|Khaanomjaan had a secret
Love was not even invented when she was young. So we thought.
By Mehrnaz Mahallati
March 6, 2002
Khaanomjaan was old, very old. Her frail little body must have weighed no more than
100 pounds. Her face revealed all the ups and downs of a hard life. Even her wrinkles
had folds in them. Yet all those wrinkles could not hide the beauty she once bore.
Her face was delicate and her high cheekbones still reminded the viewer of their
hey day at one time.
The henna colored red hair was covered with her ever so faithful roosari that was
now permanently part of her head. Actually come to think of it I do not recall anytime
that I had seen her without it. The few times I saw her adjusting it, it showed the
torn earlobes. When asked why, she would respond with a coquettish smile that they
were the result of the heavy earrings she wore when she was young. How anyone would
see them under that roosari was a mystery.
Her hands shook vigorously and her movements were slow. When she handed you a glass
of tea, half of if would end up in the saucer.
According to the date recorded on the back of the Qoran
by her father, she was 86-years old that summer. But she was independent as heck.
She still did her own shopping from the butcher shop to the fresh herbs stand where
they were hand picked by her own frail and shaky hands. These few chores along with
the daily prayers took most of her day.
Unlike the old days when she was known to be a "ferfereh" when it came
to accomplishing her chores, raising kids, watching grand kids and still having enough
time to hobnob with the neighborhood ladies and visit half of town in one single
round. She had been a widow from a very young age of 25 and had raised her kids on
her own. Word has it she had other suitors, but refused them along with any help
offered to her. Maybe that contributed to her strong personality.
She was very "mo'men" and as superstitious as they come. "Don't stand
in the door way, it's bad luck", "Do not snip scissors, you'll start a
fight", and so on. Oh and let us not forget Tuesdays. She did not give or receive
any gifts on Tuesdays. You know, her first-born had died on a Tuesday after she received
a gift from a relative. Her husband had a stroke on a Tuesday and a year later died
on a Tuesday once again after someone brought a gift for her. So, to her it was a
bad omen to give or receive on Tuesdays.
She was very kind, yet all who knew her knew better not to let that petite figure
fool them. She was a strong woman. All over the neighborhood, one and all obeyed
her. Being the oldest of five, she held a certain hierarchy among the sisters and
brothers and their offspring. Everyone, young and old, stopped by her house almost
everyday for a quick visit, to pay respect, drink a glass of tea, have a handful
of nuts, or make small talk.
Even though she made everyone do something for her in the house, most seemed not
to mind. Upon entering the house she would tell you to do something. "Ay dokhtar,
pir shi. Daari miyaay sar-e raat oon ghand-shekan o az tu pastu begir dastet biaar."
Or, "Ay pesar, ghorbun-e dastet, in aashghaalaa ro bebar beriz birun."
Not that she needed the help, but she used to believe doing nothing would bring bad
luck. She hated to see anyone just sitting around. Mind you, as kids we ignored her
as much as we could get away with. I mostly saw her in the summer time though. We
left Tehran for a month or two during summer every year. My cousins and I could not
wait to go to her small town. It seemed everyone knew each other and that made it
Khaanomjaan was the older sister of both my grandmothers
and my cousin, Pari's grandma. So, her house being the crossroads of all, we used
to hang around feasting on chilled watermelon and grapes, preying on adults to come
by so we can extort any amount of money we could. Like hyenas we circled the property
waiting for heavens to smile upon us, so we can get enough money for our daily fix
of junk food, "ghareh ghorut", cheap toys and movies. You name it.
The kinswoman's house was our Mecca. It was built more than a century and a half
ago. It had all the features of an old traditional house. From the old heavy engraved
door, adorned with a light round knocker and a heavy long iron knocker (which had
contributed to smashing every kid's finger at one time or another), to the dark damp
entrance paved with ancient loose bricks and the storage side rooms filled with all
sorts of junk.
The underground water reservoir had not seen water for years, but the damp smell
lingered. One could hear all the jins laughing and calling on the kids. The old "kaah-geli"
walls Jasmine climbing on it, smelled so sweet when wet. So did the roses, and the
pomegranate and lemon trees in the yard. An old fashioned haft-dari connected to
each other by round-top doorways and only separated by heavy curtains.
The last few rooms were off limit though. The very last one was the guest room, but
Khaanomjaan had not entertained in it for years. Time to time we snuck in through
the tall French looking windows that opened to the courtyard; where it felt like
you were transformed to the Qajar time through a time machine. The rugs and the decorations
on the mantel smelled so old and funny, yet familiar. I was sure there were sprites
of our ancestors residing there.
