Talking Moharrém Blues

Image: by Margaret Kahn; Used with permission

On his first visit from the town to the village, Matt’s heart sank. The room he was supposed to teach in had no windows and barely even a door. It was nothing but a hovel, fashioned out of dried mud. But he put the best face on it that he could as he sat in the headman’s house, sucking on sugar lumps to sweeten the bitter tea.

Ken, the regional director at the Peace Corps office in Tehran, had said they were sending him to a village with a spanking new school. When Matt complained to the other ex-pats in town they told him it was par for the course. Nothing worked the way it was supposed to here. Iran is a very farce-y country, the more jaded ones liked to pun.

But Matt hadn’t joined the Peace Corps to accept the status quo. The other Americans—army personnel, mainly, or businessmen intent on cashing in on the oil wealth–argued that Iranians were not ready for democracy, but Matt felt that everyone deserved a fair shake.

The first time he saw “his boys” as he came to call them, he wondered for a moment if he’d been assigned a special ed class. Ranging in age from about eight to eighteen, their heads were shaved and most of them refused to even meet his eyes. Instruction got off to a slow start.

English was the subject he was supposed to teach, but these peasant boys showed no aptitude for learning it. He cast about for ways to make it easier and tried teaching “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” As he led them through the verses and compared these peasants to an American farmer who owned his own land, he quickly realized how ridiculous this was. In college Matt had been a political science major. He had even risked riling up the censors here by bringing his most treasured books — by W.E.B. Dubois, Franz Fanon, and Herbert Marcuse.

On the third day he brought in a song from another one of his heroes – the folk singer Pete Seeger. “Talking Union Blues” had come from his earliest childhood. He had literally learned it on his father’s knee. His students leaned forward, their eyes rapt as he intoned the lyrics. He felt some relief in just saying the words. “Now, if you want higher wages let me tell you what to do/You got to talk to the workers in the shop with you./ You got to build you a union, got to make it strong,/But if you all stick together, boys, it won’t be long.”

As he chanted on he thought of the workers he had seen here. Men in the meagerest of clothes, barefoot some of them, throwing bricks to one another as they stood on rickety scaffolds.

Afterwards, Ameer, by far the best student, had taken him aside. “We do not sing such songs in my country,” he told Matt a stern look.

When Matt confided to a couple of the ex-pats what he had done they had regarded him with amazement.

“What are you trying to do?” one of them asked. “Get your students thrown into prison?”

He felt ashamed then for not having realized where the real risk for speaking his mind lay. Not for himself, a protected American, but for locals listening to his dangerous talk.

But the damage was already done. He went from having 30 students, to five, and finally to none. He thought of calling the Peace Corps director in Tehran for advice, but then decided it would be stupid to admit such a mistake. Better to take a little break and hope it would all blow over.

By the third day he was tired of hiding in his house so shortly after noon he jumped on his motorcycle and headed out of town in the opposite direction from the village. The bike had been his one luxury, bought from a German tourist shortly after his arrival. He gunned the motor over dried-up stream beds, passing springs with tell-tale patches of green surrounding them. Under the wide blue desert sky, staring at the soaring mountains that ringed the plain, he started to feel like himself again.

The next morning the warm winter sun was already slanting in through the crudely glazed window when he heard voices outside followed by the creak of the gate opening into the courtyard. Through the window he saw a boy coming up the path, the chadored figure of the landlady beside him.

“The foreigner is in there,” he heard her saying in her hoarse voice.

Matt wondered who exactly she was letting in. A passing salesman? The Iranian equivalent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses? Or maybe it was SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, come to ask the foreigner what he was doing here. Although why they would do that was anyone’s guess. He’d recently come to understand that everyone in this country just assumed all Peace Corps volunteers were CIA agents.

He pulled his pants on over his pajamas and went to the door. The shaved headed boy who stood there looked strangely out of context. The town was full of modern appliances, European cars, fashions from Paris. This boy with his baggy trousers and shaved head was either from the poor neighborhood near the bazaar or from one of the surrounding villages.

He must be selling something, Matt decided, when he saw the red plastic bowl in his hands. People hawked things in the alley all the time – mainly kerosene oil, but sometimes fruit.

“Mr. Mattoo,” he said in heavily accented English. “Why you not come to teach us?”

