Before The Bombs

A letter from Tehran. The rhythms of daily life move subtly to the beat of western war drums.

On this first Saturday after the Norouz holidays, I take a number and sit down in a chair in the grand basement hall of the Melli Bank. Number 427 is called to window 17. I am number 465. Next to me, customers are discussing dollar exchange rates on the black market; twice as high as the official rates. They move on to discussing the 3 trillion touman (1.2 billion euro) corruption trial of a group of bankers. “I don’t understand much of it but it’s pretty clear that money like that could not have been moved around without a green light from ‘above’…” The two start laughing…

A boy and his mother are sitting next to me; on the cover of his notebook, a few lines from a Rumi poem and an India ink drawing of a flower. The poem reads: “Come to the orchard in spring. There is light and wine and sweethearts in the pomegranate.” The boy is playing with his electronic game, the notebook resting on his lap.

Next to me, a man is standing up, talking loudly into his cell phone: “I am in a meeting, I will be there in a little bit, don’t sell anything, wait…”; “yes of course I am free this evening, don’t worry I will take them all…”; “what are we eating for lunch?”…

My number is called to window 12. The girl is very meticulous, finding an error which occurred in an old transfer; it will delay me and cost me 200,000 toumans. I withdraw 500,000 toumans (200 euros) and run to the bus. I need to go to the teachers’ co-op; my mother has asked me to buy 15 kilos of rice and 5 kilos of sugar. “Prices are rising because of the blockade and we need to stock up on supplies.” No matter how carefully I explain to her that there is no point to hoarding, she replies that “we must be cautious, everyone is stocking up on food.”

Although we are in the co-op, the prices of the items sold here are “free floating”; teachers and retired state employees can only use their membership discount for buying appliances. But now it seems that the price for the flat-screen TV that my mother wants to buy so she can keep up with the satellite shows has doubled. She will have to wait, again. I buy the rice, sugar and few other things for delivery to my house in the afternoon. Nothing much is left in my wallet.

Last night I saw his picture on Facebook, with a French girl. Omid is living with her in Paris but he continues to write to me daily. Since he left in December, 2010, has continued to write to me without ever clearly defining our relationship. Every morning, I say to myself that it is over, that I have to put him out of my life. But if I don’t get a message from him, I don’t sleep at night. He tells me that “Brigitte is just for passing the time, you are serious…” And yet I have no visa, no passport, no means or even desire to leave the country.

I take a collective cab to go to my singing class. The driver says that this morning 800 metal workers gathered in front of the presidential palace to demand their unpaid salaries for the last eight months, plus the New Year’s bonus: around 4 million toumans (1500 euros) each. The perfectly made-up girl sitting next to me is continuously tapping out text messages on her cell phone. I put my headphones on and listen again to the singing lesson. Intermingled with my music I hear disconnected bits of the conversations around me: “The Fordo village with its population of 2,500… the nuclear site…”

With Omid, I would cross through the cherry orchards at the foot of Mount Damavand so we could hike up the slopes to our secret rendezvous place. High on the mountain, we would drink tea that we had made on a wood fire and sing together. His voice would merge with mine, a powerful tenor that could carry the traditional Persian laments as well as the classic songs of Pouran and Viguen, or of Piaf, Brel, the Beatles and James Blunt. From our panoramic view of Teheran we would try to spot our favorite places in the city. A detour to lose ourselves in, not looking to the future, a detour with no goal or justification, an ephemeral instant…

I have to find around 300,000 toumans (around a hundred euros) before the end of the month to pay for the singing lessons, for lunches, for transportation… I will do some night shifts. My mother keeps it a secret. The in-home nursing agency finds me people who are terminally ill and I take care of them. The most recent one was an old movie director with metastatic cancer, with a depressive wife and with children who lived abroad. He showed me pictures of himself in the late seventies at Cannes. I clip his nails, change his diapers and he talks slowly to me about his movies. His daughter tries to send him some Zaltrap, a cancer drug that is not sold here yet. She wants gain him a few weeks of life, to compensate for her years of separation and absence… Last night, before I closed his door he asked me: “Tonight, tell sleep not to find my eyes; the island that was reserved for it has sunk…” I stayed next to him and held his hand.

This afternoon in the bus everybody was talking about Mehdi Tolouti, the young boxer who represented Iran at the Olympic Games in London. I called Shiva and asked if she wanted to go with me to the mountain tomorrow morning, cross through the cherry orchards and drink tea. I will go back without Omid.

My mother puts away the supplies in the basement. She starts discussing the foreign media, her fear of an imminent attack against Iran. Our neighbors, Mr. Mohamadi and his wife try to reassure her. What the foreign press is saying is just posturing: “They can’t do anything; Iran is not Libya, and it is not Afghanistan…” My mother replies: “They are crazy; they are floundering in their own crisis, which means they are capable of anything…” Mr. Mohamadi does not believe it could happen: “Stop watching the BBC and Voice of America,” he says. Mrs. Mohamadi invites my mother to a women’s party tomorrow evening: “We will sing and dance and forget about all of this…”

My mother wonders about how to dress for the party and asks if I can do her hair tomorrow morning. I tell her that I am planning to go to the mountains with my girlfriends but I promise that I will do her hair before the party.

Before getting ready to go up the mountain, I open up my Facebook. Brigitte has sent me a friend request, and Omid has sent a message saying that she is learning Persian, and that I should accept her request. I try to go on the Olympic Games official website but access is denied. The proxy that breaks through the government filter is not working.

Shiva rings the door bell; it is 6am. I take my back bag, a small teapot, some tea and matches, and I run out the door.

The cherries are flowering. Two other people are climbing the mountain on our secret path, a pair of middle aged men discussing the G5+1 meeting next week, with Iran and Turkey. One thinks that the West will back down. The one with the gray hair is more reserved. He simply says: “Tehran is very beautiful. I am back after years of exile, to see it again, and to breathe at the foot of the Damavand. I do not wish to see it on fire. ‘To annihilate the Iranian people,’ this nightmare [quoting Gunter Grass]. The Iranian people must be left alone to make the needed changes ourselves.”

Shiva thinks that the whole region should be denuclearized but she does not believe there will be a war. She is worried that she will be kicked out of school, having been accused of participating in the ‘green demonstrations.’ She keeps denying the charges, hoping to buy time to finish out the last semester of her law degree. She tells me not to accept Brigitte’s friend request on Facebook; she thinks the request is bizarre and arrogant. I have no answer, and I start singing quietly to myself as we walk. A young vendor comes up to us and asks if we want to buy chips and cookies. I hand him a 200 touman bill (10 cents). He gives me a chewing-gum and tells me that he is not begging…

We arrive to our magic place. I start the fire for the tea. It is cold, and I tighten the scarf around my neck. We sing together, reading the lyrics from a piece of paper “Rebellious and submissive/ Eyes downcast/ Take off your shirt/ Beautiful bride/ Love is cherries/ And time slips by/ A little detour/ To go dancing.” Then we continue with an old Pouran song: “The flowers have arrived, the spring is here, we are heading toward the fields…” The two men pass by and softly hum the melody with us. We face the panoramic view of Tehran; the Milad tower is still standing, Tehran is once again covered with the smoke of the cars, life is buzzing in every direction.

(1) From Gunter Grass poem criticizing Israel’s policies and the threats against Iran.

Mitra Keyvan