A celebration of Persian voices and talent

The Gazelle’s Breath: A Personal Narrative on the History of Absence by Sahar Sakhaei, translated by Lida Nosrati


The Gazelle’s Breath:
A Personal Narrative on the History of Absence

by Sahar Sakhaei, translated by Lida Nosrati
“The experience of losing what one loves is a prologue to its happy return...Without absence, presence has no meaning.”

The Gazelle’s Breath: A Personal Narrative on the History of Absence
by Sahar Sakhaei
Translated by Lida Nosrati

I think Grandpa never forgave me. I was five and a good chunk of my days and nights were spent with my mother’s parents, who were going to Denmark for a few months to visit their elder daughter. This was by far the longest absence I was about to experience and I was mad at them. On the days leading to the trip, every bag of barberry, saffron and ghormeh sabzi—double and triple bagged so they reached my aunt unscathed—was like a slap in the face. They should not leave. What if they never came back? Absence, for me, was no different from death. I didn’t want them to go.

A couple of hours before the white airport-bound Paykan picked up my grandparents, I snatched my grandfather’s dentures and after some elaborate scheming decided to hide them behind the radiator in one of the rooms. I was certain the grandfather I knew wouldn’t go anywhere without his dentures. That I would change the course of destiny. That no one would have even a shred of suspicion about me being the culprit, the only grandchild in the family.

Years later, when time softened the bitter edge of this memory and made it a popular inside joke in the family, I realized how terribly off my five-year-old calculations were. Of course, all eyes turned to me, I got a good beating, my mother choked up in tears, and my father was ashamed of having a daughter like me. But I, in the fashion of a true hero, never disclosed the whereabouts of the dentures, and my grandfather landed at the Copenhagen airport, toothless. A full-on defeat. What was to be a two-month stay in Denmark became six months, and I missed them more and more until I gradually got used to their absence, like a dog getting used to the absence of its owner. This was my first close encounter with absence. I didn’t die of it but the grandfather who returned was not the same as the one who left. Distance had changed us.

I once read an essay by Freud in which he recounts his observations of a three-year-old at play.  The child persistently and enthusiastically threw her toys to the furthermost corner of the room, exclaiming ‘gone!’ every time. In the next phase of the game, the child burst into a cheerful scream finding the same toys. Freud’s conclusion was the quintessential examination of early childhood engagement: a game of disappearing and returning. The experience of losing what one loves is a prologue to its happy return, and a child subconsciously knows that. Without absence, presence has no meaning.

I was tall and everything about me screamed basketball. I didn’t dig girlish games much, nor was I fond of playing with the neighborhood girls. The boys and I gathered at the far end of the dead-end alley to play.  It was equal parts basketball and equal parts naïve exercises in flirting and love. Like the ball bouncing off the wall, we too were rushing to grow up. Mornings were spent at school, afternoons in the wastefulness of unimportant games, and evenings in reviewing the details of our first experiences. Adolescence was the time of firsts.

Every week, a beautiful petite woman left a house by the basketball court and cautious of being seen got into a car that drove away. She was always dressed in dark clothes and unlike other adults, she didn’t even look at us, let alone offer a nod or a smile.

One day, my father came to pick me up. He was waiting for the last round of the game to finish. The woman was outside waiting for her cab when my father got out and walked to her in complete awe. My friends started cracking jokes. I didn’t like it. The woman left in a few minutes and I got in the car.

This is a constant unshakable image etched in my memory of my father’s childlike joy and his pure respect that entire day. Years later I wrote a piece on Googoosh’s years of silence, her departure from Iran, her concert tour in 2000, the songs I first heard in her voice. “Do you know who this lady is?” my father asked as he was driving me home. When I said I didn’t, he reached for a cassette tape in the glove compartment and played it. If I’m green, if I’m a forest … singing in a half-voice all along the drive.

A good singing voice wasn’t what my father was gifted with and his humming hindered me from hearing the song, but on that day I discovered a new voice of my own. A voice that accompanied me on empty Friday afternoons, on exam nights when I still had a mountain of pages to read but was achingly longing for someone.  A voice that left in my grandfather’s luggage, and did not sing for twenty years.

