by: Shirin Tabibzadeh



It is Mahmood khan's birthday. He wakes up on this humid August morning, startled by birdsong echoing across the garden outside and, for a long time, stares in confused remembrance of a past long gone at the swelling orange sun burning the faded floral wallpaper across from his bed.

     “It's my birthday,"  he finally realizes. "I’m seventy-six today. Where did it go?”

Moving painfully from a sore back, standing in his gray pajamas by the window, he looks at  the garden. There's much to be done -- later, much later.  These days it's all backaches and wishes. Outside in the sunrise, garden roses are already awake, clematis climbs like a growing child, and all the border marigolds are on fire. The vine in the yard of his house in his hometown climbed all over the wall, too, and the colorful pansies seemed like a carpet of velvet. He can still remember the scent of the jasmine in the afternoons after he watered the garden and washed the brick pavement around the oval pond in the middle of the yard.

“It's my birthday. Does anyone remember?  Fakhri did, when we lived back home. Strangely enough she always remembered mine, though she was against this kind of thing altogether.”

Next door dog barks. Out of nowhere a cat suddenly drops  under the apple tree, stalking anxious sparrows to the end of the garden without success. Shadows shrink against the garden fences and the last star melts into dawn. There's heat in the breathless August day already.

Mahmood khan, seventy-six, is sitting in his kitchen, silent, the house holding its breath around him. His thick-veined hands brush breadcrumbs from the plastic tablecloth. He listens to the awakening of the new day as the clock on the mantle ticks relentlessly. 

He walks to the mailbox in hopes of a post card or letter from one of the kids. His tired eyes examine the envelopes.  There are no birthday cards to sigh over.  These days, kids don't have time for a father or a mother; they are so busy with work, the fear of losing their jobs, bills, and all the rest.  “It is understandable! But just a post card; is that too much to ask?”

Returning to the kitchen he slides a knife along each envelope.  "Better than nothing,” he thinks; even if the electricity is overdue or the phone might be disconnected if it is not paid in a few days. At least his creditors keep in touch! No longer absorbed in his letter-opening routine, he looks at the blinding sunlight on his glazed, brown teapot and then, laying the bad news aside for later, pours more tea. He sits and thinks about birthdays back then. Cakes and naan-e khaamei, songs and celebrations, and his-long dead wife who cared. Back when?

     “Time flies,” he says.

He's talking to himself most days - who else will listen? He walks up and down in the room a hundred times a day, every day. He then rises tiredly and prepares to face the next. “What to do today?”  When he turns on the TV, the news assaults his soul. The world is littered with dead children and pain, it has gone mad with cruelty and nobody seems to notice. Nothing but talking about violence and the rape of children.  The news is like a police report.

He hates the media. "They love abusing the innocent with their exciting updates and breaking bad news.  Good people and good deeds don't exist any more?  What is wrong with this country?  If I had the wisdom of today when I was leaving my sacred land! If only I had the wisdom of today."

"What a hell I have gone through in these twenty two years, what a hell.  Why didn't I stay to be killed, executed, tortured, whatever?  It could not have been worse.  Twenty two years just waiting and waiting, hoping for a change, believing the nonsense of this one and that one.  What a hell."   Then he remembers Fakhri, how she cried day and night out of fear that he might be arrested and put to death.  He would say “my dear, I haven’t done anything.   Why would they want to arrest me?  I will go willingly if they call me and defend myself in a way that you will be proud.”

 “You don’t understand; you don’t grasp the situation, they will execute you before you have a chance to defend yourself.  Don’t you see what is happening to your friends?” Fakhri would insist.  “You should go; you should, no matter what.”

He could not understand why.  He had worked so hard all his life, moving from one small town to the next, raising three children in small rental houses on a meager salary.  Only in the last few years had they been able to move to Tehran after years of transient living and working in the worst climates.  It was then that he could finally afford to buy a house and a decent car with a loan from the Construction Bank.  He deserved it all.

“Who knows what a toll it had on my family and myself, going to college in my spare time, studying like hell day and night to get my degree, and working night shifts most of the time to finish school.  I deserved every bit of the position I occupied in the last few years.  It gave us the means of sending the kids abroad, but I had worked so hard for it.”

During all those years of living like a vagabond his only support and happiness was Fakhri, the woman who brought heaven to his life, the beautiful Fakhri -- how warm and kind she was, what a good mother, daughter, sister, friend and wife.”

