|The Jihad of Agha-ye Rahimi
In daylight, in Mahtab’s bedroom, Agha-ye Rahimi’s face rose up before her like a midnight intruder. His habitual expression hovered slightly above the mirror--the bushy eyebrows slanted in a V above his nose, his lip curled up over his right incisors, foam spewing from the corner of his mouth. The day before, Mahtab had imagined him dressed as a mullah, robes slipping off his lop-sided frame. Then, she had wrapped her scarf around her head like a turban and made her Zoroastrian friend, Mitra, laugh by walking like Agha-ye Rahimi always did before the Iranian Revolution--with his neck craned forward and his chin down. She had even pushed the coil of her turban forward, making it lead the way like horns on a ram.
Three years before, Mahtab had met him at the university. She had just installed herself in her seat by the window, nervous that first day of class, when a male student appeared in the doorway. He slid into the seat beside her, slouching and bedraggled. Mahtab had heard that the Shah’s government was bringing students from villages to the university on scholarship. This young man must be one of them. Instead of calling on Allah’s compassion and mercy for herself, she opted to emulate that compassion by setting this new student at ease. Mahtab introduced herself, hiding her bracelets and rings as best she could in the folds of her skirt. With proper Islamic modesty, the young man kept his eyes lowered when he answered.
“I’m Agha-ye Rahimi. I’m from a village near Natanz.”
“Your family is there, then?”
“I only have a mother and sister.”
Mahtab imagined two women huddled in a mud-brick house, stirring thin, lemony soup over a charcoal brazier. No wonder Agha-ye Rahimi felt out of place, and his overall appearance didn't help. He had on a white shirt, grimy, open at the collar and a black, double-breasted, pin-striped coat with matching pants. Two buttons were missing from his coat, and his cuffs were frayed. Dirty tennis shoes, too big for him, stuck out from his pant legs. His head was shaved. His face wasn’t.
“They must be very proud that you’ve decided to come to the university and get an education.”
“Oh.” He threw his hand up as if he were brushing away flies. “They don’t understand anything about education. They can‘t even read the Koran.” Agha-ye Rahimi frowned, still averting his gaze from Mahtab’s face. She appreciated his attempt to avoid “temptation,” but surely he had picked up that she was old enough to be his mother.
“Don’t you have a family?” His accusatory tone startled her, and she followed with a description of her husband and children.
“I’ve always wanted to study English literature. What about you?”
“I wanted to be a doctor or an engineer. But I didn’t score well enough on my entrance exam.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Studying English was the only way I could get in the university. I don’t even know much English. Besides, I hate it.”
Mahtab could understand that a villager like Agha-ye Rahimi might not have the desire to teach English to the children of rich Tehranis, many of whose fathers held posts in the Shah’s government. “Then, let me help you. I tutor my oldest son, who isn’t much younger than you.”
Just then, the teacher walked in followed by students who had milled around the hallway until she arrived. Agha-ye Rahimi glared and muttered something under his breath. Mahtab wasn’t sure if it was in response to her offer or to Mrs. Weston’s appearance.
Mahtab liked Mrs. Weston from the beginning. She dressed modestly, but with great style--not like some foreign women she’d seen whose blouses fall out of their skirts or whose bosoms fall out of their blouses. Mrs. Weston had an inviting smile and a soft voice, and was very formal. She outlined her expectations for the class, explained how she would calculate grades, and handed out the schedule, “syllabus,” she called it. Mahtab could feel herself relaxing. Here, she felt transplanted into more fertile soil. No one, not even her family, comprehended her love of Dickens and Harding or her curiosity about the Americans--Hemingway, Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe. Even so, they told all their neighbors about her career as a student--everyone from the old baba who stitched slippers on the corner to the greengrocer with his stacks of sabzi and bags of purple onions. It was time, they said, that Iranian women became more educated, more “modern,” as they put it.
