December 21, 2005
From "Veils", published by City Lights, 2003.
Mina and Simin saw each other almost every day after school even though they lived on opposite sides of the city. They had been friends since elementary school and now they were in the tenth grade. They remained close friends in spite of the difference in their temperaments. Simin was quiet and poetic, Mina outspoken. Although Simin was less intense than Mina in expressing her dissatisfaction with their surroundings, their large visions of things coincided. They agreed they had to fight hard not to become typical wives and mothers, not to marry men selected for them by their families. One way to get out of it was to refuse to marry at all and another way was to convince their parents to send them out of the country to study.
"I want so much to go away," Mina told Simin over and over like a chant.
"Yes, somewhere far away," Simin said.
"Everything is so gray here, even the uniforms we have to wear to school," Mina said, keenly aware of how dusty the streets were, how withered the trees, of idle men sitting in doorways, many of the women wrapped in dark chadors.
They went to foreign movies, read novels, escaping into the worlds created by them.
Their families were very different from each other. Simin's father was a colonel, a rather reclusive man. She had one brother who was quiet and studious. Her mother was a lively woman who hummed to herself when not talking. Her parents, as well as her grandmother and her bachelor uncle, who visited often, doted on her, paying close attention to her daily activities-- how many hours of sleep she got, how much and what she ate at each meal, how much time she spent studying. Sometimes her grandmother would hunch beside her on the floor and comb Simin's long hair as if she were still a child.
Mina's father was a lawyer, her mother a drained-looking woman who spent all her energy running a household of six children. Mina's sisters and brothers, some older than she, some younger, all seemed to suffer from insoluble problems. The oldest sister, for instance, a very pretty, romantic girl, was in love with one of her high-school teachers but about to be married off to the rich son of a merchant. She sighed a lot and hardly talked to anyone. Another one of Mina's sisters, a year younger, refused to go to school. She spent her time knitting or just following her mother around. The two servants who lived in always quarrelled.
"You're lucky to be so close to your family," Mina said to Simin.
"I guess so," Simin said in her mild, affectionate way. "But you have other things. Everyone notices you. Look at the way boys stare at you on the street."
Mina had very smooth olive skin, black hair and black eyes, and a mole on her upper lip. Her figure was round and voluptuous. Simin was thin, pale, with chestnut hair and light, hazel eyes.
"But I don't like any of them," Mina said.
They were temporarily diverted from their usual concerns when Mina learned that Mahmood Ardavani, a distinguished writer-poet, would be visiting Teheran for business purposes and that her father would be advising him on legal matters. In fact Ardavani would stay at their house for one or two nights-- he and Mina's father had a mutual friend from their university years.
The news totally stirred Mina and Simin. They were both avid readers of Ardavani's writing, mainly his prose which appeared regularly in the Teheran Monthly and sometimes in the equally distinguished magazine, Setareh. He was a popular, rather slick writer. Simin and Mina liked his work mostly for its foreign settings and its subject matter -- male-female relationships.
Once one of his novels, serialized in Setareh, abruptly terminated with an editorial note: "Withdrawn by the author for personal reasons." It had been very disappointing to them to stop reading the novel as it was approaching its climax. It also had doubly aroused their curiosity about Ardavani. They wondered why he had withdrawn the story and whether it had been autobiographical. It was about an Iranian girl, studying in the United States who fell in love with an Iranian writer visiting the campus. He ignored her for the attentions of an older American woman.
"I can't believe he's actually going to be staying at our house," Simin said.
"You'll be coming over, of course, and you'll probably see as much of him as I will."
He would be arriving in two weeks. Mina and Simin began to plan. They took out his books from the library and read them. They even had dresses made for the occasion. It was late spring and they chose printed cotton fabric, one with bright butterflies, the other with tiny squares and circles. Simin picked the one with the butterflies. The tailor promised to have them ready within a week.
The day before Mahmood Ardavani was expected they picked up their dresses from the tailor, then they went to the little garden restaurant around the corner from the tailor to have ice cream. They sat in the shade of a huge sycamore tree and each had a dish of ice cream full of hard pieces of vanilla. Several familiar figures came in-- the boy who always wore a yellow shirt and a black tie and hung around outside of their high school; another boy, tall and gaunt with startling gray eyes who also frequently walked up and down in front of their school. These boys had at times followed them, from one winding street to another, becoming invisible at a curve and appearing again. Now they came and sat at tables not far from theirs and began to look at them incitingly. Mina and Simin automatically turned their backs on them and began to whisper about Mahmood Ardavani.
"I don't know what I'm going to say to him," Simin said.
"I can't imagine being face to face with him. He's so handsome too." In his pictures he was middle-aged, with penetrating black eyes, and curly brown hair growing rather wildly around his head. It made Mina think of a young man she had once furtively kissed at a wedding.
