Shahrak Gharb

[excerpt from a novel]

by Layla Sabourian

Tehran, 1984

Azadeh was comfortable financially, so she was the one that finally decided to take me to a psychiatrist. This was nearly unheard of in Iran, but it was a last resort for me.

The ‘doctor’ was a man about fifty years old, with a salt and pepper beard. His face was severe, and he looked like an aged scholar with his pelt of woollen hairs brimming from his starched white coat. He smelled like antiseptic and chemicals, and it made me nauseous. The study lines in his face sealed his mouth in a frown.

‘Why don’t you want to eat meat?’

‘Because meat comes from living things,’ I said. ‘I don’t like eating living things. I don’t like to watch things die.’

He leaned forward in his seat. ‘But did you know that everything we eat is alive?’

        It felt like a bucket of icy water had been dumped over my head. No, I didn’t know that. He offered me some sweets he had on his desk – almond-filled pastries.

‘Almonds are alive,’ he said. ‘We kill them before we eat them when we pluck them from the tree. That’s their life source.’

The sickeningly sweet odour of honey and almonds wafted into my face as the psychiatrist took a bite of the pastry. I pictured the almonds begging me for their lives, before they had been plucked so heartlessly from the trees. The image made my eyes water.

‘I don’t want to kill anyone,’ I mumbled in a trembling voice.

He smiled, and it scared me. ‘Everyone, and everything has to die eventually.’

I felt dizzy. How many more ways could he shatter my reality?

‘Everyone?’ My chest felt tight. ‘But don’t you need to be killed to die?’

‘Everyone lives and everyone dies,’ said the psychiatrist. ‘It’s a natural cycle. If you don’t eat the sheep, it will die of old age.’

‘Will you die too?’ I looked at him in horror.

‘Albateh!’ Certainly! The doctor slapped a hand on his thigh. ‘I have no doubt I’ll die laughing at my own jokes!’

        I smoothed my skirt. I didn’t think he was funny.

***

‘What your niece is experiencing is not insanity, it’s grief,’ the psychiatrist told Azadeh. ‘Like half the country, she has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Iran has been an absolute hotbed of PTSD patients lately. This is what happens when people live through war, or watch someone die before their very eyes. It’s treatable, but not curable. Many people never get over it.’

Azadeh looked perplexed. ‘But what does that have to do with the fact that she doesn’t want to eat meat?’

‘Find another protein. Give her beans. I don’t know,’ he said offhandedly. ‘If you can, move her out of her environment and take her to places where she has no memories left of her parents. There’s a reason she rocks herself like she does. She’s suffering from anxiety. If this is how she’s getting through the day and making sense of the trauma, you should let her do it. We call it “self-soothing”.’

‘But the rocking… Her “self-soothing” seems indecent, if you know what I mean,’ Azadeh persisted. ‘Especially in public? In a classroom?’

         The psychiatrist took a calculated look out the window.

‘She could definitely benefit from regular therapy,’ he said. ‘She’d likely respond well to medication.’

‘Are you saying my niece is crazy?’ She stood up from her seat in sudden fury. ‘That she needs to be medicated at age nine?’

‘Khanum Shekari,’ he said with a devious grin. ‘Don’t ever lose your wit. It’s so powerful.’

        ‘Let’s go, Nasi.’ My aunt pulled on my hand and tugged me to my feet. ‘We’re done here.’

***

My visit with the psychiatrist rattled me to my core, but in ways Ali and Azadeh never could’ve anticipated. The revelation that plants were living things turned my world upside down. Not only did I refuse meat – I refused nuts, seeds, and vegetables too. I was eventually hospitalized for malnutrition, but even as I was receiving my nourishment through an IV, the thought of consuming a living creature for personal gain made me sick. While I clearly couldn’t be trusted on my own, no one wanted to do anything with an insane orphan.

After much deliberation (and lots of “self-soothing”), my family decided to place me with Azadeh, Ali, and my then six-year-old cousin Payam. They lived among the elite, in Shahrak Gharb: the upper north side of Tehran. They were the best candidates for an additional burden because they were well-off, I guess – at least by our country’s war-stricken standards. At the end of the day, Ali and Azadeh were better equipped to take care of another child than Madar was. (Not to mention that they were my blood relatives. Just in case you forgot.) Besides, Azadeh was pregnant; she could surely use a bonus mentally ill ten-year-old around the house.