Only then did Matt realize that this was Ameer, with his head newly shaven, probably for lice.

“I was feeling sick,” Matt lied.

Ameer gave a solemn nod. “God willing you will feel better soon.”

“God willing,” Matt echoed. “Be farmayeed.” He gestured for the boy to enter his room.

But no amount of inviting would bring Ameer past the threshold. Instead he handed the red bowl to Matt. It appeared to be full of sour-cream-like yogurt. In addition there was a little bouquet of fresh mint, tied with a blade of grass. Matt stood in the doorway watching for a long time after Ameer went away, carefully closing the crudely hewn gate behind him.

After that, Matt never missed another day. He went to that dark hovel of a classroom – so hot in the summer and now freezing in the winter– and taught them anything he thought might be useful – English, simple arithmetic, how to read maps. He wrote to a friend in the United States and asked him to send a kit he’d had in his own childhood. Called a “Visible V-8” it was intended for Americans interested in working on car motors. Matt thought mechanical skills might prove more useful than learning English. The boys in his school were not likely to ever attend college. The books alone would cost too much, not to mention the loss of their labor. Their families were serfs for the local landlord. Most likely their futures, if they didn’t stay where they were eking a living off the land, lay in joining the army.

The fact that most of the engines here weren’t V-8’s didn’t occur to him until he was facing the customs officers and sweating over whether they would let him receive the package. Once they saw the plastic and realized it was what they called a toy they saw no need to confiscate it. Still, impressed by the shiny packaging, they forced him to pay double its price in duties.   Hopefully, he thought, it would at least be useful for them to learn the vocabulary items – pistons, cylinders, crankshafts – that were probably borrowed into Farsi.

He swallowed his complaints and took the now-opened box filled with plastic pieces back in a taxi. He hadn’t wanted to compromise it by putting it on the back of his bike.

As soon as he got it to his room, he wanted to take it out to the village. Only then did he realize that it was already getting dark. Night was not the right time to arrive with a bunch of little pieces of plastic in a place with no electric lights.

Reluctantly he waited until the following morning. It was winter now, but he woke most mornings with the sun in his eyes. It was warm on his back too when he went outside. Just as he was wheeling the bike to the gate, Ameer hurried up the alley, on foot and out of breath.

“Mr. Qorbanipoor says you must come right away. Important visitors are expected.”

Matt hesitated. Qorbanipoor’s title was agricultural agent. But Matt had never seen him show the slightest interest in crops. He inhabited an office in town where he fielded calls that always ended in him shouting, “Qorbanet” into the receiver, literally, “I am your sacrifice,” presumably to the people to whom he owed his position. Qurbanipoor was not his real name, but Matt enjoyed calling him that. “Son of sacrifice” seemed about right for a man who was ready to sacrifice nothing for the greater good, like so many of the people put in charge of things here.

Now Ameer was telling Matt how it was finally going to happen – what they had all been waiting for. The village would get the school that had been promised. They were going to break ground for the building today.

Ameer hung on behind as they sped past the fallow fields. Matt noticed once again, how the sun made this ancient used up land, so full of erosion and cracks, seem fascinating. He loved the weather here. One or two brief thunderstorms were the only breaks in a series of days that were framed in turquoise and azure.

Ameer hopped off before they came within sight of the village. Matt got off his motorcycle alone. There were more people hanging about than usual. Children with dirt-streaked faces crowded around the motorcycle. It never got old. The arrival of the Peace Corps volunteer to their village was like the arrival of the afternoon bus. It gave them something to mark their days, something to look forward to. He smiled and waved the way he always did, and then he walked to the house of the village headman.

The men stood when he entered. The villagers had gaunt sunburnt faces and rusty black suits. The city men had paler skin and European worsted over thicker waists. After everyone sat down, the headman’s daughter set a glass of tea on the rug in front of him.

After the ritual greetings, no one said anything. But Matt could see from the way their eyes met – past him, over him, around him – that before he came, they’d had plenty to talk about.

He kept stealing glances at his watch. Already these visitors were over two hours late. They were coming from Tabriz, to the north. It was part of a tour, a jaunt through the unwashed countryside. The royals, in the person of the Shah’s mother-in-law, were engineering a series of photo-ops to show Americans and the rest of the world how much they were helping poor villagers. This was part of the Shah’s so-called “White Revolution” where not only was the land supposed to be redistributed, the serfs were supposed to be re-educated. They might believe this in Washington, but Matt knew better.

