Mehrabad Airport, Tehran. Air France, flight 726
I hate this life of constant wandering, these eternal comings and goings, these middle of the night flights, dragging along my suitcase, going through Customs and the final torture, the humiliating body search. “Take off your shoes, open your handbag, let’s see inside of your pockets, your mouth, your ears, your nostrils, your heart and mind and soul.” I am exhausted. I feel homesick—can you believe it? Already homesick. And yet I want to get away, run, flee. “I will leave and never come back,” I tell myself. “I will stay right here, in my beloved Tehran, with all its good and bad, and I will never leave. Nonsense. I am confused. All I want is to close my eyes and sleep, to slip into that magic land of oblivion and disappear.
Leave-taking. Silently, without a backward glance at those who have come to see me off, cold and quick, with a concealed lump in my throat and an inexplicable anguish, which should not be revealed.
The so-called “Sisters Entrance”—women only. My appearance is not acceptable. My headscarf has slipped back and the lowest button on my Islamic coverall is undone. Fine. “You are right, sister.” I make the necessary adjustments. The porter carrying my suitcase and duffel bag is in a hurry. He wants to get paid. He is looking for another customer.
“You have to come with me as far as customs,” I tell him.
This was the condition I had set at the beginning. He keeps repeating himself. He wants to leave. He puts my suitcase on the conveyor belt that will carry it through the x-ray machine. He points to another passenger.
“Don’t lose your cool, lady,” I tell myself. “Let it go. That’s the way things are. Give him his money and let him go.”
A glass wall separates those inside from the others outside. Those who stay behind and the others who leave. Both groups are sad and depressed and their silent words and meaningful looks penetrate the thickness of the glass wall and settle on our faces like a coat of gray dust.
The innards of my suitcase are carefully examined. Some suspicious and fearsome object—I have no idea what it could be—is discovered.
An accusing finger points to the inside of the suitcase.
“A murder weapon.”
“What murder weapon? In my suitcase?”
The customs inspector consults with another agent. They both bend over and stare at the mysterious image on the monitor.
The people who have come to see their friends or relatives off are craning their necks. Those around me are speaking in hushed tones. Muted questions hover in their eyes. In one moment I have metamorphosed into a dangerous being. I am guilty and my conviction is certain.
Perhaps. Anything is possible.
The “murder weapon” is a golden battle-ax that I bought for my son from an obscure junk-shop in Isfahan. It is not worth a penny. And you can’t kill anyone with it, especially not the airline captain.
My suitcase is moved aside. It has to be thoroughly checked. With suspicion and doubt, and possibly even fear, the other passengers stare at me and my suitcase.
“This is just a funny old battle-ax,” I explain. “It’s not the real thing. It’s part of the paraphernalia the dervishes carry. It caught my eye and I bought it. And it is packed inside my suitcase. What do you think I could do with it?”
They have turned a deaf ear to me. The battle-ax—the murder weapon—is carefully removed from my suitcase. People watch. The customs inspector says it’s old, it’s an antique, it’s precious, it’s part of our cultural heritage.
I have the sales slip with me. It is not worth more than five thousand tomans. The surface is decorated with Arabic words, probably a verse from the Koran.
“It has to be assessed by Mr. Parrot.”
Mr. Parrot is paged on the public address system. One or two people laugh, and someone repeats a word mimicking a parrot. A hand grabs my arm.
It is an old woman mumbling something. She wants something, but I don’t understand her. I am in a hurry. I have to get a decision on the fate of the murder weapon.
“I don’t want the battle-ax,” I say. “Take it and let me go.”
My fate is in the hands of Mr. Tuti. I have to wait. It is my own fault and I have to pay for it.
The old lady taps me on the shoulder. “Dear Lady, I’d give my life for you. I’m late. I’m afraid I’ll be left behind.”
She is an old villager; confused and panicked. She begs me to fill the customs declaration form for her.
“Dear Lady,” she says. “I have poor eyesight. I can hardly read or write. My sons told me ‘Mom, just get on the plane and come.’ I didn’t know it would be so difficult. I fainted twice in the passport office. I nearly died.”
“Now look here,” I tell her. “I am busy. Get somebody else to help you.”
“Who? Nobody has time.”
I point to a smartly-dressed young man.
“I asked him,” she says. “He was brought up overseas. He can’t write in Persian. I’m scared my sons too may have forgotten to read and write in Persian. What if they’ve forgotten their mother tongue? May God have mercy on me.”
The loudspeaker once again pages Mr. Parrot. The old lady is not giving up. She keeps going in circles. She doesn’t know where she should go or what she should do.
“Dear Lady,” she repeats. “Where is the Swedish airplane?”
I leaf through her passport. Most of the pages are blank. It is her first trip abroad. Her name is Anar-Banu-Pomegranate Lady-Chenari. I hastily fill out her customs declaration form. She was born in 1917. She is 83 years old. She is traveling on the same flight as me. To Paris, and from there to Sweden.
“I haven’t seen my sons in ten years,” she says. “My heart goes pit-a-pat for them. I told them ‘My darlings, I’d give my life for you, but why did you move to the other end of the world? What was wrong with our own Yazd?’ But they insisted they wanted go, and they wouldn’t change their mind. My late husband used to say it is the madness of youth that has affected their brain.”
Mr. Parrot is looking for me. He is short and thin, the size of a ten-year-old boy, but he has a large and aging nose and he is wearing thick-lensed glasses. He examines the battle-ax without uttering a word. He holds it up to the lamp.
“This battle-ax is old.”
I shake my head. Anar-Banu cranes her neck. She runs her fingers over the head of the battle-ax.
