By: Mary Wysong-Haeri
By November 4, 1979, I was the only American left in the southwestern city of Hamadan, and nearly the only one in Iran, most of the others having evacuated before the Shah left. “Death to America” was shouted on television and in nearly every street in Iran, and because I was a foreigner, groups of young boys followed me, chucking stones and firecrackers. I spent most days thinking that if I simply kept to myself, stayed in our apartment and limited my outings to visiting good friends, Ali and I could create a home, a family. Our love for each other would be enough
But my body knew better, bursting out in boils. Giant, red, and angry, they appeared on my face and in my armpits, though the very worst one, a carbuncle, pressed against my anklebone just above the joint.
Staphylococcus aureus bacteria cause boils. Staph is always present on the skin. People get boils and carbuncles from a stay in the hospital or when ill with diabetes or some other chronic disease. Or when pregnant and under stress. Outside my apartment, people blamed America for destroying Iran. My stomach turned each and every time I heard “Death to America” on broadcast news or in the streets.
Boils are extremely painful. Imagine a zit, the worst zit ever, livid yet buried under the skin. Now multiply the pain of that zit by one thousand, a pain that is not going away until it comes to a head and bursts, oozing green pus and blood. A carbuncle is like a boil only instead of one core of infected pus, it has multiple heads that need to erupt, each an explosion of bacteria.
I sat next to the kerosene heater, hoping that its warmth might aid the effect of the compress. Bacteria are attracted to heat. Holding my breath, I attempted to extract one of the hard green cores of pus on my ankle carbuncle. A searing sensation ran up my leg into my groin, my gut, my heart, my brain. My baby was still as I operated. Though she’d been active all day, now she didn’t turn or kick. I squeezed with one hand while trying to catch the nucleus of the infection with my tweezers. Hold breath. Squeeze. Pick. Miss. Pick. Miss. Gasp. Repeat. The hard substance refused to emerge but I kept at it, knowing that once this infected core was removed the pain that was killing me would cease, at least in this one area. Six other cores remained.
My infected ankle balanced on my opposite knee, I was taking a break, pressing the hot compress to the area, when Ali arrived home from work. Without taking off his jacket or gloves, he asked, “Have you heard?”
I could tell by the excited sheen on Ali’s face that something momentous had happened, yet another event in the great series of events that had happened nearly every day since the beginning of the Revolution. It was hard to sleep at night sometimes, waiting for what the next day might bring. Most days were frightening: riots, bombings, fighting in the streets. Other days were joyous: when the Shah left, when Khomeini arrived, the weeks of complete anarchy between the two events, when peace and calm prevailed despite everyone pouring into the street to enjoy their new-found freedom of speech. But I did not give a damn about the Revolution or Iranian freedom or the struggle for democracy under the new Islamic Republic. I was in pain and I wanted my mother. I wanted to go home to the States.
I gave an exaggerated and impatient sigh. “The whole world could end and I wouldn’t give a shit. I just want to have this baby so these will stop.” I lifted the hot compress cloth to reveal the seven cores of hell.
There had been the warmth of concern under Ali’s eagerness to impart his news, but now I saw that copper glow disappear, replaced by the bright and angry purple of hurt.
I was married young, just short of twenty-one. Ali was not my high school sweetheart. “Mousy Mary,” as the mean girls liked to call me, didn’t have any boyfriends until college. Then I had two and Ali was number three.
Lean body, mass of curly hair, large crooked nose, copper skin, and dark, dark eyes that flashed, Ali looked exactly like the rock star Cat Stevens, but he was so much more than that: he’d majored in sociology but knew Russian literature, the Persian poets, mathematics, and was familiar with Kierkegaard, Hesse, and Jung. To me, Ali was the dashing Prince Andrei of “War and Peace,” the stories of his strange homeland as exotic as the landscapes of Tolstoy.
Longing and desire welled up inside me whenever Ali was in the room. When he touched me, I soared. When Ali was displeased or angry, my very soul was crushed. Our love was an insanity I did not wish to escape.
Ali was never loud. Instead his tone grew quiet, almost hard to hear, and razor sharp. “I just thought you ought to know.”
Tears of pain ran down my cheeks. I sniffed back the fluids coming out of my nose and used the warm compress cloth to wipe my face.
“I’m sorry,” I sniveled. “I’m just tired and this hurts.”
Ali turned away, using extra care to unlace his winter boots and hang up his coat. He let me cry. My throat tightened as I tried to hold back tears. It seemed like the bacteria in my ankle had gone to my heart. I felt I was all wrong: an icy, uncaring wife; a weak and diseased mother. Even worse than making Ali angry, our baby hadn’t moved in half an hour. She could be asleep, I knew, except that now I needed her, needed to know she was alive and well and that in less than eight weeks would be in my arms. I pressed the compress hard against my face.
