“I think you should open it,” my dad gestured to the bottle of Camus Napoleon Cognac, still in its original box after all these years. His face was poignant, holding mixed emotions: doubt, resignation, a touch of sadness.
It touched me, too. Dad is 85 years old and had held this bottle for 38 years, patiently waiting. He’s sentimental and loyal to his convictions. He holds things inside. Nearly every year for at least 25, he’s said to me, “We’ll wait until Ahmad comes back.” He kept it tucked safely in the bar. Now it sat on the top. It took something for him to do that, to make that final decision, waiting for me to come home for Thanksgiving.
“I think so, too. It’s time,” I said.
In May 1978 I traveled alone to Iran to work on a project called Peace Log, a collaboration between the US and Imperial Iranian Air Force, that acted as oversight to Lockheed’s fielding of F-16 jets. I was 24. I was to be there for six months working on Doshan-Tappeh Air Base outside Tehran.
Don’t ask me what I was doing. It was many lifetimes ago. It had much less to do with the logistical work I would do than the call to adventure that had been roiling in my blood. I’d applied for the job not really even knowing where Iran was, other than it sounded exotic. I was just following a strong urging. The internal conflict produced from being in a line of work that went against my values hadn’t yet gelled. And as much as I wanted the adventure, I hadn’t figured into the equation my extreme shyness and the huge gap in age between me and the US people I worked with. I pretty much holed up after work and read books.
But it wasn’t long before I met Ahmad, an Iranian captain a few years older than me, who worked in the same complex. He asked me to dinner. That was more complicated than it sounds. There was a strict order from the Iranian side against fraternization. And within a couple of weeks after my arrival we were suddenly under martial law with strict curfews and all the riots and bombings you’ve read about. The Shah was falling.
Nonetheless, Ahmad and I began to see each other a few times a week. It was like a grade B spy movie. I’d leave the apartment building where I lived with other US work personnel, located on one of the busiest boulevards in Tehran, walk nonchalantly a few blocks over where he’d pick me up in his car and whisk me away.
If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have seen the things I saw. We hiked the mountains surrounding Tehran. He took me to Isfahan with its extraordinary ancient architecture. For a weekend we went to the Caspian Sea with his cousins and friends. One time we had to travel through Qom, the revolutionaries’ stronghold, and he brought me his mother’s chador to wear so I’d be safe. But mostly, we talked. He would teach me basic Farsi and I would correct his English as he asked. We roamed the bazaars, had meals together and developed a quiet bond.
In the middle of my assignment in Tehran, Ahmad had to accompany his general to the US. He was gone a few weeks. They had business in different sites. One was Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio, outside Dayton where I lived at the time. He visited my folks while there. They had him to dinner at their place. That’s when he gave Dad the cognac. For my mom, he brought an exquisite Persian miniature, an Iranian art form. My folks enjoyed his visit thoroughly. The next day Mom took him shopping.
That day in November, right before Thanksgiving, when I was slated to fly back to the US, he accompanied me to the airport for which I was so grateful. I only realized later what a risk he took being seen with me in that environment. It was chaotic and dangerous, people clamoring to leave. Somehow he parted the seas. Or at least it seemed that way. I showed my documents and was granted passage. In those last moments, we said little. But we both cried.
In January 1979, he managed to call me. There was a lot of static on the line. I remember our conversation was brief. We may have been cut off. That was the last time I heard from him. Ever.
My dad doesn’t forget kindnesses personally granted him. Neither do I. Over the years, I’ve thought of Ahmad countless times. Wondering what happened to him, where he was. Did he survive the revolution? I’m afraid he didn’t but don’t want it confirmed.
After the fact, I realized just how little I really knew about him. Somehow I got the idea he was from a well placed family, and that his allegiance to the Shah was questionable. Although he never came right out with either of these.
A few years ago, I did a google search to see if I could turn up anything. I was shocked when I was greeted with listing after listing of a man by the same name identified as the father of modern Persian poetry. I was disappointed when I reviewed photos that told me he wasn’t the one I sought. But still a strange coincidence. My Ahmad was much younger, of course. So perhaps a namesake or family relation.
The cork broke in two and crumbled into the bottle; it was dry. I took a sip of the cognac, and it took my breath away. It was so strong. Perhaps as strong as my memories that without Ahmad wouldn’t have been so rich.
If I could, this is what I would say to him:
I hope you’ve lived a long, healthy life filled with love, family, children and work that nurtured your soul. You were of such significance to me at a time when I was young, naive and scared, not of my surroundings, but of myself. You provided a safe haven and wanted nothing in return except friendship. I’ve never forgotten it.
I mourn that I cannot find my photographs from then. But I can offer these words from a poem by Ahmad Shamlu that speak, for me, of that time in Iran.
The sea envies you
for the drop you have drunk
from the well.
I have but three words….amazing. Sad. Touching.