Roya is a coming-of-age fiction novel about a young Iranian-American woman navigating loss, love, identity, purpose and renewal. Generational differences have distanced Roya from her more traditional parents. A recent heartbreak has left her feeling like an expat in her own body. Unwilling to face the responsibilities and decisions of her present reality, she finds herself trapped in a mental limbo. As she embarks on a trip to Iran for the first time with her grandmother, Roya experiences a country that is undergoing its own transformation ––a rich culture in the midst of navigating tradition and modernity. A vacation that Roya believes will be an escape from her problems turns out to become the antidote for her awakening. But before she can begin healing, she must first face the generational wounds of her past with the help of some unexpected encounters.
The next afternoon, they walk past the burgundy albaloo trees and enter the covered patio. Roya grabs the pitcher of pomegranate sharbat, pours some in a cup and adds water. The dense syrup is still too sweet for her taste buds.
“Would you like to help me in the garden for a bit before we eat?” Khanoom Jaan reaches for a spare watering pot.
“Sure. I’d love to.” They walk around the patio back under the open air.
“So Roya, what are you studying in school?”
“Well, I’m in my third year of undergraduate school.”
“Yes, university. Right now I’m studying pre-medicine.”
“And then I become a doctor.”
“Then, I spend the rest of my life as Dr. Roya.”
“Well, then I get married, have kids and wait until they’re teenagers so they can tell me I’m being annoying.” Roya lets out a playful laugh.
The old woman smiles with her eyes amused by the young girl sitting before her. “Sounds like a wonderful plan then!”
“Yeah, wonderful.” This time Roya mumbles with a look of uncertainty on her face.
“Is that not what you dreamed of? What’s wrong?”
“I mean, I have thought about it. A lot. It’s not exactly what I have dreamed of.”
“And what is it that you have dreamed? What makes your heart feel alive?”
“Isn’t that a little cliché?” Roya replies innocently.
“Would you rather me ask what makes your heart feel dead?”
“Well, no.” Roya smiles. “I love to create music. Every time I feel lost or my chest feels heavy or I’m moved by emotions I don’t even understand, I begin to hum to myself. And slowly the hum turns into a melody. And then I begin to sing random words that just flow from me. It’s weird.”
“That’s because they flow from your heart, not your mind. They are your soul’s art.”
“I guess so. It just feels good, you know? I can go into my own world and create something for myself. It’s when I feel the most understood. It’s always been kinda my secret thing.”
“So, why not pursue music in university or takes classes?”
“Music in school? There’s no way to make a living like that. I thought about some classes. I just don’t have time.” She can hear her parents in her voice again. “And why pre-medicine?”
“I want to help people, to help the world. Medicine heals; it makes people better.”
Khanoom Jaan continues to pluck the overgrowing mint leaves without facing Roya. She is careful and thoughtful, examining each leaf and gently placing them in her bowl.
“Roya––” she finally says softly as she tilts her head slightly and looks at the young girl from the corner of her eye.
“Can you hand me those scissors please?”
The elderly woman cuts the stem of a white rose and hands it to Roya.
“I thought you said to appreciate flowers as they are and let them grow in their roots?”
“Yes. But, I want you to appreciate its beauty and take care of this one.”
“Flowers all eventually dry out Khanoom Jaan. I will water it, but it’s not going to last very long now.”
“I don’t understand.” Roya’s eyebrows bend downward like they always used to when she was confused as a child. Her mother would always poke her finger in between her eyebrows and warn her, you make that face and your eyebrows will stay like that Roya! And then she would wrap her arms around her daughter ––her touch soft like a woven rug and her laughter like honey.
“The branches of a flower can grow as long and as far as they may. When the seasons change and their time arrives, all will wither to make room for the new blooms in Spring. But, a flower cut from its source will dry out much faster than that connected to its roots.”
“In some ways, this is how us humans are too. Our source is our soul and our heart is our root. What a shame all those dry leaves that long ago forgot the soil from which their dreams were born. They become so quick to fall apart.”
Roya sits quietly and runs her fingers through the dirt ––exfoliating her fingertips as she slowly brushes the residue off. She is trying to understand the woman’s words.She grasps the message but needs to process the weight of her wisdom.
“Oh Roya, one more thing, my dear.”
