This is a family photo, with a note on the back that says, Autumn of 1986. The two sitting over on the blanket are my mom and dad, and the two chortling girls of kindergarten age chasing each other on the lawn behind them are me and my sister. Once again, they’d taken us to Azadi Square. The name had changed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution; apparently, it used to be called something else before that. A piece of Azadi Tower’s whiteness and its blue lines can be seen in the corner of the shot. My dad once told me that the tower at the center of the square is the symbol of Tehran which represents freedom, though it doesn’t look much like a tower but more a gargantuan whale—a white lunatic whale that came ashore one day and we the people of Tehran have placed it as a V shape in the middle of the square.
In the photo, my father, looking cheerful, is saying something in my mom’s direction. He has already taken care of the three things an Iranian man had to take care of back in the 80s—military service, marriage, and having kids. Eight years prior, before the start of the Iran-Iraq war, he had finished his military service. The year after, not that this is of great significance, he began working at a print house. What is of great significance is his marriage to the girl he had been in love with for years. They got married right when the war broke out. In truth, everyone used to get married in those days, in the thick of war. They all gave birth to children, too. Each year, there was one or more women in every family whose stomachs would protrude from under the mandatory manteau and whose sweat-soaked hair would get pushed back beneath the compulsory headscarf. People were constantly on their toes about when to visit the hospital and calculate the costs for childbirth against their insurance.
There were also some people who would keep their first child’s clothing items in good condition for the next one, or they’d give them away for free to soon-to-be parents. Because every minute someone was being born and getting called “a soldier in service of Islam” on television, but on the nights when there was a blackout, the parents of the unborn child would sit by an oil lamp and make plans for them to become a doctor or an engineer. Don’t get me wrong; we’re not the happy-go-lucky type of people. Those years, rather than being the time of war and bombs, were the years of hopes and aspirations. It was only a few years since the revolution, after all, which means that hope and zeal had scattered in the air like oxygen drops. There was a common belief that the war wasn’t going to last long, that it could end any moment. Everyone was brimming with hope— some hoping for the revolution’s success, others hoping for its downfall.
Let’s get back to the photo; the third most important event of this young man from the photograph was our birth. A year after marriage, he had become the father of the two girls whose hair are in the hands of the autumnal wind in the photo—the wind that has pushed the clouds aside, keeping Tehran’s sky so blue, so azure, so unspoiled. My mom, wearing a headscarf slightly darker than the blue of the sky, is talking with my dad. She can be seen in profile, smiling back at him. Maybe she’s thinking back to their years of romance and the trying times that preceded the marriage; the years when she couldn’t leave home without permission from her mom or her brother. Back then, she and my dad would see each other on the way to school. They would stop at an alley, exchange letters, and be on their separate ways, much like two clumsy plain-clothed agents. Even the year when the revolution unfolded, she would go out under the pretext of participating in the protests, so that she and my dad could go to a park where she would tell him, for the umpteenth time, that her mom and dad wouldn’t allow for her marriage unless Dad would obtain his high school diploma.
After all those years of hardship, who else but Mom would smile—if there was going to be a time of war, riot, or famine, so be it. Inside the string bag sitting next to her is a tea flask and a plastic bag filled with the sugar cubes my dad had bought a few days before, by the grace of his food stamps. Don’t get me wrong. We weren’t picnicking. Amoo was serving in the military back then, and he’d been dispatched to the battle zone. My dad’s family was just as much distressed that Amoo had been conscripted into the army as they’d been delighted that my father’s military service had ended just before the war. Amoo had deferred from the draft for a year. He both hated and dreaded the war, and he had no clue if it was his fear that fueled his hate or vice versa. Whatever the case, a group of army sentries stormed his neighborhood and took him away.