During the entire class period, Agha-ye Rahimi scowled and strained to catch Mrs. Weston’s words. When she enunciated her “policy on cheating,” he sat up straighter and actually made eye contact with her, glowering. Mrs. Weston stared back without changing her expression. Clearly, she wouldn’t put up with anything she didn’t like.
After class, with exaggerated haste, Agha-ye Rahimi swept his books off his desk. Several loose pages slipped over the edge of his notebook and slid under the radiator. As Agha-ye Rahimi brushed dust and cobwebs off the errant beasts, Mahtab read inscriptions from the Koran that he had carefully inscribed on the top of each sheet. While he was herding the papers back into place, she stepped forward, ready to repeat her offer to tutor him. Agha-ye Rahimi slammed down the notebook cover and cast a last, disparaging look around the classroom, now empty. He growled and iterated the word Sheitan twice before he bolted toward the open door, leaving Mahtab to gasp and speculate on just who or what he considered to be Satan.
Later that afternoon, when Mahtab left the building, she checked out the other students lounging on the faculty’s steps. Female students had decked themselves out in just about anything from black chadors to tight knit tops and blue jeans. She found two of the girls from her class and sat down next to them. They were discussing Mrs. Weston, English words smuggled in between giggles and babbles in Farsi.
“Did you see how green her eyes are?” said the one named Shireen. “She must be Lebanese.”
“No, I heard she’s from London,” said the other one, whose scarf descended low over her forehead. The “scarfi” pushed a stray lock back under her headdress. Mahtab didn’t want to point out that Mrs. Weston opened her mouth wide and talked out of the back of her throat. They would figure out soon enough that she was American. Besides, Mahtab didn’t know if they preferred British or Americans. Or even Lebanese. What she did know was that she had the habit of smoothing over the slightest possibility of an impending confrontation before any argument could erupt.
When she had first married Hamid, he had told her that, by naming her Mahtab after moonlight, her parents had endowed her with its essence. To Hamid, moonlight meant an iridescent glow that blurs edges and dissolves the sharpness of shadows. Back then, Mahtab wished Hamid would take up writing poetry instead of immersing himself in architecture. Sometimes now, in the dark solace of her side of the bed, Mahtab asked herself if moonlight worked any better in subjugating the inevitable than did the harsher light of logic. Regardless, she’d rather soothe than reason, and now she needed to find study companions.
On that first day, Mahtab made friends with Shireen and Nazi. The three of them, all “modern” yet divergent in their dress and family backgrounds, moved over to a bench in the shade. There, mimosa blossoms drifted into their laps as, together, they poured over the first pages of their first literature assignment, H. G. Wells’s The Country of the Blind.
The third week of the semester, the first skirmish erupted in Mrs. Weston’s class. Mrs. Weston had initially used selections from Wells’s story to illustrate grammatical points, sentence structure, and transitional phrases. She had assisted students in learning how to derive meaning from context and had introduced literary terms like exposition and development. Finally, Mahtab, Shireen, Nazi, and the newest member of their study group, Mitra, puzzled over the discussion questions designed to enable students to interpret the story’s meaning. This, more than anything, excited Mahtab--figuring out the significance of the work. That day, labeled “Open Discussion” on the syllabus, Mahtab and her friends, eager to offer their much-disputed opinions, came to class with a profusion of marginal notations on the story’s tattered pages.
Although Agha-ye Rahimi did not appear armed with notes or underscored passages, his arm flew up like a misfired flare as soon as Mrs. Weston opened the discussion. Shireen looked at Mahtab, raising her eyebrows. During the entire first week, Agha-ye Rahimi had said little. When Mahtab had asked him if he understood what Mrs. Weston was saying, he clicked his tongue and jerked his head back with a vehemence that frightened her. Then, he drew the back of his coat sleeve across his lips and wiped away saliva drooling out of the right corner of his mouth. The next time this happened, Mahtab considered asking her uncle, a neurologist, to examine Agha-ye Rahimi without charge.
