Sara Basrai

The Iranian in the Attic

In 1981, an Iranian lived in the attic, along with Faust, Juliet, Richard Wagner and me.

When I was very young, I was lucky enough to live in a large Victorian house in southeast London. The house had a downstairs, an upstairs, an attic and a cellar. My parents afforded me my own room, which they painted pink at my request. But although I liked my bedroom, I loved the attic. At the top of the stairs leading to the attic, was a landing. In my memory, it was very small, and certainly windowless, but to me it was a limitless space, where I could make a home for my creatures. For at age six, before I could read or write properly, I lived not only in the large house, but even more within the realm of my imagination, an even larger and more splendid place.

I had three very special creatures, Juliet; my ragdoll, Faust; my teddy bear and Richard Wagner who was a real dog—my dog. The choice of names came from my parents. Dad played the violin at the Royal Opera House and Mum was an opera singer.

Richard Wagner and I would climb the stairs whenever we could, and set up a picnic or perform with Faust and Juliet. We played hour on hour. Rather surprisingly, Richard Wagner never bored, even when I dressed him up in fancy costumes.

"You are the singer today, Richard Wagner, and Faust, you are the violinist," I'd say.

"Okay," Faust would squeak and play my pint-sized violin.

Sometimes, Dad practised the violin downstairs in the living room. Rapid, passionate sounds. Faust would pretend to play along with Dad's music, his body rocking backwards and forwards. And Richard Wagner would sing—or howl, as Mum said. Unfortunately, he was a west highland terrier and cursed with an extraordinarily high voice.

The attic was special for another reason. My parents housed lodgers in one of the two rooms, the one I believed was haunted. Each night I heard creaks above my head, long after the lodger had gone to sleep.

Lodgers came from all over the world, from Germany, France, Scotland, Spain, America—and Iran. Mr. Faranj moved into the attic room one spring day in 1981. I was six. I raced to the door the moment I heard him ring the bell.

There he stood against a backdrop of fluffy clouds and pink blossom trees. He was far older than most lodgers. I thought him as old as my grandparents, but he was most likely in his forties. He was shorter than my father, and perhaps shorter even than my mother. While I showed him to his room, with my parents and Richard Wagner, I stared at him and thought he looked very sad and grey. Everything about him was grey—his hair, eyes, even his skin. His coat was grey. Only his trousers and shiny shoes were black.

"Welcome to the attic," I said, as we reached my floor. "This is where my creatures live!"

"Lucy, this is where Mr. Faranj is going to live. It's his home, too," my mother said.

She'd never said that before. She'd allowed me to think the lodgers were my guests. I considered her, wondering why she was so serious about this grey old man, perhaps because he was 'on his last legs,' as she described her own grandmother. Then maybe the attic wasn't the best place for him. Maybe the cellar might be better. Though, the cellar was a dingy place full of wine bottles and monstrous King Rats. And this man looked more like a mouse than a rat.

We opened the door to his bedroom. I raced inside to tell him where everything was. He viewed the room, bowed his head and thanked my parents for their kindness.

"Why are you carrying a carpet?" I asked, suddenly aware of the rug in his hand.

"This is not a carpet," he said, his voice soft and gentle. "This is a prayer mat. It is called a Jānamāz. "

"What's that?" I asked.

"Well, I place my mat on the floor and then I bow to pray to Allah, my God. It is very special and must be cared for."

"I don't do that," I said. Everyone laughed. I decided I liked Mr. Faranj.

"Come, look at my Jānamāz," he said.

He laid the mat on the floor and I gasped. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

"I like the picture." I clapped my hands. The reds and golds reminded me of my parents' theatre, or palaces in fairy tales.

"Lucy is very artistic," my mother said. I noticed her cheeks blush a little.

"I like it too, Lucy. It is a picture of a special place called a mosque, a little like a church," Mr. Faranj said.

I knelt down, knowing instinctively that I shouldn't clamber over it.

"Say that special word again, please."

He repeated, "Jānamāz". Then he sat on the bed and opened his suitcase. Inside I spotted a pile of books. He took a book from the pile and handed it to my mother.

"A small token," he said.

I leaned against her, wanting to see the book. A photograph of a strange building, a little like the one depicted on the Jānamāz, graced the front cover.

My parents made me go downstairs to allow Mr. Faranj time to unpack. I whined and complained, but relented.

"I hope the ghost doesn't scare him," I said.

"Don't talk to Mr. Faranj about ghosts. He's a kind man. Ghosts would never haunt a kind man," my mother said.

I took Richard Wagner outside, picking up the doormat on my way. I placed it on the lawn, kneeled and pressed my hands tightly together. People prayed like that at Grandpa's church. I'd seen them when Grandpa took me.

"Richard Wagner, this is our Jānamāz."

