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Gobsmacked. William Shatnered.

I was, what, five years old? 1972, 1973, thirty years ago—we were living in the little house in Richmond and packing everything up willy-nill, my mother, my father, my sister and I; we were moving to Iran. Arak, Iran: it’s a town 60 or 70 miles (as I recall) west southwest of Tehran, in mountainous terrain. (I remember it as small—except I also remember the apartment complexes going up everywhere, and the packs of feral dogs—but anyway, regardless, the place has heated up since). In Richmond, I knew it only as a two-syllable sound, a spoken word: Arak. So when the news was on and the newscaster (Huntley? Brinkley? Cronkite?) said something about tensions rising in Arak, and anti-American sentiment, I got worried. Mom? Dad? Are you sure we ought to be moving somewhere where they’re going to hate us?

That’s not Arak, I was told. It’s not a town at all. It’s the country next door, which is called Iraq. Like Iran, but different.

Iraq. Arak.

My folks live in Rock Hill, South Carolina nowadays. There’s a set of camel bells hanging from the rafter in the sun room: a long chain of bells each nested like a clapper inside the next larger on up to the monster at the top; you’d drape this string of bells around the neck of the camel just before the hump to jangle and clank your way through the desert. There’s gorgeous miniatures here and there painted in latter-day knockoffs of the Safavid style, all gem-like colors and Herge-ish lignes claires carefully painted with brushes of only a single hair: Khayyamish lovers and-thouing under a tree; polo players galloping madly through an Esfahan park. There’s a bit of engraved rock—actually, I think it’s a plaster casting of some engraved rock—fallen from a plinth in Persepolis. There’s a block of wood with a handle carved into it; the flat face is carved with intricate floral arabesques (“Don’t you know that angels do not enter a house wherein there are pictures; and whoever makes a picture will be punished on the Day of Resurrection and will be asked to give life to what he has created?”). Pick it up by the handle, and dip it face down in a wide shallow vat of dye glimmering darkly like plum jelly, then press it—quick, slam!—on the blank brown cloth stretched taut on the rack before you. Lift it, dip it, eyeball carefully and slam it down precisely next to the first. And again, and again, building the border (precisely, but quickly, firmly, decisively) as you go. Then take up the next stamp, broader, swap out the shallow vat of plum-colored dye for the shallow vat of dye that glimmers like mint jelly: dip it, eyeball it, slam! A set of abstract leaves in green, interlocking just so with the magenta floralesque border you’ve just laid. And again, and again, carefully but quickly, keep going, there’s ten more cloths to get out the door by lunch…

My mother being a professional photographer, there’s also photos. —And memories: riding a motorcycle for the first time (not the only, but almost; I was sitting in front of the guy who owned it—five years old, remember. Or maybe six), leaping over a (little) bonfire in a vacant lot on New Year’s Eve, hiking up the mountains outside Arak and spelling our names in the snow at the top with big flat rocks. (As it turned out, we couldn’t read them from the ground; we couldn’t even see them.) —We lived in a subdivision for American engineers working on the aluminum plant (perhaps the Ravan Zobe Arak facility?), and my sister and I attended an English-language school in a small, dilapidated wing off the local school. (At least, I remember it as being small and dilapidated. Not enough desks. A small playground that takes two different shapes in my memory-map; two different playgrounds? I can’t remember. I remember seeing the non-American wing once, through an open door: darkness, and a lot of cheerful kids yelling something at us I couldn’t understand. They didn’t have enough desks, either.) The curriculum it seems to me was supplemented with British schoolkids’ texts; that, plus a steady extracurricular diet of British boys’ adventure stories (I remember Biggles, mostly, but not well) and Tintin left me with a lingering, deeply rooted Anglophilia untrammelled by repeated contemporaneous doses of Arkady Leokum. (Yes, Tintin’s Belgian. The comics were British, in translation. The point is in fifth grade I was kicked out of a regional spelling bee on the first round because I spelled “parlor” as “parlour” and I still haven’t gotten over it, okay?) —There are still little jokes and scraps of Farsi phrase that pepper the family slang: “Zood your bosh,” for “Hustle your ass”, and we still get a laugh out of “making a barfman,” and my sister and I can still giggle at the thought of the Farsi numeral 5 (it looks like a teardrop with a butt, heh heh). I remember being told never to walk home through the half-built apartment complexes because of the packs of feral dogs. My best friend’s name was Reza. (I’d run into him again in Venezuela, briefly, but that’s another story.) —I remember the smell of bodega-like shops and stalls, which—do you still buy cassette tapes? (I don’t. So I don’t know if it’s still true.) Do you remember back in the ‘80s, when they first started to make clear cassette tapes in clear cases? Do you remember the smell of one of those tapes, brand new, just unwrapped, about to be put into the boom box? It’s a very distinctive smell: an odd combination of spice and detergent, like some kind of electric incense, faintly sharp, but too round to ever make you sneeze. I never found out why, or how, but that smell is the thirty-year-old smell of tiny shops in Arak.

