I wanted to flee Oklahoma from the first moment that I arrived here. August 1991. I remember the precise instant when the feeling settled in my twelve-year-old body. There it grew up with me for the next six years—something inside crying for escape, for flight. We had just descended an escalator for the baggage claim downstairs and I looked out at the asphalt and the glaring southern sun beating through the windows onto the conveyer belt.

Watching the procession of bags leading up to our four brown suitcases – the old leather kind without wheels, ravaged by years of use, each bearing a tag that read in pencil Dr. Asghar Jalalfar, M.D. in huge lower-case letters, except for the L’s and the credentials which were all in capitals – I wanted to run away.

As my father bent to retrieve the first suitcase, I took in the ominous emptiness, the sheer square-footage that each person was allowed to occupy in this vast flatland. It made us small and yet oddly more visible. I was certain that we had landed in the wrong place, that Baba didn’t know what he was doing. Suddenly I noticed the misplaced capital letters, the way he touched his back as he lifted. I took a breath and it was as though the simmering smells of all that I would experience there was already in the air, a warning. The airport suffocated me. It was not at all the way I had imagined an American airport, nothing like JFK, our first point of entry into the United States, where I felt as though I had landed at the very centre of the world.

‘From now on,’ Baba said as he hauled the third suitcase off the belt, ‘English only.’ His unruly mustache curled up as he smiled at my sister and warbled on about this being the first day of a whole new life. He told a long, winding story from Rumi related to our situation by the thinnest fiber. I didn’t dare correct the dozen or so grammar mistakes he made in the first few sentences. I could see from the grey bags under his eyes, the beads of sweat on his wide brow, the tense bending of his stocky wrestler’s torso, that Baba’s happy mood was a temporary and fickle guest.

‘Where are we to go?’ Maman whispered in Farsi. She was still nauseated from the plane, groggy from the double dose of Dramamine that Baba had fed her somewhere over West Virginia. She touched her hair, recently cut short into a western bob and dyed a garish shade of orange-brown as a tribute to her upcoming freedom from the headscarf. ‘Is there a church house?’

For an instant Baba looked worried, even as he was assuring her that yes, yes, there was a guesthouse, as customary. He glanced around the half-empty baggage claim area, then back at the suitcases, which he arranged in a row before seeming to accept that he had no idea what to do next. He sat on one of the suitcases, his moustache twitching the way it did when he chewed the inside of his cheek.

We were silent, all four of us, for a long time. Here we were, in Oklahoma City, our final destination after two years spent in European refugee camps and huddled in lines outside embassies. Now it seemed that the rest of life was only a bright, eye-burning white expanse, like the sun-bleached concrete slabs just outside this building. Years of nothingness, decades maybe, here in the heat of our camp-spun paradise – an invention of all those scratchy thin-sheeted nights without sleep. A collective fear seemed to appear now, a fifth person among us. Maman tugged on the belt of her long denim skirt, rested her hand on her stomach and took three deep breaths.

Baba told us to wait with the bags. He unclipped the beautifully scratched brown leather satchel that carried our passports, his important papers and money. He took out a book (its title beginning with How To . . . ) and retrieved a half-sheet of yellow legal pad paper from its pages. Then he disappeared through the glass doors into the August heat. He was gone for some minutes before returning sweaty and flushed, and whispering to Maman that taxis to the address on the scrap of paper, a church that seemed only vaguely aware of our coming, cost nearly twenty dollars. ‘It is too much,’ he said matter-of-factly. It was a marvel seeing him look so bewildered, almost frightened – my bulldog of a father, Dr. Jalalfar M.D., helpless in this grey, shapeless room.

I took Nasreen’s hand, icy even in summer. She looked like she was about to cry. My ten-year-old sister, ever the accidental immigrant, has been a white-faced, almond-eyed stranger to every imperfect world she inhabited before and since that day, and she was my responsibility. ‘Are we homeless?’ she whispered. I shook my head. Then almost instantly, she managed to cheer herself up, announcing, ‘Jesus saves!’ in that sweet mixed-up British accent that would only be with us for another three months.

Baba sighed at Nasreen’s sudden show of faith – as if he hadn’t been driven out of his country for this very belief, as if his medical practice weren’t torn apart, his office not ransacked and his life not threatened; the grey years at the end of his life not potentially wiped out by the anxiety of squatting in a Tehran jail cell for days at a time.