During the first few months, he wrote in letters to my dad that he planned to take his own life. In a future letter, he promised he would not resort to such a cowardly act but that he would flee to America via the Kurdish border as soon as the war was over. In that particular letter, which we have kept over the years, Amoo has written down and crossed out the names of four or five European countries before settling on America. But he seemed to be having fun because he’d written to my dad that they’d given him a gun, that he’d learned how to use a gas mask, that he’d once found a chicken inside a house where everyone had died following an air raid, that they’d grilled the chicken and he’d wished my dad could be there. Of course, Amoo’s letters dated for “today” meant “twenty days later” because his letters always arrived twenty or thirty days after their posting date, which means that during that period, the poor chicken’s remains must have turned into scraps of land fertilizer in the war zone.
The four of us are awaiting Amoo who has taken a two-day leave. At that time, they used to drive busloads of soldiers from the south of Iran all the way to Azadi Square. And we’ve come here with my dad’s Chevrolet to greet Amoo, the very same car on which strangers had sprayed the phrase “Death to American Products” two or three times. My dad had to repaint the whole car each time. It was my mom who had suggested that we arrive two or three hours early and laze around on the lawn. Amoo’s old-time friend joined us, too, saying that he wasn’t busy. He’d brought his vintage-style camera with him. He carried that camera everywhere with him, but not for long, because a few months after this photo was taken, they raided his apartment and arrested him for keeping Marxist pamphlets. The camera was smashed into smithereens. After serving a two-year prison sentence, he landed a job at the National electronics company whose name had changed to Iran Khodro after the revolution, but he never again held a camera in his hands.
Amoo arrived two hours late. The night before, a bomb had hit the road, causing three truckloads of corpses that needed to be moved. Being the Iranians we were, everyone hugged Amoo, planting smoochy kisses on his cheeks. My uncle’s friend kissed him so hard it looked as if he were biting him. My mom said, “let’s take another photo.” My dad insisted that Amoo’s friend is “part of the family” and “should be in the frame.” As we grew older, we learned that such perfunctory words are what people call taarof, because when my grandfather died a couple of years later, Amoo’s friend didn’t receive a penny.
Amoo’s friend handed the camera to a passerby to capture a family photo. For a few minutes, he was explaining to the man where to look through and when to press the button. Later, after the photo was developed and my sister and I laid eyes on it for the first time, we mouthed off profanities with such verve against that passerby that my dad ordered us to go to our room and not come out for the rest of the night. The bungling amateur had zoomed so far in on the torsos of the grown-ups that my sister and I were reduced to nothing but a forehead and a stray wisp of hair. Meanwhile, Amoo is shown putting his own cap on my dad’s head while giving him bunny ears that go against the V of Azadi Tower. Nothing can be seen of the tower, though, because we all stood with our backs against the street.
From the first moment we got in the car, Amoo began cracking jokes and doing impressions of other soldiers’ accents. He tickled us and had us in stitches until we arrived at my grandma’s. The food had been laid out on cloth on the floor, making our mouths water—gheyme, saffron-sprinkled rice, Shirazi salad, tahcheen, doogh. But everyone knew what was going to happen within a few minutes, and it did happen. My aunt’s husband was an admirer of the Shah. My grandma used to say that we should never tell any of the neighbors or friends about this because we could go to prison for it. The husband of one of my other aunts rooted for the Islamic Revolution, and the two of them always found themselves in an argument with one another, usually beginning with some wry comment. That’s exactly what happened that day. Even earlier than usual. Amoo’s friend who rooted for Islamic Marxism joined in the fight, too. Though we never realized how he also captured shots of our lunch. There’s a photo in which Amoo is sitting cross-legged, lifting a spoonful of food to his mouth with a smile. All you can see of my sister and me, seated on either side of him, are our opposing shoulders and feet, framing him on the dining room’s carpeted floor. This would be the third photo in which my sister and I are as nugatory as a flower woven on a carpet, a piece of the sky, the corner of a lawn, or the handle of a jug.
