Ali Salami

The Portraitist (Naqshbandan) by Houshang Golshiri

As we rounded the bend, a woman on a bicycle rode past us. I always remember her riding past, leaning slightly forward, dressed in a short-sleeved white blouse. She was pedaling, her hair fluttering over her shoulder, which was facing the sea, and her gaze was fixed on a place that we only noticed when she had already disappeared. It was a road that ran parallel to the harbor and eventually turned left, to a destination that still exists but was unseen by us. By this time, the woman had already disappeared.

It was no one’s fault that we didn’t see her again, although when I noticed her absence, I initially thought Shirin had left her out on purpose. But I can still see her in my mind’s eye, the wind brushing the corner of her blouse, her black cotton pants and her sandal with the open strap around her ankle. She steps forward, looking into the wind, and walks away. We stood on the sidewalk for a moment, waiting for Shirin to buy cigarettes for us. In that brief moment, I caught a glimpse of her leaning forward and holding her head against the wind, her auburn hair set against the calm blue sea. But then, as we reached the corner, we forgot about her as our attention was captured by the whistle of a ship and the sight of the sea. The ship was docking; Maziar and Zohreh were standing on deck, their hands on the railing, not waving. My thoughts returned to the woman as I saw the road empty up to the bend. At the jetty, people were standing by their cars, parked bumper to bumper, waving, just like Shirin, who had got out of our car. I wanted to drive on under the pretext of parking, but Shirin said, ‘Can not you see there’s no room here? Just stay here, we’ll be back.’

There was still room at the end of the bend. At that moment, I cherished the hope that we would return together. But she didn’t come. She hadn’t seen me drive off. I imagine her still going away, perhaps grown old like me or even Shirin, and appearing every morning on the balcony of one of those two-storey houses overlooking the sea. Dressed in a white blouse and black cotton pants, she props one hand on the railing, her eyes on the sea, looking for familiar faces among the new arrivals on the deck.

It always seems to be like this. Like me now, in this sleepy spring, overlooking a deserted alley of mud roofs, their uniform color broken by the turquoise dome of the twelve-towered Baba Ismail. I wait for the return of spring, for the postcard from Shirin, which arrives a week or even ten days late. She even remembers our wedding day and sends the same postcard with green pine trees and a yellow sunspot, as if she had bought a dozen or more identical cards, enough to last for years if she remembers. The children, Maziar and Zohreh, write only twice a year, now always in English, apologizing each time because they have forgotten their Persian. And for my part, I neither send postcards nor write letters.

It’s true, people often look for one thing and end up finding something completely different. It reminds me of the first days of the war, when we were on red alert and groping along the walls. The darkness was so thick that it felt like we were carrying it around with us. It’s like when we both went to the kids and planned to stay together for a month, gradually explaining why we wanted to separate or why I wanted to return. But now we are here, and every time I remember something from there, when a letter arrives or identical postcards arrive, I think of that bend in the road, the sun, big but cold, rising from the sea and coloring the horizon orange-yellow. No, the sun wasn’t there as we drove up that road, it was just the orange-yellow of the horizon. And when I looked again on the road and even on the shore, there was no one there. But it’s still there in my head, like a movie reel with repeated shots of what I saw.

That’s why I sit down every morning from 6:30am, after I have had a bite to eat and sent Naneh Robab where she wants to go before noon, hoping that this time it will work out. If it doesn’t, I come to this sleepy spring, sit in this leather chair for another half hour and try not to think about anything. That’s not possible. You can’t be alone, not even a stone, not even a piece of clay, not even this branch that now only has a white man’s shirt dangling from it and every ten minutes a woman in a headscarf comes to turn it inside out.

If I had told Shirin the truth, she would surely have been willing to stay another night, even in this abandoned guest house with the children. They had said there was only one place to stay. There were only three roads. We missed one and the other was along the harbor where the harbor officials’ or office workers’ houses were. We found it at the beginning of that one street. We could have driven back there, convinced the kids and stayed another night so I could see her again the next day at a quarter past nine, coming off the beach on this side and then pedaling, back arched and head held high in the wind. Our Maziar also wanted us to stay. But Zohreh kept asking: ‘Why did you come together? Is something wrong?’

Now she’s all in my thoughts. She is twenty-two, has a husband and twin children, whose photos I have. Only last year, no, the year before, she sent them with her letter. They had just been born, one on each side of her womb, and David leaned over her, his head resting on Zohreh’s hair, which is like mine. She was chubbier than when she understood some Persian: ‘Daddy, I’m chubbier now. But I am going to be as slim as I was when you came here.’

