The House in Shemiran
by KELLY GOLNOUSH NIKNEJAD
22 Nov 2009 22:00
Her room was long and rectangular; it ran the full length of the ground floor of a spacious two-story Shemiran house tucked in a quiet Ghaytarieh alleyway. The room was simple, with high ceilings and paisley-specked wallpaper. Large Persian rugs covered the cold tiled floors underneath. There were very few items of furniture, all antique, not by design. The decades--and regime changes--never altered anything.
Madar Joon sat facing the garden. A set of large glass doors framed in sky-blue metalwork looked out on to my grandfather Baba Zarbaf's roses and fruit trees in the summer; flower blossoms and a sweet aroma of narcissus wafted through in spring; tawny autumns doused the room in hues of yellow and orange; in winter, with snowflakes heavy on even the narrowest branch, the yard seemed to be lit from within.
At the end of her prayers, or as she came to a pause in a verse, Madar Joon would acknowledge me. "It's a little early for you," she might say, with a quiet smile around her eyes and lips. I would lean in to kiss her soft cheeks. "Would you like some tea?" she would ask, turning even before I had nodded to a steaming samovar on a short side table next to her prayer mat. I sat in anticipation as a ceramic teapot with a drawing of a red rose warmed, soaked and sunk a spoonful of fragrant tea leaves to the bottom, turning the water a perfect shade of brown, a touch golden as it poured out of the spout and tangled with the sunlight coming over the horizon.
Tea was served to order: thick and potent to the adults, and ceremoniously, containing only a hint of color, to the great-grandkids. Madar Joon would cover the bottom of a tiny, paper-thin tea glass with a drop or two of the dark concoction. Boiling water from the samovar reduced the intensity even more. As the tea was set in a dainty saucer and placed in front of me, she asked if I wanted some breakfast. I knew better than to accept. It was one thing to accept tea, and quite another to accept a meal, knowing how many extra dishes she would have to wash afterward.
Madar Joon had what resembled a broken back. Her first baby, Abbas, died when he was nine months old. A pot of boiling water turned over on him. It's as if she had bent down in horror to take the little baby in her arms and was never able to stand up again. She was permanently bent at the waist and had to kneel forward when she got on her feet and tried to walk.
For her daily supply of water, she trudged across a wide hallway to a stripped-down kitchen underneath the stairway. There, she managed to knock off a huge block of ice from the freezer, fit it into a bright red thermos, then drag it back to her room. Throughout the morning, the glacier melted, a drop at a time, and by early afternoon, she was able to break it into smaller pieces and pour a little water through it. Nothing tasted better than a glass of Madar Joon's ice water on a hot afternoon.
She insisted on doing her own dishes, and hand-washing her own clothes in a small, dank cement yard in the back of the house. There was no arguing with her. Cleanliness was a matter of religion, in her case deeply rooted, as if to the core of the earth. Madar Joon held what I assumed was her own peculiar interpretation of what rendered something najes, or unclean. Most of her personal effects, including everything in her kitchen, and especially her prayer mat, and particularly her water thermos were off limits--to everyone. To her, being wet was one of the surest way to spread najes-ness all around, to make something dirty, which until being touched by the corner of a wet object, had been perfectly clean. On summer afternoons, Madar Joon lifted her gaze from her prayer book and fixed it momentarily on the screaming children playing in the freshly filled cement pond with a chipped swan spouting water from its mouth. It was one of the few times she got nervous.
Madar Joon's second son, Mahmood, was fatally stabbed in an argument when he was twenty-two. His killer was known; there had been many witnesses. A conviction was a certainty, but she didn't press charges. Because of the death penalty, he would have been executed. "Why did you let your son's killer go?" I once asked her. She responded after a painful pause. "I'd already been deprived of my son," she said, her gaze never leaving her prayer book. "What would I gain by depriving another mother of hers?"
About once a month, Madar Joon's room would be cleared of furniture for roseh-khani, a prayer ceremony and memorial service for a martyrdom that happened centuries ago. Every inch of the floor would be taken up by visiting ladies covered in thick black chadors seated on the carpets with their little glasses of tea nearby. Plates of halva--a soft fried confection of flour, sugar, oil and a touch of rosewater--were passed around as they chatted. A cleric would soon arrive in a brown robe and turban, a rare sight for me in the 1970's. As he prepared for his entrance, the room stirred with the ladies cutting short their gossip, rustling their chadors as they were pulled forward to reveal only an eye here and there. The Agha would take his place in a corner of the room and start singing sadly of one of the martyred Shia Imams, most likely the third, Imam Hossein, and the bloody battle of Karbala, in present-day Iraq. The women would start to cry, often very loudly, drowning the house in sorrow.
