There is a famous story about an old, sour man who gets visited by three ghosts; the ghost of Christmas past, the ghost of Christmas present, and the ghost of Christmas future. Their hauntings leave him a better man leading a better life. Thomas McKenzie was also haunted by Christmas spirits, but of a different kind. His ghosts were Mariah Carey, Wham, and Charlotte Presley. And his life could not get any worse.
The three were intimately related. Charlotte was all he’d wanted for Christmas, two Christmases ago he gave her his heart, and the very next day she gave it away. Though giving it away was putting it mildly. Charlotte had taken a chainsaw to his heart, and afterwards she’d lit his sliced and diced heart up with a blowtorch for good measure, and after that she’d stomped on the ashes for even better measure.
Charlotte haunted him. Mariah Carey haunted him. Wham haunted him. No matter how far he ran, he could not get away from them. And he had tried, how he had tried. Last Christmas he’d been in Udaipur, thinking he could dull his senses enough with daily Bhang Lassies to forget Charlotte. Unfortunately, Udaipur attracted a lot of backpackers, and the guesthouses slash restaurants all felt the urge to cater to Western tastes. Besides playing the James Bond movie Octopussy every single night in every single guesthouse – because Udaipur’s palace features prominently in the movie – they could also not resist playing Christmas songs, because THAT’s what Westerners want when they’re in frickin’ India.
It was terrible. Mariah Carey beat on his eardrums five times during his catatonic high. He hasn’t touched weed, alcohol, or even coffee since. Any mood-altering substance was now forever associated with the pain of Charlotte.
Charlotte. Even the thought of her name made him want to crawl into a dark corner and disappear forever. Any memory of her or their time together that surfaced crushed his chest tight. So tight that several times he felt he was going to die because he was unable to draw a breath.
How could love hurt so much? And how could she have done this to him at Christmas? Christmas, the most wonderful time of the year. His favorite holiday. At least it used to be. Now he fled from it, as far as he could. But it was never far enough. He was haunted. Cursed. There could be no other explanation.
He was in Shiraz. In a country where almost no tourist dared to go. In a strict Islamic country, a religion that did not celebrate Christmas. And yet, here in his hotel, while smoking his shisha, staring at the world’s ugliest Christmas tree, he had to listen to a band playing a cover song.
“All I want for Christmas is you.”
Cruel memories of Charlotte – beautiful, wonderful, perfect, Charlotte – flooded his mind. He remembered their first kiss, that was always the first memory to surface, and felt it as if it was happening right now. Sparks flew during that kiss, enough to put new stars in the sky. A movie played in his mind of their second date, in every excruciating detail. The date had barely started – he had a whole day planned out to impress her – and he already knew she was the one. He remembered other nights, on the couch, in bed, in restaurants. And he remembered Christmas.
He thought he was going to pass out.
The horrid song ended. Tensed up muscles all over his body relaxed. Thomas opened his eyes, only then realizing he had pinched them tightly shut. and looked into the eyes of angel.
“Hi,” said the girl with raven-black hair, eyes the color of the depthless azure-blue sea, and a smile warmer than the sun over the Maranjab desert. “I guess you didn’t like our song,” she continued in a mildly hurt voice.
Though Thomas had pointedly ignored the band the whole evening, he had noticed that the lead singer was female, and she had a lovely voice.
Everything about her was lovely.
“It’s…it wasn’t you. I just don’t like the song. You…you sing really well.”
Her eyes lit up, and for a moment Thomas was lost in them.
“My name is Yasmin.” She held out her hand. Thomas took it as if it were made of crystal and shook lightly.
Yasmin stood there for a few seconds, silently regarding him. Apparently waiting for something. Thomas racked his brain, what should he say. Ah, right.
“Please, sit down.”
Oh god, her smile. It was so gorgeous. And sexy.
“So where are you from?” Yasmin asked after she nestled herself onto the cushions.
They talked for hours. Till long after the staff and the other guests had retired for the night. Till long after the embers of the apple shisha had smoldered out.
Thomas lay wide awake the short remainder of the night. Should he have kissed her? Why had he said that? What did she mean by that? Did she like him? Was he even allowed to kiss her? How was he going to handle this? She was just absolutely amazing.
He met Yasmin again the next morning after breakfast. She had insisted on showing him the sights of her hometown. Thomas had come here to escape not for sightseeing, but now that he was here he might as well.
Yasmin wasn’t kidding when she said she had much to show him. She dragged him all over Shiraz at breakneck pace. Mosques, tombs, gardens, bazaars, the Qor’an Gate. She talked almost non-stop, bombarding him with names, histories, stories. He tried to keep up but it was so much information and it was all new to him. He hadn’t spent a second researching Iran before booking his flight. All he’d needed to know was that nobody went there and that they didn’t celebrate Christmas. Also, her mouth was just so pretty. And her voice so soft and sweet. Her lips so kissable.
Thomas thought the tour would be over after lunch. His feet were aching. He just wanted to chill on the comfortable cushions at the hotel and try the coconut shisha. Yasmin had other plans though. They were heading out of the city to visit Thakt-e Jamshid – known in the West as Persepolis – the crumbling remains of the capital of the great Persian empire. Thomas had to admit it was an impressive sight, but so were Yasmin’s curves. Very obviously impressive, even though her body was modestly and completely covered. As decreed by the country’s strict Sharia law.
In the evening, just after sunset, they had one more place to visit. Yasmin was adamant, this was the most important place of all to see. Thomas was really done with going anywhere, but it wasn’t like he was going to refuse her anything.