Already he was starting to feel compromised by his presence, as if he were lending even more American imprimatur to what was going on. Whether the school got built or not was not the point. The point was that this whole thing was a sham. He was not a real teacher, just a Peace Corps volunteer. As for the building itself, how many times had he seen government construction materials siphoned off from their supposed recipients?

But of course he could say nothing about this. All he could do was sit and smile and look appropriately Western. Ameer had disappeared. But other students were there, Hassan and Bahman giving Matt embarrassed grins. Matt thought of the Visible V-8 back in town and wished he had brought it.

He was on his fourth glass of tea when his thoughts began to race. Why was he just sitting here? Why didn’t he just call his boys together and take them away to the spot where he usually taught them? Or better still, organize. Have a real demonstration. The village didn’t need just the school that had been promised years ago. It needed medical care, clean water, electricity.

Matt looked around him. A dung-fueled fire rose from the courtyard where the women lived, the so-called “harem.” Probably they had been setting things aside for days, even months, for the feast they were preparing. The chickens that had to be killed, the pickled vegetables opened, the bread baked in the underground ovens. Matt sat in the lone folding metal chair the headman owned and thought of how the villagers would go without for months in order to impress the people they regarded as their betters.

Finally, three hours after they were expected, a puff of dust rose down near the entrance to the village. No one had eaten for hours. It would have been impolite to eat before the visitors arrived.

The car came on slowly. A Land Rover, of course. The children, even the dogs, stood aside respectfully. As soon as it stopped, the driver jumped out and went around to pull open the door. A woman wearing a coat made out of some very rare animal stepped out into the sunlight.

“Welcome, welcome, we are your sacrifice.” Mr. Qorbanipoor and his cronies moved forward as one body. Only Matt hung back.

Mr. Qorbanipoor had his arm outstretched. For a split second Matt imagined he had taken the hand of the woman in the leopard skin coat and kissed it and pressed it to his forehead the way the villagers sometimes did with their overlords.

But then he realized they were just shaking hands.

“I want to present Mattoo Summerson,” Mr. Qorbanipoor said. “He is doing very good work here.”

The woman in the leopard skin coat actually took a few steps toward him. Matt stood up. But then he looked down and saw that her shoes were high heeled with open work at the toes. The caffeine coursing through his blood coupled with his hunger made it all suddenly feel intolerable.

He wanted to ask if she had ever visited a village before today. If she had any idea of how the people here lived. Anger welled up in him. Anger at the way “his boys” had been treated. He felt the eyes of the villagers on him. Was he too going to be part of this charade?

But he couldn’t say any of this. Instinctively he knew that if he spoke in such a way to a member of the imperial family that would be beyond the pale. So he did the next best thing – he backed away.

Everything blurred after that. He had no memory even of anyone looking at him. He didn’t see his motorcycle until he was almost on top of it. But once he was on and bouncing down the road, he knew he had done something unforgivable. This place was all about status, and power. No one even went through a doorway before determining the correct order of who should go first.

Still they took their time. The call from Peace Corps central canceling his position came six days later. Matt had not gone back to the village. Instead he had holed up in his room reading Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle.

He’d wanted to be a dissident but all he felt like was a failure. Now he would never be able to help anyone here. For a few moments he allowed himself to wallow in regret and self-recrimination. Then he pulled himself together and started throwing books into a suitcase.

Later in the day he was nearly finished with packing when a knock sounded on his door.

He pulled it open. Ameer stood there, empty-handed this time.

“May I come in?” he asked.

Matt shrugged and went back to his packing. It was the height of rudeness, at least in this place, not to offer words of welcome or tea

But if Ameer felt insulted, he didn’t show it. “Can I help you?” he asked, entering without being invited.

“No thanks,” Matt told him.

Still he didn’t leave. “You will take the plane?”

“Train,” Matt said.

After Ken’s call Matt had debated with himself. He might have flown if the Peace Corps Director hadn’t been so insistent that he avoid Ashura.

This was the name of the upcoming “holiday” if that’s what it could be called. So many of the sacred days on the Muslim Iranian calendar were to honor martyrs. The other ex-pats had warned him about it.

“Everyone takes to the streets,” they said. “It’s weird stuff.”

