Atopia: The Mind in Winter

by Darius Rejali

Images courtesy of author; recoloring by Knar Hovakimyan.

Images courtesy of author; recoloring by Knar Hovakimyan.

 

May 31, 2002
Fairbanks, Alaska

 

It’s an uncertain day, the kind where you wonder, did I stay in this city a little too long? Have I done everything that can be done in Fairbanks?

I’d come to Alaska to spend time with my former research assistant, Chad, his girlfriend, Lindsay, and his family outside of Fairbanks. We had spent some days near Johnson River, deep in the wilderness outside of Delta. Now I’m back in Fairbanks getting ready for my train journey south to hike alone in Denali for a few days, and then head down to Anchorage. 

I decide to walk to Fred Meyers and catch the bus downtown. I don’t know what to do except snap photos and mail a postcard to my barber, who wants one from Nowhere. The previous day, I had traveled down the Haul Road from the Arctic Circle. That was pretty close. 

Standing in line at the post office, a woman on the far left-hand counter is having an animated conversation with the clerk. “No, ma’am,” they say, “when you became a naturalized American citizen, you gave up your Iranian passport. You cannot renew it.” Why would this woman go to a U.S. post office for information about passports, especially renewing Iranian ones? I was intrigued. 

At any rate, the information the clerk gives is mistaken, so as she is leaving I say, “Bebakhshid.” 

She replies, “Salaam, you are Iranian?”

And I say yes.

“How come I don’t know about you? There are fourteen Iranians in Fairbanks.” 

“I’m just visiting.” I tell her. “But I wanted to say that the information the clerk gave you is mistaken. I can tell you how to renew your Iranian passport; perhaps we can sit down somewhere and I can explain.” 

“So much to do, so many errands, I only get one day off… I will stand in line with you till you mail, then you come with me while I do errands and explain how I do this.”

Her name is Guli, which, in Farsi, means the color rose. She is a very short, dark-haired woman with a weathered face, easily confused, flustered, and disorganized; her intensity resolves into patterns that I can follow. We get into her big American car, and she drives in a jerky, dangerous way, halting frequently in the middle of the street, getting confused and lost on the one-ways as she peers over the steering wheel. I’ve seen this kind of bad driving all over Fairbanks—that slow lumbering, like many pack mules trying to find their way through a market. I watch the giant car trundle through a red light. Amazingly, nothing is hit. She explains to me as she is driving: she is from Kermanshah and she is a Kurd.

“Forgive my Farsi, it is only book Farsi,” she says, “And your English is so good, no accent.” 

My mother is American. 

“How come I don’t know about you? I know all the Iranians. There’s the doctor and his wife. I met them once but don’t see them much. And then there’s Mehrzad—he had Baha written on his T-shirt; we were at the McDonald’s, and my husband Joe said, ‘He’s Iranian,’ and I said, ‘No, that is not possible,’ but I went up and asked in Farsi and he was! And they do a lot of favors for me. Life is so hard here, and it is so expensive. Joe has a good job, and I work, but still. And my son is driving me crazy. Doesn’t want to go to college, only thinks of sports! My daughter, thankfully, is better. I have to stop here to do something for her.”

She drives to a clinic, and I wait. “Where do you want to go?” she then says, even though I’d already explained how to renew her passport while we were in the car. 

I say, “The train station.” Although I’ve already confirmed my ticket to Denali, I think this will be a graceful way to exit. I want to just walk around town on my own, per my original plan. 

“I will take you there, no, and then we must have lunch. I don’t know where to have lunch here, though. What do you know?” As if I would know anything. I’m directing her but she seems completely adrift in these simple city streets. When I guide her to the train parking lot, she exclaims, “Through that mud? No! It is over there.” 

But it is not, and we have to go around the building, slogging through the mud, to get in.

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Lunch is inevitable, and I need to reduce Guli’s uncertainty about what to do with me. I suggest we park on 2nd and find a place. Watching her search for a space is awful enough, but fortunately we end up exactly where my friend Chad and I had parked the week before to eat at Lavelle’s. This was familiar to me. She wants me to find the Thai restaurant: “The rice was so GOOD!” I suggest we ask at Lavelle’s for an address. But, when we walk in and she realizes Lavelle’s is an “all you can eat” buffet, she says, “NOOO, we eat here.” 

She leaves me to deal with the details. We find a table. She dashes off, “Noon bokhor,” she keeps saying, “It’s good for you.” I don’t eat bread,I say. She is shocked. Like an old naneh, she keeps pushing the heavy carbs, but desists when I decline repeatedly. 

She then puts her hands together over the food and prays. “I’m Massihi,” she says, looking me straight in the eyes. “I was raised by missionaires,” she says using Farsified French. 

I recognize the gesture viscerally. Hands pressed together, that was… chapel! We sat on long wooden pews by classroom and grade (second grade was in the back) and sang “Onward Christian soldiers!” putting our emphasis heavily on the CHRIS. We loved that song when it came up in service. One day, my friend Stephen Dooraan came up to me in the yard—we had no lunch room, just a big cement space with trees—and said, “Darius, I love playing with you, but I would love you much more if you were a Christian.” It was said innocently, and I never thought it changed us. But until that day, I hadn’t known what I wasn’t. I hadn’t realized that I was something else, a Muslim, and that I would spend a lifetime trying to figure out what that meant to me.

