November 22, 1963. Enough already. We see this historic date and glaze over—too familiar with the Zapruder images and John-Johns’ small salute. For me, however, this date remains charged. The day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, I was in Tehran, Iran. I was five years old. Of all my memories, I revisit this one the most. Every now and then I telephone my mother for clarification, or my brother, now a fanatic reader of Kennedy assassination conspiracy literature: “Why did they send us home from school, again? Was it like a death in the family?”
But what I really want to ask is, “Were we Americans? When did this American-ness find its place behind our eyes? And what does that make us now?”
In 1963 my father had taken his young family—my mother, my brother, who was seven, and me—to the home he had abandoned for an American university and, then, an American life. Both my brother and I were born in New York. My father brought us to Iran because he owned $50,000 worth of shares in a business which he and his brothers had started many years before. Now he wanted to cash out. He had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His impaired vision and loss of balance had already made it difficult for him to work, let alone travel frequently to Tehran and back. But his brothers rejected any deal. They needed his brains. They resented his leaving, in 1945, for an esoteric education in English literature. Leave, if you want, they said, but we won’t give you a penny. Bullshit, about your sickness, too, they wrote. What a trick! You just want to rob us of our capital. You betray us for an ugly country that waves big guns whenever it wants its way. No, we won’t give you a cent.
So my father brought us to Iran to be with him while he made everything okay. It took about a year before he gave up.
We arrived in Tehran in June of the assassination year. We lived in my grandfather’s home at first, my father’s father. I remember having to eat lots of yogurt for my diarrhea. I remember idly sitting on the steps of the house, watching the chickens clucking in the courtyard. A bearded man—I later learned he was the koshering rabbi—let himself in through the gate and picked up one chicken by the neck. The other chickens squawked and fluttered their wings, as though they were trying to fly. They bumped into each other while the rabbi laid the chicken sideways on a tree stump. I had no idea. Whack! A rectangle of metal. There was the sound of liquid splatting on the stone courtyard floor. There was screaming. It was the other chickens, now running madly, trying to get out, get away. It was blood, pouring, as though from a hose, out of the chicken’s neck. The blood was black. The chicken’s head lay on the ground. The rabbi lost hold of the chicken’s body and it fell to the stone, stood up, and, yes, ran around a little. A chicken with its head cut off.
I too had screamed, I am told, but didn’t look away from the bloodshed until the housekeeper folded me into her arms and took me to bed. Going to bed seemed the solution to everything. I lay there and thought: I hate this place, I want to go home.
My mother said not to worry, we would leave soon. We’d go back to America. America was clean, organized, golden; Iran was backward.
My mother’s family left Tehran in 1943, when she was eight years old. Despite what people say, I don’t hear the accent in my mother’s English. She always seemed fully American. We were leaving soon.
We are renting our own little house. It is walled in from the street. Every line is straight, all shapes are rectangles, all corners are sharp. There isn’t much, not even a toaster. We toast our bread on top of the furnace. We have a black-and-white TV, a couch, a huge dining-room table, large enough to seat twenty, but only four chairs. Four sharply angled wooden and black naugahyde chairs. We have a bed each. My mother doesn’t want to waste any more money on furniture; we are leaving soon.
My brother and I have a few toys from home. We play by acting out Iranian soap commercials. I build miniature houses and pools, my brother memorizes country populations and the names of American presidents. I own the record player, so my brother lets me play his “About the Presidents” 45. “John F. Kennedy / a remarkable young man is he / At age forty-three / elected to the pres-i-den-ceee!”
“Gedah.” It is the word for beggar. It is said as though one’s breath isn’t worth the effort of the word, with the final “ah” limply exhaled into an inaudible whisper. It is one of the words I know well, along with the words for cry, rice, hashish, migraine headache, and Come here, I love you, I want to die for you.
Beggars are everywhere. They come to our house several times a week asking for food. I like it when they come because I like to watch my mother’s kindness as she takes our stale bread and leftovers and packages them tightly in knotted plastic bags, then wraps the plastic in crackling paper. They ring the bell, she opens the door a sliver and peeks at them. She never lets me see them. She watches my exposure to dirt. I’ve been running a constant low-grade fever from mosquito bites. My mother tells the beggars to wait a minute. They will wait forever because they know she always saves stale bread for them. She wraps the bread and I whine, “Not the noon-e barbari!” which is my favorite kind of bread, and she tells me not to worry, we have fresher bread. She rations the portions because there will be other beggars. She is twenty-seven years old.
