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The Three-Twenty-Seven train from Tehran to Andimeshk left the station at 11.45 in the morning of July fifth, 1984, with my father in compartment number eight of its third car. My mother was not there to wave a handkerchief and cry, or to place a consoling hand on my head, or to hold up Sara to the window for a last kiss. We were in Rasht and living through one of those calm periods that followed an all-out row between my parents. My father had left for Tehran out of spite and boarded the Andimeshk train with the intention of going all the way to the frontlines to get himself killed in the process. However, somewhere along the way he had changed his mind about dying and accepted a volunteer post instead, teaching the school-age soldiers behind the front. He returned home after three months, thinner than ever, sporting a full beard, with military fatigues and a trove of war stories.
All those stories, however, would prove to be fabricated if the signature I found in the train I once took on my trip to Esfahan would turn out to be my father’s. I was shaving in the train’s bathroom in order to look clean before arrival. It was just past five in the morning, and a frail light was showing in the sky. It was also high time for full bladders to line up behind the door and fidget with the bathroom door handle. I lathered my face and turned my back to the mirror. I have a habit of not looking in the mirror when I am shaving—because every time I do look in the mirror, I end up cutting myself, even though I use one of those triple-blade Gillette razors that you could not cut your face with even if you tried. I had my back to the mirror and was facing the door. Every time the razor filled up with hair I would clean it under the tap and turn my back again on the mirror and go on shaving.
It was then that I saw the signature. It had been carved on the red paint that covered the fiberglass wall of the toilet, written in an unlikely corner that was so high up it gave the impression that the signer must have been a very tall man. Under the signature it said: Ziauddin, August 1984. The signature, too, seemed identical to my father’s. A drop of water cascaded down my wet hair onto my eyelid and made me squint. Yes, it was definitely my father’s signature. I was amused how he had managed to carve it as high up as he had. He must have climbed on the metal sink, and he must have carved it with the key to our first tiny apartment of Banisadr Housing Plan on Maryam Street.
I kept on shaving with my back to the mirror, but I did not take my eyes off the signature. It was a lop-sided signature, not straight and confident like his usual ones. He must have signed it while the train was moving. It would not have looked this way if he had signed it—having nothing better to do—while the train was stopped in one of the stations.
What was he doing on an Esfahan train in that summer while he was supposed to be teaching young soldiers behind the frontlines? I thought about dialing his number on my mobile and asking if he was in Esfahan in the summer of 84, but then it crossed my mind that this particular car could have been attached to any locomotive and travelled to any one of the many possible destinations. So I gathered up my shaving kit and left the bathroom. I did not call my father; I knew we would end up fighting over selling the family land. In my notebook I wrote Summer 84 and put a question mark next to it as a reminder for the time I would get back to Tehran.
When I told my father about the signature, he scratched his naked belly that was showing in between the buttons of his shirt, took a cushion from the sofa, lay down on the floor under the air conditioning and went to sleep. There was nothing unusual about his behavior. Even grandmother used to say that, “Ziaoddin, God bless him, is a pain in the ass.” If he had something that he knew you wanted to hear, he would make you pray for the swift release of death before he told you about it. The more enthusiasm I would show, the worse it would get. So I took a blanket and went to sleep near him in the hot and humid Rasht of July under the cool breeze of the air conditioner.
Two years later, when he had his hemorrhoid taken out in a Tehran hospital and was recovering in my apartment, he told me about it. He was lying on his stomach on the floor and slurping up through a straw the thin soup I had made for him. It had been a year—except for cursory hellos and goodbyes—that we were no longer on speaking terms. If we did have to say something to each other, we spoke as if talking to a third person. It was, in fact, to this third person that he told the story, and I must add that to this day I have not dared to tell my mother about it.
The Three-Twenty-Seven train from Tehran to Andimeshk did leave the station on July fifth 1984, and my father was indeed in the eighth compartment of its third car. He boarded the train along with a complete battalion of fresh recruits who were supposed either to join the infantry division named Mohammad the Messenger, or act as reserves for the division, or serve some other function that my father did not know. He repeatedly explained to the third person he was addressing that he could never find out why the battalion had been mobilized. Yet he was sure that the division was the Muhammad the Messenger, and so logically it should be possible to investigate the real reason. It can’t be, he said, that a whole battalion simply vanished en route to the frontline and no one made a record anywhere.