‘Saeed, come here by me,’ he said out of habit. Lately Baba had gotten the idea that it was bad for my masculine development to be too close to my sister. The onset of this compulsion had to do either with my reaching puberty or Nasreen doing so. Or maybe it wasn’t that at all. Neither of us was a vision of a glorious Jalalfar future. Nasreen was a chubby girl, and I was sprouting in parts, almost as tall as my father, now, suddenly darker skinned than every other member of my family, with rough black hair on my head, under my arms and running like desert patches all the way up my legs to the small itchy mounds above my genitals and on my chest. I had no muscles. Once Baba commented on my growing nose, but caught himself and added that it went well with the bones in my jaw.

Maman joined me beside him and took my hand. ‘Oh, but what other refugees have a son like Saeed?’ she said in a drowsy voice. Already she clung to me so that my underdeveloped shoulders felt weighted down with the burden of her. Then she turned to Baba and said in English, ‘God helps those who make plan.’

Baba looked into her tired face as if he might hit her, his stare jagged and accusing. Maybe he knew that he should have made better plans instead of relying on the kindness of a strange church. But how was he to know things would be so different here? In Iran he had driven across deserts to visit a single family of recent Christian converts. He had taken them food and smuggled them a Bible. When their unmarried daughter was found pregnant, he had hidden and protected her, sent women to read her comforting passages from the Bible – the ones about forgiveness. When the time came, he had reached into the depths of her and pulled out the new baby with his own hands, then baptized them both in our backyard pool. To them at least he was Kind Brother Jalalfar.

But here was our first lesson about this new self-sufficient culture we had entered, a glimpse at all that separates a single church across many lands. Baba understood this now and his sorrow and resentment were written in the lines around his mouth.

God helps those who make plan indeed.

We must have waited by that baggage carrousel for an hour – or maybe it was just five minutes – before any of us dared to move any farther than the bathroom. Just as Baba was about to go to the main floor to search for a phone – to call his friends in Iran, perhaps one of them would know someone – a long wiry man with thin lips and blonde eyebrows appeared from beyond the glass doors. He wore a pale yellow Polo shirt and loose jeans, with old cowboy boots hidden underneath. He seemed to spot us right away and strode in our direction with the entitled ease that I would soon come to know as the hallmark of athletic Oklahoma churchmen.

‘Jalalfars?’ he said to my parents, both at once. He stretched it into three long vowels – in that friendly backslapping salesman’s drawl that I have never managed to imitate – as if to say our name could relax and occupy all the space it needed here.

My parents looked at the stranger dumbfounded, before Baba held out his hand and said, ‘Yes, Jalalfar. That is me.’

‘Oh good,’ the man said, shaking Baba’s hand roughly with both of his. Then he started on a long narrative, most of which I know neither Baba nor Maman understood. ‘I’m Peter Daugherty. Pleasure to meet you all. I was waiting at the main gate but then the plane cleared out and I figured you’d be getting your bags . . . I don’t come here all that much . . . wife’s afraid to fly. So then I went up to the wrong family too. Funny thing, they had a little girl, but no young man.’ He chuckled and boxed my shoulder as if we were old friends. He had huge hands, the backs of them a golden brown like his face.

Baba just kept nodding, a half-smile frozen on his lips. ‘Yes. Thank you,’ he said. I wondered if I should translate. Nasreen and I had a much more fluent grasp of English than our parents, a result of days spent with an elderly professor from Russia in the front garden of one of our refugee camps, a place called Mentana in Italy.

I decided to keep quiet, to let Baba handle things.

Peter Daugherty continued on in his happy way, only now taking in the details of our faces, our formal travel dress. He tried to joke with Baba: ‘Well, look at that, you wore a suit. Thank God for air-conditioning, huh?’ He waited, presumably for some kind of recognition. When it didn’t come he added slowly, ‘I’m the welcome wagon from Meadow Creek Assemblies of God, over in Edmond . . . Pastor Clark?’ Then he said, holding out both hands and jingling his keys, ‘I get the honour of serving as your first chauffer in the Sooner state.’