She was slim and fresh, with long black hair. I don’t think she had finished her studies yet. I said, ‘How about we stay here tonight?’

She put her hand on Shirin’s shoulder: ‘Okay, let’s stay.’

Shirin just replied with her shoulders. Now she goes to a different place every year. First it was London, then Germany, where she bought these postcards. She sent Nowruz greetings from Canada, and now the German postcards come from New York. Her messages are short: “Dear Mr. Javad Behzad, we wish you and your esteemed family a happy old festival, a legacy from our ancestors, and pray for your health and happiness from the Almighty Every year her handwriting gets worse, as if she is copying from a template, often missing a ‘d’ or ‘r’ or even a period.

The children write during the Christmas and summer vacations. Maziar’s letters changed from Persian to half Persian, half English, and now they are all in English. He still reads Persian books and tries not to forget them. He asks for Persian translations of words like ‘arabesque’, ‘miniature’ or ‘mosaic’ Maziar, a mining engineer in Australia, is married to a Japanese woman, and they have several children – I lost count. At the end of each letter, Sachiko and the children send their regards. Unlike his sister, Maziar never asks why I don’t reply. What should I write? Or which unfinished letter should I send?

When Shirin invited me, I went, but returned less than a month later. I told her everything was hers, I had my pension and the old family house. I occasionally sell some drawings. I no longer draw, it seems pointless to me, as if I were trying to displace the darkness with a mere path. Drawing is about the interplay of light and shadow. The next morning was sunny, but perhaps she was traveling in the shadow of the ship. Her face was bright, her chestnut hair shone golden on her neck and shoulders. The ship must have been there, the sun too, cold and big above the horizon. The children, who finally waved when they saw Shirin, and Shirin waved back. Now she is a cashier at a children’s clothing store in New York and commutes by train to the 27th Street neighborhood. She lives in an apartment with just two armchairs and a sofa bed and undergoes chemotherapy or has something else removed every six months. I haven’t seen it. There’s a reading lamp next to her sofa bed, and as she takes her tablet and puts on her eye mask, she reaches out to turn off the lamp, enveloped in a halo-like, boundless darkness, not even thinking about why I suggested: ‘I think it would have been better if we’d stayed another night

Shirin had replied: ‘What would have happened then? Didn’t you see that?’

I said: ‘Maybe they would have made another room available for us

There was only one room available. We arrived late. The yellow streetlights were on and the fog wasn’t too thick. We could see the lighthouse in the distance. The entrance to the guest house was unlit, the double front doors and the drawn curtains were only illuminated by the street lamp above us. We parked the car on the left and got out, Shirin on one side and me on the other. From London to there, our conversation was minimal, like two strangers forced to travel together. She couldn’t join me; she was on her way to Germany. After waiting six months in Turkey, I was only granted a two-month residence permit. She had sent the children to Holland with her classmates. We didn’t argue. ‘I am not coming, you can see that I can’t,’ she said.

She showed me the flat surface with two diagonal lines. I hung my head, but when I wanted to say something comforting and raised my head, I saw her standing in front of me, buttoning up her plaid blouse, her full breasts and hair still in place. These things are there, but I no longer desire them. Every day from 6:30 a.m. I sketch what’s in front of me and then sit here for half an hour before trying to finish it. By lunchtime, I only manage to draw her hand or paint her fine, wavy hair golden, hinting at the wind from the front and the sun shining on her head and her face turning into the wind as she pedals.

“If we had stayed, I would have seen her again,” I mused. Shirin replied, “It’s no use, but if you want to, go ahead.” At that moment, I simply lay down next to her on the narrow single bed. She was wearing a blindfold. That was the only room available. When the woman with the flashlight led us through and switched on the light in the stairwell, I saw her eyes: round and red. She took the money first, wearing a wooly hat and a coat over her shoulders. She spoke to Shirin, but I couldn’t understand her. Shirin had to ask again, and the woman just said the room number and pointed to the room. Shirin wondered aloud if we should take two rooms.

“First see if she even has one,” I suggested.

The woman looked at our passports and flicked through them. Now Shirin didn’t even have a passport. The woman spoke with an accent that Shirin couldn’t place. The room was small, with two beds, a bedside table with a lamp, a glass of stale water and an ashtray. Shirin got ready for bed in her striped blouse and pants, then turned her back to me under the covers and wished me a good night.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” I asked and switched on the light.

