The plane ride from Vienna to Bucharest was a quick one. There were few people on board, and Mr. Tabrizian read the business section of the New York Times in silence the whole way. There was no mention of the night my father and I had spent in that Romanian detention cell, no mention of the week we had spent homeless in the Vienna airport, no mention of my still unresolved visa issues. Mr. Tabrizian’s contentment was flawless, as though he’d just woken up on a sunny Sunday morning and was considering what to have for breakfast. It annoyed me, to be honest, that he didn’t feel any of the terror I did. As we landed, I finally decided to break the silence and ask him, in Persian, “So what happens if I get stopped by the guards again?”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “No one stops me. It’s just a few weeks. Maybe sooner. You will have your American visa, don’t worry.” And he went back to his paper, unconcerned. My heart couldn’t stop pounding. But he was right: when the military jeep came to pick us up, the soldiers were friendly and greeted us as though we were all old friends. At the counter, the same soldier who had sent me into the detention room stamped Mr. Tabrizian’s American passport. “America,” the soldier smiled. “I’d like to go there one day.” Then he looked at my Iranian passport and the smile vanished from his face. “Wait a minute,” he said. “I know this girl.” I started to shake. “Yes,” the guard said more loudly. “I remember her. She can’t come with you.” I started to sweat, but Mr. Tabrizian did something I’ll never forget: he reached out and grabbed my passport out of the soldier’s hand, and smacked the young man square across the face with it.
“Do you have any idea who I am?” Mr. Tabrizian yelled in English. “I’m having dinner with your president tonight, and I will make sure to ruin your life for having mistreated my family.” The soldier quickly stamped my passport. Mr. Tabrizian walked toward the exit, dragging me by the arm. We got into a taxi and headed for his house up in the hills outside Bucharest.
It was a cloudy afternoon when our taxi approached Mr. Tabrizian’s mansion, which was almost the size of a small village. Adjacent to the mansion were large concrete dormitories. I noticed many young people coming and going, walking together and hanging out around a large square at the center of the campus. I saw several girls wave at us and boys playing soccer stop to watch as we went by in our taxi. I waved and smiled back at every one of them. I was so excited to see young people playing, after everything I’d just been through. Even though the people were clearly poor, the European cobblestone streets seemed fancy to me, who had just come from Iran.
“You don’t have to wave at them,” Mr. Tabrizian said coldly. “They are workers.”
“Workers? What do they do?”
“They work at my rug factory up there,” he said, and gestured up the hill. “I’ll give you a tour tomorrow.”
I ignored Mr. Tabrizian’s request and continued to wave from my seat. I was happy to see so many people my age. These could all become my new friends, I thought.
I wanted to jump out of the taxi right away and explore the town. My enthusiasm and high energy eventually made Mr. Tabrizian laugh. Maybe he’s not as cold as he seems at first, I thought. I was determined to be positive about everything.
Our taxi stopped by a set of big, wooden doors. “This is my house,” Mr. Tabrizian said. “I’m looking forward to getting some rest after all that traveling.” He got out of the car and I followed.
“I can’t rest now,” I said, when we were inside. “I’m finally out of Iran, out of airports, in a new country. Who knows how long I’ll be here? I want to see as much as I can.”
“Okay,” Mr. Tabrizian said smiling. “Go where you like, just don’t leave the main grounds.”
I noticed a pack of cigarettes on a little table in the foyer. When Mr. Tabrizian had left the room, I snatched them and walked out. I was dying to walk and smoke by myself, and to mingle with other young people. It was only when I got to the main village square that I realized I would have no way of speaking with anyone. This scared me a bit, but I also felt an inner momentum carry me into the flow of people there. I passed several teenagers sitting on the edge of the curb. They were chatting with each other and idly digging in the dirt with sticks. I saw an abandoned church across the way that looked as though it hadn’t been used in a thousand years: its windows were all broken and the front door didn’t close properly and made a ghostly, creaking sound.
