Persian Sunset, Fetneh
By Susanna Zaraysky
“Hello?” Rosaluna answered the phone.
“Rosaaalooonaaah, I’d like to invite you over to my new home for dinner.” The familiar Persian voice elongated the vowels of her name and she quickly realized the caller was Mahram.
Five years ago, they were a couple, but Rosaluna left him because he was depressed and smoked. He called her to tell her that he was doing well and had bought a house. Mahram told her that he was teaching Farsi part time and was no longer smoking. The changes in his life made Rosaluna reconsider being with him and she agreed to the celebratory dinner.
Rosaluna danced to salsa music in her walk-in closet as she looked for the right outfit to wear to Mahram’s house. She chose her red pants and sexy black V-neck top.
As Rosaluna was riding the bus to his house, she recalled the times they had spent together five years ago.
He took her to the Persian New Year’s celebration at the Persian Cultural Center in Berkeley, where everyone took turns jumping over a burning fire to inaugurate the New Year. Mahram’s friends came up to her and spoke in Farsi. Rosaluna’s long dark black wavy hair and brown eyes let her blend into the Persian crowd so well that people assumed she was one of them.
When they were waiting in line for the kebabs, Mahram’s friend, a pregnant woman in her late 30s came up to Mahram and told him in Farsi that she was thinking of naming her unborn child Mahram. “It’s such a beautiful name,” she exclaimed. The woman looked at Rosaluna and saw that Rosaluna did not understand what she said and she turned to Mahram with a puzzled look.
“Oh sorry. Rosaluna, this is my friend Sahar. She was just saying that she wants to name her child with my name. Did I ever tell you that my name means, ‘tamed by the moon’?” Mahram said with a smile looking at Rosaluna. The women shook hands.
“No, I didn’t know the meaning of your name. Does every Persian name have a meaning?” Rosaluna asked.
“Yes,” Sahar answered and then excused herself and walked away.
Rosaluna got off the bus and looked for Mahram’s house and recognized his old car in the driveway.
Mahram greeted Rosaluna at the door with a bouquet of roses. He didn’t hug her or kiss her on the cheek. She was so taken away by the roses that she didn’t notice his awkward way of greeting her.
Rosaluna came into the house and noticed the distinct smell of saffron coming from the kitchen. She remembered watching a cooking show on the Food Channel where the host explained that the ancient Persians were known for the seductive power of their cooking because they used a great deal of saffron, an aphrodisiac spice. All around the living room, Rosaluna saw Islamic calligraphic art and pictures of Mahram’s father. She didn’t recall seeing so much Islamic art in Mahram’s previous house and realized that he must have become more religious since she had last seen him. Mahram had prepared a big spread of food for Rosaluna on the table. She smelled parsley, basil and cilantro, but didn’t know what the foods were. There was some soulful and sad Persian sonati music playing lightly on the stereo in the living room.
“Mahram, there is enough food here for a party. Are there more people coming here tonight?”
“No, no my dear. All of the food is for you. I cut up some vegetables and made kookoo sabzi and most-o-khiar for you. These are Persian dishes.” His accented English took a sensual tone when he pronounced the long Persian vowels.
Through the dining room window, she could see the sliver of the moon on the horizon. She gazed at the moon for a few moments.
He was cooking lamb with sour cream and kashke bademjan, an eggplant dish. Rosaluna could smell the rose water that he left in a bowl to use for the baklava. The smell of the roses and the rose water aroused her and brought goose bumps to her body. Had she made a mistake by leaving Mahram five years ago? She couldn’t remember the last time a man had cooked dinner for her and had greeted her with flowers.
“Do you know that this wine comes from Shiraz in ancient Persia? After the Revolution, it became illegal to make wine in Iran,” Mahram explained as he poured her a glass of the red wine.
“Please start eating, I need to finish cooking this four-hour long lamb dish. I wouldn’t want my guest to go hungry,” Mahram said as he was looking for spices in his spice rack.
The smells of the spices in the eggplant dish were so foreign and enticing that Rosaluna couldn’t leave Mahram alone in the kitchen and sit at the table by herself with the exotic appetizers. She walked over to the counter between the kitchen and the living room, put her elbows down and leaned over, looking at her Persian chef who was dicing lemons for the lamb dish. He took short furtive glances at her chest and saw the top of her breasts through her glass of wine. Rosaluna swirled her glass of Shiraz and slowly smelled the aromas of ripe berries and black pepper. Mahram pretended not to look at her as he was concentrating on the eggplant, but he couldn’t help see her breasts and her cross pendant dangling at the crease in her shirt.
Rosaluna entered the kitchen and stood behind Mahram as he was stirring the eggplants in the pan.
