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Nord Sud

By Noah Gilligan

Age Group: High School

I glanced away from my canvas to watch Adam work as sunlight fell into my garage
through the open door. I couldn’t help but smile when I watched him mix yellow, blue and red
watercolors into a new dab that was a brown mess on my old palette. His eyes were bright with
excitement. He looked at the banana and apple beside him, then back at the yellow and red blots
on a large sheet of paper. As he progressed, his painting became more of a multicolored smear
than a composition of fruit, but I knew he would learn with practice. On the wall behind him
hung the painting of a rooster I created when I was not much older than he is now, when I lived
in a different corner of the Earth.
Adam looked up and asked me to tell a story, as I often did when we painted together.
“Not another one about the airforce,” he said. “A different kind of story.”
I knew right away that I would tell him a story about a rooster:
My own love for painting arose when my neighbor hosted a dinner party in his lavish
dining room nearly 65 years ago. Well, I wasn’t truly neighbors with Mr. Moghadam. My baba
and madar worked for his family, and we lived in a little house on his property. The two houses
resembled brothers: a big brother looking down on a little brother standing beside him.
Oh, yes, I should also tell you, although you have probably guessed, I didn’t eat at the
table at this dinner party, nor did my parents. I was there to help with the cooking and cleaning.
Now that I was 15, I worked in the house like my parents.
Majestic artwork floated on the walls of his mansion. Each time I brought out a new
dish, I overheard him telling tales of his trips to Paris and Barcelona, where he had met famous
artists and visited their studios. He told his guests about buying his favorite paintings and


bringing them back to Iran. And there they were, right in front of me! And it seemed that Mr.
Moghadam and I shared a similar taste in art, because I loved his paintings. I’d never seen a
painting come to life the way his paintings did, although it’s true that I hadn’t seen many
paintings except for in books. I looked deep inside them and found enchanting stories. They
made me feel things: anger, empathy, desire, connection. I couldn’t look away.
As I served Mr. Moghadam his first course of osh, my arms shook under the weight of
his heavy dishes, and I noticed a beautiful painting behind him. I stumbled a bit, not paying
attention to my steps, and the dish slipped from my hands. Steaming brown liquid dotted with
carrots and spinach spilled onto the poor man’s chest as he cried out in pain. When he looked
up, his spectacles were foggy, and everyone at the table stared at him, then turned their gaze to
me. Fortunately, the plate had landed in one piece on his lap instead of smashing on the floor,
but the poor man was covered in hot soup.
Mr. Moghadam cursed under his breath as steam rose from his lap. His angry eyes said
it all: he was fuming, but he kept his composure. Afterall, he was the host of the party.
I kept saying, “I’m sorry, sir, I’m sorry,” as he wiped off his fancy dinner clothes.
I had created a disaster at my first dinner party, but even in the middle of the madness, I
couldn’t help but look back at the painting that captivated me. It was a table with a bird in a
cage, an open pair of small scissors, a book by a man with a strange name, and a magazine with
the title, “Nord-Sud.” I was fascinated that a collection of lines and colors could come together
in such a way that they told a story. I later found out that the painting was by someone named
Miró, a Spaniard.
Catching my attention once again, Mr. Moghadam said, “I think I will change my shirt.”


“I’m sorry,” I said again and moved away so he could stand up.
As he did, my mother’s scolding voice pierced the air, making its way from the kitchen
to my ears. She must have heard the ruckus and opened the door to see what was going on.
“Pedar sookhte!”
Simply put, I was in big trouble.
Later that night as the other servants were cleaning up, I kept my eyes glued to the floor
when I was near Mr. Moghadam. I fixated on every crack in the tiles and observed each ant
carrying an impressively large crumb. I was too embarrassed to look him in the eyes.
As my mother and I cleared the polished mahogany table, Mr. Moghadam made himself
a cup of tea from his marvelously shiny samovar and sat down at the table. He always sat down
for tea after dinner, which made clearing the table a bit more difficult. My eyes honed in on
each and every speck of food, avoiding eye contact, or worse, his clean new shirt, which
replaced the one I had ruined. When he called my name, my stomach clenched and my legs
turned the consistency of osh. I had no idea he even knew my name.
“Yes, sir.”
“Be careful with the table. Don’t scratch it.”
“Of course, sir. Sorry, sir.”
“Apologize for spilling his soup, Mohammad. I didn’t raise a rude boy,” my mother
hissed at the back of my neck, bending the words with her strong rural accent. Hadn’t she heard
me? I had been apologizing for hours.
“I’m so sorry, sir. You see, I was walking and saw the bird and the cage, and I lost
focus, and I slipped, and I couldn’t keep-”