My father was the only civilian passenger of the train. He had a simple trick for getting through any restricted door he wished to enter. I imagine he had put on an entitled air, and, because he was older than the soldiers, he must have been taken for an instructor, a dispatcher or something of the sort. Back then he cut a respectable figure: permanent stubble, an advancing bald spot on the crown of his head, black-rimmed glasses, and an American Army overcoat that used to belong to my mother’s brother. He did not carry prayer beads, nor did he have the forehead mark the pious get from prolonged bowing in prayer. In short, he did not fake being a government religious type, but he was mistaken for one and he did well by it.
My father’s respectable figure in that six-person compartment had talked for twelve hours straight, and Shahram from Tarasht, Mohammad from Ghasroldasht, Naser from Karaj who lived near Tehranpars, Kaveh from the old Roosevelt Street, and Zabih from Pamanar had watched him with dropped jaws. Of the things he had talked about in that compartment, he only remembered the tall tale of springing cousin Kooli from jail, which as a child I had heard in bits and pieces when he retold it to other people, and with every telling it gained new details and became more outrageous. I do not know which version he had told the five people in the compartment, but he must have bored his open-jawed listeners to tears. Nonetheless, my father emphasized to the third, absent person in our conversation the open jaws of the five privates and the charm of his voice—which was a crack at me for no longer feeling the impact of the claimed magic.
After twelve hours, they had only reached Salafchegan, where, waiting for the bombarded railway to be repaired, they all went to sleep. My father had taken the top right bunk. He took time recalling where each of the young soldiers slept. Such boring details would normally be enough material for him to get me screaming: Fucking spit it out, man! But I was not giving up that easily. To show enthusiasm, I crushed some golpar herbs into the soup in his mug.
The train had started moving while he slept, and it had traveled a distance that my sleeping father could not gauge. In the morning, the train was still moving, but none of his fellow-travelers were in the compartment. In their place there were human-sized dolls in military uniforms, so that if someone were to see the train from the outside, it would appear to carry real live people.
My father discovered something else that same morning: he was not the only civilian in the car. A woman, whose name was Atieh, was traveling with five new recruits in the compartment number two. She had also slept in the top-right bunk, and when she woke up, she could find no one on the train other than my father. My father and Atieh were the only living people in car number three. I say ‘living’, because for the weeks that the train continued its unceasing journey, the two of them believed that the others had either died, or that an enchantment had turned them all into cheap, ugly cotton dolls that were sleeping in the pull-down beds of the train.
My father slurped the very last drops of the soup with his straw and made sucking noises like a child. I took the soup mug away from him. Shitting needs an arsehole, I warned him, and he’d better keep the contents of his stomach in liquid form. He was sure now that the soldiers must have been let out of the train somewhere along the way, and for the next three months the train and its dolls were kept moving all over Iran in order to confuse the Iraqi intelligence.
My father saw Atieh for the first time as she walked out of one of the bathrooms. She had pulled down her headscarf over her eyes, and she was holding up her dripping hands like a surgeon entering an operation room. This could have been a sign of things to come: a woman with her hands held aloft and a man waiting to relieve his bladder in the morning.
Atieh and my father slept in their respective compartments till the next morning. The next day, the train was still moving, and my father, anxious and disheveled, was walking the corridor between the two rows of compartments, trying to open the doors between the wagons which had been locked from the outside, or to break the bars on the windows which had been welded shut in their place, or to pull the emergency break that had a warning for a three-thousand-rial fine in case of improper use—anything to escape this mobile cage. Somewhere, somehow, my father, Atieh, and the sleeping dolls would have to disembark the train and return to ordinary life.
Their second meeting occurred in that same corridor. My father was exhausted, having rammed the doors and windows with his body. He had not found a tool to force them open. His knuckles were bruised and bloody, and, having repeatedly rammed the door between the cars with his shoulder, he could not lift his right arm to lean on the windowsill. And having in every station taken off his shirt to wave it at the people on the platform, his left arm hurt too much to let him open the door to the bathroom. In a daze, he was looking out the window as the train drove through the Firoozkuh Station. From the platform, some people waved to the train. “No one throws a stone at the windows,” said Atieh. My father did not respond. Atieh came closer until she was standing next to my father. She examined his bloody fingers and gently rubbed his right shoulder. My father, still in a daze, kept looking out the window, thinking that they must find something to eat.