By the onset of week two, Agha-ye Rahimi started talking a bit with Firouz, and Mitra convinced Mahtab that he had only had a case of jitters from having to concentrate on every word spoken in English.
Now, Agha-ye Rahimi’s words rushed on, his command of English surprising them all. “Wells,” Agha-ye Rahimi said, is telling us that the ruling class is blind.” He paused, eying Mrs. Weston, while the majority of the class nodded their assent. “Don’t you think so, Mrs. Weston?” Mahtab shifted in her chair. The class, its members accustomed to speaking out at the same time, fell silent, waiting for Mrs. Weston’s response.
“That is a valid interpretation, and you’re close to the story’s theme.”
For the first time, a smile flickered across Agha-ye Rahimi’s lips. “And if a person in the ruling class, the government, read this story, I guess that person might not like what it says.” Mahtab saw Ahmad turn to Hassan and whisper something she couldn’t catch in Farsi. “Wouldn’t you say so, Mrs. Weston?”
“What do you think of the story’s end, Mr. Rahimi? The only sighted person dies, does he not? Makes a futile attempt to escape?”
“Ah, but he was dangerous to the country. At least, that’s how the blind thought of him. What do you think of countries that eliminate dangerous people?”
Mahtab’s heart raced as she tried to think of how she could change the subject. She knew that the students believed an agent of the Shah’s dreaded secret police, SAVAK, was in every class. Whoever their operative was, he would be obliged, indeed elated, to report inflammatory comments made by a foreigner. And Agha-ye Rahimi, she thought, was banking on this.
Ahmad and Hassan came to the rescue. “Kafi-ye, agha.” That’s enough. They launched a barrage of Farsi directed at Agha-ye Rahimi, condemning the tactics he was employing against an innocent person who was a guest in their country.
Agha-ye Rahimi lay his right hand over his heart, inclined his head and upper body in acquiescence towards Hassan. Then, he extended his palm toward Ahmad. “Befarmayid. Ingilisi harf bezanim. Please. Let’s speak English.”
Mrs. Weston, who had remained silent during the exchange, smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Rahimi. The discussion you’ve initiated begs a question. Why do we read literature?” Mahtab felt relieved. The safety of this broader topic gave her the opportunity to hear ideas offered by her classmates, save Agha-ye Rahimi, who redirected his attention to making entries in a pocket notebook adorned with a picture of Esfahan’s Friday Mosque.
During the remainder of the semester, Mahtab and Mitra became fast companions, meeting every afternoon with Shireen and Nazi to go over their daily assignments. When Mahtab finally convinced Agha-ye Rahimi to let her tutor him, Mitra lectured her. “He’s not worth all the time you spend with him,” Mitra said. Mahtab reminded her that even Agha-ye Rahimi was a child of God and, as such, deserved compassion. Then, one afternoon, when Mahtab showed up an hour and fifteen minutes late, the other women rebelled, claiming that Agha-ye Rahimi was taking advantage of her, getting her to go over every assignment before he handed it in. He, they said, would never open his mind to Mrs. Weston and stop his habitual attempts to bait their instructor. “But he believes that Mrs. Weston grades him down because she hates Islam,” Mahtab said. Agha-ye Rahimi, she explained, without fail, inserted religious doctrine into his compositions.
“Well, does she? Does she give him bad grades because she’s a ka--I mean, a Christian?” Nazi adjusted the black chador with which she had replaced her scarf.
Mahtab, choosing to ignore the near slip into traditional Islamic rhetoric, sighed. Hamid, too, had complained of how much time she was spending away from home after class, of how she did her own work late at night after the children were in bed. “You should see how he writes. He leaves out ninety percent of the vowels. There are no topic sentences, and he repeats every thing he says like the names of Allah on his prayer beads. His papers come back bleeding.” Yet, Mrs. Weston’s comments were always valid, based solely on grammar, never on content except to emphasize compositional principles.
