Caspian

by Sogol Sur

Mojgan couldn’t concentrate on her evening namaz.

Ashhadu alla ilaha illallah…’  How many pairs of knickers should I take with me for three days? ‘Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh’

She kissed the clay mohr, took off her floral chador and folded her embroidered janamaz.

Tonight, she was too excited to read a bit of the Quran. Also she didn’t have much time as she needed to pack. It was already nine. 

Her parents were asleep, but she knew Mohammad was awake in his room, probably staring at his computer screen, his long lashes motionless. Mojgan and her mother and aunts always laughed at God’s sense of humour for granting her brother such affluent lashes whilst giving her almost none. Her mother had bought her numerous tubes of mascara to fix this ‘issue’, but Mojgan had an allergic reaction to even the most expensive ones. And she secretly hated make-up. She wanted to look as pure as possible. Like the mental image she had of Hazrat-e Fatemeh. Except that she did not want to die yet, even though she’d almost reached the same age at which Hazrat-e Fatemeh had become a martyr: eighteen. She wanted to go to university and become a physician.

At eleven o’clock, Mojgan knocked on Mohammad’s door.

‘Come in,’ he whispered, from behind his desk. Mojgan knew he’d close all the Internet pages before letting anyone in and would turn off that strange music he was always listening to while surfing the Internet.

Mojgan sat on Mohammad’s messy bed. She could not help but feel that his bed had a nice smell – his Adidas cologne and the natural scent of his skin, which she’d noticed since they were little.

‘Why aren’t you asleep yet?’ Mohammad swung on his chair to face her, smiling. ‘We’re leaving early in the morning. Armin will pick us up at eight.’

‘You can’t wake up at eight!’ Mojgan said, giggling.

‘I’ll have to – it’s Armin’s order! And since he’s driving and wants to avoid the traffic, we have to obey him… But we’ll get to sleep in the car.’

‘What’s his car?’

‘Maxima. White.’

‘So they’re rich?’

‘I think so… His mother is a dentist.’

‘That’s so cool!  Do you remember that time he came over here and Mum burned the rice? So we had to serve stew with bread…’ Mojgan still remembered the hideous smell of their burnt food. The stench of shame.

‘How can I forget,’ Mohammad said, chuckling. ‘Are you all packed?’

‘Yes! Are you sure you still want me to come? I feel kind of extra… Armin is your friend and there are no other girls… Isn’t that a bit weird?’

‘We’d love you to come. You need to see the Caspian Sea. It gives you such a perfect sensation when you float in it.’

‘Isn’t it polluted, though?’

‘Not as polluted as Tehran’s air. Also Armin’s villa is in a nice area: Mahmood Abad. It’s stunning… You have to come out of your shell and see the rest of your country – I want you to see new things. Mum and Dad haven’t shown us much…’

Mojgan rejoiced in the memory of how Mohammad had argued with her parents about letting her travel to the north with him and his friend. She never imagined they would agree. But Mohammad had won the argument by parading his passionate logic.

‘She needs to see the world. You’re raising her like cave people!’

Her parents had bitterly consented, under the condition that they would tell no one in the extended family. It had to remain their family secret. For good.

Mojgan knew Mohammad thought their parents ‘backward’ and that he worried about her in relation to this. She had also noticed Mohammad had stopped praying since he’d been accepted at the university. It pained her to think that her brother might have become an apostate but she dreaded even discussing it with him. She caught herself staring at her brother’s smooth face. She knew how soft his skin was, like their mother’s and unlike hers. And now it was glowing like the moon on its fourteenth night.

Mohammad caught her staring at him and smiled. ‘You seem extremely excited about tomorrow!’

Mojgan blushed for a reason she couldn’t fathom. ‘I am! Also slightly anxious… It’s my first trip without Mum and Dad – well, apart from a few tedious school trips.’

‘Travelling without authority is indeed sweet!’ Mohammad said.

Mojgan wasn’t sure what he meant, but didn’t ask for fear of sounding uneducated. It seemed to her Mohammad was becoming cleverer by the day. She was terrified of becoming distant from him. She was hoping one day she would find the courage to ask him about his new beliefs. And yet she wasn’t sure how to handle his answer, which she already knew. She’d overheard her mother complaining to one of their aunts. ‘He’s just changed… I don’t feel we can handle him anymore… He’s become a new person since he met this glitzy boy called Armin… Thank God, at least he’s still on good terms with his sister, but he can’t stand us… I’ve noticed he doesn’t even pray any more, and when I questioned him, he yelled at me that he’s sick of all this and we shouldn’t meddle in his private life. He’s learned these vicious words from that sordid Armin.’ And then her mother had burst out crying.

