Renovation Overdue by Maryam Ghatee
by Maryam Ghatee
“During their mosque-date, Amir confided that he had recently won the green card lottery. Niloo hadn’t known such a thing existed, let alone that he had entered his name. The reflection of the glowing colors in his hazel-green eyes lit Niloo with a desire she mistook for love and she interpreted his announcement as a hint at the future they were to share together.”
by Maryam Ghatee
N iloo jolted awake to the hubbub that permeated the bus and looked out the window. It was the last turn before the final stop, Shah-e Cheragh Station. As she lined up behind a bent woman in a dusty black chador, she remembered her husband, Brandon, in the men’s section. She craned her neck to catch his puzzled gaze and motioned for him to exit too.
When the chadori woman reached the doors, she quickly slid a calloused hand into Niloo’s.
“Help me, child,” she said in a raspy voice, reminding Niloo that kneeling buses were still uncommon in her homeland.
Brandon, who had exited from the front door, came forward to help. With a tight grip on her tote bags, the woman leaned her fist into his open palm and heaved a sigh as she stepped down onto the concrete curb.
“May you age well, my dears,” she told them in Farsi, overlooking Brandon’s European features. She paused for a breath before disappearing into the crowd.
It was the fifth day of the Nowruz holidays and the sidewalks were swarming with tourists and locals alike. Shiraz’s glorious spring was in full bloom and the air buzzed with the optimism of a new year. Niloo had planned their trip for this season so that Brandon’s first impression of her hometown would be its best.
Niloo stifled a yawn and led the way. She had tossed and turned most of the night, only to doze off to the indistinct tune of the dawn call-to-prayer from the neighborhood nightguard’s radio. She woke up to sunlight and an empty bed. Years of shift work had disrupted Brandon’s circadian rhythm, so he instantly adjusted to the new time zone while Niloo and the girls struggled with jet lag.
Niloo found him in the kitchen helping her father. “For a perfect omelet, Brandon jan, first let the tomato juice boil away,” her father said in his heavily-accented English.
Niloo interrupted. “I’m going to the old town. Will be back before lunch.”
Brandon’s face was splotchy from the onion he had chopped. “I’d like to check it out too,” he said, wiping his eyes on the back of his sleeve.
Niloo blurted the first excuse that came to her. “One of us should be here when the girls wake up.” At thirteen and ten, their daughters were more than capable of taking care of themselves.
Plus, I want to see the man who broke my heart twenty years ago.
“They’ll be okay with your mother and I,” her father said. “Enjoy yourselves.”
Niloo couldn’t think of any other reason to deny Brandon. If Amir was in fact there, she would have to improvise.
On the busy sidewalks of the old town, Niloo was reminded of something she hadn’t shared with Brandon before. “When I was little, I had a recurring nightmare of being lost in these parts of the city,” she said. “Then I learned the layout of the historic district in architecture school and the dream went away.”
Brandon snapped a photo of a crumbling brick storefront and grinned. “It’s now dreams of lost passports and running through airports.”
Niloo smiled absently but looked away. In the darkness of her old bedroom, she had failed to calm her mind into sleep by breathing to the rhythm of Brandon’s soft snores. In the faint light of the streetlamp, she went through her last diary entries from when Shiraz had been the only home she’d known, and overwhelmed with memories, she again checked Amir’s vainly-public wife on Facebook.
She hadn’t been too surprised to learn they were also in town. Nowruz meant homesickness to the diaspora.
She glanced at Brandon with his bulky camera hanging from his wrist and considered all the other places they could visit—hammam, citadel, bazaar, seminary school, mausoleums. But she had carried the weight of those years far too long and couldn’t miss this chance.
Can’t wait to check out the amazing Nasir-al-Mulk mosque for the first time tomorrow, Amir’s wife had posted. Niloo wondered if she knew Amir had been to the place years before TripAdvisor rated it as the number one thing to do in Shiraz.
“There’s so much to see,” Niloo said, as they walked past a street violinist. “But I want to go to a mosque that was my junior year Historic Preservation project.”
She guided him to a honeysuckle-scented side street. The sight of the unassuming entrance and old wooden doors filled her with yearning. As if it knew, the violin cried out the melancholic prelude of Golnaraghi’s Kiss Me for the Last Time.
