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Call Me Zebra, страница 1


Call Me Zebra

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Call Me Zebra


  * * *

  Title Page






  New York City





  The Liquid Continent

  About the Author

  Connect with HMH

  Copyright © 2018 by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

  All rights reserved

  For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to [email protected] or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.


  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Names: Van der Vliet Oloomi, Azareen, author.

  Title: Call me Zebra / Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi.

  Description: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

  Identifiers: LCCN 2017044915 (print) | LCCN 2017047825 (ebook) | ISBN 9780544944152 (ebook) | ISBN 9780544944602 (hardcover)

  Subjects: LCSH: Self-realization in women—Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Literary. | FICTION / Cultural Heritage. | FICTION / Psychological. | FICTION / General. | GSAFD: Love stories.

  Classification: LCC PS3622.A58543 (ebook) | LCC PS3622.A58543 C35 2018 (print) | DDC 813/.6–dc23

  LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017044915

  Illustrations by Murphy Chang

  Cover design by Michaela Sullivan

  Cover images © Shutterstock

  Author photograph © Kayla Holdread


  “On Exactitude in Science,” copyright © 1998 by Maria Kodama; translation copyright © 1998 by Penguin Random House LLC; from Collected Fictions: Volume 3 by Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley. Used by permission of Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. The dictionary definition on page 233 is from the Online Etymology Dictionary © 2001–2017 by Douglas Harper.

  Background research for this novel was made possible in part by support from the Fulbright Scholar Program, a program of the United States Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and from the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts, College of Arts and Letters, University of Notre Dame.


  all my dead relatives


  However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether they are born from an egg or born from a womb, born from the water or born from the air, whether they have form or no form, whether they have perception or no perception or neither perception nor no perception, in whatever conceivable realm of being one might conceive of beings, in the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.



  The Story of My Ill-Fated Origins

  Illiterates, Abecedarians, Elitists, Rodents all—I will tell you this: I, Zebra, born Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini on a scorching August day in 1982, am a descendent of a long line of self-taught men who repeatedly abandoned their capital, Tehran, where blood has been washed with blood for a hundred years, to take refuge in Nowshahr, in the languid, damp regions of Mazandaran. There, hemmed in by the rugged green slopes of the Elborz Mountains and surrounded by ample fields of rice, cotton, and tea, my forebears pursued the life of the mind.

  There, too, I was born and lived the early part of my life.

  My father, Abbas Abbas Hosseini—multilingual translator of great and small works of literature, man with a thick mustache fashioned after Nietzsche’s—was in charge of my education. He taught me Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, English, Farsi, French, German. I was taught to know the languages of the oppressed and the oppressors because, according to my father, and to my father’s father, and to his father before that, the wheels of history are always turning and there is no knowing who will be run over next. I picked up languages the way some people pick up viruses. I was armed with literature.

  As a family, we possess a great deal of intelligence—a kind of superintellect—but we came into this world, one after the other, during the era when Nietzsche famously said that God is dead. We believe that death is the reason why we have always been so terribly shortchanged when it comes to luck. We are ill-fated, destined to wander in perpetual exile across a world hostile to our intelligence. In fact, possessing an agile intellect with literary overtones has only served to worsen our fate. But it is what we know and have. We are convinced that ink runs through our veins instead of blood.

  My father was educated by three generations of self-taught philosophers, poets, and painters: his father, Dalir Abbas Hosseini; his grandfather, Arman Abbas Hosseini; his great-grandfather, Shams Abbas Hosseini. Our family emblem, inspired by Sumerian seals of bygone days, consists of a clay cylinder engraved with three As framed within a circle; the As stand for our most treasured roles, listed here in order of importance: Autodidacts, Anarchists, Atheists. The following motto is engraved underneath the cylinder: In this false world, we guard our lives with our deaths.

  The motto also appears at the bottom of a still life of a mallard hung from a noose, completed by my great-great-grandfather, Shams Abbas Hosseini, in the aftermath of Iran’s failed Constitutional Revolution at the turn of the twentieth century. Upon finishing the painting, he pointed at it with his cane, nearly bludgeoning the mallard’s face with its tip and, his voice simultaneously crackling with disillusionment and fuming with rage, famously declared to his son, my great-grandfather, Arman Abbas Hosseini, “Death is coming, but we literati will remain as succulent as this wild duck!”

  This seemingly futile moment marked the beginning of our long journey toward nothingness, into the craggy pits of this measly universe. Generation after generation, our bodies have been coated with the dust of death. Our hearts have been extinguished, our lives leveled. We are weary, as thin as rakes, hacked into pieces. But we believe our duty is to persevere against a world hell-bent on eliminating the few who dare to sprout in the collective manure of degenerate humans. That’s where I come into the picture. I—astonished and amazed at the magnitude of the darkness that surrounds us—am the last in a long line of valiant thinkers.