I wandered in with my bare head and tight jeans, seeking my great-grandmother among the black waves. From underneath her chador, Madar Joon would wrap me in her arms and I would lay my head against her chest. As the cleric's story got sadder, the crying got louder and louder and the women shook more strongly. I shook as my great-grandmother shook. Just as my heart grew so sore it wanted to burst with their suffering, Madar Joon would look down at my untouched glass of tea and remind me to drink it before it got cold.
In the wintertime, when I am in a place where the snow falls hard and the ground is cold enough to let it build, I dream of Shemiran. At Madar Joon's, a korsy occupied a corner of the room. The korsy, a cozy contraption to keep warm, consisted of a large bulky cotton blanket laid over a low square table with coal in a metal bowl emanating heat underneath. To partake, you sit around it, place a corner of the blanket over your legs, and soak up the heat. Many families congregated around the korsy to take their meals and sip hot tea from small clear glasses. In between meals, dads and granddads unfurled the newspaper, as the children sat in warped postures to scribble dreaded homework assignments. At night you can also anchor yourself there and go to sleep. But even after heating lamps replaced the burning embers that spewed carbon dioxide, no one but Madar Joon did.
In elementary school, I drew a picture depicting a family scene around the korsy. I was a student at the Tehran American School--or T.A.S.--and my drawing was one of twelve selected to be featured in the school calendar the following year. I was very proud. T.A.S. was massive and the number of artwork created by its student body over the course of nine months, even more so. The calendar was printed en masse and hung in every elementary, middle and high school T.A.S. classroom. I couldn't wait to showoff.
Two years earlier, another of my drawings had captured the attention of my teachers. It was 1976 and we were living in Illinois, in a town not far from Champaign that no one has heard of. My drawing of a colonial schoolboy and schoolgirl was to mark the bicentennial of the American Revolution. When much to my dismay, I couldn't find my drawing hanging with those of my classmates in the hallway, my teacher explained to me that it had been sent off to a regional office to be entered in a state-wide competition. I was very proud. I loved Americans as I loved the people who cried for Imam Hossein.
Appropriately enough, my korsy drawing had been chosen for the month of December. But it was 1978 and Tehran American School shut down and disappeared into oblivion before I could see it hanging in every classroom. The little picture of the Shah I had drawn on the wall of the home of my imaginary Iranian family was a portent of things to come.
When we returned to school that fall, our bus driver would no longer tune into the N.I.R.T. American radio station in Tehran, or play our homemade cassettes of American and British music. He was preoccupied with his own tapes: inaudible mumblings of an old man--or the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as it turned out.
Several weeks later, our obnoxious unaccompanied-by-music singing in the back of the bus was drowned out by a chanting sea of demonstrators--I looked out at them in awe, fright and excitement from the window. "Death to the Shah!" "Death to America!" they shouted and echoed as our driver made a quick getaway through a side street. Under cover of night, our family--like many others--huddled around a short-wave radio and listened to the BBC to piece together what we saw happening.
In the heady days of revolution, I was oblivious to the Islamic undercurrent. The masses were rejecting the Shah, not embracing Islam, I thought. The religious element had been present, to be sure. But having grown up among neighbors and relatives who donned chadors and headscarves, it was not viewed as a malignant threat to be quashed. In some respects, it put a fuzzy grandmotherly face to the demonstrators. That sentiment was reinforced in the image of Ayatollah Khomeini whose grandfatherly features peered down from oversized banners bopping above the heads of demonstrators everywhere. The uprising, I thought, grew with a fiery burst, primal and spontaneous. Except for a thin sliver at the top, no clear class line divided proponents and opponents of this great revolution. The right to be heard--whatever that point of view--was what fueled it. We were clearing the way for democracy, I thought. But in revolutions, it's never the liberals who end up on top.
Faced with the prospect of Iranian school for us, my father took a long vacation and taught us to read and write Farsi. Algebra, geometry, and trigonometry were other featured topics of those tutorials because the Iranian schools covered those subjects much more widely. We had only the summer to catch up, so the days began at 5 a.m. and extended as long as my father could keep us going.