Walking home later that evening, Mahtab thought again of Hamid and his concern about how tired she looked, how strained her voice was when Mohammad asked her to help him with English or Mehdi whined about not getting the cherished tah dig, the crunchy rice from the curved bottom of the copper pot. Hamid worried, too, about an impending upheaval in the country, a situation that could result, he said, in a return to what he called a medieval interpretation of Islamic law or to a communist repression of civil rights. He talked more and more these days about taking the children to London where they could live in a freer society, could have a more liberal education. And Hamid had made her worry as well. She didn’t want to leave her homeland. Not now anyway when she had finally started the active pursuit of her own education. Hamid was right, though. She could see it in the graffiti on the walls outside the university. She could hear it in the protests voiced by the conservative and radical students alike. And she could feel it when Agha-ye Rahimi grew quiet and seethed if she argued that individual foreigners like Mrs. Weston were not responsible for prostitution or corruption, were not capable of changing the price of oil, reducing his mother’s poverty, or curing his sister’s tuberculosis.
That spring, not long after No Ruz, Mahtab was in Mrs. Weston’s office asking her for summer reading recommendations. Agha-ye Rahimi entered with an unfamiliar male companion. “Excuse me, missus. I need to ask you something.” He sidled up to Mrs. Weston’s desk, ignoring Mahtab, and squared himself up to his full height. The other young man leaned against the doorframe. “Do you plan to hold class on God’s time or the Shah’s time?”
“Agha-ye Rahimi, you know that the whole country will be on Daylight Savings Time next week. That just means that you should set your watch an hour forward.”
Mahtab’s own voice surprised her, ringing out as it did, louder than usual, in Farsi.
Agha-ye Rahimi’s eyes shot darts in her direction. “Ba shoma harf nemizadam, khanoum!” He had never spoken in such a harsh tone to her.
“Excuse me. I know you weren’t talking to me. I only thought. . .” The sound of the other young man closing the office door startled her.
Mrs. Weston stood up. “It’s all right, Mahtab.” She turned toward Agha-ye Rahimi. “I’m afraid that I wasn’t aware that either God or the government dictated time. I hold class at the hour that the university indicates.” She gathered up her books and notebooks, hung her purse on her shoulder. “I suppose you could call that University Time, if you wanted. However, I need to excuse myself. I have an appointment with the Dean. I’ll be happy to reconfirm the precise hour of our class with him.” She opened the door, then turned back. “You are quite welcome to go to the hall to pray if your prayer time coincides with our class.”
Agha-ye Rahimi stepped in front of Mahtab before she could reach the door in Mrs. Weston’s wake. She heard his friend move into place behind her. For a moment, she expected Agha-ye Rahimi to raise his hand and strike her, but he only glared in silence. Then, his demeanor changed completely, he stepped back and assumed a relaxed pose against Mrs. Weston’s desk. When he spoke, his voice was so low she could scarcely hear him. “Thank you for helping me so much with English. I know you well enough to believe that you aren’t against Islam.” Agha-ye Rahimi’s lips curved into a half-smile. “That’s good--that your family supports the Ayatollah even though your husband lived in England. That way you don’t have to wonder what might happen to your sons.”
Mrs. Weston said nothing about the time change and held class on University Time, an hour later by the sun than the week before. Nor did she react when Mahtab showed up with a headscarf pulled down to the middle of her forehead or act as if she heard Mitra’s questions, Mahtab’s whispered answers. The scarf resulted from her bargain with Hamid, who wanted her to stay away from the university after learning of Agha-ye Rahimi’s threat. The scarf bought her three more weeks of education. But Mahtab didn’t tell Mitra that she had had to promise Hamid to go to England if he found work there.