Finally forgiving me, Ali gathered me in his arms and held me close. The heat of the kerosene burner surrounded us. He kissed my forehead: his apology. Words do not come easily to Ali.
He took the tweezers from my hand and set them on the table. Then he reached for the Kleenex box.
“You don’t want to use that.” He nodded at the contaminated cloth I’d pressed to my face. “You’ll get a boil up your nose.” We both chuckled, united in the humor of the picture: me with one gargantuan nostril, looking like some unfortunate in a Dickens novel.
“Won’t I look great?” I said and we shared another hard, ironic laugh, because it was probably going to happen, me with a boil up my nose.
I cried again after I laughed.
“Wha..a..t,” I stuttered between wet breaths, “what happened?” I didn’t really want to know. I just wanted quiet.
Ali took both my hands and held them. “They took the Americans,” he said.
I was confused. “What Americans? And who’s ‘they’?”
“The Americans at the embassy.” Ali stood and began to pace. He paced when agitated. And he bit his lower lip. “A bunch of students stormed the gate and broke into the embassy compound. They took the Americans hostage and the hard liners are celebrating.”
Dizzy, my vision blurred. “They’re prisoners? Why would people celebrate?”
“You know these extremists. Khomeini droning on and on about ‘The Great Satan’. Apparently, the students are claiming that the Americans are our ‘guests’. Saying they’re simply under house arrest.”
The baby turned slowly as if sensing my dread. The embassy employees were not soldiers to be held as prisoners of war. This was an act of violence, nothing to be happy about, to celebrate.
Ali squeezed my fingers, then kissed my cheek, his beard scratching my skin. He placed a hand on my baby belly. “Don’t worry.” He ran a finger under my chin. “Iranians love Americans. No one will harm them, not even those ignorant students. They simply want to prove that the U.S. cannot control the Revolution.” He was obviously trying to comfort me, but there was a definite undercurrent of worry in his voice.
I rubbed my forehead. “Who are these students? What do they want?”
“They’re just students with nothing to do because the University of Tehran is closed, just like Bu-Ali Sina and every other university. They hang around, get excited, and then stage a demonstration. Today, some woman brought wire cutters, a bunch of guys snipped the lock on the gate, and the crowd charged. I don’t think they know what they want.” He headed to the bedroom to change his clothes. “You look pale. It’s late. We should eat.”
I leaned back in my chair. I’d made addas polo, rice with bits of lamb, lentils and dates, one of my favorite dishes. The apartment was replete with its savory and earthy scent. But I had lost all appetite. I rested my head against the back of the chair and elevated my foot on the coffee table.
Ali peeked out of the bedroom to give me a smile and a wink. “Don’t worry,” he repeated. “The situation can’t last. It’ll be over in a few days. You’ll see.”
Our baby was born a month later, each pang of labor a hope that at last Ali and I and our newborn would be a family that was both Iranian and American. But a family is more than man, woman, and child. It is also a product of time. The world twisted us: hostages, street fights, shortages, and car bombs. Hope clung to Ali as desperately as it did to the lid of Pandora’s box, while I, tormented by boils and my foreignness, could only see hate and violence. Unable to reconcile my love for Ali with the events surrounding me, I decided to take our baby Layla home to the States when she was six months old.
It was July 4th and my mother’s relatives were gathered at the family’s farmhouse on a hot day, rare in the Coast Range of Oregon. My mother and I had decided to attend this celebration alone, my father unable to control his hostility toward her conservative relatives.
Mom and I chatted while sitting on an old quilt. Despite the oak tree’s shade, beads of sweat gathered along my mother’s gray hairline. Perspiration wet the underarms of my sleeveless blouse. The boil on my lip pulsed, the heat of the day rushing all the bacteria to its core.
Layla, her baby hair plastered to her forehead, played with an ancient sock monkey we’d found in the farmhouse. Its button eyes were gone, but its red-stitched nostrils remained and most of the threads of its grin. Layla swung it by its tail, pounding the toy against the quilt’s worn fabric, creating puffs of attic stink.
Soon enough, Aunt Shirley fixed her gaze upon us. “We watch the news a lot,” she said.
Everyone in every American household watched the count: this July 4th was the 243rd day of the hostage crisis.
Aunt Shirley sat down on the edge of our blanket.
My stomach churned and my boil pulsed.
A cooling breeze swept through the leaves of the oak. “Isn’t it a beautiful day for the 4th?” I asked, forcing a bright tone into my voice.
Aunt Shirley studied the swaying branches. “You shouldn’t be there,” she said. “You should support your country. The United States.” There were hard edges around her eyes, her cheeks, her lips.
