Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea

Article excerpt

Cheshmeh Village (Gilan Province), Iran Summer 1981

This is the sum of all that Saba Hafezi remembers from the day her mother and twin sister flew away forever, maybe to America, maybe to somewhere even farther out of reach. If you asked her to recall it, she would cobble all the pieces together as muddled memories within memories, two balmy Gilan days torn out of sequence, floating somewhere in her eleventh summer, and glued back together like this:

"Where is Mahtab?" Saba asks again and fidgets in the backseat of the car. Her father drives, while in the passenger seat her mother searches her purse for passports and plane tickets and all the papers needed to get out of Iran. Saba is dizzy. Her head hasn't stopped hurting since that night at the beach, but she doesn't remember much. There is only one thing she knows: that her twin sister, Mahtab, is not here. Where is she? Why isn't she in the car when they are about to fly away and never come back?

"Do you have the birth certificates?" her father asks. His voice is sharp and quick and it makes Saba feel short of breath. What is happening? She has never been away from Mahtab for this long - for eleven years the Hafezi twins have been one entity. No Saba without Mahtab. But now days have passed - or is it weeks? Saba has been sick in bed and she can't remember. She hasn't been allowed to speak to her sister, and now the family is in a car headed to the airport without Mahtab. What is happening?

"When you get to California," her father says to her mother, "go straight to Behrooz's house. Then call me. I'll send money."

"Where is Mahtab?" Saba asks again. "Why is Mahtab not here?"

"She'll meet us there," says her mother. "Khanom Basir will drive her."

"Why?" Saba asks. She presses stop on her Walkman. This is all so confusing.

"Saba! Stop it!" her mother snaps, and turns back to her father. Is she wearing a green scarf? There is a spot of black over this part of the memory, but Saba remembers a green scarf. Her mother goes on. "What about security? What do I say to the pasdars?"

The mention of the moral police frightens Saba. For the past two years it has been a crime to be a converted Christian in Iran - or an ex-Muslim of any kind - as the Hafezis are. And it is terrifying to be a criminal in the world of brutal pasdars in stark uniforms, and mullahs in turbans and robes.

"There will be pasdars there?" she asks, her voice quivering.

"Hush," says her mother. "Go back to your music. We can't take it with us."

Saba sings an American tune that she and Mahtab learned from an illegally imported music tape and goes over English word lists in her mind. She will be brave. She will perfect her English and not be afraid. Abalone, Abattoir, Abbreviate.

Her father wipes his brow. "Are you sure this is necessary?"

"We've been through this, Ehsan!" her mother snaps. "I won't have her raised in this place . . . wasting her days with village children and clerics, stuck under a scarf memorizing Arabic and waiting for them to arrest her. No, thank you."

"I know it's important" - her father's voice is pleading - "but do we have to make a show of it? Is it so bad if we just say . . . I mean ... it can be hidden very easily."

"Only if you're a coward," her mother whispers. She begins to cry. "What about what happened ... ?" she says. "They will arrest me." Saba wonders what she means.

"What is abalone?" Saba tries to distract her mother, who doesn't answer. The fighting frightens Saba, but there are more important things to worry about now. She taps her father on the shoulder. "Why is Khanom Basir bringing Mahtab? There's room in this car." It is odd that Reza's mother would drive at all. But maybe this means that Reza will come too, and Saba loves him almost as much as she loves Mahtab. In fact, if anyone asks, she is happy to claim that she will marry Reza someday.

"One day you'll be glad for today, Saba jan," her mother says, deciding to answer some unspoken question. …

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