The sun is setting as he comes down the block, dressed in jean shorts and wearing a small leather pouch around his waist. He smiles when he sees me, takes me by the hand, and sits me down on a wooden stool. Next to us are several old Turkish men sipping apple tea. We are at the “Chai Lav You” cafe across from the Galata Tower in Istanbul. We eat feta, olives, and honey with pita bread.
He tells me how grateful he is that I came all the way from America to see him, for just a few days. I’m reminded now that I don’t have to impress him to get his affection, or to pretend that I’m someone else to get his respect. He knows, too, that he has to be himself around me. It’s strange to think there was a time when I feared him. It’s strange to think there was a time I didn’t have a father.
It was December 1989. He brought me to the Tehran International Airport. I was carrying only a small suitcase that held a few shirts and jeans. I didn’t want to take too many clothes that belonged to the past. I wanted a fresh start in every way.
“Are you sure, Atash?” He kept his eyes fixed on the boarding ticket in his hand.
“As sure as I can be,” I said.
“I don’t understand you,” he said. “First you don’t want to get married. Then I find out you are engaged to your cousin. Then the engagement is off. Now you’re marrying a stranger in America.”
“It’s going to be okay, Baba,” I said. “It has to be.”
My plan was simple. My father was going to chaperone me to Bucharest, Romania, via Vienna, and hand me over to a certain Mr. Tabrizian, a distant relative and a rug manufacturer with diplomatic connections in Romania. Mr. Tabrizian would then get me a student visa from the American embassy and put me on a plane to be picked up in New York by his nephew Ali, another distant cousin I’d never met but intended to marry. What could go wrong?
On our flight to Vienna, I was amazed by how quickly the Muslim women took off their headscarves, folding them neatly and storing them in their luggage, as though they belonged to the memory of a distant time and place. “You can take yours off too,” my father said. And then, in his philosophical way: “People’s faith was a lot stronger when it wasn’t forced on them.”
I took off my headscarf slowly, still unable to shed the fear that I’d be stopped by the morals police. He took out a pack of cigarettes and put it on the tray table in front of us.
“These are for us,” he said. “I think it’s time you smoke openly.”
I was surprised that he knew about my habit. I’d never known him to take notice. But I took a cigarette and let him light it for me. Each time my father took a drag, I took one too, copying his gestures. We smoked in silence.
By the time we got to Vienna, we were both exhausted. We split up to get our kicks in our separate ways. I went to the airport prayer-room to take a nap on one of the carpets there; my father went to the nearest bar to knock back a few beers. Alcohol was hard enough to get in Iran in those days, but beer was nearly impossible. A few hours later we boarded our connection to Bucharest.
On the plane, I realized something was very strange. Aside from my father and me, there were only three other passengers. “Why is no one going to Romania?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” my father said.
It was December 17, 1989. Though we didn’t know it yet, the Romanian Revolution had broken out the day before.
We touched down in Bucharest with the most graceful landing. My father kept his nose pressed to the window, like a little boy, waiting to see the airport materialize in front of us. The plane didn’t taxi into the terminal, however. It stopped right in the middle of the landing strip. A covered military jeep with soldiers pulled up to the side of the plane. They all carried guns. I looked at my father, but he seemed calm. “It’s not like Iran here,” he whispered softly. “Don’t worry.” He walked cautiously in front of me, out of the plane, down the rickety metal stairs, and onto solid ground. No one came to meet us.
The door of the jeep opened and a man inside motioned all five passengers to get in. “How do you do, sir?” my father asked the man in English and sat down in the back, but no one answered him.
“Baba, what’s happening?” I said. “This seems worse than Iran.” But my father said nothing.
The jeep drove us to the entrance of the airport, where a group of soldiers stood, nodding their heads in the direction of a small, open counter that we were apparently supposed to walk toward. There, the soldiers demanded our passports. They studied these for a while and talked to each other in Romanian. One of the soldiers kept turning to us and asking, “Iran? Iran you from?” in broken English. He kept asking, as though he wanted to make sure we knew what we were confessing to. “Yes,” we said, not understanding. “Yes, Iranian.”
“This your wife?” one of the men asked my father. My father let out a loud laugh. The soldiers didn’t crack a smile.
“No, daughter,” my father said, getting serious again.
“Not in passport. Why she not in your passport like other daughters?”
“First marriage,” my father said defensively.
“There is plane back to Iran tonight?” one of the soldiers asked out loud.
“Yes,” his partner answered. “Plane at six tonight.”
“Back to Iran?” My father started to get upset. “No. No! We don’t go back to Iran tonight. We want to see Mr. Tabrizian.”
“Follow these men,” the soldier ordered.
Within a few minutes, my father and I were seated in what was obviously a small detention chamber. The room was cold and there were no windows. I had to pee, but the door was locked and there was no one to ask. “I’m sorry Atash,” my father said. “We were so close.”
“It’s not over,” I said. “Once Mr. Tabrizian finds out, he will come and get us.”
“I’m afraid that’s not going to work,” my father said. “We’re going to be sent back to Iran before Mr. Tabrizian can find us.”
The door of the room clicked open and more armed soldiers came in, asking us to follow them.
“I can’t go back to Iran, Baba. I won’t make it.” I started to cry.
The weight of my admission hung heavy on his face as he contemplated the consequences. Then his forehead tightened. He looked intently, as though he were trying to defuse a bomb.
“Yes, I know,” he muttered.
