The Quest to Mount Qaf
(An excerpt from the memoir titled – The House on Sun Street)
By Mojgan Ghazirad
Thou must know that the lord Solomon committed this castle to my charge and taught me the language of birds and made me ruler over all the fowls which be in the world; wherefore each and every come hither once in the twelvemonth, and I pass them in review: then they depart…
The Story of Janshah – The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night
One afternoon in early fall, my Persian literature teacher, Ms. Talebi, took us outside to the schoolyard to hold the class under the mulberry tree. To stretch her height and overcome her short stature, she always wore high heels in school. She was the only teacher who would wear those prescription shoes, since at that time in Iran, just a few years after the Islamic Revolution, women could only dream of wearing high heels in public.
She asked us to write a passage about an accident we remembered. “Be specific and use details,” she said and her plummy cheeks became more prominent as she smiled. I scribbled down the words floating in my mind. My story was about a girl in our neighborhood who died in a car accident. I had seen her a few times, but I heard the story of her death from Mamani, who had heard it from our neighbors.
It started to rain before I finished my piece. Rain drops disrupted the class and the girls chuckled about being outside, getting wet under the mulberry tree. Even though I was the last girl to put down my pen, I raised my hand to share my writing with the class. Ms. Talebi silenced the chatter and asked me to read before we moved our stuff back inside. The girls became silent as I read my piece. The bustle of returning to the class came to a halt. Ms. Talebi walked toward me and took the paper from my hands. Drops of rain that had fallen from the mulberry leaves made small bumps on my paper, dissolving letters here and there. She glanced at my writing and said, “I need to see you after the class.”
I dreaded to go to the school’s administrative building. Most often there was a problem that needed to be rectified, once a student was summoned to that part of school. From the moment Ms. Talebi finished her sentence, I worried I’d written something wrong in that piece. I blamed myself for volunteering to read when everyone wanted to rush back to the class. My heart began racing as I got close to the administrative building, which was located on the opposite side of the schoolyard. I stood near the teacher’s lounge and hoped Ms. Talebi would see me once she’d finished talking to another teacher.
“Come in, Moji,” she said out loud as soon as she noticed I was standing at the door. “We were talking about you!”
I slogged my way through the lounge and kept my eyes sewn to the tiles. Teachers were holding glasses of tea and talking about different subjects during the refreshment period. A big circular table occupied the center of the room for tea and biscuits. Some teachers sat in the armed chairs that were placed against the walls and some were standing around the table. I wished Ms. Talebi was closer to the door and didn’t holler my name across the lounge. She asked me to sit next to her in an empty chair.
“Ms. Shirin came to me the other day and asked for my recommendation for the Dawn Ceremony project.”
I stood in front of her in silence, hesitating to sit in a teacher’s seat.
“You’re writing well, Moji,” she said. “All of us in Persian literature group have noticed this. Ms. Shirin wants to direct a play and she’d asked us for recommending someone who can write the script. I had you in mind, and today, after hearing what you wrote in the limited time you had, I think I can recommend you with confidence.” She rose from her seat to take a glass of tea from the large tray the school caretaker just brought in. Her high heels clacked as she paced toward the center of the lounge. She came back with a steaming glass of tea in hand. “You like the idea?”
“Oh, I, I’d be happy to help, but I’ve never written a play in my life.”
“You think we expect you to be a writer from the time you were in a crib?” she burst out, the tea in her glass tilting, almost spilling on her manteau. “Don’t worry, we can help.” She took a sip of her hot tea and said, “Do you remember the book of poetry called Mantiq-ut-tayre by Attar? Don’t you dare say no, since I’ve talked about it in the History of Persian literature class many times.” She jolted with laughter.
“Yes, Ma’am, I do remember.”
“She wants to create a play based on that story. So, you need to read that book, if she decides you’re going to write the play.”
“I haven’t read anything from Attar,” I said.
“I know. I don’t think you can read that book on your own.” She slurped the remainder of the tea in the glass and said, “Start reading the book and skip the prologue and epilogue for now.”
