeping white city.
Mikhail was fifty-two years old. Heâ€™d immigrated at the age of seventeen and was a practised Canadian now with a cottage in Muskoka, a Filipino wife and three confused children. He had only the trace of a Russian accent, but his great good humour and Russian bluntness of speech were entirely intact. He was sorry for men like Bobak who immigrated in maturity; they were nearly always befuddled, incorrect about everything, and pissed off about being eternally damned to work beneath themselves. Bobak, he saw, was no exception.
â€œYou gotta be kidding me,â€ said Mikhail good-naturedly. He was sitting in his office behind the restaurant at a big black faux leather swivel chair at a desk piled high with papers. He cocked his head and looked at Bobak, who sat before him in a tailored three-piece suit. â€œYouâ€™ve brought me some chicken?â€
Bobak nodded and smiled. â€œTry,â€ he said in his best English, proffering a casserole of beautifully roasted meat. â€œMy wife make chicken very good.â€
â€œI believe you, sir,â€ replied Mikhail, smiling pityingly and pushing the casserole aside. â€œBut this is KFC. Weâ€™re not in the business of selling very good chicken. Eh? If you havenâ€™t worked that out, then I donâ€™t know what youâ€™re doing here, sir. This is a franchise. Come on Mr. Bobak, didnâ€™t your friend Massoud teach you anything? We donâ€™t cook the food. We calibrate it.â€
Bobak did not entirely understand what the man was saying, but he knew that something had already gone terribly wrong.
â€œEat!â€ he cried, pushing the casserole forward. â€œTry! It is good chicken! Better as outside chicken! We make good restaurant!â€
Mikhail shook his head with impatience. He plucked Bobakâ€™s application from the stack on his desk and held it up between two fingers. â€œIt says on the application that you can speak English.â€
â€œI speak English,â€ said Bobak defiantly. He was conscious that he sounded like an illiterate but pressed on anyway. â€œI speak â€“ â€
â€œNo you don’t,â€ Mikhail cut him off. â€œYou barely speak enough English to work the counter!â€
Bobak poured with sweat into his handsome suit. â€œIndeedly,â€ he said, looking intently into Mikhailâ€™s faint, mocking blue eyes. â€œI have learn English, but I make better. My English is not good. First, we must make better chicken. Chicken here no good.â€
â€œAre you kidding me? You want to be a franchise manager some day?â€ Mikhail leaned over the desk and slapped Bobak affably on the arm. â€œListen my friend. Listen. I understand how it is. I was an immigrant too, eh? What did you do back in Iran? Come on. What â€“ did â€“ you â€“ do â€“ in â€“ Iran?â€
Bobak was suddenly ashamed. His heart ached for his children.
â€œIn Iran I was â€“,â€ but he stopped. He didnâ€™t know the word for â€˜professorâ€™.
â€œListen Mr. Bobak,â€ said Mikhail, gently laying Bobakâ€™s application face-down on the desk. â€œYou’re an Iranian, I’m a Russian. We’re neighbours, eh? Go home to your wife. Tell her I said thank you for the chicken. Take a rest. Learn a little more English, then come and see me again. Eh? How does that sound? And take these.â€ He rummaged through his desk and handed Bobak two crisp pieces of paper, each marked â€œGift Certificateâ€.
â€œBut I am not finish.â€
â€œOh Mr. Bobak. Yes you are,â€ said Mikhail, rising. He grasped Bobak with a beefy fist and steered him to the door. Bobak, white with shame, made his exit without a backward glance.
â€œYou have a nice day now,â€ called Mikhail. He returned to his desk and picked up the telephone.
â€œHey Massoud. Yeah itâ€™s Mikhail. Listen man, what were you thinking? You usually send me good guys. Are you kidding? Pick him up, would you? This guy shouldnâ€™t be allowed out without a police escort. For Christ’s sake. Yeah. Sure. Nah, donâ€™t worry. Alright.â€
Want to know what happens next? Â Either write to me or buy theÂ book. Â 🙂