Within a half hour, we were back in an airplane bound for Iran. The engine started to roar beneath us, and as I looked out the window at the new country I was sure I’d never see again, I felt a jolt next to me. I turned around and saw my father sitting up straight with his left arm stiff in the air like a statue’s.
“Baba?” I asked. “Do you need something?” His eyes were closed, as if he were meditating, but his hand was raised above his head, now crunched into a claw.
“Baba!” I said again. “What are you doing?” Sweat was pouring down his face and there were tears in his eyes. Other people began to notice. One man got out of his seat and leaned toward my father, speaking to him in Romanian. My father seemed not to notice. Suddenly, his body launched itself out of its seat onto the floor, where he lay convulsing, his left arm still frozen above his head. The woman next to me gave out a yell, leapt over me, and put her hand on my father’s chest. Oh my God, I thought, He’s dying. Flight attendants came running up. I dropped to the floor too. “Baba joon!” I cried. “Naro! Don’t leave me here!”
I heard the plane engine stop. The flight attendants were loosening my father’s collar and yelling to each other in Romanian. I heard that universal word: Hospital. A few moments later a medical crew was on board with a stretcher. They took him out of the plane and into a van parked outside. I followed and tried to push myself into the van with them, but the crew wouldn’t let me in. The door started to close and I took one last look at my father. I grabbed his hand through the half closed door, and for a moment his eyes opened a crack. The smallest sliver of a smile spread across his lips. Then he was gone.
I stood on the tarmac, totally confused. Why had my father looked at me like that? Was he sick or not? I felt angry. I didn’t want to be left with those mean men and their guns. “Take me back to Iran, Baba,” I cried, even though he was gone. “I don’t care anymore about getting away. Let’s just go home.”
Some guards came up next to me and took me back inside the airport. Once again, they led me back to that room with no windows. This time, however, they didn’t lock the door. They knew I had nowhere to go. In a while later, one of the guards came back with a little tray of food that included a chicken sandwich, an apple, and a Pepsi. I ate the food and soon felt a wave of exhaustion come over me. I lay down on the floor and fell asleep.
Just before dawn, I heard the door open. It was my father.
“Baba!” I yelled, “You’re okay!”
“Sure,” he said, smiling. “They have good hospitals here. I even met this nice doctor who comes from Iran …”
I looked him up and down. He was clearly high as a kite. Whatever drugs they had given him seemed to agree with him.
“But your heart attack, Baba?” I asked.
“What heart attack?” he said, and sat down on the ground next to me contentedly.
“Your sweat? Your tears? Your arm in the air?”
His big, beautiful smile returned. “I faked the heart attack, Atash joon.” Then his smile faded. “But the tears and sweat were real. The whole time I was picturing you back in Iran and feeling what it would be like to have failed you once again.”
“You left me with all those men with guns,” I said reproachfully.
“Listen,” he said, “It’s going to be okay. The Iranian doctor at the hospital did some research for us. It turns out they aren’t sending us back to Iran now, just as far as Vienna. The doctor also phoned Ali. He’s going to make sure Mr. Tabrizian meets us in the Vienna Airport.”
“So Mr. Tabrizian is going to meet us in Vienna today?”
“No,” my father said. “It might take a week.”
“So what are we going to do in an airport for a week?”
“That’s a good question,” he said.
We spent the next days in the Vienna Airport trying to pass the time as pleasantly as we could. My father went back to his favorite bar and I wandered around — bored, but happy to be able to come and go as I pleased. I was just relieved that there were no men with guns, and I made a game out of watching the passengers and trying to figure out their stories.
Living in the airport wasn’t completely free from danger, however. We realized that if we were seen too much too often, we would be harassed by security. So while we slept every night in the prayer room, we made sure to get up early, put on new clothes, and change the patterns of our wanderings. My father bought us baseball hats — “disguises,” he called them. It was like being in a spy movie.
Fortunately, Mr. Tabrizian arrived four days earlier than expected. It was the afternoon of December 21, and my father was dozing off in a chair next to the duty-free chocolates. I was sitting some distance from him, in order to avoid too many people seeing us together, absorbed in my people-watching game. Suddenly, a voice over the loudspeaker said, “Nader Yaghmaian,” followed by some German words.
“Baba!” I yelled, running over to him. “They’re calling you!” He got up quickly.
“The information desk,” he said. “That’s where we have to go.”
When we got to the information desk, Mr. Tabrizian was already there. He was a sophisticated-looking older man, dressed in a trench coat and carrying an expensive-looking leather briefcase. He looked me up and down, obviously trying to figure out how this scrawny girl had created so much drama for him and his family. I realized I hadn’t taken a shower in days.
“Salaam,” I said.
Mr. Tabrizian explained that we didn’t have much time. “We have a connecting flight in less than an hour,” he said to me. “I have a ticket for you, Atash, but we have to make sure that the guards don’t recognize you.” He took out a raincoat from his luggage and told me to put it on. “Put your hair up,” he instructed me. I went to the bathroom to do as I was told. In the bathroom mirror, I studied my reflection. I looked like the older woman Mr. Tabrizian wanted me to be.
When I came back, I saw that my father was holding an envelope Mr. Tabrizian had given him. It was full of American money and a ticket back to Iran. What’s all this money for, I thought? The three of us walked hurriedly to the departure gate. My father explained that his flight back to Iran was leaving soon too. He winked at me and slipped something into my coat pocket. I put my hand inside and felt that it was money. My father gave a quick, strong hug and then we walked away in different directions. He didn’t want to prolong the moment he’d been dreading for so long.
I was nineteen when I said goodbye to him then. But in a way, that was the start of our relationship.