When the grown-ups began fighting, my sister and I ran outside to the front yard, leaving our plates half-finished. The rest of the kids scattered about the house too. Because the weather was too cold, my sister and I ran for the basement. Within a few stairs, you reached this dark, windowless, mysterious place that had only one small light. In one corner of the walls there were jars filled with pickled vegetables my grandmother used to make; in the other, bootleg bottles of alcohol stashed away inside a container. If the police were ever to find those bottles, my grandfather would have had to get strip naked and receive 80 lashings in his butt. There were nights when I would see this in my dreams and wake up to see my mom and dad scolding me because I had wet the bed. Let’s get back to the basement. You could say the basement was our playroom. We would act out all the tales my mom used to tell us. We would become the mother goat from the Wolf and the Seven Young Goats, the Rolling Squash, or the princess from the King of Effland’s Daughter. But we didn’t play any of those games that day.
“Let’s play Amoo,” I said.
“Amoo, don’t go to war,” said my sister with a ridiculously affected, pleading tone. “No, I must go and fight.”
“Don’t go. You’ll go and slaughter the chickens.”
“If I don’t go, the police will come for me.”
“Running away is no good. I won’t do it.”
“You have no choice, Amoo.”
I began to play a strange part.
“I’ll write a letter to all the soldiers, telling them that the war is over and there’s no need to come back.”
I don’t know why I imagined that all the soldiers had taken leave and a letter could stop them from returning to war. Together with my sister, we pretended to be licking imaginary letter tapes until our mouths hurt. Then, I played Amoo and went on TV, announcing that the war was over and that people could now breathe a sigh of relief. Then, riding on my sister’s back, who now played the car, the two of us went to the war zone so that we could tell all the soldiers that they should go home. My sister played Saddam Hussein and asked, while holding an imaginary gun, “What the hell is wrong with you?” I yelled at her, saying that the war was over and that she must stop. She said she would let her soldiers know, but then she remembered something.
“No,” she said, sitting on the floor, “haven’t you heard on TV that you can’t talk with the enemy?”
I was nonplussed. We sat there for a minute or two and listened to the fight above our heads— my grandfather’s grumbles, his threatening that he would kick everyone out if the fight didn’t stop, and my grandmother scolding him for having made the threat. There was bedlam upstairs. My sister asked if she could play Amoo. She left the imaginary meal and said she was going for a smoke. She held her pointing and middle finger apart from each other, placed them in the corner of her mouth, and began to slowly puff out.
“Imagine I’ve come to the alley now,” she said under her breath.
“Okay,” I whispered back.
“When everyone else is fighting during lunch,” she said, “Amoo has grabbed the keys to Dad’s car.”
Like Amoo, my sister got in the car. That was when I noticed that my crazy sister had really gone off with my dad’s car keys. We both knew how angry Dad would get over this, because in his book, a child has no right to go anywhere near their parents’ pockets. But my sister told me to not worry and stop being a pussy. She said all this under her breath, breaking character for only a moment before raising her voice in an exaggerated impression of Amoo, and pretending to buy frying oil, sugar, and sugar cubes, using his food stamps. Then she got in the car and drove at full speed towards the Kurdish border; there, the Kurds knew how to get him across. My sister was parroting the plan that the whole family had devised for Amoo; otherwise, we didn’t even know how to pronounce Kurdistan at that age. We’d come up with a name of our own, kordestoon, which was supposed to mean Kurdistan.
My sister went across the border. In our play, the weather was chilly. She waded through the snow, caught a cold, fought wolves, then got on a boat and arrived at a country whose name we didn’t know was Greece back then and called it kharej—overseas. Then, just like we’d heard from grown-ups, Amoo was going through a rough patch: starving; sleeping on the streets; escaping the police; working illegally as a dishwasher in a restaurant. Playing the part of my grandma and grandpa at the same time, I would send Amoo money, cry, and write him letters. Amoo, meaning my sister, warned in the letters that if I continued crying like that, he’d commit suicide. In reality, Amoo said this too often, after which everyone stopped fighting. I stopped crying as Grandma. Finally, Amoo arrived in America.
He began working at a convenience store there and met a woman with blond hair, the same color that my paternal uncle’s wife wanted to dye her hair and ended up damaging it instead. Amoo married the blond woman, and I began playing her now, with our two dolls playing as Amoo’s twins. The war was over by then, and now Amoo, his wife, and his two kids had come to Iran because Amoo’s wife had fallen in love with the country. My sister and I played together with Amoo’s children, even though they only spoke English. At this point, my sister and I returned to who we really were and began playing with Amoo’s children. We kept running until the Red Alert went off which sounded like a shrieking lunatic.
