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Dispatch | Zafora, Born in Iran: The Life of an Ethnic Afghan Widow and Mother

by ABI MEHREGAN

07 Jul 2012 23:56Comments
afghanschooliran.jpgA workweek without end and an unswerving dedication to educating her children.

[ dispatch ] Along the edges of Tehran's age-old Farahzad neighborhood there are many well-known, expensive restaurants that serve traditional Persian cuisine. Few of the neighborhood's residents, however, can afford to dine at them. Farahzad's narrow streets are crammed with small homes, pressed tightly against each other. Exposed water channels serve the residents' sanitation needs. Most of those who live in the neighborhood are Afghan immigrants. In the main square, Afghan day laborers sit anxiously anticipating work. On a side street, young Afghan boys with no access to schooling entertain themselves enthusiastically with a plastic soccer ball. There are no Iranian peers among them.

Not far from the square, Zafora lives with her two children on the first floor of a rickety three-story building. She opens the door for me, and tucks strands of her exposed hair back beneath her headscarf. She is 29 years old but looks 40. Skinny and of average height, her lips form a seemingly irremovable grin. She has secured her attire compactly round herself and wears a pair of grimy pink dishwashing gloves. Immediately, she scurries back to work. There, next to Zafora and in front of a bucket full of skinned fava beans, sits her ten-year-old daughter, Roya. As she glances over, I catch a glimpse of her brilliant green eyes. It's remarkable how rapidly her little fingers skin the beans in unison with her mother.

Zafora's backyard has been transformed into the neighborhood storage facility. "Most of our neighbors don't have a backyard, and barely any storage," she says, gesturing toward some clothes that belonged to a former neighbor who has since departed. Her apartment is minuscule. The central room is about 130 square feet; adjoining it is a kitchenette, barely three feet to a side. Her brother resides on the floor above her, and above him, an Iranian lady named Zahra, along with her husband and his family.

The furnishings are sparse: a single rug, a few pillows scattered against the wall (no chairs or couches), a few folded blankets that serve as beds, and a small television. Their bathroom is next to the front door and the entire patio reeks of backed-up sewage.

In between the front door and the toilet, Zafora has laid out a blanket on which sit six tall, bulging bags of fava beans. Emptied across another blanket is half a bag of the beans, which she and her daughter are skinning and transferring to an adjacent bucket. Once the bucket is full, Zafora has Roya pluck the stubs on the ends of the beans.

Zafora starts work at seven in the morning, seven days a week. "Every fava bean bag takes eight hours of work. I make 10,000 tomans for every bag of beans I skin. After the beans, I fry onions, clean vegetables, and skin potatoes." There are lots of restaurants nearby, so this sort of work is always in demand. Her son, nine-year-old Mohammad, picks up the food in a wheelbarrow and drops it off at the restaurants when they've finished.

Zafora was born in Iran. Her mother died when she was nine, and she and her younger brother and sister were left with their father. Not long after the death of Zafora's mother, he married again, to Zafora's 15-year-old cousin.

"Before they got married my cousin and I were good friends, but after their marriage that friendship ended. She even forced my father to deliberately ignore us. My two siblings and I would sit on the patio outside and wait for them to feed us. If one day they decided not to feed us, we would take dried bread and soak it in water to avoid starving.

"I got good grades, but my father didn't let me go to school after his new wife became pregnant. My siblings and I were their servants. If we complained, they would punish us and withhold even those few pieces of bread from us. I would wash their clothes without any detergent for so long that the skin on my fingers would peel off. If there were still any stains, they would make my life hell.

"I dreamed of the day I could get married and leave. I was 15 years old when the first suitor, a laborer from Kabul, came to ask for my hand in marriage, and I agreed to wed him. Ghassem, my husband, was ill tempered at times, but in general I was happy with our marriage. A difficult chapter of my childhood had ended."