The drizzle that had started during the literature class turned into a storm. The frenzy wind whirled the gold and amber mulberry leaves around the trees and piled them up against the rusty brick wall. I was enthralled by the exciting news. The confidence my literature teacher had in me elated me. I was chosen to write the play with my beloved counsellor, Shirin. I had known her ever since I got accepted in Derakhshan high school, first as the young librarian who encouraged me to read books, and then as a counsellor who oversaw our extracurricular activities. With her soft, straight hazel hair, up-slanting eyes with honey-colored irises, and thin bony stature, she reminded me of a princess from the East. Like the leaves falling from the trees, I wanted to twirl in the rain, spin until I drenched, and drop completely soaked under the mulberry trees. To work with Shirin on a script was like a dream.
A week after my conversation with Ms. Talebi, Shirin introduced the idea of the play to our class. She summarized the story as the journey of thousand birds to Mount Qaf and their quest to find Simorgh, the majestic king of the birds. “Out of one thousand birds that started the journey, only thirty birds reached Mount Qaf, and only in unity they were able to find Simorgh.” The concept of the story and acting as a bird in the play intrigued the class.
Nadia raised her hand in utter delight and asked, “Have you thought of what we should wear?” She was a fashionable girl among us and always wore á la mode dresses in private parties. We knew that from the photos she sneaked into the school.
“Of course!” Shirin said. “For such a huge play, we need to have attractive makeups and shimmering dresses for the actors. As charming as the birds look in nature.”
“Can we bring makeup to school?” Nadia gaped in astonishment. Cosmetics had become a great taboo after the Islamic Revolution. Beautifying the face with colors was considered seductive and girls were forbidden to use them in public in Islamic Iran. The school administration repeatedly told us it was shameful and disgusting for a Muslim woman to paint her face when she appeared in public. A devout young woman was expected to use makeup only at home, for her husband. No student was allowed to bring them to school, let alone wear them in class.
Shirin laughed. I felt she didn’t expect such a question at the beginning of her talk. “I know you’re all interested in makeup,” she said. “You can bring your moms’ Revlon eye shadows and Lancôme lipsticks, with my permission, exclusively in preparation for the play.”
Girls cried in excitement, some snorting in surprise.
“But this doesn’t mean you carry them in your bag from tomorrow.” She laughed. “Or the next thing you say to the principal is that I permitted use of cosmetics in school.” She paused for a few moments, and then said, “Listen, you girls! This play is not about cosmetics and costumes, even though I know you all love that part. The story of the birds is an allegory, and I want you to delve into the meaning as you prepare for the play.”
“How did you come up with the idea of this story?” a girl asked.
“Aha! I knew you smart girls would ask this question. You’ll soon realize how the story is applicable to the current situation we live in. For now, I would recommend you to buy Mantiq-ut-tayre, Attar’s book of poetry, or borrow it from school or a public library and start reading it. Many of you might even have it at home.”
“A book of poetry?” someone asked in surprise.
Shirin squinted as if she was puzzled by the question. “I believe your literature teacher has already introduced Attar and his work to you. Hasn’t she?”
“Yes, Ms. Shirin,” the class answered.
“It’s difficult to read,” a girl said.
“I surely understand. That’s why I want you to prepare the book and do your best. You’ll read and memorize the script for the play, which we’ve decided to ask Moji to write.”
The class filled with awe and wonderment.
“How did you choose her?” Nadia asked.
“The Persian literature teachers recommended her. She writes well, don’t you agree?”
“Yes, Ms. Shirin,” the girls said.
I blushed at that moment. I shied away from being conspicuous among the students. It made me uncomfortable to be praised in class. I lowered my head and stared at my shoes, trying to avoid their heavy looks. I felt the burden on my shoulders, not knowing how I would write the play. A sense of bewilderment engulfed me as to whether I should have accepted the offer. It was the first time in my life I was going to be seriously challenged, and I was not sure I would succeed.