“Dear Lady,” she says. “Was there nothing else you could buy to take with you? This thing belongs to dervishes.”
“How old is old?” I ask.
Mr. Parrot disapproves of my persistence. He’s pressed for time. “The head is antique,” he says. “But the handle is new.”
Anyway, because it can be used to behead the captain and the entire crew and all the security agents, and take the passengers hostage and divert the plane to Africa, it is therefore dangerous.
“I am giving this Achamenid battle-ax to you. Take it.”
They won’t take it. I have to take it back. The old woman does not budge from my side. Mr. Parrot is in a hurry. He is sleepy. He yawns.
I take the battle-ax and walk out to the airport lounge to give it to my friend who had come to see me off. There is no sign of him. The people standing behind the glass wall laugh and clap for me. I writhe with embarrassment.
A group of forty or fifty people, young and old, with a brood of children, bearing bouquets of wilted gladioli, are waiting for the arrival of passengers from India. It is chaos.
A child steps on my toes and runs off, gleefully waving his wilted bouquet.
I offer the battle-ax to a porter standing by the door. Out of breath and in bad temper I rush back inside and see the old lady still standing there, confused and anxious, gazing around her. She doesn’t know where she should go. She catches sight of me and beams with joy. She waves and quickly makes her way over to me.
“Where were you, dear Lady?” she says. “I thought you have gone ahead and I have been left behind.”
She follows me. Her duffel bag is heavy and she is panting. She is perspiring profusely, and sweat streams down her cheeks. She produces a checkered handkerchief from her pocket and dries her face.
The handkerchief is half the size of a tablecloth.
“Soheila khanom is a school teacher in our village,” she says. “She knows the names of all the cities of the world. She told me in Sweden water freezes even in the summer. The temperature drops to minus 150 degrees. Cattle and sheep freeze to death even as they stand. I was so terrified that I put on whatever woolen clothes I had one on top of the other. Now I’m dying of heat.”
The flight is delayed by one hour. Perhaps two. It is not clear. The people seeing their friends and relatives off stand waiting behind the glass wall with cheerless patience. Those inside look at the people outside. Their voices do not penetrate the glass wall.
The date and time of the flight has been determined long in advance, but there is no guaranty that it will become a reality. It is plagued by a thousand maybes, doubts and fears. Dark thoughts swirl around in my head. What if my name is on the list of those banned from leaving the country? What if I never again see my loved ones? What if so-and-so and so-and-so die in my absence? The words ‘what if’ are attached to the word ‘never’, and ‘never’ is a bitter and dark word that has recently crept into my mind, like the vague perception of death, lurking in the shadows, waiting for an opportunity to show itself.
Anar-Banu Chenari follows me like a shadow. She talks incessantly. Her anxiety is so pervasive that it pours out from her wandering gaze and trembling hands.
“Lucky those who have obedient children. My two sons were airy-fairy since childhood. They were always restless. They hated the villagers. They just wanted to move to the big city. To Tehran. To some other place. Where? They themselves didn’t know where. When we were young we only knew one place. Yazd for us was the beginning and the end of the world.”
The beginning and the end of the world!
“Lady,” I say. “You’re lucky to have found your niche in the world.”
Her thoughts are with her sons. She has forgotten where she is and the long road that lies ahead for her. Her eyes are brimming with sleep. She is dreaming of the Yazd she has left behind and the strange city that awaits her.
“I sent them a letter,” she says. “You see, I am illiterate. I dictated my thoughts to Soheila khanom and she wrote the letter. I asked them: ‘Tell me, are you happy and healthy there at the other end of the world?’ They replied, ‘Mom, we are all alone here, far away from our family. Our bones are frozen from this beastly cold. Some nights we weep out loud. Now we want to go to America.’ Soheila khanom said ‘America is evil.’ My husband nearly had a heart attack. He said ‘My sons have turned into wanderers. They’ve lost their roots. Wherever they go they will be aliens, strangers.’
“Hurry up,” I say. “You have to show your duffel bag for inspection.”
Anar-Banu has a heavy duffel bag. It is crammed with odds and ends: a few boxes of pastries, two or three lengths of taffeta from Yazd, several plastic bowls, several nylon sacks filled with pomegranates and rice.
“The pomegranates are from our own orchard,” she explains.
We are done here. Another obstacle in our course is behind us. We pick up our suitcases and move on. Anar-Banu follows me. At the check-in counter, I give them her ticket together with my own. Our seats are assigned. We go upstairs. I hold my passport ready. For no good reason, perhaps out of sheer habit, I feel pangs of anxiety stabbing at my heart. I am expecting something untoward to happen. My heart is racing. I’m afraid there may be something missing, or something extra, in my passport—a missing stamp or the presence of some special mark—that may prevent me from leaving. Why? I don’t know. Anything is possible. The doubt and the fear are universal.
My fear is unfounded; all goes well.
The body search is not as bad as it used to be. It has become less rigorous. Anar-Banu is ticklish. When she is touched she giggles and writhes. She is wearing two gold bangles on each wrist, and an agate ring on her finger that she shows to the sister conducting the search. She is revealing too much, and with anxious eyes she looks all around, and then at me. She has concealed a pair of ruby earrings, which is of no great value, deep in her pocket. She is afraid she may be caught and accused of smuggling jewelry. And she is caught. She is trembling.
“I am taking these for my daughter-in-law,” she says. “Soheila khanom gave them to me. May I be struck blind if I’m lying. My daughter-in-law is European. She has converted to Islam. She regularly says her prayers.” And she pleads with the sister.
They let her go. She can leave. And the earrings are returned to her.