I turned to a group of girls who looked as though they were about fifteen. They were sitting on the ground kicking rocks. I waved at them and said “hello” in English. They said “hello” back. We all giggled. That was the extent of our English, but they seemed as genuinely interested in me as I was in them. One of them came up and asked me something in Romanian. I kept shrugging my shoulders, trying to tell them that I didn’t speak their language. After a while they got it. We stood there staring at each other, still smiling. Then one of the girls pointed at herself and said, “Maria.” Another one did the same and said, “Anna.” I pointed at myself and said, “Atash”. One of them started to repeat my name, and then the rest joined in a collective chant: “Ataaaash.” I shook my head in agreement; that made them laugh loudly. I was inspired by our progress, so I pointed at them and said, “Romania”. Then I pointed at myself and said, “Iran”.
The girl named Anna seemed as though she understood. “Ayatollah Khomeini?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, making a sour face. No one seemed to understand that particular political statement, so we went back to staring and laughing.
They went through my packet of cigarettes quickly. I hadn’t noticed the label when I snatched it, but the Romanian kids clearly approved of American Marlboro cigarettes. “Good, good,” they chanted, tapping the logo on the front. I promised I’d bring them some more the next day. Somehow communicating with them wasn’t as hard as Mr. Tabrizian had made it seem. They were very open to me. When we got tired of figuring out each other’s words, I suggested singing. I sang a Persian song, “Divareh Sangi,” for them. I liked the fact that I could make mistakes and that they would never know. Then Maria sang a Romanian song that everyone else seemed to know and followed. I felt so happy to be in their circle.
“Atash!” I heard Mr. Tabrizian call my name. “It’s time to come inside.” I looked up. It must have been near midnight.
When the kids heard Mr. Tabrizian’s voice they nearly jumped and started to walk quickly towards the dormitories. I watched them go and turned toward Mr. Tabrizian. “It’s so nice to communicate with people without using language,” I said. He seemed amused by my reaction.
“I don’t think my daughters have ever talked to the locals.”
“Why not? How old are your daughters?”
“They are a few years older than you. Young and smart, but different from you.”
I was afraid to ask him what he meant, so I said nothing. We went back into his house and he showed me into one of the master bedrooms that had a king-sized bed. After taking one of the most glorious showers I’ve ever taken (I’d never experienced water pressure like that in Iran,) I fell asleep right away.
I woke up the next day in the afternoon. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I was exhausted from all that traveling. It felt so nice to sleep in such a soft bed. I looked at the clock: it said 2:40 pm. That meant, I realized that I had been asleep for nearly fifteen hours. I left my room and called for Mr. Tabrizian. There was no one in the house. Something in me started to panic, and I instinctively checked the doors to see if I had been locked in the house or not. The doors were open. I caught my breath and felt the old sadness creeping in. I felt heavy and sat back down on the bed I’d slept in. No matter how far I run, this feeling stays with me.
“Why are you crying Atash?” I looked up and saw Mr. Tabrizian standing right above me.
“I thought I was locked up,” I said. I was trying to figure out how long he’d been standing watching me. “You know, I thought I wouldn’t be able to get out.”
“Why would you be locked up?”
“I don’t know. It’s nothing. I’m sorry.”
“You looked so peaceful sleeping. I just couldn’t wake you up.” He smiled. “If you’re up now, though, I can show you my factory.”
After Mr. Tabrizian and I had a small lunch at his house, we went out and he gave me a tour of the town. Then we walked into his factory. He took his time explaining the economic structure of Romania and how different it was from America. He told me about how there was no religion here but no work either. “These people call me their savior,” he said. “Because of me, their families can survive.”
Then he started to tell me about his career as a businessman in America. “In America, you can start with nothing and have everything in no time if put your mind to it,” he said.
“Is that what you did?”
“Yes.” He laughed. “Now I have homes in several different countries. If you have perseverance you can make a lot of money in America.”
“I don’t want a lot of money,” I said. “I just want to be free.”
The factory itself was an old, dank building with high ceilings and hardly any light. It looked about a hundred years old. It was subdivided into a few, enormous rooms, in which stood several large looms. At every loom, there were about twenty girls weaving rugs. Some of them were almost finished, and I noticed they bore the familiar patterns I knew from Iran.