Clearly Ken thought so too, and urged Matt to take the plane. But the expulsion order had only fanned the flames of Matt’s contrariness.

“I am coming with you.” Ameer said in a way that was not a question.

Matt stared at him. The thought crossed his mind that he might be working for SAVAK, assigned to make sure the disgraced foreigner actually left. Why else was he here? Matt didn’t understand it.

“Ashura is day after tomorrow,” Ameer reminded him.

“Yes, I know,” Matt said.

“My father’s brother lives in Tehran. You will be our guest.”

Matt studied him and then shrugged again. What did he care? The Visible V-8 was already in the hands of the trash man, who had accepted the box joyfully and then stopped at the end of the alley to puzzle over the contents.

The next day the train station was jammed when Matt and Ameer alighted from their taxi, struggling with Matt’s luggage. Matt started having second thoughts when he found out there was only second class available and they wouldn’t have their own compartment. But it was too late. Flights out of town were all booked. Ameer grabbed his heaviest bag and they climbed up into the car. Walking down the corridor Matt stared at the vintage wood paneling and oval shaped windows facing into the compartments. Some of them were already being draped with the dark fabric of chadors.

When they reached their own compartment, there were no veils, and no women either.

“Excuse us,” he heard Ameer telling everyone. “This is my teacher. He needs a place to put his books. He has many, many books.”

The two of them pushed hard to get the suitcase into the luggage rack above the facing leather seats. Then the train started up.

“Where are you from?” a man wearing a tight fitting turtleneck under a shabby suit jacket asked.

“Canada,” Matt said before Ameer could pre-empt him.

“What are you doing here?”

“Studying poetry,” Matt told them in Persian.

Their jaws dropped, as if by not hearing the expected replies they had no idea how to go on with the usual barrage – how much do you make? Are you married? Why not?

Later, when he and Ameer had gone to the dining car, Ameer asked why he hadn’t told the truth.

“It was the truth. I was born in Canada, and I love reading poetry, especially Rumi,” Matt told him.

If Ameer was surprised, he didn’t say so. Not until he had finished sucking the bones of the jujeh kebab Matt had ordered. These he pronounced not very fresh.

Matt felt a little thrill at such rudeness.

“Would you have preferred the dry cheese and bread that man was offering back in the compartment?”

“Don’t worry,” his student said. “The food at my father’s brother’s house will be like the food in paradise.”

Walking back through the long swaying corridor behind Ameer Matt felt off-balance in more ways than one. He still had no idea why Ameer had insisted on coming with him. Still less why he wanted to introduce him to his family.

Back in the compartment, mellowed out from the meal, Matt studied the others. The man in the turtleneck eyed him back curiously. He had a zoorkhaneh body. Matt had only heard of these “houses of strength.” He’d never had the chance to visit one of the traditional all-male gymnasiums.

“American?” the man in the turtleneck was inquiring in English as if he didn’t remember Matt’s previous answer.

Matt sighed and then nodded.

“How long you here?”

Matt cocked his head noncommittally, as if he didn’t quite understand. He could see the man working hard to think of more words in English. But after a few seconds he gave up, and began talking to Ameer.

Matt listened as Ameer explained how Matt was his teacher and that he was accompanying him on a mission to Tehran.

“Why are you helping him?” the man asked.

Ameer shrugged. “The principal of the school has asked me.”

Matt looked away, tired of trying to unravel why people said the things they did here. After awhile he closed his eyes. He was starting to think again about how his father would view this expulsion order.

In his younger days his father had been something of a firebrand too. Fighting for the rights of unions as a labor lawyer. But then unaccountably, he had switched sides. Matt wasn’t sure of all the reasons behind it. The obvious one, which his parents had already told him, was that Matt’s grandfather had died and his father needed to take over the family firm.

“They specialized in corporate law,” his mother had told him. “It was a wonderful practice. It made us a good living. You shouldn’t judge him too hard.”

Matt could barely remember that firebrand father, the father of “Talking Union.” The version he had now had wanted him to go to law school instead of joining the Peace Corps.

Matt had never bothered to write his parents about the real situation here. So there was no way to explain about getting kicked out either. Yesterday he had sent them a cable saying he would be arriving home shortly. He had no idea what reception awaited him.