“My older son has married a European girl, from some village in Sweden,” she says. “I told him, ‘Son, come back to your own hometown. The girls in Yazd are as beautiful as the best of them. We don’t speak Swedish. How are we supposed to talk to your wife?'”
We arrive at the waiting lounge. Anar-Banu sinks into the chair next to me and dozes off. She mumbles under her breath. Her head has sunk into her chest and her legs are flung wide. She seems to be dreaming of her sons, those airy-fairy boys in search of a better life in frozen wastelands. She leans forward in her chair and slides down to the floor. I jump to my feet. The passenger sitting on the other side of her also rushes to the rescue. She is dazed. She doesn’t know where she is. A young boy bursts into laughter, and a woman shakes her head sadly.
“Dear Lady,” she exclaims. There is a lump in her throat. I rearrange her headscarf. She sits up properly and holds her head up high. She tries to laugh, or at least to smile. She is trying hard to keep up appearances, but her eyes are brimming with sleep and fatigue and her aged body is collapsing.
The passengers are called to embark. It is time to board the plane. The long and disorderly line of passengers makes exiting from the waiting lounge difficult. Anar-Banu is in a hurry and she pushes her way through the crowd of passengers. At the foot of the stairs leading up to the entrance of the jetliner, she stops, stunned and fearful, and stares at the huge wings of the plane. She can hardly move. She climbs two steps and stops. She is blocking the way. A ground hostess comes to her aid. She places her hand under Anar-Banu’s arm and pulls her up, step by step, all the way to the top.
Anar-Banu’s seat is next to mine. She beams happily. She sits down and forces her duffel bag down under her legs.
“O sons of mine,” she says. “What am I going to do with you? I wish I could stop loving you, so that I would not become the wanderer that I am today.”
She takes off her shoes. She moans. She is wearing thick black stockings. She is feeling hot and her face is covered with perspiration.
“Thank God I am sitting next to you,” she says. “Soheila khanom told me, ‘Mama Pomegranate, if you’re lucky, you will be seated next to some helpful person, someone like your own daughter.’ It’s a pity I don’t have a daughter. Mothers and daughters are close to one another. She would have never left me to go to Sweden. What about you? Do you have any children?”
I turn away from her and push my face into a pillow. I must sleep.
Mama Pomegranate’s soft and plump arm presses gently against my shoulder. Her warm and tired body fills her seat and spills over to occupy half of mine. There is a faint smell of hunger on her breath, but her body has a pleasant scent. I pull the hem of the blanket over my eyes and stare at the sleep which sits behind my eyelids.
“Dear Lady, are you also going to Sweden?” she asks.
I shake my head.
“I am afraid of missing my stop,” she says.
I do not respond.
“Dear Lady,” she says. “Please let me know when we reach Sweden.”
“Try to sleep, Anar-Banu,” I tell her. “Go to sleep.”
A hostess is checking to see that all the passengers have fastened their seat belts. I have fastened mine. Anar-Banu has no idea of the routines of air travel. She is confused and fidgets in her seat. She digs her elbow into my side.
“Dear Lady,” she says. “I don’t speak any foreign language.”
The hostess wants to fasten her seat belt for her. One end of the belt is under Anar-Banu’s body. It is stuck there. With great difficulty I force my hand under her hot and exhausted body. She is tickled. She twists and turns and giggles.
“Please lift yourself up a little,” I tell her. And I grab the end of the belt and try to pull it out. It does not budge. I pull harder, but it’s no use. She is fat and heavy. She is sitting on the belt and on my hand and has no intention of moving. The hostess comes to my help and slides her hand under Anar-Banu’s body from the other side. Anar-Banu is tickled again. She bounces up and down and lands in a heap. She falls sideways over me and the end of the safety belt slides out from under her.
“Oh dear Lady!” she says. “Ho-ho! That was fun. God, how I laughed! I wish my sons could see me now.”
And once again she begins to giggle. She takes my hand and holds it in between her own coarse and warm hands.
She has a kind and pleasant face, and her black eyes shine. “Dear Lady,” she says once again. “When we reach Sweden, please let me know. I am afraid I may miss my stop.”
I explain to her that an airliner is not like a bus. It does not make ten stops. It takes off from Tehran and lands in Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. There she has to get off and change planes.
She becomes even more confused. She stares at me with bewildered eyes. She cannot grasp the meaning of my words. Sweden is the only place she has heard of and committed to memory.
“Dear Lady,” she says. “I have been traveling for three days now. From Yazd I took the bus to Tehran. The bus broke down. It burst a tire. The driver lost control and the bus swerved to one side and hit an old man with a donkey. And the poor old man lost his life. To make a long story short, we had to spend the night in the desert, by the roadside. All night long fleas and mosquitoes feasted on my skin. I nearly died. I thought I would never make it. I have a thousand and one ailments. I’m over eighty years old. But the joy of seeing my two sons gives me strength. This duffel bag here is full of rice and pomegranates. I have also brought along a few bottles of concentrated pomegranate juice. Excellent quality! It is from our own village. That’s why they call me Mama Pomegranate,” and she laughs out loud. She digs into her duffel bag and brings out two big red pomegranates.
“Please, have one.”
I shake my head. She begins to squeeze the pomegranate to soften it. I stare at the fruit’s translucent skin as it stretches out like a balloon, and seems ready to burst at any moment.
“No, no, I don’t want any,” I say. “Please don’t squeeze it any more.” And I pull myself away from her. My Islamic coverall is white.
“Don’t worry, dear Lady,” she says. “This is not just any pomegranate. It is the pomegranate of love.” And with her strong fingers she presses down on the still unsoftened parts of the fruit.
