by Venus Salem
It was a warm afternoon in Isfahan, Iran, in 2012, as I wended my way home from the market. Laden with two empty cardboard crates, my frail frame was rather awkwardly ruffled. There wasn’t much time left! Only a month. Too soon surely, before I would leave this former capital of Persia, this parade of Islamic architecture, beautiful boulevards, canopied bridges, sublime mosques, and lofty minarets, this ancient city that I knew simply as home! I would surely miss our modest dwelling that was no less than a mansion in my sight. And I would ache for the bustling streets, the nice neighbours, and the open blue skies flecked with white. The sound of the adhan, the muezzin’s call to prayer, wafting like clockwork from the nearby masjid, would keep ringing in my ears.
As I stepped into the house, the aroma of grandma’s rice and curry suffused me, as if newly, with a sense of hearth and happiness. Without ado, I stowed the boxes, completed my prayers and hurried into the kitchen. An appetising lunch followed, and the light banter with my maternal grandparents continued into the lounge. As was usual, with the day wearing on, we settled down with steaming cups of tea to watch the telly.
However, that evening, my mind was elsewhere, for I needed to nip upstairs and start packing. And I had no idea about how to prioritise my precious possessions comprising a bunch of books, a collection of clothes and a gaggle of girlie items. I simply did not know where to start. Everything my eyes fell on exuded fond memories. Even so, some would stay back as the retainers of my aura to assuage my grandparents’ wistfulness.
Barely six years ago, my mother and brother had been around, and it suddenly felt like aeons had passed since. My buoyant brother would romp to high school and back those days, and I was a sprightly student at medical school. The times were captivating and carefree, no matter the recurring cycles of studies and tests! Then dawned the day of their departure for South Africa, where my father was professionally engaged as a land surveyor. I had, however, to stay back to complete the course and the experiential training.
My grandparents played a royal role in the family, and they reigned with patience, wisdom and empathy. They were always there for me when my mother kept busy with household chores.
Needless to say copious tears were shed at the airport, but the misery was mercifully momentary, so to speak. For soon there flowed the electric excitement of the degree and the ensuing internship at the imposing academic hospital. Not surprisingly, the initial months had popped a few scares for the female interns who were fast-tracking from dependent girlhood to independent womanhood. But in time we all quite warmed to the evolved lifestyle, and the elevated paradigm of responsibility and accountability. My visits home inevitably tapered to a few random days in a month, and that too when my roster slotted no night shifts at the medical wards.
The crowning glory of those green years came, of course, with the first salary. I had finally “arrived”. With it came a charming sense of self-reliance and power, more specifically, purchasing power. It was all that mattered at the time, even if I remained too busy to actually run out and paint the town red. But the Persian New Year was round the corner and a close friend was about to get engaged. So, one evening, with hilarity heaving in the heart and the proud pay in the purse, I went shopping for a dress for the bride-to-be, besides gifts for friends and relatives. A bevy of other internees joined me for the outing and we had an utopian time window shopping, finalising the favourites and generally savouring the essence of adulthood.
It must be admitted, not all the news and events around me at the time were pleasant. A dear buddy, who had been rushed into early marriage by her orthodox parents, found herself in irreconcilable conflict with her spouse. Then, through the anguish of the eventual divorce and its lingering wake of worry, she strained to regain her equilibrium in life and painstakingly achieved the doctor’s qualification.
I ask providence, why has my mild mannered chum suffered such misfortune, and so early in life? The answer, I suppose, is “blowing in the wind”.
This reminds me of my own experience around three years ago. My uncle happened to deem an acquaintance of his as a marital match for me, and arranged for us to meet. Albeit distinctly disinclined to tying the knot just then, I lacked the valour to speak my mind and decisively back off. In the family code, such behaviour would be construed as unbecoming obduracy, if not rebellion. So one day I found myself chatting with a stranger, an attractive man in his late twenties, suave in manners and earnest in intention. By the end of the tryst, his budding interest seemed to bloom into attraction. Which only made matters worse, as it left me with a discomfiture compounded by the family’s expectations. The good man merely desired to be a husband, but I was simply not ready yet to be a wife.