The compartment had gone silent. Matt opened his eyes. They were all watching him. His heart pounded. He had heard the stories Americans told about the things that happened to foreigners here. Three years earlier, an American in a neighboring town had had his throat cut on New Year’s Eve. The ex-pats presumed the man was gay, which Matt wasn’t. Still. What if someone just thought you were gay?

“They want to know if you like our music.” Ameer was suddenly translating.

Matt looked at the faces turned toward him. “Yes,” he said simply.

Ameer started to translate but the the man in the turtleneck was already smiling and saying something back which Matt didn’t understand.

Ameer translated, “He wants to sing a song for you.”

Matt thought of his experience with “Old MacDonald.” None of his students had ever volunteered to teach him any songs although he’d asked them.

“Sure,” he said now. “Tell the man I would love to hear his song.”

The man in the turtleneck spoke again. “It’s a sad song, in honor of Hossein’s martyrdom. For Moharrém”

Ameer nodded, but he didn’t translate.

The song began. The first part was almost like an exercise, a warming up. Matt listened, thinking at first that it was nothing special. But then it grew on him as the clacking of the train wheels faded. The man had an incredible tenor voice, full of richness and vibrato. Matt closed his eyes, feeling his body soften as the music flowed through him. If only, if only, the music seemed to say. If only Hossein had not been slaughtered that day on the plain of Kerbala. If only the righteous had remained in charge of the caliphate.

Matt thought back to the historical overview the Peace Corps had given him. In the early years of Islam, the Arabs had conquered Persia. But Iranians in a sense had never really been conquered. The religion the Arabs brought had spectacularly fractured on the nearby plain of Kerbala where a group of men had brutally murdered Hossein, the heir apparent to the caliphate. Since then Islam had had two warring factions – the Sunni and the Shi’a.

It had all happened in the lunar month of Moharrem, the name given to the “holiday” they were now “celebrating.” The ashura or tenth day, was what Ken had warned him about. That was the day Hossein had been murdered.

The song had ended. Once again Ameer translated. “He wants to know if you liked it.”

Matt looked at the pairs of eyes trained on him. For a second he started, feeling that they’d seen his vulnerability. But then he realized that what he was feeling, they felt also.

“Yes,” he heard himself say. “I liked it.”

There was another moment of silence. Then the spell was broken as they began pulling the seats out and sliding the backs down until it was like one big bed, covered in aging leather. They stretched out gingerly, draping their jackets over them. Matt lay between Ameer and the window.

Even before the dawn light cracked in beneath the shades he could hear people out in the corridor, lining up for the lavatory. Ameer was still sleeping. Crumpled like a child under the cheap imitation American windbreaker he wore.

Matt lay still as long as he could, willing himself back into the sleep induced by the rocking of the train and the singing of the song. He was too tired to get up. Too tired to do all he needed to do before leaving this country. But it was too late. The day had begun.

He edged out into the corridor, feeling conspicuous. But no one seemed to notice him. They were too intent on getting their turn in the filthy toilet. When he came back to the compartment, without speaking he and Ameer gathered their things together. The train was pulling into the suburbs now, clacking past houses with bits of mirrors and colored glass stuck into their concrete facades.

In the big south Tehran station, the platform was thronged. But the mood had changed from the day before. In Tabriz, people had looked festive, their arms full of presents to take to relatives. Now they looked serious, almost angry. Near the platform huge black flags with colored calligraphy were stacked and next to them bouquets of chains, anchored in wooden handles.

“Follow me,” said Ameer.

Matt followed blindly.

“Where are we going?” he finally asked.

“My uncle has a stall in the bazaar.”

Without explanation Ameer quickened his pace. Others were running too. The stalls around them all looked closed and Matt wondered why they were coming here. Shop after shop had the shutters pulled down. But Ameer pressed on.

Matt began to sweat. He would never be able to find his way out again. Not alone, anyway. These old bazaars were labyrinths built in the oldest parts of town, often adjacent to mosques. Only belatedly did Matt realize that the marches would probably start right here.

Finally they came to a shop where the shutter was not completely pulled down.

Ameer said something in Turkish into the dark and two men came out. Matt stared at them. They were swarthy-looking, with days’ worth of stubble on their cheeks. They wore hats pulled down over their foreheads and there was a Mafioso look about them that made Matt nervous. They grabbed his luggage and handed it in under the shutter to the inside of the shop.

