A celebration of Persian voices and talent

On Our Red Bikes, You and Me by Mojgan Ghazirad

Essay

On Our Red Bikes,
You and Me

by Mojgan Ghazirad
“You and I have found common ground in the most unfamiliar crevices of our lives, maybe because we both have tried in our own ways to deal with the pain of the past.”

On Our Red Bikes
by Mojgan Ghazirad

We are standing beside the new bicycles Baba has bought for us, posing in front of our rosebush—the one that blooms with red, velvety flowers twice a year. It’s May and we are both wearing yellow, sleeveless camis. People think we are twins, but you are one year, three months and three days younger than me. One foot on the pedal, one foot pressing the ground, we are impatient to ride our bikes. If only Maman will take the picture and let us go. I don’t remember if I’ve ever experienced anything without you. We are bound in happiness and sorrow, our fate written on a single piece of cahier paper with same black ink.

I can see the thrill of new experience in your eyes. You are excited because you have accepted my challenge to ride outside the boundaries of our garden, all the way to the bakery where Baba buys our daily bread. We want to buy fresh sangak breads for Maman and surprise her. We want to show her we’re now grown-up girls, capable of gliding in the streets and bringing bread for the family. We go together and stay in line, holding the glossy red handles of our bikes, waiting for our turn to buy the bread. The baker looks at us in surprise, having never seen us alone. “How many sangaks do you want?” We buy two, one with sesame seeds for me, and one plain for you. We wait, proud of our stainless-steel bicycle bells shining under the sun. I put my thumb on the trigger, tempted to ring the bell. You shake your head, your bangs dancing above your eyebrows. It’s too much attention for two little girls riding red bikes on the street.

The baker throws two round, fluffy pieces of dough onto his floured board. One for me, one for you, side by side. Starting from the top, he kneads the belly of the dough, flattening the ball, and creating waves on the surface of the bread. Sangaks must be thin and full of waves. He sprinkles the sesame seeds on mine before he feeds the board into the oven’s jaws, leaving the helpless dough on the scorching pebbles. Now and then, he peeks through the oven. Tiny, reddish veins have grown on his cheeks for his nearness to the fire for many years. His hands are striped with flour, like the white strips on the red handles of our bikes. He brings the bread out and throws them on the wide counter of the bakery. You’ve seen Baba flipping sangaks and removing the hot pebbles attached to their back. You flip the bread like him. There are a few little stones stuck to your sangak. You touch the pebbles to separate them, but your fingertips burn. I forgot to warn you about them. Baba always says we need to wait. Soon, the pebbles would let go of the bread. They’ve managed to escape the oven; they don’t need the bread anymore!

I fold your bread and tuck it on the rear rack of your bike. You almost forgot you had a metal rack with a rubber belt you can fasten around your doll to take it on your rides. I fold my sesame bread and for now, the breads sit on the racks instead of the dolls. You glide and the boys look at your soft black hair flowing with the wind. Two long-haired girls riding red bikes, spreading the scent of sesame bread in the air. They want to catch us and take a bite of the bread. But we are too fast for them. You smile as we pass; you know they’ll never reach us on our bikes.

You are wearing a navy helmet posing in front of snow-capped mountains. This picture is from a bike ride you took in Saint-Luc, Switzerland, trailing through the silent spruces and luminous larch trees of the Alps. You’ve been biking for years—the decades we’ve been separated from each other. You’ve become a neuropsychiatrist in England, dealing with amnesiacs at the far end of life, and I went all the way to America, to treat the beginning of life, the newborns, those who come early out of the womb. Up in the mountains you can identify with your patients, where the memory is whited out like the ridges that vanish with the falling snow. You understand the unexpected joy they feel when they’re freed from the poignant weight of memory. The whiteness of void, that holy place of nothingness that liberates them from the tortures of the past. That’s what you seek in the high mountains of Alps that you trail with your bike.