“I was raised under a pomegranate tree,” she says. “I have not known any father or mother. I was given pomegranate juice instead of my mother’s milk. I would pull a branch down. And I would squeeze a pomegranate and suck out its juice. I thought it was my mother’s breast. People would say, ‘Anarak’ (little pomegranate), this tree is your mother. It is the tree of love. And there was a plane tree (Chenar) next to it. And they said, ‘This is your father.’ That’s how I acquired a mother and a father. One day I went to get my identity card and the man in the office said, ‘What is your name?’ I said, ‘Anarak.’ He said, ‘What is your father’s name?’ I said, ‘Chenarak.’ ‘Get lost,’ he said. ‘Were you born from a tree?’ ‘Yes,’ I said.”
She has a gentle voice and her eyes laugh. She is round, plump, and short. Her feet dangle in the air and do not reach the cabin floor. Her face resembles a succulent pomegranate, ready to be squeezed, with red cheeks and full lips. She is a charming and lively old woman. She constantly wriggles around in her seat and swings her small and fleshy feet back and forth.
I’m no longer sleepy.
We are one hour into the flight. They serve breakfast. Mama Pomegranate is famished and she wolfs down her bread and jam.
“Dear Lady,” she says. “Aren’t you hungry? Why aren’t you eating?” And with my permission, she puts the remainder of my breakfast in front of her and makes smacking noises as she eats.
“Do you also have children?” she asks.
“Do your children live with you?”
“Lucky you,” she says. “You are very fortunate. A child is like the essence of one’s life. I haven’t seen my sons in twelve years. I never imagined that my children, the offspring of Mama Pomegranate, would end up in Europe one day. The older boy sent us a letter and in it he wrote ‘Mom, I say my prayers every day, and I fight for my country.’ I wrote back and asked, ‘Son, whom are you fighting against?’ He wrote, ‘I am fighting against the enemies of religion and of my country.’
“The younger boy is not like this at all. He writes once a year, and he tries to sweet-talk me. He writes ‘Mom, come over here and we’ll go dancing.’ He lies, the son of the gun! But he cheers me up with his lies. The other one only thinks of fighting. He just wants to cut people’s heads off. ‘What are you?’ I asked. ‘A butcher? A killer?’ He said, ‘One day I will finally kill Colonel Zamani.’ My poor husband hit himself on the head. ‘Idiot,’ he said. ‘Colonel Zamani is a Muslim. He has a wife and children. It would be a sin.’ But my son kept saying ‘I will also kill so-and-so.’ But he lies. Big lies.
“He has been married twice, to European women. His first wife looked like a cat. Just a bag of bones. My husband spat on the photo of his daughter-in-law, tore it up and threw it in the toilet. And then the photo of the younger boy arrived. He had dyed his hair blonde. He looked gorgeous, just like a girl. He had written, ‘Mom, I play European music and sing at weddings.’
” ‘We have been disgraced,’ my husband said. ‘He has plucked his eyebrows and wears make-up. This is not my son. My sons are dead.’ He mourned and moaned and groaned so much that in the end he died.
“And I thought to myself, ‘Life is hell without a husband and my sons.’ And I went and lay down under the pomegranate tree waiting for the Angel of Death to come and take me. Suddenly there was a commotion and I heard the people from the village calling me. It was the mailman. I can still hear the sound of his bicycle bells. What a loud cling-clang. The children from the village were sitting on top of the garden wall and clapping. The village headman had also come. ‘Mama Pomegranate,’ he said. ‘Guess what! You have a letter from Europe.’ The village headman took the letter, opened it, and saved the envelope and the stamps for himself. ‘This is an official document, and must be filed.’
“The letter was from my younger son. He had written ‘Mom, come over here right away. I am dying to see you. I’m afraid that you too might die.’ His words made me feel a hundred years younger. I jumped to my feet and said, ‘My darling, I’d give my life for you. So what if you look like a woman. You are the apple of my eyes no matter how you look. But where’s Sweden?’ I asked around.
“No one in our village knew where Sweden is. The village headman said, ‘Don’t go. You will die before you get there.’ I said, ‘I will go even if I have to walk all the way to Sweden.’ People said, ‘You will have to cross the seven seas.’ I said, ‘I will cross the seven seas. God is with me. My boys are waiting for me.’ My older son is the angry and hot-tempered type. All day long he talks of taking revenge. He is politically motivated. During the Shah’s regime he was imprisoned twice. But he didn’t learn his lesson. Again he kept saying that they must all be hanged. They must pay with their lives. I told him, ‘My son, they are God’s creatures, just like you and me.’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘This is blasphemous talk. Only we are God’s creatures. The rest are enemies of our faith and our country.’ One day a few Revolutionary Guards came to our village. They were looking for him. He went and hid in Colonel Zamani’s cellar. He was in hiding for forty days. The Colonel kept him fed, until one day he escaped to the mountains and became a wanderer.
“We had no news of him for three years. We thought he was dead. We mourned for three years. We told everyone that he had been martyred. People would come to offer us their condolences and their congratulations. We sold the very carpets we sat on, and gave the money to the mosque to celebrate his martyrdom. Then one day, thank God, news came that he was in Sweden. At first we thought that Sweden was some place in Iran, a village up north, in the Caspian region. Then we found out that it is at the end of the world.
“Around that time, the younger boy also caught the bug. ‘Don’t go,’ I pleaded with him. ‘Stay with us,’ I entreated. It was no use. He said, ‘I want to go somewhere else, to another land.’ Young men are as stubborn as mules. They only do what they want to do and won’t listen to anybody else. He too left. For several years he was stuck in Turkey until his older brother arranged for him to go to Sweden too.