My father was alarmed to see a twelve-year-old who knew nothing about the absent voices of the previous generation. And so began our one-on-one sessions. We would sit on the floor, facing each other, as he said “sit up straight, don’t arch your back.” He had a Technics gramophone and hundreds of old vinyls and cassettes. The lessons knew no borders, and were not tied to a particular genre of music but they had one thing in common: they were about all the absents of the world. All those who were before and couldn’t be anymore, just as I was now an adolescent. My father too wanted to change the course of destiny with his own hands, as I wanted to do when I was five. I failed but he didn’t. Those voices started to store in my body. Haunting, beautiful, forlorn voices of Kouros Sarhangzadeh, Fereidoon Forouqi, and Qamar. The sleepy rhapsodic voice of Dariush, or Ebi, whose singing was always prefaced by my father’s “he screams a bit too much” when he sang, The gazelle was still breathing.

One day, we would listen to Iraj.  Another day, to the incurable pains of drunkenness sung by the two legendary sisters, Hayedeh and Mahasti. Sometimes, when silliness took the better of me, and risked compromising the weight of the sessions, my father upped the artsiness. I never understood why in one of those last sessions, he broke into tears. I had never seen him cry until that day. And maybe that’s why, to this day, when I hear Faramarz Aslani, I feel I’m my father fighting back tears, resisting then finally giving in.

That’s how I entered the world of those whose voices traveled through the city years before my generation and I existed. Voices that were so far removed from any ideological leanings one could hardly fathom their absence. Why should they not be? Why did they go to Copenhagen and never return?

The last of our sessions with only the two of us was in late September. That day, my mother joined too, handing us nectarines,  “Eat. It’s almost the end of the season.” We ate and wiped our hands clean and my father played music. By then, I knew all of them. I was so immersed in the past that I had forgotten those in the present. My father said I wasn’t missing much anyway. Pop music was slowly gaining momentum. New stars were rising. My father, like a seasoned orator, had planned an incredible ending for the very last session. For a few minutes, you could only hear the audience applauding. And then the sound of the ney, playing scattered notes. “It’s Andalibi. Everyone tunes to his pitch.”

My father was thrilled that he knew everything about music. I was thrilled that he knew all the secrets in the world. When the singer broke into song, I stopped chewing the nectarine. My father stood up and started pacing around the room. He always did that when he was excited. Morgh-e sahar naleh sar kon/Daghe mara tazeh tar kon, filled the room.

Back then, in the mid-90s, Morgh-e Sahar was not the household song that it became later. I hadn’t heard it but it felt like the familiar voice of an unfamiliar man. “It’s Shajarian,” my father said. “Wait ‘til he hits the high note.” He did hit the high note, then higher, and carried me along, not only on that day but for the rest of my life. That voice may have been the greatest gift my father gave me. Shajarian was the sum of the past, holding all the absent, the dead, the forgotten inside him.

I wish I could sit with my father right now and talk with him. Who imagined that Shajarian would become absent too and not sing for more than ten years, be gripped by absence, and within it, by the invisible hands of illness? Who imagined that you and I would be left with only his memory?  What kind of world is this, Baba? Why can’t we change the course of destiny with a set of dentures? My mother once said Shajarian fell ill because he was carrying too much pain and sorrow. My father tried to refute this with all kinds of historical arguments but all three of us knew that those who leave aren’t the same when they return. When will Shajarian return?

I have a dear friend with a sublime voice. One of our hobbies when we drove was for Sepideh to sing while I accompanied her.  For a few months, when we were both in our twenties, we rehearsed in an old building in the Mirdamad neighbourhood of Tehran. She sang and I played the tar. That might have been one of the happiest times of my life. I would sit on the balcony of the old house and play with all the force in me while Sepideh sat in a room, insisting that all the doors and windows be closed. It took me much too long to understand where that internalized fear came from. It took even longer to learn what it meant to be Sepideh, singing in the car, in the house, in the rooms, and not on the streets, in concert halls and classes. Hiding the most beautiful gift you have. An existence imbued with erasure. Absence brews hope and death brews certainty. Death brings melancholy and absence brings longing. I’d choose death over absence. Maybe that’s why I despise Skype, and think that WhatsApp is no better. What’s the point when there are no arms to caress you, when you cannot memorize the details of the face of the one sitting across from you listening to your heart’s lament? Sepideh left Iran and I stayed, and the old house in Mirdamad was demolished.

