I have written about my naneh Kobra Khanom and what a great presence she was in my life and how her folk pragmatism gives me hope. Growing up in the kind of household that was my father's, I was as much influenced by the help who worked for us, as by my parents.
My parents both worked and had busy lives so the day-to-day care of their child, like in many well to do families in Iran as elsewhere, was left to the help. I never recall my father ever having taken an active role in my schooling or other activities. He did teach me how to recite poetry and ride horses but the kind of hands-on parenting that we see now in America was completely foreign to the parents, at least, of our social milieu in the Iran of my childhood.
So, in this way, I spent a good amount of time with the nanny, the gardener, the male servant and the driver. I did not mind spending time with the household staff because they were warm and attentive. When my parents were away there was a certain sense of collusion amongst us — an agreed degree of licentiousness. We would play music and I would do my Haji Firooz act. I would get to eat as much gojeh sabz or tambr hendi as I wanted.
Mamad, the male servant, often mimicked my parent's and their friend's gestures and behavior to everyone's delight. And Mashadi Hossien, the gardener, who had come to Tehran to work for us from my father's baagh (orchard) in Shah Abdol Azim in southern Tehran, used to run to the corner baghaali and buy me gum, ice cream and coca cola. If it were an evening we would all gather around the TV and watch a show. I loved hanging out with the help.
From a very early age I had an instinctive abhorrence of what I perceived to be my parent's and their friend's superficiality. In this the household staff and I agreed. They too did not like such and such ghertee, or jesti or posee (show offish) friend of my mother or father and we often made fun of these people. With Mamad showing a great talent for copying peoples gestures and voices!
I remember one couple we were ruthless about. They were both married to different people and always went around in threes. The Mr. and Mrs., and the Mrs.' Lover. This arrangement, especially because the lover was a prominent Ostaandaar (Governor) , made a great subject for joke and ridicule.
Somehow the criticism of my parent's friends' ways had a slight political twist to it. The more prominent the subject the more we enjoyed ridiculing them. They seemed like buffoons to us, the lot of them. With their overdone hair sprayed hairs and couture clothes and feigned civility. I hated the soft voiced coquettishness of the women of my mother's social set. The men were even worse, pompous dignitaries, who were either cuckolded, or after other men's women.
The view from the kitchen was an almost Rabelaisque take on all this: these people showed us that the high and mighty could stoop to be vulgar. And that even an Ostaandaar was capable of descending to the level of pursuing the needs of bodily functions. Here was the wife of the minister getting it on with the husband of that bee-hived woman who thought she owned the world.
How the high and mighty could engage in vulgar acts and be completely deluded about their own lives made us laugh and feel superior to them. This shared, almost folk, view of my parent's social set brought the household staff and I together on a very simple ideological level. We, all of us, hated the culture of poz daadan, of showing off, of ghertee garee of being or pretending to be what you are not.
All of that was good and healthy and brought me in contact with an Iranian popular mentality to which I may not have otherwise been exposed. For the most part my parent's household servants were all kind and warm people who each taught me a lot in their own way. But there was a dark side to this. And that is what I have picked up my pen this time to tell you. It is probably the most difficult piece that I have ever written but I hope that the heaviness of the subject matter will not take away from the flow of my pen and unduly tire you. So please hear me out this time for my sake.
We had a driver named Aghaye Hossieni. The exact circumstances of his hiring by my father I do not remember. Nor do I remember when he started working for us. He was a well known and trusted man from the Gholhak neighborhood just behind our house in Tehran. He was a Seyyed , a descendant of Prophet Mohammad, who was pious and never missed a prayer. He had a slight indent on his fore head — a prestigious sign in religious circles– the visible proof of having touched the prayer stone many times over.
Our driver was the one to whom all the other household members gave money, to give to the Gholhak mosque, whenever they had a Nazr or Sadagheh (monetary vows), because he was both trusted by all, and an active member of the mosque. His higher status vis a vis the other staff members, save my nanny, was reflected in the title of Agha and the use of his last name by everyone including my father.
Mr. Hossieni was in charge of driving us around. He drove my father's metallic blue Dodge, which he claimed, was not as good as a Buick, but fine nonetheless. He had a great fondness for American cars. His main duty was to take me to and back from school.
I don't recall how it came about, but soon he was my best friend. I was a tomboy back in elementary school. Mohammad Ali, was a big hero of all kids the world over and Hossieni had a vast knowledge of boxing and wrestling and taught me all about the difference between an upper cut and a hook. He claimed that he was a relative of Seyyed Abbasi, my favorite wrestler, and even taught me how to perform a Feeteeleh peech (a wrestling move in which the two legs are crossed and the opponent is twisted onto his back from his stomach.)