The truth was I wanted to stay in the States. I no longer believed in the possibilities of Iran’s revolution. What I believed in was my love for Ali. But life, I was beginning to learn, was not so simple. There was a slight possibility Ali could get a job in Switzerland, and I desperately wanted him to try for that. But Ali remained caught up in the revolutionary fervor: still going to demonstrations and the gatherings of moderate socialists, despite regular surveillance by vigilante kommitteé. Ali was caught in thick and overwhelming hope.
But I wasn’t going to give Aunt Shirley the satisfaction of explaining any of that.
Instead, I smiled.
Aunt Shirley frowned and drilled her gaze directly through my chest and heart. My boil’s pain flared. I was certain that it had turned clown’s nose red.
“You should not return to Iran,” Aunt Shirley commanded.
I heard other relatives shuffling in the background and pictured them straining their ears. Even the small children seemed to have grown quiet. Aunt Shirley reached out for Layla, but, perhaps sensing hostility, Layla climbed into my lap.
I left that Independence Day picnic no longer a part of my mother’s family. They were as foreign to me as the Iranian boys who threw rocks in the streets.
I’d been in the States for nearly six months, living out of a suitcase in a dark and damp room in my parents’ house. In Iran, Ali and many others clung to the idea of a democratic republic. History was being created and people were insane with hope and the promise of freedom. Ali and a friend were working on introducing solar power to Tehran’s nearby villages, a project funded by the United Nations and the fledgling Iranian government. The work barely paid. It became clear that no job would be available for Ali in Switzerland. Boils erupted on my face and in my armpits.
Then, on September 22nd, 1980, Saddam Hussein, dictator of Iraq, bombed Tehran and invaded cities along Iran’s southern border.
All the next day and the day after that, I tried to call Ali. I dialed morning, afternoon, and night. For hours I listened to static and clicks. Once, the line connected only to break off after two rings. I tried at least a hundred more times but couldn’t get through. Nerves jumbled and twisted, I could not eat or sleep. My milk wouldn’t let down and nursing Layla was near impossible. On the third day, I was getting Layla ready for a walk, going out to enjoy the last of September’s warmth, when the phone rang.
I ran for it.
“Hello.” Clicks on the line. Then silence. “Hello,” I gasped.
“Alloe!” Ali’s gravelly voice.
I clung to the receiver with both hands.
Silence. A distant click. Some static.
“Yes. Yes, it’s me.” Huddled over the phone, I glanced back and saw Mom poke her head inside, Layla in her arms. “I’m here,” I yelled.
“We are going to get cut off,” he said, his voice barely audible though I could tell by the force of his words he was shouting. “Mary,” he said. There was hesitation there. Ali never hesitated. He always did everything fast. “Mary,” he started again. “They’ve closed the borders.”
My head began to spin. “I don’t understand.” Ali said something more but it was lost in the line’s static. “I can’t hear you,” I shouted. “Ali! Ali!” I screamed. I wanted to reach down the line to hold him.
Then suddenly Ali’s voice was clear. “War has been declared,” he said. “I cannot get out. You have to come back.”
My mother was standing next to me as I replaced the receiver. Mom studied my face and the lines of her beautiful skin grew deep. My mother understood. The stupid, crazy love Ali and I shared, that emotion that bound us, was something my mother had always longed for but never attained.
Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran was the beginning of an eight-year long bloody war. I returned to find disillusionment. No longer did anyone among our small of group of semi-revolutionaries believe the poor Americans held blindfolded in a dreary compound, surrounded by crazy, radical students, were anything but hostages, political pawns for Khomeini. Yet we welcomed their proximity, the American Embassy being close to where most of us lived. Because of them, Saddam’s missiles and bombs did not target the area.
Despite this, when the Americans were released, we celebrated. By then, we too were locked away in basements, peeking out from behind closed curtains as the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guard, and the youthful war volunteers, the vicious Basiji, literally killed off what remained of the secular leftist opposition. We were living through the death throes of our hope.
The afternoon I arrived, Ali’s face was worn by care and doubt, but it beamed as he took Layla and me into his arms. He smelled of soap and tears.
When we arrived at Ali’s parents’ house, they lavished us with kisses and gifts. Though Ali barely had an income, his parents longed to open up their home. At night the five of us would picnic in the basement by candlelight, the blackout curtains our only protection against missiles and vigilante Basiji. Yet I knew I’d made the right choice. This was home. This was family. When the explosions of anti-aircraft fire grew especially thunderous and Layla became frightened, I would hold her in my arms. Pulling back the corner of the basement’s blackout curtain I showed her the flashes of orange and yellow and red, exclaiming over the beauty of their color, because in a sense they were a celebration. They were fireworks.