“A bird?” he asked.
I glanced over at the nosy servants who were watching with smirks on their faces before
I looked back at Mr. Moghadam.
“The songbird in that painting,” I said, pointing.
He turned to me and took off his spectacles and set them on the table. The servants had
seemingly forgotten about their duties, because they just stood there, waiting for a show.
“You like my artwork?” Mr. Moghadam said as he leaned in and raised his brow.
“Very much, sir. Especially that one.”
“The Miró,” he said. I had never heard the name. “I bought it in Paris many years ago.”
He looked over at the painting with me, nodding, as if appreciating his own taste. The
servants continued to circle the table while Mr. Moghadam and I were in our own world,
engaged in conversation. Each time a servant passed by, their jealousy hit me like a heatwave.
Some lingered, trying to catch what we could possibly be going on about.
Mr. Moghadam told me the painting was one of Miró’s first works. When he made it,
Miró wanted to leave for Paris and become an artist, but he was required to serve in the Spanish
military. Mr Moghadam had just begun telling me about finding the painting in a gallery when
Mrs. Moghadam called her husband to bed. I was disappointed, and I wondered if we would ever
have another conversation like this one.
“Goodnight, young man,” Mr. Moghadam said, and I knew he had forgiven me as he left
the room. I went back to the kitchen to finish cleaning up before walking back back to my “little
brother” house.
As I lay tossing in bed, I noticed a light still illuminating one upper corner of the


mansion. When I sat up, I looked up at the windows on the third floor and saw the silhouette of a
man standing and making fluid motions with his long arm. I watched for a while, until I heard
the floorboards creak as my mother walked toward my room. I knew she would be upset if she
caught me up late, so I lay back and closed my eyes until I drifted off to sleep.
I dreamed that I was a famous painter, just like Miró, and I saw myself standing in my
gallery in Paris surrounded by patrons as I introduced my latest collection.
When I got home from school the next day, my mother told me I had work to do in the
mansion. I walked across the green lawn and knocked on the door. An older woman I had never
met greeted me with a smile and remarked wryly, “Ah, so the artist’s apprentice has arrived.”
She led me to the kitchen and pointed to a cup of tea on a silver tray.
“This is for the art studio upstairs,” she said and disappeared back into the laundry room.
As I walked up the stairs, I gripped the edges of the tray, terrified that it might slip out of
my sweaty hands. When I found Mr. Moghadam upstairs standing at an easel beside the
windows, which were open to let out the odor of paint and turpentine, he was painting the
snow-capped Mount Damavand, a mountain that you could just about see from his property. I
was in awe of his studio and the art on the walls, but I had learned my lesson: set the tray down
first, then admire the surrounding art.
“Come in,” he said, gesturing to a table beside him as I carefully set the tray down.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I like it. It’s very pretty.”
I considered if I should say something more. I didn’t know if it was my place to offer
criticism, but I thought back to my conversation with Mr. Moghadam the previous night. I