“Mahram, why don’t you look at me? I think those eggplants can do without you for a while, they are still very raw.”
“My dear, it’s Ramazan and I can’t eat or drink before sunset.”
“Ramazan? Is that the same as Ramadan?” Rosaluna inquired.
“Yes, it’s the same. In Farsi, we say Ramazan with a “z”.
Mahram turned around and almost bumped her glass of wine on her blouse. Then, he lifted her hair and tied it into a loose bun with a ribbon, gave her a gentle neck massage and kissed her lightly on the neck. When he heard the eggplants frying, he quickly turned around and grabbed his spatula to turn them over.
“Rosaluna, I am trying to stay close to my faith. According to Islam, during Ramazan, I should not touch a woman until after dusk. You are tempting me. I want to caress you and kiss you, but I shouldn’t. In Farsi, we have a name for women like you, fetneh. You’re a troublemaker, a temptress. Only after sunset….”
Rosaluna smiled and said, “Hmm, I like the sound of that, fetneh. It sounds softer than the Spanish word seductora.”
Mahram took her hand and turned her around slowly. He stood by the stove and brought Rosaluna to stand in front of him as he wrapped his arms around her and danced to the music. He kept his lips an inch away from the back of her neck and blew warm air on her skin, but didn’t kiss her.
After a few minutes of dancing he whispered, “Only after sunset” and turned around to the stove. The Persian chef turned the temperature dial to low for the eggplants and opened the oven to check on the lamb. The smells of bay leaf permeated the kitchen and Rosaluna didn’t step away from Mahram. She stood next to him in silence and could feel the heated oil from the eggplants rise. Her skin perspired and her neck was moist. She took off her shawl and lightly brushed it against Mahram’s arm, enticing him to touch her again.
Rosaluna put the glass of Shiraz to his mouth. He took his hand away from the skillet with the eggplants and slowly moved the glass back to her lips and then moved the index finger from his other hand up her chin and opened her lips with his finger. She licked his finger and then abruptly pushed it away with her tongue and sipped the wine. Rosaluna raised her thumb and index finger to open his mouth and he stepped back and turned around to the stove.
“The lamb is almost ready and the eggplants are about to be done. You can have some more of those appetizers on the table”, Mahram offered.
Rosaluna set down her glass of wine on the table and stood behind Mahram, who was at the stove. She rubbed her hands together and gave him a head massage, moving her hands in a circular motion around his black hair. He took in a deep breath and continued to stir the eggplants. Rosaluna looked out the window and saw lavender and golden hues on the horizon and was happy to see that the sun was about to set.
She couldn’t restrain herself from teasing him and pleaded with him in her soft voice, “The sun is setting. In about 15 minutes, your religious laws won’t pertain to us. So, give me a little preview about what’s to come. I am hungry, if you know what I mean.”
Mahram took her hand and led her to the living room and motioned for her to sit on the couch. He gave her a light kiss on the lips and moved his hands around her arms, without touching her. Luna felt a warm sensation all over her arms. After a minute, he returned to the kitchen. Rosaluna decided to relax on the couch until Mahram finished cooking. She was filled with anticipation and excitement, but was troubled by Mahram’s cautious caresses. She couldn’t wait for the sun to set. He brought her a tray of some of the appetizers that were sitting on the table. After nibbling a bit, she wandered around the house, curious about Mahram’s new life.
Mahram announced that the dinner was ready and Rosaluna sat down at the table. He briefly explained about how the dishes reminded him of his grandmother’s cooking. Rosaluna just stared at him and said nothing. She wanted to eat quickly and proceed with the evening. Mahram savored the meal, eating with a fork and spoon. Carefully, he swirled his red wine in his glass before each sip. Without a word, he looked at Rosaluna and occasionally glanced at his food and wine. Staring at Mahram, she broke her bread into little pieces and slowly opened her mouth at each bite. Rosaluna didn’t like the sour cream and lamb dish because it had too much lemon. She just moved the meat around her plate and ate the eggplant dish quickly. Rosaluna still felt hungry.
“You haven’t eaten most of the meal. Is there something wrong?” Mahram asked.
“Oh, I stopped eating lamb for Lent this year and I have lost my interest in meat since then,” Rosaluna explained.
He looked down on his plate and was upset that his guest wasn’t enjoying the dish he had spent four hours preparing. In an attempt to make her happy, he got up to make tea to accompany the baklava. Mahram opened his cupboard and took out his Persian tea flavored with cardamom. As he was pouring the water into the kettle, Rosaluna walked over and told him, “I want my desert now.” He understood and they walked over to the couch. Finally, his hours of anticipation were over; he could kiss his fetneh. Mahram took a deep breath and put his hands on the crease in Rosaluna’s shirt, moved her cross to the back of her neck and kissed her on the lips.