In my culture, dating, or continual casual conversations between unrelated men and women, bereft of a solemn pledge, is reckoned to be sinful. So, after a fortnight’s intense introspection I picked up the phone and excused myself from the suitor’s proposition. The family predictably turned livid upon listening to the encore of my telephonic monologue. And to this day, my grandma berates me for staying single at age 27, to her mind a miserable state that can only follow an inexcusable folly.
My reflections were broken by the sight of the yawning suitcase, which reluctantly went back to the corner to wait for a more focussed hour. The week that followed was marked by travel and bustle. I was deputed out of town for a 2-day assignment at a little clinic. Afterwards, I would call at the University to refund seven years’ scholarship consequent on my intended emigration. Then, at the Department Of Health in Tehran, I would comply with regulations and obtain an English translation of the degree.
When I finally returned to my room, my heart sank. It was a magnificent mess. Dresses, reading matter and knick knacks cluttered all the spaces. Some pieces found their way into the freight cartons, and a few were coerced into the small suitcase to be hand-carried. To my unspoken satisfaction, the room remained sprinkled with tiny tokens of my life lived in it.
The little cat, spoilt and innocent of etiquette, was having a merry time rolling on the bedclothes. She would nimbly jump on the table during mealtimes and sleep in any room that met her fancy. It was 18 months since I had chanced on her and her sister near the clinic during community service. Of the twins, one was black and the other ginger. I bore them back to my quarters after duty hours. The black sibling’s pastime was to chase the rooster and hens around the garden. Over the weekend, I took them home, hoping fervently for my grandparents’ indulgence. As it turned out, they were hospitable hosts. Sadly however, the ginger kitten died shortly from sickness, but was survived by her black sister. She was another entity I would sorely miss.
I napped through the afternoon and, on waking, marvelled at how a simple cup of piping hot tea could dispel the tiredness from both body and mind. The following day, I took the bus to Tehran to visit relatives and complete a few formalities. The seven-hour run over four hundred kilometers ferried me through a bizarre and beautiful experience. In a movie hall, one would sit still and watch the scenes move from one to the next. But in the bus, it felt as if the scenes stood still while I moved from one to the next.
Which begged the question about the character of Time. Are we immobile as upon a bridge, as Time flows by like the river beneath, fetching events from the future and pushing them into the past? Or are we like travellers on a train propelling past petrified Time, crossing embedded mileposts of predestined events?
There was no scope for such ruminations in the Capital, over three days, as I basked in the warm love of my aunts and uncles. I had last visited around two years back in the winter. It was cold and a sheen of soft snow whitened the landscape. On that occasion I had met with an aunt who was visiting from Canada. And there was the unspoken anxiety in both our hearts about when, if ever, we would see each other again.
I missed her this time. Her sparkling spirit and stylish outfits attracted me no end. And her narration of hilarious tales made her company most captivating. She lived in a well appointed house where the kitchen wafted with enticing flavours. To no surprise really, she directed “smiling frowns” at my “obsolete” dresses and hairdos.
It was distressing though; this lovely and lively lady was inflicted with a mega share of woes in her life. An infertility problem that resisted cure gnawed at her self-esteem and conjugal bliss, and ultimately the ten-year marriage had ground to a halt. At present, she holds a job in Toronto and pursues a simple and peaceful life on her own. Off and on, when she comes to mind, I hail her spiritual strength, at how she fills the emptiness of life with calm fortitude.
And all over again, I wonder why bad things happen to good people. The answer eludes me. Perhaps it is not for mortals to know why.
This time, from the bus station I took a taxi to my uncle’s fancy new flat in the north where the air was cleaner and the congestion less. The watchman guided me to their door, which was opened by grandma, on my father’s side. Inside, the décor was neat and tasteful. Soon enough, grandma was bustling about as she organised the family dinner.
Upon my query, she told me that uncle’s second and current wife was away visiting her parents. I looked around carefully. There were no tell-tale signs of his previous wife, not even a photo of his daughter from that marriage. To my regret, I had not met my cousin after their family broke up, maybe because kinship bracketed me with the “enemy”. Understandably, she wished to erase traces of the past, much as my uncle had done. It was all the more sad, because we were good friends once, as was her mother with mine. When she failed to answer my calls, I could gauge her hurt and feel her despair in me.