So Ali picked me up in his BMW, though he always said he preferred the Mercedes he kept in the garage. My uncle’s family had come from generations of wealthy landowners in Hamedan, and he loved to flaunt his social status like a Rolex. (He had many of those, too.) His import-export business was growing, and Azadeh reaped the benefits. She was constantly replacing the furniture in their flat in Shahrak Gharb, or refreshing the decor in their grandiose villa in Damāvand. My aunt distracted herself with the latest trends, even during the revolution and the war, but underneath it all, she was frustrated that she wasn’t able to finish her studies. Homemaking became an outlet for her idle hands. Nobody asked me, but I was happy about the move. In Shahrak Gharb, I didn’t have the same urge to retreat into my imagination all the time. As it turns out, the psychiatrist was right about a change in scenery. I felt more accepted by the neighbourhood kids there. They valued and treated everyone in the same way: as equals. Parents or no parents.

Ali Aga often insisted that our gardener eat his meals with us, in true Shahrak fashion. Hamid was an Afghan national my uncle hired many years prior. After his parents were forcibly deported from Iran, he arrived in Iran as a young refugee. Because Afghan refugee children weren’t permitted to attend schools in Iran,  his uncle taught him to garden. He’d been in Shahrak Gharb ever since, tending to the flora outside the building. Azadeh always saved the best part of her dishes for Hamid and revered him as an honourable guest at her table. Hamid often returned this kindness, inviting us to a home-cooked meal at his home in a poor area of Tehran, which we happily accepted. This sort of behaviour was wildly refreshing compared to the frequent disdain I’d witnessed among the elite in southern Tehran, which had not spared me, even as a ten-year-old child.

My cousin Payam was a mostly-good little boy, though he had difficulty making friends for reasons I never understood. Fortunately, when I moved into his house, we were already close and we got along exceptionally well. My presence eased some of his family’s concerns about his social life; I provided company and entertainment. Payam never complained about playing with my Barbie dolls, and I looked forward to playing cards with him every evening. Our atypical games were pretty wacky – and often guided by convoluted rules we made up ourselves – but they were nonetheless welcomed by Ali and Azadeh. Anything to keep the little ones busy during wartime.

Much to my dismay, I realized that moving to Shahrak Gharb meant that I had to transfer schools again. I was entering the fourth grade, at my fourth school. On the first day, in suffocating heat, Azadeh walked me in and introduced me to my teachers, and the principal, Ms Amoozadeh. She was the pinnacle of rigid Islam. An example for all to follow, she dressed in an opaque, black chador and she never wore makeup.

Ms Amoozadeh stood beside my aunt, and the contrast was jarring for me. Azadeh has always been a fashionable woman, but the revolution pushed her to an extreme – a type of silent revolt she’d adopted as her lone form of protest. She pushed her dark sunglasses over her colourful, patterned hijab. Loose-fitting silky pants and a long cardigan waved in the breeze of the fan.

When Azadeh told Ms Amoozadeh our last name, her eyes lit up.

‘Zakarian! Any relation to Armand Zakarian?’

My aunt nodded slowly and their eyes locked; I could see the cogs working in Ms Amoozadeh’s mind, the recognition in Azadeh’s face. The principal pulled my aunt into a reluctant embrace.

‘Azadeh! Heavens above! How are you?’ Ms Amoozadeh flittered around Azadeh. ‘How is he? Armand? Such an ecstasy…’

She looked out the window briefly with a smile on her face, clearly caught in some exclusive reverie. She glanced down at me, remembering herself, and searched for the appropriate words.

‘I mean – a good Muslim… He’s such an intelligent man. My family has missed him. And you, of course, Azadeh, so… so much.’

I almost laughed. My father was a character, and he could’ve been described in many ways, but a “good Muslim” was not what anyone else would have come up with, EVER! Azadeh’s eyes filled up anyway, much to my surprise, and I watched her fall into a daydream – her carefree past: when she, Roxana, and my father once shared adventures together at the University of Tehran. Many of their classmates had been arrested, labelled as communists or Mujahideens, jihadist guerillas. A few others, like Ms Amoozadeh, had hastily converted into strict “Muslims” and framed themselves as strong supporters of the regime. Academia in Iran was no longer a place Azadeh felt she truly belonged to.

‘We just received news of Armand’s death,’ my aunt mumbled.

Ms Amoozadeh’s smile dropped from her face, and tears bubbled up in her eyes. Azadeh comforted her and they reminisced for a moment, laughing and patting each other’s hands. They shared stories and inside jokes from a time before me.

Azadeh pushed me forward.

‘This is Armand’s daughter. She’s been going through a rough time.’ She leaned in and lowered her voice. ‘Their marriage didn’t last, you know. She left them, and it nearly ruined my niece. She has some strange habits that I hope your disciplined school will help fix,’ she said, as if I wasn’t present.

