Editor’s Note: “Goodbye Mr. Kamali,” from the review’s 15th anniversary edition, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in fiction.
Author’s Note: “Growing up in a country under theocratic rule, I witnessed most Iranians suffering from religious and cultural cleansing, the root of Iranians’ ongoing uprisings today. Minorities, especially Jews and Baha’is, are in constant danger still. Here, I am a young girl hiding in a cupboard, listening. I discover the crime of my father’s friend: his refusal to convert to Islam, and the fate he will suffer for it.”
GOODBYE MR. KAMALI
I WAS NINE YEARS OLD. I was imprisoned in a cupboard that smelled of dust and chalk and had sharp bulging surfaces that were scratching my hands. From time to time, I could hear murmuring outside: it was anxious and frightened murmuring. I could hear my mother’s voice; she was praying while the terrible sounds in the background were getting nearer and nearer. And it was that fear that sometimes made her change her accent. I felt as if I could even hear the sound of her heart pounding.
Occasionally, there was a quiet period when the sounds subsided, and a terrifying silence would encompass the whole house. In that silence, you could even hear very clearly the uninterrupted singing of the cicadas on the tree in the middle of the courtyard.
ALL THESE SOUNDS were in my ears, together with Mr. Kamali’s face coming and going in my head. He and his wife and daughter were standing outside the door when mother opened it. They had parked their car opposite the house, and as soon as the door was opened, he and his wife hastily greeted Mother, and Mr. Kamali asked where my father was.
Mother said: “Please, do come in. Hassan has gone to Motel Ghoo today. He heard that his brother-in-law had an accident on Haraz Road on his way back from Tehran and has been taken to the hospital. And it is not certain that he will survive.”
Mr. Kamali didn’t give mother another opportunity to insist on them coming in. He turned and walked toward the car. His wife and daughters followed him. As they were walking away, mother invited them several times to come in, but it seemed as if her words didn’t reach Mr. Kamali and his wife and daughters. They got into the car, and a few moments later, there was no sign of the car in the street. Father and Mr. Kamali were, according to my uncle, like Rumi and Shams. They were like one soul in two bodies.
Not half an hour had passed since Mr. Kamali left when someone knocked on the door. Someone very agitated and anxious was banging on the door with the palm of his hand. As I went to open the door, mother stopped me and said, “When they knock on the door at this time of night, a little girl doesn’t go to the door. You just sit where you are sitting!” I didn’t sit where I was supposed to sit. I drew the curtain to see who mother and Jahan, who was right behind her, opened the door to.
It was Mr. Kamali. He looked restless, moving from foot to foot, asking mother some questions that I couldn’t hear, but even from behind the curtain and at a distance it was obvious that there was no calmness in their voices and what they were talking about.
After they closed the door, mother got hold of Jahan’s hand hastily and looked back a few times; then, looking very confused and distraught, she entered the hall and said very loudly, “All three of you, go and hide somewhere you can’t be seen.”
Where? Our house didn’t have anywhere that was invisible. It was a house like any other house built for living in, and when they were building it, they didn’t make a place to hide for the people who lived there.
Mother said, “It was Mr. Kamali. He said his wife and daughters are in serious danger. He said they are after him and maybe they have followed him to our house. So, they might come after us too.”
And then, as if mother was talking to herself, she said, “No matter how much I insisted he should bring the girls here, he just wouldn’t have it.”
Mother suddenly appeared to have remembered something. She turned to the three of us and said, “Get into the cupboard and close the door! No matter what sounds you hear, you must not come out of the cupboard!”
AND NOW that I was sitting in the dark prison of the cupboard, I remembered that maybe what the man in the mosque was saying from behind the microphone was about us. Maybe somehow it was related to us. I couldn’t understand who he was talking about, but mother had understood it. She looked as if the sorrows of the whole world were weighing on her as she sat very anxiously on the stairs leading to the balcony and said, “They are inciting people again…” And she listened very carefully to what the man behind the microphone was saying.
The muezzin of our local mosque was reciting verses from the Koran. He would stop from time to time and talk about the infidels. He appeared to have forgotten his usual job of reciting from the Koran. It was obvious that he was talking with great enmity and hatred about some people, but nobody knew who they were.
The darkness of the cupboard was like a long corridor. Through its darkness and silence, it was possible to hear the echoing sound of the breathing of Jahan and Navid. I was wondering where Mr. Kamali and his family went that night and what happened to them all night through to the morning.
I remembered that a few days ago father was telling mother that Mr. Kamali had received a letter summoning him to report somewhere but didn’t say who had summoned him or where he had to go to report. Mother said, “Report to? It would be better if he ran away. He is not an ordinary person whose dismissal would satisfy the authorities. He was a member of the Circle. They are not joking with him. If he doesn’t become a Muslim, they will execute him. If he is lucky and survives, he will have to stay in prison a long time.”