thought about how he had looked at me intently and nodded as I spoke about his art: how he had
valued my opinion.
“But where is the ruggedness? Damavand isn’t so soft and pretty like Mount Dizin. My
grandfather has always told me that every mountain has its own soul.”
I described the mountain to Mr. Moghadam as I remembered walking over its rocky
texture and the jagged sides and tried to put what I had seen into words. He listened and did not
seem upset that I had offered what nobody ever gave him: criticism. The rich and powerful Mr.
Moghadam actually seemed relieved to receive some negative feedback.
The conversation died down to a shared silence as he worked and I watched. A few
minutes later, Mahmoud, Mr. Moghadam’s son, appeared at the doorway. His private school got
out at 5:30, a bit later than my public school.
“Salaam baba joon,” Mahmoud greeted.
“Hello, my young man,” his father answered, smiling.
Mahmoud spotted me in the back and said his salutations. It must have been strange to
see me leaning against the wall. I would be jealous if a servant’s boy was painting with my
father, but Mahmoud didn’t seem to mind. He seldom got upset or jealous; perhaps he was
enlightened in that way. He was intrigued, though. He walked over to another canvas and began
“Mahmoud paints with the grace of a swan, doesn’t he?” his father asked me.
Mahmoud blushed in the glow of the praise.
Before I had a chance to speak, Mr. Moghadam turned to his son and said, “It really is
true. Maybe you’re destined to be an artist, like Picasso or Miró.”


I wasn't one to get jealous of others, but I couldn’t help but wonder: What am I destined
to do in life? Could I be a painter? Or would I be stuck serving tea and osh like my parents? Or
maybe, I would spend my days making shoes in a cluttered little shop like my uncle does?
I had a million questions and zero answers. I grew angry and gloomy, because I knew
what my destiny was. Art was an unlikely path for me. Mahmoud would have no problems
becoming a painter, but how would I even start? I left the room and began trotting back from Mr.
Moghadam’s towering palace to our little home. But as I passed through the dining room,
something caught my eye. I found the painting that captivated me the night of Mr. Moghadam’s
dinner party. Once again, I couldn’t look away. I knew I needed to paint even though I wasn’t
sure how I could make it happen.
My destiny is to be a painter, and all I need is practice.
At the end of the week, I had time to begin. The Moghadams were off skiing on Mount
Dizin, and there was not much to do at the house. I would start small by painting an animal. I
thought of the rooster from the farm down the road. I always noticed how he carried himself with
pride. Sure, he may not be able to soar through the sky, but he was proud and strong–just like
me. I had seen him so many times, I decided to draw him from memory.
I started with the outline, sketching his commanding silhouette frozen in time. I pictured
the bird strutting around its coop, which I saw him do every day. In my drawing, he marched
around like a soldier in the Shah’s Revolutionary Guard. When it came time to shade my
drawing, I moved from one side to another, smudging my pencil lines until I reached my desired
effect. When I took a step back, I decided that it looked like an ostrich, not a rooster. The body
was too big, the legs too skinny, the neck too long. And my rooster wasn’t marching around like


a soldier in anyone’s army–I had no idea how to capture his regal movements.
I wasn’t ready to give up. I kept going back to my notebook whenever I had time. For my
next drawing, I walked down the road to the farm, sat on the ground and began sketching. I
looked at the rooster and sketched exactly what I saw with my pencil. By the end of the day, I
had not drawn a masterpiece, but it was not an ostrich.
Over the weeks, I did four or five drawings of a rooster, and one afternoon in June, I was
ready to release my work. I showed my latest drawing to my parents. They studied my notebook
and glanced up at me, smiling.
“You have some serious skill, my little artist,” my baba said.
When I brought Mr. Moghadam his tea the next day, I showed him the drawing. He said I
reminded him of his young self, drawing all the time. He grabbed my notebook, took off his
spectacles and took a closer look. He studied each detail with intent as he moved the paper closer
to his eyes.
“Your technique is beautiful,” he remarked. I couldn’t help but smile with pride. I loved
receiving his compliments, but I wondered, Will he suggest that I’m destined to be an artist, just
like Picasso or Miró?
He said nothing more and returned to his work.
I was sure there was something wrong with my rooster. Maybe another draft would merit
more praise. After studying my drawing for several days, I realized what was missing. The
rooster was an empty soul. Maybe the pencil drawing just needed color. Mr. Moghadam told me
that Miró said, “A good artist applies colors like notes that shape music.” Maybe my song was
missing the right melody.


