A day in the summer of 1955. Its around noon. The sun is baking down on the Chahar Bagh, the main avenue of Isfahan. The straight, long and very wide street is lined with large four hundred year old trees, mostly planes, with their characteristically flecked bark. Isfahan used to be the old capital of the Persian kingdom. Ask any guide, and he will point to anything, anywhere, and say the two magic words: Shah Abbas. The illustrious Shah Abbas must have led an extremely long and productive life.
I am late for lunch. Somehow the visit with my eighty-five year old friend, Father Nicholas, lasted longer than I had anticipated. I had planned to chat and visit for not more than twenty or thirty minutes, but, once we started reminiscing about his youth in Holland, we forgot all about the time. Sitting in his small sunny room in the French missionary, I experience a sense of peace and extreme quiet. A faint aroma of dusty roses and scented candles lingers in the room, and after a while I realize it comes from his cassock, as he sits in front of the open window. Behind him, short white curtains are gently moving in the breeze, revealing a glimpse now and then of the rose garden outside.
My visit, while I was lingering over a cup of fragrant and delicious Turkish coffee, stretched to nearly two hours. Father Nicholas lived in Azerbaijan, Baku to be exact, for fourty years, and he delights in knowing all the secrets of brewing an excellent cup of coffee. I finally bade him a warm goodbye, picked up my shopping bags full of groceries, and headed home.
The street was nearly deserted as I started to walk, swinging my bags and humming a song. Meanwhile I kept looking over my shoulder to see if I could spot a vizheh, a taxi that picks up as many passengers as it can possibly hold, and often more than that. No luck! By now all the households are busy cooking lunch, the main meal of the day, and the delicious aromas of saffron rice, cilantro and dill are drifting about, stimulating my gastric juices and sending my tummy off to a rumbling concert.
Finally, a vizheh arrives. A ten or twelve-year old boy is hanging from the front door of the car, chanting: "Jolfa, Jolfa...", the Armenian part of the city of Isfahan. I hop aboard and squeeze myself in between two ladies, a baby, and some shopping bags.
One lady on my right peeks at me out from under her colorful veil, her chador. In the middle of her forehead the chador has a small thread sticking out, the purpose of that being to locate the center of the veil easily. She bends over, and touches the fabric of my blue-checked cotton dress.
"Nice cotton", she says, and, when I respond in Farsi, she settles back comfortably and we start a conversation.
"Yes," I tell her, "my mother sent me this fabric from Holland for a tablecloth, but, since I did not have many summer dresses, I decided to make a dress out of the cloth."
"Good idea", she says, "a tablecloth should be white."
I arrive at my destination and pay my share of the fare and head home. We live in Jolfa and our house is near the river Zaindehrud. Of course, since all houses are surrounded by large mudwalls, no part of our house is visible from the street. I knock on the garden door, and I hear from his footsteps that my father is coming. He opens the door with a smile, and his eyes light up when he sees the shopping bags.
"Yes, Vadertje, lunch will be in one half hour. Could you please set the table?"
I run to the kitchen, switch on the electric cooker and start the rice. This small stove is a unique appliance and the only one of its kind in the city of Isfahan. It was part of the contract my husband signed with the management of the powerplant: "Free electricity for our home, my wife brought an electric cooker", and they consented.
On with our meal. The salad is ready, and next comes the meat. Now this is quite amazing. The price of the filet part of the lamb is the same as the price of the ground meat, which is usually comprised of bits and pieces. The tenderest meat also comes from the male lamb, and, to prove this, the butcher
usually shows you the proof of that part of the anatomy of the carcass. The filet makes the most delicious Wiener Schnitzel, a delicacy my parents cannot always afford back home in Holland. So here we go: slice the filet in large pieces, tenderize them with a wooden mallet, season and flour and roll in breadcrumbs and sautee in fresh creamery butter. A sprinkling of parsley and a squeeze of lemon and voila, lunch is ready!
Just in time, Mahmood, my husband, has arrived from work, and my mother, who has been ill, has made herself presentable to join our meal. An animated conversation is taking place; we are planning a picnic in the mountains with a group of our American friends. Tomorrow is a holiday.
Later in the evening, Mahmood back at the powerplant for the evening shift and mother relaxing in bed, I sit with my father on our verandah. The moon is slowly making her way along the starry sky. Only in Persia are the skies so unbelievably dark and luminous with millions of stars flickering like f ire-flies. Galaxies, constellations, as I am looking at you I feel like stretching out my arms and embracing you! The dark blue outline of the mountain ranges is stretching out across the horizon, with the characteristic shape of the Kuh Sofa, so named after the shape of a sofa, on the left of our panorama. The crickets in our rose garden provide their usual concert, a few goats are still bleating in the quiet night, and some jackals are barking near the river. Oh, yes, I had bought my father some
cigarettes which he now gratefully accepts while eyeing his bedroom at the other side of the verandah to see if mother is watching! She does not want him to smoke, so I buy him two or three cigarettes a day in the bazaar, which is a common custom here. The smell of his cigarette drifts around while we sit and watch and listen to the sounds of the night. And talk. And just sit and are quiet and enjoy each others nearness.
A sound interrups our dream world, a far-away sound. Camelbells! They are coming closer, and when the soft ding-dong of the bells and the pad-padding of their feet starts passing by our garden door, my father runs through the garden on his slippers and looks in the street. For quite a few minutes. It must be a long caravan! He finally returns, and even in the late evening light I can see his eyes are moist. His voice trembles, he gives a small cough and then tries to speak clearly:
"Charcoal and skins, I could smell them!"
"Sounds about right, Vadertje!"
At ten oclock Mahmood returns from the power plant and we all retire. We sleep with our doors open to the verandah, our big beds covered with mosquito nets, a quilt cover for the cool nights. The day has gone, and all its sounds with it. A faint fragrance from the rose garden drifts into our bedroom, a whiff of charcoal finds its way into the air. A gentle breeze mixes both... Sleep comes easily....
Goodnight world. Helloh moon! I am floating out of the window on the gentleness of the mosquito net gauze. It stretches out like a big, flat cloud. Up and up it goes, over the roof, into the dark star-flickering night. The moon is expanding, it is now descending from the sky until it is so close that I can nearly touch it. One side is lit up brightly, its golden craters enveloping deep shadows inside its cavernous depths. The other side is in a semi-shadow with only faint outlines.
I stretch out my hand and try to feel the thin round yellow rim of a bursted bubble of dust. But no, I cannot quite reach it.
And then, in my dream, a memory stirs.... I am a small child, sitting on my fathers arm and looking out of the frontroom windows.
It was a very dark night. A heavy thunder storm had scared me, and I was crying. My father opened up the maroon velvet drapes, and showed me the skies:
"Look, Hallie, its only a storm. Look at the beautiful dark clouds, and watch how fast they are sailing across the skies!"
And as I watched, the wind blew the clouds apart, the storm moved on, and a pale full moon appeared shyly behind the trees.
"Vadertje, look, I can see his face! Why is he hanging there? Can the moon fall down? Can I touch it then?"
My father looks at me, his blue eyes on mine, and shakes his head.
"No, Hallie, the moon cannot fall down, but maybe, one day, we can travel up there, like in the books of Jules Verne that I read to you the other day."
We stare out into the dark night a little while longer, and I feel we share a special secret as I sit safely on my fathers arm.
And then, like images in a kaleidoscope, the dream shatters. I feel a sadness, a loss, and as the dream fades away I hope it will return, at another time, in another night.
Sleep comes quietly then, restful, and deep.
But the jackals near the river Zaindehrud are crying, their shrill voices reaching far into the quiet night.