AN INTRODUCTION BY BORIS FISHMAN
There are those who would advise you to read what follows because it gives you Iran not as the monolith our sclerotic political establishment would have you imagine, but as the complex, contradictory organism Iran really is, like any nation. And you should take that advice — because the best books ask you to look at things in all their stubborn nuance (which is hard) in exchange for a glimpse of the truth (which is enlightening and noble). These books do this through the quality of the writing, I should add, as much as in what they say.
But I urge you to read the below, and the book it’s drawn from, for its emotional intelligence. About men and women, young and old, wealthy and poor, city and village, educated and not, clever-tongued and speechless, bloated with power and destitute in it. Dina channels all her characters with dazzling, startling fluency as full of wit as wisdom, of humor as heartbreak. Your heart rattles a little as you read because you can’t stop, but you know there will be a land mine soon: “Do young men realize what they take for granted?” she asks at one point, a universal extrapolation of great flair and intelligence, and a question at once playful and deadly, especially if you were a young man once. “There is always an instant, isn’t there, when youth fails,” she writes elsewhere. “And who wants to see it?”
The story she tells of Bahman, Niloo, and the others is as wry, wise, willful, and poignant as a conversation with Dina herself. But it transcends even these considerable borders for the same reason all great literature does: By virtue of the quality with which it says something about its subjects, it tells (and asks) you about you. You may find it hard to answer, but there are few gifts as generous as being asked — by someone close or by an author you’ve never met, though does the latter not try to reach you exactly where the former does?
I was lucky to have a small hand in Dina’s thinking about Refuge. On a self-made writing retreat in Montana three summers ago, we walked through Glacier National Park and argued about what Bahman would do, what Niloo would do. Walking is especially generative for writers, they say, and by the time we’d reached the reprieve of the Lake McDonald Lodge, we were all ideas and no pens. The bartender supplied the latter, along with some huckleberry martinis, and the bathroom paper-towel dispenser the paper. I think we didn’t touch those drinks for a half-hour, as first she scribbled, then I, then she crossed out some of what I had, then I some of what she, then many arrows began to appear, then the bartender had to be asked for a second pen. After an hour, the metal-gray sky was low over Lake McDonald, the fireplace was blazing, and the lodge’s guests (not us — we were staying in rustic cabins without electricity, for which Dina will never forgive me) were beginning to gather for dinner, presumably with concerns far from those of the shouting pair in the bar room. People often ask how the writing gets done. A little bit of Refuge happened like that, and I couldn’t be prouder of having been, for an afternoon, part of it.
Author of Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo
A Story About What A Thrice-Divorced Man Took for Granted
“Dr. Hamidi’s Difficult Divorce”
by Dina Nayeri
In order to finalize his own ugly business, as if the universe were demanding one last slice of flesh, Bahman was compelled to watch thirteen consecutive divorces, a full docket. By the sixth one, he stared baffled at his young lawyer — who was also slowly succumbing to the malaise of it, uneasy shoulders sinking, loose lips draped over half his cigarette — and mouthed, “This is absurd.”
“Forgive me, Agha Doctor, what do you mean?” The attorney raised both eyebrows as if Bahman should have expected this farce, as if an ordinary man should be accustomed to watching pale husbands slump and flinch, pretty wives crumble thirteen times just to complete his own errand. There is always an instant, isn’t there, when youth fails? And who wants to see it?
They sat in plastic chairs just outside the cleric’s office, watching through the crack in the door, which had been left ajar, it seemed, expressly for that purpose. His young lawyer kept wiping his hands on his cheap gray trousers and sipping hot tea. Sometimes the boy would get up to refill the two fingers of liquid in his tulip glass from the rusted samovar atop a long table in the corner where two secretaries in black chadors were engaged in some joyless business. Why had he hired the fidgety lawyer? After all, despite Bahman’s secular education and volumes of subversive poetry, his children’s indulgent American degrees and his fugitive first wife, he was still the male in an Iranian divorce: a secure position. Things would go easily for him here. Though, yes, he was planning to tell some lies, and, more important, when is a third divorce ever easy?