“Dear Lady, I’ve talked too much and given you a headache. I didn’t let you sleep. But I just wanted you to see what children do to you. For the past ten years, I have been talking to my sons in my head, when I was awake and as I slept. I was afraid I would get amnesia and forget them. My husband would say, ‘Amnesia would be God’s blessing. I wish we could stop loving them. I wish we could lie down and die.’ But I swore that I was not going to die until I saw my sons again. Every time I said my prayers I called their names out loud. I kept it up until they heard me. And they sent me an airplane ticket.
“I came to Tehran from Yazd. I stayed with Soheila khanom’s brother, the engineer. He helped me and brought me to the airport. People said there are no eggplants in Sweden. I brought several kilos with me. I wish you were coming to Sweden too. I am going to make eggplant stew for the boys tonight. And then Fesenjan, with meat and pomegranate sauce. Every night I will make an Iranian dish for these unkind sons of mine until they become homesick for Yazd. Where the hell is Sweden anyhow? Soheila khanom said that water freezes right in one’s mouth. Tears turn into bits of broken glass in the eyes and make people blind. I said to myself, ‘Oh God, I hope my sons have not gone blind.’ God only knows what they have been eating during this time. My husband said they eat pork. ‘That’s why they now look like women.’
“My older son is a big man. He hasn’t plucked his eyebrows. But he has frowned so much and he has wanted to take his revenge from this and that person for so long that he has become squinty-eyed. As soon as I get to Sweden, I am going to embrace my younger son and hold him tight against my chest. I am going to sleep at the foot of his bed and put my head on his feet. As a child he always walked barefoot. His feet smelled of grass. And there were nettle sores all over his body. Now he washes his hands and feet with European soap. And he has a foreign smell.
“When my older son was born, he smelled like an adult, not like a baby. He had the sweaty smell of grown-ups. My husband said, ‘This boy is wicked. I can tell from his smell.’ I said, ‘It is God’s will and wisdom. Not everyone has to smell like a rose. We all have our scent. Cats and dogs do not have a pleasant smell, but they have no mischief in them. Chickens stink, but they are poor innocent creatures.’ My husband said, ‘This boy has a rotten brain. The foul smell does not come from his feet, it comes from his head.’ What can I say? To me, he smells like rosewater. Well, I love him and I can’t help it. They told Majnun that his beloved Leyli looked like a jackal. He said, ‘Oh that I could give my life for her jackal-like face.’ This is the way lovers are.
“My younger son is sweet-tempered. He will play European music for me, and I will dance for him with all my coquetry. If only you could see me then. He wrote, ‘Mom, your cooking is excellent. We will start an Iranian restaurant. We will get rich. And we will call it the Restaurant of Pomegranate Lady and Sons.'”
The plane is caught in turbulence, and it jerks up and down. Mama Pomegranate likes the abrupt up and down movements. She claps her hands and swings her short legs.
Doesn’t she know that we are suspended between heaven and earth? That if the plane crashes we will all end up in a thousand pieces? That our lives are hanging by a thread?
“Dear Lady,” she says. “Where can one go to answer the call of nature?”
I do not answer her. My body is limp and my heart is pounding. I count the minutes. Time has become one interminable moment, and my feet are searching, with painful anguish, for terra firma.
Mama Pomegranate is desperate. She unbuckles her seat belt and half rises. The French hostess motions her to sit down. Mama Pomegranate presses her fat thighs together.
“Sit down,” I tell her. “Wait. You will be knocked down.”
She doesn’t listen. She is in a hurry. She starts off. Her shoes are under the seat. She staggers.
The passenger sitting behind her comes to her aid. He is a patient young man. He grabs her by the arm and steers her forward. The plane hits an air pocket and a woman screams. Mama Pomegranate clings to the young man with one hand and grabs at the head and shoulder of a seated passenger with the other, and laughs. The French hostess has given up on the Iranian passengers and stops her objections.
My eyelids close. Mama Pomegranate’s sons roam around at the back of my eyes. They are cold. They are shivering.
“Boys,” I call out to them. “Is this the place you were looking for?” They don’t answer. A layer of snow covers their black hair. They are leaving for another city, a city beyond the seas and mountains. A warm and familiar city. “Wait, I am coming with you.” I cry. A train blows its whistle. Passengers are hanging from its doors and windows. Mama Pomegranate is there too. “Where are you all going?” she asks. No one knows.
The plane’s sudden movement jolts me awake. I hear Mama Pomegranate from a distance. She is pounding on the toilet door.
“Dear Lady, help. Dear Lady.”
The hostess is exhausted and ill-tempered. She doesn’t budge. A passenger gets up and pushes the door open for Mama Pomegranate. She has washed her hands and face and water is dripping from the end of her scarf.
“What a small space,” she says. “May God spare us from such places. You will have to excuse me, but when it comes to toilets, nothing beats our own toilets.”
The plane’s abrupt motions gradually decrease. I can breathe more easily. But my body is limp and my hands are weak. I pull the blanket over my face and do not open my eyes until the plane has come to a stop.
The plane’s wheels hit the ground with a thud and Mama Pomegranate jumps up in her seat. She sees the other passengers are busy picking up their belongings and quickly unbuckles her seat belt.
“Dear Lady, have we arrived?” she asks.
“Have we arrived in Sweden?”
“Then where are we?”
The passengers are in a hurry. They are standing in the aisle pushing each other forward.
“Is Sweden the next stop?”
For the umpteenth time I explain that she has to get off, change her plane, and go to her sons. “Oh my God,” she says. “I am illiterate. I don’t know how. I don’t understand their language.”
“Show them your ticket,” I reply. “They will guide you.”