At one loom, I noticed some of the girls I had met the day before. I waved at them and smiled. They shrank back, as though scared of a blow, and quickened the pace of their weaving. I noticed that some of the girls were wearing thick glasses and their fingers were cracked. It suddenly hit me how young they were. Next to the enormous twelve-foot rugs, they looked like sad little mice. I turned to Mr. Tabrizian and asked, “How much do these girls make?”
“Two dollars a week,” Mr. Tabrizian said matter-of-factly. “I feed them. I house them. Two dollars a week goes a long way here in Romania.”
Upon further questioning, it turned out that Mr. Tabrizian sold his rugs in New York City for thousands of dollars. He also claimed they were from Iran. I was upset by this information, but Mr. Tabrizian didn’t seem to understand what I was feeling. “You have a good business sense, I think,” he said. “Business is about finding opportunities. You will do well in America.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say to that. I was horrified and decided to keep quiet. Mr. Tabrizian broke the silence, however.
“Why do you want to marry my nephew, Atash?” His question took me by surprise, so I said the first thing that came to mind.
“He seems gentle, and he wants to take me out of Iran.”
“Won’t you miss your parents?”
“I doubt that.”
“My daughters can’t go long without seeing me or my wife.”
“Where are these girls’ parents?” I asked. I was angry with what I saw, but more importantly, I didn’t want to talk about myself.
“These girls travel far to come here and work. Who knows what they did before I brought them here? Maybe prostitution. Who knows? Here, look, that building there is where they all sleep. Do you want go inside?”
We walked out of the factory and crossed a small alley to where the large dormitory stood. We entered the building through a large metal door, on the inside of which a long narrow hallway led to a series of rooms on each side. I noticed right away that the rooms must be very small because there was such a tiny distance between the doors.
I opened one of the doors and walked in.
“It’s hard for two people to be inside at once,” Mr. Tabrizian said. “I’ll wait for you in the hallway.”
There were three bunk beds in each room, which also meant, I gathered, three girls lived in each room. There was hardly any standing space. There were no windows and right away I felt claustrophobic and nauseous.
That night around ten, Mr. Tabrizian retired early and I was left in the master bedroom with nothing to do. I left my room and wrote a note to him: “Dear Mr. Tabrizian, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but after seeing where the girls sleep every night, I can’t sleep in your big, fancy bed. I hope you understand. Atash.”
I got up, put on my coat, and walked out into the foyer. I saw a few flashlights lying on the table there, and I took one and left the house. I walked down to the factory square and saw some of the same girls hanging out there. I waved and smiled to them again, but they didn’t seem happy to see me. They talked amongst themselves, and made no effort to communicate with me through gestures. I pulled out another pack of cigarettes that I had stolen from Mr. Tabrizian and offered them some. They were slow to respond, but within a few minutes they were on my side again. “I want to sleep where you do,” I said. I made the universal sign for sleep by pressing my palms together underneath one ear; then I pointed at myself and then at their dorm. They obviously understood what I was saying, but they couldn’t believe I wanted that. They shrugged.
We stood there in silence until we’d smoked the whole pack. They waved good night to me, but I kept pantomiming that I wanted to sleep with them. They turned around and left, but I followed them all the way to their dorm. As we walked in the darkness I heard them giggling among themselves. We entered the main door of the dormitory and I saw that the long, narrow hallway was full of life: girls were laughing and walking up and down, telling jokes and acting in good spirits. When they saw me, they started laughing more, and then, when they realized I was going to be staying, their laughter turned into good-natured fighting over who would get to have me in her bunk. In the end, Maria, the first girl who had introduced herself to me, got dibs. She shared a room with Anna.
I slept in the lowest bunk with Maria. It was so small that we couldn’t sleep side by side, so we slept inverted, with my feet by her face and hers next to mine. The next day at dawn, however, they got up to go to work, and I had nowhere to go but back to Mr. Tabrizian’s house. He was waiting for me on the living-room couch with an open suitcase on the floor in front of him. My heart dropped when I saw it. That’s it, I thought. I messed up, and now he’s kicking me out. But Mr. Tabrizian smiled when he saw me.
