A Ride Home
by ALI CHENAR in Tehran
29 Jul 2010 22:13
Do not imagine that my aunt is well off. She is in fact a widow, who lives with a grown daughter. She does not admit it, but the housework is becoming too difficult for her, so she asks this lady to come over from time to time to help her out. Let us call this lady Parvaneh Khaanoom.
Parvaneh Khaanoom was wearing a clean but old black chador with a milky scarf wrapped around her head. Her eyes were intelligent yet sorrowful; her oval face was red with sunburns. A strong jaw and thin, tightly pressed lips round out the picture. There was something different about her, though. The help I had seen before would speak with a bowed head; Parvaneh Khaanoom kept her head high and spoke eye to eye. She thanked my aunt, grabbed her bag, and got in the back seat of my car.
Night was falling on Tehran. The air was cooling, the traffic growing heavy. I drove out of our alley and into the main street.
- It is getting crowded. It might take a few minutes longer.
- Thank you, Sir. I told your aunt I would take a cab -- she insisted.
- It's not a problem. Do not worry.
An SUV passed us, a BMW, windows down, rap music blaring from its speakers.
- Where do you live?
- I live in Islamshahr. We have a 50-square-meter apartment. I pay 250,000 in rent [roughly US$240]. It is clean, and the neighborhood is not too bad. But it is far, Sir. I have to take the metro down to Behesht Zahra [Tehran's famous cemetery], then I take a cab.
That is a good 30 kilometers away, which means a two-hour trip in Tehran's traffic, even with the metro. It was already close to 9 p.m. It seems she read my mind.
- It is quite a ride. Thank God for the metro, it makes it much easier. But there is no bus, I have to take one of these guys who works with his car. I do not get home before 11 o'clock.
Most of Tehran's taxicabs are unregistered. The drivers use their own cars for extra cash. It is far from the most secure means of transportation. Many a criminal mind has used the unofficial taxi trade as a way to lure victims, usually women.
- Is it safe?
- God is our keeper, Sir. What else can we do?
- I cannot afford to live in Tehran. I work all over the city. Your aunt needs me from time to time, but I have regular customers in Elaheyeh, Vanak, Za'feraneyeh. I go to these places once a week to clean. I work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. most of the time. By the time I get home, my kids are asleep.
- That is hard.
Parvaneh Khanoom glows.
- I have two great kids, Sir. Both are students in public universities. My daughter is studying to become a veterinarian. My son is in engineering school in Tabriz. My daughter stays with me; my son comes and visits as much as he can. I thank God every time I think of them, to have a doctor and an engineer as my daughter and my son. That is the true blessing, I am telling you.
I thought about Parvaneh Khaanoom's children. Getting into a public university is quite an achievement these days. About 1.2 million high school graduates participated this year in the concours, the national entrance exam. Only 10 percent can hope for a place in one of the public universities, where tuition is free.
But where is the husband?
- It was so hard to parent two kids all by myself, it almost killed me. My husband is in the hospital. He had a stroke and is paralyzed now. I work Saturday through Wednesday; Fridays I go to be with him. Thursday, I have to rest.
It was pitch-dark and I could not see the signs. I pulled over to ask for directions from a young man. His clean-shaven face was sweaty and pale -- a bit too pale.
- Where is the metro station?
- Keep straight, it is a few hundred yards ahead.
I was struck by his voice; he sounded coarse but his voice was so weak. He sounded like a drug addict. He did not hesitate.
- Please spare me a few hundreds...I need to get home...I promise to give it to the needy... God bless you.
I was surprised, unsettled. I reached for my change, but a car behind mine blew its horn. I had to move.
- You should not give them anything.
Parvaneh Khaanoom said this with a quiet anger.
- He is young, well dressed, and strong and still he begs for money! He can go and work, he can do something. You should not give these people anything, Sir. They have to learn how to earn a living.
Parvaneh Khaanoom began to cough; it was a dry one, the cough that people with bad lungs have.
- These cleaning things, they are killing me, I have no lungs left anymore.
I wondered why she didn't wear a mask. How much would it cost? I should tell my aunt about this, I thought. We were almost there.
- Thank you, Sir. You are so kind to do this during your break. You are tired and I imposed.
Now I was blushing. She had been working for ten hours and still she was capable of such consideration.
- Please do not mention it. I wasn't busy, it was a pleasure.
I stopped the car by the entrance to the metro. She grabbed her bag, opened the door, pushed against it with her shoulder, and got out.
- Thank you.
- You're welcome. May God keep you for your children. Have a safe ride home.
Parvaneh Khaanoom walked away. Her steps were heavy, she was exhausted, but she held her head high. There was something superbly dignified about her. She worked to earn a living, and she was proud of it. She was proud of her children. Life was hard, but she was standing tall.
Driving back home I regretted not shaking her hand. Although she might have refused it.
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