I had always forgiven Azadeh’s bluntness, knowing that she had a good heart, but I wished so much that she hadn’t talked about me like that to the principal. Ms Amoozadeh guided me off to class and I felt a knot in my stomach.

‘So, tell me about your mother,’ Ms Amoozadeh prompted, walking me down the hallway.

‘She was…’

I paused, trying to think of anything at all to say.

‘She was… very sweet,’ I mustered.

It wasn’t completely true – it was hardly a little bit true – and I’m not sure why I said it. Politeness, maybe. Ms Amoozadeh chuffed like a horse. She pulled me roughly by my arm, and shoved me into the classroom. The warmth she’d shown Azadeh, apparently, didn’t transfer to me.

‘This is Layla Zakarian. Tread lightly around this one,’ the principal warned. She stood in the doorway. ‘Her father is dead, and her mother is… Well…’

She almost snickered. I saw it.

‘She’s so very, very sick.’

Pretending to be amused, even though they surely had no idea what Ms Amoozadeh was talking about, the children stared at me. My face flushed. Why had she said such a thing? I took an empty seat near the front of the room, but the acoustics carried the whispers of the other kids back to my ears. They chittered away like chipmunks, scanning me with their big, round eyes. They knew I was damaged goods.

One of the sweeter girls, Beeta, sat with me during recess.

‘I know there’s more to you than a dead father’s daughter,’ she said.

She held my hands, looked at me, and smiled. At the end of the first day, we walked home together. I discovered she, too, resided in Hafez – the enormous luxury condo building we lived in, named after the famous poet. She was on the tenth floor. I lived on the seventh. We promised to play with each other that evening and do our homework together.

Living in a high rise apartment without any backyard space or a roof to hang out on was a bit of an adjustment, but I soon realised with delight that the entire green space downstairs and the playground structure out back was my new garden. Beeta and I met there after school to bat little white balls at each other over the ping pong table, which facilitated a tribe of new friends that I genuinely enjoyed being around. When the parking lot wasn’t being used as a bomb shelter, it was a space for the neighbourhood children to gather and play or exchange books that were outlawed, banned. We let the adults worry about the war and making the world anew, opting to preserve some of the hottest embers from the previous one. The truth of our existence could be whatever we wanted it to be. I didn’t need to rock anymore; I found solace elsewhere.

Yet, as great as things were with my new living situation, and no matter how comforting Beeta was, she was helpless to protect me from Ms Amoozadeh. Like Ezzat and Effat, she took her malice out on me. I was never in good enough shape for her standards. There was always something about me she could target – either my nails were too long, or my socks were too bright, or a single hair had fallen out of place when I’d been jostled in the hallway. My father’s death had fallen on my shoulders for Ms Amoozadeh, and worst of all, Maryam had stolen him away from her. Picking at me for silly things was some depraved retribution for my mother’s misgivings.

At the time, the new regime did not allow girls to wear bright colours. We could wear either brown or black, so as not to tempt any men with our presence. After one of his trips to Japan, Ali gifted me a pair of dark green velcro shoes. I was the first to receive such a treasure in our neighbourhood. In times of war, toys and foreign clothes were difficult to get for the majority of people, but my uncle owned an import-export company, and he had the privilege of bringing a lot of foreign-made goods to the residents of Shahrak Gharb. He was very generous with me, I thought. The shoes he recovered from Japan were one of the first new gifts I’d ever received; my typical garb was made up of hand-me-downs.

The next day at school, I was so proud to wear those shoes. When our morning routine began – we walked over the American and the Iraqi flag every day before classes started – I stomped beside my peers with my head held high. I was finally able to prove my worth, raising above my orphan status, for once not labelled as poor and pathetic.

‘Zakarian!’ Ms Amoozadeh shouted across the ballroom.

She loved saying my last name. I’m sure she’d said it many times long ago in another life. She gestured for me to follow her, guiding me to her office. I’d never been singled out for bad behaviour like this after I lost Elnaz, my safety blanket. My heart pounded in my ears. Perched on the edge of a cold desk chair, I sat in Ms Amoozadeh’s office, nervously wringing my hands.

‘Did you think you could get away with those?’

She looked at my feet in disgust. My eyebrows furrowed. I was sure my new shoes were dark enough to comply with our school rules. They were a deep forest green – so dark they were almost black – and I’d hoped no one would notice the difference.

‘Why can’t you just follow the rules? You’re as rebellious as your father.’