“I took this path so many times,” she said, wistfully. “My group-mates and I were here at all hours, verifying every dimension against the archived plans and observing its role in the surrounding community. We then submitted a comprehensive report of the necessary upgrades for the building to strive as a mosque, a community center, and a tourist destination.”
Niloo approached the ticket window in the entry passageway. “Two adults,” she said in Farsi.
The ticket seller’s tiny soul-patch bounced restlessly as he chewed gum, his minty breath pleasant. He waved at Brandon. “Foreigner?”
Brandon was on his toes, his outstretched arms aiming the camera for a closeup of the honeycombed ceiling.
Niloo nodded. “My husband.”
“Still the foreigner rate,” the man replied, unimpressed.
When converted to dollars, the ticket price was reasonable, so it was not worth the argument. She slid the tickets into the pocket of her manteau and waited for Brandon to document every crack in the wall. At the end of the passageway, a balding gatekeeper with a scruffy beard was having tea with a young white-turbaned cleric, both seated on identical stools.
“16,000 tomans for one liter of milk!” she heard the gatekeeper say, his weathered face scrunched. “How many pockets have to be lined?”
The cleric nodded and took a sip from his tiny glass of tea.
When Brandon was done, Niloo approached the gatekeeper who, unwilling to stop his monologue, waved them into the sunny courtyard without punching the tickets.
The faint scent of geranium greeted them and she felt a rush of joy at the sight of the shimmering water of the fish pool. Unlike people, buildings changed very little over the years. Even the clay flower-pots around the pool appeared to be the same.
Her stomach tightened. The faces around the pool did not belong to the one she sought.
“The mosque was built”—she paused to convert to the Gregorian calendar—“in the 1880s. Because of the pink hue of the tilework, it was nicknamed The Pink Mosque.”
“The blue is more pronounced,” Brandon said, studying through the screen of his camera.
Niloo felt a pang of guilt at his wholehearted enthusiasm and considered telling him everything. But her quest didn’t fit in sensible words.
“Pink was rarely used in mosques, so this is as pink as they get. Those vaulted spaces with the honeycombed ceiling are called iwans. They were unique to Persian and later Islamic architecture.”
Scaffolding was erected within a roped-off area of the south iwan, but no one was at work. Her gaze was drawn to the empty patch in the upper section. More tiles were missing since the time she had typed it for their final report as a necessary repair. Progress was slow in historic preservation, as the Ministry of Cultural Heritage decided whether to renovate, restore, or preserve.
She motioned at the seven portals to the west. “This side is the winter prayer hall. Each opening is fitted with geometrical patterns of stained glass.” The realization of how Brandon would adore the hall quieted the guilt and made her smile. “You’re going to love it.”
They removed their shoes and entered through a shared doorway—another unique feature, as prayer halls typically had distinctive entrances for men and women. Niloo felt at ease at the sight of the familiar archways and kaleidoscope of colors projected over the carpets, walls, and columns. The scent of rosewater failed to mask the old carpet odor. Her gaze lingered on a young couple with sketchbooks whose awkward glances betrayed how new they were to each other.
Neither Amir nor his wife were among the handful of visitors. Niloo was surprised by her sense of relief.
She silently watched Brandon’s astonishment as he took in the mesmerizing beauty of the hall. They were both immersed in shining patterns of red, yellow, green, and blue when they locked eyes.
“From the moment the first rays hit the courtyard, to the time the sun reaches its high point, this play of light and color continues,” she explained.
Brandon was staring at her. “Don’t move,” he said, raising his camera. Niloo blushed like a schoolgirl and adjusted her headscarf.
He smiled, satisfied with the photo. “Well, now if you may excuse me, my camera has a date with this house of God.”
“Knock yourself out,” Niloo said.
She picked a sunny corner, leaned against the wall and hugged her knees. The stone panel was cool through her cotton manteau, the thick Bakhtiari carpet rough under the seat of her jeans. She rubbed her eyes as Brandon and his camera disappeared into the dreamscape.
Niloo had met Amir in sophomore year at a poetry night hosted by the university, and in the then-new age of email and instant messenger, they became very close. They were on different campuses and glad to avoid the drama of being seen together in public. Niloo was shy and drunk on Amir’s attention, she blushed at his compliments and daydreamed about seeing him, holding hands with him, and building a life with him.
They only saw each other a few times at other events, so under the pretext of showing off her school project, Niloo invited him to the mosque, which he’d never heard of. Because of the loose grip of the morality police, the historic sites of Shiraz were perfect for rendezvous and architecture students were the keepers of this secret.
