The up-start woman
By Reza Ordoubadian
May 15, 2000
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.