She attributed that, and many other demerits, to me and my father, then she sent me home to change. When I got home, though, I was too afraid to tell my uncle what happened that day. Unfortunately, he spotted me changing my shoes.

        ‘You’re home early,’ he ventured. ‘Is everything okay?’

        I sat on the floor looking like I’d been caught with my hand in the cookie jar.

        ‘I’m talking to you, Nasi. Why aren’t you wearing your new shoes?’

        I burst into tears, wailing about Ms Amoozadeh’s harsh scolding, hiccupping between the words. Ali Aga and Azadeh exchanged looks.

        ‘Amoozadeh?’ My uncle looked into Azadeh’s eyes. ‘The same Amoozadeh that…’

She shot him a piercing look. ‘Yes. The same.’

Despite his obvious shock, he turned to me with tenderness in his face.

‘It’s okay!’ Ah, Ali Aga. Always an optimist. ‘Azadeh will buy you a new pair, and you can save your other shoes for… for a special occasion, but now, please leave the kitchen!’

I obeyed, albeit very confused, but I listened behind the door, hoping to learn more about Ms Amoozadeh.

‘I remember Amoozadeh. The one the boys would call indecent names?’

Azadeh grunted in confirmation.

‘With the shortest skirts! Drinking more than any man I knew, riding on the back of Armand’s motorcycle! She’s a conservative Muslim now?’

‘She says that she came to her senses during the revolution, accepted God, and has since turned from her old ways.’

‘Typical. She loved to play judge and jury. It’s no wonder she’s joined the extremists.’

‘You should see how she tortures these poor girls at school. She doesn’t just pick on Nasi; I’ve seen her scolding other girls for having waxed off their moustaches, or for tweezing the hair between their eyebrows. She’s terrifying.’

‘Under this regime, “virtue” can look like so many things. Illogical worship has become the norm. She was always a hypocrite. And now she’s using her hypocrisy as a resource, like a chameleon.’ My uncle sighed. ‘She changes her face when it suits her.’

Ali Aga stepped up as a central paternal figure in my life when I moved to Shahrak Gharb. Guilt clung to the back of my throat like a sticky lozenge when I thought about how he must’ve felt when he saw me slipping off the shoes he’d taken such care in bringing back to me from Japan. Unlike Ali Aga – who embraced modernity for the most part, like my father had – his family was old-fashioned, and dissatisfied with my aunt as a daughter-in-law. Azadeh wasn’t religious enough nor conservative enough for them. She showed her hair at family gatherings and she didn’t pray five times a day because she considered herself an enlightened Muslim and followed Súfi rituals like Madar, rather than the traditional Shia Islam. My aunt and my uncle were truly taken with each other though, and they weren’t shy about displaying their affection in ways that strict Muslims found offensive. Now, on top of all this, their dear grandchild would be influenced by me – a girl without a father, tainted by my mother’s dirty name.

I heard Ali’s father behind semi-closed doors once.

‘Her father’s death doesn’t justify her presence here. She still has a mother, and relatives with enough money. Why don’t they take care of her? Why should she be here, eating my son’s bread?’

Ali Aga tried to pour water over the flames, but his father was a grease fire.

‘Father! Don’t worry about it. Thank God I make enough money to support all of us. What do you want me to do, throw her out on the street, hand her off to some orphanage?’

‘Yes, precisely.’ He said it with his whole chest. ‘Why don’t you do that? It’s not your responsibility to pay for the unrealistic aspirations of others.’

Ali adopted a tone that almost supported his father, but his words were duplicitous. I smiled a bit to myself when he defended me.

‘Is that what they teach you in the Quran?’ he asked. ‘Is that what being a good Muslim is to you? Are you becoming a hypocrite? You sound everyone else committing all kinds of crimes in the name of Islam.’

‘Look, pesaram,’ my son. ‘Listen to me. I’m your father, and I know what’s best for you. Children are not the product of chance. They carry the seeds of their parents inside, and that one – that girl – she carries seeds of a plant that bears no fruit. There’s no hope for her.’

I was ashamed of myself, of the problems I had caused for Ali and his family. I hated myself more and more everyday, overhearing conversations like that. Ali took no heed of his father’s words, luckily for me; he allowed me to stay with them – like it was never a question – but his father remained spiteful.

Ali reminded me of Baba in the right light. They shared similar dark features, and even his cologne mixed seamlessly with the smell of the Marlboros he, too, loved so much. My bond with him was often stronger than my relationship with Azadeh. Similar to the rest of my paternal aunts and uncles, her obsessive-compulsive behaviour was only fueled by her anxiety. I was often subject to her lukewarm aggressions.

