By Maria Saba
My parents were communists. Not that they ever told me. I found that out years after their execution by the Shah’s forces.
I was at my grandmother’s house the night they ‘left on a long trip’, as Grandma said later. When my parents came to take me home that final afternoon, I pretended to be asleep under a blanket, hoping they would wait for me to wake up because they couldn’t imagine leaving without me. “She never naps in the afternoon,” I heard my mother say over the popping and crackling of esfand. Kobra, my mother’s nanny, was burning esfand seeds in an incense burner which she circled around my mother while praying to ward away harm.
“With all those people about your flat, how could my poor child find any peace and quiet to sleep?” Grandma retorted. I loved her. She always took my side.
My mother sighed. I was about to give up the pretence and leave with them when my father said, “We can’t shut our door to the world so Mahta can take a nap.”
‘The world’ was a group of comrades as they called themselves, who showed up at our apartment at all hours, drank tea and talked forever. When the landlord, Mrs. Tahouri, complained about so many pairs of shoes outside the door, I hoped they would stop coming. “It’s not a mosque. It’s a residential flat,” she complained. But the comrades brought their shoes inside and left them on rows of newspaper Mom had spread out. Turning in my bed, I imagined cutting each shoe into hundreds of pieces.
I knew it would be the same that evening. Let them go to their friends, I mumbled from under the blanket.
The esfand smoke threw Dad into a cough. Grandma reminded Kobra that burning a little esfand was just as effective as a lot of it and opened the window.
“I’ll bring Mahta by tomorrow,” Grandma said. If Dad hadn’t been there, she probably would have told my mother she could never understand sacrificing their angel’s comfort for a group of strangers.
“Let me give her a kiss then,” my mother said. My heart sank; they don’t miss me, I thought. She lowered the blanket, caressed my hair, and hugged me gently. The sweet scent of forsythia from her hair filled my head. I yearned to clasp my arms around her, but she hadn’t insisted on taking me home because their ‘friends’ mattered more.
She moved away. “Should I take her things now?”
“No, I’ll bring everything,” Grandma said.
Something tickled my hand. Dad’s moustache. He let go of my hand and kissed my forehead. My eyes twitched, and my lips trembled as I rolled over to hide my tears.
After I heard the clanking of the latch, I threw aside the blanket and sat up. The smell of esfand lingered, or perhaps it had been imprinted in my senses. Throughout my childhood I was so used to Kobra burning esfand and pleading with God, the Merciful and the Great, for the well-being of my family, who couldn’t be farther from religion, that I failed to detect any irony in her devout Muslim prayer for ‘Godless communists’. Nor did I find it strange that Grandma supported Kobra’s rozeh or her several pilgrimages to Mashhad and one to Mecca. I took this genial coexistence for granted until after the revolution, when these age-old ways were viewed as intolerable results of lack of conviction and weak faith.
The next morning I got up late, surprised that neither Grandma nor Kobra had woken me up or called me to breakfast. No sound came from the kitchen or the living room. I found Grandma sitting in the hall by the phone. Her body swayed while her hands scratched her knees. Kobra entered with a tea tray. Grandma lifted her head and coughed as if something was stuck in her throat. “I’m going to your home to see…” She opened her arms for me.
I settled on her lap. “I’m coming too.”
She paused, searching for words. “But then you can’t help Kobra decorate the cake.”
Kobra forced out a smile, which didn’t cheer up her sunken face. “Miss Mahta, why don’t you help me? I bake the cake…but decoration… you’re so good at it.”
Grandma’s eyes went from one thing to another, never looking at me. I clasped my arms around her. “Don’t worry Grandma. I’ll stay and help Kobra until you get back.” I pressed my face against hers. “Why are you crying, Grandma? I promise to be good.” She wiped her face. “It’s dust. I am sensitive to dust. Kobra, don’t forget to dust everything.” She added suddenly, “The pickle jars. Start with those.” Kobra nodded slowly.
After breakfast, Kobra spent a long time praying for the children with her eyes closed, her hands turning the prayer beads. One of her two henna-coloured braids had fallen out of her white scarf as she bobbed her head back and forth. Kobra was hired as my mother’s nanny when my grandparents were visiting relatives in Bushehr. She had become so attached to my then six-month-old mother and the whole family that she left her own to live with my grandparents in Tehran. The last time she’d seen her family, they had urged her to stay and marry an old man with two wives and eight children. She cut her ties with them but not with their traditions. To our daily meals she added dishes from Bushehr, such as ghelyeh mahi or dal adas, and guests asked for them so often that sometimes Grandma held parties, at which only traditional dishes of Bushehr were served. On these occasions, Kobra’s eyes glistened with pride as she thanked the guests for their kind remarks on her humble work, as she called it.