I had heard these conversations so often in my childhood that I knew Mr. Kamali was a member of the Baha’i Circle. But I didn’t know what the Baha’i Circle was and why being a member of the Circle was a crime. I wished Mr. Kamali would escape and never report to anybody anywhere.
In my view Mr. Kamali was a gallant and brave man who was confused about the dilemma of being or not being. And he was being pulled by the forces in both directions. He was confused and hesitant as to whether he should go or not, escape or not.
Mr. Kamali was brave, just like a blackbird. Like that blackbird we had seen that day in the garden; a blackbird that flew from one tree to another but never wanted to fly away; nor had it any intention of staying on a branch of a tree. It was Sizdah Bedar, and we all had gathered in Mr. Kamali’s garden.
Jahan was throwing stones at the birds and the trees with his catapult. The blackbird came and perched on a branch and began to sing like no other bird! Mr. Kamali said, “These are called Tika in Mazandaran, but they are referred to as tuka in the books.”
I remembered the book called A Tuka in a Cage. But in those days, when I had read it, I hadn’t paid any attention to who had written it. I never paid any attention to the authors because I was more interested in the stories than anything else.
The story was about a tuka that had been trapped in a hunter’s cage. It pleads with every creature that passes the cage to help and rescue him.
A COW, a beautiful green lizard that looks like a crocodile, a crow, and a few other animals… None of the animals can rescue it, even the lion, the king of the jungle. When the big strong animals tried to help with good intentions, all they did was almost
break the cage and hurt the tuka. Each in its own way wanted to rescue it, but in the end, they couldn’t do anything, and finally, the poor tuka attacks the bars of the cage with its tired wings and makes some space between the bars and succeeds in saving itself.
Later, I remembered a friend told me that the author of the story was Nima Yooshij.
But this tuka was flying from one tree to another, and Mr. Kamali was looking at it and smiling. Jahan never threw stones at the bird and only looked at it with amazement.
They had said that if Mr. Kamali doesn’t report, they will destroy his house over his and his family’s heads by setting fire to it. These were the same people who had forgotten to broadcast the prayers and instead were cursing and insulting the infidels.
Mr. Kamali moved his family from one place to another to find a permanent place for them. Nobody wanted to or was able to help them because they were in danger themselves. I think it was all these things that eventually made it inevitable that he
surrendered to keep his family safe. And that, too, when they had set fire to the house and cut down all the trees in his garden.
A TREMENDOUS AND FRIGHTENING SOUND shook the house. There was an uproar sound and the sound of feet jumping as a few people climbed over the wall and entered the courtyard. Mother said firmly “Hush” to us and pushed us into the cupboard. I think she hid herself somewhere on the other side of the room.
I took Jahan’s hand and squeezed it. Navid was so small that sitting in one place was difficult for him. But now, he too was scared and didn’t move from where he was sitting. It was hot inside the cupboard, and Navid was sweating. Mother had put a few layers on him. She had thought just in case something dreadful happened and we had to run away, he wouldn’t be without any clothes. But where could we run to from here? The
house had been surrounded.
Navid said very quietly, “Water, water, I want water.” He was thirsty and wanted water. Jahan took off one of the jumpers Navid was wearing, but he said again, “Water, I want water.”
Before Jahan realized what was happening, I had jumped out of the cupboard. I ran quietly behind the folded curtain hanging by the window and hid there.
I wanted to see where they were. The kitchen had a net curtain. I wanted to know whether they could see me if I went into the kitchen. I pulled the curtain back a bit and had a very quick look at the courtyard. A few men holding large clubs were prowling around the courtyard. A couple of them threw stones at the guestroom windows, breaking the glass with a terrible crash. Another was walking on the wall and threw a large rock onto the roof of the house. Very hastily, I sat down by the window. Once again, that loud and horrifying sound echoed through the house. One of them said in a voice that wasn’t too loud, “They are hiding inside the house. They are afraid. They have switched off the light.”
That night, the moon was not shining. The courtyard was partially lighted by a streetlamp. When I looked carefully, I saw that they had covered half their faces with black cloth. Their voices were not familiar; I didn’t know any of them. They weren’t from our neighborhood. One of them said in a hoarse voice: “Their window has anti-theft bars.” And another one said: “We can’t get inside the house; let’s break the rest of the windows.”
They broke the windows by throwing large stones at them, and I was scared to go to the kitchen to get some water. I sat there, and from time to time, I would half stand and look at what was happening in the courtyard. One of the men jumped up and took hold of one of the window bars! I remember he was so close that I could hear his panting and wheezing breath. I was frightened and couldn’t move from where I was and was forced to watch the moments of that man’s insanity.