But Khaanomjaan's modern kids and grand kids had updated the house. There was an
electric doorbell that made a mockery of those knockers. The new plumbing just didn't
do justice to the true beauty of the house and the old broken water pump with the
covered well in front of it. Not too mention the new and modern two story building
on the other side of the large courtyard. It replaced another old building that once
stood there. But now the oldest son and his third wife and kids resided there. That
made the whole house look lopsided.
I did not like the other side of the yard. It looked intruding and rude to the old
half. They say they had talked to Khaanomjaan many times to knock the old house down
and build her a modern one with all the conveniences of modern living like an indoor
bathroom (or one adjacent to the house at least) instead of the old outhouse, but
she had always refused. She was happy in her little "pastu" connected to
her living room separated by a curtain from the bedroom. The old narrow living room
double doors were always open. She did not even mind the walk to the smelly old bathroom
in the corner of the yard in the cold and snow.
Well, that was the last summer I spent there before leaving for America. I was not
a child anymore, and our games and interests had changed. I was almost 14, and my
cousins were only a year or two apart. We still left Tehran to visit the old town
in the summer but under protest. It was now an obligation. The town did not have
the old charm and a whole month was too long of a stay.
So we bitched and complained upon arrival until we were sent back. Our visits had
been reduced to couple of weeks per summer for the last couple of years since there
was much more to do in Tehran. We still hung around the old house for a few hours
a day, but catching spiders and chasing newborn kittens in the "zir-zamin"
was not cool anymore. We talked about Western TV series and the latest blue jeans.
One day as we sipped on Pepsi Cola and orange Canada Dry, we began discussing Zohreh's
latest crush. Zohreh was not there. She was just a friend from school, but we all
knew her. My cousins Pari and Leila knew her through me, and somehow they had struck
a good friendship. We were discussing the brown-eyed boy who waited for Zohreh after
school. Khaanomjaan was slowly setting her tea glasses by her samovar.
All of a sudden Leila winked at us and turned to Khaanomjaan. "Khaanomjaan,
were YOU ever in love?" We did not expect an answer. We were expected
a comment like, "Dokhtar hayaa kon." (Be a decent girl) Love was not even
invented when she was young. They only wrote about it in books. Her marriage was
arranged and that was that.
Khaanomjaan exhaled a deep sigh and replied in a low voice, "Yes, I was. I loved
"You mean you knew Aghaa Bozorg before you married him?", Leila asked,
squinting a bit.
Khaanomjaan paused for a second and with a smirk that revealed the depth of her wrinkles
even more replied: "No, no I never saw Aghaa until I was married to him."
As she continued to pour the water in the Samovar, Khaanomjaan added: "I loved
him so much. I was around your age too, about 13-14."
Pari's jaw almost dropped. She was trying to figure out what her grandmother had
just said. This did not calculate. Our young teen-age mind was not ready for this.
She was from another century for god's sake. We had no idea what to think of this.
We were familiar with all the traditions and rules of the old world, but nowhere
in the imaginary handbook of traditions was there any mention of love. It seemed
like she had been waiting for years to talk to someone about this.
Without raising her head Khaanomjaan went on, "He was the apprentice at the
fabric store in the bazaar. I met him when I was almost 14. The day we went to buy
fabric for my cousin's wedding. Dokhtar Aghaa and Shah Baji and I insisted on going.
It was not appropriate for young girls to go to the bazaar. But we insisted. My father
had told the fabric merchants in advance that the women are coming, so they had everything
"But Khaanomjaan, how did you meet a boy? I thought it was sinful to talk to
male strangers," Leila said.
"I saw Ghiabi there for the first time..." She went on after a few second
of silence: "He had the most beautiful eyes. Afterward he was sent to bring
the rolls of fabric to the house. I knew he would be the one to bring them. I was
the one who opened the door."
Khaanomjaan smiled and a naughty gleam appeared in her eyes: "I did not cover
my hair on purpose. I remember he tried not to look at me, but he finally did. After
that he made all kinds of excuses to deliver things to our house. I recall my chador
used to get loose and slide off my head when he was around. I think my mother realized
it was not appropriate for a young bachelor to come around to a household with three
young girls in it. So, after a while someone else delivered things. But by that time
I knew he liked me. The first time I got a letter from Ghiabi, I did not open it
for three days. I was so scared. You know that was a big sin. Receiving a letter
from a 'naa-mahram'. He had hid it under a rock right by the 'sakku' in front of
the house. His young sister delivered me the message in the public bath. After a
while Dokhtar Aghaa found out and kept warning me of the danger of pursing a forbidden
Apparently, Khaanomjaan and Ghiabi went on exchanging letters for nearly a year.
She even managed to briefly meet him a few times (with some help of course!). They
held hands and he kissed her hand and promised to send his mother for khaastegaari.
His younger sister would be the messenger, and her younger sister (my grandma) to
cover up for her, all the while warning her of potential danger.
