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Short story

The deep, deep blue
I am in my grandma, and my grandma is in me


Ladan Lajevardi
August 18, 2006

I have asked this question over and over, but I am going to ask it again. I say, “why grandma is living with us?” Mother says, “she’s got to live somewhere. Don’t you like it?” I say, “nobody else is living with their grandmother.”

Father is late. Mother is worried. She always thinks of disasters. She says, “he has had an accident. He is in the hospital. I know he has. I have to call someone. Who, who should I call? People think I am mad. There is no one to call.”

I hear a veezz noise on the gravel in the pathway. His car is in the driveway. He comes in with a smile on his face. It makes mother even more angry. She starts nagging, “don’t you know there is such a thing as a mobile phone? You kill me. You never call to say you might be late. I have been thinking the most horrible thoughts.” Mother adores him. He says, “and you never learn that sometimes, for some reason, I might be late.”

He is handsome, gentle and has always something to say to put her in a good mood. He explains with a grin in his face -- when he smiles he can’t shout, he can’t be angry, he can’t be defensive. He says, “don’t you remember that I promised my daughter that I would get her the book she wanted” I jump up with joy. I grab the book.

Father says, “Janam [my soul], it was very difficult to find a good, simple translation into Farsi. I had to drive around from one bookshop to another. In the end I found it.” Grandma says, “If you read it in original language, it gives more savab [blessing from God]. Be careful not to leave it open; otherwise Satan will start reading it.” I say, “let him read it; he might learn something.” Grandma says, “panah bar Khoda [refuge in God]. What a long tongue!”

I smell the book. I touch the cover. It has a plain brown colour. Inside, it is decorated on the edge of the pages with a colourful and subtle design, like a Persian carpet. And the name of the book is engraved in gold.

Grandma says, “you are not allowed to touch the writing unless you wash your hands beforehand.” And she gives her famous stare -- her eyes, enormous, give a cold feeling which penetrates deep inside the bone.

It’s eid [holiday] of something and everybody is coming to see my grandma. She is in her bright pink dress again, a pink scarf, and has her heavy make up on, especially the pink rouge on the cheeks with the extremely red lipstick. The colour of the lipstick never changes from one year to another. She looks like a Russian doll. Square, no, round, she is the same size everywhere - top to bottom, all wrapped up in pink.

She names this eid, Eid-e-Omar, Omar Suzoun [Burning Omar]. In some parts of the country, they make an effigy of Omar and burn it on top of a bonfire. Grandma is happy to be seen in her pink outfit, with her heavy makeup. She pours golab [rose water] in our palms. We cup our hands, and she pours it in from an antique pot, a shiny silver pot, polished for the eid. We rub our hands together and smell the cheap scent. Some people rub it on the face to show her more respect. And she says, “it’s tabbarok”. A famous sureh (a chapter from the Koran) had been read and blown onto the golab to make it holy. She says this every year -- “it’s tabbarok” -- then she offers noghl [white sweets]. As we are taking some, she says “God curse Omar”, and everybody else repeats after her “God curse Omar.”

As I am going up the stairs with father to do my duty for the eid, Father squeezes my hand in his. I ask him about Omar. Why do we have to hate him and curse him, eat noghl, smell cheap scent and be happy because he was killed and burnt in fire? I say, “was he a bad man?”

Father explains, “He was one of Mohammad’s followers. After Mohammad died, it was him and Osman who put the Koran together. They worked very hard. Omar was a learned man. Abu-Bakr, Omar and Osman, the three of them became the caliph. Ali was the forth one.” I say, “why do we have to curse him?”

Father says, “the Shia Muslims wanted Ali, Mohammad’s cousin and his son-in-law, to be the first caliph but, instead, Abu-Bakr was chosen. The Shia curse Omar because they wanted to give all the credit to Ali. Eid-e-Omar is only a custom amongst Shia Muslims. The Sunnis respect Omar for what he has done for Islam.”

