We’re sitting around my parents’ dining room in Century City for Shabbat dinner, and the conversation veers toward our childhoods in Iran.
My cousin, who’s a few years older than I (though you’d never guess it by looking at her, because she has that remarkable ability to forgive the world instantly for all its cruelties), is talking about the big house on Shah Reza Street where I grew up — how grand and magnificent it had seemed to her in those years, how every time she came over with her parents and sisters, she felt awed and startled by the vast garden with the many pools, the high, forbidding walls of yellow bricks, the outsized halls and heavy velvet drapes and 12-foot-high French doors that opened onto tiled balconies with wrought-iron railings.
Across the table from her, another cousin, this one from the other side of the family, concurs. “We were scared to talk or move or, God forbid, play there when we came over,” she says. “That just wasn’t the kind of place where you did silly childish things,” she says. “It seemed like everything that happened there was serious and important and dramatic.”
They go on like this for a few minutes while my mother fusses with the dinner.
They’re playing that “Do you remember?” game I dread because I’m so bad at it, because I don’t remember anything — ever — unless I’m writing about it; it’s like I read a book of stories once and memorized every line, and after that I stopped seeing or learning anything ever again. So I never participate in these reminiscences and certainly never encourage them; I try to slip away unnoticed when the conversation begins or, if that’s not an option, I explain that I’ve been in a coma my whole life, I’m brain-damaged, yes, I’m sure I was there, right along with you, when all this happened but I might as well have been on Mars for all the impression it’s left.
Except this time, I know exactly what they’re all talking about.
I remember the house — every corner and back door and hidden stairway in it, every ancient tree and life-sized statue and fresh-water pool in the yard, every rusted metal gate, razor-wired brick wall, secret passageway and narrow tunnel and dark alley. I remember all the rooms, the kitchens, the servants’ quarters. The French, hand-carved furniture, Czech crystals, Persian rugs, Italian marble floors. To me, it had the aura of a place in decline — a fortress of pride and vanity, built with the kind of care and attention that implies unwavering faith, unabashed arrogance, a certain confidence in one’s immortality.
Built by my grandfather when his children were very young, it had stood stalwart against the decades and the many turns of history, resisted the carnage of time and the pull of entropy, the many upheavals in the city’s constitution, the decay of the streets, the onslaught of traffic, the mass immigration from the countryside to the city. And yes, it was indeed the scene of great drama and outsized stories, not the kind of place that tolerated childhood. So when my forever-young cousin turns to me with a bemused smile and asks, “Do you remember?” I can actually say “Yes, I do remember, this one I remember well.”
What I can’t say is how shocked I am to learn that we all have such similar impressions, all these years later, of the house on Shah Reza Street. That I never thought anyone else would remember the place as I did, never knew how much of what I remembered was factually correct. I never knew how much larger, more theatrical that house had become in my imagination, how different — smaller — I would find it when I went back to Iran.
It’s been 30 years since I saw the house, I want to say, and this is the first time I realize that other people saw it as well, and perhaps in the same way. It’s been 30 years since I left Iran, and I still know I’m going back some day, because I have to see that house again, to stand before the yard door and discover if it’s indeed 12 feet high, or if I’ve imagined it so, to ring the doorbell and see if I can hear its chime echo up and down the street. Everything else I knew or thought I knew about Iran has changed with time; even my sense of belonging, my sense of familiarity with the people and the language and the customs of the place, has faded beyond recognition, but somehow, I know it will all come back the minute I see the house, that I will recapture all my lost memories, be able to tell truth from fiction, to put together the many pieces of myself that now lie across the landscape of time.
I would go back to the house some day, I’ve always thought, and no matter how old it’s become, how many other families have lived in it and how many changes it has undergone, I will walk into the first floor hallway and smell my grandfather’s cigarette smoke, climb the steps to the second floor and find my older sister, so quiet and innocent the teachers call her “the holy mother,” listening to Barry White while she does her math homework. I will walk into the bedroom where the three of us girls sleep and see my old bed just where I left it the day we flew out of Iran for what turned out to be the last time. I will open the closets and find my old clothes, pull the drawers and rescue my plastic dolls from their 30-year slumber.
My childhood. My parents’ youth. My little sister with the hazel eyes and the red hair and the tiny hands holding popsicle sticks as she walked around the house on scorching summer afternoons, the orange ice melting against her impossibly white skin. My beautiful aunt with the dark brown eyes and the short, short skirts, the red patent-leather boots, the fearlessness with which she announced one day she was going to America — “to New York, or L.A., or whatever,” she said — to study.
Half an hour into the meal, my mother has finally finished running back and forth into the kitchen, bringing out a new dish every three minutes and chiding the kids for not eating enough, all this dieting will make you sick your bones will hollow out you won’t be able to study your skin will turn grey hasn’t anyone warned you about the dangers of malnutrition?
“You have,” my little niece whispers quietly, “just about every week.”
My mother ignores the response, sits down at the table and overhears the conversation about the house. She puts a plateful of rice in front of my younger son and says, as casually as if she were still talking about food, “They tore it down.”
The others are too engrossed in the chatter to take note of what has been said, but I turn to her and ask, “What’s been torn down?”
“The house,” she says. “They tore it down.”
She has said this too matter-of-factly, with too little emotion, so I don’t believe we’re talking about the same place.
“What house?” I ask. “Who’s ‘they’?”
At the other end of the table, my cousins and sisters have stopped talking; my daughter, who’s been taking Farsi lessons at UCLA and is therefore more attentive than usual to family talk (what she calls “Persians’ strange stories”) is looking at me as if to glean the importance of some house being torn down somewhere in the world.
“I don’t know who ‘they’ are,” my mother says. “But they tore down the house on Shah Reza Street. My brother drove by the other day and saw it was all gone, the whole place has been leveled, probably a while ago already.”
For a moment, no one speaks. I don’t know what the others are thinking but for me, the news has repercussions greater than can be processed in the course of one evening or one whole day. I’m not sure what it means, or why I hadn’t been told sooner, or why my parents don’t seem particularly disturbed by this.
I don’t know why my sisters don’t ask, why my cousins slowly pick up the conversation and go on in the same vein, playing the “Do you remember” game about a place that, until minutes ago, had been eternal, everlasting, my true North.
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.