Today's Reading

Chapter Two

In a cul-de-sac at the end of Nasrin Street, quiet except at the hour when the kindergartners at Firouzeh Elementary were set free, sat a faded yellow brick building detached from its neighbors. Here, beneath a recessed sign, was Café Leila, its entrance framed in low-hanging wisteria in full bloom this late April. When the postman finally delivered Noor's letter, Zod brushed powder blue petals from his lapel with the envelope and, feeling grateful, insisted the mailman have a cup of tea. Afterwards, he stood watching the scooter disappear down the alley, then fiddled around in the garden and clipped roses for the café's tables. After weeks of waiting, he wasn't ready to tear the letter open. He had to ready himself for the first line that always moved him to tears: My dearest, my Baba.

With the dinner hour near, Zod would wait even longer. Karim, a young apprentice, was already fanning coals with a broom head in the courtyard, stationed there to call the names of regulars as they arrived, like actors to the stage—an impatient cast of doctors, office clerks, shopkeepers, engineers, and students who would soon duck through the gate. The boy was only thirteen but he had a manly way about him, having learned from Zod to recognize and greet guests with the purest appreciation. Hardly anyone came in that he didn't know.

From the original staff of Café Leila two waiters remained, both silver foxes hired in the sixties by Zod's late father. Hedayat and Aladdin still wore the same faded dark blue jackets with gold-fringed epaulettes, making them look like retired generals. Until his wife died, Aladdin wore aftershave and a white carnation in his lapel every day, but he gave that up and now had to be reminded to trim his mustache and mend loose buttons. Ala's barrelchested younger brother, Hedi, a wrestler in his youth, lifted barbells in the courtyard every morning. At sixty-four, he still did all the heavy labor in the restaurant. Their cousin Soli worked in the kitchen. He had shown up one day after the war looking for work and Zod found him something to do. In a few weeks he had proven to be dependable and stayed on as an apprentice. Zod's own nanny, Naneh Goli, carried the full weight of her eighty-five years to the garden where she dug potatoes and radishes with one hand on her hip, the effects of time visible in the curve of her back. Like a family, so familiar to one another and their tasks, they hardly spoke. Early birds arrived to hear Hedi's grunting as he rearranged tables, Ala's deep sigh with every napkin fold, Soli calling to the young boy, his nephew Karim, to light the coals, and Zod's every command braided with endearments—incapable of asking Naneh Goli for a tomato without lavishing her with praise.

The days were growing longer now, but in the short days of winter the customers arrived sooner to leave the somber streets for the light in the café. Like children being called to dinner by the plume of smoke, a hand beckoning over the rooftops, they arrived one by one, two by two, their faces stung from the cold air. In the courtyard the heady odor of onions and grilled meat converged, and through the half open door they stumbled in like drunken sailors, bumping into one another to reach a table. If a regular didn't show up, Karim was sent to look for him.

For Zod, Café Leila was an ongoing opera where from his vantage point he felt privy to the secret lives of these men who loosened their shirt buttons and rolled up their sleeves to play a part in his theater. He lamented the absence of women, who came less frequently, finding the hejab oppressive and the watchful eyes of the gendarmes loitering the streets looking for an excuse to antagonize them prohibitive. Sometimes families came with wives and grandmothers and daughters and sisters, and when they did his eyes lit up like lanterns and he clapped his hands in the air like a wedding party had arrived.

The world changed around Café Leila, but the life that had gone on there since the 1930s continued. Where there were once merchants to their left and right, there now stood mostly uninhabited buildings gazing vacantly at one another. Dusty storefronts with remnants of their merchandise—a tennis shoe, cans of old film, a bicycle tire—told of lives that had moved on. The only ones who remained were the old doctor in the two-story house (his family long gone abroad), the grocer who sold Ala his tea and cigarettes, the kindergartners who went home at noon, and Zod in his tidy café with its marble floor and ladder-back chairs, opened nearly eighty years ago by his father, Yanik Yadegar, a Russian émigré who had once trained in the kitchens of the Hotel Astoria in St. Petersburg.

In the 1930s Yanik brought blinis and apple charlottes, beef stroganoff and kulich to Tehran, opening the first confectionary with a garden café. He came with his wife, Nina, who spooned cinnamon-scented ground beef and onions into delicate piroshkies and learned to cook Persian food by trial and error, nourishing her family and customers with a generous spirit, mingling delicately with neighbors, and learning to speak Farsi. To steady their leap across borders, Yanik changed his surname from Yedemsky to Yadegar, and planted a small orchard of pomegranate, almond, and mulberry trees that would shade the terrace tables. Year after year they blossomed, filling the air with their sweet smell, regardless of political turmoil or the events on the street.

Before a second story was built, before the children were born and the dream of an adjacent hotel was realized, Yanik and Nina slept like two stowaways in the storeroom, snuggling between pickling jars and burlap bags of rice and pinto beans, with their few possessions neatly folded in a cardboard box fashioned into a cupboard. There was no bath, so twice a week they set off by doroshke (a horse-drawn carriage) to the nearest hamam, where Yanik smoked qalyan (water pipes) in the men's section and Nina drank tea with the women after emerging pink-skinned from the steam room and the rough scrub-down by a dour-faced attendant. It was on the wooden benches of the communal baths that the couple endeared themselves to the locals; a gregarious Yanik grew an impressive handlebar mustache and sang Russian ballads to fathers and sons who welcomed him with a warm rumble of applause, and Nina brought tea cakes to grandmothers, aunts, and young girls already enchanted with this fair-skinned beauty. From them she learned how to haggle, how to make yogurt, when to pickle the eggplant and cucumbers and garlic the villagers brought to town on donkeys. When December brought snows and their street lost power, they learned about Yalda, the Persian winter solstice celebration, and they lit the café with candles, filled ceramic bowls with pomegranates, dried fruits, and nuts, and cooked enormous pots of hearty ash reshteh, a thick noodle soup stirred with whey. It was a night so cheerful and memorable, full of storytelling and feasting, that for years it remained a neighborhood tradition to gather at Café Leila for the solstice.
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