My mother drove a red Corvair and wore slacks. Most women wore a chador, a large black shawl that covered a woman from head to toe, with openings for the eyes and hands. She refused to wear a chador because, she said, she was a Jew and chadors were for Moslems. It was a good excuse.
She had a God-given talent for sculpting likenesses in clay. That summer of 1963, she was making a bust of President Kennedy. She would work on it at the large dining table, sitting at the edge of the naugahyde chair, back like a ballerina’s, the side of her thumb stroking, pressing, sweeping the clay. The bust started as a ball of wire, and one day—as she stood back, cocking her head, returning to barely touch this or that, and then again standing back—it was John F. Kennedy.
My mother also had a job. She had the job so she could get the hell out. Out, out of the house, out of her in-laws’ grip, out of the gloom tightening around her. She drove herself in the Corvair to teach Iranian businessmen how to speak English. American English. English with no accent. The brothers figured she was whoring around with the businessmen; who else would go out dressed like that? How could they possibly give their money to a woman like that?!
Chadeejeh, our first maid, was very thin. She looked like the drawings of the witch in my Hansel and Gretel book. She never spoke. She prayed. Six times a day the prayer call snaked through our closed windows and doors, a forlorn wandering ribbon of some man’s voice, and Chadeejeh dropped everything and kneeled on the kitchen floor to pray. From a high stool, I would watch her. She would sit on her heels holding a necklace of beads and raise her hands to the ceiling, then fold down, hands to the floor. Up again, and her lips were moving but there was no sound. The beads looked like delicious chunky candy. The prayer had an order, like a sitting-down dance.
I went to kindergarten at Taraneh. My mother tried to get us into the American School, where our classmates would be English-speaking children of diplomats and businessmen, but there was a year-long waiting list. This meant the children at Taraneh were mostly Persian and the toilets were outside—holes in the ground enclosed by frail wooden shacks. I hated trying to squat over them, especially while wearing tights, so I didn’t. I held myself all day.
The private school bus, a white Volkswagen van, picks up at seven or eight houses, then drops us off at the school. We stream through the gate in the wall, and my brother rushes off toward the older kids, the click-clack of his shoes melting into the clatter and hum of the big kids. They stand in a close bunch in the middle of a huge, asphalted courtyard. I walk to the right, behind the chain-link fence, and position myself in the front, my face against the cold fence metal, to watch him. The music sounds over the high loudspeaker, the music for the Iranian national anthem. He turns, faces the flag like all the other big kids, and sings: “Shah han shaheh mazendeh bosh . . .” (“King, live long . . .”) Kindergartners are not allowed to sing. He can’t mutter the American pledge under his breath, or stay quiet the way I did during Christmas carols, years later, becoming suddenly silent at the word “Jesus.” He is required to sing. The song ends, the big kids run off to the main building, but my brother rushes toward me. He presses his lips through one of the diamonds of the fence, and kisses my cheek. I stay there, my cheek motionless against the fence, and watch him clatter back to the others; the trailing-behind American.
My classroom is long and narrow. The other kindergartners chatter as they open their lunchboxes: it is easy for them, just another day. I am looking at the Chinese girl. I open my lunchbox and there are two beautifully purple prune-plums. I don’t know why, but I hold the plums and cry and cry.
It is the morning of the orange peels. My brother and I slip from my mother’s arms, through the gate in our wall, onto the steps of the school van. We sit in the very back where the bumps in the unpaved road feel biggest. The boys who got on before us are peeling oranges and eating them. They throw the peels out the window into the joob. I look down at the joob, a paved, rectangular channel in the middle of the road. It runs with brown, murky water. It is Tehran’s open sewer. We stop at the next house. Now the boys are throwing the peels at each other. It is a game. A woman leans out of her door in the wall, her face contorted, anxious. She speaks quickly. There are exclamations, there is shouting, the orange peels are all over, floating, as though they dance in a fevered air.
The driver of the van turns to me and my brother. He smiles a tiny bit and says, “They got your man today.”
“What? What?” I ask my brother.
“The President. President Kennedy,” my brother says. “He’s saying President Kennedy got shot. How would he know?” But my brother is scared—I can tell by how his eyes dart from side to side, how he pushes over to sit closer to me.
We step out of the van and walk through the gate in the school’s wall, my brother and I. He’s about to veer left, and I will walk to the right, behind the chain links. But we are surrounded by an oval of children holding hands. Skipping, ring around the rosy, they chant in Farsi: “Ha, ha, your president’s dead! Ha, ha, your president’s dead!”
“At age forty-three elected to the pres-i-denc-cee . . .”