Mojgan asked her mother about all this only a few months ago. But her mother urged her to mind her own studies so she too would get accepted by a good university, as her brother had.

Mojgan had prayed and studied. Studied and prayed. Studied in the morning and prayed at night. Spent hours each day preparing herself for the traumatisingly competitive university entrance exam in the summer. All the eighteen-year-olds from all over the country would participate in the exam. People spent their lives in preparation for this exam. Mohammad turned out to be a winner as usual. He was accepted to study the French language and literature at Shahid Beheshti university. But still their parents had looked down on his choice of subject, even though Mohammad was already making money by tutoring French.

‘What a strange major for a man!’ their father had declared when Mohammad gave them the good news.

‘At least it’s Shahid Beheshti so we don’t need to pay for those expensive openuniversities with no prestige,’ her mother consoled herself.

Mohammad was too ecstatic to argue that day. He’d bought Mojgan a fancy desk lamp.

‘I should be the one giving you a present!’ Mojgan had happily objected.

Mohammad responded by embracing her tightly and kissing her forehead.

Mojgan was aware Mohammad’s victories were also partly hers. Every night she prayed for him before falling asleep. Lying in bed, under her floral duvet, she whispered: ‘Dear God, I love you. But I also love my family. I want them to be always healthy. And please let me die before Mohammad will. Make me and Mohammad get accepted in sarasari universities, so our poor parents won’t need to pay those illiterate azad universities. Dear God, help me become a doctor and save your creatures’ lives.’

This had been the typical template of her nightly prayer for the last five years. It never bored her. And she always felt God was on her side.

In the morning, when she was awoken by Mohammad, she realised with shame she’d fallen asleep on Mohammad’s bed. ‘Where did you sleep?’ she asked, her eyes wide with worry.

‘On your bed!’ Mohammad said, laughing. ‘Get up!’

Mojgan brushed her teeth in thirty seconds. She put on a loose cotton manteau and a green headscarf.

Their father had left earlier, for work, and their mother was in the kitchen as usual, pouring tea, and staring at them anxiously.

‘What if you get arrested on the road?’ her mother finally mumbled to Mohammad, who was hastily buttering a piece of taftoon bread.

‘Why would they arrest us? We’re related! Brother and sister!’

‘Yes, but you are young, and Arman and Mojgan are na-mahram.

Her mother would always intentionally call Armin, Arman to piss off Mohammad. And it did work. Every single time.

 ‘Oh stop! Even they are not as barbaric as you are!’ Mohammad hissed.

‘I’m just worried,’ their mother hissed back. And Mojgan felt like choking on her sangak bread and feta cheese. No amount of sugared tea could help her throat hurt any less.

‘Shall we go? Isn’t Armin waiting?’ Mojgan murmured.

Mohammad stood. ‘Yes!’

Their mother also stood up. ‘Hold on, I need to pass you under the Quran.’

Mojgan liked the idea; she couldn’t wait to kiss the Quran while walking under it. It was her favourite tradition. And made her feel incredibly safe.

 ‘Oh, for God’s sake!’ Mohammad said. ‘Let’s go.’ He tenderly grabbed Mojgan’s right hand. Mojgan couldn’t help but feel exhilarated.

Nevertheless their mother ran to bring a Quran. Mohammad ran out of the door to avoid it, and Mojgan kissed the Holy Book and walked under it as her mother held it above her head.

‘Bye Mum,’ she held her Mother for a second. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be safe. And I’ll give you a call as soon as we get there.’

Armin was waiting in his comfortable car, a victorious ship outside their petty house. He was wearing enormous sunglasses even though the weather was cloudy and greyish.

Mohammad sat beside him in the front and Mojgan sat in the back seat. She almost liked Armin when he opened the door for her, finding the gesture unexpectedly gentlemanly.

‘Are we ready?’ Armin asked, his voice joyous and energetic.

‘Yeah!’ Mohammad’s mood had completely changed from a few minutes ago when they were in their claustrophobic kitchen.

Unlike Mohammad, Armin was growing a bit of stubble. Mojgan decided it suited him, then blushed at the idea. She didn’t want to end up like some of her classmates, drowning in the perilous sea of boys, unable to concentrate on their studies. She didn’t want a boyfriend or a husband. She wanted a hospital filled with ill people whom she could cure. She also wanted to earn money and buy her parents a bigger house, a better life. She craved to travel to Mecca to visit the House of God, with her family. Only if Mohammad would come. But Mohammad had already declared that he’d rather travel to France, where he understood ‘the language’, rather than to Saudi Arabia. Perhaps he’d change his mind by then; he’d lose interest in Armin and his Ray Ban sunglasses and deep voice and charming manners and would resume appreciating God and Mecca.

