Excerpt from
Under a Papery Roof: A Memoir
about Life in Post-Revolutionary
Iran and Exile
                 Memoir by Panteha Sanati

      The time is when nothing stirs. A couple of hours into the curfew, there
is little movement in the streets.  It’s dark, and an eerie kind of silence creeps
over every building, back alley and courtyard.  This silence is not by choice.  
This stillness smells and feels like fear; a terror so immense that even the
bravest are not immune to it.  This fear is not because we know that Iraq is
raining its bombs on us tonight, but a fear of what we may see, and how we
may cope when the bombers have finished their mission.
      Soon, the sirens are ejecting people out of the warmth of their sleep-
nests in the heart-throbbing panic of sudden waking to terror.  We know
what to do because my parents have taught us that when the sirens sound,
we must descend to the basement where we wait the warning out.  Farnaz,
our landlord’s daughter, and I find each other amongst the other two families.  
We are in our pajamas and fortunately for us, our childhood innocence
conceals from our minds the real and potential consequences of evenings
such as this.  We are just glad to see each other when we would otherwise
be dreaming.  In the thinning light of a flashlight, we play games and eat
sunflower seeds as the grown-ups quietly chat in another dark corner.  Even
our shadows move cautiously on the walls.  Later, we emerge to our surface
existence, unscathed, but unwittingly curtailing our favorable odds on the next
      The next day at school, we have the same drill, so we line up, and go to
the bomb shelter and sit against chalky textured walls which are still damp
and smell of new construction.  This is not a real bomb shelter, but the safest
wing of the school.  When after a few moments I gain composure and observe
my surroundings, I realize that a few of the girls’ headscarves have slipped
back, exposing their hair, but the gravity of this moment is momentarily
swallowing in its vortex all concerns about Islamic modesty.
      At home, it’s eight thirty at night.  My mother, who has a hunch about
another attack, has been calling my father at his office, but neither he nor his
secretary is answering.  While we wait for my father, my uncle and his new
wife, Mina, come over.  Within moments of their arrival, as if their footsteps
shattered some fragile universal silence, the sirens are screaming and warning
everyone of another Iraqi bomb attack.  This indiscriminate blaring of the
alarms is what will forever be etched onto my mind, albeit unbeknownst to
me at the time.  The siren starts as a howling crescendo and reaches a
macabre roar.  Once again, Tehran closes its eyes.  Where is my father?  If I
wish for his arrival hard enough, will he walk through the door?  I feel as
though I am naked, exposed.  Later, when I have had a chance to grasp the
intensity of these seconds, I will call this sensation insecurity.  But for now, my
thoughts are muddled as if I am two separate people; my body is in the house,
but my mind is roaming the dark, empty streets, helplessly searching for my
      The three adults stand in front of the large window of my parents’
bedroom, and I can only see their silhouettes when my eyes adjust to the
darkness that surrounds us.  I watch the outline of my aunt’s round belly
against the star-speckled sky contaminated with jet fuel and hatred.  In the
distance, I hear muffled explosions.  A few seconds later, the earth quivers
and the window follows in its wake.
      Holding her belly, my aunt weeps silently and murmurs, “Will I live to
raise this child?”  Another flash and a quiver.  And then another.  My sister,
Paki, and I are standing in the doorway.  When we feel the next vibration,
we let out stifled screams which are quickly dissolved in the stillness of the
room.  I lick the tension from around my lips.  Keeping their eyes on the sky,
the adults order us to get under the bed.  We try, but the bed’s metal frame
is too low to the ground.  I cry and laugh at the same time.  Maybe because
I know that taking shelter under a bed is futile, even ridiculous; but perhaps
this moment has robbed me of rational thought and emotions befitting our
      Paki and I wriggle like silverfish, trying to bury our heads under the bed.  
We give up.  Oblivious, we wait for nothing and everything.  Until we are
numb.  Then asleep.      


Panteha Sanati was born in Iran, and despite having lived in the United
States for 22 years, she describes her condition as “an ideological
straddling of two cultures, where the cultural chasm does not get any
shallower with the passage of time.”  In 2003, she traded the semi-arid
landscape of California for the verdant contours of Massachusetts when
she and her partner moved to the east coast. She says that the colorful
cadence of the seasons inspires her and helps preserve her memories.  An
English professor by day, in her free time, she explores creative non-
fiction, poetry, fiction, humorous commentary, and academic essays.

On the excerpt from
Under a Papery Roof:
For years I had looked for an opportunity to write my memoir.  So
when in graduate school the opportunity presented itself, I eagerly
embraced the chance to tell my story.  The only logistical problem
was that I had to write my story in the confined space of 120 pages.  
Consequently, when I first attempted writing
Under a Papery Roof,
the sheer flood of memories and recounting of events made the work
sound rigid with obligatory conciseness, as if I was overstuffing a
bag ready to burst at the seams.  When the piece started to lose its
sparkle, I knew it was time to start over.  I decided to revamp the
entire story, but this time, I let the memories surface with their own
order of emotional buoyancy and fervor.  The result is a body of
autobiographical work which organically highlights my life’s events.

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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 3, Number 2
(Fall 2008)

Copyright © 2008
by Leah Browning, Editor.  

All future rights to material
published in the
Valley Review
are retained
by the individual authors
and artists.