To dance, she has tied my scarf
low around her hips. The room
is dimly lighted, and the colors
dyed into the silk shine violet,
ochre, alizarin. This is the way
the Persian women used to dance,

she says, before the revolution
and the Shah’s exile
. I ask her
why she goes on saying ‘Persia’
instead of ‘Iran.’ Need you ask?
she says. ‘Persia’ is romantic.
‘Iran’ is politics. She sways
in the shadows, putting herself
between me and the gold lamplight,
so that I think I can feel my eyes,
the pupils, growing and shrinking
as if in time to an imagined music.
I was only a visitor, a tourist.
I could never have lived there,
no matter who ruled. Such quaint
superstitions. The young women
write prayers inside their thighs,
high up; they think the prayers
will capture the man they love.
They cover their heads because
they have been warned each hair
exposed will turn into a snake.
No divorce. Can you picture it?
Me with three husbands scattered
in my wake
? And then I ask her:
what if she had to stay in Persia?
I’d be revolutionary, bare my head
so that every hair would change
into a serpent, and the serpents
envenom all of the wicked men
of my past until I was set free
forever
. And would she then
love me? No. With all the energy
I saved by becoming celibate
I would invent you a new universe
in which gender means nothing.

She stops, unties the scarf, loops
it playfully around my shoulders.
No more dance of love, she says.
We’ll stay the dearest of friends.
Of course I agree, but in my head
she is still that Persian woman
dancing, and I am a shy audience
hidden as in The Arabian Nights,
who admires and burns and wonders:
in the prayer she has scrawled
between her thighs, whose name
shall I read? Whose lucky name?

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 1, on page 46
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