Short Story: Ghorbani

To the entire world, my father never outgrew the music of his youth. Paying tribute to Bruce Springsteen and Queen seemed to animate him, take him back to a time when he was a young boy in Tehran, passing around foreign rock cassettes with his friends like they were samizdat. Whenever asked by any one of the revolving door of family friends he would welcome into our home, he would insist, with a bemused smirk on his face, that “Land of Confusion” by Genesis would forever remain his favorite song—this is the world we live in! Everybody saw him as a diehard fan of the oldies: a bit of a simple taste in music, sure, but a respectable one nonetheless.

And only I knew better.

Whenever he would drink (a common ritual in our home), my father would inevitably stumble through clumsily pulling up traditional, Iranian music on our TV before crying himself into multiple day-long bouts of sleep (I never once saw him hungover, his near-superhuman capacity for lethargy enabling him to sleep off any of the worst effects of his drinking).

Once, when I was around seven, I asked him while he was listening to what sounded like a sappy tar song about a dead lover (my Farsi was, and remains, rudimentary, so for all I know I completely misheard it) why all of the Iranian music he ever played was about, like, lost love and misery. I wasn’t even seriously inquiring: small talk was the only reassurance I had that I wouldn’t be the subject of his drunken ire. I braced myself for what was coming as he pulled me from the living room, where the song was still blaring, to his home office, but instead, he just kneeled down towards my level.

Karim, he explained to me, with tears in his eyes, this—the lost love, the misery, the tar music, stretching all the way back to ancient poets I’d never heard of before—this was our culture.

After I promised, on his request, to never disrespect it again—although I was too young to understand what he was really talking about—he pulled me into the tightest hug he’d ever given me, apparently satisfied that he’d imparted some father-son lesson.

As his drinking got worse, Iranian music became the background noise of my home life. He’d often spend entire weeks when he was off from work holed up in his bedroom—exiling my mother to our guest room so he could drink in solitude—during which we’d only hear from him in the form of footsteps when we were trying to sleep, or the muffled sound of his music playing from the TV, which he’d moved to his bedroom for easier access during such episodes.

As a result, when he died, I don’t think I could say that I’d really known him.

He’d spent a lot of his life trying to convince the world, myself included, that he was fundamentally better-adjusted then I think he was, but as his health got worse, I think he decided to drop the pretense before what he knew was coming—before he died, if he wasn’t at work or in self-exile, he would be complaining to me about his life.

I don’t think he was a very happy man: he seemed, to me at least, invested in the narrative of his own victimization at the hands of the world. He’d often lament to me near the end how he felt like his life was analogous to decades of military service without an ounce of gratitude: overcoming racism (which he would, when I was younger, insist that he’d never encountered, but with time began to attribute all of his misfortunes to) to become a successful doctor in America, overcoming his own abusive father and miserable home life to start a family, and all for what?

He wasn’t a very pleasant man, as a result: even when sober, he took a perverse sense of pride in being called an asshole (although he would often, to my bemusement, insist that he was, like I, a people-pleaser). The world was eternally defaulting on a debt that it owed him, and he saw being a fly on its neck as a way to get back at it—he’d once voiced to me, while prosecuting some grudge with a coworker, that he didn’t want to go gentle into that good night as the model minority doctor that everyone knew they could walk over. He found a joy in threatening lawsuits second only to the drinking (he’d once told me that, had his father not forced him into medicine, he would have been a lawyer, although my mother called bullshit at this—he was just trying to impress me, apparently).

He wasn’t a very sociable man. He had few friends, mostly coworkers, and whenever my poor mother tried to forcibly drag us to to get-togethers with her friends and their own uncaring husbands and difficult kids, he’d complain even more then I did. He seemed to almost think that he was “better” then other Iranian-Americans because of how integrated, how adept at English he was compared to them—on Chahrshanbe Suri, he’d always refuse to jump, muttering something about pagan nonsense to himself. Then again, I never saw him make a non-Iranian friend.

At the funeral, I was sort of surprised by how many showed up. By the way he spoke, you’d imagine that the world was filled with people itching for his death, but every person—not just his Iranian friends, but coworkers as well—who he seemed to decry as uncultured, rude, obnoxious, and immature while he was inebriated attended to pay their respects. It felt almost improper to cry, like I was exposing something private about him to an unworthy audience. The embalmed corpse they’d lowered into the ground was too meticulously preened, too lifeless to truly represent my father: too cold to match his bouts of passion and energy, but too sterile for even his self-imposed decay, as if the only thing confirming his death wasn’t the presence of the body, but his own absence from the gathering.

I stayed calm by reminding myself how farcical the event was: here was my father, the most complicated man I’d ever known, buried as a pastiche of the abrasive but harmless doctor who adored Bruce Springsteen, put to rest not in the presence of, say, his brother Houshar—one of the few family members he spoke positively about, who’d served in the Sepah and whose military adventures my father constantly tried to regale me with, and who didn’t even bother to leave his home in Canada to attend the funeral—but by those he loathed.