I have never spoken with a single amnesiac or biked beside you on the narrow pathways of the highlands. All I remember of biking are the days we rode our bikes on our street, in the eastern part of Tehran. But I understand what you say about the weight of memory. My newborn patients are born with no memory, every pain, every joy, unprecedented in the plastic neurons of their brains. They are at the starting point, preparing for billions of chemical reactions that etch the frame of a scene, or the taste of food in their memory. They are weightless and free, incognizant of the delicate web that is woven around them by the black and white orb weaver of time.

You and I have found common ground in the most unfamiliar crevices of our lives, maybe because we both have tried in our own ways to deal with the pain of the past. The pain of leaving our beloved homeland and escaping from the inferno the Islamic Republic has forged, especially for girls like you and me. We still carry the pain like a dâğ, a brand Persians have on their hearts from every invasion and destruction brought to their land, like the black spot of poppies at the base of the flower.

You bike the high mountains to avoid coming back to your motherland. You never returned, not even in 2009, when I begged you to come and join the people in Vali-Asr Street, the most beautiful street of Tehran. Under miles and miles of chinar trees, millions of people created a one long line, stretched from mountains in the north to the railroads of the south, to object the results of a rigged presidential election. You would have felt the strength of the locked hands, the energy emitted in the air from people’s voices and the light of the green bands that illuminated the foreheads.

I wished you could be there with me, like all the unforgettable moments we’ve had together in our street: the night of Revolution, the evening of Khorramshahr’s freedom from the Iraqis’ occupation, the election of President Khatami, all the bitter and sweet times the history of our nation was played out on the streets. But unlike me, you avoid the past. You never leaf through an album after the photos are glued to its pages. They are too disturbing, too unsettling to be reflected on your retinas. They belong to the album, only to be seen one day in future by the grandkids. You don’t want to let the ripples of the past tarnish the image of the present in your mind.

I am not a mountain-biker like you. I often imagine myself as a young girl again, standing beside you under the immense chinar tree in front of our house, you leaning against its bark, I telling you the stories that I’ve read of Siyavush and Sudabeh, Bijan and Manijeh, Khosrow and Shirin, and all the love poems I’d discovered in the dim, dust-covered aisles of my high school’s library. You listen to me with interest, look at me with wide eyes, wondering why I would bother reading the heartbreaking stories of crestfallen lovers for you. “What is it for you in these old poems?” You peel the ashen white dead bark of the tree.

I tread on the sandstone pavers of the sidewalk in our old street until I reach the bakery. The building has aged, and there are a few broken pieces of glass in the lattice frame of the door. The frame is rusty, in dire need of fresh paint. People are standing in line to buy their daily bread. I join the line, behind a teenage girl who is holding the hands of her younger sister. They’re not as close in age as we are, but there is a playfulness in the eyes of the youngster, like the glitter in your eyes the day we rode our bikes for the first time. They buy two sangaks, walk back to the street, and disappear under the chinar trees. “How many sangaks do you want?” The baker’s brittle voice rattles in my ears. His sparse hair has turned gray, same reddish veins on his cheeks. He has grown a hunch on his back from the years of stooping and kneading the dough. How many do I want now that you are not here with me? Two, I say to him, one plain and one with sesame seeds. “I’ve come from America to see our neighborhood once again. We lived in the house in the middle of the street three decades ago, my sister and I.”

He straightens his back as far as the hunch allows him, and looks at me as if he has seen a stand-up comedian telling a joke on a TV screen. He laughs and motions me to get out of the line and stand beside the bread counter where people still pick the pebbles out of sangaks. I hear the groan of the pebbles under my feet as I step on them. I wonder if some of them have gone to the street, clinging to the shoes of the bread buyers who stepped into the bakery.

