Pictures of the Floating World

Words by Jeffrey Ozawa & Photographs by Jaimie Lewis & Aram Radfar

From the hollow voice of speakerphone, Bernard announced his visit, drifting along the Pacific Coast Highway on his way to the beach. His first novel was out and his agent arranged a few readings in Chicago. He arrived that week cloaked in a precautionary sheepskin jacket, his eyebrows knit as he followed the grey clouds floating above. What happened to spring? I told him it was cancelled again. He sighed, reliving the worst of it. LA does not make a man of you, weather-wise. 75 is too hot, 73 is ideal. Anything below 50 elicits sobs.

I introduced him in a previous post as Persian and he was mad for a week, a long explanation that it was all wrong, that his birthplace, while in Iran, is practically Turkish or at least Azeri, that he grew up speaking Aramaic rather than Farsi, and that he ended up in LA only by accident, unrelated to the mass migration of Persians to Beverly Hills. In the end I changed “Persian” to “born in Iran,” which seemed to satisfy him.

It was the beginning of a long story. Bernard moved with his parents from Iran to Chicago, young enough to learn perfect English but old enough to remember the grapes from his great-grandmother’s garden, where he spent his afternoons, lounging in the grass, with no idea that he’d wake up one day in a land of ornamental fruit trees. I had heard how he cried for months, the young castaway, staring at the vines as they crept up the walls of his suburban house, waiting for grapes that would never arrive.

The plan was to return to Iran every summer, but the 1979 revolution complicated things irrevocably. Thousands left the country, among them the artists, intellectuals, the rich, and religious minorities, who bristled at the idea of an Ayatollah in charge. Among those who stayed was the filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, who, in spite of everything, couldn’t bring himself to leave his garden. He explained, “When you take a tree that is rooted in the ground, and transfer it from one place to another, the tree will no longer bear fruit. And if it does, the fruit will not be as good as it was in its original place.” Contentious as it may be, the metaphor is no coincidence: fruit is the language of the soil. Even in the same plot of land, different trees have different tastes, hybrids form, irregularities. He stayed in his home country making films which are works of the land as much as any film can be, plotless meditations on life set against the bucolic, like Taste of Cherry, which follows Mr. Baadi as he slowly cruises around the countryside looking for someone to bury him when he dies. He meets an old man on the road who recalls an attempt at suicide thwarted by the beauty of a mulberry tree. Mr. Baadi ignores him, insisting his problems are bigger than mulberries.

In our case, mulberries were precisely the problem. Chicago’s trees were months from fruiting, an arctic breeze still fluttered from the north, and our only company on Lake Michigan were a few pissed-off looking geese. It is Kiarostami’s larger thesis that a man dies when he loses his connection to his environment, his sense of original place. Mr. Baadi drives around with the look on his face: What am I doing here? An unanswerable question for us as well.

Bernard drives with a kind of poetic cadence, a perfect Mr. Baadi, pausing to inhale deeply, waving cars to cross before him while he waits at stop signs. We went west from the lake, choppy and metallic in those days, towards his father’s apartment in the suburbs, stopping into the little markets along the way to pick up the taste of the afternoon. We bought dried mulberries in the place of fresh from Hisham, tea from Cyrus, and perfect ma’amoul fig cookies from a Lebanese woman whose name I never ask. To pass through the north side of the city is to turn the calendar back by decades: faded pickup trucks loaded with watermelon, Greek restaurants painted white with blue doors, an aesthetic running wild across time and space. Bernard still remembers this Chicago, the setting for his teenage years, a vague sense of direction guiding him down familiar roads, to his old girlfriend’s apartment building, his favorite bookstore in high school. Much of it he doesn’t recognize, like the tamale vendors sitting by the side of the road, where we stopped for half a dozen. “Where are we?” he asked, and I took turns naming a different place: Beirut, Seoul, Jalisco, Addis Ababa, as we left Midwestern America in a rented town car, missing every yellow light along the way.