Mojgan realised Armin and Mohammad weren’t in the same university. She found it odd, as she’d always assumed they were classmates and that was how they met. Armin was asking Mohammad about his university in a quiet tone, and Mohammad Armin about his.

Mojgan deciphered that the music in Armin’s ship was the same as the music she could hear from Mohammad’s room when she pushed her ears against his wall. A mellow, depressing tune with a person – she wasn’t sure about their gender – moaning in English. Mojgan couldn’t get all of the song, only a few words and phrases she’d learned at school. She was worried about not doing well in English in the entrance exam in the summer. Listening carefully to the song, she was pleased to distinguish words such as ‘death’, ‘distance’ (a word she’d recently learned), ‘love’, ‘painless’. The song was relaxing and when she heard Mohammad murmuring, ‘She fell asleep… isn’t exactly a morning person,’ she was half asleep, praying they wouldn’t get inspected by the road police. And then her sleep became even deeper as the music died away and Mohammad and Armin ceased their sibilant whisper.

In her sleep, Mojgan was in Mecca, with Mohammad. Right in front of Ka’abe. Mojgan was crying tears of ecstasy while Mohammad was saying, ‘What’s the point of this empty black cube?’ in his beautiful voice. But Mojgan was too moved by the presence of God to be able to reply. God was inside her.

Her eyes blinked open and she caught a blurry glimpse of Armin’s long hand resting a moment on her brother’s jeaned thigh. She blinked again, and the hand was gone. She was certain she was seeing things, like with the Mecca dream.

Why am I hallucinating so much? I need to study more, she concluded.

She looked out of the window. Endless acacia trees were tunnelling the serpentine maze. The road was stunning, Mohammad was right. This was much more beautiful than Tehran. Tehran was grey, and this was green. Mojgan imagined she was in heaven. She felt nauseous in a pleasant way.

Armin exclaimed, ‘Good morning!’

Mojgan giggled. ‘I wasn’t asleep!’

Mohammad winced, ‘Weren’t you? Really?’

‘Oh, I was!’ Mojgan reassured him. ‘I even had a dream.’

‘Of what?’ Armin asked. Mojgan found herself liking the interest he showed in her dream.

‘Just the sea. I haven’t been in the Caspian since I was five.’ She urgently sensed she shouldn’t talk about her love of God with Armin. Mohammad would be hurt; he would think she was like their mother: ‘barbaric and backward’.

‘It hasn’t changed much,’ Armin said. ‘You’ll see. And you’ll love it.’

At one o’clock they were in Mahmood Abad. Armin parked his Maxima outside a restaurant.

‘This is my favourite eatery in Shomal.’

The restaurant was crowded. They were given a corner table nontheless. Mojgan was pulverised under the weight of customers’ glances. They were scrutinising her chaste hijab, looking like a good girl while being with two handsome boys. ‘A total whore’- she could almost hear their verdict, like some of her ‘cool’ classmates who loved using the word: ‘jendeh’.

‘What do you fancy?’ Armin handed the enormous menu to Mohammad, studying his face, and then looking away, staring at the greasy salt shaker.

‘Fish, naturally!’

‘I recommend the white fish with vegetable rice and kookoo sabzi.’

‘I don’t want to get fat.’ Mohammad said, laughing.

‘You’ll never get fat!’ Armin glanced at him again. This time they both looked away, averting their eyes to Mojgan as though suddenly remembering her irrelevant presence.

Mojgan wanted to sound like them. She felt like playing along. ‘What’s the best meal I can have in here, Armin?’ It was the first time she’d addressed him by name and she wished she could stop blushing like a silly fourteen-year-old girl.

‘If you like fish, get either the white fish or the trout.’

Mojgan wanted to get the same fish as Mohammad, but heard herself saying, ‘I’ll go for the trout.’

A waiter took their orders with a short pencil. Mojgan wondered whether it felt uncomfortable in his massive hand. Armin smiled at him, and also ordered zeytoon parvardeh and Garlic pickle, excitedly informing Mohammad and Mojgan that their zeytoon parvardeh is ‘ace’.

The food smelled like the sea. Mojgan ate it all, despite the fact that it made her slightly sick.

When all their plates were empty, Armin asked for the bill.

Then Armin and Mohammad charmingly argued about who should pay.

‘You’re my guests!’ Armin exclaimed while showering Mohammad with his convincing smile, his teeth even whiter than his skin.