Alas, some human relationships are fragile, if they can be blown away by a gust of grief.
The second day began with official work, after which I dropped in at another aunt’s house nearby. Her family had been settled there for ages. And their lush garden once lavished joy on many a childhood summer. It was like paradise revisited. The trees were again laden with berries and grapes. And the little pool sparkled in the sun. As always, aunty swamped me with affection and laid out a delicious lunch. Later, having partaken of tea, I reluctantly bid adieu, as dusk was descending, too soon it seemed and too inexorably!
On the third day, after the extended individual farewells, I was en route to Isfahan, once again flitting from scene to scene of the reality show outside the bus window. I had already forged plans to meet up with old friends and revel in our reunion. It would help brace me for the longest journey I would yet have undertaken.
No matter what I did, wherever I went, whomever I met, or however much I laughed, a silent sadness came welling up inside me. There was a deep unease at having ignored the popular advice to stay back, get married, settle down and conform to convention. The time-worn tenets had somehow ceased to appeal. My parents were abroad, it was a big world out there, and the horizon beckoned to be explored.
The days that followed were laid back. I had fun with my friends, ate out and hopped shops. A favourite place, the Isfahan bazaar, flanked a large square. A big pool shimmered in the middle, alongside a grand mosque crowned with a cream dome. And all around, quaint shops paraded intricate Persian handicrafts and salvers of classical cuisine. On my final foray there, I bought an antique brass “samovar”, delicately crafted, for my mother, and a painting framed in elegant inlaid wooden “khatam”, and other mementos for my father and brother.
On weekends I would rise early and take an invigorating walk in the local park. Nature was now poised on the threshold of autumn, but the lawns were still overlaid with glistening green grass. The air had turned cool and the trees wore a range of colours from emerald through azure to orange. No wonder fall was said to be a second spring when leaves became flowers.
Everything went smoothly in the run up to my flight into the unknown. My duty shifts were over, documents were in order, and the freight had been dispatched. In a twinkling it was the eve of my departure, the final night in the only known home, at the cradle of my birth and youth. It was the last dinner with my grandparents in a long time. The following day I would mark time in Tehran for the journey to Johannesburg the day after.
I spent the idle hours shuffling through photos where flashbacks were frozen in time. I recalled the moments when my brother, aged five, would stomp his feet angrily if I completed the poem he had just learnt and was intent on singing out. There were hours when he would sit by, as I wrestled with my primary school homework, and distract me with weird questions about why anything was anything.
To cope with the numerous students the schools operated two shifts which rotated weekly. When my evening turn ensued, I would often be home alone in the day, with mother out shopping. Once, playing by myself, I decided to be innovative and build a treasure box. Thus began a hunt for anything that sparkled and caught the eye. Bits of mom’s costume jewellery, sequins from her party dresses, and crystals from the lamps came in handy. While I had no riches to store in it, the box became a treasure in its own right. It did not take mother long to discover my labour of love, and I dare say she was awed by the artistry.
I was in grade five when father left for South Africa to join service. We were left wondering about that country and hoping he was safe from lions. Anyhow on a map it did not seem distant. Three years later he took the family across. We stayed there for three years, before it was felt best for the children to finish studies in Iran, with my father to visit annually.
Now, at last, as a qualified doctor, I was to join the rest of the family in the Rainbow Nation.
The flight went smoothly and, after a transit halt at Doha, I was winging my way to Tambo Airport, Johannesburg. It was 8 pm when I disembarked, tired and sleepy, but I had taken care to spruce up for my rendezvous with the family. They were soon spotted and the thrill was overwhelming. My father had greyed somewhat and the hair sat thinner on his head. My mother had not changed a whit, but my brother looked willowy and grown.
During the drive home my parents concluded that I needed a quick dinner and a long rest to shed the jet lag.
The following weeks saw a steady shift from the spirit of Isfahan to the soul of Johannesburg. It was all in the mind, which had an ample store of flexibility. The reverse flow of the seasons amused me. November was coming to a close and, in the southern hemisphere, it was summer. The climate was mild and comfortable, the nights cooled by rain. Our environs being sparsely inhabited and quiet, evening walks and jogs became a favourite routine. To my delight, I met the newest member of the family, a fluffy grey cat. He was quite old by feline standards, and would sit or sleep on our lap for hours on end.