“Then leave the door ajar,” she replied.

“What should we tell the children?”

“We didn’t argue.”

“But they will find out eventually.”

“Let them. Isn’t that why you came?”

She switched off the light and said good night again. I opened the window to the moonlight. The street was quiet except for a few yellow lights and some on the sea. I couldn’t see the lighthouse. The sound of a ship could be heard. The children were in Holland for the summer, so we could talk. Then Shirin said, “Stay for a month.” But I returned before a month had passed. Zahra had said: “Stay here, Dad. Mom is working. You go every six months, collect your pension and come back.”

“I can’t,” I told her.

I hadn’t told Shirin or Zahra everything. In Istanbul, I called to say that I had arrived, coming by bus from Van. There was no point in saying more. I should have just talked about the night with the sheep, when the four of us were huddled together and out of cigarettes. My blisters were hurting. Everyone who passed by was called Ali. A young man who spoke Farsi offered us cigarettes and negotiated our passage. We paid ten thousand tomans for the four of us. Before dawn, we were led by two horses to continue our journey. We smelled flowers but could not see them. Ali said that luckily it was cloudy. At a pass, we waited for a truck and hid under the seats and in the closet, covered with a tarpaulin. Shirin was part of this concealment. She showed me her left breast, but she didn’t come. She said, “Have you suffered enough?”

I returned via Quetta, where the tractors were taken across the border at night. The guide and I walked. He said they would not harass old men. They kept me for two weeks, but after that it didn’t matter. Now I’m here, with Naneh Robab and her wife Kokab, who is downstairs pounding meat. She says it makes the shami kebab better. When I paint, I don’t play music; I can’t bear to put any extra strain on myself. I can’t just watch her go, not the one who turns the men’s shirts. I don’t write letters; the children can’t read them. Maziar writes in English and asks for a complete copy of the Shahnameh so he doesn’t forget. He mentions his mother and says she divorced him so that I can be free. Karam comes to visit and brings herbs and laundry soap. I shout: “Karam, tell your wife that enough is enough. Can’t you see that I’m working?

I close my eyes; how can you block out the darkness? The straps of her sandals, dark brown leather, were brightened by the sun as she pedaled. Before turning, cyclists hold out their arms to signal, but I didn’t see her signal – I just saw her riding against the wind. The tip of the man’s shirt flutters, indicating the direction of the wind. There is no visible fog, but it envelops everything. Everything that has ever happened still exists for me, in some form or another. My son writes in English and asks: “Why have you forgotten us?

Perhaps the fault lies in our inability to throw anything away. I lie next to Shirin and put my hand on her shoulder. ‘Are you asleep?’ I ask her.

‘Hmm,’ she replies.

‘Let’s go back,’ I suggest.

‘No,’ she refuses.

‘Do you want to take the children with you?


‘It’s there too

‘I’m tired. You have seen that I have taken the pill


‘You have seen it

i don‘t mind

i know, but this time my hair will fall out. I don’t want your pity

‘Pity? You are the mother of my children

She deflects: ‘Is that all?’ I long to say more, but she won’t let me. She hadn’t allowed it these seven or eight nights. ‘Later, maybe they will remove the other one too,’ she says.

‘That’s there too. You can come back every six months

‘With what money? I am insured here,’ she explains.

‘Please, go to sleep,’ she asks.

So I lie there, looking up at an invisible ceiling and imagining a darkness I can not fathom. Karam’s shuffling feet interrupt my thoughts. He has bought pomegranates; Kokab is sowing them. A plate full of colors – another burden. I should not allow the weight to increase on my canvas or easel where it pedals in the wind. Afternoon dawns and I head downstairs for lunch and then a nap, hoping someone familiar will come to visit. We chat about family and life until it gets dark. Then I lie down alone and wait for the next day to sketch another picture. It has to be done, otherwise Shirin’s postcard will come, always with the same pine trees from the cold climate and the dull yellow sun and the unclear path of the blue water channel, like hers. Her profile line is bright, like a halo, within the frame that human figures should occupy, even if part of it has been removed. Perhaps it is this magic that keeps my work incomplete, like me, who must return to my easel to capture the essence of my sketches and the many things I have sketched, leaving only her, forever pedaling into the wind.


© Ali Salami 2024

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