We are brought home, I don’t know how. I walk down the rectangle of a hallway and turn to see my mother. She is perfectly still. She sits in one of the sharp-edged chairs, elbow on the dining table, forehead in her hand. The only thing on that long table is a transistor radio. Her face looks as though she has been crying. I can’t hear the broadcast because the picture of her sad body is so loud.
For days, all we do is sit on the Persian carpet, watch President Kennedy events on the television, and solemnly welcome guests. My mother doesn’t spend much time preparing meals or tidying up. It is like sitting shiva, the Jewish tradition of mourning, except the mirrors aren’t covered. My brother and I stay home from school. We behave. Iranian relatives and friends cry, adults loved President Kennedy, everybody but Iranian children loved Kennedy. We are the special ones; the ones closest to Kennedy. I feel important, I am an emissary for everyone’s grief because I am American.
On the television, I watch all the Americans crowding together, crying, and I think, “Here I am, too! I’m one of you, too! Here I am!” I am sad, not for the President or his family, but because I’m missing out on this big event, all the way over here, where I’m not allowed to eat cucumbers and can’t even toast my bread evenly.
On the television, Caroline Kennedy is exactly my age. The sun is in her eyes, it seems a brighter, cleaner sun over there. She wears a hat, a pretty coat I wish I had. I know my father is sick. I watch little Caroline and worry that now my father will die, too.
I am at school again. It is bathroom time. I need to use the toilet, but I won’t go. The class walks back from the outdoor stalls, and soon I am peeing in my red tights. I can’t stop it. I am brought home. The wet tights are gently peeled off. My mother tells me I never have to go back. I become a kindergarten drop-out because I am American.
I have time to watch Chadeejeh pray. When my mother isn’t home, I ask Chadeejeh if she will teach me the order of all those movements and what I must say. She says first I need a chador. She sews one for me, I learn how to wear it, what to do with the beads. I sit alongside her and pray: I want to go home to America, I want my daddy to get better, I want my mommy to be happy. My mother walks in and finds us doing this. She snatches the chador off of me. She fights with Chadeejeh in Farsi. Their faces are marked more with despair than with anger. They are both doing what they know best.
At the top of my mother and father’s closet is a red, white, and blue box of Bazooka bubble gum. It is the kind of box Woolworth’s used to have, the kind that wasn’t for sale; it would sit on the counter, its top pulled back, one cent a piece. I don’t know how my parents managed to get it. But my brother and I have finally found it on the top shelf of their small, empty closet. Every now and then, my parents give us a piece of Bazooka for a reward, or for when things go bad, like when we learned we had to stay longer. It is doled out ever so slowly, more slowly as time goes on. We are happy to have found the source, not that we’re going to sneak any, but for security. To know there is more.
My brother gets to stay home a lot now because he has nephritis. Doctors come to the house, my mother always checks his pee. One day, when he is home from school, we work on our tunnel. We are digging a tunnel which starts at the corner of his room, at the bottom of the wall. The wall crumbles easily if we stab it first with a screwdriver. My brother says, “Look at this. American walls are stronger.” My brother says the tunnel will go under the house and come up outside. We dig with knives and spoons. I know this is wrong and I don’t really know where it will get us, but I’m happy to be included in his game. It ties in well with my miniature American house and backyard. For him, it goes well with the plastic soldiers—a strategic outlet. My mother discovers the tunnel. She is furious. “This is not our home!” she yells.
And then one day my mother is lying on the Persian carpet on the living room floor and won’t move. It is late March, just after her birthday. She can talk and tell us what to do, but she can’t get off that floor. The relatives come. They move her to the bed. They are standing in an oval around her, talking in whispers. The relatives tell me to go, go to bed, but I’m not sick. Still, I listen, I behave, I slip under the pasheh-band. It’s a fine, easily tangled mosquito net which now canopies my bed. My privilege because of the fevers. The new maid, Zenat, slips her hand under the netting and scratches my back as long as I want her to. Zenat is a little fat and doesn’t pray. I lie under the net, in my bed, being good: everything will work out, my mother will be fine, Zenat says. Your mother just needs to rest.
“No, she wants to go home,” I tell Zenat.
“This is home,” she tells me in Farsi, and I swallow my fury because this isn’t home, is it? “Sleep,” she tells me.
I surrender to Zenat’s Iranian hand and feel safe, safe from the neon and the crowds of thousands begging and praying, safe from the things that make my brother and me want to dig a hole in the wall so we can escape. I don’t know until I am much older—they called my mother’s illness a nervous breakdown. I think of Caroline Kennedy and how she is luckier than I am because it is better to die in America.