 He turns off the TV. and plays a CD from Golpayegani: "Moyeh sepido tooyeh ayneh didam, ahi boland az taheh del keshidam." Tears come to his eyes.  Way beyond "gray hair;" he was, way beyond that.

Then he dresses like every other day, as if he was going to work.  He has done this forever, every day for the last twenty two years.  He intends to go for a walk -- cane and cap and all, checking the front door and windows before stepping out.  All's secure. When the nighttime house creaks with its own age, Mahmood khan thinks of burglars and imagined violations, and trembles.

     What a world!

     He opens the front door and suddenly sees Fakhri.

   "Happy birthday, Mahmood joon."

This does not astonish him, he's been seeing Fakhri a lot lately: she walked with him all the way to the pharmacy yesterday, and when he sat down to rest, she stood under the tree close to the bench, waiting in its shade.

     “I didn't forget,” Fakhri said.

     “I know, I know.”

     “Will you come to walk with me to the park?”

     'I can't Fakhri, we can't. You're dead.'

The sun slides down the street and settles on  Mahmood khan’s little house and Fakhri fades like a startled shadow.

     “Poor Fakhri,” Mahmood khan whispers sadly. “My poor dead darling.”

He decides to go grocery shopping instead; he needs a few items.  He avoids the supermarket. It's too complicated. Grim checkout people anxious to get home, bald-headed young men with rings in their ears and aggression in their eyes, and frantic housewives -- liberated women with little freedom. The exhaustion of super markets is too much for him: too much choice, too big, too modern, too lonely and unfamiliar to him.

He goes to smaller stores -- goes to Iranian stores mostly, chats with familiar people, and gets milk, yogurt, and homemade breads.  Mr. Javadi is in the shop.

“How are you doing General?” he asks, looking past him at the titles of the newspapers on the stand.

“General!  You would have handed me over to them without a thought if they had promised to pay you back your confiscated estates in the north”, Mahmood khan thought.

“Great, thank God. Yourself?”

“Ey; I guess ok.  Have you heard the news?  The regime is crumbling to its knees. This time they are finished.  Have you heard about the teachers’ uprising?  That was the best spot to hit.  Soon there will be strikes, schools will be closed, and parents will join too.”

“Yea, right, it is the end, but whose end?” passes through Mahmood khan’s head.

Life is strangled with polite lies, and Iranians’ lives are replete with lies, more lies, and wishful thinking.

He walks home through the sweltering streets towards his sanctuary. He sits in his armchair in the dull room looking out on the road, and hears the clock chime ten.  The long day stretches ahead like a dreadful eternity. The terror of ten a.m. Nothing to do. Outside, young people hurry through the morning, sun on their faces, time on their hands, believing that it will last forever, happy and carefree, unaware of a broken soul, sitting so lonely with so many wishes that never came true.

    “ I'm glad I'm not young anymore, can’t wait to go.”

He despises this time of day. Already too hot for the garden and nothing to fill the mind until he makes something to eat at lunchtime. Light lunch for the long afternoon lengthening drearily like an empty road going nowhere. He tries to read but even with glasses the words are a blur.

     'Fakhri-e man,' he whispers and her name rings in his head like a tolling bell.

     “Fakhri jan-e man, Fakhri jan-e man, how kind you were.”

Mahmood khan plays with her thoughts. His eyes close. He becomes delirious with dreaming and hears distantly the noise of Mehrabad airport. People all seem so confused and clueless but he is only hoping he wouldn’t see a familiar face.  Shaking inside in his disguise, he looks around in fear.  Far away, on the other side of the airport, Sergeant Movahedi sees and recognizes him but turns his head away.  He shakes like a willow in the tempest of an early winter day.

In the last few days before his escape, Fakhri had been going from one shrine to the next.  Just the day before she had gone to Emamzadeh Saaleh.  She said most of the women there were the wives of those whose lives were in danger.  An old Mullah was reciting prayers about one of the Imams who had been imprisoned for years before having been put to death.  Fakhri said she sat by the shrine and cried and cried and would not leave, imploring and begging for her husband’s safety.  The woman in charge of the shrine had come to her and said: “My dear whatever you wished is granted. Agha will help you, I promise.”  Then she had hugged and kissed her.  Fakhri, at that moment, had pledged to give her 2000 tomans and the Turkman rug from the hallway, if her wishes came true.

The next day Fakhri did not accompany him to the airport. She had kissed him on his face and hands and chest a thousand times in the last few days, and she waved at him until he could no longer be seen as the car took him away.  She did not cry; she even pretended to be happy, and promised to join him as soon as she could.

