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 Write for The Iranian

The up-start woman
Short story

By Reza Ordoubadian
May 15, 2000
The Iranian

Aunt Gammar could barely contain herself as she sat on her hands in the corner to keep from shouting, but she had heard all she could take, and when the aging Mullah tried again to explain a simple passage from the Koran -- and failed -- a voice was heard from the very back of the mosque, where the women sat, "No... ! No... ! No... ! That can't be!"

The Mullah stopped cold in mid sentence, and all the heads turned in unison to see who had dared to interrupt the preacher. It was not that someone had objected to what was said, but the voice that had said it: a woman's voice, resonant and loud, repeated again, "You're wrong, Agha!" For a cataclysmic moment a hush fell upon the mosque, the ceiling, one hundred feet above the mortals who sat on the floor under the multi-colored mosaic dome, pressed down on the women, all covered in black chadors, and the men with their hats on and hands inside their pockets to keep them from freezing blue. Winter worship was more than just a devotional act; it was a supreme sacrifice. The faithful proved their faith by withstanding the bitter cold in unheated building of a colossal size. Only the snow did not dare to enter the sanctuary of God's House: the wind and the cold had a free reign inside the building.

Slowly the heads turned back to the Mullah, who sat on his dais, unruffled outwardly, but secretly his heart filled with an irrational fear. No one spoke or made a move, all frozen in the cold of the winter of the Ramazan, some smiling in vindication, others simply sitting with blank masks for faces. Finally, the Mullah spoke in a low voice, "Who speaks?"

Aunt Gammar hesitated; she, too, was surprised by her own audacity to speak in a gathering of men-folk, but it was too late, and those who were sitting near her pinned their merciless gaze on her, daring her to speak. Hesitantly, shamefully, she said, "I ... !"

The necks turned again from the front rows to pinpoint the intruder, and their gaze found the culprit, who was sitting with her chador tightly wrapped around her head and face. She could have left at that moment without being discovered, even with her friends around her, but she was too stubborn now that so many eyes were daring her to speak. She slid the chador from her face, and in the dim light of the mosque her crinkled face that looked more like a gigantic prune than a human face, became visible, defiantly looking for a fight. "I said it!" She repeated, this time loudly and distinctly. "I said it!"

The Mullah, who did not expect such audacity, raised himself on his toes to take a better look at the voice as he was nervously caressing his snow-white beard with his right hand; he immediately recognized the woman. "Oh, yes... ! Yes... yes! You... ! They say you're an Ayatollah," he quipped, his nervousness unconcealed by his attempt at exaggerating. "They say you're a learned doctor now..."

Four hundred necks once again turned to Aunt Gammar. She now stood up to reveal herself completely. "You're mistaken, preacher," she replied with her crackling voice. "I'm just a woman, simple and ignorant..."

"That, you are... Mother! Simple and ignorant!" the Mullah asserted with a triumphant smile, sitting back on his dais comfortably.

"But my ignorance does not prevent me from recognizing another's worse ignorance!" Aunt Gammar replied resolutely.

She had said it, and she immediately knew that there was no retreating now. The challenge was put in the public, and Aunt Gammar had to follow it up, even if she were to be given a Fetva, a complete sanction from the mosque, total isolation. Their differences had been of long standing -- of course, all in private. She and the Mullah had argued on the fine points of the scripture face to face, but to call the preacher ignorant in public was an act of rebellion against the established religion, even worse, against God -- at least, in the eyes of the Mullah, who often confused his station with that of God.

This was not the first time he has had challenges from Aunt Gammar's family; once he had an encounter with Aunt Gammar's father, the Grandfather; he remembered it well; but that was when he was young and still truly believed in the Spirit of God that resided in the mosque, his power only flowing from the Divine force that he believed engulfed him when he sat as a preacher. Aunt Gammar's father had tried to bribe him to issue a dispensation so that he could reconcile with his estranged wife through an emissary before departing on his pilgrimage to the Holy Mecca, instead of facing Grandmother in person, as the The Law required. At that time, the Mullah had triumphed, spurning Grandfather, but now, with the daughter, a woman at that, rebuking him in public, he felt the old man rising from his grave to haunt him.

All this flashed in his mind. "Woman," he said quietly as if in a trance, "we have had our differences... even with your father ... but you're wrong to question me!"

Aunt Gammar hesitated for a moment, unsure of herself and her position in the mosque, but she had the adrenaline pumping in her blood and could not contain herself. Come what may, she decided, she will speak her peace. "Preacher," she said in a murmur, then her voice rose to a shouting, "What you say about God's creation is blasphemy...How can you... " she said but could not finish her words.

"Silence... ! Woman... !" the Mullah thundered, now having recovered his authority, but not his dignity. "You presume to criticize me! Tell me now... you tell me now... what have I said that is blasphemous?"