“Mama’s coming and she’s bringing Corn Flakes, apples, and cream cheese!” my mother tells us after hanging up the phone. All telephone calls with America were scheduled through operators. My mother would sit by the telephone, wait for the ring, then speak loud and fast, in short, clipped sentences: “Richie’s very sick,” “I’ll find the passports,” “To hell with them.” My Farsi was fluent. I understood more than they knew. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was flying to Tehran from New York. But I didn’t understand that my father’s family had confiscated our passports and had them stamped in such a way that made us unable to return to the U.S. My grandmother and other sympathetic family members were conspiring to get us back to the States.
When my grandmother arrived at our rented home, my brother and I performed the soap commercials for her, and she wept. At night she slept with me under the pasheh-band.
Then one morning—at four a.m., I am told—my mother is pulling my red tights over my legs and telling me we are going to the airport. All our belongings are already packed. I am sleepy. Someone tells me, “Act sick.” I do a good job because I am tired and confused. My father isn’t coming with us, my grandmother will stay and take care of him, they’ll come later, don’t worry, we’re going home. A sympathetic uncle drives us to the airport. I stand with my family for a photograph.
We were escaping, and yet someone had wanted a picture. Maybe my grandmother needed a commemoration of our family’s hurried farewell. Maybe my mother just wanted a record of her victory.
In the picture, I am holding a stuffed Bugs Bunny. I am so thin, my knees are the widest spots on my legs. My head tilts to one side, my face is wan. My brother wears a deliberate frown. We are doing a good job. Inside the border of the photo, it reads “May 1964.” On each of our passports, the sympathetic uncle had stuck two pages together— “with a simple paper clip!” my mother still marvels today—hiding the stamp which forbade our escape. This uncle had also slipped the customs attendants enough cash to ward off further questions.
The plane lands in New York. I plan on singing the song “At age forty-three, elected to the pres-i-den-ceee . . .” My brother descends the stairs in front of me. He reaches the bottom, kneels down, and kisses the pavement. I stand alongside him, press my hands to the asphalt, and copy him. My mother weeps.
It took me many years to understand all this weeping. In 1998, while I was visiting my grandmother the rescuer, then eighty-six, someone told a Clinton joke. Something about how many women went down on the Titanic. At the punchline, my grandmother’s body shook violently. She stiffly turned her head to the jokester, “You should be ashamed to criticize the president of the United States like that!”
“Oh, I was just—”
“You’re not cheering me up. You’re disgusting me. This is the greatest country in the world.”
My grandmother suffered from severe arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, macular degeneration, and a broken upper arm that never meshed back together. But her opinions were intact. If anyone took a cheap shot at her America, they could get the hell out.
My grandmother willingly left Iran for the United States. My grandmother loved American Red Delicious apples, the plumbing, the doctors, the public schools, and the government’s hard-line secularism. For her, America was not an opiate; it was a careful choice. Still, she surrounded herself with cassettes of Iranian music, she preferred Iranian food, and when she was really angry, she cursed in Farsi. She had warned her daughter, my mother, Never, never marry an Iranian man. They are all chauvinists. But my mother did marry an Iranian, because this is what sometimes happens when people of the same common history live in a foreign land—they come together. Even the faintest memories, unpleasant or delightful, render familiarity. Fortunately, my father was not a chauvinist, but rather a romantic poet, and a good father and husband whom she followed back to Iran because it was the right thing to do. She missed him desperately during the ten months it took him to get away from his brothers. And so, my mother saw her children bend down and kiss American soil, my grandmother saw us perform Iranian soap commercials, and for their own reasons, they watched and wept. Each was witnessing the payoff and loss of rejecting a heritage and fiercely choosing a new one: my brother and I had become Americans.
My junior year at Harvard, during the Islamic revolution in Iran, I took a two-semester course in Farsi. It was 1978, a year after my father had died. An Iranian man in the class asked me, “What do you remember about your time in Iran?”
I told him about the sitar music and belly dancers, the turquoise and gold dome in Isfahan, the wild countryside around it, and the deadly snakes at the bottom of the ravine. I described the mountains plunging into the Caspian sea, the beggars pushing their heads through our car windows to sell sticks of Wrigley’s gum, and the rice with string beans, chopped lamb, and tomatoes, which was my favorite dish. I also thought of the days we mourned Kennedy, the diphtheria vaccination with that long needle, the bad smells, but I said nothing of those things. I sounded as though I loved all of it, and in part, I did. Memories. Familiarity. At that time, loving the exotic was easy. In my circle of friends, diversity had become cool, Mc-America the powerful was evil.
“So, you’re Iranian on which side?” the man asked.
I stopped cold. This was somehow a moment of truth, having to admit I was all Iranian. “Both sides,” I said.