“Show my ticket to whom?”
“To the Air France people.”
“I am not getting off,” she says. “I won’t budge. I am afraid I’ll be left behind. I may get lost.”
“Come,” I say. “I’ll show you.”
“Dear Lady,” she pleads. “I’d give my life for you. Come with me as far as Sweden.”
Tears well up in her eyes. She lowers her head and talks to herself.
“Get up, Pomegranate Lady,” I tell her. “Don’t be scared. You won’t get lost. I will find someone else to help, someone better than myself.” She hesitates. But there is nothing else she can do. She accepts.
“Trust in God,” she says. “Maybe my sons are waiting for me right here.”
Her feet are swollen and do not fit into her shoes. She sticks her shoes under her arm and starts off. She moans. Her knees are stiff.
“If it wasn’t for the sake of these boys,” she says. “I would not have left home. Our own Yazd is paradise. Isn’t it a pity? The revolution is for the city people. It has nothing to do with us. Mashd Akbar’s son became a Revolutionary Guard. He’s not a bad boy. He went to the city. I told my boys to stay and help me in my old age. But they wouldn’t listen.”
The cabin crew is standing in line at the plane’s exit. Mama Pomegranate says something to the French hostess. She wants to kiss her on the cheeks. But she is too short. The French hostess laughs and shakes her hand.
A long hallway lies ahead of us.
“Is Sweden very far from here?” she asks.
I take her duffel bag from her. It is too heavy for me. I give it back to her.
“Look here,” I say. “Now you have to go this way, and I the other way. Our ways part here. Show your ticket to those two ladies,” and I point to two airline hostesses, “and ask them to help you.”
She looks at me perplexed. She wasn’t expecting this abrupt separation. She grabs hold of the corner of my coat.
“Mama Pomegranate,” I tell her. “I wish you a safe journey. Save a plateful of your eggplant stew and steamed rice for me.”
“How am I going to make myself understood,” she asks. “I don’t speak their language.”
“Show them your ticket.”
“What should I tell them?”
“Sweden, Sweden,” she repeats, and she stares at her ticket.
“Dear Lady,” she calls out.
I move on, and I do not look back. The flight was long and exhausting. I am glad that I am walking on firm ground, and I am no longer being thrown up and down by those damned jolts in midair. The Iranian passengers are all in a hurry and try to overtake one another. They run. In the back of my mind I’m still preoccupied with Mama Pomegranate. Did she go or didn’t she?
Most of the passengers have arrived at the passport control window ahead of me. There is a long line of people. The line on the left is for Europeans. The line on the right is for foreigners. Arabs, Iranians, Africans, Orientals, Afghans, and so on. Someone taps me on the shoulder. It is a man I don’t know.
“Excuse me,” he says. “The old lady who was sitting next to you is sitting on the ground. She can’t walk. She is looking for you.”
“Is there no one else to help her?” I ask. “I am in a hurry.”
“She is looking for you. She doesn’t speak French or English. She is afraid of strangers.”
Oh God. I go back and eye the end of the hallway. I see Mama Pomegranate all alone at the same spot where we parted, sitting on the floor, clutching her duffel bag. Passengers walk past her in a hurry. She notices me from a distance and screams with joy. Her face lights up. She crawls forward on all fours to meet me.
“Dear Lady,” she says. “Please forgive me. I’d give my life for you. But both my legs are frozen stiff. I cannot walk. I said ‘Sweden, Sweden,’ to several people who passed by, but no one gave a damn.”
A woman in a wheelchair passes by. Mama Pomegranate looks at her with envy.
“Dear Lady, find me one of those chairs.”
“Okay, okay,” I tell her. “You sit tight right here until I return.”
I quibble with the Air France people. I beseech them. It is no use. All the wheelchairs have been booked in advance. One has to file a request and wait several days.
“This woman,” I explain, “comes from a village in Iran (a pointless explanation) and her legs are frozen stiff. She cannot walk.”
They sympathize, but there are rules and regulations, and they must be observed. We should have requested a wheelchair ahead of time. There is no other way.
What am I to do? Let her alone and leave? No, I can’t. I cannot bring myself to do such a thing. I notice a baggage trolley. A trolley with open front and sides. One could sit on it. It’s perfect. I hurry. Mama Pomegranate is sitting in the middle of the hallway holding her shoes, her legs spread wide apart. People pass by her indifferently. I put her duffel bag in the trolley and wonder what I should do with her. The front and the sides of the trolley are open.
“Get up, Mama Pomegranate,” I tell her. “Come and sit in front of this trolley.”
“Oh no, dear Lady,” she says. And stares at me in astonishment. She cannot believe it. She laughs.
“Stop ‘ladying’ me! Come on, up you get.”
“O Immam Ali, help me.” Reluctantly, she accepts. She is embarrassed. She looks at the people around her.
“In this trolley?” she asks.
“Yes, on your feet now. I have things to do myself. I am late.”
She blushes and panics. Tears are welling up in her eyes.
“It is disgraceful,” she says. “People will laugh at me.”
“Dear Mama,” I say. “Nobody knows you here. Here in the West nothing is disgraceful. Get a move on.” Her legs ache. I help her. She groans. She struggles to stand, falls, half rises and finally, with her hands pressing down on her knees she manages to lift herself up with her back to the trolley.
“Now, sit down,” I say, and I push down on her shoulders.
She utters an ‘Oh dear Lady’ under her breath, and lets herself down. She is heavy. The trolley begins to roll sideways and hits the wall with force. The passersby look at the scene and laugh. Mama Pomegranate covers her face with the loose end of her scarf.