He barked in agreement. Though he decided not to lie on our Jānamāz. Who could blame him? The prickles hurt my knees.

We had lodgers for many reasons, one being childcare. Usually, my parents booked a babysitter in the evening while they worked, or sometimes one of my grandparents came, but if all else failed, they'd ask the lodger. The young French and Germans were fun. They allowed me to eat anything I wanted, played hide 'n' seek and listened to my stories about the creatures.

So one Saturday, I was left in the care of Mr. Faranj. I played on the landing with my creatures, all the time spying on him through the gap he left open so we could hear each other. I noticed as he crossed the room, wearing socks and no shoes. My parents always wore shoes. He had a funny walk, slightly lopsided. It made him look old. He stopped by a photo on the wall, stroked the glass and kissed it. It had to be of someone special. I knew this because each night I kissed Richard Wagner and his photograph on my bedside table.

Deciding I needed to talk to Mr. Faranj, I charged downstairs, headed into the kitchen, took biscuits from the tin, arranged them on a plate and raced upstairs again, dropping one en route—one which Richard Wagner gobbled. When I returned to the gap in the door, Mr Faranj was washing his hands in the basin. He washed them with care. Then he combed his flock of grey hair, before kneeling to pray.

I walked into the room, Richard Wagner at my side, just as his head lowered to the floor.

"Mr. Faranj, would you like a cookie? I got them myself. And will you play with me?"

Mr. Faranj crawled off his mat and sat crossed-legged on the floor.

"Of course," he said. "I was hoping you would ask."

So we played tea party, Mr. Faranj, Richard Wagner, Faust, Juliet and me. We sat in a circle and I told Mr. Faranj stories about a flying Jānamāz. And he joined in.

"The Jānamāz flew over the mountains of the world," I said, standing up and tiptoeing towards Mr. Faranj's bed, over which I scrambled, pretending to reach the highest summit in the world. Richard Wagner lollopped after me.

Mr. Faranj stood up, too, and though he hobbled, pretended to be an eagle flying in the sky to meet me. When the eagle reached the summit, I turned into a dragon that could fly higher than he could.

We played for hours, or so it seemed to me. I saw only the fantastical world in my mind's eye. Perhaps, Mr. Faranj saw it too.

Thirsty, I charged downstairs to fetch us a drink. I thought Mr. Faranj might like something grown up, so I spooned instant coffee into a mug, poured in cold water from the tap—as Mum told me not to use hot water—and then added milk and sugar. I walked back upstairs as steadily as I could.

"Here, Mr. Faranj," I said and handed him the coffee. He lifted the mug to his mouth and drank.

"Most delicious," he said.

Tears welled in his eyes.

"What's wrong? My coffee?"

"No. My! No! Your coffee is the most perfect coffee in the world and that is why I am crying. Perfect things make me cry."

I smiled at him. Mr. Faranj was perfect.

A week or so later, I peeked in his room when he was out. I didn't know where he went or what he did, but each day he was out when I got home from school. Each day I waited for him to return. That day I wandered round his room looking for something interesting. The photo caught my eye. I walked over to it. It was of a little girl about my age. Where was she? Mr Faranj kissed her and that meant he loved her as I loved Richard Wagner.

"Mum," I cried, the photo in my hand."Mum, who is this? Where is she?"

Mum picked me up and splattered my face with kisses. She dropped the washing she had been hanging out to dry."That's Mr. Faranj's little girl. He has a daughter of your age."

"Where is she?"

"She is in a country called Iran. That's where Mr. Faranj is from."

"Why isn't she with him?"

"Because some very bad people told Mr. Faranj to leave his country. But she is safe with her mummy."

"That won't happen to us will it?" I asked.

"No, we're very lucky...but that's why we have to be very kind to Mr. Faranj."

That evening I watched Mr. Faranj pray. I sat in silence beside him. The following evening, I prayed beside him on a Jānamāz I designed myself from paper and markers. Then I made him coffee because he liked perfection.

One day as I peeked at Mr. Faranj through the gap in the door, he sat on the bed and lifted his bare foot off the ground. He closed his eyes and rubbed the sole gently. Welts, angry and red, ran across the sole of his foot. A new and strange feeling crept into the world of my imagination. It was of pain and the things bad people could do to good people, even perfect people like Mr. Faranj. I crumpled in a ball on the floor and cried, sobbed, my hand over my mouth not wanting anyone to hear me.

I was only a young child, but I think that was a defining moment in my life: knowing that terrible things could happen to good people.

Mr. Faranj left my home soon after. He gave me my own Jānamāz and my parents a silver plate from Iran. He most likely bought them in London. He didn't give anything to Faust, Juliet or Richard Wagner, but I shared the Jānamāz with them.

I missed Mr. Faranj very much. For a while I sent drawings and letters to his new address. But time passed. I was getting older. And I lost touch.

—Sara Basrai

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