‘Yes, yes,’ Baba breathed out and seemed to come alive with grateful enthusiasm. ‘Brother Clark. Thank you for coming. So kind. Such a kind man.’ He was already picking up the first bag. ‘We are so obliged for you to be coming.’

Daugherty and Baba fought for the bags, laughing and forgetting about the rest of us. Baba gesticulated grandly, with his hands and eyes, as he always did when he was excited or telling a good story. Maman followed them, trying to share in the mirth in a peripheral way. In the parking lot, she asked Baba in Farsi, ‘Does he know the address?’

‘Of course,’ whispered Baba, who was wheeling the cart stacked with our suitcases as Peter Daugherty ran ahead to a green minivan and unlocked the trunk.

‘Are you a cowboy?’ Nasreen asked Mr. Daugherty in the car.

He chuckled and said that he just liked the shoes. Baba laughed too loud, gestured too much, responded too worshipfully to everything the man said, each salaam and verbal curtsy a frigid finger down my spine. In Tehran, Baba would be stoic, scholarly, hovering above it all in a way people admired. This was a shameful way for a respected surgeon to behave towards a man who could be anybody, maybe nobody.

‘You speak English so well,’ said Peter, looking back at the rest of us.

Baba nodded and started on an unrelated Mawlawi story about four men fighting over what fruit to buy. My cheeks burned, the finger moving up and down, up and down my back. Baba kept repeating the most obvious parts in that old rural way of storytelling that claims the beauty is not in the unexpected, but entirely about the rhyming prose. I could see Peter Daugherty becoming lost in the unfamiliar Persian story arc that never builds up but starts with a fully evident answer and only travels downward, unraveling through rambling poetry.

Our poor host smiled at Baba, searching for a connection, then releasing the desire for one and waiting for a punchline, a revelation that would never come because Baba had opened with it. ‘The first man say he want Angoor, which mean grape,’ he said. ‘The second man say he want grape in his own language. You see? They are all same. So Rumi say to them, you all asking for same thing. You see? Angoor mean grape, but they each asking for it in own language. Fighting about it. So then –’

‘In Farsi, it rhymes,’ I interrupted desperately. Baba frowned, continued on.

Peter nodded, still waiting for the big finish, the wit. ‘Such a world, my friend,’ said Baba, after stretching the story far past its expiration. Finally, he sighed and said, ‘It is like you and I. Same God in our different languages. Of course, some say each grape is different religion. All same God, different names.’

It was good enough. The moving finger writes and, having writ, moved on from fondling my poor cowardly spine.

I started to nod off to the quiet melody of hymns sighing out of the car radio. I imagined my new room, and somehow it was an exact replica of the one I had occupied in Iran. The same low, wide bed with deep cherry bedspread. The same desk in the corner with my special chair, the one that leaned in all directions. The same Nain rug.

When we had cleared the airport and were on a wide highway leading out toward the vast uncomfortable plain, Peter Daugherty said, ‘Where to then?’

Nobody moved or spoke right away. In fact, Baba allowed only a second or two of silence before he answered, but between the four of us everything shifted with those three words – the church, it seemed, had not arranged a place for us.

‘I say as you go. Not to worry,’ Baba said. He cleared his throat and from behind the driver’s seat I could see the sides of his moustache twitch – the flesh of his cheek move up and down where he chewed. He put on a laughing, casual tone and said quickly to Maman in Farsi, ‘Keep the children silent.’

I didn’t have to be told. Baba was about to embark on the age-old Persian ritual of preserving our honour through a string of timely lies – all other concerns be damned. He kept his eyes on the road and rested an elbow on the narrow window ledge.

A weight dropped low in my stomach. Baba had failed us. He would fail us again. Somehow there were things I understood, was capable of growing to understand, that he was not. Baba kept his eyes on the road, rested an elbow on the narrow ledge as he ran his palm over his moustache once. That was all the time Dr Jalalfar, top Tehrani surgeon, ever needed to make a decision – a single stroke of the moustache.

Peter glanced at Baba. ‘D’ya have an address though? Should I go to Edmond?’

‘Yes, yes. Ed-mand,’ Baba said, uttering for the first time a word that, when it appeared on his lips from then on, never failed to make me cringe, the too soft tingle of the syllable crawled on my skin like a hundred unseen insects.