Steering the trolley forward, with all that weight, is not easy. We swing around and roll this way and that way. Mama Pomegranate helps by digging her heels into the ground and thus moves the trolley forward. A passerby comes to my help. Together we hold the trolley’s handle and push Mama Pomegranate forward.
“O sons of mine,” she says. “If only you could see me in this state?”
I take her ticket. I look at it. Gothenberg. My knowledge of geography is limited. I gather that Gothenberg is a city in Sweden. Where in Sweden, I don’t know. It is there that the sons are waiting for their mother. I ask airport personnel for directions. She has to go to Terminal B. That is to say to the other end of the airport. It is a good ten minutes away, by bus.
Mama Pomegranate looks up and listens. Her eyes are glued to my face. It is a long way to the bus stop.
I am still holding her ticket. I carefully examine it. The Paris-Gothenberg flight is in an hour. There is not much time left. Using every ounce of my energy, I push the trolley forward with Mama Pomegranate sitting on it, looking like a big bundle of bedclothes. We reach the end of the hallway and turn. And there I see the escalator ahead of us. I stop bewildered, not knowing what to do.
Mama Pomegranate is startled at the sight of the escalator, and her eyes open wide.
“Oh, dear Lady,” she says. “These stairs are moving. I am staying put. Let us find another way. Let’s go that way; there are proper stairs, like our own. I am not coming. I will fall and die.”
“Oh stop fussing,” I tell her. “Keep quiet. Otherwise, I will leave you right here and go.” I am tired and have run out of patience.
“Mama, what in the world are you going to Sweden for?” I tell her. “You will be miserable there. You will die of sorrow.” I am angry and I don’t know whom to blame.
“I will carry your bag down,” I say. “You get off the trolley. Come on now. ”
I take her by the arm and help her get up. She groans. She cannot straighten her knees. She gets off the trolley and leans against the wall. I grab her duffel bag and go down the escalator. She watches me from her perch. She is holding on to the wall and staring at me and the moving escalator in horror. Once or twice she musters up enough courage to take a couple of steps forward. She lifts one leg up and then shakes her head and recoils in a panic. I am certain that she will tumble down headfirst from the top of the escalator.
“Pomegranate Lady,” I tell her. “Sit down on the first step and come down sitting.”
“Oh dear Lady,” she says. “Oh my God! What am I to do? I cannot do it. My sons said Sweden was just beyond the city gates. They said getting there was easier than traveling to Mashad. They said you will just get on the plane and get there.”
I am searching for a solution when I notice two tall Swedish men who want to come down the escalator, but find their way blocked by Mama Pomegranate. They tell her something that she doesn’t understand, and they tell me something in Swedish that I don’t understand. Gently they push her to one side, but they still cannot get through. They exchange a few words with one another. They point to me, and before I have time to explain, I see them grab Mama Pomegranate by the arms and lift her up. She screams. She is tickled. She laughs. She oohs and ahs. She twists and turns, and drops her black shoes—with their small metallic bows—that were tucked under her arms. She swings her short fat legs in the air, and clings to the two Western gentlemen. She is heavy and holding her up is not easy. For a moment I fear that the three of them will fall headlong down the escalator and I close my eyes. But they descend safely and laughingly deposit the old lady on the ground. It takes her a while to catch her breath. Drops of perspiration roll down her face. Her scarf is awry and a tuft of her hair, half gray and half dyed red with henna, is protruding from under it.
“The village headman said Mama Pomegranate,” she says. “You will have to cross seven mountains and seven seas. But he didn’t know that I would have to ride in a trolley and get piggybacks from strange men.”
The trolley is still at the top of the stairs. We limp along toward the exit. A porter standing idly by looks at us. I call him over. In exchange for a fee, he agrees to accompany Mama Pomegranate as far as her bus. “Terminal B,” I explain. He knows.
“Pomegranate Lady,” I tell her. “We have to part ways. This gentleman will take you to the bus, and he will tell the driver where to let you off. Don’t worry. These are good people.”
“What about you?” she asks.
“I have to go on my own way.”
“Go and Godspeed.”
Tears run down her cheeks. She takes my hand and kisses me three or four times on the cheeks. She opens her duffel bag and takes out a pomegranate and gives it to me.
The pomegranate of love.
“I wish,” she says. “You were coming to Sweden too. We would all be together. You could taste my cooking. My sons are both really lovely. You wouldn’t believe how good and kind they are. I swear to the Holy City of Mecca that I am telling the truth.” And she wants to point toward Mecca, but she doesn’t know which direction it is.
“Fine,” I say. “Another time.”
“There will be no other time,” she says. “For me today is the day.”
The porter is waiting for her. He is a friendly African. Mama Pomegranate stares at him. Then she gives him her duffel bag. And passes her arm through his, and moves away with slow measured steps, like an ant. Finally she turns around and looks back at me with the world’s kindest eyes.
I am holding her pomegranate.
I must find my luggage. One hour has passed. My fellow passengers have all gone. My suitcases have been locked up in storage. Lack of sleep, exhaustion and hunger have made me restless.
The Air France agent telephones someone. He tells me I have to wait a few minutes. A few minutes turn into half an hour. And then an hour. And an eternity. I sit there waiting.
I think of the Pomegranate Lady. I tell myself that she has already arrived and is busy cooking. Her sons will buy her new clothes, and they will replace her oversized and heavy headscarf with a delicate chiffon veil. They will take her out to see the sights, the city square, the movies, the seashore, the zoo.
Tonight, after ten years, she will put her head on the stinking feet of her older son, and sleep blissfully. More blissfully than ever before.
