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from the July/August 2003 issue

from Snow over Tehran

The smell of breakfast and cigarettes permeated the street around the teahouse. On his way in, Bahman recognized the errand boy from the public bath who was coming out with a tray of breakfast.

"Hello, Mr. Bahman."

"Hello. It seems you're open?"

"It was finally our turn to get heating oil last night. We were tanking up during the bombing."

"Save a place for me. I'm coming."

"There's no need. No one knows we're open yet."

The snowbound heights of the Alborz mountains in the distance caught his eye. All his attention was focused there, then on the kid. As if he had been running in that direction for centuries, and was exhausted by these slopes.

The boy, who was observing Bahman's face carefully, asked, "Do you want a razor too?"

He needed soap as well as a razor. He placed a few coins on the tray, and headed toward the teahouse. The windows were criss-crossed with yellow tape to minimize the danger from the shockwaves of explosions; this was compulsory in public places. Behind the glass of the door was a piece of paper with the words: "We regret that addicts are not welcome here." Although the paper was yellowed with age, Bahman could not remember having seen it before. Before entering, he gazed for another moment at the waves of white snow that had settled in the blue shadows of dawn on the purple mirage of rock.

The smell of grease, the aroma of bread, the steam from the samovars, and the heady smoke of cigarettes made it hard to breathe. There was no place to sit. By the window, at the head of Agha Morteza's table, two chairs remained empty. After a nod and a gesture from him, he took a seat at the table, by the window. After a wordless silence, Morteza answered in a loud voice that everyone could hear, "Thanks be to God, I'm all right. How are you?"

Bahman mumbled something. For no particular reason, he did not want to look him in the eye at that moment. He turned toward the darkness at the back of the teahouse and pretended to be waiting for Hossein Agha, the owner, who was arranging his teapots in the back. The Islamic Iran Radio concluded a martial anthem and then began a report on the victories of the forces of Islam on the battleground of good against evil, with an accounting of the spoils of war and a measure of the territory that had been occupied . . . Hossein Agha turned off the radio.

"When are you leaving on your trip?"

Bahman turned and looked down his nose at Agha Morteza. He examined the row of healthy white teeth and the meaty lips, red and wet. He noticed that his beard, like many beards, was graying on the sides of his chin and under his ears.

"Nothing is for sure, under the circumstances."

"What kind of talk is that, Brother? There's nothing happening. The airport is open; you can be sure that all the flights are leaving."

Bahman wavered between counting the white hairs in Agha Morteza's beard and the conviction that he could remember such an ordinary face. Finally he focused on the man's brown coat and gray hand-knit sweater. The coat was old-fashioned, with squared but narrow shoulders, a wide, edge-stitched collar, and tight waist. The sleeves were tight enough to display Agha Morteza's bulging arms completely. Four parallel twists were embroidered on the grey sweater. Bahman lied intentionally, "But when I phoned half an hour ago, they said flights were canceled until further notice."

"It's in God's hands."

Bahman wiped a spot on the steamed-up window with the palm of his hand. He turned his gaze across the street to the buildings and the hundred suns reflected in the windows criss-crossed with tape. It was as if the windows were saying, don't seek the sun in this part of the world. Then he noticed the big lock hanging from the raised blinds of Agha Morteza's shop-no trace of Ali's job remained there. Now, sitting face to face with him, the spice merchant seized the opportunity and in a loud voice gave an account of the two ambulances that were parked a little ways above his shop-what a headache he had to find them and purchase them. "Because, you know, there's a shortage of ambulances these days."

"No, I didn't know. I thought it was washing machines that were hard to come by."

But Agha Morteza continued without a pause, "Counting these two, I've donated seven ambulances to the battlefront of good against evil, and that . . . " Bahman, before turning toward Hossein Agha at the back of the teahouse, asked why there was no line in front of the shop today. "You haven't given everything away, have you?"