At Grandma’s I often followed Kobra around the house, watching her prepare dishes or dust and clean. Her meticulous handling of ordinary chores elevated every task to the level of ceremony, and I imitated everything. Her hand glided the dusting cloth over the dining table, and I raised my heels to reach the table top and followed her path with my little piece of cloth. Then she stood back, craned her head this way and that to catch any stains she might have missed, and I did the same. She often paused and smiled at me, placed her palm on her chest, and with eyes toward the ceiling prayed for my health and salvation. During one of Grandma’s parties, when Major Kalantar asked me what I wanted to become when I grew up, I answered, “I want to be Kobra.” I didn’t understand why the guests burst into laughter, and my mother bit her lip. Later I heard her say to Grandma, “I think she loves Kobra more than she loves me.”
“Maybe because Kobra spends more time with her.” Grandma said. “Besides, I remember a time when you loved Kobra more than me.”
“Well, that was different.” She added after a pause, “I’m worried about all the religious things Kobra does.”
“Next thing you know Mahta will be asking for prayer beads of her own,” Grandma said, and they both laughed as people do when they think of something sweet and endearing. I had indeed thought about asking for a long string of green prayer beads like Kobra’s, which she had brought from a pilgrimage to Mashhad, but I changed my mind to prove them wrong.
After Kobra finished with her prayer for ‘the children’, we went into the basement. She pushed a metal shelf loaded with pickle jars away from the wall and pulled out batches of paper tied with string. “There are mites in these. Let’s burn them.”
“Grandma said to dust them,” I reminded her.
“It won’t do. Worms will creep out and fill the house. Let’s make a fire.”
Kobra heaped the papers and went upstairs to fetch matches. I sorted the batches of paper into rows.
“What’s this Miss Mahta?”
“Chahar shanbeh soori!” I clapped my hands. The last Tuesday of the year, we would make a row of fires in Grandma’s garden and jump over them. The fire was to cleanse us of sickness and bring us health and strength in preparation for the forthcoming New Year. Kobra pressed her hand on her chin and then her throat as if to swallow something. “Are you going to cry, Kobra?”
“No Miss, no.” Kobra squatted on the tiles and placed a lit match on top of the first pile. I jumped over it and sang. “Zardi-e man az to.” Kobra held her head between her hands. “Those ones too.” I pointed to the rest of the piles. She looked up at me anxiously and shifted over to the next pile with another match. I leapt over the second flame. “Sorkhi-e to az man.” Kobra moved beside the next batch and dropped the lit match. And the next. Then I stopped. Something was happening. Everyone knew about it but me. Maybe my parents too. But I knew there was no point asking. “Divar moosh daareh, moosh ham goosh daareh,” was the oldest whisper in our house, in Grandma’s too, perhaps in every household in the city and the country. I had learned not to ask, but to be wary of the familiar walls, which had mice, who had ears. Whom did they report to and how did they convey the information they gathered? These details kept me awake at night, and I imagined little grey mice pressing their ears to the walls. Perhaps they had ears that could hear from one end of the street to the other, and then they travelled on cable cars in the underground tunnels to report in their squeaky voices to mice headquarters.
I squatted beside Kobra and pressed my head against her arm. Her knees humped up, and her eyes fixed on a spot on the floor.
“Are you going to call rozehkhoon this week?” I asked with the hope of cheering her up. Her only activity beyond house chores was monthly rozeh ceremonies, if it could be called that. Kobra and a neighbour woman, also from Bushehr, would sit in the garden on a rug under a row of mulberry trees, listening to an old mullah, who recited tales of martyred saints from his chair. The women wrapped themselves tightly in their chadors in front of the mullah, who wore a black turban and a faded, black robe.
Quietly riding my tricycle around them, I listened to the same stories, the mullah raising and lowering his voice while rubbing his forehead, tugging his beard or placing his hand behind his ears. His way of telling the stories, his intonations and inflections shifting from melancholy to rage, captivated me. When one story got to the part where Shemr’s arrow hit the saint’s goatskin water bag, depriving him of the last drops of water in the scorching desert of Karbala, the mullah’s sorrowful humming and chest beating always transfixed me. I would stop my tricycle and watch the rise and fall of the heads and the shoulders under the black chadors as the women sobbed, my own throat knotted over the doom of the brave, holy saint. About this time, my grandmother would call me to take a tray of dates, fruits, and tea to the mullah and his audience. As taught, I would place the tray on the small table in front of him and say, “Please Sir, you need to wet your throat.” He would smile through the lines and folds of his leathery skin and receive the offering after a “Sisters, with your permission.”
The mention of rozeh brought a brief spark to Kobra’s eyes. “He’s back in Bushehr now.”
“The fire is out,” I said.
“Let’s wash the floor.”
I held the hose while Kobra wiped away the ashes with the straw broom. We left the door and the windows open for the floor to dry and Kobra pushed the shelf back against the wall.
The phone rang upstairs. Kobra ran for it, and when I came up behind her she was saying. “Yes, yes, oh dear God.” Her knees wobbled, and she reached for a chair. “Yes Ma’am. Yes Ma’am. Now? Yes Ma’am. I will.”
“Let me talk to Grandma.” I went up the chair and grabbed the phone from her. Grandma’s voice was tired and distant.
