Love Letters for Twelve Days
When you leave, the house becomes substance and shadow. I see things I never notice when you are there, and I realize how much of the space you occupy—both in the rooms around me, and at the forefront of my mind. There is a Persian endearment I think of--khubi/khubam. With imperfect knowledge, I try to reconstruct meaning from bits of language I glean from overhearing and over-reading, sketching our part of the world with words.
Khub—in Urdu, a word that modifies other words as well as standing on its own. Khubsurat—beautiful, but literally two words: khub—excellent/good/a great deal/enough and surat—face. To have a good or excellent face is to be beautiful in this clumsy translation of meaning. There will be much, there will be everything, there will be enough. As a Persian endearment, I ponder the possible implications of Khubi. My good one, my excellent one—my everything, the one who is enough for me.
I like to think that language can take these brilliant, dazzling turns—to provide a word that means so many things, that casually transforms an endearment into a description of everything someone is to someone else.
The house is enough when you are here. Khub he meray liye. Urdu.
When you are gone, khubam/khubi, because you are everything, the house feels like nothing at all. Persian.
Our two languages, you and me.
And you are always enough.
Silence. Every moment is so silent. We have endured these separations many times over the years. Sometimes you forget me as soon as you board the plane, sometimes I am so preoccupied with work that I don’t see the exact moment when your cab pulls away and I forget to raise my hand in that final farewell. But later when the house is quiet and Shiloh comes to visit from our neighbor’s house, I pick her up and hug her close and tell her, I know you miss him as much as I do. I know the house is empty without him. I know he is the source of all the joy and animation within these walls, and when he is absent, my heart conducts a funeral. Though I am from the West, the East is within me and my tradition is given to these elaborate emotions. I am married to the most prosaic of men, yet every day I rewrite our Layla-Majnun love story. Every day I make you count out loud all the different ways you love me. To hear it again now, I must wait.
I wait and wait and wait.
Knowing that when you come home, Shiloh is the one you’ll want to kiss first.
Even that, I love.
I wrote this for our wedding day because I love the idea that we can be rooted in a history we don’t intimately know, and its seeds can still bring us joy.
is an unknown city
from which has sprung
a garden of joy.
When you are gone, I write much more, because when you are here you take up all my words. All the words are for you—and how well you understand them. You don’t have time to read fiction, yet there are hundreds of books on your bookshelves, and thousands more in your heart. Strange then that you take these words of mine, you make these words, and you shape them all in your way. Just as we have been shaping each other in these years of our marriage—I have shaped you into a feminist, you have made me examine my cultural affinities more rigorously. Whenever we speak of the voices of women, and the casual, daily sexism women encounter, I remind you that you have eight nieces whom you love. When I cling to everything I was brought up with, you tell me to look harder, think harder, be bolder—I remember how in the early days of our marriage, we argued about when to break fast, and I look back at our younger, foolish selves with so much tenderness for the little battles we fought that meant nothing at all. But all the time they were teaching us and we were growing, reaching for the understanding that we hold now. Aware that our world is on fire, burning down around us and that we both have so much more work to do. We must be there to support and nurture each other’s gifts so that when we pass into the infinite everlasting, we can receive our records in our right hands and ask for each other’s company in the life to come—partners now and always. You will trade me in for a beautiful houri, I tease. And you say in return, there is no houri more beautiful than you.
Today is the day of the #CanYouHearUsNow campaign. You know that I am always the cautious one, the one who says ‘don’t go there, it’s too dangerous,’ ‘don’t say that in public, you don’t know who around here might not like us or be carrying a gun’. I have done my work in the shadow of truly courageous activists—I’ve written letters, called politicians, posted news on behalf of those who’ve been in prison for journalism/poetry/filmmaking/teaching at universities or standing up for basic human rights. They are the brave ones, I just observe and learn from the sidelines, and try to do my timid part. But on the day of the campaign, I venture my modest offerings and receive the merest fraction of what real activists face, and I am frightened. A woman I don’t know and try to engage as a human being demands proof of the hate I’ve been writing about, proof that I’ve been threatened. She hasn’t read or understood the spirit of my words. She doesn’t imagine—having seen the messages and cartoons I was sent—that I might wish to deter others from threatening me further. Or that someone doesn’t have to say “I’ll kill you” for me to be frightened of their implicit violence. No matter how many charts and statistics I pile up, she can’t be convinced I deserve to speak of the realities that affect my life. I’m afraid she will invite others to join her in this bilious fray, and I withdraw. She demands to know where I am from because if she can exile me with her words, she will have destroyed my access to my own humanity. She won’t comprehend that I can be from many places, belong to many countries, many traditions, and believe in our shared humanity. I imagine she hasn’t engaged before with a writer who has never been comfortable with categories.