For a whole year in the bathhouse, mosque, funerals,
or any gathering possible, she would meet with Ghaibi's younger sister. The sister
would tell her the most beautiful words he had said about her. They managed to secretly
meet three times in the dark and winding alleys of the old town. Once they held hands,
he kissed them and told her he was sending his mother to ask for marriage. It was
then that reality hit. Khaanomjaan said she knew it would never happen. Ghaibi was
only an apprentice and his father did not own much money, compared to Khaanomjaan's
prominent father. The women in her family could read and write. This was not a privilege
many families had those days.
Ghiabi's mother did come to the house. But she was sent away with embarrassment and
his family's numerous attempts to bring the young ones together never got anywhere.
Sadly, when Khaanomjaan's family realized the seriousness of the matter, they decided
that the best way to preserve the family's good reputation was to choose an honorable
and prominent husband among the existing suitors and marry Khaanomjaan off as soon
as possible. She even got a good beating when she first refused. It was considered
not her place to voice an opinion. Khaanomjaan would sit on the basement stairs,
crying. Her sister tried to soothe her and remind her of all the times she had warned
her. She said it was for Khaanomjaan's own good and Ghiabi would soon be forgotten.
Well, she was wrong!
Two months later Khaanomjaan was married off and shipped to Khansar to live with
her new husband in her mother-in-law's house. It was bad enough to lose the love
of your life and married off to someone twice your age, but to live with in-laws
too? Somehow it was becoming more and more clear why the wrinkles were so deep.
We had heard bits and pieces in the past that Khaanomjaan became a widow with three
kids when her husband had a stroke. He was very nice and loved her dearly, but the
mother-in-law left a lot to be desired and made life miserable. One year after his
death Khaanomjaan had packed, taken the kids and moved back to live in her old house
I can not tell what made her pour her heart out. Perhaps it weighed too heavily on
her chest. Or maybe she figured she is old now and no one would care.
Leila asked cautiously, "Do you still love him?"
-- "Oh, he's dead now. He died eight years ago on such and such day in the month
of (some Arabic month). I recited a prayer for him too."
Wow! She even remembered the exact day he died.
-- "What if he was still alive? Would you have still loved him?" I asked.
-- "Of curse I would," Khaanomjaan replied. "He was the nicest man.
He married his cousin, you know, and she was a lucky girl... ba'zihaa bakhteshoon
bolandeh, vali har chi ghesmat-e aadam baashe." (Some have good luck. But anyhow,
we have to accept our fate.)
All these years, Khaanomjaan went on believing that it was God's will for her not
to be with Ghiabi. I guess it was in a way. Or if not it was a good thing that she
believed so, otherwise she might have gone mad. Who knows?
She went on a bit more about how Ghiabi stood by the road crying as they were taking
her away in a carriage on her wedding day. She had peeked and seen him. It made her
cry all the way to her new home.
Khaanomjaan got up to start her daily praying ritual. The afternoon had gone by in
a blink of an eye it seemed. The air felt heavy and if I recall correctly, somehow
we dropped the subject about Zohreh and did not discuss it anymore.
That was the last summer I saw Khaanomjaan. I did not even think of her much thereafter.
Ten years later, my mother called from Iran to let me know she had postponed her
trip to the U.S. by a month in order to attend the funeral.
-- "What funeral?" I asked.
-- "Khaanomjaan's. Didn't Mehran tell you? Khaanomjaan died the night before
My mind started wondering.
-- "... Make sure you water my plants and... Hello? Are you there?"
-- "Yeah ,yeah, I'm here. Khaanomjaan died night before last? That was a Tuesday
night. Did she receive a gift?" I asked.
- "No, no gifts this time. She was just old..."
That simple. She was born one day and died 96 years later, most of it in love with
someone she had only held hands with. The only fruit from that love was a kiss on
the hand, a few secret gifts and a lifelong memory.
Well, I don't know. Call her Leila without Majnoon, or just a fool in love. Call
her what you will, but to this day I do not know what to think of her love. Was it
only a fantasy or true love? Was his memory worth holding on to for 80 years?
I was talking to my aunt about Khaanomjaan the other
day. Apparently this was a family matter no one discussed, maybe out of respect for
her or out of fear of disrespecting the family's honor -- you know, the kind of secret
everyone knows but pretends they don't.
I just imagined Khaanomjaan during her last hours. Did she think of her life or her
children? What did she think about? Whatever it was I have a strong feeling Ghiabi
was somewhere in the corner of her mind. Maybe he was standing there smiling at her
offering her hand. Perhaps this time he did not have to be scared of anyone gossiping
and she did not have to be so terrified. Maybe she's enjoying the afterlife beside
her true love. Maybe, Just maybe.