On a high counter at the back the samovars were steaming, the washed tea glasses were drying, and Hossein Agha, his back lit by the early rays of sunlight, was preparing trays of breakfast. Four pictures were framed on the wall behind the counter, faded by age and light, their glass sweating in the steam. In the top one, the champion Takhti stood in wrestling garb and gold medals. A little below the left corner, Saint Michael spread his wings and speared the mouth of a dragon. Beside him to the right, Siegfried was washing his body in a dragon's blood; a leaf rested on his shoulder. In the last and lowest frame, the young Hossein was kneeling, dressed as an ancient warrior, his two hands holding a great club. On his face, the pale green of the background had run together with the persimmon pink of his lips and cheeks in a few places.

This time, Agha Morteza lowered his voice as far as possible. Making as if to leave, he answered, "Yes, everything has been distributed. But, well, there wasn't much. It all went fast."

Although he had spoken as softly as he could, it seemed that everyone could hear, and a vague tremor shook the teahouse and the framed pictures.

"Are you wearing dark glasses because your eyes are sore?"

"Yes, they're sore."

In the far left corner of the teahouse, between the counter and the adjacent wall, was the entrance to a long, narrow back room a few steps below the main floor. He could make out a sort of kitchen and storeroom. An old man was working there under the yellow light of a bare bulb. A small boy sat on the edge of the steps; his shoulders and hair seemed to flame in the ribbons of yellow light. For a moment, a reflected ray of sunlight caught his face. He was looking at Bahman, and they both laughed.

A little in front of the entrance to the back room, three Afghanis had taken off their shoes and sat waiting on a carpet-covered bench, their eyes glued to Hossein Agha as he carried a big tray of breakfast toward them. Three pieces of bread, three pieces of cheese, and three glasses of sweet tea. He placed the tray on the bench. Standing there, he turned to face Bahman and asked with a motion of his head, "Breakfast?"

"Fried eggs, if you have any."

Sliding the shoes under the bench with his foot, Hossein Agha called out to the back room, "One order of fried eggs!" A weak, unintelligible sound could be heard from the radio inside.

Bahman was uncomfortable under the relentless gaze of Agha Morteza-a gaze that followed his every movement. He felt he was under a microscope, in little pieces, his components and colors being photographed. Agha Morteza got up slowly from his seat. He stood beside Bahman, so quietly that he thought he wanted to whisper something in his ear with those meaty, wet lips. An insect voice buzzed beside his face: "I've told you this before, but if one day you change your mind and want to sell your house, I'm at your service as a buyer. I'll tell you also that I can transfer the money to you wherever you like, in cash."

"I don't intend to sell now, but if one day . . . "

"Or if you want to rent it, I'll accept your terms, whatever they are."

He repeated his last statement, but he still had not dislodged himself from beside Bahman's chair when someone outside opened the door. On a cold wind, the distant sound of the crowd and their shouts of "Allah-o akbar" poured into the teahouse. The man's eyes scanned the teahouse and with a movement of his hand he signalled the Afghani laborers to leave. They stood up from the bench, pulled out their shoes, and put them on. All three picked up their pieces of bread, pushed the cheese in with their thumbs, and rolled them up to take with them. They swallowed their tea in one gulp. Agha Morteza left, after repeating his last words. The Afghanis followed him out. The man closed the door again, shutting out the cold and the distant crowd.

The boy put the dish of fried eggs on the table. He stood there looking at Bahman and his sunglasses.

"Is it true that a pilot's uniform looks like an astronaut's uniform?"

"Yes, it's true."

"You haven't seen them, so how do you know?"

"Then why do you ask?"

"Is it true that they're made in France?"

"How should I know? I've never seen them."

As if by tacit agreement, Bahman took off his glasses and gave them to the boy. He put them on quickly. Looking sidelong at Bahman, he said slowly, "Today it's snowing in your eyes."