Yesterday, drinking at home from his own samovar, Bahman had reflected on today’s errand with anticipation. It had been coming for a long time. He considered how the next chapter of his life might read. Perhaps he would buy a new couch and lose weight. Maybe get a new crown on his molar and take a plane trip somewhere warm, somewhere without visa hassles: Cyprus, or Dubai, or Istanbul. He might even arrange to see his children.
On that last morning before his court date, Sanaz didn’t yell or throw anything. Instead, he heard her weeping in the guest bedroom and knocked on the half-open door. He stood there, shuffling in the doorway in his royal blue pajamas. And when she looked at him with wrecked eyes, covered in all that garish makeup, her chipped toenails three shades of red and filed far too straight, he worked up the courage to say, “Why are you sad, azizam?” Then, gathering himself, he whispered, “Don’t you know how young you are? Same age and already Niloo — ”
“Aaakh, dirt on my head . . . always Niloo, Niloo!” She spat mucus and tears. “You are a weak man without reputation or rank or anything and your bastard daughter is nothing to me.” He wanted to point out that Niloo was the furthest thing from a bastard. Of his three wives, the first had been the most educated and charming. Pari was the love of his youth, and her talents had passed on to their children. He had a photo of him and Pari at a picnic in Ardestoon, her head on his shoulder, his hand on her cheek as if it was any ordinary privilege. Do young men realize what they take for granted? In the photo he seems oblivious to the cheek he is touching. Was Pari loved enough before she ran away to America?
He was ashamed of having blurted Niloo’s name so gracelessly, in such a discussion. It was an ungainly moment and he fled the scene. He had not spoken of their embarrassing age difference in three years — three years of lost friendships, of angry relatives, of humiliation, isolation, and money hemorrhaging as if from a wet paper bag. Releasing the words like that, alone in a doorway in blue pajamas, felt like the skin of his heart peeling away. For half a day, he loitered in a tea shop near the Thirty-Three Arches waiting for that overexposed, raw flesh feeling to subside.
Between two routine cavity fillings, he walked by the courthouse to prepare himself for the next day. Rows of men with typewriters sat outside, hawking their services for a few hundred tomans a page — petitions and eloquent appeals and supplications in impressive legalese. Rows and rows of peddler-poets, would-be scholars, novelists, historians, and songwriters selling fluency to those whose words had run out. Farther out in the fringes, lingering greasily near both the male and female entrances to the courthouse, idling away the hours smoking cigarettes and casting furtive glances at petitioners, were the witnesses for hire, extra pairs of eyes to reclaim those moments lost to inopportune privacy. Bahman watched a woman rush out of the courthouse, speak to one for ten minutes as she clutched her black coverings to her mouth, and guide him to the men’s entrance. How long have the courts been so willfully blind? He wandered back to his office.
Today, on entering the courthouse through that same door, he had been inspected for weapons by three pasdars. His mobile phone was taken away and his late father’s green handkerchief was eyed with great suspicion, since it resembled the wristbands of Green Movement protesters. Luckily, his modest suit and the counting beads worrying away in his fingers (signs of a resigned, aged sort of life . . . pickled, fallen into place, as they say in the village) saved him and the guards waved him through, returning to their bags of pistachios and sunflowers, cracking and chewing and spitting as they talked. They were young men, none over thirty. Probably they were sick of frisking the old men who passed through these doors to divorce their sisters or mothers or former lovers. The thought saddened Bahman, and before he went in, he said to the youngest pasdar, “Ghotbi will be good, I think.” He glanced around as he considered what more he could say about the new Iranian national soccer coach. “World Cup for sure.”
The young pasdar eyed him strangely for a second. Then he grinned. “For sure, Agha Doctor.” He held out his bag of pistachios and patted Bahman on the back, a rude gesture considering Bahman’s age, and yet this is what he had wanted, to be young like the boy. Bahman took one and nodded thanks. The boy said, “If life was simple, I’d go to South Africa and watch all the games from the front.”