He was tall and scrawny and had an opium addict's complexion with yellow teeth and black lips. Our driver looked like an Iranian, taryaaki, grim-reaper, if you will. He wore dark suits with no tie in an ominous precursor to the Islamic suit made famous by Former IRI Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati. My Mom once found pieces of sheereh (opium essence) in the Dodge but did not really reprimand him. An opium addict was in many ways safe because of his reputed lack of sexual drive. No chance of an opium addict becoming a rapist really. Maybe that is why my mother trusted his friendship with me.
I became somewhat of a nowcheh (side-kick) of Aghaye Hossieni. He would teach me things about sports and life and I would listen. Often he used a folk logic that in hindsight seems peculiar. Like how he talked about the fact that a woman's sexual desire came out of her feet and she was therefore better able to hide it, where as a man's came out through his eyes and was difficult to hide. He also spoke at length about his own prowess. He would tell me that if he trained for a year or so he could take on the great Mohammad Ali and I believed him. I thought the world of him.
He, also, was the first person to try to proselytize me. He talked about how Prophet Mohammad never lied, how his (Shi'ite) successor Imam Ali was valiant and how unfairly his grandson Imam Hossein was martyred in Karballa. I became more and more devout and started doing the prayer and avoiding ham or anything with pork in it, and looking down on my parents' “immoral” ways.
I fasted and at times even had visions of a turban-headed man I believed to be Prophet Mohammad himself! Hossieni had told me all kinds of stories about the life of the prophet and used some of these examples to criticize my parents and my playboy, much older stepbrothers, who came home from boarding school every summer.
On one of these occasions when I was nine-years old — I remember vividly like it happened today — we were driving in the streets of Elahiyeh, the tall chenaar (plane) trees above were green and leafy and the sky was blue and he started talking about how my brothers were irresponsible brats.
“Why,” I asked.
“Because of the way they treat women is not right. They don't care if they impregnate them.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well you can have a girlfriend and have fun with her and not make her pregnant.”
“How?” I asked ever the curious little girl.
“Like this,” said Aghaye Hossieni as he slipped one long scrawny dark finger into my button-down jeans and touched me.
I remember being a bit taken a back but not knowing what to do. He went on to caress me and tell me that like this you can make the girl happy without making her pregnant. I liked the feeling. But I was confused. Yet I trusted Aghaye Hossieni so much that to reject his gesture would have been nothing short of disloyal.
From then on he made sure that loyalty to him and what he called dahan ghorsi (having tight lips) became my first priority. My number one moral obligation to him and God was to be dahan ghors. I was not like other women, he praised me, I was like a man and I had to be luti, a true friend and keep my mouth shut. Talking was for the spoiled, for the unbelievers and the foofool (Westernized posers). I was not a foolfool, he told me and I believed him, I was not like my parents and their friends, I was a tight-lipped luti, a dahan ghors.
For two years Aghaye Hossieni would drive me to and from school with one long finger playing with me all the while. He would say matalak to women on the street and we would laugh. He called, Western-style, scantily dressed women, we passed on the street shooshis, as in, “Hey shoooshi kojaa meeree?” (Hey shooshi, where are you going?) It was like he was the truck driver and I was his younger apprentice. I was really more like a boy to him.
He would tell me how he was proud of me and how God loved me more because I was a better Muslim than my parents. I adored him. I even enjoyed him touching me. But the pleasure was never pure, never simple. I always had a slight sense of guilt and a sense that it was so terribly wrong to let this man touch me like this. But I was so sure of Hossieni that I believed he and I were above the norm. The fact that he was fifty and I was nine never occurred to me. I believed that the relationship was mutual. I believed that I wanted it.
Finally, as I got older and entered, blissfully, the Community School, which was an American School in Tehran, were adolescent sexuality was taken seriously and handled with care, I realized that I really did not want this daily fingering to continue. Partly, this was due to the fact that I fell in love with an American boy my age at Community School. And realized that really I did not want to be touched by someone else. I wanted rather to be kissed simply on the lips by that boy. I could not reconcile that desire to be kissed with my daily routine with Aghaye Hossieni. Also, I went through an existential angst and started, thankfully, to question God. By the time I was a teenager I was an atheist.
If it were not for the openness of that wonderful school and its staff and students I may never have had the courage to tell my mother about Aghaye Hosseini. But a year at the Community School and I knew that anything you have to hide from absolutely everyone, even your best friend, could not be good and should not be tolerated.
I went to my mother one day, and this I remember vividly too. I called her into the bathroom and closed the door. You have to realize that from the time I decided to tell my mother until I actually did, many months had passed. I was paralyzed and scared. I could not tell no to Aghaye Hosseini. I was afraid of what he would do if I told my parents. He was bigger than life to me. He had convinced me that he could beat the great Mohammad Ali. I still cringe when I think of how gullible I was back then.