The man on the wall, who was going this way and that, threw another large piece of rock onto the roof of the house. This time it seemed as if the ceiling was giving way; bits and pieces of cement and plaster fell into the courtyard. I was shaking and couldn’t move.
A hand gently touched my back, and for a moment I was taken back. It was Mother. She hugged me and very gently put her hand on my mouth. Very quietly, she said, “Didn’t I tell you not to come out of the cupboard?” I wanted to say Navid was thirsty, but she went on: “Hush, don’t talk and don’t move.”
There was a loud sound of sawing. And now Mother, too, was curious to find out what was happening. From a narrow gap between the curtain and the window, we looked in the direction of the sound. They were hard at work cutting the trees down; they were cutting down our three-year-old orange trees. Each one of them was standing over a tree. One of them had lifted the lid of the well and was throwing the branches of the trees down it. At this moment, someone rushed hurriedly toward the well, taking his trousers down intending to urinate in the well. Mother put a hand in front of my eyes so I wouldn’t see what he was doing.
The sky was cloudy and suddenly it began to rain. A sudden thunderclap was followed by a sound more terrible than the sound when the man had thrown pieces of rock on the rooftop and shook the ground. And a bolt of lightning landed just by the metal base of the water storage tank above the well.
Mother took a deep breath and moved her hand away from my mouth. The man wearing black who had been ready to urinate in the well seemed to have changed his mind; he quickly pulled up his trousers and moved away from the well. A few moments later, torrential rain began to fall. There was thunder and heavy rain. Now the rest of the men wearing black in the courtyard seemed scared. They exchanged words and wanted to open the door. After Mr. Kamali had left, mother had locked the front door, securing it with several locks. And the door opening to the house itself had also been locked and secured with thick chains. Since the moment a few months ago, when the man behind the microphone had cursed the infidels in the mosque, father had arranged for bars to be installed in front of the windows. A big lock and thick chain were also installed to secure the entrance to the building.
The men were getting anxious and began to shake the door, hoping it would open and they could leave, but the door wouldn’t open. They opened the top and bottom latches and realized that the door was locked from within. They stood by the wall and gave each other a leg up and jumped over the wall and away.
I said to mum, “They’ve gone, can I go into the kitchen? Navid wants water.”
She said: “Hush, maybe they haven’t all gone. Don’t talk. They will hear you. They are dangerous. I will take him water myself”
I didn’t talk but hid my face in my mother’s bosom. There was the sound of the muezzin calling people to prayers from the mosque, and I was so tired that I closed my eyes.
When I opened my eyes, there was brilliant sunshine spreading over the ground, and the branches of the orange trees and the greens looked revived and fresh. A tuka flew away from the only tree that had been left in the garden.
Like the other day in Mr. Kamali’s garden when the tuka flew away, and Mr. Kamali had told Jahan, “It was a good thing that you let it go and didn’t hit it with your catapult. These birds are created to make the world beautiful, and their meat is not edible. Humans have no right to hunt them; birds like canaries and bullfinches that sing for us. Even if you kill them, you will have to throw them away. Some birds are not for hunting.”
Farther away, Mother was quietly gathering and sweeping up the pieces of shattered and broken glass from the ground. Between my shin and ankle there was a trace of blood from a stray piece of broken glass that I hadn’t even noticed. In the morning, when mother got up, she put some penicillin powder on it. From that cut, only a tiny and hardly visible line has remained. Just like the memory of that night. Only amusing dreams can be like that: men wearing black and intent on killing other people by breaking windows and roofs and who were terrified by thunder and lightning.
The following day, Mr. Kamali had gone to the mosque and had repeated all that they had asked him to say. Apparently, those scared men in black had achieved what they had set out to do.
Later, Mr. Kamali returned to his house and garden and once again planted trees and never left the garden. The only man who brought him friendship and tranquility was my father, and whenever they met, whether when they were strolling in the garden or sitting and facing each other, their presence was enough without having to utter a word and break the silence.
They had sent a message from where Mr. Kamali had worked saying that now you have renounced the religion of infidels, you can return to your previous job.
But he hadn’t returned. Mr. Kamali, after leaving the mosque, had said goodbye to everybody and had migrated to his garden so the whole world would miss his presence.
Goodbye, Mr. Kamali.
Sepideh Zamani is a native of Iran and now lives in Maryland. She graduated from law school in 1999 and moved to the United States a year later. Her novels, short stories, and essays focus on immigration, gender inequality, and the lives of ethnic and religious minorities under cultural cleansing. Website: sepideh-zamani.com
Over its 15-year history, Delmarva Review has published new literary prose and poetry from 490 authors from 42 states, the District of Columbia, and 16 foreign countries. Forty-six percent are from the Chesapeake and Delmarva region. Financial support comes from tax-deductible contributions and a grant from Talbot Arts with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Website: www.DelmarvaReview.org
# # #