  Upon my birth, the fifth of August 1982, and on its anniversary every year thereafter, as a rite of passage, my father, Abbas Abbas Hosseini, whispered a monologue titled “A Manifesto of Historical Time and the Corrected Philosophy of Iranian History: A Hosseini Secret” into my ear. I include it here, transcribed verbatim from memory.

  Ill-omened child, I present you with the long and the short of our afflicted country, Iran: Supposed Land of the Aryans.

  In 550 BC, Cyrus the Great, King of the Four Corners of the World, brave and benevolent man, set out on a military campaign from the kingdom of Anshan in Parsa near the Gulf, site of the famous ruins of Persepolis, to conquer the Medes and the Lydians and the Babylonians. Darius and Xerxes the Great, his most famous successors, continued erecting the commodious empire their father had begun through the peaceful seizing of neighboring peoples. But just as facts are overtaken by other facts, all great rulers are eclipsed by their envious competitors. Search the world east to west, north to south; nowhere will you find a shortage of tyrants, all expertly trained to sniff out weak prey. Eventually, Cyrus the Great’s line of ruling progeny came to an end with Alexander the Great, virile youth whose legacy was, in turn, overshadowed by a long line of new conquerors, each of whom briefly took pleasure in the rubble of dynasties pas

  Every one of us in Iran is a hybrid individual best described as a residue of a composite of fallen empires. If you were to look at us collectively, you would see a voluble and troubled nation. Imagine a person with multiple heads and a corresponding number of arms and legs. How is such a person, one body composed of so many, supposed to conduct herself? She will spend a lifetime beating her heads against one another, lifting up one pair of her arms in order to strangle the head of another.

  We, the people—varied, troubled, heterogeneous—have been scrambling like cockroaches across this land for centuries without receiving so much as a nod from our diverse rulers. They have never looked at us; they have only ever looked in the mirror.

  What is the consequence of such disregard? An eternal return of uprisings followed by mass murder and suffocating repression. I could not say which of the two is worse. In the words of Yevgeny Zamyatin: Revolutions are infinite.

  By the twentieth century, the Persian empire’s frontiers had been hammered so far back that the demarcating boundary of our shrunken nation was bruised; it was black and blue! Every fool knows that in order to keep surviving that which expands has to contract. Just look at the human heart. My own, reduced to a stone upon the double deaths of my father and my father’s father, both murdered by our so-called leaders, is plump and fleshy again; your birth has sent fresh blood rushing through its corridors.

  Hear me, child: The details of the history of our nation are nothing but a useless inventory of facts unless they are used to illuminate the wretched nature of our universal condition. The core of the matter, the point of this notable monologue, is to expose the artful manipulation of historical time through the creation of false narratives rendered as truth and exercised by the world’s rulers with expert precision for hundreds of years. Think of our own leaders’ lies as exhibit A. Let us shuffle through them one by one.

  When the century was still young, our people attempted the Constitutional Revolution but failed. In time, that failure produced the infamous Reza Shah Pahlavi, who ruled the country with thuggery and intimidation. Years later, during the Second World War, Mr. Pahlavi was sent into exile by the British, those nosy and relentless chasers of money—those thieves, if we’re being honest. And what, child, do you think happened then? Pahlavi’s son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was greener than a tree in summer, stepped up to the throne.

  Claiming to be the metaphysical descendent of the benevolent Cyrus the Great, the visionary Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi anointed himself the “King of Kings” and launched the White Revolution, a chain of reforms designed to yank the country’s citizens into modernity by hook or by crook.

  It was just a matter of time before the people rose against the King of Kings. Revolution broke out. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi spilled blood, tasted it, then, like a spineless reptile, slid up the stairs of an airplane with his bejeweled queen in tow and fled, famously declaring: “Only a dictator kills his people. I am a king.”

  The Islamic clergy, whose graves the king had been digging for years, hijacked the revolution, and in one swift move, the monarchy was abolished. The king’s absence allowed the revolutionary religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini to return to the country after a long political exile. Khomeini, former dissident, swiftly established the Islamic Republic of Iran and positioned himself as the Supreme Leader. The Grand Ayatollah proceeded to outdo the King of Kings. His line of metaphysical communication skipped over Cyrus the Great; it pierced the heavens to arrive directly at God’s ear. The Supreme Leader claimed to enjoy unparalleled divine protection.

  How did he employ his blessings? By digging the graves of the secularists and the intelligentsia just as the Pahlavi kings had dug the graves of dissidents, Communists, and the clergy. With one hand, God’s victors eliminated their revolutionary brothers, and with the other, they shucked pistachios, drank tea, raided their victims’ closets, ate cherries picked from their gardens.