‘You’ll cook for us – won’t you?’ Mohammad protested. ‘Look, I really want to pay this time. You can get dinner.’

‘No way!’ Armin was invincible. ‘We won’t have dinner, we’ll feel full until tomorrow morning, believe me.’

‘Then be responsible for our lunch tomorrow.’

‘No, I brought you here,’ Armin insisted. ‘You can take me to a restaurant you like in Tehran. Take me to that new Lebanese restaurant you’ve been raving about.’

Mohammad finally allowed Armin to pay. Mojgan thanked Armin in the politest manner she could and said it was the best fish she’d ever had in her whole life. Armin agreed that ‘this place is the best in Shomal’. And they returned to the car, Mohammad walking between Armin and Mojgan. Mojgan noticed he was closer to Armin than to her.

When they were finally inside the villa, it was almost three o’clock. The villa was as shiny as Armin’s teeth. Mojgan found it to be painfully spacious. Armin appointed them each a room. Mojgan was hoping she’d share with her brother like when they were children.

The room was cleaner than her own room in Tehran. There were pale-blue sheets on the single bed, a bedside table with a lamp, and a full bookcase. She took off her manteau and took out a long-sleeved shirt from her backpack, wearing it with matching purple pyjama trousers: comfy and chaste. She didn’t touch her headscarf, a light material which didn’t feel suffocating like some others. It felt right.

Mojgan scrutinised the bookshelves. There was no Quran. Instead, they were infested with Sadegh Hedayat’s books. She disliked Hedayat, even though she’d never read him. He was a pre-revolution Islam-loathing existentialist who wrote depressing literature and ended up gassing himself in Paris or some other pretentious place. And yet he was never out of fashion. He was always considered to be trendy and classy and this was what repelled Mojgan more than anything. She knew Mohammad liked him, though. Not too much, but he’d read him. And he had praised The Blind Owl like every other unique youngster who studied art and literature.

Mojgan picked up The Blind Owl. She lay on the comfortable bed and couldn’t stop reading that sickly, mesmerising prose until Mohammad knocked on her door asking whether she’d go to the beach with them.

‘I’m pleased you’re reading him at last. But you can also read in our own sea-less city!’ Mohammad commented. Mojgan noticed Mohammad looked as darkly beautiful as the ephemeral object of desire of the insane narrator. 

‘I’m tired.’

‘From what? Sleeping and eating?’

‘The journey, the car, the road.’

‘You’re just a lazy little girl,’ Mohammad told her teasingly, catching her eyes.

‘I’ll join you later. I know where the beach is.’

‘It’s very close. Just step out of the house and bang the door shut, and you’ll probably see us in the sea. I’m glad there aren’t many people because it’s spring and they find the sea a bit chilly and sometimes stormy… But I say the spring sea is the best sea – especially with all those tacky people out of the picture…’

Mojgan laughed.

Once Mohammad had left, she couldn’t concentrate on the rest of the novel. And she didn’t want to. When she read it she felt as depressed and hallucinatory as the substance-abusing narrator. And she remembered she hadn’t done her noon namaz. As she went to the sparkling bathroom to vozu, the silence told her Mohammad and Armin were gone. She was alone in the vast villa.

Pouring the cool water on her arms, feet and head, she caught a glimpse of her face in the large bathroom mirror. For once she didn’t avoid her dark eyes, and gazed back into them. She stared at her invisible lashes and sighed for Mohammad’s and the ethereal girl’s long ones. Her face was fat, an ill-looking balloon, unlike Mohammad’s and the haunting girl’s in The Blind Owl. And Armin’s. Mohammad and Armin had slim faces, even high cheekbones like the models in advertisements. And they could melt the world with the sun in their large eyes. She wondered why she had such small eyes. Aren’t all Iranians supposed to have huge eyes? Perhaps she wasn’t a true Persian like Mohammad, but was an adopted Afghan refugee. She wished her parents would tell her the truth… She scoffed at her childish fantasies, realising she was sounding like some of her brainless classmates who weren’t really studying but were merely obsessing over the appearance of actors.

Mojgan sauntered back to her new room, took out herchador and mohr from her rucksack and did her noon and evening namaz in ten minutes. All the while imagining herself in the endless Caspian Sea with Mohammad and Armin, floating, and jumping over the waves, living life to the fullest and yet being chaste enough to go to heaven after her death in a hundred years or so. Pleasing God and people at the same time, but also pleasing herself. She could have it all. Why not.

It was eight in the evening and the sea was getting dark. ‘The bright side is there are no tacky people in the sea now.’ Her brother’s voice was echoing in her brain. Did Mohammad find her ‘tacky’? With her chaste hijab, prayers, fat face and small eyes?