“Wasn’t it a coward of me to leave her like that?”  Mahmood khan had asked himself a million times.

Within days of his departure, Fakhri was arrested and jailed.  She did not know where he was; nothing could drag that from her mouth.  She was executed a few years later in the massacre of 88.  They said that towards the end, she was so disturbed that they used her and her wailings to torture the rest.  She was Forty Seven when she died.

Fakhri in jail, Mahmood khan didn’t want to stay, he wanted to go back to be with her, no matter what.  But he never dared.

“Like a chicken I stayed to breathe this unfamiliar, sickening air -- just like a chicken, begged this damn country and that to give me asylum, practically would stoop the lowest for a place far away from my own.  Why didn’t I escape to the mountains, to the remotest part of my own country, and hide with my wife and take care of her?  Why?   But you don’t always do what is best; you make mistakes all your life and realize them only when you don’t have time to rectify.”

It had taken him three years to find a country to live permanently.  Had it not been for his children who provided this old tiny home and a meager monthly, with his income he would not have been able to go on.

 “So miserable I was that I forgot all my pride, worked at the lowest wages, did anything just to survive.  Fire in my heart, hatred in my head, desperate and hopeless most of the time; hopeful only on rare occasions, when good news came about Fakhri”

“They might have a general clemency for all the prisoners” his sister said when she called him the last time before Fakhri’s execution.  “Clemency for what? What did my darling wife do to need clemency?; she was not politically active for years.  If I could see her just one more time, oh God.”

But this never happened. Fakhri was executed; for what, he did not know. It didn't matter now.

It took him a long time to get over Fakhri’s death.  More than anything else, his conscience was killing him.  He had severe depression and other physical and mental illnesses. It was years later, and only through Jane, that he somehow came out of it.  Jane, the kind woman who taught English at the college, and was his teacher for a few months. But their marriage did not last long.

“ Jane was fine. she was lovely and kind, but she could not take Fakhri’s place.   Who could?  The mother of my children, my friend, my support, my backbone -- all those are what Fakhri was to me.  No one else could give me the same love -- that incredible warmth and strength, that passion and tolerance.  I could not forget her miraculous kindness. I couldn't.  So I had to let go of Jane.   Jane and I parted and that was my misfortune too.  She tried so hard.”

 “You should mix with our own people more.  We don’t understand these people, they are cold, they are not like us” Mr. Dardashti told him once.

“Nonesense, our people have changed, too. They are not the same kind people that we used to know. Look what they are doing to each other:   backstabbing, jealousy, gossiping, engaging in lawsuit after lawsuit.  Are they really the same people or the sons and daughters of the same people? The world has changed dear; we are not the same people either. “




        “It was only after Jane's and my divorce that Fakhri came to see me”, Mahmood khan utters aloud.

Clock chime: Ding. Ding. Ding., and many more.......!

He suddenly shivers and struggles to shake off the dream and prevent himself from uttering her name as if she were still alive.  In haste he rushes to the window and the sun, and rubbing his weary eyes, prays.

He makes lunch.  Lavash and Feta cheese and tomatoes with a few fresh dills.  Then he sits by the window -- half out of life.  On the radio a woman sings, “those lovely days.”

".......Such sweet sorrow."  Who said that?

Later, he sits in the garden looking towards the sunset. There is nothing else to see but blackbirds and sparrows, nothing to hear but the noise of butterflies' wings.  Such a silence, no one around, he dozes the time away!

Hours later, the clock in the parlor chimes twelve heartbeats. It is a warm night, hot and humid.  Getting back to the house and climbing into his empty bed, Mahmood khan turns off the sidelight and watches the shadows huddled against the floral wallpaper.  A hot August moon shines in the open window: soft as silence, quiet as apple blossoms falling, gentle as Fakhri’s charming smile. Fakhri with the same sad, glad smile is standing there by his bed. Faithful Fakhri, waiting.

     “Do you want me now?”

     “Yes! Fakhri jan -- yes!”

     He says “I can come now, Fakhri, if you like. I'm finally, properly dead.”

     “I'm glad. I've been waiting for such a long time!'”

Mahmood khan, rising, leaves his seventy-six years of agonies between the clean sheets of his bed. Walking through the moonlight with Fakhri in his arms, the pair of them shooting like comets into Eternity while the clock in the parlor stops. Forever and forever.

And the phone rings and rings.

Someone speaks into the answering machine “hey dad, happy birthday, sorry to call you so late. We were out and I totally forgot, so sorry.  Will call yea tomorrow; sweet dreams.”