After a while, he stops feeding the doughs into the oven and turns the notice on the door to Closed for Lunch. He invites me to eat with him and his apprentice—a kind gesture Iranians take when they have an uninvited guest. I thank him and tell him I must go. “But don’t you want to know what happened to your neighborhood the years you’ve gone?” He picks up the hot bread from the counter, breaks the charred edges and softens the shape of his creation. “Be in barkat,” he says, “not a month has passed that we’ve seen the price of this bread rise. Can you believe some people pay installments for their daily bread? You could have bought one hundred sangaks thirty years ago with the money you just paid.” He tells me of the time in October 2009, when the young Iranian students objecting the results of the rigged presidential election were beaten by the batons of the special security forces right in front of his bakery, or a decade later, in October 2019—when all the protestors were silenced or jailed in the Islamic Republic’s horrifying prisons—the people who protested the astronomical rise in price of oil overnight, or in September 2022, the uprising of women against obligatory hijab after the death of an innocent girl in police custody. Right in front of his bakery, once again, he saw people beaten up and killed, as if the history was rewinding and replaying itself. He nods with sorrow and offers his tasty creation to me. I don’t doubt what he says. Poor financial choices and destructive political agenda of the Islamic Republic leaders have made a wreckage of our country. People poor, people broken, people enraged.

I stride to our old house in the middle of the street. I’ve come back to your question every time I come to Tehran and stay under the shade of our chinar tree. It has now grown old and grouchy; the house belonging to the people we have never met in our lives. What’s in the past that I seek? I’m not the distinguished neuropsychiatrist like you, I have not studied the methods of the mind, and I can’t dissect my feelings the way you analyze your patients’ emotions. I’m still that girl, your older sister who loved reading poems to you, who insisted you stay ten more minutes under the chinar tree so that she could finish the part Siyavush passes the fire trial unscathed. I’m still the sister who would ask you to bike with her one more time to the end of the street, to hear the crunch of the fallen leaves under her wheels. I’m the sister who goes back to Iran, hoping to find her red bike and the pieces of her broken memories.

You know the fate of our bikes. Baba gave them to the haggler who had a thrift store around the Haft-Hose Square when we both got accepted to medical school. If only I could find my bike again and caress the stainless bell that decorated its handle. Maybe two little girls are riding them now, like you and me, hoping to glide into a better world, the one that is not doomed like the fate of our country. If only I could know those little girls riding our bikes, wind whispering through their hair.

I scan the street for the memory of you, and the shiny handle of your bike beside me. I look everywhere. From the street, I look at the rooftop of our house, where you and I used to lie on our backs and watch the night stars of Tehran. I screen the sidewalk to the end, maybe a phantom of you passes between the trees. I let the wind graze my cheeks, imagining your hands brushing off my tears. I smell the air in hope it brings the scent of your sangak to me. I lower my eyes onto the ground, where chinar roots have grown above the ground. I can’t find you. You are not here anymore; you are probably biking somewhere in the high mountains of Alps. But here, beneath the tree, I find little pieces of hope. The pebbles that have escaped the oven are now bejeweling the base of the chinar tree. They have traveled all the way from the bakery to our home. They have passed the fire trial unscathed. Finally, they are free.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mojgan Ghazirad

A native of Iran, Mojgan Ghazirad graduated from Tehran University of Medical Sciences with medical degree. She studied pediatrics at Inova Children’s Hospital and received her neonatal medicine specialty from George Washington University. She currently works as an assistant professor of pediatrics at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC.

Mojgan has published three collections of short stories in Farsi in Iran and Europe. Her English essays have appeared in The Best American Travel Writing 2020, Michigan Quarterly Review, New Orleans Review, The Idaho Review, Longreads, The Common, etc. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University. Her debut novel The House on Sun Street that depicts her memories of growing in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and eight years of war between Iran and Iraq will be published in October 2023. Learn more at mojganghazirad.com. Follow her on Twitter @MojganGhazirad and Instagram @mojgan.ghazirad.

FEATURED IMAGE courtesy of the author.