Now, squirming under the harsh light of the courthouse waiting room, he heard a couple explaining their situation to the judge. Though inclined to resist this circus, which felt much like watching twenty strangers on the toilet, he strained to listen. He might as well let go of his private distaste now that he was stuck. From the moment he stepped into this muggy clerical office and breathed its overused air, he’d been caught in a wonderland crafted by Rumi or Hafez or some other cruel wit.
“I grant her divorce,” the young man said, “let her have it.” This caught Bahman’s attention because what Iranian man would agree to a divorce he didn’t initiate? It’s a matter of pride. If the wife requests it, only madness and impotence are legal reasons. If this is a case of mutual abandonment, the man should request it for both of them, since he needs to show no cause and it’s a smaller headache for everyone. Is this boy admitting to insanity? Impotence? Maybe he wants to rub yogurt on the marriage gift, to negotiate away the sum to which every divorced woman is entitled. Maybe his family made a lazy deal for him — sometimes young men in love agree to hefty marriage gifts at the time of the aghd, thinking they will never divorce, or that if they do, they will be too heartbroken to care.
“Why are you seeking divorce so soon?” the judge asked the young woman. “So little time living together,” he said, and flipped some pages. Bahman sat forward in his chair, staring openly into the room, because at least the universe was offering him the pleasure of a decent story — in divorce court, everyone lies.
The young wife looked more weathered than her husband, her grief-pale skin shiny in spots while he seemed to have spent time outdoors. A voice behind the door, a mother or sister perhaps, was weeping. Maybe the girl couldn’t have children. Maybe he was a philanderer. Maybe she was a philanderer — women did that too, of course, and why not? A life of pleasure is at least lived. Maybe he had lost all their money gambling, or couldn’t perform in the bedroom. Or she had promised to care for an ailing parent who had sucked the life out of her. The judge continued his inspection of the pair — how could so young a couple have bungled it so quickly?
The wife, hardly more than a teenager, tucked in the edges of her headscarf, her expression full of guilt and failure. She was younger than his daughter Niloo, and Bahman wished he could speak to this girl, to say, I don’t know you, but listen: you couldn’t have done anything to fix things. She rubbed the side of her neck again and again, the same gesture that comforted Pari, his first wife, when she was nervous or angry or confused. Bahman watched the girl, and soon everything faded but the rhythm of her fingers. In their worst moments, Pari had clutched her own throat with both hands, rubbing and clawing as if to remove an iron collar.
“A strange punishment, having to watch this,” Bahman muttered, meaning to compare the situation to the forced mass witness, in certain backward countries, of executions and beatings. And yet, wasn’t he living in one of those same countries, the ones involved in every human ugliness and ruin? Didn’t rural mullahs reign free far from the eyes of scholars and doctors? But who could say such things aloud? Much less so in a court of law, in these troubled times. Even here in Isfahan, a big city, scholars and doctors kept their eyes closed. On and on, the world slumbered.
He considered it and thought this notion poetic and true enough to say aloud. “The world slumbers, my friend.” He glanced at his lawyer.
The boy stared. “You will get the best service,” he said. “The best. All will be well, Doctor.” He scratched at a strange bald patch on his chin. Bahman wiped the tea out of his own thick but tidy mustache. Each morning he trimmed it straight with a ruler held above his lips.
That morning, in the sterile gray brick hotel that had housed him for a single night, uninviting down to its last metal beam, he woke with a distended stomach. He had long given up meat, grains, sugar, and dairy. He ate stingily, slept militantly, and consumed enough water to run a small mill. And yet, somehow, every third morning, he woke with a stomach that looked three months’ pregnant. No pain, no nausea. Just a tight drum that said, Hello, old friend. Let’s take a holiday. Remember all the work we did, back when we played soccer all afternoon and ate sultan-kabobs and made love for two hours without the smallest complaint? No more of that; it’s twilight.
Now he was afraid of falling asleep before his young wife for fear of his unruly stomach. It seemed strange for fifty-five. Despite a lifetime of study, poetry, food, and invigorating old-world living, Bahman was losing. His father’s muddled village genes began to prevail, afflicting him with wild, unpredictable physical changes. The hair follicles in the back of his head were the latest to succumb, abandoning their places to a swirl of unseemly baldness.