That next Friday, I set out to make my paints. For black, I went to my kitchen and
scraped soot off the stove. I needed more, so I went to the fireplace. I leaned in and scraped the
black bits off the flue. For yellow, I sneaked back into the kitchen and grabbed the tumeric from
the pantry. I put a little bit into a paper bag and ran back to my room. As I flew past my mother,
she frowned at my golden fingers. For blue, brown and white, I had to sneak into my uncle’s
shop. He was a shoemaker, so he had waxes and powders that he used to paint and polish shoes. I
took two pinches of blue and white, then one dab of brown. For red, I crushed pomegranate seeds
into a paste and strained out the juice. When I returned to my room, I had completed my array of
powders and pastes and set them down on a sheet of newspaper adjacent to my drawing on the
Now, I needed a canvas. I grabbed a white shirt from my dresser and set it aside, careful
to not let my mother catch me. She always knew when I was up to no good. Then I found a bit of
scrap wood beside Mr. Moghadam’s mansion, left there by the carpenters who were renovating
the kitchen. The wood was splintered and jagged shards were hanging off. I used the rusty,
warped nails sitting by the wood and fashioned an uneven square. The nails looked like they
were infected with some disease that caused them to grow reddish scales, but they would work. I
stretched my t-shirt over the frame and secured it with four infected nails.
The hardest thing to find was a paint brush. The following afternoon, I walked to the farm
nearby and waited for the farmer to leave his horses unaccompanied. I slowly approached one
stallion in the barn, set my palm on the horse’s snout and left it there until he calmed down. I
walked toward the tail, patting the creature’s neck and back and preparing my scissors with my
free hand. When I reached the tail, I separated a few strands and cut them off. Before the horse


could turn around, I sprinted out of the barn and off the farm. I ran a few hundred meters down
the road back to my room where I fashioned my horsehair brush with a stick and some tape.
By the next Friday, I was ready to bring my rooster to life. I added vegetable oil to my
paints and pastes and mixed until my wrist hurt. I got to work, painting with the technique that
Mr. Moghadam had called so perfect. I drew my outline in black and filled the feathers with
paint. When I stepped away and looked at what I had done, I saw that the colors were dull and
had drained my rooster of any life it ever had. I could not believe that paint killed my rooster.
I tossed my canvas aside and decided in that moment that I was done with art. Or perhaps
art was done with me.
I walked over to the window, peering up with despair at Mr. Moghadam’s art studio.
Never again will I be painting, I thought. Down below, I spotted my father tending to the
flowers. I walked outside and he called me over to bring over a wheelbarrow of soil. I trudged
over to the wheelbarrow and gripped its weathered wooden handles. As I brought the earth over
to my father I could feel splinters start to lodge themselves in my young hands.
I better get used to this, I thought.


Several years later, I forgot about my drawing as I fought in my country’s war against
Iraq. The rooster remained untouched in my parents house, where they continued to live as
servants in the mansion. In the early 1980s, Khomeini and his regime arrived in Iran, and my
family was forced to flee. When I went back to my parents’ home to collect their things and


bring them with me to America I noticed my rooster. I brought it over to the trash bin. What did
a military officer need with a child’s artwork? But I knew that my rooster was more than a silly
drawing. I couldn’t leave it behind, so I stuffed the canvas into my suitcase.
When I got to America, my life was so busy with work and life that I forgot about the
rooster there too. A few years ago, I was making space for an easel in my basement to paint with
my grandson when it resurfaced. The boy and I had just begun painting together when I found it
beside a box of old books.
“Who painted this, Baba Bozorg?” Adam asked.
“Let’s hang it up, and maybe I’ll tell you about that rooster later.”
It’s been a long time since I painted that rooster, and to this day, I’m no professional
artist. A certain famous artist did call me on my 80th birthday, though. His name is Mahmoud,
and I was delighted to receive my annual call from him. He reached me from his gallery in
Paris, and we talked for almost an hour. After we said our goodbyes, I walked back to my
basement, where my grandson was painting.
The phone call reminded me that I needed to tell my grandson a story: a story about a
rooster who, of course, never touched the sky and a swan who soared high. It was time for
Adam to learn a bit about the world.

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