The weather was still pleasant in Tehran and I could still spread a straw mat on the terrace of my grandfather’s garden and read under the pines’ shade. Clutching a pitcher of ice water and cucumber slices, I began Mantiq-ut-tayre by contemplating the first appearance of Simorgh, the majestic bird, in a moonless night. It was in China, Attar said, that a feather from Simorgh floated in the air and the rumors of his fame became known to man. Since then, every man kept a duplicate of that feather in his heart, thinking he possessed the genuine one for himself. How could a single floating feather create such chaos on Earth? How could all the beauty be derived from that single fallen feather of Simorgh? I read Mantiq-ut-tayre that afternoon and many afternoons to come. The ice cubes in the pitcher would melt and disappear. Fine drops of water would surface the glass pitcher and magnify the cucumber slices floating in the water. But it was not easy to fathom the hidden meaning of the verses in the language of birds.
Even though Ms. Talebi helped me with the questions I had, the content of the book was beyond my novice understanding of Islamic mysticism. I wondered why Shirin had picked that story for a junior high school play. The more I probed into the arguments the birds brought to excuse themselves from the journey to Mount Qaf, the more I got surprised by their wayward explanations. The hoopoe, leader of the birds in the journey, fabricated stories from real life to convince the birds. People in those stories responded to the circumstances in stupid ways. The hoopoe could never convince me, I wondered how he could satisfy and move the birds. After reading the book for the third time, I began to feel the terror that fretted the birds. I gradually absorbed the dreadful ambience of Mount Qaf, the Simorgh’s abode.
Wednesdays when we had free time at the end of the school day, I went to Shirin’s office to read and edit the scenes I’d written during the week. I struggled with the hoopoe character in my script. Every time I went to her office, she would pull a chair beside her desk and offer me to sit. I would read the hoopoe’s lines and she would shake her head and ask me to erase and rewrite his sentences.
One time, I became so frustrated that I threw my pencil on the paper and crossed my arms. “Ms. Shirin, I’m not sure if I understand what you don’t like about the hoopoe’s dialogue. What’s wrong with his answers?”
Shirin stared at me and nodded. She leaned back in her armed chair and observed me for a while. “I am afraid you didn’t grasp the concept of hoopoe’s leadership.”
“I’ve read the book three times. I am not putting anything in his mouth? that is not expressed in the book.”
“I know. But something is missing in your lines of dialogue. One that shows the essence of his role in the journey.”
I sighed and gazed at the lines on the paper. “I wish I’d never accepted writing this script.”
“Moji!” Shirin said in a raised, irritated voice. “You’re disappointing me. I thought you had the perseverance to perfect any work given to you. Am I wrong?”
“No,” I said. “But honestly, I don’t know what you’re looking for in hoopoe.”
Shirin shook her head a few times. “That’s a different discussion! We can talk about hoopoe as long as you feel it’s necessary. But to bring excuses in the middle of the task is what I don’t expect from you.”
The desk lamp had created a golden circle of light on the table. My pencil’s shadow darkened half of the birds’ names who said the dialogues. The hoopoe answered the birds on every other line. I stretched my hand and grabbed the pencil. The shadow disappeared from the lines.
“Let’s read the verses where Attar talks about the hoopoe again.” She hunched forward and reached for Mantiq-ut-tayre at her side. Her scarf was pulled back on her head and once again, I could see her hazel highlights. The strands of hair glittered under the desk light as she flipped the book. She’d attached dozens of small notes to different pages to mark them, and she’d written in tiny script in the margins. She found the page where a bird asked hoopoe why he was the chosen one. The bird’s main objection was the leadership position that was bestowed upon the hoopoe, in spite of him having the same creation as other birds. How come we are the lees and you get to be the purest of wine?
“But I thought…” I said, interrupting her reading, “I thought the hoopoe was elected by the birds because of his capabilities. He was not chosen by the divine. There is a clear section about the selection process in the book.”
“True. And that is what exactly I want to tell you.” She rose from her seat and scanned the bookshelf beside the window. The books were neatly organized on the shelves, starting from the thick, glossy hardcovers to thin paperbacks. Some of them had English titles. I always wondered how well she knew English language. Most books had small papers jutting out of their top edge, like flat birds sitting on a slanted power line. She kneeled to check the bottom shelf closer. She pulled out a couple books and pushed them back in their spot. “It used to be here,” she said, shaking her head. “I can’t find it now.”
“What are you looking for, Ms. Shirin?”