Guli invokes a time when things had been simpler, a dawning recognition in me of a long-lasting curiosity towards difference, born out of love and respect. I return to the present, nod, and ask, What kind of Massihi? “Presbyterian.” Who were the missionaries? Do you remember the names? “Oh yes, Korrlee, Dooraan, Slowterrr.”

Is she listing off the playmates of my childhood? Startled, I ask, “You mean Tim Korrlee, Stephen Dooraan, 

Rhonda Slowterrr?”  

“Those were their children,” she says, but their parents had other names, which I did not recognize. She is from an older generation. My friends are all babies to her. 

Of all three missionary families, I knew the Dooraans best; Stephen and I were playmates for many years. In 1974, he invited me to join his family and another classmate, Tim, and his sister on a trip to Kurdistan over No Ruz holidays. I was fifteen, and it was my first big trip away from home. 

On our way, we stopped in Hamedan and visited the tomb of Esther. This was not just tourism, but also history and Bible study. The Rabbi led us deep into the old building and showed us a beautifully illuminated Persian Torah. Later, we ate at a chelokababi on the second floor of a worn building, overlooking a crowded intersection. Once the man who took our orders looked at me uncomprehendingly, I discovered that asking for a raw egg with the rice was a Tehrani custom. I was not in the same Iran I knew; I was out of place. Afterwards, we went up into the wilds, to Faraman, a Kurdish village, which had a mission, up in the Zagros.

I say to Guli that I had once travelled with the Dooraans to a village outside Kermanshah where there were Kurdish converts. How many Kurdish Presbyterians are there in this world? I don’t pause to wonder—her face lights up: “You went to our village!” She explains, “There were fifty of us, and the missionaires took care of us.”

Another lost memory from the trip: there was an old woman in a room and she was the last caretaker living in this long white building. She wore her roosari tightly; she was full of kindness, but childlike, not maternal. We sat around her sofreh, prayed together, and ate. The building was an Iran I knew from Community School, the Presbyterian school where I studied in Tehran, familiar to me from childhood: space and order—doors of independent rooms opening outwards onto a porch, mixed with crisp plaster and missionary overtones. White gleam, old, wooden Iranian windowpanes; nothing very ornate, just the clarity of light as winter receded.

How many days were we there? One afternoon, we walked along a river. It was early springtime. The water was swift and cold from the melting snow on the high Zagros. Unfamiliar green weeds were growing along the banks—not like those I knew from the summers at the Caspian—but the willows, thorns, and poplar trees were familiar enough. 

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In all the years after I left, one of my favorite photos of Iran was taken on that trip when Tim’s sister and I stopped at a rock and looked upstream toward the Iraqi frontier—or so I imagine it to this day. Stephen snapped the shot just as Tim came running down the hill and accidentally stuck his foot into the photo. “Watch out for scorpions!” Stephen yelled, and we all looked at the ground. I remember the feeling I had when the shutter clicked, the beginning of… Well, something larger than me. A trip away from family, on my own, not unlike what I am doing in Alaska—the first step away.

**

Although I didn’t know it at the time, or even as I talk to Guli decades later, Faraman was a village of orphans dating back to World War I when Turkish, Russian, and British troops had marched through the region. People forget the British marched right through the Zagros up to Baku, where today there is a British military cemetery for those who died in Dunsterforce. In the chaos, parents died and their children were left. Two Presbyterian missionaries, Francis and Blanche Wilson Stead, started the orphanage work; he was a minister and she was a doctor. In the years that followed, other mission organizations sent families, including the Korrlees and Dooraans. “They would take turns coming,” Guli explains over lunch. 

She is really pleased I have been to her village. She knows Community School, but she’s never been there. She had gone from Faraman to Pakistan, to a Presbyterian nursing school outside of Lahore. And then, back in Tehran, she met Joe. “Will you marry and live in the woods with me?” he had asked her. She didn’t think he was joking; she just didn’t know what that meant. But she was a country girl, and said yes. After a short time in Saudi Arabia, they moved to Wisconsin. And then he got a good job at the physical plant in University of Alaska Fairbanks. So they came here.

“I want to go back. What is it like for Christians or those who marry Westerners?” 

I tell her the facts. 

“My sister wants me to go, she has her papers, but she didn’t put down Massihi on her passport, she declared herself Muslim. If it is that way, I will never go. Has to be Massihi!”

She scribbles out a check for the two of us, but it is short. “I have to go,” she says. Lunch is 12.95 each, so in her head that’s 24 dollars. “Teep nadi,” she declares, and dashes out. I round off the bill and give a tip anyway. 

So here, at the end of the world, I meet, on my last day in Fairbanks, not just one of fourteen Iranians in the city, not just a whirlwind of a Kurdish Iranian, but one of the fifty Christian Kurds who, from a world away, shares my childhood. 

