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کتاب: عطر سنبل، عطر کاج / فصل 26

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متن انگلیسی فصل

If I Were a Rich Man

In Abadan, we never had to think about money, not because we were rich, but because the National Iranian Oil Company took care of all our needs. Employees received free furnished housing; the size and amenities were based on years of experience and education. Plumbing problems, electrical problems, and leaky roofs were fixed free of charge. Schools, doctors, and even buses cost nothing. For entertainment, everyone converged at the local clubhouse for bingo, swimming, movies, and concerts. Except for food, it was all free of charge. The club also held Persian New Year celebrations, Christmas parties, and even an annual bal masqué with an award given for best costume. My parents and Aunt Sedigeh and Uncle Abdullah always dressed up as villagers, and every year they didn’t win. In 1957, an employee of the fire department won with his rendition of a spaceship passenger.

As an engineer with a graduate degree, my father was entitled to a three-bedroom house with a huge backyard complete with a vegetable garden and chickens. Each day, I made my rounds, verifying whether the carrots, corn, radishes, or green beans were ready to eat. Afterward, I checked for insects, keeping track of all the creatures that shared our garden. My mother found my interest in bugs an odd and somewhat disturbing hobby for a little girl. My daughter shares that fascination with things that creep and crawl, and I tell her that a career in entomology awaits her.

Our front yard in Abadan was filled with roses, jasmine, and narcissus. Next to the flower beds stood a large covered swing. Every evening, when the stifling heat lifted, we would sit outside on the swing, sipping cherry drinks or Pepsi and eating salted sunflower seeds. Our evenings were often punctuated with the sound of our neighbor’s shrill voice: “Jeemee! Jeemee!” Her husband’s name was not Jimmy, but Javad, but our neighbor had seen a few too many American movies and had decided to anglicize her husband’s name, adding a bit of exoticism to our neck of the woods. Not to be outdone, we acquired a stray dog and named it Jimmy. And this is how, on any given evening, one could hear not one but two families calling for their respective Jeemees.

When we first came to America, not only did we have to adjust to paying for everything (“The plumber charges for just looking at the problem?”), we had to pay with American currency. In 1972, one dollar was worth seven toumans, or seventy rials. This meant that a package of Oscar Mayer bologna cost not two dollars but fourteen toumans. Tomatoes were not fifty cents per pound, but three and a half toumans. Nothing could be purchased without an automatic conversion to Iranian currency, followed by the requisite “Ooh, that’s a lot.” Little did we know that what seemed expensive when we first came to America would appear to be a downright bargain after the Iranian Revolution. Political upheaval is rarely good for the economy; in 1979, the value of Iranian currency took a nosedive. One dollar eventually was worth eight hundred toumans or eight thousand rials. The two-dollar package of Oscar Mayer bologna now cost sixteen hundred toumans, the price of a small Persian rug before the revolution. Even Iranians who used to spend money freely now had to think twice before all purchases.

My father has always been a thrifty man, but our financial problems after the revolution thrust him onto a new plane of existence, a universe with the motto “I’ll fix it myself.” A white lab coat and stethoscope do not a doctor make, and a dozen trips to the Sears hardware department do not a handyman make. But, short of drilling for oil or hunting squirrel, my father came to believe that he could take care of all his family’s needs. His engineering background, combined with his Time-Life Home Repair and Improvement (a fourteen-volume set), convinced him that he could address any leak, drip, rattle, or clog. Any objection or doubt we expressed led him to recount the story of how he had built a radio when he was a teenager. When challenged with the point that installing tile is perhaps different from building a radio, he would always reply, “Not really.” Strolling through our house, one sees ample evidence of my father’s can-do spirit. So what if the hot water comes out of the faucet marked “Cold”? That’s nothing compared to what a plumber would have charged to fix the sink! And the duct tape covering the holes in the kitchen wall? Who is going to notice those? As for the way the wallpaper in the bathroom doesn’t match, let’s not get too picky. It’s just a bathroom, not a dining room. Should Time-Life publish a Do-It-Yourself Guide to Medical Procedures, my mother and I will be leaving the country.

If my father limited his handyman skills to his own humble abode, that would be fine. Unfortunately, Kazem Appleseed insists on sharing his gifts with the rest of us. Having “fixed” everything in his own house, he has moved on to his children’s.

My brother Farshid is an executive in a high-tech firm. Unlike our father, Farshid has no problem spending money. He pays someone to wash his car, someone to hem his pants, and someone to clean his house. Not only does he have all his clothes dry cleaned, he pays extra to have his laundry picked up and dropped off at his doorstep.

During my parents’ last visit to Farshid, our father initiated and completed a small project. After Farshid left for work, Kazem strolled to the hardware store and picked up a few items. He then spent the entire day spackling and painting.

After twelve hours at work, my brother returned home to discover a blotchy pattern on all the walls of his twenty-fourth-floor penthouse. “What is this?”

“Try to find a crack or hole,” my father challenged him. “I covered them all. There were a lot.”

