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Manhattan in the Rain

by Behrang Foroughi

Living in America is a privilege, or maybe not. I don’t know anymore. But I felt very privileged when I first walked the streets of New York. It was a dream city and one whole long, breezy Sunday all together, and all mine. It was, certainly, an unforgettable feeling of privilege, a moment of significance that will remain forever in my memories and tint my stories.

I was a young Iranian, after all, and coming to America — even before our President’s travel bans — was bigly huge! A mission too tall! A dream impossible. But I had made it come true. I was touching it with my feet, searching for it with my sole.

The day I first realized the power of privilege, though, was not on that exhilarating New York Sunday. It rose from an awkward encounter and a subsequent realization that poured over me, in the back alleys of the Old Bazaar, in Tehran, on a mid-day in early summer, with my dad at my side and my watch on my wrist.

In one of the Bazaar’s long, dark and gloomy back alleys there were kids aggressively kicking a red- and white-striped plastic ball. Their fast-paced, skillful ball handling was perfect to my eyes. They were immersed, attentive and carefree. I was in awe. I was amazed. I had to pause and watch.

After a minute or two or three, I was noticed, I thought. But, no, it wasn’t me. It was the black, faux leather swatch on my wrist that had caught a pair of eyes. My heart was swiftly pounding, and his eyes, locked on my watch, were surprised.

“Look, he is our age, definitely our age. He has a watch, a real one! Look, look!” said a boy whose pale face and even paler purple-stained t-shirt are still vivid in my memory of this one long, uneasy moment. Embarrassed, I said nothing and rushed for my dad.

Dad asked no questions, and I said nothing. I continued to tail him, taking a turn into a familiar, lofty, loud, narrow corridor. It was a typical passageway: centuries-old dry, brownish, half-clay half-brick arches bent slightly inwards and chained with open domes; sunlight pouring in, burnishing the dancing dust and lighting the path; engraved interior honeycombs on the sides filled with spices; rainbows, and loud salesmen deceiving every passerby.That’s about it.

No more do I recall. I doubt the kids cared to come after me. I suspect they simply and happily continued their ball game. They might have wondered why I ran away or what I thought would be the harm in sharing a glimpse of my watch. “Never mind,” one may have said to the others.

Had I embraced that moment, when my heart was swiftly pounding and his eyes were surprised, the very moment of our togetherness would have blossomed into a friendship. It might have lasted no more than a few kicked balls, but it would have perfected my moment then and my story now. I would have remembered something more about him and the other boys, more than just a pale image. Alas, we rarely reflect on the spot, at the very fragile moment when the heart is swiftly pounding and the eyes are surprised; hence, our moments remain imperfect and our stories incomplete.

It was June 1982, my first World Cup when I grew to the thrill, the passion for football, the soccer game. Spain was the host, and there were twenty-four nations competing. Suddenly, at the time of our utmost political isolation, when Iran and Iranians’ were imprisoned from all elements of life abroad, there came these 24 flags for almost an hour a day on our national TV, our only TV channel.

No games were broadcast live on TV; they were all on “radio days.” I — and all Iranians, for that matter — had to wait at least a day or two to watch a few minutes’ summary of goals and brave and sometimes heartbreaking saves.

I remember the day Cameroon was born to me. The African lions held both Italy and Poland to draws and became my favorite. I prayed for the El Salvadorans, for they seemed quite thin, hence poor, by my calculations. I hoped for a miracle win over the Spaniards, to allow the Hondurans to advance to round 16. I clapped and cheered for the Algerians for breaking the proud Germans. Talking about the World Cup, discussing the games, and stories of the scorers gifted me an entry into our alley’s older boys’ club. It earned me confidence. I was proud.

Italy won the cup. The Azzurri’s heartbreaking win over the highly popular and favored Brazil was one of the most dramatic World Cup games. When I heard the radio news anchor announcing the brutal loss, my tears soaked my eyes and soon ran off my cheek.

Father was frying eggs for a late-night snack. Mom was perhaps smoking by the window. The kitchen radio was perched on top of our moss-green fridge, and I was attending to my little brother with his fluffy stool cushions. He must not have seen my tearful eyes. Tears soon drenched my bare wrist.

