“Chai khordi?” asked Khanum Poshti, inquiring whether I’d had tea during another slow afternoon in Farhang Markaz Maslakh. Focusing on completing my painting of a Tehran office interior with seated men, framed photos of Khomeini and Khomeini watching from the wall above them, I’d replied, “Chai micham,” unsure of saying anything correctly. My awkward, “I want tea,” came after I learned answering her question with a yes, baleh, meant I’d get no tea. She was asking if I’d had tea already. My first week I’d gone thirsty until I’d figured it out.
Setting my brush across my tray, I stood, stretched, headed for the men’s room. The staff of the gallery tittered every time I spoke, tried to speak, or appeared the ignorant foreigner. Painting publicly, I was the American artist on display. Classes came to watch, curious Tehrani painters stopped by, gallery visitors gawked, thrilled to discover an American in the Islamic Republic, still an oddity a dozen years after the Revolution. The staff treated me in a friendly, protective manner and I reciprocated by unintentionally providing constant amusement.
Somewhere in the bowels of the building I heard banging on pipes. At the entrance to the restroom a sign in Farsi sat on an easel not there on my last visit. I couldn’t read it. Unlike American lavatories, these stalls went all the way to the floor, Iranians being very protective of their privacy. Dropping my pants, I squatted over the eight inch hole in the floor.
I’d painted at Maslakh for two months, traveling to south Tehran everyday in a taxi. On my current canvas I’d depicted several staff members, accidentally setting off a furor by depicting two of them smoking a cigarette. Smoking wasn’t allowed at Maslakh, but a cigarette appeared for the benefit of my posed photographs. The staff member providing it was fired for bringing cigarettes onto the grounds, mortifying me. I interceded with the director on his behalf.
Finishing my squat I reached for the hose. I’d grown accustomed in Iran to cleaning my butt with water, now preferring it, but when I turned the handle there was no water. Not a drop. That’s what that sign was about. The banging I’d heard was a construction crew. They’d shut off the water.
There was never toilet paper in Iranian public restrooms. I rejected screaming for help from my possible actions. The staff would enjoy that way too much. I’d be the talk of the complex for months.
I felt through my pockets for tissues, or even note paper. Keys, lip balm, coins, my wallet. I had nothing to clean up with. Squatting, my legs going numb, I considered my scant options. The idea of leaving without cleaning revolted me. And then I remembered my money.
After arrival my wife and I had accompanied her Aunt Mashi to a black market money changer. In a fourth floor office a burly man behind a desk made a phone call to ascertain the rate of the minute, then carefully counted our money, inspecting each bill, rubbing them between his fingers, rejecting one Ben Franklin as too old. Mashi haggled to get us a rate four rials better than the street rate, and his assistant brought a plastic sack full of toman from a nearby office. The thrill of an illicit transaction surged through me as our tiny stack of dollars was exchanged for bricks of bills a foot and a half high.
Fishing my wallet back out of my pocket I found three bills of lower denomination, enough for two taxi rides. Calculating the toman to dollar rate, three dollars, I smiled.
Afterwards, I continued painting until the construction ended. It occurred to me, when discovered, everyone would know who’d used those bills to clean his butt. Only the American would throw away perfectly good money. To avoid embarrassment I returned to the restroom to flush the incriminating evidence.
In the stall, nothing had changed in the hole… except the bills were gone. My act was exposed! Blood rushing to my cheeks and ears I backed out of the stall. I looked grim, my stricken face reflected in the mirror above the sinks. Then I relaxed. The workers at this cultural center and on the construction crew earned absurdly shitty wages. I imaged some poor soul discovering those bills, making a calculation the reverse of mine, the soiled toman weighted against the ignominy of collecting them. Whoever took the bills knew the crazy American dropped that money in the hole, but this illicit currency exchange wouldn’t be bragged about. I washed my hands in the sink, the water sputtering from newly repaired pipes, and returned to my painting.
F. Scott Hess is a painter, a conceptual artist, and a writer from Los Angeles. His work is included in the collections of the LA County Museum of Art, Orange County Museum of Art, Long Beach Museum of Art, San Jose Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian Institute, among many others. He has received a Theodor Koerner Award, Western States Art Federation award, a J. Paul Getty Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. A one-hour documentary by Shirin Bazleh, “F. Scott Hess: A Reluctant Realist,” was released in 2018. Hess is represented by Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, and is currently working on a memoir and a collection of short stories about his year in the Islamic Republic of Iran.