Why would I repent?
October 30, 2001
Excerpt from The
Bathhouse, a new novel by Farnoosh Moshiri (2001, Black Heron Press).
Like the young male protagonist of Moshiri's first novel, At
the Wall of the Almighty, the high-school graduate remains nameless
as she tells of her time in an old bathhouse used as a prison. Moshiri grew
up in a literary family in Tehran. She worked as a playwright and fiction
writer in Iran, before fleeing the country in 1983 after her play was banned
and its director and cast arrested. Winner of the Barthelme Memorial Fellowship
at the University of Houston, she now teaches creative writing and literature.
Nothing was unbearable after the stoning. Nothing was painful or scary.
How simple and easy was our life in the Bathhouse. How calm was everyone.
How well we slept, well we ate. Roya was missing for a whole day, then she
returned to our cell with black and blue body. Her bald head was bandaged
and she was sedated, absolutely absent. The guerilla fighters went for interrogation
and came back, one by one -- bruised, or bandaged, but none of them moaned
or cried. That first meeting was their last meeting, though, a Raven resided
in our cell, permanently.
I was hoping that Roya wouldn't come back and when she did I became worried.
I didn't want her close to myself. She would hang on me, stick to my skin
like a leach. I didn't want her to sleep next to me, resting her head on
my shoulder. I didn't want the Raven to see us together. When she came I
tried to keep my distance, but Roya followed me around the room, quietly,
ghost-like. Wherever I sat, she sat next to me, making herself into a ball
close to my belly. I sat up every night in case the Raven woke up and checked
on us. I didn't have my peace anymore, that letting go, that quiet time
with myself. Roya became my torment. Sleeping for a short time in the afternoon,
I dreamed about us, Roya and I, rolling naked in the pool of dirt and blood,
the guards and inmates stoning us. I woke up with horror not being able
to sleep anymore.
So when after a few days they took us to the barn again, I felt relieved.
Jamali, Soghra, and the man with military suit -- Brother Hosseini -- came
and blindfolded us. Maybe that was when I should've called Jamali's attention
to myself, reminding him who I was. Maybe I should've said, "Brother
Jamali, remember me? I'm that little brat with those stupid journals. I'm
not an armed guerilla or anything like that. Why should I be punished with
them?" But I didn't say a word. My tongue felt heavy, as a wet brick
and my voice didn't come out. The cell was crowded and with our identical
black uniforms we all looked alike. I was one of the guerilla fighters now
and they took us in Brother Hosseini's van.
Jamali said, "I'll let you all rot in the boxes," And I didn't
understand what he meant. What boxes? Where? But when they pulled us out
of the van and shoved us inside these cardboard cartons, I realized what
he meant. They made us each sit in a box, which had barely enough space
for one person; the front was open. We sat all day with our blindfolds on
and at first it wasn't that bad -- only sitting in the dark, that's all.
But at night they opened the blindfolds and let us eat. I tried to find
something to look at, but there was nothing, except a dry lot in front of
us. The sky was cloudy, no stars or moon were visible.
I wasn't sure if this was the same location where I stood once until
morning. The first time I'd heard toads and toads were always where trees
were. But now I just saw an empty lot with no walls around. Of course I
couldn't bend forward to see my right and left, maybe I'd be able to see
trees around. If this was part of the Bathhouse, I didn't know. The van
had driven us a short time, as if taking us from one part of a camp to another.
The first trip had been short, too.
At night, my body began to ache. Not only my legs were sleep and millions
of sharp needles pierced them, but my back, neck, shoulders, and head hurt.
I wanted to stretch my legs, but I couldn't. They'd told us if we moved
they'd shoot us. The worst thing was not being able to see each other. I
knew that our boxes were all in one row, seventeen boxes. Fifteen guerilla
fighters, Roya, and I.
Once I heard a male guard shouting at someone, cursing her and insulting:
"If you move your fucking legs one more time, I'll shoot you! Sit straight."
"I need to use the bathroom," the girl said.
"Use it!" A woman said. "This is your home, go to toilet!"
the guards laughed.
"I'm serious, I need to --"
"I'm serious too. Shut up!"
It was quiet for a long time, then I heard someone weeping. I wasn't
sure if it was the woman who wanted to use the bathroom or someone else.
I hadn't used the bathroom, either. No one had. They took us early morning
before the toilet time. I decided not to make this into a big issue. If
I needed to empty myself I would. I didn't want to develop kidney or bladder
disease like I'd heard some women had.
A while later my toad sang in the dark and made me smile. I breathed
deeply and listened to him. Then suddenly the clouds became luminous as
if a torch was flaming underneath them. The clouds moved rapidly and became
thinner in some parts, thicker in others. The thin clouds veiled the iridescent
moon like transparent silk. Oh, it's not bad at all, I thought, only if
I could stretch my legs. Just once and for a few minutes. This sky can amuse
me forever and my toad is singing.