During their mosque-date, Amir confided that he had recently won the green card lottery. Niloo hadn’t known such a thing existed, let alone that he had entered his name. The reflection of the glowing colors in his hazel-green eyes lit Niloo with a desire she mistook for love and she interpreted his announcement as a hint at the future they were to share together.
Then Amir stopped returning her calls and messages. Niloo initially blamed herself for his sudden coldness, until she learned he was regularly seen with a popular girl from his cohort—as if his new status had moved him up the ranks of desirability on the majority-male engineering campus.
Too proud to confront him, all Niloo cared about was saving face. Somewhat relieved that she had told no one, she tearfully agonized over their emails and texts and how quickly she had trusted him with her doubts and dreams.
When resentment filled the void of dried-up tears, Niloo applied and got admitted to graduate school in America. Though the two countries were going through yet another rough patch, she was granted a student visa. Whatever this America was about, she obviously didn’t need Amir to get there. She picked up her stamped passport from the American embassy in Dubai the same week she heard of his engagement. She heard that in order to include this new girlfriend on the green card documents, they had to be officially married.
The night before her flight, Niloo deleted their exchanges of emails and instant messages. A clean slate in a new setting was all she needed to move on.
During the first lonely years in America, however, her bitterness turned inwards. She should have given Amir a piece of her mind. A grand exit would have surely brought her some closure. Even later, in the safety of Brandon’s unwavering devotion, the prick of self-loathing still haunted her in her lowest moments, clouding her mind at times she needed its clarity. Those were the times she wished Amir misery, because he was undeserving of the space he still occupied in her memories.
Never wish ill-fortune for anyone or it will come right back at yourself, her father always said. But what about the heartache Amir had caused her? Every now and then, she checked his wife’s social media and over the years, failed to find any unhappiness in photos of their perfect life.
A voice snapped her out of a trance. “Niloofar?”
For a split second, she forgot she was waiting for him and blinked at the sunlight that haloed his face.
“Don’t tell me I’ve changed that much,” Amir said with a smirk.
Niloo scanned the hall. Brandon was striding in their direction. She recognized Amir’s wife by the windows, coaxing a little boy to pose for her smartphone camera. She wiped her clammy palms on her manteau and peered back up at Amir. His nose seemed more crooked than she remembered.
She scrambled to her feet. “What a surprise,” she sputtered before turning to Brandon. “This is Brandon, my husband,” she said in English—a little too formal—then held Amir’s stare. “Amir’s an old friend.”
Niloo studied Amir as the two men shook hands. The sight of his graying hair made her tuck away some loose strands under her headscarf.
The little boy ran over. “Fishies, baba?” he asked, eyeing Niloo and Brandon.
“In a little bit,” Amir replied.
The boy ran back to his mother who watched them from the windows. Beads of sweat rolled down Niloo’s back. Insomnia made foolish ideas seem sensible.
“How do you know each other?” Brandon asked.
“From college,” Niloo replied quickly. “Amir also lives in the States.”
“So you’re also here for Nowruz!” Brandon’s charmer smile revealed his Americanly straight teeth. “I’ve celebrated it with Niloo ever since we met, but this is the first time I’m immersed in the full experience. I’ve visited more people in these few days than I would in an entire year!”
Amir’s wife approached them. She was exactly like her photos—her face too smooth to be believable. Her dark headscarf hung loosely over her dyed blonde hair.
“This is my wife, Mahta,” Amir said.
It was strange to be introduced to someone whose public profile was engraved in Niloo’s mind. She didn’t catch any glimmer of recognition in Mahta’s eyes when Amir completed the round of introductions.
Mahta’s almost-smile gave away her Botoxed face. When she offered Brandon a coquettish hello, Niloo pressed her lips, suddenly conscious of Brandon’s auntie-approved features with his upturned nose and steel-gray eyes. Good job finding yourself an Alain Delon, a relative had said of Brandon, although Niloo failed to see any resemblance.
“Are you architects too?” Brandon asked.
Niloo tried to brush off the weight of Mahta’s gaze, sizing her up against Brandon. She was clearly unaware of Niloo’s history with Amir and not curious enough to ask how Amir knew them.
“No, we’re electrical engineers.” Amir enveloped Mahta’s hand between his palms. “We both work in Silicon Valley.”