Before Peter could ask any more questions, Baba pointed to the radio and said, ‘Very good music, this. We have this hymn in Farsi, you know. Exactly same words. Same tune.’ Maman hummed along in Persian, creating a beautiful, unfathomable mixture of sounds. As the deer panteth for the water, so my soul longeth after thee.

‘Isn’t that something?’ Mr. Daugherty said, delighted. ‘It’s a real good one.’

‘I find it so,’ Baba sighed and leaned his head against the glass, giving in for an instant to jetlag, then straightened up again. ‘Very soulful, like oldest poetry.’

‘Pastor Clark told the congregation some things about your coming,’ said Peter as he turned into an exit leading toward Edmond. ‘Everyone’s been real excited to hear . . . about the situation over there.’ He looked at me through the rearview mirror, his expression encouraging like a schoolteacher. ‘You can show the kids in Sunday School how to sing in Farsi.’ He said this as though he truly believed it, and so I believed it too, imagining that in Sunday School, I would be a star, welcomed and admired for my adventures. As he completed a turn, Daugherty asked Baba, ‘Do you drive, Asghar?’

It was bizarre hearing this stranger, a much younger man, using Baba’s first name without invitation. Baba flinched, then said, ‘Yes. Left here.’ He reached into his pocket and took out his string of green counting beads. He flicked through them one by one, a seemingly calm gesture that revealed to his family the extent of his anxiety.

‘What do you have there?’ Peter Daugherty glanced at the beads.

‘It is just a relaxation,’ said Baba, still counting. ‘Tranquilizing.’

‘Like a rosary,’ Mr Daugherty said. He turned into the wide street and I could see why my father had chosen it. It had a block of stores clustered together with some restaurants – promising. ‘How do you know your way around here?’

Baba didn’t hesitate. Clearly he had been waiting for this question since the start of this charade. ‘I had very good instructions from airport.’ He tapped his head and his moustache curled a little as he added, ‘Good memory is sign of youth.’

From there, Baba led Peter Daugherty on a series of improvised lefts and rights and just-through-there’s. With each turn I craned my neck all the way down the street to see why Baba had chosen it and if there might be some salvation at the end. I was beginning to feel carsick. Beside me in the centre seat, Maman stroked a sleeping Nasreen’s hair and hugged her head to her chest.

Finally, out of nowhere Baba shouted, somewhat too triumphantly, ‘Here it is!’

On the right side of the street, beside a real-life McDonald’s – which drew a gasp of excitement from me – was a dilapidated red sign with white letters. Red Carpet Motel.

Behind the sign a U-shaped block of tightly crammed red doors were stacked in two neat floors – each row of rooms shielded by a long metal railing separating their narrow walkway from the parking lot. Outside an open door to the left, a woman in ripped shorts was bent over the railing, smoking. A few doors down, a man in a white undershirt was eating a hamburger while lounging in a deck chair.

‘We are much obliged,’ Baba said even before the car had fully stopped. It was as if he hoped that it never would, that we could just fling ourselves out of the car and have this Peter Daugherty drive away, immediately forgetting what he had seen here. Maybe Baba hoped that Daugherty would realize how respectable a place this could be, when viewed as temporary lodgings for a doctor’s family. In any case, it was the path of least shame.

Peter Daugherty parked the car and helped Baba with the bags. He wanted to come along to register and bring the bags to the room, but Baba refused. He stood firmly between Peter and the motel’s check-in entrance, trapping him against his own minivan. ‘Dear sir,’ he said, holding out his hand. ‘May Lord bless you, Brother Daugherty.’

He pronounced the name with difficulty, digging into the second syllable like he was excavating the roof of his mouth with his tongue. The two men shook hands, then at Peter’s insistence they prayed together while the rest of us waited, heads bowed. Baba prayed awkwardly in English. Very good Father. Very kind Father, he began.

Then Peter Daugherty drove off, and the four of us pretended to move the bags towards the check-in office, though I thought that he must surely have a sense of Baba’s bluff. He must realize that Baba had only just spotted this motel – or worse yet, that we had almost no money and would not be staying here at all. I writhed under the shameful possibilities. Would Peter tell the people at his church about our circumstances? I glanced at my sister, her face as serene as it would be through many more trials in the coming years. She wasn’t considering any of this as she whispered to me about the McDonald’s. Had I seen it? Would we go there for dinner? I lied that, yes, we would.