“These are souvenirs I brought back from Vienna,” he said. “Coffee, chocolate, perfume, cigarettes, and some clothes. I bought these to take with me to America. But after reading your note last night, I don’t think I’ll be taking any of it with me. I want you to have it all. You can do with it what you like. Give it to the factory girls or keep it for yourself. It’s up to you.”
I wasn’t prepared for how close I suddenly felt to Mr. Tabrizian. I remember crying for a long, long time there on his couch. I cried on his shoulder, and I remember that when I lifted my head up, my black mascara had flooded all over his yellow cashmere sweater. After a while, I got up and took the suitcase to my room. I found little bags and distributed the presents among them. Then I marched down to the factory square and handed the bags out to all the girls. They hesitated for a moment, but when they realized what I was doing, they attacked the bags like a pack of stray cats.
It was only years later that I pieced together the historical backdrop of my two-week stay in Romania. Mr. Tabrizian’s connection with President Ceausescu, I learned later, was not the blessing my family had told me it was. The day I arrived in Bucharest, immense crowds had gathered to boo the President’s speech. Demonstrations that whole week had been escalating and had become more violent. Because I was in the countryside, I didn’t get to see any of this except what they showed on local, state-run television. I remember seeing some of the demonstrations on television, but I didn’t want to ask any questions or try to understand. It was too much like what I had run away from in Iran.
Within a few days of my arrival in Romania, on Christmas Day, Ceausescu was executed and his regime was overthrown. I was sitting with Mr. Tabrizian in his living room as he watched television and mumbled to himself.
Then he said, “This is why the military took you and your father as spies and deported you back to Vienna.”
I didn’t understand, so I waited for him to continue. Finally, he turned and said, “Ceausescu — the former president — was in Iran on the eve of Romania’s Revolution. The Iranian government, I think, was helping him. And then you and your father landed in Romania the next day. They must have thought you were spies.”
I noticed with some interest that Mr. Tabrizian didn’t seem concerned by any of this. He sat watching the political events on television as though he were watching a late-night movie. Maybe it was his American citizenship, or his high standing as an entrepreneur in Romania, but he seemed indifferent to the political turmoil. In fact, as I learned later, he survived the change of government without any persecution at all. I, on the other hand, with my Iranian passport and lack of connections, was still in danger.
Mr. Tabrizian saw to the completion of my student visa just as he had promised, and within a few weeks I was on a plane bound for New York to meet my fiancé. I was so grateful to him. I knew it must have taken a lot to get my visa. We had a very brief goodbye one morning when he woke me up and asked me to get dressed for traveling. “There is no time to waste,” he said. “I’ll see you in New York.” Then he pointed to the window. Through it, I saw a car waiting for me.
As the car took me to the airport, I thought about my life back in Iran, where I’d always inhabited two different worlds. There was the world of my father, full of fine dining French words, and crazy parties. And then there was the world of my mother, where people took off broken shoes to sit down on the floor and eat adas polo together. I’d always had to change characters, attitudes, and clothes to move from one world to the next, but now, it seemed to me, I was heading toward a future where I could live in both worlds at once. In America, I was sure I could be anyone I wanted to be: a person who experiences simplicity and security in a single life, a person who finds kindness among strangers and relatives alike. Little did I know that the reality I would encounter would be much different, but at the moment, that vision seemed to make sense.
I was nineteen years old when I arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City with a few hundred dollars and four words of English. The customs officer looked me up and down.
“Atash?” he asked.
I nodded eagerly.
“You have people here in the U.S.?”
I smiled enthusiastically.
He stamped my passport and let me through. I’ve made it, I thought.
I'm a licensed clinical social worker with two decades of experience working in New York City public schools and providing social and emotional support for urban youth, immigrants, and their families. I'm Director of Wellness and founding member of Harvest Collegiate, a progressive public high school in Manhattan, where I also train social workers. In my private practice, I treat adults through a mixture of psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and Reiki. In my spare time I write literary nonfiction.