They searched through the compartments, and in the compartment belonging to the battalion doctor, who was a doll wearing a knee-length white-coat, they found cartons of salty biscuits, sardines, and fruit juice— enough that, with strict rationing, would keep them going for exactly three months and ten days. Each would receive a pack of biscuits, a can of sardines, and two three-hundred milliliter cartons of fruit juice a day. Later, when they searched the soldiers’ bags and rucksacks, they had even more at their disposal. Sugar, walnuts, raisins, hardboiled eggs (which were found too late and stank a little), dried apricots, dried bread, two cans of pineapple (which they had no way of opening), and prayer tablets made of dirt from the shrines of various saints and imams (which Atieh, having a strange craving, would munch on at an alarming rate). On Friday nights they would have themselves a weekend party by eating an extra can of sardines. And all these were accounted for in my father’s wartime ration system.
After two weeks they were used to their new situation. They kept watch by turns in order to be awake in case the train came to a halt somewhere and they could get off. My father had tried to understand the path of their travels by writing down the stations they passed, but there was no clear conclusion to be made. They were a Robinson Crusoe couple on an itinerant island that was South, in Dezful, in the morning; in Shadegan by the afternoon; North, on the Veresk-Bridge, the day after tomorrow; and from there perhaps passed through Tehran or Mashhad.
Atieh managed to get used to everything. She curtained her entire compartment with bed sheets so that she could not be seen from the outside. She also put up a curtain between compartment two and that of my father’s and in this way she walked around her own area with her hair uncovered. What of her hair that fell out she would collect in a plastic bag. My father began making tools. He would scrape a small steel bar on the wagon floor in order to make something resembling a blade. Using a few mirrors, he had devised a contraption that, with a light-source, could be used to send out Morse code. Atieh diligently collected the oil from the sardine cans, hoping it would prove useful once they invented fire. The idea occurred to her when a starling was found in the car. The bird was hitting itself against the windows when my father caught it and, saying the proper prayer for such occasions, put it out of its misery. In case another animal found its way into the train, Atieh had thought, they could fry it in the sardine oil. But they were still living in prehistoric times, and these were little more than dreams.
For two entire days, and to no avail, my father searched the wagon to find the opening the starling had used to enter the train. After two days, at which point the animal had begun to stink, he threw it in the metal toilet bowl and flushed it down. The little beast got off the train somewhere between Binalud and Qara`, without any luggage, without a friend to keep it company in the place in which it would be a stranger, and without a head.
My father and Atieh had concluded that this, the toilet, was the only way to disembark the runaway train. My father would wear the doctor’s white coat under a windbreaker and his army jacket and jump rope—beginning with five hundred times a day and building, in one month and thirteen days, to 13,000 jumps. At thirty-one, and having sired two children, the size of his waist was less than 40 centimeters. It means that if he were just his waist, he could have passed through the toilet hole. But his broad shoulders would not let him, and, anyway, Atieh was pregnant. I mean to say that she was eighteen weeks pregnant the day she boarded the train. She was headed for the frontline in order for Khamseh, her husband, to place his hand on her belly and choose a name for the unborn child. They had to wait for her to give birth to her child, lose weight, and then go out through the hole. In Khamseh’s place, my father had held his hand on Atieh’s stomach and named the child Mohammad, if a boy, and Sara, if a girl. My father was creating a double for my sister and me in that traveling world of his, and had the infant, who was a boy, not been stillborn in its seventh month, then perhaps my father would still be living on that train. He would be digging his food out of cans and boxes, and he would not need to invent a third person in order to talk to me.
He spoke this last sentence in a tear-jerking way—maybe to disarm me, or to remind me of the distance between us. I got up and walked a few steps around my 500-square-foot apartment which now had a sick man’s beddings at its center. I checked on the soup that was no longer simmering, poured some water into the kettle and dropped a teabag inside it, mashed a banana, pureed it with almond milk and sahlab, and brought it with a tea-spoon to my sleeping father. I placed the ceramic bowl near his head and sat down and patted his hair. He squinted his closed eyes and groped above his head for his glasses that I had put on a side table. I handed him the glasses. He put them on and squinted again—probably surprised by my unexpected kindness. I brought the bowl nearer to his hand and he tasted a spoonful. “If you’re trying to cozy up, you don’t need to cook up all this jimble jamble. Distance keeps us respectable, as they say.”
“You didn’t believe me?”
“The whole time I was a kid you didn’t tell me a single story. After thirty years, it wasn’t too bad.”
“You want me to tell you the ending?”
I got up and went to my room and sat behind my computer. I could hear the unending clanks of the metal spoon against the ceramic bowl. He was spitefully banging the spoon against the bowl. If it were any other time I would yell: “Dig a hole in that and hang yourself with it, won’t you.” But I walked out of my room and took the bowl from his hand and put it in the sink. I sat on the sofa and said: “Tell me.”