“I wanted to show you an image of the hoopoe I had in one of my books.” She suddenly knocked her head with both hands. “Oh, I remember now, I’d taken that book home.” She came back to her seat and said, “In that calligram, which is basically calligraphy in the shape of a bird, Allah’s name, the word Bismillah, is depicted in the hoopoe’s beak. It is referring to the Koranic verse about the hoopoe. In King Solomon’s story in the Koran, hoopoe is the king’s messenger. I’m sure you’ve come across the relation between the hoopoe and King Solomon as you’ve read the poems.”
“Yes. That’s his given name in Attar’s book. ‘The Solomon’s bird.’ But what does that calligram have to do with —”
“On some occasions, Moji, an image can tell you a thousand words. The divinity, my dear, is something that is bestowed upon certain individuals and not achieved by human effort.”
“What do you mean, Ms. Shirin?”
“I mean it is true that the birds choose their leader in this story, but they could have not chosen anyone but hoopoe. The divinity had fallen upon the hoopoe from the day he was born. The birds only acted to reveal his true identity.”
I must have had the most puzzled gesture on my face, hearing the explanation from her. “I know it is surprising for you,” she said. “But what you are missing in your lines of dialogue is this. The process of election in the Islamic theocracy is totally different from the election process in the Western societies. We only cast our votes to reveal the one that is already chosen by Allah.”
“So who is choosing the leader? Allah or us? I am confused.”
“We are and we are not. Allah reveals His choice through us. The hoopoe in the story of Attar is the chosen one, the flawless and the perfect bird who is capable of leading the flock to Simorgh. The birds only happen to unveil his destined role.”
She opened a whole new world in front of me at that moment. I wondered if all I’d learned about the role of human effort in pursuing perfection was wrong. “Is that why you said this story has never been as relevant to our society as today?”
She smiled. “You got it, Moji. You got it just right. We are the birds, Imam Khomeini our hoopoe in the quest for Allah.”
I remained silent for some time, gazing at the golden streaks of her irises. The question of Ayatollah Khomeini haunted me again in her office. I never identified with the people who loved Khomeini so much. I believed there was a sort of derangement in their emotional perception and their chain of thought, loving this man to the point they sacrificed their whole lives for him. But at that moment, I could see why millions of Iranians revered this cleric, this Ayatollah. He was the ultimate leader who was destined to guide them in their quest to Allah. And didn’t Ayatollah mean sign of God?
I was so behind with the revision of the play that Shirin invited me to her house to finish the script with her on Friday. Besides visiting my fifth grade teacher for her daughter’s birthday—who happened to be my classmate—I’d never stepped foot into my teachers’ homes. Mamani was aware of the writing process, so she gave me permission to go to Shirin’s house. To my surprise, she offered to drive me to her apartment, even though it was located in the western part of Tehran. She lived in Ekbatan, one of Tehran’s newly built apartment complexes at that time.
We arrived early in the morning. Mamani parked the Beetle in the parking lot in front of the building and pushed the doorbell button beside her apartment number. Shirin answered the buzz and opened the door to the lobby. As the elevator ascended, I could hear the throbbing of my veins in my ears. I tried to stay composed, not making a show of my anxiety to Mamani. But how could I keep calm when after all those years, I was about to see Shirin in her house?
Mamani clapped the door knocker, and after a few seconds, Shirin appeared at the door. She was wearing a snow-white floral dress without any head scarf. Mamani had never seen Shirin in person. All she knew about her was my scattered anecdotes of the encounters I had with her. She eagerly accepted Shirin’s offer to come inside. I was certain she wanted to inspect the house and the people living there. Shirin appeared warm and welcoming, and offered a glass of tea.
We stayed in the living room while she went to the kitchen to prepare tea. Right in front of us, framed photos of two army men hung on the wall. One of them appeared younger than the other, but there was a striking resemblance between the two. They both had bushy beards, one grizzled and the other as black as hot tar. I noticed the LA insignia on the chest pocket of both men’s uniforms.
