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 somehow safe.
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 someone too.”
“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 ready.”
“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 affair.”
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 again.
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 last… ”
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.