"Preacher, you claim Adam created the earth and the moon; you say Adam made the birds and the animals... what nonsense!... "

The silence broke now, and like in the day of The Resurrection, the men jumped out of their seats, some facing the Mullah, some Aunt Gammar, all talking at the same time. The women in their section, however, they remained seated and quiet, except for Aunt Gammar, who stood erect and remained proudly up-standing. Her defiance was not meant to be a threat, however; she was too scared to sit down and hide herself among the chadored women in the congregation. The Mullah, however, took it as a further challenge to his authority and began shouting, drowned by the noises that filled the dome of the mosque and seeped into the freezing air outside, desecrating the calm silence of the large flakes of the snow that fell to the ground with lingering deliberateness and lack of purpose. But those who were inside were full of purpose, mostly inclined to lynch Aunt Gammar on the spot, but some, nagged by her words, were beginning to question the lucidity of the Mullah.

It would have been impossible to worship there any longer, and those who were less convicted, began slipping out of the building and into the cold of the winter. Those few who remained, did so to see the play acted out and Aunt Gammar excommunicated. She was not, however, without her supporter; a few women remained still and would not leave -- no match, however, to the number of the men, who would want to see the rebellion squashed and the authority of the mosque re-established-for man's sake, and God's. The Mullah was now shouting at the top of his lungs and could be heard clearly in the town, except that he was incoherent and the words came in rapid fire without any content. He could be heard to repeat himself, "... and God ... praised be His name... he gave His power... to the mosque ... to me ... her father ... heathen in Mecca."

And, Aunt Gammar stood still, dumbfounded, scared, yet unrelenting. She imagined her father arguing with the Mullah over his need to visit God's House in Mecca, but unwilling to reconcile with his wife, and the Mullah, cowering under the powerful energy of Grandfather's charisma, yielding to his wishes; but that was not the truth. The Mullah had wisely refused Grandfather and had ordered him to ask forgiveness in person, the result of which was the disastrous false start of a trip that was not to be completed. However, Aunt Gammar would rather distort what had happened than assume that the Mullah had won twice over her family, especially that at that moment she knew he was wrong in his recent interpretation of the Koran-and, many women of her circle were in agreement with her on that point. In a way, she was representing the awareness among the women that the Mullah had lost his mind and was making a mockery of religion by clinging to his position in the mosque, an assumption that the men either did not share or would not dare to consider.

It must have taken some time for the Mullah to calm down and sit down -- out of pure exhaustion. As the Mullah, he was the only one seated on a special chair, his dais; the congregation sat on the carpeted floor on their personal cushions that they brought with them for the occasion. He sat motionless, his head to one side, his complexion sallow and lifeless. He heaved heavily, his breathing irregular, sweat beads covering his forehead like morning dew, but without falling, catching the light from dozens of candles of the chandelier that hung low from the niche where the Mullah's dais was set: the man seemed entombed in his own space, but visible to the outsiders. "He's in a trance... mystical... a state of grace!" The woman who was sitting next to Aunt Gammar marveled. "He's communicating with the other side!" said one of the men who had remained to see the act play through. "He'll come about; he'll tell us what to do." But Aunt Gammar saw it all, and she knew that the preacher was having a heart attack; no one moved to succor the man slumped in his chair, his eyes half closed, blurry and seemingly fixed on Aunt Gammar.

It felt like an hour, but only a few minutes had passed when someone stirred. The rubbing of cloth against cloth was eerie, unnatural and awesome. The man who moved saw that a flicker of life was on the Mulla's face and shouted, "Praise be to Allah ... he's coming out of his trance." The Mullah must have reacted to the noise because his eyes opened wide in dullness, still transfixed on Aunt Gammar; he tried to utter a word, but only those who were very close to him on the front row could hear. "What did he say?" someone asked loudly, exuberantly now that the preacher had come back from the other side to give them the news.

"He said... ? What are we to do?"

"He said, 'Your father's daughter...!'" the one closest to the dais replied.

"No -- he said, 'Your father... daughter's revenge...!" another corrected the man.

Now, many voices started to question the Mullah, to ask for clarification. The Mullah knew the answer and would speak if he could, but he remained silent, a sign that he was still in his trance. But Aunt Gammar understood very well what the preacher had said. She stood up and slowly moved to the exit. No one bothered her or saw that she was departing. She stepped to the cold of the winter as large flakes the size of a saucer drifted down on her head. Soon, her black chador was covered with a layer of white snow, white like the turban of the Mullah inside the mosque, his sign of election. She moved slowly, her footsteps leaving her sign on the snow behind her. She did not look back. They buried the Mullah the following day. Aunt Gammar stood far away from the grave and said a prayer for the soul of the preacher -- no one the wiser.

©All rights are reserved by the author


Reza Ordoubadian holds a Ph.D. degree in English and linguistics. He has held a professorship at Middle Tennessee State University and Visiting Professorship at Umea University (Sweden). He has published numerous pieces of fiction and poetry as well as scholarly articles and books on both sides of the ocean. He was the editor of SECOL Review for 18 years.

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