Immediately he raised his arms into wings, made the sound of a motor with his mouth, and began circling between the tables and chairs, dropping bombs wherever he pleased. Hossein Agha, tray in hand, did the rounds of the tables, picking up the empty tea glasses, replacing them with fresh ones. He set down two glasses for himself and Bahman, and sat down at Bahman's table. In the back room, someone had turned up the radio. The announcer on Radio Iraq was giving the news of the war in Persian with a thick Arabic accent. His voice thundered: "Last night, Iraqi jets bombed eight economic and military targets in Tehran and returned safely to their bases." He enumerated other cities that had been bombed, and continued, "If the Iranians do not submit to a ceasefire, the heroic army of Iraq, under their all-powerful leader, will resort to deadly weapons that will turn thousands upon thousands of men at once to ash and smoke, and turn the front into a burning hell . . . " At the end, they broadcast a Persian song:

From now on, my heart belongs to no one, From now on, no savior will hear my cries under the cloudy skies, From now on, my troubles will not . . .

The old man who had turned off the radio came out of the back room carrying a white tablecloth, and sat on the Afghani workers' bench. He spread the cloth and busied himself with breaking a cone of sugar into cubes. One of the customers asked, "What was all that al-durum bal-durum sweet talk?"

Someone else, imitating the gutteral sounds of the announcer's Iraqi accent, answered, "If that all-powerful Iraqi son of a bitch had any brains, he would know how to blow the whole place to hell once and for all."

Hossein Agha pulled a plastic bag out of the pocket of his vest, opened it, carefully broke off a piece of opium residue and dropped it in his glass of tea. When he had stirred it, he yelled at the boy who was still busy bombing the teahouse, thrust the tray of empty tea glasses in his hands, took the sunglasses off his face, and placed them on the table in front of Bahman.

"Your eyes are full of sadness, friend."

Bahman put the glasses on.

"It's nothing. What news of Ali?"

"Who has news of anyone these days? Especially him, one day he's on, two days later he's strung out."

The tray of empty glasses was shaking in the boy's hands. He spoke over the sound of the clinking glasses, "They killed Ali."

Hossein Agha glanced at the tray. "Put it away."

"I heard it myself. Two people were talking about it here yesterday. They got him with a knife in the back, in front of the High Mosque. Night before last. They found a string of shell prayer beads beside him."

Bahman knew that the subject would change now. He said nothing. He let the fume of death infuse his mind. The boy, who had placed the tray on the counter, hid himself behind the old man and began mumbling along with the rhythmic sound of the breaking sugar. Bahman noticed that at other tables, people were also breaking off pieces of opium residue and dropping them into tea. It seemed to him that all at once everyone was stirring tea. Outside, the procession was gradually approaching and the crowd was moving past the closed doors and windows. Hossein Agha drew his head back from the bitterness of the tea. "Don't ever give your house to that slime," he said.

Bahman shook his head to say no and fixed his gaze on the clear, silent water that ran between the row of trees outside the window. Ice covered the sides of the channel. Now he could see the procession of men coming down the street, coffins on their shoulders. The old man raised his voice and recited a poem of Hafez:

I long for the bitter wine whose power can overwhelm men, For a moment of peace away from the world, its evil and turmoil. Bring wine, for there is no refuge from the games that heaven plays, From the sport of the clutches of Venus or warrior Mars. All the feast of world and time cannot feed me the honey of calm. O heart, spit out the sour taste of grasping greed, Let go the hunter's rope, take up the magic cup, For crossing this desert I found no trace of the hunter, nor his grave.

A desperate need to cry out welled up inside him. His eyes were fixed on the procession. He left the teahouse abruptly. The place stuck in his mind as a collage of snapshots, torn and overlapping-bowed heads without bodies, staring at who knows what; arms that became columns supporting faceless chins; half bodies and chairs, broken tables, hands and agate-colored tea, samovars and steam, images darkened here and there by too many shadows. As if the only connection they shared were their white torn edges. Bahman left behind the snapshots too. He jumped over the water channel and became one more traveler in the funeral procession.

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