I don’t sleep well, and I can’t write that day. The voices that keep me company dry up. I look around the house for you. I page through the albums, looking at photographs of our last trip. I see your smile, I see my smile. This is where I belong, I think. This is where I am from. The country of your love, the safety of your understanding.
You are gone, I lock the doors, I set the alarm. And I remember that while I engage in these polite affirmations of my inalienable human rights, you’ve been missing for twelve hours in a country far away, determined to do your best to change the course of the world.
It’s a beautiful country, utterly safe—its people are decent and good. It was the civil society activists who invited you to speak on your important work. But you warned me before you left—you gave me a list of names and numbers to call, you registered with our embassy, in this beautiful, safe place you were going. Even you—you who believe you would suffer no risk in Iraq—even you were worried. You said if you were detained, it would be at the airport and they would send you back to me.
But we know from a list “that lengthens like a bloodstain”, someone in your line of work is always at the mercy of the arbitrary rules of authoritarianism and never truly safe. I don’t know what to recite, so I recite Sura Falaq. I seek refuge from the black darkness when it is intense.
And I add to myself, “and when it covers the world.”
God bless you and keep you, my love. Please come home to me soon.
Also, today on the "Behind the Book" feature for AMONG THE RUINS, I'd like to introduce you to the Siosepol bridge in Esfahan. Esa Khattak meets the young dissidents Ali and Taraneh near this bridge that spans Iran's Zayanderud River. "They disembarked at the south end of Siosepol Bridge, a Safavid construction mounted on a series of pontoons. Its thirty-three arches burned like the embers of a giant's torch, an auroral glow reflected in the river. If a sorcerer had flung open his hand, so might the arches of Siosepol have sprung up."
Today on 'Behind the Book', I'm skipping ahead in AMONG THE RUINS to the part where Rachel joins Esa in Iran. They meet in Tehran but soon Rachel finds herself on a group tour visiting the Nasir al-Mulk or Pink Mosque of Shiraz, where she's forced to confront her preconceived notions of Iran. In the Pink Mosque, she finds "ample tranquility, an amphitheater of joy", and she asks herself what such celestial beauty has to tell us about the culture and civilization of the Other. Here's a rendition of the Pink Mosque's unique architecture. If anyone recognizes the photographer, I'd love to include a proper credit.
Today I’d like to inaugurate a ‘Behind the Book’ feature , where I talk about certain moments, themes or places in each of my books. Given that an election is taking place in Iran, it’s the perfect time to chat a little more about AMONG THE RUINS, the third book in my Khattak/Getty mystery series. As RUINS opens, Khattak is in the city of Esfahan in Iran, a breathtakingly beautiful, former imperial capital. There’s a saying known to all Iranians, and possibly to all speakers of Persian/Farsi: Esfahan nesf-e-jahan…or Esfahan is half the world. In fact, it is with these words that RUINS begins. As Khattak seeks peace in the city’s gardens, he receives a mysterious letter urging him to read the poetry of no less a personage than the revered figure of Hafiz. Khattak’s correspondent observes that instead of reading Hafiz, Khattak has a different book. He's traveling his own ‘closed circuit.’ This is a reference to a book of poems by the Iranian poet, Shadab Vajdi. I was given this volume of poetry by a friend when I was in law school, and the haunting beauty of those poems has stayed with me. Though the poems in Closed Circuit reference a previous era in Iran, their themes of exile and oppression translate to the present moment Khattak finds himself in, and to the murder he’s asked to solve. Here’s a look at the Naqsh-e Jahan square in Esfahan, where Khattak passes his days.