My funny layer says, Eid-e-Omar isn’t a real Eid because it never is a school holiday. My wicked layer says, and I say to father, “I don’t like this Eid.” Father says, “why?” I say, “I don’t like burning anybody. Why should grandma be happy if somebody is on fire? Grandma is daft.”

Father grips my hand a little bit tighter and says, “janam, this happened many years ago. It is not very important. Let’s do it for grandma.” I say “I don’t want to kiss her hand. In every eid, we have to kiss somebody’s hand. I am not going to kiss her hand.” Father laughs.

We are all sitting on the floor. I sit really close to grandma. I almost push myself into her fat belly. I want to protect myself. There are not many children; only a few. I’ve never felt very close to my grandmother. I hate her and I love her. I know why I love her, because mother says, “One has to like close relatives”. She says you didn’t choose them but they’re in your blood somehow. And even if relatives might hate one another, even if they tear each other apart in flesh, they will gather the bones to put them back together. And she says it’s bad if you criticise your close relatives. It is like spitting towards the sky -- your spit will drop back onto your face. One day when I was in the bathroom, I spat up wards, it didn’t go to the sky. It dripped down towards my chin. I tried harder. It didn’t. I never said anything to mother. I thought she might feel embarrassed because she hasn’t tried it herself and she doesn’t know. I know why I hate grandma because she doesn’t let anybody get close to her. She never cuddles and kisses us like other grandmothers do. There are lots of things I don’t like about grandma but I don’t know which one I hate most.

This was the fourth time that she agreed I can go to her Koran lessons. I feel more relaxed, and I am almost half way through the book now. The Mullah woman, Khanoum [Mrs] Emami, is wearing a white chador [long head cover]. A flimsy cotton with small red flowers. It is right in the middle of her head. Her hair is grey more above the ears, tangled up, and it seems it hasn’t seen the brush for days. She keeps the chador open in front of her bosoms -- huge drooping tits, like two onion sacks. She is not wearing a bra. If she were, she have to fold her breasts three times in order to get them into the bra. Her breasts are resting comfortably upon her bulging tummy. She is holding the two sides of the chador under her elbows, leaving the arms free to move around while talking. She is standing facing the women. She is short, round and cuddly like grandma -- two little Russian dolls.

She reads from the Koran, “O wives of the prophet, you are not like ordinary women.” My wicked layer asks why they are not like ordinary wives? And it argues, how did all these women lived together sharing one husband? My calm layer says this is what happened to grandma. She didn’t stay with grandfather when he went after another woman. A woman much younger than her. She walked out of the situation because it was hurting her. She didn’t share her husband with another woman. My wisdom layer asks, is she a strong woman? Is she weak, because she ran away? I don’t know, but deep down I admire her reaction, her decision, her courage.

Perhaps this is why grandma is always crying after her prayer. She cries and cries -- three times a day, until her sajadeh [special rug for daily prayer] gets wet.

Sara, my sister says, “grandma, why do you cry so much?” Grandma stares at her. When she married grandfather, he was so proud of her outstanding beauty. Her lovely big eyes, colour of honey. Her light brown hair was so long and full that someone had to brush it for her and plait it, forty long plaits. Her moonlight complexion, her full mouth, her small nose. Now she has only one long thin plait, but she still is beautiful.

I say, “can I ask her a question?” Grandma seems pleased. She says “not now. In the end.” Khanoum Emami is bringing the session to an end: the prophet’s daughter is an excellent example of a Muslim woman. “Salute to Hazrat-e-Fatimeh.” Everybody shouts after her, “salute to Fatemeh.”

Grandma says, “my granddaughter has got a question, may she ... ?” Khanoum Emami, her face brightened up with a broad smile, turns towards me and says “there is nothing more I like than answering questions for our little guests, to a brave little young mind. What a pleasure! I can see how keen she is. Of course she may. What do you want to ask my girl?”