Mahtab opened The Scarlet Letter, the last work that the class would discuss before final exams. She could imagine how Hester Prynne must have felt, wearing her bright red "A" to signify her sin. Of course, Mahtab herself had not sinned. Nor would she. She would not lessen her determination to treat even the likes of Agha-ye Rahimi with kindness and respect. Wasn’t this what her religion demanded? More than it required her hair to be covered? She refused to allow her mind to be veiled as well. She would continue to tutor Agha-ye Rahimi. And, more than ever, she would carry on her campaign to show him another path in the service of Allah.
That same day, Agha-ye Rahimi launched into a diatribe on Hester’s transgression, his fury instigated by Shireen’s proposal of hypocrisy as one of Hawthorne’s themes. “Wrong!” Agha-ye Rahimi’s voice rang out. “If the book is about Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy, then it means that it supports sin and prostitution.” His lips, purple, spit out an insult at Mrs. Weston. “Like all of you American women. Hester. . .” He flared again. “Hester is sin.” Mahtab saw Hassan, usually the one who disputed with Agha-ye Rahimi the most, blanch. He, too, was shocked that Agha-ye Rahimi would attack a teacher so directly.
“If the book supports sin, Mr. Rahimi, why does even Dimmesdale realize his guilt?” Mrs. Weston folded her arms across her chest, her face red, her voice calm.
Agha-ye Rahimi shot to his feet, snatches of English exploding from his lips like machine-gun fire. “It dispenses sin. Like nothing. Because of their illegitimate child. Pearl. Sin made Pearl, but Pearl is good. It dispenses sin. Like nothing.”
Mrs. Weston was frowning, leaning forward and staring at Agha-ye Rahimi as if she were a doctor waiting to put a tongue depressor in his mouth. “Dispenses sin?” Her frown cleared. “Oh, you mean that it dispenses with sin--dismisses it as if it were nothing. And you think that is because of Pearl?”
“Yes, yes, because of Pearl. Pearl is good. Hawthorne means that sin makes something good.”
“Absolutely not.” This time Mrs. Weston, her face flushed redder than a ripe pomegranate, did raise her voice. “Hawthorne is using Pearl as a symbol of innocence and purity in spite of her parents’ sin, not because of it.”
Agha-ye Rahimi banged his fist on his desktop. “No. No. You want to trick us. You want us to think that what you make us read is not against Islam.”
Mahtab had never seen Mrs. Weston leave her podium and sit down during class. Mrs. Weston leaned forward over the desk with her forehead resting in her hands. Finally, she lifted her head. “Mister Rahimi.” Mrs. Weston measured every syllable with equal emphasis. “Mister Rahimi, have I never taught you anything?”
Agha-ye Rahimi frowned. “Yes, you did.”
“Have. Perhaps.” Mahtab hoped that the titter of laughter from the back row might defuse the situation. Mrs. Weston stood up, looking over the top of her glasses directly at Agha-ye Rahimi. “I believe that the Prophet has said--correct me if I’m wrong--that a person is forever beholden to one--anyone--who teaches him something.”
Mahtab clutched her pen so tightly that her knuckles turned white. Mrs. Weston was marching on enemy territory. For the first time since her first day at the university, Mahtab’s stomach raised in rebellion to the roof of her mouth. She glanced at Agha-ye Rahimi. A tremor ran through her body as she recognized the vacant stare invading his eyes. His mouth hardly opened when he said that "yes," that one word of affirmation that Mahtab would forever negate all her efforts to reconcile him to the presence of a foreign teacher. Mrs. Weston had committed an irretractable sin by shaming Agha-ye Rahimi in front of the class and, worse yet, by using his religion to do it.
Agha-ye Rahimi did not show up that afternoon for his tutoring session. Bracing herself against the mimosa tree, Mahtab outlined her final composition due the next Wednesday. By the time she looked up from her work, the voices of the other students she knew had long since drifted away in the distance, leaving the faculty grounds nearly deserted except for three fourth-year students who bolted down the steps and raced to the university gates. Doctor Shahpour, a Farsi literature professor, also emerged from the faculty’s main entrance, checked his watch, and, juggling his load of books, clicked his tongue as he hurried past her. Mahtab finished her assignment. She could get home early this afternoon, but the luxury of solitude compelled her to lean back, gaze up through delicate branches and the fringe of tiny leaves to the bright blue dome beyond.