“Music, too, can heal. You, too, can heal. Helping someone is not just keeping them alive. Sometimes it can also be helping them to feel alive.”
Khanoom Jaan stands up and mixes the mint leaves she had just collected with the rest of the sabzi sitting on the table. Just then, the patio door abruptly opens and a gust of wind blows through the room startling Roya.
“Omid joon, salam. You are just in time. I am setting the table for dinner. Please join us.”
“Salam Khaanom Jaan, merci. My mother asked me to come by and see if the pistachio cream puffs are ready for tomorrow’s mehmooni. You know her, she gets nervous.”
“Ahh, yes yes. Your mother––such a wonderful host, but she overthinks every detail. I’ll give you the desserts after dinner. For now, join us.”
Omid smiles and pulls a chair up to sit next to Roya.
“Mmm, kabob koobideh and barg. My favorite!” he says as he rubs his belly and grins leaning closer to Roya. “Hi, by the way.”
“Salam.” Roya is still annoyed with how their last conversation ended. Everything appears so simple to him. That bothers her.
“Oh, there we go. Thought for a second you forgot how to speak. And in Farsi, too? Look at you, so cultured.” He winks as Khanoom Jaan gives him a grin.
Roya rolls her eyes but finds herself softening up to his presence. “So, your mom is having a mehmooni?”
“Sure thing, would you like to come?”
“Khanoom Jaan is already invited. She invited me to come along too.”
“Oh, did she now. Well, doesn’t a personal invitation feel even better?”
“So, basically, you want me to come?”
“Basically.” He reaches for one of the mint leaves and pops it in his mouth. “Mmm, so fresh. Nature’s gift to mankind.
”Khanoom Jaan walks back into the room and places down the skewers of steaming red meat sandwiched in between pieces of tomatoes and onions.
“Bah, bah.” Omid says as he eyes the juicy piece of barg dangling from the top.
“So, tell me, Omid joon. How’s everything? How’s life?” She asks while breaking up the pieces of tahdig into imperfect slices.
“You know, the same. Helping mom, preparing for finals. Helping out at the store. But, I am veeeery excited.” He stretches out the syllables of his last few words as he does a silly shimmy, nudging Roya.
“And why is that?”
Khanoom Jaan always enjoyed Omid’s enthusiasm and quirkiness. Since he was a young boy, she had always felt that he was special. Tough, always finding himself in some sort of mishap but tender hearted and soft.
“He will be quite the ladies’ man,” she would say to his mother.
“Oh, will he now. How so?” his mother would tease back as she stared at her young son ––knowing the answer.
“Because, he has the strength to see beyond his own ego,” Khanoom Jaan would reply.
“Well, I was going to wait and tell Roya tomorrow. But, I might as well say it now! I have officially organized our annual trip to Shomal. And I figured since Roya hasn’t been, she should come along. See Iran’s oceans. Maybe let us know if they are more beautiful than her California coasts.”
Khanoom Jaan looks over to make eye contact with Roya and scans her face to see how she feels about it.
Roya looks hesitant but intrigued. She too looks up to meet Khanoom Jaan’s eyes and receives a nod of approval.
“I actually have heard a lot of good things about Shomal. Not sure if it can beat those Malibu waves, but I’d be open to exploring what Iran has to offer.” She playfully nudges Omid back.
“Great, it’s a date then.”
The word “date” jolts Roya, and she shoots Omid a confused look.
“I mean, like the date is set. Not a date, date. Don’t flatter yourself Roya. You American girls.” He says knowingly trying to get a reaction from Roya.
Khaanom Jaan places a piece of tahdig on Omid and Roya’s plates and pushes the last of the koobideh and barg onto the naan lavash so they could easily scoop them from the platter.
“Here, take some mint too. It helps you to digest the meat,” she says and then leaves the room to finish preparing the cream puffs.
“I’m actually really excited about going to the beach, though.”
“I figured you would be. Happy to hear that. You know, this won’t be like that American show with the girls running on the beach in a one piece though, right?”
“Baywatch?” Roya knows he was teasing. “Yeah, but still. I’ve always loved the water.”
“Oh, the water, the trees, the flowers, the views overlooking the hills ––so green. The absolute greenest of hills. You will love it. Very different than Tehran. Here, the people see a different kind of green. But in Shomal, it’s the kind that makes the long drive worthwhile.”
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