She saw Armin and Mohammad from afar.

She saw Armin in Mohammad’s thin and yet powerful arms.

They were jumping and laughing in the wavy sea. And there was no one else around. No tacky people.

The weather was humid and heavy. She stood worrying about something she didn’t even know, something she was not allowed to know. Mohammad’s back was to her. They wouldn’t even think about her. She was tedious. With her hijab, prayers, studies, godly goals, chastity and lack of knowledge of music and French and Sadegh Hedayat.

Standing on the beach, in her tight headscarf, she couldn’t even hear them, but she could see their laughter, their freedom, their joy, and their gorgeous difference. Then she finally saw. She saw her brother biting Armin’s neck whilst rising and falling with the waves, except that Mohammad didn’t look like her brother any longer; he looked like a violent animal preying on male flesh. She saw Armin swiftly kissing her brother’s parted lips. The kiss probably tasted salty and polluted like the Caspian Sea.

She hadn’t seen anything like this even in the Hollywood movies her classmates convinced her to watch under the pretext of improving her English. There was always a bulky brunette man making love to a bony blonde woman. Never two men kissing; two men as beautiful and as dark as Armin and Mohammad.

She knew of it; she’d read about it in the Quran a few years ago. Ghome Loot. And she knew perfectly well what the verdict for them would be. God disliked homosexual men. And that was the only thing she knew.

Then she recalled a night two years ago when she had naively asked Mohammad whether he would like to marry a girl from his university. He laughed so hard she felt embarrassed and perplexed. And then he said, ‘I have no interest in girls.’ How naive and blind she had been. He had informed her. He wanted her to know. But how cruel of him to want her to know something so dreadful and dangerous. How could Mohammad be so ruthless and so sinful? With his name, identical to the Prophet Muhammad’s, and his face as gorgeous as the Prophet Joseph’s, and his voice as divine as the Prophet David’s. How can this all be so meaningless? So hollow.

And if this was the case, if her divine brother was… indeed…hamjensbaaz… why did he bring her here? To show how worthless her religious beliefs were? To spit his perverted perfection in her imperfect face? To prove to her how ‘tacky’ she was and he did not give a fuck?

Mojgan craved to be in Tehran. In her tiny room, studying Arabic, English and biology for Konkoor, praying to get accepted by a good university. She did not like Shomal.

Then she wondered why God had ordered for her brother and Armin to get executed. Allah, the all-kind and merciful. Rahman and Rahim. The all-forgiving God. The one and only Khoda

Armin and Mohammad were not in each other’s arms. They were just both in the sea. Their torsos bare and wet, their dark swimsuits as tight as her headscarf, emphasising their depraved genitals.

Mojgan was still staring at the blackness of the sea. She dreaded to agree with Sadegh Hedayat, to acknowledge the blackness of life. She wanted to have God and her brother. She wanted to please Mohammad and the Prophet Muhammad.

Armin finally noticed her and beckoned her to join them.

She threw herself into the sea. She could have everything now. She could float in the darkest waters, while being a good servant to God and going to heaven in the afterlife.

Mohammad jumped on her and shouted. She shouted back, but it was hardly a scream; just a whimper. Armin looked at them with his adoring eyes and swam away. Mohammad swam after him. They went back to the beach. Lying on their straw mat, on the dark sand.

The water was lukewarm, up to her waist. The waves were playful. She wanted to forget, but couldn’t. Armin and Mohammad were lying beside each other, not touching, but it was now horribly obvious to her. She made the knot on her headscarf tighter, so the waves couldn’t take away her roosari. She let herself float under the stars. She’d forgotten how purifying it felt to be in the sea – especially in a polluted one. Not wanting to get out of the Caspian Sea, she kept floating in the dark.

When she realised she couldn’t breathe under the water, and the waves had become too powerful, and the knot on her throat was too tight, and her trousers were unbearably heavy, taking her down, it was too late to try.

She could hear her brother’s hysterical roars and caught a glimpse of him swimming towards her with Armin following him like a shark, but the waves pushed them away as they pushed her down. Until she let go thinking God wasn’t actually on her side. Only then she remembered she’d forgotten to call her mother on their arrival in the villa. But it didn’t matter any longer.

Mojgan imagined Mohammad gliding towards her with his salty eyelashes and sinful mouth. And she did not see heaven, but saw herself and her brother as children watching Lucky Luke and Mohammad stating, ‘Luke is so handsome.’

And then she felt Mohammad’s determined fingers clutching her arms. Now her mother had every right to worry.

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