“The Tomb of Hafez,” Yasmin said after they’d walked down a short treelined path and through a colonnade to an open space decorated with well-groomed flowers and plants. In the center of the space stood an eight-column open pavilion with a mosaic-covered dome which was beautifully illuminated. The light shone down on the elegant marble tomb inscribed with Farsi.
Thomas was swept up by the atmosphere in the air. He had no idea who Hafez was, yet could feel the reverence all those around him held for this place. A lot of young Iranians were scattered around the open garden. Mostly couples he guessed. Some were even holding hands. Was that even allowed? He thought of taking Yasmin’s hand. She must have brought him here for a reason, and he’d felt the chemistry between them grow throughout the long day they’d spent together. No, taking her hand in public was probably too forward.
“Hafez was born in Shiraz in the 14th century. His poems are the most magnificent works ever created. He understood love and life like no other. Every Iranian knows his poems by heart,” Yasmin said in a whisper. She was standing really close, their shoulders were almost touching. Thomas timidly reached out his hand and touched hers. She didn’t pull away. He took her hand in his. Their fingers intertwined. It was magical, like an deep, intimate first kiss.
They stood in silence for a while, gazing at the tomb.
Yasmin took a small step away, breaking the spell. “Come, we must go. I have to sing soon. But first, there is something I want you to do.” She started walking, and after a few steps released his hand. She led him to a book displayed on a pedestal. “This is the Divan, the collected works of Hafez. Persians believe it to be a book of prophecy. Pick a random page, and the poem you choose will tell of your future.”
Thomas looked at the book, the writing on the page it was opened to was in Farsi. “Uhm, I can’t read this.”
“Just pick a page, silly. I’ll translate for you.”
Thomas closed the book, closed his eyes, and reopened the book on a random page. He put a finger on the page for good measure. Yasmin looked at the book. She turned to him. Their eyes locked. The rest of the world disappeared as Thomas fell into Yasmin’s eyes. She recited a poem. Slowly, in a Siren’s voice, without glancing at the page once.
Because the Woman I love lives
Inside of you,
I lean as close to your body with my words
As I can–
And I think of you all the time, dear pilgrim.
Because the One I love goes with you
Wherever you go,
Hafiz will always be near.
If you sat before me, wayfarer,
With your aura bright from your many
My lips could resist rushing to you and needing
To befriend your blushed cheek,
But my eyes can no longer hide
The wondrous fact of who
You Really are.
The Beautiful One whom I adore
Has pitched His royal tent inside of you,
So I will always lean my heart
As close to your soul
As I can.
Neither of them spoke. Thomas was completely lost for words anyway. And completely lost in her eyes, her smile, her everything. He was smitten. And so was she, she must be. After this moment. This poem, recited by her, that supposedly foretold his future.
They returned to the hotel. Thomas settled himself back into a pile of cushion and finally ordered his coconut shisha. The band started playing their Christmas covers. Yasmin’s beautiful voice filled his ears. “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart,” their third song started. For a moment Thomas felt a cold, hard pain build up in his chest. He caught Yasmin smiling at him. The pain dissipated. Instead he felt a benign warmth inside. And tingles in his stomach.
She was so gorgeous. So wonderful. So amazing. He was falling in love. This was it. She was the one.
The band’s next song was obviously called Dooset Daram, since those two words were repeated again and again. He had no idea what the words meant, but assumed it was a love song. Yasmin she was looking straight at him the entire time she sang the song.
Thomas’ face broke out into a huge smile. Christmas wasn’t so bad at all. In fact Christmas was amazing. The most wonderful time of the year.
One year later, at Christmas, Thomas was in a tent on an almost deserted beach in Cambodia. He was covering his ears with his hands, but the song still seeped through. Impossible, that this song was playing here. Thomas had tried to escape again, but he could never get far enough. He was haunted this Christmas. Haunted by a girl called Yasmin and a song called Dooset Daram. How could she have done this to him? At Christmas? His favorite holiday. He’d given her his heart. And the very next day she’d taken a chainsaw to it, had lit up the sliced remains with a blowtorch, stomped on the ashes, and fed the bruised and battered ashes to a dung beetle for good measure.
Thomas curled into a ball. He tried to scream, and couldn’t, heartache was constricting his throat.
On the beach stood a woman of interminable age. She didn’t leave any footprints on the sand. She was invisible to the human eye. Her name was Carol, and she was Thomas true Christmas spirit, his guardian angel. She stood there a long time, staring at the tent, full of conflicting emotions. She felt deeply sad for Thomas, for the hurt he was feeling. Christmas should be a time of happiness, love, and joy. Seriously though, how much longer was this going to go on. Yasmin, Charlotte. Before Charlotte there had been Susan, Evelyn, Ashley, Becky, and April. The same thing every Christmas. When would he ever learn and stop falling head over heels for any girl he’s known for two frickin’ minutes.
My own story of Shiraz
By now I’ve spent many a Christmas in Asia. It is very different from how it is celebrated back home, if it is celebrated at all. Several years ago I was in Shiraz during Christmas, smoking shisha, staring at a sad excuse for a Christmas tree, and listening to a cover band. I didn’t mind. Being in Iran was an amazing experience. I visited many places besides Shiraz and will be writing other stories set in this country. Thinking of a story to write for Christmas, my Christmas Eve in Shiraz was the first thing that came to mind.
Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. When I was young and still thought I received my presents from Santa it was a magical time, and as an adult I still love everything about it: the lights and decorations everywhere, sitting indoors in a cozy warm home while it’s freezing outside, feasting on way too much delicious food, and, most importantly, sharing this wonderful time with family and loved ones.
Merry Christmas everyone!