Grandma looks around, full of joy, seems to be sitting a bit taller. she says, “speak up.” I say, in my small voice, ‘why did prophet Mohammad have so many wives? And the last one, Aiesheh, was only seven years old. Why did he marry a child?” My funny layer in my del [heart] says “this was a very intelligent question. Khanoum Emami might ask everybody to clap for me.” Instead, the expression in Khanoum Emami’s face changes. Her eyebrows draw closer in the middle. Her face turns gloomy and bitter.

The corners of her mouth drop. She pushes her curly hair under her chador and says, “send a salute to Mohammad.” Women, in broken voices say, “salute to Mohammad.” She says, one more time, a bit louder, “salute to Mohammad.” The women, more together this time, shout “salute to Mohammad.”

The crowd of women disperse and circle around to socialise. Grandma seems uncomfortable. I feel she wants to get away as soon as possible. Nobody explains to me what was wrong with my question.

She walks towards Khanoum Emami, holding her head to one side apologetically, trying to hold Khanoum Emami’s both hands in hers respectfully. She says, “I beg for prayer.” Khanoum Emami says “we are all in need of prayer.” Her eyes run towards me. She stares, like fishes do -- they don’t blink, but you are not sure they see. She doesn’t look kind. She doesn’t look anything. My wicked layer says in my del that she is not much taller than me. Kutooleh Khanoum [shorty woman] says, in a gentle voice, “don’t bring your grandchild next time. This is not a place for small children.”

Grandma says “you will forgive me, won’t you! I didn’t know she was going to be impertinent. I beg for prayer.”

Grandma rushes out. I run to catch up with her. She keeps the distance. She is walking two or three steps in front of me. I have never seen her walk so fast before. We reach our door. While waiting for someone to open the door, I say “Khanoum Emami doesn’t want me to go to the Koran lessons any more?” Grandma stares at me for a while and says “you couldn’t hold your big mouth shut. You are normally very shy and quiet. How could you speak in front of a crowd asking stupid questions about Hazrat-e-Mohammad? May you vanish from the face of earth. May your teachers be dead and go to hell.” She always swears at my teachers when she is cross with me

I say “your teacher doesn’t know so much about the Koran, your khanoumdarssi.” this is what grandma calls her, khanoum darssi, Mrs Teacher. I say, “she calls herself a teacher but she can’t answer questions.”

I am disappointed that I can’t go to the Koran lessons. I am curious. I like the stories in the Koran. The story of Yusof, and his evil brothers. They take him to the woods and let him go astray. Yusof’s father loves him so much. He is very depressed that he thinks he will never see his beloved son again. He cries and cries until he goes blind. Yusof ends up in an Egyptian castle. The master’s wife, Zoliekha, fancies him. He is so beautiful. Zoliekha falls in love with him. She is trying to seduce him. He runs away. This is a sin, he says. She runs after him. She grabs his shirt from behind -- it rips off. The master walks in. His wife says Yusof wanted to rape her. Yusof pleads to the master that the woman was after him.

The master doesn’t know who is telling the truth. He needs advice on this matter. A wise man says that if his shirt is torn in the front, then it was his fault; if it is torn from behind, it must have been the woman’s fault, and she is lying. His shirt is ripped apart from behind. He is innocent. Yusof is so good and forgiving. He forgives his horrible brothers. He sends his shirt with a message to his father. The shirt carries the smell of Yusof. His father does what the message says. He puts Yusof’s shirt on his face and the eyesight comes back.

Father knows about the Koran lessons. I feel sad that there are only a few good stories in the Koran and some aren’t exactly believable, like the story of Solomon: he can speak and have a conversation with birds.  And in Sureh Al-Ghasas [The Story], the Pharaoh of Egypt asks his Prime Minister, Haman, to make him bricks of clay and build him a very tall tower so that he can climb up to the sky to see if the God of Moses exists there or not. Then he says “but I am convinced that Moses is a liar.”

In Sureh Maryam, it shows baby Jesus, in his cradle, speaking to grownups like a grownup. And in the story of Ayoub, God is in dispute with Satan about Ayoub, a rich man and a devout worshiper... God wants to test him. He takes his wealth away -- Ayoub doesn’t complain. God takes his health, he comes out in blisters, but he doesn’t complain. He is so patient and so grateful. He lives for a thousand years. His body is covered with fleas. He is a kind man.  He thinks if he bathes he might harm the fleas. He never washes himself. I found this very funny. I tell everyone this story.