“So that makes you fully Iranian,” he said.
“I was born in New York,” I answered smugly.
And I later married an American—well, he’s only one generation more American than me. And my children won’t question whether they are fully American. But will they name themselves as Americans in the same conscious manner as I do? Impossible. They understand no Persian. When they ask me the meaning of a Persian word they overhear at a wedding, I don’t cry, but I feel sad. One more payoff.
And now? I’m no patriot. In attempting to title this essay, I looked for a suitable phrase in “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” and had trouble remembering the lyrics. I don’t even think I’m an admirable citizen. It’s been a long time since I marched in Washington or telephoned on election day. I’m as wrapped up as the next mother. I’m pleased if I remember to pick up my children on time or have enough food in the house for their lunches. “If the votes aren’t hand-counted,” I growled during the Gore-Bush post-election rancor, “I’m moving to Paris!” But of course I didn’t.
“Why don’t you have any indignation, Charlie—” Humboldt says to the protagonist in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, “Ah! You’re not a real American. You’re grateful. You’re a foreigner. You have that Jewish immigrant kiss-the-ground-at-Ellis-Island gratitude.”
Yes, I did kiss the ground in New York. But I’m both indignant and grateful. I’m stuck with a bittersweet desire for America the way I thought it was when I landed, thirty-five years ago, at what is now Kennedy Airport. It makes me keep up with politics and public policy, watch the televised faces of baseball fans during the national anthem, and drive to the polls even though it has just started snowing and my kids are whining for dinner and I’m scared to death to drive in the snow. It made me buy an entire unopened box of Bazooka bubble gum and, instead of sharing it with my children, take it to my office where it still sits on the top shelf of a bookcase, placed and angled just so. It has made me hold onto the possibility of American community and utopia, an idea that Irving Howe described as “run[ning] like a bright thread through American intellectual life…a claim for the value of desire, the practicality of yearning.”
American naturalization rates have never been this low. While there are more foreigners in the U.S. than ever before, many are uninterested in becoming citizens. Foreigners come to the U.S. as an economic means to an end. Americans are indifferent to their own citizenship. It’s not resistance to assimilation or a vote for diversity politics, it’s a mass relinquishment of responsibility. Nobody seems to care that they are American, maybe because they don’t remember. There is a deliberate choice in remembering and relinquishing the past, in becoming naturalized; a conscious sorting out when my grandmother listened to Iranian music and preferred Iranian food, yet defended the libidinous president.
Why, after believing that Oswald didn’t act alone, after telling me the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, after declaring that produce in the United States is flavorless and that this is because of American greed, why was my grandmother still so devoted to this country and optimistic about its future? She remembered. Small, specific memories like clean water pouring from a faucet, or a New York immigration office with thirty ethnic faces, her right hand raised, “I pledge allegiance . . .”
A chain of taunting children. Thousands of crying American faces on Iranian TV. At age forty-three . . . Caroline Kennedy in a fancy coat standing on a clean American sidewalk. Shah han shah-heh . . . Corn Flakes.
Like those of my mother and grandmother, my memories bestow an inheritance: a complex fate of American-ness, colored by scattered loyalties, loss, and a desire for what can be.
That same semester that I studied Farsi in college, I sat behind Caroline Kennedy in “The History of Political Philosophy.” She had thick, strawberry-blonde hair, blow-dried to a perfect straightness. She held her head high. She was intent and quiet in class. My hair was dark brown and wavy; my skin darker than hers. The notebook on my desk, onto which I feverishly scribbled notes on John Stuart Mill, also contained Arabic letters forming Iranian words. Still, I felt I was just as important an American as she. Of course, Caroline was part of a legacy, she had the responsibility to stand unfazed in bright sunshine on one of the darkest days in this century’s history. But I had my memory of wanting, that fierce yearning for a chosen home, for my idealized America, at a time when I was on the outside, looking in. Sitting behind her, I wondered if we both felt it, both of us fatherless, both of us citizens: a call to action in remembering the best part of something no longer alive, and yet fully there.
Debbie Danielpour Chapel writes fiction, screenplays, libretti, and essays. Her work has appeared in Salamander,_ AGNI_, Natural Bridge, and elsewhere. She has been a professor of fiction and film writing for over twenty years—at San Francisco State University, Emerson College, Harvard University Extension, and now at Boston University. She is currently finishing her second novel and working with a producer in developing her seventh motion picture screenplay. Danielpour holds an AB from Harvard College, an MA in film production and screenwriting from San Francisco State University, and an MFA in fiction and literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars. (updated 7/2012)