Baba and I moved the suitcases to the side of the parking lot, behind the lower railing. ‘A church miscommunication, I suppose,’ he said to Maman. Neither of them had thought to speak of their financial situation to the American church that had been called upon to sponsor us. Our underground church in Tehran was expected to do that, so that we could be spared the shame of asking for charity on our own behalf. This was the Iranian way – to refuse a gift the first time, to pretend you have no need, to have your community thrust it upon you and insist, so that you can save face.

In the parking lot of the Red Carpet Motel, the cherry-coloured sign smoldering under the August heat, we waited while Baba went inside to call the local shelter.

An hour later he came back. Not Baba, but Peter Daugherty.

‘Good Heavens,’ he said as he got out of the car, and we scrambled for ways to sustain Baba’s story. ‘There’s no escape from this heat.’

Baba was still gone, having returned only once to retrieve his leather satchel full of phone numbers and documents. He promised that he had found a place called The Jesus House to which one of the motel workers had kindly offered to drive him. He would be back in the Jesus House van, with news of beds and a good dinner.

‘Mr Daugherty,’ Maman breathed, bewildered. ‘You come back.’

‘Now why give me that whole song and dance about y’all staying here?’ he said. I could tell he was trying to force a lightness into his tone, as if he could spare us the embarrassment by making a big joke out of it.

Maman started to mutter, ‘I . . . I don’t know what – ’

‘Come on,’ a kind smile spread across his face. ‘I clued in right around the fourth left turn. Sorry it took a while. Had to speak to my wife first, but you’re welcome to come and stay at our place for a few days. Where’s Asghar?’

Baba returned in a dilapidated white van ten minutes after we had loaded all the bags into the back of Peter’s car. The chipped black paint on the side said Jesus House and I could see from the pale look on his face that what he had seen there wasn’t good. He kept rubbing his face with the palm of his hand, the way he did after coming home from a particularly gruesome medical trauma.

When he saw Peter he seemed confused, and then a strange smile of abject embarrassment spread across his face as if he wished the telltale white van would disappear into the ground. ‘We see you again so soon, Brother,’ he said.

‘You’re coming home with me,’ said Peter. ‘No arguments.’

Already Baba was shaking his head. ‘No, we cannot trouble you.’ He said it with so much finality that my stomach lurched with hatred. I prayed to Jesus that by some divine miracle Peter Daugherty, who had never met an Iranian before, would understand that Baba was obliged, by a force much older than himself, to refuse this offer three times, even though we were desperate for it. Be strong, Peter. Just three times.

‘No trouble,’ Peter said, confused. ‘There’s a basement room. All furnished.’

‘Really, we cannot,’ said Baba and I almost said to him in Farsi that perhaps we shouldn’t tarof for this man. He would take it as a genuine rejection.

There was a blip of silence and then Peter seemed to understand. He scratched the top of his head and said, ‘I was gonna spend tomorrow doing up the front yard. It’d be nice to have company. And my wife too, she’s been wanting to learn some ethnic dishes.’

‘You need help, Brother?’ Baba smiled, deeply from his heart for the first time that day. ‘This heat surely hurts your grass.’

‘Yeah, you said it, Maynard!’ he said and slapped Baba’s shoulder.

‘Who’s Maynard?’ asked Nasreen. Peter just laughed and led her to the backseat.

Before we left, Baba jogged toward the white van to thank the driver. I only heard a few words, but he was setting the groundwork for what would become his decade-long obsession with the Jesus House. For years he would go there every Saturday (to keep his skills sharp, he would say), tending to the drugged men and the wandering prostitutes. It was illegal for him to offer medical care without a license. He did anyway, when he wasn’t painting walls or seasoning food with his own stash of Persian spices – after Tehrani jail, he sometimes said, threat of Oklahoma jail only good for nervous aunt. Once he set a bone in a man’s arm in the front lobby because the man refused to go to the hospital, and the shelter refused to accept him in that condition. What balls he has, I thought once or twice, when feeling charitable toward my Baba. But I never said it aloud and I doubted my father would need to hear it. Only a certain kind of man does, I reasoned, and for all his faults, my Baba was not that kind of man.


Photograph by mtnbikrrrr

Interview: Henry Marsh
Dina Nayeri | Interview