“Who asked you to do this?” my brother asked incredulously. “Where did you get this paint? It’s an entirely different color from my walls.”

“It’s fine if you don’t thank me, but for your information white paint is white paint,” my father replied.

Seizing an opportunity to avenge a few of her own home repair memories, my mother chimed in, “I told him not to do it. He didn’t listen. He never listens.”

“Well,” my father exclaimed indignantly, preparing us for the aphorism he uses like a maraschino cherry to top off all his unappreciated repair projects, “a man standing next to a river cannot appreciate water.”

Luckily for my father, we weren’t standing next to a river. Someone might have ended up in it.

When my husband and I bought a condominium, we invited my parents for a visit. Our home was spanking new, which meant there was nothing to repair. After a few hours, however, my father announced, “You need a medicine cabinet in the bathroom.”

“We don’t need a medicine cabinet in the bathroom,” we replied.

“I think you do,” said my father, sounding undeterred.

“We don’t need one. We don’t want one.”

My father, like a cat, should not be left alone indoors for eight hours. Marking his territory, he purchased and installed a medicine cabinet in our bathroom while my husband and I were at work. Perhaps if it hadn’t been hung crooked, François would not have been so upset.

During his next visit, my father secretly decided that our bathroom needed towel hooks. Using nails that were too long, my father pierced the door, creating towel hooks on one side, medieval blinding devices on the other.

My husband has since taken the situation into his own hands, hiding all our screwdrivers and hammers before my parents visit.

My father has never apologized for any of his handyman missteps, insisting instead that our lack of appreciation stems from deeper issues. “If I had charged you a thousand dollars for spackling and painting, you’d think it looked better,” he told Farshid. He regularly tells my mother that her complaints about holes left in walls and mismatched tiles only reveal her desire to impress others, a quality that she needs to change. When my husband complained that the medicine cabinet we never wanted in the first place was crooked, my father replied, “It still holds things.” His ability not to apologize for glaring mistakes would have served him well in another venue, perhaps politics; it has taught us never to complain about any problem in the house, lest my father decide to fix it. No matter how inconvenient a household malfunction might be, Kazem can always make it worse, for free.

Just as my father cannot envision actually calling a plumber for a clogged sink, he cannot understand why people eat in restaurants. For him, eating out means going to one of his sisters’ houses, where not only is the food fresh, delicious, and served by people who love him and laugh at his jokes, but there is no bill at the end.

Going to a real restaurant with my father always means the same thing:

“The chicken is twelve dollars? Does that mean we get the whole chicken? Let’s see. They have two, four, six, eight, ten … twenty tables here, four people per table average, each ordering the chicken dish, let’s say three seatings per evening, multiply that by eight hundred toumans … Geez, I should’ve opened a restaurant.” These calculations never include the costs of running a restaurant, just the supposed profits. Needless to say, we never dare order drinks with my father, since a $2.50 glass of lemonade, which requires at maximum three lemons at ten cents each, plus a little sugar, multiplied by eight hundred toumans … We always drink water, tap of course, since bottled water would most certainly lead to a whole other lecture beginning with how he grew up drinking the water in Ahwaz and is none the worse for it and you can multiply that by eight hundred.

Like a caterpillar morphing into a butterfly, my father magically transforms into Daddy Warbucks as soon as he sets foot in Iran. This is because, in Iran, my father is a millionaire. During their annual visits, he and my mother stay at the former Sheraton in Tehran, a hotel they could have never afforded without a complete devaluation of Iranian currency. Each year, my relatives in Iran, a country whose people are known for hospitality, beg my parents to stay with them, but my father refuses, explaining that staying in a suite is not something he can afford anywhere else. The relatives come and visit him, and he treats them all to lavish restaurant meals, leaving huge tips for all the employees.

Once my father accepted that his monthly pension from thirty-three years of employment with the National Iranian Oil Company would buy him only a few restaurant meals in America, he decided to turn it around and do something good with the money in Iran. Every year, he withdraws the pension and donates it to the needy. He has paid for surgeries, numerous medical treatments, eyeglasses, and medicine. About ten years ago, he met three children who had lost both parents and were living with their elderly grandparents. Every year, he supplies them with clothes, books, and toys. Before his last trip, he asked me if I could give him my laptop for the son. “I’m using it to write a book,” I told him. “Give it to me when you’re done,” my father replied.

Last year, he bought desperately needed car parts for a man who makes his living as a driver and who without his car would have had no job. The year before, he paid for extensive repairs to a home inhabited by a family of nine. Luckily for them, my father did not have his Time-Life series with him.

Every year, my father returns to America with a suitcase full of pistachios and a head full of stories. He describes the luxuries of staying in a suite and ordering room service and making sure that the cleaning lady receives the biggest tip of her career. He tells me how odd it is for him to be treated with such fanfare in his own country and how everyone considers him to be such a big shot, all because of a pension that means almost nothing here. After his last trip, I asked him if it was hard to return to America, where he is far from wealthy. “But, Firoozeh,” he said, “I’m a rich man in America, too. I just don’t have a lot of money.”

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