The whole family sheltered inside the basement. My mom was relieved to find us there. We were upset with the interruption of our role-play. Now we had to wait an indefinite period before the next alarm went off, announcing that the danger was gone. Using his lighter, Amoo lit a cigarette for my aunt’s uncle. It was always the same story; first they fought, then they lit each other’s cigarettes and whispered in each other’s ears, chuckling. “Shush,” one of them would always say, “the kids might hear us.” Only a small oil lamp was on. In the dim light, when everyone began chatting with one another, my sister stood next to Amoo. I joined her. Right at that moment, Amoo’s friend captured a photo. In the photo, Amoo is standing, flanked by me and my sister. We’re looking down at the floor. Amoo seems to be saying something. The orange light reflected on all our faces. As if burnt, the top and the bottom of the photo look sooty; and the oil lamp’s flame, tangled up and twirling, appears in the corner of the photograph, traversing beyond the frame.
After this moment, I remember vividly my uncle resting us on his thighs, asking if we knew how to draw. As I whispered in Amoo’s ear the words “don’t run away,” my sister slowly showed him the car keys. He was regarding my sister’s hand with shock. He put the car keys in his pocket. My heart was pounding, and I knew the same must have been true of my sister’s and Amoo’s. While everyone else prattled on, the three of us remained silent. My sister and I were following Amoo’s eyes which looked in no particular direction. We were probably expecting the White Alarm to go off and for Amoo to say that he wanted to go out for a smoke. We must have looked pale. My mom said, “The children look terrified.” My grandmother hugged us repeatedly. The White Alarm went off. Most people don’t know anything about the White Alarm; it’s like the last school bell on the last day of the week.
My sister and I followed behind Amoo who had lit a cigarette, heading for the yard. I could hear the sound of my sister’s gasps before Amoo bent down without a sign and told my dad, “Aren’t these your car keys?”
“What are they doing here?” my dad asked.
“They must have fallen out of your pocket when you ran for the basement,” said Grandma. The next day, Amoo returned to the battle zone from his leave. He never went to Greece. He never did illegal work in a restaurant, never married an American woman, never fathered any children. Because he got killed in the war two months later. My sister and I always believed that it was all my fault. Because I’d told him to stop running away. For years, I couldn’t tell which plan was better: mine or my sister’s. But when we were looking at that photograph with Amoo from the night at the basement, my sister said, “I wish you had told him about your plan when he stopped escaping.” Ever since then, we began acting out as Amoo in our plays and, later, in our imagination, writing letters to all the soldiers. We would lick the imaginary letter tapes until our mouths hurt.
AIDA MORADI AHANI is an Iranian writer, translator, and essayist. Her debut book, a collection of short stories titled A Pin on the Cat’s Tail, was published in 2011. She has also published two novels, Golfing on Gunpowder (2013) and Lost Cities (2018), both to wide critical acclaim. Her fiction in translated English has appeared in Tehran Noir (Akashic Noir Anthologies). Within academia, Moradi Ahani has delivered lectures and talks on contemporary Persian literature at Stanford University and University of California, Irvine, among other venues. Her latest book, Other People’s Beds (2021), is a collection of essays.
SIAVASH SAADLOU is a writer and translator whose poems are forthcoming in two anthologies, Essential Voices: Poetry of Iran and Its Diaspora (Green Linden Press) and Processing Crisis: An Anthology (Risk Press). In addition, his works of fiction, nonfiction, and criticism have appeared in The Margins, WGBH Boston, and Asymptote. As a translator, Saadlou has introduced the poetry of Mohammad-Ali Sepanlou and Rasool Yoonan to the English-speaking world, and his translations can be found in Denver Quarterly, Los Angeles Review, and Washington Square Review, among many other journals. Saadlou holds an MFA in creative writing from Saint Mary’s College of California.