“It almost looks like the tiles on the Masjed-e Shah, doesn’t it? The blue background, shining, the foliage embroidering the sky.” Mahtab jumped. She had not heard Mrs. Weston approach and settle on the grass beside her, her upturned face bathed in mimosa shadows. Mrs. Weston stretched out her legs. “I’m glad to see you relaxing here, Mahtab. I’ve been concerned that you’ve been working too hard.”
Mahtab blushed. “I hope Hamid--my husband--hasn’t been complaining to you.”
“Not at all, Mahtab jan.” Mahtab was pleased at Mrs. Weston’s use of the term of endearment. Mrs. Weston went on. “I know how hard you’ve worked on your own compositions. They’re superb. And then there’s all the help you’ve given to Agha-ye Rahimi. Believe it or not, his work shows vast improvement--sometimes even a bit of promise.” She looked askance at Mahtab, her expression questioning and astute at once. “Still, I worry that you’ve made it your personal little jihad to induce a bit of moderation into his attitude. I don’t want you to feel like you have to take on the Rahimi universe alone.”
In a furtive gesture, Mrs. Weston reached her arm around Mahtab’s shoulder and squeezed her, then she stretched her arms up and outward as if she were ready to embrace the sky and all the imaged mosques, mimosas, and moons it encompassed. “Now tell me all about your husband and children. Are you originally from Esfahan? What are you planning to do after graduation?”
The questions and answers came in rapid succession from both sides, and Mahtab learned about Mrs. Weston’s grown son studying chemistry in Connecticut, her interest in classical Persian music, her eighty-three-year-old Aunt Jenny who collected European buttons. The two women laughed over the rather daring play on words between the French name of Mrs. Weston’s black cat, chat des chats or cat of cats, and the Shah’s official title of Shahanshah, king of kings. They spoke of Mahtab’s devotion to Islam and Mrs. Weston’s practice of meditation. And they commiserated about the impending upheaval in an ancient society that, each in her own way and for different reasons, they loved. When the two pulled themselves up and leaned against the trunk of the mimosa to brush grass from their clothes, the dome’s sky-blue had deepened to the rich Persian blue of a desert sky like no other in the world, a firmament brightened this night by brilliant moonlight.
The following Thursday, Mahtab surveyed the red tones of the Bakhtiar carpet she had just unrolled on the grassy slope. It would do as a place of honor. She had done the right thing by telling her classmates to get to the park near Esfahan’s oldest bridge an hour before the time she had told Mrs. Weston to come. If not--and she had learned this from Mrs. Weston herself--Mrs. Weston would have arrived promptly like Americans thought manners dictated, but the Iranian students would have trickled to the picnic as slowly as the Zayandeh Roud itself meandered through the reeds.
Mahtab counted the students again--seventeen including herself. All but Kamran, who was visiting his uncle’s family in Shiraz. And Agha-ye Rahimi had sputtered in on his moped several minutes earlier. She scanned the small groups of students clustered together, gossiping about Nastaran’s engagement, fretting about final exams. There he was--Agha-ye Rahimi--with a group of young men surrounding a plastic container holding ice and bottles of lemonade and dough, the milky yogurt drink that went so well with chelo kabab. Strains of the husky voice of the Egyptian, Omm Kulthum drifted through the air from the tape deck that Reza had brought. Reza himself was squatting near the three braziers, fanning charcoal, while the two Mohammads spread blankets over the grass.