Bahman shifted in the hard curve of the plastic chair (like sitting in a salad bowl, he thought) and leaned in to peer past the judge’s door. His beads dangled on his knee as he counted to thirty-three, then started at one again. The air carried the smell of cheap cleaning solutions and of unwashed men. The naked bulbs overhead shone too brightly, making the squeaky linoleum floor seem institutional and depressing. Everywhere ran the hurried black streaks of people’s shoes. The young wife facing the judge rushed to speak. “Too soon or not, we’ve agreed. By mutual consent.” How many people were crammed in the cleric’s office?
“No, not mutual,” said her husband. “That is not what I said. I never left. I stayed and worked my fingers raw and I suffered every degradation to please her. Now that she requests it, I grant the divorce. It’s a different thing, agha.”
It is indeed different to have your hand forced. Bahman didn’t want to end things, of course, but what do you do when the woman is no longer the same? Sanaz, the girl who had brought him back to life, had turned thirty, dyed her hair a garish medley of blonde and black, and, for all practical purposes, lost her mind. He would have been fine if she had grown demanding and firm, running the household with unkind hands as some women do, or if she had shown signs of aging so that, when they both smiled, their worn cheeks and lined eyes might begin to match. He would have welcomed odd hobbies or a desire to go to underground parties. He would have loved it if she grew fat and happy. And to be perfectly honest, he would have looked the other way if suddenly, as happens often in marriages like his, a male “cousin” her own age started coming around sometimes, taking her to family functions. But instead of lovers, she had taken to rants and rages, her silences sometimes lasting days, then broken by screaming fits in which she threw his toothbrushes into the aftabeh, the washbasin beside the toilet, or ripped the pages out of all his poetry books or called him vile names, accusing him of impotence and stinginess and cruelty.
A few weeks ago, she hurled threats of divorce, and though he had never considered it himself, it seemed a very sensible thing. That night in bed, he turned it over in his mind and it calmed his stomach so that it unclenched for an hour or two.
The Sanaz he knew was gone, and there was nothing to be done about it. He wouldn’t try to change her. She had promised to vacate the house without trouble if he stayed one night in a hotel so that her sister and brother-in-law, an Agha Soleimani, could collect her personal things. She was showing kindness, and he imagined that she preferred not to wreck their memories, all his aging photos of Nain, Tehran, and Ardestoon with his son and daughter, children from another lifetime, when they were young and relied on him for every small joy. And the photos of the four visits with them since; of course, she wouldn’t touch those, or the sketches or the poems. And, when this was over, he would still have the throws and ghilim rugs that his mother had woven. Life would remain intact. Blessings abounded.
Sometimes he examined his old furniture, pieces he had bought in the eighties or nineties, chipped armoires, fading rugs, and couches that smelled of decades of cigarettes, and he thought: Everything in life feels like this couch. The past was like a crisp, airy sitting room awash in warm hues, and the present is that same room shut up for twenty years in its own dust and decay then thrust into harsh daylight. Niloo and Kian, his first set of children, the children of his youth, flung at a tender age to America and Europe, were forever encased in soft candlelight.
“But do you want to divorce?” asked the judge, and through the crack in the door, Bahman saw him draw two blue file folders close to his face, never looking up.
“I don’t want a divorce; I want that in the record. I am amenable, that’s all.”
“Ei vai, mister, it comes to the same thing,” the judge sighed, and mumbled something to his secretary, a severe woman of about sixty who was leaning over the judge’s desk and may or may not have been shaking her head. Bahman couldn’t see her figure; her heavy chador obscured every subtle movement. Her neck was gone, its turns and tensions lost. The cleric turned back to the husband. “Do you want to keep the marriage gift? Is that your issue? You still owe what was promised.”
How young they were, this troubled couple . . . but, yes, the boy ought to pay. Bahman was prepared to pay, as any man should. He had made mistakes, been selfish and hedonistic and afraid, and now, slowly waking up to these things, dreaming of newness and rigor, of study and frugality and discipline (a small taste of Niloo’s ways), he felt that paying Sanaz was a necessary and just step.