Finally they left the restaurant and each went their separate ways. At home Mina noticed that her mother was already preparing for Ardavani's arrival too, getting a room ready for him to sleep in, planning menus for breakfast and dinner. Their house was large, outlandish and noisy, located in the center of Ghanat Abad Avenue. It had many rooms with doors that rattled in the wind and no longer closed completely. In the summer the cement laid on the ground around the house burned like fire and in the winter it became ice cold. Mina's mother complained even more than usual about the house.
"I have a lawyer husband, we deserve better than this." She walked around the house with one of the servants, dusting and rearranging the furniture and said grumpily, "I don't understand why we have to entertain him. He could stay in the hotel."
"It will be interesting to have him here," Mina said.
Mina's father, overhearing the conversation, said, "It's good for Mina to meet such a famous man. He'll be an inspiration to her." Usually stern, he smiled at Mina now. "You're the only daughter I have who cares about reading and learning. I want you to come in when he's here and talk to him."
On the day of his arrival, Mina and Simin walked back together from school to Mina's house, wearing their new dresses instead of the gray uniforms. Right after school they had changed. They each had bought a hard-cover copy of Ardavani's latest book for him to autograph.
"Do you think it's worth it?" Simin asked.
"What are you talking about?"
"It's just that... it makes me so nervous."
The owner of the barber shop underneath Mina's house was standing on the sidewalk in front of his store. He waved at Mina and said, "I gave your father a haircut today."
Mina smiled. She and Simin went through the back door and up the stairs that led to a row of rooms. One was used as a living room, one as an office by Mina's father, and one belonged to Mina.
They crossed the veranda to Mina's room. They had not encountered anyone on the way and the ceiling fans, going in every room, muffled most sounds. They sat there on hard-backed chairs and waited. A soft knock sounded at the door and Mina's father came in. He had on the dark suit he always wore when he went to court, and a polka-dot maroon and white tie. His graying hair was neatly combed and his face looked jovial.
"Don't you two ever get tired of chattering? Yap, yap, yap-- that's all you do." He laughed.
Simin smiled at him politely.
"How would you like to come and meet Mahmood Ardavani? He's waiting to meet you, the two prettiest and smartest girls in the city."
"Now?" Mina asked.
"Now." He walked away. They followed slowly, carrying the books.
Mahmood Ardavani was sitting on the green and gold silk sofa in a corner of the living room, holding a glass of sharbat. Mina's father sat next to him with a glass of sharbat also. The rose scent of the drink filled the air.
The dining room table was set, with plates and glasses upside down so they would not catch the dirt from the street.
Mahmood Ardavani put down his glass and got up as Mina and Simin entered. He was friendly and at ease and looked very much like his photographs. He wore casual clothes -- a blue and white shirt and denim pants. Mina's father made the introductions.
Mina and Simin were silent. The things Mina had prepared to say, such as, "I've always admired your work," or "I'm pleased to be in the presence of such a great writer," escaped her. She glanced toward the window at the dentist who had his office above the bank across the street. The dentist was bending over, working on a man's teeth. "I'm so happy to meet you, after all I've read so much of your work," she said finally to Ardavani.
"Thank you. I'm very flattered," Ardavani said, raising his hand to shake hers.
Then he turned to Simin and shook hand with her. Simin blushed deeply. Mina noticed they held each others' hands for a moment before letting go. He stared into Simin's eyes for a long time, his gaze as penetrating as in his photographs. Mina felt a tremor inside of herself and a transformation just being in his presence; the air around her had a new intensity.
"You two are classmates?" he asked.
"Yes. I've always admired your work," Simin said.
"I am so pleased to know that lovely girls like you are my readers."
Simin raised the book he was holding and said, "I brought this for you to autograph."
He smiled and nodded his head. Then suddenly, as if he had awakened from a dream, he took his eyes off her and turned to Mina.
"I see you have a copy of the same book. Shall I autograph both of them?"
He took the books and, sitting down with them, thought for a moment. "I'll improvise a poem for each of you."
"Oh, wonderful," Mina said, the words just flowing out of her.
He began to write something in one book and then the other. Then he gave the books back to them. "Do me a favor. Don't read them now. Save them for later."
Simin and Mina nodded.
"Sit down. Tell me, what other things do you read?"
The two girls sank onto the silk-covered loveseat.
"We read Hafiz and Saadi for school," Simin said. "And Mina and I read almost everything printed in the Teheran Monthly and Setareh."
"Very good. What are you two girls going to do when you graduate from high school?"
"I don't know," Simin said.
"I don't know either," Mina remarked.
"I hope to send my daughter to the university," Mina's father said.
Mina wanted to bring up the idea of being sent abroad but Ardavani's presence was inhibiting. Anyway, it did not seem to matter that much at the moment.