“Ameerl Welcome! How are you? Are you well? Salaam aleikum,” they cried, embracing him.

“My teacher, Mr. Matthew, has come with me.”

Matt nodded politely, but the two men grabbed his hand in turn and shook it warmly. Ameer began talking to his uncles in Azeri Turkish. It was a language Matt barely knew, although it was the language of the villagers. The Peace Corps had trained him mostly in Persian.

Matt sipped carefully from the tiny gold-rimmed tea glass they handed him, choosing a big lump of qand to hold between his teeth while the hot acrid liquid melted the sugar. He was waiting. Soon they would start offering him some goods. Rugs, probably. Or maybe jewelry. Hard to tell what they were selling here. But it wouldn’t matter really. A foreigner, even an unemployed foreigner, ought to be good for some kind of sale.

Matt’s vision hadn’t quite adjusted from the light outside. All he could see in the dimness were a bunch of burlap sacks. These didn’t reassure him. He recalled the time he had crossed the border into Pakistan and seen a couple of thuggish looking types carrying burlap sacks like these.

Then a scent came to him, making him realize they were near to the spice sellers. He sniffed again and realized it was turmeric, a spice he’d never really smelled before he came to Iran. Now its cool mustiness would forever remind him of the bazaar.

The three men were talking among themselves. Abruptly they stopped and turned toward Matt.

They were looking at his clothes, his glasses. “I don’t know,” one of them was saying. “Are you sure?”     Ameer was gazing at him and smiling.

Matt’s heart lurched. He put the glass down. “Baw ayjahzay,” he said, using the polite formula for leave-taking as he stood up. He was already ducking under the partly closed shutter when he felt the ground shake. In the next second came the thunderous voices and footfalls of the marchers.

“Ya Hossein! Ya Hossein!”

Matt pulled himself hastily back into the shop.

Ameer came over to him. “Why are you trying to leave?” he asked in English. “You are my uncles’ guest.”

Before Matt could answer one of the uncles put his hands on Matt’s shirt, a wool shirt, one of his good ones. A Pendleton plaid such as no Iranian would ever wear.

“You must remove it,” one of the men was telling him, and before Matt could say anything, they carefully pulled off his shirt. Underneath he wore a faded McGovern campaign tee.

One of the men shook his head. Off went the tee-shirt. Matt was shivering, from fear as much as cold.

But before he could make a move, the uncle had snatched off his glasses. “Don’t worry,” he said in Persian.

After that they pushed him out into the corridor where they stood on either side of him. Someone shoved a wooden handle into his hand. Attached was a bunch of small metal chains.

“Ya Hossein!” roared a new throng coming up behind them.

When they reached the rug shop, the four of them fell into step. Matt was afraid to look from side to side so at first all he did was march. But then, gradually, he understood what the chains were for.

His throat opened and he felt his own voice joining the chant “Ya Hossein, Ya Hossein.” This was punctuated by the rhythm of chains raised first to slap one shoulder and then the other.

When he had been pushed into the march all he had felt was terror. But now, inexplicably, the fear drained away. For the first time since he had come to this country he felt himself utterly a part of it, the way he had felt at campus demonstrations a few years earlier. Joining the anti-Vietnam War marches had been a cathartic thing for him. A feeling that he was part of something larger. A feeling that he was at one with others who shared his beliefs.

But of course it was more than that. He had seen first hand how people were oppressed here. It didn’t matter how many centuries had passed, they were still under the yoke of the dictators who had killed their beloved caliph.

The rhythm of this march entered his body as he chanted with the others. His voice seemed to leave his throat of its own accord. So also did his arms rise as he began slapping first one shoulder and then the other.

Matt wasn’t sure when he started to smell blood. At first he saw it only on the others, blurrily, in streaks, running down men’s faces, criss-crossing their chests. They were coming out of the bazaar where the sun made the white garb of the men seem even brighter with the blotches of red blooming against the fabric.

Matt felt something run into his eyes and put his finger up to catch it. Sweat, he had thought at first. But when he peered at his finger he saw it was stained in red.

By the time they came back to the shop, Matt wondered if the dizziness he felt could be from the loss of blood. But the wound turned out to be superficial although Ameer made a big fuss about it, dabbing it repeatedly with alcohol until it burned.

