The postcard read, “One memory of Iran, that I present of my very perty (sic) Sara,” and was signed, “Bahman and Reza.”
The card showed a picture of a young girl, maybe 14 years old, working at a loom—“A girl carpet weaver of Isfahan, Iran,” read the caption.
It was 1973. I was 20 years old and doing my penurious Grand Tour of Europe with a girlfriend, Colleen, from the University of North Wales where we were both American students abroad. Armed with Youth Hostel Cards and Eurail Passes and more confidence than we had the sense for, we set sail for “the Continent,” off to see the world.
After traveling through France, Germany and Switzerland, we headed for Italy, the first country we’d encountered in which neither of us had even a smattering of the language unless six years of Latin counted. We arrived in Pisa late one night cold, tired and hungry, and waited uncertainly for the bus that we’d been assured would take us to the only refuge we knew of in the city—the youth hostel.
As we stood in the blinkered darkness, a carload of young Italian men drove by shouting and leering at us. We ignored them but they kept returning and eventually stopped and got out. I felt ill with fear. In English, I politely but firmly asked them to go away, hoping the tone of my voice would convey the message my actual words couldn’t. They laughed and came closer.
We sought refuge in a nearby hotel, and asked the concierge to tell the men to leave us. He did, then asked where we were going. We gave him the address of the youth hostel and he said it wasn’t there any more, that it had been torn down. But he suggested a section of town where we might find cheap hotels and told us which bus to take.
Back out to the bus stop. By this time, not an ounce of intrepid traveler was left in me. I felt exposed and vulnerable and raw.
Then, from across the street, a tall, slender man came toward us, his elegant carriage reminding me of my Turkish physics professor back at college in the United States.
“Excuse me,” he said with a slight bow and an accent I couldn’t place. “I am Reza. I have been watching. You are having trouble, no?”
I wanted to burst into tears.
“You must not misunderstand me, but I can offer you a place for staying the night.” He was well-groomed and courteous, but he was also a stranger in a strange land, something I’d been warned to stay clear of all my life. However, the thought of being off the streets was immensely appealing. “Perhaps I could help you, no?” He continued.
I looked him in the eye. “We would love to take you up on your kind offer,” I said, “but we don’t know you and we really don’t want any more hassles.”
“I understand,” he said. “You can have the apartment where I am living and I will be going with my friend, Bahman, at his house. We are from Iran. We study architecture here in this city.”
My strict upbringing was screaming at me not to follow this unknown man in this unknown city at this late hour, but I wanted to believe in his goodness. I needed to believe in his goodness. I needed to get off these hostile streets. We followed him off into the darkness.
His apartment was typical student digs, one big room with a small kitchen area, but atypical for a male student’s apartment as it was neat, which reassured me somewhat though I knew I was clinging to straws.
Bahman was a shorter, stockier man with a twinkle in his eye but equally courteous. “My father is Persian,” he said. “My mother a Cossack.”
At that he brought out a care package filled with homemade cookies and breads from by his mother. Reza poured the wine, and Bahman handed out pastries that tasted of sesame seed and almond and, to our young, romantic minds, of sands like soft bodies, and moonlit oases. Then Bahman put on music and showed us how to dance Cossack-style, squatting and alternately thrusting out our legs in time with the music. As it required great skill and strength, there were lots of laughs at our failed attempts but, too, great enthusiasm for our being willing to try.
Around midnight, I announced with trepidation that it was my bedtime. There were a few light-hearted jokes suggesting the possibility of them staying with us and we just as light-heartedly joked back our “no.”
“You must keep this door locked,” said a resigned Reza, as they prepared to leave. “And do not open it for any persons but us.”
“We will come back in the morning,” said Bahman. They wished us good night in Persian and were gone.
The next morning a knock came at the door. Bahman and Reza came in with fresh bread and jam and butter. Reza made tea and the four of us communed over breakfast.
For the rest of that day, they escorted us around Pisa, showing us the sights, and sharing the rewards of their studies as they vitalized each building with a short lecture on its architectural significance and history. We tried to treat them to lunch but they wouldn’t hear of it. Not even a gelato would they let us pay for.
Finally, it was time to leave. We wanted to be in Rome by nightfall. Reza and Bahman tried to convince us to stay, spinning out tales like male Scheherazades of all the places they still wanted to take us—the walks by the river, the club where we could dance till dawn. But, we wanted to be in Rome for Easter and, too, felt we’d accepted enough of their kindness.
When they put us on the train, we didn’t exchange addresses or make promises to meet again some day. Instead, they gave us each a postcard…”one memory of Iran… .”
Over the years, I've often thought back to these two men, and especially now with America at such odds with Iran, odds that carry a whiff of war with them.
And I wonder--Where is Reza? Where is Bahman? Are they suffering under our American sanctions? Do they need me as I once needed them?
Do they sometimes recall that night long ago in Pisa, when we were four young college students, our whole lives before us, who, by chance, spent 24 hours together.
And I wonder, too, about the girl on the postcard. Has she survived the struggles in her country. Is her smooth face, staring uncertainly out of the postcard, worn now like mine? Does she have sons as I have sons? Does she worry about the fate of her sons in this uncertain world as I worry about the fate of mine? Will our sons be asked to kill one another?
Where is Reza? Where is Bahman?