“No, Your Honor,” said the boy. “I only want the official court record to show the truth that I’m only going along. To hell with the money. I’ll pay it when it comes to me, Allah willing.”
Oh, but Bahman too had said “when it comes to me” to poor Pari . . . and he had never come through in any meaningful way. How is Pari? he wondered.
The court secretary muttered at the young husband’s cursing. “Khanom,” the judge said, turning to the young wife. “Your husband seems to be suffering here . . . look, he’s barely making sense. Why don’t you go with him? See if you can’t live with him for a few months. Maybe he can make you happy if you try.”
At that, Bahman chuckled into his fist. He wished he could call his daughter to share the joke. Since she had left Iran as a child, he had seen Niloo four times, in four short visits throughout her adolescence and adulthood. Somewhere in there, in the years between Niloo the eight-year-old Isfahani girl and Niloo the thirty-year-old American or European or whatever she now was, they had come close to sharing two or three jokes about love and sex. Though it was uncomfortable to interact with her as a foreign adult, she had his sense of humor. She would laugh at this, he was certain. Niloo had studied at Yale, a name he didn’t know until she said it one day when she was eighteen, swearing that it was as good as that other one, the one Iranians recognize for mass-producing famous doctors and senators and things. Bahman believed her, even before he looked up “Yale” on the Internet in the grimy offices of his friend the agricultural supply salesman. After that he made sure to say around town, “I sent one daughter to Yale. I’ll send the other.”
During the American election, he had called Niloo in the middle of the night. “Niloo joon,” he said, “I’ve had a prophetic dream about the man you should choose for your president. It’s a riddle: Obama is better pronounced oo-ba-ma. And in Farsi this means he is with us. John McCain is pronounced joon-mikkane, which, as you know, means he works hard. But who cares if someone works hard if he is not with you? This is what I’m thinking.” He knew he sounded stoned. She probably smelled the hashish and opium through the telephone, or sensed it by whatever magic instinct was granted to families of hedonists. She gave a small laugh and said that, yes, she would vote for the one who is with us. “We’re having an election soon too,” he said weakly. “Mousavi. That’s our man here.” She said, yes, she knew that too.
On hanging up, he had been embarrassed. His daughter thought him a clown, not a wordsmith or a poet, but an aging addict.
Niloo had married a weighty European man — not weighty in physique, as the man was very tall and thin; but weighty, as they say, in all other matters. From what Bahman could tell, Niloo had grown into a serious woman. Ever since her mother took her out of Iran, she worked or studied constantly, never taking time to feast or to delight or to lose herself, though she had been a happy child with a wild, musical laugh, a dangerous sweet tooth, dancing feet, and lots of clever schemes. Now she toiled and toiled, trying to prove something. Maybe his weighty son-in-law with the unpronounceable name needed an unsmiling wife for his friends, a wife who could quote Shakespeare and Molière alongside the great Rumi.
He had met the boy once in Istanbul, years after the wedding, which had been a secret affair with no photos. He hoped the boy made Niloo happy. The idea calmed his heart since he had spent decades shrinking under the darkest worries: What if I sent my children to America only to see them suffer? But the boy loved Niloo from the depths of his belly, a love that bent and broke him as Bahman too was bent and broken. A love he had thought Sanaz felt for him. But you can’t make someone love you, as they say, and shouldn’t try, unless you’re twenty and have a muscular heart, a heart itching to be broken in. Sometimes, in calmer years, failing isn’t such a curse.
The young wife was shouting now, her voice shaking, fists balled like six-year-old Niloo caught up in the first pangs of conviction, ready to battle away the hours and the days. “No, that is not possible,” she said to the cleric. She grabbed her husband’s arm, whispering, urging him to remember their private talks. “We agreed. He can call it what he wants. It’s all decided. We’ve sat up all night with uncles and both fathers and everyone. We’re here and we’ve agreed.”
“Yes, khanom,” said the judge. “But nothing is agreed until the court too has agreed. The man here doesn’t seem to want it. What’s the trouble in the marriage?”