Father says “On Friday, I will go to a Koran lesson. I’ll put your questions to the mullah and see what he says.”

At lunch, the television is switched on. Mother calls out for grandma to come down. Grandma holds one side of her chador out, shielding her face in order not to see the television. She says it is related to Satan. She can’t pronounce television, or she doesn’t want to try it -- she makes up the word televesvesoun. She says “God didn’t send us televesvesoun. If he wanted us to watch televesvesoun, he would have said it in the Koran.” It is very hard for her to eat with one hand because the other hand is covering her face from the TV.

After lunch, she always sits with father for a cup of tea and a little chat. She says “it is has been few months since Sophie became nine years old, but she still hasn’t learnt how to do her Namaz [daily prayer -- five times a day]. You’ve got to teach her. Her older sister, Sara, doesn’t take it seriously either. It’s your fault. It’s a woman’s religious duty from the age of nine.” My angry layer says “I am not a woman. I am a woman when it comes to Namaz, but I am a child when I ask good questions?”

Father says “you can take the responsibility. Practise it with her, won’t you? You’ve got more time than anybody else.” Sara says “it’s hard getting up at dawn, splashing cold water onto your face, then going back to sleep. It’s like speaking in your sleep.” Grandma says “a tongue one metre long -- where do they get it from? Their teachers. May your teachers vanish from the earth.”

Sara and I are like twins. We look like each other. We like wearing the same clothes. Mother doesn’t like it. She gets us different clothes. We insist on having everything the same. We share a room. We are always together. The only difference is like grandma says: my tongue is much longer than hers. Although she is one year older, she always follows what I do or say. Some people call us twins. Even father calls us that sometimes.

Grandma loves the idea of acting as a teacher to me. Every day after school, I go to Grandma’s room, which is exactly opposite our room, to practise Namaz. Grandma’s room is very simple. A bed and a wardrobe which is always locked. A bedside chest of drawers, which is always locked. Only on Eid-e-Omar, when she wants to give us noghl [white sweets], she unlocks the wardrobe. There is nothing under the bed, nor anything on display in the room. It is a very dull, bare room. Her Koran and few other religious books are on the windowsill.

I say, “can you show me this sureh [chapter] in the Koran? The sureh we are using in the Namaz?” She opens her Koran -- it is the opening of the book, the first sureh. SurehAl-Fatiheh, short sentences, and it reads “In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful. Praise be to Allah, lord of universe. The owner of the day of  Judgement. You alone we worship, and to you alone we turn for help. Guide us to the straight path. The path of those whom you have favoured, not the path who have earned your anger, nor of those who have gone astray.” The pages of her Koran are yellow on the edges, and they are dented, as if they are chewed away by a mouse.

Grandma reads her Koran every day, and she finishes the whole book, cover to cover twice a year. If you ask her the meaning, she has no idea what the words mean. I have tried and asked her. She only stared at me. She has never read the translation. I leave the book open on the Sureh-e-Namaz. I am excited to practise what I can demonstrate with no mistakes.

Grandma says “didn’t I tell you never leave the holy book open? Satan will read it.” I say, with joy, “but someone has to teach him how, and why does he want to learn something which is all about praising Allah?” Grandma says “don’t be so fozoul [cheeky, nosey].”

I have learned my Namaz so quickly. I know it by heart.  Grandma says “first you’d have to read it out loud in front of me, for me to correct your pronunciation.”

Father asks “how is your Namaz going, jaman?” I say “I know them all. I don’t know what they mean. But I can say all these Arabic words like a parrot. I bend up and down, stick my bottom in the air and press my forehead against the mohr [piece of clay], bowing to God.” Sara says “and we speak in a foreign language. Why doesn’t God understand if we do our Namaz in Farsi?  I don’t feel anything when I speak to him in Arabic.”