I returned to school that year in the newly mandated headscarf and a long flowing gray manteau. It was a drastic departure from the shorts and flip-flops. Having never been to Iranian school, there were other adjustments to make. We had three classes, six days a week; by the end of the week we had covered more than a dozen subjects. Friday was the only "weekend" we got. Instead of pretty paper-dolls and Star Trek figurines, I now spread Madar Joon's room with my textbooks, notebooks and impressive array of colored pens. Madar Joon poured my tea thicker.
She felt sorry for us, she told me as I was doing my homework. "Our childhoods were so much more joyous," she explained. "We had no care in the world, none of your stresses." Even though her holy book was as thick as my Webster's Dictionary, and more lovingly worn, Madar Joon never set foot in a classroom. She was never taught to read or write. It was her father's deathbed wish that his daughters never receive an education.
With his blessing, however, Madar Joon and her sisters attended maktab, a place Muslim children go to learn to read and recite only the Koran. Persian calligraphy borrows heavily from Arabic. As I told Madar Joon, if she could read the Koran so well, she could read Farsi too, despite the great lengths she went to stay illiterate. Madar Joon denied it, or let the argument taper off without an earnest protest.
Madar Joon didn't admit it, but she was also good in math. When her husband was alive, he turned over his paychecks to her and she ran the household finances. To stay true to her father's wishes, Madar Joon engaged in arithmetic without the symbolic accouterments. Instead of writing out numbers, she kept count marking sticks on a straightened brown paper bag and did division in her head. Whatever sins she may have accrued this way, the many times she read the Koran cover to cover, had to have erased them. Madar Joon began each day with verses--she fell asleep repeating them, and fit them in between the day's chores.
"Savab dareh, naneh" she would say, referring to the rewards of the afterlife, when I teased her about it. "You have no sins to forgive," I would say. "We all do. We sin without even knowing it," she replied. "What if after all this, there was no God, no heaven, no hell," I asked. Instead of being horrified by my audacity to ask such a question, Madar Joon calmly replied that there was no such possibility. "Then please pray for me, too," I asked, kissing her soft cheeks. She said she already did, often.
Madar Joon descended from the Bakhtiari tribe, and in her early years, her family may have led a semi-nomadic life. Her favorite story, recounted briefly, but with great relish, was about bathing in open streams with her sisters while a brother stood watch nearby. She had long, beautiful hair "that came all the way down here," Madar Joon used to say, marking her waist with one hand, holding her place in her prayer book with the other.
Her hair was then thin and gray, but still long. She wore it in a bun underneath her yellow headscarf. She had her hair covered at all times, even in the privacy of her own room. Because so many people passed through the Shemiran house, a white lightweight chador rested on her shoulders. Every time the front gate buzzed open, she tossed the chador over the yellow headscarf, regardless.
In the 1920's, when in the process of sweeping modernization, Reza Shah banned the hejab, Madar Joon stayed indoors for months. She made her first trip out to get to the public bathhouse. Donning the illegal chador, she left early in the morning when the roads and alleyways were dark and empty. She operated with great stealth, running from behind a wall, to behind a tree, until she was near her destina
tion. In that last dash, one of Reza Shah's men spotted her and tore the chador from her head. She ran screaming for cover, and never went out again, not until she devised some other method.
When it became imperative to go out, she rode in a carriage flanked by two people who could cover her covered head. Another time she wore so many layers of kerchief that if she were to get caught again the soldier would have to keep pulling layer after layer until she got to a safe house.
After the revolution, the hejab was forced back on. It seems we never learn. When I wanted to escape, I retreated upstairs. My grandmother's tiger-patterned furniture, glass tables, gilded mirrors and fancy souvenirs stood in stark contrast to Madar Joon's bare timeless space. What lured me there, however, were the hundreds of photographs of their many European trips. A black-and-white photo book gave me my first glimpse of Paris. They captured my imagination and filled me with wanderlust, especially at the height of Iran's isolation during the war with Iraq in the 1980's. One day I would get out and live among the world in all the great capitals, I thought. Somehow it did all turn out that way.
It was on a summer's day, ten years later, on a walk in La Jolla, California, that my mother broke the news of Madar Joon's death. She had passed away a month or two earlier, but it had been kept from me because I was in the middle of law school exams. I walked away, alone, in anger, toward a quiet path leading to the ocean. It had not occurred to me that I would never see Madar Joon again.
First published on Tehran Bureau on Feb. 5, 2009.