Mamani pointed at the pictures and asked in a hushed voice, “Her family members work for the Revolutionary Guard?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
Shirin returned with two china cups of tea and a sugar cubes bowl in a serving tray. I glanced at her as she stooped and held the silver tray in front of me. The brilliant blue roses of her tea dress matched her oval zircon earrings. The dress had a tight waist and its godet hemline kissed the naked shin above her ankles.
“Thanks for bringing Moji here. I am sure it’ll help her immensely to finish the script.” She placed the empty tea tray on the wooden coffee table and sat in front of Mamani.
“You’re welcome, Ms. Shirin. I hope everything goes well with the play.”
“Hopefully it will. The girls are enthusiastic about it. They can’t wait until we start rehearsing the act.”
Mamani finished her tea and placed the empty cup in the saucer on the side table. She started playing with the edges of the silk scarf she’d placed on her lap. “Hopefully we haven’t disturbed your family this early in the morning.”
“Oh. Not at all,” she said. “Nobody is home except me. Mother goes to Behesht Zahra every Friday morning. She wants to talk to her martyred husband and son.”
“I am very sorry, Ms. Shirin,” Mamani said in a low tone.
“Thank you,” she said. She stared at her father’s photo. “He died three years ago in Kurdistan. My brother was beheaded one month after him, same Kurdistan.” She bit her lips, her hands squeezing the blue roses of her dress.
“How horrible!” Mamani said. Her gaped mouth and her fixed gaze on the photos cried her utter surprise. “I’m so very sorry to hear this. It must’ve been terribly hard for you and your mother.”
The corner of Shirin’s lips quirked up in a bitter smile. She turned her eyes toward the window and looked at the bare chinar trees outside. Not even a speck of the golden streaks was visible in her irises. “Mother misses them a lot. She spends every Friday with them. That’s her way of coping with their absence.”
“So hard, so sad.” Mamani shook her head.
I had never heard Shirin talking about her family. I was shocked to find out she’d lost her father and brother. She had never made a reference to their martyrdom. All those years, in every single ceremony we had about the war between Iran and Iraq, she had remained silent, not even a drop of tear filling her eyes. I wondered how she could be so resilient about such horrifying disaster in her life.
“Would you like some more tea?” Shirin asked to change the subject.
“Oh, sure. Thank you,” Mamani answered. She was dying to find a private moment to talk to me. As soon as Shirin left, Mamani rose from the sofa and came to me. “What a horrible story!” she whispered. “Did you know any of that?”
I didn’t know anything.
“Most probably they’ve been killed by the Kurd secessionists in a guerrilla combat. They were devout members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Not everyone goes to those areas of the border.” She cupped her face with her hands and sighed an audible sigh. She regretted why she’d brought me to Shirin’s house. “I don’t want you to come here again,” she said in a hushed tone.
I nodded and said nothing. My jaws were locked. I heard Shirin’s footsteps coming back to the living room. Her wooden sandals clacked on the parquet floor. Mamani rushed back to her seat and grabbed her scarf. Shirin had fresh cups of tea in the tray.
“Ms. Shirin, I have to pick up Moji’s sister from her volleyball practice. I’m afraid I can’t stay for another cup of tea.” She tied her scarf around her neck and picked up her purse from the sofa.
Shirin placed the tray on the coffee table. “Bashe, that’s fine. Thanks for bringing Moji here today.”
Mamani hurried to shake hands with Shirin and kissed my forehead before she left. “Call me as soon as you’re done!”
I hadn’t spoken a word since I’d come to Shirin’s house. Even after sipping the tea, my mouth felt completely dry. I pressed my hands against my thighs to keep them from trembling and revealing my anxiety. I rose from the sofa as soon as Shirin returned to the living room. She stretched her hand and asked me to sit. The silence in the room was suffocating. I could hear the cars that parked outside and turned off their engines. I didn’t know what to tell her. What word of condolence could spring out of my mouth? Did she even want me to refer to those frames hanging on the wall? What about Mamani’s warning? Why didn’t she want me to come to her house again? Was she scared of something? Or was it because of them being radical revolutionaries?
“Are you done with the final scene?” Shirin tore my chain of thoughts and brought me back to the room.
“Then let’s go to my room and start.”