But the thick, dark clouds won and the torch died. Everywhere became
dark. The toad didn't sing anymore and I heard rain drops on the cardboard
roof of my box. It rained and the guards murmured something to each other
and came and went, asking Brother Hosseini what to do next -- keep us in
the rain or not. I knew that the girls were hoping that Hosseini would cancel
the punishment and send us back to our cell. But we sat in the boxes and
it rained on us. The cardboard boxes became wet and soggy and the rain dripped
on us. Water ran under the boxes and in a short while we were all soaking
Now I was biting my lips. The pain in my legs was intolerable. They wouldn't
really shoot me, would they? I tried to stretch my right leg, but I couldn't.
I was paralyzed. I tried more, again I couldn't. Either my limbs were not
working anymore, or I wasn't trying hard enough to move my legs from the
fear of shooting.
The rain stopped just before all the cardboard boxes collapsed on our
heads. Thin clouds showed again and I saw the moon moving behind them. When
the moon became more visible, I saw that it was round, but not quite round.
It was like a chipped porcelain saucer. Now the whole disc came out, luminous
but shadowed. This was the silhouette of a sea, the sea of tranquility.
I remembered Leila saying, "this shadow is a sea ... a sea. ... "
I heard my neighbor sighing; I sighed the way she sighed and this way
we talked to each other. The moon moved right in front of us and now someone
screamed, "I can see it! I can see it!"
"Shut up!" a guard shouted.
"I can see the image of the Great Leader. It's the Holy Leader!"
The guards and repentants all talked at once and I sensed chaos. The
girl kept screaming, "Believe me. It's Him. It's his Holy Image!"
Then I heard Brother Hosseini's voice ordering the guards to take the
girl to his office. She kept swearing and crying. This was Roya. After weeks
of silence she was talking.
For a while after they took Roya to the office, the guards and repentants
looked at the moon and debated. Some said the girl lied to get out of the
box, the image appeared only on the full moon, but a few others said they
saw the image too, the girl didn't lie, she observed it and she must be
blessed and forgiven.
This conversation ended soon because of the problem that I created. I
felt dizzy and weak. I hadn't slept well since the stoning incident and
hadn't eaten a meal for twenty-four hours. So I swayed first, then fell
forward a few times and finally fell on my right side. I knocked my neighbor's
box, she knocked her neighbor's, and all the boxes collapsed like a house
of cards. The guards started to beat us with the butt of their machine guns.
We were in the puddles of rainwater and the blows were coming on our body
from everywhere. Now Brother Hosseini came and stopped them. He ordered
them to make us sit again, with or without the boxes. He said that Jamali's
order was to make us sit for a week and this was only the end of the first
After that I lost track of time. I remember they brought us food. I remember
rejecting the food and just drinking water. I remember peeing in myself.
I remember the foul odor rising from other boxes. I remember sobs, crazy,
delirious murmurs, girls talking to themselves. I remember slaps and kicks,
sudden hysterical outbursts, "Don't beat me! Don't!"
The moon kept growing fuller; no one could watch it anymore.
Shortly they brought us new boxes. These were TV cartons. In the dim
light of the night I recognized pictures of TV sets on them. I don't remember
what exactly happened after the new boxes. The whole thing is foggy and
confused: Eating, drinking, emptying, dozing off while sitting. Sitting.
Collapsing. Being beaten up. Day. Night. Blindfold at daytime, clouds and
moon at night. The moon rounder, bigger, yellower.
I didn't hear Roya's voice anymore. I felt a vague joy thinking that
she had repented and was lying down in a clean, dry cell now. Wishing I
could do the same, I began to consider the possibility. But how could I
pretend? I wasn't a good actor. At school performances I was never picked
for major roles; I was always in the crowd, feeling awkward and self-conscious,
hiding myself behind the other students. How could I scream now, pretending
that I was seeing a picture on the moon? But what if Roya didn't act, what
if she believed that she saw the picture? I didn't believe in anything now.
Absolutely nothing. Even that old, kind, fatherly god, that patient and
generous old man that I had created for myself to ask him silly things,
was long dead. He died the first day in the Bathhouse when I heard the iron
mountain falling. The old man vanished a long time before I stoned my inmates
to save my life.
"The moon is a piece of rock, separated from the earth, rotating
the earth, rotating the earth, rotating the earth --" I whispered to
myself in my dark box. "The silhouette on the moon is a sea, the sea
of tranquility, tranquility, tranquility --" How could I say that it
was the picture of a man? And why would I repent? Who was I to repent? Karl
Marx? Che Gevara? Rosa Luxemburg? So I just sat and sat and sat and sat
and the moon became rounder and rounder...