The Ayatollah of Nueva York



2900 Bedford Avenue, brooklyn, ny 11210

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Flatbush

It was late 1979 — high point of the Iranian revolution — and the Immigration and Naturalization Service had just announced its nationwide dragnet. I was teaching ESL at Brooklyn College and had just confiscated the vocabulary test of one of the eighteen Iranian Jews in my beginners class. Cheating had increased since the INS news. Maybe the Iranians were nervous about grades; maybe they were nervous, period. But enough was enough. I had to set an example. The unfinished test lay sequestered on my desk.

Most of these students had come during the summer from Tehran. They weren’t like American Jews, whose last names reveal ethnicity and whose first names conceal it in a few generations. The Iranian Jews’ family names were pure Persian, marks of millennia in that country — twisting with phonetics as sinuous as the names in the news: Khomeni, Bazarghan. The cheater’s last name started with L and sounded something like the English word “ululation,” but with many more syllables. It was gorgeous and it was a problem. In other countries, my students told me, the Jews try to be citizens of their adopted nations, but their oppressors say, “First you are Jewish.” Here, we try to be Jews. And the INS says, “First you are Iranians.”

L. said his last name meant “from a beautiful garden,” and I suspected he was trying to charm me into grading his test. He laughed while translating the name, mocking my ignorance of its meaning and the meaning of his cheating.

He also mocked the Lubavitchers of Williamsburg, who sponsored the Iranian students’ immigration, crewcutted the young men and enrolled them in yeshivas. By autumn some were trying to weasel out of the deal and had struck a compromise with their sponsors by enrolling in City Colleges. They came wearing yarmulkes in hair too short to anchor them, and bobby pins kept splattering on my classroom floor.

As fall passed their hair grew back and the skullcaps disappeared. In September they’d said they wore them because here they could be Jews without fear of Muslim repression. Now L. told me he’d gotten his own apartment; now he didn’t have to wear the kepah to please the crazy Hassids. He sneered at their funny dress — as he sneered at the cancer of the Shah and at Princess Farah, grown ugly in exile; at the Ayatollah Khomeni, whom he called “Imam” while rotating an index finger near his temple. The Lubavitchers were the real problem, though, because some yeshivas wouldn’t send academic records to the City Colleges, and many Iranian Jews were studying without student visas.

It was hard to know much more about L. In my beginners class, we were still using flashcards with words like “snow,” “wife” and “true.”

“Mr. L.,” I said as he grinned at me and the empty classroom. “If you cheat you’ll never learn English. No, I cannot grade your exam.”

“Alright. We speak of test later,” he wheedled. “But please, where is this store?” He held a battered Diario-La Prensa, covered with heel marks and subway floor dirt. He pointed to an ad in which he had circled in red ink a product called the Clairol TenderTweez, wholesale to the public $10.97, with plug, plastic chassis and two shiny prongs. It looked compact and fastidious, like an instrument of torture from the SAVAK.

“I like to buy this electric tool for my sister in Iran. Where I can go to get it?” he said. “She has many hairs on face, legs. This will take away forever.”

“Well Mr L., you’re right. It is electric. But it doesn’t remove hair forever.”

“Not forever? No, it must. It’s expensive American. Forever.”

“No really. It’s not.”

“I don’t believe. I want to send this to Iran,” he said, his eyes shining. “Here. Here is picture of my sister.”

He showed me a passport photo. The girl’s brows, lashes and hairline, like her brother’s, were so dark as to appear burned into her face. There was a suggestion of moustache. It had clearly been tweezed, and her features were chalked over with cheap pancake makeup that suggested her hidden hairiness all the more. I envisioned that feminine hirsuteness said to please the men of Italy and rumored to drive eccentrics of other cultures wild with yearning. To look at this Oriental Jewess, her face plucked of all spontaneity, was to recall the ironic kindness of the veil.

L. pointed to the Diario-La Prensa ad. Quita los pelos sin dolor, it says. “What it’s mean, sin dolor?”

“Without pain,” I answered.

“Dolor, it means pain?” He started to write the word in his notebook.

“No, no, don’t put it on your vocabulary list! It’s Spanish.”

“Spanish! Ah, I was worried. I didn’t understand any words in this paper. Except Nueva York.” He sighed with relief as I checked his other notes.

“Put an E at the end of tweez,” I told him.

“E? Why? Ah, I understand. Tweez, that’s Spanish.”

“Mr. L.,” I insisted. “Isn’t it natural for women to have hair? On their legs? Even a little on their faces? Anyway, isn’t it a lot of trouble to try to send a TenderTweez to Iran right now? Especially when you’ve got more important things to worry about?”

He suddenly glared and fumed, realizing how things were with me.

“More natural, yes. But without hair, more beautiful. With hair, ugly! Natural? Hah! I am not Ayatollah! I am not Imam! Natural? The veil, never! We are here, we Jews, in Nueva York, not to be crazy. Not to be maniacs! And now, teacher,” he hissed with smoldering eyes. “And now you will grade my test.”

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