I feel unsteady and I need an anchor. I snap a photo of this table. I’ve travelled circles within circles—dining at the place I first ate when I came to Fairbanks with Chad; starting in English then drifting into Farsi and then suddenly back in English; arriving by train to central Alaska, then drifting in memory to Kurdistan on the Iranian frontier, and then back to central Alaska to train down to Denali.

***

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This tale first found its way to Guli’s brother through a chain of storytellers. I told it to another old school friend, Stewart, who then told his parents—both Presbyterian ministers—who told others later that year during a denominational meeting in Cyprus, one of whom was Mr. Estaidi, who said, “Yes, I know her. She’s my sister.” He lived in British Columbia, just across the border from Idaho. All the orphans of Faraman took the last name Estaidi out of love and respect for Francis and Blanche Stead. They grew up together and regarded each other as brothers and sisters. Dr. Stead died in 1921 or 1922, and her husband left the service of the Presbyterian mission in 1924.

Most of what we know of their village comes from two books. In one, The American Presbyterian Mission to Iran, 1854-1960, John Elder writes: 

When the [First World] war broke out, Kermanshah was successively occupied by Turkish, Russian, and British troops. In her little hospital, [Dr. Stead] had often cared for men wounded in tribal warfare… But she cheerfully cared for the sick and wounded of the three armies of occupation and won the undying love of many soldiers. In addition, Mr. and Mrs. Stead first opened their home to care for Kurdish and other orphan waifs from the street, and as the number increased, they erected a special building for their care, where they housed some sixty orphan children, supporting them by special funds solicited from abroad.

And then there’s the other book, To Persia, with Love: An American Woman’s Memoirs of Her Time in Iran, in which Doreen Corley writes: 

As [Francis Stead] traveled from village to village, he became disturbed by the huge number of orphans he noticed. Because the [Presbyterian] mission that supported him did not do orphanage work, he eventually left that ministry in order to buy the land where Faraman was currently located and develop it into a village of sorts, hiring farmers from the surrounding villages to work the land.

Guli did not learn Farsi, and did not need to, as the Bible had been translated to Kurdish a century ago. Stewart, too, took the Kurdish Bible as a basic fact of life—like the nastaliq Farsi poetry and calligraphy that he practices daily. His father once told me that Ivanis Izz al-Din translated the Gospels into Farsi in the 13th or 14th century, but the diatessaron of Ivanis was superseded by the “Bruce Bible,” translated by the Irish missionary Robert Bruce in the late 19th century and published in 1895. It was the standard translation used by Iranian Christians and Jews for most of the twentieth century, and it’s still preferred by many Christians of Guli’s generation. 

****

When I put Guli’s story forward for publication, once again, as it touched the real world, more bits of history came tumbling back, stirring things that had not been disturbed for many decades, reconnecting me to the world of my childhood. Toward the end of high school, Stephen Dooraan and I drifted apart, but I find, years later, I have unknowingly memorized by heart the striking poem he wrote for his senior year photograph: “I am what I am, and I’ll be what I’ll be, so leave me alone and let me be me.” His own words or someone else’s poem—I’m not sure. But the candor he showed on the playground when we were eight hadn’t left him. Like me, he was on a voyage of self-discovery of an intense sort—so his judgments of others, myself included, were always sincere, I’m sure. 

We completely lost contact when we came to the United States to pursue our studies, and, I’m not sure why, but at some point I thought I had heard that he had died of AIDs in the 1980s. So when he didn’t show up at school reunions, I didn’t inquire and no one said anything. 

A classmate reported Stephen was alive and living in Tampa. Stephen apparently remembered the river of Faraman, where he spent many hours swimming and avoiding snakes. His wife is American, but she makes a mean ghormeh sabzi. He added in an email to my classmate:

“I remember Darius’ fascination with runes and Lord of the Rings stuff. I know in high school I was not that close to him—but we were always friendly and cordial. I did feel he had withdrawn, too. But I am not sure why. I do need to reply to him, but for the time being, my parents are back from Florida for several weeks, and I will be subjected to many hours of Fox News, O’Reilly Factor, and, if I’m really good, Turkish soap operas, which are all the rage these days. Ahura Mazda, please help me.”

My classmate observed, “Stephen seems to be a man of few words and somewhat guarded. Understandable.” Just like Guli, Stephen “often thinks about Iran, and would like to revisit, but is somewhat apprehensive. Again, understandable.” This classmate was partly Baha’i; he didn’t need to say more. 

Years after the revolution, in 2001, while traveling with my cousin back from visiting our ancestral village of Tafresh, I pushed my cousin to stop in Hamedan so I could visit Esther’s tomb again. It didn’t look anything like I remembered when I had come with the Dooraans. The ancient Torah, if it was still there, was in a place no one could remember. The old days were gone. Things, I guess, change—indeed, in this world, there is nothing more certain—but here, in Stephen, was still the same intensity I remember. One day he will write, and we will visit Faraman again together. Like me, change hasn’t dampened his spirit; it has just made him wonder more. 


Darius Rejali, professor of political science at Reed College, is a nationally recognized expert on government torture and interrogation. Iranian-born, Rejali has spent his scholarly career reflecting on violence, and, specifically, reflecting on the causes, consequences, and meaning of modern torture in our world. 

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