I followed her down a murky corridor that led to her bedroom. Nothing decorated the corridor and I couldn’t guess the color painted on the walls. We passed a bathroom and a bedroom. From the half-open door of that bedroom, I saw a picture of a young couple in wedding gowns hanging on top of an oval mirror. The dark violet bed cover was neatly done. Her mother must have woken up early to make the bed and tidy up the room before she left. At the far end, as soon as she twisted the door knob and opened the door to her bedroom, bright light flooded the corridor.
I could have never imagined what I saw in that room. Intricate work of Persian calligraphy adorned every inch of the walls. Birds in different shapes perched on tiny tangerine twigs, each bird brought into existence by curved Persian alphabet letters that spooned one another with compassion and care. Drawn in delicate pen and ink, the birds possessed every possible shade of blue. No doubt Shirin had spent hundreds of hours depicting those letter-made birds, singing poems on the boughs. On her gul–o-morgh carpet, books were strewn like bowls of ambrosia for the heavenly birds. Mantiq-ut-tayre nested at a higher level, on the royal blue and ivory quilt of her bed.
She pulled out the chair behind her desk and pushed the ink pen collection away to create space. A stack of calligraphy stencils occupied the corner of the desk. Ink jars lined up in a row along the edge, almost touching the wall. From lapis to lazhuward to irtyu, her room brimmed with blue. How come I’d never noticed so much blue in her before? Pungent aroma of henna and brown sugar wafted from a ceramic bowl covered with a plastic wrap. The henna paste looked fresh, being made early that morning.
“Sit here, Moji. I hope the scent of henna doesn’t bother you.” She took the ceramic bowl from the desk and placed it on the bed stand.
“Not at all,” I said. “I’m used to it. My grandma colors her hair with a mix of henna and coffee powder. I love the aroma of coffee in her mix.”
She sat on the quilt, squeezed the pillow between her torso and the wall and rested her head on the pillow. “My ears are yours.”
I read the last act out loud. Every word I uttered brushed the anxiety off my chest. I felt peaceful and pristine once again. We worked all morning and a couple of hours after lunch. She believed the unification of thirty birds to become Simorgh at the end of the quest was well dramatized in the final scene.
“I love how you pictured hoopoe as the foremost part of Simorgh. Oh, I remember…” She jumped down from the bed and fetched a book from the floor. “I wanted to show you this the other day.”
The book was about the Islamic art of calligraphy. She placed the book on the desk and flipped the pages to find the image. On what appeared to be a straw-colored, ahar paper, an outline of a bird was drawn in black and gold ink. A small crown of feathers characterized the bird as hoopoe. Head craned backward, he was glancing at his black, bold wing. Inside the wing, three cedars had grown in different directions—a symbol of the hoopoe’s abode. Tiny golden curls embellished the torso and the long curved neck, and the word Rahman—the merciful—stretched like his back bone all the way to his eye. The feathers on the tail flared ostentatiously in every direction. The word Bismillah, as Shirin had stated in school, was written on his beak in fine black ink.
“Amazing,” I said.
She nodded and came closer to the desk. She leaned over me to reach the stack of stencils at the corner. The blue roses on her tea dress kissed my cheek. From among the stack, she pulled the stencil copy of the hoopoe image she’d just shown to me. She had carved out the curved alphabet on the torso of the bird. I suddenly remembered the tattoo of the mysterious rooster I saw years ago on her neck.
Her waist rubbed my shoulder. She didn’t make any attempt to stay farther from me. “I learned this art from my paternal aunts. The years we visited them in Abadan.” She sighed and slid her long fingers on the inner curves of the stencil. “They used to draw paisley patterns on my hands. But I animate my calligraphy and draw birds. It’s soothing to bring verses to life by carving them out like birds. Nice body tattoos they become.”
She stared at my neck and chest for a few moments, measuring the sizes with her eyes. “This hoopoe pattern is new. Would you like to have one on your chest?”
I was wearing a turtleneck shirt that day. Mamani always insisted we cover our chest from cold by having tight collars. I was astonished by her offer. To have a tattoo by my counsellor was a bizarre incident I could have never imagined in my dreams. At fourteen, I haven’t even pierced my ears, how could I have a tattoo of any pattern on my body? I’d never even tried my grandmother’s henna on the tip of my nails, how could I let her draw a whole tattoo on my chest?