They talked for a few more minutes and then Mina's father said, "Mr. Ardavani and I have a lot of business that we want to discuss."
He looked at the set table. "In fact I'm sorry to say he won't be able to eat with us here tonight. We'll have to meet someone else, a mutual friend."
Mina and then Simin got up and stood staring at Ardavani.
He smiled at them. "I'm happy to have had the pleasure of meeting you."
"I'm too," Mina said.
"So am I," Simin said.
They turned around and left. Mina's father was laughing at something that Ardavani was saying in low tones.
They began to run toward Mina's room as they reached the veranda. As soon as they got into the room, they opened the books. For Mina he had written: "One morning I woke and realized I was in love with a dark-eyed, dark-haired girl with a mole on her upper lip. Now every time I see a girl looking like that I recall that faraway love and fall in love again."
For Simin he had written: "Your ethereal beauty will always
remain food for the imagination of the poet."
"He liked you better than me," Simin said.
"Yours sounds better to me, more grand."
Simin shook her head. "It's so impersonal."
"He kept his eyes on you almost the whole time."
They hardly spoke about their impressions of him. In a few moments Simin left. Mina did not sleep well that night. She tossed and turned and got out of the bed a few times and looked outside. The night air was crisp and the sky crowded with innumerable stars. She could see that the room where Ardavani slept was lighted and she wondered if he was reading or had fallen asleep with the light on. She wished she could tiptoe over to his room and sit by his bedside and talk.
The next morning she would have to get up early and leave for school, probably before he got up.
As soon as she returned to bed she felt anxious and was restless again. It wasn't just the meeting with Ardavani that had shaken her. It was Simin's manner too. She had seemed so humorless as they compared the poems.
At school Simin seemed cool and distant. All day she kept to herself. At recess Mina saw her sitting alone on the veranda, staring into space. She went over and tried to talk to her but Simin barely looked at her. Her eyes seemed to be focused on a landscape that Mina no longer shared. After classes Mina looked for Simin but she had left without waiting for her as she often did. Mina walked home despondent.
Two months later, on a holiday Mina went to a picnic in a park outside of the city.
The park was crowded with many families, their children swinging on ropes they had tied to trees or jumping over rivulets of water. Women were cooking on portable stoves or fires they had built with sticks.
Mina walked away from her family to a quieter section, and she was startled to see Simin standing by a little stream with a fishing pole in her hand. She had rarely been alone with Simin since Ardavani's visit. Simin had persisted in keeping to herself, more or less ignoring her.
It was near dusk and the air had a reddish tinge. Simin's face looked flushed and grave. She wore the dress they had made for Mahmood Ardavani's visit. Mina walked over very quietly, and standing behind her, whispered, "Simin."
Simin turned around and looked at her dreamily for an instant. "Oh, you!" She grabbed Mina's hand instinctively and then let go.
"I'm so glad to find you here. I've been bored all day," Mina said.
"Where's your family?"
"Mine are on that side. That's why we didn't run into each other before." Simin raised the rod, lifting the hook from the water, and abandoned it on the ground. "I have to sit down. I'm tired."
She sat on the grassy bank of the stream and Mina sat next to her. Mosquitoes buzzed in the trees that stood sparsely around them. The air had a slightly rotting smell.
"Tell me, why have you been avoiding me?" Mina asked after a few moments of silence.
"Oh, no reason."
"Please tell me."
Simin, holding her head so that all Mina could see was her profile, said, "You must know. It was what happened that day with Ardavani, what he wrote for you coming spontaneously from him. I envied you so much for it. I just had to avoid you until the feelings passed." Her voice sounded hollow and faraway. Mina felt a chill listening to that voice which was almost unrecognizable.
"Oh, that's so silly," she managed to say.
"When we were in the room with him, I wished so much for you to be out of the room -- you and your father, I wanted so badly to be alone with Ardavani," Simin went on.
Mina recalled that she had similar thoughts when she stood in the room and felt ignored by Ardavani. But the thoughts had quickly vanished, like sparks. She lowered her head so that Simin could not see the tears that had come into her eyes.
"All that is past now," she said after a moment. She was hopeful for an instant, but the next moment she could see that the gap that had begun to open between them was only deepening. The confession had made it worse instead of better. A grayness, denser than ever before, enveloped her.
"Veils" is available from amazon.com
Nahid Rachlin, born in Iran, came to the United States to attend college and stayed on. She has been writing and publishing novels and short stories, in English. Among her publications are three novels, FOREIGNER (W.W. Norton), MARRIED TO A STRANGER (E.P.Dutton), THE HEART'S DESIRE (City Lights), and a collection of short stories, VEILS (City Lights). She has another novel, JUMPING OVER FIRE, in press at City Lights. She also has a memoir, PERSIAN GIRLS, in press at Tarcher/Penguin.