That flag-full World Cup cracked my mind open, nurtured my playful imagination with the world. When bored in class, especially those hours lectured by the regime’s propaganda robots, I would secretly draw the world, one map at a time, as I wished it to be.

Often, the purposeful shuffling of borders was designed to give me access to many exciting places in one relatively short journey from Iran. Tehran to Rio would pass through Budapest and Zürich. Argentina curved over Portugal on the northern borders of Iran and Lichtenstein.

I remember the day I discovered Lesotho. I admired her courage to stand independent in the very belly of South Africa. Indeed, I became so enthusiastic that, during the tournament, I memorized the whole geography of the World Cup’s history, and it was from then on that I have continued to explore and problematize our territorial and political identities, both real and unreal.

Years later, in New York’s last Sunday of March 2012, while roaming around Grand Central Station, devouring the Big American Apple on top of the clouds, I recalled that powerful moment when I realized my childhood privilege: the aged, dim and unending bazaar corridors, the azure domes and the shining dusts, the striped plastic balls and my black digital watch. This was the same sense of privilege, a sense of capturing the new world, walking the streets of New York while knowing that those kids, now imprisoned in Tehran’s occupied alleys still kick some balls, this time though, struggling to score a pittance.

And, of course, I remembered my then fast-walking, vigorous, convincing father and his full black moustache, and some few other good days, when he deliberately walked me through places, spaces, and situations so I would learn on my own and in my own ways.

He rarely spoke then and, as he grew old, he spoke even less. However, there were times when he was loud, really loud, pouring out his entire sparkling bouquet of vocabulary when the supreme religious leader, the Ayatollah, filled the TV screen with his calm, satanic voice. In those early days and in our everyday lives, he found non-verbal ways to show me the different shades of both pride and privilege.

Back in New York, a few more hours passed. It was indeed a peaceful, already long, sufficient day, and I had just spent heavily in the biggest toy store in town. Standing at the lively crossing of 5th Avenue and 59th Street, watching tourists negotiating for a carriage ride around inner Central Park, cab drivers honking horns constantly urging a widening of gaps to slip through, I cautioned myself: “Go back to your room, rest a bit, check emails, and get out at a later hour for a full evening’s journey on Broadway.”

I didn’t want to stop walking, though. The more I walked, the more I felt I could acquire an entitlement to this gem, the Hope Diamond of cities with its grayish skyscrapers representing the highest achievements of the American dream. A place where old and new immigrants are attended to and their imaginations promise to transform into memories.

How could I have convinced myself to retire to my room? How could I have not furthered my possession of all these glittering baubles? I didn’t succeed; I kept strolling.

Farther south on Madison Avenue, by sheer luck, I came across a small independent theater, showing A Separation. Surprisingly, I had not seen it till then, even though the Oscar for Foreign Film was one of many prizes it had swept that year. I loved it. It was simple, and yet so real a projection of the most fundamental dilemma of life today, yesterday, and tomorrow; so Persian, and yet so universal. A deep digging into a simple human struggle, a narrative emanating from the very depth of our communicative tensions, an earthly music to all ears: classic for some, hard rock for others.

Just a few moments after the heavy ending of A Separation, rain started pouring down on hurrying New Yorkers. Now, I am a rain lover, a rain dancer. But, at the time, I couldn’t partake of that joy with all the wrapped toys hanging around my tired, failing arms. I decided to hold back, sheltered under an ugly yet God-sent scaffolding. I stood and watched.

In only a minute — certainly no more than one minute — more than a dozen men six or so feet tall appeared on the sidewalks, each offering a crummy black umbrella to every soaked walker in exchange for a sweaty, wilted five-dollar bill. They certainly had been ready for the rain.

Suddenly blossomed, these whirling black mushrooms amused my dulled attention and, at that very moment, I promised myself to tell Heeva, my son, this bedtime story. When it rains, deep in the green forests come mushrooms of all kinds and shades, but those that thrive in the jungle of Manhattan are all tall and black.

Copyright © 2017 by Behrang Foroughi

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