“Mahram, you made me wait so long, you know that Cuban men don’t let their women wait, they make their moves quickly.”
“Be open to what I say, Rosaluna. I know it may sound a bit strange to you,” Mahram said in a cautious tone. He took her hand and massaged it as he spoke.
Rosaluna was expecting that after five years of not seeing each other, Mahram was going to tell her that he loved her.
“Fetneh, my dear, in my culture there exists what we call seegheh, a temporary marriage. It’s to protect women. Men and women make an oral agreement that they are getting a temporary marriage that will last for the night that they spend together. Traditionally, it’s to protect women in case there is a child conceived. If we get married tonight, then you will be protected. It would make me so happy if you agree to seegheh with me,” Mahram said.
“What, you want me to get married to you? We agreed that we are just lovers,” Rosaluna exclaimed.
“It’s not a real marriage. We are just blessing our evening together,” Mahram explained.
“Oh, a ‘one night stand’ with a Koranic stamp?” Rosaluna laughed.
Mahram kissed Rosaluna on the neck and whispered, “We are not having a one-night stand my dear. I am really trying to make you feel more comfortable, the marriage is for the benefit of the woman.”
Rosaluna chuckled and replied, “If I get married, I need a church wedding with the works. Catholics like prayers, candles and traditions. Let’s just be lovers, ok?”
Mahram felt embarrassed by her reaction. He rose from the couch and reached out his hand to Rosaluna. She lifted her hand into his and he lightly pulled her from the couch and walked her to the bedroom. Slowly, he undressed his Cuban guest repeating the word fetneh over and over again as if he were trying to pardon his sexual urges by calling her a troublemaker and seductress. He placed his thick lips on hers and continued kissing her as he slowly took off her bra, moving his hands softly around the contours of her breasts. He removed her cross pendant and put it on the nightstand.
They made love. Rosaluna lay in bed wondering why she left Mahram if the last five years could have been filled with nights as lustful as this one. Mahram was lying on top of her and was breathing on her neck when they heard a knock on the door.
“I thought you said we were the only ones here tonight,” Rosaluna exclaimed.
“I definitely didn’t invite anyone else. Let me go see who is at the door,” Mahram responded.
He quickly put on his clothes and left the room to answer the door. Rosaluna sank into the bed and covered herself with the blanket. She heard him walking toward the front door.
“Mahram, we’re here to end tonight’s Ramazan with you!” said Arash and Dina, his relatives and next-door neighbors.
“Please come in. I have some baklava for you,” Mahram said as he motioned for them to sit down at the table.
Arash and Dina saw the table of appetizers, lamb stew and kashke bademjan and then looked at each other with surprise.
“Mahram, you’ve made quite a meal here. Did you have guests?” Arash asked.
Mahram didn’t answer and looked through the cabinets for teacups and put the kettle to boil.
Rosaluna could hear their chatter from the bedroom and was appalled that Mahram avoided their question. She wrapped herself in the blanket and walked to her purse and took out her cell phone to call her friend Oksana, but she didn’t answer the phone. Rosaluna remembered that Oksana was at an Italian café in Marin at a wine tasting event. The only other person who knew that she was going to see Mahram was Xavier, her French lover with whom she had an open relationship. She walked to the bedroom window to get as far away from the door as possible.
“Xavier” she whispered, “I need to tell you something.”
Xavier was so worried by her hushed voice that he thought she was in trouble, “Cherie, are you OK? Do you need me to come and get you?”
“Maybe. Look, remember I told you that I was going to Mahram’s house tonight? Well, he made me dinner. It wasn’t good. Oh, never mind about the dinner. He wanted to get married with me for the night. We just had sex and now he is having baklava with his neighbors in the living room while I am laying in bed!” Rosaluna exclaimed.
“What? Hey, sometimes men have a cigarette after sex, but usually you want to share a desert with your lover and not with your neighbors. What a freak!” Xavier said.
“Yeah. Now I remember why I left him five years ago. So what should I do? Should I climb out the window and walk to the bus to go home?” Rosaluna asked.
“That would be hilarious. No, just wait for him to come back. Call me when you get home, I want to know the details!” Xavier said laughing.
Rosaluna tried to sleep, but the chatter in Farsi and English kept her awake. Every long vowel sound intrigued her, as though the stretched out words she didn’t understand were more appealing to her than the relatively bland English ones. She stared at the sliver of the moon that she could see through the trees.
Rosaluna stayed in bed and after an hour, Mahram’s guests left. When he returned to the room, she stared at him and said “How could you leave me here?”