Matt hooked his glasses back over his ears and stared at the men next to him. Their faces appeared disconcertingly close. He could smell their sweat too.

“Are you OK?” Ameer asked, his face creased with worry. “Maybe we should take you to a doctor, yes?”

Matt shook his head.

Finally one of the uncles spoke.

Ameer translated. “My uncle wants to know if you are Musulman?”

The adrenaline was still pumping, but Matt could feel the fatigue underneath. He shook his head.

Ameer gave a nervous smile. “I tell them before, but they not believe. You understand our suffering.”

Later, when Matt had his plaid shirt back on and they were out walking on the street to the uncle’s house, passersby stared at his head bandage. Ameer held his hand, the way men did here. Matt felt utterly exhausted. But there was still a feast to get through. Everyone stood when he came through the doorway into the humble room where, judging from all the footwear neatly lined up on the mat, many bodies lived crowded together.

The food revived him and he lay back on the floor gathering his strength for the evening flight.

All around him the conversation of the men buzzed, most of it in Azeri Turkish. But then the room fell silent and the oldest man there spoke. Ameer answered and then turned to Matt.

“He asks why you care so much about Hossein and the people of Iran?’

Matt looked around at the circle of rugged faces with jutting cheekbones and bodies that had no extra flesh on them. He stared at the saffron-dyed rice still mounded on the serving platters and the sucked bones tossed on individual plates. He thought of the two story colonial house with pillars where he had grown up and the meals seated around the oversized polished mahogany table.

Finally he answered. “Because it isn’t right.”

There was murmuring all around the room after Ameer translated and he wondered how they interpreted his answer. He had used the present tense, but the murder of Hossein had happened centuries ago.

Still later, on the way to Mehrabad Airport, Matt asked his student why.

“Why what?” Ameer asked, drawing his heavy black eyebrows together.

“Why did you invite me to come your uncles’ shop? Did you know I would be part of the marches?”

Ameer was silent for so long, Matt thought he wasn’t going to answer.

Finally he said, “You are a good man, Mr. Mattoo.”

Matt waited, not liking what this presaged. He was a stupid man was what he was thinking to himself. One who blundered about and took unnecessary chances.

Then finally Ameer began to speak. “I worry about you.”

“Why?” Matt asked, but he already knew.

Ameer didn’t elaborate. He went on. “In my country, we call on Hossein to help us in our hour of need.”

Matt looked at him. They were in the back of a taxi and the driver was watching them in the mirror. Matt had no idea whether or not he understood English.

Ameer said, “We organize too, here, in my country. Like your Talking Union.”

Matt nodded, suddenly understanding that these marches were not about what had happened seven centuries ago.

“We show that we are ready to die, if it is necessary.” Ameer said this almost in an undertone.

Matt felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck and then shame engulfed him. So many dangers awaited Ameer. Dangers that, again, Matt should have thought about when he was in the village.

Getting thrown out of the country was nothing. He understood that now.

They walked into the terminal where Ameer insisted on carrying his bag. Matt couldn’t wrest it away from him. As they waited he thought about what he could say or offer in recompense for the gift he’d been given.

Finally his flight was called.

“Goodbye Mr. Mattoo,” Ameer said, taking his hand and then leaning forward and kissing him on first one cheek and than another.

Tears came to Matt’s eyes and he tried to blink them away. But Ameer saw them and a smile came to his lips.

Later when Matt thought about it he realized that none of it had been about words. Words were cheap. It was blood and tears and the willingness to lay down your life that mattered in the long run. The men who had made the unions happen had realized this too. The song had made it sound so simple – too simple, Matt realized now. As if you could articulate what was right and what was wrong and then lay it on people like a prescription.

Ameer had laid Moharrem on him. Matt touched the wound on his forehead and a part of him hoped there would be a scar, like a bizarre souvenir he could brag about. Like the old adventurer Sir Richard Burton who had managed to pull off pretending to be Muslim in order to get into Mecca and Medina.

But the world wasn’t that simple anymore. People had come too close to one another, and yet they seemed further away from one another than ever. Matt laid his head against the glass of the airplane window and felt an incredible sadness well up. He wasn’t finished with this land and these people, but they were finished with him. Tears welled up again and he let them fall this time as he stared down through the cloudless sky at the bare earth below.



Image: by Margaret Kahn; Used with permission

Margaret Kahn
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