He chose a good time to die, at least. You’re not supposed to say it, but he did: I came here for college a month later, and the change of scenery was helpful to deal with it, I think. I’d read somewhere that Richard Feynman busied himself with his work so much that he didn’t even cry about his first wife’s death for months afterwards—until, after seeing a dress in a department store and thinking that she would have loved it, he burst into tears—and, armed with the knowledge that my own lack of visible emotion was seemingly normal, I set out to do the same. It felt kind of good to imagine myself in the same club, no matter the grim context, as Feynman, anyways.

When a few months passed and I still didn’t have that revelation that would send me into hysterics, I didn’t think much of it. It’s not like I was planning on shooting any Algerians, so I’d manage. I mean, I was torn up, it just wasn’t bursting through my face at the slightest reminder of him. I told myself that you can’t live in the past forever, waiting for the moment when you’ve finally hit a sufficient level of mourning and you’re allowed to discontinue your grief.

I visit home sometimes, but most of my ties to my “Iranian-ness” died at the funeral. It’s not really intentional, I just stopped going to gatherings and stuff, which I was never too fond of anyways, after moving out.

I’ve really only gotten involved again once since the funeral. Last Nowruz, I was visiting home for the weekend, and this diaspora organization that my mother’s a member of were holding a concert at our local Center for the Arts in honor of the holiday, so she figured it would be a good idea for me to attend. She always sends me the invitations to these things, and I always trash them, so I wasn’t exactly itching to go, but maybe I got nostalgic for all the times she used to drag me to them when I was a kid. Besides, this one was different from all of the invitations I’d discarded: Alireza Ghorbani was set to perform.

Of all of the musicians that my father venerated (traditional singers were, I think, his idols—In Vino Veritas, right?), after Shajarian died, nobody could hold a candle to Ghorbani: he was Shajarian’s spiritual successor in my father’s eyes. His poetic sensibility, his dulcet singing, his soulful instrumentation was simply unmatched. Shajarian was a hero for so many, the face of Iranian traditional music, but from my cursory English-language Google searches, (I never did learn to read or write Farsi), Ghorbani seemed so much more obscure, as if he was my father’s secret: his obsession, and his alone. The idea appealed to me, in a romantic sort of way.

Maybe, I figured, since my father was unable to ever impart onto me why he adored Ghorbani’s music, I could discover it for myself, you know? I still associated—à la Pavlov—so much traditional Iranian music with his drinking—itself the act I associate most with his memory—so I figured that if I could see what made Ghorbani so great, I could start overcoming the remaining neuroses he’d left me. Maybe the Feynmanesque revelation which I’d dismissed as a fantasy was real, after all.

Maybe if I could just understand his obsession, I could understand him.

A sold-out Nowruz celebration Saturday at Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center for the Arts drew 1,800 attendees. Photo excerpted from the LA Times.

The actual concert was less glamorous, compared to the hopes I had for it. My mother had refused to attend herself, citing problems with listening to live music, so I had to brave the (fairly large) crowd alone.

It was a nice enough building, and in front of the entrance steps, they’d put up bag scanners: a mini-pastiche of a TSA check which brought to mind vague pangs of the countless times my family had, clutching our passports, suffered in airport customs.

I tried entertaining myself in line by crowd-watching: a kid tugged on his mother’s sleeve to ask why there were scanners, two women were absorbed in their own conversations, while two older men held a reunion—they’d apparently known each other from medical school and lost touch until meeting again at that exact moment.

The venue, or at least its lobby, seemed bigger from the inside when they finally let me in: there was a staircase leading to the second floor, where you’d find the entrance to the auditorium flanked by desks where you could buy CDs of one of the performers, a guitarist I’d never heard of before. In front of the stairs they’d assembled this gargantuan Sofreh-ye Haft-Sin. It really put all the sofrehs we’d set up ourselves over the years to shame: where we would place a few candles, they’d set up ornate glass arrangements with candlesticks stuck in them. Flowers became what looked like flowering tree branches stuck in vases. If we’d have a little plate of sabzeh, they’d respond with a tray.

The massive crowd from the line had dispersed into pockets of self-enclosed conversation, so, sans a companion myself, I took my seat in the auditorium early and tried entertaining myself by flipping through a magazine that the organization had handed out at the entrance. Beyond advertising the concert’s lineup (alongside Ghorbani there would be the guitarist whose CDs were being sold, alongside Shajarian’s daughter, the one member of the family I didn’t remember my father mentioning) and listing the organization’s future events, they advertised Iranian Grocery Stores, Iranian Lawyers, Iranian Dentists and Pharmacists and Iranian Realtors, in case one wanted to avoid ever doing business with a non-Iranian. I found it kind of silly, honestly.

I had the aisle seat, and given I was the first there, every time one of my neighbors arrived I had to step out of my seat so they could get to theirs. My neighbor, coincidentally, was one of the men from the impromptu reunion, who’d come with his wife and kid. Trying to be sociable, I smiled and waved at him, but he just sort of scowled at me before returning to complaining to his wife about something I didn’t catch. Thoroughly scorned, I resigned myself to flipping through the magazine until the concert started.

