Tales of Iranian nights, and days

Friday night at dinner, we were talking about a guy, a Muslim friend of my grandfather’s, who had — very literally — come back from the dead. He had been in Germany during World War II, safe from the Nazis because Iranian Muslims, unlike Iranian Jews, were considered part of the Aryan Nation. The Iranian government at the time had very close ties with Germany, and my grandfather’s friend was having a wonderful time in Hamburg, doing God knows what and drinking enough for three people, until he came down with a severe case of bleeding ulcers and had to be rushed into surgery. On the operating table, he lost too much blood and died.

I don’t mean the kind of death we see on TV seven nights a week — where the patient’s heart stops and sirens go off all over the city and beautiful, fully made-up nurses with overly plump lips or gorgeous young paramedics with badass tattoos rush over with their gadgets and revive the person. Those kinds of gadgets weren’t available in wartime Germany, and our Iranian friend didn’t have access to George Clooney in the operating room. The way he and other witnesses told it, doctors lined up their patients side by side on metal tables and went from one surgery to the next, stopping only to wash and change. They cut the patient up and did their thing, left him to the residents or nurses to be sewn. Only, this guy bled like there was no tomorrow. He died and remained dead for the entire day, his stomach still open and his insides in plain view, and when the doctors went back to sew the corpse up, he was so completely dead they figured, what’s the point? He hadn’t listed any next of kin and hadn’t mentioned what should be done with him if he didn’t make it through the surgery, so the doctors called the cleaning crew and had him transported to the morgue, where they threw him on top of a pile of bodies (the shelves and tables were all taken) and left him there in case someone came looking.

He remained dead all night and all of the next day. At dusk, the morgue staff had to make room for fresh new arrivals, so they sent the “unclaimed” to the incinerator. Just as he’s about to be shoveled into the fire, my grandfather’s friend, his stomach still open, takes a breath and comes alive.

He lived for another 50 years. He kept records — hospital papers, written eyewitness testimony, his own recollections — of his journey to the beyond. And though he had been told, by the dumbfounded doctors who finally stitched him back up, that he could never have another drink or the ulcer would erupt again and this time really kill him, he drank a bottle of arrack a day till he was well into his 80s.

I don’t remember why we were talking about this particular person that night, but I can tell you that his story, while notable, is neither unique nor difficult to believe. Just come around to any of our family gatherings where a few people over the age of 60 are present, sit with the older ones and ask a couple of questions about the past, and you’ll hear enough stories to fill a few books. I know I have. And so have my children. When they were younger, they’d listen, wide-eyed and breathless, and afterward make me repeat what they’d heard just to be sure there was no misunderstanding. They didn’t doubt the veracity of the tales, because half the time the people in the stories were walking around the streets of Los Angeles. We’d go to a friend’s house for a play date, and the kid’s grandma would have featured in some fabulous account just the day before; we’d go to a Passover seder, and the gentleman sitting to my right would have been a character in one of my books. But the kids did notice a discrepancy between reality as we know it here, in America, and as people seemed to know it back in the old country.

“How come this stuff only happened in Iran?” they asked.

It didn’t, I would tell them, and point to the many bizarre happenings I’ve been told about by perfectly normal, straight-thinking Americans over the years: I know a guy in New York. He works for a major national newspaper. He went to Stanford University. He told me he grew up in a small town, where the main attraction was a couple who had lost a son in the Civil War. Every day at noon, they drove their horse-drawn carriage to the train station to wait for him to come back. They had done that for the past 150 years, and they showed no sign of slowing down.

I could go on. Really.

The difference is, around our house, and among most Iranian Jews, people still hang out regularly with their families. Once a week, three or four generations come together in one place. Yes, the kids are texting on their BlackBerrys through dinner, but they do look up every once in a while, and they do listen if a good story is being told. Whatever the pitfalls and disadvantages of living in a small community may be, this — the strong family ties, the connection between old and young, the shared memories — trumps them all.

When they were in elementary school, my children and their cousins and friends used to say, “Iranians are strange.” In high school, they regarded the older generation with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism. In time, though, they’ve come to understand what every immigrant community with a vibrant memory will learn in America: that truth has many layers; some are just more visible to the Western eye than others.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.