When I finally told my terrible secret to my mother in that bathroom I was physically afraid that Hossieni would get his hands on me and kill me for this utter breach of our pact. I felt terribly ashamed. Until I left Iran six years later I was afraid of running into him in the street or having him find me alone somewhere.
That fear was part and parcel of my mental life through out my teens. I had been a fearless child. Not afraid to climb any wall or ride any horse. I was a Shir Dokhtar (Lion Woman) as the people in the village used to say, riding motorcycles on the dirt roads of Sefid Sang, our farm, before I was ten. But when it came to Aghaye Hossieni I was scared to paralysis. From the moment I wanted it to end I feared for my life and what seemed at the time worse than death: I feared running into him.
My mother, as you can imagine, was very upset. She had gone to college in America and had memorized Dr. Spock (child care manual) and had always encouraged me to consider her a friend. She had been brought up in abusive circumstances and was always fearful herself. She wanted her daughter to be strong like she never was. What she knew in theory about women's liberation she wanted me to carry out in reality.
She told me then in that bathroom from behind a curtain of tears how she had tried so hard to raise me without psychological scars, and how she now was afraid she had failed. I assured her through my own tears that I would be fine. I considered myself to be very, very strong even in the face of all that fear. The image of myself as a Shir Dokhtar and my mother's open mindedness really helped preserve my sense of self. I remember being so ashamed of the fact that my mother had to tell my father. I felt guilty. I thought, “They don't know how I actually enjoyed it.”
But my mother told me that maybe I feel guilty, maybe I feel like I enjoyed it but that it was wrong of him to do it anyway. She explained that at age nine, one does not have consensual sex with a fifty-year old man even if one believes that he/she has agreed to do it. She also told me that she herself had been a victim of this kind of thing. She told me with tears in her eyes something she had kept to herself for fifty years.
When she was my age, in a girl's school, her teacher, a young woman, had fingered her in much the same way. She would have her stay at recess and read from her composition standing next to the teacher's desk while the teacher touched her. She told me that she too liked it, but not really. That she too realized that she wanted it to stop. But she had no mother or the courage to tell anyone.
She had waited all this time and now she was sharing it with me for the worst reasons — because now I too had been through her worst fear. But her candid talk, her telling me about her own experience, helped me enormously. Since then I have told her every little secret that I have had. She became my confidante and taught me about the power of talking things out with those who love you, for that, for my mother's open mindedness, I am forever grateful. She taught me how not to feel ashamed.
My father upon hearing about the matter had called the driver to his office, paid him his salary and told him never to show his face around again. In Iran of those days, there was no culture of analysis and psychotherapy. So except for talking about it with my mom, no one ever mentioned it again. There was never even the slightest inclination to report the guy to the authorities. Everyone knew that a girl's reputation was worth much more than a child molester in jail. No one who cared about his/her daughter's future marriage prospects would ever report a rape or a case of child abuse. No way. Even if they were wealthy enough that a suitor was always at the door, a story like mine was always kept hush-hush.
Before deciding to publish this piece I spoke to my mother and she told me not to publish it. She told me that it would make me lose face, make me bee aaberoo. I am forty-one, living in America, with children of my own and still my mother is afraid for my reputation. I knew after speaking to her that I had to publish this piece. She knew too because she said, “Go ahead and do it, you never listen anyway.” It is for me a necessity to shed my dahan ghorsi in this case . If I tell you about Kobra Khanom, then I have to tell you about Hossieni, the anti-Kobra in my life. If I don't show you this I would be self-censoring, the sin I try most to avoid these days.
I started taking the school bus to school. But every day I would look into the streets thinking that at every corner and every bend I could see Hossieni again. Even the last time I went to Iran, some years ago, when I was a mother myself, and I heard that he had become a member of the Gholhak komiteh (revolutionary police) after the revolution, I was a little afraid that I may run into him.
But now as I write his name on this screen and it becomes more and more mundane by repetition, I think to myself that the next time I am in Tehran I will try to find him. They say he is still alive. I would like to sip tea with Aghaye Hossieni and hear his story of if and when he was first molested. I would like to hear what was so erotic about touching a nine-year-old who never touched him back.
I no longer hate him or fear him. He is just another subject to explore, to understand. He is yet another vehicle with which to ponder this multi-colored and many-layered canvas we call humanity. He is now just writing material and as such I can like him again.
Next time I go back, I am going to interview him and I hope I don't scare him away. Maybe he has something valuable to say. Something that will make him human or shed light on this complex weave that we call ourselves. Now I am ready to listen to Hossieni knowing that if we were to be alone and face-to-face, this time, I would not be the one who will be afraid.