Once enough of the crowd entered, the introductions started fairly typically: an impressive-looking orchestra stood by while (was I think was) the sponsor of the venue came to give a short talk about the importance of preserving Iranian cultural tradition. After a round of polite applause, he introduced us to one of the heads of the organization.

This, she explained, was one of the most amazing concerts she’d ever had the fortune of helping organize. Despite countless adversities, they were proud to christen this event to commemorate and celebrate the ancient holiday of Nowruz. As a round of customary applause rippled and died, she explained how the poor Conductor, who hadn’t missed a concert in thirty-some years, had unfortunately fallen ill with COVID, and thus couldn’t make it, but luckily, she triumphantly explained, an Interim Conductor had been found, and had worked feverishly with his predecessor over Zoom to perfect his technique. After some further applause, she lamented to the now-pacified crowd about how Ghorbani himself, the headliner, had struggled to enter the States, and they had even feared for a while that they would have to find a new headliner, bringing in another singer, Sina Sarlak to manically practice his songs with the Interim Conductor, but they’d managed to overcome this hurdle too: after calls from cultural organizations, academics, and even the Representative’s office—here, another wave of applause rippled across the audience after hearing the Representative’s name—after weeks of bargaining, at the last moment, forty-eight hours before the concert, Ghorbani had, against all odds, gotten a visa. Unfortunately, she added, Ghorbani had gotten held up at the airport and couldn’t make it today but Sarlak would be great and then she introduced the first act, the guitarist.

A small murmur quickly rose and fell across the audience, and then she left and the song began.

My poor neighbor, it seemed, couldn’t process the news at first. When Sarlak’s name first came up, he turned to his wife, politely clapping, and noted that Sarlak was a good kid: It seemed that, at the end of the opening statements, he was still under the impression Ghorbani would show up.

Wait, he whispered to his wife, about halfway through the guitar piece. Did this mean Ghorbani wouldn’t be performing? Sina Sarlak, seriously? He has two good songs! He’d came here for Ghorbani, and, standing up, he performatively declared that, sans Ghorbani, he would not be party to this farce of a concert, as if waiting for his family to join in with his one-man protest. When his wife empathetically shrugged, he nudged me so I’d let him exit the aisle, and left.

He was the first one out.

Eventually, a few more, independently coming to the same realization, followed him, but as the piece reached its climax, the man returned again. Hey, he said to his wife and kid, they were leaving. After some half-hearted arguing, she acquiesced, and I once again had to let them out.

Then I figured, given I was already out of my seat, and given that Ghorbani, the reason I’d come, wasn’t attending, I had no reason to stay and listen to this concert, no matter how beautiful it would be. The dulcet singing of Sina Sarlak seemed to me like it would be supremely less revelatory than that of Ghorbani, anyways, so I followed the man, who looked at me a bit funny when I didn’t get back into my seat.

Outside of the auditorium’s echoey interior, the breath of fresh air which the silent lobby represented was only slightly dampened by the sound of the man going up to and arguing with the poor sponsor, who’d seemingly absconded to the lobby before any of us got there.

A disgrace, the man declared, was what was happening. Instead of notifying the attendees that Ghorbani couldn’t make it, the organization, apparently intending to waste his money by tricking him into thinking that Ghorbani would attend, merely hid the news at the end of a winding, incoherent speech about Sina fucking Sarlak, seriously?, who, he reminded the poor man, had one good song in general, come on, and as further people shuffled into the venue, the two women arrived and mentioned how they’d heard rumors that Ghorbani didn’t have a visa but they’d called the venue and were assured that he would be, which incensed the man to the point that he began shouting at the sponsor about the insulting waste of money that white son-of-a-bitch was trying to get away with, how, when they knew there would be no Ghorbani, they should have sent out an email to the attendees, pausing to note that he was a reasonable man, that, had he been notified, he even would have attended to enjoy Sarlak’s performance—sub-par it may be—that it was just the blatant trickery going on that offended him. As his wife stepped in to calm him down, he started angrily texting the medical school companion he’d met earlier to leave, that the show was a complete scam, that they were trying to waste his money, punctuating his typing by angrily reading out his message, as if asking for feedback from the crowd. As his kid awkwardly lingered and his wife tried comforting him, he lamented to them that the cost of his ticket didn’t matter, he was wealthy enough, but what people like the sponsor saw was a crowd of Iranians whom they had dismissed as easy to steal from, reassuring people that Ghorbani would attend in a bold-faced lie and slipping the news into the end of a winding speech that half of the crowd, like his medical school friend, who he’d finished texting, and who barely spoke English, bless his hearts, wouldn’t even and hadn’t even understood, and what they were doing was—and here he pointed directly at me—taking some poor FOB bastards like this kid who just wanted to see Ghorbani and effectively robbing them.

Invigorated by this speech, the man returned to yelling at the sponsor—apparently, the sponsor had offered to reimburse the man out of his own pocket, which only enraged him further—but I stopped listening. I left the venue and took a seat on the steps outside as more and more people trickled from the auditorium to see what was happening.

It took a while for what had happened to sink in.

When it did, finally, I cried.