Mahtab turned back toward the bridge. She had selected this particular spot on the bank of the Zayandeh Roud because of the view. At this time in the evening, the descending sun turned the stone arches of the centuries-old Siyoseh Pol amber against a backdrop of deepening blue in the eastern sky. She checked her watch. Mrs. Weston would be walking over that bridge in only a few minutes. Mahtab had insisted that Mrs. Weston not bring anything to eat or drink. Once it was clear that Mrs. Weston was the class’s guest, even in this public place, Agha-ye Rahimi would be bound by convention to treat her with the utmost courtesy. And, then, maybe even he would recognize her as a human being worthy of respect.
Mahtab climbed up the slope to the bridge. She would extend her hospitality to Mrs. Weston by meeting her there. Then she would escort her down to the carpet as if she were welcoming her into the walled garden of her own home. A figure squatting in one of the arches on her right caught Mahtab’s eye as she started across the bridge. She had seen the vendor sitting there, immobile, since her early childhood. On the ledge next to him, he had spread out his coat. On it rested his food, some bread and greens, along with his wares--three pencils, seven sticks of chewing gum, open packs of cigarettes to be purchased one at a time. She paused to dig out a few tomans from her bag for alms.
The man’s hooked nose, his wrinkled face, brown from decades in the sun, and his grotesquely-folded, skeletal limbs made him resemble a gargoyle carved in the bridge’s stone. Islam did not allow such representations of living figures. Still, the boiled-egg blankness in the beggar’s eye sockets reminded her of portrayals she had seen of Islamic holy men, in which empty, white spaces replaced the forbidden faces.
A shudder passed through his entire frame as Mahtab’s coins jangled in his bowl’s emptiness. She should reassure him. “In the name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful.” But the old man continued to tremble. She must have awakened him, not knowing that he had descended into the deeper darkness of sleep. Or did the absence of his vision cause him to register only terror when confronted by signs of a world outside of himself?
In the distance, Mahtab could make out Mrs. Weston’s figure, a third of the way from the bridge’s south end. She waved. Mrs. Weston returned the salutation. The sputter of a moped sounded behind Mahtab. Agha-ye Rahimi was riding lazy circles on the bridge’s north end. Mahtab stifled her disgust at his showing off. As she continued walking toward Mrs. Weston, Agha-ye Rahimi gunned his moped. The backfires tainted the evening air with fumes. Perhaps he was only trying to get enough courage to greet Mrs. Weston himself. She would slow down, let him provide the official motorcade.
Gaining speed, the moped passed Mahtab, Agha-ye Rahimi crouched over the handlebars. Mrs. Weston kept on walking at a steady pace. As Agha-ye Rahimi approached the bridge’s center, he slowed and cast a look back at Mahtab. The fire in his eyes flashed fanaticism, sent alarms thundering through her brain. He must have planned some violent disruption, some self-righteous act. Her knees shaking, Mahtab backed into the closest arched niche. Supported by the pedals of his moped, Agha-ye Rahimi reared up to his full height, arched his back, and stuck his chest forward. The back of his head rested for a moment on his shoulder blades, exposing his neck to the sky, as if he were drawing on an ancient and elemental force that had festered in the deepest recesses of his being. Suddenly, he jerked his head back upright and accelerated toward Mrs. Weston.
Mahtab could not tell at first what glittered through the evening’s last breath of sun-filled air. She could only see a whitish, remotely spherical mass, electrifying the atmosphere like some chaotic moon spinning out of its natural orbit. Agha-ye Rahimi sped past Mrs. Weston. By the time he reached the opposite end of the bridge, a dark splotch was spreading through her blouse. Agha-ye Rahimi’s timing had been perfect.
Mahtab felt her own limbs paralyzed. She could not shift her gaze from the liquid pearls dripping from Mrs. Weston’s hair, flowing down her right cheek. She could already hear herself telling the other students how he had harbored that last mouthful of dough, how he had raced towards his target and spewed out his foaming mass of liquid hate. She could already see the revulsion on their faces when she described how he had mixed in his own bile and spit laced with fear. Her efforts to befriend him had failed. She understood now that Agha-ye Rahimi lived with an overwhelming terror of anyone, including his fellow Muslims, whose devotion embraced complexities beyond his limited view of Islam.