The girl hesitated, battling with herself. Clearly, there was something shameful she didn’t want to make public. “He’s never there,” she shouted, her hands flailing over the judge’s papers as she pushed against his desk to steady herself. “He’s an addict. We don’t get along. We can’t have children. What does the reason matter? We’ve agreed. And he has agreed to pay.”
“I’m not an addict,” shot the husband. “What are you talking about? No, Your Honor, I don’t drink anything. I don’t smoke anything. I eat nothing but bread and cheese and dry herbs. She has taken everything from me, so she can have this too. But I want the court to have the correct story because I will not leave this world with lies on my lips. I swear to Hassan and Hossein and every imam — ”
The wretched husband was raising his voice, losing control of himself. “Yes, yes, calm down,” said the judge. “Who’s talking about leaving this world, agha?”
“I’m done with this life, and I swear, I just want to leave my house in order.”
At this, a fury of voices broke out inside the chambers. It seemed at least three relatives were standing behind the door, obscured till now. The girl moaned and flung herself into an older woman’s arms. “He will kill me with this drama.”
Bahman turned to his attorney and said, “Could you not have gotten the time correct at least?” This spectacle was making him nervous for his own turn, the tales he too was preparing to weave. “Can we pay someone?”
“Agha, it’s not an exact thing,” said the attorney, massaging his knees. “Do you do your root canals at the very hour you say? And, anyhow, there’s tea just there.”
“That boy is an addict,” said Bahman. “Ranting about killing himself. Making foolish requests about who petitioned whom for what.” Statistically almost every other working-class twentysomething man in Iran was an addict — and just listening to his accent, it was clear he had never stepped into university.
“What boy?” said the attorney, downing the cold remnants in his cup.
“My friend, wake up,” said Bahman, tapping the lawyer’s chin with his counting beads as you would a child. “Listen to what is going on there!”
“I’ll get us some chai,” said the attorney, and got up to refill his own cup and to fetch one for Bahman. He let out exhausted grumbles as he hauled himself up.
By the time the relatives in the chambers calmed the man and his wife, the judge seemed to have lost his patience. He ordered that they live together for a month and not come back a day before the end of the sentence. “I can’t! Please, agha,” the woman begged the judge, her hands trembling on his desk so he could see. “You don’t know how it is. Please, for the love of the prophet.”
The judge shook his head. “You don’t have to share his bedroom. Go on now.”
But the woman wouldn’t leave. Before the words had traveled past the judge’s gray lips, she had thrown herself onto his desk, causing such commotion that the judge sprang up and the court secretary rushed to remove her. Her mother (or aunt or whoever) took her by the waist and was trying to calm her when the girl looked tearfully up and began to whisper prayers.
Bahman too was on his feet. Without his permission his weary shoes had taken him to the threshold of the chambers and his hand was on the edge of the door. His lawyer called him back as he peered in. This wretched girl was Niloo’s age. Look at the desperation in her eyes — a trapped bird. Had Niloo ever, in her young life, felt caged by circumstance? Had he, with his fatherly hopes for her and her brother, sent them off to a foreign land to struggle and pray to deaf gods? Did she belong to a place, to a people? Was she satisfied down to the soft of her bones?
The judge decided that the young wife would spend two days in jail, so that she might learn to behave herself in a courtroom. Bahman wanted to burst in, for once in his life to thunder at the senselessness of the world. This judge was his age, his peer. Have some patience, brother, he wanted to say; she’s a weak thing and she’s at your mercy. But something about those words seemed presumptuous and offensive to the girl, and who wants to draw such attention to themselves? He would send the family some money, if he could find their name. Maybe this unhappy wife could run away in the night. Maybe she had a lover she hoped to marry, the reason for her desperation. Of course. Bahman hoped the girl had a lover who would protect her — why else would one fling one’s body onto the desk of some old mullah?
He returned to his seat, smiling at the thought. He patted his lawyer’s hand, accepted the cup of tea and sugar cube that were offered, and said, “Please get me that young woman’s name and address,” and when the boy opened his mouth, Bahman clutched his beads and said, “No, friend. Enough objections from you.”