“Mahta, my dear…”
I interrupted. “Let me talk to my mom.”
“Your mom can’t talk right now… She’s out.” Her voice quavered. “I’ll come home soon. Just be a good girl dear and help Kobra. Bye, love.” And she hung up.
I turned to Kobra. She looked so remote that I didn’t bother asking anything.
“Let’s go Miss Mahta.” She took my hand, but didn’t move for a while.
In the kitchen, Kobra placed the large flour container on the counter.
“I don’t want any cake,” I said, but it was as if my voice didn’t reach her. She hummed a sad melody as she poured oil in a pan and turned on the heat. This wasn’t the way she made cake.
“We always start with egg and sugar,” I said. One of her tears fell into the pan and sizzled. She stifled the crackling oil by dumping a bowl of flour onto it. The scent of sautéed flour churned my stomach. Kobra had made halva when Grandpa died. For a whole week, plates of halva and dates and trays of tea were passed around relatives from Sanandaj, wailing and sobbing in every corner of the house. Men and women blew into hookahs and blew out smoke, which meandered through the room like white serpents.
The sight of Grandpa’s face through a gap in his shroud as he was lowered into the grave flashed through my mind. “I don’t want any halva! Stop!”
Kobra turned off the stove.
“Stop singing,” I yelled, though I knew she wasn’t singing a song but murmuring an elegy I had heard at Grandpa’s funeral. Kobra slunk onto a chair and wiped her face with the corner of her scarf. Her head bowed so low that her chin rested on her chest.
Kobra took out her prayer beads from her vest pocket. Turning the beads, she prayed for their souls in the safety of heaven. I imagined a dark, enormous wave crashing against our home and toppling it over, leaving nothing behind but pairs of old sneakers floating on top of newspapers and myself flying on the wings of the legendary simorgh like heroes of Shahnameh and taking away my parents to a safe place.
Kobra’s sobbing interrupted her prayers. I burst into tears too. She held me tight, pressing my face against her wet cheeks, and resumed her plea for the salvation of those who were no longer with us.
Did Kobra know she was praying for Godless communists? I was too young to perceive such subtleties and later, like many fifteen-year-olds with my know-it-all attitude and my so-called political activities, too self-absorbed to ask. The answer nonetheless came to me when three years after the revolution, Kobra was ill with bronchitis. Confined to bed, her round face had shrunk, and her dark rimmed eyes had lost their brightness. Day after day Grandma and I cared for her. One day, after helping her lean against the pillow while feeding her soup, she pushed the bowl away.
“Pray for me, Miss Mahta,” she said, her gaze beseeching fixed on me. I set the bowl next to her prayer beads on the side table and wiped the sweat from her forehead.
“Me?” She knew I did not believe in God. Like my parents, I was a communist.
“Wouldn’t it be better if someone who…?”
“Your heart is pure. Just like your mom’s.” She placed her hand on her chest, pointing to her heart. “That’s what God sees.”
“I will. I promise,” I said. I would have done anything for her.
Her head rolled to one side and her tired gaze went to her prayer beads on the table. I picked it up and turned the beads as I had seen her do many times. Her eyes shone, and the corners of her lips moved in an effort to smile. I recited the names of the prophet and the saints and turned the string of beads three or four times until she nodded.
“Now try to eat a little more,” I said. I picked up the bowl and continued feeding her. She smiled and like an obedient child opened her mouth.
A month later, in response to a call by the Muslim Students’ Association, I headed for a debate, which turned out to be a trap and led to my arrest. This was just before the time when the revolutionary regime was distinguishing those who had been killed in their fight against the Shah as martyrs and not-quite-martyrs. It didn’t occur to me then that my parents would soon fall into the latter category since martyrdom was for the religious, and specifically Muslims, just as I did not perceive that my classmates of three years could perceive me as the enemy, entice me and three of my friends to record proclamations of our goals for equality and freedom from religious laws and mandatory practices, and then hand in the tape to the pasdars lurking near the school.
On that fall afternoon, I said good-bye to Grandma and Kobra, standing side by side, seeing me off with looks of fondness and anxiety. Full of young optimism, I did not perceive these two women as the last pillars of a crumbling, old world, where tolerance and unconditional love soared above everything else. I left them behind, leaping into a world that would grant no such protections.
Maria Saba is an Ottawa-based writer, storyteller, and arts educator. Born and raised in Iran, she has published three books and over a hundred articles, interviews, and stories in four continents. Maria’s short story collection, “My First Friend”, was a semi-finalist for the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, and the title story, published in Scoundrel Time won the Editor’s Choice Award and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her novella, “The Secret of Names” was longlisted for the 2020 Disquiet Literary Prize.
Maria has served on various arts and literature juries and is the recipient of grants in English literature from Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and the City of Ottawa. She attended Banff Writing Studio and residencies at Al-Purdy A-Frame in Ameliasburgh and Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. She recently won the PEN Canada Scholarship and the Wallace Stegner Award in the arts. Currently Maria is working on her debut novel, “There You Are.”