  Child, we, the Hosseinis, were persecuted by both sides. The King of Kings, seeing his end in sight, made no exceptions. His men garroted the old and the infirm and the young. Mothers and children are still weeping for their lost loved ones. Your great-grandfather, Arman Abbas Hosseini, was among the executed. The ruthless pigs dragged him from his deathbed when he was eighty-nine. Two days later, your grandfather, Dalir Abbas Hosseini, had a heart attack. He could not endure the thought of his father being hanged from the rafters. Before he died, he told me that he could not stop hearing the sound of his father’s brittle bones crackling under the weight of his body as it hung from the noose. Until you came into this world, my only consolation was that my father, at least, had died in his own bed. You are a flame of light in these dark woods.

  Like everyone else in this trifling universe, we Iranians are a sum of our sorry parts. Put our pieces together and what emerges is not a whole, clear image. Our edges are jagged, nonconforming, incoherent. Our bloodline is so long and varied, it can be traced back to the origins of the universe. How is man to make sense of his condition when the wrangle over power between conquerors old and new herds history’s stories in ever more puzzling directions?

  Now that you have heard the story of our cruel fate, you are ready to listen to the Hosseini Commandments, a text that has three giant heads that you must make part of your own. Why, you might ask? Because if you know the ways of man, the various conditions of his iniquitous mind, you will not be stumped by fear, guilt, avarice, grief, or remorse, and therefore, when the time comes, you will not hesitate to plumb the depths of the abyss and send out a resounding alarm to the unthinking masses, those who are willfully blind, warning them of the advancing army of the unresolved past.

  FIRST COMMANDMENT: Ecce homo: This is man, destined to suffer at the hands of two-faced brethren inclined to loot the minds and bodies of friend and foe. Ill-fated child, trust nobody and love nothing except literature, the only magnanimous host there is in this decaying world. Seek refuge in it. It is through its missives alone that you will survive your death, preserve your inner freedom.

  SECOND COMMANDMENT: Like a gored bull, history is charging through the world in search of fresh victims. Think! Does a gored bull run straight? No. It zigzags. It circles around itself. It is bleeding and half-blind. Be warned: The world’s numbskull intellectuals, which form 99.9 percent of all intellectuals, will feed you lies. History, they will say, is linear, and time continuous. During Pahlavi’s final years, these deluded intellectuals hoped that revolution would lead to democracy. What came of it but death? Your ancestors, the Hosseinis, paid for their leaders’ ignorance with their lives. Do not be caught unawares. Spit the lie right back out. Aim for their heads.

  THIRD COMMANDMENT: We Hosseinis—Autodidacts, Anarchists, Atheists—are expert connoisseurs of literature and therefore capable of taking a narrative apart and putting it back together faster than a wounded man can say “Ah!” This talent, passed on to you by your honorable ancestors, is your sword. Draw it anytime you need to strike stupidity in the face.

  The depth of our knowledge, the precision of our tongues, and our capacity for detecting lies is unparalleled. We are the true intellectuals, the exception to the rule, the .1 percent. This is yet another source of our ill-fatedness.

  We are the loneliest of the lonely. Our message falls on the deaf ears of the unthinking masses. Nevertheless, we are destined to wander the earth spreading the word of our forebears and our forebears’ forebears, the Great Writers of the Past, who, like us, knew to retreat into literature in order to survive history’s bloodshed and thus be in a position to share the truth of it with the world. For this we will always be persecuted: for pointing our fingers and asking, Is this a man?

  Ill-fated child, when your time comes, you must dive headfirst into the swampy lagoons of our pitiful human circumstances and, after roving the depths, emerge with the slimy pearl of truth. Be warned: The truth is ugly, wretched, full of craters and holes through which rise the fumes of death. Most men, smug and cowardly, wi
ll turn their noses away from its stench. Sooner or later, you will have to engage with these men; you will have to persevere despite their private delusions and collective ignorance.

  Suffice it to say that in combination with the events that unfurled during my childhood years, events charged with everything that is futile and unspeakable in this universe, my father’s monologue transformed my consciousness. I had not been alive long before my mother, Bibi Khanoum, died. Her death flattened my heart into a sheet of paper. It leveled my mind. It rubbed my nose in manure. My only good fortune is that I realized early on that I am one of the wretched of this earth. But this is a matter for later.

  According to my father, during the long revolutionary months prior to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, my mother—a woman with strong legs and a sweet disposition—would remind my father, Abbas Abbas Hosseini, that he had been accused by the Iranian intelligentsia of being “a passive traitor whose nose was hooked into books while others’ were being rubbed in the blood of their brethren.”

  Bibi Khanoum, my father informed me, would say: “Don’t test your luck, Abbas! People don’t like to be snubbed while they’re being martyred for their beliefs.”

  In response, my father would pace the corridor of their Tehran apartment convulsing, his moods swinging dramatically, while he spewed ad infinitum: “I am a Hosseini. I would rather die than hold my tongue! Pseudo intellectuals! Imbeciles! People have disappeared, been arrested, executed, their bodies discarded, scattered across the earth. And they still believe democracy is around the corner? The revolution is going to be hijacked. Don’t they know history is full of ruptures, haphazard events, and prone to recycling its own evil phenomena?”

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