I lived in Iran with my partner Ed for several years in the mid-seventies. Pahlavi University where I taught, was within walking distance of our house. I looked forward each day to teaching French in the foreign language department, and Ed was thrilled with his position as lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine. Due to modernizations under Shah Reza Pahlavi, foreign teachers were welcome in Iran in the seventies. Many of my Iranian students were planning to complete their degrees in America, and already spoke English.
I loved my early morning walk down the dirt roads to Pahlavi University on Abivardi Boulevard. The clear air and bright sun, the outline of cypress trees against the sky, the chants calling the faithful to prayer, the smell of fresh baked bread were the impressions that lingered throughout my day. When I passed by our neighbor Farideh’s house, she always said befarmaid. I thought it meant hello, or have a good day, because right after she said it, she closed the door. Ed and I were officially invited in however, when Farideh’s famous cousin the Mullah came to visit. No one spoke English, yet somehow through sign language and much smiling we got to know each other.
I quickly picked up Farsi, learning a prayer from one of the janitors at school, and the baker who taught me a new word each time I bought a flat bread called nan. The vegetable seller added all the words I needed to know for buying vegetables. I was told to be very careful to wash the greens as they were often contaminated by the feces from the packs of dogs who roamed the fields at night. Moslems considered dogs unclean and shunned them as pets.
When I finished my last class at two in the afternoon I went to Ed’s lab and waved to him from the door. If he didn’t wave back I knew he would not be getting out early and I faced a long evening alone. As soon as I reached the kuche, (street) where we lived, I took off my shoes. The earth felt so good under my feet, warm and tingling and alive. If Farideh happened to be standing by her window she’d warn me about the dirt and garbage. She didn’t approve of me walking barefoot in the street. She also let me know she didn’t think it was a good idea for a woman to stay home alone. “Too much time to think,” she’d say – khub nist – not good. But in the stillness of my surroundings I felt a fullness of being I had never known before. No radio or TV, no newspapers to divert me from my inner world.
Still, I was happier being alone after we adopted Buffy, one of the stray dogs picked up around the city, thus saving him from his fate in Ed’s research lab. Those beautiful brown eyes gleamed with love when I took him home with me. I told Ed I would feel safer having Buffy for company on those evenings he worked late. Buffy, named because of his dusty beige coat, could hardly walk on one of his hind paws. But I nursed him, and before long he was cavorting around the patio as if he owned it.
One evening when Buffy and I were alone there was a loud knock outside our gate and I saw the strangest group of people, the Quasghai nomads, surrounded by goats and sheep. One man was on horseback holding a chicken. The women were dressed in multicolored, multilayered skirts that glimmered in the waning light. They had been traveling up from the south for days on mules and horses with their flock of animals. Shiraz was the first big city they had reached, and our house was the first one they came to. I let a group of two women and two men come into the patio to fill their jugs with water. As I watched them, I could barely suppress the urge to ask them if I could join their group. Oh, to travel with these proud strong nomads, so connected to the land and the animals, and leave everything behind! But instead of asking them to take me with them, I invited them to sit down and have some chai. When they were leaving I cut two roses for them from the garden. The women placed their hands over their heart in thanks, and with a swoosh of their beautiful skirts they were gone.
That month I put on a chador, the veil Iranian women wore in public places and went to see the Dervish or holy man who lived in the old caravanserai on the outskirts of town. I was certain that I knew enough Farsi to greet him and ask for his blessing. It was a long walk, and by the time I reached the twisted alley where the entrance was, I was covered with dust from the streets. An old woman with a face like weathered parchment led me through a large courtyard and up some stairs to a balcony. In the corner was a little man sitting with a large blanket draped over him so that I could barely see him. In my excitement walking toward the holy man I realized I had forgotten all the words I had practiced to say to him. I sat down on the first pillow I found and gathered the chador around me, waiting for him to speak to me. I waited and waited but the Dervish didn’t say a word. He didn’t even look at me. I closed my eyes and tried to remember the words I had wanted to say but the only thing that came to me was the overwhelming fragrance of freesia flowers growing in a corner. I don’t know how long I waited for him to look at me before I realized he was blind. How long I waited for him to speak before I realized he was mute. It wouldn’t have done me any good even if I had managed to remember my Farsi as he was probably deaf as well. Yet he had other senses at work, else how did he know I was getting up to leave? His right hand appeared from under the blanket that covered him and motioned to me. Then he placed his hand over his heart. Tears sprang to my eyes at this simple gesture. His face emanated love and kindness. I felt a great warmth spread through my body. I practically floated home. Words from The Little Prince, echoed in my mind “What is important is invisible to the eyes. You can only see well with your heart. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur.
And so it was that I had come half way around the world to meet a Dervish who transcended words, radiating love from his heart, fueling the love in my own.