Bernard and I became friends because we recognized in one another this look of disbelief, an outsider charm, something we found in Taste of Cherry as well. It was not just the way we look at the world, but the way the world looks at us, the old Persians giving him the nosy once-over in the Westwood markets, trying to figure out what he’s going to do with those dried limes, the same looks I get at Mitsuwa while loading up on katsuobushi, or the way a passerby stares at me next to my blonde, blue-eyed mother and thinks what the hell happened? Before I was born, my parents traveled back and forth between Japan and America, each leaving one of them out of place. In America it was my father’s homesickness, softened by his cooking, the nightly gohan, before an evening with the Yomiuri newspaper. In Japan it was my mother’s, the John Denver records she played and the trips to the Shakey’s Pizza on Omotesando. In the end I was born in New Jersey into this life of second-hand nostalgia, catching only fleeting glimpses of what might have been. And so I find a silent commiseration in Bernard, a castaway who built replicas of his old life in Iran wherever he went.

We arrived at his father’s apartment atop a modern high rise of glass and steel emerging from the forest to the west of the city, the aroma of a big Persian feast picking up from the hallway. He opened the door to the smell of fresh coriander, dill, and parsley, mixing with the fava bean rice called baghali polo, an herbed frittata sabzi kookoo, and a plate of simmered lamb shanks on the bone.

Persian food has the uncanny quality of resembling the terrain itself, the shades of tan and deep green which paint the country’s natural landscape. Looking at the blonde pilaf with its burned potato tadiq, I imagined Mr. Baadi’s Range Rover rolling across the arid landscape in search of his deeper purpose. The lamb had been simmered for hours, the water changed again and again to reduce the flavor down to a perfect clean note and a texture that dissolved on the tongue. The sabzi kookoo was doubly good, the last minute squeeze of lime juice nailing that perfect balance of sour and savory carried by the taste of fresh herbs with a hint of barberry. Then there was the rice with herbs, which is as close to heaven as I’ve found outside of gohan.

Gone was the look of disbelief from Bernard’s eyes, suddenly, as if he had answered the unanswerable question while going back for more rice. It dawned on me then that our lives of cooking and eating boiled down to a search for a sense of original place. Looking at the evening’s feast I realized that for the time being, we’d found it. We called it the Floating World, a concept of ethereal paradise borrowed from the famous block prints of the Edo Japanese, eating and drinking their way into zero gravity. Kiarostami may have been right about nostalgia for one’s homeland, but as I get older it becomes easier to accept that this world will never occupy any physical space, that we’ll always be in a kind of orbit, rotating endlessly at the table with our mulberries and shochu. That night we were left with nothing but plates of hollow bones, a succulent ubi sunt, the marrow sucked out and finished with teaspoons.

Bernard rose to his feet to bring out the next course, cutting through fruits like a bazaar shop keeper, filling trays with jackfruit, oranges, persimmons, lychee, and grapes. He knows fruit the way the Japanese know fish, down to the subspecies and the time of year, and I could only eat and enjoy. His dad recited some lines from Rumi, which seemed to have been written with our Floating World in mind.

I have chased out duality, lived the two worlds as one. One I seek, one I know, one I see, one I call.

Months passed and this time it was my turn to visit. He picked me up at LAX around midnight and we hit a few loquat trees on the way back to his place. The next several days were spent floating, somewhere between Isfahan and Kyoto, going to the Persian and Japanese markets and restaurants to keep ourselves from asking too many questions.

We were accompanied by random Persians the entire time, I began to notice, at every park bench, every foggy cliff by the Pacific, every tea house, in Santa Monica, in Malibu, in Venice. They hardly seemed tortured by nostalgia, sitting in gangs at the food court of an outdoor mall with their pistachios and thermoses of tea, ready to hang out and talk until the security guards make their final rounds. But every so often, when the wind picks up the smell of a simmering ghormeh sabzi, or the mulberries are particularly good from a certain tree, the sadness which lurks within, deeper than any smile or laugh, erupts in a flood of tears which hints at the truth in Kiarostami’s words, that the fruit will never be as good, that the life of exile kills the soul.

Leaving for the airport on the final afternoon Bernard and I went to pick mulberries from his garden, my preparation for the flight. The Afghan tree was dried up, just a month past its prime, but the Persian one was at its peak, its black nectar dripping on the pavement. As we leaned in to collect these fruits, which saved the old man from killing himself in Taste of Cherry, he looked at me and said, “Any tree you eat from, you’re going to miss it some day.” In a panic I switched trees, to his almost-finished kumquats and picked them clean, the last of the season. I got a text from him that night on the plane, taxiing at O’Hare. “Did you take all the kumquats?”

Yes. Panicked. Sorry.