My mother had remained the efficient homemaker she was known to be. However her linguistic skill was limited to Farsi. Which made adaptation to her new country a slow grind. When she chanced upon any Iranian settlers, she would launch into a litany of how she missed her parents and relatives.
My father’s land surveys kept him busy and took him out of town for most of the week. A staid nine-to-six job was not on the cards. As if his tough schedule was not enough, he had opened a small shoe shop in our neighbourhood a couple of years ago. The outlet catered to a niche market of high-end fashion wear for well heeled women. I guessed the shop was meant to be dad’s fall-back option when age would catch up, requiring retirement from the toil of touring.
My brother was on holiday from the penultimate year of his engineering course. We looked forward to his passing out in another a year and a half. One evening he surprised us by cooking a fancy meal. Admittedly, his culinary competence was way superior to mine.
Back in Iran, the men were hardly interested in kitchen work. Ergo, working women had also to cook and manage the home. As an exception to the rule, my grandpa helped grandma peel vegetables and wash dishes. However, when guests landed up, he was uneasy about exposing his housekeeping habits.
My brother had evolved into an amiable adult. And his girlfriend had already attained the status of a fiancé when I met her. Her pictures were pretty enough, but she turned out to be even more comely in person. We became pals quickly and she would gladly ply me with absorbing reading material. As an avid student of environmental science she knew the answers to my endless questions on flora and fauna. Pursuant to her traditions, she expected me to exit the parental home when I started working. In my perception anyway, mother would need me around for some more time.
It was soon plain that I had to start driving in order to run regular errands. I owned a driver’s license since the age of eighteen but never before had a car to drive. Isfahan was relatively small and it was easy to get around on buses and taxis. Johannesburg, in contrast, straddled a huge area and our locality lacked public transport. When I first sat behind the wheel, my brother was on the passenger’s seat, mostly clutching at his heart, or tearing his hair, or hiding his face. However, a couple of months’ practice gave me confidence and a good feel of the city traffic.
My main concern was in registering as a medical practitioner with the health department in Pretoria. I had expected a speedy process as the health care system reportedly had many vacancies. After a couple of weeks, when I got down to it, the rules had me trudging through paper work and readying for the Medical Board examinations for foreign trained doctors. In hindsight however, the cautious rigour in the procedure seemed to be warranted.
As I hailed from a non-English speaking country, the stipulated language test was compulsory. In addition, my medical degree and registration had to be vetted in the U.S. A month’s solid study got me through the English test without hiccups.
Meanwhile, the family continued to savour its new-found fullness and the basic bonding of blood. Because of this, the wait for the U.S. approval did not seem protracted. And the progress of my adaptation to the new country continued apace.
Before leaving Iran I had cut my hair short to render it more manageable, but in the summer humidity of South Africa it stayed frizzy mostly. I ventured out regularly to shop for supplies. And even joined the local gym to stay fit. Leisure was devoted to reading and painting. My grandparents were on the phone every day and our communions were endearingly enjoyable.
My brother, having entered the final year of studies, was absorbed in project work. Interestingly, he had opted to design a robot with artificial intelligence. My dad had a better assignment at a satellite township outside Johannesburg. It would allow him to revert home on weekends.
Nostalgia was a natural human state. And I kept in touch with friends and relations in Iran through the social media. There was a special friend who had grown with me from the junior school stage. We shared a vast array of remembrances. Which made our mutual musings most amusing. She was an intern mate, when we once noticed an angelic abandoned baby in the neonatology ward, and became instantly attached to her. We followed her progress even after her return to the orphanage, sending money and clothes. After nine months we were relieved to learn of her adoption.
The Persian New Year, due in March, at the doorstep of spring, was near and the celebrations in Isfahan came to mind. A month before the appointed day, the town began emitting joyous vibes. The winter chill was gone and people would be busy spring cleaning their nests and buying clothes. The shops were open all days of the week, until late at night. The bakeries would be bursting with ambrosial confectioneries. And fragrant flowers were sold on the streets.
Here in South Africa, Iranians were few. In the absence of an Iranian eatery, the tiny community arranged to converge at a Lebanese restaurant that served fine food and played melodious music.