Brandon tilted his head and paused. “It’s a wonderful area. I went to Stanford.” There was a sudden strain in his friendliness that only Niloo could tell.
Their son tugged at Amir’s sleeve. “Fishies, baba?”
Amir turned to Mahta. “Can you take him?” It was a demand, not a question and Niloo picked up a long-forgotten patronizing tone.
Mahta glared. “Make it quick,” she said in Farsi. “My aunt is expecting us.” She nodded curtly to Niloo and Brandon, then followed their son outside.
Brandon’s eyes bore into Niloo’s. “I still have to take photos of the altar.”
“It’s called a mihrab,” Niloo said, unsure of what got into him.
Amir switched to Farsi. “I heard you married an American.”
She forced a smile. “He’s been wanting to visit but figuring out the visa paperwork took a while…” her voice trailed off. Amir didn’t seem to care.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” he said softly. “Although, I remember how you treasured this place.”
Niloo swallowed hard and looked through the hall for Brandon. He was sprawled on his back by one of the spiral columns, finishing off the tableau of the foreign visitor. The magic was already reduced to a thin colorful strip of light. The gatekeeper would soon announce closing time to allow worshippers to convene for the noontime prayer.
She turned back to Amir, her mind devoid of everything she’d wanted to say over the years. She searched his eyes for the boy she once knew and was disappointed to learn she didn’t know this man. He was far from anything she’d made him to be.
She grasped for the memories, but all that came up was the freshly-minted exhilaration of chatting with a boy beyond coursework. College had been her first co-ed setting. Her love for Amir, she now realized, had been as deep as her thirteen-year-old’s affection for the scrawny boy who passed her notes in school these days.
The obvious dawned on her—besides being immature, she’d barely known Amir. He had rushed off to marry a better catch and Niloo, too young to process her emotions, hadn’t known how to respond to his betrayal.
She longed for the comfort of Brandon. “I shouldn’t hold you up, Amir.”
“Great to see you, Niloo.” He sounded genuine, though it no longer made a difference.
She parted with a thin smile and a new lightness in her step.
“Do you want a picture with your friend?” Brandon asked, gazing past her.
She shook her head. “I want a picture with you,” she said brightly.
“I half-expected you to deliver that overdue punch,” he said, nonchalantly.
Niloo leaned against the column and gaped at his pressed lips, once again at loss for words.
Brandon released the grin. “An old friend you don’t want a picture with? Besides, you had told me he was an electrical engineering student.” He wasn’t upset, though. On the contrary, he seemed quite amused.
Niloo’s weary mind ran through how much Brandon knew and what she now had to explain. The only time he had asked about her past relationships, Niloo awkwardly told him about a guy from college who ditched her without an explanation. She hadn’t gone into details, unwilling to expose the idiotic reason that landed her in America, changing the entire course of her life.
“Did you at least confront him?” Brandon had asked at the time.
Further flustered, Niloo had shook her head. “It would’ve been humiliating. Dating was frowned upon—and illegal. Even my parents didn’t know.” Her voice had quivered and Brandon never mentioned it again.
Niloo suddenly doubled over into an uncontrollable fit of laughter, almost in tears. Brandon didn’t need a translator to decipher the glances from the other visitors and firmly held onto her arm and led her outside.
He studied her closely as she splashed her face at the ablution fountain. She avoided his gaze by rummaging through her bag, until he handed her a tissue paper from his breast pocket.
“Now I understand what you meant when you said it’s a city with a small-town feel,” he said. “I mean, what are the chances?!”
In his eyes Niloo saw him giving her a way out, but she didn’t want this to hover over them. She reached out and squeezed his hand in acknowledgement. “Later,” she said softly as the call-to-prayer reverberated through the courtyard. On the way out, they stepped aside for a laborer to get a loaded hand truck over the raised sill of the wooden entry doors.
The green plastic strap had torn into the top cardboard box, revealing tiles that perfectly matched the colors of the honeycombed ceiling of the south iwan.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maryam Ghatee is an Iranian-American Rhode Islander, a mother, and an engineer. Her passion for writing resurfaced during the pandemic and her work can be found on The Rumpus, Nowruz Journal, Santa Clara Review, Wanderlust, and in the anthology, The Shape of Home. She co-leads the Iranian American Cultural Society of Rhode Island and is on the B/I/POC advisory committee of What Cheer Writers Club. Follow her on Twitter @MaryamGhatee.
Featured image by Shino via Unsplash.