Zafora stirs the fava beans in the bucket with her hands and discards the ones that look off. Staring at the beans, she stops to describe how her mother-in-law scolded her for not being able to have a child in the first year of her marriage. Within the next two years, though, Roya and Mohammad were born.

But then, when Roya was just three and her brother two, Ghassem died of a heart attack on Shab-e Yalda. "I was very scared about the prospect of becoming a widow. I had seen what emotional distress it brought upon women, and I couldn't believe I was going to go through it." What made it even more difficult was the fact that "my husband never let me out of the house. I wasn't allowed to maintain my friendship even with my cousin. Ghassem had emotional problems, and he would frequently get angry over minor things. He was a very unstable person, but his presence had a calming effect on me because I felt safe when I was around him. However, nothing can be done about it now because he has died, and left me and our two children behind."

Amid this explanation, Zafora's face turns red and her characteristic smile is replaced by a melancholy frown. She turns back to work on the fava beans, as if it will mesmerize her and relieve her of her dark memories. As her daughter looks to her for instructions on what to do with the bucket, Zafora's smile reappears as she nods. Roya must know what that means because she quickly returns to skinning.

As a widow, Zafora did not receive the assistance from her family that she needed. Quite to the contrary, "My father's wife wouldn't even let him visit my children after my husband died. My husband's family avoided me after his death out of fear of having to pay my expenses. My brother had just married, though, and we moved in with him. My only friend at the time was my cousin, who was preparing to marry another Afghan."

Zafora would never cease to work. "I would clean 50 kilos of vegetables a day. I would make 50 tomans and was content. I was just happy I had some sort of employment. My cousin, who had moved to Afghanistan with her husband, had enrolled in classes there, and her husband was very supportive of her. She would call back and stress the importance of going to school and would regularly tell me I should send my kids to classes. However, as Afghans, my children did not have many good schooling opportunities. I wanted to make sure that I could send my kids to a school that Iranians went to as well, because those have more resources. When I was the same age my kids are, I was getting good grades and was dying to go to school, but my father wouldn't let me. Now that I was allowing my kids to go to school, they weren't being accepted anywhere."

Zafora refused to surrender to having her children sit around as their opportunity to receive a decent education withered away. She rented a birth certificate from the parents of an Iranian girl whose details resembled Roya's and sent her to an Iranian school. However, the parents raised the fee for the certificate's use to one million tomans a year. This was well beyond Zafora's means, and her daughter returned home. For her son, though, they were able to find an Iranian school that would allow him to register for 350,000 tomans a year, payable in monthly installments. After a year of homeschooling, her daughter was admitted to a school for an annual fee of 400,000 tomans. "My brother's wife sold one of her golden bracelets to help pay for their schooling," Zafora says.

Many Afghans in Tehran do Zafora's sort of work and sometimes wind up competing with each other. A neighbor, she says, also skins fava beans and takes care of five children between the ages of one and nine. All in all, Zafora is content with her profession, and her children are happy as well -- though her son makes clear that he disapproves of having to work on Fridays.

Zafora is grateful to have her family around her and that they are able to live in peace. Her sister regularly urges her to remarry and indeed numerous men have asked for her hand since her husband passed away, though most are already married and 20-30 years older than her. She has turned down all those proposals, preferring the status quo.

Our conversation eventually winds down, and I take my leave. An instant after the door closes behind me, Zafora stretches her hand out of the window and with the smile to which I had grown accustomed waves me goodbye. As I cross the street, I can hear the voice of an Iranian lady as she screams at a neighbor: "What do you think, this is Afghanistan? You just empty your dirty water onto the street?"

Abi Mehregan is a pen name. The author is on the staff of Iran Labor Report and covers poverty for Tehran Bureau.

by the same author | An Instrument Called 'Melody': The Street Musicians of Tehran | Seyyed Hassan, Who Lives under the Stars | The Endless Day: A Look at the Lives of Iran's Women Day Laborers

Photos: Aghan school in Iran (Mehr News Agency). Teacher instructs pupil to write "Iran is beautiful."

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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