But what could she say to Mrs. Weston, still frozen there on the bridge, staring straight at her? Mrs. Weston did not know that Agha-ye Rahimi had used Mahtab as bait. She had to believe that Mahtab had set this up, had served as his accomplice. Before Mahtab could rouse herself from her stupor, Mrs. Weston, without the slightest facial expression, wheeled around and strode back toward Esfahan’s Armenian section in the direction from which she had come.
Shame spread over Mahtab like the spit that had violated Mrs. Weston. She thought of Zareh and Mitra scattering yellow, saffron-tinted grains over the huge, white piles of rice they had prepared. Ahmad even now was threading chunks of lamb on skewers. Fatimeh had spent hours washing greens and slicing onions.
Mahtab stayed too long on the bridge. The moon was heavy in the eastern sky; the sun long gone in the west. She started back to rejoin the others. At the end of the bridge, the blind man had stretched out on the stone slab and pulled his coat over his head. When Mahtab walked by, his bony hand reached from under the coat and clawed at the rim of his bowl, pulling it closer. In its passage, the bowl caught, then spilled, the light of the moon.
Mahtab had labored hard to find the right words, especially for the last two sentences, which, in the end, she felt were inadequate. I find that I cannot go back to the university to complete my final exams. I will always be grateful for what you have taught me. But Mitra could not deliver her letter as they had planned. Mrs. Weston had left the country, the students heard, a day or two after the picnic. Mitra also reported that Agha-ye Rahimi had never returned to the university, much to the relief of most of the other students. Later, they learned that he had gone to the madresseh at Qom. That same summer, the government imposed martial law in Esfahan. The curfews and strikes continued until finally the Shah and his family left the country. On television, Mahtab had watched the old ayatollah’s entrance into Tehran amidst cheering throngs, the transmission curiously interrupted by the image of the departing regime’s flag with its national anthem played in the background. By then, it was already February. The university had closed months before when it was obvious that students would refuse to attend fall classes.
And, now, three years later, Esfahan had new, strict mandates on dress.
Revolutionary Guards patrolled the streets or volunteered to sacrifice themselves in Iraq, armed Agha-ye Rahimis eager to wield proof of their virtue. “Esfahan is no longer nesf-e jahan,” Mahtab had said to Mitra the day before when they were sipping their tea, this after she had wound her scarf into a turban and imitated Agha-ye Rahimi. Mitra, she knew, shared her dismay that life could feel so constrained in a city claimed by ancient Persian wisdom to be half the world. Before she left Mitra’s house, Mahtab told her how Hamid had struggled day and night to pressure and bribe the right people so they could leave the country with their two sons. On Tuesday, their flight would exile them to London where Hamid had acquired a position in a schoolmate’s architectural firm specializing in bridge work and public buildings.
When she heard the news, Mitra had lowered her head. Mahtab squeezed her hand. Mahtab never would have dreamed of having such a binding friendship with a Zoroastrian woman. Yet the bond had strengthened daily as each of them tried to live up to her private religious ideals in the face of opposition. Leaving Mitra behind was nearly as difficult as saying good-by to family members.
That evening in her bedroom, Mahtab took a break from packing in the gathering twilight. In the spot where Agha-ye Rahimi’s face had haunted her that morning, a beam of moonlight, slanting through the window, reflected off the mirror, its glow softening the turquoise of the bedroom wall into watery aqua. Mahtab leaned back against the bed’s headboard and shut her eyes. By the time she opened them a few minutes later, a patch of cloud had passed over the moon, effacing the mahtab. She felt her way to the door. In the vicinity of the light switch, like a blind person in search of coins dropped in the dust, she patted her hands over the darkened wall.
Leissa Shahrak lives in Kansas City where she is working on a first novel, PLACE OF THE ALTARS.