All exiles share a single dread: of their loved ones dying oceans away, back at home in their absence. It's a fear they rarely speak of, lest talking about it would make it come true. But it's a fear that Fereshteh Kowssar squarely faces in her new book: “Bidaad-e Sokoot” (The Outrage of Silence, 109 Pages, Shahin Publications)
“There is my mother, sleeping, over on the morgue's platform. And here I am, standing still, under the plane tree whose leaves are yellowing…” With these lines, Kowssar transports us to a place that the ordinary Iranian reader least likes to be, or is accustomed to being -at the foot of death itself. And that of a mother no less. She stands among other mourners who incessantly, casually, probe: “'Which is your dead?' She asks, as if asking an address, inquiring from the dry-cleaning man about a lost skirt, or the valet about a car.” It is these innocuous assaults that she struggles to keep from advancing, as the reality of her loss slowly encroaches upon her awareness.
In mothers, the past remains intact and real as the present itself. In Kowssar's mother, that reality had a twist. Her mother was deaf, though hardly anyone knew. Too proud to surrender to disability, her mother taught herself to read lips. Lowering the flame of a kerosene lantern, with great diligence, she had watched the shadows of her own lips move to every word on the wall night after night, until she had perfected her speech.
Her daughter is among the few who know her secret, and helps her keep it. Hearing, for this daughter, is not the reflexive exercise of just another sense. It is also a duty, something she does, not only for herself, but also for her mother. Watching her daughter, in turn, reveals to the mother everything she can't hear. Their bond, as a result, has all the qualities of a mother-daughter bond, and more. It is also a coded dialogue, a clandestine affair between two women. With the death of her mother, Kowssar has also lost this unique comradeship.
As if seeing the lifeless body of her loved one is not punishment enough, the author has to face several more harrowing questions: Must she be the one to give her dead a final bathing? Must she be generous and donate the remaining jewelry, still on her mother's body, to the morgue worker? Or are these last heirlooms her birthrights to claim, keep, and cherish? It is routine, she later learns, to give those few belongings to the workers who have looked after them. This is an expectation that she detects in the gaze of those around her, something she hears in their unkind whispers: “She doesn't know our traditions. She's just returned from abroad. She's a foreigner.”
A foreigner. The author has spent too many years away from the country to still be considered an “insider.” Standing in the morgue's main hall, “under the scornful gaze of everyone,” Kowssar realizes that it may not be just a mother she has lost. Decades abroad have made her unfamiliar to her native surroundings. It is a barrier which even she, a professor of Persian, cannot overcome. And now her last link, the reason for which she had returned to Iran for so many years, is gone. With the loss of her mother, Kowssar may also have lost her motherland. This is what the dead do to the exile whose stock of relationships grows leaner with the passing of every year: they take the few lingering bonds of the living with them to the grave.
This recognition, the notion of being out of place, sets in Kowssar's consciousness in the days that follow. Memories of her mother are entwined with memories of places that are lost, too. Cafes, restaurants, or public spaces to which the women had ventured no longer exist. Grief had already filled her heart. Now, nostalgia fills her days. She is homesick in the very heart of home. Without her mother, Tehran proves to be just another bustling, lonely city, in which relics of her history are fading.
For those who expect an objective reportage from a book of nonfiction, the “Outrage of Silence” will be a disappointment. But for those who revel in the privilege of learning an author's innermost thoughts and feelings, Kowssar's book will be the unforgettable soliloquy of an exiled daughter to a disabled mother, who invented a rich life upon imagination and dignity, yet died alone in a bleak land.