I say “this is the only language he knows, but the mohr smells and tastes lovely.” Sara laughs loudly and turns to father “Sophie licks the mohr after her Namaz. That’s her dessert.” I say “my mohr is getting smaller and thinner.” We both laugh.

Grandma is sitting in an angle not facing the TV, holding her chador not to look at it. She is grinding her teeth. Her lips are getting thinner. She says “if they weren’t allowed to watch this televesvesoun, they wouldn’t speak like this. This is what they learn from the Satan.”

On the way home from school, I choose a pebble on the street -- push it by foot to bring it forward. If it goes off the route, I’ll bring it back on the path by foot. I am not allowed to touch it by hand. This is the rule I have made for myself. I don’t kick it. It is as if the pebble walks with me. I always bring a pebble home when I feel sad. It takes longer to get home -- especially If the pebble keeps going off the path. It gives me more time to think about things, or put things out of my mind. When I reach home, I put the pebble next to the pile I have got on the side of the door.

I was told off in the literature class. The title of the composition was “Spring”. I compared spring to heaven. I described spring where nature is coming back to life -- trees and flowers look beautiful. Birds start singing wonderful songs. In the Koran, it says that heaven is like spring with streams of wine, virgins, Huri and Pari [angels], and  Ghelman [young beautiful boys] serving wine, good food. Everybody loves one another, there is no violence, and everyone is happy for ever and ever.

Father puts the newspaper down and says, “unfortunate people! Hundreds have died again in Kermanshah [northwest of Iran].” Mother says bitterly “they have got mud houses and with the earthquake so strong, what do you expect?”

I say “God wanted to punish them.” Mother laughs wryly, and says “punish them! Punish them for what?” I say “I don’t know for what. I read it in the Koran.” Grandma stares without blinking for a long time, and says ‘”where in the Koran? Is that something you have learnt today? I‘ve never seen anything about Kermanshah in the book. I hope all your teachers go to hell. Swear to the chest of Mohammad, they all will.’

I say “I can show it to you. I read something like this in the Koran.” Father likes it when I argue against grandma but he never takes side. I jump up and run like a lunatic into my room and fetch the Koran. I say “look, it is here. Sureh Al-A’raf, Ayeh 78: ‘We sent earthquake upon them and when morning came, they were lifeless in their dwellings. Sureh Yunes, Ayeh 10:14: ‘We destroyed generations before your time on account of the wrongs they did.’ And then again in Sureh Abraham, Ayeh 14:11, it says: ‘We shall destroy the wrongdoers.’ And in Ayeh 14:19, it says: ‘He can remove you if he wills -- that is no difficult thing for God.’”

Sara says ‘so Kermanshahies are bad, bad people. All the bad people in one city had to be punished.’ My funny layer in my del says, “father must be pleased because he can see that my knowledge is based on the Koran. He can’t say “Janam, don’t talk in the air’.” But he doesn’t say a thing, and Grandma doesn’t swear at our teachers either.

Mother says “instead of being picky, you must always try to learn to look at the good side of things and in people. Everyone has a good side.” I say “why does everyone gets angry when I refer to the Koran -- if all the things in the Koran are good, and they have come from God, why not say it -- why not, here and in my literature class, why did my teacher…”, and I can’t finish the sentence. I burst into tears.

Father says “Janam, people are sensitive towards their religion. They don’t know how to react, they don’t know what to say. You’ve got to be careful.” I say “but I wasn’t criticising Mohammad in my composition. I was describing heaven, as it is described in the Koran.”

Sara is standing barefoot in the middle of the kitchen. She says “but you are talking about wine and love,” and she giggles. I say “yes, you get all these things in heaven.” Sara says “like drinking wine!” I say, “you can do all these here too, in this life -- you don’t have to wait until you go to heaven.”

Sara says “oh yeah, where do you get Huri and Pari from?” I say “I am saying if wine is bad for us here, why should it be given by Huri and Pari in heaven?” Sara and I both are watching father’s mouth, and we look at one another. Father seems a bit restless and says “I don’t know the answer to these, Janam.”