At the beginning of June the sales lady at my father’s shop left to meet domestic contingencies. So I waded in to the rescue. And ran the shop while a search was on for a new hand. It was an agreeable occupation, and I was equipped with a lunchbox and books for company. At the start, it took me time to pinpoint particular products in the store, but inside the week I could zero in on any pair that a customer fancied. Also, my feminine instincts surfaced and I began to try on the shoes, especially those with fancy heels, to see how they enhanced style.
Assorted ladies would drop in and buy footwear with much zest and zeal, while engaging in snippets of gossip. It was plain that their buying sprees assumed a feel-good factor following a dogged day’s work. There were also bright-eyed girls who had apparently persuaded the beau to buy them a pair of smart heels. Occasionally husbands were seen hurrying away as soon as the wife declared her intent to stop by the shop.
After two months a new sales person arrived, in time for me to start studying for the imminent exams. While I pored over the text books at home, my brother’s robot raced around the floor recognising obstacles and producing three dimensional maps of each room. On the appointed day in August, my parents accompanied me to the city of Durban, where the first assessment centre was situated. In contrast to my own stressed psyche, they were relaxed and primed for a good time.
All was well that ended well. In a month, the news of my success came along with a notice about the practicals in November.
My brother’s robot was selected by his university to represent them in a national contest for the best project in information technology and engineering. We were all brimming with pride at his achievement.
Come November, he and my parents were travelling with me to Durban for my practicals. This time, however, I fared poorly and my fervour flagged. But I was not the only person to perform below par. A girl from Cuba wore her dismay on her sleeve. She was furious with herself and it was easy to discern the feelings that gripped her. Sharing the same plight we became friends and exchanged mobile numbers. From then on we kept in touch, our friendship growing stronger as we helped and motivated each other for the re-test.
At the month-end, I visited the university in Pretoria to watch my brother present his project. He offered me a cup of tea while rehearsing his lines. The programme started on time and, after other universities were generously applauded for their interesting innovations, it was my brother’s turn. I was thrilled to see him on stage and already perceived him as a winner. The coveted prize however went to a robotic “arm”, which was indeed admirably assembled. For me, it was a blessing that my brother had made it so far.
From time to time I joined my Cuban friend in Pretoria to get ready for our attempt in April. Meanwhile, in December, my father travelled to Iran to visit our relatives. He was back by mid-January. To attain a study-leisure balance, I bought a big canvas and began an oil painting. It was a reproduction of an old picture of my mother holding me in her arms when I was all of six months’ age. The setting was my grandparents’ house where the furniture and layout had remained largely the same ever since.
According to grandma, when my mother was pregnant with me, relatives had anticipated a male baby and mulled innumerable names for the imagined, unborn sultan! But Grandma had a gut feeling that a grand-daughter would soon grace her lap. So she had a single female name ready and waiting when I arrived. Her choice won the day because no alternatives were in contention. And hence I came to be named Venus, after the Evening Star.
In March, I attended a short refresher course. I put up again with my Cuban colleague and met other students who offered helpful nuggets of information. Then, in end-April, we travelled to Durban together. This time round we excelled in the theoreticals and geared up for the practicals to follow. Our exertions were peppered with much humor and bonhomie. The exam came and went, but mercifully left us with felicitous feelings. When the results came, sure enough, our optimism was proved to be proper.
I now look forward to joining internship in one of the academic hospitals in the city. The new experience promises to be enriching, as there is much to do and learn in South Africa. After all, the calling of a medical doctor is my prime mission in life.
All these months, the pleasant proximity to the family, as we stood by one another through the day-to-day endeavours, did much to boost my morale and open my eyes to the world at large.
In a relatively short span of time I had interacted with new people from different countries which were a learning experience. They all had their singular stories of situations and struggles. I felt connected to them in many ways despite the differences in language, religion and culture. We had our own ways of praying, but we all lit candles.
My Cuban comrade would be in tears as she read her father’s emails. It was their only mode of communication.
The horizon is always meant to be explored. I stay fond of the home of the past and the neighbours of yore. And the Isfahan adhan yet rings in my ears. But here too, in Johannesburg, the blue sky is flecked with white, the neighbours are nice and the hearth is heavenly.
As Maya Angelou puts it,”Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all people cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”