“I’m fine,” I said. “Thank you!”
“Come on, Moji. Why don’t you try something new? It’s temporary. It’ll fade in a few weeks.”
She reached for my fingers and gently turned my hand to glance at the palm. A sharp, tingling sensation traversed my nerves as she mapped the crossed lines with her fingertips. She uncovered my forearm with the other hand and patted my bare skin. “You have a nice skin tone, Moji,” she whispered. “The color of henna will turn to an attractive auburn on your skin. The cold, clammy feeling when it dries is relaxing.”
I was trapped. I didn’t know how to respond to her offer. What if Mamani accidentally found the tattoo on my chest? What if a feather revealed itself under the first undone button of my blouse? I didn’t understand her insistence, but I also didn’t dare to ask. I was scared to paint the tattoo on my body.
Shirin sensed my doubt. She retracted her hands and distanced herself by re-organizing the collection of the stencils on her desk. She closed the calligraphy book and embraced it in in her bosom. “You need to step in, Moji,” she said. “The road to Mount Qaf is arduous and challenging. Remember the first valley of the seven valleys to Simorgh?”
My eyes were fixed on the row of blue inks. I remembered: The Valley of the Quest. It all started with a wanton desire. She was standing on my shoulder like a God-sent angel, holding a book to her chest, waiting for me to start the quest. I tilted my head upward and looked at her eyes. What mystery lied in those golden streaks that I could never say no to her? I nodded and surrendered in utter silence.
She grabbed the henna bowl from the bed stand and left the book of calligraphy in its place. From her closet, she brought a wooden box that contained the necessary tools for henna tattoo. She unfolded a cotton apron that had many amber stains on its front and wrapped the strings around her neck and waist. With strong, measured strokes, she mixed the henna into a smooth paste and poured the paste into a thick plastic bag she’d cut its corner before.
“You want to undress while I moist the cleaning towel?”
The hardest part for me was to become topless in front of her. Except for the time Mamani scrubbed my skin in the bath, I’d never become naked in front of anyone. I always wonder how I overcame the sense of shame in Shirin’s bedroom and let her stare at my naked breasts. She collected my curls and created a bun on top of my head. No strand of hair was allowed to fall on the breasts. “Ready?” she whispered into my ears.
I nodded. I felt her icy fingers through the stencil paper when she pressed? her hand to my breast to keep the paper in place. I don’t know if she sensed the throbbing of my heart. Every minute I expected her to ask, “What’s wrong, little bird? Calm down.” But she didn’t say anything and spread the henna paste in absolute silence. I struggled with shame and my nipples became erect because of her touch. Every time her fingers accidentally nudged my nipples, I felt a sharp needle prick. But to my utter surprise, I didn’t want her to stop. I enjoyed her soft touch. Unlike what she had claimed, there was no cold sensation of henna as it dried. Anywhere she spread the paste burned as if she’d placed a hot iron on that patch of skin.
After half an hour, she gave me a hand mirror to see the bird. The body parts of hoopoe appeared one by one as she rubbed off the dried clumps of henna with the damp towel. He perched audacious and lively on my breast. The word Bismillah was imprinted on the beak, on the spot above my heart. I was ready to tread on the Valley of the Quest. I was marked to become a soldier for Allah.
Mojgan Ghazirad, a native of Iran, graduated from Tehran University of Medical Sciences and studied pediatrics at Inova Children’s Hospital, with a Neonatal medicine specialty from George Washington University. She currently works as an Assistant Professor of pediatrics at George Washington University NICU in Washington, DC. She has published three collections of short stories in Farsi in Iran and Europe: A Lover in White Jacket in 2012 in Iran, Turquoise Dream in 2014 in Germany, and her last collection In the Solitude of Suitcases in 2016 in the UK. Her English essays have appeared in The Best American Travel Writing 2020, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Idaho Review, Longreads, The Common, etc. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University. Her memoir, The House on Sun Street, depicts her memories of growing in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and eight years of war between Iran and Iraq after the Revolution. She lives with her family in Great Falls, Virginia.