‘You only received a 19? What happened to the other point?’ She dusted off a table. ‘What are you going to do with yourself, Nasi? You’re not pretty enough to land a husband with no parents, so you’d better study. That’s your only chance in life.’

In a 20-point system, a 19 indicates a 95% success, but Azadeh was repulsed by anything short of perfection. Her need to control every facet of her life had resulted in her own complicated relationship with Madar, which festered like an infected wound. The continuous series of failed pregnancies and accompanying miscarriages she was suffering through robbed her of her mental health. Coupled with the looming war and the constant threat of a bombing, Azadeh was completely consumed by her worry and we never talked about it. I never even overheard any hushed conversations between my aunt and my uncle. Culture didn’t permit it. So Azadeh channeled her anxiety into “disciplining” me. She punished me frequently and held me at an arm’s length, making my otherness from Payam strikingly clear. She assigned me many cleaning chores, which felt like traps designed to illustrate how I could never live up to her standards – or anybody’s, for that matter. We didn’t realize at the time that she suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but it was in everything she did.

To the outside world, I was living a life others dreamed of. I lived in one of the nicest apartment units in Tehran with three bedrooms and a wonderful view. We drove around in the latest car model, flashy and fast around tight corners. I wore the latest styles, all kinds of expensive clothes that my uncle brought home from work. But my identity as an outsider was concrete. I could never express what I wanted, and nobody would’ve listened if I tried. Payam had freedom and an allowance, while I was constantly reminded that I was different from them because of my cursed Vatani blood. I wished so desperately for Azadeh to ignore my DNA and love me as her own daughter, the way I loved her as my mother. But every night, about one hour before our bedtime, they would call Payam away to their bedroom, and the door would close with a click. I knew it would be inappropriate for me to venture inside, but I could hear them giggling, laughing, playing. Sometimes they’d read him stories, and I almost felt lucky just to listen.

Then Payam was escorted back to our shared room to be tucked in. We slept in bunk beds – he was on top; I was on the bottom. I refused to ever sleep on the top of a bunk bed again, and even the sight of our sleeping arrangement made me sick to my stomach, but I never complained. I was grateful to have a roof over my head where nobody made me bleed. I hid beneath the sheets when Ali and Azadeh came into the room to tuck Payam in – when Azadeh would lean over and kiss him, and Ali told him how much they loved him. I pretended to be asleep.

Insomnia plagued my nights. What would I become? A girl with cursed heritage that no one seemed to want? I was lucky to have Azadeh and Ali, who always seemed to be giving Zakat, an ‘obligatory charity’ – the Fourth Pillar of Islam. I know now that they never would’ve loved me how I wanted. They were never going to be the parents I dreamed of, but they always made sure I had anything a child could need, from books to clothes to imported green shoes from Japan. But I wouldn’t be a helpless child forever, I knew. Once I grew up, what would be my place in society? Would I belong anywhere?

Iranian culture tends to err on the side of elitism. We focus on material wealth, possessions, image, and status. We have a deeply rich culture with luxurious artefacts, and we’re a proud nation; this pride comes with proof, whether by way of Persian rugs, pottery, fashion, or architecture. Iran has been serving the elites of the upper class for more than 4,000 years. Since its inception, those elite rulers have constantly played the game of power and authority, making laws to criminalise starving and abused workers, passing down their toxic legacy through generations. The Iranian Revolution was a call for change, yet the crowns remained on the heads of elites, in spite of it all.

I had always been proud to be Iranian, but my own proof of such is reliant on the recipes I share with my friends, or the way in which I carry myself through the world. I had not shared Azadeh’s need for materialistic things. I appreciated the home I was given and the means I was provided with to succeed in a world so determined to beat me down, but the one thing I truly longed for was the love of a mother and father. Ali couldn’t import that for me.

Comments made by my neighbours (and some of my friends) still haunt me.

‘What can you expect from her, someone whose own mother left her? She’ll never amount to anything.’

         ‘Ali and Azadeh, what saints! It’s not their duty to take care of Azadeh’s niece. It’s such a lucky stretch for her to be taken in by them like that. What a burden she must be. Look at the nice clothes they bought for her! And she has more Barbies than all the other kids in Shahrak Gharb combined! Wow, how they spoiled that Bi Pedar Madar girl.’

I wished I had the courage to scream at them that I didn’t want any Barbies. I just wanted love and affection; I wanted to have my own family, a family who did not despise my blood. A sense of belonging – that was all I wanted. Did I not deserve it? Was I to pay for my family’s mistakes for all my life?

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