“Honey, I had to let my neighbors come in. It’s part of Persian hospitality.”
“What! You invited me, not them. Why didn’t you ask them to leave?” Rosaluna asked.
“I couldn’t tell them that I had you here” Mahram explained.
“Oh, so after asking me to ‘marry you for the night’, you just left me here by myself? This is your Persian hospitality to me?” Rosaluna threw a pillow at him.
“What, were you cold here all by yourself?” Mahram asked.
“Oh please. Don’t you get it?” In a quick swoop, Rosaluna grabbed all of the blankets and rolled over to the other side of the bed.
A week later, Rosaluna went to a Catholic Retreat Center with her Russian-Jewish friend Oksana. As they were driving across the San Mateo Bridge over the San Francisco Bay, Rosaluna told Oksana about her night with Mahram. Oksana was shocked.
“Rosaluna do you realize how bizarre this is? It’s weird enough that I am Jewish and work part time at a Catholic University and am taking you on this retreat with priests. Now you are telling me about your Persian lover and how he can’t seduce you during daylight in Ramadan. Hmm, I don’t think you should mention this during confession, you might scare the priests! I am having trouble paying attention to the road while listening to this crazy story. What time is it?” Oksana exclaimed
“It’s 5:30. Isn’t the sunset gorgeous? The colors are about the same as they were last week when I was at Mahram’s house. Except as we’re driving over the bay, the colors are more dramatic with the reflections on the water.”
“We are going to be late. Oh well, hearing this story is a good excuse to be late,” Oksana responded. They both giggled.
“So what happened next? Did you spend the night or was that against his religious rules?” Oksana asked.
“Of course I spent the night and then I wanted to have an encore performance in the morning, but he couldn’t touch me after sunrise. I have never had a lover with so many restrictions. On one hand, I felt like he was a tease, but on the other hand, there was something alluring and mysterious about his fear of me.”
“So are you saying that you will continue this Ramadan romance, Ms. Fetneh? I like that word fetneh. It sounds very sensual. The Cuban seductress meets the practicing Muslim Persian lover. What a crazy set of events. Wait, wait, wait. You already have Frenchy, your French lover. Are you expanding your circle?” Oksana inquired.
“I am Cuban and an equal opportunity lover. The more men in my life the merrier. Besides, Frenchy has been too depressed lately to show me any attention. Even though I didn’t like the lamb dish, Mahram is a great cook. Frenchy, despite his roots, can’t even make a salad.”
“Oh, so you are like a man. The easiest way to your heart is via food!” Oksana laughed.
“I am not talking about getting to my heart. Oksana, he’s my Persian lover, not my boyfriend.”
It was getting dark and they were driving in a secluded area without many lights. Oksana could barely see the “IHS” Brothers of Jesus retreat center sign on the gates of the property as she drove into the driveway. Neither could imagine how they could stay silent for the entire weekend after such a story.
“Rosaluna, you really are going to test my mental faculties of concentration and avoidance. It’s going to be hard just looking at you this weekend and not laughing,” Oksana exclaimed.
“Well, you can always fantasize about the priests,” Rosaluna chuckled.
“Ha, ha, ha. Do you think there will be any good looking priests at the retreat center like the one in the movie The Crimes of Father Amaro?” Oksana said.
“How do you expect me to concentrate on my Catholic spiritual quest with your chatter about good looking priests? We are going to a spiritual retreat, not a singles bar!” Rosaluna reminds her Russian friend.
They parked the car and saw the retreat director waiting for them by the sign for the “Vatican II” retreat.
“Did you take me to a discussion of Vatican II? I can’t deal with Latin prayers and liturgy today,” Rosaluna said.
“I hope not. Our group should be here somewhere,” Oksana responded.
They walked to the door of the retreat center and met a Jesuit at the door.
“Father, where is the university retreat group?” Rosaluna asked.
The priest responded, “We were waiting for you. Your group is in the main meeting rotunda. They just started.”
Rosaluna and Oksana thanked him and walked in to the hallway.
“You know those Jesuits don’t appreciate latecomers to their spiritual retreats. Maybe those nuns that bothered you in Catholic school will come back and haunt you!” Oksana whispered to Rosaluna and lightly nudged her elbow into Rosaluna’s arm.
They reached the rotunda and the group was sitting in a circle with candles lit all around them. Rosaluna and Oksana left their bags on the chairs by the pictures of the priests and found empty chairs that didn’t face each other.
The female retreat director smiled at them to acknowledge their presence. She closed her eyes and said, “I will lead the group in the first meditation exercises. Everybody, close your eyes and think of the beauty of a sunset.”