Father has gone to the Friday lesson. I am excited. My wisdom layer says “he will come back with some answers - good answers.” I am sure that not everyone is like Khanoum Emami.

When I hear his walking on the gravel in the pathway, I run into the kitchen to meet him there. He always goes straight into the kitchen. Sara runs after me. He says “Agha [Mr] Kazemi said that it is not a good idea to ask questions like these. I said to him ‘these are what my daughter asks me, and I don’t know what to say.’ He said that ‘being a Muslim means you are a slave -- slaves don’t ask questions -- they do what they are told. They are Taslim [subservient]. The word Islam even sounds like taslim [surrender].’” Silence falls.

Dusk is setting in. I love the silence of the summer evening. The heat of the sun is cooling down, pleasantly cool. It takes a long time for the evening to get dark. It is exactly during this time that the frogs start singing. The length of their singing, their increase beats and the responses are without interruption. They talk to each other. Perhaps they tell stories.

Dusk turning into night, singing frogs and shooting stars, they say you have to make a wish when you see a star passing -- if you don’t make your wish during this short period of time, your wish never comes true. I never get enough time to make my wish. The star is so fast. A flash in the sky then nothing. They say, this is when a star is going to die.

This time I know my wish -- I have got it ready. I wish no little girl has to marry someone she doesn’t want to. There are all these sad stories around me. Painful stories. Grandma, the other grandma, mother’s aunt, the other aunts, cousins and more cousins -- all these women were forced into marriages they didn’t want to. They got married when they were nine, ten or at the most thirteen. My age, Sara’s age. I shiver with fear, I feel disgust and hatred.

I can’t imagine touching, cuddling and kissing with a man like my uncle, or an old great uncle, but a lot of girls do. All of a sudden a child becomes a woman, Mrs Somebody. Aunt Zari told us when she got married, she was eleven years old. She was playing and skipping in the yard with other children. They dragged her into the house to show her to a suitor and his family. She said “I didn’t understand weddings. It was like playing with dolls. All the attentions, shopping, new things and all that. I hadn’t had my period yet. When he came to me for the first time, touching my thighs, groping more and more towards my genitals, I hated it, but I couldn’t stop him. He was my husband, a big man. I couldn’t even push him away. Every night I was frightened to death hiding in the corner of the room. I had nobody to go to. He would come and lift me up taking me to his bed. I was a child. I hated his bushy beard when it was rubbing against my face. I hated his old wrinkled neck and his discoloured teeth.” Aunt Zari said “my breasts were like two little buds, not fully blown yet. I didn’t want them to be touched. It was painful. It was horrible. I wanted to go and play with children, not have sex with an old man.”

I said to Sara why do they do this to girls. She said “it’s in Islam. A nine-year old girl is a woman.” Since I read the pages in Sureh Al-Nesa [Women] that men are superior to women, [Ayeh 4:3], “punish them if they are disobedient, especially in bed, and women are called feeble minded” [Ayeh 4:5], and men are allowed to beat women, [Ayeh 4:34].

I don’t read the Koran any more. And I don’t do my Namaz any more. When grandma calls out at dawn, I pretend that I don’t hear her. I curl up more under the cover. Sara does the same, and father says “leave them. They can do it later.” But he doesn’t make us do it later. My wicked layer says “does he think the same way?” I have decided that I don’t want to see grandma in her pink outfit on Eid-e-Omar. And I will never curse Omar in my entire life.

My calm layer says “in a lot of ways, there is an admiration for a beautiful young woman, in arts -- paintings, poems, songs, music and photography, but hardly any for an old woman. I am an old woman. I am a child. I am 79 years old. I am 9. I am young and beautiful, I am old and wrinkled. I am innocent, naive, experienced,  curious and wise. I am a silly old woman and a silly child.” My funny layer says “I am in my grandma, and my grandma is in me.”

To Ladan Lajevardi
letters section



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Stories From Iran
A Chicago Anthology 1921-1991
edited by Heshmat Moayyad

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