And the other stuff, too, the unheimlich stuff: the appalling din of Coppersmith’s Alley in Esfahan—artisans working dawn to dusk in shops not much wider than a data entry carrell (careful with that hammer), beating out copper and brass into gorgeously intricate platework; the samovars—peering into the courtyard of the hotel at Esfahan to find a shady garden, a fountain, a nook tiled with baby blue arabesques and laid with gold and purple pillows, three or four dark men lounging comfortably, a brass samovar squatting behind them, tea at the ready, and then at a spring festival at a village outside of Arak, the equinox, when you throw open your house to let the winds scour it and head out into the country for a picnic, and there we were in the yellow green grass, lunching on rugs, a big fat samovar filling dozens of tiny glass cups in brass cup holders; the women who wore chadors, the long, draping black robes that covered almost everything but their faces. Underneath, they wore American blue jeans and blouses you could find at Woolworth’s, made in Taiwan. I remember the little grey train in the little grey amusement park on the shore of the Caspian Sea; I remember the astonishing colors of spices in the bazaar, an open sack of ground cumin, paprika, tumeric, hillocks of pure, clayey colors not found in my 120 Crayolas; my father younger than I am now, standing in a corner stall, haggling with a bemused smile over the replica flintlock pistols he still has somewhere in his cluttered office, the curved wooden stocks inlaid with off-white diamonds of camel bone. —I ate pizza and tacos at Ray’s Famous American in Tehran. I watched my first videotape sometime in 1973: one of the other American families, missing a dose of pop culture, had brought one of the big old clunky machines with them, and had someone regularly ship them tapes of American television; this was pure magic. (My folks had secretly put an audio tape recorder next to the television a few weeks before we left the States and made sound-only tapes of Batman to tide me and my sister over.) (And none of that is unheimlich, no; it’s all rather decidedly home-like, but encountered far from home, out of context: a TV star at the Plaid Pantry, turning a corner in Poughkeepsie and running into your childhood friend from Paducah.) —The class picnic: a dozen or so Yankee expat first- and second-graders heading up into the hills with the twenty-something American couple who ran the classes; struggling under the weight of a watermelon, rolling it in the dust under a loose chicken-wire fence stretched over a dry gully. A gravelly stream by a low gnarled tree. A man coming up out of nowhere (did he come to the picnic site? or did we go for a walk afterwards, up on the mountain?), out of the dust, in strange clothing (and surely I’m just imagining the memory of a big curved knife at his hip), browns and brassy golds, who stood still there (by the river? the side of a narrow mountain trail?), unspeaking, who did not respond to what either teacher said, in English, in hesitant two-word bursts of Farsi, who clearly would not let us pass; who clearly said without speaking a word that We Did Not Belong.

All of that, then: Arak. Not Iraq. —I’ve never been to Iraq. (My mother has; she has one of those stories that’s great to tell if not to have lived through about a CNN crew covering her bill when the Al Rashid Hotel stopped taking American Express.) I really can’t expect anyone else to give a good God damn about somebody else’s 30-some-odd-year-old memories of a town hundreds of miles and a sectarian split and an 80-year-old border away. Arak. Not Iraq. Who cares?

Still: I’ve got to start somewhere, myself. And maybe that’s the most primal, most basic, the most gut-level reason: for me, there’s a there there. You know?

Have your fun whilst you’re alive.
You won’t get nothing when you die.
Have a good time all the time
Because you won’t get nothing when you die…

(To be more or less continued.)