The history of absence in this land called Iran is one fraught with tears. Every day and every night, some leave, some become absent, some are erased, some fade, and the rest try to come to each other’s rescue like an army of ants. Absence has no face. It’s as much Shajarian as it is Qamar. As much yesterday as it is today. As brief as it’s eternal. As much summer as it is winter, as much fall as it’s spring.

Writing about the history of Iran’s music, I ask myself how to recount a history more than half of which one cannot write about. As if you’re given a voice box and asked to write fully and thoroughly about the cords on the right side but not discuss the left. And perhaps, not even the right vocal cords in their entirety. What to do? Is history going to foolishly repeat itself and am I about to fail yet again in the face of a vast absence, with my father to feel ashamed of having a daughter like me? A father who is now a big other, who watches and warns and expects. To this father, how can I account for the absence of Sima Bina, Parisa, Hengameh Akhavan, Iraj, Ebrahim Hamedi, Dariush Eqbali, Mohammad Reza Shajarian and hundreds of other faces on the wall?

As if the answer is in the essence of absence. All those whose absence was sorely present in reviewing the music of these years were the ones who were once upon a time shining. They sparkled and now the sky is dark in the absence of their light. Absence is the distance between being and not being, between shining and waiting to shine again. The distance between my grandfather going to that cold, soulless country and his return to Tehran in 1991. But not all the absent were lucky enough to return as my grandfather did. Many did not outlast their waiting. They aged, ailed, and died. It’s ten years since Mohammad Reza Shajarian has let his voice out for everyone to hear, like the old days. Shajarian resided in absence. The Shajarian who left is not the one who will return. If he ever does. As if others did.

I must confess there’s still a five-year-old in me who prefers to forget the ones who leave. Those who migrate, who abandon, who leave to return. For me, absence is still more painful than death. People shouldn’t leave. Absence is a rehearsal for death. But the adult world isn’t as small as a five-year-old’s. And thank goodness for that. Shajarian continues to live on in the voice of Homayoun.  Meshkatian continues to breathe in the dulcimer hammers of another santour player. Qamar is all the nightingales of the world, all the women who sing. The dark-clad woman fearful of being spotted in the dead-end alleyway takes flight. The man who in my father’s opinion screamed a little too much still screams a little too much and sings and composes. The world is still like the one observed by the child in Freud’s experiments, moving from the passivity of experience to the dynamism of play. The world licks its wounds like a cat to heal them, learns to endure absence, to not wait, to not stop looking even when one’s throat is heavy with pain, even when every image looks blurry and faded behind a wash of tears. In order to have, one must not have. I know that some throughout history are destined to have and others not. I know that writing about life is easier than living it is.

I am five years old and holding my grandfather’s heavy, pink dentures in my hands.  A piece of herb is stuck in one of the back molars and one front tooth is darker in shade than the rest. The clatter of the two rows against each other sounds like the castanets of a flamenco dancer in her red dress.  My grandmother is ready to go and my mother is giving the last obligatory instructions before the trip. My father and grandfather are deep in conversation. Suitcases of all sizes are lined up by the door like a row of orphaned children, ready to leave. I look around and suddenly miss the house already. I look at the long frill of my grandmother’s purple dress and miss her. I already miss the scent of cumin and cinnamon and freshly squeezed lime in their house. I miss my grandfather’s kabobs. I miss his laughter, so full of authority with his dentures in, and so heart-wrenching without. I throw the dentures behind the radiator and come back to sit next to my mother. My heart is pounding. I feel I’m standing right at the point where the trainspotter changes the route of the tracks. Why do people move away when they know life is so short? Why do some send others to an exile of absence when they know no beauty remains hidden forever? Why do we ever want to grow up? Why can’t one change the course of destiny with a set of dentures?

FEATURED IMAGE BY Iman soleimany zadeh via Unsplash


Sahar Sakhaei

Sahar Sakhaei is a writer, musician and ethnomusicologist. She has collaborated with leading Classical Persian musicians as a tar player, has composed the soundtrack for two feature films, and co-written the script for one. Her first novel, Tan-e Tanhaee (Body of Solitude) was published in 2016. She has a master’s degree in clinical psychology and practices as a psychotherapist in Tehran.


Lida Nosrati

Lida Nosrati is a literary translator. Her poems and translations of contemporary Iranian poetry and short fiction have appeared in The Apostles Review, Words Without Borders, Matters of Feminist Practice, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from Banff International Literary Translation Centre, Yaddo, and Bread Loaf Translators Conference.

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