* * *
Wednesday afternoon. I have been back for three days. I unpack my suitcase. I set my Islamic coverall aside to take it to the drycleaners. I empty out its pockets. Two one hundred toman bills, a packet of chewing gum, a folded piece of paper, an old drycleaner’s receipt, a bank receipt, and an airline ticket.
I read: Tehran-Paris-Gothenberg. Sunday, September 29. Sunday, September 29.
Sunday, September 29.
I am flabbergasted, confounded. It’s impossible. The Pomegranate Lady left. She got on the plane. I saw it with my own eyes. I put the ticket down on the table. Face down. I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to think about it. My mouth tastes bitter. A painful anguish churns around in my stomach. My eyes are glued to the damned ticket.
“Airy-fairy lady,” I had told her. “Look to make sure that you have everything.”
She had looked. And she had held her duffel bag tightly to her chest. She was holding her passport.
But her ticket? I had her ticket. I must have put it in my pocket and I must have forgotten. The idiot that I am. The scatterbrain. I must find her. But how? Where? I am totally confused and cannot think clearly.
Oh I wish I had not helped her. I wish to God I had not run into her. I wish she had met somebody else.
Oh I don’t know. It was my fault. It was her sons’ fault. It was that damned mailman’s fault who delivered her son’s letter. I will go to Sweden. I will go to Gothenberg. I will go to Yazd. I will find her.
“I just want to see my sons,” she said. “I want to hold them in my arms, kiss them a hundred times. And then lay my head down on the ground and die happy.”
I call Air France. The line is busy. I dial again, and again, and again. The same busy signal. Beep, beep, beep, beep. Hello, hello, hello. The call goes through but nobody answers. Canned music. And then a pre-recorded voice tells me, “Please wait, someone will take your call shortly.” Shortly means a lifetime. An eternity. My heart is being wrenched out of my chest. I hang up.
I call the airport. This time someone answers. I ask for the list of passengers on the Paris-Gothenberg flight on September 29th, departing at 1.00 pm. Silence. The world’s longest silence. Ten minutes. Perhaps I have been cut off? “Hello!” I shout into the mouthpiece. “Helloooo!” Someone answers. They don’t have the list. And if they did, they would not give it to me. It is chaos. I beg and plead. I tell them that an old Iranian lady named Anar-Banu Chenari is missing. “I have her ticket. She was traveling to Gothenberg, Sweden, from Tehran. Hello?” The connection keeps breaking up. Now somebody else is talking. I start all over again. I explain. There is no one by that name on the passenger list.
I call the embassy of the Islamic Republic in Paris. They promise to help. They will make enquiries. But the embassy is closed for three days. I telephone the Iranian embassy in Sweden. They say “No, no such lady has contacted us.” I call a friend in Stockholm and entreat her to find out if two young men by the name of Chenari or Anari live in Gothenberg. Two young men from Yazd, one with long dyed hair who is a singer, and the other with dark eyes and dark hair, hot-tempered and angry.
And then I wait. Maybe it will occur to the Pomegranate Lady to find my telephone number through the Paris phone directory. But how? In what language?
Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday.
I have placed her pomegranate on my bedside table. The pomegranate of love, remember? I have asked myself a thousand times, “Where is she? What is she doing?” One can think of a thousand things. Good things or bad things. Today is one of those bright and light-hearted days, one of those rare days when invisible birds chatter behind the window, and the ill-tempered and sullen neighbor passes by whistling happily. And the concierge has gotten up from the right side of her bed and greets the old mailman amiably. I consider the happy chatter of the birds and the unexpected brightness of the sky as a good omen and I tell myself that the Pomegranate Lady is now sitting cozily by her sons. She has cooked fesenjan stew, with chicken and pomegranate juice, and is well rested after her long journey.
I tell myself that one day, one good and happy day, I will return and I will buy a house or a small garden with a view of the mountains and facing the sun. I will plant the seeds of the good lady’s pomegranate, and I will distribute its fruit among the people of the neighborhood. Those who taste the pomegranate of love will know that they are brothers and sisters and when their eyes meet, their hearts will fill with joy, and their troubled souls will find momentary peace, and all of this will have been possible thanks to a hundred-year-old pomegranate lady who is sleeping under her pomegranate tree, so peacefully that no one has the heart to wake her up. Her younger son has composed a melodious song for her that lovesick pomegranate vendors hum all the time. The older son is the father of two dark-eyed and chubby girls who resemble their grandmother and he has forgotten all about seeking revenge.
The European bride is happy. At nights, before going to sleep, she repeats the word aash, a soup, under her breath like some miracle prayer, and sleeps soundly.
And I know with certainty that wherever she may be, sleeping or awake, the Pomegranate Lady is thinking back to her long journey, to the fastening of that seat belt, to her getting tickled, to the ride in the baggage trolley, to her ride on the back of strangers, to her losing her airline ticket, and to me.
Sometimes I see her in my dreams, and her voice comes to me from afar.
“Dear Lady,” she says. “I had a letter from my sons. They feel alone and abandoned in America too. And once again they are thinking of moving on to another place. Where this time?”
“Pomegranate Lady,” I tell her. “Don’t worry. There are many people like this. They feel they are strangers no matter where they go. They are always restless. And one day you will see that your sons have returned. They are happy. They lie down in the shade of pomegranate trees and doze off. And once again they are bitten by the bug. And off they go over the mountains and across the deserts. Well, going away and returning is another way to live.”
“What is wrong with our own Yazd,” she asks.
“Pomegranate Lady, go to sleep,” I tell her. “And let me catch my nine winks.”
She falls silent. She talks to herself, to her sons. I can no longer hear her, and her blurred and dusty image slowly recedes, like a faded picture, into the labyrinthine corridors of sleep.