  1. Sebbo    Mar 15, 04:18 AM    #
    This is perhaps an ignorant question, but I thought the Iran/Iraq animosity was older & deeper than a sectarian split. That is to say, like most allegedly doctrinal splits I thought it was actually about ethnicity (and usually language)--Arab vs. Persian in this case.

  2. language hat    Mar 15, 06:17 PM    #
    Sebbo, there are two different things going on here; it's true that the animosity is older than the doctrinal split (Iran did not become majority Shi'i until the Safavids made it the state religion in the 16th century), but the split created a new and independent animosity (which exists between Sunni and Shi'i in, e.g., Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, where they're of the same nationality).

    Kip: Don't be modest. This is fascinating stuff; please keep it up.

  3. g.r.    Mar 16, 12:56 AM    #
    Agreed. 'Tis fascinating. More, please.

  4. --k.    Mar 16, 06:14 AM    #
    I wanted quick and easily grasped polarities between Iraq and Iran for that particular sentence. If you focus on the ethnic differences, you get fuzzy fast, what with throwing in Kurds and Armenians and whatnot and all; so I stuck with religion, which had the benefit in this case of grossly oversimplifying things.

    And thanks. --What I'm considering as the next piece in this intended sequence (give me a few days and other posts until then) won't be like this one, but I might branch out in another direction while I'm tinkering with it and write about the time I swam with a piranha in the Orinoco River.

    (I mean, Venezuela's gonna be a hotspot too one of these days, isn't it?)

  5. Bryant    Mar 16, 11:58 AM    #
    Lovely stuff; please do keep writing. Surfing one's blogroll in reverse can be so rewarding...

  6. language hat    Mar 17, 05:24 AM    #
    By the way, did you pick up any Farsi while you were there (apart from zud bash)? And (if so) how much has stuck with you?

  7. --k.    Mar 17, 06:57 AM    #
    Nah. I was 5 (or 6; I need to sit down and work out the timeline at some point, but I keep losing years when I do. And anyway, the whole point was to write about what's left in the brain, uncertainties and fuzzinesses and all; actual research would have mooted the point. And been some little work) when we left, so very little ever stuck with me. Barf; zood bosh (which transliteration seems slightly more appropriate to five-year-old me); also, "kharosh" (or was it "kharob"?), for broken, screwed up, snafued. The local bar/restaurant/movie theater/country club for the Yanks was affectionately known as "Club Kharosh" (or "Kharob"), because nothing ever worked. (My parents remember a bit more; somewhere in my files--at home--I have a list I asked them to make for me a while back for something or other.)

    I should maybe go get a Farsi dictionary, just to have on hand. --One can never have too many dictionaries.

  8. frizzyLogic    May 10, 05:03 AM    #
    Has it started yet?
    Despite my total isolation from television/radio/newspaper/magazine news, and web-based news sites, I am aware from other people's blogs that the collective sewage is about to hit the jet engine. And I've been gestating a thought all day, but just can'...

  9. Assad Shafie    Jul 2, 10:42 AM    #
    I am from that town, Arak. It is more like 160 or 170 miles from Tehran. I left Arak at age of 15, in 1970, to go to high school in Tehran.
    I had planned to go back to Arak and become a school teacher, but it is sad to say that I never did, neither I became a school teacher.
    I am now living in Chicago, and I work as an engineeringh manager. I still like to go back to Arak, not Iraq, and I wish I had never left it to go to Tehran.
    Thanks for bringing back to me the memories of a place so dear to my heart.

  10. Kathy    Oct 24, 04:55 AM    #
    Hunting for something else, I ran across your memories. Lovely. Going to Iranian markets here in LA I find I miss the wonderful smell even of the corner shops. It wouldn't be hygenic, of course, and one day I suppose we'll feel nostalgic for the smell of 409.

  11. Roozbeh    Jan 29, 03:45 PM    #
    Great read; enjoyed it.

  12. Linda Miller    Jun 16, 09:32 AM    #
    Funny how there are certain words in other languages that jump into your head and never leave. I also lived in Iran as a child--Tehran. And "zud bash" is used in my family still and in fact, years later, I used to say it to my son to hurry him up. I realized one day that he thought it was English!
    Loved reading your Iranian memories.

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